What I learned about writing from Scuffy the Tugboat

Written By: Janna - Nov• 13•14

Beginning my fifth writing project, I feel like I’ve finally found a rhythm. One of the best things I’ve done is pick up a copy of The 90 Day Novel by Alan Watt. While I don’t follow through the entire book and in fact finish a rough draft in 90 days (although I do see the wisdom in getting the first draft down quickly) what I really like about the book is the outlining process.

Which is really more than an outlining processes. It’s a way of letting your idea for a novel percolate, letting all kinds of wonderful characters, plot twists, and details bubble up to the surface.

One of the things that Watt stresses is the importance of locating the main character’s dilemma. Notice I said dilemma, not problem. “Problems are solved while dilemmas are resolved through a shift in perception.”

Fast forward to me, sitting in front of ten wiggly toddler, trying to get them to pay attention to Scuffy the Tugboat. For those of you who haven’t accessed your Golden Book collection recently, let me sum up.


Scuffy is a red and blue toy tugboat that feels he is languishing on the shelf at the toy store. To try and make him happy, the shop owner puts him in a tub of water. This is underwhelimg for Scuffy who wants to float down the river. So the shop owner’s little boy goes to play with him in a nearby creek, where he looses hold of Scuffy and does, indeed, float down the river. Most of the book is about the sights Scuffy passes as the river gets bigger and bigger, the cities and the river traffic he passes becomes overwhelming, until he reaches the mouth of the ocean and begins to float out to sea.

Riveting stuff, right?

At the last minute, there is the boy and the shop owner, snatching him from the river. They take Scuffy home where he is happy to float in the bathtub.

In case you missed it, Scuffy’s dilemma was he felt like he was meant for bigger things. Through growth as a character, we find resolution in the story when Scuffy realizes that the bathtub was what he was made for, and he finds happiness there (his shift in perception).

And strangely, I found the plot for my next book.

There might be a few more characters, twists and turns that don’t involve a river, but at the bare bones of it, they will be about the same thing. Feeling the need to flee the life you were destined for, born into–only to get what you want and realize it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and the place you really want to be is back home, doing what you were meant to do.

And really, when we think about it, aren’t all book, movies, comics, etc. really about the same human desires at the heart of them? Wanting to be accepted or loved. Wanting power, to be noticed, to make the world a better place as they see it. I think the real classics, the stories that stick with us, are notable in how they’re executed on these common themes.

Here’s to hoping.

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