Eight Keys to Conducting Good Interviews

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Among the many skills writers and creatives must master, interviewing might be one of the toughest, especially if you’re an introvert. Most of us aren’t born interviewers; we have to develop those skills over time.

Most of us can learn a thing or two by watching the late Barbara Walters’ interviews, how she maintains focus on her subject at all times as if that person is the only one in the room. She speaks to them as if holding a simple conversation. Really when you think about it, that’s what an interview is – a simple conversation between people. What’s so scary about that?

Of course, the interviewer – you – holds the key to making the interview productive and successful. Success, however, is only as you define it. A successful interview might be snagging that elusive source you’ve been chasing for several weeks. It could be gleaning an important detail you didn’t expect to get, or it could be getting a normally reticent person to open up about themselves.

Interviewing is just one aspect of writing that most novice writers don’t think about. Interviews are often needed for getting background information on a topic for a work of fiction, non-fiction, magazine feature or other written work. For example, if your story takes place in a bank but you’ve never worked in a bank yourself, you might interview one or two people who do to get a sense of what their day is like, their process for handling money or for dealing with customers, or worse, how they would deal with a bank robbery.

Interviews can cover a variety of topics such workplace issues, health and wellness, auto mechanics and baking. In my magazine writing, I’ve interviewed experts about the housing market, how to create webinars, blockchain technology ADA compliance.

Don’t overlook interviews for memoir either. Sometimes you need to find historical information to build context into your memoir or a biography set in another time and place.

From my experience writing for trade association publications, I’ve learned how to be more comfortable about asking people for their perspective on certain topics. People LOVE to talk about themselves, especially the work they do or a hobby or side interest they enjoy. Tap into those topics, and you’re usually home free. Even the most reticent person will open up about what interest them.

To maximize your success, here are my keys to conducting good interviews:

  1. Be prepared. Research the topic to develop a cursory knowledge and can ask semi-intelligent questions. Read published articles about the topic or contact subject matter experts. If possible, research the individual you’re interviewing too. Use LinkedIn to get their background and education. You may even find that you have something in common with them, such as graduating from the same university.

  2. Set a goal for the interview. Think of one or two pieces of information that you need to know that only that person can provide.

  3. Focus on the person you’re interviewing. Don’t use the time to talk about yourself. Be personable without getting too personal. Allow the person to speak without interrupting them with your own story.

  4. Get the basics first, such as the spelling of their name, their company and occupation. Brief them on the interviewing process and what will happen once the interview is complete. Notify them when the article will be published. You might make comments about the weather or their local sports team to help them relax and build rapport.  

  5. Go slow. Start with easier questions. Softer, open-ended questions are more likely to put them at ease. Avoid closed questions with simple yes or no responses which might make them feel like they’re being interrogated.

  6. Be polite and considerate, but don’t fawn over them. Remember they have other obligations and their time might be limited, so don’t waste time. Be sure to thank them at the end for their time.

  7. Conclude the session by asking if they have any final thoughts. I like to ask the question, “Is there anything else readers should know about this topic that I have not asked about?” Most of the time, they may not have anything else to add. More often, they reiterate a point they made earlier. Occasionally, you will get a true nugget of information that adds depth to their commentary.

  8. Follow up. Send a thank you for their time and perspective. Ask for additional questions if needed. Also ask for additional resources they might know of about the topic or other people you can interview. Explain the process moving forward and whether they’ll have a chance to review their sections of it before it gets published. That’s a detail you’ll have to work out with your editor. Depending on the publication and deadline, some editors require source reviews while others may not. 

    Interviews can be fun to do – if you’re prepared and you know what you want to accomplish. Once you’ve done a few, you’ll have one more skill in the writers’ arsenal.

Tips for Finding an Editor for Your Manuscript

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Whether you’re just starting to write a novel or you’re on your fifth revision, at some point you’ll wonder if you need another pair of eyes to review your work. Perhaps you are stuck with a dead-end plot or you’ve been rejected by numerous editors or agents who weren’t impressed with your manuscript.

Maybe you’re on your tenth attempt at rewriting your current work-in-progress, and the story still isn’t quite coming together the way you imagined. Then it may be time call in an editorial expert to review your work. Having someone else review it and give you feedback might give you insights about where the story has gone astray.

According to writer and editor Susan De Freitas during an online workshop “Maybe It’s Not Your Plot,” there are eight telltale signs that it may be time to consult with a professional editor.

  1. Your novel is overwritten. You’ve written way more words that are required for your genre. For example, you’ve written 140,000 words for a story that should only be 80,000. As much as you love your own story, it’s filled with too many unnecessary scenes that don’t push the plot forward.
  2. Too many drafts or versions of the same story. Most novels typically go through an average of five to seven drafts, but you’re working on the tenth and the story still does not seem finished.
  3. You got lost in the world building. You’ve immersed yourself in a whole new world you created for your characters that you forgot about the plot and the characters.
  4. There’s no clear ending to the story. Every time you think of an appropriate ending, you draw a blank.
  5. The first draft is complete, but you’re not sure how to begin revising it.
  6. You didn’t plot out your story in advance so you “pantsed” your way through the first draft.  Now you have to figure out how to structure what you’ve written into a cohesive plot, but you don’t know how or where to start.
  7. You received a lukewarm response from your beta readers or critique partners, but you’re still not sure what’s wrong with the story.
  8. You’ve submitted it to agents and editors who have expressed little interest in publishing your story.

Once you realize that you need an editor, you’re not sure where to find a good editor. It helps to understand the four different types of editing that you might need.

  • Developmental editing (sometimes called story editing) which looks at the overall structure of your story.
  • Line editing looks at how the story is presented, such as language, pacing and how chapters end or begin.
  • Copy editing looks at spelling and grammar as well as the story’s timeline.
  • Critique/assessment reviews the manuscript and provides feedback about the story arc. It’s not as intensive as a full developmental edit, which can cost more money.

To find an editor for your work-in-progress, begin by asking for referrals. If you belong to a writer’s group or take writing classes, ask fellow writers, classmates and teachers for referrals. You can also search member organizations like the Editorial Freelancers Association to find someone who specializes in your genre. You can try searching the acknowledgment page in your favorite novels where authors usually thank their editorial team, then do a search for that editor’s background and previous work. Most editors have their own website and will describe at length the services they offer and pricing. If none of these ideas work, there’s always Google.

Before hiring an editor

There are several factors to consider when hiring an editor, said romance editor Jessica Snyder during her online workshop “How to Find Your Perfect Editor.” First, consider how much experience they have in your genre. If you’re writing a science fiction novel, your best bet is to hire someone who has edited other sci-fi novels. Someone who typically edits literary novels probably won’t be the best fit.

Ask for a sample edit. Provide the editor with a chapter and see how they review your work. What kind of suggestions do they offer? Are they positive and provide encouragement? Or are they too negative? Consider their communication style to see if it meshes well with your own.

Also ask about the editor’s process. How do they communicate criticism? What kind of timeline do they work with? Most editors require several weeks to review your novel or they may be backlogged with other projects and may not get to your manuscript right away. Pack your patience.

Cost is also a big consideration for many writers, especially those who want to self-publish. Know your budget ahead of time. Does the editor offer payment plans? How do they handle things like refunds and disputes?

If you’re on a tight budget, Snyder said it might be best to opt for a simple story assessment and copy editing pass by two different editors to keep costs down.

After reviewing the editor’s comments

Take a deep breath before reading through your edited manuscript. Feedback can often bring about strong emotional responses. You don’t want to respond to the editor with snarky comments or knee-jerk reactions. Remember, this is only one person’s assessment of your work.

Editors are guides in your writing process. Their suggestions are meant to help you create a better, stronger story structure and improve your ability to meet readers’ expectations in your chosen genre.

Also remember that editors aren’t perfect. Their edits are only suggestions. You don’t have to accept all of them if you feel strongly about something. But do keep an open mind or be willing to change your mind. Most suggestions editors make do make sense in the overall scheme of the story. If an editing comment is unclear, ask for clarification.

Most of all, remember that not all feedback is correct or appropriate. You know your story best, so use your best judgment about what edits will work with your story. I’ve had instructors and fellow writers offer feedback to my work which didn’t fit the story that I imagined. In those situations, I didn’t follow their suggestions because I didn’t feel they understood my story. But I always politely thanked them for their comments. Always respond to critiques from editors with compassion and kindness. The next time you find yourself stuck with an overwritten novel or one that garnered a lukewarm response from readers, a professional editor can steer you on the right track toward publication.

Create Your One-Word Intention for 2023

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Many people greet the New Year with a glass of bubbly and one or two resolutions they aim to achieve. Once the champagne is consumed, what happens to the resolutions – if they’ve made them at all? Most people give up on them within the first few days – even though they have 365 days to work on those resolutions.

If you’re never been into making New Year’s resolutions or you don’t take them seriously enough to keep them, I’d like to offer you an alternative – the one-word intention. Or if you prefer, the one-word theme.

The concept is simple. Think of the year ahead. Is there some overarching issue that you’re dappling with? Is there some aspect of your personality that you’d like to improve? Do the activities you have planned for the year reflect a certain common theme? That is where your one-word intention can give you focus.

Before I share with you my own one-word intention for 2023, here are a few examples.

  • If you’re making several changes in your life, such as moving to a new city to start a new job, your one word might be Transition or Change.
  • If you want to develop more trust in your relationships or within yourself, your word for the year might be Trust or Relationships
  • If you would like to spend more quality time with loved ones, your one word might be Family.
  • If you’re focused on creating a healthier lifestyle (and who doesn’t after the holidays), your word might be Health or Wellness
  • If the year ahead is filled with workshops and classes, getting an advanced degree or attending conferences, your word might be Education or Knowledge.
  • If you want to begin a regular writing practice or start on that novel you keep telling people you want to write, your one word might be Consistency or Persistence or Imagination.

You get the idea.

What difference can one word make, you might ask? After all, it is only one word.

Don’t overlook the emotional significance or power that one word can have on your psyche. Think of it as a mantra. You can repeat it inside your head whenever you face a particular situation. For example, if your mind keeps wandering or you begin to feel scattered and unfocused, you might use the one-word to bring back your focus.

Every word in the English language carries energy. Words can either bring you down or build you up. In this case with your one-word intention or theme, you are building your life for the New Year. Let your word of the year guide you to become the person you want to be. Making that one-word intention is a lot easier than making New Year’s resolutions, and you don’t have to feel guilty if you forget your one word. There’s no additional work or action involved on your part. It’s more of a mindfulness about the year ahead. The important thing is to keep the word positive, so it gives you positive energy.

So what is my one-word intention?

Restructure.

That word came to my mind as I grapple with the different areas of my life that I’d like to change. I’m not talking about a major overhaul, just tweaks here and there. Everything from my living environment to my personal health and wellbeing to my finances, the organizations I support and the publications I write for.

I know the word restructure may have negative connotations for some people, but for me, it’s about rebuilding stronger foundations. It’s about changing out the old for the new. It’s about making a fresh start and rethinking how to do things better, more efficiently to get better results. Isn’t that what the New Year is about – making a fresh start?

So what is your one-word intention for 2023?

Favorite Books of 2022

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As 2022 comes to a close, I like to review what I’ve accomplished over the past year, especially what I’ve written and what I’ve read. I began the year with a target of reading 32 books. I’m proud to say that I have met that goal. I’m looking forward to matching or surpassing the same goal of 32 books in 2023. I’m well stocked on books and ready to go.

But first, I’d like to share my favorite reads of 2022. My list consists of a few favorite authors, and a few new names that I’ve always wanted to read. They are presented in no particular order.

My criteria for favorites is fairly simple and straightforward: tell me a good story. Keep me turning the pages. Start with a strong, enticing premise. Give me complex characters that I can sympathize with (most of the time). Give me a satisfactory ending. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a happy one (although I prefer that best) but one that makes sense and ties up all the loose ends to my satisfaction.

What about you? What books landed on your favorites list?

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
Is it ever okay to keep secrets from your spouse or family? What would you do if you found a letter from your spouse to be read upon their death, only to find out a terrible, dark secret when you finally do read it many years later while they are still alive? That is the premise for The Husband’s Secret. It’s not one of Moriarty’s more popular novels, but it is one of her better ones. While it takes an impossibly long time for the contents of the letter to be revealed, what follows is an emotional journey showing how the letter impacts different characters in the story.

One By One by Ruth Ware
This is the first novel by Ware that I’ve read, and it likely won’t be the last. From page one, Ware took me on a fast-paced thrill ride up and down the slopes of the mountains in the French Alps. It reminded me a lot of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery And Then There Were None. The short chapters with alternating points of view kept me glued to the story, but there were times when I couldn’t sleep at night.

Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult
Picoult has a reputation for tackling some tough social issues in her books, which I appreciate. In Vanishing Acts, one of Picoult’s early novels, a woman’s life is turned upside down when she learns that she may have been kidnapped by her own father when she was a child. The story raises some interesting questions about the passage of time and how time can influence what we remember about key events from childhood. The ending with its quickly developing twists leaves the reader wondering what really happened so long ago, long after the story has ended.

The German Midwife by Mandy Robotham
Set during World War II in Nazi Germany, The German Midwife is a historical fiction novel about a Holocaust prisoner and midwife who is assigned a dangerous task: to serve as the midwife for Hitler’s pregnant mistress. Every day the midwife confronts her own prejudices toward the mistress and her unborn child, but in the end relies on her own common sense and medical training to protect the young mother and infant while risking her own life.

The Family Plot by Megan Collins
In this third book by Collins, a dysfunctional family with a weird fascination for true crime is at the heart of this story. When younger brother Andy is found murdered on their secluded island, his twin sister Dahlia is quick to blame his death on the serial killer that has terrorized residents for years. As it turns out, her eccentric family and the mansion they live in all hold the key to solving the mystery of Andy’s death. Written in first person from Dahlia’s POV brought me into the story along with her.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
If you’re a fan of magic and magic realism, then The Night Circus is a must read. The circus arrives in town without notice and is open only at night. Underneath the black-and-white striped tents is a unique experience full of amazing sights and smells. Behind the scenes is a fierce competition between two young magicians who have been trained for this purpose. Only problem is they fall in love with each other and that sets in motion a chain of events that threatens the lives of the circus performers and the circus itself.

The Messy Lives of Book People by Phaedra Patrick
This is the first book by Patrick that I’ve read, and I will definitely read others by her. I’m a sucker for any novel involving authors, books or bookstores, and this one did not disappoint. A house cleaner of a famous, reclusive author must carry out her employer’s last wish: to complete the author’s latest novel before her death can be formally announced to her adoring fans. I loved the way Patrick handled the conflicts in the story, and happily resolved all loose ends in a way that made sense and was satisfying.

The Mistletoe Inn and The Mistletoe Promise, both by Richard Paul Evans
Evans has made a career of writing heartwarming Christmas stories. I added both of these to my favorites list because they are also among by favorite Hallmark Christmas movies, although the books include some darker back stories. All the same they are both fast, easy reads that will warm your heart any time of the year.

Honorable mentions: The following titles didn’t make my favorites list, but they were quite good anyway and are worth reading.

Sanctuary by Nora Roberts
Virgin River by Robyn Carr
Drenched in Light by Lisa Wingate
Winter in Paradise by Elin Hildenbrand
Life is Sweet by Elizabeth Bass
Three Wishes by Barbara Delinsky

Thank you for reading my posts this past year. I look forward to continuing to share my insights about writing and reading in 2023. Until then, have a happy new year, and may all your publishing wishes come true!

Get Inspired to Write with These 12 Christmas-Themed Writing Prompts

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I struggled to come up with a suitable post for this week. Everything I came up with either seemed unexciting or not helpful for writers. Worse, I felt distracted by writing assignments, holiday preparations and a pending snowstorm.

Christmas time can inspire all sorts of stories. So it seemed fitting that I share with you one final gift for this holiday season – holiday-themed writing prompts. If you’re stuck writing and need some inspiration, maybe one of these ideas can drag you out of your writing slump.

Without further ado, here are my 12 Christmas-themed writing prompts. Enjoy!

  1. Write a story about a young woman who invites a friend for Christmas dinner at her parents’ house. But there is something distinctly different about her friend (like exceptionally pointy ears, for example).

