Is a Fear of Being Published Preventing You from Writing?

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Many writers are plagued by fear. Whether it’s a fear of not being good enough, a fear of criticism or a fear of success, some writers can be so haunted by fear that they can’t write a single word.

Add one more fear to that list: a fear of being published.

It’s ironic considering that most writers I know strive to get published. That is the ultimate goal of writing, isn’t it?

But I can see why some writers would be afraid to have their work published, and the reasons they give are similar to the list of fears I mentioned above.

* Fear of exposure. Your work might reveal some deep, dark family secrets, or more likely, show off aspects of yourself that you’ve keep hidden. Getting published means putting yourself out there, and that can be scary. What if someone somewhere sees you for who you really are?  

* Fear of criticism. Once you’re published, people will read what you wrote. That’s a good thing, right? The thing is, they may either love it — or hate it. Many writers focus on the negative reviews rather than the positive ones, even though there may only be one negative review compared to one hundred positive ones. It’s the thought of the naysayers that can scare you away.  Getting published means the you risk getting negative reviews.

* Fear of success. Because, after all, getting published is a sure sign that you are a successful writer. But along with publication comes responsibility. Once you publish one novel, readers expect you to publish more. What if you can’t come up with a suitable follow up?

* Fear of a new identity. Once you become published, you shift from being an aspiring writer to a published author. The new identity means you have to live up to new standards and expectations for your writing. It may mean a new lifestyle, complete with travel, public appearances and author readings – things you may not be prepared to deal with.

* Fear of being found out. What if you believe the published work isn’t good at all, no matter how many positive reviews you get? People might find out that you’re a fraud or a phony, and your novel was published through sheer luck, not talent. You might as well give up writing, or so you think.

For many writers, getting published is scarier than writing. Writing is safe because you can do that in the privacy of your home. You can work in isolation, and it’s just you and your story ideas. You can hide behind your laptop screen and play with words and stories all you want. You don’t have to risk anything.

But once you become published, all that changes. You have to take your writing more seriously than before. It’s no longer a hobby but a business. You have to treat your writing as a product.

Once you are published, you might have to view yourself differently. You are now a business person with creative talent and a product to offer readers. To continue that success, however, you have to keep writing and you have to keep putting your work out there for people to see.

No wonder writers are afraid of being published.

Thankfully, there are some things writers can do to assuage those fears.

1. Hire a good editor. A professional editor might cost money, but it’s money well spent if they can catch miscues, provide meaningful feedback and suggest improvements to your work. A good editor can help you create a product you can be proud to publish.

2. Join a writers’ group. If you aren’t part of a writers’ group, form one of your own. Getting support from other writers can help you through the rough patches of the writing process. When you finish that first draft or finally get published, they can help you celebrate your successes.

3. Take criticism in stride. This might be easier said than done since most writers tend to remember the negative feedback more than the positive. It doesn’t matter if those critical voices come from within or from outside yourself (such as readers and editors). There will be times when you should shut it out. The only exception is when working with an editor or agent who may offer suggestions for improving your work. Their feedback should be taken to heart. The rest can be dumped in the garbage along with your rough drafts.

4. Remember why you write. If you feel overburdened by criticism or fear the unknown as a newly minted published author, remember why you decided to write in the first place. It might help to put things in perspective.

Remember that not everyone will appreciate your writing. Just because one person bashed it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a well-written book. It simply means it wasn’t their cup of tea.

Focus on the people who do care about your success. Even if only one person comments that they enjoyed your work, hold onto that. Don’t let a fear of publishing hold you back from doing what you truly love: writing.

Is Journaling Worth Your Time?

I came across an intriguing blog post about journaling on Jane Friedman’s blog. Anne Carley, a writer, creativity coach and journaling advocate posed the following question: Is writing a waste of writing time? The question prompted me to recall my own experience with journaling.

Once upon a time I kept a journal. It was about eight years ago, and I was going through a rough time in my life. I’d made a bad business decision and lost a lot of money because of it. I was out of work and asking myself, “What’s next?” I also went through a health crisis and my mother had recently passed away. I was experiencing a full-blown mid-life identity crisis.

With my life in disarray, I started writing in a journal not to make sense of these sweeping changes that were happening but to vent my anger, frustration, guilt and sadness. I churned out pages and pages of angst-ridden prose – two whole notebooks worth. I vented about my poor decision-making skills and the person who had been involved in the business deal. I poured out my troubles to the journal as if it were a therapist, which I suppose it was. Journaling was critical for my mental health during that time, as was a regular yoga practice. And journaling was far cheaper than visiting a therapist’s office.

