Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Back to Basics - Writing from the Middle and Some Confessions

Originally, I had planned to do a post today on Growth Mindsets for Writers. I'm a teacher, and Growth Mindsets is something we focus on a lot in education. I thought it would be fascinating to explore how they affect writers.

But sometimes life throws us curves, and in this case, it's thrown the world a curve in the form of COVID 19. 
For me, that has meant my city on complete lockdown with a terrifying number of cases exploding exponentially. For me as an educator, it has meant an upheaval in the way I teach - and a very quick introduction to conducting my classes via Google Meet.

Because of that (and a rapidly approaching deadline), I decided to refresh one of my very old Seekerville posts (from 2015) today. I think in some ways it is related to the Growth Mindset post I had intended, but actually, I was inspired by a link in last Saturday's Weekend Edition. Into the Mist...And Off the Cliff  by Mary Gillgannon at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.  

It reminded me of this post I did about how one of James Scott Bell's books had helped me find my way out of the mist.

The context for that was I had originally done a Seekerville post on Writing Into the Mist which was based on a speech I heard Jo Beverley give aeons ago at RWA. 

Confessions of a Reformed Writer (Or How James Scott Bell Helped Me Find my Way out of the Mist)

Once upon a time, there was a young woman who loved to read. Writing books never ever crossed her mind. She beheld authors as on a pedestal. They were magicians who created the extraordinary stories that swept her away to other lands and times. Surely they weren’t mere mortals.

Time passed and the young lady grew up and got a job working for a movie company. One day, while traveling to a business conference, she grabbed a magazine in the airport newsstand. The magazine contained a feature on two women, California secretaries, who typed best-selling historical romances during their lunch hours.

That article was life-changing because the young woman, for the first time, began to consider that ordinary people could be authors. Did that mean even she could possibly become an author? Join the hallowed ranks of people like Frank Yerby and Gwen Bristow, Walter Farley and Irving Stone?

I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that I was that young woman. The year was 1984. I remember the moment as if it happened yesterday. I was a newlywed, alone on a business trip for Columbia Pictures. I picked up the magazine so I’d have something to read in my hotel room.  The two authors were Rosemary Rogers and Shirlee Busbee.

To this day, I credit that article for planting the seed that I could write a book. I’d always had ideas in my head. I’d always made up stories. It just never occurred to me that I could turn them into those magical books that meant so much to me.

Unfortunately, the article made it sound really easy. Have an understanding boss, type away whenever you have free time, and you too can write for Avon books.

I can hear you laughing at me.

It’s okay. With the gift of hindsight, I’m laughing too. Sort of. Apparently I’m a slow learner. And that’s where this story takes a detour - a thirty year detour.

But hang on. It has the requisite happy ending.

Along the way there were babies, graduate degrees, career changes (several of them), and even other interests.

But through them all, the seed that had been planted grew. Slowly - sort of like those evergreen trees that grow an inch every seven years. But it had deep roots that never let go. I snatched moments at dance class or in a coffee shop between work and picking up my daughters. I wrote freely and happily, ignorant of rules or conventions. I was in love with writing. Ordinary, mortal me was writing books!

There were some early successes (Golden Heart finals) and the amazing world of writers’ conferences where I met other women like me who also loved to write. We plotted over tea and scones while our children played. The rush and the joy were incredible.

But into every life a little rain must fall.



And then there was this thing called craft.

At writer’s conferences people were all talking about this mysterious thing called GMC. Everywhere I turned I was hearing Deb Dixon’s name.

I began to learn that writing wasn’t just fun. It took discipline, attention to craft, and (*heavy sigh*) it needed a structure.

I’ll spare you the following pain-filled years.

By now you might be asking yourself what any of this has to do with James Scott Bell.

Good question. I’m getting there.

But first…

A few years ago, as I was muddling through the land of unpubbed writers, I shared a post here about Jo Beverley and my light bulb moment hearing her speech at RWA about writers who write into the mist. That was so much nicer sounding than pantsers.  

As more time went by, I had to acknowledge something. As much as I loved writing into the mist, it wasn’t working for me anymore.

