Monday, June 4, 2018

Panicked About Plotting!



Monique's Typewriter by JE Theriot
LUCY BURDETTE: This is my brain on deadline. I have my word count, I’m writing as fast as I can, dictating some days, slapping the keyboard some others. And then at night I am reading a mystery, say Ann Cleeves or Michael Connelly or Barbara Ross or Rhys Bowen... Oh my God, I say to myself. I have no idea what I’m doing – my book doesn’t look anything like these books. How could I not know how to do this after 15 books published and more on the way?

I scramble through my bookshelves. Where is Hallie’s beginners guide on how to write when I need it? When I can’t find that, I go to my web browser and type in how to write a mystery. Dennis Palumbo‘s article comes up, and I read about how it’s important to have multiple suspects, and motives for each of them. Suspects? Motives? Do I have any of this? Panic! Panic!

Reds, I have to know—does this happen to you? How do you talk yourself off the ledge?


 HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Truly, this happens every time. Lucy, don't you remember when you said this the last time? You did.  I am in the very throes of it right now  (In fact yesterday, briefly, I gave up, and decided never to write again because I have no idea what I am doing.) But here's the thing. Two things. One: it is a FIRST DRAFT.  Just go on, advance the story:  goal, motivation, conflict, decision, result, obstacle, goal, decision, result. What do they want? It doesn't matter that it stinks. You can fix it later, in the fun part. (You cannot believe what the first draft of TRUST ME looked like. Gah. And now I adore it.)

Two:  You won't know what happens until it happens. So--one step at a time. Don't think about the WHOLE THING. Think about the next paragraph. AND: I just thought of this. Think what you have previously promised the readers is going to happen. What have you foreshadowed? What already woven-in thread can you pick up and keep weaving?

You can do it! And thank you for the opportunity to give myself a pep talk, too. 

(My new book is called THE MURDER LIST. I am almost done. What does "the murder list" mean? No idea. So there.)

LUCY: This is embarrassing--apparently I write this same post, with these ramblings, more than once a year! Thanks pals for accommodating writer's neurosis, LOL!

HALLIE EPHRON: It happens to me every time. SEVERAL TIMES every time. 

I go searching for writing advice, Google suggests a link that sounds helpful, I go to read it and it turns out I WROTE it myself! So it's not about not knowing what to do. 

Do men do this, find themselves wracked with self-doubt? Waiting for someone else to tell them it's good? Which by the way is what my editor said when I sent her my manuscript two weeks ago for CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR. She loved it loved it loved it (she knows to repeat it so I believe her.) And now that having finished editing it again, so do I. 

JENN MCKINLAY: No, this sort of panic doesn't happen to me. I'm a plotter so when I start writing, I have a pretty solid sense of where I'm going and how I'm going to get there. That being said, the middle of every book is like the Dead Marshes for me, where my momentum always seems to stop and I am absolutely positive I am never going to get out alive, oh, and my book is garbage. So, there's that. I have discovered that the best way out is to plow ahead, throw in a funny scene or a poignant scene or another body, until I clear the bogs and am racing toward the finish.


by Lainey's Repertoire
INGRID THOFT:  Yes, this happens to me, and honestly, I hate it.  It’s the most difficult part of the process for me, and I don’t think it’s going to change no matter how many books I write.  You know who really doesn’t like it?  My husband.  When I fret that I can’t figure things out and proclaim, “It wasn’t this hard last time!”, he reminds me that it was just as hard last time, and I got through it, with good results.  I think there should be a support group for our mates, who feel like broken records getting us through the tough spots.

Hank offers great advice for dealing with the panic, and another person who has provided me with some guidance is Mike Lawson.  The author of a political mystery series set in D.C., Mike is an advocate of writing whatever scene strikes your fancy, no matter where it appears in the book.  I’d always written sequentially, but adopting this approach has minimized the work stoppages than can occur! 

LUCY: Yes, Ingrid, I did this with the manuscript I just turned in, and it was a life-saver!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Oh, my gosh, Lucy, it's that terrible point when I've done all the set up and I'm stalled in the middle book doldrums. I can remember in the very early days when I thought books would get easier. But they didn't, and even though logically I know the struggle happens every time, that doesn't help. THIS book could be the one that doesn't work, that was a terrible idea, that I will never manage to muddle my way through.

