Posted On May 4, 2012 by Print This Post

Amy Atwell: Chaos? Tame It So You Can Write.

Does framing out a story make you feel like a lion tamer more than a writer? Visiting Professor Amy Atwell cracks the whip on structural chaos in today’s post.

Hi all—it is always a pleasure to return to RU for lively discussions on writing. Thank you, crew, for having me back!

Chaos? Tame It So You Can Write.

I’ve always loved the Friday theme here, because chaos is how I start every manuscript. Literally. Look up chaos in the dictionary and you’ll see one definition states: “the formless matter supposed to have existed before the creation of the universe.”

Now, let’s be honest—when you write a book, don’t you feel a little like the all-knowing Creator? There’s joy in the creation of a story, fleshing-out the characters, unfolding the plot, the revelations of evolving emotion. It’s thrilling and cathartic. But it can be hard to break through from total chaos to the point where that story begins to really take shape.

It’s that shape that makes all the difference. Because a well-structured story speaks to readers. Don’t misunderstand—I’m not going to give you the magical formula for a story structure. I don’t believe there’s just one. Every story is organic, but just like every plant and animal that breathes life, every story will have a structure of its own that defines the shape.

How do you know when you’ve found it? The key evidence of structure is clarity. This means clean writing, well-chosen, powerful words strung together to weave a story that not only engages the reader, but succeeds in making the reader believe that every choice made at every turning point was absolutely the right and natural choice. It’s clear descriptions, clear actions, a voice and style that are natural to the story and engage the reader.

I’m not prescribing an info dump at the beginning of your book. But as each piece of information is revealed, it must be a clear and logical fit with the character’s previous actions. It must have meaning (even if the reader isn’t clear yet what the full meaning is). Highlight useful information to build clarity and cut the extraneous details that muddy the story.

Often, I find, clarity is lacking from my first draft. It comes with the revising and the polishing. That’s because I need to see the whole story before I can decide what elements need to clarified, what points need to be revealed when, what aspects of the characters will speak to the reader. I storyboard my story after the first draft to find all the lumps and bulges and sags in its shape. This is when I structure the story—again, not to any one formula, but to its natural shape. (See my former RU post on Linear vs Non-Linear Storytelling for a bit more on structure.)

Another important factor I find to achieving clarity with my story is focus. My focus. Focus is clarity’s friend and chaos’s worst nightmare. Focus allows us to immerse ourselves in the world of our story.

Ever been snorkeling or scuba diving? Try this analogy. Chaos is being thrown into the water with a mask and some sort of breathing apparatus (snorkel or tank). You have to get your bearings, clean your mask/visor. You have to come to terms with not breathing through your nose. You have to acclimate to water temperature, waves, wind, sun. I swear, it takes me fifteen minutes or more to even dunk my face below the water.

But when I do, I immerse myself in that world. The filtered light, the sounds of bubbles (yes, you can hear bubbles beneath the water) and splashes, the power of my limbs moving me through the water. I lose myself and simply exist while I watch fish and plants, corals and turtles, eels and starfish. I become one with the habitat and cease to think about anything that happens above the water.

Total immersion with your story leads to faster, cleaner drafting and better clarity of the final draft. But in today’s techno-speed, multitasking world, that kind of focus can be hard to achieve. Email and social media beckon us. We may have current releases to promote, blogs to write and read, a web site to update. We have contracts to review, negotiations to consider, readers we want to connect with, reviews we want to celebrate or wish we could ignore. An author’s life requires more than just writing fiction these days.

We want to immerse ourselves, but there’s always something making us bob our head above the water line, break focus, get slapped with a wave and forget how to breathe. Some authors learn to adapt and happily churn out pages in the midst of household chaos. Others, like me, flail about, trying to control the chaos (or ignore it) long enough to get in a few thousand words here and there.

