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

Logo courtesy of NaNoWriMo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haunt Your Readers with These Six Scary Elements of Suspense

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

Imagine reading the following story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 Writing Prompts for Memoirs and Essays

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Our childhood is filled with events both big and small, and we carry those memories with us as we grow older. That’s why our childhood and early family life are fertile soil for story ideas for memoirs and personal essays.

Sometimes our minds can draw a blank when forced to come up with a story idea, however. Beyond the basic “I remember” prompt that I frequently talk about on my blog, there are other story starters to brainstorm potential ideas.

I found the following list in my collection of notes from webinars and workshops. I wanted to share them with you so you never run out of story ideas for your essay collection or memoir. Feel free to refer to this list often whenever you feel stuck.

Good luck!

1. Fears, big and small. Perhaps your biggest fear is spiders or snakes. Or maybe it’s drowning or flying in an airplane. When was the first time you noticed that fear and how has it dominated your life? Have you done anything to overcome that fear?

2. Secrets, big and small. What secrets, big or small, have you never told anyone?  Perhaps it’s the one night you spent in jail for disorderly conduct that a friend helped you get released. Or maybe the abortion you had when you were sixteen that you never told anyone about. We all have our reasons for keeping secrets. Explore why you’ve kept this secret for so long.

3. Embarrassing moments. What is your most embarrassing moment in front of strangers? It could be spilling a gallon of milk while waiting in a checkout line at the grocery store? Perhaps you openly belched after a scrumptious meal in an upscale restaurant? It could be anything that happened to you or to someone else, and it can take place anywhere. Whatever the event, don’t forget to describe how people reacted because that’s what makes those embarrassing moments worth writing about.

4. Physical features. What physical feature or body part do you obsess over? Is there a feature that you think is too big, too small, too crooked, too narrow, or too obscene to show in public? Explain why this feature makes you feel uncomfortable or inadequate.

5. Parents are people too. When did you realize that your parents were not perfect? That they could not always protect you when you needed to be protected. Or that there were times when they felt scared, angry, lonely or guilty – that they were (gasp!) human.

6. Name changes. Some people don’t like the name they were given at birth. If you could change your name, what would you change it to and why? This could pertain to your first name, your last name or your middle name – or all three. What’s in a name anyway? Do you think a name change would alter your personality or your outlook on the world?

7. Family pets. Did you have a family pet? If so what are some of your favorite memories of that pet? Perhaps you had, like my family did, a series of unusual pets – hamsters, baby chicks, a baby alligator (I think my brother named him Sidney) and goldfish that died within three days. When you think of your favorite pet stories, think “Marley & Me.”

8. Families and food. When we think of family gatherings, we also tend to think of the meals we shared. What role did food have in your family life? Did you enjoy outdoor barbecues and abundant celebrations? Or was it just the opposite – your family struggled to put food on the table? How has food defined your childhood, and have those attitudes carried over into your adult life?

9. Family road trips. What is the most unusual place you and your family visited together? Perhaps you remember going camping for the first time, or learning to ski in Colorado. Have you ever seen the ocean or the mountains? Describe your most memorable vacations and explain why they were so memorable.

10. Family vehicles. Do you remember the car your parents drove when you were a child? Or do you recall the first car you ever owned? What did that car mean to you?

11. Favorite mementos. Is there one possession you have that brings back memories? It could be a piece of jewelry that you received from your grandmother, or a Christmas ornament that’s been handed down several generations. When you see that item, what memories does it conjure up for you?

12. Job hopping. What was the most unique job(s) you ever had? What about your parents or siblings – did they hold any unusual jobs? What work did they do? What did they learn from their experience? For example, when I was born, my father worked as a milkman, delivering milk to households. It was a dying career, however, and my father was soon forced to find other work. Think about family attitudes toward work and earning a living.

13. Hidden quirks and happy habits. Family members all have their hidden quirks and habits – a sister who talks in her sleep, a grandfather who collects antique instruments, or a mother who dances the Irish jig every night after the dinner plates are cleaned and put away. Do you have any family members with hidden quirks, habits or special talents?

14. Musical interludes. What kind of music did your parents listen to when you were growing up? Did you learn to play a musical instrument? I remember growing up with a jukebox in our basement that arrived for my sister’s sixteenth birthday party. I listened to records on that jukebox for hours. These days I have a playlist on my iPod that contains many of those records I listened to long ago. How did your family’s musical tastes influence your own? What role did music play in your family life?

