A Fine Mess: Writing and the Scientific Method

Writing is Scientific

I’m sitting in a middle school gymnasium wondering how I could have forgotten the deafening, high-pitched squeal produced by over one hundred 13-year-olds. My daughter, a research biologist, coaches a science Olympiad team on invasive species and my husband and I have come to cheer them on.

Bob the Bubble Man entertains the students waiting for their final scores and medals to be handed out. He repeats over and over that science is all about asking questions. If we want to make this bubble bounce on our hand, what’s the best way? Should we use a dry hand, a wet hand, or maybe a gloved hand?

Bob the Bubble Man

Writing fiction is all about asking questions. How would our protagonist react to this situation? What is the more dramatic choice in this scene? Would telling the story from a different point of view reveal more character?

My daughter’s team scores two big victories and over a celebratory dinner, I chat with the head coach, a Ph.D. entomologist, about projects she and my daughter are developing in their day jobs for the same scientific company, and I update her on the progress I’ve made on my novel. She’s a big reader and curious about the writing process.

I share the stops and starts, how detours down one path have led me to revelations about changing the point of view, even the tense I’m using to tell my chosen story. How I’ve narrowed down—finally and after three full drafts—what my story is actually about. How I feel like I have the tenuous grasp of a spine that I’m building on and how all the “mistakes” have gotten me to this point.

Writing is Scientific

She nods knowingly and shares how she must coax the junior scientists on her team into making mistakes on purpose. She encourages them to pursue unusual avenues in the hopes of uncovering something new.

Sometimes, she’s frustrated with the younger scientists who, having mastered one testing method, become comfortable and want to stick with it. She has to nudge and push them out of their comfort zone.

Writers have comfort zones, too. We identify as pantsers or outliners. Like scientists, we can benefit from trying different methods or inventing new methods.

As a former die-hard pantser, I hesitated to use even a beat sheet, but in later drafts, outlines have helped me shape my character’s focus and purpose.

The doc reminds me of a development project she worked on and how the genesis of the idea came to her in the shower. She asked “what if” questions and hit on a unique solution that continues to pay off.

She leads a team of researchers and is responsible for encouraging them to move past their fear, to encourage them to look at what would they try “if they weren’t afraid of being wrong,” of wasting time or resources. She teaches them to expect dead ends and detours. It means they’re exploring possibilities.

Back to Bob the Bubble guy. He asks the kids to predict how best to bounce a bubble on their hands. He recruits three volunteers and they try all three options. Turns out the dry hand pops the bubble, the wet hand causes the bubble to stick and on the third try, on the gloved hand, the bubble bounces over and over, glistening under the gym lights.

Cool Scientists

Cool Scientists!

What would you try if you weren’t afraid of being wrong, of wasting time? What would you create?



4 Thoughts on “A Fine Mess: Writing and the Scientific Method

  1. great observation!

  2. Painting/drawing. I have it all in my mind, but it doesn’t ever come out that well in reality! Perhaps I am afraid of being crap at it! So I don’t try. Like a true hedgehog.

    Thanks for dragging me out from under the safety of the leaf pile!

    A xx

One Easy Exercise for Your Writing Muscle

Exercise Your Writing Muscle

Exercise Your Writing Muscle

It’s a snowy Midwestern Monday and I’m on a time crunch. My vision board* is winking at me, saying “sure, you said this stuff was important to you this year.” My stomach is rumbling for lunch, and that annoying red light on my phone tells me that I have day-job email that needs tending.

But as they say, perfect is the enemy of the good (or at least useful), so here is my imperfect post I promised last week about asking “What if . . .?”

Do you do morning pages? Do you have a million story beginnings, scenes, or vignettes that might have a nugget of a story but you don’t know what to do with them? Most writers do, regardless of experience level.

Morning Pages example for blog

My handwriting is its own security system – uncrackable.

For any beginners out there that have a mash of wrinkled pages and ink blots, try this and see if you like it. It might help you feel closer to finishing. It made me feel a little uncomfortable but like I’d accomplished something.

Choose one of your unfinished scenes or vignettes and outline it until the end. That’s it. That simple. You don’t have to write the whole story. Doesn’t even matter if you’re not an outliner. I’m a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants (pantser) by nature.

