As I mentioned in my last blog post, redefining my goals was a must as of late. I should have been hard at work on novel number two right now, while my second round of queries floated in the ether. But, due to some excellent revision suggestions, I’ll be focusing my time on edits for The Devil Inside Me.
If you’re in the same boat, I’ve rounded up a few articles, old and new, that provide advice on numerous levels of editing, including finding and using a developmental editor–something I’m currently deciding on. I hope that these provide you some help and direction as they have me. Let me know how your writing process is going!
Today is my one year blog-iversary! I feel like trumpets should be sounding, confetti should be flying, and someone should be pouring the champagne. Why? Because I hit my writing goals last year. Every last one of them, including starting and maintaining this blog.
How? Great question since I procrastinate. I fear failure. I loathe imperfection. I spent a few months prepping my website (hellooooo learning curve) and preparing a few blog posts in order to go live January 1, 2018. On that date in my planner, I wrote, “Do not be afraid!” I knew I would chicken out if I didn’t have that reminder. Taking my writing public and opening myself for critique and criticism was a huge challenge and risk for me. But here I am–still alive.
If this sounds like you, trust me when I say if I could do it, you can too. Here is the short version of the steps I took. If you’d like a free goal-setting worksheet, click here!
Give yourself some quiet time and space to think.
Maybe the local coffee shop has enough background noise for you to concentrate. Maybe you send the kids to grandma’s for a few hours so you have silence in your own home. Whatever your brand of thinking space, make room for it. You need to genuinely consider your dreams here, and that won’t come easily if you’re trying to multitask. I set aside an hour but found I needed only about 20 minutes to be honest with myself.
What are your wants and dreams?
Don’t be bashful–be honest. If you could have/do/be anything, what would it be? Write it all down. Silence that inner critic that tells you it’s impossible or stupid or too far out of reach. Then, take each dream and ask yourself how you could make it happen. What are the baby steps you’d have to take to start down that path? Write it all down and create a timeline for yourself.
Then, be honest with yourself. One of my dreams is to get a literary agent. I have zero control over that in some ways, but I can write and edit and edit some more. I can polish my work and give it to beta readers and re-work it some more. I can research the industry and find out how to write a kick-butt query letter. I can do more research and find out which agents would be the best match for me and for my writing.
One of my dreams is also to win the lottery, but there’s not much I can do short of buying tickets. Which I never do. Assess your dreams and look for the kind of difference between my two examples here.
Put your list of dreams and goals where you’ll see them.
I printed mine out and put it in my planner. I also had a copy on my phone. I didn’t want it displayed on a wall at home or on my desk at work. This was a private challenge for me.
Some people will tell you to share your goals with someone else to better hold yourself accountable. This is a great idea, but I would like to add something: Only share them with someone who is in your corner, who supports you no matter what, and who knows the inner workings of your brain. I told my husband that I was really going to go for writing a book, but that was it. My intrinsic fear of failure coupled with perfectionism means I often freeze up and procrastinate. The thought alone of sharing my goals with the world started a deep freeze. As I began ticking off my goals, I shared them with more and more trusted people. At the end of December, I shared my completed novel with three co-workers who are reading it over our Christmas break. If that had been a goal of mine a year ago, I guarantee you I would have frozen at the thought. So be judicious. It’s ok to keep them private as long as you are honest with yourself.
Check in with your goals. Update your progress. Adjust as needed.
Again, be honest with yourself. Don’t self-sabotage. Don’t make excuses. Decide that you’re going to do it. If something takes you longer than you anticipated, that’s ok. Adjust your timeline. It took me longer to write my first draft because I edited a lot as I went (and I researched probably more than I needed to). BUT, that made my life easier during the editing rounds.
I’m a procrastinator extraordinaire, and I often feel like I have to get everything done on my to-do list before I can sit down to write. (Otherwise, my mind will be distracted by the other things I have to do.) Now, I am not a competitive person by nature. I didn’t like team sports when I was a kid: I preferred ballet and piano lessons. But when it comes to writing and brain sports, well, that’s a different story.
The drive to “win” NaNoWriMo–writing 50,000 words in November–is strong for me. That’s my idea of competition. However, the last time I attempted it, I petered out about six days in. I just could not find a way to write that many words every. single. day.