  2. Write a story about something that happens during a performance of The Nutcracker, whether it happens backstage, onstage with the performers or in the audience. It could be two people having an argument, a mishap on stage, or a costume malfunction.

  3. Write a story about a dysfunctional family traveling together out of town for the holidays.

  4. Write a story about a couple enjoying the sights and sounds of Christmas or out shopping when they unwittingly witness a crime.

  5. Write a story about someone receiving a gift from a loved one that that they either don’t like or don’t want or need. How do they respond to the gift giver?

  6. Write a story about a group of people who participate in some sort of Christmas-themed contest – ugly sweater, scavenger hunt, window decorating, etc.

  7. Write about a character who, amidst running Christmas errands, runs into an old friend, former classmate, or former flame that they have not seen in nearly a decade.

  8. Write a story about a harried store clerk working during the Christmas rush.

  9. Write a story about a good, old-fashioned office Christmas party in which the CEO or a colleague makes an unusual announcement.

  10. Write about a New Years’ Eve celebration when festivities don’t go as planned.

  11. Write a story about a group of strangers that get stranded together somewhere on Christmas Eve due to a snowstorm, a power outage, closed roads, etc.

  12. Write a story about the filming of a Christmas movie – in the middle of the summer.

Merry Christmas and happy writing!

The Lost Art of Handwritten Notes and Letters

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Once upon a time handwritten notes and letters were as common as cell phones. These days, most of us rely on text messages, emails, and other types of messaging with our smart phones to communicate with people. Some see handwritten notes and letters as old-fashioned and too slow for today’s fast-paced world. But what they might lack in speed, I believe they make up for it in thoughtfulness and heart.

Why would anyone want to write a note or card when you can just send an email or text, you might ask? There are several reasons I can think of.

  • It’s more personal. The message is directed at you from another human being rather than an electronic device.
  • It’s more thoughtful. The person took care to think about what they wanted to say.
  • It’s not rushed. Writing notes take time, which means the sender isn’t dashing off a mindless text message they might regret later.
  • It’s more memorable. Handwritten notes tend to leave a stronger impression, while emails and text messages can be easily deleted.

I still have several notes I’ve received from grateful colleagues over the years. Every now and then, I pull them out and re-read them, especially when I’m feeling discouraged about something. Reading them always puts me in a more positive frame of mind.

Handwritten notes don’t take nearly as long to write as you might think. The key is to know what you want to say. Your message should be simple. Your handwritten note or card can be used to express any number of things, including:

  • Thank you for something they said or did to help you
  • An invitation to get together
  • Share a favorite memory
  • Express what they mean to you and that you’re thinking of them
  • Share condolences over the loss of a loved one
  • Wish them a happy birthday, anniversary or other special occasion

Now that you know what you want to say, think about how you want to say it. I recommend writing a few drafts of your message, which will give you a chance to test out different phrasings to see which one works best. When you are satisfied with the wording and tone, you can start on your note.

Choose a pen you feel comfortable with, and find a clean sheet of paper, note card, even an index card. Then begin writing. I like to date my notes so the recipient knows when the note was written. When you begin writing your note, consider the following tips:

  • Keep the message short and sweet. Three to five sentences should be sufficient. Experiment by using an index card.
  • Be yourself. Express yourself in ways the recipient might recognize.
  • Use a warm, lighthearted tone. Your practice messages can help you find that right tone.
  • Smile as you write. Somehow that smile seems to transfer onto the page. The reader can sense it when they read your note.
  • Add humor if you want, especially if you’re the type of person who likes to tell jokes or if you know your recipient will appreciate your humor.
  • Proofread your message. Make sure there are no typos or grammatical errors.

Handwritten notes might take a little more time and thought, but think how the other person will feel when they open up the envelope and see the note from you. There is something that is more heartwarming and expressive in a handwritten note. As long as they still touch people’s hearts, handwritten notes will never completely go out of style.

