How to Keep Your Story on Track

This month, I’ve written about how to stay on track with your drafts, revisions, queries, and using self-care because after all, you can’t keep writing if you’re burned out.

Today, however, I want to talk about craft. How do we keep our stories on track?

The short answer?

Story trajectory.

Your story’s trajectory is the third rail of your story. The thing that keeps your story chugging along through Inciting Incident, MidPoint, and Climax stations. The driving force of your narrative. The secret sauce that keeps readers turning pages long after they should have turned their lights out for sleep.

But what do I mean by trajectory?

The dictionary of Google defines trajectory as: the path followed by a projectile flying or an object moving under the action of given forces.

In your story, your protagonist is your projectile, your story obstacles are the given forces, and the path your protagonist takes as a result will be determined by the choices they make in the story.

Let’s take it one step further. Earth is on a trajectory around the sun, right? It orbits on the same path, in perpetuity, until and unless something comes to change that direction. Otherwise, same boring orbit over and over and over and over and…you get the point.

Our protagonist starts a story in ordinary orbit, following the path they always have until–WHAM! An asteroid, known as our inciting incident, forces our main character to look around and decide what to do next. With a strong inciting incident, going back to regular orbit isn’t an option. Time to find a new path. And this new path may look like a free fall for a while as our character tries new things, but eventually, all the choices and actions our character’s make leads to a moment of change and a settling into a new orbit. At least until the next asteroid makes an appearance (Hello, sequel!).

You’ll notice I’ve bolded some words.




Your protagonist is reacting to each new obstacle they face which results in consequences and new obstacles and new decisions and new consequences.

Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of space junk hitting a very sad character free floating without a means of saving themselves. We want to see protagonist’s doing something. Even, and sometimes especially, when it’s the wrong thing.

So how do we know if our stories have a strong trajectory that will inevitably lead our protagonist’s to their new orbits?


Or as easy as anything about this writing gig can be.

Think about your story and how scenes connect to each other. If you were to say summarize your story, would it read like this:

“This happened and then this happened and then this happened and then the end.”

Or a more specific example: “When Mark Whatney was left behind on Mars, presumed dead, he goes into the hatch and waits for someone to come find him while his food runs low.”

Or, does it read like this:

“When Mark Whatney was left behind on Mars, presumed dead, he goes back into the hatch and because he is a botany expert, makes a plan to grow food to survive until the next mission is set to return in a few years. He figures out a system to water his new potato plants, but he nearly blows himself up in the process. He tries again and succeeds. With a supply of food, he turns to the next problem, communicating with NASA and sets off on a month-long mission to retrieve Pathfinder. Now he can communicate with Earth but a complication with the airlock exposes his potato plants to the harsh environment and kills them. Because of that, NASA initiates a mission requiring Whatney to travel for 90 sols to a vehicle that can reunite him with his crew, but it’s too heavy and needs modifications, therefore…”

Do you see the difference? In story 1, your protagonist isn’t doing anything. It seems extreme in this premise, but it’s the same thing if your main character is a woman whose husband is cheating and she continues to just wait for him to change or a man is in a dead end job and meandering through his life while bad things happen to him without attempting to change them at all.

In story 2 (a very generalized summary of The Martian*) things are happening that the protagonist reacts to which results in a consequence or an obstacle that then requires a new action or decision which will then have its own consequence. This action/consequence trajectory drives your reader through the story. I remember staying up entirely too late into the wee hours reading The Martian to its conclusion just to see what Mark would do next.

For another explanation of story trajectory, check out this short video of the creators of South Park (seriously, trust me):

In short: Actions lead to a consequence or obstacle which requires a new action which causes a new consequence or obstacle, and so on and so on and so on.

There is an old writing adage that you get a character up a tree in act 1, throw rocks at them in act 2, and get them down in act 3. It’s a very simplified version of story structure, but the danger is in the throwing of the rocks. If you’re reading a story where a bunch of bad stuff just keeps happening to the main character, it gets painful–both for the protagonist and the reader. Readers want to see characters making choices. Bad choices, good choices, doesn’t matter. We want to see them react and get themselves into deeper trouble and we want to see them get themselves out. We want them to earn that lesson they are learning through this story. So sure, throw a rock at your protagonist, but what if he catches it and throws it back? What if he climbs higher and gets a splinter? What if he becomes allies with the squirrels and launch an acorn counter-attack?

You can now use this knowledge to analyze your story whether you are stuck at the beginning, in the murky middle, or in a revision.

  • If you are just starting a draft: Outline your major plot points and think about what will connect those beats. Be sure your character has agency in creating their own story chaos. If you are a plotter, make sure your outline is free of and thens and full of but/therefore/because of that. When you aren’t sure what’s next as you’re writing forward, remember to look to your character and see what different choices she can make, consider various consequences, then have her take a new course of action. In other words, don’t just throw another rock at them.
  • If you are stuck in the middle: Take a look back at what you’ve written so far. Are your but/therefore/because of that connections present? If not, what tweaks can you make and does that change where your character ends up in the middle? What action can your character take NOW that will have a consequence as you move the story forward?
  • If you are revising: Outline your story as it stands and then analyze where it has and then versus but/therefore/because of that connections. Make sure your trajectory is strong before you make any other changes in your manuscript. If you’re querying and getting rejections on your pages, it might be time to take a look at that trajectory, too, to ensure it’s as strong as it can be.

Bottom Line: Your story trajectory is the backbone of your story. Whether you are writing an action packed space adventure or a more quiet journey of self-discovery, make sure your story trajectory is strong and compelling. Look for actions and decisions from your characters and avoid and then connections between scenes and chapters.

Featured photo above by Gribgrab on Unsplash

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Staying on Track: Self-Care for Writers

While I’ve been talking about tips to stay on track during drafting, revising, and querying this month, it’s pretty impossible to stay on track when we’re burned out.

Trust me.

