Back to Work

My new favorite tool

Turns out, I’m not very good at wallowing. I can only do it for so long before it starts to annoy me. Which meant it would only be a matter of time before I picked up Draft #2 to see what might be salvageable.

The first step was to figure out exactly what was there. I took the printed pages and a notebook, and I began to map out the sections. I assigned a number to each section, and in the notebook, I scribbled a brief description. Occasionally, I made a note in the manuscript itself, most often “nec?” to ask if the section was actually necessary. Turns out, there’s a fair bit of pointless rambling and redundancy in the book at the moment, but at least I know where it is.

Mapping the sections was my brain break from an insane work week. It was also a really good way to work on the book without having to do the hard work of actually editing what was on the page. The prospect of doing that made me nervous, because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hold the entire story in my already-exhausted brain, and I didn’t know how I could make a coherent story if I wasn’t absolutely certain what I’d already written.

Then, three things happened.

The first was that the fansite where my fanfiction stories still live finally fixed their library page. Before the last update, the page had a feature that showed not only the newest stories in the library, but a handful of random stories. It’s fun to go to the page and see if any of my old stories show up. (If they don’t, I refresh the page to get a new random story list.) At one point when I was taking brain break from work, one of my old stories appeared on the random list. I opened the story and breezed through, pleased to find that I still thought it was pretty not-bad. As I skimmed it, I remembered the experience of writing it—of discovering the story as I wrote, of writing sections in whatever order I felt like writing and then weaving them together, of seeing the gaps and not panicking or giving up, but just writing the parts that needed to be written to make everything work out. Turns out, I really did know how to put a story together. If I could do it then, no reason I can’t do it now.

The second thing came through a local neighbor-to-neighbor gifting group. (Side note: This group started as a Buy Nothing group and recently broke off. It now operates under a different name, but the original principle—neighbors giving stuff away, big and small–remains. I’ve seen people giving away stoves and cabinetry because they’re remodeling their kitchens. Last weekend, I gave away a set of popsicle molds, a devotional book, a pewter soup tureen, and a tabletop game called Ten Plagues Bowling Alley that I’d bought at a local kosher deli—I gave to a woman who wanted it because she says her wife runs a fun Seder.)

I’ve gotten some fabulous stuff through this group, but one of best things I’ve received is the item I received last week. A member was giving away a whiteboard. Friday afternoon, she messaged me to tell me I’d been chosen to receive it. I finished with my last work obligation of the day and went to her home to pick it up. It turned out that the whiteboard was 2’ x 3’, so I went to the local office supply store to buy an inexpensive display easel. I came home, set up the easel, and put the whiteboard in place. Since I have a whiteboard calendar over my desk, I already had dry-erase markers in assorted colors. I looked at the surface, pristine and forgiving. Then, I picked up the blue marker, and in the upper left corner of the whiteboard, I wrote my main character’s name.

Suddenly, everything began to spill out. I made a list of her characteristics. Then using the pink marker, I did the same for her boyfriend’s sister, and I realized for the first time how they function as contrasts for each other. I grabbed another marker to make notes about my main character and her boyfriend, using different colors to keep track of their respective characteristics, and I mapped out their similarities and differences, what things about each other drive them nuts and what things bring them together.

In less than half an hour, I’d charted huge chunks of the book. I practically trembled with delight as I surveyed my work. The next evening, I took up the red marker and started on the climax I’d struggled with for so long. The answers came so easily I barely trusted them. I drew arrows from other columns to the climax so I’d know how the other entries would set up the climax. By Sunday evening, I was detailing the bad guy; he still needs work, but now I can see where he falls short.

The whiteboard is now officially my new favorite tool. Turns out, it’s not my little secret. I texted a writer friend about it, and she responded with a photo of the whiteboard she uses to keep her life organized. Last Sunday after church, I told one of the priests about my wonderful new tool, and she told me how, as a visual thinker, she adores using a whiteboard to map out ideas and the relationships between them.

If you’re struggling with your story, memoir, or whatever you’re working on, I suggest laying it out on a whiteboard. You could do the same thing with a large piece of paper, but the whiteboard has a huge advantage in that you can wipe off anything that doesn’t work. (To preserve what you’re written, take a photo of it.)

The third thing came from author/editor Tiffany Yates Martin. Back in January, I attended a webinar she taught on the biggest mistakes novelists make, and it was outstanding. I promptly began to explore her website and bought her book, Intuitive Editing, which is proving to be enormously helpful. I also signed up for her weekly email notification of new posts. The week after I posted about how rotten Draft #2 is, I received an email from her that began, “Dear Author.” It opened with this line: “I’m so sorry about this deep challenge you’re facing with your writing.” For a minute, I thought that somehow she knew, that she’d happened upon my post and was targeting me. Except she wasn’t, of course. It just felt that way because the timing of this email was so incredibly precise, speaking to me exactly where I was in that moment.

The next week, her post was entitled, “Do Less than Your Best.” I encourage you to read it for yourself, but her bottom line was an invitation to commit to spending two minutes per day on the work. Seriously, who can’t find two lousy minutes to devote to something they love? It takes longer to microwave a frozen burrito. (Plus, if you spend only two minutes a day on your project, you’ll have spent an hour by the end of the month.) Even in a crazy-busy time like last week, I found at least two minutes each day to work on charting Draft #2 or adding to my whiteboard notes. That the two minutes often stretched into half an hour or longer—that’s icing on the cake. (One day, I did only six minutes—but I did it.) If you’re frustrated with your inability to find long, luxurious blocks of time to your writing or whatever you love, I invite you to join the two-minute club. The progress may be slow, but it’s not as slow as doing nothing.

So with those three things—the encouragement that comes of knowing I really do know how to write, coupled with a tool that lets me sketch out what I have as well as what I need and permission to do a tiny bit at a time—I’m back in the game. The next step—integrating the whiteboard notes into the manuscript—feels daunting, but for the first time in a long time, it’s a good kind of daunting, the kind where your heart beats faster, partly from nerves and partly from exhilaration.

Besides, even if it’s a disaster, I only have to do it for two minutes.

Olivia, editor-in-chief of Tuxedo Cat Press, encouraging me to get back to work

8 thoughts on “Back to Work

  1. Congratulations on your break through! I use the corkboard in Scrivener during early drafts and move to a white board for finalizing. FYI, it wasn’t a matter of “fixing” the site but rather of finding a random stories plug-in that accomplished what we wanted when the previous plug-in was no longer compliant with WordPress upgrades.–Dee

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Dee! I used corkboard in Scrivener, but I didn’t like it as much as I expected. It’s good for moving sections around and seeing how things are (or aren’t) woven together, but for a longer work like a novel, it can’t show all the necessary bits at one time–the screen is simply too small. Plus, the whiteboard lets me move from text to ideas. I don’t outline before writing, but with my trusty whiteboard, I may try!

      P.S. Whatever the plug-in is, I’m glad you found it. I always enjoyed popping in when I had a few minutes to see what might be on the random list!


  2. Thanks for reminding me of the whiteboard; it is just what I need now. When I first set up my writing space, I put up some corkboards for my sticky notes and a whiteboard, but I have never used my whiteboard up to now.

    Liked by 1 person

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