Well, it’s official. Science has finally proven it: True creatives walk a fine line along the edge of crazy. Read this fascinating article in Scientific American about the link between specific mental illnesses and creativity.

In short, both creative genius and schizotypal disorders are caused by a lowering of the filters between different types of information (internal and external, one sense and another, one type of experience and others, etc.), allowing leak-through, which results in new and interesting… and sometimes totally cray-cray… combinations to emerge.

One example is when the brain interprets internal and external stimuli in the same way… so that, for instance, a schizophrenic “hears voices” that a normal person would interpret as their own internal monologue.

So, anyway. In totally unrelated news, I spent my entire writing hour this morning in conversation with my main character. Here’s a partial transcript:

Me: Jed, what do you want?

Jed: Um. I, I just, I wish everyone would get along.

Me: But Jed, what do YOU want?

Jed: For, I want, I want Nat to be happy.

Me: That’s what Nat wants. What do YOU want?

Jed: I want Nat and Cons to like each other.

Me: But what do you want for YOU?

Jed: I don’t know. I, uh. I guess, I don’t know.

Me: Do you want Nat to like you?

Jed: Yes, I guess so.

Me: Do you miss your  family?

Jed: Yes, but, I, uh, I wish Nat … I just want Nat to be happy.

Me: And to like you, right? Do you wish Nat would hug you more?

Jed (blushing): I guess so. Yeah. Can you… can I tell you something? You, uh, you can’t tell anyone… okay?

Me: Okay. I won’t.

And then he told me. You didn’t think I’d tell you what he said, did you? That’s just between us. I don’t spill other peoples’s secrets.

So anyway. I’m back. It feels good. The break was right, you were all right, I needed it. And my main character… well, he’ll be interesting now, because I’m interested in him. In fact, I’m slightly crazy about him.

This might be sorta what Jed looks like. Only, skinnier and with more hair. And he'd never have his picture taken with a blue backdrop because they don't have studios in the wild, silly.

Jed looks a bit like this. Only, skinnier and with more hair. And he’d never have his picture taken with a blue backdrop because they don’t have studios in captivity, silly. But those big eyes, the thoughtful quietness, the pensive innocence. All of that. It’s fitting that this picture comes from a site dedicated to finding missing children (see below).


Cutting. Fighting. Breaking. That’s how I’m starting to title all my blog entries.

It’s possible I’m a little stressed.

The doctor has prescribed two weeks in Hawaii. Ha. Ha.

I am prescribing one week break from my book.

I wouldn’t have the strength to do it were I not also convinced that it will make it a better book. I know that there is a time for distance, and now is that time.

My main character needs work. My subconscious needs time. My body needs sleep.

I’ve been working on my novel every single morning (minus two) for at least one hour (often more) since May 1. That’s very nearly 90 days straight. Taking a break.

I’m skipping out on the blog, too, unless I see something I just can’t not post. This is perhaps the hardest bit, because the blog provides instant gratification. Stats! Comments! People paying attention to me!

I need a break from that too.

A part of me, the manic part, is terrified that if I take this time off, I won’t go back. That this is the beginning of the end. Telling you this publicly, announcing my intent, is my way of soothing Manic Me. No, no, dear. I will be back. I will. This is all part of the plan.

One week from today. I will be here, on this blog, announcing my return. And my book will be one hour closer to completion.

In the meantime, I’m going to be spending more time like my son here:

Monty asleep

I’m going to take care of myself.

Maybe I’ll get a manicure. (I couldn’t say that with a straight face to my husband but I can pull it off here. Probably still won’t happen. Not really my bag. Maybe a massage though. Yeah. Maybe a massage).

Ciao for now. See ya on the other side.

Like a Fighter

I totally ripped this photo off. Click to see original source.

This is me. But only metaphorically. I totally ripped it off. Click to see original source.

I feel like a fighter. Scratched and bloodied with a smashed-in nose and mangled fingers. This morning I got up not wanting to write. The thought that kept me going was this: Mornings when I don’t want to write usually end up being the most productive of all. This was not one of those mornings.

It was brutal.

I completely rewrote the last half of a chapter that I’m sure is worse now than before. Nothing happens, no change from start to finish. Well, there’s change, but it comes from outside instead of integrally from the events of the scene.

