Writing In the Fog

This morning fog hung low outside my window hiding the sky and giving the trees across the street the hazy look of an impressionist painting. It was beautiful and comforting and slightly unnerving to be wrapped in clouds and mist, separate from a larger, clearer world.

When you’re blanketed by fog, there is no scenery, no long view, no full picture of your surroundings. It’s you and the immediate world in front of you. It’s the ultimate visual meditation–the fog shielding you from what lies ahead as well as preventing you from dwelling on what’s behind, both draped in a soft gray haze with only the present visible.

Sometimes, we need to surround our writing with a little fog. Or maybe a lot.

This morning, I was also working on the outline of my manuscript. Specifically, I was taking the outline of what exists and rewriting it into the outline of the book that COULD be. It’s a tricky business, ignoring all the words I’ve written into scenes with pretty images and punchy dialogue and fun subplots. Instead, I had to focus on the barest narrative thread to see where it failed to fulfill the story promise to the reader. It required a level of tunnel vision that can be hard to achieve when working on a full manuscript, but necessary for determining what needs to be on the page to make the strongest story.

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way

EL Doctorow

Sometimes, the only way to approach your writing or your revision is to ignore the larger whole and focus instead on one element at time, whether that’s character motivation, story structure, stakes, or emotional arc of change. Pick one as your yellow line through the road of your story and follow it through your revision. Ignore the rest, the line edits, the pretty polishing, the distractions. It isn’t easy, but what about writing is? By focusing only on what was in front of me (the causal links between one scene and the next. In order. One at a time.), I was able to not only create an outline that I think will work for my story, but one that is now a road map for my revisions. This outline will guide me through my story’s journey and as a result, I should, if I keep my eyes on it, end up with a stronger story after this revision go round.

The fog can feel scary. Not knowing what is ahead or behind can be unnerving. It can be easy to want to stop and wait for it to lift. But you’ll miss the gifts in the fog. The quiet hush. The heavy, damp scent. The muted colors. The mystery. And ultimately, the wide, technicolor beauty when the sun finally reveals the world beyond.

You, writer, are the sun. Quietly working to burn off the excess and reveal that beauty of your story. Focus in those periods of fog and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Your story is waiting for you on the other side.

Featured photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

Playing NaNoWriMo Without Writing a Book

I recently spoke with a couple of writers who were both eager to jump start their creativity with new projects. One has been dominated by editing work recently and so her own creative writing had taken a back seat. She had six different ideas for stories and was tempted to try NaNoWriMo but didn’t know which idea to pick. Another just went out on submission with her latest novel and was considering NaNoWriMo as a distraction to the waiting game.

Both were unsure about whether NaNoWriMo was the right thing to try as they weren’t necessarily looking to complete a novel in a month. But I encouraged both of them to do it anyway!


  • They are both itching to be creative. Committing to writing every day for a month would be a great way to scratch that itch.
  • They both wanted to mix it up when it came to their writing. What better way to play with a new idea or genre?
  • They both seemed to be craving the community, support, and excitement that comes with this large event.

Technically 50,000 words of a novel is the ultimate goal of NaNoWriMo, but if you’re tempted to play this year and that isn’t where you are right now, there are a lot of different ways to play. NaNoWriMo can be a perfect way to jump start a writing routine or give a jolt to your creative muse.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Pick 30 words (or better yet, ask a writer friend to pick 30 words), write them down on separate slips of paper. Put them in a jar and every day in November pick a random word to riff on for 1,700 words (the daily pace to hit the 50k mark). You could use the same character and simply include that word in the day’s scene. You could write 30 very different short pieces every day based on your word. Imagine the possibilities at the end of the month? Maybe that content is the basis for your next story or maybe it’s 30 short pieces to be polished and submitted to journals or tweaked to become fodder for your newsletter or blog?
  • Pick your top 4 ideas (you know, of the ones you scribble down in a notebook or save in your phone?). Now, assign each idea one week in November. For one week, write 2,000 words a day on that one idea. The next week, 2,000 words a day on the next idea. And so on. Use this time to play with each of your ideas, flesh them out more fully, and at the end of the month you can better compare which project to pursue next.
  • Have a vague idea but aren’t sure where to start? Spend the first week in November writing character sketches of your characters. The next week, outline major plot points and setting. The third week, write your opening scene a different way for each day of the week. The fourth week, write your closing scene a different way for each day of the week. At the end of the month, you’ll have a plan for writing forward.
  • Write a flash fiction story every day.
  • Write a blog post every day.
  • Write a poem every day.
  • Write a letter. Handwrite a letter every day to a family member, friend, favorite author, special teacher, or mentor. This is a fun exercise to do for your characters, too. Pen letters from them to a few people in their lives or from their past and see what new details emerge. I figured out the entire backstory of an antagonist once doing this. While that information never landed on the page, it gave me empathy for why he was so cruel and allowed me to write him with more depth.
  • Journal every day. Whether it’s Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way* or just sitting in a café and making up stories about the other patrons as you sip a latte, allow your imagination the time and freedom to run free.

