NaNoWriMo: Achieve Your Writing Goals

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Editor’s note: I am not employed or affiliated with NaNoWriMo not-for-profit organization nor am I being paid for promoting this event. 

Could you write 50,000 words in one month? A national non-profit writing organization is challenging you to do just that.

November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as it is often called. NaNoWriMo is a creative writing event hosted by a not-for-profit organization that began in 1999 to challenge young writers to complete a novel during the 30 days of November. The goal is to write 50,000 words, or roughly 1,667 words a day. That may seem like a lot to some, but not if you plan your time well, say writers who have participated in the past.

If you’ve always wanted to write a novel and wasn’t sure how or where to start, the NaNoWriMo website offers some practical tools and resources to help you get started. I’m especially impressed with the Prep 101 Workshop, a series of exercises that helps you plan your novel. In this section, you’ll find an entire handbook containing exercises, quizzes and worksheets to help you do everything from developing your story idea, creating complex characters, outlining your plot, developing the setting for your story, and organizing your time to get it all done.

I found the quiz about plotting preferences especially useful. I discovered that I don’t like a lot of detailed planning, but just enough to get me started and keep it flexible enough to allow for new characters and plot twists.

If you’re writing a memoir, a play or non-fiction book, don’t feel left out. While this event is geared toward novel writers, you could easily adapt the tools to your own work. The goals are the same – 50,000 words in 30 days.

You don’t need to donate to the organization to participate. You can do the work on your own, like I plan to do. Or meet with fellow writers in your area for ongoing support and encouragement. Check listings in your area for write-ins that might be taking place at bookstores, public libraries or schools. For the uninitiated, a write-in is like an open house for writers where you spend an hour or several just focused on your writing. Write-ins are a marvelous way to immerse yourself in your novel.

Also check if there is a local NaNoWriMo chapter in your area, just like this one in Chicago.

November is an exciting time to be a writer. Take advantage of these resources and challenge yourself. See if you can reach 50,000 words in 30 days.

Besides, imagine how great you’ll feel at the end of the challenge. Even if you don’t reach the goal of 50,000 words, even if you only achieve 30,000 or 20,000 words, that’s more than what you have written up until now. And you’ll be that much closer to completing your book. That’s always a reason to celebrate.

Making Collaborations Work

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I’ve been reading about collaborations a lot lately. I have never collaborated on a creative fiction project myself; I’m far more comfortable getting my own ideas published. But for many writers and creative professionals, collaborations are a means to expand their business opportunities.

The truth is, writers and other creative professionals have been joining forces to create new innovative products for years. Sometimes these collaborations work; many times they don’t. There are numerous reasons why writers would want to seek collaboration on a project. They may want to experiment with a different genre of writing but don’t have the experience or the confidence to pursue it. A collaborator can bring that perspective.

Another reason for collaboration may be the size of the project. It may be too large for one person to handle on their own. In that case, a collaborator can share the responsibility — and the rewards. Yet another reason is the challenge it brings. Many writers may relish the thought of working with another person because they feel the process makes them a better writer.

If you decide to pursue a collaboration, keep an open mind. It’s important to be open to new ideas and not get locked into your own.

According to Joanna Penn at the Creative Penn blog, it helps to have a clear idea from the start what kind of project you and your collaborator are working on and to set parameters for making progress. Lack of proper planning can derail the project before it even gets off the ground. You both need to be on the same page to move the project plan forward.

Here are a few words of advice from writers who’ve been part of successful collaborations.

1. Work with someone you already know. When you know someone, you are familiar with their strengths as a creative, their personality, their ideas, work habits and more. It’s much easier to get on the same page when you know who you are dealing with. While it’s not a requirement, it can be helpful to work with someone you already know. When you don’t know the other person as a writer or collaborator, you have to start from ground zero in getting to know how they work, and more important, whether you can work with them at all. It might be helpful to start on a small project like a play or novella before embarking on a larger project.

