whitney roberts hill

"One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began." -Mary Oliver

Plumbing the Depths of Your Own Life


In a recent chapter of Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit he talked about a phenomenon he calls “burning the raft at both ends.” By which he means, consuming one’s own life experiences in the service of one’s writing. According to Block, you can use up your life. You can run out of experiences. You can write through your life faster than you can live it.

I’m vested in believing he is wrong about this.

I write from my own life. Maybe it’s because I come out of a poetic tradition. Or maybe I was drawn to confessional poetry, in particular, out of a compulsion to use my own life experiences in the service of my writing.

Part of maturing my writing has been learning how to do this more skillfully—to take the emotional kernel, the essence of my own experiences, and of the social and psychological realities I know intimately, and allow that essence to sprout circumstances for my characters that are not so easily traceable to my own life. In part, I do this to avoid libel charges, sure. But I also do it—like most writers—to protect the innocent, or at least the loved.

But as I have expounded before, I write as one vehicle toward self-knowledge. Writing without explicit self-examination is impossible for me.

I happen to believe that human beings are infinitely complex. That the material in any one human life is inexhaustible and ever-deepening. I was listening to a podcast by the New York Public Library yesterday. In it the novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard seeks to dispel the rumors that people with good childhoods can’t be writers. That well-adjusted, ordinary folk have nothing to write about. He describes himself as such a person who was lucky enough—and as a writer unlucky enough—to have supportive, well-adjusted parents and no major traumas. And he talks about learning, through the works of such writers as Flannery O’Connor, that every human life is engaging and interesting if you zoom in close enough.

Frankly, I don’t trust writers who claim not to write from their own experience. Maybe they don’t write from their own experience in such an obvious way. Maybe they use persona. Maybe they write science fiction or supernatural horror or murder mystery. Maybe they haven’t  personally experienced taking someone’s life but their hero is a serial killer. I would argue that even that person is writing from their own experience—maybe from their Jungian shadow side—maybe it’s unconscious. But to write that character in a compelling way they must be in touch with the human impulse to violence (whether expressed or unexpressed) in themselves. We each have it, after all.

We each have the capacity for all human emotions and psychological experiences. The entirety of your novel must spring from your own mind, which has been shaped by your experiences. That’s part of the mystery of writing. Somehow all of that stuff is in you. “[You] contain multitudes,” as Walt Whitman said.

So can you burn the raft entirely before you reach the shore? I would argue that you cannot. You have no choice but to keep living while you are writing. The raft keeps getting built as you are burning it. And as you refine your craft, perhaps you are also refining your attention, and you will see things in your life you never saw before. And they will be revealed to you through the act of writing itself.



quotescover-JPG-77Confession time. Half of this word scares me. Also it makes me a little angry, a little frustrated, and a little unsure about my ability to succeed as a writer.

Here’s why: I’m not sure that the skills needed to be a successful writer can cohabitate with the skills necessary to be a great entrepreneur, brander, marketer, social media mogul and sales executive.

I’m afraid I only have the former set of skills. I like to be alone, I like psychoanalysis, probing deep questions, imagining alternative realities, crafting language, and communicating my most dearly held truths.

The following things, on the other hand, make me feel icky: self-promotion, money, too much time on the internet (especially social media), strategizing, marketing, thinking about the salability of my most dearly held truths.

Am I doomed in the new arena of writing and publishing?

I hope not.

But I worry that developing the skills to hold up the entrepreneurial end of this equation will take place at the expense of the author end. Time spent in strategizing, marketing and social media blasting is time not spent writing, after all. And I only get the same 24 hours in a day as everyone else, unfortunately.

The alternative, of course, is to hire others to do the parts of the business that I don’t have an affinity for. This upsets me for an entirely different reason. Are we kidding ourselves about the great egalitarian wild west of self-publishing on the web? If time and money must be invested now by the author, instead of by the traditional publisher, aren’t we empowering some kinds of authors (those with an abundance of time and/or money) over others even more than we were before?

This troubles me. And I don’t have an answer.

But, if I may be permitted to play devil’s advocate against my own argument for a moment, I can see some of the proclaimed advantages of this new author-centric system of publishing. For one, authors have greater creative control over the final form of their work than ever before. If you don’t want to listen to a bossy editor or publisher, you don’t have to. You want to write an 800 page debut novel? Knock yourself out. “We don’t see a market for that” is no longer a full-stop for writers seeking publication.

Authors stand to take home a greater slice of their profits than ever before, too. People are not writing novels in the hope of becoming millionaires by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s nice that the time and energy vested in such a long project can be rewarded by a higher percentage (if not all) of the profits of the book’s sales.

And I do think that for some, the skills used in the writing process are transferrable to the realm of entrepreneurship. After all, entrepreneurs must also be highly creative to be successful. Blogging is just more writing (a good place to put all the ideas in your brain that don’t fit into your novel!). And many writers also have a knack for the visual arts, making designing their own covers a fun challenge, rather than an overwhelming chore.

I’m still hoping to be picked up by an agent and a traditional publisher. But, in the meantime, I’m learning how to build a platform, generate blog posts, and talk about my project to any willing listeners. Dogged determination, after all, has always been a part of the writer’s toolkit.


Hello, world.

Holding the Whole Thing

FreeGreatPicture.com-26108-holding-blank-cardAbout midway through my first draft, I became intimate with a hurdle I posit is probably specific to the novelist. How could I hold the entirety of my novel—of the world I was creating—in my mind?

In Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, Block addresses this issue as one that stops many would-be novelists in their tracks. He immediately reassures the prospective writer that it shouldn’t be a prohibitive concern. No one, Block says, can mentally grasp the entirety of their novel-in-progress.

There are two potential solutions for the obvious need to understand the breadth of the work even while you are mired in the minutia of a particular scene, paragraph, or line of dialogue. Every scene should be informed by the thrust of the whole, after all. We have to be merciless in cutting what doesn’t serve the entire book.

Block says the first way of guaranteeing that this continuity happens, is to make yourself a roadmap. (The Agile Writer’s Storyboard is an excellent solution to this problem.) Alternatively, and from my initial vantage point paradoxically, Block posits that you could write without an outline—writing quickly and from your gut, letting the work lead you organically. Follow your own creative nose wherever it leads.

The classic Plotters vs. Pantsers debate. I have explored this dichotomy in other blog posts, so I won’t revisit it here, except to say that I think both approaches have merit, and the guiding principal in deciding what approach to use should be the most practical one—which one works for you, for your current book?

I’d like to explore some other ways in which I think the author can ensure their connection to the overarching thrust of their work, the taproot of this tangle of narrative.

A very famous quote by Mark Twain came to mind when I was mulling over this issue, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

If you tell the truth. What does Twain mean by truth? Fiction is hardly factual. But, is there a deeper kind of truth to be adhered to in a novel? One that could help maintain continuity throughout the story? In other words, if I—as the writer—have an emotional impression of each character, if I understand my character’s truths, would that be enough for me to intuit their motivations and continuously write them in a compelling and believable way? Even if I couldn’t remember every detail of each of their appearances “on screen” by the time I reached the end?

I think so.

I think there is another, simpler, and more pragmatic way to get around this problem too. I have a hunch that what I really need to do to ensure the continuity of my manuscript is read it cover to cover. Radical, I know.

It sounds strange to imply that I haven’t read my own work. I have, in a way. I mean, I reread everything I write during the process of writing. And now that I am in the thick of my second draft, I have literally reread more than half of the book.

But not all at once.

Even my critique partners, whose feedback is invaluable and thorough, have not seen the whole of my manuscript at once, with the ability to read it at a more natural pace. They only get weekly splices. Which isn’t sufficient to know how well I am pacing the book. It’s not adequate for detecting inconsistencies or redundancies either, especially if they are spread out.

What do you think, Agile Writers? Is there a truth or truths that keep you on track in your novel? Have you read the whole thing through?

What Does it Mean to Be a Storyteller?

Brand-Storyteller“If you’re going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all.” -Joseph Campbell

“Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes.” -Plato

We have been reading Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit as our group selection for the craft of writing portion of our weekly meeting. What has struck me most profoundly in the book so far, is the small section in Chapter 5 when Block makes the case that the most important skill a novelist can possess is to be a good “storyteller.”

Being a good storyteller, according to Block, is far more important than being a good stylist. The largeness of the plot structure will buoy up a novel with lackluster style. On one level, this seems utterly true to me. On another, I am shocked by it. I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms.

I came to Agile Writers above all to get help with crafting a plot. I was familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell, and recognized that in his study of the “Hero’s Journey” he had distilled the human story. I wanted to somehow use this template to write a novel. Enter, Greg Smith, who—to my total astonishment—had made the leap from Campbell to novel already.

But even after the rigorous process of Storyboarding and planning my novel, a first draft and half of a second draft, I find that what I think of as good writing still leans heavily on good style. My fiction is pretty stylized and I admire writers and books that have a definitive voice.