The possibilities are endless. Tap into your creative mind and use the constraints (time) and community (writers in the same boat!) of NaNoWriMo to shake up your writing routine.

Which idea(s) will you try? Share in the comments or come back in December and let me know if any of these ideas worked for you!

*This post includes affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I may earn a commission.

Featured Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

Read & Watch Your Way to Becoming a Better Writer

This week I shared the following quote on social media:

Is it really that simple?

Of course.

And not at all.

The real challenge comes with how we approach both reading and writing. Today, I want to dig into the reading part.

A good book can transport you to another world, distracting you from all the craft that went into creating it. You may be inspired as a result, imagining similarly brilliant prose and carefully crafted plots spinning from your fingertips onto the page via your laptop keyboard with ease. Or you may feel discouraged. How could you ever begin to write a book that brilliant?

As for the latter, you can write a great book. At least you can write the best book you can write and who knows how brilliant that can be until you try. As for the former, take heart. That book, despite its pretty perfect appearance now, did not just spill out of the author whose name is on the jacket. They toiled with an idea for some time, came to the page and left it, threw pages in the metaphorical (or maybe literal if they’re pen to paper or typewriter writers) wastebasket, banged their head against the desk, fiddled with only that one paragraph as the sun rose then set on their day, revised and rewrote and polished. No matter how successful or brilliant they are, they still had to work at writing that book.

And guess what? You can learn from that work.

Take another look at that book you loved. Grab a highlighter or some sticky notes and see how they did it. How did each scene or chapter start or end? Plot out the trajectory of the first half and second half of the story, what changed at the midpoint? Answer questions about the book like it’s a report for your fourth grade language arts class: Who is the protagonist? What do they want? What do they need? What stands in their way? What decisions do they make and what were the consequences? What did they get in the end–what they wanted or what they needed, neither, something else? What questions did you have at the end of a chapter? What propelled you to turn the page rather than turn off the light and get some sleep?

Now, find a book that you aren’t as into. When did you want to put it down? Why? What is missing? Revisit the same questions as above and see if you can figure out what’s not working for you. Is it a craft problem, a personal taste discrepancy (nothing wrong with that), or are you reading at a bad time in your life (context can be important to our personal experiences with a book)?

I believe stories are stories, so you can do this with shows you’re bingeing and movies as well. Some shows are easier to pause or abandon than others. I recently binge-watched The Partner Track on Netflix based on the novel of the same name by Helen Wan. Each episode left me wanting to see what happened next. There was no question about whether I wanted the next episode to run. I let it play while I made dinner, folded laundry, and snuggled under a blanket in my unusually quiet house this weekend.

At some point I realized how deep I was in. Why did I need to keep watching?

For me, it was the protagonist’s clear motivation: to make partner. It colored every action and decision she made. I was rooting for her while internally yelling at her to not do that next thing because it would clearly not work out how she thought. Her motivation drove all her choices until she’d lost her moral compass thinking she was doing the “right” thing. I couldn’t wait to see how she’d finally come to realize that she needed to play a different game entirely instead of trying to follow the rules everyone else ignored for a game she could never win.

While The Partner Track did it well, I’m also learning a lot from another show I watch that I’m not finding as compelling. I’m not desperate to see what happens or stay up past my bedtime to see what’s next. There are multiple seasons and this most recent one I’m watching is starting slow for me–I can see they are setting something up, but I don’t know that we needed all this set-up to get to the juicier conflict awaiting us. It’s making me impatient, bored. But, I’m waiting to see if it turns around and how. For now. Because I’m invested in the characters after several seasons, otherwise, I may have just dropped it. The difference between this season and previous may be that I can see the set-up. It’s too obvious, which, to me, means it’s taking too long. Just get to the point!

If you want to improve your writing, immerse yourself in stories. Read, watch, listen and use your critical eye (or ear) on them. Dissect them. Ask yourself what’s working and what isn’t as if you were beta reading a story for a friend. Don’t let it diminish your enjoyment of a book or show, but do perhaps jot a few observations down after a reading or watching session of things you’ve noticed that are holding your interest or even just note how you’re feeling after that chapter/episode. You can always go back and do a deeper dive later to figure out what elicited that feeling or kept you turning the page.