This week, I’ve been down for the count with a head cold. I haven’t had one in the three years since COVID locked us into our houses in 2020 (thanks hand sanitizing stations, mask use the previous two winters in crowded spaces, and some darn good luck), and I am, admittedly, being a total baby about it. To add to my misery, decongestants are off the table for me. So if, say, my husband were to get the same cold, he’d probably have been fine days ago. He’d pop some meds and be trudging along only mildly inconvenienced. Instead, I’m toting around multiple boxes of tissues and slathering my wrecked nose with Aquafor to soothe the over-used skin.

With my head fuzzy and my eyes swimming, I have ignored the pile of revision notes I made after chatting with my very best feedback giver. The creative process has stalled over here.

This has happened to me before. After my father passed, for months I could barely put two words together to make an order at the drive thru for coffee not to mention tap into a creative space.

And this summer when the dishwasher leak wrecked our house and I lost access to my office and sanity in the constant influx of workers, tile removal, nail guns, and drying fans.

It can be big things like this or small things like a busy schedule or complicated project at your day job or a sick kid home from school that derail our creative routines.

The thing is, we can’t create on empty. Refilling the well is paramount to creative work. If we are only pouring words out, we eventually will run dry. As creatives, we need ways to find more words, ideas, images, to keep the work flowing.

First, there is caring for the writer. Make sure you’re taking move breaks, stretching, drinking water, taking screen breaks, and getting plenty of sleep at night. Second, there is protecting your creative time. Set your phone to Do Not Disturb when you are writing to eliminate interruptions. Turn off your wifi to eliminate temptations and use Word or Scrivener’s focus settings. Let your family know you are unavailable for the next thirty minutes, or however long you need/want. Invest in noise cancelling headphones or create a soothing playlist that allows you to block out the other noise.

But there is also writing self-care meant to refill our creative wells. I recently took the leap and booked a writing retreat. This was a big jump for me, but it means several days sequestered away in a beautiful location with fantastic amenities so I can focus on my writing. The fact that I’m intimidated by that much time alone with my work means it is probably long overdue.

Creative self-care doesn’t have to break the bank or require a week’s vacation time. We simply need to engage our creative mind in ways where we aren’t creating. Here are some of the things I do when my own creative well needs refilling:

  • Take in a concert–live music is magic. I am always inspired by artists sharing their creativity and musicians do this live at a concert.
  • Take a walk in a new outdoor space. I love a botanical garden for this purpose. A planned space created by a landscaper or botanist or gardener tells a story through plants. A garden, or any outdoor space, will engage your sense of smell, touch, sight, and sound.
  • Go to an art museum. Wander. Pause when you feel drawn to a particular piece. Bring a notebook and jot down why you stopped. What drew you to this work? How does it make you feel? How would you describe it to someone else? Bonus points for making up a flash story, scene, or poem about what’s happening in the work (there is a Burk Uzzle photo of an abandoned barn I saw in a special exhibit at the NC Museum of Art that still calls to me and one of these days will end up in something I’m writing).
  • Take a cooking class or check out a beautiful cook book from the library and try something new.
  • Play with Play-Doh. It’s tactile with a distinct smell. You probably haven’t played with it since you were a child or had little kids. Imagine if you just had a can on your desk for those screen breaks?
  • Plan a day trip to a new town. Explore shops or museums or restaurants there. Allow yourself to get a little lost.
  • Go to a cemetery. There are a few historic cemeteries within a reasonable driving distance to me. Cemeteries contain so many untold and unfinished stories. You can’t rush through a cemetery. You are forced to slow down and be reverent. Sometimes, simply slowing your mind can invite creativity back in.
  • Take a nap, or a longer break from your work. I know that “write every day” floats in every creative circle, but I disagree. Sometimes, you need to stop and take a break and refill your cup in order to be productive. Forcing it will only result in stilted work on the page you’ll need to fix later anyway. This is not permission to abandon your work, but if you need to take a day or two or a week to do something else, do it.
  • Listen to new-to-you music. I love asking friends for recommendations then listening to new albums or artists I’m not familiar with.
  • Read. When I’m stuck or need a spark, I like to read outside my genre or pick up a poetry book and flip through it, letting randomness guide my experience.
  • Meet up with a writer friend. Grab a cup of coffee or go for a walk together. I am always inspired when I’m talking to other writers. Connection with other creatives is a great way to refill your creative well.

The best gift you can give yourself as a writer is the gift of grace. You are human and you need breaks, both physical and mental. Take them. Take a moment to enjoy the world around you in a new way. It will show up in your work in so many different and wonderful ways.

Take care of yourself, dear writers! And let me know in the comments what you do when you need a little creative self-care.

Featured photo above by Svitlana on Unsplash

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Tips for Writers to Stay on Track During the Query Process

Oh, querying.

The very worst of the hurry-up-and-wait-and-wait-and-wait-and-oh, yay-another-rejection game!

It can be difficult for writers to stay on track while querying. It’s the first part of the process where writers give up control. And that can be scary. Terrifying, really. Because not only do we not have control, but we’re essentially asking someone to deem our work worthy.

Or at least that’s how it feels.

If you are currently querying agents–HOORAY! Congrats on making it to this step! It can be a long and drawn out process, so here are a few tips for staying the course while querying:

