Posts about The Writing Life

Nano Prep #2: Structure

Hello, internet buddies! Let’s continue our NaNoWriMo prep today with this question: What is a story? Well, even if you can’t verbalize the answer, you know it intuitively because you’ve been hearing stories all your life! Stories are narratives that follow a familiar structure, and coming up with your story structure is your nanowrimo homework of the week.

Here’s one example of a story structure. This one is called the Story Circle , and it’s been popularized over the last few years by television writer Dan Harmon.

The Story Circle

1. Character begins in a zone of comfort.
2. But they want something.
3. So they enter an unfamiliar situation.
4. They adapt to it.
5. And get what they wanted.
6. But pay a heavy price.
7. Then they return to a familiar situation.
8. Having changed.

In my most recent novel, The Assistant , what Jessica Warne wants more than anything is to gain respect, stability, and financial security. She’s somewhat representative of the Millennial generation, in that she’s smart and hard working while also being deeply in debt, underutilized, and stuck in a shitty job with few prospects. So when she gets a job offer from a high end staffing firm that offers her huge pay, big challenges, and an all-expenses paid makeover, she’s over the moon! Finally, she’s been given the opportunity to prove her skills and become a successful adult. The Duke Agency offers Jessica a path to what she wants, but what will joining the agency cost her? That question is the entry point to the Emerald City Spies series.

In fact, I wrote one story circle for that series as a whole, and smaller story circles for each novel within the series. The story circles fit together like LEGO blocks, and I find that to be a satisfying way of holding a narrative together.

Not a fan of the story circle? Here’s another sample story structure that I found online and jotted down a while ago. (I don’t know who came up with it, but I’ll update this post if I can find the original source.)

In order to [Avoid Problem] a [Flawed Character] must [Try To Achieve Goal] but when [Complication] they realize they must overcome [Antagonist] and [Personal Flaw] by [Action] before [Deadline].

Nice and compact, right? But you can see how all the big elements of the story are contained within that structure. Have you noticed that stories usually contain both an antagonist (external enemy) and a character flaw (internal enemy)? Perfect characters are dull, and stories that moralize about personal growth without real-world consequences are also dull. That’s why most stories contain both character growth and an external threat of some kind. Those elements work together to create a satisfying story.

For those who like lots of detail, you can find [story spreadsheets on Jami Gold’s website][5] that contain more detailed templates for story structures. They’re a great resource, but personally I prefer to keep my structure loose at this stage to give myself lots of room to play as I’m drafting the story. But feel free to check the worksheets out if the structures I laid out above feel too vague. I’m also a big fan of Libby Hawker’s short book on structure: Take Off Your Pants.

It might feel too early to outline your book, and that’s fine. For now, I want you thinking big picture.

Things to Keep in Mind

A few general tips as you add some backbone to your story: Stories are built on conflict. So one way to think about a story is that your job as a writer is to get your character up in a tree, throw rocks a them, and have them figure out how to get out of that tree. Your character will probably have a goal of some kind, and they’ll try multiple times to achieve that goal, failing at first, but eventually succeeding. It’s normal for your characters to have multiple cycles of trying to reach the goal, failing, then trying again. If it’s too easy for them, it might not be an interesting story. If you like, you can brainstorm some ideas now. Or not! It’s entirely up to you.

Character tries X, but is blocked by A.
Character tries Y, but is blocked by B.
Character tries Z, and succeeds.

And here’s an important bit: you don’t need to follow any story structure template to the letter! You might use the story circle, for example, but skip one of the steps. This isn’t paint by number, so feel free to go outside the lines so long as what you’re making takes the general shape of a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Let’s Get Ready for Nano!

To recap, here’s your suggested homework for the week: Take your story idea from last week and apply some structure to it. Use big, broad strokes, and think about how your story will flow. Where does your main character begin? What is their goal? What will be their main plan to reach that goal? Where will they fall down? And how will they be changed by the time your reader reaches the final page?

Think it through, and jot down some notes, but don’t stress if you feel it’s too early to make these decisions. Some writers like to go into their story completely planless, and you might be one of them. But for me, having a loose structure defined stops me from flailing too much during the first draft, so I encourage you to think those questions through.

Next time, we’ll do some time-saving prep work as we tackle Characters, Point of View, and Setting.

