On writing a novel: You don’t have to know everything to begin

Kim Wright teaches “So You Want to Write a Novel: How to Get Started and Keep Going” at Charlotte Lit on Thursday December 13 from 6 to 9 pm. Register

Writers use a lot of analogies for the sense of disorientation and fear that comes with starting a book. E.L Doctorow famously said “Writing is like driving a car at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” My friend and fellow novelist Kim Boykin less famously (but quite consistently) claims that her stories are dictated to her by her characters. Their voices, she says, come to her out of the ether and page by page, each plot twist is a mystery, right up to the point that the characters finally explain how their story ends.

Either way, the point is this. You don’t have to know everything to begin.

You don’t have to know much at all.

I think of each story as a room and that there are many doors into that room—many ways to enter and oriented yourself.  Some writers won’t write the first word before they figure out the plot. Others, like Kim, connect to the voice of their characters and some of the more high-minded among us are motivated by theme, choosing to write the books they think the world needs to read, based on the topical issues that most inspire their authors. For me, the door frequently opens in the form of an image. Which can be scary since image, by its very nature, gives you both everything and nothing. The whole sense of the story world reveals itself in one fell swoop but you don’t have a clue what any of it means.

A good example of this is my Last Ride to Graceland, which in many ways has been my most successful book. I was lying in bed on a rainy Sunday morning perusing the Charlotte Observer and I noticed an article on how they were restoring the car Elvis Presley drove on the last day of his life. It had been wrapped in plastic in Graceland for nearly forty years, shoved in a corner of a massive garage, just waiting to reveal its secrets. An intriguing enough notion on its own, but suddenly an image flashed into my mind—not of a 1977 Stutz Blackhawk spending decades being ignored in a garage in Graceland but of that same big black muscle car zooming down a road in rural Alabama. “Fairhope,” I thought, although I didn’t know why, but I did know that a woman was driving the car, a woman who had been born shortly after Elvis died. And I didn’t know precisely how her age fit in, although it was certainly a clue to the mystery of the book but there was trash in the car, trash left over from 1977 and the last time the car had been driven, and that seemed essential too and for some ungodly reason I looked over and saw she had a coon hound on the passenger seat beside her.

And so the book began. No matter how a writer begins or which door they choose to enter into the world of the story, it often feels a bit mysterious when they start. Uncertain and dimly lit, like the nighttime fog EL Doctorow described. But the point is that you must trust in the story’s willingness to unfold itself over time and your own ability to wait, with patience and loyalty to the process, before you even begin to see the big picture.

In that sense, the writer is the story’s first reader—the first to feel its pleasure and mystery and pain and power. You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to know much of anything. You just have to open the first page and begin.

Kim Wright is the author of Love in Mid Air, The Unexpected Waltz, The Canterbury Sisters, and her latest novel, Last Ride to Graceland, which was the 2017 recipient of the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. For the past three years she has been a developmental editor through The Story Doctor, helping writers with issues of story arcs, structure, and pacing. At Charlotte Lit, Kim teaches classes and serves as a coach in the Authors Lab program.

Folksy, Whip-Smart, and Self-Aware: Maurice Manning’s “The Common Man”

4X4CLT poet for December, Maurice Manning, joins us for two events. First, celebrate the release of this edition of the poetry and art posters on Friday November 30 from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Resident Culture Brewing. Manning’s master class, Writing By Ear,  will be held at Charlotte Lit on Saturday, December 1 from 10 am to 1 pm and is currently sold out. Email us at admin@charlottelit.org to be added to the waiting list.

In Kentucky, the muse might be an older boy who says, “Take ye a slash / o’ this — hit’ll make yore sticker peck out— “; or the muse might be the moonshine the boy hands over. Either way, Maurice Manning’s The Common Man begins with a hint of the illicit and a shot of whiskey. Such an initiation forecasts the diction, desire, and occasional delinquency that course through Manning’s fourth collection, which amasses to an oral history of the landscape and community that the poet has consistently and creatively plumbed. Manning’s earlier collections each coalesce around a specific figure: an imagined adolescent (Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions); Daniel Boone (A Companion for Owls); a breathless shepherd (Bucolics).

