Puzzling Out Your Revisions

I did it! I finished my draft! And now . . . ohhh boy, is it a mess.

I’m not talking about awkward sentences and sparse details—though there’s certainly plenty of that. I’m talking about huge plot and character shifts part way through, characters I introduced, then ghosted on, a beloved pet dog that appears in the first chapter only—that kind of a mess.

I have chapters I wrote, then moved, that now need to be rewritten so they’ll make sense within their new context. I have location shifts, missing parents, siblings that I may or may not add in. . . .

Basically, I have a TON of work ahead of me. When I look at everything that needs to be done, it’s overwhelming.

As writers, one of the most prevalent pieces of advice we’re given is to get the words down. Just get them down, finish that draft, worry about the mess later. We can’t revise what isn’t there, right? This is great advice; however, once we’ve followed it . . . what do we do next?

Puzzling

First, take a deep breath.

Then another.

Ok, just one more.

Now that you’ve calmed down a bit, open your document back up.

You might even want to go so far as to print it out so you can physically go at it with a red pen. Or, if you prefer, you can use the comments option in your word processing software program of choice. Do whichever feels easier for you when it comes to wrapping your head around the monumental task ahead.

First, read your manuscript and take notes—any and all thoughts that come to mind—but resist making any changes at this time. (I know, it’s hard.) If you make changes as you go though, you might find later that the changes you made at the beginning still aren’t going to work with the changes you end up needing to make at the end. Think of this as the Intel-Gathering phase. Right now, you’re a detective figuring out what best needs to be done to your story and how best to do it—how to fit the pieces of this messed up puzzle together in a way that makes the most sense.

Ok, so you’ve done that, and . . . you’re still feeling super intimidated, aren’t you? Maybe you should take a few more deep breaths.

Better? Good.

The next thing you need to do is categorize your notes. Just like separating out puzzle pieces into groups—grass pieces over here, sky pieces there, what looks like maybe the hull of a wooden boat? Maybe it’s a house . . . over there. I find organizing and separating the different types of fixes that need to be made in my draft, helps me break things down into more manageable tasks that make the entire process feel less daunting. Rather than go through the manuscript one time, tackling each note one by one, I’ll make multiple passes focusing on one problem at a time.

Big stuff comes first. (It’s ok to take another deep breath here if you need to. Ready? In . . . out . . . good.)

What is it about your draft that needs the most work? For me, it’s usually characterization. For you, it could be setting, or filling in plot holes, or smoothing transitions. Take the biggest task and go through only focusing on that. Trust me, you’ll feel so much better once you get that bit out of the way. Next, move on to the second biggest issue.

And keep on moving down the list this way. I haven’t finished taking notes on my current draft, but I’m guessing my big focus areas for example, in order from messiest to least messy, will end up being characters, setting, plot holes, transitions, dialogue.

Once you’ve finished these big picture tasks, move on to the nitty-gritty things, like grammar, punctuation, varying your sentence structures, and finally, removing unnecessary filler words (like, very, really, that, etc.) and adverbs.

And that’s it! Keep in mind, you might need to go back and adjust areas you’ve previously focused on after you’ve made some later changes, but it should be much easier now. And then, of course, you’ll absolutely need to go through the entire process again once you’ve let your critique partners and/or beta reads get a hold of it. But the hardest part should be over. Congratulations! You’ve now turned your huge, jumbled up, intimidating mess into something you’re actually willing to let people read! The puzzle is now complete.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Getting Your Wishful Writing Couch Potato Off the Couch

I hover happily where I am in my writing world. I write so many hours a week, maintain a blog, attend writing conferences (sometimes), journal, network with other writers, and spend way too long on a simple thank you note (you know, it has to be all the right words). I’m happy where I am.

The problem is I’m flat lining. Yep. I’m experiencing this cushy comfortable lifestyle of writer riding where I do nothing but drive the same highway of writing. And that’s why the perk of writing is falling flat.

I’ve got a disease. I suffer from fear of the next step syndrome.

