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Do You Need to Plot Out a Novel Before You Start Writing It?

To plot out or not to plot out a novel with a manuscript outline has been on my mind this week because I’ve just returned to writing a new book after taking a break to sketch out the remaining chapters.  This is the way I’ve always worked.


Image: Chris via Flickr

I get an idea for a book, and I think about it for a long time.  Maybe months.  I’m usually writing something else — finishing up the prior book — when the idea first starts to grow.  I let it emerge willy-nilly without plucking out the weeds; just jotting down notes as they come to me, even if the notes start contradicting each other.  (She’s a dancer.  No!  She’s an astronaut.  She’s a dancing astronaut.  She’s a teacher.  She’s jobless.)

Sometimes I name the characters during this time.  Sometimes I give them a temporary placeholder name knowing that I’ll change it when I know more about the book as a whole.  Sometimes I pick the setting.  Most of the time, I don’t.  I’m just sort of dating the idea.  It isn’t that serious yet.

And then it comes time to write the book.  And I make the book a promise that we’re going to go steady.  We’re certainly not engaged, but we’re not going to see anyone else for the time being.  We’re going to enter into a monogamous writing relationship.

So I sit down and start writing.  I write a first chapter and a second chapter.  I get to the third chapter and take stock.  Is this book interesting?  Is it the sort of thing I’d want to read?  Do I have the energy to finish it?  Do I think it will go anywhere once I finish it?  (Meaning: will it be published.)

Sometimes I realize that while it was a nice idea, and I really loved it while we were together, we’re better off as friends.  It doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy my time with it, but I need to stop dating that book in order to try a different book relationship.  No hard feelings.

Sometimes I realize that this book relationship is really developing, and I could see myself taking it to the next level: book marriage.  I could see myself wedded to this book; taking care of this book day-in-and-day-out.  But I keep that information to myself and give the book another three chapters or so to prove itself.  Books are a saucy minx: they flirt with you and make you believe that they’re going to be there for the long-haul and then end up cheating on you if you don’t choose carefully.  So I give the book another few chapters before I make a final decision.

And then one day, I get down on one knee and tell my book that I’m not doing a yoga pose: this is it.  I’m proposing.

On that day, I set aside the book for about a week and plot out the rest of the chapters.  I pull together all the notes I’ve taken and compile them into one outline.  I move plot points around so I have a better arc.  Novels move in four parts: stasis, catalyst, climax, and stasis.  And all those little plot points also move in four miniature versions of those parts.  I need to introduce them and set them moving and resolve them and create the new normal, for each individual plot point.  You don’t want it rushed.  You have to think about pacing.

I write and write until I have a chapter by chapter outline containing an overview of the scenes and bits of conversational text.  My outline tends to be 15 – 20 pages long, single spaced.  The one for the new book is 18 pages long.  It starts out with a character list where I can dump facts about the characters as they come up.  And a few overarching points I feel I need to remember as I sit down to write each day.  And then after that, it’s a breakdown, chapter-by-chapter, of what I need to write.

I do it this way because I think it helps me to not get too committed to a project before I see if we work well together, AND it later enables me to walk away from the novel for days at a time and return knowing exactly what I need to write.  Outlining the book isn’t planning the wedding: it’s planning the marriage.

I know there are people who can’t write this way.  They either need to plot out the whole book before they’ve written a word (Plotters), or they need to just write by the seat of their pants (Pantsers).  But this hybrid method works for me.  Maybe give it a try if you find your novel is falling apart after a few chapters.  It may not be YOU, the writer.  It may be your novel.  Because… you know… not every novel you date will become your life partner.

(Life partner is based, of course, on the life of the book.  A writer marries many books in her lifetime.  A book only gets one writer.)

November 19, 2014   10 Comments

How to Get From Thanksgiving to New Years When You’re Not in the Mood

I am really not in the mood for the holidays this year.  There are the ones I celebrate — Thanksgiving and New Years — and the ones I don’t but I’m affected by regardless — Christmas — and I don’t really want to do any of it.  I don’t want to do the social commitments or the cheeriness or the crowds.  I pretty much want to see my siblings and parents, and write the rest of the stuff off.