The other element, the element of plot—storytelling, theater—still seems foreign to me. I am so grateful for the help I have received at Agile Writers to structure my plot. But, I find myself often scratching my head, not knowing if what I am writing is compelling on that larger level. Is it exciting enough? Dramatic enough? Compelling enough? Not just my usual question: is it beautiful enough?

But, is it going somewhere?

This may just be the middle/muddle talking (I am 150 pages into the rewrite. . . ), but that is the hardest question for me to answer. Am I telling an important and interesting story? If not, all of the style points in the world don’t rack up to anything. They are hollow.

The only way I can feel confident in my plot, in my story, is that it is written in the spirit of the Hero’s Journey—the oldest and most compelling human story. I can trust that, with the help of the Agile Writing Method, I am reaching toward telling a true hero’s tale. My readers will recognize the story deeply, in their bones. And they will feel drawn along by it. At least, I hope so.

Agile Writers, what does it mean to you to be a storyteller?

Learning to Read like a Writer


Reading and writing are akin to inhalation and exhalation. Technique can be taught, but the essence—the art—of writing is not a one-to-one transferrable skill. It takes so much of who we are, what we have experienced, to make writing that resonates. It is deeply personal. An internal probing of our own experiences and sensations.

So, how do we learn to get better at the essential art of writing?

The first way, which cannot be understated, is to write. Write often, in every mood, in any circumstance—badly or beautifully, slowly or quickly, painfully or joyfully. Write.

The second is to read. Read widely and voraciously. Most of us do that. Otherwise, we would not have come to writing. Children learn to read before they learn to write. It is the love of books as a reader that first ignites in us the desire, the need, to write.

So what does a novelist need to read?

Allow me to trace my own evolution on the subject. I wrote my first draft while reading only nonfiction. Truth be told, I have read mostly nonfiction for the last couple years. I have always read in cycles—nonfiction or fiction predominating for periods of time throughout my life.

The alternation depends on what I need. Sometimes I need hard facts, new ideas, theories and postulations, mega structures to fit the individual pattern of my life inside. Sometimes I need to witness specific human experiences, to cultivate empathy and connection, to make deep soul-sense of my life and recognize my own humanity. These needs are served for me by nonfiction, and fiction, respectively, with very little overlap.

When I began my first draft, it was with the fear that I might unintentionally steal from another work of fiction. Therefore, I thought, I needed to restrict myself to reading nonfiction. (With the occasional poetry thrown in to maintain contact with beautiful language.)

I was wrong.

When I finally started picking up novels again—still interspersing them with works of nonfiction—I realized that what they gave me was not temptation, but inspiration. What they revealed to me was the depth of my own creative impulse, the strength of my desire to write. A reminder of the importance of the novel in the literary landscape.

Fiction touches a place in me that nonfiction simply cannot reach.

And I discovered something else—my ear had been attuned by the process of writing, and so I was no longer reading in the same way. Rather than ruining fiction, which I was afraid could be an outcome of trying to write it (no one wants to eat sausage after they see how it’s made), what I gained instead was a new appreciation, a deeper recognition of the elements at work in good fiction.

Reading fiction gave me back the music, the playfulness of words, their transcendental power. The nonfiction I read had helped me be precise and more comprehensible in my writing. (This was especially true, of course, of books explicitly about the craft of writing.) But, the fiction was rewilding me, giving me license to play, to experiment, to explore unknown corners of my mind and my work. To more easily access my intuition—the birthplace of creativity.

Reading fiction reminded me of the purpose of creative work, the purpose of art, the way in which, as Picasso said, “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Isn’t that, after all, what we’re trying to do?

Agile Writers, let me know, do you read mostly fiction or nonfiction while you are writing?

. . . and Where?


On to the question of place. Much like time, place is an under-examined element of creating a compelling and intelligible story.

I, for one, was not sure how to get my character’s bodies gracefully around the space of my fictional world. There was a lot of walking into rooms, and climbing into cars, and other mundanities in my first draft. Some of that is necessary. After all, nothing loses a reader faster than an inconsistency in the hard rules of time and space. (Unless of course, that’s your thing. Sci-Fi writers, you may be off the hook on this one.) If your character walks in through a slapping screen door, she can’t suddenly walk out of the same door and have it be squeaky sliding glass. The mirage is broken. And your reader will likely stop reading.

So on the micro level, both varying these specific transitions, and paying careful attention to their consistency are of paramount importance.  But there is a macro level of place which I also struggled with mightily in my first draft: where are my characters on a map? Where do they live?

