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

Logo courtesy of NaNoWriMo

This article is reposted from October 2020.

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.

For more great tips to survive NaNoWriMo, check out this article from Reedsy.

How to Instill a Love of Creative Writing in Kids

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I’m not a parent or a teacher, but I care about kids and education, especially when it comes to writing and reading – the pillars of lifelong learning. If you can read and write well – and more important, if you enjoy doing them – I believe you’re set for life.

Even if you don’t have kids of your own, you can still encourage a love of the written word in others. For starters, become an avid reader and writer yourself. When other people see you engrossed in a book, it might make them curious about what you’re reading and why. Even better, that book in your hand can make an interesting conversation starter.

But there are a surprising number of ways you can instill a love of reading and writing in kids – and kids at heart. Below are a few of them.

1. Fill your life with stories. Read to your child every day. If they’re in middle school, for example, choose a title that is slightly above their reading ability or take turns reading pages from a book of their choice. While waiting in the doctor’s office or in the park, tell your child stories. When they hear stories from you, they’ll learn to be storytellers too.

2. Subscribe to kids’ writing magazines. When that magazine arrives in your mailbox every month, it provides numerous stories that kids can look forward to enjoying, whether they read it themselves or you read it to them. It can entice them to become better writers too, says book editor John Fox. Some accept submissions from children. Imagine seeing your kid’s work published in a national magazine. There are numerous publications to choose from depending on the age group. Try Highlights, which I grew up reading. Or Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill or Cricket media.

3. Take your children to see plays. When they see a play, they’re seeing storytelling in action. It makes the characters come alive, and the live action can interest your child in creating their own stories and put on plays at home.

4. Bring them to the library or bookstore. When they see you browsing the shelves, you’re setting an example. This is another way to demonstrate your own love of reading. When you shop for yourself, be to shop for them. Browse the children’s section and see what they gravitate toward. The library or bookstore may also have readings from children’s authors too.

5. Set up a designated space for writing. I encourage writers to have their own writing space separate from other areas of the home. People just need that space to create without disruptions from the TV or other family members. If possible, set up a designated space for writing for your child. It could be a corner of their bedroom, a corner of your home office, or the attic. The important thing is that it’s quiet so they can think, dream and play with words.

6. Provide a variety of writing tools when they write. The Measured Mom suggests providing a variety of writing tools that kids can play with to engage their imagination. Try crayons, markers, chalk, colored pencils, ink pens or even charcoal or paint. As they write a story, they can draw pictures or write the words down in different colors. It can make a perceived boring activity like writing seem more fun.

7. Have them start their own journal. Either purchase one or better yet, create their own journal. Get some lined paper, staple one side to create a booklet. Add a blank cover sheet that they can design and color to their heart’s content. Creating their own journal instills a pride of ownership.

8. Use props to inspire writing. Sadie Phillips at Teachwire.net suggests providing props to inspire a child’s writing habit. It could be a shoe, a photograph, or a piece of jewelry you wear. Ask them to write a story about that prop. Where did it come from? Does it have a voice to speak, or ears to hear? It’s one more technique to prompt your child’s creativity.

9. Provide writing prompts. Just as writing prompts can be helpful in jump starting ideas for adult writers, kids can benefit from writing prompts too. Try a fill in the blank, like “Sandy the Clown baked a cake for the school bake sale. What kind of cake did she bake?” Prompts can stir their imagination in different ways.

10, Visit the neighborhood. Phillips suggests taking your child on short trips in the area. It could be the post office, the park, a candy shop, or a pet supply store. When you get home, suggest they write about their trip. What did they see, hear, smell, and touch that they remember. Writing it all down commits the visit to their memory.

11. Engage with authors and storytellers.
Phillips suggests connecting with favorite authors and storytellers via social media. Follow their Facebook pages, or those of your child’s favorite authors. Ask them questions about their writing, and share their answers with your child. Create a dialogue so you and your child can learn about the writing process.

12. Praise children’s writing the right way. Editor John Fox suggests giving your kids encouragement when they finish writing a story. When they show you their work, don’t be vague and give general feedback. Don’t just tell them, “I like your story.” That’s not enough to encourage them to keep writing. Instead, you might say, “I like the way you described the red car,” or “What happened to the evil witch at the end?” When you ask questions about the child’s story, they become curious about the story too.

As you glance over these suggestions, you’ll notice that they’re not quite different than those for adult writers. After all, it’s just as important for adult writers to engage with other storytellers, use writing prompts, visit unusual places, set up a designated writing space and write with different writing tools. To truly inspire the children in our lives to be creative writers, we need to share our best creative habits.

How Writers Can Create Their Own Self-Study Course

Photo courtesy of The Regal Writer.

This is part of my series on training and education for writers.

