Episode 33: Voices of Doubt

Let's give those voices of doubt we all carry about our writing a mental slap in the face. Jennie works to help writers turn up the volume on those voices that say, "YES I CAN!" Today she encourages Melanie to express what it felt like as she wrote this week, because her work kicked butt. 

In this episode:

  • Subtitle: How One Friend Drags Another Friend Kicking and Screaming Towards Her Dream.
  • Mel’s husband, Mike, listens to the podcast for the first time.  Our husbands give us their unsolicited thoughts on the podcast, which actually surprise us! (Melanie and I have husbands who are both medical physicists.)
  • We tease each other about subscribing to and reviewing our own podcast.
  • Mel’s mom makes a surprise guest appearance.
  • Mel talks about her feelings on writing with authority and contrasts them with how uncomfortable she felt writing her scenes previously.
  • There’s comfort in knowing that even if you write and aren’t sure about what’s on the page, your book coach can help you fix it—you can’t edit a blank page.
  • Jennie harps on her questions about how we felt while writing, because her goal as a book coach is to get in the writer’s head and teach them how to “self-coach” as they write. She wants writers to push down the voices of doubt and shout out “I can do this!”
  • Jennie coaches Mel through a large chunk of backstory that can’t organically be conveyed through dialogue. How can she do this without feeling like it’s an info dump and without stopping the flow of the story? The key is to filter the meaning/emotion of the information through the characters.
  • We talk about how to end a scene—you end a scene by resolving the thing that started.
  • Jennie talks about how Mel totally killed her scene this week. It’s good not just in how it was written, but she nailed where she placed it and the role it plays in the overall story.
  • I ask Jennie a super rookie question—how do you decide what makes a chapter? Jennie answers the question using a terrible physics example in an attempt to relate to our husbands, who we are now aware are listening.  Even though she used a science example, she said this is where nuance and art come into play. Jennie compares a scene in a book to a scene in a play and explains how to use location as one way to determine how to break things up. Ask yourself, is there enough change that we need to rest in this place?


Episode 32: Writerly Confidence

In this episode:

  • Fidget spinner DIY, black market fidget spinners, and other things writers can fidget with while they think
  • Jennie finds that when writers are feeling “not enoughness” they are usually actually really close to a breakthrough and just have to push through a little bit.
  • Mel talks herself up every time she sits down to write.
  • My mental block with the nastiest of all writerly words—outline
  • If the character gets everything s/he wants at the end of the book, it feels like a waste. It’s not satisfying to the reader because it goes against everything that READING is about, which is to learn how to navigate situations. “What happens if I don’t confront this fear of mine?” etc… It’s emotional survival. We turn to a book to answer the question, “How does that feel?”
  • Lisa Cron’s Emotional Cost Benefit Analysis and brain MRI’s
  • Imagination alone doesn’t make a story. You have to marry imagination to an emotion.
  • A common misconception about book coaching is that the coach is going to walk all over your story and make it their own, but today’s episode shows how Jennie led me through the process of figuring out the ending of my story by just asking one question. (And believe it or not, that question wasn’t, “WHY?!”)
  • Mel and I talk about how Jennie’s edits are actually kinda sorta totally like crack.
  • Both good feedback (you’re doing it right) and bad feedback (you need to change something) can be super motivating and helpful.
  • Jennie uses a phrase “generosity of spirit” to describe being in a character’s heart and head. I just love that, and I strive to write with more of that authority. It’s an almost voyeuristic feeling, and to get it I’ve been trying to tap into the 6th grade me.
  • You can’t get away with generic anything in a story, because then you are leaving it up the reader to put in what they think, at which point you lose them. (Talking about comments like, “I wish I could just be normal” or “I wish I could just be loved” or “be accepted” or anything generic a character might think…) Readers want specific because they want to be able to cheer for some specific thing.
  • I admit to writing some pretty bad poetry using a rhyming dictionary, and Jennie fangirls on Kelly Barnhill and disses on the Oompa Loompas.
  • And finally, we talk about keeping your eye on the end goal, which is readers and the marketplace, and how your book is going to live in the world.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon
By Kelly Barnhill

Episode 31: Thunderclap of Awkward

Writing is a messy process, and it shows in this episode, where I have to face the fact that sometimes you throw away words that you love. I also seek to embrace my inner-middle-schooler by remembering my own experience and forcing my friends and family to remember theirs! After all, writers often steal from real life!

