Two Ways to Strengthen the Cause-and-Effect Chain in Your Manuscript

Two Ways to Strengthen the Cause-and-Effect Chain in Your Manuscript

Over the weekend I dreamt I was caulking my bathtub with toothpaste while delivering a speech to the UN. 

After the speech, I ended up at a resort that flooded every afternoon. 

Fearing a mold infestation, I suggested hotel staff build a gate to prevent the high tide from soaking the first-floor rooms. 

My suggestion worked, but it also trapped everyone in the resort until low tide. As we waited for the water to recede, a few disgruntled vacationers dipped their toes in the alligator-infested water. 

Because this was my dream, I wanted to understand it. So after waking up I spent a few hours trying to find the dream’s hidden meaning. 

But if this hot mess of disconnected ideas showed up in a published story, I might stop reading mid-paragraph. 

Good stories make sense and help me understand something about myself. 

Great stories have an invisible magnetic river that pulls me toward an ending so powerful I have to read it again to see how the author pulled it off. 

To develop an invisible magnetic river you need a strong narrative arc, a powerful universal, and a continuous cause-and-effect chain that runs through your manuscript.

Master the cause-and-event chain and each item will propel your story forward.

Break the chain or fail to create one and you’ll lose, confuse, or bore your readers. 

So how do you guarantee there’s a powerful cause-and-effect chain in your manuscript? 

If you’re a plotter who likes to plan your entire book before writing the first word, Bret Anthony Johnston recommends you start with the end and then outline backward until you reach the beginning of your story. 

This technique works well if you know your ending. 

But if you don’t have an ending in mind or you’re a pantser who likes to discover the story as you draft, simply use this technique after you’ve completed a traditional outline or written a first draft.  

If you’re not a fan of outlining, you can write a synopsis for your project after you’ve completed a strong third or fourth draft. If you’ve written a book, your synopsis should be between two to four pages in length. If you’ve written an essay or short story, shoot for a paragraph. 

While this might seem like extra work, it isn’t. If you plan to publish your book, you’ll need a synopsis for the querying process. Plus, it’s easier to see the flaws in a two- to four-page document than it is in a two-hundred-fifty-page manuscript. Revising at the synopsis level can help you find targeted ways to improve your story’s cause-and-effect chain that might be impossible to see if you’re trying to complete a chapter-by-chapter revision of your manuscript. 

Once you’ve written your synopsis, ask the following questions: 
 

  1. How does your main character change from beginning to end? If the main character doesn’t change, your story has a serious problem. 
  2. Do you know what the main character wants at every point listed in your synopsis? If you don’t, you need to figure out why these events matter. Once you’ve solved that problem, ask yourself whether the character’s need in each situation is related to the change you identified in question one. If it’s not related, consider cutting that item. 
  3. Have you created an interlocking sequence of events?  If you can insert the words “and then” between your events, it’s likely you’ve created a series of interesting yet unrelated situations. To remedy this, employ the principle of “but” and “therefore” used by the creators of South Park. You can read about this principle here, but let me share a few basics. The words “and then” suggest your events are not connected. For example, you can caulk your tub with toothpaste “and then” for unrelated reasons present to the UN. The words “but” and “therefore,” suggest a cause-and-effect relationship between your events. Here’s what my dream might look like if I applied the principle of “but” and “therefore.” 

 
I was scheduled to give a Zoom lecture to the UN. 

But two minutes before the event, I discovered the only place in my house with good WIFI was the bathroom. 

Therefore I set up my laptop in front of the shower. 

But the grout was in terrible shape. 

Therefore I used some toothpaste to fill in the cracks right before my speech. 

The speech was successful therefore we celebrated with an island getaway. 

The hotel was great but it flooded every afternoon. Therefore I suggested they build a gate to stop the water. 

Okay, it’s still not a great story, but do you see how inserting “but” and “therefore” improved it? 

Once you’ve applied the principle of “but” and “therefore” to your synopsis, you can apply it to your chapter or scene summaries. If this interests you, check out the following blog post.

After you’ve shaped your scene or chapter summaries, it will be easier to refine your manuscript’s invisible magnetic river. 

Don’t get discouraged if your early or even mid-stage drafts look a little like my dream. Most writers fail to see the problems in their cause-and-effect chains, especially when they’re working on book-length manuscripts. If you get frustrated, put your project away and work on something else. When you’re ready to revise, you’ll find the connection points that shape your idea into a praiseworthy story. 
 
 What strategies have you used to build your cause-and-effect chains? 

How have these strategies helped you improve your drafts? 
 

One Exercise that Can Boost Your Creative Intuition

One Exercise that Can Boost Your Creative Intuition

Over the weekend, I celebrated my forty-seventh birthday with a cake, a silly Facebook post, and a dinner party with actual humans. 

I planned everything myself. 

This might not seem like a big deal to you, but I grew up in a home where having opinions, wants, or needs could lead to a crisis that ended with your favorite belongings smashed against the floor. 

By early adulthood, I’d mastered the ability to suppress my desires for even simple things. If someone asked what I wanted for dinner I said, “I don’t know. What do you want?”  

Whatever the response, I replied, “Me too.” 

Once, this strategy led to a celebration dinner for a promotion I’d received at Red Lobster. Just so you know, I can’t stand seafood. My stomach churned as I inhaled clouds of fish-flavored air and gnawed on a corn cob while my partner scarfed down Cheddar Bay Biscuits and bites of lobster tail.  

Ever chewed on a corn cob? 

It’s a lousy way to pass the time. 

But dinner isn’t the only place where we suppress our desires.

Sometimes, we treat our writing lives the same way. 

How many times have you poopooed an idea that felt too outrageous? 

Or revised a story to please the person in your writing group or class who seemed to know best, even though their feedback fundamentally changed your story? 

Ever abandoned a manuscript because someone said it wasn’t marketable? 
 
Your ideas are your currency. 

Unlike money in a bank account that earns interest, unused creative ideas lose their value. 
 

So how do you turn the spark of an idea into an actual story?

You write a shitty first draft. 

But it’s not that simple. To write that shitty first draft, you have to trust yourself and the process. 

Here’s an exercise to help you build a little trust. 
 
Make sure to set aside between thirty minutes to one hour so you can complete items 1 – 4 during one writing session.
 

  1. Meditate for five minutes. If you’re new to meditation or want to expand your meditation repertoire, check out this blog post
  2. After your meditation, set a timer for three minutes then begin with the following line: I want to write about Don’t stop until the timer sounds.  
  3. When time is up, star the most interesting item. This is your desire. 
  4. Set a timer for twenty minutes and begin the shitty first draft of that story. If the first twenty minutes energizes you, you can write for another twenty minutes. Try to keep going until the idea begins to feel like a project. 
  5. If you’ve just completed your first draft, continue with this step. But, if you’ve taken a break, reread your piece. Once you’re ready, ask yourself which organ in your body houses this story.Don’t think about it. Just write down your first answer. 
  6. If your mind blanks, write the following line in your journal. If I had to guess where the story lives it would be…Using your nondominant handwrite down the first organ that comes to mind. 
  7. Once you have an answer, click here to discover how your organs and emotions are connected.  As you read through this blog post, did you notice any connections? Which emotion resonated with you? Use this information to strengthen your story’s conflict.  
  8. Next, write down everything you know about this emotion. For example, what do you know about anger?

 

  • Where does it come from?
  • Who’s allowed to be angry?   
  • How have you healed (or not healed) your anger? 
  • How does anger influence the story idea you came up with? 
  • How does the character’s understanding of anger evolve over the course of the story? 

 
     Answering these questions can help you build a narrative arc. 

     Keep it up and you might even find a theme. 
 

  1. Now, return to your shitty first draft and keep writing

 
Trust that the story is teaching you something important. All you need to do is show up and listen to what it has to say. 

Trusting in your creative process helps build the creative intuition each writer must develop. 

If you want to truly understand its power, join me this Thursday, 4/15/21, from 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM EDT for my pay-it-forward generative writing class where we’ll put these principles into practice. 

All I ask in return is that you either donate to your favorite writing organization ($10 minimum) or find a way to support another writer. Buy a book. Share an essay on social media. Write a review then post it on Amazon and Good Reads. 

That’s it. 

To join the class, send me an email by Wednesday 4/14/21 at 5:00 PM EDT. Be sure to send me a screenshot of your donation or effort to support another author. 

Completing this exercise and showing up to this class are opportunities to claim your creative space. 

It’s a little like saying this is what I want for dinner. 

It’s such a simple thing, and yet it can have powerful results. 

I hope to see you this Thursday.

And when you finish this exercise let me know what it taught you about the writing process.

Birthday Month Giveaway Number One: Two Ways You Can Turbocharge Your Writing Life

Birthday Month Giveaway Number One: Two Ways You Can Turbocharge Your Writing Life

On Saturday, April 3, 2021,  I received my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Over the past twelve months, I’ve rarely ventured outside my neighborhood.  

As vaccination day approached, I realized I would spend at least an hour inside a mass vaccination site that held more people than I’d seen all year. 

That alone scared me.

But I believed the jab was my ticket to freedom, so I kept the appointment. 

The vaccination site had been set up inside an old department store. A medical team had decorated the chipped floor with tape lines that resembled runways. Volunteers in bright orange shirts smiled with their eyes as they directed traffic. 

The closer I got to the needle the more my heart pounded. 

I wanted to get the vaccine, but as a person with autoimmune issues, life has shown me there are far worse things than COVID isolation. 

After answering the required questions, a warning appeared on my file. Damn, I thought, wondering if they were going to send me away. But I was told they’d give me the shot in exchange for a thirty-minute wait.  

I said a quick prayer, accepted my shot, then plunked down in the chair so I could scroll through my email. 

To my right, a gentleman named Leroy chatted with anyone who looked in his direction. Like me, he had an extended post-vaccine wait. When he laughed, his whole body shook with a force that made his wheelchair squeak. He was happy to be around other people and so eager to share plans for his post-vaccine life that others shared their plans too.  Eventually, I struck up a conversation with Leroy about weekend plans. He told me a friend had invited him over for Easter dinner, which was a gift since he didn’t have family in the area. 

In a few days, I’ll turn forty-seven.

The vaccine and my conversation with Leroy were my first two birthday gifts. 

Long ago, I learned that the fullness of our lives resides not in the gifts given to us, but those we bestow on others. They create a chain reaction inside us that increases our openness, receptivity, and happiness.

In an open and receptive state, we’re more likely to hear our muse, show up to our writing lives, and work on the stories we care about. 

During the month of April, I want to give a few gifts of my own. In this month’s newsletter, I’m going to talk about how you can use chain reactions to turbocharge your stories while also giving you some opportunities to create those chain reactions in your writing life. 

This week I have two opportunities for you. 

If you’ve recently finished (or have almost finished) your novel, I’m giving away one spot in Lindz McLeod’s Query Writing Seminar which takes place this Thursday, 4/8/21, from 2:00 PM EDT – 4:00 PM EDT. 

I met Lindz in New York City while we were both attending the Writer’s Hotel Conference. Her talent and skills are off the charts. Over the past two years, I’ve been blown away by her productivity, determination, and publishing prowess. You can find a full description of the session below. 

Here’s what I can guarantee to the lucky recipient. You’ll have a fabulous time during the session, and you’ll leave with an arsenal of tips and tricks that will help you land an agent. 

I’m giving this away to the first person who sends me an email. 

 

UPDATE: The free spot has already been taken, but you can still sign up for her course by clicking here
 
I ask that you pay this gift forward in two ways:  

  1. Follow Lindz on Twitter: @lindzmcleod
  2. If you love her course, write a review and share it with her and on social media. 

And, for those of you who are somewhere between your first word and the finish line, I’ve got a special gift for you. 

On Thursday, 4/15/21, from 1:00 PM EDT – 2:30 PM EDT, I will offer a ninety-minute pay-it-forward generative writing class. It’s an opportunity to give back, get mindful, draft something new, and ask questions about the writing process. 

To reserve your spot, I ask that you send me an email that includes one of the following: 

  1. A screenshot of a donation to a charity or writing organization of your choice (minimum $10). 
  2. A screenshot that shows your support for a fellow writer. This could be anything from reading and sharing their essay or short story on social media to writing a 5-sentence review of their book on Good Reads and Amazon, to telling others to follow them. 

To receive your spot, send me an email with a screenshot of your act of generosity. That’s it.

Doors for this opportunity will close on Wednesday, 4/14/21,  at 5:00 PM EDT. 

I hope to see you on 4/15.

Until then, tell me about a time when doing something for others improved your life. I’d love to hear your story. 

 Happy writing and happy spring! 

Six Ways to Enhance (or Jump-Start) Your Writing Community

Six Ways to Enhance (or Jump-Start) Your Writing Community

The first few weeks of my querying process were dominated by a major bout of internal radio silence

No ideas. 

No desire to write. 

Not even an urge to pick up my pen. 
 
Then, while I was on my morning walk, I asked my partner a question. What if…

The answer was intriguing, scary, and thankfully sticky. 

Three days later, it popped in my head again. Except this what-if was accompanied by two characters who were interested in the same question. 

The next day, I had two plot-related what-ifs

Even though the long wait for query responses had stifled my motivation, the story idea wouldn’t let go.

So, I let my what-ifs build until one day I found myself writing chapter one. 

Now I’m three thousand words into what looks like a new project. 

What made the difference? 

My connections with other people. 

I have a partner who thankfully listens as I entertain story ideas. 

A query buddy has been checking on me regularly and cheering me on.  

I belong to a couple of writing groups filled with courageous writers who are also querying and submitting their work. 

Late last week, writing coach Melanie Bishop sent me a link to a video of a baby laughing as her dad rips up a job rejection letter. A friend had sent it to her and suggested she watch it every time a rejection rolls in. 

I triple dog dare you to watch this video with a straight face. 
 
Were you able to do it? 

Me neither.

As I reflected on my week, I realized the baby video was the tipping point. After watching it, I stop taking life so seriously and remembered that I write for the joy of telling a good story. That joy is available even in the querying silence. (Thank you, Melanie!) 

So,  I want to ask you the following questions: 
 

  • Who’s encouraging you to write? 
  • Who reads your work and celebrates its strengths?
  • Who gives you feedback on your writing? 
  • Who inspires you to keep learning and perfecting your craft? 
  • Who do you run to when rejections arrive? 

 
If you don’t like your answers, now is the perfect time to expand your list of connections. 

Looking for a generative group? 

Check out Emily Stoddard’s Hummingbird Sessions or Paula Boyland’s Virtually the Write Time

Want to take a class? Here are a few suggestions:  

 
Looking for a conference with workshop options?
While the application deadline for some of these has passed, be sure to add the following organizations to your list:  

 
How about a conference? 
AWP has a worldwide conference directory

Here are just a few of my favorites: 

Hippocamp Literary Conference
James River Writers Conference
San Francisco Writers Conference
Muse and the Marketplace

Want to find some writers online? 
Here’s a list of Facebook groups you can join. 

Need a hashtag to help you connect with writers on Twitter or Instagram? 
Here you go

Promise me you’ll take one step toward building a richer and more robust writing life.

If you want to learn how to work effectively with your new writing peers, join me tomorrow for Get Better Critiques Now: How to get the best feedback on your manuscript (and what to do with it)

Investing and nurturing your connections with other writers is an important part of your writing life. It’s one that will make uncertain times a little easier to bear.

Who knows? A  conversation with a writing buddy, a moment of inspiration during a walk, or a funny video shared between friends might inspire you to begin a brand-new project.

And if this seems scary or awkward, do it anyway. Building a writing community is like eating your vegetables. You might not always like them, but they’re good for you.  

 

4 Reasons Your Muse Goes Silent and What You Can Do to Regain Your Creative Mojo

4 Reasons Your Muse Goes Silent and What You Can Do to Regain Your Creative Mojo

Over the weekend, I honored the one-year anniversary of the COVID pandemic by scrolling through the pictures on my phone. The collection included empty meat counters, picked-over produce, and bare shelves that should’ve been stocked with toilet paper and cleaning supplies. At the time, it wasn’t clear whether we’d succumb to the virus or starve. 

But here we are.  

Sometimes our writing lives feel as barren as those shelves. We show up to the page hoping our muse will tag along. Instead, we endure a deafening internal radio silence and fear that our creative life might be done.  

There are a number of reasons why your creativity might have dried up,  including: 
 

  • External radio silence on submissions and queries
  • Pressures to produce 
  • Mental health challenges or physical illnesses  
  • The rejection blues 

 
To remedy these issues you need to understand what’s going on below the surface. 

Radio Silence on Submissions 

While waiting for a submission reply, your brain might try to champion your writing project by whispering “Pick me! Pick me!” into the ether, hoping an agent or publisher will be inspired to read and then accept your work. 

But as much as we might like to influence the order of submittable submissions or rearrange someone’s inbox with our good thoughts and email refresh habits, we can’t. 

Holding on to work you’ve sent out eats away at your creativity. 

Sometimes we can’t help but do this. 

If this is the case, follow writer Philip Lawton’s advice and accept that your writing life has entered a fallow period. Rest, listen to music, garden, or do anything else that rejuvenates you. As you enjoy life, have faith that these activities are setting the stage for fertile writing periods to come. 

If you’re looking for a way out of this holding pattern, here are a few suggestions:  

  • Throw a going-away party for your project so you can mentally let it go. 
  • When you can’t stop thinking of it, write the project a letter just like you would to a friend who’s away on a trip. Burn the letter as a way of sending it off. 
  • Schedule fifteen minutes of publication worry time into your calendar. At the appointed time, set a timer and then obsess, fret, or anguish about how long it’s taking and how you have no idea what this means. When the timer sounds, do something physical to release your angst. Then get back to work. 

Pressuring Yourself to Produce

Sometimes fear that taking a break means we’ll never write anything again.

Or we fear that “real writers” constantly produce new work. Would we still be a writer if let ourselves slack off? 

Or perhaps, we’ve been driving ourselves to work on something really intense, or even traumatic.

Pressuring ourselves into a state of productivity drive the muse away. When we ignore our feelings, the wounded part of us can turn off the creative tap until we work on safer material. 

The opposite of fear is love, so that’s my prescription for you. 

  • Love yourself by varying the intensity of the topics you write about. 
  • Love yourself by recognizing that “real writers” take breaks and then allow yourself to do the same.
  • Love yourself by finding and following your joy. Write something just for fun and then share it with friends. Don’t do this for feedback. Do it because sharing your creativity brings you joy. 

 
Physical or Mental Illness 

When we’re not feeling well, our natural response is to slow down. This is the body’s way of diverting the energy of doing toward the energy of healing. We generally accept these downtimes when illnesses are short, but when illnesses are chronic illness, it can feel like the world is passing you by. 

As someone who struggled through a four-year battle with Lyme disease, and chronic depression before that, I empathize with every person who wants to give the couch the bird 

But if struggles with mental or physical illness have sent your muse packing, self-care is how you call it back home. 

Practicing self-care might mean changes to your diet, moving more, getting some sunshine and fresh air, or assess the health of your relationships. 

Sometimes you need to partner with healthcare providers or take medications that help the body and brain feel more balanced. 

It could mean changing your career or developing a spiritual practice. 

Regardless of what’s required, self-care is the act of loving yourself.

Love yourself and the muse will love you too. 

 

The Rejection Blues 

Repeated rejections can make you question your writing and your self-worth. 

Reminders that a rejection could be about something other than the quality of your work might not be enough, especially if you’ve received multiple rejections on something that’s taken years to perfect. 

 Sometimes, you have to let go of a publication dream before you can move on. 

Here are a few suggestions: 
 

  • Find a way to honor each rejection. I belong to a group where we celebrate each rejection as a badge of courage. If you can find or create a group like this, shout each rejection from a mountain top. See how many you can get. This can be incredibly helpful because writers who amass rejections are also writers who eventually get published. 
  • Hold a funeral for the ones that sting. Eulogize that publication dream then bury it. Let yourself grieve until you’re ready to send the next one off. 
  • Spend time reconnecting with why you like to write. If you don’t have one, create a mission statement or a writer’s prayer and visit with it on a daily basis. Let that mission statement or prayer fuel your future publication attempts.
  • It can be hard to accept that not every project gets published. Unfortunately, that is part of the writing life. If you need to let a project go, list all the skills you learned while working on it and celebrate any wins, no matter how small. When you’re ready, work on something else.  

 
Being in a fallow period doesn’t mean you stop showing up to the page. Whenever my creativity goes dormant, I return to Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way and resume my morning pages routine—three handwritten pages per day, first thing in the morning (or whenever I get to it). Showing up nurtures my creative life, and when my muse feels fully restored, she returns to me. Then we get back to work. 

So, what do you do to combat your internal radio silence? 

How do you love yourself through the process? 

Send me an email. I’d love to know what’s working for you.

And when things don’t, have faith that you are not alone. 

I know because a number of writers shared their stories with me.

We are all here to cheer each other on.  

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