Several months ago, I wrote about MFA programs and how to tell if they’re right for you. This week, I’m focusing on self-study options.

An MFA is not for everyone, and some experts believe that it does not guarantee that you’ll be published. What it does do is provide an intensive training opportunity to learn everything about the writing craft. You’ve got a built-in network of fellow writers who are going through the same program and you learn from each other.

Self-study offers its own advantages. Students have more control over the content and direction of their training. You control what you study, when and for how long.

Whatever your preference – MFA or self-study – will depend on your studying style.

If you prefer to immerse yourself in a structured program where you learn everything about the craft of writing in a concentrated period of time, then an MFA is probably best for you.

However, if you don’t have the money or the time to concentrate on an intensive program like an MFA, self-study is the better option. In this route, you can pick up knowledge as you go along by taking workshops and classes on your own time and on your own schedule and reading every blog, magazine article and book about some aspect of writing.

For those who like aspects of both, you might appreciate the hybrid model. The hybrid is a do-it-yourself program that combines the independent learning of self-study with the intensive focus of the MFA. Whereas the typical self-study route can be haphazard in its approach, the hybrid is focused on mastering areas of competence in a given time, usually about a year.

Author James Scott Bell calls these areas of competence “critical success factors” or CSFs. Bell has identified seven CSFs that he recommends writers should master: plot, structure, characters, scene, dialogue, voice and meaning (theme).

(Personally, I would add three more to this list: pacing, setting and revision. However, in a hybrid self-learning model, I suppose you can create as many or as few CSFs as you want. It’s your self-study program.)

Bell’s idea is based on the work and writings of Benjamin Franklin. In his autobiography, Franklin described his desire to master 13 moral virtues. He tracked his progress using a chart with the seven days of the week. He focused on improving one moral virtue each week. Writers, Bell says, can use a similar checklist for each of the CSFs he described.  

By concentrating on one CSF over seven weeks, Bell believes you will have covered all seven within one year with three weeks to spare. Of course, if you add others to your list, that time frame will be extended. Count on spending eight weeks – comparable to a college semester – learning about one CSF. By the end of one year or longer, you will have completed your own self-study program.

Bell also offers suggested readings for each CSF. You can find them on his website. Other helpful resources can be found on DIY MFA and Writer’s Digest magazine.

Of course, there are no formal hybrid educational models offered for writers. So you may have to create your own self-study course, says writing coach Ann Kroeker. “In this way, any of us can identify an area to improve in and find instruction pertaining to that exact skill or technique.”

Kroeker adds that this self-study approach isn’t limited to fiction writers, but to poets, essayists and non-fiction writers too.

It’s an interesting concept, and one I wished I had come upon when I embarked on my writing career. No matter how far along you are in your development, you can always test out Bell’s self-study concept.

Self-study tips

If you decide to go the self-study route to learn more about the writing craft, here are a few tips to get the most out of the experience, according to the Learning Agency Lab.

  1. Set goals for yourself. Decide what you want to learn and the measurements for mastering them.
  2. Schedule your self-study time. Self-study takes time, perhaps not as much as a formal MFA, but time that you could be doing other things. With busy schedules, you’ll need to set aside time each day for self-study, whether that’s reading, taking a class or completing writing exercises.
  3. Make sure you complete the exercises you learn in workshops or in the texts you read. This gives you valuable practice on technique. You may not use them all after the training ends, but some will likely stick.
  4. Don’t be shy about marking up articles and books. You’ll likely find key points you want to remember, so grab that marker and highlight it. Better yet, use a post-it note to mark the page so you can refer to it easily later.
  5. Celebrate milestones. For each CSF you master after seven or eight weeks, do something special to mark the occasion.
  6. Apply your skills. As you gain experience with each CSF, look for ways to expand your skills. For example, once you’ve mastered character, begin to apply those lessons to your own writing. Look at your own characters to see if they measure up.
  7. Find a study buddy. (This is my personal suggestion, btw.) Self-study, especially about writing, means you’re working on your own. By finding a study buddy, you can go through the self-study process together.
  8. Reflect on your learning. When you’ve completed each phase, reflect on what you’ve learned. Is there more you need to learn?

Writers are lifelong learners. No matter where you are in your development as a writer, there are always resources to help you improve your craft.

The Best Fall Education Conferences for Creative Writers, Freelancers and Content Marketers

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With the turn of the calendar to September and cooler weather approaching, my thoughts often shift to school at this time of year. Continuous learning is the name of the game for many professional writers and content marketers. Even attending one conference or training course each year can help you stay abreast of the latest trends in your industry.

As part of this education theme, over the next few weeks, I’ll be covering different ways to boost your education. Last week, I shared tips about how to build your vocabulary. In case you missed it, you can find it here.