  1. Be brave. Bravery is a theme around these parts, but it’s important to remember at this stage of the process, too. Putting your work out there requires courage. We’re risking rejection each time we hit send on our email. And rejection does not feel good. Remind yourself that this is scary so it’s okay to be scared. Then take a deep, brave breath and do it anyway.
  2. Pitch in Batches. I advise all writers to pitch in batches. Assuming you’ve done your extensive agent research (and you should have, or I’m sorry to say, you aren’t ready to query yet) and have a list of agents you’d like to reach out to, you probably have a few that in addition to representing your genre have something else that has caught your attention (they are your favorite author’s agent, they only seem to touch bestsellers, they have the same breed of dog as you, whatever…). Start there. Send out about 10 queries at a time (individual and personalized queries please, no bcc-ing or generic “to whom it may concern-ing” here). Wait for feedback before sending out new queries. Then…
  3. Analyze Your Responses. Once you start receiving responses, analyze your feedback before you send your next batch. Agents are in a hurry and often focused on their existing client list. Their responses can feel formulaic and seemingly unhelpful, but there is still a lot you can learn from them.
    • Are you getting only form letter responses?
      • Make sure you are pitching the right agents in the right genre. Perhaps you have a thriller but are pitching to agents in the mystery space. Words matter. Especially in genre. Double check that your age group (middle grade, young adult, adult) and genre are correct. Agents want to know you understand the market and where your book would fit inside it. If you aren’t clear on what genre it is, they aren’t going to figure it out for you.
      • Check your comps. Comparative titles are another indication that a writer understands the market. Your comps should be published within the last three years, ideally, and should not be too well known (i.e, that means no Harry Potter, Stephen King, Jodi Piccoult). Try using two titles to set tone and plot. You can comp an author for tone and a book for plot or a movie and book, etc…, just be sure that you are clear about what of each relates to your title (“Book X is similar in style to Y and will appeal to fans of author Z”). Again, agents want to know you know where your book will sit on the shelf.
      • Make sure you are meeting your genres word count conventions. A 100,000 word YA manuscript is probably an auto-reject–it shouldn’t be that long. A 65,000 historical fiction is also an automatic no–it’s too short. When agents only have time to skim queries, they are looking for reasons to move on. Don’t give one to them.
      • Check your query letter. Once the logistics above are nailed down, it’s time to look at your actual letter: Is it too long? Is your hook strong? Are you getting the who, what they want, what is in their way, and what they stand to lose of your story up at the top? If you aren’t sure if your query measures up, time to study up. I recommend Query Shark to all query writers. Literary agent, Janet Reid, critiques real query letters with fantastic, easy to understand feedback and you can go back through tons of queries to get a good idea of what’s working and what isn’t. I also love The Sh*t No One Tells You About Writing podcast’s Book with Hooks feature where agents Carly Watters and Cece Lyra discuss real queries and opening pages. I get it, query writing is not my favorite either, but the more you immerse yourself in queries that worked, the better yours will be.
    • Are you getting requests and then form rejections? (Not sure if it’s a form rejection? On Query Tracker you can check the comments page for the agent and oftentimes folks will share the responses they receive from an agent so you can get a feel for their form rejection language.)
      • Good news–your query is doing its job and agents want to read your work!
      • The bad news? Something is not holding up in the pages. It might be time to go back in and see if your character motivation, stakes, and story trajectory are clear in your story.
    • Are you getting requests and then personalized rejections?
      • Some rejections are going to be about personal preferences (“I have something similar on my list,” “I like it but don’t love it enough” (sounds rough, but honestly you want someone who LOVES your story as much as you do). “It’s just not for me…”). This is hard not to take personally, but do you buy every book you see in a book store? Nope. You pick the books that speak to you. Agents are no different. It doesn’t mean the book you didn’t buy at the bookstore isn’t a great book, it’s just not what you want to read right now. So what do you do? Send out 10 more queries!
      • If the agent you pitched provided specific feedback, do a happy dance! Then, give it a careful read and see if it stands up to what you are trying to do with your manuscript. DO NOT FALL INTO THE TRAP OF EDITING YOUR MANUSCRIPT TO TRY TO FIT EVERY INDIVIDUAL AGENT’S FEEDBACK. You’ll drive yourself crazy, water down the manuscript, and it may not make your story stronger. Collect your feedback, look for patterns, and then take a hard look at your manuscript to see if you agree with it before you make changes.
  4. Take Care of Yourself.
    • It can be very easy to stalk your email inbox or panic every time you get a new message notification. If you are tempted to refresh your email every five minutes every time you send a query, I would suggest setting up a new gmail account just for querying. And turn OFF those notifications. Pick a time of day or a day of the week, and only check that box at those time.
    • Have a piece of chocolate or go for a walk every time you get another pass. Do something that feels good (but not self-destructive) to acknowledge the sting of rejection. It’s okay to wallow a bit, it’s only human after all. But don’t let it take over your feelings of self-worth or confidence. Your work was rejected, not you.
  5. Start Something New. Yup. Go ahead and dip into that new idea. Or write a new flash fiction piece every day. Or start a newsletter. Whatever it is, just keep writing something else that isn’t related to the work you’re querying. Not only will this distract you from the process, but it will give you something to chat about when that agent finally calls and one of their questions is, “What else are you working on?”

Querying is hard. But if your dream is to be agented and eventually traditionally published, it’s a necessary evil. Armed with a solid strategy and a few self-care skills, you will be ready to conquer the query trenches.

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Featured image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Tips for Writers to Stay on Track During Revision

Revision is hard. 

We pull, delete, tweak, rewrite, switch order, switch tense, revisit motivations and point of view. There are endless big changes to be made and then we dig into word choice, active vs. passive voice, and punching up dialogue and description. 

And the process can feel endless. 

I know. I’m in it now. As much as I wanted my critique partner to tell me, “Yay! This latest version is ready for publication tomorrow and great enough to be a Reese’s pick” I didn’t realistically expect that. And yet, her feedback yesterday still felt like a gut punch. Not because it was harsh or unearned, but simply because I have some more work ahead of me. And honestly? It brought up a lot of questions about whether I can even dip back into this story. Again. I know I’ve made it better every time I’ve touched it, but sometimes, it can feel like the finish line is constantly moving.

Ever feel that way or is it just me?

The most frustrating part for me is that I know this book is the book. The one I need to make great. The one that, as much as it intimidates me, I want to get right. And getting it right means going back in for another revision pass.

Revising is a marathon, not a sprint. So how do we as writers stay on track? I’m asking for a friend…

Luckily, I wrote about this very topic over at DIY MFA just last week (click for 5 Tips for Staying Accountable During Revision).

Check it out and let me know in the comments what works for you–how do you stay on track during what can feel like endless passes of revision?