The more attention you pay to the stories that captivate you, the more you can use them as a road map to enhancing your own craft. The more attention you pay to the stories that lose you, the more you can be on the lookout for those moments in your own work and fix them.

Read. Read. Read.

It’s just that easy.

And hard.

Featured Photo by David Lezcano on Unsplash

Procrastiplanning: Break the Cycle

In a recent call with a historical fiction writer, I mentioned the term procrastiplanning:

Several folks chimed in that they often have the same issue so I wanted to take a deeper dive on what procrastiplanning is and how to break the cycle.

First of all, I wish I could remember where I heard the term first so I could give proper credit to that genius. All I can say is that I didn’t invent it, but it did resonate with me in much the same way.

Procrastiplanning is basically whatever work you are doing in the name of your novel that is keeping you from actually writing your novel. It can look like several things:

  • Research on a person, place, or event that takes place in your novel (whether you are writing historical fiction or not)
  • Interviews related to a character’s occupation or a medical procedure or what it was like to live in a place at a certain time, etc…
  • Site visits for setting details
  • Google Satellite Image searches or Google Mapping for logistical details
  • Baby name searches to find the perfect name for your characters
  • Looking up the weather in a certain area at a certain time of year
  • Outlining, outlining, outlining without writing
  • Writing extensive backstory for every character no matter how long they are on the page

The list goes on and on from the big to the small things.

The tricky thing is that all of these things are important to do for your book. As a coach, one of the things I work with clients on is pre-writing work. I am definitely not advocating you skip that step or that you don’t try to get the details right or ignore your own blind spots and write characters without walking in their literal shoes for a bit in an interview or job shadow. You should do those things. And despite my love/hate relationship with it, I am definitely not insinuating that outlining is bad.

Research and outlining are important parts of the process. The danger is when they become the entire process.

The end goal is to write a book, not compile an index of materials. At some point, you actually have to stop researching and stop planning and WRITE THE BOOK.

So, how do you break the cycle?

  • Determine why you are procrastiaplanning. You can’t fix anything until you acknowledge what is really keeping you from the page. There are a lot of internal fears (fears about our skills, fears about what others will think when they read it) that can keep writers from the page. Recognize those fears then ask for them to take a back seat (check out this animated version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s letter to fear from Big Magic). Drafting is your opportunity to tell yourself the story. No judgement. And if there is a skill that is lacking in your writing, you will most certainly figure it out in revision and can make a plan to fix it then. Don’t let your fears of what you can’t do keep you from doing what you can.
  • Trust the research and pre-work you’ve already done and just start writing. Any time you have a question about accuracy or timing or whatever, highlight it on the page. I also like to keep a running list next to my computer of things to look up later so I don’t stop my flow to look something up. You’ll be surprised, however, at how much you’ve already internalized from your research that will naturally color the page as you draft. If you rely too much on your research WHILE you’re writing, you run the risk of writing a research paper. Write the story, let the research and detail you’ve found enhance it in revision. Same goes for those in-depth character sketches. Yes, some pre-work on your characters is necessary, but let them reveal themselves to you a little as well when you put them in the tricky situation of your plot.
  • Do a limited outline. If outlining tends to be a months long endeavor for you and you never quite get to the drafting stage, stick to the major scenes in your novel (opening scene, inciting incident, midpoint, climax, final scene) and see if that can get you to the page faster. Outlining, like plotting out a course on a map, is a great tool for keeping you on the right path. But a rigid adherence to it can also keep you from noticing the beauty during the ride. Try starting and you can always come back to the outline later if you truly need to plot out a different route.
  • Take full advantage of TK. TK is an old journalist term for “to come.” There are several scenes where I’ve inserted a “TK” in place of a specific date or an insult in dialogue I need to be perfect but don’t want to spend too much time thinking on in the forward motion moment. You can use this for historical details like setting descriptions or event summaries so that you can keep writing forward in your manuscript without getting lost in a research rabbit hole. Here are a few examples of how I have used TK in my current draft of a contemporary Women’s Fiction novel:

Example 1:

The small ceremony in the Coker Arboretum on the university campus under the [TK TREE?? Go visit and get an idea!].

Example 2:

“What did your client say?”
Sydney [body language depicting her reluctance/guilt TK].
“Sydney? You there?”
“I didn’t tell her,” she admitted.