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Nano Prep #1: The Idea

Happy Friday! Today’s post is about preparing for National Novel Writing Month . Our first step in preparation is to come up with an idea for the story. Your idea doesn’t have to be detailed at this point, but it does help to have a basic notion of what your story will be about.

Choosing a Story Idea

How do you know you’ve got a good story idea? Well, it’s less about originality than it is about the way it makes you feel. The truth is, there are a zillion different stories you might write, and very few stories are based on an original concept. Two authors could choose an identical idea, but in the process of writing, their books would differ because their life experiences, preferences, and inner voice are all different. The trick to picking a good story idea is finding one that makes you feel excited and curious. You’ll be spending lots of time on your story, so you want it to be the kind of story that will continue to draw you in.

Here are a handful of story ideas that I pulled out of my brain:

Halfway into a three-year journey, the leader of a colony ship discovers the planet they’re headed toward has been destroyed. In fact, several planets have disappeared off the charts over the last twelve months. And whatever is taking out planets is moving slowly toward Earth. Unfortunately, this colony ship is full of criminals, and the Earth Defense Forces will blow them out of the sky if they dare to turn back…

A teenage girl falls in love with her best friend’s boyfriend, and he with her. But her best friend is very sick with a terminal disease, and the love besotted teens are determined to give their sick friend the best senior year possible.

Take the basic story from Romeo and Juliet and write it from the perspective of an envious servant who deviously pushes the pair toward suicide while making them think it was their own idea. But they fake their deaths as a way of catching her in the act, and the servant goes to prison. Then the Romeo and Juliet characters live happily ever after.

Tell a poltergeist story but it’s a coffee roasting facility that’s haunted and all the beans that go out are cursed. Whenever someone drinks coffee made from the cursed beans they make bad choices that echo the terrible crimes committed in the coffee roasting facility many years prior.

I jotted down those ideas above at random. But the first story idea on my list is probably the best one. Why? Because it invokes my curiosity. Who are these criminals? Where were they headed? What is destroying planets? What will they decide to do? Any idea that opens a lot of doors is usually a fun one to write about. But all those ideas above are workable. Because I’m continuing an existing series, I did the brainstorming process with my current heroine, and came up with an idea for her next mystery: The Case of the Karaoke Killer.  That’ll be my book for November, unless I change my mind between now and then.

So if you’re [half-assing Nano with me next month][1], I suggest you spend time this week writing out story ideas. Cast a wide net! Make a list of five or ten ideas, then pick one that you’ll enjoy spending time with.

If you’re feeling stuck, you could do worse than to put a new twist on a story you already know and love. Want to write a story that’s like Buffy the Vampire Slayer IN SPACE? Or how about some Game of Thrones-style political intrigue but with cyberpunk war machines instead of dragons? Mixing and matching can be a fun way to brainstorm new ideas.

Next week, we’ll take your idea a step further.

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Let’s Half-Ass NaNoWriMo Together

Happy October!

If you’re a writer, or if you’d like to be, you’re  hereby invited to half-ass National Novel Writing Month with me. Nanowrimo is an annual event where writers all over the world attempt to finish a novel (or 50,000 words) in the month of November. It’s a fun time to work on a writing project because there are several thousand other people working towards the same goal.

I’ve never officially “won” Nano, but it’s fun to participate, and most of my Nano projects were completed and published after the fact. The only problem with Nanowrimo (in my opinion) is that the standard goal of 50k words in 30 days isn’t practical for most people- especially those with full-time jobs, family obligations, and the all the writers who feel creatively blocked under rising pressure. Falling behind on your word count is super discouraging if you believe the 50,000 word number is all that matters, and it sucks when new writers feel discouraged for no good reason.

My solution? Let’s half-ass Nanowrimo! We can set our own goals, have fun, participate, and hold the whole thing lightly.

I think I’ll write my second cruise ship mystery in November. I estimate it will be a 40,000 word project, but in the end it will be as long as it needs to be. And for the rest of October I’ll send out a short blog post each week about preparing for Nanowrimo. If you want to, you’re welcome to follow along. Then in November we’ll be ready to half-ass our dreams.

When it comes to the arts, there’s this really tricky line between taking your art seriously and being so regimented that you smother the joy right out of it. The former is good, and the latter is bad, but too often they feel like the same thing. My hope for this Nanowrimo is that we can give ourselves permission to take our writing aspirations seriously without smothering the flame under too many expectations.