2. Start slow and plan you project ahead of time. Don’t begin writing right away. Plan out what you want to create, though you don’t need every detail outlined. Outline what each of you will be responsible for during the project. A simple sketch with your story ideas and characters might be sufficient. Once you start writing, keep working at a steady pace. Put a schedule in place with incremental deadlines and a final publication deadline. Having a clear plan of action with deadlines can keep you and your collaborator on track to meet your goals.

3. Be clear about the story concept. Define your genre. Is it historical fiction, an international thriller or a fantasy series for young adults? Penn says it can be tempting to do a mash up of different genres to please different audiences, but that can result in a confusing product. Instead, choose one and do it well. When you focus on one specific genre, it will be easier to market it to consumers.

4. Communicate clearly and often. You may be working at opposite ends of the country, so it’s important to have frequent communication to update each other on progress, says writer Jeff Somers in Writer’s Digest magazine. Set aside time each week or every other week to check in with each other to see how the work is progressing and resolve any problem areas before they derail the project. 

There are other important tips to consider. 

1. Be respectful of each other. You each bring something special to the table – your skill level, writing experience, etc. If you find yourself encroaching on the other person’s space, take a step back and allow them room to work their own magic. Likewise, if you find they are encroaching on yours, politely ask that they give you time to work your own writing magic. There’s no room for egos when you collaborate.

2. Embrace different ways of working even if they make you feel uncomfortable. The new processes may actually help you see past writing problems that have stumped you before. Learning new processes through collaborative efforts may even help you become a better writer.

3. Speak up if the project seems to stall or doesn’t seem to be going well. Don’t let resentment simmer in the background or boil over, Somers says. Address issues as soon as they arise.

4. Take time to celebrate milestones and successes. When you complete that first book in your fantasy series, or get that contract, celebrate that success. Then get back to work. Most important, have fun.

5. Don’t be afraid to walk away. If you find you cannot work with this person or a stalemate has occurred, walking away from it may be your best option. You may have to weigh the pros and cons of doing so. For example, if you received an advance from a publishing company, you may have to find a way to complete the project. Honor your obligations. But if you don’t have any restrictions and this is simply a creative experiment that clearly is not working out, by all means, walk away and chalk it up to experience.

Remember, for all the success stories about collaborations that fill the Internet, there are still many others that have failed. In any partnership or relationship, sometimes you have to set aside your ego to let the relationship flourish. The same is true for collaboration. If you enter it with the right mind set, the end result may be a product you can be proud of.

Have you ever collaborated on a creative project? What was your experience like? I’d love to hear about them.

In Search of Your True Writing Voice

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It’s not easy transitioning from a career in business communications to fiction writing. The hardest part about the transition is finding your voice. In business communications, the writing voice is impersonal, detached and, well, business-like. Communications are focused on the needs of the company or client that you’re writing for. Your personal voice is absent.

When you begin to write fiction, on the other hand, it’s imperative to find your writing voice because your story and characters are all extensions of yourself.

Finding your writing voice matters for several reasons. It establishes consistency throughout your body of work. It gives your writing personality. Finally, it helps readers know who you are. You can’t hide behind your words; you have to learn to write from the heart. That’s how readers will find you and keep coming back to you.

According to the NY Book Editors blog, a writer’s voice is a combination of three factors: the writing style, perspective and tone.

Style is the character of the writing; the words and phrases you use and how you express your ideas. Style is developed by years of practice and experimentation. It also helps to read the works of different authors from different genres to sample their writing style. Over time, you pick up bits and pieces from authors you admire. Style may be short, abrupt sentences or long sweeping poetic ones. However you develop your style will eventually become your hallmark, editors say.

Perspective is how you choose to view a situation and relay what’s happening. Perspective is drawn from your history of experience and knowledge of the situation. For example, when a car accident occurs on a busy street corner, one witness standing on the sidewalk will have a different perspective of the accident than the passenger in one of the involved vehicles and the policeman who arrives to investigate it will have yet a different perspective.

Tone is the attitude or feeling about the story that you’re telling. It can be serious or sad, or it can be humorous and upbeat. Tone gives readers a clue about how to feel about what’s happening in the story.

It can take years to find and refine your writing voice. Here are a few ways to help you find it.