Some novels have a very strong sense of place—so strong that it functions in the story like another character. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts could not exist anywhere but India. Similarly, Pat Conroy’s works need South Carolina, and Rodes Fishburne’s debut novel Going to See the Elephant can’t be separated from the city of San Francisco. These authors began with the question of place, it seems, and built a story around it.

But there is an alternative to this model. One can create an entirely fictional place. Stephen King is the master of the fictional town(s)—having created three of them situated within the state of Maine to act as backdrops for various works. They borrow heavily from the reality of Maine, with which King is intimately familiar, but they do not exist. They are no-doubt composites of real towns and the artfully imagined.

This was the most appealing of the options to me. I wanted a fictional place. Much of my novel draws from my own life experiences. But it is fiction and I didn’t want to tie the book to the factual locations of my life, lest someone confuse it for a memoir or even creative nonfiction. It is decidedly not those things.

The problem is that I didn’t make that decision until midway through the second draft. In the first draft, I refused to commit. I waffled. Do I set the book in Virginia? In Richmond? In an imaginary town? What should I call my imaginary town? Should I have the secondary characters live in real towns? Imaginary towns? In Virginia or another state? On and on I circled, not knowing. The result was a decided absence of place. I, who love novels that embrace place as their very fabric, had written a first draft with no notions of place.

Correcting this problem later has proven difficult. But, I think writing the first draft served to answer some of those questions, too.

How have you handled place in your novel, Agile Writers?


UnknownWho? What? When? And Where?

Somewhere in elementary school we were all told that these are the questions you must answer to write a story. I want to focus on the last two, which often get overlooked. Without them, a story is incomplete. The seemingly trivial matters of time and place are two elements of storytelling which are as integral to a well-wrought novel as any other. But they are not as sexy. You won’t find many chapters dedicated to these two elements in Craft of Writing books.

First, time. When I launched into my first draft, it didn’t take me long to realize that I had two major problems with the element of time in my book. I realized quickly that all of my chapters were starting with some version of “she got out of bed…it was morning.” Yikes. The alarm clock was getting as much screen-time, so to speak, as most of my supporting characters. Boring.

And yet, the problem persisted—how do I get my hero—and other characters—through the maze of time? How much time do they need to do what they are doing? It has to be slow enough that the reader feels like they’re getting the whole picture (spoiler alert: I was moving them through time too slowly), but fast enough that some real growth can occur inside my heroine. People don’t change their whole lives in a day.

And I need to give my readers enough clues about time that they know how much is passing, and that time does, in fact, exist inside the world I am creating. Part of what makes the human condition so poignant is the constant press of time. But, I don’t need a clock and a calendar printed in the margins of every page, either.

That brings me to the second observation I made about my writing process the first time through. I was writing about the seasons in real time. In other words, because I wrote the first draft in six months (woohoo, Agile Writer Method!) spanning winter and spring. . .my novel also took place in six months. Spanning winter and spring.

But, actually, my main character and plot needed a little more time than that to evolve. They needed about a year, actually. So, I needed to slow time down, and allow for gaps, and adjust the changing of the seasons accordingly.

I think there is one thing that can help you with these sorts of transitions more than anything else. Reading fiction, particularly other novels. I think that reading fiction as a fiction writer is such an important topic that I plan to write another blog post devoted entirely to exploring that subject. But I think that seeing how other author’s handle elements of storytelling, such as the passing of time, is enlightening and informative. Who knows? You might stumble on an example of how to treat time that you wouldn’t have conjured on your own.

Next time, a few thoughts on the element of place in crafting a novel.

Tracking Changes

imageedit_2_8335958346One of the most beneficial elements of the Agile Writers Method is our tightly-knit critique groups. But what do you do with the edits from your two beloved co-sojouners? There is some disagreement among the Agile Writers. One camp believes that your edits should be entered immediately every week, while they are fresh in your mind. The others—in the name of forward motion—store their edits up and incorporate them during the next draft.

I think it is useful here to distinguish between two different levels of edits received in the critique process.

The first are line edits. These are misspellings, typos, grammatical corrections, punctuation tweaks. Small potatoes. Very important to the finished product, to a polished, serious, publishable work. But, why add commas to sentences that will be struck in the next draft anyway?

This brings us to the second variety of feedback most of us receive from our critique partners: major edits. These are plot changes, character insights, suggestions to add or delete or totally restructure scenes. These are important, and they may subtly—or dramatically—change the course of your book while you are still writing it.

So, perhaps the first kind of edit is best left to the later draft-level stage of editing. And the second kind of edit, the insight-giving, course-correcting variety, should be incorporated as soon as possible?