I’ve written a post like this every year, bringing together all the advice from the years before (my own and what appeared in the comment section) and then opening it up to additional ideas (which will be brought next year into the new post as well). Because this time of year can be both impossibly difficult or impossibly wonderful depending on which side of the happiness line you fall, and I say that even as a non-Christian who doesn’t need to do anything more than participate in a volunteer project and eat a bunch of candy canes on Christmas.

Holidays are a lot of pressure — to get them right, to coordinate schedules/needs/wants, to navigate relationships, to travel. For some people those pressures are additionally pressed down by the knowledge of people missing from the table — either those who were once here or those who haven’t been brought into your family yet. And compounding it all is this ongoing message that holidays must be fun! They must be a happy time! Families must draw together and eat a spiral ham in front of a roaring fire with a sparkling tree in the background!

Even if they’re out of work. Even if they don’t have the family they want. Even if they’re in mourning.

For people who are happily moving through the holiday season, especially those finally celebrating after many dry years, I lift my virtual glass of champagne to you and send you off to enjoy it. Don’t apologize for being happy — just soak in this time.

For anyone else still sticking around to read this, remember that everyone experiences something in life that makes a particular year or set of years difficult for them. That for every holiday season that you enjoy and look forward to participating in, there is also a time in life where you dread all the reminders that come with a holiday season and wish you could avoid the whole thing. And this year may be that time for you, but it won’t always be that time for you. Things change; both for good and bad. This too shall pass.

You can sit out of the festivities if that’s what you need to do, but a survival guide is sort of like holding your breath to eat (you know, so you don’t taste anything) when your mother asks you to try lima beans. Like slimey green lima beans, going to events is usually good for you, and it’s important to be around people who care about you when the going is tough. You just may need a trick for getting through family time just as mouth-breathing (and not tasting) works for choking down undesired foods.

I’ll offer up the same advice I gave the last year five years with additional notes from comments that came on those old posts:

  • Create your own incentives and treat getting through the holiday season as your job. Pay yourself in whatever will make you happy. For instance, after a trip to the local mall to have your picture taken with your niece and Santa, pay yourself with a manicure. Attending the holiday party from hell may win you an entire bar of chocolate. It’s worth setting up small incentives and budgeting for your own happiness because it can be something to focus on during the task at hand.
  • You know the idea that you can take a large school and make it small but you can’t go the other way around? Flip that concept when it comes to the holidays: take a small part of the holiday and make it big. Focus on something that you can do and make it your contribution to the holiday season. If you know celebrating Christmas will be too much, make sure you throw yourself wholeheartedly into helping prepare Thanksgiving (and then develop an unfortunate case of the stomach flu on December 24th). If you can organize the family gift but can’t fathom how you’ll do Christmas dinner, make sure you send out an email to your siblings early asking for photos of your nieces and nephews so you can design a great picture calendar for your parents. And then skip the ham.
  • Do all your shopping online instead of subjecting yourself to walking past the displays of toys and Christmas baby clothes at the store. Keep it simple this year – you have a lifetime to plot out the most fantastic gifts of all time. This may be the year that you need to buy a DVD or book for each person your list and be done.
  • Leave a note in your pocket: write a note to yourself, ask a friend to jot something down, trade letters with your partner, or simply leave a list of names (therapist, fellow bloggers, the friend you’ll drink with the moment you get home) in your pocket to touch as a reminder that someone has your back when you begin to feel overwhelmed at the holiday table. I can’t be with you at your Christmas dinner (the whole Jew and vegetarian thing aside, I just don’t think your family is going to be cool if you drag along a random blogger), but I can give you a note right now to keep in your pocket. Simply print this out and whenever you get overwhelmed, touch it and remember that there are people out there who get you. And change the line about mini hot dogs if you’re a vegetarian:

Hey Sweetie:

I know it was really hard to come to this party/dinner/get together but now that you’re here, you’re even closer to it being over. Try to enjoy yourself, but if you can’t, nip into the bathroom for a cry or bury yourself at the buffet table and do nothing but eat mini hot dogs for the rest of the night. There is no shame in enduring rather than enjoying and you need to do whatever you need to do to get through this without ruining any relationships. Make sure you take time for yourself today/tonight after you get home. I’m here on the other end of the computer if you need me.


  • Pick and Choose: there is no rule that says you must attend every event during the holiday season – even if you’ve gone to everything in the past. If it’s going to cause more grief than it’s worth, just attend the event. But if you can get your partner to “surprise” you with a holiday trip, all the better.
  • Book: I actually include a lot of ideas like these in Navigating the Land of If to get through life in general; not just holiday. I’m just saying.
  • I will tell you the only trick I have up my sleeve: the holiday card. Most holiday cards we receive are either generic package-of-12 types or pictures of kids/families. We send out cards every year that routinely get responses that it was the best card they’ve gotten all year, or sometimes the best card ever. Sometimes one fabulous photo of us in some fabulous locale; sometimes a whole series around the world (which it will have to be again this year). We used to just have a normal photo card, but now we include a newsy update of career progress and travels. The people with kids (or limited funds, or limited outlook) say, “Wow, your life is amazing. I’m stuck here at home.” I’m not trying to make them feel envious of us, but envy is way better than pity. –Baby Smiling in Back Seat
  • All of our friends have been sending photo X-mas cards in the past years. In previous years, we’d send an awesome vacation photo. Like- heh!- we still had fun this year! –Mrs. Spock
  • One tip I figured out early on: If you can’t shop online & have to go to the mall, find out what hours Santa will be there — & then go when he’s not around. There won’t be as many kids & babies around to deal with then. –The Road Less Travelled
  • I manage to work in a reference to Katie in every edition of our Christmas letter … usually in relation to our volunteer work. But I like being able to remind people that she was real & is still a part of our lives. My Christmas card itself usually has either an angel or Classic Pooh theme (which was also the theme of her nursery). I know other people who use angel stamps on their cards as a subtle reminder of their lost baby(s). –The Road Less Travelled
  • This year I solved my problem in the cowardly fashion … I offered to work. I work at a domestic violence shelter, which is open 24/7 … So I figure I might as well. I can get paid double time as well, so it’s all sorts of awesome. –An Unwanted Path
  • I started listening to holiday music in August this year. I’m using it as my own private technique for connecting with the joy of the season early enough that I won’t suddenly get trampled in the crush of child-centric images, events, and conversations coming my way during the actual season. I want this year to be different! –Lisa
  • Instead of focusing on what I can’t handle, I’m heading into the season excited about the possibilities of the new traditions TH and I will make this year. I’m just going to roll with the punches. If I’m really excited about putting up the tree, we’re going to do it and not wait. If I can’t handle being around our nephew, TH can go and I can stay home. I’m not going to force myself into any situation, and I’m just going to accept where I am and be there. –Kim
  • I just bought three bottles of my favorite wine yesterday to take to my mom’s… and I don’t plan to share any of it. –Guera!
  • I think I’m going to plan something for just me and my husband so we’ve got an event during the holiday season to look forward to. It’s either going to be going out to a really nice restaurant or going on a trip (or possibly both!). –Sushigirl
  • I’m a big fan of lights. Lights inside and out of the house. But putting up the tree where cute handmade kid ornaments should be was always too hard. So I just put up lights – it goes back to finding out what you can do to enjoy the season and doing it. –BigPandMe
  • Two years ago at Christmas right after my 3rd miscarriage I was in a really bad place and dreading the holidays. My mom suggested that instead of our normal Christmas Eve meal we make homemade Chinese food – egg rolls, stir fry, etc. It turned out great and for whatever reason not having to face the traditional meal made it so much better. Don’t get me wrong – it was still really hard – but I got through it and was happy that I spent time with my family instead of avoiding the whole holiday. –Becky
  • And “work” can also mean volunteer work. Nobody is going to get mad at you for selflessly devoting your time and skills at a soup kitchen instead of sitting around the family table (or for rushing from the family table to do said work). Or they might, but they’ll end up looking like the bad guy, not you. –Bea