Funny thing was, once this series of crises ended, I no longer felt the need to write in my journal. I stuck in in my desk drawer and forgot about it. Every now and then, I’d pull it out, look over what I’d written, write a few more entries, then I put it away again. By this time, I had begun a blog, was writing regularly for freelance clients, had part-time jobs and was writing essays and fiction. I had no more room in my life for journaling.

I know many writers who swear by journaling. They couldn’t imagine starting their day without it. It’s as critical to their existence as breathing.

Admittedly, journaling brings numerous benefits to writers, such as using it as a warm-up exercise, to brainstorm story ideas, or a means to improve their writing. It can help them examine motivations and behavior of themselves and of people around them, and it can be a useful tool to manage your mental health, as it did for me.

While there are certain advantages, there are as many downsides to journaling, such as:

  • It can feel more like a diary or a reporting of events
  • There are only so many hours in the day and too many obligations to allow time for journaling
  • It can be used to avoid doing your regular writing practice, or performing chores you’d rather not do
  • It can serve as a distraction rather than a tool to help you
  • It can feel like a chore, one more thing to add to your to-do list.

Writer Thomas Plummer suggests that new writers often fail at journaling because they have no idea what they want to achieve with their journaling practice. Plummer writes: “Journaling becomes a mind-numbing exercise because without a plan or an expected outcome, you end up writing the chronological steps of your day without adding an interpretation or without deciphering any meaning of what is going on around you.”

To overcome this failing, he presents an example of how journaling can be done so you get the most out of the experience.

Before jumping into journaling, think about the following questions:
1. Where are you on your writing journey? If you are new to writing, journaling might be a practical entry point, especially if you want to write essays or memoir where deep meaningful reflection is needed.

2. Why do you want to start journaling? Know your why. If your answer is because you want to become a better writer or you want to tap into your creativity, then by all means, go for it. However, if your answer is because every writer you know tells you that you should, or because it helps you avoid other responsibilities, then you will likely set yourself up for failure.

3. What do you want to achieve with your journaling? Have a plan for what you want to achieve with your journaling. My goal when I did maintain a journal was to simply feel better about myself and deal with the emotional turmoil I was feeling. I didn’t have a plan other than to write every day until those intense emotions subsided. Your goal might be different. Without a goal, however, you likely won’t maintain a regular journaling practice.

4. What kind of writing do you want to do? I think journaling is more helpful for narrative non-fiction, essays and memoir writing. It probably isn’t going to help you with writing feature articles or non-fiction.

The choice whether to start journaling is up to you. If you do embark on that journey, you’ll find plenty of resources and coaches on the Internet to help you get started.

One final thought: While journaling can help you improve your writing skills, it isn’t the only way. No matter what medium you use — a journal, blog, or something else — as long as you are consistent with your writing, your writing will naturally improve.

Do you keep a journal? What has your experience been like? Can you tell if your writing has improved because of it?

Why Writers Need an Editor

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Many writers say getting a novel’s first draft down on the page is the easy part. It’s the rewriting and editing afterward that presents the biggest challenge, especially for beginning writers. Even after rewriting and editing it several, you may feel there’s something lacking in your manuscript. Most editors agree it’s at this point that writers may need to hire a professional editor.

Recently I attended a webinar called “Maybe It’s Not Your Plot” presented by author and book coach Susan DeFreitas. She says the problem with most manuscripts isn’t about what happens (the plot) but about WHY it happens, which is tied to character arc. She explains the role of character arc best on her blog.

DeFreitas outlines the six steps of a character arc, which I have shared below:

  • The protagonist has an internal issue to overcome, a mistaken belief about their world that will be challenged as the story unfolds.
  • Connected to this internal issue is the protagonist’s backstory, which explains how the misbelief originated.
  • There are conflicts and challenges that push the protagonist to view their misbelief in a different light.
  • The protagonist resists making necessary behavioral changes that fit the new belief. They want to go back to the way things were when the story began.
  • Change occurs incrementally to show how the protagonist fights against themselves.
  • The moment of truth occurs around the climax. The protagonist must face a hard truth, discover what’s been missing or didn’t understand.

Character arc is what drives the story and provides the emotional quotient that readers want to experience. But it’s also where most writers struggle with their story. This is when they tend to reach out to professional editors for advice on how to move forward.

According to DeFreitas, writers might need to hire an editor because:

  • The story is overwritten. There are too many words. A well-crafted novel should contain roughly 80,000 to 100,000 words. Romance novels require less than that while some science fiction or fantasy novels can run more than 100,000. Generally speaking, if your novel is too long, you’ll need to cut word count and scenes. Since you might be reluctant to do the cutting yourself, an editor can help you sort through the extra copy to determine what to keep and what to discard.

  • You have a million drafts. Perhaps after working a story multiple times, it still has not jelled the way you imagined. Or you have so many drafts that the story no longer resembles the one you started out writing.