I learned a few lessons that I applied to this attempt, and so far so good. Here they are:
1. For this month, prioritize your writing.
The laundry goes for a couple extra days.
The hubby is put on dishwashing duty.
I make crock pot meals.
I say “no” a lot when it comes to after-work things.
2. For the love of all that is holy in writing-land, have an outline.
But I’m a pantser, you say? No problem.
It doesn’t have to be a formal, rigid, locked-in outline your high school English teacher made you write.
Let it be fluid so that as your ideas come to you, you can follow them instead of an in-stone outline.
Just have your basic plot points. From there, jot down some of the scenes you’ll need. This has been my biggest help: knowing where I’m going next without having to think about it.
3. Join your regional NaNoWriMo group.
Mine has physical meet-ups to write as well as virtual ones.
Being with other people chasing the same dreams is AMAZING for your motivation and inspiration.
Seeing others struggle with the same writerly things you are helps you to know you are not alone.
4. It’s not going to perfect.
It’s a rough draft. Get your story out first. Then polish.
Resist the urge to edit too much. (I’m an English teacher. Trust me, I know how difficult that can be!) Your goal here is to get the story, your ideas, out of your head and into some semblance of a form.
5. Don’t be afraid to fail.
Life happens. Sick kids happen. Job changes happen. Just do what you can do. If you don’t write 50,000 words, you’ll at least have more words than if you didn’t try at all.
Failing can be the best teacher. My challenges with my last attempt drove me to do better this time by learning from my shortcomings. You can too!
Is your writing routine working for you? My recent experiment is proof that changing things up can work to your benefit. I made it through 100% of my edits! (That may not seem like much, but I’m doing some extensive re-writes in the hopes that I won’t have so many drafts.) I just had to be willing to forego the must-write-every-day mantra–which was HARD to do. It still is. But I’m buoyed by the work I’ve been able to get done. If you’re stuck in a rut, I’d like to share two blog posts that talk about letting go of our routines to make way for motivation.
My experiences at the Writing Workshop of Chicago (see posts here and here) were invaluable. Perhaps one of my favorites was having my first ten pages critiqued by Lori Rader-Day, author of The Black Hour, Little Pretty Things, The Day I Died, and Under a Dark Sky. It’s a struggle for creatives to share their work, but how will we ever get better (or published) if we don’t? I’ve had my first ten critiqued before and made so many changes as a result that I couldn’t even say they’re the same first ten pages. I consider this a good thing.
So what did Ms. Rader-Day, Anthony Award and Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee, have to say about my first ten? Here are a few snippets with her comments in bold.
A marvelous yet grotesque sight greeted them. This museum didn’t play: from three-story tornadoes to a full-size German u-boat, it was a place of learning and discovery for children and adults alike, and it was enormous–one of the biggest in the world. The DNA and the Devil in the White City display alone was 3700 square feet in an octagonal space. Intended to be a supplement to the genetics exhibit (famous for its chicken hatchery), ten foot tall DNA helices stood on either side of the exhibit’s entrance, but the first thing visitors saw was H.H. Holmes’ now-familiar face gazing out from the wall furthest from the entrance–a full two-stories tall, eyes leering with the effect of watching a patron no matter where they stood. Along the bright white walls were educational explanations and hands-on activities relating to the collecting and extracting of DNA, and what genetic markers were and how they helped identify bodies and clear suspects. One infographic proclaimed, “Your genome is an instruction manual for how you grow throughout life…You get half your DNA from your father, and half from your mother…Did H.H. Holmes pass on a serial killing genome?” A replica of Holmes’ concrete-encased double-grave was at the center of it all. (LORI: IS THIS A REAL EXHIBIT? THE QUESTIONS SEEM SO…CONTRIVED.)
Most of the police concentrated their attention along one of the side walls, titled “Identifying Murder Victims…and Their Murderers.” Davis nudged Adele and pointed at the signage.
“Fitting,” he said.
As they moved forward, a large, antique-looking steamer trunk at the foot of the display came into view, and in it was a body. At first glance, considering the macabre nature of the rest of the exhibit, it almost looked like it belonged–except it was freshly dead. Two police officers stood nearby, their profiles reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy.
“Hey, Chapman.” Davis nodded in the direction of Laurel, then Hardy. “Avery.” (LORI: NOT REALLY FITTING WITH THE TONE OF YOUR BOOK, IS IT? DESCRIBE THEM INSTEAD.)
