It’s Fourth and Goal: Can You
Push Your Story In For the Win?

Don’t give up at half time. Concentrate on winning the second half. — Bear Bryant


By PJ Parrish

Are you ready for some football?

Wait, wait! Come back! Give me second chance. I promise this will be about writing. But it is the first week of the season and I really love football. This is how much:

I have a collector’s Plexiglas box of Wheaties with Dan Marino on the front.

I used to have Dolphin season tickets and on December 16, 2007, when Cleo Lemon threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to Greg Camarillo to end a 16-game losing streak, I cried like Wayne Huizinga.

I was for years the proud coach of the Killer Chihuahuas, (see logo above) my fantasy football team that made the playoffs four straight years and would have won in year four if Brett Favre hadn’t gone south on me in the last three games.

Okay, okay…I promised to talk about writing. If you hang here at TKZ, you know I love a good metaphor, so I am going to offer up some football strategy that might help you get your Work In Progress down the field, into the red zone and over the goal line. I feel compelled to do this because I myself need a good locker room talk right now. I am up in Michigan staying at my sister Kelly’s place, working on our book. We are on page 244 and we are struggling badly. It feels like we’re deep into the fourth quarter, we’ve been trudging up and down the field in the mud forever, we’re tired and sore, and haven’t scored a point.
Team Parrish can’t SEE the end zone, let alone get into it.

This past Sunday, while we worked, we had the Lions-Colts game on mute in the background. Toward half-time, dispirited and disgusted, I closed the lap-top and told Kelly, “I need a break.”

I popped a Faygo Rock and Rye, turned up the sound and watched the game.
Then came half time. But I wasn’t hearing Kenny Albert and Moose Johnston. I was hearing our own James Scott Bell in his post a while back about how every writer should take a break around the halfway mark and assess how far they had come and where they needed to go.

So I told Kelly that we needed to go back and see what had gone wrong (and right) in the first half and make adjustments. She went to Walgreens and came home with a poster board and some Post-Its. We spent the next two hours laboriously mapping out, chapter-by-chapter, day by day, where our story had gone. It looked like this:
IMG_0552You’ll see that we seemed to make a lot of mistakes and needed a bunch of different colored Post-Its. (More on that to come). And that toward 6 p.m., we were compelled to strengthen our beverage of choice from Faygo to wine.  But by laying out this PHYSICAL map of our book, we were able to see things that we couldn’t see on the computer screen or even on the printed manuscript. Things like:

We had a good juicy set-up, we laid out the hero’s problem, and we sent him off on his quest.  But…

We had four chapters in a row of slow build-up and scene setting that could easily be winnowed down to two chapters. Foul: lazy writing.

We had one day (in book time) that ran three chapters and it defied the laws of physics for Louis to go where he did and accomplish what we needed him to do without him stopping for eat and sleep. Foul: stuffing 10 pounds of plot into a 1-pound calendar day.

We forgot to introduce a character early on who magically shows up later. Foul: brain-farting.

We had a subplot going on off camera that, in calendar-time, did not match up with the on-camera plot. We needed the sub-plot character to drive from Michigan’s upper peninsula to mid-state in time to do a nefarious deed. Problem was, it takes a minimum of 8.5 hours for this drive to happen and this guy would’ve needed wings to get down-state. Foul: Not doing homework via a simple Google Maps check.

Some of you TKZ regulars might recognize our Post-It Method of Plotting. I’ve written about it here before. But for some reason, Kelly and I neglected to do it for this WIP, and here we are, well into the third quarter, and we need to make Bill Belichick-worthy game adjustments if we are going to pull this one out of the dumpster.  Here is a close-up of the finished map:


What’s with the colors? The chapter-by-chapter plot map is done in pale yellow.  The gold Post-It is sub-plot that is going on at the same day(s) of what yellow note it is next to. This is how we found out our bad guy couldn’t make that long drive in time. The pale pink note is the time-line of the central murder that happened in the near-past. The blue notes are back-story dates of everything that happened BEFORE the story begins. The purples are just inserts and correx that we will make later.  This book is third-person single point of view (Louis, who always gets pale yellow). In past books, we have used multiple POVs and switch to other colors for each POV so we can make sure at a glance that no one character, especially a secondary one, is getting too much on-camera time and stealing the spotlight from Louis.

So how does Team Parrish feel coming out of this half-time locker room break and strategy session? Full of cautious confidence. We started out this book full of hope and ambition. But as the game wore on, we just sort of flailed and fumbled around out on the field, hoping we could make progress by blind luck and maybe a last-minute field goal.  This is how the Jets play every single year. Or the Browns, whose fans show up at games carrying banners saying “We Still Have LeBron.”  You want to be Seattle. Or the Pats, who find a way to win even with Brady on the bench for four games.

What am I trying to say here? Well, it’s a variation on what all the good folks here at TKZ preach. Have a good work ethic. (you don’t want to be giving up in mid-season just because you’re a little gassed).  Have a good strategy going in. (a great idea or at least a fresh take on an old one). Devise a game plan and keep to it. (that means for some of you out there outlining). Stop at each quarter or at least half-time and see what has gone right and what had failed. Be flexible enough to make adjustments. Don’t quit, because as the great sports sage Yogi Berra said,  it ain’t over til it’s over.

And with that, I leave you with a few classic football cliches that are actually good advice for us writers:

You gotta work with what’s working. This is a variation on the more erudite “You go with what brought you to the dance.” If you’re a hard-boiled type at heart, maybe you shouldn’t try YA romantic zombie fiction just because it’s hot. Yes, stretch yourself, but don’t be crass. Readers smell insincerity a mile away.

It’s important to give the ball right back to the guy who lost it. Yes, you can make mistakes. In fact, they help you grow. If you’ve had a setback, be it a rejection letter, a bad review or just loss of confidence, don’t let it defeat you.  Favre is the leading career fumbler of all time. You think that when he put the rock on the ground, he thought about quitting? Heck no. The guy took risks. (Though the Killer Chihuahuas never forgave him for that last season…)

He heard footsteps. This is the wide receiver who feels a defender gaining on him so he takes his eye off the ball. For you, this means, don’t let distractions cripple you.  This can mean anything from the little — social media, chores, research — to major distractions — envy over other’s success, people who tell you that you’ll never get published.

He ran east and west instead of north and south. Or as Dan Dierdorf put it: “You gotta keep the axis of your body perpendicular to the goal line.”  For writers, this means always moving forward and maintaining momentum. This is my biggest problem because I become stalled in an insane quest for perfection when I should be grinding out that first draft.  I spent too much time running east and west instead of heading toward the goal line. Don’t be like me.  Be a downhill runner.

It’s a game of inches. Success in publishing almost always comes hard and gradually. You pound away at that keyboard, bang your head up against big forces that feel like they are bent on keeping you back. You spend months, years, on your WIP and only manage to move a few yards forward.  But this is how it’s done. Slow and steady. And you never, ever, come prepared to play only one game because you must…

Take it one game at a time. Finish that book, get it out there somehow and then start the next one. And as you do this you will…

Leave it all on the field. You gave it everything you had because, of course…

There’s no tomorrow.

Here’s to a good, healthy season. And hey, the Lions won. That is enough to give anyone hope.


19 thoughts on “It’s Fourth and Goal: Can You
Push Your Story In For the Win?

  1. I may hate football, but the analogies are good. Taking my eye off the ball is the biggest danger for me. I love research just for the sake of research. And I frequently get clobbered with too many ideas and have to constantly use self-discipline (or try to) to bring my focus back to where it should be.

    • Morning BK:
      Yeah, getting clobbered by TOO many ideas is also a good one. I wish I had thought of that. I know a lot of writers who are like you…it’s like their creative brain part is constantly on overdrive and their problem is picking one and running with it. Two of my critique folks have this problem. One guy has like five novels and a host of short stories going all at once, hoping that one will sort of “possess” him enough to get him on track. He has lately learned to focus more. My other critique person has the problem of trying to shoe-horn all her floating plot ideas into ONE story, which of course is a recipe for disaster. We are all on her about trying to simplify her plots.