Instead my wishful writing dreams lounge out on a couch somewhere. And, really looking at it all, where I am is not a bad place to be. It’s just that where I am is not taking me anywhere. Scratch that. I still get somewhere I just end up ignoring places I could go. I’m in my comfort zone with writing. And let’s face it, it’s hard to progress when you don’t push yourself to explore new territories.

Maybe it’s just me. I don’t know. But, I know that the next step will be good for me I just don’t make time for it. The next step requires research, planning, failing, and reworking the already comfortable schedule.

But, what I really want from my writing begs for my attention. My wishful writing parks its long legs on the back couch and reminds me of its presence and stares me down.

Hey girl. You ignoring me!

Yep.

So I go back to my comfortable writing world and my wishful writing couch potato continues to invade my living room. I can’t ignore it. It munches on crunchy chips while I write. It sits in the presence of company, it tucks me into bed at night, plays boogie man, and it greets me every morning. And  it especially makes its presence known  when I witness other people mastering “their thing.” The reminder of my next step quietly makes its presence known.

So, um… you just gonna sit there?

It’s time to give it some attention so it will go away.

I know I’m not the only one that has these nagging feelings. I love the line in the movie, Babe. The narrator says, “Farmer Hoggett knew that little ideas that tickled and nagged and refused to away should never be ignored, for in them lie the seeds of destiny.”

Hm. Destiny, eh?

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4 Tips To Get That Wishful Writing Couch Potato Working Out:

My wishful writing couch potato is getting fat. I need to put it to work because the longer I wait the harder it is to get momentum. I have always discovered that something grand is on the outside of a little extra effort.

The next step is like getting back into exercise after a long haul of couch potato writing. Here’s a few of my favorite exercising tips that apply to writing as well. It’s time to get your wishful writing couch potato off the couch and start feeding him your little seeds of destiny. Here’s how to get started without baking the potato in the first week. Don’t get ambitious and burned on your first week. A perfect baked potato takes time.

Start Slow

It’s easy to get overambitious on the first attempt of the next step. If you plan to get too much done you will be disappointed that things aren’t moving quicker for you. You have to ease into it and do simple steps. Be very specific. Maybe today I will research how to write a proposal or how to design a web page. Give yourself small, achievable deadlines. By Friday I will begin my proposal, completing at least the hook or the marketing plan. Whatever your next step is, go slow but the point is to go.

Go Hard Enough You Can Carry On a Conversation

So yes, it is possible to take it too slow. That won’t give your dreams their proper attention. In the exercise world you need to be working out hard enough that you can still carry on a conversation while you exercise. Stressing a little is good, it shows growth. So you need to push yourself hard enough that you are sweating it out (or stressing) a little but that you are also able to attend to your other needs. I’m a big believer people connections. So for me this is a necessary element to being successful in writing. That’s just my personal opinion. Take if for whatever you want. New, big, steps can take a lot of time but I think that proper balance keeps you happy in your writing. Make it a goal to squeeze in meaningful conversation even amid working out your couch potato dreams. Of course I write then talk (I rarely mix the two). I simply do this by setting a timer and tell my midget genetic counterparts that I will be with them when the timer goes off. I work hard now, and then later I am still able to carry on a conversation. I have to have this goal because it is very easy for me to work hard and neglect meaningful conversations. Writing makes me happy but so do my little people.

Log Your Writing Time

Seems pointless right? But, if you are having a difficult time seeing your progress then monitor it. People use tools all the time to measure their success. Fitbits or ancient yesterday pedometers measure how active you are. Or you can simply take a slice of the clock instead (that’s my method). Log your success and feel an instant reward for not creating a to-do list, but for creating a log of successful writing moments. You’re creating a backward to-do list. It feels much more satisfying tracking what was done rather than gawking at what wasn’t done.

Track three main areas of writing:

1-Writing time. Count words, pages, time, whatever you want to track.

2-Planning and Research Time. Studying things out sometimes feels like you aren’t getting writing done but it is an important element in being successful. Simply track what you spent your time on and how long. You will feel better knowing you were moving when it appears you weren’t.