5 Ways to Deal with Distractions During the Holidays

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There’s a giant mug on my kitchen shelf that reads, “Don’t get your tinsel in a tangle.” It’s good advice for this time of year when life is full of distractions. Just when I need to concentrate on feature articles for clients, the pleasures of the season call to me. Add to that the pressures of shopping for gifts, decorating my living space, visiting family and friends, and watching Christmas movies. Distractions are everywhere. With so many activities demanding my time and attention, who has time to write?

While those pesky holiday distractions won’t go away any time soon, you can still work around them to accomplish your writing goals. Even a little bit each day is better than not writing at all. You may be surprised at how much you can accomplish in shorter writing sessions.

Here are my suggestions to avoid distractions and keep writing during the holidays.
 
Set smaller goals. You might be used to writing for an hour a day, or writing until you finish 1,000 words. Time may work against you during the holidays, so you might consider setting smaller goals. Instead of writing 1,000 words, aim for writing one page a day (or approximately 250 words). Or instead of writing for an hour, consider a 15-minute session.

Use index cards. One 3×5 or 4×6 card can hold several sentences, maybe one to two paragraphs. If you’re really pressed for time, grab one index card and jot down notes about plots or characters. By the end of the month, you will have collected enough ideas to start writing your next story in earnest.

Set office hours – and stick to them. If all you have in your schedule is 30 minutes when you first get up in the morning, set that time aside. More important, ask your family to respect our personal time.  

Set a timer. Use the timer on your phone or computer. Set it for 10 minutes or 20 minutes, or however much time you have. When the timer starts, write to your heart’s content, whatever comes to your mind. You never know where your freewriting will take you. When the timer rings, stop. Don’t worry about perfection. Focus on getting your ideas down on paper first; you can always edit later.

Write first thing in the morning. When you first arise, grab your cup of coffee or tea and begin writing. You’ll get it out of the way so you can enjoy the rest of the day. Or conversely, write before bedtime. Make a deal with yourself not to go to bed until you’ve written one page.

Of course, another option is to forget all about writing altogether and indulge in the holidays instead. Enjoy the celebrations, and use the holidays to gather inspiration. But as you do sip your egg nog and go caroling, take note of your surroundings. Spend time people watching, which could inspire characters for your next novel. Try activities you haven’t done before, like creating your own Christmas ornaments or cutting down a fresh tree. With every experience, note the sights and sounds around you. Remember to carry a notebook to jot down your impressions of the people, places and events you’ve seen. You never know if you might use them later.

There’s a preconceived idea that writing takes up huge chunks of time, which I think is why many of us avoid writing. And with the holidays comes too many distractions to ignore. By planning ahead and keeping a consistent practice with smaller goals and shorter writing sessions, you can accomplish your writing goals — and still enjoy the holidays.

Don’t let the holidays overwhelm you and derail your writing practice. Use it to your advantage to inspire fresh stories. When it comes time to start writing in earnest again, you’ll have plenty of ideas to keep you writing all through the New Year.

Do You Have a Holiday Writing Plan?

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I’m in the midst of several deadlines and haven’t had time to write anything new. The following post is repeated from several years ago (with a few tweaks), but it’s as timely and pertinent today as it was then. Enjoy, and have a happy Thanksgiving!

The holiday season is fast approaching. There is much to do – shopping, baking, decorating, attending parties, socializing with friends – you name it. On top of that are your usual obligations – work, school, housekeeping, family time, volunteer work, and self-care. There isn’t much time left for your writing practice.

Or is there?

It all depends on how you allocate your time.

If your writing is important or if you’re currently working on a deadline, eaching your writing goals is critical. To reach those goals, you need to have a plan. If faced with this dilemma, you have several options:

1. Put your writing practice on hiatus.

Going on hiatus will obviously clear the way for you to enjoy your holiday more without worrying about what your next essay will be about. Then when you begin working again, you come with a fresh eye. On the other hand, a hiatus can take you out of your writing rhythm. You could lose momentum on the current work-in-progress. Come January when you sit back down and review your story, you might lose sight of where your story is going. Then you may have to start all over again.

2. Decrease the time you spend on your writing practice.

This approach might make the most sense for most writers. You can still make progress on your current work while still making time for your holiday activities. Here’s how it works. If you currently write for one hour a day, you might decide to write for only half an hour. Or instead of writing six days a week, perhaps you only write three days a week. The scheduling is up to you.

