What Do I Really Know? aka- Queen of the Underqualified?

I opened my email and there it was. My first invitation to appear, as an author, and give a presentation.

My mind immediately filled with images of myself, microphone in hand, perhaps nestled into a cozy leather chair on stage as I gaze upon those who’ve come to listen intently to the carefully crafted bit of wisdom I have to offer them. That lasted about 3.5 seconds and then terror flooded through me. What wisdom?!

I’m finally comfortable calling myself an author, but what do I possibly have to teach others? What topic can I offer that won’t bore a group to tears (including my family, who I’m fairly confident would come just to ensure I do have an audience!). I’ve called all the authors that I usually badger with my neurotic–and endless!–questions (nobody answered, apparently they have lives!).

So my current list of potential topics is:

  • Pairing Snacks With Reading Genres
  • Reading To Escape Responsibility & Recreation
  • Writing: I Did It & You Probably Can Too
  • Hi, I’m An Author. Any Questions?
  • Ascertaining The Primitive Implications of the Transcendental Elegy on the Post-Modernistic Annihilist (but I think that’s for a very specific audience)

 

I’m still tossing these around, but I’m definitely open to suggestions.

 

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Do you NaNoWriMo?

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is just days away.

What is NaNoWriMo, you ask? NaNoWriMo is a yearly event in which writer’s set a goal to write an entire novel (or 50,000 words) in thirty days. I know, it seems insane. I think that every time I make the commitment to do it. But I keep signing up.

If you’re wondering if NaNoWriMo is for you–if you can really do it–the answer is yes.

There are still a few days left to prepare. I’ve found my best NaNoWriMo time is when I think about my novel beforehand. I do some research, plan my characters, locations and the general direction I want my novel to travel. I usually start with a loose outline that includes plot points and twists I want to follow. Depending on the amount of preparation time I have, my outline may be far more detailed, but all I need is a “roadmap” to keep me on track.

Some people prefer to use the “pantser” method (ie- fly by the seat of your pants, no outline, make it up as you go, write with the wind). I have “Pantsed” in the past, and while there is something exciting about working like that, I find it easier to keep track and progress in a linear fashion when I have an outline. I’ve also discovered it’s easier for me to revise (and there is a lot of revision to come after November!) when my initial writing had structure.

If you want to try NaNoWriMo the main things to keep in mind are:

  • Nobody judges. Its fun, its a challenge, its a supportive community of writers with a shared goal.
  • Don’t–I repeat, do not–edit your writing as you go. The goal is to get 50,000 words down. They don’t have to be pretty. They don’t even have to be spelled correctly. You’ll come back and make corrections later. You may spend months–or longer–revising this novel. Some people call this their “first draft”, some call it the “zero draft”. I prefer to use the Anne Lamott term “shitty first draft”. I even save my file as “.SFD”. To me, it’s the most basic way of owning and being okay with the horrible quality of this draft.
  • What’s most important is that at the end of the month you’ll have a completed (or nearly complete) first draft of a novel. Even if you don’t quite make it to 50,000 you’ll have a good start on a novel.
  • Save research for the revision phase. As soon as you go online to research something you’re going to get sucked into a vortex of lost time. Enter a place mark/reminder within the text, for example “Moss draped from the [find out what kind of] trees…”. (as a bonus…all those place mark words help reach the goal!).
  • Enlist your family to help you meet your goal. It’s one month. Meals can be easy, the house can be cluttered, the kids can watch movies or play video games and your spouse can freely watch whatever they want (for my husband it’s a month of all the sports he can watch!).

Most important is to keep in mind that this goal can be reached. On December 1 you’ll look back and realize what an amazing thing it is to have written an entire book in one month. And you never know where that book will take you. There are a number of best-selling novels that started as a NaNoWriMo project. My own 2015 NaNoWriMo project was A Shine That Defies the Dark, which is being released on 12/5/17.

For more information on National Novel Writing Month check out the NaNoWriMo website and, if you want to “buddy” up, look for me there.

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When It’s Okay to Not Write

Every writer has hit some sort of a writing slump. Maybe you’ve lost your momentum, your excitement for a project, or maybe you just don’t know how to progress or where your story is going.

There is no limit to the number of tips and articles to help you get past a period of writer’s block. While many of them are very helpful there is also something to be said for putting your project aside for a while.