15. The writing life. What events from your childhood influenced you to start writing? Did you win a writing contest, or perhaps you were always good in English and spelling? Was there someone who encouraged you to be a writer – or tried to persuade you not to be one? How did you develop your love of writing? Where did it come from?

There’s plenty of inspiration for your personal essays or memoir. You just have to be willing to go back in time to find them.

How Well Do You Manage Your Emotions When You Write?

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Several years ago when I faced an emotional and financial crisis, I took to journaling almost every day to deal with the pain and anxiety I felt. The emotional pain was so intense, in fact, that it took two notebooks of journal entries to release those emotions. I just kept writing and writing to release the anger, fear and guilt I felt until I had my emotions under control. Writing in my journal was much better than pacing floors and indulging in crying spells.

Psychologists at the Harvard University Healthbeat blog call this expressive writing. They cited several studies showing how expressive writing (journal writing) can help you manage stress and anxiety by organizing your thoughts and making sense of traumatic experiences. Expressive writing can also help you break free of the endless mental cycling through of events that can lead to brooding and depression.

So why am I writing about this? With so much going on in our world, many people begin writing to deal with their often confused emotions to make sense of things. For many, writing helps heal wounds both old and new. At a time like now, expressive writing, or different variations of it, can help you deal with the emotional aspects of these dramatic events.

Writers learn to write with emotion, to use it to fuel their stories. But how do you write when you feel too overwhelmed by life-altering events, when you feel too emotional to write? How do you express your emotions without being overwhelmed by them? How do you put those emotional experiences into proper perspective?

Here are a few writing tools to help you navigate those rocky seas of emotion.

1. Journaling – Therapists at the University of Rochester Medical Center say that journaling is one of the easiest ways to release your emotions, next to talking to a close friend or family member. That’s where expressive writing comes in. The idea behind journaling, or expressive writing, is to set aside time every day to write in a journal or notebook for a specified amount of time, say thirty minutes or so. (However, in my personal experience, if you’re feeling really emotional about a situation, you might consider writing for longer than that, or at least until you have nothing left to put on the page.) Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation or sentence structure, and don’t show your journal to anyone. Journaling is your personal path to healing.

2. Freewriting – Freewriting is like a stream of consciousness on the page. You don’t stop to edit yourself either, much like journaling. While expressive writing helps you deal with the emotional content, like a dumping ground of sorts, freewriting is the flow of thoughts and ideas. Journaling is more personal, while freewriting is less emotional. But because of the assortment of ideas, freewriting helps you sort through them to find nuggets of wisdom. I also recommend handwriting for both journalizing and freewriting because writing by hand creates a direct connection to your subconscious mind.

3. Letter writing — Another exercise I used to get through my emotional crisis was letter writing. Write a letter to that person (or organization) who you feel angry with (or disappointed, saddened, frustrated, etc.). Describe your rage or fears, and most important, explain what you would like them to do in response. Be specific in your request. Most important, don’t mail the letter. Instead, tear it up or burn it. Release the contents into the Universe. You never ever want to mail a letter to someone that you wrote in anger. You might regret it later. Write as many letters as you see fit until your emotions are under control. It really does make you feel better to get things off your chest, even if you never mail the letter.

4. Write about your experience in third person. This suggestion comes from a therapist at Psych Central, who explains that writing in third person (he/she/they) creates distance between yourself and the traumatic event. When it’s less personal, the traumatic experience is easier to deal with.

5. Do nothing. Yes, you read that right. Do nothing – at least for right now. Be careful not to respond to a volatile situation with a kneejerk reaction. What you write in the heat of the moment may not be what you really want to say. Allow time for your emotional self to cool off. It could be a few days, a week or a month or more. When you wait for the drama to subside, what you want to write about will eventually become clear.

The turmoil in the world has created a lot of emotional noise. You don’t want your voice to get lost in it. Take a step back (or two or three) from the drama, allow some time to pass, then you’ll be able to look upon that situation with greater clarity. Writing can help by giving you an outlet for those pent up feelings.

With life in topsy-turvy mode these past few months, writing solely for yourself can bring balance back into your life.

Are You Being Truly Authentic in Your Writing?

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Webster’s dictionary defines authentic as “genuine” or “real.” But what does it mean to be genuine or real in your own writing?