3-Business and Marketing Time. This has always been my biggest beef with writing. I just want to write so it feels like this takes away from what I could be doing. But, this is a very important element that keeps your writing up. Take a regular time to connect and keep the business side of writing in balance. Track your connections. Use these methods of logging and see yourself inch along as a writer but be miles ahead of the wishful writing couch potato friends.

Enjoy It

This is the biggest measure of success as a writer and new ambitious exercisers. Over and over you will find that those who have stuck with an exercise regimen are those who enjoy what they are doing. The same is true of writers. If you find satisfaction with writing then you will most likely stick with it. Satisfaction doesn’t always equate to being the star player. Most of my delight in exercise and writing comes from learning and applying new techniques or breaking new norms. Simply find one thing you love in your new push to get that wishful writing couch potato up.  Yes, there will be hard days, but if you consistently look for one perk in your efforts you will continue to find joy in writing.

Do you suffer from the next step syndrome? What nags and begs for your attention? It’s time to get that wishful writing couch potato up and moving. Today’s your day to start feeding your “destiny.” Take that next step. What are you going to do?

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christie-perkins

Christie Perkins is a survivor of boy humor, chemo, and faulty recipes. She loves freelance writing, blogging, and is a nonfiction junkie. Her stage 4 cancer doesn’t knock down her passion for life and writing. Not a chance. A couple of magazines have published her work but her biggest paycheck is her incredible family. Christie hates spiders, the dark, and Shepherd’s Pie. Bleh. Mood boosters: white daisies, playing basketball, and peanut butter M&M’s. You can find out more about her on her blog at howperkyworks.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share your Invisible Work

I just started playing the with idea for a new book. It’s in such beginning stages that I have possible character names and a decent idea of a fictional location based off of some real places I’ve lived. Because I like to infuse a little magic into my writing, I’m also exploring mythologies that incorporate what I think will be key parts of my story. But if you were to ask me what it’s about, I’d say Sisters. I think.

And, if this book idea gets an okay from my agent, if it stays a good idea, if it gets picked up by a publisher, and if, someday, I’m talking about this book and you ask me what inspired me to write this book, what my process was in creating the book, almost none of what I’m doing now would make the cut.

The reality is that most jobs have invisible work – that is, work that is done, that is necessary, and that is very rarely seen. When my children were younger, people could see if they were well-dressed and/or well-groomed, but they couldn’t see the nights when a bed intended for two became a bed for three or four depending on the speed of a bad dream. People who listen to me or my daughters perform music can comment on that performance, but they are oblivious to the times when three or four notes were worked over and over and over again because they were tricky. People who see a couple in love are not privy to the private conversations that took place over the course of years to find the truth that can only be discovered through courage and vulnerability and compassion.

And so it is, that any good work – really good work – is going to have varying levels of invisibility behind it. This is probably also one of the reasons that so many fledging writers think they can just write a story and then it’ll be published and sell and life will be lovely.

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I think creatives of all kinds, but especially writers, need to have the courage to provide insight into what is involved in our invisible work. I’m not alone in this idea either. Austin Kleon said:

“Human beings want to know where things came from, how they were made, who made them. The stories you tell about the work you do have a huge effect on how people feel and what they understand about your work, and how people feel and what they understand about your work affects how they value it.”

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How I start my stories…it’s jumbled

This is not to say that you have to give away everything. But there is a value in letting others see how your work comes together. Even more? There’s value in documenting how you put your own work together. Just as my children aren’t aware of how tall they are getting, when they put on old clothes, stand against the measuring wall, see a relative who is now not quite so tall, they learn of the growth they already did. If we keep our invisible work hidden from ourselves, we too miss out on understanding the way that we have improved and honed our craft.

How do you track your invisible work? Which writers do you think show their work well? 

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profileTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Focus

I have a slight (okay, huge) problem with staying focused on tasks that I don’t want to do. Sometimes it’s because I find a task boring–like housework. Or it’s repetitive, or I don’t see the point, or . . . I love it, and I find it interesting, and I want to do it, buuuuuuuut it’s hard.

