Why Writers Need an Editor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips for Pre-Planning Your Novel

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

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

Pre-planning is important for several reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck and happy writing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson 6: Keep your material organized.

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

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

Lesson 7: Be patient with your progress.

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

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

Storytelling Lessons from Hallmark Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Being Thankful for Being a Writer

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Hello readers,
The article below was originally posted in 2018, but I wanted to share it again. It never grows old. I am truly grateful for sharing my thoughts and insights with you, and I am grateful to have you as my loyal readers. I’m putting my blog on hiatus at least through January 2022. Between freelance writing assignments and a new part time job that requires a lot of my energy, I find I don’t have as much time for my blog. Plus it will give me a chance to refuel for new content in the coming year. You are always welcome to return and read what I’ve posted previously, and I will try to keep the weekly writing prompt going as well. Enjoy, and have a safe and wonderful holidays. Regina 

As you gather with your families and friends this Thanksgiving holiday, think about what you are most grateful for, especially as it pertains to your writing. Perhaps you are grateful to have a mentor to guide you through difficult lessons, or maybe you are grateful for Daniel Webster for publishing a dictionary.

I was inspired by a post by Laura Stigler, President of the Independent Writers of Chicago, “On Being Thankful We Can Write,” to create my own list of things I’m thankful for.

* A mother who loved to read and instilled that love of reading in me. When you see a parent reading a book, I believe it encourages kids to become readers too.

* Former teachers who recognized my skill from as early as seventh grade and encouraged me to participate in writing contests. Each compliment and kind word of support made me want to keep writing. There’s nothing like a personal cheering section to keep you motivated.

* Former bosses who appreciated the fact that I could find the best words to explain a process or write a letter to an important client. Other times their tough love approach to critiquing my work only strengthened my resolve to improve.

* Friends who have shared a love of books and reading and who don’t mind talking about the latest book that they liked or didn’t like.

* The authors whose work I have enjoyed over the years, from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” to Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew mysteries when I was young girl to the early works of romantic suspense authors Mary Higgins Clark and Joy Fielding that I enjoyed in my twenties and thirties to more recent favorites, such as Alice Hoffman and Sue Monk Kidd.

* Libraries and librarians, book stores and book discussion groups, who all keep the love of books and reading alive and makes sure there is always a potential audience for the stories writers write.

* For my blog followers, thank you for reading my posts, sharing comments and showing your support.

Most important, I am grateful that I have the talent (or gift, as some writers suggest) for writing and the desire to use it in personal and professional ways. In fact, I think I enjoy the world of books, reading and writing more now than I ever have.

As you spend Thanksgiving with family and friends, remember it’s a time for bonding over shared experiences and swapping stories. And as you share old family legends and tales for the umpteenth time, don’t forget to create new ones to share next year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

How many drafts do writers need to complete their story?

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No, that is not a trick question.

That very question was posed recently by author Samantha Hoffman at the Chicago Writers Association blog. It got me thinking about my own writing journey and the multiple manuscripts that lie in my desk drawer. The ones I’ve begun but never quite finished. It should make you think about your own writing process too.

I’m impressed by people who can knock out a 90,000-word novel in three drafts. I figure they’re either doing something right, or their stuff is still needs significant editing and they don’t realize it yet.

As the calendar flips over to November and National Novel Writing Month begins, it’s a question that may run in the back of your mind too. How many drafts do I need before my story is truly polished and ready for publication?

That all depends on who you ask, of course. Hoffman has her own response: “Finish draft one, then keep going until it’s the best it can be, keeping in mind you’re not looking for perfection because perfection is a myth. Make it the best it can be at the time. Or keep going until you’re simply sick of it.”

Tegan Atkins at Writers’ Edit blog writes that the answer depends on the type of writer you are as well as several other factors:

* Genre – Fantasy authors may go through more drafts of their story than someone penning a memoir because they’re creating an entire new world from their imaginations. That creative process can take more time to iron out all the details.

* Writing experience – Newer writers are likely to go through more drafts of their story than someone who has published previously, although that’s not always the case. Kristin Hannah, who has published 24 books in her career, has been known to go through 10 drafts of her novels before they’re published, according to her website. Newbies are still conquering the nuances of fiction writing, such as plot development and character arcs. Because they’re working their way through the creative process, it will likely take them longer for them to be truly finished with their manuscript. In many situations, Sabre says, new writers never finish.

* Hobby vs. career – Career writers are more used to the writing process and have developed their systems for getting the manuscript done. Hobbyists may approach the effort more leisurely and may not be as nit-picky in their self-editing process. For their work to be taken seriously, career writers may hire a professional editor to critique their manuscript while hobbyists may bypass the services of a professional editor. Hobbyists’ goal may be to write a collection of stories for their family while career writers are more serious about getting their writing published to the masses.

In the end, the number of drafts you need depends on you – your goal for the story, how complex the story line is and how much of a planner and perfectionist you are with regards to your writing. I’ve heard that the industry standard is five to seven drafts to get a story in shape. As I finish the second draft of my work-in-progress, I can take comfort in knowing I’m on track.