This week, I’m sharing a list of upcoming conferences taking place this fall. The early bird registration may have passed on some of these events, but all the same, they may be worth exploring.

Some events are higher in costs than others, mainly because they’re in-person. But even if you walk away from the event learning one or two new things you didn’t know before, it’s worth your while. And because we’re still experiencing a pandemic, most of these conferences are being presented virtually, which means you can attend a conference in New York City without leaving your home in Texas.

So whether you want to publish a novel, begin a freelance writing business, or learn about content marketing, there are plenty of conferences to get you going.

Editor’s note: Most conferences occur in the spring and summer, so look for an updated schedule in January.

Writers’ Conferences

Genre-LA Creative Writers Conference
Los Angeles
October 1-3, 2021   (hybrid/virtual/in-person event)

Women Writing the West Conference
October 7-9, 2021 (virtual)

2021 Online Agent Fest
Midwest Writers Workshop
October 13-16, 2021

Gotham Writers Conference (virtual)
October 15-17, 2021

Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference
Pasadena, California
October 21-24, 2021  (in person)

National Black Book Festival
October 21-23, 2021 (virtual)

F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival
October 30, 2021 (virtual)

Genre Writing Conferences

Fall in Love New England Where Authors Meet Readers
Boxborough, Massachusetts
October 15-16, 2021

World Fantasy Convention 2021
Montreal, Quebec Canada
November 4-7, 2021

New England Crime Bake Mystery Conference
Boston, MA (in person)
November 12-14, 2021

DisCon World Science Fiction Convention
Washington, DC (in person)
December 15-19, 2021

Freelance Writing

Society of American Travel Writers Convention
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
October 3-7, 2021

FreeCon, Freelancers Conference (virtual) (Registration opens Sept. 15)
November 1-2, 2021

Medical Writing and Communications Conference
American Medical Writers Association
October 27-30, 2021 (virtual)

Content Marketing

Content Marketing World Conference & Expo
Cleveland, Ohio and virtual
September 28 – October 1, 2021

CopyCon Copywriting Conference
International Festival of Copywriting
October 8, 2021 (virtual)

Marketing Profs B2B Forum (virtual)
October 13-14, 2021LavaCon Content Strategy Conference
October 24-27, 2021 (virtual)

Digital Summit Chicago (in person)
Chicago, Illinois
October 27-28, 2021

As writers, freelancers and content professionals, these events not only keep you updated on the latest trends and practices in your niche, it gives you a chance to network with your peers, perhaps meet agents and editors who can help your career.

What about you? Do you attend conferences or workshops in your area? What is your favorite part about attending them?.

Five Signs That You’re Ready to Share Your Writing


Remember to check out the weekly writing prompt on my website.

Most writers I know are private people, especially when it comes to their writing. I’m certainly one of them. It’s always been difficult for me to share my writing with others because I have a terrible fear of criticism. I always breathe a sigh of relief when I get few minor comments on my drafts. It’s why I take great care to make my writing as clean and complete as possible before I submit it to an editor or share it with anyone else. I want to minimize the chance of painful criticism that damages my confidence.

You may be torn between sharing your story and keeping it to yourself. The words you put on the page are personal, and you wonder if it’s worthwhile to share something so personal with others. Getting it down on paper is the first step, of course. It’s the direct path from inspiration to reality. But reading it to others, and letting people view your work, is a huge and difficult step. It’s like crossing a rushing stream when you can’t see how deep the water is, and you don’t know how to swim. Or it’s like crossing a rickety bridge that you fear might collapse under your weight.

But there’s comfort in knowing that most writers have survived those moments. They realize that to be taken seriously as writers, they had to share their work at some point. As Paul Coelho, author of The Alchemist, writes, “Writing means sharing. It’s part of the human condition to want to share things – thoughts, ideas, opinions.”

As you continue your writing practice, you may notice several signs that you’re ready to share your work with others.

Sign 1: You feel stuck in your current work-in-progress.

After working on a story for weeks, you’ve made steady progress toward the conclusion. Then at about the midpoint, you hit a brick wall in the plot. Your brain draws a blank. How do you get unstuck? Maybe you’re too close to the story or too emotionally involved in the plot to see what needs to be done to move it forward. Sometimes having someone you trust read the piece can provide insights on what to do next. It might mean having to rewrite an earlier scene or introduce a new character who interrupts the status quo. Sharing your writing at this point can provide the insight and motivation to keep writing despite the road block.

Sign 2: You feel the story is “finished” as far as you can take it.

When you feel the story is finished, or as good as you can make it, it might be a good time to share it with others. Perhaps this is the third draft of the story and it’s as complete as you can make it. Sharing your piece with others at this point can tell you if readers will appreciate the story. You might read it out loud to a writer’s group or class, have a teacher or mentor review it, and get it published in a small literary magazine. On the other hand, reading out loud may reveal cracks in the foundation of the story that you need to fix.

