The Making of a Story

The Making of a Story
Entry #000 – An Introduction

From John Steinbeck’s journal entry on January 29th, 1951 [Monday] as recorded in the book, Journal of a Novel

“Dear Pat: How did the time pass and how did it grow so late. Have we learned anything from the passage of time? Are we more mature, wiser, more perceptive, kinder? We have known each other now for centuries and still I remember the first time and the last time.”

“We come now to the book.”

January 4th, 2018, Entry #0

I will begin this next novel in the dark days of a Pennsylvania winter. Hopefully, by the time the summer sun stretches the hours into the longest day of the year, the first draft will be finished. I am aiming for 80,000 to 100,000 words (because the lower number is what’s in my contract), but how can you ever know how long it will take to tell a story?

First, let me tell you why I’m journaling my way through writing this next novel.

Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel has always fascinated me. It is made up of his morning writing exercises, the ones he wrote every day before working on his masterpiece, East of Eden. He wrote by hand, and he would write one journal entry on the left-side page, and then he would write one page of the novel on the right-hand side. I found the journal entries compelling in their honesty, but I have also been intrigued by the premise because of how deliberate and important the journal entries seem to him. I have often wondered if I need to slow down my writing, think more clearly about it, explicitly talk about what I’m trying to accomplish in each day’s words. I wonder if this will help me work through various issues surrounding the story.

So, that’s what I’m going to do. Or at least begin to try to do – I can’t guarantee I will finish it. I can’t promise that, once I begin, it will not feel more like an obstacle to the writing of this novel than otherwise. I guess we’ll see.

I am writing this particular entry, dubbed #0, as an introduction of sorts, explaining what I want to accomplish and what I’ve done up to this point. To bring you up to speed: I started work on this unnamed novel – I’ll have to come up with something better than “Unnamed Novel” for the purposes of this journal – about nine months ago, stumbling my way through the first 23,850 words. I say stumbling because I am learning this about myself, that when I start a story it emerges first from a character, and then from a trouble this character has. From there it lurches forward of its own accord for quite some time, but I know now from experience that I must begin guiding the lurching beast at some point or it will meander off into some dark and unrecoverable place. At the 23,000-word mark, I could tell it needed guidance. But it was also at that point that another project took my attention. I had to set this story aside all these months, but now it is the next book in line, and I am eager to write it.

This is not to say the last nine months have been without work on this story. It has simply been interior work. It is kind of a weary metaphor, perhaps overused in the world of creativity, but here it is, nonetheless: pregnancy comes to mind. The last nine months have been full of mostly unseen work, interior work. I have spent many hours, mostly while driving for Uber, thinking about this book, getting to know the characters and places and problems in my mind. The story has changed and solidified during this last nine months. It begins to feel less like a story I am making up than a story someone once told me, or a family tale passed down. I am ready to write it.

To clarify, for those who have been following my writing up until this point:

– My first novel, a YA book of magical realism, came out in September, 2017, and was called The Day the Angels Fell.

– The sequel to that book, The Edge of Over There, is already written and comes out July 3rd, 2018.

– A work of nonfiction that I wrote with the help of my Syrian refugee neighbor, called Once, We Were Strangers, releases just after that, in October of 2018.

Those three books are all written, so now I finally have time to work on this novel, which has no name and will come out in the summer of 2019.

Here are my goals – to write one, short journal entry and then to write at least 1,000 words in the story every weekday. Simple, right?

Come along on this journey, if you’d like, and I’ll send you the journal entries I write about writing. I won’t give too many details about the plot or the story itself (although I’m sure a few things will slip in). But I will talk about what I’m trying to accomplish with the development, pace, and all manner of other things having to do with writing this story. I’ll talk about where I’m writing and how it’s going. I’ll talk about how many times the children interrupt me and when I feel like the writing is no good and working past the voices in my head. I’ll probably talk about that last one a lot.

I’ll be emailing these out every morning as soon as I write them. Expect plenty of typos. And some entries that are boring or don’t make sense. And some that arrive first thing in the morning and others that hit your inbox at 10pm.

The Making of a Story
January 8th, 2018
Entry #001

Is there ever a perfect time to begin writing a novel?

For at least the last month or two, I had today, January 8th, earmarked as the day I would begin writing my next novel. Mondays and Fridays will always be difficult days for me to get my writing in – I’m in between co-writing jobs at the moment, which means I need to drive for Uber and Lyft on those two days to make some extra money. Feeding six children is no joke. But I planned on getting up early, writing my at-least-1000-words for the day, and then moving on to ridesharing.

Is there ever a perfect day to begin writing a novel?

Our younger two took longer than usual to fall asleep last night, so I didn’t fall asleep early, as planned. Leo was up multiple times in the night. My (ambitious for me) plan to wake up at five o’clock faded quickly. I had imagined the perfect morning – me, sitting in a quiet living room, children asleep, radiators hot, my fingers gliding over the keys. Instead it was a chaotic morning, making breakfast, waking up the older kids, folding laundry, and trying to get out the door to an 8:30am meeting with a friend.

Is there ever a perfect day to begin writing a novel?