I have been guilty of procrastiplanning that also looks like:

  • Having the perfect amount of time, noise, and mental space to write. While all those things are important, I have found some of my most productive work in the waiting room of a climbing gym while my kid takes a class or on the sidelines waiting for soccer practice to end. You can train yourself to ignore the pull of the perfect scenario but setting a timer and only committing to 5, 10, 20, or 30 minute writing sprints when you have the available time. Eventually, your muse will get the message and show up when you ask vs. you waiting for her to show up when the stars happen to align.
  • Creating a spreadsheet to track word count or revision tasks. Again, these things can all be helpful until they become the task instead of whatever task we initially wanted to measure. Just get started. Don’t let the time intensive creation of the spreadsheet or whatever keep you from starting. A sticky note with the time you started and stopped writing or the a running tally of word counts will suffice until you have time to create that spreadsheet. Or use an app for time tracking that does the hard work for you. I use Toggl.

My point is, we all do it. Writing is hard. And we, as humans, do not like doing things that cause discomfort. So we naturally choose the things that feel more comfortable or seem easier to complete. Research can feel like progress. Character sketches and family trees and detailed maps of a fictional town can all feel like progress. But if the goal is a novel, we eventually have to sit in the discomfort and put the words on the page.

You can do it. You have an idea and I know you have the passion. Start small–commit to one ten minute writing session BEFORE you’re allowed to do any more research or planning. See how it feels.

If you need additional guidance, don’t be afraid to ask for help. A book coach can help you plan your book’s foundation while also supporting you when the time comes to do the actual work of writing.

Still having trouble getting started? Sign up for my newsletter and you’ll receive my free guide on how to kick start your writing routine with tips designed to get you to the page faster.

Happy Writing!

Writing Conferences

Tis the season for writing conferences!

After several long years of virtual conferences, many are returning in person or offering a hybrid. I’m heading to an in person conference myself in October and can’t wait to meet fellow writers I’ve only interacted with online, learn new things in our educational sessions, and have time away from my normal routines to focus on my writing.

Conference experiences can vary from offering publication path insight to craft sessions to simply a quiet space to write. Many offer first page critiques with panels of authors and/or agents as well as opportunities to pitch agents your work in person.

Getting your work in front of and pitching industry experts is invaluable experience for your writing and publication journey. A few years ago, I submitted a first page to a conference and found the feedback fascinating. The submission was anonymous (whew! No one had to know it was my work if they ripped it apart!), so I just sat back and tried to play it cool while my words were read to an auditorium of people.

The page opened on my female protagonist in a very fish out of water scene as she was being airdropped by helicopter onto an Army base in Vietnam. A female agent said it was well-written but wasn’t sure about the staccato pacing of the piece. A male panelist thought it had been intentionally written that way to evoke the sound of the helicopter blades. An interesting debate followed as they discussed the opening paragraphs and whether they would read more.

While that feedback may seem contradictory on the surface, it gave me a new way to look at what I had written and, maybe more importantly, how I had written it so when I went back to consider a revision, I could be intentional. FYI–the staccato beats were on purpose insomuch as I wanted to put the reader right in this anxious moment with your heart pounding in your chest, but I loved that this panelist put his own interpretation on it and it still worked for him. Hearing criticism of too many short sentences invited me to look for a moment in the scene for the reader to catch their breath and be invited into the character’s interior world, something that the pace was preventing the female agent from feeling. I never would have gotten this kind of spirited back and forth on my work from a query letter rejection or even a critique partner reading for big picture issues.

Pitching to agents is another great opportunity to take advantage of at a conference. Being able to summarize your pitch into two minutes and deliver it to a real life person is scary as hell, yet the exercise of preparing that pitch is enlightening. If your stakes aren’t high enough or your protagonist’s motivations unclear or your antagonist not obstacle enough to your hero, it will be clear as soon as you start to trim your book down to the barest of elements in a verbal pitch. I hate preparing these pitches for my own work, but it always pays off when I can finally sit and have a clear conversation about MY book with a real agent. It’s an amazing experience, especially if you listen to their questions. Those questions can be key to what’s working or what isn’t in your pitch:

  • “So, what happens if she doesn’t achieve X?” — Oops, maybe you didn’t make your stakes high enough.
  • “Ooooh, Character B really sounds interesting. Tell me more about him.” — Is this B character overshadowing your protagonist? Is the story being told from the correct POV or is there something about how you wrote Character B that you can bring to Character A to really make them shine in revision?
  • “What inspired you to write this story?” — An opportunity to talk about your WHY–why you wrote this particular story. This is important to know throughout your writing process and, I find, can be easy to lose track of when you’re deep in the weeds of story structure or mining your manuscript for erroneous “justs” when you’re editing. Your why is the touchstone that will always bring you back to your story’s main thread, your point, your story’s purpose. Being able to talk to an agent about your why will not only bring the story to life for them, but will hopefully make you memorable if they ask you to follow-up with pages.