  • You’ve gotten lost in world building. This is especially true for speculative fiction and sci-fi novels where alternate world is key to the story. You can get so caught up in the details of this other world that you lose sight of the plot and character development.

  • You have no clear idea how to end the story. You may have started off strong with your writing but by the middle of the story, you have no idea how to get to the end. I’ve found it helpful to write the ending before I begin writing the beginning so I know how the story will proceed. An editor can provide tips on how to visualize the ending of your story.

  • You can’t figure out how to revise your manuscript. This is especially true for pantsers who write their story organically with no initial planning. Once the scenes from inside your head are written, you may realize that the story heads off in different directions. You feel stuck on how to fix things. An editor can help you scale back your ideas and formulate a revision plan moving forward.

  • You received lukewarm response from beta readers. The good news is you’ve completed your manuscript. The not-so-good news is that your beta readers gave it a lukewarm reception. They politely offered feedback, which you gladly accepted. But you want more than that from them. You want them to feel enthusiastic for your work. A lukewarm response is a warning sign that something is off about your manuscript.

  • You’re not getting responses from publishers or agents. If you’ve reached this step, congratulations. You’re much further along than most aspiring novelists. Only problem is editors and agents aren’t responding to your novel at all. That should tell you that they either have not gotten around to reading it yet, or that it wasn’t worth their time to respond to you. You want to create excitement for your manuscript, and when a book editor or agent is excited about your novel, they’re more likely to get behind it.

 Editing your own manuscript is never easy. But working with a professional book editor can give you a better understanding of the revision process.

Tips for Spring Cleaning Your Writing Practice

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The calendar may read April but the weather outside my window says winter. Nonetheless, at this time of year, my thoughts often turn to spring cleaning. I notice the layers of dust everywhere (my place is a dust magnet), the piles of papers, the books scattered about, the dust bunnies and cob webs, reminding me it’s time for a deep cleaning. Needless to say, housekeeping has never been my strong point. So while I recognize that spring cleaning is a common rite of spring, it’s also one I dread.

Beyond the housework though, there are other areas that may need spring cleaning, such as my writing practice. Like many writers, I can get lost in my own head to the point I forget about my writing environment. It’s easy to get so caught up in everyday work that I forget that my writing practice might need some sprucing up too.

There are numerous half-finished projects sitting in my file drawers and notes from completed freelance assignments. Not to mention the backlog of emails and texts that have piled up in my archives, and the miscellaneous notes and newspaper clippings I’ve collected over the years, believing that they might come in handy for an essay I hoped to write one day.

Spring cleaning is a tough task, but a necessary one if you want to feel more productive. The good news is you don’t have to do the spring cleaning all at one sitting. Take an hour a day over the course of a week or two, and you’ll get through each one. By the end, you’ll likely feel lighter and freer than before. By clearing away the deadwood and clutter of unfinished manuscripts and story ideas, you can make room for fresh, new ones.

Here’s my to-do list for spring cleaning a writing routine. You may have a few different tasks than what I’ve listed below.

1. Review and reassess story notes. This is a biggie, which is why I’ve listed it first. This can also take the longest time because it can be tempting to lose yourself in story lines from the past, just like going through old photos can bring up memories.

If you’re like me, you’ve created a notebook of miscellaneous notes for each story idea, which means I may have ten or twelve notebooks sitting on my shelf, taking up valuable space and collecting dust. There’s no guarantee that I will ever get around to writing these stories. It may be time to unload some of those stories, especially the ones that are too vague. If you’re reluctant to let go of the idea, but want to lose the notebook, I suggest making a spreadsheet for each story idea. A spreadsheet will help you organize your ideas and streamline your writing activities, while making room on your shelf.

If you use notebooks to handwrite drafts of your stories, and you’ve already typed the up, it’s time to lose the notebooks. Dump them since you likely won’t review them anymore.

2. Go through old emails and text messages. If you have long chains of emails and text messages unrelated to one another that go back several years, take time to delete them.  They’re taking up valuable space on your computer and phone. But you might ask, “What if I need to go back to them later for some reason?” If you haven’t gone back to them by now, then you probably won’t need to in the future. Besides, it feels cleaner to get rid of them. Remember to clear out the messages you’ve sent too, not just the ones you’ve received. Those sent messages can pile up in a hurry.

3. Reassess your social media. When was the last time you assessed your social media needs? How often do you use them, and for what purpose? If you use Twitter to learn about freelance assignments, by all means, keep it. But if you’re never on that platform, or worse, you spend countless hours on it when you could be writing, then it might be time to let it go.

