René Penn

Author wannabe. Blogger. Follow me.

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Bird by Bird, Word by Word


The phrase “bird by bird” has been running through my mind a lot lately.

If you recall—or if you don’t, or if you’re unaware—the phrase came to be 50-something years ago while a boy was overwhelmed with the task of writing a report about birds. The boy was author Anne Lamott’s younger brother.

“We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

It’s funny how the brain recalls things. I haven’t read Bird by Bird in years. Yet, that short scene of father and son is so powerful, and its’ resonance has rippled throughout the writer community, that it’s no surprise that it came back to me—especially now.

I’m at that place, at the kitchen table, “immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.” But instead of “unopened books on birds” before me, I’ve got a file of my sh*tty first draft open. On my computer, I also have a growing list of edits to review when I proof the draft later, and a running list of things to research for historical accuracy. And there’s that deadline I gave myself, because I don’t want to meander around the pasture too long.

“Bird by bird.”

I have been saying it out loud to myself on those days where I feel sluggish, those days that I feel overwhelmed, the days that I feel less-than, the days where I go from, “Yes, my end goal is to find an agent and become a published author” to “perhaps I should just self-publish something just for my friends and family to read,” those days of self-doubt, of nitpicking, of not feeling good enough.

There’s something cathartic about the term “bird by bird,” when you give it all the power of its’ intention. It can become cathartic, hopeful, empowering, and even whimsical. And there’s more force behind it when the phrase is said aloud. You start to claim it and own it.

The last time I said “bird by bird,” I added on “word by word” to it. Yes, I’ll admit that I probably said it haphazardly at first, because of the rhythm. But when I thought about it a little more, I realized that there was depth to it. That little add-on reminds me how far I’ve come. To get to the place I’m at, to get to this sh*tty first draft, I had to write word by word.

If I keep doing what I’m doing, bird by bird, then I’ll get to the second draft, and so on and so forth…

I decided to revisit the book that made the phrase so famous. I pulled the copy from my bookshelf. The copyright date is 1994. I seem to remember buying it within a few years of publication. I had underlined some sentences, dog-eared some pages. This was around the time that I started to take this whole writing thing more seriously. I wanted to study the craft of it, understand it better, understand why I felt the way that I did about the process–immobilized, afraid, enthused, excited. The book helped with all of that, and then some.

Twenty years later, it’s still helping.


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NaNoWriMo, “The End,” and Now What

I took a blog break. As I mentioned before, I signed up for National Novel Writing Month. By the second-half of November, I was having a difficult time meeting my weekly goal for that and for this blog. As NaNoWriMo had started to become an obsession—which seems like the only way you can slog through the challenge—I decided it was time to give myself a blog vacation. jeremy-bishop-347252.jpg

The break worked. I made it to the end of NaNoWriMo, finishing at 50,603 words. However, I didn’t get the “official” win. Here’s why. I had handwritten about 11,000 words of my manuscript. So on November 30, when NaNoWriMo asked to verify my word count for the official win, I didn’t have all 50,603 words typed and ready to copy and paste into their verification document.

The experience reminds me of real life. You don’t need anybody to tell you that you’re “officially” a winner. You know who you are, and what you’ve done.

Thanks to NaNoWriMo, I got to “The End” of my manuscript.

One of the great things about NaNoWriMo was that I finally finished a manuscript, which I had started working on in the fall of 2015. I literally typed “The End,” as corny as it was. There was something cathartic about it, even knowing that those couple of words will not make it past my first round of revisions. I also did a happy dance, and had a glass of wine. Two very important parts of any celebration.

With NaNoWriMo, I also wrote half of the manuscript for the sequel. I created an outline, using the 15 Plot Spots, a.k.a. Plotting Magic, that I learned from Marni Freedman. The outline came to my mind one way, initially, but one of the characters pulled it into another direction. That surprised me a little, which made me even more excited about working on the draft. I made it halfway through the manuscript, right around the novel’s midpoint when NaNoWriMo finished.

So, now what?

When NaNoWriMo was over, I started my blog break. And I took some time to evaluate what I’ve done, and what I need to do. Here’s my “Now What” plan.

  • Dec. 4 – Start typing up handwritten first draft of Book 1
  • Dec. 31 – Finish typing in handwritten draft of Book 1
  • Jan. 1 – Print out typed draft and do The Big Read per blog post from Scott Berkun, and make edits on the pages
  • Jan. 7 – Make first round of revisions based on The Big Read, make copyedits
  • Jan. 15 – Send book to beta readers with questions for them to answer
  • Jan. 15 – Have first draft of Book 2 finished
  • Jan. 16 – Start historical research
  • Jan. 16 – Start collaborating list of literary agents
  • Feb. 10 – Receive feedback from beta readers
  • Feb. 11 – Start second round of revisions
  • Feb. 18 – Start copyediting
  • March 1 – Send to second round of beta readers?
  • March 21 – Send to professional editor
  • March 22 – Write query letter
  • April 21 – Make revisions based on editor’s feedback
  • May 1 – Start sending out query letters

The month of May seems like a long time from now, but I need these milestones to help keep me going. Wish me luck. Please.

How did NaNoWriMo go for you? What plans have you made, or tips do you have, based on your writing progress?

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash