Take It Easy: You Don’t Have to Plan for the End of the World

My wish for the world: peace and love in 2013.

My wish for the world: peace and love in 2013.

Miles run yesterday: 10

Days until the end of the world: 1

Days until Christmas: 5

Here’s the deal: if you are concerned about a nuclear holocaust or the old Y2K kind of massive computer glitch or World War III, I completely understand your need to hoard batteries, canned goods and Just Dance 4.

However, if the end of the world is upon us–say, tomorrow–and we are about to be smote or collected up into heaven or cease to exist, it’s a free ticket: stop planning.

I’m a planner.

You may recall that when I was 5 years old, I planned a Christmas party without telling my mom, I helped plan prom, I planned our wedding, I planned to have two kids, I planned to go back to work full-time…. oops. That hasn’t happened yet. Well, it will. It will, I tell you.

Back when I was working in my very first salaried job, I became friends with a girl who is now a very famous writer. At the time, she was temping at the place where I worked, and she told me she wanted to write books that people would read, and I didn’t really believe her. I think I nodded the way you do when a kid says that he is going to be a famous basketball player or video game designer when he grows up.

Anyway, I knew her then; I don’t know her now. I guess I didn’t plan that part very well.

One day, on a day I must have been feeling flush with cash, she and I went out to get pizza for lunch.

As we sat there, I told her about my irritating situation: my grandmother had bought a grand piano, and she was ready to send me her old, upright piano.

“Don’t get me wrong: I’m very thankful to be getting a piano,” I said, between chews. “But it’s just out of order.”

She wiped her mouth neatly with a napkin. “Out of order?”

“I mean, out of life order, you know? Like, first you go to college, then you get a job, then you get married, then you get a house, then you get a piano.”

She gave me a weird look. “I have never, ever thought about life that way.”

Never? Ever? “You don’t plan out your life?”

She looked at me with pity. “Life happens, and you roll with it.”

This was a new life philosophy with which I had not yet been acquainted. I didn’t roll, and life didn’t happen. Life fit into neat boxes which I had prepared.

I ended up taking jobs that required event planning and writing planning and scheduling.

She became a successful author.

Much as I love to plan, tomorrow’s big end time scare actually makes me happy. If the world comes to a screeching halt, all the batteries in the world won’t help you.

I’m free!

So I can stop checking things off the various lists I keep around the house.

I don’t need to plan future newspaper columns for 2013. I don’t need to remember to pack large, warehouse club-sized packets of bread yeast to take to my mom at Christmastime. I shouldn’t worry too much about all the cookies I have planned to bake tomorrow.

I’m going to kick back and read Gone Girl. It’s a page-turner. And I plan to finish it before the world ends.

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I Am A Work-In-Progress

Keep working, Mr. Bee.

Miles run today: 10

Words written in my novel so far: 53,592

Times I have been wrong: 4.5

You may ask my husband and family: I am never wrong. Well, I mean… mostly never.

Memorable times in history when I have been mistaken:

1. “Pluto and Yugoslavia will always exist as they are today.”– Anne, circa 1987.

2. “I don’t get the big deal about the Information Superhighway. It isn’t going to affect my life in any major way.” –Anne, circa 1992.

3. “I am completely uninterested in sharing my life in a blog.” –Anne, circa 2009.

(The .5 is to encompass any slight oversight in my recollections.)

Please control your gasps, but a sea change occurred recently in my writing life, and I need to confess:

4. I was wrong about being a pantser. Plotting and outlining my novel might be a good idea.

I know. It’s huge.

Much has been made about the plotting vs. pantsing divide in the writing world: some writers prefer to construct detailed outlines of their novels, while other writers write “by the seat of their pants.”

I read an excellent blog post by a published author recently, though I can’t find it now to save my life. She said that she had many reservations about outlining… until she got very pressed for time: between caring for young children and rigid deadlines from publishers, something had to give.

She found that by taking a few minutes at the start of each writing session to write out, longhand, the gist of the next couple of chapters, she increased her word count by thousands of words. The result was dramatic and life-changing.

I was resistant to the outlining/plotting process. Like this author, I was afraid that specific, Roman-numeral, English-class-style outlines would stunt my writing, essentially locking me in a 10×10 cell wrapped in blank pages.

I’ve never been fond of formal outlines. They represent everything about school that I disliked, all rules-y and authoritative, judgmental and blocky.

But if you can find a way to make a chapter summary-style outline work for you, it just might change your life. I am finding, not that I’m writing wildly productive, 10,000 word sessions, but that the chapters I am writing have more of a focus.