Tips to Keep Writers on Track While Drafting

This month, I want to focus on how we can stay on track as writers. Writing a book is a long, complex process and it is easy to lose our way. If you want to finish your novel, read on for tips to keep you moving forward to “the end” of your story and your process.

What are some things that derail us as writers? What doesn’t, right? I mean, day jobs, kids, caregiving, traffic, chores, exercise, cooking, errands…the list of things that fill up our busy lives can certainly keep us from the page.

Before we dig deeper, I want to impress upon you the importance of a writing routine.

I know there are writers out there who swear by the write every day at the same time philosophy. And I’ll be honest, that’s how I work. Not because that’s what everyone should do, but because it works for me to dedicate two morning hours every week day to my writing in order to stay on track. But does everyone have a job with my flexibility? Does everyone have two consecutive hours? Does everyone need that much time to write to stay in the flow? Probably not. So while that works for me, you need to find what works for you.

A writing routine can look like:

  • Writing at the same time every day
  • Getting up an hour earlier and getting in the words before your busy day starts (check out the #5amWritersClub on Twitter for a little early morning company)
  • Using a dictation app to “write” during your commute
  • Writing while waiting for your child’s sports practice or in the waiting room at your elderly parents’ medical appointments (I edited my second manuscript pretty much exclusively during my son’s weekly rock climbing class)
  • Putting aside one weekend a month (or a quarter) that is just for your writing, whether that’s at home, at a hotel, at a retreat, in a friend’s attic…
  • Asking your spouse to take the kids for breakfast every Saturday morning while you write

Basically, a writing routine can look like anything that works for you. It doesn’t have to be EVERY day, but aim for regularity. Setting matters, too. I’ve talked about walk up songs before, but maybe you also have a favorite coffee shop or a corner in your local library or a candle you always light when it’s time to get down to business. As much as we’re taught to think outside the box, creativity loves a container, so create the boundaries and routines for your muse to flourish.

HOWEVER, if you miss a day (or more) because of life, give yourself some grace. I was in the midst of a revise and resubmit when my dad passed away. I couldn’t write for months. I ended up struggling against what I thought I should be doing (writing) and what I was capable of doing (getting out of bed and surviving the day) for a long time until I finally gave myself permission not to write. When I had the courage to return to the page, my routines were waiting for me and I was able to slip back into my writing life. Don’t beat yourself up if you need a break, just be honest with yourself about why you need it so you can more easily recognize an excuse from a reason as well as know when it’s time to return.

Even with established and reliable writing routines, we can easily be distracted from our writing while we’re in the drafting stage. The reasons for this–beyond the typical distractions from our writing routine already mentioned–include fear, imposter syndrome, writer’s block, and a general lack of direction in your writing.

  1. Fear/Imposter Syndrome/Writer’s Block. I think these are three sides to the same emotional triangle. Drafting requires us to put our fears and doubts aside in order to simply get the stories out of our heads and our hearts and onto the page. This is far easier said than done, but I want to remind you that you have a story to tell. You came to the page with an idea, a hope, a dream. Don’t let this emotional trifecta hold you back from achieving your goals. Acknowledge that your fear and imposter syndrome and even your writer’s block are just your inner self’s way of protecting you from the vulnerability that comes with writing. If you can, invite this fear to take a back seat while you’re drafting. Before I begin any new project, I re-read Elizabeth Gilbert’s letter to fear in Big Magic*. If you haven’t read this book on creativity, I highly recommend it, but here’s a quick video on how she lets fear come along for the creative journey without it hijacking her progress.
  2. Lack of direction. I already hear you plotters pumping your fists and you pantsers groaning, but let’s take a step back and discuss what kind of road map can keep you on track while you’re drafting. I am not necessarily talking about a detailed outline, though if that works for you, go for it. I’m talking about is a detailed understanding of what your book is, what you are trying to say, and what it will mean to you and your reader when you say it. These are the foundations on which you will build your work. For plotters, the most intricate plot outline doesn’t mean anything without meaning. For pantsers, the most sincere, authentic character guide can still get lost without a flashlight. To ensure that the next plot point or character instinct will drive your story forward, arm yourself with the answers to these questions: What is your story premise? What is your story point? What will this story mean to you and your reader?

Now, you have a routine, you have your road trip companions squared away, and you have your road map. What could be missing?


Whether it’s participating in NaNoWriMo, submitting new pages to a writer’s group every week or two, hiring a book coach to guide you through the process, or simply circling a date on the calendar, a deadline is beneficial to the writer who wants to stay on track. On track for some writers may be a draft in a month or it may be a draft in a year or somewhere in between or beyond. The logistics don’t matter as much as the commitment to your story, your process, and your dreams. Set a goal and a timeline, track your word count, celebrate those wins, and ask for help when you need it.

Help? What kind of help might a writer need during the drafting process?

  • An accountability partner
  • Page feedback
  • Craft support
  • Research help
  • A babysitter, a time share for a weekend retreat, a cleaning service, or whatever to help alleviate some barriers to writing time
  • A book coach

The goal is to keep you drafting so you finish this book you’ve started! You can do it! Control the environment when you can, set yourself up for success, and keep writing! I’m cheering you on from my little corner of the internet.

Are you currently drafting? What helps you to stay on track at this stage of the process? Drop your favorite routines, accountability hacks, or time management skills that keep you inspired and writing.

If you need extra help or want to chat about where you’re losing sight of your draft, I’m here for you.

Featured photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

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Using a Growth Mindset to Make the Most of Feedback on Your Writing

In the second grade, I got a perfect score on my greater than and less than test. A perfect zero. I had mixed up the way the alligator was supposed to open his mouth. In true writer fashion, I’d created a narrative to help me remember and, according to my reasoning, the alligator ATE the smaller number. How else did get bigger? Whoops. From that moment on, I created a second narrative–the narrative that I wasn’t good at math. Symbols and word problems and goodness me, calculus, all intimidated me before the teacher even opened their mouth to explain a lesson. Looking back, I was still in aggressively paced math classes in high school and did relatively okay with the help of tutors and even managed to place out of entry level math classes in college based on my AP scores. But the narrative that I am not good at math stuck.