So consider yourself invited. ☺️

More posts in this series: Nano Prep #1: The Idea , Nano Prep #2: Structure, Nano Prep #3: Character, POV, & Setting , Nano Prep #4: Beat Sheets

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Letters: Getting Unstuck

Today’s post is about overcoming problems during the writing process.

Dear Future Cheri,

Hey! How’s it going? I’m sending you this letter to remind you what to do when you’re stuck writing the same few chapters over and over again. Sometimes we beat our head against a too-familiar brick wall, and this particular wall has a head-shaped dent in it! So here are some helpful reminders for the next time it happens:

Why You’re Spinning Your Wheels

If you’re rewriting the same section of your book repeatedly, it’s probably due to one or more of the following problems:

1) You’re not setting aside enough consecutive writing days.

When you take too many days off, you lose track of your story, and you’re constantly reviewing old material instead of moving forward.

2) You don’t have enough plot details in your head.

Sometimes, you’re able to sit down and write the story organically. But other times, especially when you’re in the middle of the book, you you feel lost because the vision in your head isn’t detailed enough.

3) You’re bored with what you’re writing.

It’s possible that what you’ve come up with simply isn’t exciting enough, and no matter how well you write those chapters, they’re gonna seem wrong.

Specific Things to Do

Here are some things to try when you’re stuck:

  1. Schedule at least 4 consecutive writing days.
  2. Take a walk and/or a nap, and visualize the story. What are the images/emotions you need to create?
  3. Ask “is this part of the story exciting enough?” and “are the stakes high enough?”
  4. Go big picture! Review your high-level story outline. Does it still feel right? If not, update it.
  5. Go small picture! Ask “am I clear on the purpose of this chapter and what it needs to accomplish?”
  6. If the story still feels vague, use notecards to outline/construct the section you’re working on.

What Not to Do

  1. Don’t force another rewrite. Wait until you know what to write and you feel excited about what you’ve come up with.
  2. Don’t feel like you need to solve the problem in a day.
  3. Don’t start a new project. Instead, keep your mind focused on the issue at hand even if you’re “not writing.” Word count isn’t always synonymous with progress.
  4. Don’t rely upon logic too much. Keep asking good questions, and let your subconscious work.

Most importantly, future Cheri, don’t view these “stuck days” as negative, because when you notice that you’re stuck, it’s great! Noticing stuckness means you’ve encountered a tangle in your story, and untangling those knots is an essential part of the job. So instead of getting frustrated, get curious.

Keep on going. You’ve got this!

Your friend,

Past Cheri

The Night Muse

Five years ago, on my birthday, Litreactor published an essay by Peter Derk called The Pleasures of Writing at Night. I’ve read it several times now because it makes me laugh.

Pleasure is a feeling, and feelings aren’t always based in science. Feeling something and knowing something are two different things. It’s why the Black Eyed Peas say “I got a feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night” instead of “I got scientific evidence that backs my thesis, which is that tonight will be a quantifiably good night.” Although we ARE talking about a band that did a song called “Let’s Get Retarded” so I’m probably not using the best example.


With late coffee, in the afternoon or the evening, it’s not even night and already you are living a different life. Outside the law of men.

Ha! Indeed. Writing after dark can be a delight.

Writing at Night

I love working at night because the world is quiet, dark, and still. We live in a one-room studio in the center of a noisy city, so eleven at night to three in the morning is the best time to find that serene environment.

Of course, staying up until three a.m. can wreak havoc on one’s schedule. I’ve tried napping mid-day to take the edge off my daytime bleariness, but that doesn’t work. The spirit is willing but my brain requires a solid chunk of slumber.

More recently I’ve had some success in splitting my writing across two sessions, afternoon and late evening, with my second session done by 1am so I can sleep from 2am-10am. That’s my compromise schedule. Late enough to embrace the night, not so late that I disappear from the daylight world entirely.

At night, I sit at my keyboard (or journal) with only the soft glow of a computer monitor or a single book light to bring my focus down to a small area. It’s far easier to see imaginary worlds in the dark.