In this episode:

  • I make the world’s worst ninja.
  • The challenges of writing when your schedule is off and you are supposed to be on a weekend “away,” but your story is nagging at you.
  • When all the kids go off to school, how much time do you really have?  It’s easy to squander your time if you aren’t careful. I attempt to time-block to counteract my tendency to nickel and dime my time.
  • Jennie is a huge fan of using an actual kitchen timer when trying to build a writing habit. She uses an actual hourglass!
  • In my book, I keep my surface level details, while changing gears in the driving force behind my story. I discovered that the reason why I couldn’t connect the beginning and end of my story was because I was solving a different problem at the end than I presented at the beginning of the book.
  • Don’t build a world that doesn’t make sense for your story.
  • Sometimes you have to give up world-building details that you love in order for your story to make sense.
  • I used the idea behind the Parent Trap movie and the tropes in my genre to pull it all together—the wicked step mother and the wicked step sister. I think it would be fun if my main character had to choose between having the wicked step-mother OR having the wicked step-sister.
  • When writing about middle school, you have to lean into all the awkward moments and memories of things that happen. I surveyed people asking for their worst memories of middle school for inspiration! And we include them. Including an EPIC Melanie Parish Middle School Moment as a bonus at the end!!
  • Real writers do this thing called “throwing stuff out”—words are cheap, just get rid of them.

Episode 30: Harness Your Emotion

When we recorded this episode, Melanie and I were in the throes of Back to School. Writing and mom'ing and just keeping up with life! How do you juggle all. the. things?

In this episode:

  • I send my youngest off to Kindergarten!
  • Mel’s daughter has trouble with a Lego bully.
  • Mel and I both had writing we wanted to do, but then LIFE and feelings and brother-in-laws get in the way… AND WE HAVE DEADLINES! How to deal?
  • Mel talks about taking old words from her revision and incorporating it into her new draft.
  • Jennie asks, “What’s different about writing something that in the moment feels clunky and a something somethings that immediately feels resonant & you really like?”
  • And what you can do to identify when something you’re writing isn’t working and what you can do to fix it. In other words, how to move towards confident writing.
  • Jennie says that sometimes clunky writing is very plot-heavy, like “this has to happen now so let me make it happen.” Which makes writing feel more out of the head than out of the heart or the soul.
  • Dude, trust your instinct when you feel something’s not working.   
  • Jade Eby from Author Accelerator keeps an emotional diary for writing. Jennie suggests taking it further—identify whatever emotion you are feeling that day and harness it to write something in your book that needs that specific emotion.
  • Having a killer outline and knowing your story allows you to skip around and do that. You don’t have to write linearly. Instead, you can choose to write a scene that needs whatever emotion you are leaning into that day.
  • You can also do this ^ with energy.
  • Doing this ^ will help to leave the reader space to feel emotion.
  • Mel, who swore she’d NEVER outline a story, talks about the amazing 14-page outline she made to map out her story using Jennie’s process.
  • Jennie talks about the emotional tie-in between plot and the "Big Why," and why it’s important to bake that into the outline.
  • Jennie walks Mel through another story breakthrough. (SO GOOD!) And if this doesn’t point out the importance of a book coach, I don’t know what will!
  • Mel and Jennie touch a little bit on writing series.
  • Be gentle with yourself and don’t let writing become a chore. You want your writing to be a place of sanctuary.

Episode 29: Give It All Away

Today's episode is super long but super good. Some conversations are hard to for me to press the pause button on, and this was one of them. Melanie and Jennie go over Mel's first and last scenes of her novel, which then sparks a conversation on how writers hate to tell people their ideas for fear that someone will steal them. 

In This Episode:

  • Mel confesses to struggling with "the burden of what she's already written," and Jennie reminds her that sometimes throwing things away is progress. 
  • Melanie shares her KILLER FIRST LINE!  (It's sooooooo good!)
  • You need to nail your genre in the first scene, and the key to doing this subtly is world-building!
  • Jennie goes over the technical aspects of accepting and rejecting editorial comments, and how to decide when to move forward with your writing and when to revise as you go. 
  • Story is about choice, change, and a character's trajectory along the path of change. Looking at the 1st and last scenes can help you to see more clearly the change that must take place over the course of your book. 
  • Jennie uses her favorite word: WHY.
  • Even if you give it all away (the plot, your idea, etc...) people will still buy/read your book. A book gives you chronology, a linear narrative. 
  • Jennie beats the mindset of "I can's share my idea, someone will steal it" out of Mel's head! (And confesses to working with another author writing a similar story!)
  • How do you get over ^ mindset? 
  1. Finish your frickin' book. (That's a Jennie Nash direct quote.)
  2. Realize it's not the idea that's valuable, it's the execution. Just write the best book that you can. 
  3. Control what you can control and don't worry about the rest. (Hint, the parts you can control are #1 and #2 on this list.)
I so admire the gusto you give to your work. I hope you can sometimes feel and take in the happy effect you have on the world.
— A lovely email to Jennie from a blog reader

Recommended Reading and Watching:

Episode 28: New Year, New You

Let's face it. Resolutions suck. 