When we moved to North Carolina in 2016 and my children started at their new elementary school, I was introduced to the concept of growth mindset. The principal led with this at the center of the school’s culture. It permeated the building. From quotes on the wall to quarterly awards to students for effort not just academic success to reiterating in classrooms that FAIL was nothing but a First Attempt In Learning to encouraging parents to read Carol Dweck’s incredible book, it was EVERYWHERE. And I ate it up. I read it all, watched the Ted talks, and applied it to the kids when talking about school or new challenges.

Until I was grumbling while trying to cook dinner one night, unable to get the lid off a jar. Getting frustrated, I threw my hands up in the air and said, “I just can’t do it.” My then first grader piped up from the table where he was having a snack, “No, mom. You just can’t do it YET!” 


It was a lot harder to internalize a growth mindset in my own writing life and mental outlook than I thought. Fixed mindset had been entrenched in my own schooling. I was praised for my writing. Less than stellar math grades were swept aside since it just wasn’t my thing. I skated by in band with enough talent to score decently on chair tests, but watched a few really talented members of our band soar. What I didn’t see was their commitment to at home practice. I just figured they had “it” and I had nice posture (this was the only compliment I received from one of my band directors).

I do this with my writing sometimes. Surely, I have some talent. A natural affinity for stories and words and expressing myself through them. But that doesn’t mean I have an innate talent for structure or grammar or how to use a subplot to enhance a protagonist’s journey.

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work–brains and talent are just the starting point.”

Carol Dweck

How many writers give up once they receive feedback erroneously thinking that if they didn’t get it right on the first try they must not have the talent for it? I have to admit to a little of this thinking in the early days of my attempts to write long-form fiction. It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially for those of us who were told when we were younger (or just last week) that we are such great writers. If we’re so great, why are we only getting compliments on our posture while so-and-so just hit the best seller list? They must just be better at this.

Spoiler alert: Not necessarily.

Feedback is best used when you can employ a growth mindset. Admit that talent and desire got you to this point, then settle in for the hard work. This may be the first time that someone has pushed back on your skills or pointed out a weakness. It can be hard to hear, but I encourage writers to be open. As long as the feedback is constructive and kind, give it a look and see where you can use it to grow your craft.

What does that mean practically?

  • Read through all the feedback. Before making any changes, read through all your feedback. Make sure you understand it all first. A book coach will definitely go over feedback with you and any beta reader or editor should be willing to answer questions to clarify anything that seems confusing. Read any summary notes then scan your document for any inline comments or questions. Don’t skip anything.
  • Analyze the feedback and look for patterns. Categorize the feedback so you can look for patterns. For example, if you are getting lots of notes about your protagonist, is your character the problem (voice, perhaps) or are their stakes unclear (this may show up in pacing, trajectory, and/or emotional resonance). Group issues where you can. Also, check for feedback overlap. If you received feedback from multiple sources and they all point to one question, character issue, or structure problem, take a good hard look at those issues. Everyone’s opinion is subjective, but if several folks are mentioning the same problem, it’s worth a second look.
  • Look for the truth behind the comment. When I took up this massive rewrite on my own manuscript, it was after receiving some very tough feedback. The book coach I was working with saw the message I was trying to convey and held up a mirror showing me where I was falling short. I looked underneath all her questions and suggestions and realized it was my story point that had gotten muddled, which trickled into character motivation, and therefore meant my ending wasn’t the right one. The changes I ended up making didn’t pertain exactly to changes she suggested or issues she pointed out, but they were a direct result of a new way of thinking about my story that I would not have gotten to without her observations.
  • Look for opportunities to learn. Once you have an understanding of what needs fixing, take an honest look at your tool box. If you are struggling somewhere, now is the time to augment those skills. Read some articles on dialogue or multi-POV stories. Grab your favorite book on structure and see if you executed the scenes effectively in the right places. Take a class or workshop. Use this moment to learn. It won’t be wasted. You’ll take these new skills with you into your next manuscript and the one after that.
  • Brainstorm. Editing after feedback is an opportunity to try new things with your manuscript. Brainstorm ideas with a mind map or grab your critique partner (mine often gets texts from me when I’m noodling ways to solve a problem) or draft a new beginning. Think of this as play time. I like to copy and paste my manuscript into a new document that way I always have the previous version to go back to if I end up hating whatever I’ve done. A cut file also works if your changes aren’t as drastic. Then, experiment. Try a different perspective or write out a scene of what happened on the walk home instead of just “She arrived on foot at her usual time.” I bet you’ll be amazed at what you come up with.

Ultimately, feedback is our opportunity to grow as writers. Even when we disagree with it, understanding why helps us to clarify our own thoughts. Even when we get cruel or hurtful feedback, we learn how to be compassionate feedback givers (a tough way to learn a lesson, though, for sure). Without feedback, we will be stuck in the same writer’s rut. And my wish for you is that you continue to hone your skills, grow, challenge yourself, and finish those stories burning inside of you.

“You don’t know what your abilities are until you make a full commitment to developing them..”

Carol Dweck

Use your feedback to inspire you. To motivate. To excel.

Make the commitment.

Good vs. Bad Writing Feedback

There are two kinds of feedback: useful feedback that helps you grow as a writer and strengthens your work OR bad feedback that is impossible to satisfy and doesn’t teach you anything. 

Bad feedback is:

  • Vague
  • Prescriptive
  • Unkind

Some examples of bad feedback:

“I don’t know why, but I don’t like it.”

“The voice needs to be stronger.”


“You must use XX method to rewrite/fix YY.”

“The writing is bad/amateurish/stupid.”

“The topic is boring.”

“You should maybe try some other hobby.”


Good feedback is:

  • Specific
  • Collaborative
  • Kind

Some example of good feedback:

“Your character’s motivation isn’t consistent. For example, on page 5…”

“I found myself skimming in chapter 4.”

