How to Get a Story Out of Your Head and Onto the Page

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Writing DeskI know from your letters to me that many of you, in your heart of hearts, fantasize about writing a novel. So, I’d like to use my own wacky path to authordom, to inspire you to write that novel or to pursue whatever other passionate dream you’ve got.  I know for a fact that it’s never too late, because life is the schoolroom and the more life you study, the more likelihood there is that your dream will come true.  I was 40 years old when my first bestseller was published… and that was only the beginning. So please do forgive me if this blog is longer than usual…life is a long and winding road.

I always, always wanted to write stories, but I married the wrong person very young and stay married just long enough to have two babies.  So, at 24 I got divorced, tucked my babies under my arms, and set out to survive.  In those days you see, women did not set out to become chairmen of General Motors, we were merely grateful if we could get a job and support our children when life didn’t turn out like The Brady Bunch.

CeeCee and BronwynI had no money and a lot of responsibilities – which is a very good incentive program for success.  I still longed to write books, but I was reasonably certain my children would not like living in a garret while I wrote the Great American novel – so I got a job in an advertising agency.  And my odyssey began:

I wrote copy at J. Walter Thompson and Vogue, where I had the chance to learn the fashion and advertising businesses.  At Fieldcrest I got to help America figure out it wanted designer sheets and towels instead of pink or white ones.  At Revlon I helped invent products like Charlie, the fragrance that revolutionized the perfume business.  Charlie, you see, was an iconoclast.  She wore pants instead of skirts and she didn’t wear a bra.  It all sounds rather quaint now, but then it was a breakthrough.

 Be Resourceful

Hands holding the EarthPeople sometimes ask me how I progressed rapidly enough in the business world that I became Vice President and Member of the Board of Bloomingdales at 31, and I am invariably reminded of my first weeks at Revlon, for it was there that I learned the secrets of the corporate psyche!  You see, it was a marvelous place where people of considerable stature were fired on the whim of the moment and condemned to live out their contracts in the Elephants Burial Ground – a suite of offices without carpet or secretaries, where solitary desks and phones marked those who had fallen from grace with the legendary Charles Revson, founder and owner of Revlon.

Spilled CoffeeI used to visit the newly fallen.  They tended to come in early in the morning with a haunted look in their eyes and they were always loquacious in their exile.

They were bereft of secretarial coffee makers – the final ignominy – so I would bring them coffee along with my own, and in return I garnered priceless information about the poignant underbelly of the power game.  As you can see, I was always a researcher at heart.

Bloomingdales AdAfter Revlon, Bloomingdales made me Vice President/Creative Director and a member of the Board of Directors and my career went into orbit.  After that, I started my own Ad and Marketing Agency.  We helped Yves Saint Laurent  introduce Opium.  The Estee Lauder family sent us on a trip around the world to search for ideas… ITT hired us to put their giant foot in the door of the cosmetic business.  Soon, our client list included:  LaPrairie, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Giorgio Armani, Monet Jewelers, Jordache, Bloomingdale’s, Helena Rubinstein, Robot-Coupe, Neiman Marcus, Dunhill of London, Cabouchard, Bal à Versailles and a host of other household names.  And I spent seven years positioning brands and inventing stories about the wearer.  Who is she?  What does she desire?  What are her fantasies?  Each brand was a mini-novel.  As a matter of fact – one of my worries when I began to write books, was that after so many years of being disciplined by the advertising craft to say everything in two lines, my novel might only be four pages long!

Then I began to get nervous.  I’d never forgotten my promise to myself that when my girls were grown, I’d write books, but life with two growing daughters and an ever-burgeoning business with 50 employees, made story-telling seem an impossible dream.  So, I began getting up at 4:30 a.m. and writing from 5:00 to 7:00 before going off to work.  Doing research at lunch and carting home books from the library at night… going to the docks to research the life of a longshoreman, stalking the waterfront after work… wondering if anyone would ever read a word of what I was writing.  Four years later, So Many Partings was completed and it hit the New York Times Bestseller List – and I had a new career – the one I’d always dreamed.  Since then, I’ve been blessed with a number of New York Times and International bestsellers and my books have now been published in twenty-two countries.  Bless the Child was a Paramount movie and Paint the Wind has just been optioned for film.