1. Spend time alone with your thoughts. Be aware of the ideas, notions and imaginings going through your head. Note the conversations you have with yourself internally.  Notice your own feelings too. Do you feel cheerful, optimistic, sad, guilty or fearful? What is the source of those feelings? Where are they coming from? It might help to learn meditation to be fully present with yourself.

2. Keep a journal. Most writers do keep a journal. It helps them take stock of their experiences. If you prefer, carry a small notebook in your pocket or purse so you can jot down ideas and observations as you go about your day.

3. Write letters. If you’ve ever written a personal letter to someone, you know how difficult it can be to find the right  words to express how you feel. The practice of writing letters helps you access what you’re feeling in your heart. Writing from the heart is the key to finding your writing voice.

4. Read different authors. When you read different genres and authors, you expose yourself to different ways of storytelling. We naturally pick up bits and pieces along the way from other writers, especially ones whose works we admire. Over time, you will synthesize different styles to form your own.

5. Freewrite. As I’ve described in previous posts, freewriting is the practice of writing nonstop for several pages about anything that comes to mind. There are no right or wrong answers to what you put down on paper. It’s simply a fast, easy way to access parts of your subconscious that you may have kept hidden, even from yourself. You never know what shows up on those freewritten pages. When you go back to re-read what you’ve written, the writing will most likely be sloppy, but you may find hidden gems of heart-felt emotion. That’s where your voice will emerge.

If you want to explore this topic more, I highly recommend the book Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice by Nancy Slonim Aronie.

Finding your true voice as a writer does not happen overnight. It takes practice and dedication to access those parts of you that readers will appreciate.

What to Do When You’re Not in the Mood to Write

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I don’t know if there’s ever a right time to write or a right place or even a right mood. If you always wait for just the right spirit or mood to strike, then you may never write a single word. Then all your brilliant story ideas would collect dust bunnies in your brain. What good are brilliant story ideas if you don’t begin writing them?

But sometimes you’re just not in the mood to write. Either you’re bored with the project you’re working on, or you’ve been at it for too many weeks and you’re not seeing the results you want. Maybe you’ve spent too much time away from writing, either due to illness or injury or a family emergency. In those times, it can be difficult to find the motivation to begin writing again. But you don’t have to be in the best writing mood to make progress toward your writing goals.

Ironically, it is the very act of writing that can put you in a positive writing mood. But beyond that, what else can you do to put yourself in the mood to write. Here are a few ideas.

1. Create an inspiring environment. If your environment feels stale, try mixing it up by surrounding yourself with things of beauty, like fresh flowers. If you are moved by music, play some classical music softly in the background. Find a comfortable chair to sit in, use your favorite pen to write, or even sit outdoors in the sunshine and watch nature unfold. Surrounding yourself with beautiful things can bring out the artist in you.

2. Start small. Set small easily attainable goals for yourself. For example, set a time limit of 30 minutes. See how much you can accomplish during that short time. Author Jack Smith in his book, Write and Revise for Publication, suggests trying the “dribble method.”  Try reaching a small goal, like 100 words. More often than not, you will surpass that goal and will want to keep writing.

3. Re-read what you’ve written already. If you’re working on a lengthy project, like a novel or non-fiction book, go back and review what you’ve already written, particularly the previous chapter. Your brain will automatically switch into edit mode. When you find yourself reaching for that red pen, that’s usually a strong sign that you’re ready to get back to work.

4. Switch up genres. Perhaps you’re not inspired to write because you’re bored with your latest writing project. Try switching to another genre, writes James Duncan in Writer’s Digest. If you’re writing a novel, try writing a poem or two. If your memoir is beginning to feel emotionally exhausting, work on a short story instead. You are still writing something even if it isn’t the project of your dreams, and it might just give you the motivation you need to keep working.

5. Begin with a freewrite exercise. Freewriting is the act of writing for a set time or number of pages without stopping to edit or revise. Think of it as a stream of consciousness that you put on paper. Freewriting for ten minutes can jumpstart your imagination and begin the flow of words. At the end of those ten minutes, you won’t want to stop, and you’ll want to jump back into your writing mode.