“The three paragraphs on page 35 felt like an info dump of the character’s childhood. Is there any way you can pepper that in throughout the story instead of all at once?”

“I love how because your character is a chef, she describes emotions and situations like specific foods or taste profiles.”

“You seem to be having some trouble with proper grammar and punctuation–I marked a few spots in chapter one to give you an idea. You might want to refresh yourself on some of the rules or use a program like Grammarly to check your work before submitting it.”

Feedback that centers the giver instead of the writer’s growth is bad feedback best filtered out. Good feedback centers the writer with actionable ways to grow and learn. Good feedback points out the positives as well as the not-quite-theres. Good feedback has potential in it. Good feedback is direct, but not mean or unkind. 

Now, here’s the sticking point. Sometimes good feedback still doesn’t feel good. It might be something we don’t want to hear or point out a weakness we weren’t aware of, or worse, one we are aware of and hoped didn’t shine through. You may not always agree with good feedback, but good feedback challenges. Growth is hard. But good feedback is the kind that after you sit with it for a bit of time, you can use to motivate, inform, and guide your next steps. Feedback is the fertilizer and you need the right kind for the right plant in order to see the right results. 

But leave that bad feedback in the compost pile. You don’t need it. 

So, how do you filter out bad feedback?

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is this feedback actionable? Can I take something from this to make my manuscript better?
  • Is this feedback kind? Insults about your abilities or the quality of your work are rarely helpful and probably say something about the feedback giver rather than you’re skill. Mean feedback can always be discarded. Be careful, however, that you don’t confuse direct with mean. Direct feedback is clear and may not be what you want to hear, but if it’s given with kindness and care for your writing journey, give it a listen.
  • Is this feedback appropriate to my specific story? “I hate alien stories” doesn’t mean you should rewrite your whole book if it’s a sci-fi, alien invasion story, it might mean you picked the wrong person to give you feedback. “Where does this alien fit in your story?” might mean something else if you have written a historical romance where a UFO suddenly appears.
  • Does this feedback scare me? Here’s where it can be tricky–feedback that scares you because you now are filled with self-doubt after a particularly aggressive giver wants to prove their own superior knowledge of literature is different from feedback that scares you because you aren’t sure you can handle the changes. Focus on the one that intimidates your skills a little bit. That’s the feedback that will put you on the path to growing your craft.

Remember that all readers are coming to your writing with their own experiences and history. One person may not respond well to a character because they bite their nails and their little brother used to bite their nails and flick the debris at them to get on their nerves. That may not be something you need to consider changing. Be watching for feedback, however, if someone points out problematic, stereotypical, or hurtful language to a particular race, ethnicity, or lived experience. I once inadvertently used a descriptor that was insensitive but didn’t realize it was. Once my reader pointed out why, I was more than happy to change it. Be open to learning from whatever your readers’ experiences are so you can make adjustments that will help your story and your empathy for the reader.

Are you ready for some helpful feedback on your story? Let’s talk about it on a free discovery call!

Feedback: Where Writers Can Find It

Whether you are new to the writing game or have been doing this for sometime, finding valuable feedback on your work is a necessity. The most common question I hear from writers is where to find it.

Let’s take a quick look at the types of feedback available to you first.

Critique Partners or Alpha Readers–These are your first readers. If you have a trusted person you share early work with, that’s fantastic. This person is best used to help you determine if your story idea is working, if your characters are believable, your settings on the page, etc… These readers are trusted and sacred because they are probably seeing a version of your story not quite fit for public consumption. Not everyone is lucky enough to have these readers, so if you do, treasure them! One note about CPs and alphas: If you are sending them work as you go, beware that they might not catch some structural problems as they develop. You’ll need someone to read the entire work, front to back, too, to ensure the story whole is working. This could be your CP/alpha, or you could save that for your beta readers (see below).

Beta Readers–After you’ve made a first or second (or more!) round of revisions on your own, you may want a beta reader. A beta reader should be close to your ideal reader and read a version that’s pretty close to what you think might be “done.” You want them to read it like a real book and provide feedback so you can level up your oh-so-close manuscript to polished perfection. I recommend writers ask specific questions about their manuscript to beta readers to make the most of their experience. Some possible questions to ask betas include:

  • When did you stop reading? (You want to know when the reader put the book down to understand where the pace or story trajectory waned)
  • What confused you? (If a reader has to stop reading to go back and confirm something or look something up or wonder if that’s possible, you want to know. You want to keep your readers immersed in your story world at all times, not wondering if that ferry really runs at that time of day).
  • Where did you question the protagonist’s motives/goals/believability?
  • What did you like best about the story? What did you like least? (This is great information to have as you revise–I received feedback that my betas liked a certain character the least because he was just horrible. When I read their specific comments, I knew I’d done my job with him because he irritated the reader so much. Do parse out those dislikes though–disliking a character who is supposed to be awful is one thing, disliking a subplot because it isn’t serving the main story is another).
  • Did the climax feel inevitable? (All your protagonist’s actions should be building up to an exciting climax that should feel inevitable to your reader–there shouldn’t be an escape hatch for them at that point).
  • Were the stakes clear and high enough?

Developmental Edits–A developmental edit will read through your manuscript and provide you with top level structural feedback on what is and isn’t working in your story. These edits ensure you are building a strong story from the inside out.

Proofreading/Copyediting–These are more line-by-line, grammatical fixes that are instrumental if you’re self-publishing. They are integral to the process, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to stick to more high level feedback providers.

So, Monica, I can hear you saying, that’s all great, but where do I find these people!

Feedback actually is all around.

While some feedback may cost money, it doesn’t have to. If you build up your writing community, you can easily find a network of other writers or supporters who will happily provide (or swap) feedback to you for nothing more than the promise of a future acknowledgement in your book. (And maybe a cup of coffee.)