  • Remember it’s just a day. It has no power. You don’t have to enjoy it. Lots of people don’t. –Mali
  • Sometimes things suck, and sometimes, you have to feel what you’re going to feel while things suck. It’s okay to mourn and it’s okay to cry and it’s okay to not pull yourself up by the bootstraps based on someone else’s timetable rather than your own. And that sometimes, when you push yourself to do something, you find that you actually derived a great deal of peace from the experience. Such as sitting down at the Thanksgiving table when you’re sort of dreading being around people. –Me (from two years ago)
  • By refusing to stay over, so that I know we can go home when we’ve had enough. Oh sorry, we’ve got the cat to feed, we can’t possibly stay longer… –Rebecca
  • As someone who had (is having) a happy IF ending that resulted in children, I find myself very aware of the depression of holidays past. So this year, I’m doing two Christmas cards: one for family and other friends who experienced a happy IF ending, and one for those who are still waiting with empty arms. The first will, of course, include a picture of our family and children and all the enjoyment of the past year. The second will be less “kids in your face” and more “Happy Holidays, we love you.” I remember how much it stung to get Christmas cards in the mail of new babies and young families that I wanted so badly for myself. I just can’t do it to my friends how I KNOW are enduring the same heartache. –Amy
  • Lots of wine and a sober husband to get me home. When everyone is so busy doting on kids or passing around gifts, its easy to just be in the room, but just off to the corner, on the outskirts, enjoying drink after drink. And I also let hubby tackle the “so when are you guys gonna have kids” questions. –Kimberly
  • We’ll have a big breakfast, then go out for a real long walk (10 miles), then we’ll come back and cook a sumptuous dinner for the two of us, then in the evening, we’ll head out to the in laws when the children will be in bed and we can just stay an hour or so before being tired and heading home for our beds. –Flowergirl
  • My husband and I started a tradition a few years ago that we cherish. We each spend the holiday season in search of the perfect tree ornament for the other. We decorate with the old looking blown glass ornaments and we try to find something that really represents the other person. My hubby’s have been a motorcycle, an old school looking robot, a space taser gun, Santa serving up beers, among a few others. This gave us something to focus on other than what was missing. –Lacie
  • My best advice is always to make the holidays as nice as you can for yourself. I love getting the Christmas tree and decorating, so I have been buying ornaments and looking at holiday decorating ideas. It has always been a happy part about Christmas, with or without children, whether or not I’ve been in a relationship, so it is the thing I can hang on to. –Chickenpig
  • Spending the holidays where the celebration is so different from what you are used to also really helped- yes there were lots of Christmas decorations around, and small children, but there were no Santa photo stands. –Persnickity
  • I would say to just take care of yourself. You know what you need to help yourself so do what makes you feel good and not what others expect you to do. –Cautious Optimist
  • For me, prioritization is definitely the key to getting through the holidays. Even before infertility, I’ve always been an introvert, and it can feel pretty overwhelming to be around people so much – even people I genuinely like. I try to go through my list of holiday stuff/events and figure out which things are high priority. Then I try to go to those and not worry about the rest of it too much. — Katherine A
  • And if I really have to be at an event and I don’t want to be there, I keep to the outskirts of the group and nurse a drink. If I ever find myself needing an out, a quick SOS text to a friend and a call from them with a sudden “emergency” gives me that out if I’m desperate. — Kimberly
  • Start a new tradition. One new recipe (despite people’s insistence on the same food year after year), a themed gift to give people (think goofy fuzzy socks or imported candy), a trip instead of gifts, movie marathons, men cook something for a change (make it a dare, or bet money on who makes the best stuffing), things like that. I myself like themed cocktails. Candy crush martini anyone? — Deathstar