But I do know from experience that the only way to get through it is to write a little bit at a time--200 words, a scene, a chapter. I'm lucky to have a couple of great writer friends to brainstorm about plot problems with, and then there is always my trusty notebook and pen. If I just start writing down the things that are bothering me, I can usually work myself over the hump.

RHYS BOWEN: Lucy, I don't get middle of book slump as much as panic at the beginning. I'm not an outliner so I start knowing very little. And every book, without exception (41 mysteries so far) I have flashes of self doubt, that this was a stupid idea, I'll never be able to work it through etc. But I forge on, 5 pages a day even if they are terrible pages, and by page 50 I see light in the tumble. And by page 100 I am advancing merrily. And in those middle chapters remember what Raymond Chandler said: when things get slow, bring in a man with a gun.

This is great advice. Not necessarily a man with a gun but something that takes your sleuths theories and derails them. An unexpected character, an overheard conversation. Something that makes the sleuth say, "I hadn't seen that coming." If you want the prime example of that read Debs's Dreaming of the Bones!
Funnily enough I'm teaching my course in Tuscany and yesterday we focused on plotting--how to keep the book moving forward through the dreaded middle slump.

Writers--confessions about your neurotic thinking? Suggestions? Readers, can you believe the way our minds work??

And PS, do you Instagram? If so, please follow us, we're having so much fun over there! (Okay, I'm going to be honest, some of us love it more than others, but we're working on this!)

Jungle Red Writers
Lucy Burdette
Hank Phillippi Ryan
Jenn McKinlay
Deborah Crombie
Rhys Bowen
Ingrid Thoft
Hallie Ephron

And PPS, Rhys and Lucy are sharing a book birthday in August and the Reds have convinced Rhys to come east. So scratch these dates on your calendars if you'll be in the area: 

August 8 at Brookline Booksmith with supporting appearances by Hallie and Hank!

And August 9 at RJ Julia in Madison CT!

63 comments:

  1. I know this has bounced around here a time or two before; nevertheless, it surprises me just a little bit to learn how much you ladies agonize over your writing when your finished books are so very, very good.
    All I can say is, “Thank you” for struggling through the hard times. Believe me, we readers appreciate your efforts and we love your finished books . . . .

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    1. thank you Joan! we sure appreciate what a devoted reader you are!

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  2. I do hate that you wonderful authors go through this agony, but you do get it right every time and give your readers amazing books to enjoy. I think it must be a part of your genius. You all work hard for your readers, and we appreciate it.

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    1. Thanks Kathy...a part of our genius, tee hee, now a comment like that makes it worth every minute:)

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  3. Just followed Jungle Reds! I'm at EdithMaxwellAuthor. And August 8 is on my calendar. How fun!

    I also get stuck in the middle. Every. Single. Time. So thanks for the tips! You can do it, Lucy.

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    1. thanks Edith! August 8 and 9 are going to be a blast!

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  4. I am now following all the Reds on Instagram (@LizMilliron). I have to say, I'm much happier at Instagram than I became on Twitter. So angry over on Twitter, all the time. I'd rather look at pretty pictures!

    As for the writing, I'm not a traditional outliner. That is, I don't have a board with sticky notes, or a fifty page hierarchical document, or even a corkboard of cards in Scrivener before I write.

    But I do have an idea map in Scapple. And one of my critique partners has decided that my first "Draft Zero," the draft no one sees but me, is my outline, like a "narrative outline." I have to have that done before I can start revisions with the group. I tried writing as I go and...not good, let's just put it that way.

    And when I get stuck, I remember my Anne Lamott, her one-inch square picture frame, and what her father told her brother: "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." Scene by scene. Sometimes paragraph by paragraph. You'll get there in the end. Because you are all brilliant!

    Mary/Liz

    PS: Hank and Hallie, I love your titles. Makes me want the books NOW!

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    1. An idea map in Scapple? Can you tell us more about how that works Mary/Liz? I love your critique partner figuring out how you write!

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    2. I often remind myself of the "bird by bird" mantra, Liz! She also talks about starting by just writing enough to fill up a small picture frame. Definitely makes it seem more doable than a whole book!

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    3. Mary/Liz, I love that Anne Lamott quote, too.

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    4. Ingrid and Debs - that saying is a godsend when I'm bogged down or when I have a crazy day where all I can get to is a single scene.

      Lucy, Scapple is made by the same folks who make Scrivener. You start with a blank canvas. Click anywhere to create a text box; I jot down ideas for plot points. Then you can drag one box to another and it draws a dotted line between the boxes to show that the points are related. That way, I can do a progression of ideas from A to B to C - and if I find that plot point C also relates to plot point E, I can draw that connection. Once that is done, I have a lovely spaghetti mess of boxes and ideas, but I can visualize the relationships.

      You can drag the boxes from Scapple into Scrivener to create scene cards, but I haven't done that yet.

      And yes, it was such an epiphany when my partner said, "Your first draft is your outline." It makes sense. I don't really know where the story is going until that is done, same as a more "traditional" outline.

      Mary/Liz

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  5. Every . . . damn . . . time. Including the current WIP. I’m always so happy to get to the revising stage.

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    1. Aren't we something, we writers? Kind of glad to hear that you're in the same stew Kathy--we must be going in the right direction with such good company!

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    2. Have to say, it is very reassuring to read all these!

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  6. I'm learning how to plot by freewriting ideas for a short story, then lining up the events in order. The fun used to be winging it to find out what happens. Now it's freewriting in circles until I discover what happens.

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    1. that's such an interesting take on the process. There is no one right way to do this, just stumble around until you find something that works. And then it might stop working, and you find something else!

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  7. I call it "Ugly Quilt Syndrome," and it happens every time. I love to quilt, and I do pretty much all of it by hand, which can take forever. After I've selected the fabrics and drafted the patterns and stitched all the blocks together, and start the actual hand quilting I realize that this thing I've poured so much time into is the Ugliest Quilt Ever. Nobody is going to want to sleep under it. Nobody is even going to want to give it to the dog to chew up. It's just UGLY. But I finish quilting it anyway, tiny stitch by tiny stitch, and when I'm done it always turns out to be just fine. Sometimes it's freakin' masterpiece. So whenever I get stalled on any creative project, I just remind myself it's the Ugly Quilt Syndrome, and keep pecking away at it.

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    1. It happens to me every single time, too, Gigi. I hand-quilt everything, too. Making a quilt for my nephew's wedding gift? It's SO UGLY. A baby quilt? Maybe they need a boot-rag.... But. But, just keep going. Can't leave it unfinished. One stitch at a time, it comes off the frames, gets hemmed, is finally finished. And then I start a new one ;-)

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    2. This makes me think we have to have a blog about the creative projects of our followers...I would love to see your quilts!

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    3. Yes, great idea, Lucy! And Gigi's quilts are gorgeous:-)

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  8. Let's face it. Magic. Yes, magic happens on the printed page. A story, a character, a place, a plot comes alive as you read. Every single time I pick up a book I love, the magic happens again. And again! Magic is tricky, it's scary, it's unreliable. It can't be summoned, it can't be ordered to appear. It happens when you let go. Panic if you must, but keep going--keep putting one word in front of the other. Keep those lines, those paragraphs, those pages coming. Because the thing is, you have proof that the magic is there--in all the hard work you have put into your previous books. The magic will only leave you if you stop caring. And the panic is proof that you still care! So bless you all, take a deep breath, and keep going--we're right here with you.

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    1. Thanks so much Flora, this is the best pep talk ever!

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    2. Thank you, Flora. That is such good advice. I only have the panic attacks when I am NOT actually writing, lol.

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  9. I have to agree with what Flora said - Magic. Yes, that's what it is and you ladies certainly have it! I think having doubts actually makes one a better writer because you manage to persevere and then it happens! And I am so grateful and appreciative of each and every one of you!

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    1. thanks Judi, we feel the same about the people who read our books!

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  10. So excited about Aug 8/9 == I will be at one or the other! It is interesting to me as a reader and sometime sort of writer that you Reds get stuck! The middle of books is the best (for me as a reader) -- just being with characters I love in places that are interesting. For me, you take me to a different world, and I don't really care who dun it.

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    1. We know you're a writer Denise Ann! and so glad you'll be at one of the events. And I'm with you, most of the pleasure for me is in the characters and their worlds, rather than the mystery. But I know other people love other parts of the same books...

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  11. Everyone needs to take a break and meditate!

