14 Holiday Gift Ideas for Writers (and Yourself)

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The following article was originally published in 2018. It has been revised with new gift suggestions for 2020.

Happy holidays, and ‘tis the season for gift giving. I’m taking a break from my usual posts about writing to indulge in a little brainstorming for holiday gifts for the writers in your life. Or even for yourself.   

Here are a few ideas to get you started on your gift list.

1. Books about writing. Naturally, books will fall on any writer’s wish list, especially books about writing, reading or creativity. What writer wouldn’t want to add to their library? There are plenty of books available about becoming a better writer, improving your habits, overcoming writer’s block and more. Check out some of these book suggestions. There are more suggestions here and here.

2. Writer’s tools of the trade. Every writer needs a current dictionary, thesaurus, AP Stylebook and/or University of Chicago Manual of Style to complete their library. Add The Elements of Style and a basic grammar book, and your library is complete. Even if you have a dictionary on your shelf, they are updated fairly often, so it might be beneficial to get a more current version.

3. Caffeine containers (also known as coffee mugs). No writer should be without their daily supply of caffeine. Check out this collection of humorous coffee mugs from Café Press that are sure to put a smile on your face.

4. A really, really nice pen set. Many writers I know write their stories longhand, so they need plenty of writing instruments to get the job done. Consider getting them (or yourself) a supply of really nice pens (within budgetary reasons, of course), or a stock of their favorite pen, if they have one. Working with a stylish pen can put you in a more serious frame of mind when you write.

5. Professional development. Instead of a physical item, consider the gift of experience or education. Continuous learning is important to most writers to stay on top of publishing trends. Writers are constantly searching for ways to improve their own craft and become better writers. Consider a gift of a Writer’s Digest subscription or an online course through Mediabistro.

6. Writing exercises and word puzzles. Exercise your brain and jumpstart your creativity with a magnetic word game. Each magnet contains a word, and with 100 or so word magnets, you can create some pretty imaginative poems. Put them on your refrigerator, and let the family create their own mini-short stories as they grab the milk.

Another option is the Writer’s Toolbox, described as “more exercises and games to inspire ‘the write side of the brain.’  Get the family involved with a Once Upon a Time storytelling card game. One person begins telling a story using the elements described on their cards, guiding the plot toward their Ending Card. But other players can interrupt the Storyteller with their own elements and the right to take over as the new Storyteller.

7. Jigsaw puzzles. Speaking of puzzles, jigsaws are ever popular. Not only does it give you a needed beak from writing, it’s a way to relax and unwind. If you’re stuck in a writing rut or you’re facing a tough plotting dilemma, taking time out to work on a jigsaw puzzle may be just the distraction you need to get your mind off of your writing problems.

8. A book of writing prompts
. Occasionally writers need help generating story ideas. To get the creative juices flowing, they might appreciate a book of writing prompts. Before you know it, the writer in your life (or even the writer in you) will be off and running on their next story.

9. Do Not Disturb signs. Some years ago, I once saw a sign that read “Do Not Disturb. Genius at Work.” I laughed at the time, but I think it succinctly describes the sentiment most writers feel when they are at work. Writers are creative geniuses who need privacy and quiet, uninterrupted time to plot, daydream, and craft their stories. Let people know that once that sign is on the door, it’s time to get down to work.

10. Music for your ears. Some writers enjoy a little background music while they work, so a few new tunes might put you in the mood to be creative. Even if you don’t listen to music while you work, music can calm you when you’re not working or make you feel like dancing when you’ve met a deadline.

11. Membership dues to a professional organization. If you have ever wanted to join a writers’ association, now might be an opportune time to give yourself a gift of membership. Some organizations charge only $25 or $30 annual fee to join, and if you’re lucky they may pro-rate it or give a holiday discount.

12. An inspirational poster. Looking for motivation? A framed print or poster with an inspirational quote can help you stay positive during those long stretches of writing time.

13. An ergonomic desk chair. With all the sitting writers do, it helps to have a good chair to sit on so you don’t suffer any back pain. How old is the chair you currently have and how often do you use it? Does it have enough cushion to support you? Does it allow you to plant your feet firmly on the floor? There are plenty of ergonomic chairs on the market that are designed to align your spine properly. They might cost a little more, but your backside will thank you.

14. Desk lamp. If you plan to spring for a new chair, why not add some new lighting to brighten your work space? Sometimes the right lamp can improve the lighting of your desk space while improving your mood.

At this time of year, it’s easy to become more focused on finding gifts for the people in your life. But don’t be shy about giving something to yourself. Self-care is important too, especially after the year we’ve all gone through. Remember to treat yourself well. The more you invest in yourself, the more you improve your writing life.

Happy shopping and happy holidays.

20 Best-Selling Authors Share Their Best Advice about Writing

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In the U.S., we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, a time to give thanks to the many blessings we enjoy in our lives. At this time of year, I am always grateful for the writing talent I’ve been given, as well as the abundance of story ideas I receive and the courage to share my writing experience with others. I’m also grateful for my readers. Thank you for reading my blog and commenting on posts; it keeps me grounded and motivated to keep writing.

During this Thanksgiving week, I thought I’d share a compilation of the best advice from the world’s most celebrated published authors. Let these words of wisdom serve as motivation for your own work, whether it be a novel, memoir or short story collection.

