I’d planned spend the 3rd week of November talking about plot and conflict. Or plot and meaning. Or plot and purpose. But definitely plot. And then two things happened: one of my students wanted to quit and I had to abandon over 50,000 words of a passion project. My student wasn’t having any fun with NaNoWriMo, her manuscript didn’t make any sense, and it all seems pointless. For me, other than the grief over lost material, the shift away from it allowed everything else to come into focus. The shift wasn’t easy but after a lot of back-and-forth and writing this way and that, it was the right thing to do. At this point in my career, I know to listen when my inner writer has different ideas than the woman doing the typing. I know to listen, and yet I didn’t. And not listening meant I went via the scenic route to nowhere. It happens. Bummer.

Given that, I certainly wasn’t going to tell my student she had to keep going at all costs. Instead, I asked if she wanted to shift goals. What if the point of the month-long challenge wasn’t to finish the novel, but to practice writing in a way that would allow her to develop skills? Skills that included listening to her own inner writer. She agreed to try, and I agreed to stop sobbing about the 50k+ words in my manuscript that will now gather dust.

Now, on to plot.

I am not a plot-driven reader or writer. And that means plot as a tool in the writing craft is not my default as a teacher. I have an incredibly brilliant friend with a PhD who has written many a poem to make your heart stop. She also teaches and starts every creative writing class with a discussion on plot and conflict. I remember the first time I saw her syllabus, I thought, huh, that’s odd. And forget a plot that you can describe in an elevator pitch. I’m one of those people who thinks that if you can talk about a book in the elevator, I don’t want to read it.

But one of the ways that my writing has changed since writing about dragons in Vienna, is that I have become more story driven. If you find yourself stuck and it’s not because you are chasing 50,000 words in the wrong direction, look at your plot with these questions.

What is the conflict at the heart of the scene (yes, my friend was right. She is brilliant for a reason)?

What is the purpose each character has in the scene?

How does this scene move into the next?

Lastly, if everything is feeling futile, go and re-read The Second Coming. It will put NaNoWriMo, your wasted time, your work, and the world into perspective.

When I was young, my father used to say that the Devil is in the details. I went to college in North Carolina, where the expression was that God is in the details.  Whoever is in there, details are important.  Why else would supernatural beings reside in them?

But which details, why, when to use them, and how?  Too much bogs you down in another writer’s minutia (hello, Caleb Carr), and too few fail to do the job.

1) Before you open up your WIP, ask yourself, what 3 things matter most to the main characters.  You can practice by asking yourself what 3 things you (not your characters) would grab if the house was on fire (for me, it’s dog, cat, laptop).

2) As you work this week, experiment and practice with detail; it will become your strongest tool in bringing elements of fiction to life.  Questions posed to writers help us to leave our non-writing lives behind.  We start with what if and then have to get down to brass tacks.  Let details be what brings you to the heart of your writing.

3) How to describe the place around the action?  I am working on a scene in the front yard of a house near the woods.  I know what the road running by the yard looks like, the exact green of the woods, and that the house’s big front door is not only heavy but painted black.

4) Is it true that clothes make the man?   My glamorous sister proves the answer is yes even in her comfy PJs (they have a distinct insouciance to them).  Even I, in my decades old skirt from the GAP, answer in the affirmative.  So, as you get your mind into your manuscript, ask yourself, who wears what?  How do they feel about it?  There is a reason I read Lisa Kleypas’ descriptions of clothes more avidly than her sex scenes.  The dresses, with their underskirts, flounces, bodices, and lace cuffs, show me more about romance than the throbbing does.

5) Details about Food.  I remember how in City Hall (a movie written by Nora Ephron’s husband) Bridget Fonda’s character ordered a burger and a coke.  And, I was like, there is no way that Fonda drinks coke (or eats a burger).  Compare Fonda’s meal to the special orders Meg Ryan has in Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally.  Or look no further than Louise Penny’s mystery novels.  They don’t simply reveal who murdered whom, they lovingly linger over meals with warm bread, butter, and rich coffee.  Food matters, so don’t gloss over it.