On each of my novels (including my current WIP) I’ve gone through a period when I’ve put the project aside for several weeks to several months. Sometimes I began another project or worked on editing another. Most of the time though, I used those breaks to really think about my novel. I reviewed my character’s background stories, motivations, I imagine interactions they might have with each other and with strangers. Sometimes I let dialogues be carried out in my head. I even planned a birthday party for a character during one of my writing breaks.

But as “unproductive” as each of those breaks has been something miraculous happened during each one: I discovered a mind-blowing plot twist or element that I hadn’t considered before. And each one of those revelations led me to a renewed and productive writing period.

For my YA medieval I discovered that an integral character would die (okay…there were two beloved characters who died and both came from a similar non-writing period). I also realized that a minor character, one who seemed to have pulled along by the devious plot of another, is actually quite strong and manipulative in her own right. She’s actually been the driving force of a major plot and is about to become the main character’s most formidable opponent. Until I set aside my writing I’d only ever recognized her as a mousy, subservient pawn in the game that was being played.

For my YA bootleggers story I solved two problems through a writing sabbatical: how to bring my character’s best friend back into the story line and whether a main character was going to die (yes, I do spend a lot of my non-writing time determining the death toll of my books).

My current WIP (a YA martial arts fantasy) is still very much in the early stages, but I’ve already taken a break from it to discover that someone I least expected is going to become the new Oracle. There is one potential death pending, but I haven’t gotten a divine answer on that one yet.

I’m not suggesting it’s ideal to stop writing entirely. Sometimes working on another project can push your current one from your mind, making it more difficult to resolve that which was preventing your progress. Taking a break and using the down time to ruminate on your project (or obsess without writing) can open up answers that you’d never imagine when sitting at the keyboard forcing the story onto the page.

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Online Writing Contests: To Join or Not to Join?

There are no limits to the number and types of writing competitions you can join online. You can submit a 35-word pitch or submit a longer manuscript for a more in-depth contest. The goal of the contests is the same: to get your manuscript before an agent/publisher who will (fingers crossed!) love it.

In the past several years I’ve taken part in my fair share of writing contests. My contest experiences have been varied as my results. While I’ve heard of a number of authors finding their agent/publisher through contests I haven’t been so lucky (…yet!). I have entered pitch contests and more involved ones with varying results. I’ve had my manuscripts selected to go on to the agent round, I’ve been selected as a team member, an alternate and I’ve also been completely left out of the running. I’ve had several partial requests, some full requests and (*gulp*) zero responses during the agent/editor/publisher rounds.

While the constant highs and lows of entering contests can sometimes make you doubt yourself and your work it’s important to realize what you are winning with every entry.

First–and most important in my humble opinion–is the support structure that you’re establishing each time you enter an online writing contest. You aren’t alone in your endeavors and dreams. A simple Twitter search for any contest will show you the number of people who are in the same position as you. The conversations that take place, messages of hope, support, guidance and empathy go on all day long. The writers who enter will often follow each other and end up with enduring online support systems. There are a  number of people who I’m still in contact with that I met because we’d all entered the same contest (or contests!) and struck up conversations. We continue to beta-read for each other, offer query critiques, pitch critiques, and even opening critiques. Most important we are there for each other when one is feeling frustrated or when someone has exciting news to share. I’ve also made some lasting connections with people who have mentored me and my novel during contests.

Second, the feedback and help that you get is amazing. There are a number of “pop-up” pitch workshops in which contestants–and writers who just want to help–review each others pitches to make them stronger. There’s no shortage in the number of people who will put out an offer to help by reviewing your pitch, opening lines, query letter, etc. The online writing community is such a supportive one and those who have been helped often give back by helping others.As an alternate for one contest I was given a ridiculous amount of editing feedback/guidance. There is no way my manuscript would be as strong as it is now without that help.

Finally, you get an idea of your own determination and how much you can endure in order to meet your goal. Can you accept rejection, and use it to better your craft or fuel you further, so that you can continue this journey?

I’m not saying you should enter every contest. There are times when you’re not in a good emotional or creative place because of the number of disappointments we face as writers. Those are the times when you should sit out and tend to your creative/emotional self. But do keep in mind all the ways that you can “win” even if you don’t win a contest.

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