Writing authentically means revealing a little bit about yourself through your writing. You provide a glimpse of your daily life so others can see that you are not some robot but a real person with real feelings and real experiences of the world. Your readers are looking for a reason to connect with you. They want to see your humanness. Being a responsible, authentic writer means opening yourself up to them.

I’m not talking about an online diary or a log of everything you ate for breakfast this morning. I’m talking about human emotion and experiences, which readers can relate to.

Writing with an authentic voice is the key to being a successful writer, says writer and blogger James Prescott, who eloquently describes his own experience about losing his authentic self at the Publishous blog. When Prescott focused on external ego-centric factors like publishing deals and how many followers he had, he said he easily lost sight of what was truly important about writing: connecting with readers.

Your readers aren’t interested in those ego-centric things about you. What they do want to know is how you overcome writing blocks, how you found your first writing gig, how you brainstorm story ideas. Because these are issues they deal with every day. These are problems they want to solve. They want to see that you are just like them, a writer who struggles with motivation and inspiration and time management, even as you build your success.

Writing authentically is about knowing what your audience wants to know, not what you want for yourself. For example, you might begin a blog post by telling readers about a writing class you attended recently and what you learned from it. Not only do you share your knowledge, you put up a mirror of sorts so they can see themselves through you. Sharing your personal stories helps you connect with your readers.

Readers are on your side. They want you to succeed in your writing. They want to read stories that are honest and truthful and speaks to their heart. They seek authenticity from the writers they read and follow in social media, so it’s up to you and me, as writers, to give them what they want.

Here are a few ways that you can bring more authenticity to your writing.

  • Turn off the negative internal voice. You know the one that tells you that you’re not good enough, that you don’t have a right to share your knowledge with others, that writing is a big waste of time. You get the idea. Find a way to shut out that negative internal voice. Better yet, shout back at them. “Yes, I am good enough. Yes, I enjoy writing so it’s not a waste of time.”

  • Stop worrying about being perfect. Just focus on your message. What do you want to say to your readers? When you focus on your message, the right words will come naturally.

  • Watch for performance anxiety. Putting words down on the page is a lot like standing on a stage to perform for an audience, but you don’t have a script and you have to fly by the seat of your pants. Not knowing what to say to a room full of strangers can cause anxiety for even the most practiced public speakers. If you feel performance anxiety just by staring at a blank page, again focus on your key message(s). The words will come.

  • Feel the fear and write about it anyway. Human emotions are the one thing that connects us all. We all feel fear. We all know what it’s like to feel our knees go weak, our hands tremble, and our heart beat wildly inside our chest. Write about those things. Those experiences will help you connect to your readers.

  • Learn to meditate. Meditating helps you quiet your mind and slows your breath to an easy rhythm. When your thoughts slow down, you can observe your inner world more clearly. You can observe the way you think and the way you feel. When you slow down, new thoughts arise, thoughts you never knew you had. Meditating helps you reconnect to your true self, and when you connect to your true self, you discover your personal truths. When you are in tuned with those truths, you are more likely to share them with conviction.

Don’t be afraid to share what you learn about yourself. It’s scary, of course, but that’s what makes it real. That’s what make you human. That’s what makes you authentic. And your writing will improve because of it.

What about you? How do you bring authenticity into your writing?

For more about authenticity in writing, check out these links:
Why Authenticity as a Writer and Blogger Is Crucial to Success
Writing with Authenticity

Tired of Staring at a Blank Page? Begin Writing with a Story Starter

blank paper with pen and coffee cup on wood table
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Staring at a blank page is one of the scariest experiences for a writer, no matter how much experience they have. It’s one of the most common objections people have about starting a regular writing practice. “I don’t know what to write about!” they cry.

Story starters can help you fill that blank page. Story starters are word games and activities to help you generate story ideas. Not only are they great at helping you flex your creative muscles but they can also prompt you to look at events in your life in unexpected ways. Most important, story starters can help you stay motivated whenever you feel stuck or want to take a break from your current work-in-progress.

So the next time you find yourself staring at a blank page, try one of these starter activities to help you fill that page with prose.

1. Writing prompts. Perhaps the most popular story starter is the writing prompt. As the term says, a writing prompt poses questions or fill-in-the-blank statements to stir your imagination. For example, “Whenever it rains, I like to…..” Or “If you won the lottery, what would you do with your winnings?” There are entire books devoted to writing prompts or you can find them on sites like Writer’s Digest, StoryaDay.org and Self-Publishing.com. Or you can revisit my previous post about writing prompts here.