Sign 3: You’re too excited about the story to keep it to yourself.

You’ve finished a piece on a topic that excites you and you’re eager to share it with others. Maybe you’ve labored over a 3000-word essay for weeks and you’re thrilled with how it turned out. Thrilled too at the topic you wrote about because it has a lot of personal meaning to you. It might be time to share your work with others to revel in your accomplishment.

Sign 4: You’re bored with the current work-in-progress.

This might seem counterintuitive, writes Michael Gallant at the BookBaby blog. But when you’re bored with the piece you’ve been working on, it might help to share that piece with someone else. Their excitement at reading your piece can galvanize you into further action, and their joy can be contagious. With their input, you may look at the piece with fresh eyes and see that it isn’t as boring as you first thought.

Sign 5: You sense that someone can benefit from the story you’ve written.

You may write because they want to inspire readers and share your experiences with them. Maybe you write with someone specific in mind. Perhaps that person has gone through some difficult times, overcome hardships. Sharing your work with that person or with others just like them can cheer them up, and motivate them to stay optimistic despite those difficult times.

There is one caveat to these signs. Never let anyone see your first draft. Wait until after your second draft before allowing someone else to see it. The first draft is usually a disorganized mess where you are still working out the structure of the piece. The first draft is usually written just for you, not for outside consumption. Better to wait for a cleaner second or third draft to get an objective opinion of your piece.

Another rule of thumb, writes Patrick Ness at the BookTrust blog, is don’t show you work to friends. They may be overly enthusiastic about your work and may not critique it the way you need in order for you to grow and improve your writing. It may be better to have an agent, editor, fellow writer or mentor review your work because they have the knowledge and experience to know what will work.

As many writers and published authors can tell you, writing is meant to be shared. So don’t hold back. Don’t keep it to yourself. If you’ve written something, no matter how good, bad or indifferent it may be, don’t be shy about sharing your work with others. It will allow you to see your work through a reader’s eyes.

More than a hobby: Getting serious about your writing

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Remember to check out this week’s writing prompt on my website.

For many published authors, writing may have started out as a hobby. They did it for fun, and writing was an outlet for their creativity.  

These are the people who enjoy writing for the sake of it. They don’t care about being published, or getting reviews on Goodreads or doing public readings at libraries and bookstores. They simply want to spend time creating stories. The writing process is a personal endeavor, not a professional one.

Many professional writers frown on the concept of writing as a hobby. They argue that writing is too hard and too much work to be considered a hobby. Writing might be hard work, but if you get enjoyment from the process, if it gives you joy, then it’s a hobby. To say that hobbyists can’t be taken seriously as writers is garbage. There’s plenty of room in the writing world for professional writers, aspiring authors and hobbyists to co-exist.

But I digress….

Hobbyists separate themselves from their professional counterparts with several notable differences.

* Hobbyists have no set goals for their writing. They write for fun simply because they enjoy the process of creating stories. They write for themselves, and may not be interested in sharing their work publicly.  Hobbyists don’t care if they get published or not. That is not their ultimate goal. They write to express themselves.

* Many hobbyists may not have professional writing experience; in fact, they may be starting from ground zero. Other hobbyists may have different occupations and want to try their hand at writing fiction or their memoir. Perhaps they are testing the waters to see if they’ll enjoy writing for the long term or turn it into a professional endeavor later on.

* Hobbyists have more freedom to experiment with different writing styles and genres. They can experiment with poetry or essay writing or fiction to determine what is the right lane for them. Or maybe they’re content to work on one work of fiction or their memoir for their entire lives, experimenting with different ways of telling the story or writing from different points of view. There are no restrictions in what they can and cannot write.

* Hobbyists may not have a set schedule for writing. At least not at first. They fit writing in whenever they have time or are inspired to create something.

* As a hobbyist, there’s no pressure to perform professionally, writes Meg Dowell. Editors and publishers aren’t waiting for your project at deadline. Without that pressure, writing hobbyists can create whatever their heart desires without the fear of missing a dreaded deadline.

* There are no barriers to entry to writing and it costs nothing to start. All you need is a pen and paper and your imagination. Writing as a hobby keeps your mind active and alert too, which is always a tremendous benefit for older adults.

You may be content to remain a writing hobbyist. That’s okay. There are plenty of people who write for the sheer enjoyment of it.