I hope you can take comfort in knowing that there are a lot of people out there who are either in the same boat or have lived through a difficult holiday season and have your back.  How do you get through the holiday season when you’re feeling less than your best?

November 18, 2014   6 Comments

#MicroblogMondays 12: The First Time

Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is? Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.


The twins and I are nearing the end of their first time reading the Harry Potter books.  We’re taking a break before book 7 to slow things down, and reading Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass series in the meantime.

A friend recently lamented that he had just finished a Neil Gaiman book and how brokenhearted he felt that he would never have the experience of reading that book for the first time again.  Sure, there will be the subsequent re-readings, but nothing compares to how you feel reading a book that you love for the very first time.  When you lose that particular-book virginity.  (Luckily, unlike your real virginity, you get to become a virgin again with each new book.  And no STDs!)

What book are you happy you read but sad that you’ll never again get to have a first-read experience of that book? (Even if you know that it gets better and better with each read.)  Mine are obviously Harry Potter.  The first-reads for those books are sacred, hence why I’m reading them to the kids.


Are you also doing #MicroblogMondays? Add your link below. The list will be open until Tuesday morning. Link to the post itself, not your blog URL. (Don’t know what that means? Please read the three rules on this post to understand the difference between a permalink to a post and a blog’s main URL.) Only personal blogs can be added to the list. I will remove any posts that are connected to businesses or are sponsored posts.

1. Persnickety 24. Tara 47. Mina
2. articulation 25. S 48. Running Nekkid
3. Lisa 26. Non Sequitur Chica 49. dennasus
4. Sadie 27. Itty Bitty Liddy 50. Katie
5. No Baby Ruth 28. Geochick 51. My Path To Mommyhood (Jess)
6. Turia 29. Solo Mama 52. sharah
7. Daryl 30. Shail 53. suzanna catherine wolfe
8. Just Heather 31. Loribeth (The Road Less Travelled) 54. beloved burnt toast
9. Middle Girl 32. Mary Francis 55. # Microblog Monday Some Thoughts on Feminism
10. Reassuring Mondays @ Nabanita 33. Mali (No Kidding) 56. Chandra Lowe
11. D 34. Mali (A Separate Life) 57. Ellen O’ Neil
12. Uma S 35. magpie 58. Usha
13. Jen (Days of Grace) 36. Kasey 59. This Caring Heart
14. Karen (River Run Dry) 37. Emma (Muddy Boots & Diamonds) 60. LAM
15. The Enchantress 38. Laurel Regan @ Alphabet Salad 61. With Love, Tania
16. Infertile Girl in a Fertile World 39. Amber 62. Good Families Do
17. Doting Mom 40. Gil 63. Cristy
18. m. (the maybe baby) 41. Heather 64. obsessivemom
19. Gypsy Mama 42. Dubliner In Deutschland 65. Ke Anne
20. earthandink 43. Cynthia Samuels 66. Vinitha
21. stephanie (Travelcraft Journal) 44. Mrs T 67. Symanntha Renn
22. Isabelle 45. gradual changes
23. JB 46. Waiting for Baby

November 17, 2014   52 Comments


Like most writers, I like words.  I say most because I can’t speak for all writers.  There are probably writers out there who hate words in the same way that there are probably architects out there who hate brick.  Though… you could always construct a building with another material, and it’s very difficult to write a book without words.  Though not impossible.


I was reading Liane Moriarty’s The Hypnotist’s Love Story (which I said I wasn’t going to read because I don’t like the topic of stalking, and yet here I am, reading it) and on page 366 she writes,

She actually didn’t want him to speak about it.  Words would just tangle things up further and make them feel worse.  How strange.  She had always thought words were the answer to everything; after all, she treated people with nothing but words.

I paused after reading that, and then wrote it down to remember it, trying to think of a time when things were made worse by putting it into words.  And I couldn’t come up with a single time.  Sure, there were words I would have rather never have heard, but the reality is that the feeling or the action would have still existed even if I didn’t know about them.  Even if it wasn’t told to me.

I couldn’t think of a single time when putting something into words made the problem worse rather than make it more manageable.  Words contain the big, messy ideas; contain as in the sense of container.  Words box them in so they don’t ooze all over life.  Few things really make sense to me or feel the proper size until I’ve put them into words.

I don’t know… can you think of a time when words weren’t the solution; when talking or writing things out made things worse instead of help?

Look at this… a tiny post… just a hair too long to be a proper #MicroblogMonday post.  Though you can be certain that I’m working on tomorrow’s #MicroblogMonday post before I go to sleep tonight.  Are you?

November 16, 2014   14 Comments

520th Friday Blog Roundup

The kids had a square dance at their school.  It’s a yearly occurrence, and I have been waiting for it since Kindergarten when I discovered it was only open to the upper grades.  The kids all wore white t-shirts and jeans and bandanas or hats.  We chose perfect seats in the front row.  The kids were so cute.  It was such a proud-to-be-an-American-bale-of-hay-milk-the-cows sort of event.  It was really a perfect night.