The problem was I wasn’t just writing into the mist, I was getting totally lost in it. I was happy when I was writing, but I ended up with many, many hundreds of thousands of words on my computer and very few final, complete manuscripts.

Confession is supposed to be good for the soul, so I’m confessing. I was a mess. I was a messy writer, writing in a misty world, and I desperately needed a compass.

That’s where James Scott Bell comes in. I don’t know if he’s ever envisioned himself as a knight in shining armor, but he came to my rescue as surely as any hero on a white steed.

Confession #2. James Scott Bell has no clue about who I am. This rescue was rather anonymous.  It happened when I saw a tweet mentioning his book Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story.

I downloaded a sample to my Kindle App and my life changed again.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

You see, in between the mist post and me discovering Super Structure, there was some happy news. I sold a book. 

Unfortunately, that didn’t solve my messy writing problem. In fact, it added pressure to repeat the feat.

My Kindle App doesn’t give page numbers for this book, but at the 11% mark I ran across a paragraph that practically screamed my name.  Bell quotes a post by John Vorhauson on Writer Unboxed about the huge, ragged mess he’s left with after writing his pantsed first draft. 

It made me want to cry. The mess he is talking about is one I know too well.
BUT, there was a ray of hope. Bell said he had a way to help pantsers become more efficient. Yes! My white knight!

The help he offers is a very simple but profound list of 14 signposts a writer can use to organize the story. The remainder of the book explains each signpost in great detail.

Why does this excite me so?

I’m a teacher. I know that children learn in different ways. So it makes sense that as adults we go about our work in different ways. Gather any group of writers together and you’ll see that we work in equally many ways. Pantsers are pansters (or misters) and plotters are plotters, and it’s really pretty futile trying to convince one that the other way is better.

The beauty of Super Structure is that it can work for each of us in our own way. Sort of like play dough, we get to mold it in a way that fits our style while keeping the same central backbone of structure. Plotters can use the signposts as they outline their novels. Mist writers like me can use the same signposts to make sense of the ragged mess of story we’re left with after speeding through that first draft. As Bell indicates, we’re not all that different really. The pantsers are simply writing that outline as a rather long, somewhat rough first draft.

In the book, Bell uses many examples from books and films to show how these signposts work to support great stories. He takes you through step-by-step explaining the role and location of each signpost. It’s amazing!

Why am I a fan?

Because for the first time in a long time, I don’t feel frustrated by my writing. I’ve tried plotting ahead. I can’t. My brain doesn’t work that way. The ideas that fill out my stories come to me as I’m writing them, as I’m getting inside my characters. I can’t force that ahead of time no matter how much I wish I could. But now, I have a way of wrangling all those ideas into a story with structure

So what do you do when your natural writing style is impeding progress and derailing your career?

You have two choices: give up or keep going.

If you decide to keep going, you have to remember the famous advice attributed to Einstein.  "Insanitydoing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Fortunately my sanity was saved when I saw that tweet and downloaded Super Structure.

Oh, one final note: once I summoned my courage, I decided to put Christmas in Hiding to the test. According to Bell, every great story has a moment exactly halfway through that is known as the “Mirror Moment”.  It’s the moment he wrote an entire book about (Write Your Novel from the Middle) It is the moment halfway through the book when the “main character has to figuratively look at himself, as in the mirror. He is confronted with a disturbing truth: change or die.”

Nervously, I opened Christmas in Hiding to the middle, and WOOOHOOOOOO, there it was, just where it was supposed to be - my Mirror Moment.

Somehow, in my mad rush, my instincts (honed by 30 years of trying) had me do it right.

Now I just have to pull it off again.

And so do you.

Good luck!

So let’s chat.

I’d love to hear your thoughts - about your writing styles, how you organize your writing, whether any of you are as messy as I am. Have any of you read Super Structure?

Cate Nolan lives in New York City, but she escapes to the ocean any chance she gets. A devoted mom, wife and teacher, Cate loves to leave her real life behind and play with the characters in her imagination. She’s got that suspense writer gene that sees danger and a story in everyday occurrences. Cate particularly loves to write stories of faith enabling ordinary people to overcome extraordinary danger. 