You want to go into these opportunities with your best foot forward while also having an open mind to the feedback and craft you learn while there. Writing conferences are a great place to meet potential critique partners, editors, or your next favorite writer. They are places to learn, grow, and honor the writer in you. If you haven’t been to a writer’s conference, I urge you to take a look for an event happening near you. Some are in large conference centers with hundreds of attendees and others are groups of 20 in a local library. Find what works for you, your learning style, and your budget.

If you’re going to a conference this year, drop the name of it in the comments!

Bonus: If you want to go in to conference season extra prepared, check out my Quick Start package. I’d be happy to add looking at your verbal pitch to the first 15 pages you submit as well as role play your pitch with you during our coaching call.

Creative Growth

I pass this tree on my trail walks.

I am not sure when I first noticed the tree, but I know since my dad died in 2018, I haven’t missed it. It’s like I’m compelled to take a moment and acknowledge the tree’s presence on the trail. Its struggle to keep growing a little of course until it found the sun and headed in the right direction.

The loss of my father affected me profoundly in a multitude of ways expected and unexpected, as any great loss does.

I expected to feel the pain and the sorrow, the gaping hole left in my heart. The tears felt natural. Welcome, even. Acceptable. My tears and pain honored the love I had for him and he for me.

I didn’t expect the anxiety. The fear felt counterintuitive. The worst had already happened and yet my body remained primed for disaster as if it could prepare me for this tragic loss in retrospect.

I expected things to be different. I didn’t expect everything to be different.

I found it incredibly hard to create in the wake of my father’s death. Even when the immediate days of overwhelming grief had passed and I eventually got a handle on the crippling anxiety that flared in the months that followed, I encountered resistance to creating.

I did somehow manage to draft a new book in the years since his passing, but the progress has been slow. While some days I manage a few steps forward, other days, I’m trapped on a treadmill, walking in place. I’m not falling behind, but I’m not getting very far either.

My creative life has been growing like this tree. It’s progressing, not quite in the right direction, but not in the wrong direction either. I’m still seeking out the sunshine that will feed my muse and finally allow me to grow to my highest heights.

At times, I think I’ve turned the corner and I’m growing up, towards the light. And at times, I keep stretching along the forest floor, not giving up, but not quite where I need to be just yet.

Does that mean I’m not learning or that my writing is horrible or I haven’t accomplished anything creatively in that time? Not at all. Just as that tree was growing and building bark and securing its roots into the earth, I have been laying a foundation and strengthening my skills and branching out in new ways with my book coaching business and supporting other writers.

But in the last few years, I have needed to grow in the shade. And that’s okay. Because it’s still growth.

This tree gives me hope. It represents a perseverance that perhaps another tree didn’t have, one that didn’t dig deep enough roots to counterbalance its structure. I will continue to stretch and grow like the tree, as both a writer and a human. As a coach, my goal is to nurture your growth so that you, too, can put down strong roots and stretch your limits.

We all have something to say. And when the day comes that light shines on my words, my time in the shade will be what made me ready.

I’ll see you in the leafy sunshine.

WFWA Online Auction: Sept. 6-11, 2022

In 2015, I was home visiting my parents. A college friend who lived nearby saw my Facebook post about it and mentioned she was going to a launch event for a local author and invited me to join her. Knowing nothing about the writer, but loving a book event and an opportunity to catch up with this friend, I said yes. While having our books signed, my friend told this writer that I was a writer, too. I was preparing to pitch my first manuscript at the time (the one that shall forever remain in a drawer but that helped me learn what I didn’t know) and wasn’t calling myself a writer to anyone outside my circle so I immediately tried to downplay it while my body broke out into a sweat. But this “real” writer asked me questions about my work and encouraged me to join a group she was a member of–the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

I think I signed up the next day.

That writer was Barbara Claypole White. Her book at the time was the fantastic The Perfect Son (seriously, go read this book for the heartbreaking father/son relationship and stay for the hilarious squirrel scene). Barbara was my first introduction to the beauty of writers supporting writers with generosity and sincerity. And since joining WFWA, I have seen this same beautiful relationship play out time and time again in our organization. Whether it’s sharing advice in our Facebook page, swapping pages for critiques, offering kind and insightful feedback in workshops, sharing knowledge through webinars and articles, or cheerleading each other’s successes and comforting each other’s rejections at local meet-ups, this group has been an endless source or support and knowledge for me as I grow as a writer and now a book coach.