But with a new year (and both of our birthdays smacking us in the face), sometimes you can't help but think about the things you want to change. If there's one thing I've needed to change for years, it's this: WE HAVE TOO MUCH STUFF! If my children touched it, I've saved it. If it's broken but I think it's fixable, I've saved it. If I can remember who gave it to me or how much I paid for it, I've saved it. I mean, why fill the landfills when I can fill my basement?! The result is 20 years of accumulation that makes cleaning inefficient. And I'd rather write, than clean. So let's make every minute spent scrubbing count!

(As a side note, I found some real gems in my purge. Poor Mel keeps fielding text messages with pictures of the weird stuff I've come across-- most notably the text about finding a ziplock baggie of dead spiders... um, WHY?)

Unlike me, Melanie is a total purger (married to a non-purger, like me), so she can offer some encouragement and sympathy. Mel confesses that she needs to clear the mental real estate to write by fighting the siren song of the internet. Social media, political news, viral YouTube videos-- it's an echo chamber. And fortunately, I have some advice. Be purposeful and keep scrolling!   

At one point we reference my girl's brief foray into becoming You Tubers, so I'll post their cuteness here for your enjoyment! They wanted to make videos to show other kids how to pack their own lunches. Lori Richmond, this one's for you... if only the magic had lasted.  

Episode 27: Bookend Scenes, Writing the Beginning and the End

In this episode:

Melanie and I have finally, finally, graduated to writing the first and last scenes of our novels. Jennie goes over my scenes with me and in the process shares a lot of gems about the writing process. She talks about:

  • Why the first thing you write should be the first and last scenes. (She calls them the "bookends.")
  • Writing a scene from multiple starting points can help you determine why today? Why must your story start when it does? 
  • We briefly touch on MG vs YA themes-- often times they deal with the same issues, only it's the depth of the character's wrestling with those issues that makes a difference. Jennie brings up this scene from the movie Love Actually 
  • Writing the first and last scenes helps you to nail down the emotional wants and needs of the main character, and how those needs will evolve over the course of the book. This can also help you map out how it will affect other characters in the story. 
  • Ask yourself: 1) What is the story really about? 2) Why does your character want what she wants? 3) What will she do to get it? 4) How does it bring her closer or further from that thing she wants? Bookends written from these questions will help the rest of the book fall into place. 
  • Jennie also talks about the danger of author intrusion in the form of unbelievable dialogue. 

Episode 26: Finding a Process That Works

Happy New Year, everybody! 

In This Episode:

Jennie talks about how by making decisions in the Blueprint exercises, you actually buy freedom in the writing process.

She also talks about the importance of finding a process that works for you. If your writing process is working, don't mess with it! But if it's not working, find someone you trust and try their process. There are a lot of ways to write a book, so you have to find a process that fits your style. Jennie's is based on her experience writing 8 books, and it's driven by emotional thinking.

Regardless of your process, you have to accept that writing isn't FAST. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

She reminds us that readers want characters who are in charge of their own fate. Readers want to watch characters make decisions and suffer the consequences-- because that's what reading is all about, experiencing consequences through a story. 

 Melanie finally learns what it's like to get out of her own way when writing, and realizes her story is way deeper than she thinks (thanks to "therapist Jennie!"). Jennie also encourages her to "go big or go home" in her story. 

Episode 25: Writing Breakthrough

 Merry Christmas!  Happy holidays from Mom Writes. We hope it was awesome.

In this episode:

 Jennie digs deep into the reasons we write in the first place, pinpointing the very essence of story and the emotion that transcends plot and connects readers.  

Why, when you're feeling overwhelmed, and the world feels overwhelming, would you take time to write?  Would you write on your day off?  On vacation? Are you writing on Christmas, why or why not? 