4. Reassess your writing tools and equipment. Do you still use a desktop computer from ten years ago? It might work fine for you now, but like anything that ages, it’s likely slower with time. Which doesn’t help your writing practice. It’s time to find another home for that desktop if it’s still in good, working condition and upgrade to a newer, faster version or transfer to a more portable laptop. Ditto with printers. Today’s versions can spew out more pages in a shorter period of time. If you do decide to upgrade, think about what your writing needs maybe in the future as well as today.  

5. Reevaluate your book collection. Do you have books about writing or freelancing still sitting on the shelf that you read a long time ago, or worse, not at all? Then it’s time to go through them to decide if they should go or stay. If you haven’t read a book and it’s been sitting on your shelf for three years, it may be time to donate it to someone who might appreciate it.

6. Spruce up your writing environment. Does your designated writing space still inspire you? Or do you avoid working there because you’re not comfortable there? Think about the chair you use, the desk, the lighting. If any of these items aren’t helping you feel more productive, It might be time to replace them.

Try to keep your space clean at all times. There’s nothing more uninspiring to a writer than a cluttered work environment. Add an inspirational poster on the wall and a live plant to be close to nature. Little things can inspire you to write every day.

7. Review your calendar. Are you so busy with non-essential activities that you can’t find time to write? If you feel overcommitted, it’s time to reconsider your priorities. If writing is important to you, you need to make room for it in your life. Don’t be afraid to say no to invitations and obligations if they will interfere with your writing practice.

Conversely, is your calendar fairly empty? Not having many outside interests can be as damaging to your writing practice as having too many. Work-life balance means different things to different people. You’ll need to assess what balance means to you and how you will achieve it.

There’s a lot more to spring cleaning your writing practice than just dusting off your shelves. Imagine how good it will feel when you’ve cleared the clutter from your writing life.

What tips do you have for spring cleaning your writing practice?

What Baseball Taught Me about Developing a Writing Practice

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This article was originally written and posted in June 2016. As the 2022 baseball season begins, I thought I would dig this out of the archives. There are some minor edits, but the observations and sentiments are the same.

I might be a writer by day, but by night, I’m an avid baseball fan. I am often inspired and fascinated by the game–the strategizing by the coaches, the gravity-defying catches in the outfield, the clutch hitting in the late innings, the dramatic grand slam home run that makes fans go wild. While we may see the glamorous side of the game, it’s the hard work and training behind the scenes that can make the difference between a championship team and one that misses the playoffs. It all takes practice, and with more practice and training, the better a team can become.

Just like in writing.

It takes lots of practice to improve your story telling skills. Baseball has a lot to teach us about developing a writing routine. When a team tries to score runs, for example, it follows a general principle: Get them on, get them over, then get them in. In other words, get a runner on base, move him over to scoring position, and then bring him home. Any individual who struggles to maintain a writing practice can apply these basic principles. Here’s how.

Step 1. Get them on.
In baseball, you can’t score runs unless a player reaches base. It doesn’t matter how he gets there – a walk, base hit or hit by pitch. Without runners on base, the chances of scoring are slim.

The same holds true in writing. You’ll never complete a manuscript unless you start putting words down on the page. It doesn’t matter how you get the words down. They can be bullet points, writing prompts or freewriting. Use whatever technique works to get your imagination flowing. Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect; you can always edit it later. The point is to “get on base” with whatever technique works for you.

Step 2. Get them over.
In baseball, once a player gets on base, his teammates must try to move him over into scoring position, or if they’re lucky, all the way home. That means putting the ball into play, either with a base hit, a walk, a deep fly ball or a bunt. Any of these moves will push the runner over at least one more base and put him into scoring position.

In writing, once you have your initial story ideas jotted down, you need to fine tune your manuscript. This editing phase allows you to strategize your next move in the story. Maybe you need to remove a character, add scenes or cut dialogue in order to make your manuscript sing. Just as it may take several players and pitches to move the base runner over into scoring position, your manuscript may have to go through several editing passes to make it publishable.

Step 3. Get them in.
In this phase, a runner at second or third base needs to be driven home to score. Once a player is at third base, his teammates need to find a way to bring him home. There are different ways this can happen–a base hit, deep fly ball, or better yet, a home run.

Your final editing pass can help you bring your story to completion – and bring it home to victory. This is where you check for spelling, tighten the writing, and double check all the details. Perhaps one or two trustworthy friends can review your manuscript and provide feedback to help you improve your story, much like the third-base coach who directs runners on base.

Success comes when the runner crosses home plate, or when you finish your writing project. The more runs you score – the more stories you finish writing – the better your chances of winning the game by getting published.

Just like in baseball, hard work, patience and perseverance pays dividends, and you can savor your triumph in the same way a team enjoys its victories. But those celebrations are usually short lived. As any athlete can tell you, there’s another game the next day. That means there’s more work to do to prepare for it.