It’s comforting to know that other writers have gone through the trials and triumphs of a writing journey, like I’m going through now. It’s also worth remembering that though we might each live/work in isolation, we are all part of one interconnected community of writers.

Be grateful for your writing talents, dedicate yourself to learning your craft, and share your stories with pride. Happy Thanksgiving wherever you are celebrating this year. Enjoy!

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“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”   — George Orwell

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise, you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of our right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”   — Margaret Atwood

“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while, the muse shows up too.”  — Isabel Allende

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time – or the tools – to write.”  — Stephen King

“Nothing will happen unless you produce at least one page per day.”  — John Grisham

“You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, and you find out who they really are.”  — Joss Whedon

“A short story must have a single mood, and every sentence must build towards it.”  — Edgar Allen Poe

“Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.”  — Kurt Vonnegut

“When you’re stuck and sure you’ve written absolute garbage, force yourself to finish and then decide to fix or scrap it – or you will never know if you can.”  — Jodi Picoult

“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”  — William Faulkner

“Run your own race. Don’t worry about how fast someone else writes, how much another author makes, how many followers another author has. Write what makes you excited, and the enthusiasm will come through on the page.”  — Christina Lauren

“I think success requires a lot of hours learning the craft through books and workshops from talented teachers, to the point where you have enough confidence and instinct to sit down and say, “I’m now going to perform.” Where you can apply it to your past projects and drafts and understand what didn’t work, as well as what did.”  Robert Dugoni, author of My Sister’s Grave

“It’s freeing to actually write the thing that you want to write, because everybody when they start out tries to be the authors that they loved. I was able to explore all of these different voices, but every author has to come up with their own individual voice. It takes a while.”  — Jenny Lawson, author of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

“Finish the book and don’t let the success of others make you feel less.”  — Beverly Jenkins, romance novelist

“It takes a lot of time and effort to get good enough at writing to make books that are fun to read, and you just need to accept that. I don’t believe that there’s any such thing as a deep natural gift at writing. Even writers who are famous for just one book did a lot of writing before they wrote that book.” — Andy Weir, author of The Martian

“You have to believe in this career, you have to believe in yourself, and you have to move with great determination forward, because it doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to sell your first book or your 50th book, or you’re trying to redefine your career, or you’re trying to reinvent what it is you do, it’s always going to be difficult.”  — Kristin Hannah, author of The Nightingale

“Everyone loves talking about how busy they are. But there are 24 hours in a day. Make a half-hour or hour in a day, or an hour in a week, for writing. Just make sure you have one designated time—however long it is, given your constraints—to focus on writing.” — Roxane Gay, author of The Bad Feminist

“It’s very hard to write without having things to write about. That doesn’t mean necessarily going out as ‘a writer’. But having experiences that interest you in the world are a good first step to having material.” — Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball

“I am a huge believer in revision. The more times you write it, the more alive it becomes. For me, very often the first, second and third times it’s kind of dead material, but the more you go over it, the more you rewrite it, the more it comes to life.” — Alice Hoffman, author of Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic

“The best advice I can give is to close the door to your writing room and not worry about anyone’s feelings until you’ve finished a draft. You don’t know what you’ll discover through the writing unless you write it—and considering people’s feelings before you’ve even written is a form of self-censorship.” — Dani Shapiro, memoirist

Stuck in the Middle of Your Novel? Try These Methods to Get Moving Again

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I started writing my first novel nearly three years ago. After rewriting the opening chapter at least a dozen times and writing a draft of most of the chapters that followed, I’ve landed somewhere in the middle not sure where to go next. So I’ve set the novel aside to work on other projects while I figure out if I should rework the novel or give up on it.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Many aspiring authors experience this sticking point. It can feel like trudging through a muddy forest, feet sinking into the ground.

The middle is the largest section of your story, and where most of the action takes place. It’s where your protagonist begins their journey, faces trouble, and meets adventure. Life gets complicated and the antagonist displays all their power. The middle is where you present challenge after challenge, each getting more difficult and raising the stakes higher for the protagonist. Without this series of setbacks, false starts and obstacles, readers may lose interest in your story.

Literary agent Donald Maass describes this middle section as place to play, a literary playground of sorts. “The middle isn’t quicksand; it’s a sandbox. It’s a place to play, the place for surprises. It is the most fun part of the novel because it’s the least burdened with the heavy requirements and rules of set up and resolution,” writes Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel.

If you’ve been slogging through your latest novel-in-progress, and the middle part has stymied your progress, it’s time to step back and review the work you’ve done so far. It may be that several scenes are out of proper sequence and need to be moved around. Or maybe you have provided either too much backstory which slows down the pace, or you have provided too little backstory that readers can’t understand what’s happening on the page.

The good news is there are ways to fix these issues.

First of all, it’s important to relax and keep writing, writes Heather Webb on the Writer Unboxed blog. This is especially important if you are working on a first draft. First drafts are usually messy anyway. Don’t beat yourself up because there is plenty of time to revise it later. Many of the issues related to tension, pacing and stronger narratives can be worked out in the editing phase, Webb adds.

What other issues might you be having with your middle section? Check out the solutions below.