Some specific places to find community and writing support are:

  • Professional organizations—whether it’s a group based on genre like the WFWA, the RWA, the SCBWI, or your local or state writer’s networks, there are tons of professional organizations you can join that provide connections, mentorships, critique groups and more. Join the group that meets your needs (and budget) and get involved. I’ve been a member of WFWA for years and have benefited from feedback from the group and always see writers helping each other, swapping pages or queries.
  • Hashtags—seriously. That may even be how you found me! There are great hashtags to follow to connect to other writers. Mix and mingle in these social spaces, interact, make online friends, you never know when you will be able to help each other. Try #writingcommunity and #amwriting to start, but research hashtags pertinent to your genre or topic, too.
  • Professional services—whether it’s a beta reading service (I’ve used The Spun Yarn), a developmental editor, or a book coach, there are a lot of services that you can add to your toolbox for feedback. Professional services is where you start investing money in your project, so make sure you have a clear idea of what you want from the experience. I always offer a free discovery call to discuss where you are with your project and what you are hoping to achieve so we can determine 1) what kind of feedback you need right now and 2) whether I’m a good fit for providing it. Most professionals will offer something similar, so don’t be afraid to take advantage of these offers to find the person who feels like the best fit for your communication style, manuscript, and stage of the process.
  • Take a class—I met so many great folks and learned so much about helpful (and frankly unhelpful) critique at a Margaret Mitchell House writing class I took in Atlanta years ago (unfortunately, the same class doesn’t exist anymore). Your local library, bookstore, or coffee shop may offer classes, meet-ups, or even author office hours to ask your writerly questions to an established writer.  
  • Talk to your friends—Honestly, once you say out loud that you are a writer to a few folks, you’ll be amazed at how many others are out there! I met a friend of a friend at a local volunteer event last night and she asked what I do. After explaining I am a writer and book coach, she said her husband was a writer, too–new connection made! Once you make a few writing connections, start a writing group, offer accountability to each other, or swap pages. 

It can be scary to meet new people, especially if calling yourself a writer is new to you, and scarier still to ask for feedback. Remember that rejection is all part of the business. Whether it’s creating community, querying agents, or having your book on submission, the potential for rejection permeates. Start now! Better to risk a little rejection early in your process and receive the added benefit of making your manuscript stronger than go it alone and not see your own weaknesses until it’s too late.

Where else do you find feedback? Let me know in the comments so we can all learn from each other!

Did you know, I also do manuscript evaluations akin to a developmental edit? It’s one of my favorite things to do, actually! I have been a professional beta reader in the past, which was fun but what I love even more is digging deep into a project to suss out the areas where a writer is shining and where they may need to spend a little extra attention. With my manuscript evaluations you will receive:

  • A full read through of your manuscript by me
  • A 5 page editorial letter with feedback focused on big picture structural issues
  • Suggested next steps for revision
  • A 1-hour coaching call to discuss your project, answer questions, and brainstorm

Wherever you find feedback, be brave and ask for it! Not only will your manuscript be stronger, but so will your writing community. Whether we formally work together or not, I would love to be part of your writing community. You can always connect with me here in the comments, via my newsletter, or set up a free discovery call and let’s chat about your project.

Feedback: Why Do Writers Need It? (Series 1 of 4)

This month, I want to dive into feedback. What is it? Why do we need it? Where do we find it? How do we use it most effectively?

Feedback can be a tricky business for writers. We definitely know we need it, but why?

It may seem simple: because we wrote this thing in isolation and we need someone outside of ourselves to tell us if it’s okay.

Let me stop you right there.

Feedback can be helpful for a variety of reasons. We need feedback to:

  • Make sure what we think our story is doing is actually on the page
  • Help us identify weak spots in our craft
  • Point out problems with any depictions outside our lived experience
  • See what we can no longer see because we’ve read the story one hundred times in nearly that many variations
  • To grow!

What you don’t want feedback to be is a your only source of validation that you are a writer.

The most important thing to do when seeking out feedback is set your mindset around it first.

If you are looking for gold stars and stamps of approval that you’re a writing genius, you are probably going to be disappointed in your feedback. Maybe you’ll get defensive or angry, blame the reader who gave the feedback, or even deny the feedback altogether and decide to lock down your manuscript as it is.

Let me tell you why that’s not okay.

If you’re asking for feedback, people will give it. They want to be helpful. We’ll talk later this month about what to do with bad feedback from those whose motives aren’t as kind, but most of the people who give you feedback want to be a part of your writing journey. They want to see you succeed.

But that means, they are going to point some stuff out. And some of it might not be what you wanted to hear.


I get it. I want readers to read my work and tell me how spectacular I am, that nothing needs to be changed, and I should send it out immediately and watch the offers roll in. But I know that is not going to help me in the long run. Why? Because I know I’m not a perfect writer.

If you can approach feedback with a growth mindset, feedback can be a wonderfully nourishing thing for your work and your process. If you lock down your manuscript, ignore feedback, convince yourself that you know better, you deprive yourself of the opportunity to be an even stronger writer.

Feedback is scary. You’re inviting someone into your process to read this thing you created from your mind. Remember, you made the work, you are not the work. Criticism of the work is not criticism of you. Criticism of the work is intended to make it stronger. Armed with feedback YOU will do the job of making it better once you know and understand what is and isn’t working in the story. And we need outside eyes to see what that is.

Often, we’ve read our story so many times in so many iterations and know our characters so deeply, that when we read what’s on the page, we are bringing all this internal knowledge to our reading. An outsider doesn’t know all that you do. Your ultimate readers will be outsiders. You need feedback to know whether everything you intended to say is actually on the page (and not just in your head).

We make changes during revision passes and often forget that we deleted something in chapter three that explains something in chapter eight. We need feedback on whether our story is consistent.

We try new things in our writing and often, we need an outside perspective to see if we achieved the intended result.

None of these scenarios imply you are a “bad writer” if you receive feedback on them. Remember: you are separate from the work. The bottom line is that you can’t fix something unless you know what’s broken.

