An Editor’s Perspective: Prompts for Winter

Mary K. Swanson, SCN Editorial Service, #3

[Story Circle Network’s Editorial Service gives you easy access to a team of
professional editors. These editors are attuned to the stories women write — both fiction and memoir. Your manuscript deserves respect…the best treatment…and an editor who understands you. That’s why SCN Editorial Service exists. When you’re ready for an editor, we’re ready for you.

Mary K. Swanson is one of these professional editors and she’s sharing some of her thoughts and ideas about writing with you. She writes here about the winter of our writing. Then join her on for her continuation where she writes about discipline for spring writing.


A Winter in Writing

Mulberry in winter

A writing winter can come at any time. If you’re a tenacious person, you stare at a blank page, but if you’re easily sidetracked (like me), you find things to distract you—a DIY show, web-surfing, calling a sister, or even cleaning the bathtub. The whole time, you take up and discard countless strategies for continuing your writing project without committing a word to the page.

Don’t mistake winter for Antarctica. If you’re prepared, you can use this time to explore your characters (both in fiction and memoir), organize your story, and feather your writing nest, so that when a writing spring comes, you have laid the groundwork for success.

In Search of Your Characters
Defining and recording the characters in your story can help you maintain continuity, move more quickly through descriptions, and create or evoke three-dimensional personalities. For this exercise, select three people from your story—your protagonist (yourself, in memoir), primary antagonist and an important side character—and write three short essays:
1. Imagining yourself as the antagonist, describe the protagonist.
2. As the protagonist, describe the side character.
3. As the side character, describe the antagonist.

Include details of physical description, personal history, and what the subject of the essay wants most in life. (This is imagination. It doesn’t matter if these characters know each other in the story.)

Plot Spot
I have noticed that television shows seem to be getting their plots from a central database, a place I call the Plot Spot. I imagine Plot Spot as a website where plot designers post their ideas, and buyers pay per plot or by subscription.

What if you wanted to sell your plot on Plot Spot? Answer the following four questions in present tense to fill out your Plot Spot form. (Remember, memoir should have a plot, too.)

1. What happens to change your protagonist’s life? Example: Jake’s wife Bonnie disappears.
2. How does your protagonist respond? Facing police disinterest, Jake determines to track Bonnie himself.
3. What shakes your protagonist’s confidence at the last minute? Jake discovers that Bonnie is living on the yacht of a shady but handsome antiquities dealer in Miami.
4. What is the dramatic peak of your story? In a last ditch effort to win Bonnie, Jake sneaks on board the yacht as a security guard and finds out that Bonnie has been held prisoner.

Notice that on Plot Spot, it doesn’t matter how it ends. As a bonus prompt, think of several potential endings for the example plot—romantic comedy, dramatic adventure, tragedy, or screwball comedy.

Gathering mulberries

Comfort for the Writing Life
Chances are good that you haven’t indulged your writer self in ages. You may be typing on an ancient desktop computer, using a frustrating application that doesn’t help you organize your thoughts, or sitting in a chair with half its stuffing pulled out by the dog.

Invest in yourself. It’s even more important to do when you’re in a slump. Here are a seven choice writerly treats, both expensive and cheap:

1.Get a laptop computer, so you can write anywhere you like.
2. Find a voice-recording app for your smartphone to record ideas when you can’t write them down.
3. Arrange a spot outside, with a comfortable chair and a table, where you can take your writing when the weather is nice. Shade and an electrical outlet are bonuses.
4. Go to the office supply store and buy a couple of new pens that are exactly what you like. Take your time to consider color and point size.
5. Look into specialty writing software like Celtx, Scrivener, Typing Chimp, Mariner, and Storycraft.
6. Eliminate distractions by using a text editor like WordPad, Notepad, TextEdit, or BBedit.
7. Take a workshop, start a critique group, or hire a writing coach.

Want to know about Discipline for Spring Writing? Click here for my post on


Want to see Mary K at work? Here’s the way she describes the scene outside her window.
“A small pond visited by anhinga, green herons and the occasional alligator.”

Mary K is the kind of editor you wish you had in school, when you put your heart into your words, and every red pen seemed determined to destroy you. In her 20 years as an editor and writer, she has developed a style that tempers sensitivity to the music of words with a passion for brevity. Being trained both as a creative writer and a journalist, she loves best when she can help an author discover the truth in stories. In her own writing life, Mary K has written novels, essays, stories and innumerable poems.

Mary K has taught English at the college level, edited fiction, worked in marketing and technical communications, and judged in the annual Florida Technical Communication Competition. She has a master’s in journalism/mass communications from the University of Florida and a bachelor’s in English/creative writing from Old Dominion University. Teachers and writers who have influenced her include Bruce Weigl, Bernard J. Paris, Lawrence Hetrick, Allen Caillouet and Jamie Morris.

5 responses to “An Editor’s Perspective: Prompts for Winter

  1. Great post. I love the idea of winter, in writing as in any other aspect of life. Too often we forget that Nature is smart enough to provide fallow times while we humans think every single second that’s not “productive” is wasted. Oh, it’s not. There’s an awful lot of activity that goes on “underground” and in the “dark” and if we allow for it, it will make us more “productive” than all the above-ground activity in the light can even conceive of. Sam

  2. Sam,
    So glad you enjoyed the post! I agree, there is no growing without the fallow season. Your comment about activity underground made me think of a poem, The Buried Life, by Matthew Arnold. It has so many wonderful lines, but this jumps out: “A longing to inquire/Into the mystery of this heart which beats/So wild, so deep in us”
    Thanks for writing,
    Mary K

  3. Hey, MK–

    This is a beautiful way to approach a “dry spell.” I totally LOVE the phrase “writing winter.” May I use it? With tons of attribution?? (I mean, come ON, I already teach a ton of your ideas, already. What the heck is one more?)

    Love to see your good ideas on this forum. You are a wonderful writer, amazing responder to others’ work, and smart, to boot.


    • Jamie,
      Thanks so much for responding, yourself!
      I don’t think writers do nearly enough to support themselves in this process. Especially at the beginning, writers imagine that writing is selfish, on a par with taking all the cake. The difference is, when we write, we are making the cake for others; we may enjoy the process, but our writing is a generative, generous act.
      And as for using “writing winter,” please do. You and I both know, I quote you all the time!

  4. Pingback: Story Circle Posts

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