I’ve never run a marathon, but is there ever a perfect day to run a marathon? Do you ever wake up to perfect temperatures, zero mental and emotional qualms, a body that feels ready, all after a perfect night’s sleep? I suppose it happens. I suppose there will be days that go perfectly during the writing of this novel. I suppose.

But this morning was a good reminder to me. I must fit the writing into not-so-perfect days. I must find a way to write through the self-doubt and hesitations. If I am going to write this novel, there can be precious few things I put ahead of it. So, even on a morning that doesn’t go as planned, I push everything else back. Everything else must wait until I get my words written for this day. This is the cost of writing a novel. This is the price I must be willing to pay for the next three to six months.

Now, I begin. And beginning a novel is one of the most wondrous things in the world.

The Making of a Story
January 9th, 2018
Entry #002

It’s only day two but I’m remembering some of the things I had forgotten since writing my last novel.

One of my favorite places to write these days is at the Copper Cup coffee shop on Columbia Avenue, here in Lancaster. Lots of windows. Good places to sit with my back facing a wall. Enough people to give it a good hum but not so many that it feels like a busy train station.

But what I’m remembering this morning about trying to write a novel is the Resistance (as written about by Pressfield in The War of Art). I hadn’t more than sat in my chair with my medium size hot tea milk no sugar when the Resistance began its work.

You should check Facebook.

I wonder what’s going on in the Twitter world.

Did you check your email yet? The bank might need something urgent for the home refinance.

You should call and confirm the meeting for tomorrow.

Don’t forget to pay that bill!

The obvious nature of this Resistance would be hilarious if it wasn’t so effective. I take a deep breath. I close all the tabs. Turn off my phone. I remind myself that there is nothing in my life right now so urgent that it cannot wait an hour or two while I write my words for the day. I remind myself that I want to write an unforgettable story, the best story I am capable of writing, and I know that my best shot at that comes in complete focus, daily immersion, and putting the story first.

* * * * *

Yesterday was a long day. After my writing time, I drove for Uber and Lyft for ten hours, got home around 9:30. I have a few blog posts I’ve been thinking about, and when I returned to a quiet house, I opened my laptop, preparing to write one of those posts. I stared at the screen. Then, I closed it, and I got into bed with a book.

This is one of the other things I’m remembering – when writing a novel, I have a certain number of words in me, and I have to be careful about how I use them. There are things I enjoy doing – blogging, social media – that I have to put on hold while I’m writing a novel. This is just for a time.

Again: complete focus, daily immersion, and putting the story first.

* * * * *

Today, I continue working through the chunk of words I wrote last year, updating them to fit the new vision for the book. I am enjoying what I wrote, and it will probably take me a few weeks to get through this section of pre-writing, but I am eager to write new words.

Deep breath. Down I go again.

The Making of a Story
January 10th, 2018
Entry #003

“A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.” Annie Dillard

I’m sitting at the Copper Cup, same seat, same music, same light jacket. I’m running a little late this morning, and I have to push down the anxiety that rises when I get a slow start to the day. There are so many things to do.

My brain has been a mess of worry the last 24 hours, not that there’s anything particularly new to worry about – just the same old, same old. I’m in between co-writing contracts, so that sort of ups the stress level. I’ll have to do my taxes soon. We’re trying to refinance our house to pay off debt and make some much-needed improvements.

I’ve learned that a good writing session for me is similar to trying to practice silence. Distracting thoughts will always try to gain my attention, but a good practice for the writer is to learn to shrug them off. Promise the worries you’ll get to them later, when you’re finished writing, or later tonight, when you’re trying to sleep. Anytime but now. Focus. Go down deep into the story.

In spite of the worry, I find encouragement in the fact that this is my third day and already the words are gathering momentum. This, I think, is the benefit of writing every day. You blink and you’re at 5,000 words, 10,000, 20,000. A month or two passes and suddenly you’re staring at the face of a novel in its infancy. It cannot yet walk on its own, but you see the beauty that’s there, and the potential.

Thank you for joining me on this journey. Writing is a lonely endeavor, at least for large chunks of time, and knowing these messages are finding someone else in the world does my heart good.

The Making of a Story
January 11th, 2018
Entry #004

It’s strange how I always remember where I am when the voices come calling.

This time, I was at the top of the stairs, about to go down and watch The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Maile and the kids. I paused for a moment – the hubbub of the house was all around me. And out of nowhere, I had this thought.

Oh, man. What if this novel I’m writing is really bad?

Just like that. A blip on the screen. A small seed planted. It settled into my gut, a sickening sensation. What if?

But after writing for this many years, I have had this conversation many times with this particular voice. I know now, at the age of 41, how to steer it. I know the difference between how I feel about a novel when I’m actually writing it and how I feel about a novel when I’m going about the rest of my life. There is a separation there that can sometimes lead to doubt, especially in the early days of a story.

But I also know this: it’s true. It might very well end up being a not-so-good novel. This, I think, is something all of us writers have to face. The way I get past that now is simply to reply, “Okay, sure, I might miss the mark with this one. But I will write another. And another. And another. And each one will get better. And in each one my writing will be stronger.” Then, I shrug, and let the voice go.