      We all have our bete noires….it’s just a matter of fighting them off.

      Maybe we should call this foul “too many men on the field.” 🙂

      • “My other critique person has the problem of trying to shoe-horn all her floating plot ideas into ONE story, which of course is a recipe for disaster. We are all on her about trying to simplify her plots.”

        Ah, this has a familiar ring to it as well. This is the one area I don’t think anything but time and writing experience is going to fix for me. Since I’m always trying to make all my characters vivid and real, it makes it easy to start cooking up lots and lots of subplots–some short and minor, some longer. And that whole gig of learning that subplots must serve the main plot is something that for me takes trial & error.

        For me I find it especially difficult because I rarely think in terms of stand alone books but in terms of novel series, so I’m always trying to think backwards and forwards, going over every bit of potential. It can tie me & my writing up in knots.

  2. This is exactly what I needed to hear right now. I am there. Mid-way. And it’s been a fight. I perhaps set up some unreal expectations that I could have a first full draft written with maybe a once over in 4 mo… Maybe next time. I had signed up for a Margie Lawson Editing Immersion course (which I am at this week in CO – ironically away from MI, good to hear about the Lions 😀 ) I am exhausting myself learning new stuff, and rewriting like crazy. I’m thinking mid-way is ok and this will give me a brain break, a good solid look at what I have to this point, squeeze out a lot of excess baggage, and make sure that I am solidly at the mid-point. I never thought having to dump a third of your chapter because it was too much BS (backstory) or finding out that people thought your scruffy dog was a cat out hiking with you or that five words that just fell into place are NYT (New York Times Bestseller worthy), or that it would be so engaging to be wrong. How awesome it is to work with other writers and have someone help you “see” your manuscript. I still have the last half to finish, but getting the chance to reevaluate, learn, fix, and move on…. I am with you. My overall goal for the year is to have this book done. I still have 3.5 months to do this thanks for the half-time pep talk, It’s almost 5am here now, and I have to get back to work. Good luck to us all!

    • I think we all set up unrealistic expectations at times, Penny. We are so hard on ourselves, no? But maybe the editing immersion course is exactly what you needed right now. If it’s any consolation, I dumped two whole chapters yesterday. Yes, I saved them because there might be stuff in them I can use. But it felt good and right…like I had cleaned out the garage or something. (Which I am going to help Kelly do before I head south because right now she can’t fit her car in there and winter is a-coming.) Good luck with your baby!

  3. “You can learn a line from a win and a book from a defeat.” — Paul Brown

    I LOVE football, and this post is great. So I’m adding the quote above and my take on it. Completing that chapter, writing that beautiful metaphor, greeting your first publishing contract… Those are all wins, and you’ll learn something each time they happen. But when you’re stuck on a chapter or a word, or when you get that rejection or bad review… That’s when you have to dig deep, learn where you went wrong, correct it and push through. When you do that, you’ll have learned a lot more.

    Go Steelers!

    • Your Steelers looked pretty good against the Redskins, Staci! And I love the Paul Brown quote. Thanks.

  4. This is a timely post for me, Kris. My traditional plotting tool is a goofy school kid’s notebook I pick up for every story (my best goofy notebook to date is the one that has a cover dedicated to the RugRats. . I’m going to overlay my newest notebook, which is covered with images of flying hats, with your tool methodology of Post It Notes. Thanks!!

    • I also kept a notebook for each book, Kathryn. Got into the habit back in 1998 when we first started and the internet and all its fancy organization tools was just a glimmer in someone’s imagination. I still have all those notebooks, filled with clippings from newspapers, magazines, family trees. And it always amazes me how little of the magpie stuff I gathered that I actually used in the books.