Long story short, we need feedback in order to grow. We need someone to help us see our strengths and weaknesses so we can learn and improve. We need feedback to keep our stories consistent and clear.

Most importantly, we need to be open to feedback. The writers I love working with the most are those that are open to another perspective. They want to try new things, understand what they do well and what they can do better. They want to experiment and make their stories stronger.

That doesn’t mean that feedback won’t hurt sometimes. We’re human after all and creative work comes from our deepest, most vulnerable parts of ourselves. A scene we absolutely loved may not be working for a reader. Or a reader points out the one problem we were afraid of, the one we aren’t sure how to fix. Or maybe a reader just doesn’t like it. All those things can cause a flurry of emotions that are painful and raw. But once our human, emotional reaction settles, I, for one, always see value in the feedback I receive, whether I use it or not (we’ll dig into that later this month, too!).

Let’s do the writerly thing and use a metaphor. Say a plant is your story. You’ve planted the seed and are watching it grow. But the plant may be lilting one day or browning around the edges. The fertilizer you add, water you give, or adjustments to the amount of sunlight you provide are all the feedback you’re applying to the story plant. Some of those things may work, some may not, but you try them all until your plant is thriving again, stretching tall, and even blooming.

This month, we will explore together how to stock our greenhouse with the best, most effective feedback so we can grow as writers and create beautiful, lush gardens of stories.

Featured photo by name_ gravity on Unsplash

Stuck at “The End” (January Stuck Series 4 of 4)

We made it!! It’s the last full week in January and this month I’ve tried to explore every facet of being “stuck” in our writing process. As a reminder, we’ve looked at:

(For even more, check out my Instagram Stuck Series Highlights)

It seems strange to think of being stuck at the end. After all, we spend all our time writing towards those two little words. But the end can be a daunting thing to get to not to mention the completion of a draft is just the beginning of the next phase: revision.

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

Seneca the philosopher (and also Semisonic in Closing Time, which will forever hold a special place in this college class of 199shhhh’s heart!)

How do you know when your story ends?

Let’s take a look at Cinderella. She marries the prince and they “lived happily ever after.”


I mean, maybe they did, but did NOTHING ELSE ever happen to her? Wasn’t she like a teenager in that story? Marrying Prince Charming certainly ended the story of her orphaned and indentured servitude to an evil stepmother and her horrible daughters. But before that, she had a story with her father after her mother’s death that ended when he married that detestable woman. And she had another story of her childhood that ended the moment her mother died.

Marrying Prince Charming was the end of a story for Cinderella, but also the beginning of another. Did they have children? Did she organize protests in support of other indentured servants in the kingdom? Did she become a veterinarian caring for all the animals at the palace? Did she press charges against her stepmother to ensure she never treated another girl the way she treated Cinderella? Did she write a tell-all after a royal scandal? I mean, the possibilities are endless and happily ever after doesn’t begin to cover it.

Look at your own story this way. There should be a pivotal moment that has resulted in a fundamental change in your character somehow that could also be the kicking off point of another story or journey for your character (I’m not necessarily talking about a sequel here, but more in general). That is your end.

Okay, so, now that you know you’ve reached the end, what does being stuck at the end actually look like?

  • Not knowing how to end the story. You just keep writing and writing and piling up word count
  • Not knowing where to begin the revision process
  • Being stuck in a revision loop of feedback, revise, feedback, revise…
  • Not knowing when a book is “good enough”

These can be paralyzing feelings for a writer. And sometimes the place where the writer, who has come so far with their craft or this particular story, gives up.

Please don’t!

First, try:

If you aren’t sure how to end your draft, have a plan before you start. And if you’re already halfway or more through, stop. Go back and look at your character’s motivation and stakes, consider the point you were trying to make when you set out to write, and make a plan now. It’s never too late for planning. Knowing your character’s arc of change will keep you on track and show you exactly how a story should end. There is an inevitability to your character’s story based on their actions–pay attention to it and you’ll naturally find your way to the end.

If you aren’t sure where to begin the revision process, revise with intent. Read your draft with a critical eye and prioritize big picture fixes first (structure, character arc, character motivation, stakes, etc). Pick one big issue to fix at a time and go through your manuscript for those elements methodically. SAVE THE LINE EDITS FOR LAST! 

If you find yourself stuck in a feedback/revise loop, learn to rely on your writer gut. Feedback is important at a variety of places in the writing process but, at some point, you may become dependent on it. If you constantly send out your manuscript to critique partners or beta readers or your third grade teacher who encouraged you to write and then trying to make changes to appease all of their feedback, then you send that version out again, you may be in a revision loop. Seek out feedback but then analyze it with YOUR critical writer eye. Does the feedback serve the story you are trying to tell? Does it make YOUR story better? Does it point out a problem but you don’t like the suggested fix? Trust your writer gut. It will also tell you when it’s time to stop seeking feedback and take the plunge to query or submit your work. 

If you don’t know when your story is “good enough” to take to the next step, remember to not let perfect be the enemy of good enough. Especially if you’re a debut author. Previously unpublished writers do have a higher bar to clear in terms of their writing as they seek an agent BUT that doesn’t mean your book has to be perfect. In fact, it won’t be. When you sign an agent, they may have changes for you to make. Once it’s sold to an editor, they will definitely have changes for you to make. Yes, polish your book to a high shine but understand it will still need buffing later if not another wash cycle. In other words, there is no real end to the process, so find where your story is the best you can make it right now and know there will be others coming along to help make it even better later.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that sometimes we get stuck at the end because our fear starts to hold us back. The end means we are closer to sharing our work with the wider world and that can be scary for a lot of different reasons. Our internal systems will want to protect us from the saber tooth tiger of criticism. If writing is an act of vulnerability, and I believe that it is, sharing that writing is even more so. Remind yourself to be brave. You are a writer. And eventually, a writer will be read. And the best part? Once you’ve reached the end, you get to start a new story!

May your happily ever after be just the beginning.

Featured image by Matt Bostford at Unsplash.