This week–September 6th through September 11th–WFWA is holding an online auction. Funds raised will help provide scholarships for members with financial need and who identify as BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and those with a disability who have been underrepresented in the publishing industry. I am pleased and honored to be offering a book coaching session as part of the auction. The auction is open to all–you don’t need to be a Women’s Fiction writer or a member–and there are fantastic offers available for writers from coaching and editing to marketing services.

Come check it out, bid on an item (or multiple items), and feel free to share with your writer friends. This is a great opportunity to help yourself and other writers at the same time. Win-win!

Renovations and Revisions

This summer, our dishwasher leaked. Big time. Only we didn’t know it. It leaked who knows how much water under our tile floors for who knows how long. We only noticed when the hardwood floors in the dining room next to the kitchen started warping. Once we dug in and saw the actual damage, it was extensive.

As a result, we have spent much of our summer in a construction zone.

It’s been noisy and never ending.

So while I wanted my summer to look like this:

It too often looked more like this:

While I somehow managed to launch a book coaching business in the midst of all this chaos, I’ve ignored my work in progress. This week, I started a workshop that I hoped would help me dive back in and focus on finishing this revision. Let me just say, it is a struggle.

I spent the winter and spring Frankenstein-ing my manuscript–tearing it apart and putting it back together as something new in the hopes of making it stronger. But because I’ve had this unintended distance from the revisions, I’m afraid of going back in and realizing I’ve also created a monster.

I can’t avoid it forever. I have to face my manuscript sooner or later.

I love the story. I want it to succeed. I want to rise to the challenge of giving it my all. And so I am taking a page from my own coaching playbook: writing a one page book summary, creating an outline of what exists to see where the holes are, and giving myself a lot of grace and a little pep talk.

Much like my kitchen looked way worse before it started to look better, I imagine my revision will be the same. And in the end, both my kitchen and my manuscript should be the better for it.

Or at least I hope so.

On both counts. Cause I am really tired of washing dishes in the bathtub.

Did you like this post? There will be more about how renovation mirrors revision in my next newsletter coming out on August 31st. I will also share what I’ve been reading, listening to, and watching this summer. Let’s connect!

Starting In Media Res & Using Backstory: The Bear

SPOILER ALERT: If you have not watched The Bear on Hulu and think you want to (and I would recommend it), then save this post for after you’ve binged it or don’t blame me if I give away any spoilers. You’ve been warned.

TRIGGER WARNING: suicide and drug addiction. If you or someone you know is considering suicide or is in crisis, dial 988 for the suicide and prevention hotline.

I recently binged The Bear on Hulu. It’s the story of a fine dining chef who has worked in some of the fanciest kitchens in the world returning to run his family’s working class Italian sandwich shop in Chicago after his brother’s death. It’s a story of grief, toxic workplaces, a fish out of water finding a new place in his old home, and rectifying the past with the future. It is expertly written and acted. The depiction of kitchen culture and chef life were so accurate many chefs couldn’t watch because it triggered their own toxic kitchen experiences. The details, like the wardrobe, completed the authentic feel.

What I appreciated the most about the show, however, was where the story started and the sparse use of backstory.

Writers are often advised to start their stories in media res, or in the middle of things. But what does that mean? Writers are often confused by this advice–if I start in the middle how will the reader know what’s happening? Do I start in the middle of the action or just the middle of some action? If I’m starting in the middle where do I go from there?

Finding where to start a story can be hard. Starting too far into the action of the story leaves the reader unconnected to the protagonist or worse, confused about what’s going on and why they should care. Starting too far back in time before the story action begins can kill the pacing leaving the reader wondering what the story is really about.

Let’s take a look The Bear as a case study.

How does the show open? It’s dark. It looks like we’re on a bridge. In the center is a giant cage. Our protagonist, Carmy, is luring whatever this thing growling in the cage is out. Suddenly, a bear lunges from the cage and Carmy startles awake in the restaurant (okay, typically it’s frowned upon to open a story waking up, but we’ll let this one pass since the bear is an ongoing metaphor in the show and Carmy’s family nickname). A delivery man is at the door with significantly less meat than Carmy ordered because the restaurant is behind on the bill. Carmy needs meat in order to open the restaurant that day. In order to get the meat he needs money.

Problem: Not enough meat for the day. Obstacle: He doesn’t have enough money to get more meat. Stakes: If he doesn’t find the money to buy the meat he can’t open the restaurant which means he’s deeper in the money hole–can’t make money if they’re closed.