But what do you do when you decide you want to do more with your writing that just maintaining a journal or contributing to your blog? How do you know that you’re ready to take your writing to the next level? How do you know it’s time to get serious about your writing? Author Bethany Cadman at the Writer’s Life offers a few suggestions, or you can follow a few of my own ideas below:

* You spend more time reading up on your craft. You follow writing blogs and subscribe to magazines to learn about different aspects of writing, such as plot development, humor writing or finding an agent.  By attending classes and workshops, you develop your skills and learn more about the writing process, and get feedback on your stories. You might go so far as to apply for an MFA program (which can be pricey) or a fellowship, though neither are necessary to be successful in the publishing business, say many published authors. In fact, most published authors I know did not graduate from an MFA program.  

* You seek out other writers and expand your network. Perhaps you join a writer’s group or find a writing buddy to share your written pieces with or help keep each other accountable. The online writing community is huge, and you’d be amazed at how many fledgling authors are out there, all seeking the same professional advice as you.

* You harbor a desire to get your work published. Or at least get it read and get it seen. Once you decide you want to be published, plan how you can accomplish that, and give yourself a deadline, say of five years. You begin to look for opportunities to be published, perhaps offer to guest post on blogs or submit material to literary magazines. Each piece you produce builds a body of work that you can show potential publishers.

* You develop a consistent writing practice. You write almost every day, usually at the same time. Perhaps you find you spend more time at your desk writing than you do watching television. You keep notebooks with you to jot down story ideas on a whim or note things you hear and see as you go about your day. With a consistent writing practice, you produce more work that can be shown to editors and publishers.

* You treat your writing as a business. You set regular office hours for writing and building your career. You constantly look for ways to earn money with your writing, even beyond publishing. That could be teaching, coaching, or editing others’ work. Perhaps you may consider starting a freelance writing business or explore self-publishing opportunities. Most important, you show up every day and make consistent progress toward your goals.

Whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional, you should be proud of your effort to make writing an integral part of your life.

Keeping a Writer’s Journal Can Spark Inspiration and Curiosity

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When I began taking my writing seriously – and I mean, writing almost every day – I decided it was time to keep track of all my story ideas. Little did I know then that there was such a thing as a writer’s journal.  That’s exactly what it was used for – to keep track of all things related to writing.

A writer’s journal is a place to track everything related to your writing. It can be based on a single story, a theme or your own writing journey.

Much of that depends on what you want to achieve from your writing. For example, I focus strictly on my writing projects. The writer’s journal is my place for developing story concepts, plot structures and character sketches.

I also keep a personal journal to record events in my life, which I keep separate from my writing journal. It’s my place for emotional venting. The second one is where I keep all my notes from all the workshops and classes I’ve taken related to writing. It’s more about the craft of writing.

I keep these notebooks separate because it keeps me organized. I know I have a designated place for each of them and I don’t have to search through countless story concepts to find that one nugget of information I learned in a workshop three years ago.

I use a simple notebook, but you can use a hardcover journal or use your computer. I prefer a notebook because it’s lightweight and easy to carry with me, and I don’t have to worry about having to turn on my laptop to add something to a document. I also carry a smaller notebook in my purse so if I am inspired by a setting or a conversation I overhear, I can write about it then and there.

Other writers use the writer’s journal differently, but see its value just the same. Writer Rebecca Graf uses the journal when her mind goes blank while she’s writing. “No matter how hard I try, I cannot get all those precise details pulled up from my memories. If I go to my writer’s journal, I can find those details and really enhance that one scene. It is a valuable resource any writer can use.”

Dolly Garland writes at The Writing Cooperative that she has used her journal to collect tips and inspiration for improving her craft. It’s also a place where she gets to know her characters and have dialogues with them.

Every writer is different, so you may want to set up your journals differently depending on what you want to achieve. Here are some common elements to include in your writer’s journal:

Basic story concepts. If you’re like me, you’re constantly coming up with story ideas. It’s important to  jot them down before you forget them. Start with a brief plot description or the premise, then brainstorm the rest of the story. The details about scenes and characters will come later.

Characters sketches. Have an idea for a unique character for your spy series? Or perhaps you met someone or saw someone at the bus stop who inspires a new character. Write it down. Describe their appearance, motivations and quirks. Give them a name to help you visualize them better. Like Garland, try having a dialogue with them.

Places you’ve been to that inspire setting. Think of some of your favorite places to hang out. Spend an afternoon at the beach, a coffee shop or the library. Describe the sights and sounds around you. When you need to describe a setting for a conversation between two people, you have only to refer to your journal to recreate that atmosphere rather than jog your memory for details.

Drafts of scenes. Perhaps you don’t have an entire story figured out but you have one or two scenes that appear vividly in your mind. The writer’s journal is the ideal place to get it all down on paper before you forget it.

Memories and flashbacks of your own life.  You might be going about your business when something you hear or see reminds you of a situation that happened to you a long time ago. Now you can’t get that memory out of your head. It’s time to write it all down, and write it as a real story with real characters.