1. Have you done enough research? Most of your story’s research should be done before you start writing. So you might be stuck because you didn’t research adequately, says Webb. You can’t move forward until you know X, Y and Z. Maybe there isn’t enough backstory for your main character, or about a prior event, or maybe there’s a key prop needed to carry a scene. You might need to go back to research the time and place of your story, especially if it’s set in the past.

2. Do you know your protagonist inside and out? The middle section provides the challenges that will test the protagonist’s strengths and abilities, as well as their fears and weaknesses. It’s important to understand what those strengths, weaknesses, desires and special skills are. Understand the flaw or wound that keeps them stuck in a rut and makes them feel they don’t belong in their current environment. Webb suggests journaling in your character’s voice to get to know their motivations and personality inside and out.

3. Have you introduced sub-plots? Focusing only on the main plot can be boring for readers because it’s one note. By introducing subplots, you complicate the protagonist’s story, weave in complex situations and reveal the protagonist’s secondary concerns and goals. “Every scene is a mini-story where the hero struggles,” writes Zara Altair at ProWriting Aid blog. This increases the tension readers need to stay engaged with your story.

4. Have you allowed enough space on the page for your supporting characters? The middle section is the prime opportunity for your readers to get to know these supporting – and sometimes antagonistic – characters. These are the characters who will accompany your protagonist on their journey – or hinder their progress, says Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA. A good example is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where readers learn more about Harry’s classmates and teachers at when he first arrives at Hogwarts.

5. Have you tried the rule of three to move the story along?  Pay attention to stories, books, TV shows and films and you’ll notice the rule of three appears somewhere in the middle of their story lines–three ex-boyfriends, for example, who show up to court your female hero. Or as in A Christmas Carol, three ghosts of the past, present and future who appear to Scrooge during the night.  The number three is common, says Pereira, because “it gives us a feeling of completeness. Two is not enough to establish a pattern, and four feels like too many. Three is just the right balance. It sets up a pattern but allows room for a twist in the third repetition.”

Remember, getting stuck in the middle sections happens to most writers. It’s part of the process of creating. It just means you have to step back, re-evaluate your plot structure, and alter where necessary. As Webb writes, “Be patient with yourself and with your story.”

Novel Beginnings and Endings: A Primer on Prologues and Epilogues

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If you’re working on a novel or memoir, you’ve probably considered how to begin and end your work. Should you open with a prologue? If so, what should the prologue contain? Should I include an epilogue too?

There is dissent among agents and editors about whether prologues are necessary. Some suggest that your first chapter should do the work that your prologue does. If your first chapter is written well (see my previous post), a prologue isn’t necessary, they claim. Other publishing experts feel prologues can work if they are done well.

Prologues are commonly used for genres such as historical fiction, thrillers, horror, and sci-fi and fantasy. They’re ideal for world building and providing background on a character or situation that may not fit into the main text.

If you’re considering starting your story with a prologue, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Prologues

  • Keep it short and simple. Prologues are shorter than chapters, which can run as long as 12 to 15 pages or more. Most prologues are only a few pages.  
  • Provide a glimpse of the past or future. If there’s a part of the backstory that’s integral to the main plot line that readers need to know in advance, a prologue might be the best place for that backstory. It’s better than flipping back and forth between the present and that other time or place, writes Shaelyn Bishop of Reedsy.
  • Use it for world building. Readers get a sense of what this new world looks and feels like, adds Bishop. You might be able to divulge some details about scene or present a different place and time that grounds readers
  • Reboot a series. If there’s a long gap between books in a series, the prologue can re-introduce characters, scenes and story lines from previous books.
  • Use an alternate point of view. For example, for a mystery or thriller, the prologue might be written in first person from the point of view of a person who is murdered, while the rest of the story is written from the perspective of the person investigating the crime.

These are general guidelines, of course. A good example of a well-written prologue is Caught by Harlan Coben, which follows several of the guidelines above. It’s shorter than the main chapters in the book, it introduces a character who becomes the focus of the story. It provides background to this character’s life story, which later becomes a contentious issue with the protagonist. The reader is left to decide which is true about this character – the one introduced in the prologue or the one the protagonist thinks he is.

Further, the prologue provides relevant and supplemental details to the story line. In this action-packed thriller, the prologue works because readers get caught up in the action. It also does a good job of tying into the conclusion, which answers all the questions readers need to know.

Ultimately, the best judge of whether to include a prologue is you. You know your story best. Let your story determine if you need a prologue or not.

Epilogues

There is less debate about epilogues, which come at the end of your story. The Write Practice describes the epilogue as “the moment when the reader learns the fate of the characters or when the hook to a sequel is revealed.” The epilogue generally has a different tone, point of view and time period compared to previous chapters. It is often set some time in the future, such as the epilogue for the Harry Potter series which placed the characters far into the future where they are seeing their own kids off to Hogwarts. Like the prologue, the epilogue is shorter than the chapters, usually only a few pages.

According to Kirkus Reviews, the epilogue can serve any number of purposes:

  • Illustrate a changed world. The epilogue can show how the world changed as a result of the conflict and action that took place in earlier chapters. If the prologue or early chapters showed dire circumstances, show how those circumstances changed and perhaps how the protagonist’s life changed.
  • Provide closure. Whatever remaining threads need to be tied up can be done in the epilogue. It can answer questions readers might have, such as “What happened to so-and-so?”
  • Return to real life after a difficult journey. The epilogue can serve as a breather after an action-filled story. It’s where characters recover from injuries, reunite with loved ones and resolve outstanding problems.
  • Create a cliffhanger. If the book is part of a series, the epilogue can provide a cliffhanger for the next book in the series, including a hint at a possible future conflict. In this case, the epilogue will whet the reader’s appetite for the rest of the story.

