A version of this post was published in the January 5th edition of the WriterHouse newsletter.
On New Year’s Day, 1985, I wrote down a list of goals for the new year and promised to do this until the year I die. Thirty-two years have passed. Every year, I faithfully sit on my bed and read past resolutions before creating new ones. I keep them in a pink fiberboard jewelry box my great-grandmother gave me. The earliest resolutions were oragamied into squares teens of a certain decade will recognize.
Over the years, resolutions have included travel plans, getting a boyfriend, skydiving from 10,000 feet, and being kinder to others. Some were completely unrealistic, like be 100% happy all the time, while others were easily achieved. Goals I met received stars or checks. Unmet goals were left for another year. From an early age, being a published writer made the list. For a very long time, it remained unchecked.
As I completed this year’s ritual, I realized many of my early goals were beyond my control (like the whole boyfriend thing). Much of our writing lives—like whether our submissions are read, accepted, or liked—are also out of our control. In many ways, writing down published writer was like getting a boyfriend. I could write it down, but I couldn’t make it happen.
So, what is in my control?
The work and only the work.
I can commit to writing or revising a certain number of pages, learning new skills, or making a certain number of submissions. I can register for classes and conferences and make new writing friends. Some people I know are also making rejection goals, which we all know is much easier than publication ones. (By the way, mine is 29.)
But more important than setting goals is creating a plan for accomplishing them. Over the years, I’ve discovered my plans always include the following elements:
- A breakdown of mini-tasks required to meet my big goal
- A schedule for completing these tasks
- A support team who will help me stay accountable. Often this includes classmates and members of writing groups.
- One big reward and a series of small ones to celebrate the milestones along the way
- A self-care plan
- A letter of intention that addresses how I want to feel, think, or believe once I’ve completed this goal. I write this in the present tense as if the goal has already been achieved.
- A mantra, or positive phrase I can say to myself when things get tough
- A list of encouraging phrases and quotes from authors I can use as inspiration
- A gratitude jar for all the gifts along the way.
At the end of my yearly ritual, I create my plan and carefully refold the yellowing pages written decades ago. Then I say thank you for all of them, even the ones I never accomplished.
What goals have you set for yourself?
What do you need to make them a reality?
How can I help?
In my high school biology class we sliced off transparent films of onion skin with our fingernails then slipped them under wet-mount slides in order study plant cells. My onion was red. I dyed it with a single drop of methylene blue so the nuclei would be visible. As kids around me chomped gum and slipped notes to each other, I pressed my forehead to the eyepiece, certain I was about to witness a miracle. With a few adjustments to the focus, the plant’s cells appeared. Rows of nuclei stared back at me. It was like looking into the onion’s soul.
Sometime editing feels like working under a microscope. We lean into the page, hoping our intense study will reveal the story’s genetic code. Strings of words are analyzed, sentences built then tossed out. It’s easy to believe that composing beautiful sentences is the pinnacle of editorial work, but the very first thing you need to do is determine what your story is about.
Staring at the page won’t help you figure that out.
Over the years I’ve heard lots of advice regarding how to develop psychic distance, the perspective needed to make good writing great. Put your manuscript in a drawer. Print out the pages and spread them on the floor. Cut up your paragraphs and rearrange them like puzzle pieces. Find a reader. Hire an editor. I have used all of these techniques to improve my own work.
At the 2016 creative writing conference, Kristin Kovacic, co-editor of the anthology Birth: A Literary Companion, offered three questions writers can use to develop distance from their work. Here is her incredibly helpful list.
1. How many things is this piece about? At this stage you want to think about multiplicity. If you’re writing a piece about a young woman who owns a dog in a small town, your piece may be about dogs, women, and small town life. If you expand from character and place to feelings you may find that the piece is about security, shame, or vulnerability. Maybe it’s about innocence. If you drill into the category dog, you may find that it’s about mutts, or fleas, or purebreds. It could be about a fur. Think broadly and cast a wide net.
2. Are there connections between things on your list? Look for points of intersection. Perhaps you notice that the dog helps the young woman hide her vulnerability. Maybe the dog represents the love she’s always wanted. Maybe the dog is a mutt in a neighborhood full of purebreds Like the family, he never feels accepted. See how many connections you can create. Make it a game. Novel connections boost your creativity.
3. Who does the narrator represent? We all have identities we represent in some way—woman, journalist, mother, etc. Make these lists all the time. See which group needs to be represented by this piece of writing.
Once you’ve answered these questions, see which connections seem most relevant. Figure out who the narrator represents and build your structure based on the realizations you’ve established. Examine what you’ve introduced in the beginning of the piece and see if you’ve wrapped it up in the end. As Kristin said during the conference, “a good piece resolves its central tension. It doesn’t simply end.”