Writing, you guys. Writing is hard. I love writing, but it’s hard. So hard. It is, I might even  go so far as to say, quite difficult.

Whenever I get stuck for words, or I’m not quite sure how I want to go about writing the next scene, that’s it, my brain’s like “this is HARD,” and I’m off clicking on social media, checking my texts, getting up to grab a snack I don’t need, etc. But I’ve been trying a few things to help with this problem, and I thought I’d share them with you in case you have a similar issue.

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1. Meditation

Meditation is basically just training your brain to focus, and you don’t have to do it for very long each day. I’ve been using an app called Headspace to help me out. It does require a subscription to be able to use all of it, but the Take-Ten (10 minute) beginner/training sessions are free. There are also other apps out there–a quick search in your app store will bring up many. But you don’t even need an app for the basics. Just find a quiet, comfortable spot (sitting, preferably, so you don’t get too relaxed and fall asleep) and focus on your breathing. Count your breaths in your head, if that helps. And whenever you notice that your mind is wandering (and it will), just gently acknowledge that and bring it back to focus on your breaths again. I try to do this before I sit down to write, and it really helps a lot.

2. Physical Activity

Again, it doesn’t take much. A brisk walk or some yoga, or even just dropping to the floor and doing a few pushups can help get the blood flowing to your brain and increase your ability to concentrate. I will often do some stretches or pushups between writing sprints.

3. Less Caffeine

Wait . . . WHAT?!

Yes, I know. I’m a writer. Don’t writer’s practically bleed caffeine? I used to, but I just can’t do it anymore. Too much caffeine sends my brain into hyper drive, and makes it more difficult for me to reign it in. I do need some in the morning, however, to jumpstart my day. so I’ve started making my morning cup with one scoop of caffeinated grounds, and one scoop of decaf. That combo is perfect for me. You might need to do some adjusting to figure out the right balance for you.

4. Set up a Permanent Writing Space

. . . and be consistent about writing there. I’ve had a writing desk set up for quite a while, actually, but the couch is so comfy, you know? And so, until recently, I rarely ever wrote at my desk, preferring my laptop, a cozy blanket, and my sofa. It’s no wonder writing often made me sleepy. As soon as I lost focus, I’d often opt for a nap (and no, this has nothing to do with the reduction in caffeine–couches just make me want to nap no matter what, so don’t even go there.) Not only that, but the living room is where we watch TV and play games, and mine’s connected to an open kitchen where I can see all the dishes that are piling up, not to mention mail and papers and . . . you see what I’m getting at? It’s distracting because it’s associated with many different things, and they’re all competing for my attention.  My writing desk, however, is tucked away in this weird little nook in the hallway that the builders thought needed to be there for some reason, and it’s away from the chaos of the rest of the house. Everything on and around my desk reminds me either of my writing, or the things that have inspired my writing (like my T.A.R.D.I.S. and my Mulder and Scully Pop figurines.) If I consistently choose to write at my desk, my brain will associate that spot with writing only. And so far, it’s working really well.

So those are the main things that have helped me focus and stay on task as a writer. I hope you find them helpful too, and if you happen to have any other tips, I’d love it if you’d share them in the comments.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Revision

Welcome to the fourth installment of my series on workflow. In previous posts I discussed the tools that work best for me, my general workflow, how I capture and process ideas, and how I draft. This time, I will share some thoughts on revision, how I stay organized, and the tools I use to transition from the solitary activity of having ideas and drafting them, to the teamwork good revision takes. I also have a surprising revelation about Word, a tool I have had trouble with in the past.

Writing is Rewriting (or it is?)

It’s the oldest of the old bromides that revision is the at the heart of writing. Interestingly enough, Hannah Sullivan, author of “The Work of Revision” argues that revision, where a work is massively and deeply reshaped is a recent innovation, largely absent from authors’ workflows prior to the 20th century. Sullivan argues that the typewriter was the catalyst for this change. A lot of what I’m trying to say in these posts on workflow have to do with a similar argument, that the materials and tools of the work (Sullivan calls this “literary technology”) have a profound effect on the product of our work.