And if you struggle with maintaining tension and keeping conflict alive in your writing, as I do, a scene/chapter loose outline may help you hone in on the nugget that each chapter needs to push your story forward.

I am fortunate to be in an excellent critique group, and if you have critiqued other writers’ work as I have, you will find that sussing out lack of tension in other writers’ work is SO EASY. Why, how simple it is to see what someone else is lacking! You, there–your story is getting dull! Your characters are talking about nothing that helps the story move forward! I just read a chapter that didn’t even need to be in your novel!

But it’s not so easy to see in your own work. At least not during the initital writing process.

You can become so enamoured of your characters, of the setting, of your snappy dialogue, that you forget the very essence of why you are writing: to make the reader want to find out what happens next!

I’m still muddling through on my WIP. I am no speed writer or novel goddess. I have not yet placed in the time trials of Olympic Novel Writing. I, myself, am a Work-In-Progress.

But I’d love to hear back from you about what you have changed about your writing process. What were you wrong about? What has made your job as a novelist easier? What nugget of wisdom can you pass along to make the world a better place?

Planning the Happily Ever After

Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

Times I thought I had life figured out: 57

Times I did: 0

Times I thought I had writing figured out: 98. But didn’t: 135

I was lucky enough to get to interview YA author Jordan Sonnenblick yesterday for work. Not only was he gracious, but humble, too. He has published eight books so far, and he wrote the first four in four years while still teaching full-time. He had some advice to pass along. As always, being in the presence of greatness makes me think about my own writing and how to improve. I thought I’d pass along what I’ve been mulling over since we spoke.

Picture the end of your novel before you start page one. Sonnenblick said this was advice he’d give to middle school students who hoped to become published writers one day. As an aspiring novelist pushing forty, it spoke to me in a kind of “duh, why didn’t I think of that before I went on a meandering, character-developing goose chase?” way.

When I was in my senior year of college, I had some major soul-questioning moments. There was a recession, and I couldn’t figure out how to get hired doing anything journalistic. Or, let’s be honest, how to get hired doing much of anything at all. In my college town, my peers seemed polarized into those who were already hired as assistants to the President of the United States the second they graduated and those who were going on to graduate school. I fit into neither category. My hometown of Atlanta was gearing up for the 1996 Olympics, and when I tried to get a job in public relations there, a family friend said that she had gotten several resumes from people with 15 years experience who were willing to intern for free (no money!) just to be close to the scene of the action.

I’m a planner, and I was ready to know how my life was going to turn out. If I could have, I would have flipped the pages of that book and discovered, stat, if the heroine ever gets a backbone or a clue.

Fast forward to my thirties, and applying that floundering lesson to my long projects didn’t take. I had left my characters bereft, floating on a (symbolic) raft, with no distinct goal. Or at least a rather amorphous one.

Lesson learned. Sonnenblick’s advice makes perfect sense. If only I had interviewed him a few years ago.

Head for the deep water. Sonnenblick had the good fortune of being blessed with Frank McCourt (of Angela’s Ashes fame) as a high school English teacher. Sonnenblick, already proficient at writing humor, wowed his classmates. But McCourt kept telling Sonnenblick to “head for the deep water.” As Sonnenblick said (and I’m paraphrasing here), humor without poignancy doesn’t last. True, dat.

But here’s the thing: deep water is very scary. You don’t know what’s under there. Even though I love boogie boarding in the waves, I’ve heard the stories about rip tides. That, and my mom still stands by the edge of the sand and yells, “Don’t go out too far!” I’m almost forty. Read into that what you will.

The uncomfortable bearing of my soul and the fear that no one will really relate are probably behind my adherence to the breakers. Let’s just say I’m working on it.

If Frank McCourt had been my English teacher, I would be an award-winning novelist today. Only kidding, Mr. Sonnenblick. What I remember from AP English was that my teacher, a pinched, narrow, Englishy teachery type, favored long silences punctuated by pushing her cheeks in on either side as she considered any comment. It was distressing.

As we studied the Book of Job and all the horrible things he had to endure, I had no trouble making a personal connection to the text. English class was a hair shirt that I pulled on once a day to atone for my sins. My teacher wrote only one thing on my papers that year, “Be More Specific,” or more disturbingly, “Specifics?” I never asked her what she meant.

I found my way back to writing by late freshman year. My salvation was journalism school, a refreshing change from five-paragraph essays. But please note that news stories lack, even encourage, no solid conclusion. Bingo! I can now blame both bad luck in the English teacher lottery and journalistic style for my unpublished novel.

We writers must plot out our own courses, and I’m back to the feeling of wanting to flip to the end of the book. Will I ever get to be a published novelist? I’m going to plan on it.