Please welcome Patricia Perry Donovan—an American journalist who writes about healthcare. Her fiction has appeared at Gravel Literary, Flash Fiction Magazine, Bethlehem Writers Roundtable and in other literary journals. She is the author of the novels Deliver Her and, coming in August of 2017, At Wave’s End. The mother of two grown daughters, she lives at the Jersey shore with her husband.
Weeks before my manuscript’s due date, I had to pack for a milestone event: our daughter’s overseas nuptials. Since I was charged with transporting her wedding gown, my suitcase space was at a premium. When stress over these two important “deliverables” coincided, the parallels were hard to ignore.
7 Packing Tips to Lighten the Writer’s Voyage
I adore traveling, but detest packing. The finality of zipping a suitcase shut triggers such anxiety I avoid the task until the eleventh hour, lobbing one last-minute item after another just in case while my toe-tapping husband waits, car running.
Packing (or more accurately, not packing) for a recent trip, my empty suitcase a reprimand, it struck me that this inertia frequently hijacks my writing process.
How, then, might I master the art of packing for both bookish and worldly odysseys?
For enlightenment, I turned to travel gurus, including Rick Steves, who divides tourists into two types: those who pack light and those who wish they had.
I submit this same dichotomy applies to writers. To this end, I’ve adapted some expert packing tips to lighten the creative voyage for writers who wrestle with what goes into a WIP and what stays home.
- Make a packing list.
A pre-departure packing list virtually assures nothing is left behind. While plotting writers are on board with this strategy, seat-of-the-pantsers argue such planning derails creativity.
The ideal expedition likely falls somewhere between, especially when a deadline looms. Before writing my debut novel, I devoted weeks to outlining scenes and characters per a popular method. But once I began writing, I never glanced at that meticulous itinerary again. A pantser was born!
Next stop: book two, whose firm end date curbed these pantser predilections. With one eye on my MS’s departure time, I periodically paused to take stock, then skimmed scenes and detail.
Other authors who accept this compromise include Megan Abbott. “Before I really start, I generally try to envision a three-act structure, but usually without any of the beats in between. The rest comes along the way. Surprise is one of the best parts of writing for me.”
These surprises, like an upgrade to first class or a five-star review, make the best souvenirs.
- Take enough to get started.
If you pack every toiletry from Advil to Zantac, you’ll not only weigh down your bag, but you’ll miss the adventure of prowling Zanzibar’s Estella Market when you run out of shampoo. Accept shopping—and dirty laundry—as stopovers on your sojourn.
Similarly, readers deserve the exhilaration of uncharted territory. Instead of cramming your WIP with info dumps, weave in just enough backstory and landmarks to acclimate them. Then turn the tour over to your characters, your setting, your point of view. Hook your readers with the thrill of venturing off piste, and they’ll plan a return trip.
“In actuality, there’s very little readers need to know about our characters’ history and motivations that they won’t learn over the course of the book. Interrupting our story to tell the reader about something that happened before it began works against the very thing we’re trying so hard to accomplish: engaging the readers and sweeping them up into the world of our novel,” notes author Karen Dionne.
- Wear and pack in layers.
Packing layers eases acclimation to weather variations. Even the TSA recommends travelers pack in layers (shoes one layer, clothes one layer, and so on) so screeners can more easily assess a bag’s contents.
Similarly, multiple drafts are the writer’s tool for creating story layers that transport readers through shifting emotional climates.
“Just accept you will be working in layers,” advises Harry Bingham, novelist and founder of The Writers Workshop. “Tell yourself that your first draft of the novel is there to lay the main tracks for the story. Your next draft can then handle the next layer you want to build in. Perhaps that’s where you build in the feel for place and time. That’s where you make sure your rain is wet, that the reader feels breeze on their face.”
- Use packing aids.
Despite my packing avoidance, I once proudly dispatched a daughter for a year of international study with only two suitcases, thanks to airless storage bags that shrink everything to nothing. Other road warriors swear by folding boards and storage cubes.
Similarly, every wordsmith is issued a passport to creativity: coffee, music, meditation, video games. Mine are silence and darkness, writing in the early morning with only an online thesaurus and dictionary for distraction.
Margaret Atwood’s writing tools are simple. “You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality.”
- Skip the formal wear.
However glamorous, the tuxedos and evening gowns of our parents’ cruise wear are passé. Today, ties and scarves pack easily, transforming a daytime look in an instant.
For writers, this translates into paring down descriptors and avoiding pretension and verbosity. Think of your WIP as that essential black dress or blazer to accent with jeweled prose when warranted.
“If you’re vigilant in keeping control over adjectives and adverbs, the ones that make it in will be there for a reason,” notes Joseph Bates, author of Writing Your Novel From Start to Finish: A Guidebook for the Journey.
- Know your carrier’s baggage policy.
Just as savvy travelers review airlines’ wildly varying baggage policies, writers must conduct their own due diligence in regard to publishing requirements to avoid a red-eye to the slush pile.
For example, when an early DELIVER HER draft weighed in around 110,000 words, an editor suggested a trim to a more genre-pleasing 85,000 words.
That editor was right. In its skimmed-down version, the book appealed to my agent Elisabeth Weed, who outlined her own submissions gate-keeping in a past WU interview.
“Anything that starts with ‘Dear Sir,’ ‘Dear Agent’ or is sent to every other agent in the business is deleted. And anything [my assistant] knows I don’t represent (genre fiction, picture books etc.) is also removed.”
- Bring older items, and leave them behind along the way.
Travelers who insist on bringing more than they will need should pack older items they won’t mind donating or leaving behind along the way.
Similarly, if your story has taken hold and won’t allow an exit strategy, give yourself permission to write furiously and at length early on, with the knowledge you will purge the unwieldy and unnecessary later.
“My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping,” said Susan Sontag. “I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive.”
As I conclude this post, an early-morning flight awaits. My suitcase already holds a few items. And my manuscript is in transit. Baby steps.
Wherever you are on your artistic journey, allow these words from Ms. Sontag to guide you:
“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.”
What do you pack in your writer’s suitcase? What lightens your voyage?