When contemplating whether to use an epilogue to conclude your novel, ask yourself “What do readers need to know to feel satisfied about the outcome?”

When used judiciously, prologues and epilogues can work like bookends, giving your novel a structural boost that can be carried throughout your novel 

Novel Beginnings: Eight Tips for Writing a More Compelling Opening Chapter

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If you have ever read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, you probably remember this opening line:

“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love, we find out who we want to be; in war, we find out who we are.”

I’d be hard pressed to find any opening more poignant than this one. From the very start, readers are taken on an emotional journey that doesn’t end until the final sentence.

Writers are tasked with the challenge to create a similar experience with their readers. The start of any  novel should accomplish several things: create the tone of the story, provide the point of view, reveal character, and show tension and conflict, among other things. Certainly, the opening line from The Nightingale accomplishes most of these objectives. Does your story do the same?

Why is the opening so critical? Because if it doesn’t grab the reader’s interest and keep it for the first few pages, the reader will likely close the book and set it aside, never getting to the end of it. Ask any published author, editor or agent what makes a strong opening, and you’ll hear a number of answers, which are summarized below. And these suggestions don’t just pertain to fiction, but to short stories, memoir and non-fiction works too. Without a compelling start, readers will dismiss your effort.

If you are participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), it might be helpful to keep the following suggestions in mind as you write the opening of your novel.

1. Skip the prologue. There is ongoing debate about the merits of a prologue. Many editors and agents feel they aren’t necessary. I tend to agree with them. I’ve rarely read a prologue that made a difference in my understanding of the plot. The one exception is Caught by Harlan Coben, which provided sufficient background on one of the main characters to make you second guess the outcome. But if you plan your story well and write the opening pages right, there shouldn’t be a need for a prologue.

2. Create a protagonist that readers will care about. The opening is your opportunity to reveal your protagonist’s character. Is he/she rebellious, angry, ambitious or curious? In the above opening from The Nightingale, the character speaking is introspective and perhaps has gained wisdom from life experience. It makes me care about who she is and what else she (and it is a she, btw) might have to say.

3. Ground your reader in the story’s setting. According to the Write Practice blog, let readers see where the story takes place. Establish early on what the setting is for the story – the time period, the location, the season of the year, etc. When the reader feels grounded in the setting, they feel mentally prepared to experience the events as the characters do.

4. Create conflict and tension. Identify what the inciting incident is – that starting point to your story that changes the status quo. Where is the conflict? Is that conflict with another character, with a situation or within themselves? That conflict is needed to create tension, which helps draw readers in and keep them reading to see how the conflict is resolved.  

5. Don’t frontload with dialogue or action. According to Fuse Literary, too much action or dialogue can confuse readers. Sure, you want to start with some sort of action, but an opening chapter heavy on action and dialogue and not enough narrative or backstory can be confusing to readers who may need a point of reference to understand what is happening on the page. You need some action, of course, but balance it with some narrative so you don’t lose readers’ interest.

6. Don’t overload the opening with backstory either. According to recent Reedsy webinar, Crafting a Novel Opening, writers should focus on what the reader needs to know at that moment. There’s plenty of time to reveal backstory and world building as the story progresses, says Shaelin Bishop who led the discussion. Weave in backstory throughout the length of the manuscript, and allow details to breathe between scenes. This approach will help with the pacing too. If readers are overloaded with details up front, they may feel overwhelmed.

7. Hook the reader with an interesting twist. Start where the story gets interesting, which is usually at the point where there’s a change in the status quo. For example, the protagonist gets a letter with good news or bad news, a new person enters the protagonist’s life, or they get into an accident that alters the course of their life.  “Show what is interesting rather than focusing on the mundane. It’s okay to show less of the status quo than you think you need to,” says Shaelin Bishop with Reedsy. This approach avoids overloading your opening chapter with too many details that can bore your reader.

8. Every scene should serve several purposes. For example, one scene can establish the tone of the story, reveal something about the character and hint at future conflict. This sounds complex, but it’s necessary to keep the story moving forward and keep readers interested. Don’t waste your first sentence, or any sentence for that matter. Write every scene with a purpose in mind. If it doesn’t serve  purpose, and if a character doesn’t serve a purpose, cut them out.

To get into the habit of writing stronger openings, try these two exercises.

Exercise 1: Take 10 minutes and create as many opening sentences as you can think of. It could be for a current work in progress or any other story. Experiment with different perspectives. Here are a couple of examples of intriguing openings that made me keep reading:

“You would think it would be impossible to find anything new in the world, creatures no man has ever seen before, one-of-a-kind oddities in which nature has taken a backseat to the coursing pulse of the fantastical and the marvelous. I can tell you with certainty that such things exists ….”
The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman

“My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining, I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”
Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan

Exercise 2: Select five novels from your collection that you enjoyed reading. Go back and read the first page from each one. What made you turn the page? Why did it grab your interest? Did it reveal anything about the setting, tone or character? Did it create tension and conflict? What can you learn from these first pages that you can adapt to your own work?