* * * * *

Today, I’m writing in the Copper Cup again. Same music (a Spotify list I created called “In the Beginning”). Same light jacket. Same drink as yesterday.

Writing is always the reward. The good reviews are nice, but they vanish so quickly. Book launch day is fun, when everyone is talking about your book, but those voices fade (all voices do). Getting the Christianity Today award was sensational, but that, too, is gone now, in the past. I think of Wallace Stegner’s words in the marvelous book, Crossing to Safety:

“Though I have been busy, perhaps overbusy, all my life, it seems to me now that I have accomplished little that matters, that the books have never come up to what was in my head, and that the rewards—the comfortable income, the public notice, the literary prizes, and the honorary degrees—have been tinsel, not what a grown man should be content with.”

All of those things sound quite nice, certainly like much more than tinsel, to a relatively young writer such as myself. But as I begin to experience a sliver of what Stegner talks about, I feel it is true. The truest thing. The writing itself is the only lasting reward. This is something the voices can never take away from us. 

The Making of a Story
January 12th, 2018
Entry #005

The worst part about playing soccer in college was the first day of preseason practice.

When we showed up to that very first practice at 6am, we were expected to run a 5-minute mile. That was it. Show up. Run. Go back to the dorm. If you made the mile in under five minutes, you proceeded as normal. If you didn’t run a sub-5-minute mile, you had to attend extra conditioning sessions each morning for the rest of preseason.

Our coach always gave us the same advice, and for my first two years, I completely ignored it. “Start at a reasonable pace,” he said quietly, “and then finish strong. Your last lap should be your fastest lap.”

This didn’t make any sense to me. I figured I would sprint as hard as I could for the first few laps, get a little bit ahead, and then, when I was dead tired in lap three or four, I could coast. But it doesn’t work that way. If you go 100% for the first lap, there’s nothing left. Nothing. Not even a jog. My first two years, laps three and four were my slowest, and I didn’t hit the mark.

Finally, during my junior year, I started slow. Everyone else took off, and I quickly fell far behind the group. But I was committed to this new strategy. I did my first lap in about 1:20. Lap two: 1:15 or so. Lap three: 1:13. I was passing everyone as they dropped off, exhausted from their frantic starts.

I ran my last lap in around 1:05. I only remember my finishing time: 4:52. I had run a mile under five minutes, and I had done it because of two things. I started at a reasonable pace, and I finished strong.

* * * * *

Fridays are hard for me when it comes to writing. I don’t have much left in the tank. Fridays are especially difficult now because that is the day I do a long Uber shift in Philadelphia. But Fridays are important – if I’m writing five days a week, my Friday production is 20% of the total. In a 100,000-word manuscript, that’s a difference of 20,000 words.

Now, there are ways to get around this – write a little more on the other days. Add some Saturday writing time. But I still want to get into the habit of finishing well, because if I want to write a novel I’m happy with, I’m going to have to finish well.

Back in the days when I didn’t finish the novels I started, I had much the same view of writing as I had once had of running. For the first week I would sporadically write huge chunks. 3,000 words. 4,000 words. 5,000 words in a day. But then I quickly burned out. My story’s energy lost the steam that builds up when I’m moving ahead slowly. Instead of leaving something to write the next day, I used it all up. Beginning each writing session became increasingly difficult.

Today I remind myself. Start nice and easy, and have the resolve to finish strong, whether that means writing on Fridays or finishing those last 10,000 words well or following through and engaging in multiple edits and revisions and reading the galleys one. last. time.

Finish well.

The Making of a Story
January 13th, 2018
Entry #006

Ever since I started writing, I love Mondays.

No matter how sporadic my production from the previous week, no matter the road blocks or discouragements, Mondays give us writers a chance to begin again. A new week to hit our targets. A new week to keep moving forward with this story. A new week, and maybe the week we write something breathtaking.

* * * * *

Over the weekend, and especially on Friday during the fifteen hours I was on the road driving for Uber in Philadelphia, I thought a lot about my main character. I knew what he wanted in the simplest sense – I knew the main thing driving the story forward. But I felt like there was something else, something deeper in him that I hadn’t unearthed yet. So I drove, and I spoke with passengers, and I listened to my writing mix, and I thought about my main character.

And as the miles passed and I drove those narrow alleys along boarded up houses in north Philly and southwest Philly, and as I drove upper-middle class people to expensive restaurants in Center City, I came to a pretty big realization. Not only is my main character concerned with the major event of chapter one; he is also concerned, and coming to grips with the concern, that he will make the same huge mistakes his father made. And his father made some doozies. Are the same weaknesses lying dormant in him?

I’m still thinking through this, but it’s a huge insight into why he has done what he’s done, why he’s become who he’s become.

* * * * *

Today, I will finish updating the words I wrote on this story last year (which takes me up to the 23,000-word mark). So, not a bad total for the first week! In reality, though, the hard (and fun) work lies ahead. Tomorrow I start writing brand new words. Tomorrow I start delving into areas of the story I’ve not yet written, ideas that, up until now, have only been floating around in my mind.

