This is my first official year joining the throngs of crazies who attempt to write 50,000 words in November. Are you one of us?
First, some history...
Despite its Viking Helmet which suggests the phenomena began in Sweden or Denmark, NaNoWriMo started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999. The lyrical title stands for National Novel Writing Month. The fist one took place in July begun by founder Chris Baty. Starting in 2000, the event moved to the chilly hibernating month of November.
Now there's a whole team of people who run the website and support coffee-guzzling authors.
Writers are challenged to pump out 50,000 words in thirty days. That's about 1,667 words per day. There's even a challenge for young writers.
Yesterday, November 1, I managed 2100 words. That was a Sunday with that extra hour of sleep, no work, and no kids running around asking for anything.
We'll see what I manage during the work week.
Join in the maniacal fun, and be my buddy! Cheer me on, and let me cheer you on.
I look forward to connecting with you at NaNoWriMo. If you need help getting started, drop me a note below.
Every so often, I write this post. Why? I am constantly discovering great new books and sites that support, motivate, and improve my writing.
I want to share them with you.
Here are four of my current favorites:
1. The best punctuation book, period by June Casagrande. Every writer needs a great little book at their side where they can double check where to place a comma, capitalize a noun, understand how to use hyphens and en dashes. My copy editor recommended this book to me, and I am in love with it. It's easy to use, is written simply, and is less than 250 pages.
2. Writers Helping Writers with Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. These ladies are fabulous, and their website is filled with amazing resources for your writing. Soon, they will merge into a new site with incredible support for using Scrivener along with their books on Negative and Positive Traits. I've written previously about how I use these books.
3. The Enneagram Test. If you are building characters, this is a great place to help understand and craft their personalities. You might first take the online test to explore your own personality. Then try it as your protagonist and antagonist. The test takes less than three minutes. The results point you toward any of nine specific personality types (similar to Jung). It's a quick, fun, and scientific way to hone in on your characters' true selves. (Couple the results with Writers Helping Writers, and you have a fully developed character.)
4. Goodreads. A great writer is constantly reading other great writing. We learn from each other. If you want to write authentic and appealing middle grade fantasy, you need to read some. Read those getting good reviews and those getting panned. It's important to see what works and what doesn't. Goodreads publishes numerous lists where you can sift through books of all genres and authors. This is my go-to for locating the best (and worst) books because reviews are written by real readers.
What are your current favorite writing resources?
Share them in the comments below.
This past week, I've been taking a fine tooth comb to my current manuscript, sorting through the fodder to uncover the gold. It is a tedious task.
It reminds me of something author Shannon Hale said: Working on a first draft is like "shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build sandcastles."
I believe at the end of this process, I will need a stronger eyeglass prescription. However, my pain is your gain. Each go through of the manuscript brings me closer to the story I want. I hope these tips are useful.
Here are five important items on my editing checklist.
1. Three or more read-throughs to flesh out the story. You don't really know your story until you get to the end. Sometimes the REAL story doesn't show for several read-throughs. The plot is not the story. Listen to Martin Scorsese explain this.
2. Pluck out filter words (see, watch, look, seem, like, feel, just, that, so, then, etc.). I go through my manuscript once for each of these. I might seek out more than a dozen filter words. Utilize your software's find/replace. (I keep a list of filter words on Scrivener's Scratch Pad.)
3. Review each character for consistency in tone, physical features, word choice, background, and history. That's a read-through for each. This might be another ten or twelve reads of the story, depending on the number of characters. Each time I read with that character in mind, I consider her arc and backstory; I view her as the hero of her own story. This will strengthen the entire novel.
4. Observe the settings for consistency in descriptions, distance irregularities, and vivid portrayals. Consider Hemingway and Steinbeck. Their settings become characters in their stories.
5. Review use of language. Look for: overuse of idioms, use of clichés (yikes!), inappropriate synonyms, repeated words, useless words. (This might take three times, but this is the heart of your writing. If you can master use of language in your manuscripts, you will write prose that flows like silk.)
One more: Read your story as someone else. First, you'll need to put your manuscript away for a week or two (more if you can bear it). Next, consider your readers; who are they? what do they look like? Embody that reader, and enjoy your story for the first time. The best way to do this is by downloading a word document and emailing it to your Kindle App. Reading your story on an eReader highlights things you might never notice on your laptop or desktop. (Beta readers and critique partners are great here, too.)