If you’re a fellow flailer—or perhaps a debut author or someone who weeps every time technology changes—I invite you to visit Author E.M.S., a new online community for authors that I’ve started to build with the instrumental assistance and great advice of Kelsey Browning. The web site acts as a resource library filled with tools and tidbits to help answer your business questions so you can get back to writing fiction. Save Time. Reduce Stress. Improve Focus. Watch our intro video.

You may not always conquer chaos, but you can tame it in both your fiction and your life as a writer. Take the time to build structure in your writing day, find the organic shape of your social media interactions and clarify a plan that balances new fiction with necessary promotion.


What do you find to be the most chaotic part of your writing life or writing process? Have you experimented with different structures?

On Monday, May 7, C.J. Redwine returns with her monthly column. Join us!



Amy Atwell worked in professional theater for 15 years before turning from the stage to the page to write fiction. She now gives her imagination free rein in both contemporary and historical stories that combine adventure and romance. When not writing, Amy runs the WritingGIAM online community for goal-oriented writers and has recently launched the Author E.M.S. online resource library. An Ohio native, Amy has lived all across the country and now resides on a barrier island in Florida with her husband and two Russian Blues.

Visit her online at her website, Magical Musings, Facebook, Twitter and/or GoodReads.

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34 Responses to “Amy Atwell: Chaos? Tame It So You Can Write.”

  1. Hi Amy,

    Thanks for joining us! My writing process continues to evolve. Just started book 3 and I have a pretty solid road map thanks to a great brainstorming session with my CPs.

    Now, if someone would write the darn synopsis for me…

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | May 4, 2012, 4:27 am
    • Good Morning, Tracey! Yes, synopses are a breed all their own and entail their own chaos. Glad the pre-brainstorming and road maps are helping with your draft. Can’t wait to see books 2 and 3 (book 1 was awesome!)

      Posted by Amy Atwell | May 4, 2012, 7:10 am
  2. Scrivener is the writer’s best friend for taming chaos. It was created by a novelist for the way novelists work: the helter-skelter early ideas; little snippets of text, the great idea for an ending or a confrontation.

    There’s draft area where you can cut & paste & move text to your heart’s content. A research area where you can park all those articles, images & videos. There’s an outliner, an index card corkboard so you can see the overview necessary for clarity.

    Scriv also has a generous try-for-free trial period. IME Scriv has been the fortress that stands between me and Maddening Chaos.

    Posted by Ruth Harris | May 4, 2012, 5:05 am
    • Ruth, I can’t agree with you more about the magic of Scrivener. Oddly, I use it for a little plotting and tracking of research and details, but not so much for drafting. Where Scrivener has proven indispensable for me is in organizing the rest of my writing life. I organize all my blog post drafts, my social media, my book sales links, and I keep track of tons of details. With Scrivener, I can find what I need really fast.

      Posted by Amy Atwell | May 4, 2012, 7:11 am
    • Amen to that, Ruth! I love Scrivener and use it both in the way you describe and Amy describes. I just have a thing for organizational software (I really want Bento from Filemaker, but haven’t figured out a great reason to own it – LOL).

      I’m now working on a co-writing project and Scrivener is really helping us stay organized.

      Happy Friday!

      Posted by Kelsey Browning | May 4, 2012, 7:32 am
      • Bento! I’ve found it indispensable for my character sheets. Mine is now set up to organize them by their books, last names, first names–and it’s fully searchable by things like, say, hair color…I love it for my iPad.

        Posted by Cera Daniels | May 4, 2012, 10:29 am
        • Oh, yay! A reason to buy Bento – LOL. What kind of export features does the iPad app have, if any?


          Posted by Kelsey Browning | May 4, 2012, 10:50 am
          • Sadly, nothing. Major blah. It syncs great if you have the full version for the Mac. I don’t have a Mac, so I’m out of luck. It’s the one feature request I keep begging for, at the very least for more control over my backups!


            Posted by Cera Daniels | May 4, 2012, 10:57 am
          • Cera –

            Yeah – that’s what’s kept me from buying the App. Felt like I needed the Mac s/w too – guess that’s where they get you :-). I want something I can import into Scrivener.