As you complete more stories, savor and appreciate your success for the moment. Remember, there’s still work to do. A little bit of practice every day will pay off for you in the end.

Tips for Pre-Planning Your Novel

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Writing the first draft of a novel is the easy part. Revising it is the hard part. The next hardest, I believe, is pre-planning your story.

Sure, you can begin drafting the story as you see it in your head (as I usually like to do). But most authors have to do some pre-planning to know what they will write about in the first place. Otherwise, you can get through six or seven scenes then draw a blank about where the story will go next.  

Pre-planning is important for several reasons.

  • It helps you know how your story will begin – and end – and the major plot points in between.
  • It helps you understand who you protagonist is, what they most desire and what is getting in the way of getting what they want.
  • It helps you figure out who the other characters are and what their motivations are.
  • It helps you get a clear idea of the back story and setting.
  • It helps you understand how the story will progress, and how the tension will develop.
  • It helps you organize your notes so that you’re not stopping and starting your writing.

There are different approaches to pre-planning depending on the type of writer you are. If you’re a planner, then pre-planning will come naturally to you. The downside is you may get so caught up in the pre-planning, that you delay starting your novel.

If you’re a pantser like me, you prefer to write intuitively, letting the scenes and characters show up organically. However, even among pantsers, pre-planning can help you organize your ideas and give some structure to the story before you begin writing. The good news is the pre-planning process provides a skeleton layout of your story while giving it enough flexibility to allow new characters and scenes to develop.

There is no right or wrong way to plan your novel. It all depends on how much planning you like to do ahead of time. Some plans are more detailed than others. But there are a few common steps.

  1. Know what kind of story you want to write, and who your audience will likely be. Do you want to write a mystery? Women’s fiction? Literary? Or historical fiction?
  2. Write the story’s premise in 1-2 sentences. You might consider playing the game “what if” to come up with different scenarios for your story. For example, what if a rising figure skating star is kidnapped as a revenge against her father and the skater’s coach must work against the clock to find her? Be sure the premise hints at the conflict.
  3. Write a bio of your protagonist. It might help to write it in their voice so you can easily get inside their head. What is their greatest desire? What or who is getting in their way of getting it? Who are their friends and family? Know your protagonist inside and out.
  4. Brainstorm different scenes. Just jot down the ideas for each scene in 2-4 sentences. You’ll flesh them out more fully later.
  5. Create a timeline for your story. Does it take place over several days in a thriller? Or several years as they might in historical fiction. Understanding the timeline ahead of time helps you figure out when each scene will occur in relation to one another. Otherwise you’ll have to address the timing of events in the revision phase. (I highly recommend this step. I wish I had done this with my current work in progress.)
  6. Know your audience. This can be several sentences. Who are your potential readers? What else do they like to read?
  7. Do your research. If you’re writing historical fiction, this is especially important to understand the setting and customs of that time. But even if you’re not writing this genre, some research is needed. Do any of your characters suffer from a rare medical condition? You’ll need to know the symptoms and treatment. What types of poison are least likely to be detected? You’ll need to know the answers before you begin writing.
  8. Begin writing. You can start anywhere in the story. I find it helpful sometimes to write individual scenes that you can see in your imagination. You can always figure out where it will appear in the story later. Another option is to begin at the end. Writing your ending first can help you figure out how to start your novel. If you know your protagonist has to end up at Z, then you know you have to have her begin the story at V, and get through W, X and Y.  

You’ll find numerous resources and articles about planning your novel on the internet. There are numerous approaches, and you may have to experiment with several of them before you find one that works for you.

Good luck and happy writing!

Too many story ideas? Writers need a back burner   

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It never fails that as I’m slogging my way through revisions of my current work in progress, a fresh new story idea teases me. I’m tempted to drop what I’m doing to follow that shiny new idea to a more tantalizing destination, but I know I have to hold back. I know that once I follow that shiny new idea, I may never finish my current project. Sure, it’s more fun to create new stories. And I don’t want to lose the enthusiasm for writing that the new story idea promises. But work has to come first. I need to finish what I start.

So what is a writer to do? Put it on the back burner, of course. Before you do, however, it might be wise to spend an afternoon jotting down notes related to the idea. Writer Charlie Wetzel writes in this LinkedIn post that it helps to give the idea some immediate attention, then put it away to simmer, as if you’re preparing a recipe. He compares the creative process to cooking broth from scratch, which is an apt analogy. Once you pull together all your ingredients in one pot of boiling water, let give the broth time to mix.

No need to feel guilty about leaving your story idea on the back burner. There are several good reasons for doing that, most notably to allow yourself time to finish a current work in progress and take care of every day responsibilities, like shopping and doing household chores. But leaving the story on the backburner allows it to percolate so all the ingredients come together.