Middle-of-the-night musings and revelations. If you’re like me, you have moments when you’re wide away at four in the morning and you brain is abuzz with different things: a song you can’t get out of your head, a movie that’s playing over and over, or an argument you had earlier in the day. Instead of letting it disrupt your sleep, get up and write it all down in your journal.

Research related to your next project. Include feature articles and news stories that provide historical background. In my files, I have several articles about women who have worn their grandmother’s wedding dresses. They’re handy references for the story idea I have about a similar situation.

Dreams, especially if they’re reoccurring. I’ve taken vivid dreams I’ve had overnight and written them down the next morning so I don’t forget them. Then I may rewrite them as works of fiction. You never know if you need a dream sequence for your work-in-progress.

Snatches of conversation. Ever sit in a restaurant, a coffee shop or a retail store and overhear conversations between other people? The best ones are the public arguments where the participants aren’t aware they have an audience. Jot down as much as you can remember in your writer’s journal. What were they wearing? What were they discussing? Even if you can’t recall the conversation or can’t hear it, make it up. You never know when you need a lover’s spat for your romance novel.

Some writers say it’s important to write in this journal every day. I usually write in it when I know I have something concrete to add, usually when I’m inspired by something I see or hear, or something directly related to what I’m working on. The choice is up to you, of course. Your writer’s journal is your own.

No matter how you use it, you’ll find the writer’s journal is one of the most valuable resources you’ll ever use.

How Writers Can Cultivate Curiosity

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”

Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Last week, I wrote a post about the habits of highly productive writers. One of the habits I mentioned is  the ability to maintain an open, curious outlook. For today’s post, I’ll be delving deeper into that habit.

Curiosity, by definition, is the strong desire to know or learn something. It is one of the most valued traits a writer can have. By staying curious about the world around them, writers are able to find answers to the questions they’ve long asked, and by extension, answer questions that readers want to know.

According to this Lifehack blog post, curiosity is important for several reasons:

* It makes your mind active rather than passive. By asking questions and doing research, curiosity makes your mind stronger and more engaged.
* It makes your mind more observant of new ideas. You’re more likely to recognize new ideas when they occur. When you fail to be curious, those ideas may pass you by.
* It opens up new worlds and possibilities. You’re able to explore different cultures and ways of doing things.
* It brings more excitement into your life. Because there are always new things to try and new ideas to explore, a curious person’s life is never dull or boring. Curious people have an adventurous life.

I will add one more reason to that list:

* Curiosity begets creativity. Curious people who have done their research tend to be more creative because the new knowledge feeds their desire to create something new.

By nature most writers are curious. They’re not afraid to ask questions. The five Ws are always in their writing arsenal. They’re the first to ask at an accident scene what happened, how it happened, who drove the car, when did it happen, where did it happen, and why.

Sometimes the grind of daily life can sap your curious nature, however. If you find yourself struggling to be curious about the world around you, here are a few ways to cultivate more curiosity in your writing life.

1. Read, read and read some more.  Reading books and magazine features on a variety of topics broadens your mind. If you prefer fiction, you can use curiosity as you read novels. For example, as you read, jot down questions about the characters, plot and setting. Where does the story take place? Is it a place you’ve never been to before, such as Alaska? Then jot down questions about Alaska that you’d like to find out.

2. Ask lots of questions. The five Ws plus How should be part of your writing toolbox. I would add a couple more:  “what if?” And “I wonder.” (Yes, I know “I wonder” isn’t a question, but it open up possibilities all the same.)

3. People watch. Hang out in the park, a shopping mall or a food court. Watch people as they go about their day. Be curious about them. Who are they? What do they do for a living? Why are they there? Create different scenarios for each person you observe.

4. Experiment. Be adventurous. Is there something you’ve always wanted to try? For example, several years ago, I finally had the chance to ride in a hot air balloon, something I’d always wanted to do. I enjoyed every minute of it. The experience gave me something to write about. Experiment with your writing too. For example, if you’re struggling to find the right viewpoint for your story, try writing it from different character points of view until you find one that works best for the story.

Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.

Voltaire

5. Research something just for fun. Think of something you’d like to learn more about, preferably something not related to your every day job or your writing practice. It could be how to make lasagna from scratch or how to begin bird watching – whatever tickles your fancy. Then spend 30 minutes on the internet researching everything you can find out about it.

Michelle Richmond at The Caffeinated Writer suggests this exercise to test your research skills:

1) Make a list of ten subjects you’d like to know more about.
2) Choose one of those subjects. Then write a list of questions about that subject.
3) Spend 30 minutes researching this question on the internet.
4) Then find one book that will help you delve further into the topic and deepen your understanding. You can buy a book or borrow it from the library. Richmond says buying the book allows you to make notations.

Remember this is strictly for fun, so enjoy the research process. But be sure to cap the amount of time spent researching. It’s easy to get carried away and lose track of time!