            Posted by Kelsey Browning | May 4, 2012, 11:05 am
          • Nicety versus necessity: I could survive without the Bento app, but accidentally purchased it before I discovered the “fatal flaw”, so i hung on lol. It is a handy tool to use alongside Scrivener, since it saves me from flipping back and forth between docs or searches and I get the images in the bio while I’m writing. Import from a regular old spreadsheet is what I used to use, definitely functional. 🙂

            Posted by Cera Daniels | May 4, 2012, 11:21 am
  3. Hi Amy,

    Chaos is a great place to start. The story is rushing me to write it. I’ll write and reread the next day. Pulling everything apart helps to put it back where it belongs.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | May 4, 2012, 5:29 am
    • Hi, Mary Jo–

      I love it when I’m in my story every day. It’s a great feeling when the words rush. Don’t worry if they’re not perfect the first time out, keep drafting! There will be plenty of time to sort and polish everything during revision. Best wishes!

      Posted by Amy Atwell | May 4, 2012, 7:13 am
  4. Great post! I definitely embrace the chaos, because I’ve learned this is how my brain creates a story. LOL (I guess it would take all the sport out of it if it delivered a perfectly-crafted story!) But it took a while to realize this was the right process for me, AND that it’s actually a process that is working the way it’s supposed to. There’s some days when I have my doubts! LOL

    Posted by Donna Cummings | May 4, 2012, 6:58 am
    • Donna, LOL, sounds like you’ve embraced your own organic process, and that’s what it takes. I tried for years to listen to other writers’ advice about how to maximize my writing time or how to outline my story in advance. I tend to outline about 3-6 chapters at a time, write them, then pause to get my bearings before I outline the next section. It works for me.

      Don’t doubt yourself–keep moving forward!

      Posted by Amy Atwell | May 4, 2012, 7:15 am
  5. Morning Amy!

    Great to have you back with us! =) I’m afraid I immerse myself in chaos and can’t get back out to find the structure. I’m a definite flailer.

    One thing that helps me a bit is to print out each chapter so I can hold it in my hands, read it in bed like a real book. I catch a lot that way, but, still something I’m working on!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | May 4, 2012, 7:02 am
    • Carrie–I’m always grateful to meet fellow flailers. I agree that printing out hard copy is still a necessary part of the process. There’s something about seeing the words on a stack of paper that makes me look at them differently, more carefully, more like I’m committing to them. LOL And with a sheaf of papers, you can always swat away the chaos, right?

      Posted by Amy Atwell | May 4, 2012, 7:17 am
  6. Hi Amy!

    Oh – I’m a plotter, so I start out with a plan but my biggest loss of focus is the internet -AAAh – hours lost on the computer.

    Bad, Robin!

    Posted by Robin Covington | May 4, 2012, 7:11 am
    • You’re not alone, Robin. It’s very easy for writers who draft on their computers to get lost on the Internet. You take a quick break (so you think) to check email or send a few tweets, visit a friend’s blog, check your sales figures and–*bam!*–you lose an hour. It takes an effort to create efficiencies when dealing with these other writer tasks so we can focus on fiction. Hence, Author E.M.S.

      Posted by Amy Atwell | May 4, 2012, 7:20 am
  7. Thanks so much for this, Amy! Chaos is familiar; controlled chaos – not so much! Total immersion always works best for me but, you’re right, it’s hard to get into that frame of mind when there’s a lot going on. Focus is my new watchword!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | May 4, 2012, 7:22 am
  8. Amy –

    Such a perfect topic today as I’m drafting one book, plotting/brainstorming another, brainstorming a non-fiction biggie project and…um…running my day-to-day life. 🙂

    One of the bits of process I’m learning I need, generally, to be productive is time to switch gears. It may not be long–five minutes or so–but otherwise it’s like I’m trying to change gears without pushing in the clutch. Painful and not particularly effective.

    I tend to take care of admin tasks early in the day and then use walking the dog as my time to shift over to writing fiction.


    Posted by Kelsey Browning | May 4, 2012, 7:36 am
    • Kelsey,
      Thanks for all your help with Author E.M.S.! Yes, the multi-tasking of multiple projects can be almost debilitating sometimes, but one has to find a way to balance current releases with new work, marketing with plotting, administrative with creative. I find that setting up a system and practicing it makes me more efficient. And efficiency buys me time and focus.

      And I love that you walk the dog to clear your brain before moving from admin to creative! Brilliant!

      Posted by Amy Atwell | May 4, 2012, 12:00 pm
  9. I’m so random that my normal mode is chaos 🙂 I’m comfy cozy there. I can’t even mow the lawn anymore because my husband doesn’t appreciate the random patterns I create as I zig-zag – circle – square through the yard!

    Since I know chaos is my “thing” I’m extra careful about my planning and checkpoints/milestones along the way to keep myself on track.

    I’ll admit I’m a recent Scrivener adopter. I’d tried Scrivener when it first came out for windows and abandoned it pretty quickly, but thanks to Kelsey Browning I’ve gotten a fresh perspective and I’m finding it really helpful.

    Hugs and happy writing (no matter how you do it!!)

    Posted by Nancy Naigle | May 4, 2012, 7:37 am
    • So happy to have made you a Scriv convert!


      Posted by Kelsey Browning | May 4, 2012, 10:06 am
    • LOL, Nancy, I love your approach to lawn mowing. Sorta like my approach to house cleaning. It all gets done, but I move freely through the house doing bits and pieces of projects in each room. My husband tends to be much more linear in his thinking.

      Glad you gave Scrivener a second look. I’m using it on Mac, and it seems to be much less buggy then the Windows beta version was. It’s been a godsend in getting my social media life organized!

      Posted by Amy Atwell | May 4, 2012, 12:03 pm
  10. Welcome back, Amy! We love when you visit.

    I’ve learned that I need to shut down the internet when I’m writing. There are just too many distractions these days and it’s impossible for me to immerse myself in the story when Twitter keeps calling me!

    I’ve also become a lover of the ugly first draft. Like you, I tend to plow through that draft and then take a look at the whole thing to see where the holes are. I find tremendous freedom in just letting go when I write the first draft.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | May 4, 2012, 10:19 am
    • Hi, Adrienne! Like you, I have to avoid the Internet. I don’t turn it off, just close the windows. And I turn off my SOUND, so I don’t hear the email arrive. I finally learned I could turn off the SOUND on TweetDeck. Honestly, the stream goes by so fast, how does anyone keep up?

      Congrats on achieving that freedom to right the ugly first draft! Some writers have trouble letting go of the perfectionism. I find if I’m stuck, it helps me write on my AlphaSmart. I only see 4 lines of text, so it’s impossible to really edit on it. I’m forced to keep writing drivel and hope that something will be salvageable. LOL

      Posted by Amy Atwell | May 4, 2012, 12:07 pm
  11. Restoryboarding works for me in the second draft as well. I consider the first my discovery phase–I am getting to know my characters and learning the world. The second phase is where focus kills me–I can’t write in a group setting when I’m there, even though I usually fall into the “ignore the chaos” camp. Sometimes even music doesn’t work. But working up a sweat, as long as no one stops me between the treadmill and my computer post workout–that is where I find my zone. Great post!

    Posted by Cera Daniels | May 4, 2012, 10:37 am
    • Cera, I’m so envious that you use your workout to prep you for creative time. That’s awesome, since the increased bloodflow and oxygen will only make your senses more alert. Plus, during the workout, you may not be consciously thinking about your story, but your subconscious may be busy on it. Good job!

      Posted by Amy Atwell | May 4, 2012, 12:15 pm
  12. Amy – Thanks so much for visiting with us today! It’s really interesting to see all the different techniques we use to make our stories come together. Great post!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 4, 2012, 6:08 pm

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