Hope you find these tips and exercises helpful.  

When Your Creative Muse Ghosts You, Here’s How to Reconnect With It

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Creativity is an attitude, a habit, and a way of life that allows you to adapt to changing circumstances.”
Barry Kaufman, author and psychologist at Columbia University


Most of us have had that awful experience of being ghosted. Dictionary.com defines ghosting as “the practice of ending all contact with a person without an explanation or a good-bye.”

Most ghosting situations occur in romantic relationships, but they can happen in professional ones too. For example, a client might ghost you after they’ve given you an assignment, or an employer may not follow up with you after an interview that you thought went well.

But what should you do when you’ve been ghosted by your creative muse?

Many artists and creatives rely on their muse for inspiration, to guide them through rough spots during a creative project or make them feel pride in their work. But there are times when it seems the muse has abandoned you. It really hasn’t gone anywhere though. It might disappear for a while, but it’s still there, hovering nearby.

How do you know that your creative muse (or spirit, if you prefer) has ghosted you, or worse is crushed by outside forces?

* You’ve done the same project the same way, each time expecting better results than before – the definition of insanity.
* You haven’t had any fresh, new ideas in a long while.
* You’re exhausted by the effort you put in
* You can’t concentrate because someone hovers by your work space to make sure you’re doing things the way they want you to do it.
* You know something is wrong with your work-in-progress, but you don’t know how to fix it.
* You are constrained by tons of rules and restrictions from your client or supervisor.
* You don’t feel excited about anything you write.
* Projects are more complex and seem to take longer than you anticipated.

Even when it feels like the creative spirit has left you, remember that the disappearance isn’t permanent. The spirit may have taken a break or gone on an extended vacation. The ideas listed below can help you reconnect with your creative muse.   

1. Take a walk in nature. Walking isn’t just good exercise, but being alone in nature helps clear your head.
2. Read a book or catch up on your favorite blog. Reading a favorite author can remind you why you decided to become a writer.
3. Sleep on it. Sometimes when you feel stuck, shelve the problem for the night. A solution may come by morning.
4. Take a bath or shower. In astrology, water symbolizes creativity. Immersing yourself in water can flush out creative ideas. Some of my best ideas came while I was taking a shower.
5. Do nothing. Let your mind be a blank for a day. Give your creative muse the day off.
6. Attend an online webinar. You might learn something that jogs your thought process. You might generate ideas that you never considered before.
7. Unplug from electronics. Your smart phone and social media may be clouding your creativity and putting too many distractions in your way.  
8. Talk things over with a friend or writing buddy. They might provide a perspective you had not considered.
9. Keep writing. Even if you produce less-than-stellar material, you’re still exercising your creative muscle. Good ideas are bound to float to the page.
10. Practice self-care. If you were your creative muse, would you want to work with you? According to Writing and Wellness blog, make yourself more inviting so your creative muse will want to work with you. Treat yourself to a haircut, get a new outfit, or get a massage. When you feel good about yourself, your creative muse will be happy to inspire you.  
11. Watch a movie. For fun, pay attention to the story line. Make a note of character arcs, plot points, inciting incident, etc. It’ll get you in the practice of creating your own story line.
12. Listen to music. Music is known to calm the savage beast, so they say. If you feel frustrated by the creative process, music might put you in the mood to write.
13. Seek feedback from a mentor or coach. They might share a perspective you had not considered.
14. Engage in a different hobby. Play sports, draw some sketches or try out a new recipe. You’re still engaging your creative muse, but in different ways.
15. Change your surroundings. Rearrange furniture in your workspace, clear out desk drawers or get a new desk lamp. One small change can alter the creative energy in your workspace.
16. Vent your frustrations in a journal. Writing down your feelings can clear your mind of toxic thoughts that can block your creativity.
17. Browse through old photos. Looking back over photos from the past might trigger memories of good and bad experiences worth writing about.
18. Review your writer’s journal. Hopefully you keep a writer’s journal where you write story ideas, characters, scene ideas, etc. Looking back over these ideas might spark a creative idea for a new project.
19. Visit a museum, city landmark or neighborhood that you’ve never visited before. It might give you a new perspective on the world.
20. Go back to your “why.” We all have a reason for writing. Go back and review why you write. The answer might inspire you to get back to your desk.

Remember, your creative muse has its off days too. Sometimes you have to give it the time, space and attention it needs to flourish.

12 Tips to Survive – and Thrive – National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

Logo courtesy of NaNoWriMo

Have you always wanted to write a novel but wasn’t sure how to start writing it? Maybe you’ve had a story idea swirling inside your brain for the past decade and just never made the time to write it. With November right around the corner, here’s your chance.

National Novel Writing Month is an annual creative writing challenge that takes place every November in which participants aim to write 50,000 words in 30 days toward a completed novel. The event is hosted NaNoWriMo, a nonprofit organization that encourages writing fluency and education for all ages. According to its website, the NaNoWriMo group believes in “the transformational power of creativity.”

Participation in this annual event has escalated from a mere 21 people in 1999 to 306,230 in 2017, according to the Novel Factory. You don’t have to sign up on their website to participate. You can do this in the comfort of your home, which is what I plan to do. While the goal is 50,000 words for the entire month, that is only the goal. If you can only achieve 30,000 words – or 1,000 words a day – that’s fine too. This is a personal challenge to motivate writers to write every day and work toward a larger goal.