6. Connect with an expert. We all know people who are experts at something. I have a friend who is a scientist, another who runs marathons, a third teaches yoga, and a fourth studied engineering. They’re all experts at what they do, and I know that if I ever need their insights or want to learn more about what they do, I can reach out to them, armed with my toolbox of questions.

I challenge you to jot down the names of 10 people you know along with the special knowledge or skill that they have. Then jot down questions you might ask them about what they do. Bonus points for reaching out to one of them and chatting with them about their work.

Because curiosity can boost your creativity. So it makes sense to cultivate more curiosity into your writing life.

How to Make Friends with Your Inner Writing Critic

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Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving yourself and see what happens.” Louise Hay

Writers and creative types are known for being sensitive to criticism. But that’s assuming the criticism is directed from outside sources.  But what happens if the criticism is coming from within yourself?

How do you deal with the fact that you are your own worst critic? How do you respond when your worst critic – your internal one — rears its ugly head?

That internal critic judges everything that you do, from your thoughts and actions to how you talk to people and the clothes you wear to the words you write. According to Good Therapy blog, self-criticism is the act of pointing out a person’s flaws.

Some experts believe that self-criticism can healthy because it can help you increase self-awareness and personal growth. If taken too far, however, it can be self-defeating, causing you to abandon projects before they get off the ground or missing deadlines. While occasional moments of self-doubt is normal, it’s the excessive stretches of self-criticism that can be harmful to your mental health.

Your worst critic can manifest in your writing life in a number of ways:

* Procrastination – putting off starting a writing project or assignment
* Not meeting deadlines
* Never finishing a writing project or constantly re-writing a piece
* Reluctance to show your work to anyone else because you don’t think it’s good enough

It might help to recognize that we are all born with internal voices, and in fact, we have two of them, writes executive coach Svetlana Whitener in Forbes. There’s the cheerleader who recognizes your writing strengths and encourages you to reach your goals. The curmudgeon is an unhappy character; he’s never satisfied with anything that anyone does. No one can ever please him.

If we’re all born with these two types of internal voices, then it’s safe to say that we can choose which one of them to listen to – and it’s no contest. Give me the cheerleader any day.

To minimize the impact of self-criticism, it’s helpful to cultivate self-awareness. This allows you to look at yourself fairly and objectively. Self-awareness can help you reshape your thinking, and shift it from negative to positive. Rather than disregard the internal critic’s commentary, it might be wise to take their remarks for what they’re worth. See if there’s anything of value in those comments that you can use to your advantage. That’s just one approach to dealing with your own worst critic.

“The inner critic isn’t an enemy,” writes Yong Kang Chan, author of The Disbelief Habit: How to Use Doubt to Make Peace with Your Inner Critic. “Our reaction to self-criticism is more important than the self-criticism itself. Paying attention to our reactions is very important because the only thing we have control over is how we react.”

If you are your own worst critic, it might be time to make peace with it. Rather than silence it completely, there are some things you can do to put it to good use. In most cases, it’s a matter of rethinking how you view your internal critic and its place in your writing life.

1. Practice mindfulness and self-awareness. Cultivating better self-awareness can help you remain objective as you review your writing. You can readily accept yourself as a whole writer whose work may be flawed at times, but is still worthy of being shared and accepted.

2. Practice self-kindness and compassion. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Self-criticism is common. Most of us have feelings of doubt at times. Berating yourself for your faults is counterproductive. Acknowledging them while still appreciating your writing self is far more advantageous.

3. Work with a writing buddy, mentor or coach. They may be able to point out your writing strengths as well as the areas you need to improve on. They may be able to see your writing more objectively than you can. As Stephen King writes, “Writers are often the worst judges of what they have written.” So get another viewpoint or two and listen to their feedback.

4. Know yourself as a writer. This phase takes self-awareness a step further. As writers (or any creative type), it’s helpful to understand what kind of writer you want to be, and what kind of writer you are right now. That means understanding your strengths and knowing what skills you need to develop. Then – and most important – take the time to develop those skills.

5. Stop comparing yourself to others. When you and your internal writing critic compares you to other writers, it’s difficult to live up to those comparisons because it’s not a level playing field. Their level of writing experience may be different than yours. Perhaps they started writing at an earlier age. Comparing where you are now to someone else who has already gone through that phase is unfair to you, and unfair to them.

6. Turn negative self-critiques into a positive learning tool. Even the most negative self-criticism holds elements of truth. It’s up to you to listen carefully for them. Healthy self-criticism can help you spot flaws in your work and prompt you to improve your writing. Sometimes the feedback isn’t so harsh at all, but the voice of the internal critic may be so loud and insistent that it camouflages the critique behind the noise.