2. Word lists and associations. This technique was popularized by author Ray Bradbury who often used it to brainstorm story ideas whenever he felt stuck. First thing in the morning, Bradbury would jot down whatever words came to mind. Then he’d look at whatever connections they made to each other, or in some cases, how they prompted a memory. By combining some of the word associations, he was able to form the basis for a story.

3. Dreams. If you are an active dreamer, I hope you keep a notebook at your bedside to jot them down. That way you can remember them later. The longer you wait to write it down, the more likely you will forget important details. Dreams have a way of revealing issues we’re dealing with in our lives, sometimes when we don’t realize we’re experiencing them. Maybe you felt yourself falling helplessly in a dream, or you were being chased by an unknown being. Try to capture that scene as well as your emotional response. You never know when dreams can serve as the premise for a story or a scene in a larger work.

4. Visuals, such as artwork or photographs. Is there a painting, sculpture or photograph that moves you or inspires you? What do you see in that image? Each piece of work conveys different meanings to different people, so what you see in a painting will differ from what your friend sees. The next time you see a visual that moves you, try to write a story about that image or about the artist. What do you think inspired them to create this piece?

5. Maps. Lay out a world map on your desk, or find a globe. Then close your eyes and let your finger drop down to a place on the map or the globe. Wherever it lands is the backdrop for your next story. Imagine what it’s like to travel there, or create a character who is from that region. Maps can guide you to a story set in faraway places.

6. The news. You can’t escape what is happening in the news these days. Current events and TV news programs are filled with interviews with experts, personal profiles and events. They can look at one story from different angles. Perhaps someone in the news provides inspiration for a character in your latest short story, or a news feature can spark fresh story lines you might not have considered.

7. First line game. Think of a first line of a story, then keep writing to see where the story takes you. Or for an added challenge, find a first line from any novel you choose, then create your own different story from that first line.

8. Dictionary word game. For this activity, all you need is every writer’s best friend – the dictionary. Open the book to any page, close your eyes, then with your finger point to a word on that page. Then open your eyes and see what word your finger fell on. Does that word conjure any images in your head? If that word doesn’t work, scroll up and down the page for another word that strikes your fancy. The important thing to remember is that the word should somehow resonate with you, conjure up images that have meaning to you. For example, perhaps the word you settle on is “cantankerous”. What image comes to mind? Perhaps it’s the image of an elderly uncle whose gruff manner frightened you as a child?

9. Favorite object. Do you have a favorite object that has special meaning to you? Perhaps it’s a piece of jewelry you own, a book you’ve read, or an ornament you picked up on your travels. Perhaps you owned something that is missing or broken. Describe the object and explain why it meant so much to you.

10. Observations. Look around you and describe what you see. It could be a cat sleeping on your desk while you work. It could be a person you see on the street who started digging around a nearby dumpster looking for food, or a doorman in front of an apartment building who smiles and says hello to everyone walking by. Just jot down what you see, what they are wearing, what they are doing. Simply observing the world around you can spark a scene or short story.

With so many story starters to work with, you won’t have to search hard for stories.

Writing a Novel Takes Practice

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At a panel discussion I attended several months ago, one of the panelists described how she had a practice novel before ever getting published. She had been toiling on this particular story for months before deciding it wasn’t working. So she tucked it away into a drawer and began working on another novel, which eventually got published.

Up until that day, I had never heard of a practice novel. In that moment, I realized that one or two of the manuscripts I had been working on were most likely practice novels.

For the uninitiated, practice novels are written manuscripts that usually never get published. They serve to help you learn how to craft a story in novel form and work out different story ideas and angles. “Chances are the successful first novel is the one that was published, not the first one written,” writes author Donna Cook on her blog.

Think of a practice novel as the warm up concert act before the headliner hits the stage.

Tackling a novel is hard work, and not everyone is cut out for it. Writing a practice novel can lay the groundwork for future success, while helping you work out the kinks of your writing process. If you harbor any doubts or have any question about your abilities, the practice novel can usually answer them.

Here are several ways that practice novels can help your writing.