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If you’re interested in a deeper dive into this topic, I’d recommend the following.

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I’m coming off a ten-month revision odyssey, working with an agent to prep a manuscript. This process has been transformative, but I think entirely impossible to accomplish even a few years ago.

As I have mentioned, I compose at the keyboard, in plain text, using Markdown to format documents. This allows me to keep my files in the cloud and make them available on a multitude of devices. At some point, though, all this digital work is too airy and diffused. I need to get it on paper, so I can carve into with a pen. I don’t need a paper stage because of nostalgia, I need paper because it slows me down, allowing me to think and act more deliberately.

Paper

Once I have something drafted, I print it out on paper, in Courier. I really do. Printing something in a nice font creates the illusion that the work is more finished than it is. My first major in college was graphic design and illustration, so I don’t come to the choice of courier lightly. I love nice fonts. I’ve even purchased Matthew Butterick’s amazing Equity font, and amazing alternative to Times New Roman. In fact, I want to be Matthew Butterick when I grow up. Check out his work here. The point of Courier is that it sends me a very important typographical message about how far along my work is not. Courier gives me permission to tear into things.

I take these printouts, and have them bound so I can take them with me. Sometimes, when I’m real serious, I print on legal paper leaving extra space at the bottom for notes.

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Beta Readers and Proofreaders

Once I’ve retyped in my manual changes (often I just retype the whole thing. It’s faster, and it saves my mouse hand, I export the manuscript out of Ulysses as a .docx file and upload it to Google Drive. At this point, I’m done with the plain text/Markdown stage of things. If I knew all the other people I will be working with were comfortable and adept with those tools, I’d keep to this plain text way of working. But I can’t and shouldn’t expect others to bend to my workflow. I need to be empathetic to theirs.

I have two brilliant former students who read for me. The first is a beta reader, who helps me with plot, tone, continuity, images, and he catches a lot of my stupid errors. He’s a writer himself, with a master’s degree and good sense of what works and what doesn’t. The other is a professional proofreader with an amazing eye for detail. She is remarkable well read, has a deep sense of language, and she helps me fix everything. If you’re interested in contacting this proofreader, I’d be happy to help. Leave a comment on this post.

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I pay these (with PayPal, I might add), which makes the transactions really easy. Publishing is a professional endeavor after all, and professionals should be paid. If I go into my argument for paying readers now, it’ll take this post of task, but I think it’s very important, and it’s more than a gesture.

These readers really get to see how the sausage is made. I would be lying if I said it was easy to share raw work with my former students, but these two are amazing. I am at a point where I can’t do the work with out them. The fantasy is that writers labor alone, I have found it’s quite the opposite.

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BATMAN WORKS ALONE

With the document in Google Drive, my readers give feedback right in the Drive application. One of the readers, does much of the work on a phone or iPad. The other works from a computer. They both use the “Suggesting” mode in Google Docs instead of the “Editing” mode, which allows us to have a conversation about the document.

One of my Beta Readers lives in Japan and the other is in Kentucky. This method of working has helped me think about what it means to manage the demands of working across time zones.

Office 365 is the big surprise of the year

Once the revisions are through, I have an updated document in the cloud, which helps me with my ongoing concerns about backups. I like that I can get these documents, with its entire history of changes, from any internet-connected device. I like that I can download them in a variety of formats.

As much as I don’t like using Word, that’s the industry standard, and I’m going to change that, as much as I’d like to. In the past, using Word in my Apple workflow has been a night mare. Manuscript-length works took forever to load; the app was sluggish and would crash often.

Because I am working a lot with Word documents lately, I looked at the Office 365 version of Word for Mac and iOS, and I am happy to report that is really good. In fact, on iOS (phone and iPad) it’s delightful. The more I use it, the more I like it.