Reasons to use the backburner

Reason 1: The story idea needs more time to develop. When you get that flash of inspiration, the idea may come only as a single scene, a character, a piece of dialogue or a unique setting. Perhaps you come up with an interesting premise or you read a passage from a book. That single piece of information is only a seed, when what you want is to grow an entire garden. Stories are created from multiple seeds that you blend together. That requires time and patience. 

Reason 2: The backburner allows the story idea to receive additional seasoning. Like the cooking analogy above, stories require different ingredients. Wetzel believes that while ideas simmer on the backburner, additional ideas from outside stimuli can flesh out the original concept. Things like other books, news articles, an art exhibit, watching a play or TV program – all these things can contribute to your original story idea. Wetzel shares the example of writing a historical novel set during war time. Only after reading about different battles of World War I did he settle on that time period as the setting for his novel. That’s how a back burner can work for you.  

Reason 3: You are still working on your story, even though you’re not physically working on your story. The funny thing about backburners is that your subconscious mind goes to work on the idea while you’re doing other things. So while you might be busy with your day job or your current work in progress, your mind is still working out the kinks in your story idea.

“My best scenes and story ideas are always those that emerge from my subconscious. I don’t create them; I just watch them unfold,” writes author and writing coach K.M. Weiland. Her pre-writing routine is worth reviewing.

By the time she’s ready to start writing, more of the details have been fleshed out. By then, you may understand your protagonist better, named most of your characters and worked out several scenes. You have enough details to begin writing it down on paper (or screen.)

Idea generation is like any other muscle;

the more you use it, the stronger it gets.

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Choosing the next idea

Writers are funny people. No sooner do they finish one project that they look around for the next great idea to write about. It’s always a good idea to complete your current project before starting anything new, advises Weiland. But when those revisions are complete and you’re sufficiently rested from your previous work, it’s time to dust off the ideas to determine which story idea to work on next.

Weiland says writers should ask themselves several questions when considering their next story.

  • Which idea excites you the most? The more excited you are, the more likely that enthusiasm will carry you through the first draft.
  • Which idea is the most marketable? Will readers buy that novel? Will bookstores and libraries stock their shelves? The most marketable stories are worthy of your attention.
  • Are the story ideas sequels to current projects? Most likely, those sequel concepts should be given the green light ahead of others.

I suggest asking another question: Which story is the most developed from the pre-planning phase? Do I have a clear idea of the protagonist and their desires and challenges? What is the conflict? How will I grow the tension? How the story will conclude? If I’m able to sketch out the first five or six chapters as well as the closing chapters, then I will likely dive into that story before any of my other ideas.  

What if the ideas don’t work out?

Not all story ideas are created equal. Some ideas are not worth pursuing, and after a given time on the back burner, you may have to make the tough decision to let them go. Maybe they don’t excite you the way they used to when you first thought of them, or maybe they didn’t flesh out in meaningful ways as you hoped. It’s okay to dump ideas. There are always more ideas in the pipeline to replace them. I’ve found that by letting go of an unborn idea that never developed, I can make room for another more tantalizing new idea that can develop into a meaningful story.

Back burners aren’t just for cooking. They’re a useful tool for writers to keep track of fledgling story ideas that spring forth from your imagination.

Must-Read Historical Fiction with Strong Leading Female Protagonists

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March is Women’s History Month, and to commemorate the occasion, this week’s post will focus on historical fiction featuring strong female protagonists.

Throughout history, women have made huge contributions to our world – in science, politics, lifestyle, sports and, of course, literature. It makes sense to tell their stories to showcase their accomplishments. Even fictionalized accounts of real events can bring meaning to today’s readers.

Historical fiction can mean a number of things. It could be fictionalized stories that take place during  true events, such as World War II (Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale), or it could be a fictionalized story of the lives of real people (Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler).

While I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, I’ve read enough of them to compile my list of must-reads. Below are my top choices of historical fiction featuring strong leading female characters. They are not listed in any particular order. In some cases, I’ve included alternates choices.

Do you read historical fiction? Which of the stories you’ve read would you recommend?

* The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale is the story of two sisters who find themselves facing life-changing horrors during Germany’s occupation of France during World War II. Vianne and Isabelle resist the war in ways they never thought possible. Beautifully written and at times heartbreaking, The Nightingale has one of the most poignant and memorable endings. It is currently being made into a movie starring real-life sisters, Dakota and Elle Fanning.

Alternate choice: Winter Garden, also by Kristin Hannah

Set in the year 70 C.E, 900 Jews held out for months against the Roman army on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. Historians say only two women and five children survived. Hoffman’s novel tells the stories of four bold and resourceful women, each of whom has come to mountain by different means. It took Hoffman five years to research and write this lengthy novel. Beautifully written but at times painful to read. Be patient; the book starts out slow and meanders in the opening section, but with each women’s story, readers get a view of the horrific pain and devastation that affected so many lives.