And we’re off!

What’s working so far? We don’t know a ton of what’s going on but we already know that there are financial problems and that Carmy will do anything to open.

Now, let me back up a little. The premise of the show is that Carmy now owns this sandwich shop because his brother, Michael, who has died by suicide, has left it to him.

The story does not start with the suicide or at the funeral surrounded by the inevitable cast of characters or at a reading of the will where Carmy learns he’s inherited the restaurant. It doesn’t even begin with the decision to leave his fine dining job in another city and move home to save the restaurant.

Instead, it starts with a problem. A problem that establishes that this place is in real trouble and that Carmy cares enough (because he loved the restaurant or his brother or something else, we don’t know yet) to come back and try to fix it. That’s enough for the viewer to relate to him and root for him.

Carmy spends the rest of the first episode selling his own belongings to try and get the cash for more meat, arguing with the existing kitchen staff in order to save the service even if the day’s meat wasn’t prepared the way they normally would do it, and overcoming continuing obstacles to save the day’s service. We are also introduced to our key subplot story characters: Richie, Michael’s best friend who had worked with him at the restaurant and wants to keep things exactly as they were; and Sydney, a young sous chef eager to work with a chef of Carmy’s caliber and make a difference to the restaurant (as you can see, these two are definitely on the path to a confrontation…and it doesn’t disappoint).

The first episode shows the viewer everything they need to know about these characters with problems/action happening right now, in story present. We don’t really need to know a lot about how we got here to care about where we’re going. We’re invested because we see Carmy desperately trying to save just one day’s service, so we know he’ll fight just as hard to save the establishment itself. We are introduced to all our main characters and their own motivations and see how they conflict with one another.

Throughout the season, there are minimal flashbacks–a maniacal Joel McHale as a New York chef berating and belittling Carmy as he puts together a complex dish; a more relaxed Carmy cooking in a family kitchen with his sister and brother on what looks like a regular Sunday sometime in the undefined past. The viewer gets little insight into why Michael was an addict, how his life fell off the rails, and why he chose to take his own life. And while the show seems to be filled with perhaps unraveling that mystery, the final episode creates even more questions around this character. And yet that landed fine, because the real resolution to the season was Carmy’s coming to terms with his grief and his new role as a lead chef of this kitchen to this particular crew of chefs, their own needs to be seen and grow, and his brave choice to finally…(okay, I won’t spoil all of it, but I did love the ending!).

In other words, the backstory that was explored and any flashback scene that was included, moved Carmy’s story forward. The point of the show was Carmy’s emotional journey to healing–healing from the PTSD of his former work environments (and not passing those on to a new kitchen) and healing from his grief and guilt about being there, or not, for his troubled brother. All of the flashbacks or bits of backstory pertained to those two things. They didn’t spin off into the decision to leave New York or explaining Michael’s history. Those things didn’t serve the larger point for the story’s protagonist. After all, the questions Carmy had for Michael could never be answered now anyway–Michael was gone. Carmy would never know the full story himself, so the viewer doesn’t need to know it either. The resolution to the story would never have been answering the “what happened to Michael” question because that wasn’t the story question to begin with. The story question was “Will Carmy forgive himself in order to leave his past behind and move into a future of his own designing?”

Writers know everything that is going on in every character’s mind and backstory. We hold a plethora of knowledge about our protagonist’s childhood or dating life or favorite foods. The line we walk as writers is understanding how much of that needs to be included versus how much simply informs how we put the character on the page.

Look at Carmy. I don’t know why he collects vintage denim, but I do see how important it is to him when he loads a bunch up in a garbage bag to sell in order to have money to buy that day’s meat. I also see that as important as that collection is, obviously the restaurant is more important for him to make the choice to get rid of it, even a special piece that his brother had give to him.

Just like every ingredient in a dish at a fine restaurant has a purpose, so does each scene and detail in your manuscript. The protein on the plate may be your plot, the sides are your subplots, the herbs and seasoning the sensory details that bring your story to life, and the sauce is the emotional thread that holds the dish together. Make sure that everything on your plate needs to be there. Sure, french fries are good, but they don’t belong next to a beautiful risotto, in the same way a foie gras may not be the right condiment to a hot dog and a beer at the baseball stadium. And just like a meal starts with the first course, we don’t need to see the grocery list the chef used to enjoy the food in front of us. Serve the reader only what’s necessary in the right order and at the end, your reader will be satisfied.

