Elle Cosimano

Playing The Hand You're Dealt

One of the questions I’m constantly asked is whether or not I use an outline when I map out a story idea. It seems like there are two basic schools of thought on the “right” way to write… outline or fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants.

Anyone who knows me knows I am a textbook Type A personality. I’m an obsessive planner. I am organized and goal-oriented to a fault. So, yes, the obvious answer is I do use some form of an outline. I need a strong sense of the destination, and at least have a map denoting a few key landmarks along the way.

But traditional outlines frustrate me. I find myself scribbling and scratching out and scrapping and re-writing them to accommodate shifts in my thought process or changes in direction along the way. While writing my first book, I abandoned the traditional outline in favor of 3×5 cards. I color code them (because I am ridiculously anal-retentive that way). For instance, the white cards are scene cards. I write down the loose description and bullet points of each scene in the story and put them in order. The red or pink cards are my “hot” cards. These are the critical scenes (you know the ones, that replay over and over in your head and you would never, ever cut from a story because they are integral to the plot or climactic in some uncompromisable way). The blue cards are my character cards, and have tidbits of back story or physical details, which I can then pepper into the scene cards to avoid huge chunks of exposition or flashback. You get the basic idea.

I keep my cards in a small folio sorter… pictured below… which allows me to move them, mix them up, replace them, burn them, shred them, and create whole new ones as the story begins to unfold. It’s essentially an outline, but it’s a living outline. It moves and it bends. It adapts to the impulsive side of my imagination, and can continue to do so as the confines of my research, or restraints of my word count, change the direction of my work.

cardfile

In my mind, this system of organization parallels the way I try to organize my life. I have a strong sense of where I’m going and what I want to accomplish, and I have my uncompromisable priorities duly noted, but I leave myself flexible to adapt, try new things, and write new scenes for myself along the way.

While at conference, a writerly friend noticed my folio and commented on it. I’d assumed lots of people probably worked this way and I’d never imagined that the question of an outline could be so black and white. But it appears, not everyone has a system that allows them to manipulate their hand mid-play, and still have a tangible plan for a predetermined outcome.

So here it is. My cards are on the table for everyone to see. My question to you… do you wing it or do you outline, or do you have your own kooky system in place?

Editing My Life Through Weight Watchers®

January is synonymous with two prevalent resolution themes: weight loss and self-improvement. What kind of blog would this be if I didn’t somehow manage to address both?

As a writer, I have the annoying tendency to think in metaphors — to see the patterns in my life reflected in seemingly unrelated pursuits and find symbolism where others might not.

It occurs to me that Weight Watchers® shares a few common threads with my thoughts on editing a manuscript and re-shaping my life. I am a lifetime member of the Weight Watchers® program, after successfully achieving my goal weight following the birth of my first child, so I consider myself familiar enough to discuss the basic principles. Here are a few that come to mind, and the lessons I continue to find in each of them.

Stay Hydrated and Nourished. Every two hours, it seemed like I was shoving something in my face whether I wanted to or not! How was this supposed to make me skinny?! To my surprise, it worked. My body regulates my metabolism based on regular consumption of calories, and it needs lots of water to do it right. I think the same probably applies to writing and life.  New experiences, human interaction, reading other people’s books, and just getting out of the damned chair all help fuel my imagination. I can’t write about what I can’t imagine. And I can’t fully appreciate what I haven’t experienced. So get out and live a little, I say. It keeps us from becoming one dimensional and our stories from becoming flat.

Be Accountable for What I Consume. For six months, I carried measuring spoons and cups in my purse and a diary with a calculator. I counted fiber, calories, and fat and measured every portion. And you know what I learned? I was happier when I consumed things that nourished me, kept me “regular” and gave me long term energy. Similarly in life, I learned to nourish my soul with the right kind of support. I learned to measure and evaluate my relationships to make sure I’m getting out of them what I put in. And I learned to seek sustenance and eliminate the junk and fat… those people who make me feel good for a short while, only to let me down, hard and fast as a sugar rush. I learned that I can choose who I surround myself with, what I feed myself, and finally to be honest with myself and accountable for the results of those choices. In writing, I am fortunate to have chosen an amazing critique group… supportive, encouraging, and sometimes painfully honest, but I know they have my best interests at heart.

Everything in Moderation. Denying myself the foods I love inevitably leads to a hard fall off the wagon. When I was weight watching, I indulged my guilty pleasures every week (thin crust pizza and ice cream were my favorite Saturday treats), but I had to be accountable, and keep it in moderation, making sure I didn’t compromise my goals. In life, this has meant rounding out my interests and becoming more than just a mom, or just a wife, or just an employee, and making sure those new pursuits compliment the long-term goals I’ve set for myself. I am delighted to learn this same lesson applies to editing a manuscript! Too many modifiers have the same effect as an Oreo binge. The first few taste pretty good, but after a while, it’s a little sickening and leaves me with that odd artificial feeling on my tongue… you know the one. And too much exposition can weigh a scene down in much the same way as a double portion of a dense dessert. Sometimes, less really is more. Essentially, balance in all things keeps life light and moving forward.

If It Doesn’t Feel Good, Don’t Do It. Let’s face it. When we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we know (and our bodies know) things that make us feel bad are usually bad for us (ie: the Oreo cookie binge). I’ve learned to trust my gut. It’s never let me down before. I’ve learned to trust the little voice that says get rid of that stagnant chapter, or in life, “this isn’t the right path for you.” I’ve learned to check my characters’ voices and actions for authenticity. Would they really do or say that? Am I true to them? Am I true to myself?

Exercise Every Day. It doesn’t have to be a marathon run, or a daily strong-man competition. A little bit, consistently every day, becomes the foundation for a new routine and allows the behavior to become habit-forming. When I started Weight Watchers®, I walked for twenty minutes a day. If I think of my mind (or my career) as a muscle, then the same principle applies. It takes a little self-development every day to keep it strong, improve, and grow in the direction of my goals.

Weigh-In Every Week. A defining characteristic of a goal is that it be measurable. Every week, I attended a Weight Watchers® meeting. Yes, I weighed-in. I took off my shoes and belt and earrings, and wore shorts in the snow to give myself the benefit of the doubt, but I got on that freakin’ scale every week! Sure, there were those weeks when I didn’t hit my goal, but part of the journey was honestly acknowledging both my achievements, as well as my failures, and finding a way to get back on track. Every day was a new day to be honest with myself. Every week was a new chance to see the fruit of my efforts. Now, my scale is my word count, my blood pressure, and time spent with my children. And, I weigh-in. Each week I take stock of where I am in relation to my goals.

Do It For Reasons That Last. The reason Weight Watchers® worked for me is because I was committed to a lifestyle change, not a quick fix to fit in a cocktail dress for a singular event. While editing my work I ask myself, will this scene or this character pull the story forward? Do they contribute to the overarching plot? Or are they empty calories? I’ve made some pretty monumental changes in my life this year, and with each one I’ve asked myself, will this choice result in a lasting happiness?

Ideally, a life lived in accordance with these basic tenets should result in a healthier self, a more fulfilling life, and a svelte and sexy manuscript.

How about you? What changes have you made in your life or your lifestyle since weighing-in on New Years Day? Are you staying true to yourself while making changes toward a lasting happiness?

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