Memoir, Revising, Writing Residencies

How To Write a Book Proposal When You Are a Pantser. Part 1: Chapter Outline

I am a pantser. Like Joan Didion says, I write to understand what I’m thinking. So when I look at the task of writing a detailed outline of a book I haven’t even written yet, I falter. (This is a nice way of saying I got a lot of writing done while procrastinating on this particular step of the book proposal process.) But I had a week in a rented house in another state with a writing friend. It was time.

I knew being on a computer staring at a Word document was going to be too much like my day job. Not to mention, the Internet was right there. So I packed for this week like it was 1985. I had writing pads, index cards, tape, scissors, binder clips, paper clips, highlighters, and my favorite uniball signo pens with off-black ink (h/t Jet Pens).

The first day I took my coffee to the dining room table and got to work. My friend—a wonderfully organized human being who outlined her book in an afternoon—looked on in amusement as I began ripping index cards into pieces. Main ideas went on half index cards. Related ideas went on index card quarters. The ripping was a satisfying way to dissipate some of my nervous energy.

The rest of the day looked like a tarot reading or a bridge game. I stared at the cards. I moved a few cards, and then stared again. What patterns would the mosaic of index cards reveal? What was the future of my book? I had been struggling bringing parts of the book together. How was a Confederate navigator related to my fascination with the night sky? I started to write little connecting ideas and taped them to the bamboo skewers my AirBnB host so helpfully left for visiting writers such as myself.

The next day I gently laid placemats over my index card idea array. It was still there, available for reference, but I had a clean slate so to speak. Out came the index cards again. Back when I molded young minds for a living, I told my students that research papers began with a thesis statement, but that creative nonfiction began with a research question that the essay answered. (And this, my friends, is how I justified teaching creative writing in a research writing class.) I needed the research questions my chapters would answer.

So I started writing questions on index cards. When I had two placemat’s worth of questions, I laid two more placemats on top of my craft project art installation research notes. This was the high-stakes part. Clearly I needed to visit the bakery across the street for sustenance. No one should have to write a chapter outline without chocolate. I don’t make the rules.

By the time I had three research questions for my two themes, I decided I was ready to commit to paper. I modified Jennie Nash’s Outcome Outline and wrote a chart. (I’m a scientific editor. I love charts.) Using the bamboo skewers as a straight edge, I made four columns. Chapter number, research question, the answer to the research question (the point), and the “because of that,” which I vaguely retitled “direction.”

It was time to harden my heart. The third day I took my outline chart and my coffee back to bed. It is best to be comfortable when killing your darlings. I looked at each question, point, and direction (leading to the next chapter) and thought really hard about whether they belonged. I did my best to be faithful to what I was actually writing, rather than what I could write. I looked at the wobbly points and questions, and…I killed them.

“It’s an iterative process,” I said to my friend at least twice a day when we took breaks in the kitchen. By the end of the week I had one and a half revisions of my chapter outline. And a week later, at home, in bed—because you must be comfortable when you are killing your darlings—I am revising my third outcome chart. It’s messy, but I think it’s true. And yes I wrote this blog post as procrastination.

Onward, my friends! Writing is hard, but it beats working.

(Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)


Learning my Writing Process

I was a poet for the first ten years of my writing life. Then I started writing poems that, according to my writing group friend, made better stories than poems. And she was right. I began to write a memoir with no idea what I was doing and little confidence that I could do it. Nevertheless, I persisted. Almost ten years later (I hate to count, really) I have a memoir manuscript that I am shopping around.

[Aside: “Shopping around” is a breezy term that hardly captures a great deal of internet research and baring your writerly heart to strangers who will ghost you or—even worse—see your writerly heart and send you an exquisitely polite and well-thought-out rejection letter.]

While I endure the process of looking for an agent, I have begun another project. Beginning a prose project (a book? a series of essays? we’ll see) looks very different now than it did ten years ago. Although my early drafts are still brutally terrible and I stumble along in confusion, I now have a tiny thread of confidence. (Not a lot of confidence, let’s not be hasty.) This time I know that if I persist, I will have a piece of writing that I can show to another person.

Let me quantify that. It took me four months of researching and writing two hours a day before I showed up to my full-time job to write 10,000 words that eventually became a 3000-word essay. There are more efficient ways to write and live, but this is my way.

How much ink do you waste use to make a shining final draft?

(Photo by Julia Joppien on Unsplash)

Reading, Writing

Writing Memoir While Young

I was in a room full of writers talking casually about getting published.

“It’s brutal!” said one. “I used to work as an agent’s assistant in New York. I should know!”

“You really have to know someone,” another said. The conversation went on, everyone feeling negative and discouraged. It was a conversation I had heard before.

So I spoke up and told the room about how I had queried my memoir; I didn’t know any of the people I was querying, nor was I introduced to anyone. I got a gratifying number of requests for a full manuscript.

“Of course they were all rejected,” I said with a laugh. It hadn’t been funny at the time, but now I knew the manuscript wasn’t ready. I was (am) working on a new draft.

“Maybe you should wait until you are old enough to have something to say,” one of the writers (maybe in her late fifties) said to me. I stared at her, shocked.

A million responses rushed to my mind. The first was, “I’m older than I look!” The next response involved some cussing. The third was, “You don’t understand the difference between writing a memoir and writing memoirs do you?”

What I actually said, because I cannot shake the Southern-bred and retail-honed habit of being polite to a person’s face no matter how I feel, was nothing. I turned to the younger woman next to me and asked her about her writing. She was in her early 30s and writing a memoir.

A memoir is not a biography, it is the telling of one story or theme (or interconnected stories or themes) of your life. The younger woman had worthy stories to tell. I heard a few of them over the course of the evening.

Who hasn’t loved a coming-of-age story? Why can’t a person write more than one story about their lives? It seems so obvious that people have interesting/hair-raising/introspective stories to tell at various ages and voices.

Age is yet another kind of diversity. No one wants to hear just from late middle aged people (except maybe the bitter writer I was talking to). And dismissing other people’s work in a roomful of writers is just plain wrong.

What’s your favorite young/old/middle-aged piece of nonfiction?



How Intersectionality Made Me a Better Poet

When I was in graduate school I took a class on poetry and politics. We read a lot of Russian and Polish poets. I loved reading Akhmatova and Milosz, but the class did not help me understand how I could write political poetry. If anything, it dissuaded me from writing anything political, because my life was so privileged in comparison to the poets and essayists we read.

The path of a poet’s career is sinuous. I found myself teaching intersectionality (the idea that everyone is affected in varying amounts by their race, class, gender, and other factors and thus their relationship to institutional power and privilege and/or oppression) to college students a few years ago. Our current president got elected. And my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, became synonymous with white supremacy.

One of the reasons well-meaning white people are racist is because we often think we are the norm. We don’t have to think about our race, because our society is designed for people who look like us and come from our backgrounds. And so we say and do and sometimes believe racist things.

I decided to write a poem about Charlottesville. I would place myself into a context rather than assuming that my experience was the universal experience of childhood. I would write about and question my own intersections. What my younger self didn’t understand was that we live in a white supremacist society, which means that our societal systems are designed for white people. (The black kids at my high school worked a hell of a lot harder than I did to be in the advanced, college prep classes, to take one example.) So I am a participant in an unjust system. This is something I can write about.

Writing about poetry writing sounds insufferable in the abstract. As does poking through assorted ideas about race and representation. But I am pleased to find a way to talk about social justice that doesn’t sound trite or borrowed from someone else. (The poem begins in a bookstore.) And if the poem doesn’t work, which is always a possibility, at least I will have begun to question how my race affects my life, which is something my younger self did not even know could be a question.

What are you questioning?

(photo by Eze Amos)

Writer's Field Journal, Writing

Writer’s Field Journal

I am writing a book of writing prompts. Actually it’s a journal. Although it’s a book. Hm, let’s start again.

My second published book, “Writer’s Field Journal: Thought-Provoking Exercises and Prompts for Creative Exploration,” is coming out with Fox Chapel Publishing this fall. It is a collection of prompts with room to write and gorgeous watercolor illustrations by Cara Connors.

I spent my fall reading and sometimes rereading books on creativity and creative writing. I spent this January writing up prompts, choosing quotes, and having way too much fun. At the last minute I realized I had promised to include a bit on procrastination. This post is an act of productive procrastination.

The fun, careless first draft is done, and now I have to nail down some details about, among other things, how writers can get into character, how to spell Reginald Shepherd‘s last name, and whether or not a prompt about aliens is cliche.

Are aliens subject cliches for writing prompts?




Three Principles of Revision

Revision. Love it or hate it, I don’t care. Just make sure you do it. Revising is the difference between casual and professional writers.

Note: I consider professional writers not as people who get paid for writing (I’m a poet after all), but rather people who are working at certain level with a certain amount of experience and education, whether formal or self-administered.

Macro Before Micro

You know what this means. Don’t rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic. Don’t spend two hours moving a few words around in a paragraph that you are going to delete later. Make sure you’ve said mostly the right things in mostly the right order before you polish that prose to a high sheen.

Note: This does not apply to poetry quite as much. In poetry, micro is often macro.

Know Thyself

If you’re a writer with a certain amount of education (formal or self-administered) and experience, then you have a general idea about your strengths and weaknesses. My poetry buddies used to make fun of me (affectionately) for the “Goldstein leap” where I would have a carefully constructed poem and then a reckless leap for the ending. I never had the penultimate line, and I often needed it. As a result, I always check for the Goldstein leap at the end of the poem.

When I teach, I make my writing students make up their own revision checklist. This is great for catching the small things you always forget (passive voice, repetitive sentence structure, citation arcana) as well as bigger issues. Although many students would have the some of the same items on their list, each one was slightly different. You have your own sets of strengths and weaknesses. Work to support one and address the others.

Don’t forget your strengths too! Are you good at titles? Do you write killer dialogue? Are your descriptions to die for? Do you write your references perfectly every single time? (If so, you should consider a career in copyediting.) Listing your writing strengths is a good exercise for reminding yourself the things you do well.

Kill Your Darlings

Nothing against your darlings! They are beautifully worded, delectable sentences, words, paragraphs, and image. But just because you love them does not mean they fit in your current work. Take them out and save them for later. Every poet I know has a list of images or lines that they periodically try to put into a poor unsuspecting poem. Is it a possum, brick dust, or the fact that sparrows can sense magnetism? Think carefully about what is good for your specific work, rather than just what is good.

What are your favorite revision tips? What are your darlings?

Submit or Die in Obscurity

How To Build Writerly Resilience

I’ve been reading Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer over the past few weeks. It is a smart book about all the nonwriting stuff that goes into having a writing career, however we may define it. And one quote has stuck with me particularly.

“Resilience in the face of rejection and disappointment is perhaps the biggest key to success [in writing].”

In my early twenties, I was lucky enough to be roommates with a writer. She was older and a great deal more experienced than me, however she took my beginning writerly ambitions and my poems seriously. I submitted my first poems to a literary magazine, and when I was sent a rejection form she said to me, “Congratulations! You are a real writer now!”

How does a writer become resilient even without having a good writer roommate?

Become a reader for a literary journal. The slush pile is mighty. As you read submissions, you will quickly see that all good writing does not get immediately published and that rejection is not personal. You might like something, but another reader doesn’t. I once rejected a poem from my small grad school literary journal that I read years later in Poetry.

Terri Lynn Coop says it better (scroll down to the comments).

Submit a lot. Make a routine for submission. Do your research, but don’t pin your hopes on an individual journal, grant, agent, or contest. The more you submit, the more you will be rejected, but also the more you will be accepted. The year I decided to submit to three places a week was my best year of publications ever, even if I didn’t manage to do it all year. As soon as you get rejected, send the work out again.

Make sure your submissions are good (not to mention typo free) before you send them out the first time and do not reread them before submitting after that. Feel the self-doubt and submit it anyway.

Find a sense of self-worth elsewhere. I don’t know how to tell you to do that really, but find a hobby that brings you pleasure and people that support you. This is very important.

Stay off social media. Sometimes you’re going to feel like shit even if you are a resilient person. Sometimes you’re going to feel like everyone but you has a book, a prize, the best spouse ever, perfect children, a clean home, and a new kitten. Get off social media and find the hobbies and people and books that sustain you.

When you can’t write, read something good.

How do you find the courage to submit another day?


What To Look For In An Editor

Budget and time frame are two very concrete things to negotiate when looking for an editor. You know when you need the manuscript back and how much you can afford. But how do you figure out if your editor is suited to you? Do you need to take a Meyers-Briggs test and compare astrological charts? No, thank god.


Make sure your editor enjoys or has experience in the genre in which you are writing. I’ve had people tell me my memoir should be a novel (I don’t write novels) and my fiction-writing spouse has had people tell him short stories should be essays (he does not write essays). You want an editor who will meet you where you are and who will be enthusiastic and knowledgeable about your genre of choice.

Communication style

Does your editor respond to your emails in a time frame that works for you? Do you want to talk to the editor on the phone or by video call? Does your editor do that? Does the way they talk about their work make sense to you?

Feedback style

An editor is going to give you criticism, probably a lot of it. What do you need when you receive feedback? Do you want the unvarnished truth? Or do you prefer your criticism presented in a gentler approach? Do you need a lot of encouragement or reassurance?

None of these styles are right or wrong, unless you are an experienced writer and your editor explains each change she makes in excruciating detail. That is a waste of time for both of you.

Not sure what kind of writer you are? How do you respond to criticism or feedback at your job? How do you give criticism or feedback to other people?


How do you know if an editor is right for you?


What To Know When Hiring An Editor

You’ve written something, and you need someone outside your friend and family circle to read it. You have a short list of editors you want to talk to. There’s a good deal  of back and forth before you hire someone you don’t know to edit your work. You need to establish a few things first.

Level of Editing

The first thing you want to figure out is the level of edit you want. Do you just want a quick polish for glaring errors or do you want someone to help you rethink the organization of your work?

Developmental editing is where the editor works with the writer to flesh out ideas, identify compelling storylines or themes, and organize the larger work.

Copyediting ranges from “heavy” to “light” depending on how much work needs to be done. In a copyedit, the editor checks for grammar, typos, awkward wordings, some organizational issues (that’s on the heavier side), consistency, readability, and continuity.

Proofreading is usually quicker and less hands-on for the editor. The text is in its relatively final form, and the proofreader is just looking to correct errors introduced earlier in the process.

Writing coaching is the process of helping the writer set and meet their writing goals. It can include all of the above level of edits, but what makes it unlike editing is that writing coaching involves helping the writer with their creative process itself rather than just the writing.

Budget and Time Frame

When do you need the manuscript returned to you? Is it ready to go today or are you halfway through and want to set something up for a few months from now to give yourself a deadline?

How much money do you have to spend on an edit? I live and die by the Editorial Freelancer Association’s chart of common rates. Editors will often ask for a certain amount of money up front and the rest upon completion of the project. For longer projects editors might want to be paid weekly, biweekly, or monthly.

Be direct (and polite, of course) about both your budget and your time frame. (And pay your editor promptly. We editors like to eat too.)

Editing Style

This is the less concrete part of your negotiations. Each editor has a slightly different set of interests and approaches. Each writer has different styles and needs. A successful editor/writer relationship needs compatible styles. Sometimes people are perfectly good writers and editors, their styles just don’t mesh. And there is nothing wrong with that; it’s just something one should find out earlier rather than later.

You can always ask an editor to talk about their editing practice and approach. Also think about what approaches have worked well for you in the past. Haven’t been edited before? Think back to other collaborative and teaching experiences. What works for you and what doesn’t?

The best way to figure this out is to ask for a sample edit. (This is more common with larger projects.) Some editors (such as myself) will edit 2 pages or so for free. Others will give you a sample edit for a small charge. Either way, this is a great way for the writer to figure out if they like the editor’s approach and the editor to figure out if the writer is receptive to what the editor says. It also helps the editor set a more accurate estimate on the final project.

What do you ask when first contacting an editor?

(Image from



Marie Curie’s Kitchen

At some point (maybe around 2010 or so), I read Obsessive Genius by Barbara Goldsmith, and it changed my writing life. This was a book not just about Marie Curie’s accomplishments, it was also about how a poor Polish woman became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. There was all the domestic detail a nosy writer could ask for about how she managed her life and her work.

The personal lives of scientists became my new interest. How did one woman become a successful scientist in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while another woman became merely a woman who knew more about science than her peers? It was place, education, and encouragement. It was class, ambition, and personality. It was all fascinating.

“Marie Curie’s Kitchen” began its life as an idea. I was in the early twenty-first century still trying to kill the Angel in the House, Virginia Woolf’s specter of domesticity. I had a sink full of dirty dishes and poems to write. What did Marie Curie’s kitchen look like? was my rebellious thought.

The idea became a poem, and then a few years later it became prose. My friend encouraged me to submit a piece to Flashback Fiction, a journal of historical flash fiction. It never occurred to me that I could write fiction. However, a slightly fictional interpretation of real-life events I thought I could manage. Evidently the editors thought so too. Today you can read “Marie Curie’s Kitchen” up at Flashback Fiction.

What’s your favorite personal detail about a historical figure?