An entire hour of struggle, and I’m going to end up cutting the whole chapter, the work of several days.

But it’s not about the chapter. It’s about the whole book. My protag is boring. I love him, but he’s not interesting. He’s… lethargic. And slow. Not dumb, he just moves slow. And nothing interesting ever happens to him. Which makes no sense, because EVERYTHING happens to him, so why isn’t it interesting?

Is my book hopeless if the main character is boring even to me, his creator? If all I want to do is get through his chapters to the next, where there are vibrant characters and interesting things happening?

And is it actually boring? At one point, I cut a bunch of “boring” exposition from another chapter. Carey read the revised version and without ever having seen the removed portions, told me to put a bunch of stuff in the chapter that happened to match up with the stuff I had taken out.

Impossibly frustrating and lonely this writing thing.


Why is this so hard?

Just Write the Damned Book Already

Read that. There, above. Click through and come back. That was helpful, wasn’t it? Apparently, it’s hard for everyone. And the fact that I’m doing this comes with a reward: The right to be inwardly snide when someone says to me, “Oh, you’re writing a novel? I have a great idea for a book too.” Yeah, I’m sure you do, but I’m actually writing one.

Only, I will not be snide with you if you tell me you have a great idea for a book. No. I am not in the mood to be nice. I intend to leave you writhing on the ground in a bloody, bruised, shivering lump. So I’m going to tell you to write the book. And I’m going to mean it.

Go ahead. Try me.

(P.S. Don’t watch that video if you’re easily offended. Or ever offended. It’s pretty offensive. I put it there so you will be very clear just exactly how bad*ss I am. I will tell you to write that book.)


Me and my beat-up manuscript resized


This is where I am. I printed the whole thing out this morning (my printer is demanding a new toner cartridge), and started cutting, quite literally, and rearranging. I think all the existing scenes are in the right order now. I’ve got blank sheets with a few hand-written notes for scenes to be added. And several sections with a big note at the top that says: Probably CUT. Everything is clipped according to which section of the outline it goes with.

Here’s what it looks like put back together.

rough rough manuscript resized

Satisfying, somehow, to have it all printed out, even if it is still crap. Feels more real. I wrote that. I can’t tell if it’s actually longer than my college honors thesis, which seemed so immense at the time, but I think the thesis was probably a fourth this long. Who knows. Memory is a funny thing.

I worry, in fact, about it being too long. Where can I cut? Where can I cut? Which scenes don’t I need? What can it live and breathe without?

I feel this way about my life too.

I’m tired. I’ve been getting up at 5am for months now to work on this book. It’s taking its toll. I slept all afternoon Saturday and Sunday. I’m still tired. Our naturopath told us recently that unless we can find a way to get a break, like maybe two weeks in Hawaii once a year (originally, I typed “once a month” here, and caught it on a re-read. Ha. My subconscious is maybe sending me a message?), our bodies are just going to keep breaking down and keep having to be fixed. We’ve been slogging for a long time.

But what can I cut? What can I live and breathe without?

My extended family? I make the effort to go see them… an expensive and time-intensive prospect that leaves little time nor money for weeks in Hawaii. I do this because I love them and I know I won’t always have them.

My pets? They rely on me. The streets or euthanasia without us. Not a viable option.

My kids? They’re my kids. Don’t be daft.

My clients? They take care of me. I don’t see the poorhouse as a viable option.

Business development? An option. But without biz dev, I have no long-term plan that will get us off the treadmill.

My husband? Ha. Not even close. He feeds me, emotionally and spiritually. AND literally–he does this magical and wonderful thing called cooking. Besides: Life without him would be a barren wasteland by comparison. What would be the point?

Self care? Hm. I take care of myself when I remember so I don’t get sick and lose the ability to do all of the above. Seems important.

I’ve already cut these scenes: Television, video games, house cleaning, laundry (though I am rather tired of pulling dirty dress pants out and putting them through the dryer with Febreze twenty minutes before a client session always only having one clean pair of pants ready), hanging with the kids, hanging with friends (mostly), hostessing, and pretty much anything having to do with food except whatever bare minimum I can get away with and not have DSS showing up at the door.

I don’t see what else I can cut. Not really, not viably and responsibly and in any way that will ultimately be more fulfilling. So I suppose I’ve gotta just keep cutting the sleep scenes. Those are always boring anyway.

What are you cutting from your life so you can write? What are you cutting from your book?

P.S. Look closely at the picture at the top. That is indeed a spare tire fat around my midriff. I asked Carey to airbrush it out. He said okay. I said, no, don’t. I want him to do it. And I won’t let him do it. I believe in the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. This is what sitting at a computer and eating chocolate to stay awake looks like. I won’t airbrush the ugly details out of my life. I am chubby. I’m gradually writing that scene out of my life. Unfortunately, it requires adding these scenes: Weight Watchers and running. The latter takes no extra time–already walking the dog. Now I run the dog. The former adds a couple extra hours to my life: Weekly meetings and tracking every bite I eat. Cutting sometimes requires adding. Just like when revising a novel.



First to Last in A Single Cycle?

Here is the best thing I’ve seen recently, in terms of solid practical advice for revising a novel. And also the worst:

From First Draft to Last in One Cycle

Some of the techniques in the “Part One-Discovery” section seem particularly useful: Writing a one-line story arc, finding and listing the themes. Her systematic approach, from major changes to minor, is good sense. And she doesn’t really leave anything out. Very handy guide.

But really. All in one pass? Insanity.

I get the point of limiting it, not getting bogged down. And to me, trying to do ALL THAT in a single pass would totally bog me down.

What about you? How many revision cycles do you go through? Anything in that article you are already doing? Anything new you plan to implement?

From Narky's very funny blog. Click to check Narky out.

Writing Later

Still Life With Manuscript

Here’s roughly what one hour of revision looks like for me:

  • 20 minutes getting back up to speed on where I left off. Gathering the threads, reminding myself where I was and what I was planning, re-reading my notes.
  • 20 minutes staring into space and/or jotting more notes, rearranging the outline, filling in details on scene order, typing notes into character sheets.
  • 10 minutes rearranging things inside the main document.
  • 10 minutes cutting scenes and writing or rewriting others, and generally being productive.
  • Done. Time to close it down and move on with my day. I’ll have to start over again tomorrow.

This does not feel productive to me. It is too big to do this in only an hour a day. Too much ramp-up time for each session.

I told Carey this and he said why not consolidate, and write for more hours on fewer days. Maybe. How about just plain more hours?

Today I wrote for two. Perfect. Enough time to prep my brain, gather the threads, be productive for a long stretch, then plan tomorrow’s work, which will reduce tomorrow’s ramp-up time. Sadly, the day has not obliged me by adding an extra hour to my tally for other things I must do. How can I sustain this?

It’s weird how my perception of myself has shifted while writing this book. Revising is hard but there is this one thing I like: As I finish a round of revisions on each chapter, I print it out and add it to the growing manuscript beside my keyboard. It’s bound with a clip at the top, and several sheets of notes attached at the front. And it sits there all the time and this is the thing:

It feels like it’s my work.

That didn’t come out right. What am I trying to say? I once thought my children were my work. They are not. I love them, I have a role to play with them, but they are their own people, they don’t belong to me, they’re a very special play I am privileged to watch from the front row, and sometimes join in.

In a sense, my business is my work, it’s consuming and I love it, and I believe in it. Same with my blogs–not as consuming, but I do love them, believe in them.

But this, this is my Work. It is what I am here for. Not this book in particular, necessarily, but all the fiction I will write. The growing stack of paper, my manuscript, is simply the physical manifestation of my purpose in life. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to realize this.

Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Thursday. Those are days I can sleep later. Monday because Carey is home with the kids and he walks the dog and there’s no rush to get everyone ready for the day. Thursday because I’m home with the kids and, although I usually work, I don’t generally have client meetings. I sleep till 6 or 7 on those four days. A year ago I would have laughed at the notion that “6 or 7″ is “sleeping later.”

Ha. Sleep? Who needs it. Not me any more.

From now on, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Thursday, are the days I get to write later.

Is This Normal?

I feel stagnant. This whole revision thing. Geez. Is it normal to feel like it’s not going anywhere? Like I’ve rewritten some parts so many times I don’t think I will ever ever finish?

What about the fear that the book is going to be twice as LONG when you’re done, even though you set out to cut copious quantities and make it SHORTER?

What about the fear that you will cut so much away you will have only a thin, anemic volume left at the end?