      • Oh, and on the topic of insane quests for perfection. I spent a ridiculous amount of time yesterday trying to craft one sentence, which was supposed to indicate that a character shouted loudly enough to flush a flock of park birds into the air. End of day came, and I still wasn’t satisfied with the sentence. Woke up first thing this morning and the solution crystallized for me on the page, like a magpie’s bright shiny object. (Okay I’m still kind of stuck on the bird thing). Lesson: Taking a brain break is helpful.

        • I like the flexibility and simplicity of the post-it board. I’ve tried to keep track of timelines, subplots, and turning points in a dog-earned notebook, but sooner or later, it becomes illegible–coffee-stained, covered with scribbled notes, etc.

          Has anyone ever used commercial software to keep track of characters and plot? I think it’s more popular for screenplays than novels.


  5. I love your approach to digging through the story page by page, with post it notes. Great visual. You sharing what went wrong is priceless. Good stuff.

    Could any of this been a product of two people writing 1 story? I don’t know your process for writing/plotting but it would be great to dissect a story that isn’t working with someone who knows it as well as you do. Good post, Kris.

    • Jordan,
      It could be the product of having a co-author, yes. We do lose our way sometimes and have to struggle to get both of us back on the right path. Co-authoring can be a god-send but it can have its downside and this is part of it. You have to be really organized to write with someone and I think we let that part of things lapse with this book. Which is a good lesson if anyone out there is thinking about partnering with someone. Being organized and good communication is vital.

      • I knew two sisters who wrote. Each had different strengths. One had plotting skills & wrote solid action scenes. The other was excellent at romance and emotion. I suggested they try co-writing whereby one would start the story (with a thinner action style) with the other sister layering in romantic setting, emotion & love scenes. Seemed like a fit but the sisters never tried it.

        You two write seamless stories that obviously work with great success and your instincts on what isn’t working are amazing.

        But I was curious how you two split your writing duties. If you’ve already posted on this and I missed it, I’d love a link. You guys are amazing

  6. I’m a rabid Green Bay Packer fan and NFL team owner. Your post is perfect and timely. I have two WIP. One that I’ve been stuck at the 20% point for 8 months and the other which is going a little better as far as the story line. When I finish the second WIP and return to the first, I’ll keep your blog post close by to see what I need to do differently. Thanks for giving me a new angle to approach that WIP and move it forward.

    • I like the Pack as well Alec. Even though my second team of choice is the Lions. (I still have flashbacks of my dad yelling at Milt Plum to throw the ball.)

      At one point last year, Kelly and I had two WIPs going at once, which we had never done before. We had started a series book but I got obsessed with the idea that became our stand-alone “She’s Not There.” When we hooked up with Thomas and Mercer, we submitted two partials and they chose the stand alone. Now we have resumed the series book, and maybe that is partly why we are struggling because we were away from the story for so long. So I guess I would advise to try to stay with one story to completion rather than let them compete for your energy.

  7. I used to do color sticky notes on a poster board, too. I like that bird’s eye view. Fortunately, Scrivener lets you color code, so it’s all on my screen now.

    As far s my own practice, I do a 20k word “step back.” Here I pause to make sure my stakes are high (some form of death) and that the Lead is being forced into the struggle. At this point if I think more needs to happen “in the middle,” I might simply add one more character to complicate things.That move alone produces ample plot material.

    • I tried Scrivener, I really did. But I was spending so much time trying to learn and I always had the nagging feeling that I wasn’t gettting half of what was there. I have this issue with my iPhone, too. So I cling to my little Luddite post-its.

      Re your step-back. Kelly and I also realized during our half-time meeting that we had a soggy middle, but she came up with a great idea to put a key character in peril. This is also giving us a clearer sight-line to the climax.

      As you keep saying, “Something must happen to someone.”

  8. This is terrific, Kris. I love the glimpse into your team writing process. Although I rarely watch football, the analogy is dead-on.

    Like you, I have to put everything on a board or wall to really see the plot and the big holes. Now I need to get some post-its!

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