If you've been counting, you'll see I read through my manuscript up to thirty or more times. I never get bored. If I do, I need to go back and fix that.
I would love to hear what you have on your editing checklist. Please share below.
First, some exciting news: I had a full request from a lovely agent! Very exciting, and a long time coming. If you want to read the opening to ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY, I'd love your feedback, too!
While I avoid stalking my inbox, I'm catching up on some great books. There are so many super YA novels out and a few I missed. For your interest, I've started a review page. Check it out! Share your opinions, too, please :)
Besides juicy stories, I've been re-reading some writing books that have me thinking about my habits. I wonder which of these are important to you and which one's I'm missing.
Here's my to do list top ten (in Late Night order) if I were starting out today:
10. Join Twitter. Set up an account that is public where you focus almost solely on writing topics. You can get personal, but consider it an extension of your workspace.
9. Participate in Twitter. That means, find chats, socialize with others in the industry. Don't stalk agents, but do follow them, so you can learn.
8. Join a professional group. You will connect with others in your genre, learn about workshops, and create lasting friendships. Try these: romance writers; children or young adult writers; sci-fi and fantasy writers; steampunk; mystery.
7. Write. We can't travel too far down this list without mentioning craft. It's so important to establish a routine. Whether it means writing for thirty minutes everyday on your lunch break or getting up an hour early while the house is quiet, you must write. Every. Day. Try these tips.
6. Read. Read like you write like you breathe. Read what you live, but most definitely read what you write. If you write picture books, read the best and worst of them, so you know what little readers like. And don't just read for fun, read with purpose. When I started studying other YA like they were textbooks, I learned so much about my audience. Join me on Goodreads where you can find lists of great books and insightful reviews.
5. Study. These books are not novels. These are books on craft. There are so many out there. I recommend three to start with: On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Read about them on Goodreads; start with one.
4. Find your voice. Anyone can write a story. No one can write it like you. What makes you stand out as a writer is voice. How do you find yours? Go back to #7 and #5. Write and study writing. You will find your voice. Listen to author Cory Putman Oakes.
3. Find your story. Anyone can write a story. No one can write yours. You've heard the adage--write what you know. Well, what do you know? Losing someone? Laughing until you pee your pants? Moving three times before puberty? Feeling incredible unrequited love? Listen to the master, Neil Gaiman, on this.
2. Support and connect with other writers. Join a writing group; find critique partners; nurture those relationships. We can learn so much from each other.
1. Shameless plug: sign up for my free newsletter (up there on your right) and never miss another great writing tip!
What's on your writer's to do list? I'd love to know. Please share below and continue the conversation.
My apologies for being a day late with this week's blog of writing tips. We returned yesterday from a beautiful stay in New York. A week of family fun, the laptop tucked safely away. Today, back on the West Coast, I'm wide awake at 6AM and ready to write!
While scrolling through emails, ads, junkmail and trolling favorite Twitter accounts, I discovered something I'd forgotten about - the Scrivener Scratch Pad. If you use the writing app, you may or may not know all about this awesome feature. If you don't have Scrivener yet, but you're considering it, this may help you make that decision.
As you know, I'm a huge Scrivener fan. The app has organized my writing life, leaving me more time and energy to create.
What you need to know about the Scrivener Scratch Pad (on a Mac):
1. The pad is a great place to make lists of websites or links to articles and research that will help you with your story. Keeping the pad open means you can easily add a link or idea even when you aren't working on your project. You can keep the pad open at all times - no matter if you are working on Scrivener or not. Simply right click the Scriv icon on your dock.
2. You must open your projects then hide them so they can be available for the Scratch Pad feature.
3. The Scratch Pad will float in front of all other open windows. This enables you to type notes on the pad while viewing those sites in the background.
4. You can add multiple notes in the pad. Simply click the + sign to add a new note. If you are working on several projects, you can choose which one this note belongs to. Click SEND TO, and a variety of pathways will lead you to the location you want to drop in your note.
5. Click the x or OK to HIDE your pad when you're done. When you return to your project, you can open Scratch Pad in Window. This opens all your notes on the pad, so you can easily see what you've added. No need to remember, Scriv does that for you!
Scrivener won't write your story, but its organizational and time-saving features will enable you to devote your creative energies to what you do best.
What are your favorite Scrivener features? Share them in the comments below.