How does this stop-and-edit practice jibe with our Constantly Move Forward mantra, though?

Let’s take a case study: mine. Sorry, it’s the only one I have direct access to. So, during my first draft, I did not enter any edits in real time. I saved them all in a thrillingly huge, specially purchased accordion folder. This was what helped me continue on. If I had stopped, even for so much as to tie my proverbial shoe, I might have stalled out completely. Stuck. Stagnant. Frozen.

I looked at even the major edits and insights, which did subtly alter my course from then on out, and declared them Problems For Later. Keep it moving. In other words, I wrote as if I had made those major changes but I didn’t make them. Not yet.

I have found that second draft writing is a little bumpier and more time-consuming because I didn’t incorporate these major edits right away. However, I don’t regret my choice. The first draft truly needed to be a nonstop express train to the finish line.

This second go round, I have the comfort of that giant folder of first draft material. This is a luxury that affords me the time to stop and consider those big, earth-shattering, plot-steering changes. I can take them in. I have more space to let in the brilliant insights afforded to me by my critique partners, and I can be a little lighter on my toes—able to move with the revelations as they come.

So, I have practiced entering these larger plot changes, character insights, and scene restructures, into my digital draft right away. I also make notes on my ever-lengthening Master Storyboard—a word document that tracks the evolution of my novel.

Just last week, I was laying down to sleep and suddenly realized (due in part to a note from my critique partner about some first chapter information that hasn’t appeared since. . .), “The reason I can’t seem to write more about my heroine’s job…is that it isn’t important to the plot! It’s actually totally unnecessary. I need to strike it from the first chapter and reassess!”

I sat up, scribbled this insight onto my Storyboard, knowing I will make the change this week. (Even though I will not be resubmitting that chapter to my critique partners.)

In the first draft, this kind of major change would have been daunting, and circling back would have felt like stagnation. In the second, it is liberating—the thrill of changing course midair.

What about you, Agile Writers—do you edit as you go or save them for the end?

An Audience of One

audienceI have heard two competing pieces of advice about considering your audience when writing a novel.

One: define your audience. Be specific. You have to know who you’re addressing in order to create a cohesive work.

Two: don’t worry about who you’re writing to. In fact, try to forget that you have any desire to publish the book and have it read by others. If you write primarily out of that desire to be published, you will compromise your creativity. Just write. Concentrate on writing one day at a time. Write something that you can feel good about. Your audience will appear if you’ve done your job well.

Maybe it’s just my peacemaker personality, but I happen to think there is a way to link these two apparently opposing prescriptions.

What if you define your readership and then you try to forget all about them and just write?

I know, that sounds impossible.

I do think it’s important to define who you are writing to. It’s one of the first tasks we undertake in Agile Writers. We have to decide what gender and age bracket we think our readers are in. For me, it turns out that I should have taken this a step further before beginning to write. I needed to define who my audience is in terms of what they know about the subject matter of my book.

I am writing in large part about a religious experience that is outside of the norm for most Americans. So, somewhere in the middle of my first draft I realized that I needed to make a choice about my audience. Was I writing to that small (but growing) population who has experienced many of the contexts my protagonist finds herself exploring? Or am I writing to a general audience who will quite possibly have no information about the subject other than what I tell them?

This matters. Not knowing the answer to this question has stopped me in my tracks at a few junctures in the writing process. I have asked myself the following maddening questions (and others!): Am I explaining too much or too little here? Do I need a glossary of terms? Should I just stick to the English translations of these terms? Is this of interest to my reader? Is it relevant? Am I accidentally writing a textbook within a novel?

Well, that depends—who am I talking to?

Trying to answer the question of “who am I talking to?” inevitably sends my mind down the track of wondering what the most marketable answer to that question might be. Do I embrace a very small niche market? Or do I aim for broader appeal?

What is important to me, though, is not that I am absolutely sure that I have chosen the right audience for my book. What is important to me is that I am able to write the book. And thinking too much about marketing seems premature when I don’t actually have a book to be marketed yet.

So I took a stab at identifying my audience and answering some of those haunting questions, if only so that the questioning voices would quiet down long enough for me to get back to the real work—writing a novel.

I cannot write for an eventual publisher, reader, agent, or anyone else. If I am going to write something authentic, then my audience is one—me. I have to write to satisfy myself. Then I have to let others be the ones to tell me if my book is relatable or too obscure. I can make guesses, but I will never truly inhabit another’s context and so I don’t know exactly what my audience wants.

I only know what I want.

And I want to keep writing.