If you’re working on something right now, keep searching for deeper levels in your characters. And in yourself.

The Making of a Story
January 14th, 2018
Entry #007

Today is one of those days when skipping my daily writing session would be so easy.

An appraiser was supposed to come to our house this morning at 9:30 but he was running late. The kids co-op was canceled. I have to take the car to the shop at 2:30, and I have a call with an old friend and client who might want me to write a book with her. That’s at 3:00. When the appraiser didn’t show by ten, I left the house before he arrived, Maile gracious enough to oversee the house tour, and now I’m here at the Copper Cup and it’s already 10:30.

I struggle to write in a narrow window of time. I need space, like a dog preparing to sleep, to turn in circles a few times, move around a little, settle into the work. Writing times that come between bookends chafe at me. They make me irritable. I don’t write well when I’m irritable.

But I have become, in the last few years, paranoid about missing days after I start a new project. Perhaps overly so. Perhaps because, from experience, I know how quickly one missed day can turn into two, can turn into a week, and there goes the thread of the story, whisking around the corner like a flower petal in the wind.

Missed days, perhaps more than anything else, cause me to doubt the work. I have enough self-doubt as it is without knowingly inflicting it on myself in greater doses. So, today I will write my 1,000 words. I will spit them up knowing they may very well be erased later on. But something will stick. Something always does.

I know this is not true for everyone. In college, I had a professor who wrote every Saturday morning for three or four hours. This was her writing time, and she was able to sink down deep into it when it came around, each and every week.

But I know what works for me, and it is taking a daily swim through the imaginary world in my mind. This is crucial for me. It’s the daily practice that brings out the story.

Today’s work.

And the next day’s work.

And the next day’s work.

Writing, even when it would be easier not to. Writing, even when it doesn’t fit neatly into my life. Writing, even when I have every right to put it off until tomorrow. This is what has brought me this far in my writing life. It has not let me down.

The Making of a Story
January 17th, 2018
Entry #008

I have to slow down and ask myself, What else do you see?

James Street is covered in snow this morning, and cars creep along outside our house, red brake lights illuminating the gray air. Inside, the house is quiet. Maile and her mom left early on an adventure, taking the youngest kids with them. The only sounds are the ceiling fan slowly spinning, the radiators creaking as a new batch of hot water circulates, and the cars passing on James Street. Tires spinning in the snow. Horns beeping. Snow crunching like the sound of an icy river breaking up.

I am in bed, thinking about the scene I want to finish writing today. Yesterday ended up being a good writing day, in spite of what one of you referred to as my kvetching. A fair enough comment. Sometimes it takes me a fair amount of that to shed the layers of grime on my mind. Whatever the case, I wrote around 2,000 new words yesterday.

But as I think back through that scene, I realize I missed some things. When I slow down and review the scene in my mind, I realize there was a homeless man passing the main character before he turned to walk up the sidewalk. I’m realizing the main character had a mini-flashback as he approached the church, just a sentence or two in the story. I’m realizing more and more what his decision to practice a middle-of-the-night confession with his retired rector says about his state-of-mind.

And I am reminded, once again, to slow down. Pay closer attention. Look around the scene. I am reminded that this is the pace of my work: write it all down quickly, pause, revisit, go deeper.

I once read somewhere that Kurt Vonnegut’s writing practice went like this: work on one page, one page only, and when that page was finally perfect, move on to page two.


But that goes to show that everyone has their own practice, their own way of getting the story down that makes sense to them, so find yours, discover how you blaze a trail, and write accordingly.

The Making of a Story
January 18th, 2018
Entry #009

Writing is a solitary life, but it does not have to be a lonely life.

I’m sitting in a wonderful little cafe called Speckled Hen, in Strasburg, waiting for my good friend Caleb Wilde. It’s about 7am, and I’m going to try to get my fiction words written before he shows up at 8. It’s a cold, cold morning here in PA – the ground is covered in a layer of snow and ice and slush. The sun is rising slowly through a purple line of clouds, and the sky creeps from dark to light in that hopeful way new days sometimes do.

Waiting for Caleb, I’m thinking about the important role my writer friends have played in my life. I’m thinking of nearly ten years ago when Bryan Allain introduced me to blogging, or soon after that, when I met NYT Bestselling author Ira Wagler, and what an encouragement he has been to me. I think of my friendship with Seth and Ed and Andi and Sarah and Tim. The list goes on.

It’s important to surround yourself with other writers, but not just any writers. It’s important to surround yourself with writers who are really doing it and not just talking about doing it. I’m a firm believer that it’s easy to become the kind of writer you rub shoulders with, so find writer friends who take the art seriously, who are determined and who persevere.

Caleb has soared in recent years. His blog took off, his FB following spiked, and he recent released a beautiful book called Confessions of a Funeral Director. He’s dedicated to writing, to sharing his ideas. I’m honored that he is my friend.

* * * * *

Yesterday, the writing was hard. I think I wrote around 900 words in a few hours, and then I drove for Uber and had meetings with clients in the afternoon. As I mentioned before, I prefer wide-open days, but that is not life. No. And on some days, 900 words is itself a victory.

