Don’t be afraid of the nuts and bolts of writing

I was giving an author talk a couple years ago, answering the usual questions about my process, when I got an odd response: “Isn’t that cheating?”

I was, if I remember right, describing how I used a big calendar to keep my timeline correct and a large whiteboard to keep my plot sorted out. My answer to the person? Something to the effct of: “When you’re writing a book, the only ‘cheating’ is plagiarizing. Nothing else that gets the book from your head to the page and results in a completed manuscript is off the table.”

He seemed disappointed, looking to catch me in a gotcha moment, I expect. The inner me wanted to say, “Okay Pal, how is YOUR book coming along?” But I didn’t. 🙂

I’ve thought about that exchange a lot since. I find readers are very interested in the writing process, and they’re usually accepting of mine, even if it confuses them. And I find it often does confuse them. My guess is that non-writers and maybe even aspiring writers are spoiled by what they see on TV or in the movies. They see Castle or some other fake writer merrily typing away in an unnaturally clean home or apartment, or some rustic, yet well-appointed, hideway. There are no legal pads scattered around, no other sign the person is writing a book, just the writer and the keyboard and a look of satisfied accomplishment on their smug fake writer face.

Today we’ll talk about reality. At least my reality. Every writer has a different process, which is the first thing to keep in mind. You may hear it all the time, so remember it: there is no “right way” to do this. As far as mine goes, I don’t recommend trying it at home, kids. Unless it works for you.

Before we start, let’s discuss the “works for you” aspect and get it out of the way. I was delayed by months starting my second Bernadette “Bernie” O’Dea mystery, NO NEWS IS BAD NEWS, because I’d decided to try Srivener. I know that people have had wild success with it, so I’m not knocking the product. But for me, not so much. In theory it sounded great — it helps you outline, sort out plot, characters, etc. But I could never untangle it and it kept me from writing as I tried to work within its confusing vortex. I even got a used copy of “Scrivener for Dummies,” but it didn’t help. I guess there’s some circle of dummy below the average dummy that I burn in. Again, this isn’t a knock on Scrivener — I know some people love it. Keep in mind as you read this that we’re talking about my process, and every process is different.

I tried Dabble with the book I’m working on now. I liked it in a lot of ways, it was kind of a much simpler Scrivener. A spunky, friendly hard-working tool. And I did squeeze out about 115,000 words. But when it came time for what I call the “forming the book out of the clay” part (sometimes that part has more bad words, but that’s the basic idea and a blog post for another day), I converted it to good old Microsoft Word and ended my $10 a month subscription. I’d tried, but failed, to use the plot cards, outlining, etc., that seemed so great in theory.

The writing process can be more than just a keyboard.

So, what DO I do, you may ask?

Over three books, now on the fourth, I’ve refined my system to a well-oiled process. I’ll break down the tools (keeping in mind that the computer and brain are the most important parts and should not be discounted):

  1. Massive amount of dry erase markers in as many colors as possible (more on this as we go).
  2. Large generic month vinyl sticky calendar page — This is essential to keeping the timeline straight. Don’t you hate it when you’re reading a book and the days don’t match up? “Wait! I thought that happened Sunday! But she’s saying yesterday and now it’s Thursday!” Bang! The book hits the wall across the room, flung by you because you now can’t focus on what’s happening because you’re distracted by the time mixup. I try not to get too detailed — I put important plot points and other happenings, and, when needed color-code them (more on the color coding later). Also, while I know it’s a good idea to not be specific about a year, I use a year when I’m outlining the plot so that the calendar makes sense. All of my books have had specific years for good reasons. In the one I’m writing now, there are things that happened 11 or 12 years before that the protagonist can’t find online because it’s before newspapers were putting everything online, and it has to match the ages of people in the book. Please don’t try to talk me out of it. I’ve given it a lot of thought. Someday I do hope to write a book without a specific year (another blog post for another day). But I digress.
  3. Giant piece of poster board. This is to stick the vinyal calendar sheet to, as well as the post-its …
  4. Post-It’s. I like the rather large ones that look like little legal pads. I write down thoughts, themes, things I have to add and anything else that I need to remember, and stick them to the poster board. I also like the the smaller multi-colored ones that I use for a variety of more specific things, like a plot thread (green for one, pink for another, etc.) and either stick them to the calendar, or the outline, which we’ll talk about later.
  5. Legal pads. I have these by my bed, in the bathroom, on the coffee table by the TV, even one in my car, so when I get an idea, a snatch of dialogue, a plot twist, whatever, I write it down immediately because I’ve learned the hard way I’ll forget it if I don’t. I was gratified to learn, watching “A Very British Murder,” on Brit Box last night that Agatha Christie did the same thing, only with composition books. Yes! (By the way, if you have Brit Box or want to spring $6.99 for a month’s subscription, I highly recommend this three-part documentary, in which British historian Lucy Worsley dissects how the public’s interest in murder grew over three centuries in Britain, and how it influenced mystery writing).
  6. Giant whiteboard panels. I was gratified to learn that rather than spend  several month’s worth of Gifford Ice Cream money on a whiteboard at Staples, you can buy 3-by-4 foot whiteboard panels for less than $10 at Lowes or Home Depot, in the lumber department. If they get too dirty and you can’t clean them, they’ve served their purpose very inexpensively. I usually use one for a plot outline, which is an organic thing that changes frequently (that’s why I need a whiteboard!) Usually, when I start a book, I have an idea of where it’s going, but if I try to plot it out in detail, I get bogged down and discouraged. So, I write and outline and write and outline. The outline is more to keep track of what’s happened than to plot out what will happen. And here’s where the different colors come in — the outline starts out in black, but as I go through the book (over and over, folks!) I sort it out in color for plot, sub plot, character development, big happenings, etc. This helps me “see” the book in several ways that  you can’t see by looking at a doc on the computer.
    I also, when I am in my first drafts, make every scene a chapter. This allows me to just focus on the story as it’s coming out of my head. Structuring those “chapters” into scenes, generally three to a chapter, comes much later.
    I use a second one to write down themes related to characters, or some other major thinga I need to eep in mind. Both whiteboards, along with the big poster board with the calendar, are displayed around my living room, or wherever I’m writing, so that I can glance up and see stuff instead of having to click somewhere or rifle through papers. My cats love it, by the way! More places for them to hide.
  7. Little glass easel board. I was so thrilled to find these glass easel boards,made by Quartz, at Staples a couple years ago! First of all, they’re green and I love colored glass. But also, they’re a nice alternative to a whiteboard if you are changing what’s on them daily (or more often), because they don’t get all grungy with repeated use. I use mine to plot out my ever-changing daily schedule. Sometimes it’s all the things I have to do that day, including The Book. Sometimes it’s what I want to accomplish in the book.
  8. Microsoft Word. It’s got everything I need, where I want it. No Google docs (good for sharing with others, bad bad bad for writing, rewriting, revising and editing). No fancy software. You can do what you want with Word. I’ve been using it since it was Work (I think? Or whatever it was).
  9. Brain, imagination and keyboard. None of the other things work well, if you don’t focus on what’s important — writing the book you want to write.