The Night Muse

First you get as comfy as you can in your chair, and then you turn out all the lights, and you sit very still, and you wait for The Night Muse to arrive. Then she whispers something in your ear, a little hint, and you chase-chase-chase it until next thing you know it’s two in the morning and your eyes won’t stay open. It’s fun to chase the story! It flows!

But I’m not claiming this routine is a practical one. At all. It takes up a lot of time. And each writer has to figure out what works for them.

So much advice given to writers seems to consists of routines. So-and-so writes every morning while chain smoking menthols, while that other bestseller writes every morning and then takes a brisk walk. The implication is that if famous writer does X, perhaps you should do X too. This type of advice strikes me as entirely useless.

It amuses me to imagine a podcaster, Tim Ferris probably, interviewing Picasso and asking him to detail his daily routine and what brand of paintbrush he uses.

To which I hope Picasso would say: I’m freakin’ Picasso, dude. Hand me some old Q-tips and silly string I’ll make something that’ll blow your damn pants right off.

Whenever I hang out with the Night Muse, she reminds me that an optimized writing routine isn’t what I want or need. Instead, what I love most is staying up half the night chasing a story around dark corners, letting it surprise me. And once in a while, when the words flow real easy, I want to keep at it for as long as I can and then crawl into bed just before sunrise, my eyelids heavy and my hair a wild tangle, feeling like I’ve barely escaped from some parallel universe. Passion is what makes night writing such a joy. And passion is easier to come by under the cover of darkness.

Whenever I have a night like that, I feel exhausted the next day. But also very happy.

Some things are worth losing sleep over. For me, a good writing session is definitely one of them. 🙂

Writing with Pen and Paper

Last month, I watched Tim Ferris interview Neil Gaiman , and they discussed Gaiman’s habit of writing his first drafts by hand in a notebook, using a fountain pen. Here’s a snippet from that interview:

“If you’re writing on a computer, you’ll think of the sort of thing that you mean, and then write that down and look at it and then fiddle with it and get it to be the thing that you mean. If you’re writing in fountain pen, if you do that, you just wind up with a page covered with crossings out, so it’s actually so much easier to just think a little bit more. You slow up a bit, but you’re thinking the sentence through to the end, and then you start writing.”

I already journal by hand, and it hasn’t escaped me how I feel better connected to the creative part of my mind when I’m working with a pen and paper instead of a keyboard. So I wondered: Perhaps I should give Gaiman’s approach a try?

Although I was afraid my hand would get tired, and my handwriting would be illegible, it turns out that I love writing fiction by hand. Not only is it fun, but it comes with all these weird bonuses you don’t get when working on a computer. Like Gaiman suggested, hand writing forces me to slow down and think before filling up a page, and therefore I’m less inclined to drop waste-words on the screen and waste even more time fiddling with them. Additionally, seeing the story in my mind’s eye is far easier when I’m using a pen. I don’t know why, but I’ll run with it! And I love the way writing in a journal makes my first draft feel entirely private, much more so than when I work on a screen. There are no distractions inside a paper journal, and no notifications jumping out to fuck with you.

Hand writing also prevents me from slowing down too much during the drafting process. Tweaking sentences as I go would leave a fat mess on the page, so hand writing forces me to wait for the second draft before I edit. That’s when I’ll shift the story from paper to the screen. I might be moving more slowly when writing by hand, but at least I’m continually moving forward, not backward.

So far, I’ve only found two downsides to going old-school. I’m a bit paranoid about losing one of my journals, given that paper doesn’t lend itself to automatic backups. (eep!) And my hand does get tired (and my handwriting gets sloppier) after 1000 words or so. In practice, this means I’ll break up my writing across more than one session. That’s not bad, just different.

It’s fun to select a journal that fits your story. For example, I’m writing a “cupcake cozy” in glittery blue ink inside a floral-print journal, while my next spy novel is in a sleek wine-colored Leuchtermm. Meanwhile, my witchy novel is in a black journal with a stained-glass appearance. Instead of living as “files” on my computer, the manuscripts themselves become colorful and unique, they feel like toys in my toybox, ready to be picked up and played with. And the more I get into the hand writing, the more I begin to embellish, adding small sketches to help me work out a setting, or making notes about cover art. I’m so used to typing that it’s taken me a while to remember paper is non-linear. I can write AND draw AND make notes. It’s all there in one place.

Huzzah for experimentation! I didn’t think I’d enjoy working by hand, but it’s been great.