The eponymous speaker in The Common Man is part listener, whose poems are determined by others’ stories, and part bookish poet, whose titles — “The Old Clodhopper’s Aubade,” “A Panegyric Against the Consolation of Grief” — derive more from a library than a neighbor’s porch. Manning invokes poetic tradition to collide it with the poetry he finds in a place that’s home to pawpaw trees, philosophizing farmers, and even a talking horse. The resulting poems are a conscious mix of high and low. But more than Manning’s previous collections, this book is hellbent on narrative. Folksy, whip-smart, and self-aware, the speaker asks, “You reckon I could ever run out / of stories in my heart to tell?” The poems often unfold with the pacing and plainer syntax of prose, their lines predictably broken. Their turns occur in their turning on the reader, with metaphysically gesturing questions such as: “Were you / raised up with a beast beside you?” Or: “[M]aybe you’re thinking why / is this man so bent on darkness?” The speaker perforates the poems’ intense localness by implicating the reader in the community his poems shape, reminding her, “Part of me / resides out there, and part of you / is out there too. Let’s hope we’ve got / that much in common, a fair amount / if you think about it very long.”

The poems take on the burden of many sadnesses that transcend place: the sadness that comes from relying on a remote God, the sadness that comes from mourning an irretrievable past, the sadness that comes from longing for the love of a good woman. Though Manning dedicates this book to the memory of his grandmothers, the women in these poems are elusive, appearing only in the form of fantasy, comic relief, or some amalgam of the two. This reader wonders what stories they might tell, were they given more chances to speak.

December 2018 4X4CLT poet Maurice Manning is the author of six collections of poetry.  His first book, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, was selected by W.S. Merwin for the Yale Series of Younger Poets.  His fourth book, The Common Man, was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize. A former Guggenheim fellow, Manning teaches at Transylvania University and for the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He lives with his family on a small farm in Kentucky.  His next book, Railsplitter, will be published in 2019.

September 2018 4X4CLT poet Cecily Parks is author of the poetry collections Field Folly Snow (University of Georgia, 2008) and O’Nights (Alice James, 2015). She also edited the anthology The Echoing Green: Poems of Fields, Meadows, and Grasses (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, 2016). Her poems appear in The New Republic, The New Yorker, Tin House, and elsewhere. The recipient of a Pushcart Prize, she teaches in the MFA Program at Texas State University.

This review originally appeared July 15, 2010 in Orion Magazine. We’ve reprinted here with their permission. Visit their website at orionmagazine.org.

Morri Creech’s Blue Rooms

The Arts at Queens proudly presents The English Department Reading Series and poet Morri Creech, Tuesday, November 13, 7 pm, Ketner Auditorium, Sykes Building, Queens University of Charlotte.

Nov 13, poet Morri Creech reads from his just-released fourth collection, Blue Rooms. The book is eagerly anticipated; his previous, The Sleep of Reason, was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. You may have seen his poem “The Choice” painted as a Wall Poem at Brevard & 9th Streets, or may have attended one of his classes at Charlotte Lit. Morri is my colleague and friend at Queens University.

The poems of Blue Rooms explore the perceiving mind and the possibilities and limitations of language. Words themselves are the question, what they can and cannot contain, and what this means at a personal level, given the emotional weight of “what slips the net of language.” The book includes ekphrastic poems, which reflect on works of art. They do so with such a depth of voice that, although knowledge of art references reveals satisfyingly complex layers, such knowledge is not required.

In the opening sequence, “Self Portrait as Magritte,” the books’ thematic concerns unfold brilliantly through the figure of this painter, a surrealist known for finding the strange in the every day and for mislabeling objects. As these poems reference art, the art provides a means to comment on language. The reverberations between the two media, poetry and painting, echo the work of Magritte. The self-portrait structure of this series is particularly engaging. Identity is rendered elusive. The self cannot recognize itself, is tangible and yet not present, seeable and yet unknowable. Others cannot be known; “The kissing lovers’ shrouded heads / Lean together in ignorance.”

The second poem in this group references Magritte’s “The Mysteries of the Horizon,” an oil painting with three men in bowler hats beneath three slivers of moon: “These three men share my look and dress./ I cannot say which one is me./ Three ways I face the emptiness,/ The central man, the mystery.” The poems feel inevitable in their form, yet there is also a haunting use of the sentence, creating perhaps a sort of identity question within the kept form itself: how, within these metered, end-rhymed lines, do the poems create such stillness? The space generated by this unhurried music holds revelations that raise more questions: “The self is still our best disguise.”

Throughout the book, the exploration continues, through pastoral paintings and the works of Cézanne. The imagery rendered through language begins to take on a different feel in this context. The apple, the camshaft bolt, the skull: each are explored as parts of a still life blurring into narrative and back again to still life. Certain poems suggest a kinship to the philosophical poetry of Wallace Stevens. There are discoveries to make in the diction, which starts to feel as characteristic as the brushstrokes of Cézanne (natter” and “daub” and “smutch”), creating a particular voice within the disruptive concerns about identity.

There is an increasing urgency, and the tone becomes more burdened. Leonardo da Vinci is featured as the dissector of the corpse. Poems explore violence. The journey of the book leads to “a trick of perception.” In the “Self-Portrait After Goya” sequence, near the book’s end, Goya paints “my nightmare,” and “I cannot speak, strapped to my fever chair.” Language has ultimately led to the cost of the questions, “the circling birds / Of sheer unreason,” the suffering and the sleeplessness, and the terrible images Goya depicts while “trapped in his head.” The final poem on a Japanese folding screen, which follows this sequence, brings relief.

Morri Creech was born in Moncks Corner, SC, and was educated at Winthrop University and McNeese State University. He is the author of four collections of poetry, including his latest, Blue Rooms (The Waywiser Press), and The Sleep of Reason, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is the Writer in Residence at Queens University of Charlotte, where he teaches courses in both the undergraduate creative writing program and in the low residency MFA program.

Julie Funderburk is author of the poetry collection The Door That Always Opens (LSU Press). She is the recipient of fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council and the Sewanee Writers Conference. She is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte.

Questions to Ask Yourself When You Write Memoir

In 2006, to relieve his back pain, my husband had an epidural, a procedure so routine it’s given to women in childbirth. The minute the needle pushed into his spine, he was paralyzed from the waist down. People kept asking me if I was going to write about this. “Never!” I declared. I’d lived through it; I certainly did not want to live through it again. But then, in 2008, I was held up at gunpoint at the dry cleaner. Here’s what’s odd: That gun did not scare me. It made me sad. I cried for days

I found myself telling the story of the holdup over and over. I wanted everyone to know. At a dinner party, I made my friends join me in a re-enactment. “Okay, John, you be the owner of the dry cleaner. And you, Bobbie, be the robber. Just jump out, Bobbie. Like this. And hold the gun lower. Point it at my stomach. Both of you come closer.” I made it funny so we could all laugh – my fellow actors and our audience.

And then I went home from the dinner and cried.

I wrote an essay about the holdup. But it started growing. Suddenly, I was writing a memoir about my marriage – how our roles had switched, our identities shifted. Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap was taking shape.

When I asked myself the following questions, I began to understand the connection between what had happened to my husband and the holdup:

What did I think then? What else? What do I think now? What else?

Here’s where those questions led me:

Because someone threatened me with a gun, I could finally cry – really cry – over what had happened to my husband. It was as though I were confronting his accident for the first time. How everything can be fine one minute. And then, nothing is. That thin line. How a brushfire can erupt on a perfectly sunny, clear-skied day. How your life can be taken right out of your hands.

How, when you write memoir, you encounter new possibilities for understanding your life. How memoir truly is the narrative of revelation.

Judy Goldman is the author of six books: two memoirs, Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap (which will be published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on February 12, 2019) and Losing My Sister; two novels, Early Leaving and The Slow Way Back; and two books of poetry, Wanting To Know the End and Holding Back Winter. Losing My Sister was a finalist for both Southeast Booksellers Alliance’s Memoir of the Year and ForeWord Review’s Memoir of the Year. Her work has appeared in The Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Crazyhorse, and Real Simple magazine; her book reviews in The Washington Post and The Charlotte Observer; and her commentaries on public radio in Chapel Hill and Charlotte.

Judy’s class, “Crafting a Memoir: How to Weave Personal Experience into a Compelling Story” which begins on Thursday November 8 from 6 pm to 9 pm, has one seat remaining as of this writing. Please go here to register.



Tech Toolkit for Writers

This post is an electronic version of my presentation at the NC Writers’ Network Fall Conference in Charlotte, November 2018. It includes links for many of the apps and concepts discussed.


The Backstory

Before we sit down and write—on a device or on paper—there are many other things that happen, and which technology can help with, such as collecting random ideas, thinking out a problem, planning your writing, and outlining.


The problems this solves: How to keep from losing ideas; how to organize lots of ideas; how to gather all ideas in one place (or keep all ideas in all places)

  • Notes (Mac, iOS, iCloud): Simple, free, auto sync to all Apple devices
  • Microsoft OneNote (multi-platform): multi-level organization, free, auto sync
  • Evernote (multi-platform): complex, free (sync 2 devices and other limits) or $8/mo
  • Google Keep (online and mobile): relatively simple, sticky note-like; free, sync
  • Simplenote [by creators of WordPress] (multi-platform): free, syncs
  • Phone apps: too many to list
  • Audio notes: phone apps (iOS: Voice Memos; Evernote; Google Keep)

Tip: Select one (or two) apps of any type and use only those

Mind Mapping / Concept Mapping

The problems this solves: How to generate ideas; how to find connections between concepts; how to build characters; how to brainstorm in a structured way

Tip: Use one of these only if it’s better for you than working on paper


The problems this solves: all the problems with not planning; and how to impose structure on an unruly first draft.