Alternate choice: The Museum of Extraordinary Things, also by Alice Hoffman

  • In The Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

    In November 1960, three sisters were found dead near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff in the Dominican Republic. A fourth sister lives however. The sisters, whose code name was Las Mariposas (the Butterflies) were leading opponents of the country’s dictatorship. The story is told through the voices of the four sisters who speak across several decades of their lives up until their deaths. I found the story intriguing and heartbreaking at times.

Set in Charleston in the early 1800s, The Invention of Wings tells the story of the two Grimke sisters, Angelina and Sarah, who became early abolitionists and advocates for women’s rights. When 11-year-old Sarah is given 10-year-old Handful to be her personal maid, Sarah balks. With alternating viewpoints, the story shows how their relationship evolves over 35 years.

Alternate: The Secret Life of Bees also by Sue Monk Kidd  

The only book on my list written by a man, The Book Thief is also set during World War II. While standing at her brother’s grave site, Liesel finds a book buried in the snow, which spurs her love of books. With the help of her step-father and a Jewish refugee that her family hides, she learns to read. Anyone who loves books and reading can empathize with young Liesel who goes to great lengths to spare books from destruction by Nazis. One of the few stories I enjoyed as both a book and a film.

  • Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler

    Interestingly, I find this fictionalized account of the life of Charlotte Bronte far more compelling than the original Jane Eyre. The story covers the last nine years of Bronte’s life, her relationship with her father and sisters and how she came to write Jane Eyre.

Rewriting a Novel Isn’t Easy. Here’s Why.

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I began writing a novel in earnest last February and finished it by Memorial Day (end of May in the U.S.). It was satisfying to finally type the words “the end.”

But writing the first draft was the easy part. It’s the rewriting that was harder than I expected.

I let the manuscript cool off for several weeks before I decided to tackle the revision. That first week, I stared at the manuscript, wondering what I had gotten myself into. I had no idea how to go about editing and rewriting a project that size. I quickly got bogged down by the process, but I never got discouraged. I was determined to finish this manuscript, if only to prove that I could finish it.  

I reworked some chapters that seemed salvageable and chopped away at a few others. I set it aside again. Now I am making my way through a second revision. But as I gradually proceed, I feel I’m taking one step forward and two steps back again.

That brings me to the main point of my post today. Writing the first draft was easy. Rewriting it was where the hard work began.

Since starting the rewriting process – twice now – I’ve learned quite a bit about myself as a writer. I’m happy to share those lessons with you.

Lesson 1: Rewriting a novel is much harder than writing the first draft.

When writing the first draft, I can let my imagination fly. I may sketch out the first few chapters ahead of time, but I allow the ideas for characters, scenes and dialogue to take over. So what if I write 120,000 words for an 85,000-word story? That’s where the editing and rewriting can make a difference.

But rewriting is hard work. You can become emotionally connected to your work, and to cut so much of it can be excruciating. But it’s also necessary. As I reread the material, some scenes didn’t make sense, others were out of sequence. You may find that some characters lack depth and others aren’t needed at all. It takes time to rethink the plot and make sure it follows proper novel structure. It can take up to five rewrites – sometimes more – before the novel is truly complete.

Lesson 2: Instead of “killing your darlings,” save them for another story.

One of the toughest things to do when editing your own work is cutting material that you’ve created. It’s a painful experience. You can be so proud of the work you’ve done, only to be forced to “kill your darlings,” because they know no longer fit the story. It takes great courage to recognize that a scene or character isn’t working.

But here’s a thought. Rather than “kill off” those offending pieces of prose, send them away for adoption. Keep a file of unused material that you’ve killed off. Those sections may not work for your current novel-in-progress, but perhaps they can be adapted to fit another manuscript later.

Lesson 3: Have a clear vision of the novel’s ending.

When I began my current work, I wasn’t sure how the story would end with my protagonists besides a happily ever after. The conclusion should tie up all the loose ends. I found once I drafted my story’s ending, it was easier to handle the rewriting because I knew where the story was headed. For some writers, it might be helpful to draft the final chapters first before starting the novel’s beginning. You can also revise the ending if needed, but at least you have a direction for your story.

Lesson 4: Find the best place to jump into the story.

While it helps to have a clear vision of the novel’s ending before you begin writing (and rewriting), you might experience the beginning differently. It may come across as vague, unfocused and meandering. Perhaps there’s no conflict facing the protagonist. Or the main character has no personality.

I usually have to write and rewrite multiple versions of the first few chapters to find the right scene to jump into the story. Sometimes you start the story in the wrong place. But it’s important to determine that inciting incident that moves the story forward, or you won’t be able to engage readers’ interest.