  1. Pam, what a helpful post for both aspiring authors and writers who get caught in a crunch of WHAT HAVE I DONE????? and have to unspin half a book to make things right.

    This is such good solid information for all of us. Thank you for sharing!

    1. I love you Ruthy, and I love Pam, so I'll forgive you calling me Pam and take it as a compliment that you think I am worthy of her praise. *smooches*

      Always a good thing when someone else can learn from our messes, right? And my books tend to be BIG messes. My revisions are kind of a mess right now, too. That has to change within 5 days! EEK!

  2. And now I'm sure you're making notes about a suspense story happening during the Corona virus/ Covid 19 outbreak in NYC with everything shut down, and people afraid to even talk to one another, and how does a heroine get help...

    or trust the hero....

    When the world around her has just run amok?

    1. Post-apocalyptic???

      It may be too soon - for the next decade!!!!

      It's still the very rare 9/11 setting that I can read. Susan Meissner's A Fall of Marigolds was my only exception so far because it is - exceptional!

    2. I'm reading a book right now that takes place during 9/11. You're right, Cate. It might be too soon.

  3. I, too, am not a strict plotter. It's not my nature. Back in my software engineering days I could never outline the structure for a program, I just had to do it, then fix it later. It is the same way with my writing. But a few years ago I realized that didn't work either, so I read Write From the Middle which changed the way I thought through things. I always had this idea that I needed to write the story chronologically and once I "loosened" up my own rules, things are much better, as well as realizing that there is no one "right" way to write. That has given me so much freedom from the mists :)

    Hope your classes are going well. My kids' high school and college classes are obviously all online now and it is certainly a new way of teaching/learning.

    1. Oh Yay! A kindred spirit. I'm so glad to hear it worked for you too, Glynnis.

      Off to teach class for a few hours. I'll check in on breaks. So far it's going well.

  4. this is a wonderful post. I am not a writer, but I am a quilter. And just like writing the middle part of the process is the "mirror" section that either makes or breaks the project. There are those of us who are all over the place in putting our quilts together and there are those of us who are extremely organized. We learn to appreciate each other for who we are. Thanks for today. quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

    1. What an interesting observation, Lori! I used to quilt (someday I'll have time for it again,) and I've often compared writing to quilting. Planning how to piece the top is the plotting stage, and I've learned to start in the middle (unless I'm working with a single color design.) The colors work together better when they radiate from the center, and story plotting does the same thing - the story radiates from a specific point (for me, it's the Black Moment.)

    2. Hi Lori. I replied to this earlier, but I don't know what happened to my post. :(

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I love the comparison to quilting. I used to sew and quilt a lot. I was slightly better at being organized when I was quilting - most likely because I was following someone else's directions!

  5. Hi Cate:

    The term 'pantser' comes from the early days of aviation when there were almost no instruments in the airplane. Pilots had to literally fly by the seat of their pants.

    "You can fly by the seat of your pants but that's not where your brains are".:+)

    One of the greatest dangers of flying by the seat of your pants is flying into the mist. As my flight instructor was fond of saying, "You're not a bird! Don't trust your body. Always trust your instruments."

    If you fly into the mist or a cloud, you will quickly get vertigo and you will not be able to tell up from down. Every once in a while you'll read or hear about a pilot who flew his plane straight into the ground at high speed. Those disorientated pilots thought they were climbing in order to seek safety in higher altitude.

    We had a congressman here in Oklahoma who flew into clouds, got confused, thought he was climbing, and crashed at high speed into the ground. I believe this also happened to John Kennedy when the mirror-still water he was flying over made him think he was climbing when in fact he was actually diving straight into the water. (Control towers in Florida sometimes have to warn pilots that they are flying upside down if the runway approach is over a large expanse of very still water.)

    I failed my 'pantser' flying test when my instructor put a hood on me, (so I could not see), flew a few aerobatic maneuvers, and then got the plane going at really high speed.