3. Maintain the status quo in your writing practice.

To maintain your current writing schedule will mean reassessing your holiday activities. Are there any that have lost their meaning for you? Do you really need to go to every party you’ve been invited to? Can you skip sending out holiday cards or the holiday bar crawl? The choices are yours.

If you’re struggling to figure out how to maintain your writing practice during the holidays, here are a few suggestions:

1. Set priorities. How important is your writing? Make a list of all the activities that are important to you. Where does writing fall on that list? If it’s high on your list of priorities, you’ll likely make more time for it.

2. Make an appointment with yourself. Treat your writing as you would a doctor visit or a trip to the hair salon. Make an appointment with yourself to write, and put it in your calendar. When you see that you have three one-hour writing sessions in your calendar, chances are you’ll be more likely to stick to that schedule.

3. Set realistic goals. Be clear about what you want to accomplish. Make sure that goal is reasonable and achievable. Writing a 1000-word essay or a 3000-word chapter of a novel is probably more achievable than writing 50,000 words.

If you want to learn more about making a writing plan for the holidays, check out this post from the Books & Such Literary Management blog.

When you maintain a consistent writing practice throughout the holidays with all its assorted pleasurable distractions, you may actually feel more joyous throughout the season. Why? Because you know you’ve made a workable writing plan and are sticking with it. There is no other greater joy than to do what you love during the holidays.

 Is Your Story Idea Worth Publishing?

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Ever have an idea for a story that you thought for sure would become the next Great American Novel only to flame out when you couldn’t write past the third chapter? The truth is, not every story idea that crosses your mind is worth writing about. So how do you know which ones are viable as a novel or short story while others are better left as a stand-alone scene, or worse, dumped in the trash?

In a recent Reedsy webinar, author S. J. Watson spoke about the idea generation process and how writers can determine which ideas are worth developing. .

Watson said the idea generation process can be divided into four segments:
* Finding story ideas and recognizing them when they show up organically
* How to retain those story ideas
* How to determine if an idea has the potential to become a novel
* How to keep the original idea from going off the rails, and what to do if it does.

An idea is “a sense that something is possible,” he said, and they can come from anywhere around you. But he cautions writers to keep them close to the vest.

“Ideas are like hose pipes,” Watson said. “If you overshare an idea too soon with your family and friends, it might poke holes in it.” Once the holes are poked through, the story tends to lose its novelty and impact.

To generate meaningful and relevant story ideas, there are several things writers can do to prime the pump.

  1. Show up at your desk every day, even when you don’t feel like it. Ideas don’t show up automatically. You still have to put in the time and effort before ideas begin to flow.
  2. Observe your surroundings. Look out the window or take a walk. Notice something on the street that you don’t normally see, such as a mobility scooter or a three-legged dog. Then brainstorm different scenarios about what you see. You may surprise yourself by coming up with a viable story idea.
     
  3. Write when you’re half-asleep. The brain isn’t quite awake then and it can amplify the connection between seemingly different ideas. In this half-sleep mode, you’re less likely to censor yourself.

To retain your ideas, keep a notebook. Either carry one in your pocket or purse or use the Notes app on your phone. Any time you notice something in your environment, overhear a conversation, or get sudden inspiration, jot them down. Watson admits he rarely looks at his notes, but the act of writing ideas down helps him to retain those ideas for easy reference later.

Connecting the Dots

Which ideas are worth turning into a full-fledged novel? Watson said ideas begin with the sense that something big could happen, such as winning the lottery or getting into a car accident. They open doors to broader concepts, and they invite random scenes and characters to show up. You may have two seemingly unrelated scene concepts, yet there may be a thread that connects them within a single story.

Also ask yourself several questions about the story’s viability:

  1. Does the story idea stay with you, and do you feel a desperation to work on it? Some ideas come and grab you by the throat, demanding your attention.
  2. Can you visualize the protagonist or antagonist?
  3. Do you see the conflict? Do you know the characters’ goals?
  4. Most important, can the problem in the story be made to feel relatable, such as learning that a family member is terminally ill?

Another possible approach is to take other people’s ideas and remix the elements to make them your own, Watson says. Whatever approach you take, make sure you don’t second guess yourself.