  • Outline tools in Word, Google Docs, Scrivener, etc.
  • Snowflake Pro [by Randy Ingermanson] (Mac or Windows, $50 when purchasing the companion book, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method)
  • Story Planner for Writers [by Liternauts] (Mac $15, iOS $5)
  • Story Planner [by Joanne Bartley, 21 planner types] (web-based | free – $40/year)
  • Aeon Timeline: visual timeline creator (Mac and Windows, $50; iOS, $20)


The Backstory

Here’s an immutable truth: The words will not write themselves. Considering how hard that job can be, our tech should not make it any harder. This section considers the hardware and software decisions that can make your writing life far easier.


The problems this solves: the eternal Mac or Windows question; the cloud question; the form factor question; the “can’t this thing just work” issue.

    • Laptop (Mac OSX or Microsoft Windows OS; local apps/data storage, cloud options)
    • Chromebook (Chrome OS; all cloud-based apps and storage)
    • Tablet (Apple iPad, Microsoft Surface, Samsung Galaxy Tab, etc.) or phone; apps are local, storage is cloud-based)


  • Laptops: pay extra for a solid-state hard drive (lighter, quieter, faster)
  • Test the keyboard; consider an external bluetooth keyboard for tablets and phones
  • If you use more than one device, synchronization is key

Writing Software

The problems this solves: Microsoft Word (and Apple Pages, and Google Docs) is not designed for writers, or for long documents, or for documents divided into chapters and parts, etc.; how to have my writing on all my devices and keep it in sync; how to find a writing environment you love; how to keep copies of the work before I edited it

  • Local
    • Word Processors
    • Writing Apps
      • Scrivener: made for writers by a writer (Mac or Windows, $45; iOS available)
      • Storyist: Scrivener-like (Mac, $59; iOS $15)
      • Ulysses: text only, distraction free, multi-markup formatting only (Mac and iOS, $5/month or $40/year cross-platform)
      • iA Writer: text only, distraction free, multi-markup formatting only ($20 Windows, $30 Mac, $5 iOS, free on Android)
      • Screenplays and stage plays: Final Draft (Mac or Windows, $250; iOS available)

Tip: Most apps have free trials so you can play before you have to pay

  • Cloud
  • Phone / Tablet Apps
    • Microsoft Word (multi-platform, free for most devices, req. Office 365 for iPad Pro)
    • Apple Pages (iOS, free)
    • Scrivener (iOS, $20; companion to desktop version)
    • Final Draft (Screenplays and stage plays; iOS, $10)
    • Many, many others

Tip: Synchronization matters

Writing Without Typing

The problems this solves: can’t get the words down fast enough; carpal tunnel pain.

  • Dictation Options
    • Dragon (Windows, $150; Mac version discontinued, available from online sellers—look for version 5; mobile versions available)
    • Apple Dictation (built into Mac and iOS)
    • Windows Dictation
    • Google Docs Dictation
  • Transcription Options
    • Rev: $1/minute (human)
    • Trint: $15/hour (machine)
    • Otter: 600 minutes/month free (machine)
    • Scribie: $0.10/minute (machine), $0.60-$2.40/minute (human) based on turn time
    • GoTranscript: $0.72/minute (human)
    • TranscribeMe: $0.10/minute (machine), $0.79/minute (human)
    • Sonix: $6/hour or $15/month


The problems this solves: shiny objects (metaphorically speaking); the barrage of incoming texts and emails; attention deficits of various shades.

  • Remove distractions
    • Freedom: app and website blocker (Windows, Mac, iOS; $7/month, $30/year)
    • Focus Mode (Word) and Composition Mode (Scrivener)
  • Timers
  • Motivation & Mindfulness
    • Tracking word counts in writing apps
      • Word: Tools > Word Count
      • Pages: View > Show Word Count
      • Scrivener: always visible in status bar
    • Meditation Apps (Headspace, Calm, Buddhify, Insight Timer, etc.)


The problems this solves: where’s all my stuff?