    He then yelled, "Are we diving or climbing?"
    "Of course we're climbing. My back is being pushed strongly against the seat."

    He took the hood off and we were headed crazily straight towards the ground at high speed! "You're not a bird! Don't believe your body. Trust your instruments." I learned my lesson that time! (My instructor flew helicopters into fire zones to rescue troops during the war. He was fearless!)

    What does all this have to do with pantsers? Well if you insist on being a pantser, at some point, often many, you are going to have to answer."


    1. Wow, Vince! That instructor was either fearless or crazy! What a story!

    2. Hi Jan:

      In this case 'fearless and crazy' are not mutually exclusive. However, flying with him, given that the plane was not areobatically rated, probably was mutually exclusive. :)

    3. I'm terrified at the thought of what could have happened. Lesson learned indeed!!!!

      Yes, that is what happened to John Kennedy. It was a very foggy night. I remember it all too well.

      This - "Well if you insist on being a pantser, at some point, often many, you are going to have to answer."

      True. But fortunately in writing it's not often fatal (though it can be to a book). I think trying to change how your brain works creatively can be a futile endeavor, but I am always open to trying new ways. You never know what will click.

  6. Great post, Cate. I need some idea of where I'm going when I write, but I also have pantser tendencies at time. It is good to know there is a way for both. I hope you are doing well in the lockdown and that your online teaching goes smoothly.

    1. Thanks, Sandy Online teaching is exhausting! You're ON for the whole time in a way you're not at school. Plus you know the parents are listening in the background!

    2. Cate, I hadn't thought about how the parents are listening as well. You must feel like you have a roomful of people.

  7. Good post, Cate, and I am going to get that book. Or all his books.
    I'm mostly a plotter, but a few years ago I realized I wasn't plotting the "right" way, not enough GMC, or GMC for one character and not the other. I had a good crit partner for a number of years who led me through Three-Act, Seven-Act, "Save the Cat" and a good bit of Hero's Journey. I got a much better product and it is fun to finally know what I'm doing.
    I'm an amalgam of plotter and pantser, which is a REALLY weird place to be. With most of my books I've skipped back and forth, writing whatever section comes to mind while it's hot and then filling in the gaps. I do have an outline, but I write whichever parts come easy to me first. My current WIP is different. I decided to do it linear, no matter what. I have an outline and i know where things are going, but I'm not writing anything out of sequence. That's because this is a more complicated plot than I've attempted in the past, with real historical events and real historical people, so I don't want to have to go back and correct mistakes.
    Oh that Covid 19. I'm not self-isolated but I'm home most of the time anyway because everything is closed, so I'm getting a lot done on my writing. Good thing. I've got galleys due the end of this week and my nonfiction book deadline is April 14.
    I did not know about your career in Hollywood! That's fascinating!
    Structure is amazing stuff. It's like shaving your legs in winter. Nobody can see it, but YOU know.
    May be back later,

    1. Okay, you made me laugh with the shaving your legs thing. It reminded me of something about what Lori posted above. I have always been bad about the "inside," the parts not seen. It used to drive my mother crazy when I was learning hot to sew. The outside of the finished shirt or dress would be beautiful, but the inside was a tangle of threads.

      I sort of feel like my mind is that tangle of threads as I'm writing, and the challenge is to untangle them without snapping any threads.

    2. Learning HOW to sew. Nothing hot about it.

  8. Cate, you're talking my language here!

    Story crafting is an art, and I'm so thankful for the gifted people who have written books about the many different ways to approach it!

    I use plot points - Bell's signposts - when I plot, but I also leave a lot of space between them for the story to happen while I write (a bit of "pantstering") And I've also found that defining that moment 3/4 of the way through the story (the mirror moment, or what Susan May Warren calls the "Black Moment Effect") is what my story revolves around. Once I identify that point (and even write it out,) then the rest of the story falls into place around it.

    Thanks for the great post!

    1. I agree, Jan. I love craft. I love studying it and trying to apply it.

      I also agree about knowing that moment. When I started my current book, I established a few critical points/scenes and worked around them. It does give the book my own very vague type of outline.