Drifting Story Lines
If the story drifts from the original concept that you envisioned, you may need to make adjustments. If, at the 20,000 word mark, the story seems to be heading in a different direction than what you intended, take a step back and review the work you’ve done so far. If the changes in the story scare you or excite you, then keep going. You may be on the right track even if you don’t have a clear idea where the story is headed.

However, if the new direction of the story isn’t exciting, it may be a sign that the story is too safe. Watson suggests backtracking to the original spine of the story and starting over from there to regain the excitement. “Occasional drifting is okay, especially if it takes you to scary or exciting places,” Watson says. “If you drift too far away from the original intent of the story, it may need to be scrapped. Occasionally returning to the story spine can help you make sure you’re in the right place.”

Story ideas come in all shapes and sizes. Knowing which ones are viable as potential novels, and which ones aren’t can save you a lot of time and needless effort.

You can view the Reedsy webinar here.

Tips for Developing Suspense in Your Novel

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

When you read a book, what is the one element that keeps you turning the page? Most likely, it is suspense.

Everyone has their own definition of suspense. Some dictionaries describe it as a state of excitement, anxiety or mental uncertainty. For works of fiction, book coach Samantha Skal defines suspense as “the question asked.”

It’s an odd definition, to be sure. But think about the myriad of questions you ask yourself, however subtly or subconsciously, as you read a story.

* Will the hero stop the bomb in time or will it explode?
* Will the couple get together at the end, or won’t they?
* Will she keep her baby or give it up for adoption?
* What will they do next?

“Suspense is the engine that keeps the story going,” says Skal who spoke at a recent Pro Writing Aid Romance Week event. “It increases reader engagement, reader satisfaction and improves pacing of the story.”

There are different types of suspense. There’s the big, scary kind where the serial killer terrorizes the town. Romantic suspense teases readers with the promise of two people getting together. There’s emotional tension, too, when the main character is battling internal demons, such as guilt or resentment. Finally there’s goal tension when readers wonder whether the character will finally earn that promotion or new job.

The simplest way to achieve suspense is to put obstacles in the way of the characters. Whether you’re writing a thriller, science fiction or a romance, several techniques can be used to add suspense to your story.

  1. Reveal inner thoughts and reactions of the main character. This is especially true if you’re writing in first person or third person close. By revealing the main character’s thoughts and perspective. In this way, readers are able to see the action in the same way and at the same time as the main character. So when the character feels tension makes an assumption about another character or misinterprets what they see or hear, readers witness that experience too. That moment when the character experiences a crisis creates tension that the readers feel.   

  2. Use hanging questions. Ending chapters with a hanging question often leaves audiences wondering what will happen next. For example, the character may ask themselves how they got themselves into such a mess, which may make readers wonder how they will get out of it. Hanging question keeps the action going, and keeps readers turning the page to find out what really does happen next. Make sure you answer the hanging questions right away, preferably in the next chapter. A word of caution though. If you have too many hanging questions in consecutive chapters, it can appear redundant. In other words, boring.

  3. Ramp up tension gradually. Skal suggests establishing tension as close to the action as possible. Then gradually ramp up the intensity with each chapter. At the halfway point of the story, something in the story changes, moving it in a new direction. At the resolution, wrap up all loose ends. But just to be sure you haven’t lost readers’ interest, add another twist or surprise revelation at the 95% mark.

  4. Emotionally manipulate your readers. Skal says it’s okay to do that since most readers expect certain things to happen at certain times in the story. In mysteries, for example, readers look for the mystery to be solved. In thrillers and suspense stories, they want to feel a low-grade fear the whole time, and they want to feel their heart racing.

  5. Be intentional about what you reveal – and when. Details about a character’s backstory, family history, and personality should be sprinkled throughout the story, when it makes sense to a particular scene. If you reveal everything at one time, it can be overwhelming for the readers. Also remember that if you mention a detail early in the story, it should have a purpose later on. For example, if your character notices a clock that has stopped early in the story, that detail should come into play later on.

Without suspense, your story won’t keep readers interested until the very end. By paying attention to these techniques, you can create stories that will keep readers turning the page.