Tracking: Timeline

I’m a planner person. Leading up to the new year, I sit down and draw out weekly schedule templates in my bullet journal. Because of the nature of my job, my life gets planned four months (a semester) at a time. I am the queen of to do lists.

And I get teased mercilessly for it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But this is how my brain operates. I like to know what’s coming so that I can 1) better address inquiries into my time (sorry, I have 20 papers to grade that day – or – looks like I’m free!), and 2) predict how much energy I will be expending on a given day (Introvert with a capital I over here).

So it probably surprises nobody that I’m also a planner in my writing. (I’m also a huge Excel nerd – I once took an Excel class for fun – so I am happy to find any excuse to use the program.) I’ve found templates for calendars within Excel that work really well for keeping track of my story’s timeline:

My first novel in particular is tied to specific real-life events, so to keep everything straight, I needed to get it all down on paper. (I even went so far as to look up specifics about things like weather that actually occurred on those days.) It helped so much that I’ve done the same with my current WIPs – it helps with continuity so that I don’t have rain when it’s supposed to be the middle of winter.

Again, you don’t have to use excel, but I highly recommend such tracking to keep your timeline from getting tangled up.

Tracking: Plot

I remember early on in my learning about writing stories being taught Freytag’s pyramid: introduction/exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. At the time, the simple structure made sense and worked just fine with the types of short stories I was writing at the time.

As my instruction went on, as my stories became more complex, I learned about variations of this pyramid – the straight line of the rising action imitating the “spikes and dips” one would find on a titled EKG printout. No (good) story is a beeline to the climax – there are many small climaxes along the way, with resolutions of various sizes. Not to mention – subplots. (The other piece, of course, that complicates that line of rising action is the length of the story. A short story will have fewer spikes and dips than a novel.)

In grad school, I had the opportunity to take a screenwriting class, during which we talked about the three act structure – which for some reason just clicked with me. I liked the rhythm of it.

While I still teach the variations of the Freytag Pyramid when I teach Fiction (we write flash and short stories in the class), I also teach the three act structure for those students who might be interested in novels. I use a breakdown of The Wizard of Oz and reference K. M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel.

For myself, after I’ve filled out the questionnaires for each of my main characters and have cast them all, I sit down with this three act breakdown (exposition, inciting incident, plot point one, rising action, midpoint, second plot point pre-climax, climax, denouement) and fill in what I can about what I see for the story. I still find the corresponding Wizard of Oz plot points help to spur my own story forward.

The most important thing, though, is that despite being a planner when it comes to my writing, I don’t hold myself to what I put down in this document. The story may shift as I’m writing it. New characters might emerge. I might better realize the story I want to tell. This initial outline is just for me to get an idea of the arc and begin to thread in the subplots. This can also help with writer’s block – I don’t have to sit and wonder what comes next because I already know the scene I have to write. If become stuck at a particular plot point, I’ll try writing a different part of the story. An outline doesn’t have to be super detailed – I just find that the more detail I can get down initially, the easier the drafting stage is for me.

Tracking: Characters

I’m part of a really stellar online, global writing community. I found them, actually, through a workout program, and they were such an unexpected bonus who have become super important in my writer world. We have a private Facebook group where people can ask questions and share resources, and I’ve found questions about a specific subject that keep circling around – tracking. How do we keep track of…well, everything?

I’m always happy to share what my process is like, and I make sure to note that what works for me won’t work for everyone, and to be sure to read what others have said and try things out. It can take time to get a process together that works for us as individuals. And even then, it will continue to shift and grow as we continue to work.

The conversation came up again recently, so I thought I might share here what I’ve been doing for tracking characters, plot, timelines, and multiple projects – though I’ll start here with Characters. I’m drawn to reading and writing character-driven stories, so it’s not surprising that ideas come through them. I generally get a sense of the story through learning more about them.

My first step is to conduct an interview with them. I really like K. M. Weiland’s character questionnaire:

Over the years, I’ve added a few questions (like pronouns) and edited a couple to make them better fit what I was trying to accomplish. (I also direct my students to this for their own work – as I tell them, they should want to know their characters so well that if I were to ask what brand of toothpaste their character uses, they could answer without hesitation.)

After that, I like to cast my characters. I usually have an idea of what they look like in my head, but I want something solid to refer to when writing so that I can make sure I’m consistent with their details. I use PowerPoint to track photos and other details about these characters, as well as images of any important items or settings that appear within the story (even for stories that exist in made up settings, I’ll still try to find photos that best represent what I’m seeing in my head). As a visual person, I find this to be so incredibly helpful to track.

If you don’t have access to PP (or just don’t like it), there are many other options for visual ways track your characters (items, setting, etc.). One example that a friend from my group uses is Pinterest. (I had a brief, torrid love affair with the platform about a decade ago and had to ban myself from it because there are just too many cool crafty ideas and delicious recipes to explore – and I can’t be trusted with that kind of access.)