  9. I read Bell's WRITING FROM THE MIDDLE earlier this year...pre-Corona! He's a delightful instructor, easy to follow and understand. I must get the book you mentioned, Cate.

    I have a certain method to develop my stories. At times, I want to create in a different way, but when I try something new, it doesn't work. We all have our own process. We can tweak it a bit, but the basic format remains fairly constant. At least that's what I've found.

    Happy writing to all! I'm finding the days are flying by. So much to do in this time of self-containment. I thought I would be looking for new projects. Hardly! I'm keeping the family on an even keel, cooking and managing my food stockpile as best I can, exercising to stay strong and researching lots of info about corona viruses. A crazy time, for sure.

    Praying for all of us! Stay strong, safe and Corona free!

    1. Debby, I find my days are passing quickly, too, while dealing with more cooking than usual, etc.

    2. Yes, Debby. He makes it all sound so easy and sensible. It's a gift.

      I'm glad you are filling your days. I hear so many people at loose ends, but between teaching online and writing with a looming deadline, I barely have time to catch a breath.

  10. Hi Cate:

    I don't know if you've meet or heard James Scott Bell give a seminar but he is a very impressive guy. He's real tall, a lawyer, and a great speaker and teacher. I saw him many times during a writing conference in Crested Butte and he spoke without notes, Power Point, handouts or any graphics. He held the audience's full attention the whole time. He instructed like he writes: 'page-turner' interesting and to the point. He gave important information you could use right away no matter how advanced in writing you were.

    Here's another thing: Bell came to other seminars every day when he was not teaching himself. He also came by after supper in the huge lobby area to take part in spontaneous student group discussions about what we learned that day. I had the feeling that he was learning more than anyone else at the event.

    I try to read all Bell's craft books. I like the book about writing from the middle the best. It has been one of the most helpful to me. Of course, I like books that I fully agree with.

    My personal and favorite writing approach is to come up with a meaningful and insightful objective for writing the story. For example, I am working on a story which takes place in Athens at the time of Plato and Aristotle. The insightful goal is to show how much like Christanity Plato's teachings were at about 400 years before Christ. This is so much so that the Church, in the time of St. Augustine, considered making Plato a saint. Of course, my book is a romance and there is no real talk about philosophy. It's just that the main characters are just fond of Plato and his ideas. They live them.

    I think if you have such a goal it unifies everything else you are doing. In a way it acts like "The Moral Premise".

    Just some thoughts.


    1. Vince, I agree that JSB is a great teacher.

    2. Vince, I have never had a chance to meet him or attend a workshop. Hopefully one day. I used to follow his blog posts, which was probably how I found out about this book. That rings a bell. (No pun intended. Hah!)

      I think your book sounds fascinating and I love your premise.

      Thanks for always sharing your insights.

  11. I meant to point out that the goal of the book I mentioned above is not to teach about Plato but to show how living by Christian values, even before Christianity came about, can be a better way to live your life.

    The Moral Premise of this book would be:

    "If you live your life according to Christian values, then you will have the best chance for a happy and successful life; however, if you don't live your life according to Christian values, then it is likely that you will not live as happily or successfully as you could have."

  12. Cate, what a great post! I actually have loved JSB's book Write Your Novel from the Middle. It's been a huge help to me! So I totally get how having those signposts can be a great tool. I need to go make sure I also have Super Structure.

    1. Thanks, Missy. I find myself going back to it to roughly outline each new book. There's something about these guideposts that doesn't offend "mister" me.

  13. Hey Cate - hope you're staying healthy!
    I've read a few books by Bell and I find there's ALWAYS something to come away with. :) No wonder his books on writing craft come highly (and often) recommended.
    I'm a plotter, to a certain extent leaving room for creativity and space for the characters to take me where they want to go. I've used the Romance Beats and the Story Question to help me figure out where I'm going. I haven't tried writing into the mist - except for the short little stories my little ones ask me to write for them. :) I'm a planner by nature so the mist writing petrifies me.


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