Whether this is the first time you take part in the event or the tenth, here are some helpful tips for surviving this 30-day writing challenge. You can find other helpful tips here too.

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Outline and research your story ahead of time. Since you’ll be spending your November days writing, you’ll need to know what you’ll be writing about. Plan ahead. Plot your outline in advance. The Novel Factory has some awesome free downloadable tools to help you plan your story.

The same goes for research. If you’re writing historical fiction, do your research ahead of time. If you get to a place in your story where you need to do more research, make a note of what you need to do and come back to that place during the revision phase. Don’t get distracted by the desire to look up something or you will never get back to your writing.

Plan your schedule. With a hefty 50,000 word goal, you’ll need to plan how you will achieve it. That’s roughly 1,667 words a day with no days off, or 2,000 words a day with one day off each week. Those daily word goals can be daunting. So it’s important to plan how much you’ll be able to write. It might mean getting up an hour early each day to write, or doing mini sessions throughout the day. Remember, you don’t have to write in one huge chunk of time.

Try something new. Many writers use NaNoWriMo to experiment with their writing. It might be re-writing a current work-in-progress from an alternate point of view, or trying their hand at writing a different genre – science fiction when they normally write psychological suspense. This approach can be applied to your writing schedule too. For example, try getting up an hour earlier in the morning to start writing rather than waiting until the evening when you may be too tired.

Participate in live write-ins. If you’re looking to stay motivated throughout the month, check out a live write-in in your area. If you sign up at the NaNoWriMo website, you’ll be given locations of write-ins near you. With the pandemic, I imagine there might be virtual write-ins too. 

Work with a writing buddy. When you participate with a friend, you can motivate each other and help you through the rough spots. If you’re both competitive, set up your own contest to see who can write more words each day. Try putting a giant thermometer on your wall. As you complete your daily word count, fill in the thermometer with red to see your progress. Then compare your progress with that of your friend’s.

Be prepared to put some activities on the backburner. That may mean less time hanging out on social media, less time watching Netflix or Hulu or shutting off the TV. It could also mean spending less time socializing with your friends and fewer Zoom meetings. You’ll have to decide what you can live without for the short term while you work on your masterpiece.

Silence your inner critic/editor. As you write, turn off the internal critic who tells you that your work isn’t good. It’s easy to get sidetracked by negative thoughts. First drafts usually aren’t very good, so relax and just tell your story without judgment and self-criticism. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is to challenge yourself to write your story. There will always be time for editing later.

Avoid going back to the beginning. If you are ever tempted to read what you’ve already written or rewrite it, don’t. You may decide that your work is terrible and give up. Or you may want to start editing it, which only wastes time. If necessary, read the last page or two that you wrote to remember where you left off, but otherwise, keep a forward focus.

Find your writing rhythm. You may find one week into NaNoWriMo that you’ve hit your stride. That’s great news. If you get to the end of your 2,000 word goal and you still feel motivated to keep going, then by all means, keep writing. That’s one way to build up your word count early on in the challenge so if you feel a bit sluggish by the end of the month, you can slow down without harming your end goal.

Reward yourself when you reach milestones. When you get to the 5,000 word mark, for example, treat yourself to your favorite snack or watch a favorite movie. Set another reward at 10,000 words, 20,000 words and so on. Occasional rewards serve as great motivational tools to keep you writing.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet your writing goals. So you only wrote 30,000 words. Congratulate yourself for your accomplishment. That’s better than not writing at all. Remember the purpose of this event is to challenge yourself to make quick, steady progress.

Make time for exercise and fresh air. All work and no play can stifle your creativity. Make sure you get outside if the weather is nice, and go for a walk or a bike ride. It’ll help clear the cobwebs from your brain and you can return to your desk with a fresh perspective.

Most important, have fun with NaNoWriMo. Yes, there will be plenty of hard work involved, but stay positive. Look at how much you will learn and grow as a writer. No matter how many words you eventually put down on the page, you can be proud of your accomplishment as you see your story develop.

Writing about Your Ghosts: Tips for Writing a Haunted Memoir

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October’s theme is Writing Scary Ghost Stories

“When writing a memoir about a difficult subject, writers have two responsibilities. One to ourselves and the other to the reader.”  Alexandra Amor, author of Cult, A Love Story: Ten Years Inside a Canadian Cult and the Subsequent Long Road to Recovery

It’s that wonderful time of year when our thoughts turn to Halloween costumes, ghost stories around a campfire or tales of the dark.

Of course, most ghost stories we hear or see on the big screen are fiction. People enjoy them because they know they’re not true. They are popular because they also tend to feed on our imagination, on what we perceive to be ghosts. We all have our own ideas of what ghosts are supposed to look like. Certainly we don’t imagine them to look like the Maitlands in Beetlejuice, the newly married couple played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin who were caught between the real world and the afterlife.

But in reality, ghosts can be anything that is not easily explained, writes essayist Bruce Grimm Owens, who often writes about haunted memoir. It can be a sudden knocking on the wall, a fire alarm that goes off for no reason, a scent that appears out of nowhere or lights that switch on during the night.

Ghosts also don’t have to be literal interpretations. They can be metaphorical as well – a memory, a nightmare or daydream, a secret, or feelings of guilt, fear, grief or anger. Any event that leaves a lasting imprint on the writer that forces her to explore those events and find explanations for them. Why did they manifest in her life at that moment?

“A writer’s task is to explore what these ghosts mean to them,” writes Owens. Identity is often a major theme in haunted memoir, he adds. What role do ghosts play in the story you tell about who you are?

We all have our ghosts, real or imagined, literal and metaphorical. When it comes to writing about your ghost, you need to follow the same rules for writing creative nonfiction. For starters, memoir is not the same as an autobiography, which relays events in chronological order with little room for reflection about events. “Rather than simply telling a story from her life, the memoirist both tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in the light of her current knowledge, writes Judith Barrington, author of Writing the Memoir. “The contemporary memoir includes retrospection as an essential part of the story.”

Author Alexandra Amor suggests that writing memoir is about writing for both ourselves and for readers. “We tell our personal stories in memoir to inform, educate and perhaps even to assist others.” It isn’t just about telling our own stories but finding ways to connect with readers through the stories we share.

There are different ways to approach writing a memoir and different ways of sharing the ghosts of your past. Below are a few general guidelines for writing your haunted memoir.

1. Stay focused on a particular time period, event or theme. You might focus on your teenage years, for example, or the time your family lived in a haunted house until they moved out.  

2. Be truthful about everything you experience. Avoid exaggerating the details, but be honest about what you saw, felt and heard. Don’t use the memoir to exact revenge on anyone, and avoid writing with anger and bitterness about events. It’s important to tell your story honestly and objectively.

3. Put readers in your shoes. Let them see the action from your perspective as you experienced them. That lends authenticity to your writing, and people will find your story more credible and believable.

4. Use all five of your senses. Describe your experiences through taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight. Let readers feel the coarse straw when you hid under a haystack, or the slick, mushy feel of the green slime that oozed down the basement stairs. Describe the scent of lavender perfume that you always smelled in your haunted house, or the sharp, acrid smell of burnt coffee. When you engage all of your senses, it helps readers experience your life the way you did.

5. Slow down the action. When the scariest scenes arrive, slow down, suggests A. E. Santana at the Horror Tree blog. Take time describing the scene. Let them follow along as you explore the dark cold basement or the graveyard. Slowing down the action adds suspense and makes readers believe they were there with you.

6. Show your personal growth. Be sure to show how your life changed over time. What was your life like at the start of the story, and how did you change at the end as a result of your experience? Did you embrace a new identity for yourself? Did you learn a life lesson?

A couple of final tips. Many memoir writers often cannot write effectively after a life-changing event. You may need to let sufficient enough time pass so you can reflect on how this haunted experience affected you. If you find after you’ve started writing your haunted memoir that it is still too painful to write about or you are still too close to the event, Amor says it’s okay to set aside your work. Return to it in a year or two when you’ve done more healing.

Writing about your ghosts takes courage, but doing so will make you stronger and more resilient.



Haunt Your Readers with These Six Scary Elements of Suspense

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“How do you tell interesting stories? You puncture through reality and you let magic and weird stuff and ghosts bleed back through.”  Carmen Maria Machado

Imagine reading the following story:

A man has just finished washing dishes in his kitchen one night. As he is about to leave the sink, he notices a spider crawl up the drain into the sink. The man shakes his head in disbelief, then turns on the faucet to drown the spider. Seconds later, the spider returns, this time a little larger than before. The man can’t believe his eyes, even as he turns on the faucet again to push the spider back down the drain. The spider returns, larger than before. Each time, the man turns on the faucet to drawn the spider and each time, the spider crawls back up. The man’s eyes grow large, panicked at seeing the growing spider. He begins to sweat, fear overtakes him. Finally, the spider is so large, it has overtaken the man who screams in sheer horror at the beast. The viewer is left to wonder — did the spider kill the man — or did his fear of it kill him?

This was a vignette I saw many years ago on one of those horror TV shows that was popular back then, either The Twilight Zone or Night Gallery. Though I saw this episode several decades ago, that story haunts me today. Not that I’m scared of spiders – not really — but the story created a lasting impression. Why? It fed on the man’s fear and the viewer’s imagination. Logically, we know it’s not physically possible for a spider to grow so much so fast, yet we see it happen before our very eyes. The image of the ever growing spider leaves an indelible mark on our imaginations. We leave understanding what can happen when we let our fear overtake our common sense.

I believe that is the power and appeal of a truly scary story.

Writing scary stories – whether of ghostly hauntings, the paranormal, or brain-eating zombies – can be a challenge. While you must still follow the elements of writing a novel or short story, like plot structure, character arc and dialogue, but you have the task of creating scenes that send chills down your readers’ spines. Fortunately, there are ways to create that spine-tingling response.

1. Use your own fear. Horror goddess Shirley Jackson believes tapping into your deepest fear can make a good scary story. Just think about all the things that you were ever afraid of as a child, or fear now. Most people admit to being afraid of snakes or spiders. Other people may fear drowning, suffocation, or thunderstorms, dark spaces or the woods. Any of these things can be the basis for your scary story.