But the best was that when the record started I COULD STILL RECITE IT!  It was the same record they used back when I was in grade school.  There were a few kids missing from the performance, and I wanted to jump up and take one of their slots, but Josh warned me that would be “weird.”  So I sat.  But I totally could have danced.

Promenade the outside ring get all the way around to where the roosters sing go all the way around until you get back home… do an allemande left, do an allemande right…


I had to go to a Catholic funeral this week, and I’m not sure if this is par for the course for all churches, a practice at this church, or only done during funerals, but they had a lovely exit that I quickly picked up.  Everyone stood.  Then the family of the deceased, who were sitting in the front row, followed the casket.  But then the church emptied row by row rather than a random mishmash of people in the aisle.  The second row from the front filed out, and when that row was empty, the third row joined the line.  Which meant that the people in the back of the church — the people who were likely there in a supporting role vs. the people who sat in the front and were more likely an active mourner — could be comforting each person as they exited.  It made me think of Ring Theory (an article that I actually really dislike for a number of reasons), and how it was the ultimate comfort in as people dumped out.  It was really really lovely.


We are one month away from the Creme de la Creme list CLOSING.

The 2014 Creme de la Creme list is open for entries until December 15th.  No one will be added after December 15th.  Read the post to see how to be a part of the Creme de la Creme, which is open to every member of the ALI (adoption/loss/infertility) community.

Consider that your weekly reminder.


Stop procrastinating.  Go make your backups.  Don’t have regrets.

Seriously.  Stop what you’re doing for a moment.  It will take you fifteen minutes, tops.  But you will have peace of mind for days and days.  It’s the gift to yourself that keeps on giving.

As always, add any new thoughts to the Friday Backup post and peruse new comments in order to find out about methods, plug-ins, and devices that help you quickly back up your data and accounts.


And now the blogs…

But first, second helpings of the posts that appeared in the open comment thread last week.  In order to read the description before clicking over, please return to the open thread:

Okay, now my choices this week.

No Kidding in NZ has a post about the word “failure” tied to stopping family building, especially when family building itself (at least the vast majority of routes to parenthood) is more chance than hard work.  She writes: “The truth is that achieving anything in life is so often by chance – genetic, parental, circumstantial, geographic, and many other circumstances that aid or hinder us in our goals.”  It reminds me of that old saying: “born on third base and thinks he hit a triple” (or the longer Tweet Josh pointed out this week: “Privilege is born on third base, and thinks it hit a triple. Entitlement is born on third base, and thinks someone stole its home run.”)  I think it is important to note what aids or hinders us in all facets of life.

My Lady of the Lantern has a post about wanting to post about her pregnancy on Facebook.  She explains, “I have wanted to feel what the ensuing two minutes of fanfare feels like.”  It’s interesting what gives you pause after IF or loss, that you likely would have never considered beforehand.

Res Cogitatae has a brief post that made me hold my breath.  It is gorgeous.  It felt like Fawkes crying at the end of the sixth Harry Potter book: the phoenix’s lament, beautiful and haunting.

Days of Grace has a brilliant plan to get herself through the quiet period that always follows the holidays.  I thought it was such a great plan that I started looking at my calendar and wondering if it was worth planning a special treat for myself on the same day of every month, scheduling it in so I know it will happen.

Lastly, Mrs. Spit has a very moving post about her complicated relationship with her mother.  I love how she explains that even as she does the things she lists in the post, she does them remembering who she is.  She doesn’t forget herself in those moments, or the boundaries she has set.  She writes, “My ethics bid me to go to her when she asked, because I could. My faith told me to walk 2 miles when 1 would have been enough.”  Sometimes my instinct is to match my behaviour to the other person; this is a good reminder that we should all just be ourselves regardless of the other person’s behaviour.

The roundup to the Roundup: Square dancing!  A lovely way to exit a funeral.  Your friendly Creme de la Creme reminder.  Your weekly backup nudge.  And lots of great posts to read.  So what did you find this week?  Please use a permalink to the blog post (written between November 7th and 14th) and not the blog’s main url. Not understanding why I’m asking you what you found this week?  Read the original open thread post here.

November 14, 2014   10 Comments

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