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Lesson 5: When the going gets tough, take a break.

There will be times during the revision process when you might feel stuck, unsure what to do with the rewrite. Should that character get cut? How do I go about changing this scene? When stuck like that, I’d often step away for a few days to tackle household chores or do some other writing. When I came back to it, I could usually figure out what to do next. Rewriting can be overwhelming, and sometimes you need to give yourself a break to see the way forward.

Lesson 6: Keep your material organized.

When I began writing my novel, I didn’t realize how much organization was required. Keep copious notes, and don’t lose them. When I started writing, I had notes in different places. I’m still trying to figure out a system that works for me.

Organization is necessary to keep track of multiple versions of a scene or chapter. It’s also helpful when figuring out the proper sequence of events within the story. To make sure each scene is set up in proper sequence, I list each chapter along with a brief summary. Then I review the chapters to make sure they made sense in the order I had them. I can usually tell at a glance if I need to add another scene or rearrange the ones I’ve already written.  

Lesson 7: Be patient with your progress.

I’m not the most patient person in the world. Writing (or more accurately, rewriting) is hard work and it usually takes longer than you think it will. Rewriting is a painstakingly slow process. It comes in fits and starts, and you may never be satisfied with your progress or with the words on the page. Be patient with yourself during the rewrite. A little bit of work every day can help you move closer to your finished manuscript.  

What about you? Are you rewriting a novel? What lessons have you learned from the rewriting process?

Storytelling Lessons from Hallmark Movies

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Say what you will about Hallmark movies. You either love them or hate them. Or somewhere in between.

When I discovered Hallmark movies in 2015, I was going through a difficult period of my life. These movies helped me see that there are happy endings to stories. Certainly I could find a happy ending to my own, right?

Still if you’re aspiring writer of fiction, especially romantic fiction, you might want to watch a few of them. You might learn a few tips and tricks about storytelling.

There is nothing scientific about my observations below. They are strictly subjective based on my life perspective. Be free to agree or disagree with these lessons.

  • Create compelling characters. While Hallmark characters might lead idyllic lives compared to our own, they are flawed and often misguided. While their own troubles aren’t nearly as traumatic as some of the ones you or I might face, they are very real to them. For your own fiction stories, create characters with depth – depth of emotions and motivations.  What is their greatest desire? What obstacles stand in their way of getting it? What false belief or assumption have they been living with that prevents them from finding happiness? These are some of the questions you need to ask yourself about your lead characters so you can make them more believable on the page.
  • Create closure for characters. In Hallmark movies, there’s always a happy ending. I like happy endings, especially ones that are wrapped in brightly colored ribbons and bows. I want to see the characters solve their problems in a way that makes sense for them. You may not have a story that ends with a passionate kiss, but it should end with all loose ends tied up.  
  • Find humor in everyday situations. While some of the Hallmark movies border on silliness, the lighthearted spirit of these films appeals to audiences. The best humor comes from everyday —  and sometimes embarrassing – events. Like someone walking out of the bathroom not realizing with a piece of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of their shoe. That kind of stuff happens in real life, and readers can relate to them.  Even if you’re writing a film noir or a horror story, a little humor can lighten the mood. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer utters a sharp wisecrack just when she’s about to put a stake in a vampire’s heart, it makes for satisfying entertainment. Think about how you use humor in your own stories, but don’t add it just for humor’s sake.
  • Story lines don’t have to be overly complex to be effective. Surely, the plots for Hallmark movies are rather simplistic and not necessarily innovative. But they still work. There’s still an inciting incident (when the two romantic leads meet), a build-up of suspense and a climax when the two romantic leads finally come together.  
  • Avoid predictability. The knock on Hallmark movies has been that they are predictable, often rehashing the same story lines over and over. If you have several manuscripts in various stages of completion, make sure they’re not the same plot rehashed with different characters and settings. Readers expect more than that. Be surprising. Show them a twist that they may not have seen before. Introduce a character with an unusual background or trait. Write something unexpected to keep readers wanting more.
  • The best stories tug at the heart strings. If there’s anything that Hallmark does excel at, it’s creating heart-warming stories. You don’t have to write a romance novel to bring heart into your own story. Any work of fiction should touch the heart of your readers. Start by crating characters that you care about. If you care about them, readers will too. Then add a plot that is real and honest. You’ll have readers following your every word.
  • Create a compelling title. I find most of the Hallmark movie titles either aren’t memorable or they lack connection to the plot. They’re more cute than accurate. When you come up with a  title for your own manuscripts, think of something that adds a meaningful connection to the story and at least hints at what the story is about.

Whether you write romance, mystery, or something else, put a little heart into your stories by including these key elements. Your readers will appreciate you for it.