Most of us writers these days must find isolated hours or minutes to dedicate to the task. Few of us have days or weeks on end, clear of every other responsibility. Focus. Enter the story consistently. Day by day, it will emerge.

* * * * *

Finally, thank you for your kind notes and for sharing these posts with your friends. I’m so grateful that each one of you is coming along on this journey with me.

The Making of a Story
January 19th, 2018
Entry #010

Another Friday. Another day to plant seeds.

On the way to Copper Cup this morning, I turned on NPR, hoping to be distracted by an enjoyable conversation during the seven- or eight-minute commute. Instead, they were interviewing a US representative who had clearly had too much coffee and was convinced all the world’s problems were the result of the buffoons on the other side of the aisle. In the short fifteen to twenty seconds I listened, I felt my soul shriveling up under the weight of tension and anger. I quickly turned it off.

But even after I arrived at the cafe, I could still feel that ball of angst inside of me, so I turned to the Pray as You Go app. It’s a soothing ten or eleven minute submersion into peaceful music and encouraging words. I closed my eyes and listened.

The woman talked about the metaphor of the planted seed, doing its unseen work, eventually bearing unexpected amounts of fruit. “Unless a seed dies, it remains a single seed…”

* * * * *

A few years ago, when I started to dedicate myself more to the writing of fiction, I realized I’d have to dial back my blogging. This was hard for me to do because I thrive on positive feedback, and blogging gave this to me, instantaneously. Post a blog, share it on Facebook, and within a few minutes people would be commenting and liking and sharing. I suppose that was good for me at the time, but as I matured as a writer, I realized my reliance on that immediate feedback was stunting my progress.

Writing fiction gives no immediate feedback. It takes a long time to write a manuscript, sometimes longer to find an agent, shop it around, get a publisher. And it may not even happen. Writing a book is a lot of hidden work, for what?

But this was what I was called to do, so over the last few years my blogging has had to take a back seat to these writing days. This secret toil. These days of no feedback.

But the fruit. The fruit. Tenfold. One hundredfold.

Today, when the road ahead seems long, when I am less than a third of the way through the first draft, when I am feeling like maybe I bit off more than I can chew with the complexity of this novel, when the voices whisper that it might not be that good…today I plant an unseen seed of 1,000 words. And I will do the same every day next week, and the next, and the next, and I pray that circumstances will water it and it will grow, and if it does not, then I will start again with a new batch of seeds.

Keep doing the unseen work.


The Making of a Story
January 22nd, 2018
Entry #011

“I have often thought that this might be my last book. I don’t really mean that because I will be writing books until I die. But I want to write this one as though it were my last book. Maybe I believe that every book should be written that way.”
– John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel

Today, unless I experience a day of writing paralysis (which does happen from time to time), I will pass 30,000 words. Many of those words were written last year when I thought I was starting this novel, so it’s not that I’ve been on some kind of crazy-productive streak, but it’s still a good feeling. Landmarks like these remind me that 1,000 words a day will get me there.

Usually, I find Mondays invigorating, but I’m feeling the weight of too many other things to do. Projects to finish. My nonfiction book came back from the publisher this weekend, and I have extensive revisions to do. Of course, there is family life, which I can never get enough of. Maile and I have been pushing our relationship to the edges to make room for everything else – kids, work, school; fortunately, in a few weeks we’ll be in Nashville, just the two of us. We take what we can get, and we do the best with what we have. And the days keep ticking along.

Again, I am reminded that most of us who write do not have vast swathes of time to dedicate to the creation of these novels – we eek them out, an hour here, an hour there. 500 words here and 500 there. But I have found this to be true: when I do have extensive time to dedicate to writing something, when I have entire weeks to sit with one story, I am not that much more productive.

I love Steinbeck’s perspective in the quote above. He goes on to say that, when he wrote many of his books, he looked at them as practice for the one to come, but with this one, East of Eden, it was the one to come.

I feel that way about this novel. I have written so many books in my life, mostly for other people, and I want this to be the one. I want to take everything I’ve learned, every strategy, every tool, and apply it to this story. I’m certainly aiming high – I’m trying more in this story than I’ve ever tried before. Thematically. Structurally. So I take a deep breath and dive back in.


The Making of a Story
January 23rd, 2018
Entry #012

Most of the journey is not the beginning or the end. Most of the journey is the journey.

It’s a Tuesday in late January, and I’m feeling very much in the long, dark middle of writing this book. I should probably time the writing of my novels so that the middle comes in the summer with its brilliant, bright days, but I have a hunch that even then the middle would still feel like the middle.

When writing a book, I think a lot about Frodo’s journey from the Shire to Mount Doom. I remember how his setting out is filled with wonderful thoughts of adventure, heady visions of the places this journey might take him. And the end! Scaling Mount Doom, the ring in his hand, the impossible completion of his mission so close. So close!

But most of all, when writing a novel, the part of Frodo’s journey I can relate with are the long, middle days. The endless hiking from Bree to the mountains, the long road through forests and hills, the winding paths through the swamp, lost in the mountains around Mordor. The middle part of writing a novel is full of so many of these unremarkable days. Another 1,000 words. Another 1,000 words. Another 1,000 words.