Practice novels are ideal for beginning writers. While many first-time published authors have previous writing experience, and perhaps have earned a degree from an MFA program, most beginning writers are starting to figure out how to write a novel. Practice novels help you learn the art of storytelling – from plot structure, dialogue, character development, even sentence structure. You learn as you go along, by learning from mistakes, picking up helpful tips from other writers, or by taking occasional workshops. It’s a piecemeal process, and a lengthy one. Even after spending several years working on a manuscript, off and on between other projects, that time is not wasted because you are continually honing your craft.

Practice novels help you gain insights about yourself. As you write each day, you learn how to set goals for yourself and solve storytelling problems. You pay more attention to how you think and how you feel. You may pay more attention to conversations around you, observe how you interact with others, and examine scenery with an eye for color and detail. Through your characters, you learn what makes people tick. Practice novels help you see your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and help you determine if you have what it takes to pursue this strange ambition. Novel writing isn’t for everyone, but a practice novel can tell you if this path is right for you.

Practice novels can help you test out different genres. If you read a variety of genres, it’s only natural that you want to experiment with each of those styles. Perhaps you’re a fan of both romantic suspense and mystery/thrillers, for example. While the two share common elements, there are also differences. You might experiment with both of them, but find through practice that writing a thriller fits your writing style better. Practice novels can help you figure out which genre best suits your writing style and whether your story idea has wheels.

Practice novels may never get published, but parts of it can be – later. It’s rare that the practice novel manuscript gets published at all. There are a few exceptions, such as Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, which was written before To Kill a Mockingbird but published many years later. Most readers and critics agree it wasn’t nearly as prolific as Mockingbird. While most practice novels never see the light of day, some can be utilized in bits and pieces. For example, author Anne Allen, used pieces of her practice novel for another one she wrote 15 years later. Likewise, you may decide that some of the scenes and characters from your first unpublished manuscript are worth saving for the purpose of using in other works. The work you’ve done on a practice novel is never wasted when parts of it can be used in future works.

Practice novels can help you stick to a regular writing practice. When you know you are working toward a specific goal, like completing a novel, it’s much easier to write every day. It’s also much easier to find time to write, no matter how busy you are, because you are immersed in your work-in-progress.

Instead of practice novels, try writing short stories. Many people find the prospect of writing a novel daunting, like climbing a mountain when you’ve never climbed before. Sometimes it’s easier to start with a smaller project, like a short story, which can provide valuable storytelling skills, like plot, character development, and pacing, according to The Writing Cooperative. Further, if you decide to send out that short story to an editor or critique group, you’ll likely get feedback faster. People may be more inclined to review a 20-page manuscript than a 200-page novel. With speedier turnaround time, you’ll learn sooner rather than later whether your work is any good, and what you may need to do to improve it.

Practice novels require a lot of time, effort and patience, but that time is never wasted. Each hour you put into your practice novel is time well spent learning about crafting stories. Even if your practice novel never gets published, just completing one is worth celebrating.

 

What’s Your Legacy, and How Can Writing Help You Achieve It?

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Photo courtesy of Little Free Library

No doubt you’ve seen the Little Free Libraries in your neighborhood where you can go to borrow books or donate a few in return. No questions asked. No fees to pay. No librarians or book sellers to talk to. Just you and a Little Free Library to connect you with other readers in your neighborhood.

What a brilliant idea!

The Little Free Library program is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. (Check their website for special events and discounts.) LFL was the brainchild of Todd Bol to honor his mother who was a school teacher. (Hence the school house designs.) Sadly, Bol died late last year, but he leaves behind a tremendous legacy of literacy and learning and sharing.

In a society that’s become increasingly “shareable,” (ride-sharing, home-sharing, etc.) somehow the idea of sharing books anonymously seems kinder, gentler and not so intrusive. Unlike other shareable businesses that have monetized their services (think Uber and Airbnb), Little Free Library is a non-profit. Though they sell their patented little treehouses on their website, it’s the free exchange of books and the experience of sharing that brings the most value. The people who benefit most are the users, readers like you and me who love to read, who love to collect books and who love sharing what they’ve read with others.

In that way, Bol was a genius. He might have created Little Free Library for his mother’s memory, but you and I are the benefactors. That’s a tremendous legacy to leave behind, hopefully for years to come.

That leads me to wonder about my own legacy. What do I want to create that will have lasting meaning and value? I pose those questions to you as well. What do you want to achieve with your writing, your art or your small business that will make the world a better place?

