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.
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.
Enter Super Structure.
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. "Insanity: doing 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.
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.