  • There's nothing wrong with taking a vacation from your routine, but continuing your writing routine no matter what (within reason) has payoffs.  
  • Writing is a portable activity, you can do it anywhere - you don't even *need* a computer to continue your routine

What if you're way into the planning process and you realize that the point you're making in your story is actually *not* the point you wanted to make? Sometimes you hear people talk about what their characters or their book "wanted", and whether or not you put any stock in that there is something to be said for intuition and how internal subconscious and unacknowledged feelings in the writer come out in your writing. 

A lot of people get into trouble because they’re not doing the deep work - they’re staying on the conscious level. You end up with something that nobody has any reason to care about, there’s no room for the reader, for doubt or debate.
— Jennie Nash

If things start coming up in the writing process that surprise you, that you don't like, that you didn't expect - people sometimes end up confronting uncomfortable things that you they want to think or write about.  But you DO need to get deep down inside yourself and find those universal feelings that will really connect with your readers.

That’s why we come to books - to know that we’re not alone.
— Jennie Nash
On confronting darkness in your writing: Abby, you’re the Stephen King of children’s literature.
— Melanie Parish

Obviously Mel only means "Stephen King" in the absolute loosest sense of the comparision!

But writing can be therapeutic. There's a lot of research that shows how writing can help people move through traumatic experiences and life events. When you want your book to be read, i.e. commercially viable, you're doing the hard work of connecting to other people and their loves, fears, dreams etc. The first step towards getting out of your own way and tapping into your own creativity can be finding the balance between having control of your project with the constraint of what your medium is.  There's real skill in knowing what your story wants to be and knowing the constraints of your form and genre, and you may have to make a conscious decision to try various directions that may or may not work out.  You may have to throw things away, and it costs you nothing but time. 

  • Creativity is making a series of choices. If you want to make a cake, you have to make a series of decisions in order to get where you want to go. People get in trouble when they try to hold onto every option and make everything work. 
  • You have to make good choices initially in order to write a good book.  
  • We're used to making decisions in other things that are irrevocable, and we treat our writing decisions the same way.  But they're not. You can change things! If something isn't working, you can throw it away and try again. 

Don't be afraid of the darkness in your writing - sometimes those uncomfortable, painful feelings and ideas that come up because you're tapping into something that can help you connect to the emotion of your story, and the emotions on your readers. 

Episode 24: It's Fixable!

In today's episode, we continue a conversation we started about being stuck when you are writing. Melanie and I are working on our 2-tier outlines of our stories, and we are still swimming in choices. Even though Melanie has a 60,000 word draft of her story finished, she is still faced with making decisions that will clarify and propel her narrative. I, too, am drowning in choices to make in my writing-- the beginning is so hard! There are so many places a story can go and so many things a character can be!

But at the end of the show is when the magic really happens. I share that my 7-year-old daughter finished her Lulu, Jr. manuscript for Lily the Alligator Doesn't Know How to Swim. We sent it off in the mail and celebrated. And Jennie yells, "THIS! THIS IS WHY MOM WRITES!" We write so that we can model for our children what it looks like to work hard, be creative, and make space in your life for this kind of work! I may only have a half-finished outline at this point, but I'm successful when it comes to modeling a writing practice for my daughter.

In this episode: 

  • When writing, you must choose! Choosing one thing often means letting other things in your story go. But Jennie makes a comforting point: nothing is holding you to your answer! If you make a choice in your writing and don't like it, go back and choose again!
  • The two best questions you can ask a writer about their work are:
    • Why? (And ask why in every possible way!)
    • What if? 
  • What to do if something in your story is holding you back. In the case of Melanie and I with our outlines, Jennie suggests a way to get important story info out of our heads and onto the page without bogging down the outline. 
  • How much time you should put into edits and answering editors questions at this stage of your writing.  
  • World building: every single work of fiction has to do some sort of world building. 
Everything is fixable.
— Melanie Parish
Everything is fixable except who you have children with.
— Jennie Nash

Books and things we talk about:

The Lovely Bones
By Alice Sebold
By Alice Sebold

Episode 23: Being Stuck, Making Decisions, & Forgiving Yourself

Hi, there! Abby, here.

Besides the Mom Guilt episode, this is one of my favorite episodes of the Mom Writes Podcast. It proves that sometimes good things can materialize out of difficult times. When we recorded this episode, I had just struggled with a major case of writer's block-- and I was still only working on my outline and my jacket copy! Oh, despair! 

But, leave it to Jennie Nash to set me straight!

