Cover Photo: In this photograph, we see a dense pine forest from above. A road curves through the center of the photograph and the left side of the photograph is darker than the other, as if closer to a mountain.
Photograph by Geran de Klerk/Unsplash

Five Exercises to Clarify What You’re Writing About

If you’re having trouble seeing the forest through the trees, these exercises will help you pinpoint what kind of story you’re trying to tell—and who your audience might be.

’m writing about about upfront.

The Little Mermaid Timeline A:

The Little Mermaid Timeline B:and

Answer the Query Formula

What or who needs to accomplish what by when, where, and why?

Why are you the best or only person who could write this?

—or tell you this project isn’t actually right for you.

What particular thing happened to me and why will readers care?

What was universal in my very particular experience?

As an expert in X, I’m going to be presenting an exploration of Y with the overall goal of Z.

As an expert in gut-health, I am going to explore bacteria through the ages with the goal of getting people to stop washing their hands.

Publishers Marketplace

Big deal Editor via Big Deal Agency preempted Writer McWriter’s debut novel “Jawsy” about the pup of a murdered big white shark who vows to take revenge—for his species and his father—on the tourists of Cape Cod.

plus plot point 1

plus plot point 2

I’m obsessed with multitasking book titles

• Tone: Is it funny? Lush? Serious? Thrilling?

• Setting: Does the work take place somewhere specific geographically or in a specific time period?

• Crux: What is the heart of the project—what is it about?

Creating a Narrative Arc Out of a Messy LifeThe Book Deal Toolkit

Courtney Maum is the author of the novels Costalegre (a GOOP book club pick and one of Glamour Magazine’s top books of the decade), I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, and Touch (a New York Times Editor’s Choice and NPR Best Book of the Year selection), the popular guidebook Before and After the Book Deal, and the forthcoming memoir, The Year of the Horses. Courtney is the founder of the collaborative retreat program, The Cabins and she has a creativity advice newsletter “Get Published, Stay Published” that you can sign up for at