What about the fear that this will take ten years and maybe never ever be done?

Should I feel like I’m making progress? How do you measure progress during revisions anyway?

I can’t seem to find any good writing on this topic. Everything seems geared to the author who doesn’t know their book needs revising.

I know. Oh, I know. Believe me I KNOW. I can see that it needs revising.

What I don’t know is which bit to do next. Whether to plow forward and get deeper into the plot, or to go backward and rewrite earlier chapters so that the later chapters will make sense, or whether to go ahead and write the later chapters knowing that I will go back and change the earlier chapters later. When to go forward, when to step back. How to avoid getting so bogged down that the novel never gets done.

Whether to continue soliciting feedback from my family or to stop letting them read. This is a toughie. The feedback from Carey has undeniably made my early chapters much much tighter and better, and set them up for better flow later. The plot is better, the characters are better. But after every round of feedback, it’s hard to get started again. There is so much to do. Am I better off blarfing out a full set of revisions and then reincorporating feedback all at once later? Or incorporating it a section at a time, crafting it as I go?

Who knows. Nobody. This goes back to how lonely this whole writing this is. Nobody can tell me what to do next. I mean, guidelines, and rules of thumb, and basic principles, and all that. Yeah, I get that. But nobody can tell me: Work on this chapter now. Fix these problems next. Write that new scene right now.

K, novelist  friends. Is this normal? Or a sign that I may as well throw up my hands and quit. ;) (Just kidding. I’m not quitting. Not even if you say so.)

From Project Mayhem: Great little blog on writing middle grade fiction, check it out by clicking on the image.

A Book Review And One Easy Tip That Will Save You $1,138.

Twenty-three percent of the way through the first round of revisions. Not that I’m counting. I’m always counting.

Time for a book review!

(Also, I’m not really even close to 23%. I mean, I’ve revised that many pages out of the total. But the bits I’ve already done were the easy bits. There are entire new chapters that have to be written, and entire chapters to be demolished–or moved forward into the next book–and the holes between them patched up. I have to stop thinking about it now. It’s overwhelming.)

Time for a book review!

Farnam Street Blog is brain food for business leaders–it’s quite good, one of my regular reads. Recently, they talked about the value to one’s business career of writing a novel. Huzzah, I’m on a good track. They recommended several books on novel-writing, so of course I bought them all.


I’m currently reading The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile.

Spoiler alert: It sucks.

Maybe not exactly “sucks,” but I almost didn’t get past the seven-page introduction, in which the author discusses the importance of keeping one’s prose tight, by repeating over the course of seven pages how important it is to keep one’s prose tight by removing extraneous words because nobody is going to read seven pages of rambling so keep your prose tight.

I am not kidding.

I kept going though. The promise was strong: Agents speak out on the deadly errors that will cause an instant rejection in the first five pages. Must. avoid. deadly. errors.

Unfortunately, that compelling concept is a salesy mask for offering up a thin volume of tried (and tired) writing advice:

  • Limit your adjectives
  • Limit your adverbs
  • Make it sound nice (really? Oh, hm, that’s helpful)
  • Get your grammar right (so glad they warned me)
  • Show don’t tell (yawn)
  • Eschew obfuscation via erudite verbosity (I made that one up. It’s better than the other items in this list, see, and that’s how you can tell I made it up)

True, the advice is good, and it is shared in a (mostly) useful and (somewhat) engaging manner. For a beginning writer, it’s probably a great handbook to keep by your side. The exercises at the end of each chapter are good ones.

I would hope, however, that by the time an author is ready to submit her work, she would have already studied these things into the ground, so perhaps it would be better billed as a book for new writers.

The book does have one saving grace, however, which is Chapter One. This chapter contains a handy list of the do’s and don’t's for manuscript presentation: How wide to make your margins, how large the font, how broad the line spacing. Much of it can be found elsewhere, and considering the poor quality of the rest of the book, I will certainly be checking my facts before following his instructions, but (assuming it’s correct), it is handy to have it all in one place.

On page 27, almost as an aside, the author mentions that a manuscript showing very slight signs of wear, may be a subtle turn-off to a potential agent. This one little nugget, it seems to me, bears expanding. A slightly worn manuscript, even if not obvious consciously, indicates a previous rejection, and may prejudice the agent against it. This seems to me to bear the stamp of truth. We humans are so readily influenced by details slightly below our awareness, and we are inclined to be influenced by the behaviors of others. This is something I might not have thought of, nor found via a Google search on my own. I will certainly be submitting only fresh manuscripts when it is time.