2. Get inside the narrator’s head. Author R.L. Stine likes writing his stories from first person point of view because it allows readers to view the action through the protagonist’s eyes. When the protagonist and her best friends explore an abandoned warehouse late at night, you see what she sees, hear what she hears and feels the fear like she does.     
                                                       
3. Create a good (hidden) monster. According to Dictionary.com, sometimes the best monsters aren’t creepy-looking at all, but someone who looks like you and me. It can be the boy next door, a teacher at school or the family pet. They seem innocent on the surface, but maybe they have some magic power or an evil streak that they hide. Even more compelling, the evil being never dies, no matter how often your protagonist tries to kill them – like the poor homeowner who tried to kill the spider. One of the creepiest ways to end a story is by hinting that the monster is still alive and well and prepared to kill again.

4. Write about your obsessions. Is there an experience you can’t quite forget? A relationship you can’t get over? A person who betrayed you long ago? We all have our obsessions, things we can’t let go of. We all have those dark places within us, where anger, jealousy and greed reside. Use those obsessive dark places to create your scary stories.

5. Make the story relevant to the reader. According to Dictionary.com, your story becomes scarier when readers can relate to the scene where the story takes place. A haunted house is nice, but maybe opt for a location your readers are more familiar with, such as a library, the public park or the local coffee shop. Add modern elements too, such as cell phones or social media. There’s nothing more terrifying than getting a threatening text message from a scary monster.

6. Take your ghostly, weird creations seriously. Not everyone will appreciate the scary beings you create, but that’s okay as long as you do. Ray Bradbury says the strangest, weirdest beings you create represent fear in some form. Further writers should be selective about whose criticisms they believe. Bradbury says, “I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

The scariest stories aren’t always about blood and gore. Sometimes a mere hint of something mysterious or creepy can be scary. Anything that draws on the reader’s personal fears and overactive imagination will scare the heck out of them.

Most important, embrace your inner monster. We all have it inside us. When you tap into your internal weirdness, magical and mysterious things can happen with your writing.  

Know the Pros and Cons of Ghostwriting

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October theme: Scary, ghostly things related to writing

As a writer, there are numerous paths to take in your career and different ways to specialize. Ghostwriting is one of them.

According to content marketing platform CrowdContent.com, ghostwriters are “professional writers who craft material for others, taking a client’s vision, story or idea and creating a polished, publication-quality product that the client can attach his name to and call his own.”

You likely equate ghostwriting with celebrity memoirs, autobiographies, novel series and nonfiction e-books, but ghostwriting can be done for business writing too, such as press releases, blog posts, opinion pieces and speeches. You might have done a few ghostwriting assignments without recognizing it as such. Maybe you wrote a speech for a community leader or a VIP at your job. Or maybe you wrote a letter to the editor on behalf of someone else. Ghostwriting is just one more service to offer clients.

But breaking into ghostwriting isn’t easy and assignments are difficult to find, which can deter novice freelancers from entering the field. But there are advantages to writing for others too. Below is a brief breakdown of the pros and cons of becoming a ghostwriter.

Pros

1. Ghostwriters can earn income while pursuing your own projects. While you give up the byline, you get paid for your efforts. Plus in between ghostwriting assignments, you have time to work on your own projects.

2. Assignments can cover almost every topic under the sun. You may be assigned to write about anything whether it’s a self-help book, the Vietnam War or home decorating, you can learn plenty along the way. If you love to do research and are open to learning about different topics, ghostwriting might be the right gig for you.

3. You don’t need special credentials to enter the field. According to Careermetris.com, Advanced degrees and special certifications aren’t required to become a ghostwriter.
As long as you can write well, listen to your author carefully and take copious notes, you can succeed as a ghostwriter. As writer Jon Reiner writes, “A successful ghostwriter is first a good listener, and then a good writer.”

4. You are responsible only for writing, nothing more. Once the project ends, your responsibilities end too. You aren’t involved in other aspects of the project, such as production and marketing. Writers don’t need to be concerned with making public appearances and interviews to promote the book either since that will be the author’s job.

5. Once established in the field, ghostwriting can be lucrative. According to Fast Company, less experienced ghostwriters can earn $20,000 to $30,000 per project while intermediate level writers can earn more than $50,000. Once established, early assignments can lead to bigger and better paying ghostwriting gigs.

Cons

1. Ghostwriting is a competitive field. There are few opportunities available, and few of them are openly advertised on job boards. Assignment lead can be difficult to find and it can be painstakingly slow to develop contacts to find potential leads. Patience and persistence are needed to find that first assignment.

2. You have to give up a byline. Your name usually does not appear on the finished product. You do all the work but not the credit, though you do get paid.

3. You have to work for someone else. That person makes the decisions, which you may not agree with. You have to set aside your ego to work with them, and you will have little control over the project outcome.

4. There may be strict deadlines and fast turnaround times. According to CareerMetris.com, you might be required to work longer hours to meet a deadline because the author wants to publish a book to respond to current events.

5. The work may not be very interesting. Despite the fact that ghostwriters might cover a myriad of topics, you may find those topics boring or beyond your expertise.

Before specializing as a ghostwriter, consider the pros and cons. Which of these conditions can you live with, and which of them are deal breakers?

It might be helpful to talk to a few established ghostwriters to learn about their experience. Check out the Association of Ghostwriters to learn more about this niche.  

Despite the potential downsides, ghostwriting for others can be a satisfying way to earn an income while pursuing your own passions.