7. Understand that you are not alone in self-criticism. Everyone has internal critics. Even highly successful published authors suffer periods of self-doubt and self-criticism. If other writers have experienced those inner critics and found ways to work with their feedback to get published, you can too.

8. Recognize that first drafts, even second and third drafts, are never perfect. They’re messy and they’re usually junk. Self-criticism during these initial phases is meaningless. It only prevents you from completing the hard work you know you need to do to finish it. Even through the messiness on the page, you can find reasons to be optimistic about the manuscript’s outcome.

Before you berate yourself the next time you make a mistake, slow down and take notice of your thoughts. Is there a nugget of truth in what your inner critic is telling you? Can you turn it into something positive?

Self-criticism is a part of the writing life. Since internal critics are part of yourself, maybe it’s time to call a truce and make friends with them.

For Some Writers, the Fear of Success is Real

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Check out this week’s writing prompt: What does success mean to you? Describe it on your terms. Or write about a time when fear of success held you back from accomplishing a cherished goal. How did you overcome it?

While the fear of failure is fairly common among writers, others suffer from a different malaise:  the fear of success. That might be a strange thing to say. “How can anyone be afraid to succeed?” you ask. You’d be surprised at how many people fear success, myself included.

Fear of success might manifest in several ways. You might have an unfinished project – or two, or three or ten. You have several projects in various stages of completion but never seem to finish any of them. In your mind, finishing one of them means you’ve achieved a certain level of success. Once you get to the end, you might begin to worry about what happens next – a thought that scares you enough that you never finish your work-in-progress.

Or just when you near the end of a writing project, you get stuck. You’re faced with writer’s block, unsure how to wrap up your story.

Maybe you find other more important things to do. You get so busy doing housework and chores that you can never get around to working on that final chapter.

Perhaps you edit your piece over and over again, never fully satisfied with what you’ve written – a useful delay tactic preventing you from finishing your piece.

Fear of success is very real, but it is misunderstood, according to psychologist Nick Wignall. The fear is about the consequences of success, not the success itself, Wignall says. “Life can change dramatically when you succeed,” he explains. “You’re entering unchartered territory. Fear of success can be more debilitating than fear of failure. With fear of success, you may be projecting yourself too far into the future which can result in self-sabotage. You may not realize you’re sabotaging yourself.”

For example, once you publish a book, you may be required to go on a book tour, do interviews and public appearances and, of course, begin writing that second book. Your life changes dramatically. It’s these unknowns that can scare people into non-action, Wignall says.

If fear of success is holding you back from starting a writing practice, there are several things you can do to get back on track.

Define success on your terms. Think about what success means to you. What does it look like? It may look and feel differently to you than to your spouse or your best friend. We all carry an image of what success looks like. So be sure you are defining success on your terms, not someone else’s.

When you define success on your terms, there should be no reason to fear it because you’ve defined it on terms that are real, concrete and readily achievable. More important, they are meaningful to you. It’s when you follow the path of success that is predetermined by others or by the publishing industry that tend to strike fear in us.

Finish what you start. This is easier said than done, of course. If you have trouble completing writing projects, then stop and consider what is stopping you. Are you stuck on a plot point? Or did you get bored with your story? Or did something else interfere with it, such a sudden need to do laundry?

If you have a file of unfinished stories, go through them now. Choose one story or essay that you’ve started but never finished. Go back and work on it until you finish it. Do not, under any circumstances, start any other projects until you finish this one. Once you finish that piece, sit back and revel in your success of completion. How do you feel now that it’s done?

It might help to make that a general rule of operation: Don’t start any new projects until you finish the one you’re working on.

Remember that finishing a story, no matter how long or short it is, is a form of success. If you’re able to finish one story, imagine how good it will feel to finish all the others in your file.

Stay in the present moment. Because much of the fear of success hinges on possible future events – author readings, interviews, the next novel, etc. – you forget to stay in the moment. Fear of success – or any fear for that matter – deals with future situations that may or may never occur. Why worry about the future when you have important work to do — now? Stay present in your writing and let the future take care of itself.

Train yourself to talk about your writing. People with a fear of success often have difficulty boasting about their accomplishments because they don’t want to appear arrogant or full of themselves. But it isn’t selfish to brag. In fact, for a writer to find an audience, telling others about your completed project is often necessary. So go ahead and tell people what you’re working on. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you talk about your current writing project, the more comfortable you will be with your public persona as a writer.

Share your fears with a friend or writing buddy. If fear is holding you back from finishing a manuscript, it might help to talk things over with a trusted friend or colleague. They may provide some valuable insights to help you over the hump. If you find it truly debilitating, it might be necessary to talk to a professional therapist.

Fear of success for writers is more common than fear of failure, but it can be even more debilitating. Recognizing your fear and why it occurs is the first step toward overcoming it.