You’re exercising a muscle. Maybe it’s one you use all the time like that eyebrow furrowing thing you do when your kid leaves his smelly socks in the living room. For me, it reflects my perception of my creativity muscle as a flabby tricep that I don’t flex enough.

I picked a random morning pages exercise that I was kind of fond of, and then outlined to an ending with some story beats. You can Google “story beat sheets.” I liked this one from paranormal author Jami Gold.

Beat Sheet example from Jamigold.com

It ended up looking like this. Don’t worry about not being able to read the actual words. Look at the format, the steps.

Finish Story Exercise Jan 2016

Morning pages are not about trying to write a story. They’re about getting the juices flowing.

This exercise is not about editing or revision. Not yet. This is a rough, rough first draft with some ideas of where it could go. The practice was in asking the question, and in trying out some answers. Taking a leap.

Ideally, you would keep going. Keep asking what if. Discard the first few ideas that surface. Meander down the path.

Ask “what if . . .?” and you just might find something. My goal is to do one a week from the prior weeks warm-up exercises. Do you have a regular warm-up? Do you do morning pages? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.


*More on the vision board in a later post.


2 Thoughts on “One Easy Exercise for Your Writing Muscle

  1. Thanks for the shout out to my beat sheets! 🙂

    I love the morning page you did with the story structure from the beat sheets. Have fun with it! 🙂

Revisions: Lessons of the Second Draft

Frustrated Writer

Frustrated Writer

In my wildly popular* post “I Wrote A Book, Now What” I shared what happens after typing “The End” on a first draft.

*Wildly popular means read by someone other than my mother and best friend.

Here’s an update on my progress.

Like sex or Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake, the learning curve for writing a novel is something you have to experience for yourself. No writer can convey what the process will be like for you because the process is never the same.


Gratuitous photo of chocolate sex

Similarly, no recounting evokes the mental anguish and befuddlement of the actual undertaking. Hence, most unsuccessful novelists simply shelve their hideous first efforts and move on to the next project, or give up all together.

My bio on Twitter is accurate, I am pear-shaped and pushing 50. I’m determined to improve so I’ve got to face the fear of the second draft on this project. Then and only then, I will decide if the story is worth further effort.

So far, my revision process includes 50 new pages of material and a 30-page handwritten outline of the entire novel as it currently exists.

I needed to know the present world of my characters and show them interacting more before I start them on their journey of transformation. Sounds easy enough, right? Not so fast. In the new material, my main character is now 10 years younger and childless. Lesson: Generating new material often presents new problems for the writer that have to be resolved throughout the entire draft.

The first draft for a pantser (writing by the “seat of your pants” vs. planning) is like magic. Things just flow out through seemingly no effort of your own. But 290 pages of information is a lot to remember which is why characters end up with different names half way through and you can’t remember who’s related, etc.


There was so much for me to learn, I applied and was accepted to a Novel in a Year program. The writing teacher strongly suggested I give outlining a try. Ugh.  Lesson: Outlining at some point in the process is incredibly useful for consistency and as a reference for rewriting.

So how do you do it? A typical day of revision is waking up early, making a cup of tea, stretching in the kitchen and then sitting down at my desk. I open up the word document and reread the previous material from my last session. Then I review my editor’s comments and decide what to tackle for that session. Either I’m adding a new scene, removing a section, correcting errors, etc.

Brainstorming, questioning, making lists of possibilities are all part of my process right now. Will I leave the kids in the story? Did I show enough interaction and conflict or tension between the main character and her husband in the first chapter? How am I going to tie the last chapter of the new material to the old material?

At first I was sure I was lost. I put off sitting down in front of the laptop. I didn’t know how to wrestle the three-inch stack of papers and notes into submission. What kind of an incompetent writer doesn’t know the age of her main character?


What I’ve heard, read and by the grace of the writing gods have come to internalize is that as long as I’m still working at it, learning and trying new things, I’m writing. Lesson: This is my process for this book so it is the right process. The struggle means I’m learning.

If you’re struggling with a first draft of a novel or short story or essay, congratulations. You’re writing.

(All photos via creative commons – click on photo for link)

One Thought on “Revisions: Lessons of the Second Draft

  1. barb armstrong on April 30, 2015 at 7:15 am said:

    Congratulations, you’re writing!!!