Somehow, on this journey from 30,000 to 40,000 to 50,000 words (and so on), we have reenter the story every day. We have to, again and again, find the thread of urgency hidden in each of the characters. We have to continue unraveling the plot to completion. We have to keep asking ourselves the deeper questions: Why is he doing that? What does she really want? Where is this all leading?

* * * * *

Today, I’m bringing a scene to completion, a scene that propels one of the more important threads of the plot line. It is important that I do not rush it. It is important to listen to the dialogue, to listen to the characters, to let them do what they will and not what I would have them do.

It is important to enjoy these middle days, because they are what makes up the bulk of this thing we call the writing life.


The Making of a Story
January 24th, 2018
Entry #013

I used to think of my writing time as the time I spent writing. No more.

January mornings here on James Street are quiet these days. We have decided not to move, which is an entire post (or book) in and of itself. Our older four kids would sleep until noon if we let them, and our youngest two are finally finding some kind of sleeping rhythm. When I think of January, I think of the color gray. Filtered light. Dark nights. Here we are, in the dim and the quiet, but we are emerging.

Yesterday, I wrote in the morning, and then I drove for Uber and Lyft from around noon until 9pm. I have so much work to do, but I also have groceries to buy, bills to pay, etc etc etc. It’s a busy time of life and, let’s be honest, it would be easier if I wasn’t writing, if I was solely focused on making money. Well, some things would be easier, and other things would be harder.

Most of the day, in between fares, I thought about the scene I had just finished. Or thought I had finished. But there was something I had missed. I just knew it. As I thought through it over and over again, I realized what it was – the main character has a realization as he’s walking out of the hospital room. It wasn’t anything huge. But it is important.

I guess this might feel like silly little story about something that adds up to about 100 words in the book. But here’s the real point: don’t fight it when the story starts to infiltrate the rest of your life. The more you do, the easier your writing time will become. The more you listen, the more you’ll see what’s going on.

I know some folks carry a notebook with them religiously to make sure they don’t forget the ideas that come to them in the night, or when they’re walking home, or when they’re making dinner, or when they’re standing in line at the grocery. I’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work for me. I forget to take the notebook with me half the time, and the other half of the time I can’t remember where I put it once I’ve written ideas down.

So, when I have a new idea, I latch on to it, I tumble it around in my mind for as long as I can – five minutes, an hour, the rest of the day. I’m very stubborn about this. Sometimes, Maile will be talking to me and she’ll say something like, “Are you listening to me? Where are you?” and then I have to fill her in on the terrible meanderings of my mind. But I figure if it’s a good enough idea, I won’t forget it. This is probably faulty thinking. But at my age, I’m okay with that.


The Making of a Story
January 25th, 2018
Entry #014

I don’t think of myself as a particularly obsessive personality.

But I have to admit, there is a certain low-grade anxiety that simmers when I walk into whatever coffee shop I’m working at for the morning and realize all my favorite seats are taken. The ones where I can put my back to the wall. Where I’m not sitting in the middle of open spaces. I’m chewing my fingernails at this very moment, sitting in a seat I don’t like, trying to rid myself of this nagging thing, like a tiny pebble in a shoe I don’t have time to take off.

Is it too much to ask these coffee shops to cordon off one seat for me? I’m not kidding.

* * * * *

1,300 words yesterday. About the same as the day before. 1,100 or so on Monday. Creeping along, but moving nonetheless.

Still, last night as I was thinking about this book in the middle of playing football in the living room with the boys, I had the sense that I am not moving fast enough. Fast isn’t the right word. I don’t think one should write “fast.” Yet, I know something isn’t right, for me, moving at this pace.

I think it’s because I realize I’m thinking too much. I’m being a little too deliberate, especially for a first draft. I have to remind myself that this is, as Anne Lamott calls it, the “down draft.” Just get it down. I don’t have the sense that I’m building momentum, something so important in this phase, and I think it’s simply because I’m being too careful.

* * * * *

As always, these are reflections on my writing, not yours. You might find 250 words a day to be a heady speed. You might find 3,000 words a day a tortoise’s pace. For me, in this section of the book, 1,000 words a day feels stagnate.

The point is, find the right pace for you.

* * * * *

A good seat just opened up! Hallelujah.


The Making of a Story
January 26th, 2018
Entry #015

“This is a sad day at the beginning. There is no telling what kind of a day it will end up. A sadness I can’t write down although I know what it comes from. It is Friday. You know I had planned to take Saturdays and Sundays away from manuscript. But I don’t know. Maybe it would be good to do a part of a day’s work on Saturday. We’ll just have to see. Maybe two days off would lose the work rhythm. It is surely something to think about.”

John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel

Today marks fifteen week days in a row that I’ve worked on this story, and it does start to build a rhythm, a gradual sort of momentum in the mind. It feels like descending on a deep-sea dive and exploring an underwater ship – skip a day, and it’s like rising to the surface, so that when you go back down you have to rediscover your way through the ship. Consecutive writing days, for me, are like never coming up.

I’ve noticed, too, the more consecutive days that I work on a project, the more thoughts of that story infiltrate my normal life. Last night at Abra’s swimming practice, I found myself thinking of things I wrote that I needed to adjust before I could move on. There’s a particular piece of dialogue that didn’t do a new character justice, and there was an action scene I moved through far too quickly. Now, I am reticent to tidy up the tracks I make until the manuscript is finished but these are major things I don’t want to forget, not fine-tuning. Going back does slow down the work, so today will most likely not be a high-word-count day, but I cannot always go by that. Today is a day for deepening the narrative.

Yesterday, I spoke with a local fruit farmer about the nature of work, the sacredness of paying attention, and, as I think more about it, I think there is redemptive power in being mindful of our work. Any work at all can become sacred, if we take the time to ask big questions, see the details around us, pay attention to how things are connected.

I hope you are paying attention to the work you are doing. I hope you can find the capacity to be mindful of whatever it is you do: writing or parenting or farming or running a business. There are big questions all around us. There are connections to be found that bring us deeper into our own lives.


The Making of a Story
January 29th, 2018
Entry #016

Your creative work might not generate much money or make you famous, but it could be the most important thing you do today.

At least, this is what I wanted to write about today, but my primary goal in writing these journal entries is honesty (or at least that’s one of my primary goals), and I can’t, on this particular morning, gush to you about the importance of creativity when I’m flush with my own creative doubts.

I have been co-writing and ghostwriting books for the last eight years. I left a business at the end of 2009 that was drowning in debt and clawed my way into this writing life. The transition was not easy. Of those eight years, there were probably three that were financially stress-free, years when I had more projects than I knew what to do with and our bank account was full. There have been two or three years that puttered along on the edge of the cliff, years when we stared down into the abyss and thought, uh-oh. And there have two or three years that took Maile and I into a seriously difficult place, where we had to make tough choices and pay for groceries from our change jar and use our credit cards more than we wanted to.

Again, just an honest post here.

The end of last year and the beginning of this year finds me, once again, in between projects, waiting for something to begin. I signed a nice contract for two new novels with Revell, coming out in 2020 and 2021 (yay! exciting!), but of course that advance is mostly going towards debt and paying our taxes. We are not at the end of our rope, as we have been in prior years, but our feet have reached the knot at the bottom.

All of that said, I am not drowning in worry. To be honest, I don’t think about it often. I guess I’ve grown used to it. Yet, whenever we reach this stage of the roller coaster, I start to question the path we’ve chosen: should I look for a “real job”? Would my family benefit from a more consistent income? Would life be easier that way?

Why am I telling you all of this? Because in the middle of it all, a novel. In the middle of it all, a story. This is what it looks like to write, and if you think you’ll write your novel when life calms down or when finances aren’t so tight or your kids are older or your not so busy, I’m afraid to say that you will probably never write your novel. Because other things will always come along. There are always other things.

You can do it. You can find 30 minutes a day to write a few hundred words. 300 words a day, and you’ll have a first draft in a year. I know you can do it. I know I can do it. Today, we recommit to the creative work. Today, we get our words down.


The Making of a Story
January 30th, 2018
Entry #017

“There won’t be a great deal of dawdling today. I may even go over my quota so that I can go and look at dining-room tables tomorrow. We are eating on a serving table that bumps my knees pretty badly. And we stick up card tables, too. I’m just about to start now…And now I am ready to go to work.”

John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel

I’m writing at home today, and in order to get that quote out of Steinbeck’s book, I had to use one of Sam’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to hold the pages apart. It’s funny to think of Steinbeck (shall we call him John?) having all of these everyday sorts of worries while writing arguably one of the best novels of all time. East of Eden was majestic in its scope, sweeping in its setting, contained one of the most evil characters in literature (along with one of the most endearing), and yet…John is concerned about a dining room table that bumps up against his knees.

I keep coming back to this idea during the writing of my own work: a novel can grow in the midst of the most ordinary of lives. The city has taught me this. Here, volunteer tomato plants come up every summer out of our compost; tiny trees take root in sidewalk crevices; reaching squash vines climb along our alley every year.

I have been taken by stories of authors like Annie Dillard, writing their works in secluded cabins along crashing shores. I was starstruck by the image of Marilynne Robinson’s study, with its oversize windows looking out over a lake. Maybe someday. But today I find hope in the image of East of Eden growing quietly in this house John had just moved to, in the midst of entertaining friends and buying furniture.

A novel needs remarkably little space to grow – what it cannot do without is the seed, and some room, and a bit of regular light.

* * * * *

I may cross the 40,000-word mark today. At the end of last week, I started to see how the beginning is connecting with the end I have in mind. It reminded me of being a child and tunneling in the snow, my friends digging on the opposite side of the drift, and finally seeing one of their fists come through the snow wall. Now it is time to round out the tunnel, make sure the connecting point is smooth, and keep moving along to the far side.

There is always a light, if you keep writing.


The Making of a Story
January 31st, 2018
Entry #018

I have a very strong sense that there’s something I’m not seeing right now.