In my next, and final installment of this series, I’ll talk about document formatting in Markdown and in Word. I’m planning to nerd out about fonts, typography, white space, and the like. There are some standard practices for this, and there are some ways to do better than the defaults.

See you again in 2017.
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Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at toddpetersen.org and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

Workflow: Capture

This is the second in a series of posts on my digital writing tools and workflows. In the first post I described my move away from word processing software and use of text files. I also outlined the big chunks of my workflow. This post will focus on the first step: Capture.

Capture

The idea of capture comes from one of the cornerstone concepts of David Allen’s productivity bible, Getting Things Done. Before you can actually get something done, you have to capture all the random stuff floating around out there. Immediate and ubiquitous capture is crucial because ideas come upon us so quickly and fade from our memories, like tears in rain.

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Allen says our minds are terrible places to store new information, and I agree with him. The Muses aren’t thoughtful enough to ask if we’re ready for them. Consequently, I’ve been working on ways to be ready for them when they pop in unannounced.

Inspiration

My larcenous imagination clicks into gear, not when I’m daydreaming, but when I’m out in the world. That is where I find my raw materials for writing. I’m like a magpie when I find these treasures. I want to stash each one of them away.

Until just recently, I used to accomplish this by scribbling notes everywhere, which worked okay, I guess, if I didn’t lose anything. And I can’t tell you how many amazing ideas drowned in the washing machine.

It became clear to me that if I wanted to benefit from inspiration, I needed to move these ideas into the cloud as quickly as I could. So, I tried using my phone. I emailed myself, text messaged myself, and tried dozens of applications. I quickly discovered my phone was a great tool for capture but not so hot for organization, storage, and retrieval.

Until I stumbled upon an application called Drafts.

Drafts by Agile Tortoise

Drafts is a text editor for mobile devices. (It’s currently only available for iOS, sorry Android users.) On the surface it seems like just another place to input text, but it’s a much, much deeper than that.

Drafts is fast. You start by opening the app. There is no need to tap through a bunch of options and menus. As far as capture goes, nothing is faster. Drafts plus Siri dictation gives me the fastest capture method I’ve tried.

Once the text is in Drafts, that’s great, but Drafts allows you to decide where you’re going to send that text. Drafts allows you to “shoot” your text into applications or files of all types: text messages, Evernote pages, emails, you name it. A Drafts workflow is highly configurable.

If you want to take a look at how all of this works, I recommend these two screencasts by David Sparks:

Overview, getting to know Drafts 

Drafts and Dropbox 

How I use Drafts

I use the “prepend to a text file” workflow extensively in my workflow. I have a few container text files in place in a special Dropbox folder called “Text Files.” There’s a document in there called “fictionideas.txt” I have another called “possibleblogposts.txt.” I’ll also set up files for current projects. I have one for books I want to read, movies I want to watch. There’s one for quotations and another for things I know I need to do but am for some reason putting off. That file is called “promptings.txt”

Let me show you how this works.

The other day, I was in the grocery story parking lot loading bags into the back of our minivan. From the corner of my eye, I saw three little birds shoot out from underneath a couple of neighboring cars, glide across the open space, and land under a grey Dodge Charger. I thought it was a lovely image that I could use in something. I didn’t have a place for it, but I felt the moment had possibilities, so I pulled out my phone did the following:

picture1Next Post – Drafting

In the videos I shared, David Sparks talks about “processing” captured text. The steps I described above are how I generally do that that processing step.

Capturing ideas is not all that useful if you don’t have a way to return to the ideas and use them. Given the application’s name, it sounds a little bit weird that I don’t actually “draft” using Drafts. It’s primary utility is its ability to convert ideas into text so I can send them to a safe place where I know I’ll find them again (not the washing machine).

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Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at toddpetersen.org and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

The Ship of Theseus & Your Story

Imagine an old wooden ship, damaged from battle and worn out from weather, that is restored to like-new condition by replacing every single board, plank, oar, and sail. Even the ropes and nails used in the construction process are new. Under such conditions, can the ship be said to be fundamentally the same ship as before, or is it an entirely different ship?