If you are a new or seasoned writer who seeks honest and constructive feedback, you might consider finding a critique partner. This writer will help you with your finished or developing manuscript. If you were ever to win an award for your story, this is one of the people you would thank.
Previously, you've heard me rave about my editor, Jane MacKay. While Jane provides constructive and detailed feedback on manuscripts and queries, I do pay her because she's a professional. And, even though I use critique partners and beta readers, I still hire Jane after they are through.
First of all, you need to know this: a critique partner is not a beta reader.
Beta Reader: someone who loves to read and can provide you with valuable feedback about your characters' authenticity, your plot's plausibility, your setting's inconsistencies, etc.
Critique Partner: a writer who wants to trade manuscripts for feedback on grammatical technicalities, style, flow, and all the beta reader stuff.
Mom: the person who loves you no matter how crappy your writing is or how many times you drop an Oxford comma.
Ryan Gosling: the guy who motivates you (or is it just me?) to get it done.
If you read between the lines, you might notice that you qualify as a critique partner for most other writers and maybe a beta reader for someone outside your genre. For instance, I write YA, but I love a good mystery. I'd be a good beta reader for mystery writers (but please don't send me a ms to read or my critique partners will hunt you down. Time is valuable.)
Currently, I'm partnering with several writers. I recently started working with aspiring YA author Brook Ellis. We met through Miss Snark's Critique Partner Dating Service (love that name!). Since three-thousand miles separates us, Brook and I exchange manuscripts via Google Docs and email. So far, it works. I'm also part of a local writer's group who met at a SCBWI event. Adult fiction writer Gwynne Jackson, picture writer and illustrator Evangeline, and I also exchange work via Google Docs. In addition, because we live within a five-mile radius, we meet monthly at someone's house.
I feel extremely fortunate to have these amazing writers in my life. Previously, I was unsure about working with a critique partner. I was embarrassed my work might not measure up; I was afraid I wouldn't have the time. Wrong. Wrong. Love, love them. When you want to, you can accomplish quite a lot.
So here are my top five reasons why you need a critique partner (CP).
A critique partner will:
1. Provide honest feedback. You are not paying them. They are not your mom. If something isn't working, or if something's truly amazing, they will let you know.
2. Have the skill to help you. Since your CPs are writers, they will not only be able to tell you where something's gone awry, they will be able to offer some pretty great suggestions on how to fix it.
3. Help you grow as a writer. Over the course of time, your CPs will become great teachers. Once they've learned your writing style, they will recognize your weaknesses and help you accentuate your strengths.
4. Not waste your time. They want what you want: good, constructive, honest feedback. If they can't provide this, they understand you might find a new partner. If you're good and helpful (because you're doing 1-3), they will make your time worth it.
5. Make you laugh. Make you cry. Mostly because of No. 1, your CP will sometimes tell you things about your writing that will make you feel so good, you'll laugh. However, every rose has its thorns. Because of No.1, your CP will also tell you some brutally honest facts about where your writing or story is falling down. The hope is that, because of No. 2, you will understand that the crying will help with No. 3.
If your relationship with your CPs look different, maybe it's not working. Remember, it's a partnership. As in any relationship, know when to get out and know when you're not doing your part.
I would love to hear your thoughts on finding and working with critique partners. Please share them in the comments below.
I'm always open to finding more CPs in order to create the best stories.
When I was younger, people told me that I should be a writer because I was a good speller. Today, I laugh at that. I know so many amazing storytellers who can't spell to save their lives. And you know what? We've got spellcheck. You don't need to be a great speller to write a great story.
The same could be said about grammar. Don't know an Oxford comma from a comma splice? That shouldn't keep you from writing the next Great American Novel.
For more thoughts on grammar, read the sage advice of my amazing editor, Jane MacKay.
Grammar Tips by Jane MacKay
People seem to use the word “grammar” very loosely, as a sort of all-encompassing term covering anything to do with language and how it’s used, but grammar refers specifically to “the system of inflections, syntax, and word formation of a language [and] the system of rules implicit in a language, viewed as a mechanism for generating all sentences possible in that language” (American Heritage Dictionary, 5th ed.). In basic terms, the rules and guidelines of grammar govern how words and punctuation are used in relation to each other to convey a desired meaning. Of course, that’s still a very broad category.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned in my years of copy editing is that few of the rules of grammar are hard-and-fast rules. There are some that must be followed or you risk looking uneducated or, worse, causing misunderstanding -- e.g., “you’re” means “you are” and “your” means “belonging to you” – but many others are open to interpretation, such as comma placement, hyphen usage, splitting an infinitive (e.g., “to go boldly” vs. “to boldly go”), or that persistent Thistlebottomism, ending a sentence with a preposition (up with which I will put).
How to improve your understanding and knowledge of grammar?
Honestly, some people’s brains just don’t work that way and no matter how hard they try, the rules of grammar just aren’t going to stick in their head. And that’s fine. Use your creative talent to create and do your best during the revision and editing phases to make your writing as clean as possible. Then ask a grammar-adept friend, fellow writer, family member to correct errors they find, and then, if possible, hire a copy editor to polish and put the professional touch on your manuscript.
A few tips for becoming more grammar adept:
1. Pay close attention to the corrections made by your editor, and ask for explanation if you don’t understand why a certain change was made. If the editor makes a particular type of correction over and over again, make a note of that error (with before and after examples) and keep it where you can easily refer to it so you don’t keep making the same mistake.
2. Read high-quality and well-edited writing. Pay close attention when reading. Osmosis is an underrated method for improving the quality of your writing. It obviously works negatively – we all absorb poor habits of speech and writing from what we encounter every day – but it can also be a powerful positive influence.
3. Study grammatical rules and guidelines in bite-sized pieces. Don’t overwhelm yourself. The Purdue OWL (online writing lab) website has a well-organized section of explanations and examples. Search around and find a resource that works for you. (Hint: a reference librarian can point you in the right direction.)
4. Know your weaknesses. Triple check those things when you’re revising and editing your work. Use reference books, reputable online reference materials, ask a reference librarian for help.
5. Study a foreign language. I gained most of my formal knowledge of grammar from studying German for nine years.
Thanks, Jane! You can contact Jane directly, visit her website, or find her on Facebook to learn more about the world of an editor.
More grammar tips soon.
In the meantime, if you have a comment or question for Jane, share it below.
Two weeks back, we spent time listening to editor Jane MacKay share her insights on why writers need a good editor. (Full disclosure: Jane is my editor and she is amazing!) Jane has worked as an editor since 2007. She takes on independent clients as well as offers her services to a small press she co-founded, Medusa's Muse.
Today, Jane and I discuss spelling. Fasten your seat belts, this will not be pretty.
Okay, Jane, let's talk spelling. You come from the other side of the world from me. I’m a California girl, and I believe you were born in New Zealand. Could you list some of the most common words you see misspelled in manuscripts or documents that land in your inbox?
You are correct. I grew up in New Zealand and have lived in the U.S. since my early 20s, so I’ve now spent about half my life in each country. New Zealand follows British spelling (e.g., colour, dialogue), so I’ve had to become ambidextrous in that regard, although I edit mostly texts by U.S. authors. I don’t know that I’ve noticed any particularly common spelling mistakes, beyond the ones that are constantly being pointed out in memes: your vs. you’re, its vs. it’s, etc. Those are more accurately called grammatical rather than spelling errors. I think the red wiggly line of spellcheck helps writers correct most of their spelling errors before the MS comes to me.
Yes, I love my spellcheck! So maybe there are particular kinds of words that trip up the average writer.
One thing to watch out for is homonyms – words that sound the same but are spelled differently, e.g., to, too, two. One common error that I do see a lot is confusion between breath and breathe, loath and loathe, and other similar pairs of words where the final “e” affects the sound and the meaning. In most of these cases (I haven’t looked to see if this is a pattern without exceptions), the word with the final “e” is the verb. The “e” also creates the hard “th” sound at the end. Thus:
breath (“breth”) = noun: a breath
breathe (“breeth”) = verb: to breathe
One way to remember this is that you need the extra “e” for energy for action! Verbs are action words.
Yes, I know one you have tried to help me with is bear v. bare. My answer was to not use it!
If you have your own questions for Jane or would like to know more about her services, check out her website.
Jane will return soon with more tips on grammar and great online resources. If you have a question now, leave it the comments below.
If you are like most writers, you read everything about writing that falls into your field of vision. Perhaps not everything you read makes sense. Or is that just me? When I first started out, I trolled the net for blogs and columns and articles and theses about what makes a good story. I quickly schooled myself in elements of the modern novel - something I didn't learn from my few college level creative writing classes.
Everything made sense. Focus on plot or character. Paint a vivid world. Speak like normal people speak (whatever that is). Write what you know - sibling rivalry, demonic perfectionistic zombies, love, broken hearts, etc.
Everything made sense except for one thing. The character arc. The character arc meeting another character's arc. Matching or paralleling or crossing your character's arc to or with your plot's rise, fall and resolution.
During my studies, I've narrowed character arcs into three categories. Let's take a look at them.
1. Transformative Journey. Called many things, namely The Hero's Journey, this character arc sees your MC move from a bit of a mess at the start to pretty much on her feet at the end. Think of Julia Robert's character in "Pretty Woman". At the start, she's selling herself on the street, lacking social graces, living in a rundown apartment. At the end, she's cleaned up, thinking of moving out and changing her profession (of course, handsome Richard Gere "saves" her - that was too obvious), but more importantly she's transformed from street girl to sophisticate. In this arc, your character needs to learn something about herself or the world that rocks her so much, she's forced to embody a whole new persona by story's end. This is more of a straight up arrow - the arc is in the middle where your character must examine her flaws that keep her from moving forward in life. (Of course, one can argue that it's Gere's character that truly transforms from self-important loveless power chaser to empathetic love chaser.)
2. Imperfect or Flawed Journey. When I read Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize winning "The Goldfinch", I kept thinking that Theo, the MC, wasn't so much on that traditional Hero's Journey. He had many bumps on his road to redemption. In fact, he travelled much further down in his person than up. His was an imperfect journey. Your character can learn much more about himself if he's forced to confront deeper issues in his life (envy, hatred, self-hate).
3. Spiral to Darkness. Sometimes, you read a story and think, "Wow, I really don't like this character. He's more of a jerk now than at the start." Hopefully (usually) that was the author's intention. Think of Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl". We don't much have anyone to root for when the story shifts in the middle. By the end, we feel cheated out of that arc. Who transformed? Who's learned the most about themselves and used it for the better good of the world? Uh, no one? This is a difficult arc to pull off because you want the reader to feel something has changed, that perhaps the world has shifted for them. In "Gone Girl", most readers come away thinking "you can't trust anyone" or "some people are nuts" or "be careful who you get into a relationship with". What happened was they went on a somewhat inverted arc journey - essentially, they transformed into more negative shadows of themselves. However you see it, taking a character deeper into their own darkness can be an amazing story.
Where is your current protagonist headed in your work in progress? Is it a transformative arc, imperfect or a spiral into darkness? Share your thoughts below.
This isn't new advice. You've heard it before, but did you listen?
The first story I wrote in college was about a sculptor who created a bust of her blind brother so he could feel his face like she did.
I'm not a sculptor. I don't have a blind brother. My professor guessed as much. He said the story lacked luster; it was missing authenticity.
He was right.
It's not that I can't write a story with a blind character, but the heart of the story needs to be mine.
My first YA, "This Girl Climbs Trees", was described by Publisher's Weekly as a "semi-autobiographical narrative with literary leanings". Well, maybe. When I think about my college prof's comments. Yes. The nuggets aren't really my life, but the essence, the themes are. Growing up, I questioned everything - life, death, boys, myself. (PW also said it wouldn't hold readers' attentions. My readers say they are wrong.)
My second novel, "Birds on a Wire", follows three teen boys and their struggles with their own identities. One comes out, one loses his temper, the other struggles with love and friendship. Not quite tales from my adolescence, but the underlying themes - yes. In high school, I worked hard balancing friendships and boys; I sought to understand the value of my family v. my friends.
I am writing what I live. Don't expect the plots are me; do expect the central messages are.
My third YA, "Clothed in Flames" (currently in the loving hands of editor Jane MacKay), drops us into the crowded mind of a girl who hears voices and thinks a fictional character can help her find the dad she's never met. (Not my story - not even close. Well, okay, all writers hear voices, yes?) However, the message about love, family, believing in yourself - that's me. That's what I live.
So, yes, Professor Boyle, you were correct. Yes, Neil Gaiman, you, too, are spot on! We must write what we live. Where we live is in our hearts.
What's important to you? Make a list. Write one of those stories. The plot is the vehicle that carries your message. Write what you live.
Share your thoughts here.