When I talk to people who are just beginning to write, or who “want to write,” that they often seem bogged down in the how. Some of that, I believe, is that they’re looking for a shortcut to make it “easy.” It’s not a how, it’s a what. It’s writing. There’s no “easy,” just things that are specific to you that will get it from your brain to a completed manuscript with the least amount of pain, confusion and suffering.

I didn’t plan the writer’s helpers outlined above, and wouldn’t have dreamed of them when I started writing my first book. They’re just what evolved as I wrote and began to understand what I needed to keep the ball rolling and keep it all sorted out.

I’ll channel the great Stephen King, who in his book “On Writing” makes the point that what you really need to do is just sit down and write.

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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13 Responses to Don’t be afraid of the nuts and bolts of writing

  1. Alice says:

    A fascinating & detailed explanation for the way that you made your writing come to life for me. Thanks.

  2. Pingback: Don’t be afraid of the nuts and bolts of writing – Maine Reportings

  3. Anonymous says:

    I always read you…and laugh out loud. Thanks!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Sorry….hit submit too fast. Anne Cass.

    • Anonymous says:

      Ha ha! I was going to say “Thanks Mom!” Even though I knew it wasn’t my mom. – Maureen (phone’s not letting me sign in).

  5. Anonymous says:

    Fabulous, Maureen. I am beginning to think we need to do a collection of MCW essays on writing.


  6. Lois says:

    Many good ideas there. Thanks for sharing

  7. Kate Flora says:

    Great advice, Maureen. I think it is time for MCW collected essays on writing.

  8. susanvaughan says:

    Excellent post. Affirming and fun to read! I especially liked your experience with such things as Scrivener. Exactly how I view those. I plot (minus white boards and legal pads) similarly to you. Major plot points, the overall and then outline a bit and then write and repeat.

  9. Vicki Berger Erwin says:

    I’d go for a MCW collection of essays on writing.
    I also tried Scrivener and could have written an entire book in the time I spent trying to figure out how to use it. I returned to Word.
    How do you feel about Pro Writing Aid or Grammarly?

    • Maureen Milliken says:

      Vicki, sorry, I thought I answered this! So much for doing WordPress on my phone. I’m not familiar with Pro Writing Aid, but Grammarly has tried to woo me and I’m not interested. Maybe it’s because I worked for daily newspapers for more than three decades — much of it as an editor — but I feel confident in my knowledge of grammar, punctuation, word use, etc. That doesn’t mean my writing is perfect, but I find “helpful” software more of a distraction. I use hard copy as well as onlne dictionaries and thesaurus, have a 2021 Associated Press Stylebook, an older Chicago Style Manual (which is book publishing style), the Elements of Style, the Harcourt-Brace writing guide they made us buy before freshman year at Holy Cross as well as a variety of copy editing books from my freelance editing days, so I muddle through that way. I hate it when software doesn’t get my voice and writing style, and the only one I have turned on on Word is spell check — which I double check because it’s very easy to have the wrong word, spelled right. I once edited a book where the writer had “minuet” for minute throughout. Gee, this almost feels like my next MCW post… Thanks for asking! Maureen

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