Take a look at your manuscript. Are you starting in the right place? Are you explaining too much to the reader to justify what your character is doing? Are you using flashbacks or backstory to info dump to your reader (double check your dialogue sections when characters are filling other characters in on something)? Does the reader need to know all of it? Instead, can you use context and your character’s decision making process to show glimpses of that backstory or that before life? After all, the story we are reading/viewing is the story that’s happening RIGHT NOW. We are watching Carmy save the restaurant. Does it matter how it got to the point it needed saving? Not really.

Like seasoning, a little backstory goes a long way.

Above: Featured Image Photo by Delightin Dee on Unsplash

The Days are Long but the Years are Short

Today my oldest turns 16.

At baby showers, at prenatal appointments, at the grocery store, friends and strangers alike would often warn: “Enjoy it. It goes by so fast.”

And I knew what they meant. Of course I did. Time flies. I was no stranger to the concept. After all, childhood, college, pregnancy, they all passed me by in a flash.

When he arrived, I savored his newborn smell. I relished the snuggles and his endless need for me. Even when it was hard and I was bleary-eyed and bone-weary and we bounced and swayed around the house trailing a path of spit up and dropped pacifiers on the hardwoods at 5:30 to The Chicks waiting for my husband to come home and help I knew it would be over before I was ready. Every day brought a new discovery. Every change meant the end of something else that once had been new.

I tried to be patient and present. He took his first steps and asserted his first opinions. I read endless books and played trains and swung on the swings at the park. I let him get dirty and explore. I rerolled the toilet paper when he unraveled a new roll he’d somehow smuggled into his room when he was supposed to be napping, which he conveniently gave up when I was pregnant with his little brother. So instead we had quiet time, laying on my bed with a woven blanket over our heads, tiny pin pricks of light shining through the weave and we gasped at all those little stars in our pretend night sky.

I watched as he confidently walked into preschool without a second glance and again when he hopped on the school bus with a smile, ready for the first day of kindergarten, no parent walk-in required. There was the summer he found a home repair book on the shelf and became obsessed with electricity. He learned to swim and ride a bike. He handled a move to a new state and a new school and made new friends. His fifth grade teacher lovingly dubbed him the official Grammar Police. He joined a rock climbing gym class and started middle school.

He survived a pandemic and braces and a giant growth spurt. He took up the drums. He started high school and joined the Marching Band.

He’s discovering himself and his place in the world and it is amazing to see. I couldn’t be more proud of who he is and who he is becoming.

And yet.

It is going by so fast.

The 30 hours of labor it took to bring him into the world are still so fresh in my mind. I can still picture the ill fitting sock I had on my foot that I didn’t replace for another because it was warm. I remember the anticipation and the long uneventful first night. My body remembers the pain of the early contractions that sucked my breath and twisted my abdomen and the warm gush of my water breaking as my parents arrived at the hospital. I can still place myself in the dark hours of the second night, my father keeping me company while everyone slept and my epidural kept me from feeling the worst of it but my soon to be first born remained cozily tucked in my body, not ready to make an appearance. I can taste the fear when the nurse midwife indicated we were inching up on time to consider a c-section and that I needed to dig deep and find a way to push through. And then. Somehow. Miraculously. There he was. A tiny scrape on his forehead from the internal fetal monitor he’d slid past. Ten long fingers and toes, a shock of brown hair on his head, his deep blue eyes hidden behind his scrunched up eyelids adjusting to the light of the outside world.

How can those memories be so fresh, so real and visceral, while he is so different? He’s changed a million times over since that first moment we met. And will change a million times over again in his life.

The days are long, but the years are short.

There were days trapped in a house during potty training or staying up late worried about a fever or waiting to pick him up near midnight after a faraway marching competition. Days that seemed to never end and yet they slid by remarkably fast in the aggregate.


On a recent trip to the Space Coast in Florida.

I’ve got three more school years before he’s off to college and our relationship changes again.

Which is how it should be. I know this.

Everyone warned me it would go by fast.

But no one warned me what that would feel like.


Excitement as each new phase begins. Despair as each phase ends. The feel of surrounding a newborn in my arms with my whole self to now being engulfed in bony hugs by a child suddenly taller than I am, who holds me as much as I hold him. Sadness that the little boy is gone, but joy in seeing that child’s essence still inside the person he is.

In these 16 years, I have been growing and changing next to him. Perhaps it isn’t as obvious in the same way it is when a thing that didn’t exist to the world before August 10th, 2006 takes up so much physical space on the couch in 2022, but I can feel it. He has changed me a million times over. I am not the woman I was in 2006. And thank goodness. He has made me a much better mother and person than I ever could have hoped to be on my own.



Happy Birthday, T.

Time Flies” featured photo above by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash