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)

Writing, Writing Residencies

Should I Go To A Writing Residency?

Yes. Next question?

Oh, you wanted more? Writing residencies are one of the best things that ever happened to my writing. The other is Scrivener and possibly my MFA program. And perhaps a series of life events that I did not enjoy, but that gave me something to write about.

What Is A Writing Residency?

An official writing residency (as opposed to a DIY writing residency, which is also awesome and worth doing) is a place you apply to go stay for a certain period of time to write. They range from opulent to rustic, sometimes they provide food, other times they only provide kitchens. Size, expense, location, and number of coresidents all vary wildly.

Why Should I Go To A Writing Residency?

Yes, you can write at home or the library. But do you? Writing residencies offer a block of time where your only responsibility is to write (although your coresidents would probably appreciate it if you cleaned up after yourself in the kitchen as well). You have your own space, usually with a bed and a desk, at the very least. Often there is a common area and interesting places to explore and get your mind out of its ordinary patterns.

Residencies are a gift. For those of us who squeeze our writing around work and other responsibilities, the time is magical. You have days that you structure entirely based on your writing needs. You have time to write AND read. You can go into depth in your work in a way that you can’t when you snatch an hour at a time from your daily life.

What Should I Consider When Choosing A Residency?

Think long and hard about what you need to write.

Cost: Can you afford to pay for a residency? Are there scholarships? (Often yes.) Can you afford to get to the residency? Do you need a stipend? (Sometimes there are stipends!) Can you afford to feed yourself while you’re there?

Setting: Be brutally honest with yourself. Will you like living in a cabin in the woods or will it freak you out? What is your relationship with spiders? If you go to a residency in a foreign country, will you write or will you gad about? (No judgment.) Do you need to be in an isolated place so you sit your butt in the chair and write? Do you need the Internet? Do you need to be in walking/driving distance of a grocery store, urban center, national park, or coffeeshop? Can you haul firewood? What creature comforts can you not do without?

Food: Would you benefit from being fed at specific times or would you resent having to stop work and go to dinner? Do you want to talk to other people? Do you hate to cook? I have never been to a catered residency (I hear they’re great), but I’ve got a pretty good repertoire of bachelor dinners and don’t mind PB&J on a regular basis.

Level of Sociability: Do you like people? Do you like talking about writing? Do you want to avoid all humans and just get your work done? Do you secretly long for a glass of wine at the end of your writing day and conversation with other writers? In my experience, there is a lot of drinking at writing residencies. I’ve never seen anyone be intolerant of nondrinkers, but if drinking makes you uncomfortable, plan accordingly. I’ve had so many amazing conversations with coresidents at my various residencies, and I have some strong friendships as well. But I also have a couple eye-rolling crazy stories. Fortunately, the good outweighed the bad.

Your Level of Resiliency: How do you feel about solitude? Can you be somewhat alone with your writing for the length of your residency? The running joke is that you’re not allowed to knock on other writers’ studio doors during the day at Yaddo, because the writer is either napping or crying. It’s funny because it’s true. I have napped and cried, despaired and rejoiced at every single residency I’ve been to. Can you deal with the challenge of writing every day and the intensity that comes with it?

Where Do I Find One of these Magical Things?

Poets and Writers and the Alliance of Artists Communities

What is your experience at writing residencies?

(Photo: the porch at Woodstock’s Byrdcliffe Residency; I recommend the residency, but see above point re spiders.)