Life Is Your Writing Teacher

But during all this time, there’s been one absolute constant.  Life has never stopped bombarding me, and I have had to write books despite the fact that life keeps on keeping on.  Which of course, brings me back to my original premise that you can’t beat life, so you might as well join it.  Here are some of the ways I’ve found to do so:

My rule #1:

WritingI started trying to look at every experience, including the frustrating pain-in-the-ass ones, as grist for my mill.  I started watching my own emotions like a bird dog on the scent.  Watched everyone around me relentlessly.  Because I decided you must become a detective of the human condition – a cosmic observer who will filter your story through your own experience of life.  What makes people angry, happy, sad, crazy, fearful, brilliant, utterly unique?  How do these emotions manifest?  You must learn to bare your own nerve endings to life and observe exactly how they quiver.  Feel the pain.  Use the fury.  Exalt in the joy life provides so dazzlingly on occasion.  Because every minute of your life is a tool you can use… part of a universe you can recreate on paper with the integrity of truthful recall.

You don’t have to go to a writing class to learn how to write dialogue, I decided… you just have to learn to listen carefully to everyone in your world.  If there’s no peace and tranquility around you, write about the chaos, while you’re still in touch with its infuriating frustrations.  If you make love to someone wonderful, write a love scene.  Get in the habit of using life as it comes at you.  If you think of life as the prototype, the schoolroom, the doctoral dissertation… you’ll find that the leverage shifts.  Instead of feeling you’re swimming against the tide, you can use its momentum to carry you toward the farther shore.

Finding Time…

ClockI’m a firm believer that women get the short straw on the issue of time and the cosmic juggling act.  I’m a mother, astrologer, healer, business woman, entertainer, medical expert and by the way… I write books.  I can’t believe Hemingway had a life like mine.  I suspect he spent his time hunting, fishing, gambling, drinking and having sex.  That wouldn’t really be a totally accurate description of my life for the last thirty years.

Today’s woman, if you can believe what we’re told in the media, has super-powers.  She’s a nurturing mother, a sexy spouse, lifts weights, makes her own tortellini with basil from her very own salad garden, weighs less than she did at puberty and still finds time to run a billion dollar Mutual Fund and write bestsellers without missing a single PTA meeting.

So how can we survive all this and find any semblance of balance, let alone writing time?  I think first of all you must accept reality – unfair, it may be – but reality, nonetheless.  If you are going to succeed, you are going to have to sacrifice yourself.  (I’m making the assumption you don’t want to sacrifice your family.)  And the harder you work, the luckier you get – So you’re going to have to get up early.  If I slept till seven, I firmly believe the competition would have been up since five, written three chapters and gotten a haircut.

Yoga on the BeachBottom line:  You must eek out time, disciplined time, despite the life raging around you.  I don’t care what end of the day you find it in.  I got up at 4:30, wrote till 7:00 and went to work all day.  It was grueling, but at the end of it, I had a best-selling book and a firm conviction that if you want something badly enough you can do it.  Morning time, night time, 3 a.m. time, whatever… you’ve got to secure it for yourself and stick to it, using its quietude to pursue your dream.

I think it also helps to find an oasis of mental/spiritual space that’s just yours.  For everyone it’s different, but I believe you must find the time somewhere to replenish the well of spirit, and to open the doors and windows of the mind, so new ideas can flutter in.  For me it’s Martial Arts, healing work and prayer-ful meditation.  I have a black belt in Karate, and I practice it as often as possible to keep in shape.  Martial Arts were designed to keep body, mind and spirit in harmony and it does that for me.  I also meditate, work with healers and I pray a lot.  Whatever form it takes, I believe you must give yourself air… inspiration surfaces on lonely beaches, in dreams, in reverie, on long walks, in the bathtub, as much as it ever does sitting at your desk.  And by the way, carry a notebook at all times, and keep one by your bed.  There’s no point having an inspired thought and no place to put it down.

Process? What’s That?

Chapter OneHow do you actually go about getting the novel or the dream off the ground, running?  John Updike said, “the literary critic rows through charted waters hugging the shore, but the novelist sets off in a small skiff to breast the ocean, not knowing if he’ll ever reach the other side.”  I submit to you that all creative acts are like that… uncharted territory.

Here’s my system for reaching the farther shore – I hope it may inspire you to evolve your own way to paddle out to where you long to be.

I start with a bare bones notion of the story – a beginning, an ending – whatever the Gods give me – I’ve never had the luxury of receiving a middle when I start, but I always do know the characters… hear them holding conversations in my head… and I flesh them out on paper ‘till I know what they had for breakfast and whether they liked it.  What do they look like?  Where did they come from?  What forged their point of view?  What are their friendships?  Their vulnerabilities?  Their idiosyncrasies.  When I know all that, I let the characters take me by the hand and lead me.  Believe me, they can be full of surprises!  They fall in love, have affairs, die – I once worked three weeks to keep a favorite character alive because I loved her, but the story wouldn’t let me.  You’ll find that once characters are firmly articulated, they simply cannot do anything that’s out of character.

ResearchNext, I do meticulous research.  I think of it as detective work.  I start with books, raid their bibliographies, call up the experts – cops, priests, professors, Indian Chiefs – whomever I need to get the truth from, which is how I got to be friends with Cochise’s granddaughter, and New York City detectives, exorcists and billionaires with islands.  I’m always on the scent of first person material.  History didn’t happen like it says in the history books, it happened unexpectedly, to people like you and me who were going about their daily lives and suddenly found themselves at the Alamo, or Entebbe, or London during the Blitz.  William Butler Yeats said, “the history of a nation is not in parliaments and battlefields, but in what people say to each other on fair days and high days, and in how they farm and quarrel and go on pilgrimage…”  One hundred years from now the history of the Vietnam War will give students the dates of the Tet Offensive, but it’s the diaries of the men who lived Vietnam, that will give them the truth.  I try to get as close to that kind of reality as I can, which is how I learned to shoot a Colt Peacemaker and find I had a gift for firearms!  A story for another blog.

Next, I write an outline that includes as much of my story as I know (which is not necessarily a lot, by the way) and I continue doing research throughout most of the writing process.  The more explicit the outline, the easier it is to sell your story, of course, but if you don’t have a complete outline don’t let that stop you.  Write down that you do have, and work from the bits and pieces.  (I call it the connect-the-dots school of writing.)

Autobiography or Fiction?

Cathy Cash SpellmanWriters often ask me about how much of yourself to inject into your novel.  Quite a lot, I think.

Some irreverent wit has said that if all the nations of the world would write a book on camels, the French would write “The Camel and Lovemaking,” the English would write “The Camel and Parliament”, the Germans would write “The Camel and Industry,” the Irish would write “The Camel and the Fight for Irish Freedom.”  Stories are subjective… they damned well should be.  They should take your research and your living experience and your intelligence and your spirit and transmute those precious resources into pure gold of the kind that others can value.  There is always an element of autobiography in novel writing – your sensibilities are after all, the only ones you’ve got to work with firsthand.  But that doesn’t mean the story is the story of your life – it simply means you’ve taken what you’ve learned and used it as a goad to imagination.  In Paint the Wind there were elements of me in all the major female characters.  The actress, the mystic and the madam, but that doesn’t mean I’d lived their lives!

I firmly believe that you can’t simply tell a passionate story, you must experience it, by entering your characters very souls and fighting their battles with them.  You mustn’t be stingy – you must give your characters your all, and they’ll give it back in spades.

The Indians say a story stalks a writer – watches, waits to see if you’re worthy of telling it.  Then it comes to live in your heart for a long time; and it’s your responsibility to work very hard and learn enough to give that story voice.  Research is part of the dues you pay to be worthy.

Research, plot, character – in many ways they are all organic parts of each other.  Symbiotic, unable to live without cross nourishing each other.

So having said all this, what advice can I give that might be helpful?

Maybe only this:

  • Book JacketUse every bit of life you are privileged to live, in your work.  Use every nuance of who you are, when you see, touch, taste, and feel.
  • Get your dream out of cold storage and start to live with it, believing it has life force that will help it to grow and prosper.
  • Never stop believing.  I wrote my first bestseller at 40, so I know that lifelong dreams can come true.
  • Don’t edit yourself in the beginning.  Too many dreams get edited back by those who don’t have your vision.  So dream big and don’t let other people dam up your reservoir with small minds that say that can’t be done.  Remember Hannibal’s motto, “We will find a way or make one.”  Don’t restrain yourself … put all your ideas down on paper and save them.  You can always enhance metaphors, you can’t always recapture a momentary inspiration.
  • Be passionate about your dream.  You’ll be immersed in it for years – be sure it can sustain your passion.
  • Treat your ideas like loved ones.  Laugh with them, cry with them, listen to their voices.  They know things you don’t, on a conscious level.
  • Finally, expand your concept of success to include the enlightenment that comes to you from pursuing your dream, not just from having it come true.  I think, at this advanced age, that the most profound successes are the ones that come not from challenging the Gods for fame and fortune, but from solving the great Sphinxian riddle of Self.  If we can gain power over our own halting, soaring, eloquent, arrogant, noble, fierce and frenzied selves, we’ll be in great shape.

Keep a Sense of Humor

ParentsNow as my final thought on the subject of making the best of reality, I’d like to leave with a story about my mother – because whenever I speak on writing, I think of her.

My mother loved nothing in this world as much as books.  They were her joy and her release in a very long illness that caused her death while I was still writing Paint the Wind.

She was a great character and a great presence… We called her Manu because it meant giver of the law.

When my first novel, So Many Partings, reached the best seller list, I ran to her expecting (and desperate for) unmitigated praise, but instead she gave me a judiciously crafted book review and a list of her 10 all-time favorite books and So Many Partings  was number 5.  I was crushed, as only a daughter can be, for I’d wanted her to lie and say I was #1.  But my wise father looked at the list where War and Peace was #8, and said, “Don’t feel so bad, sweetheart, you’re still three ahead of Tolstoy.”


  © Cathy Cash Spellman/The Wild Harp & Co. Inc 2012

Posted on November 13th 2017 in Novels, The Philosopher’s Teacup

13 Responses to “How to Get a Story Out of Your Head and Onto the Page”

  1. Gerry Says:

    Brilliant! This is a keeper. Thanks Cathy. (you should also add “teacher” to the jobs you have held)

  2. Cathy Says:

    So glad you enjoyed it! To tell the truth, I’m always amazed when the stories come to me. Even though I know they grow out of living, they still feel like a gift from somewhere magical!


    as always INSPIRED WRITING
    caroline simonelli

  4. Cathy Says:

    Thanks, Caroline…it was fun looking back over where the stories come from!

  5. Jane Q. Phoenix Says:

    Thanks, Cathy. I am putting a book together now and loved reading your advice. I especially liked what you wrote about the enlightenment that comes from pursuing a dream (and not having your dream be about fame and fortune). I feel that it’s the story that needs to be told, and simply the author’s job to tell it. Thanks again.

  6. Cathy Says:

    You’re most welcome, Jane! I wish you every success with your book and hope you’ll let me know when it gets published.

  7. best tips Says:

    Sites of interest we have a link to…

    usually posts some very interesting stuff like this. If you’re new to this site…

  8. Cathy Says:

    Thanks for spreading the word about my site!

  9. Andrea Says:

    Thanks…..I’ve been a writer since childhood, starting in poems. I keep almost everything I’ve ever written ( even email fights with boyfriends/husband) with the idea that those words and passion will be useful, someday. I remember anne of Green Gables being told to write what she knows…..and so I have this semi-autobio story coming, but then another story from fur trading Indians in Minnesota is flowing into the first. I hope it will be a generational saga…..

  10. Cathy Says:

    You’re on the right track…readers recognize authenticity, so writing about what you know best is the way to go. I really encourage you to keep at it, not to edit yourself until you absolutely must, and to just let the story flow freely at its own pace… I, too, was inspired by the Anne stories that were so sweet and so wise.

  11. Jamie Says:

    Cathy, Thank you so much for the blueprint. I can relate to your insight, advice and guidance on so many levels. I actually teared up. Maybe it’s Mercury Retrograde, who knows. At 52 years young and starting over, I’m thankful to have found your site. Feels like writing this book, anything is possible. Wishing you an avalanche of blessings and continued success!

  12. Cathy Says:

    Thank you for the wonderful wishes…Keep writing and you’ll find your story will unfold quite magically for you. I believe those of us who have great love of storytelling are given a special grace to bring the story to life for the rest of the world. May it be so for you!

  13. Cathy Says:

    So happy to have been of help. I wish you both joy and great blessings with your writing!

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