There’s something about one of my characters that I don’t know yet. I don’t know how I know this, but this sense is growing stronger in me by the day. And as I think through each character (the main character, his father, his childhood friends), I think I know who it is. I think it’s the older sister.

I had an important realization about a different character earlier this week, a realization that didn’t change the climax but certainly had a big impact on it. But the older sister. She is still not three-dimensional enough. She is still a placeholder. I have to think more about her in my non-writing hours and listen to what she has to tell me.

This is the challenge, I think, in writing a novel. Maybe it’s the challenge in writing any book. We might think we know what’s going to happen, what everyone is going to do, what the right direction is, but we always have to be asking, probing, insisting that there is more. Because there is always more.

* * * * *

It is freezing cold here in Lancaster today. I’m aching for spring. Maile and I head south next week, to Charlotte and then Nashville. Hopefully, we’ll get some warmer temps there.

But, if I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that the seasons come and go exactly as they should. I need to enjoy this season while it’s here – the literal season of the year as well as this current season of slowness, of homeschooling our children (we’re sending our kids to school in the fall), of having babies in the house. All of it is happening in its time.

Which applies to book-writing, too. I’m in the difficult middle, but I have to embrace this season, keep focusing, keep giving it my best. Keep moving forward, 1,000 words at a time.

What season are you in?


The Making of a Story
February 1st, 2018
Entry #019

Organizing the structure will sometimes give you the freedom to write in a less linear way.

Last night I drove for Uber and Lyft until around 8:00 p.m. Driving at night brings me both happiness and regret: I love cruising the city streets at night, listening to good music, and seeing people out and about. But when I’m driving at night, I miss being with my family. The evening is a special time in our house, even more so now that our oldest two aren’t always home, and I miss hanging out with the kids, talking quietly with Maile, and running through the bedtime chaos with everyone.

But, I was driving. It was a cold night, and I thought it would be busier than it was. Still, the sidewalks were empty and I ended up parking a lot, pulling my laptop out from under my seat, and writing. I also played my writing playlist while I drove, something I don’t normally do, because I wanted to remind myself to be thinking about the story and the older sister and what I was missing.

While I didn’t necessarily have a revelation about her character, or who she is as a person, I did have a revelation about something she does in the story, a kind of missing piece that fits so nicely into what the story is trying to accomplish. I’m looking forward to writing that scene today, even though it’s not next in the timeline.

Whenever I write out of order, I do it very reverentially, and I carry the story very loosely. Writing out of order gives the writer a certain freedom–that scene doesn’t have to follow on from the previous one, and it’s this freedom that will often lead to some kind of fresh insight. But writing out of order, for me, can also be a wild and unruly thing, and if I’m not careful it can lead to disjointed story lines and events that feel shoehorned in.

One way to avoid a story full of seams when I’m writing out of order is by maintaining a capital O Order. The other evening I created a timeline on a spreadsheet, first of the story, and then of the events themselves. This now allows me to jump around in my writing because I can see where each scene fits into the bigger picture.

I’ve not written out of order much before, not on a first draft, so this is another way to experiment, another way to see if this is something that works for me.

* * * * *

I know some of you read this for the more nebulous writing encouragement, so I hope today wasn’t too practical only for fiction writers. I’ll see if I can return to my Stuart Smalley self tomorrow.


The Making of a Story
February 2nd, 2018
Entry #020

I’m not sure how much writing I’ll do next week, and that scares me.

I’m kind of cheating with this one, having my Friday writing time so late on Thursday, but tomorrow is going to be busy. Busy. So I’m getting my words in tonight.

* * * * *

Next week, Maile and I are going to Charlotte, dropping the kids with her parents, and then heading to Nashville where Maile can write her heart out and I can meet with a client about a potential co-writing project. We are both looking forward to this trip so much. It’s the first time we’ll be away together since I can’t remember when.

What scares me about next week is that I have to work on revisions for my nonfiction book coming out this fall, Once We Were Strangers, and I’m pretty sure these revisions, along with everything else in my life, are going to leave me very little time to work on this novel. The thought of taking a week off from this novel sends a shiver of panic through me. Things are ticking along so well right now, and I don’t want to lose the thread. I don’t want to lose the thread. But my nonfiction book deserves a thorough revision, so it’s a chance I have to take.

* * * * *

This morning I worked a little bit on a scene where the main character, in his boyhood, is talking with his hungover father in their dark living room at night. There’s a deep sense of disconnection between them, and a strong desire by the boy for his father to make more of an effort.

While writing the scene, I started to feel like it might end up being a throwaway – one of those scenes I kind of stumble through and a few days later read back over and dislike. Delete. But when I finished writing it I had this sudden flash of insight.

I was actually writing about me and God. I was the little boy, the one remembering better days, the one who found his father feeling far away, disinterested, quiet and not listening. The father was God. When I realized what was going on, a whole new depth opened up to me with these characters. It was one of those amazing writing moments when I had to sit back and shake my head. It’s amazing how it all comes together, how it can rise up from the deepest parts of you.

* * * * *

So we’ll see how next week goes. Maybe you’ll hear from me, maybe you won’t. But I will be back.


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