A similar platform with less temptation that I’ve used for many things is Trello – you can create separate boards, and then within them, separate lists that have individual cards. You can include images, text, links – anything you would need to help yourself track. The bonus here, like Pinterest, is that it’s a web-based platform – so it’s essentially saved on a cloud, and you have access anywhere you have internet/data. (They also have an app for your phone.)

If you are more the type who likes making webs to track things, there’s Miro – a virtual whiteboard. I do not have personal experience with this platform – it was a recommendation I found via the writing community on Twitter.

There are, of course, a plethora of possibilities for tracking – and some will work for you, and some won’t. The point is just to try out a few things until you find the thing that clicks.

A Story a Day: Month Two

For the month of February, I have opted to read all works by Black authors. The following stories all come from the list put together by the editorial staff of the Chicago Review of Books. Feel free to read along!

  1. Anything Could Disappear” by Danielle Evans
  2. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” by ZZ Packer
  3. The Era” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
  4. Suicide, Watch” by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
  5. French Absolutism” by Brandon Taylor
  6. What’s For Sale” by Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn
  7. Sunflowers” by Bryan Washington
  8. Dangerous Deliveries” by Sidik Fofana
  9. Williamsburg Bridge” by John Edgar Wideman
  10. Biafra” by Nnedimma Okorafor
  11. Bear Bear Harvest” by Venita Blackburn
  12. Beg Borrow Steal” by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
  13. How to Kill Gra’ Coleman and Live to Tell About It (Vauxhall, NJ, c. 1949)” by Kim Coleman Foote
  14. Allentown, Saturday” by Gabriel Bump
  15. Books and Roses” by Helen Oyeyemi
  16. God’s Gonna Trouble the Water” by Randall Kenan
  17. The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin
  18. 202 Checkmates” by Rion Amilcar Scott
  19. All This Want and I Can’t Get None” by Tia Clark
  20. Wet Paper Grass” by Jasmon Drain
  21. Emperor of the Universe” by Kaitlyn Greenidge
  22. Ark of Light” by Victor Lavelle
  23. False Cognates” by Ladee Hubbard
  24. What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky” Lesley Nneka Arimah
  25. Milk Blood Heat” by Dantiel W. Moniz
  26. Whiskey & Ribbons” by Leesa Cross-Smith
  27. A Selfish Invention” by Donald Edem Quist
  28. Best Features” by Roxane Gay

Rejection

I vividly remember the first rejection I received when I began to query my first book. Honestly, it was when I officially felt like a “real” writer – despite my telling my students over and over that being a writer simply means that you write. I wore that rejection like a badge of honor.

rejected red square stamp

As the “no”s continued to drop into my inbox (or, as is more often the case, I simply never heard back and the timeline expired), it did sting a bit.

Ok, a lot.

Yes, it’s all part of the process. Yes, rationally, I understand that my manuscripts are not going to be for everyone (after all, I’ve not fallen in love with every book I’ve read in my life). But hearing no over and over can definitely make one question what they are doing.

Now, I lucked out with my first book. I was in the midst of querying agents when I participated in a pitch fest on Twitter, which is how I eventually signed a contract to publish the book. The process, though, afforded me five hard rejections and thirteen soft rejections (“if you don’t hear back from me in four/six/eight weeks, you can assume I’m passing”).

I am trying to keep this all in mind as I begin the query process on two manuscripts. I’ve already had my first rejection of the year for my YA novel, and I’ve only just begun.

For anyone who has stumbled onto this post and is just beginning the query process, remember – this is all about finding the right fit. You don’t want an agent/editor/publisher that isn’t going to be wild about your book – and not everyone will be. It can suck, it can hurt – just remember those books you’ve read that didn’t resonate with you – someone else out there loves it.

A couple resources if you are looking for agents/editors:

Agent Query

Manuscript Wish List

Rose – A Re-Homed Library Book

I spent so many hours in my youth amongst the aisles of the children’s books in the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, selecting that week’s stack of books that would accompany me home. We also had a bookmobile that would stop at the other end of our block (do those even exist anymore…?), and I’d traipse down to it with my arms full, returning with my new choices. It’s no surprise that even now I have a deep love for libraries (and the magicians that work within them).

This morning, I was perusing my own shelves when I stumbled across Rose (though as a kid, I always called her Rosie), a book that I checked out so many times that my mother ended up buying it for me. I couldn’t help but pick it up and flip through it. It’s pages are well worn, sometimes ripped (*sobs*), and one in particular is adorned with pen markings that may or may not have been mine (though given my aversion to writing in books, I’d wager a guess it was not me). The check out card and pocket are still there, too.

Do you, reader out there in cyber space, have such a book on your own shelf?