So as we enter the month of November and National Novel Writing Month, remember that you can’t begin to think about multiple drafts until you get the first one down on paper. The real answer to the question “How many drafts are needed to complete my manuscript?” is this:

However many it takes to make you feel satisfied that you’ve done everything you can to make it the best it can be.

Or at least until you’re sick of looking at it.

10 Ways to Fund Your Creative Writing Projects

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Managing a writing career is tough. It’s even tougher when you’re worried about money and how you’ll pay bills every month. Not everyone who begins a writing project or business will have the financial wherewithal to support themselves – at least not at first. Most writers, including yours truly, have had to find ways to support themselves while keeping alive their creative passion.

Below are 10 possible avenues that you can pursue to fund your writing career or a specific project. Granted, it might mean less free time to work on your masterpiece, but it will also give you some peace of mind, knowing that you can make ends meet.

  1. Personal savings. If you’ve been in the work force awhile, or were lucky enough to have had a previous career that offered a savings plan, such as a 401K, those funds can act as a cushion for when you’re transitioning to your writing lifestyle. Experts suggest having at least six months of savings in case of emergencies, and with the current economic climate, I’d recommend more than that. Things always cost more than you think. Be sure to budget yourself and refrain from overspending on non-essential items. That will stretch out your savings even further.
  2. Part-time jobs. There is such a thing as scaling back on your schedule to allow more time to do what you love. As with your personal savings, budgeting will be key to success because you won’t have as much of an income to live off of. But at least a part-time gig will give you some cash flow to cover basic expenses while freeing up valuable time in your schedule for writing.
  3. Freelance and contract gigs. Most writers I know choose this option because it gives them the freedom to set their own schedule. On the other hand, you may spend more time marketing yourself and searching for well-paying assignments than actually working on your own writing projects. Many clients don’t pay enough to cover your basic expenses, so you have to pile on lots of small assignments for any reasonable income, which can cut into your personal writing projects. You’re better off with three or four steady gigs that pay well rather than 10 or 12 that pay pennies.
  4. Temporary assignments. Temping can provide some stability and a somewhat steady income whenever you need it. But the days when temp agencies automatically offered assignments is long gone. These days you need to apply for assignments as if they were regular full-time jobs, which means you may be competing for work against other candidates. On the positive side, you can choose to work a few days at a time or longer assignments that last more than a year.  You can opt for part-time or full-time assignments too. Even with its somewhat inconsistent nature, temp work can provide financial support when you need it.
  5. Internships. If you’re starting out with little or no experience, internships can help you gain valuable real-world experience that looks good on your resume and helps you build a portfolio of samples that you can show to future clients and employers. Some internships pay, others do not. But you gain in real-world experience while on the job. Find internships on job sites like Indeed or Internships.com.
  6. Grants and fellowships. If you don’t mind working for the experience and earning living expenses while you do so, then grants and fellowships may be right for you. Grants are an outlay of cash that doesn’t have to be paid back. They may require a certain expertise or writing focus such as writing about social justice issues or being of Native American descent. Read the grant application requirements carefully.

    Fellowships are usually offered through a university and allow you to earn money while you contribute in some way to the writing department. You may be required to teach classes, manage the writing lab and attend workshops in exchange for a stipend. Fellowships give you a chance to work on a specific project and get feedback on your work from fellow students in the program and instructors. Some fellowships can be done at a distance while others require in-person sessions. Study the application carefully to make sure you understand the requirements. To find grants and fellowships near you and to learn more about them, check out Profellow.com.
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  7. Home equity. Tapping into your home’s equity can be a practical choice, especially if you’ve lived in your home long enough to earn significant amount of equity. If you’re uncomfortable tapping in your home’s equity, author and artist Cassandra Gaisford suggests another option. Instead, ask the bank for a mortgage holiday of two or three months. Then use the savings to finance a business startup or live off of it while you focus on your writing project.
  8. Crowdfunding. If you have a specific project you’re working on, try setting up a crowd funding page on one of the crowdfunding platforms. Some have categories for publishing and other creative projects. Crowdfunding can help you test your book idea with potential readers and gain financial support from them if they like your idea, especially if you plan to self-publish. Check out Indiegogo, Kickstarter and Unbound.
  9. Sponsorships. Is there a local business you support that could help you in return? Perhaps a coffee house you frequent where you’ve been drafting your novel? Or some other place that knows of your efforts to get published? Ask them to sponsor your work-in-progress. Even a small amount of cash can help you defray publishing expenses. In return, off something that can help them, such as offering a free banner ad for their business on your website or plug their business via social media.
  10. Seek investors. Don’t be shy about asking friends and family members for their financial support, which can help you get the project or business off the ground. Just be sure to put all expectations and financial requirements in writing so all parties know what’s at stake. Be clear about what your needs are and whether and when you’ll be able to pay them back.

Starting a writing project can be both exciting and daunting. There’s no cost to you to begin your writing project, just a steady supply of paper and pens will suffice. But when you’re ready to publish the manuscript, produce a play or design a website, that’s when costs can become apparent. Still, if you plan your time well and stick to a budget, you can make your writing dream a reality.

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

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

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.