What 3 things would your characters leave in a fire?  For me, it would be the junk drawer, the flameless candles I bought on impulse, and the postcards I’ve saved over the years.

The poem for week two is Hurry by Marie Howe.  Howe reminds us of how little is needed to build a narrative, but also how much a story can break your heart.

After classes end, people often contact me saying they are having trouble finding time to write.  Do I have any suggestions how they can do better?   As a rule, I am against the how-to approach to writing because what makes the work sacred is how personal it is. 

Experience may bring a few tricks of the trade, but I’m not an expert on how to use time.  After all, managing it has spawned an industry of tracking apps, self-help books, and consultants.  Generally, people do not turn to fiction writers for tips on productivity.   

Still, I might answer a struggling student with some obvious ideas.   

1. Can you get up ten minutes earlier and write before the day gets away from you. 

2. Can you skip TV at night and write after the dinner, kids, and pets are squared away?   

3.  Can you miss a lunch hour work-out and write instead?  

Even if the answer is yes to all three, it won’t change that time is a writer’s most necessary ingredient and that there’s no magic trick to finding it.  

It always involves a trade.  It won’t be an easy one, it just has to be the right one.  

Early in my career, I tracked my spending until I saw how to cut my expenses by a fifth.  After talking to my boss, we agreed that for a pay cut, I could work four days a week.  I purchased writing time – a string of Tuesdays that I still look back on as some of my quietest and happiest days – for the price of never eating out, not turning on the heat before sunset, and any chance of getting promoted.   

For me, it was a good trade, but for you it might not have been.  

Just as there is no one way to write (and please run very far and fast from anyone who tells you there is), there is no one way to find the time; only the way that works for you.  Even though I was getting up at 5 am to write before work, I still needed the extra day for the convoluted story in my head to sort itself out on the page.  The time we need is measured by the gap between our ideas and what we can write.  

What I aim to do at Write to Read is provide a space where you have a home in the struggle to narrow that gap.  I don’t teach so as to tell you what to do.  Instead, just as I meet my work exactly where it is, I teach by gauging where you are in your work and try to point you in a useful direction.  

That includes editing, yes, but also encouragement to get to your desk.  You can remind yourself that the story that waits for you is fun.  But what works best is how much you value working to close your gap between the idea you have and what you’ve written.     

I will never tell you it is easy, but I will swear at sword’s point that it’s worth it.  

Trading for time to write is not akin to cleaning out your closet or going on a three-day detox.  Both of those tasks have a built-in end date, while the beauty of writing is that it transforms more than it finishes.  I will complete a draft, but guess what?  

It. Always. Needs. Work.  And the work can be elusive to measure (even if you have a daily word count quota).  

I can’t explain to myself, let alone to anyone else, why on some mornings I get five hundred words in with my coffee and on others I wind up deleting more than I keep.  But I do have one last suggestion that is more useful than how you spend your lunch hour:  Listen to what time has to say.  

If I took a dollar from every person who has said to me, upon hearing what I do, If I could find the time, I’d write a book, my bank balance would be much improved.  But there’s nothing you could pay me for the expression on their faces when I reply: If you listen to your time, you might find it.  

When I make everything but my writing a priority, I’ve learned that it means what I’m doing isn’t working.  Maybe I’m trying to finish chapter fifteen when it’s the prologue that needs revising.  Whatever it is, I need to listen.  And then act.  So, perhaps, in the time you’ve cleared at lunch or in the morning, don’t sit at your desk:  Go for a walk, knit, or fold laundry.  

Listen to what time has to say about how you’re closing the gap between the story in your head and the one getting on the page.  Listen to what it has to say about possible trades.   

And then get back to work.     

{Top photo by Patrick Fore, Koch poem originally published in the May 18, 1998 issue of The New Yorker}