More of Page 27′s insights would make this book a worthy buy. There are no more of Page 27-style insights anywhere else in this book.

Conclusion: Save your money and maybe go to a convention. Not that you can go to a convention for $11.38. But you could for a hundred times that. So, just avoid buying it 100 times, and you’re in. Easy.

So. What are you reading to improve your craft? How is it?

P.S. Chapter seven. I’ve done initial revisions through chapter seven. The snow has already piled up behind me so deep I can’t see chapter one any more for the snow. Heaven help me.

Huh. My first seven chapters are almost as thick as this crappy book I bought. Now, that's encouraging.

Why Is It So Hard to Find Meaningful Work?*

Photo from The Smitten Image. Click to visit the author's page.

Still slogging through revisions. Completely rearranged the order of several events, requiring yet another rewrite of an early chapter, of which I completed about 1/3. Slogging.

I’m in meetings most of today, a privilege I am grateful for because it is part of the career I have built for myself. Most people aren’t so lucky.

Many writers, even the famous writers of yore, spend(t) most of their lives in jobs they don’t love. I’ve spent most of mine the same way. Humans seem to be almost unique in this habit of hating our work. No mockingbird ever sets an alarm clock and drags its lazy butt out of the nest for a day of foraging. A mockingbird wakes up and sings.

If you look deeper, though, it turns out we’re not entirely unique in this respect. In times past, a good draft horse would be harnessed to the plow at daybreak and work, mindlessly, without choice, at a boring job, until nightfall. He worked hard, but the job came with perks: Healthcare, room and board, an occasional Saturday dressed up and taken downtown.

The mockingbird, on the other hand, wakes up singing every morning and spends its day doing just exactly, exactly as it pleases. It’s totally free. And what it pleases to do is work: Find food. Defend its nest. Feed its young.

Because if it doesn’t do those things, somebody dies. And that, my friends, is the definition of meaningful work.

Sometimes, somebody dies anyway. Life is short in the wild. Very short. And so maybe the reason the mockingbird wakes up singing is because it knows it’s lucky at least this one more morning.

The draft horse, on the other hand, is never so close to death as the mockingbird. If he skips a day of work, the world goes on turning. If he skips a couple, he still gets his grain and a warm stall, even if he does miss out on the nightly rub-down.

And so sometimes maybe he turns his back and offers to kick because today, he just doesn’t feel like it. Go away. I’m going back to sleep.

And that’s we writers sometimes, too. Someday we will die, but not today, not even if we turn the alarm clock off and roll over and sleep through our designated writing hour. Not even if we are late to work. Not even if we call in sick. Not today, not because we missed work, anyway.

It is possible to live closer to that edge, though, and therein lies one possible gateway to meaningful work.

About three years ago, Carey’s and my personal financial situation caught up with the general economy, when Carey’s employer went out of business. We had some tough choices to make. He had been director of product at his former company, a job he loved. I had been a stay-at-home mom and part-time freelancer. But nobody was creating new products in the crapola economy, so those opportunities were few and far between, and I’d been focused on growing a toddler and hadn’t built my freelance network recently. He could get a job as a business analyst, which he would hate and would pay less but enough; or we could live a little closer to hunger, and a little closer to free.

We chose the latter. We have been self-employed ever since.

I am not always convinced it was a good choice. I will not lie to you, and I also will not tell you the whole truth. We Americans are way too uncomfortable talking about money for me to do that. Let me just say this: It got bad. Financially, I mean. Really bad.

We have periodically revisited the idea of one or the other of us taking a job. One with benefits. But with benefits come costs. And maybe living a little closer to the edge is worth it if you feel like singing when you wake up.

And that is the crux of it, really.

We always, in our fortunate, privileged society–at least we with the benefit of an education and training–have the option of a warm stable, hot grain, and a blanket at night if we choose it.

We also have the option of the storm-tossed limb.

The bird does not fear the branch breaking beneath her, for her trust is not in the branch but in her wings. -Author Unknown

That is my secret. It is not the only way.

Another way is to wrench meaning out of the cracks, the interstitial spaces between the things that must be done to earn our benefits. Write for an hour before everyone is up, or for two hours after everyone is in bed, or instead of our video games or television show. Steal the time back for the things that matter.

Even as much as I love my career, I still must steal these spaces for writing the things that matter to me alone, the things that nobody is paying me to write (yet–one can hope, it is good for one to always hope).

Anyway, maybe the reason it’s so hard to find meaningful work is that we forget that we even have that choice. That we make the choice every day when we decide between the stable and the limb, between the video game and thing that we are called to. And while we’re cozy and warm in the stable, it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to have this choice for one more morning, and so we forget to sing.

*Apologies, and thanks, to Demian Farnworth for letting me completely rip off inspiring the title of this blog entry.

P.S. What do you think? Do you love your work? Why is it so hard to love our jobs? To find meaning in our lives? And, under it all, why do we even care?


In 1999 I was a proofreader at one of the big five accounting firms (hello, Ernst & Young). It was a lowly job, but life among the big five in those days was pretty cushy. I had a desk in the creative services department, smack at the center of the city, with a tenth-floor picture-glass-window view of downtown, a computer and internet access, free rein in the supplies closet and no-questions-asked use of the copy and binding center. It was practically heaven for a young writer.

My office was on the tenth floor of the building in the foreground on the right.

Unfortunately, to pay my ticket into this heaven, I spent most of my time reading financial documents, checking the math and the grammar, and marking documents up as I went. It was dull work, but there was another perk that was worth it all: Budget for career and skills training. When I wanted to take a class or go to a conference, all I had to do was make a business case for how it was relevant to my role, and as long as the total cost was under my yearly allowance for development, I could go, all expenses paid.

So of course, when the company offered a business writing course at the NYC headquarters, I signed right up. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was one of the best things I ever did for my career as a writer.

Somehow, in 12 years of public school, 4 years of private college, and 3 years of graduate school, and all the associated thousands of pages of required writing, nobody had ever taught me the simple and incredibly powerful principles I learned in that class–principles that apply as thoroughly to novel writing as they did to the business correspondence and deliverables we were practicing with at the time.

But wait, there’s more!

Sure, I’d had some good writing teachers. The one who encouraged me to keep working on that novel I started in 2nd year of middle school (sixth grade) in England, long after the rest of the class had finished that assignment and moved on to something else (Mrs. MacDougal. And YES she was just like McGonagall except half as tall and twice as strict).

That's me on the left. Just kidding. But I did wear a red sweater just like that, and I loved that school so very much.

The high school English teacher who taught me how to write in paragraphs (it’s true, I didn’t know what a paragraph was until that year–the glories of a nomad lifestyle–you miss some of the stuff everyone else takes for granted).

This was a terrible school even then, and the biggest regret of my childhood is that I had to graduate here, out of the three high schools I attended. There was that one good English teacher, though. Thanks, Mrs. Dodd.

The college professor who taught me how to think, really think and pull a hundred threads together to a tight and meaningful conclusion.

Top floor, third from the left, tiny little window poking out from rooftop: That was his office.

My mom (hi mom), who always believed in me and read everything I ever wrote (I don’t think she can keep up any more–sorry,mom). She still reads everything I ask her to read.

[No pics of mom on my computer at present. Hm. Where are they all?]

But somehow in all that, nor in 3 years of grad school at U of Iowa (to be fair, I studied classics there, you know, Greek and Latin, so maybe they weren’t all that concerned about my writing process) no one ever taught me a process for getting from idea to finished product. Every teacher I’d ever had taught me what to do, what the finished product should look like, but I had to figure out how to get it there myself.

It turns out I’m not alone in that. I’ve begun giving writing lessons to a young friend (in exchange for childcare: win-win), a high schooler who has had many writing teachers previously. After our first lesson, in which I showed him some of the secrets I learned from that business writing teacher (plus 12 years of self-study), and guided him through a practice session, he sat back with a look of relief and said, “This makes so much sense. I don’t feel so overwhelmed. Now when I sit down to write, I know what to do.”

And it’s clear to me from many, many conversations with adult writers that they feel the same way. Even those who are successful often can’t explain their process, because they’re winging it. Nobody ever taught them how to do it, they just figured out enough to work and they run with it. It’s pretty amazing, if you think about it–writers are brilliant folk. Still, wouldn’t it be nice to wing it just a little less?

