Nancy: Lessons From the Dreaded Day Job

Why, you might ask, have I taped a scene to my wall? To keep my brain guessing.

Why, you might ask, have I taped a scene to my wall? To keep my brain guessing.

Once upon a time, a very nice girl found herself working in a really stressful industry. Okay, you caught me: I’m talking about me. I haven’t qualified as a ‘girl’ for decades. And very nice…well, that depends upon the day and the situation. But I did work in a really stressful industry (US government proposal management, in case you’re desperately curious). Over the years, I developed some mad skills that I brought to bear on high-pressure, deadline-driven, writing-intensive problems.

A few months ago, I left that industry and promptly forgot (or more likely purged) much hard-earned wisdom about writing and revision. And while I’d always believed honing my fiction writing and storytelling skills only improved my performance on those (non-fiction) projects, I didn’t think much about what lessons from my day job could teach me about writing fiction.

For what feels like eons but has only been several weeks, I’ve been up to my eyeballs in revisions, doing a final revision pass on a novella, and a first draft revision of a novel, both part of my Victorian Romance series (because I’m a masochist, that’s why). At one point, while looking for some distraction  additional words of revising wisdom, I ran across some advice that rang a bell. It caused a simultaneous ‘aha’ and ‘doh’ moment for me, because I’d used it my day job but never applied it to fiction writing. Which made me realize that in that job, I’d used some simple yet highly effective techniques to improve writing and revision from writers of all skill levels.

I’d provide my writers on each new project with ‘just-in-time’ training focused on tips and tricks to get them writing quickly (we had tight deadlines), clearly, and persuasively. To do that, I had to give them tools to plan, complete, and revise their writing assignments. These included buddy-system brainstorming, stand/walk planning, summarizing by paragraph, and the one that triggered my aha/doh moment – wall walking.

Buddy-System Brainstorming. You’d think the ‘buddy’ part of this step is what makes it so helpful to the writer – another person brings an additional perspective, two brains are better than one, bouncing ideas off someone else can lead you down paths you wouldn’t have otherwise taken – and you’d be right. But there’s another benefit to this approach.

Speaking out loud engages an area of the brain that’s different from the area we use for writing. So many of my writers found verbalizing ideas helpful that even if someone didn’t feel comfortable discussing their formative ideas with a buddy, I encouraged them to find a space where they could close the door and talk to themselves. Passersby might think you’re crazy, but you’re crazy like a fox, because the very act of speaking forces your brain approach the problem from new and creative angles.

Stand/Walk Planning. Writers are used to sitting on our butts. A lot. We even use seat-based words of encouragement/admonishment like ‘just get your butt in the chair and write!’ However, that’s not always the best thing. Sometimes we get ideas flowing by getting our blood flowing. Sometimes we need to step away from the desk, walk down the hall or around the building, or even pace in front of a white board (used to catch errant and brilliant thoughts). And this isn’t just applicable to the planning stage of writing. Getting on your feet now and then when writing a scene changes your energy, and might just translate to a (positive) change on the page.

Summarizing by Paragraph. This technique comes in handy during the revision stage of writing. We’re so close to our own writing, we tend to connect dots that aren’t there and mentally complete blanks that leave holes in the logic of our written work. So I’d ask writers to open their written section on a computer screen, get out a notebook, and jot down a brief phrase to summarize each paragraph they’d written. While this wouldn’t capture missing words (we had line editors for that), it would reveal gaps in logic, missing steps or vital information, and abrupt transitions. In fiction writing, this is a way to quickly identify beats of a scene to ensure they escalate and complicate throughout the scene.

Wall Walking. This technique is so common in proposal management, it’s considered a standard of practice. Very often, a proposal team starts ‘posting the wall’ as soon as they develop outlines or plans for written sections. Proposal rooms (often called war rooms – yes, companies tend to hyperbole when it comes to proposals) are often equipped with a system of rails affixed to the walls to hold the papers. In the absence of rails, people tend to use good, old-fashioned tape (resulting in varying degrees of damage to painted surfaces. Better alternatives are, for instance, sticky but gentle poster putty).

Many of us are onto the technique of revising our work in hard copy, often using a different font type or color. Because the work then looks less like it did when we typed it into the computer, we can see it differently. Putting the pages on a vertical surface takes this visual trick a step further. I can attest that literally walking along the wall to read and mark up the pages allows you to catch mistakes and problems you just don’t see when the pages are laid out flat. An additional trick is to post subsequent pages top to bottom instead of left to right.

The name of the game with all these techniques is approaching writing differently than our brains expect. In the writing phase, changing things up helps writers get over fears or anxieties of writing, as well as get their thoughts onto the page more quickly. In the revision stage, a different presentation (from changing the font, color, or location of the pages) creates enough distance from the writing to analyze and revise as ruthlessly and objectively as possible.

Have you used techniques similar to these in your own writing/revision process? What are your favorite tips and tricks to make revision more efficient and less painful? (Totally asking for a friend. She’s a very nice girl…)

6 thoughts on “Nancy: Lessons From the Dreaded Day Job

  1. Such interesting techniques, Nancy! I totally agree that seeing your work with fresh eyes or a different perspective is important, although I usually just fall back on the tried-and-true methodology of waiting a while and then going back to it later. However, I don’t actually find revising painful. It’s tiresome sometimes if I’ve revised something multiple times and it still doesn’t work, but when I read something I wrote and I think it sucks, or I think I can make it better in some way, I usually feel a little rush of adrenaline when I get started on the revision—a challenge to improve. It’s fun. And it’s a lot easier, for me, anyway, to revise than to write the new stuff. I especially like your idea of laying out the pages vertically. I’m going to try that, especially one day when I’m short on time!

    • I hope the vertical technique is helpful to you, Kay! It’s one that I resisted because I was used to ‘walking the wall’ left to right (proposal rails are always installed horizontally). But one day, an assistant hung hundreds of pages around a room with each section going top to bottom of the wall, and we just didn’t have time to tear and re-hang the pages. It worked for that ‘new view’, so I used it fairly regularly after that, including this weekend when I just couldn’t get my brain to engage to deal with critique comments in the short scene you see in the picture. I hung it up, read it top to bottom, scribbled notes on the pages, and wrangled the thing in a couple of hours.

  2. I think this might be what I need! I need to get my story out of the computer, and out in real life so I can poke and prod through some of it, and find the really good and juicy parts. Not even close to the revision stage yet — a lot of my editing goes on in my head before I even get it on the paper, but as someone once said, it’s hard to hold all that story in one little head. Scene summaries on pieces of paper might be what I need.

    • You don’t have to wait for the revision stage to try these! Making your brain see something through a different lens can shake stuff loose when you’re stuck, at any stage of the process.

      And if you’re interested in scene cards, you really should check out Lisa Cron’s Story Genius that Jilly (and I think Neen?) and I have been squeeing about, as she has a whole ‘system’. I’m working with a coach in her method and will be starting scene cards for my WF story next week :-). I’ll no doubt do a post about them at some point.

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