In this episode

  • Mel comes to terms with the fact that she's a dystopian sci-fi writer.
  • Jennie points out that sometimes when you struggle it's because you haven't nailed down your genre. 
  • Knowing your genre is knowing where your book is going and who it is speaking to. 
We are trying to serve the reader at the end of the day. Writers who want to be read are not satisified unless the loop is closed and the reader reads their work.
— Jennie Nash
  • Abby struggles with her 2-tier outline-- she gets the beginning and the end, but not the middle. 
  • They talk about some advice from Tim Ferris's Tools of Titans book. You have to get out of your own way when you create. 
  • How does getting out of your own way feel when you're writing? 
Being creative is a skill you can cultivate.
— Jennie Nash
  • Writers need to feel like they are "in kindergarten again"-- young kids create without judgment.
  • Judgment & worry will paralyze you.
  • Writers need a mindset shift-- write with the idea that you are going to throw away half of what you write. 
  • Give yourself a break, make decisions, and forgive yourself.  

Episode 22: Migraines, Feedback, & Creativity

In this episode:

On the initial attempt to record this episode, Abby came down with a terrible migraine and we forced her to take the day off. On take two, we discuss the challenge of self-care as busy moms and writers, criticism in the general sense and specifically surrounding Abby and Mel's two-tier outlines.

Moms are the worst at saying ‘I can’t function today!’
— Jennie Nash

 (She's right, guys. You know it, we know it.)

It's so hard as a parent to say that you need a break or a day off when everyone is relying on you to show up. Jennie, Abby and Melanie trade anecdotes and advice on how to take the time you need for yourself when you need it. 

In the feedback portion of the episode, we discuss what it's like to get honest feedback on your work.

Accepting feedback is essentially opening yourself up to being criticized. For a lot of people that brings up bad experiences, and that can stand in the way of using that honest and constructive criticism to make your writing better.  

Highlights from this episode:

  • Book coaching criticism is often framed in questions that help the author think about what they intended to do with that particular section.
  • More info on the two-tier outline and how it works, and how criticism of the two-tier outline can help you make decisions on the direction of your story.
  • The two-tier outline is based on logic - after you get the logic locked down, then you can focus on the metaphors, sentence structure, pacing, etc. of your story.
  • Boundaries and restriction are two things that most writers need to see through the haze of limitless possibilities and narrow down what their story is really about.
The two-tier outline focuses on what most people miss: every single plot point or action has to be married to an emotional truth or reality, and then the whole thing has to lock together.
— Jennie Nash

The two-tier outline is originally restricted to just two pages but can be expanded after the form is mastered. Creativity does not thrive in total freedom; restriction and parameters, applied with purpose, will force you to look at things in a new way and decide what it really important to include in your story.  Jennie explains how this outline can form the building blocks of your book getting stuck in solely plot-based scenes that have no emotional depth, or vice-versa. 

For those who are interested, here is a link to the book that Jennie mentions in the episode. It's what she based the 2-tier outline on: 

A Three Dog Life
By Abigail Thomas

Episode 21: Why NOW?

This episode is pure book-coaching MAGIC, people! It's more than a brainstorming session. It's brainstorming with a higher purpose. It's brainstorming on crack. It's just, it's just... Argh! Jennie is so good! 

In this episode 

We break down the question WHY NOW? 

  • When asking yourself where in your story to start your book, you must determine why now. Why does now matter? 
  • Why does your book start at the moment it does? Not before, not after. Why now? 
  • Abby looks at the why now question in terms of her middle grades novel, and why the age of the main character directly affects its answer. 
  • Then you need to marry the what happens to the why it matters
  • And if you can base all that on what you really want to write about-- that's what makes a story work. 

Episode 20: Word of the Day- Why

In this episode

Melanie asks herself why, why, why??

Why is WHY so important? 

  • Readers don't read for the what, they read for the why.
  • While writing, constantly ask yourself WHY.
  • Asking why gets you to narrow down that thing you secretly want to write about.
  • You must be both universal and specific.

Jennie, hilariously, chooses a workout station next to a librarian at the gym in order to pick her brain for added insight into the topic.  Jennie and Abby talk about:

  • The struggle children's authors have when choosing the age of their main character (and narrowing down the target age of their readers).
  • How to target readers by being specific. Sometimes by isolating a group of readers, you can ultimately attract a larger audience. (Think Harry Potter-- how many of us were teenage boys when we read Harry Potter?!)
  • You have to dial into who your book is actually for, and to do so you must DECIDE.
  • Make decisions- choose one thing and let the others go.

While we now know that Lewis CK has total issues, back when we recorded this episode he was just another funny comic. Jennie references this clip: