Plotting for Poets

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that I just needed to find a frame for my memoir, or to pick one thread and use that to guide the rest of my themes, I’d be able to buy the gorgeous owl fountain pen of my dreams.

“I think you should emphasize theme A,” said my faithful beta reader. And she was right. Of course she was right. But three paragraphs in, a detail about pine trees [not a real example] lead me right into the story about the time I went sky diving [never happened], and I lost the thread of theme A. Again.

There are many variables to blame for my inability to execute a plot. My actual writing training has been in poetry. In poems, you just lay out the three elements you want your reader to understand, and then add a snappy line that ties it all together. Bam, you’re done. [It’s a little more complicated than that, but not much.] Turns out that doesn’t work in prose.

Writing about your own life is tricky. You know what’s important to you, but you have to write about what’s important to the reader. I find this extraordinarily difficult. My only saving grace is that if you write about something well enough, the reader will probably be interested. And you maybe can’t tell by this slip-shod blog, but I can take a sentence apart and put it back together again and again until it fucking shines. This is a poet strength.

Did I mention I have ADD—oh look there’s a chicken! My executive function is not so great. My darlingest second sister likes to say that I have holes in my head because I was born premature. Shut up, darlingest second sister. [Ahem, sorry.] The upside of having ADD is that (almost) everything is interesting and interrelated. The downside is that most of my readers will not have ADD, and might require fewer leaps of place, scene, and topic.

So what works? Psychotropic drugs and therapy. And hiring an editor who pointed out examples of places where I kill my own tension. And then I could recognize it and fix it. I’m only on Chapter 2 of draft number 1,597. But I’m killing darlings, deleting beloved facts and sentences. The plot must go on.


A Decade of Crankitude

Ten years ago, give or take, I said goodbye to my job as an editorial project manager and went freelance. (When your boss praises you for your editorial insight rather than your organizational and management skills [pause for hysterical laughter], it might be time to become a freelance editor.)

I read somewhere that it takes writers ten years to become masters of their own craft. We always have more to learn, but ten years gives us experience, confidence (sometimes), and knowledge of our trade. I have two trades: writing and editing.

Today ManEd sent me a copy of the proofs of a book I developmental edited. I swear I spent only five minutes scanning through the book, and I found a number of errors. Most of them weren’t my fault. Designers often enter headings, and because they are hired for their design sense rather than their editorial acumen, sometimes errors are inadvertently introduced. I don’t judge; I can’t design my way out of a paper bag.

My creative writing professor in grad school took 20 years to write his own award-winning memoir. I remind myself of that to make me believe that I can do it. Perhaps this year. Unlike my time with poems I have not reached 10 years of dedicated creative nonfiction writing.

So I fritter away my time, complaining about the weather and reading schlock fiction. I critique a poem my friend hasn’t written yet (long story). Let’s all get the fuck off the Internet and write.


(I probably spelled that wrong.)

Indy Clause

January Notes

Well, it’s four degrees below negative oh-shit! in my neck of the woods. The morning light is harsh gold, and the trees’ shadows are blue, or is it violet gray, on the snow. I had to leave the water in the kitchen sink running a bit because the pipes showed signs of freezing.

Yesterday my beloved interrupted an insight I had about my manuscript to tell me about tire pressure in his truck. There are so few people in the world who give a good goddamn about a person’s writing process. I had sent my revised chapter to a friend. She gave me a bunch of feedback. I freaked out because I wasn’t ready, perhaps, to get feedback.

I calmed down and realized she was mostly right, and did some work. Revised the fucking chapter. Again. Last night I dreamed a writer told me that it took him 10 years to write a memoir. I burst out laughing and said, “Thank god, I’m on year eight, so I might be done soon.”

Let’s not think about why I might need a dream to support me. (The Spouse is generally a supportive human being, but he has his lapses, as do we all.)

I grow tired being surrounded by other people’s books. But I try to channel my angst into writing my own. Jealousy is stupid and gets a person nowhere. The good thing about this weather is that I do not want to leave the house. I do not want to leave the couch with the blankets. And neither does the dog. She is snoozing, and I am battling my way to the page.

Are you writing?

The Chart

Many years ago I was at a residency with a not-yet famous author. Residencies are awesome things because small talk is often about writing (or food). Writing and food are two of my favorite subjects, so I fit right in. The novelists were hanging out talking about plot. As a plotless wonder (aka poet) I perked my ears up.

