The Writing Concept That Took Me Eight Years to Understand
And other reflections on the frustration and beauty of learning at our own pace, in our own way
There are some parts of writing that come to me naturally, but plot is not one of them. So when I was in grad school getting my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I was eager to work with an advisor who was known for being brilliant about novel structure.
I worked with her during my second semester, and she explained to me—over and over—that the scenes in a novel should be like cogs in a machine. One event should directly influence the next thing that happens, like one cog making the next cog turn.
This concept was hard for me to grasp. What about subplots? How could one scene drive the next one if the first scene had one set of characters and took place in one location, and then next scene had to shift to a different location with other people, or jump ahead in time? What about flashbacks and backstory?
The cog image didn’t intuitively work for me, but I kept trying and trying to make it click. I started my story over at page one at least three times, writing new scenes that I thought seemed causally linked, but my advisor would gently tell me no. I was still writing one separate event after another, with no sense of momentum or cause and effect between them. I still wasn’t catching on.
Part of the problem was the book I was trying to write back then. The concept was a little too loose. The story I had in mind was very true to the pressures I had felt as a high achieving but very sensitive kid at an intense high school…but it was a little too wedded to real life to work as fiction. There were too many different elements. Fortunately, that advisor shared a lot of wisdom that did land for me—especially about creating a character whose wounds, beliefs, and desires could lead to a rich story—so after a while, I set aside that first project and started something else that had more story potential baked in.
The new project went more smoothly. The cog thing, though? I still didn’t get it, and every time I tried to return to it, I felt defeated. Thinking about cogs as a metaphor for story structure hurt my brain and made me feel bad about myself.
But then, years later, when I was working on my third published novel, Saint Ivy, and feeling as lost and stuck as I had during my second semester of my MFA program, I found myself holding my hands up in the air in front of me, turning one hand in a circle and then turning the other.
I was doing a weird cog-turning-cog motion with my hands because I had subconsciously returned to the idea of cogs eight years after it had stumped me, as I wrote a scene in which Ivy’s wounded feelings from one scene led her to explode in a way that authentically drove the story forward to the next event, which I knew had to happen for the plot to work, but I hadn’t been able to see how it fit.
After all that time had passed, without having actively thought about cogs for ages, I had found my own way of using them. My way is wrapped up in emotions and reactions. I like to think about how one scene leads a character to feel a certain way, and those emotions, in turn, determine how the character responds to the next event or interaction, and that reaction sets up the next event. This concept—my version of it anyway—is now something I rely on a lot.
I’m an emotion-first writer. Some writers start with plot, some start with character, but I usually start with an emotion I am eager to explore. So it’s no wonder that it works for me to think about structure through a lens of feelings. But it sure took me a long time to figure that out.
I’m currently writing a book about an academic overachiever (I’ve finally found a way to tell a version of the story I wanted to tell all those years ago!). I’ve been thinking about how, in my academic overachiever high school days, I managed to learn calculus and physics—two subjects way outside my wheelhouse—well enough to earn As in my classes and good scores on AP exams . . . but I remembered nothing after I took those exams. I sat down for a math placement test at the beginning of my freshman year of college, only three or four months after the calculus AP, and I could not do any of the calculus-related problems. That content had disappeared from my brain. Poof! Gone. I hadn’t internalized any of that learning in a meaningful way. Whereas I will never forget this idea of scenes as cogs—even though (or perhaps because) it took me so long to figure it out in a way that suits my brain, my style, my writing process.
I’m trying to remember all this as I support my older kid in learning things and developing at her own pace, and no one else’s. In her own way, and no one else’s. Learning shouldn’t be a race. We’re often penalized if we don’t understand or can’t do something quickly—especially considering the way school works, with tests and due dates and grading periods—and we’re praised if we catch on right away. Part of why it was so frustrating to me when I couldn’t grasp what my second semester grad school advisor was trying to teach me was that I was used to being a “fast learner,” so it shook my self-esteem when I felt like I was struggling.
But that rush to “get it” can be at odds with deep, meaningful learning. That discomfort with not getting it is the main reason I gave up on some things I might have loved even if they were hard—like reading music, which didn’t click for me the way it seemed to click for other people, and I never gave myself the time and space to muddle through the stuck part.
We can grasp so much, in such unique ways, if we somehow claim the time and space to muddle through. It blows my mind that I could hold onto a concept, way below the level of my awareness, and find my way back to it when I was ready. It blows my mind to watch my kid begin to grasp something big—something that’s felt hard or overwhelming—on her own timeline, in a way that clicks for her. It feels almost like magic.
Saint Ivy is now out in paperback, with a sneak peek at the first chapter of Coming Up Short in the back!
And Coming Up Short comes out a month from tomorrow! It was recently named a Junior Library Gold Standard Selection, and it got a lovely second trade review from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.
If you’re in the Philadelphia area, I’d love to see you at my in-person launch party at Children’s Book World Haverford, on Tuesday, June 21st at 7pm. My dear friend Cordelia Jensen will be in conversation with me. If you’re not local, you can still pre-order a signed book from the store and they’ll ship it to you, and you can tune in on the store’s Facebook or YouTube channel. I’m also doing an Instagram Live with Emma Kress on June 20th at noon EST!
A lot of things have felt heavy and overwhelming lately, and I’ve been grateful for fun, engrossing audiobooks that bring me lots of joy as I do boring household tasks. Tirzah Price’s young adult Jane Austen murder mysteries are perfection—I already recommended the audio of the first one, Pride and Premeditation, and the second, Sense and Second-Degree Murder, is every bit as fabulous.
In middle grade, I loved A.J. Sass’s Ellen Outside the Lines, which I gushed about on Instagram here.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you’re hanging in there.