How To Plot a Book in 16 Steps

I’ve recently entered the brainstorming stage of my next book. It’s a fun, crazy time. Sometimes my mood is rainbows. Sometimes it’s angst. Right now my mood wants lists (as it often does), so here you go: a step-by-step guide to plotting a book. All you writers out there, this is for you. You’re welcome.

1. Find the most inconvenient time/place. Showers are good. Cars, too. Lying in bed, comfortable, mostly asleep? Perfect.

2. Think about something else.

3. Bolt of lightning crashes above you, singeing little bits of your hair as it sizzles past. Geez, that was close.

4. You’ve got it! THE idea! (By the way, you’re brilliant. Good job.) (more…)

How (Not) to Cook Oatmeal in the Microwave: A Sort-of (But Not Really) Tutorial

"How (Not) to Cook Oatmeal in the Microwave - A Sort of (But Not Really) Tutorial" by Caryn Caldwell

Oatmeal: It’s explosive.

1) Carefully read instructions on oatmeal packet. This time you will do it right. For once, breakfast won’t end in messy defeat.

2) Stir together milk and oatmeal.

3) Set microwave according to directions. Hide pre-victory grin. Whistle. Exude confidence.

4) Watch oatmeal spin on tray, ready to halt all cooking at first sign of boilage. Squint a little. Hold breath. Fear overflow, despite yourself.

5) Stir and check status. (Answer: Oat flakes drifting in warmish milk soup.) (more…)

Don’t Look Down: On Writing a First Draft

"Don't Look Down" by Caryn Caldwell - On how to fool yourself into finishing your first draft.Here’s the thing about first drafts: They are fun, but they are also scary. They are messy and muddled and awkward and hard. They have no guarantee. And they can make perfectionists like me very, very uncomfortable.

But they are worth it for the times when everything works and, anyway, they have to be done in order to get to revisions. Even on the difficult days.

And those days do come.

Unfortunately, there’s no category for Personal Cheering Section in the help-wanted ads, and the cats would rather sleep on the couch than rah-rah-rah me into getting all the new words written. So when I’ve used up my last jar of inspiration, and my motivation has fled, I have to flail those pom-poms myself.

Throughout my recent two-month long frenzy of creative chaos — otherwise known as a first draft — I did just that. To be specific, I built a page of reminders to look at any time my typing lagged. As the manuscript grew, so did my list, because I learn new things every time I write a book or, more likely, I learn the same things over and over, forgetting in between.

Here, prettied up for your sake, and shared in case it provides inspiration (perhaps to those embarking on NaNoWriMo), is my memo to myself: (more…)

I Want That Job! (Or, What I Learned About Careers by Watching Movies)

Considering a career change? Need a job for a character in your next novel? No need to ask an actual person for his or her job description. Just watch movies. According to Hollywood, here’s what a variety of different jobs entail:

Subway/Train Conductor:
Look horrified while pulling ineffectively at the brakes.

Random Politician:
Gaze sternly into camera.
Pound podium.
Spray spittle and vitriol.

President of the United States:
Fly around in helicopters.
Make grave speeches.
Walk in step with perky young aide.
Inspire. (more…)

Dieting, Step-by-Step

The Five Phases of a Successful Diet:
1. The Vow
2. The Plan
3. The Drunken Optimism
4. The Sacrifice
5. The Happy Scale

The Five Phases of an Unsuccessful Diet:
1. The Vow
2. The Plan
3. The Drunken Optimism
4. The Sacrifice
5. The Consolation Chocolate

A Field Guide to Insomnia – For Reals This Time

Well, that was embarrassing. A couple of days ago as I was typing up my bedside notes, I accidentally published a blog entry I’d written in the middle of the night. Then Sir Google the Vigilant picked up the post before I could erase it. And now it’s out there forever, half-formed thoughts and clumsy midnight sentences and all, the draftiest possible first draft. It’s the perfectionistic writer’s equivalent of looking down to discover you’ve been walking around the mall in nothing more than torn underpants and a saggy bra. And then finding out someone put the security footage on YouTube and mailed links to all your friends and coworkers.

At any rate, it’s as fixed as it’s going to get. So without further ado or so much as a segue, and at the risk of sounding sleep-obsessed, I now present the new and improved version of my field guide to insomnia.

Mix and match as you see fit.

Aha! – Yay! Yay! I’m finally falling asleep! I’m…Oh. Never mind.

Alarmatory Anticipation – What’s the point? Alarm’s about to go off. Or the baby will wake up. Or, well, something.

Bing! – And like that, you’re awake. Really awake.

The Brain Spins – 3 a.m. may not be the ideal time to craft the perfect comeback (six hours too late), plot your novel, or list your to-dos, but good luck convincing your busy brain of that.

Comfort Void – Pillow by Acme Brick. Mattress by Stay Puft.

Fear & Trepidation – Shh! Did you hear that? (See also: Horror Novels, Late Night Reading of)

Prophetic Insomnolescence – I expect it, therefore I have it.

Sound Barrier – Too much noise – or, heck, too little – and sleep’s as elusive as a ghost.

Whee! – Anticipation and excitement are electric coursing through your body. Tomorrow (i.e. Christmas morning, your birthday, the first day of vacation) will be terrific. Tonight? Not so much.

Did I leave any out? Which ones get you?

Dear Black & Decker: What Were You Thinking?

Setting up a new toaster oven should not under any circumstances require the following ingredients:

1) A plastic spoon

2) Four paper towels

3) All ten fingernails

4) Frequent misting of household chemicals

5) 28 minutes

This goes double when above tools are necessary to forcibly remove a colorful, life-sized sticker whose only purpose is to tout the same product perks bragged about on the garishly-decorated box.

And yet…

6 minutes into the procedure

6 minutes into the procedure


After -- Note the cat in the reflection. As I bent to take the picture, he jumped onto my back for a better view.

After a thorough de-stickering. Note the cat in the reflection. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, he is sitting on my back. Never bend to take a picture in our household lest you become sat upon by random animals.

Guerrilla Cleaning for the Time-Crunched

Everything I know about house cleaning could fit in a small mop bucket. Not that I own one, but I’ve seen them, so I have a general sense of the dimensions.

1. Host everything. Sometimes a little incentive’s necessary, which is why an impending audience is handy for motivating the terminally messy to pick up the pace and get the place clean.

2. Tackle the bathroom first. Nothing says I need a good scrubbing like toothpaste bits and water spots on the mirror. Plus it’s the easiest room in the house to sparklefy, especially if you employ the shower curtain in the manner in which it was intended: to hide a bathtub rim cluttered with shampoos, soaps, razors, and three types of conditioner.

3. Marry well. My husband is more sensitive to mess than I am, which means that he’s more than willing to pitch in and shovel out the clutter whenever necessary. His latest project? Mucking out both of our sheds. I came out one evening last week to find him vacuuming the rafters in the carport shed. When he noticed me watching him in astonishment, he cheerfully pointed out that he had “vacuumed up enough spider silk to make a blouse”. Although I kindly turned down his offer, I can see how cleaning can have other advantages I haven’t yet foreseen.

4. Squirt, leave, return. Household chemicals work so much better when left to settle for a while. A toilet bowl soaked in bleach-infused cleanser for an hour doesn’t even require a good scrubbing — a flush will do. Plus the lovely chemical smell adds to the illusion of a germ-free environment.

5. Mess is obvious; cleanliness is not. No one notices a nice, neat house. It’s not fair. Get used to it.

6. Learn how to apologize for the mess. I’ve honed this one to a fine art, asking people to excuse the mess, even if I’ve spent the last three hours tidying and the visitor in question is selling something and therefore won’t make it through the half-closed front door.

7. Hire someone. If only! Still, one can dream.

As I said — a small mop bucket of info. Other suggestions for the cleaning-impaired?

Spreading the Blog Love

As anyone who’s ever tagged me for a meme knows, if I don’t answer right away then I never do. And to be honest, I never answer right away, usually because I can’t think of what to write. By the time the words would have come to me, I’ve usually forgotten the assignment. (Incidentally, this is not very different from my middle school years, when I procrastinated on my homework until long past the expiration date. Of course, back then I could blame it on friends, lack of motivation, and an unhealthy interest in a certain few boys who, in turn, had no interest in me whatsoever.)

But when my friend Robin Bielman awarded my blog — and six others — the lovely badge to the left, I knew I couldn’t ignore it. Sheer terror had much to do with my dutiful response, since Robin knows where I live, she could totally take me in a fight, she knows several of my more potent secrets, and she critiques my writing. There was more to it than lack of courage, however. I loved the spirit of this award, which was designed to acknowledge bloggers who tirelessly entertain near-strangers with regular, good-quality content — and all for free.

It’s deciding which worthy bloggers deserved the honor next that gave me the most difficulty, of course. How is it possible to narrow down my favorite blogs to just seven, even when accounting for those who had already received the badge from someone else? And how could I do that without hurting the feelings of those who were left? After all, I think everyone on my blogroll is deserving of recognition. And so I grabbed all of the eligible names from my sorely outdated list of links, shuffled them in a high-tech fashion, and chose the top seven. If you have the opportunity, please take a few moments to check out the following blogs, as well as the ones from my blogroll that ended up later in the randomized list and so didn’t get chosen this time around. I bet you’ll find some fun new reads that way.

And now, without further fanfare, I hereby present the I Love Your Blog badge of honor to:

  • Katie from Cactus Kate for her gorgeous photographs and awe-inspiring gardening abilities
  • Courtney from Five-Second Dance Party for her unflinching honesty and warm-heartedness
  • Sandi Kahn Shelton for writing posts that never fail to make me laugh and, on some occasions, tear up
  • Alyson Noel from Tales from the Real OC (Really!) for her fun updates, insights into the life of an author, and many cool website recommendations
  • Chemical Billy for writing drop dead gorgeous prose that makes the world around her come alive for her readers
  • Eileen Cook from Just My Type for finding the most random, bizarre, and entertaining links to pass on to the rest of us. I don’t know how she does it!
  • Emily from The Sassy Lime for being such a sweetie, and for her cheerfulness in the face of near-constant pain

Thank you, ladies, for your inspiring, entertaining, and always-interesting posts! Please pass on the blog love by putting the badge of honor on your sites and awarding it to seven other deserving bloggers.

Note on a Unrelated Topic: If you’re reading this through an email subscription or an RSS feed, or at http://www.caryncaldwell.com/blog, you have been successfully transferred over to my new blog. Stay tuned for a fun surprise later this weekend!

41 Ways to Conquer Writer’s Block

For the past several years I have volunteered at the local high school, advising a number of very talented students in the creative writing club. This year I mentioned NaNoWriMo to several of them. Word spread, and now we have a large group of students who are all determined to write an entire novel this month. Only problem? Some of them had no idea where to start. Since I’ve dealt with this same issue, I made up the following list for them. Since many of you write — books, term papers, blog entries, thank-you notes — I figured I’d share the list with you as well. Have favorite ways to jump start your writing? Please share!

1. Go back to when everything last worked and to see if you went off-track.

2. Skip ahead to what you do know and write that. Sometimes you’ll find that the scene you agonized over really doesn’t need to be there, or in the meantime you – or your subconscious – could think of a good way to fix it.

3. Think of ways to make your characters’ lives worse, then implement them. It’s hard to have a book if you don’t have conflict.

4. Make a list of all the scenes that have to happen in your book. Good. Now you know where you’re going, and you have a goal. Start figuring out how to get from your current scene to the next one.

5. Read what you’ve already written to get back into the groove. Danger: Don’t let this lead you to edit too much; it’s possible to spend all your time polishing the first three chapters and never get anything else written. You’ll have a great beginning, but you won’t have a book.

6. Write with someone else. This can often be inspiring; when others around you are being creative and productive, it’s hard to keep your own pen off the page.

7. Writer’s block is often caused by fear. It may be fear of writing something imperfect, fear of what others will think, fear of rejection, or even fear of success. What are you afraid of? Sometimes just knowing will help you conquer it.

8.Remind yourself that this is only a first draft. Most books go through many, many revisions, so if it’s not perfect the first time around that’s normal. You don’t have to show anyone until you’re ready.

9. Perhaps you’ve lost sight of your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts. What would your character would do next in order to reach his/her goal? Now prevent him/her from it.

10. Watch a movie or read a book for inspiration. Sometimes the creative well just plain runs dry.

11. Brainstorm with someone.

12. Or, the reverse could be an issue: Perhaps you’ve talked about your book too much and now it doesn’t seem fresh or fun anymore. If that’s the case, try going in a new direction to freshen it up a bit, and keep it all to yourself for now.

13. 90% of all people who begin a novel never finish it. 85% of all those who began NaNoWriMo last year never finished. Beat the odds no matter what, even if means writing utter crap. You can always revise later.

14. Reexamine why you’re doing this in the first place. Write your motivation(s) on a sticky note and post it next to your monitor.

15. Sometimes having too many options can cause a block. For example, should the character be an architect or a plumber? Should his/her parents be divorced or still together? It’s difficult, but make a choice and stick with it. If you still can’t decide, write each choice on a piece of paper, fold up the pieces, throw them in a hat or bowl and draw one.

16. Set a timer and tell yourself you’ll write for this amount of time, no matter what – but that you’re allowed to stop after that if you want to. Anyone can write for 15, 30, or 60 minutes if they put their minds to it. Take a break to eat or do something fun, then set that timer again.

17. Develop a writing routine – light a candle, write at the same time each day, choose a special writing chair, etc. Just going through those motions can tell your brain that it’s time to write.

18. Shake up your writing routine. Write at a different time or place.

19. Allow yourself some awful first sentences each time you begin a new writing session. After all, quite often the hardest part is just getting started. Once you’ve warmed up, it usually becomes much easier.

20. Next time you write, try stopping in the middle of a sentence, paragraph, or scene. This way you’ll know where to begin when you come back to it.

21. Write daily. Make it a habit. Often the longer you go between writing sessions, the harder it can be to get back into it, and the more time you’ll have to psych yourself out.

22. Tell everyone your goal so that you are held accountable. Then you have no choice but to get something down.

23. Start with success: Do something important but easy, such as finding a good last name for your character or doing some simple research. This gets you back into your story, and the success is often motivating.

24. Sometimes you just have to get yourself out of your own way. Take a shower, do the dishes, knit a scarf, take a long drive, play a computer game, hike, run, swim…Do something that keeps your hands and body occupied but your mind free. Then assign your brain the task of thinking about what to write next.

25. Disconnect your internet, so if you’re ever tempted to conduct another email check you have to get up and walk over to the modem to plug it back in. Quite often your willpower will return before you set aside your laptop or notebook.

26. Think of what you could be doing that you want to do even less – homework, cleaning house, writing that thank-you note to your Great Aunt Pearl, whatever.

27. Give yourself silly goals such as finding random words in the dictionary and having to use them, or starting the first sentence with the letter A, the next with B, the following with C, etc. The challenge can help get your mind off your fear and spark your creativity.

28. Open a new document or turn to a clean page in your notebook. Anything goes when you’re starting fresh. If you like what you come up with, you can always add it in later. Sounds silly, but it’s actually one of my favorite — and most effective — methods.

29. Type with your eyes closed. This can remove inhibitions.

30. Begin a free-write with, “I don’t know what to write,” and go from there, writing whatever comes to mind but slowly working your way into examining your book and then, perhaps, starting to write it again.

31. Interview your main character, or write a monologue from his/her P.O.V.

32. Keep a notebook by your bedside, in your car, in the bathroom – wherever you’re likely to get an idea. When one comes to you, take a moment to (safely!) write it down. Next time you’re stuck with your writing, look through your notebook for ideas.

33. Maybe you’ve gone the obvious route with your writing, and you’ve ended up boring yourself. Throw something big into the works to change things radically: someone new (dead or alive) turns up, your character finds out a devastating secret or is suddenly faced with what s/he most fears, the hero fails at an important task.

34. Make a list of 20 things that could happen next. Cross out the first 10-15 since those are often the more obvious choices, then consider implementing the last few.

35. Let your subconscious do the work. Long before you sit down to write, give yourself a problem that needs to be solved, anywhere from “What should I write next?” to “How should my protagonist react when s/he finds the dead body?” Think about it from time to time. By the time you write, a solution will often present itself with minimal effort.

36. Eat, go to the bathroom, and do any urgent business before writing. That way you have no reason to get up from the keyboard once you start. Just make sure you don’t put writing dead last, or you may never get to it.

37. Whatever you do, don’t delete! If you really don’t think it’s worthwhile, cut it from the manuscript and paste it in a new one so you can put it back in or use it in something else. Sometimes all you need is a little perspective, and that can take time and distance. If you’re stuck, go through your file of deleted scenes for inspiration.

38. What do you like about certain books/movies? How can you incorporate that into your own work in a creative way? What do you hate about particular books/movies? How can you write it better, and with your own creative twist?

39. Work on something else for a while. Ever have several books going at a time, reading whichever one interests you right then? The same can work with writing.

40. Remember that writing is hard. Just because it doesn’t always flow, it doesn’t mean you’re blocked. So realize that it might not be easy, and work through it. After all, things that are worth it rarely come easily.

41. Examine your attitude before you go into it. Are you expecting to have a fun, productive writing session, or are you expecting pain and blockage? Your brain often delivers what you expect.