“Better than this poor soul’s.” Davis craned his neck at the crime scene, as he pulled on latex gloves. Another infographic explained that DNA could have been collected from one of Holmes’ trunks to help identify both the victim and the killer if only the technology had been available–or if they still had one of the trunks because of trace DNA. (AWKWARD PHRASING. MAKES IT SEEM LIKE THE TRUNK WOULD STILL BE ON HAND BECAUSE OF TRACE DNA, NOT THAT THE TRACE DNA WOULD BE USEFUL WITH THE NEW TECH OR IF THEY STILL HAD ONE OF THE TRUNKS…)
“Any guesses on the time of death?”
“Not ’til the M.E. gets here, but we know there was no body in the trunk as of 6am this morning,” Avery pointed out.
“Oh?” Davis replied, walking around the trunk. “How do you know that?”
Avery tossed his head across the room. (LORI: READ THAT SENTENCE AGAIN. DOESN’T IT SOUND LIKE HE’S THROWING A HEAD ACROSS THE ROOM?)
“The brunette over there. Says she was the last one in here–at least before the body arrived. That guy–” Avery nodded in the opposite direction. “He checked in on things at 8am and 8:45am, but only to make sure the lights were on. He couldn’t say if there was a body there or not.”
Ms. Rader-Day also provided me with other comments, like how the transition from my opening scene to the museum scene was jarring because the opener feels historical and it seemed as if I were jumping time. But she also said this:
“I’ve marked a few moments where I was taken out of the story for some reason or another, but my silence during most of the pages is actually good news for you. I didn’t see a lot of amateur hour stuff that I would normally have to comment on—I was just reading a story, and getting lost in it.”
And there it is. Some pretty obvious mistakes which are slightly embarrassing (my students will love the head-tossing example), but some promising feedback that is a perfect example of why sharing is necessary to move forward: we need to see the good, the bad, and the ugly, and for creative types, we really need to be reminded to see the good. If you have an opportunity to take in a writing conference, do it. You won’t regret it!
It’s not too late! There are still open spots for you to sign up and attend the Chicago Writing Workshop that’s happening on Saturday, June 23. If you’re looking for a conference that won’t break the bank (especially if you’re near Chi-town and don’t need a hotel), check this one out. Likewise, if the thought of spending two or more days with a bunch of strangers is terrifying, this is a one-day 9-5 workshop. You can do lunch all by yourself if you so desire.
Bonus: It’s held at the architecturally beautiful Congress Plaza hotel, which also happens to feature prominently (read: murder scene!) in my novel, The Devil Inside Me.
Registration is just $169. I thought that a fair price for what’s offered. Literary agents, editors, and authors deliver most of the workshop sessions. And for each of the five breakout blocks, there are three sessions to choose from. Some are applicable to everyone, such as “Pursuing a Small Press Publisher,” and some are geared to specific genres: “How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal,” “How to Write and Pitch Awesome Science Fiction and Fantasy,” “How to Get Your Young Adult and Middle Grade Novels Published,” “Tell Me True: Tips on Writing Memoir and Essay.”
I’m particularly looking forward to the “Query Letter Comprehensive” session since that is the next step on my list after these edits that seemingly never end.
For reasonable add-on fees, you can also pitch agents and editors of all genres ($29 per). Several are sold out of time slots, but to give you an idea of the caliber we’re talking about, here’s just a few on the list: Emily Clark Victorson, Marcy Posner, Tracy Brennan, Abby Saul…
Sound like a decent deal? I thought so. I’ll let you know how it went afterward–and if you’re attending, I’d love to meet!
Last week I encouraged writers to submit their writing, but this week I’m going to tell you the opposite: sometimes you just need a break. When I first began learning about this industry, a recommendation was to write daily. Then I signed up for NaNoWriMo (insert link), and I struggled with burnout at that word count level. I do try to write daily, but sometimes life gets in the way. Writing is a priority to me, but not over my family, teaching job, and extracurricular responsibilities for the day job (I’m writing this on the way home from a student council conference, for example).
There is no crime in taking a break, and no need to feel guilty–as long as you get back on that horse. Sometimes a break can provide clarity for where you want to take a scene or a character. If you’re at the editing stage, take a break to ensure you have fresh eyes for that manuscript. Even writers who write for a living need to take a break occasionally, as Kristen Kieffer points out on her (massively helpful for writers) website, Well-Storied: I had fallen out of love with my writingShe then shares her “epic mission” to fall back in love with it–definitely worth a read for any writer! Kristen, who also hosts Your Write Dream on Facebook and #StorySocial on Twitter, wrote one of the best articles I read when I started on my journey, “10 Ways to Practice Self-Care as a Writer, that suggests taking breaks as needed. Head on over to her Well-Storied website and check out her resources!
It’s April, and that can only mean one thing: Camp NaNoWriMo! National Novel Writing Month is technically November, when crazy ambitious writers all around the world strive to “win” NaNoWriMo by writing 50,000 words in that one month. April’s Camp NaNoWriMo is similar, but each writer sets an individual goal. Some may stick with 50,000 words; some may be trying for writing ten minutes a day. The camaraderie is beyond inspirational!
One of the quintessential questions of NaNoWriMo is this: Are you a plotter or a pantser–or the combination of plantser? When I did NaNoWriMo the first time, I was a *pantser: a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer.
In my defense, I had already started that novel prior to NaNoWriMo. I knew where it began, I thought I knew where it was going, and I had a rough idea of how it would get there, so writing out a plot line seemed overkill. I mean, it was all in my brain. And writing is a creative endeavor, not one to plot out, right?
Sort of. Depends. Kinda.
The problem: I hadn’t thought through how some of my plot points would connect (or not). I had a couple of endings in mind, but they seemed impossible to get to, even once I was 50,000+ words in. I didn’t give up right away. I went back and re-worked scenes, moved scenes around (shout out to Novelize), edited, edited, edited. I just couldn’t get it right. So I shelved it. (You can read more about that here.) I do think it’s salvageable, but I think it will need to sit for awhile–and likely, I’ll start pretty much all over. Except this time I’ll plot before I start. This was a lesson I took with me into my current WIP.
I was about 4,000 words in The Devil Inside Me before I did any major plot sketching. I had my idea–then the idea for making it a trilogy–but thanks to my previous experience, I wanted to know where I was going with it before I was 50,000 words in.
I did some research and came across the “snowflake” method for planning. I loved the idea of taking a one sentence summary of my story and expanding from there. I came up with my suspects and how they’d fit. I decided upon the locations of the murders–and the order in which they’d occur. I gave my poor protagonist a fatal flaw from hell. And I determined which Chicagoans were going to bite the proverbial bullet.
Magically, plot holes appeared. Shouldn’t I have this murder occur at that location? Shouldn’t I have this person die instead of that one? This non-linear method worked so well for me that before long, I was ready for the linear. I created a spreadsheet of scenes. More plot holes. I could see where the story became protagonist-heavy and antagonist-heavy, where I’d need to do some more research. Other obvious issues made themselves known, including my favorite: person A could not have been 18 during a crime committed ten years ago if they are only 21 today. (Did I mention I teach English and not math?)
Knowing these gaps in the beginning made writing that much easier. I still don’t want to try to control every detail because not doing so will allow some spontaneity and creativity to live in the process. Has it been perfect? Not on your life. But has it given me direction and the freedom to sit down and pound out some good word counts? You bet, especially when you’re working full-time and trying to cram in 2000 words a day. If you’ve tried plotting and failed miserably, give the snowflake method a try. There is no one-size-fits-all writing handbook, after all.
Writers, who has NaNoWriMo’d? Did you love it? Hate it? Win? Fail miserably? Are you a plotter, pantser, or plantser? Share your strategies!
Readers, what are some stories you’ve read that have an impeccable plot that seems perfectly planned? Writers would love to read your well-loved examples!
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*Confession: Not having a plan is completely and utterly counterintuitive to who I am as a person, but for some reason, writing does not fit into that order for me. As a teacher, my lesson plan units for every class are all tabbed, labeled, divided, and in the same size, color, and brand of binders. My clothes hang in rainbow (and sleeve-length) order in my closet. I once had a co-worker move everything on my desk to see if I could work without changing everything back first. I couldn’t. I’m that person.
Somewhere in this world is a perfect study. Rich mahogany bookshelves stretch from wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling, replete with a little rolling ladder to reach tomes on the uppermost shelves. An enormous window looks out onto a slightly overcast and rainy day, which we all know fosters the feeling of needing to read and write. An oversized chair upholstered in a chocolate-y brown velvet invites a reader to curl up in it, to enjoy the massive fireplace that’s roaring, taking the chill out of the rainy day. The piece-de-resistance of this study is the massive desk that is in the center of the room, its surface large enough to stretch out and take a nap on. The surface is devoid of anything, save maybe a cup of InkJoy and Frixion pens in every possible color. If you’re envisioning a combination of the mansion in Clue and the Gryffindor common room in Harry Potter, you’re in my head. Let’s face it, this is exactly where I picture JK Rowling sitting down to write another world in which she can send me.
I don’t have that study. Send me pictures if you do.
I must admit that there is part of me that thinks if only I had that kind of environment in which to write, surely the words would flow like honey. However, for most of us, our reality of where we write may be nothing more than where we get an opportunity to write.
I typically write at home, but I long to have a local writers’ group. Alas, country life has its cons, and this is one of them. I long to go to workshops and retreats, which are inevitably in “the” city of some sort (for me that would be Chicago–2-3 hours away, depending upon where you’re heading). I, like Chaucer’s tale-tellers, long to go on a pilgrimage, except my pilgrimage would be to the Story Studio in Chicago for write-ins, where the entire vibe is centered around writing and writers and stories and absolutely nothing else.
So, on those days when I start feeling like I haven’t had a good, solid chunk of writing time and I just need one, I plan my own writing retreat. Yes, I’m flying solo, but providing myself dedicated time and space to do nothing but writing has a way of reviving my spirit and my zest for the current WIP. The characters come back to life as I reconnect to the story–a win-win for everyone (except whoever may be the next fictional murder victim).
How do you plan a writing retreat for one? There are a few options, but first, determine your circumstance:
ALL OTHER COHABITANTS HAVE LEFT THE BUILDING–also known as “what every parent dreams of.” In this option, your partner/spouse and all children have vacated the premises and left you alone. Be it for two hours or two days, allow that laundry to sit there, let those dishes stay in the sink. Give yourself that time–and permission–for just you and your creative side. Set up a writing station–the couch, the dining table, the bed. Be sure you have drinks and snacks of your choice on hand.
Recently, I felt a hankering to go to Panera, but it was C-O-L-D. My husband was gone all day working, so I had the house to myself. I may not have a big slab of mahogany, but I do have a farm table in my dining room with a beautiful view of the countryside. I lit a few candles, sliced myself a piece of banana nut bread, made some Earl Grey (I had to at least simulate Panera), and settled in to write. It was the most productive I’d been in days, and I’d like to think that the change of scenery of a different room did that for me.
2. YOU CAN LEAVE THE BUILDING. Escape! It’s underrated, really. Panera and our local library are two of my favorite places to write because I can avoid seeing what needs to be done at home. Explore your town or city. Is there a nice quiet nook in the public library? Are you a Starbucks fiend? Bonus in some places: free wi-fi.
3. YOU CAN LEAVE THE BUILDING FOR A GLORIOUS WEEKEND. Ah, this is my dream. Financially, it’s not always feasible, but thanks to Groupon and a great downtown-hotel deal, I’m planning a Chicago-escape weekend for myself. A change of pace, a new vista–both of these can help shake up the writer inside of you. Bonus: Take a train if you can. Great for people-watching, a train provides not only character-fodder and often free wi-fi, but also uninterrupted writing time.
Writers, what are some of your favorite places to write? Share with us–we are all looking for ideas!
Readers, I’ve rambled on about the best places to write, but writers and readers are often one in the same. What are your favorite places to read?
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Editing. The bane of some writers’ existence. This week I’ve been editing my most recent chapter in The Devil Inside Me, and I’ve been having a hard time following my own advice. In some ways I enjoy editing because it means I get to tighten everything up from character descriptions to plot lines. But what I hate about it, I truly hate: the disappearance of words from my beautiful word counter on the screen.
Logically, I know that is nonsensical. If I’m to tighten up my text, words will have to go. That doesn’t mean that I enjoy the feeling of work escaping into the ether. It’s been especially hard the last two weeks for me to go into editor mode from the must-get-butt-in-seat-and-words-on-page mindset that I mentioned in my post, “Finding Time to Write (and Read!)”.