This thought experiment, known as “The Ship of Theseus,” has been debated and mused over by philosophers for centuries, including by the likes of Plutarch and Aristotle. The central question deals with a paradox within the nature of reality and whether things that grow and change can still remain the same.

I wrote a story once which stemmed from an opening line that I thought was fantastic. As soon as I wrote that opening line, I felt the floodgates open, and the next thing I knew, I had a perfectly decent little story. It wasn’t perfect, but it was out there. My little ship had been launched, and it appeared to be seaworthy.

When I went back and started taking a closer look at my story, however, I began to notice that it was taking on some water. Several small holes (and one rather large one) had appeared in the hull which hadn’t been apparent while I was in the throes of writing. The central conflict was weak, for instance. Several of the characters didn’t feel as developed as they could be. And the ending was a bit of a downer. I wasn’t sure exactly how to repair some of these holes on my own, and so I asked my writing partner for some help. She offered her perspective and gave some really excellent suggestions, and so I set about repairing my story.

What I hadn’t anticipated were the consequences of such repairs. Each time I patched one hole, it seemed that another would open up somewhere else. And then another, and then another. After a while, I felt like all I was doing was desperately bailing out my ship, trying to keep it from sinking. Patching leaks clearly wasn’t working. I decided that a complete overhaul would be necessary, so I pulled my little story from the water and put it into dry dock.

I took a good hard look at my story, going over every square inch, and began to identify some of the major problems, beginning with the beginning. Of all the things I thought might be wrong with my story, it hadn’t occurred to me that my opening line was among the chief offenders. I was devastated. How could I replace that line? The one thing I was sure was perfect about my story, and it turns out to be a main problem? This wasn’t fair.

But I gritted my teeth, wiped away the tears, and changed the line. I had ripped the keel out of my ship and laid a new one. Which, of course, meant that I now had to change other parts of the story to fit the new tone and direction of the opening line. The basic plot and characters were still there, but several parts of my story which had been told one way, were now being told in a completely different way.

On the one hand, I was happy that my story was beginning to take on a new life, but on the other hand, I began to freak out a little. Every change necessitated another change, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that another piece of my original story was being lost forever. Was this new story still the same story? Was it still my story? Was I writing my own version of the Ship of Theseus?

I told my writing partner about my concerns. She responded with some pointed questions:

 “Are the same elements of the plot still being told?” she asked.

“More or less,” I said.

“Do the new elements make the story stronger?”

I said they did.

“Does the new ending work better than the old ending?”

It does.

“It might not be the exact same story you started out with,” she said, “but is it the story you wanted to end up with all along?”

I thought about her question, and then admitted that it was.

She then said, “I think it’s ultimately the same story, because it’s your story. You, as the author, are the link between where it began and where it is now.”

As I’ve thought about what she said, I’ve come to my own conclusion about this literary Ship of Theseus paradox. I believe it is fundamentally the same ship. I doubt there is any story anywhere that survives completely intact beyond the first draft, and certainly nothing that makes it all the way to publication. Stories change and grow depending on who is telling them, and that’s a good thing. In fact, stories often change because the storytellers themselves change over time. And not just change emotionally or spiritually, but even physically. When I told another friend of mine with a medical background about the Ship of Theseus, she blew my mind by saying, “Every cell in your body is replaced approximately every seven years. Are you still the same you?”

I wrote the first draft of my little story two years ago, and it was an honest reflection of who I was at the time. But the story as it is today is not exactly the same story as it was then, because I am not the exactly same person I was then. The story as it stands today is a reflection of who I am now, and it’s a story I couldn’t have told even two years ago.

Heraclitus famously stated that it is impossible to cross the same river twice, not only because the nature of the river itself is constantly changing, but also because the person crossing the river is as well. Writing and revision change not only the story, but also the storyteller. It is the process of building and rebuilding the Ship of Theseus. Change is to be expected, but so long as the soul of the story—the soul of the storyteller—remains intact, then the ship will sail in all its glory.

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.