In the writers’ group I belong to, several members joined because they had personal stories that they wanted – and needed — to tell. One man is writing stories so his teen-aged daughters will understand his personal history and their Asian cultural heritage. Another man is writing a memoir to inspire other young people that it is possible to survive a complicated and emotionally difficult childhood to become a better human being. Yet another member, a young girl still in college, writes to simply bring joy to others. These are their chosen legacies. None of them are focused solely on being published. Instead they hope to publish with a purpose.

I suspect that when it comes legacies, it’s difficult for some of us to choose what that is, or even what it means. Susan Bosak, founder of The Legacy Project, says legacy is about life and living. “It’s about learning from the past, living in the present and building for the future.”

More specifically, she explains that legacy is “an interconnection across time, with a need for those who have come before us and a responsibility to those who come after us.”

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Knowing what a legacy is doesn’t make it any easier to decide how to manifest it in our lives. To help sort through it all, ask yourself the following questions:

1. How would you like children and grandchildren to remember you? If you don’t have children, maybe you have nephews and nieces that you can leave your legacy to, or perhaps someone else’s children?

2. What do you see as your primary place or purpose in life? How did you come to that conclusion?

3. What lessons have you learned from your life experiences?

4. If you could solve one problem in our world – and only one problem – what would it be and why?

5. What is your superpower – your best talent? How would you like to use it?

6. Can you tell your life story in six words? (To learn more about six-word memoirs, check out Smith Magazine.) Breaking your life down into six words really cuts to the heart of what’s important to you.

To create a legacy, you first need to see the bigger picture. Then you can begin to write. Writing in and of itself is not the legacy, but a vehicle for achieving the higher purpose through your stories.

Five Lies About Writing That Can Derail Your Writing Practice

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

When it comes to maintaining a writing practice, we tell ourselves a lot of lies – not being good enough, not having enough time to write, not having any good ideas, writing is easy, etc.

Why do we tell ourselves so many lies? More important, what are we basing them on? Whose voices do we hear when we hear those lies? Perhaps it was some offhand comment someone said to you many years ago that you took to heart? Or perhaps it’s someone else’s belief that you adopted as your own, even though that person is no longer alive?

Those lies often act as barriers to your writing. If you get too far ahead of yourself,  you may hear that voice again. That’s when self-doubt kicks in. You slow down or stop writing altogether. That’s no way to engage with your writing.

Maybe it’s time to dispel those beliefs and get real about your writing practice. Maybe it’s time to re-frame those internal messages into more positive ones so you can enjoy writing again.

Below are the most common “lies” that you may have told yourself at one time or another and how you can dispel them once and for all.

Lie #1: “There’s not enough time to write.”
An old friend of mine once told me that he didn’t realize how much time he wasted until he started grad school. Once he started classes, he became more aware of how he was spending his time. “We waste a lot of time,” he told me with a shake of his head.

The truth is we fill our days with busy work, much of it meaningless. If you claim that you’re too busy to write, what are you “too busy” doing? How do you know that you don’t have time to write if you have never tracked your activities throughout the day? Are you using your time as efficiently as you could?

Try this exercise: For three consecutive days, keep track of how you spend your time. Include one weekend day (for example, Thursday, Friday and Saturday). Set up worksheets from midnight to midnight with fifteen-minute increments for each day. Be honest with yourself. Once these worksheets are completed, take note of any gaps in your schedule. Are there pockets of time where nothing is happening? Can you split up a segment of time? For example, if you get an hour for lunch, can you set aside a half hour for writing? Or if you spend most Saturdays watching marathon episodes of your favorite show on Netflix, could you swap out one hour for writing instead?

By seeing your activity in print, you’ll likely find ways to re-allocate your time so you can spend more valuable time writing.

Lie #2: “Writing is too time-consuming.”
How much time do you think you need to establish a regular writing practice? Thirty minutes? An hour, perhaps? Many people believe writing is time-consuming based on some preconceived idealistic vision of what a writing practice looks like. They imagine an overly large oak desk in a drawing room with lots of bookshelves and French doors that open up onto a garden with a view of the lake in the distance.

This scenario is far from the truth. (Hence the schedule assessment). More likely, writers are squeezing in a writing session during their lunch hour or on a bus ride to work in the morning. Most have full-time jobs, families to raise, obligations to the community. They don’t have a lot of time to indulge in fantasy, but they do make time to work on their craft.

The truth is, many writing experts say you only need ten to fifteen minutes a day to establish a regular writing practice. If all you need is ten minutes, you can write anywhere. Check your activity assessment again. Are there gaps in your schedule where you can squeeze in ten minutes of writing?

Lie #3: “There is nothing worthwhile to write about.”
Many aspiring writers stop writing because they think they don’t have anything worthy to say, no interesting stories to tell. But ideas for stories are everywhere if you remain aware and alert for them.

Engage with the world around you. Notice the people walking in the park or through your neighborhood. What are they doing? Riding a bike, feeding the birds, playing with their kids? Observe the other passengers on your next train ride to work or in the coffee shop you hang out. How are they dressed? How are they spending their time? Quietly and unobtrusively listen to the conversations around you. Note how two people speak to one another. In hushed tones so as not to be overheard? Or loud and emotional, as if they are having an argument?

There is plenty to write about. You just have to be aware of your surroundings to be inspired.

Lie #4: “Writing is not a worthwhile career.”
If you believe that writing is not a worthwhile career, go to the nearest bookstore or library, open up a magazine or newspaper or browse the Internet. You’ll find plenty of opportunities for writers. Sure, it may be tough going at the start of your career, or even in mid-career. But that has never stopped writers from writing. You may have to work a dull nine-to-five job to pay the bills while you hone your craft. But ask anyone who has ever been published and they will tell you that writing brings them joy. That in itself makes it worthwhile.

Lie #5: “Writing is for sissies.”
Writing is not for the faint of heart. Especially if you are writing a novel or a work of non-fiction, writing is a slow, agonizing process, complete with false starts and writer’s blocks. Your first draft is usually junk, and you’ll have to go through several editing passes before an editor or publisher believes your latest project is worth sharing with the rest of the world.

The key to progress is consistency. You can work on your latest masterpiece and still it may not be good enough to be published. But writers are the most courageous and heartiest of souls. They risk rejection constantly. Even after they’ve received fifty rejection slips, they dust themselves off and try again.They’re willing to toil for years on one project that is close to their heart, just to see it come to fruition. This writing life is definitely not for sissies.

Remember you are in charge of your own writing practice. You set the schedule and the parameters for success, however success means to you. Once you become aware of the self-defeating beliefs, myths and assumptions affecting your writing, you can flip the script. Rewrite the assumptions as fact-based truths. Then use them to redefine your writing practice.

Are there any lies that you used to believe in that nearly derailed your writing career?

24 Quotes about Writing by Women Who Write

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay


As Women’s History Month comes to a close, it seems appropriate to highlight some of history’s most prominent female authors. In their own words, here are their thoughts and musings about writing and the writing life. Let their words be an inspiration and motivation for your own work.

Do you have a favorite quote about writing, either from the collection below or one that is not represented?

“The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”
Agatha Christie

“Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Sylvia Plath

“I could not write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life.”
Jane Austen

“The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self; to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.”
Toni Morrison

“Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings,  specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course, you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”
Joan Didion

“You must not only know how to write, but you have to be privately, personally, sound at the core. Not sane, but sound. If not, it always shows.”
Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent

“To write something, you  have to risk making a fool of yourself.”
Anne Rice

“The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but one which makes you think.”
Harper Lee

“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
Margaret Atwood

“I am a woman, and I am a Latina. Those are the things that make my writing distinctive. Those are the things that give my writing power.”
Sandra Cisneros

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”
J.K. Rowling

“Language is an intrinsic part of who we are and what has, for good or evil, happened to us.”
Alice Walker

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
Anne Frank

“Women and fiction remain, so far as I’m concerned, unsolved problems.”
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

“Invention, it my be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.”
Mary Shelley

“When I go back and read my journals or fiction, I am always surprised. I may not remember having those thoughts, but they still exist and I know they are mine, and it’s all part of making sense of who I am.”
Amy Tan

“After awhile, the characters I’m writing begin to feel real to me. That’s when I know I’m heading in the right direction.”
Alice Hoffman

“Good books, like good friends, are few and chosen; the more select, the more enjoyable.”
Louisa May Alcott

“Write about the emotions you fear the most.”
Laurie Halse Anderson

“Writing is a process, a journey into memory and the soul.”
Isabel Allende

“Writing is a job, a talent, but it’s also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.”
Ann Patchett

“You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page.”
Annie Proulx

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
Anaïs Nin

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Maya Angelou