  • Long Works (multi-chapter: novels, memoirs, etc.)
    • Option 1: All chapters in one document
    • Option 2: Each chapter in its own document
    • Option 3: Use app that is a container (e.g., Scrivener)

Tip: Also see the section below on version control


The Backstory

Spell check is not all there is. There are other sophisticated tools available and useful— though not a substitute for human editing and not foolproof. We also have to consider the question of where to keep the prior versions of the work as you edit.

Checkers: Spelling, Grammar, Proofreading

The problems this solves: find the easy stuff that your eye overlooks.

  • Built-in
    • Spell check
    • Grammar check
    • Thesaurus
  • Grammerly: grammar (online, app integrations; free & premium versions, $11-30/mo.)
  • Hemingway: grammar (online, free; Mac and Windows apps, $20)

Helpers: Style, Grammar

The problems this solves: how to uncover your mistakes and quirks, including the ones you didn’t know to look for.

  • ProWriting Aid: style and grammar (multi-platform, app integrations; free and premium versions, $50/year)
  • AutoCrit: style (online, $10-80/month)
  • Master Writer: word choice ($10/month)


The Backstory

We don’t want to lose our work. Period. For your writing or any of your device’s contents, you need a multi-tiered system to make sure that your current data is safe no matter what, and that you can go backward into prior versions of your work if needed.

Here’s some terminology you need.

  • Storage is where your data is saved, day-to-day. Primary storage (the original data) is usually—but not always—the hard drive on your computer. Some apps, such as Google Docs, and some devices, such as Chromebooks, use cloud storage (a server somewhere out on the internet) for all files created using them.
  • Backup is making a copy of what’s in storage. There are essentially two kinds of backups: selective backups (some files but not all, such as the file you just finished editing, or only your writing files), or complete backups (that is, your entire computer system). You can make a local backup (that is, in the same place as the primary storage), such as when Word saves a backup copy on your hard drive when you exit, or an external backup (that is, to another device). The external backup can be a physical device such as a USB flash drive (for selective backups) or an external desktop hard drive (for selective or complete backups), or it can be a cloud backup (that is, uploaded to an internet backup service, such as Backblaze). Backup is similar to, but not the same as…
  • Sync is a service (such as Dropbox) that copies your files from one device to others via the internet (or “cloud”) and keeps them all the same, so that changes to one are reflected in another. All syncs are technically backups, since you’re making copies of files, but they often don’t keep legacy copies—older versions of the files, like a backup does.


The problem this solves: losing your work in a systems crash or loss.

  • Automatic Selective Backups: If your application supports it, enable automatic saving and automatic backup copies
  • Use an External Drive
    • USB Flash Drive: least good option; manual, critical files only, small capacity, easy to forget to do
    • Desktop Drive: best local option, can backup entire systems, easy to hide and remove from the house when needed. Software needed for automatic backups (Mac: Time Machine; Windows: requires third-party, such as Duplicati or CrashPlan). If primary device is a laptop, will have to remember to connect the drive at certain intervals.
  • Cloud Backup: best option; automatic, set it and forget it
    • Backblaze: $5/month unlimited
    • Carbonite: starts at $6/month

Sync Across Computers and Platforms

The problem this solves: having the same work on multiple devices.

Tip: Create a multi-tiered system, including at least one cloud option

Version Control

The problems this solves: what happens to the prior versions as you edit? What if I want to go back? What if I want just some of what I wrote back?

  • Option 1: Overwrite and don’t worry about old versions.
  • Option 2: Make a copy of the work before beginning edits (e.g., using Save As or backup software
  • Option 3: Print hard copies at intervals
  • Option 4: Use software that makes backups for you
    • Automatic in Google Docs (document level)
    • Automatic (customizable) in Scrivener (document level)
    • Manual in Scrivener (Snapshots)


  • Set up automatic backup systems available in the software
  • Create a copy before major rewrites or revisions


Sharing (working with others, separately)

  • Methods for sharing: Email, flash drives, Dropbox, cloud document sharing
  • Editing/Incorporating Edits with Track Changes

Collaborating (working simultaneously)

  • Cloud platforms that allow multiple editors at once

Formatting Submissions

  • Scrivener to Word
  • Scrivener or Word to Final Draft
  • Any format to email
  • Any format to PDF

Submissions & Queries

Self-publishing Tools

  • The process: From x to y (sometimes via z)
  • For example:

Online Sharing


1. Select your writing software

    • Scrivener strongly recommended. Try before you buy, and save 20% with the code CHARLOTTELIT.

2. Try out some new apps

    • Grammar & Style apps
    • Focus apps (save 40% on Freedom yearly or forever plans with the code CHARLIT)

3. Clean up your old versions and create a sensible storage system

4. Set up a multi-level backup system