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  12. Great post, Lucy! I’m in the swamp right now - blerg. Before he passed away my father used to live down the street from RJ Julia’s! I so wish I could be there! Have fun, ladies!

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    1. wish you could too Jenn! I'm looking forward to both of those events so much!

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  13. I get so stuck, I miss conversations like today's! (Actually, it's more that I'm driving around like a fiend again, as Youngest spends time both volunteering for one of Maine's gubernatorial candidates AND has all the prep in the run up to graduation day.)

    For the first thirty pages of a book, I think I'm brilliant. When I write the ending, I think it's brilliant. Everything in between? I'm sure I'm the most boring, mediocre writer in the world. Ross used to say, "Well, just have a meteor come in and destroy the town. That will wrap up everything for you." So far, I've resisted resolving my plot conundrums with celestial aid, but who knows...

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    1. Congrats on the graduation Julia! I totally relate to your first 30 pages and ending story. And the Ross story is brilliant--I bet you miss him deeply.

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    2. How much do you want to bet celestial plot resolutions were the genesis of the science fiction genre? LOL

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    3. Julia, congrats on Youngest's graduation, and you must be so proud as well that she's volunteering for a candidate.

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    4. Julia--a college writing teacher at AWP told how one of his students wrote a lovely coming of age story about the inevitable breakup of high school sweethearts mid-first semester in college, with poignant dialogue--and then a space alien comes and eats them! Clearly the poor kid had no idea how to end the story. The author was a college freshman, but I still feel that way sometimes.

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  14. I suspect these things happen regardless of one's career path. I know that the majority of the time I sit down to write a review, I find myself thinking "I have no idea how to do this, what can I possibly say about this book that would mean anything to anyone else?"

    But I have my self-imposed deadlines, so I have to get it done. I write and write until it is complete. I set it aside, go back on another day to look at it, only to realize it's better than I thought. With some tweaking and minor alterations, I find that I'm actually happy with what I accomplished and feel that it serves its purpose.

    Only to start the process over again with the next review. It's what we do. Might as well embrace it!

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    1. Oh, I need that embroidered on a pillow!

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    2. Kristopher, I think the same thing when I start writing a new review, and then sometimes I think that maybe I just don't have it in me anymore. Thank goodness for the great books that do in the end inspire me to keep writing.

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  15. Last night as I lay in bed finishing one book, Country Dark by Chris Offutt, and starting another, The Dead House by Billy O"Callaghan, and listening to the rain, I gave thanks for the Jungle Reds and all the writers everywhere. You've been keeping me happy for seven decades now. At one time I imagined you in garrets, candle guttering, with paper and pen and ink and blotter and one small window looking out over the Irish Sea or some such miserably romantic place. Then I envisioned this highly organized office, state of the art computer, well organized reference books in shelves from some high end store, a plethora of art and flowers and a comfy chintz covered couch for the cat. Now I see someone pacing, tearing hair, and having that dark night of the soul while praying for just one thought to form, one sentence to write itself, one idea that is just right.

    Thank you for all your hard and not very well rewarded work. We readers outnumber you by tens of thousands, and we are voracious. I can't imagine a day without a book, without a to-be-read stack, without your characters in residence in my head.

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    1. Awwwwww.... you inspire me from my writing day! Thank you!

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  16. You know, I tried something the other day that actually worked. I’m about seven eighths of the way through the book, and I had no idea where a pivotal scene should take place. I knew what would happen in the scene, but I just did not know how to frame it. So I thought well, let’s see. And I just started writing a list, just a list, of only the possible places where this could happen.
    Then I thought took them one by one, and asked myself: what would happen if it took place here? What would it mean, and who would have the power. Ah ha!
    And as it turned out, there was only one place it could be. One place that would work the best, I mean.
    So I have become a big advocate of just taking a piece of paper, and in longhand, just writing out in bullet points all the possibilities. And well, so far so good.

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    1. There is an extra word “thought” in there, for some bizarre reason :-)
      It’s supposed to be then I took them one by one.

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    2. what a good idea Hank. if only I was 7/8 of the way in:). But this could help in other places too, I bet...

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    3. Yes, Hank, that's the sort of thing I was talking about. Sometimes I just have to work it out on a piece of paper. It's a different brain pathway, maybe.

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    4. Yes, agreed. It always helps. It's kind of amazing, Paper! Imagine. xox

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  17. I go take a nap -- after watching a few good TV shows or reading a book(s) by one or two of you --- hopefully, the answer will come through divine intervention while I'm sleeping. If it doesn't, my next step is to ask the characters "what's next?" Sometimes their voices sort things out -- like telling me, "I'm not the killer and that's why your book is so flat" - btw, the character was right and once I threw out half the book and aimed in another direction, the words flew onto the page and the final book is the first in my new Sarah Blair series coming from Kensington. But, if neither of these methods work, I simply sit down and write a short story. Satisfied, I look back at this manuscript and realize I've got a due date so I start typing words and eventually there's a draft on paper that can be edited into something readable or laughable (which means it gets edited out in revision, but I know what to keep).

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    1. First, congrats on the Sarah Blair series--so exciting! I find it amazing that you can procrastinate by writing a short story. For me, those are the hardest of all!

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  18. Food for thought! Thanks for sharing your vulnerability, ladies. It makes me feel a LOT better.

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  19. Thank you for the good advice, ladies! DON'T do what I do (get frustrated, stop for months -- or years --, and wonder why the heck I want to be a crime fiction writer anyway).

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    1. Oh we all wonder that Cathy, when going gets tough. But stopping rarely helps. Maybe taking a little break. But if goes too long, I find that I lose momentum and have to go back to the beginning.

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  20. No words to tell you all how comforting this is. Thank you, thank you. There is always, always, midbook panic. Always! What Julia said about the first 30 and last 30 and the slog in between. The WIP has been the worst. (Really) I was on a panel last week with some other local writers I know. The one I have known the longest ( years!) - said something casual about combining characters and I have been stressed ever since.Because she was right and now it's added to my long list of serious rethinking. Panic ensues. But I have to finish a rough draft first. My one and only trick? Write to myself, by hand, asking all the questions. Why..? If this, then what must happen...? What follows? And sooner or later, my moving pen writes something useful ( I hope)

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  21. PS Wish I could be there for your New England appearances. Sounds like so much fun.

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  22. You are all so encouraging! Now, I'm going to go put some of that advice to use...

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  23. I'm with Jenn -- planner/plotter, so I generally know what's going to happen when I start writing the actual sentences, but the panic still does occur, in the outline process. (Which sounds so much more linear than it really is!) I take great comfort in the late Sue Grafton's story, which I heard her tell more than once, about freaking out mid-book, telling her husband she couldn't do it, yadda yadda, and he'd tell her she said the same thing last time, and she'd check her book journal and sure enough, but THIS TIME it was really true and he'd tell her she said that then, too. And all the way to Y that way. So, apparently, this IS the creative process!

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  24. Lucy, you know I go through this every time, right? The worst part is now I am going through it with a second draft--convinced I've destoyed the story. That's a first for me.

    My friend Jessie Crockett is a plotter and we might envy them, but she says during the outlining she goes through all the same stuff--the sighing, the renting of garments, the opening of the refrigerator and finding the same unappealing stuff that was there the last time. It's all just compressed into a one month period instead of a six-month period.

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  25. I agree. I've planned and not-planned and done both and there's just as much angst, just in different places. What I wish I could do is write fast but I can't keep myself from second-guessing myself, going back and making minor and major course corrections. But misery LOVES company so it's so nice to know that I'm not alone in my insanity.

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  26. When I was working for a bank, some new employees required more reassurance than others. They felt they weren't doing things correctly. Later they were all promoted. That angst was because they cared about the job. Thank you for caring about writing.

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  27. I was so relieved to read that you all go through what I experience. It takes me the longest time to sit down to write my WIP, which is why it almost always gets done late in the day. And when I start, I discover after writing a few sentences that I need information. Most recently this necessary information was about funerals: services, wakes, etc. Are "visitings" and wakes held over the weekend? And so it goes. Amazing that our books get written.

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  28. Lucy, your post reminded me of The Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie. I do not know why I was reminded of the book. I remember jotting a few notes with characters' names and which book in the series for an author that I was working several years ago.

    As a reader, when I read a mystery, I like to read and enjoy the storytelling.

    I have been trying to write a novel and while I have great ideas, my biggest challenge is writing the dialogue. I write "She said...." "He said..." and it becomes redundant! I want to write sentences that grab your attention.

    Diana

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