Once you know what your piece is about, you figure out what structure best serves it. Then you can begin the microscopic work of line editing and fact checking. Stare at the page as often as you like. You will have seen the story’s soul.
I’m working on second draft revisions for a memoir I’m writing. I feel like half of my life is spent exploring a specific time in my life and the other half is spent exploring how time works, as in how things should be sequenced together. There are a lot of issues I could discuss related to time: the use of the near flashback, vertical versus horizontal time, structures that create suspense. In the coming weeks, I plan to talk about all of these things. But, for today, I’ll talk about the most basic tool for managing time: the outline.
I’ll be the first to admit I hate outlines. The word conjures images of an eleventh grade research report I had to complete in the years before Google. A complete outline filled with roman numerated topics, followed by supporting lettered arguments was required before we could begin even a single sentence. I was writing about abolitionist John Brown, a man who believed armed insurrection was the key to ending slavery, and reasoned he wouldn’t do this part of the assignment. I rebelled and procrastinated. I barely got the project done.
Every time I think of outlining, I conjure those roman numerals like a too-tight wool sweater. I feel cramped and sweaty. But I know they are essential.
Plenty of highly productive writers swear by them. Author Katie Rose Guest Pryal won’t even start writing until she’s outlined her entire novel—every chapter and scene. Brett Anthony Johnston is just a meticulous, only he outlines everything in reverse.
But, outlining before you write isn’t for everyone.
I know several authors who carefully outlined everything before they wrote their first sentence only to feel like their book was missing some essential piece at the end of the first draft. It’s not that outlining as an activity was wrong, but the time for outlining was off. They didn’t give themselves room for exploration.
In his book Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach suggests that writers outline their entire books after they finish their first drafts. He believes that the self-discovery that happens during free writing is essential to finding meaning in work that may seem all summed up. You have to crack open sections that haven’t been explored. And then there’s that chapter (or two) you didn’t add to the outline because it felt too uncomfortable to write about. The entire story may hinge on what comes out of those writing sessions.
But don’t just consider the organizational process when it comes to outlining. Think about the pleasure your writing brings you. I derive a lot of pleasure from the surprises that arise in stream of consciousness writing. In fact, some of my best writing comes from those messy experimental places. Outlining early in a project would hamper my creativity. When starting a new project, I do some free writing and when something feels like an actual piece I outline it, often starting in reverse because as Brett Anthony Johnston said at the 2015 Virginia Quarterly Review Conference, “If you work backwards, you will ensure that the plot is logical and that everything must’ve happened.”
I love it when my neuroses are validated. This time validation came from one of my literary heroes: Stephen King. While he’s not everyone’s mentor, the author of horror classics like The Stand and It inspired me to start writing back when I was an awkward pimple-faced teen. When he admitted to obsessing over first lines in a 2013 article for The Atlantic, I breathed a sigh of relief.
I’m in the middle of second draft revisions for a memoir I’m writing. It seems like every other day I’m tinkering with the first line in an attempt to get it right. In the Atlanticinterview, King admits to spending months, even years, writing opening sentences. First lines are “the reader’s invitation into the world of the book,” he says. They have important work to do. They need to ground the reader in the situation, establish time and place, and most importantly hook the reader into wanting to know more. Curiosity is paramount.
Great opening lines, such as the example he uses from The Postman Always Rings Twice“They threw me off the hay truck around noon,” also introduce the writer’s style.
King and I approach projects in different ways. He continually revises the opening until he gets it right and then moves on. If I know a story’s good, I allow the opening paragraph to be a place holder as I write the story. I keep coming back to those first few sentences and whittling away at them until they feel right.
I’ve been doing a lot of whittling on that opening line. As a source of inspiration, I’m collecting first sentences from some of the memoirs. Here are a few I really like:
“Life changes fast.”
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
“Please, she whispers, “how may I help you?”
Nick Flynn, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
“Our car boiled over just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.”
Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life
“The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in northern California.”
Cheryl Strayed, Wild
“My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.”
Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.”
Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle
“It’s not so much as I forgot, as I couldn’t bring myself to remember.”
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
“My mother grabbed the hot poker from the fireplace and said, “Get into the car.”
Domenica Ruta, With or Without You
Whether they’re simple or compound-complex sentences each one does the job King talks about. They hook, ignite curiosity, and ground the reader in the situation with beauty and grace.
Reading these first lines makes me feel like my continual tinkering isn’t just neurosis. It’s the heart of what we do as writers – revise until our guts settle.
So, what’s the current opening line for my story?
Everything I owned was shoved into three garbage bags we carried toward the highway.
My gut says this is it. Now it’s time to obsess about the ones that follow.
For more on King’s approach to first sentences, read the Atlantic article, ” Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences.”