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Friday, September 23, 2016

Finding Your Way

                                   by Dana McNeely

Soon after I obtained my driver’s license, I learned the most ominous words in the English language. As I prepared to embark on my first cross-town errand, my mom rattled off directions involving cross streets, stop signs, and a fire hydrant on the corner. She closed with these words, which first inspired confidence, later fear:

You can’t miss it.

In writing, as in the rest of life, you can indeed get lost. Not everyone has a finely honed sense of direction, but if you get lost, you can find your way again! I struggle with plot. You may struggle with characterization, pacing, or dialogue. Writing workshops and craft books can inspire and guide our writing journey, but they can also overwhelm us. This is when we need to stop, breathe, and think about how we do our other work - our day job, caring for our family, planning a get-together with friends. We plan. We make lists. If we need  something, we go out and get it.

The Germ of an Idea

Ideas sneak up on us like a sports car in our blindspot. Pull over, grab your notebook, and write the complete idea - everything in your brain at that moment. Don’t just write “green hedgehog” because later, you’ll have no idea what that meant. Next, sit down and explore that idea. Make lists of things that might happen, where they happen, and who they happen to. Think about your main character, her friends, and her opponents. What are the worlds she lives in? There are probably more than one - her home and neighborhood, her work, where she goes for fun. What are the connections between the people in those worlds? Make sure there are connections - and collisions.

Small Goals

When I have a new idea, it’s a merry jaunt as I write those first chapters. The time comes, though, when I stall. Maybe I’ve come to the end of my ideas, maybe my day job has upped its demands, maybe there are familial issues to deal with. Days go by as I mull things over, but I can’t seem to get back in the driver’s seat. The last time this happened, a writer-friend  suggested writing just fifty words that day. “Start with writing about why you can’t write.” I learned that writing about what’s keeping me from writing, is naturally followed by solutions. If it’s the job or family, can I find 15 minutes to read what I last wrote? (Of course!) If it’s a dearth of ideas, could this silly thing happen? What if this other thing happens? Soon, I’ve written my fifty words, but nearly always it’s many more. And some of them are keepers.

A Writing Journal

The mystery author, Sue Grafton, has spoken about keeping a Writing Journal for each novel. When I learned this I zipped on over to her website and found several examples. In those journals I found validation for several of the behaviors I had already begun to discover, but I also learned more about discovering plot. Take a look at this little blurb from her “G is for Gumshoe” journal.

“Just checking in to have a little chat. I'm in Chapter 3 and feeling pretty good, but I'm wondering if I don't need some tension or suspense. We know there may be a hit man after her. She's currently on her way to the desert and everything seems really normal..nay, even dull. Do I need to pep it up a bit? She's almost at the Slabs. I've been doing a lot of description but maybe I need to weave it into the narrative better. Flipping back and forth from the external to the internal.”

A Hitchhikers Guide

Finally, in real life, I would never recommend picking up a hitchhiker. But on your writer’s journey, I recommend offering to proofread a friend’s manuscript, write a helpful review, or share your favorite writing tips. In fact, now it’s your turn.

Now its your turn, share your favorite writing tip!

Dana McNeely
2014 Semi-Finalist, ACFW Genesis Contest
2013 & 2014 Finalist, OCW Cascade Contest

A longtime desert dweller, Dana McNeely dreams of rain. She lives in an oasis with her husband, Mike, two good dogs, and migrating butterflies.


  1. Hi, everyone! We'd love to hear your ideas! Join the conversation and I'll be checking in throughout the month.

  2. Having come fresh from presenting a workshop at a writers' conference today, my tip is to celebrate small steps. One writer shared how she wrote a complete novella in daily 20minute increments. I try to write 1,000 words a day. That gives me a 100,000 word manuscript in less than four months. I don't usually manage to write every single day, but remembering how quickly I can actually get out that first draft encourages me to keep at it. ...I liked your analogy of ideas sneaking up on us like a sports car in a blind spot. :) It does seem to work that way!

    1. Thanks for the great tip, Linore. I can attest that you are truly a productive writer, as well as an exciting story teller.

  3. I participate in NaNoWriMo each year because it forces me to prepare an idea for a book, write over 1000 words a day, and stick with it to the end. After NaNoWriMo, I have a 50,000 word MS to work on the rest of the year. This will be my 4th year and, hopefully, I'll get book #8 out of it.

    1. Great tip, Ruth. I agree, NaNoWriMo is a great writing motivator - I love the feeling of community of so many writers simultaneously striving for the same goal.

  4. One thing I'm learning is to ration books on craft. I don't know any writer who doesn't indulge in a plethora of craft books but they can drive you straight up the wall. I've read books that staunchly recommend plotting. Others that recommend NOT plotting and going seat of the pants. There are books that say NEITHER--that's all about the internal workings of the character and yet others that say it's not plot, but situation that you write by.

    The good news is I never cease to find at least one nugget of wisdom in each book, but I've learned I have to find the method that works for me. Those writing craft book authors, no matter how many millions of books they've sold, can't be the determining factor of my writing approach.

  5. I agree, Brenda. Rationing and finding what works for you is great advice, because although you can learn from books on the writing craft, you can also, as you say, drive yourself up the wall. I know some people who become too paralyzed to write - they're so convinced that their writing is imperfect when aligned with the impossible standard of putting in practice all the advice they've read.