So what is this amazing thing I learned, that frees young writers and old alike to really soar? What would you pay to know? Would you pay fifteen hundred dollars? What if I told you it was only $19.99 for three months?

Just kidding.

I’ll tell you.

It’s quite simple, actually. Well, okay, no it’s not. Because there are lots of pieces to it. But I will tell you the skeleton. And you’re going to roll your eyes because you’ve seen this skeleton before and you think it’s kind of trite. But I tell you, from the way they talk, very very few writers are actually working this system. And the thing about the system is, it works.

Here’s the system:

Step One: Prewrite. This includes activities such as outlining, sketching, mind mapping, brainstorming, and drinking yourself into a stupor in front of a computer to see what comes out of your fingertips. In the work with my young friend this week, we practiced brainstorming and then narrowing his ideas to three main points, with specific strategies for doing that. We did not practice with alcohol. Stop calling the police on me.

Step Two: Draft. This is the shitty first draft stage, to use Anne Lamott’s terminology, or SFD. Don’t think too hard. Just get it down. This is where my young student took each of the three main ideas and wrote them out into paragraph form with supporting ideas. For homework, he’s finishing those paragraphs and adding an intro and conclusion.

Stop the presses. You’ve never heard any of this before! It’s like a bold new horizon!


You’ve heard all of this before. Ad nauseam. And maybe–probably–you even do this pretty much ALL. THE. TIME. So shut up, Heather, and get on with it. Here’s the bit that most writers, as far as I can tell, are not doing. They’re not differentiating between the next two steps: Revising and editing in that order.

In our business class, there was a little chart with arrows pointing from one step to the next and these words: “The writing process is recursive: You can always go back, but never skip forward.”

And therein lies the crux. It’s easy to waste time worrying about grammar and style and minor inconsistencies, and miss the big picture. That’s what happens when you leap ahead to editing before you’re done revising.

What? Editing and revising? Isn’t that the same thing?

NO. Step 3: Revising. Step 4: Editing. Do not skip Step 3. Do not move on to Step 4 before Step 3 is done (or as done as you can get it).

Step back. I’m not going to tell anyone what they should do. If you’ve got a system that works for you ROCK ON and hit the fast-forward button. We’re almost done here. Maybe for other writers, stories leap fully-formed from their heads, like Athena, armed and ready to go, just maybe needing a little polish on the shield, a little edge on the sword. For these writers, revising is unnecessary and whether they use the word “revising” or “editing” to describe their post-first-draft-writing is completely irrelevant. It’s just tweaks, anyway.

But for me–and, I suspect, most writers–a first draft is an ugly, half-formed thing, closer to Hephaestus than Athena, and in desperate need of nurture before it is ready to face the world. And by “nurture” I mean, “ripping, tearing, and complete, painful re-organization.”

And that, my friends, is revision. It is not worrying over whether the tenses are correct or even whether the POV is accurate in every paragraph. When we skip ahead to editing (tenses, flow, POV concerns, sentence- and paragraph-level changes) before we’ve got the revisions done, we cheat ourselves of valuable time and energy, or worse–jeopardize the health of our creation, by becoming attached to words and phrases and paragraphs that maybe we don’t even need but how can we let them go once we’ve invested part of our soul in them?

Editing before revising is like trying desperately to save the damaged foot of a patient, working meticulously to reduce scarring and ensure optimal functioning once healing is complete, when the patient has just had her internal organs rearranged by gunfire and is busy hemorrhaging all over the operating table.

So, yeah. That’s one of my big secrets. And I didn’t even charge you for it. You’re welcome.

And, yeah. It’s heavy on my mind because guess what: My novel is hemorrhaging all over the floor and I’m worried about that right now, and not so much whether the grammar is right. Or whether individual chapters are perfectly polished gems. Or, really, anything except getting her guts patched up, rearranged, and functioning appropriately.

Where are you? Are you guilty of conflating editing and revising? What are your favorite tips on how to write? What helps you most in getting revisions done?

P.S. Proofreading is step 5. Last step. Last last last. Don’t you dare put that damn document on the lowly proofreader’s desk until you’ve done your revising and editing. She may be a future professional writer and novelist, but your name is on the by-line, so earn it, okay?