6. Read about the writing. Even though you’re not putting any words on a page doesn’t mean you’re not working at your craft. Even reading about your favorite genre, whether it’s memoir writing, science fiction or a historical romance, can help you gain useful insights that you can apply to your own work. It can also inspire you to experiment with a different technique, thus sparking more creativity.

7. Read the works of your favorite authors. Pick up one of their best books and begin reading. What is it about their writing that you always enjoyed? What can you learn from their approach to storytelling?

I recently came across several books I had in storage from a couple of my favorite authors, Mary Higgins Clark and Joy Fielding. Both books had been signed by the authors, which was probably why I was still hanging on to them after nearly two decades. Re-reading their notes of encouragement has inspired me to keep writing today. I’m gradually re-reading these novels, this time with a more expert eye on their writing style.

8. Talk things over with a writing buddy. Sometimes taking a time out or a well-needed coffee break can break the monotony and loneliness of writing. They may have insights that you had not considered. Hearing about their successes and struggles can inspire you to get back to the table. Knowing you have someone supporting your efforts can bring you back to the present with renewed energy.

You don’t always have to find the right mood to begin writing. But you can cheat a little with these little tricks. But really, there’s only one true antidote for getting in the mood to write when you don’t feel like it. Just write.

 

Use Waiting Time for Your Writing Practice

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At my part-time job recently, I found myself sitting around for extended periods of time waiting for batches of orders to come in before I had to put them together for the customer. I hated those slow times. Even though I had my smart phone with me, I didn’t want to waste valuable battery life on reading online articles. So I did the next best thing to make the time pass. I grabbed a pen and began jotting down notes on a spare paper bag about my waiting experience, notes that I am now converting into this blog post.

Inspiration can hit you at any time so you have to be prepared. One of the best opportunities for finding that creative inspiration is while you’re waiting — whether you’re at the doctor’s office, at the airport, or  in the grocery checkout line. Taking advantage of that uninterrupted time for writing, research or revising stories is better than worrying about that job interview or your upcoming blind date.

Worrying is fruitless when you have to wait, say psychology experts. Worrying doesn’t accomplish anything except make you feel worse than you already do. And worrying can be harmful to your health in the long run.

Waiting is commonplace in our society. So why do we hate it so much? Because we’re used to being on the go. We don’t want to slow down for anything. Social media and technology have made the situation worse by creating an immediacy to information and faster response times. Life got busier and faster as a result. We’re used to being on this treadmill called life, and we don’t want to get off.

We also dislike waiting because we can’t control our time. The control of our time is in the hands of someone else, like the doctor or the pilot. We worry because we aren’t in control.

Sometimes we simply have no choice but to wait. According to the Washington Post, research has found that it isn’t the wait that annoys people; it’s that people get bored while waiting. Researchers have found that unoccupied time feels longer than actual occupied time. When you have something to distract you, time passes more quickly. That’s why you see TV screens in doctors’ offices, magazines at hair salons, and mirrors and paintings outside elevator banks – to keep people preoccupied.

As awful as waiting can be, it is sometimes necessary, even helpful. It can be especially beneficial for our writing and creativity. Here’s how to make the most of those wait periods:

1. Catch up on your reading. Bring a book or magazine to read. It really does make time pass by more quickly, especially at a doctor’s office or while getting your hair done at the salon. You never know when that book can start a conversation with the person next to you in line.

2. People watch. If you’re lucky enough to have a window to look out of during your wait time, take advantage of it by watching the people go by. Reimagine their conversations. Imagine where they are coming from, what they do for a living. Create stories about them.

3. Jot down notes. I carry several small notebooks in my purse so when inspiration strikes me, I take notes before I forget them. I can refer to the notes later if I need ideas for stories. If you don’t have a notebook, look around for a spare sheet of paper to jot down notes. The note-taking keeps your hands and your mind busy so you don’t dwell on the long wait.

4. Do research. Do you need to do research for an upcoming project? Or maybe you are a news junkie who needs to stay updated on the latest news. Your smartphone (or laptop if you have it with you) are your gateways to knowledge.

5. Look around for inspiration. There are stories all around you. For example, if you’re at the airport, observe how the ticket agents handle customer issues. If you’re waiting for your prescription at the pharmacy, take note of the different products on the store shelves. What do they do? What ailments do they heal? Set aside your frustrations about waiting, and be curious.

6. Write about your waiting experience. There’s an instant story right there. Use the little notebooks from number 3 above to jot down ideas. Write about other times you’ve been forced to wait for something. Let your experience be your guide.

7. Take a walk. Stretch your legs. We do too much sitting around, so it’s important for our health to keep moving. Walk around for a change of scenery. It might also improve your mood.

8. Stop looking at the clock. In fact, put away your clock or watch altogether. The more you look at the time, the more it will seem to crawl, which will only frustrate you even more. When it’s out of sight, it’s out of your mind, and you won’t think about all the time you’re losing by waiting.

9. Learn to be patient. That’s what waiting ultimately does – help us become more patient.

Waiting doesn’t have to be a chore or a bore. With a little preparation, you can turn your enforced waiting into an opportunity. Make the most of it.

Six Ways Yoga Can Unblock Your Creativity

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I’ve practiced yoga for nearly 15 years. I’m certainly not advanced in my practice, but I certainly appreciate the nuances of a weekly vinyasa class. But I can tell you how yoga has helped me through some of the most difficult times of my life.

As I pursue my writing passion, I continue to include yoga in my regular self-care. That got me to thinking about possible connections between yoga and creativity. Is it possible that practicing yoga regularly can boost creativity? Many yoga practitioners, many of whom are writers and artists, say yes.

Here are six ways practicing yoga can help unlock your artistic side.

1. Yoga cultivates stillness to quiet the mind. We all lead active, busy lives. Between deadlines, social activities and social media, we are bombarded each day with information that can make us feel overwhelmed. Yoga gives us a chance to quiet the mind so we can hear our inner voice. Further, according to the Yoga International blog, when we work on our craft, the right word or color choices often come from deep within us. They’re intuitive choices. The best way to access this intuition is to quiet the mind. Yoga can help you achieve that.

2. Practice non-attachment to outcomes. As artists and writers, we can become so focused on the final product that we can become stressed about it. It’s important, say some yoga instructors, to detach yourself from the outcome. We need to bypass the internal critic whose negative commentary can stop us in our tracks. When we release those negative emotions, we open up a pathway to creativity without stressing about the result.

3. Increase energy. The energy body is the source of creativity, writes Anne Cushman, a yoga instructor and author on the Yoga International blog. A regular yoga practice not only increases physical energy, it releases internal energy blocks that we may be experiencing. With the increased energy flow, ideas can flow more freely and organically.

4. Reduce physical pain and suffering. Creative work can be very demanding, both physically and mentally. It’s hard to work when you’re in pain. It’s important to maintain our physical and mental health so we can produce our best work. But when we suffer, either physically or mentally, even emotionally, our creative process also suffers. Yoga helps release that pain, slowly and gradually. As we regain our strength, we gain stamina to endure the long, often intense creative process.

5. Break free of self-limiting thoughts. In the creative process, we can often become stuck in old self-defeating thought patterns. According to the Yoga Journal, yoga gives us the ability to see situations in a new light. It can help us break free of relentless, counterproductive thought loops. Once we release those patterns, we can approach the world with a more open and expansive mindset. That’s where the most innovative ideas thrive.

6. Learn to trust yourself. One of the toughest aspects of the creative life is accessing deep emotional feelings and releasing them through work. To do that, we have to conquer our fears, which can easily kill creativity. A regular yoga practice gradually releases self-doubt and fear and moves us to act and create without self-judgment and without the need to seek approval.

As creative workers, it’s easy to get lost in our own head. Yoga is a great way to get outside of ourselves. Yoga allows you to bring your problems to the mat. Yoga as part of a self-care program is critical to good health and improved creativity.

Seven Signs That You’re Sabotaging Your Writing Practice

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A writing practice is only as successful as your level of commitment to it. The more committed you are to a regular writing practice, the more consistent your output. Makes sense, right?