Slow Mornings

I’m sure I’ve written somewhere about the joy of slow mornings that I’ve been experiencing the last couple years. How I actually eat breakfast. Every day. How I drink coffee every morning now, too. (Though that was still generally done while working.) I didn’t used to take time in the morning for such things – I’ve always been a “hit the snooze until I absolutely MUST get up and then just gogogo” type of person. But, it turns out, I don’t need to be that sort of person. (I still sometimes, usually, almost always eat lunch at my desk… I should work on that next…)

Another new addition to my mornings is the #365Stories challenge I’ve set for myself this year – to read #AStoryADay. This has become my coffee time, and I can tell you – my morning coffee has never tasted so good.

My goal was to encounter stories I might not have otherwise – to read things that I know nothing about – to be surprised. And so far, it’s been such a lovely experience. I have my breakfast. Then I roll up to my desk with my coffee and click on to the next story.

(Truth be told, I’ve wanted to do the 52 book challenge that so many of my friends post about on Facebook and such every year – but I also know that once the semester gets rolling, there are some weeks where a book is just not feasible. This feels much more manageable, for sure. But still – *fingers crossed*.)

There will be a post at the start of every month with the list of stories I plan to read (with links – you can find January’s here). There will also be links posted every day via twitter (@Ami_Maxine). Please feel free to read along! (I also have five more months to schedule – so please let me know if you have any stories you think I should read!)

A Story a Day: Month One

I went back and forth when picking stories for this month. I was trying to decide whether I’d allow myself to reread any stories – or if they had to be 365 brand new stories. I finally decided that I wanted this to be all brand experiences for me. If I opt to reread anything, it will be in addition to the new story for that day. The goal of all of this, after all, is to be exposed to stories I might not have otherwise come across – to experience new (to me) writers (though I’ll also do “not new to me writers but new to me stories of theirs” if they show up on such a list).

The stories listed below came from a couple top ten lists I stumbled over – the first ten are from the top ten out of the 304 stories Pravesh Bhardwaj read in 2021. The others come from the 2020, 2019, and 2018 top ten lists that are linked at the bottom of the page.

Feel free to read along with me! 🙂

  1. Standard Loneliness Package” by Charles Yu
  2. The Strange Story of the World” by Chigozie Obioma
  3. House for Sale” by Colm Tóibín
  4. When Eddie Levert Comes” By Deesha Philyaw
  5. Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” by Haruki Murakami
  6. The Faery Handbag” by Kelly Link
  7. Birdie” by Lauren Groff
  8. All Saints’ Mountain” by Olga Tokarczuk
  9. Flashlight” by Susan Choi
  10. The Pinch” by Dina Nayeri
  11. The Reverant” by Edwidge Danticat
  12. Pineapple Crush” by Etgar Keret
  13. The Migration of the Stork” by Ismail Kadare
  14. Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu
  15. Lois and Varga” by Lisa Taddeo
  16. Tiger Bites” by Lucia Berlin
  17. Slingshot” by Souvankham Thammavongsa
  18. Shakespeare, New Mexico” by Valeria Luiselli
  19. The Office of Missing Persons” by Akil Kumarasamy
  20. The Frog King” by Garth Greenwell
  21. On Destiny” Lee Chang-dong
  22. Motherland” by Min Jin Lee
  23. Redeployment” by Phil Klay
  24. When the Tide of Misfortune Hits, Even Kelly Will Break Your Teeth” by Porochista Khakpour
  25. Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son” by Saul Bellow
  26. Cattle Praise Song” by Scholastique Mukasonga
  27. Mucci” by Ursula Villarreal-Moura
  28. The Proxy Marriage” by Maile Meloy
  29. Dimension” by Alice Munro
  30. “The Fruit of My Woman” by Han Kang
  31. Crooner” by Kazuo Ishiguro

A Resolution?

Traditionally, I’m not one for making resolutions. I’m not big on “starting fresh” just because I swap the calendar that hangs in my kitchen. According to several articles I’ve read, studies show that only 8% of people keep their New Years Resolutions all year long. (I should note these articles didn’t provide citations for said studies – so take this with a grain of salt.) A whopping 80% have given up on them before February even shows up. Given my time working at the YMCA during high school, I can anecdotally support this given how January was always our busiest month of every year I worked there.

So I’m leery to call this a resolution. But I’d like to attempt to read a short story every day this coming year. I say attempt because if I’ve learned nothing else these last two years, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected, and I don’t want to feel as though I’ve failed if I miss a day or a week. (So perhaps I’ll amend this as I’d like to read 300 stories this coming year. Gotta love a little wiggle room.) I’m also going to have a mix of new stories along with rereading stories I’d like to revisit for various reasons.

I’m surely not the first person to attempt this. And I won’t be the last. So I’m curious – any of you out there that might be reading this – what’s your favorite story? What should absolutely be on my list this year?

My plan is to give a monthly update rather than post every single day. So fingers crossed that I make it at least into February. 😉