“I draw charts!” my friend said.

“Charts?” The other novelists nodded knowingly, but I was fascinated.

“Sure, you want to see one?”

“Yes please!” And my friend brought out her thick three-subject notebook with her neat round handwriting.

“It’s nothing fancy,” she said laughing.

“I don’t care.” Her x axis was each chapter, and she explained that she had three plot lines going in her young adult novel: the supernatural mystery, a budding romance, and tension with the family. Each plot line had a color.

“I try to advance one of the plot lines in each chapter,” she explained.

I just got 22 single-spaced pages of professional feedback on the memoir. It took me a good week just to process the feedback. And then I talked to the editor and it might take me another week to process that. This brings me to Thanksgiving.

Probably the week before two out of three of my sisters come to visit for Thanksgiving is not a good time to work on my manuscript. And that’s okay because I’m struggling to understand how to even begin the revision. But I think it’s going to involve a chart.

I too have a few plot lines, or lines of tension. I can plot those plots on a draft and color code them. (A convenient excuse to buy new pens or maybe color pencils and sticky notes? Perhaps break open a field note notebook??) Then I can color code the manuscript and impose order on chaos. That is the dream anyway.

First I have to establish the lines of tension. Some of them are old and worn and some of them are new, teased out by the editor. I’d best have a publishable work by the time this is all over. Whenever it’s over.

Invalid or Writer?

It’s a beautiful fall day in the new homeplace. And yet I am in bed. Not sleeping or doing unmentionable things. I am writing.

I’m pretty sure my neighbors think I’m an invalid. I rarely leave the house, and when I do, I’m wearing a ratty sweatshirt and pajama pants. I think I brushed my hair yesterday?

I should be pouring over produce at the farmer’s market or walking through picturesque woods. At the very least I should be unpacking or painting my Beloved’s office, canning tomatoes, reading the paper, raking leaves, or making artisanal potholders to sell at a local market.

Nope. It’s me, a stack of paper, my computer, and the duvet. I am not living; I am not exploring my new environs; I’m finishing the fucking manuscript so I can send it to a professional editor on Monday.

Tell me this is worthwhile.


Tricks to Getting to the Page

Keep up with all legally prescribed psychotropic medications.

Buy a cute notebook. Buy ten cute notebooks. Get a filthy (yet legal) stationery habit. Look at your beautiful pens and pencils and the trendy Japanese notebooks. They are begging to be used. Use them.

Read. Use your disdain for the shoddily written books to write your own. Use your inspiration to scrawl something new. No one gets better at writing without writing.

Start pondering your very complicated feelings about the word “Yankee” (or word of your choice).

Bribery. Self-loathing. Reward systems. Another cup of coffee.

Louise Erdrich writes in Blue Jay Dance about how she tied herself to the chair with a bathrobe belt. She could loosen it in case of emergency, but it kept her from bounding up before her executive function could stop her.

Get the fuck off the Internet. Oops, it’s now “internet.”

How do you get to the page?

A Writer’s Schedule

Get up, let dogs out, check facebook, scowl into my coffee.

Hour 1. Decide to write. Open a document. Check Apartment Therapy for stupid cramped apartments I’d never want to live in. Go back to document. Toast a bagel.

Hour 2. Spend this hour looking for the best goddamned quote you’ve ever read on science and the South. Plan an entire blog post around it. Be unable to find quote even though you took notes and read half the book you thought it came from.

Hour 2 + 5 min. Curse your life.

Hour 3. Reread a chapter. Despair. Reread your notes. Despair. Make a few tiny edits to chapter 1. Vow to be a better person. But first, eat your leftover Thai food for Second Breakfasts.

Hour 4. Print out the chapter and lie on the couch. Make some changes you don’t hate. Go back to the computer and input said changes. Spend too long on facebook.

Hour 4.5. Despair. Write an email to a friend. Text a dumb pun to another friend (it’s her fault, she started it). Read 10 pages about whaling.

Hour 5. Go back to your fucking document and write something, you twit! You can’t blow off a day of editing just to read 10 pages about whaling. Stare at the screen. Move some things around. Remember a genius idea you had a few days ago. Write 250 words. Reread. Feel proud. This is why we write.

Try not to think about how it took you five hours to find something meaningful in your manuscript.