But what happens when you get oh-so-close to finishing your manuscript, but never seem to get around to finishing it? What happens when you do finish a story, but never seem to get around to submitting it to editors for possible publication? What if, instead of finishing your manuscript, you suddenly find other more pressing things to do, like clean the garage or spend more time with your mother-in-law? Is it really a matter of changing priorities? Or is something else going on?

I’m certainly guilty of these behaviors as I’m sure many other writers are. Psychology experts suggest that these patterns of behavior – procrastination and self-sabotage – are inbred in us. No one is immune to them. Even the most successful published authors have admitted that they have utilized these sabotage tactics.

It’s tempting to blame your tendency for self-sabotage on external factors, such as a demanding family life or a faulty computer. But unfortunately, blaming outside factors is a waste of time and energy. The only thing that is standing in the way of your own success is you. It’s time to get out of your own way.

From my experience, I’ve noted seven signs that you may be sabotaging your writing practice.

1. You stop writing indefinitely. You could be coasting along with your writing practice, meeting your daily writing goals and making steady progress on your story. You feel confident about your accomplishment. But then you stop writing. Why? What went wrong?

Maybe you got a negative review of your latest work that stops you in your tracks. Maybe you look at your life and question whether anyone else would find stories of your childhood interesting. Maybe you’ve read so much about writing that you feel overwhelmed and feel unsure how to begin your next project.

Giving up on your craft is not the answer. Letting your ideas fade into the distant past and collect dust isn’t the answer either. If you stop writing, but you still want to write, you need to figure out why. Give yourself a deadline of, say three days, to regroup and contemplate why you have stopped writing. Maybe it is a need for a mental break. If so, then when you are sufficiently rested, get back to work. The important thing is to keep writing. Ironically, it may be the very act of writing that breaks you out of your malaise.

2. You focus on the negative. You overanalyze your own writing and decide it’s simply not good enough – You’re not good enough. You constantly look for what’s wrong with your technique than with what’s right. All this focus on the negative qualities of your writing can undermine your confidence. Too much analysis can freeze you in place. The next time this happens, have one or two people review your work and give you positive feedback – something to keep you motivated so you keep writing.

3. You take criticism too personally. It can be disheartening to hear negative feedback about a piece you’ve been working on for weeks. Don’t let it paralyze you. Some critique is necessary. See the feedback as an opportunity to improve your writing. Most important, don’t take it personally.

4. You constantly compare your work with others. So what if other writers have more experience than you do or they’ve had more stories published. You need to remember that they started at the beginning at some point. Stop comparing yourself at the beginning of your career to someone else who is further along. That’s like comparing apples to bananas. You will never get ahead that way. If possible, try to stay in your own lane.

In this situation, you might also need to re-evaluate your goals and expectations. Have you set them too high? Are they unrealistic? It may be time for a rethink of your expectations to make them more manageable.

5. You don’t believe you have anything worthwhile to write about. Everyone has stories to share. Just because you think you don’t have anything interesting to write about doesn’t mean you don’t have anything interesting to write about. It’s all perception. When you feel your work is not worth reading, it can be tempting to stop writing. Again, keep writing until you find a story worth telling others. If needed, ask someone to read your work.

Every experience in life counts for something. Every experience is worth writing about. The story is your perception of events as they unfolded and how they impacted your life. Believe that there’s a story everywhere you look. Believe that you do have something worthwhile to share – then start writing about it.

6. You focus too much on the past. We’ve all suffered failures in our lives. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all had situations that did not work out. Understandably, we don’t want to repeat those mistakes. Learn from those mistakes, then move on. Just because you made them once before does not mean you will make them again. Stop focusing on the past and stay focused on the present.

7. You focus too much on the future. Perhaps you dream of earning your own byline in a high-profile magazine or you are determined to get your manuscript published. But those goals are meaningless if you haven’t written a single word. It’s easy to get way ahead of ourselves, but just as in point #6 above, it’s imperative to stay in the present moment.

You can’t change the past and you can’t control the future. So you might as well stay in the present and make the most of it – by writing.