How to Plot with Flashcards

Photo credit: konrad.lawson on Flickr
Once upon a time I read Your First Novel 
by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb. I felt a little silly buying it because at the time I’d already written four novels so it wasn't really going to help me write my first, but hey. Why not?

It was full of useful information for both pre-publishing and after publishing (although it was written before the explosion of e-books, so I suppose it’s a little out of date in that sense, but it’s still useful if you'd like to try to get an agent). The most useful technique I got from it however, has nothing to do with agents.

It’s a plotting technique. With flashcards.

So I don't remember the exact method the book uses (it’s been a while since I've read it), but I've found that the flashcard method is very useful, which is why I'm sharing it with you.

SO. How to begin? 

Step 1: Build MOUNT DOOM (with flashcards, of course).

Step 2: Get your handy-dandy writing pencil. Or pen. Or crayon or marker or Sharpie or lipstick tube, whatever suits your fancy, really.

Step 3: Plot! Plot like the wind! It doesn’t matter where you begin, just take a flashcard and write down a scene idea. It could be something short like, “Katie kicks a clown in the shin at her birthday party.” or something much more complex like, “Alfredo discovers his albino gerbil is really an alien that’s going to take over the world with his army of adorable fuzzy creatures and tries to tell his mother but all she does is give him a handful of prayer beads.” Ok, so that wasn’t that complex, but you get the idea.

Step 4: Keep writing flashcards. The book recommends you have at least twenty before you try to start writing your novel because chances are you don’t have a fully fleshed-out story if you can’t even come up with twenty scenes. I agree. Write as many flashcards as you can. The more the merrier.

Step 5: SPREAD ‘EM (the flashcards, I mean). If you have a hugenormous desk or table, spread your flashcards out there. Otherwise spread them out on the floor, it’s just as effective. They don’t even necessarily have to be in order, the idea is to just look and see what you have so far.

Step 6: Line them up! Ok, I know I just said order doesn’t matter, but that was Step 5. This is Step 6 and now order matters (don’t question my logic). Once you have them organized, take a look at your time line. Ask yourself what you could add. Are there any gaping holes in your plot? Do you have two or three slow scenes in a row? Is there enough leading up to the climax? For some reason, looking at it visually like this helps me see flaws in my plot faster than just writing up an outline.

Step 7: KEEP. WRITING. FLASHCARDS. I know you can add more in there. Try to shove in at least five more. You can always take them away again later.

Step 8: Numbers! Once you’re satisfied with the order of your scenes, go through and write a number at the bottom based on their order (the first card is 1, the second 2… so on and so forth).

Step 9: Throw them in the air and do the IT’S RAINING FLASHCARDS dance! Ok, not really. But shuffle them. And if you want to shuffle them by throwing them in the air and rolling around in flashcards, that’s totally cool, too.

Step 10: Re-organize! Take a look at your random order. Obviously some scenes will need to be in the beginning and some in the end, but can you keep any of the new arrangements? What would happen if you kept mixing your scenes up? Try experimenting as you put them back in order—flip some scenes around and play with them until you’re happy with your new order.

Step 11: Now go write.

So that’s it guys, the flashcard method unveiled. Give it a try! Maybe you’ll like it as much as I do. Or maybe you’ll have fun dancing in a papery rain. Either way it’s worth a shot.

I’ve shared my method, let’s hear yours! What techniques do you use to plot?

How to Write a Masterpiece

Late Saturday night: after a particularly whimsical session of #wordmongering, I was chatting with fellow mongerer @Babseth, when we were struck with a lightning bolt of inspiration—the gates of heaven were opened to us and the secrets of writing a masterpiece were downloaded directly into our minds.

I guess you just had to be there.

Being the generous person that I am, I decided to write down these surefire ways to complete a novel of brilliance. Don’t skip any steps. They are all essential.

Golden Writing Advice Right Here, People:
  1. Linear plots are overrated. Readers enjoy trying to figure out what the hell is going on. It’s an adventure.
  2. Consistent character development? Pshh!
  3. 100% evil, mustache-twirling villains are a must. WHERE IS YOUR VILLIAN’S MOUSTACHE? And he should probably be bald, too.
  4. Don’t waste your time establishing setting—especially not setting that will be important later on.
  5. Foreshadowing? Completely superfluous.
  6. Don’t even THINK about cutting that lengthy telephone conversation about the neighbor’s dog and the scene where your MC ordered delicious food at the restaurant. Enough said.
  7. Every outfit must be meticulously described—down to the last painted toenail.
  8. We need to know every aspect of every characters background—from birth to present day.
  9. Remember to start your story with either your characters waking up/looking into a mirror or a really long, irrelevant prologue about another character you’ll never hear about again. Clearly, there are no other legitimate ways to start a novel.
  10. The twist readers will never see coming: IT WAS ALL JUST A DREAM! *queue Twilight zone music*
  11. Include flashbacks in every chapter, especially flashbacks about adorable childhood memories. I mean…he was just so cute!
  12. Your manuscript isn’t finished unless you’ve reached 200k words. 199k? KEEP WRITING.
  13. Invent your own spelling and grammar. This is a creative field! Shakespeare did it, why don’t you?
  14. Precise, effective language is boring. Show off your pretty writing with flowery metaphors and similes.
  15. Varying sentence and paragraph length is a completely waste of time that will clearly only give your readers anxiety attacks. Lull them into your writing with uniform sentences instead.

Brilliance, I know. In case you missed the dripping sarcasm, here’s some real advice:

Do the opposite of everything you just read. I can’t guarantee you’ll have a masterpiece on your hands if you do, but you’ll certainly be better off.

Now, as for that lightning bolt of inspiration…

Do you have any not-advice you’d like to share? Share them below! 

Patience: A Virtue

When I wrote about being absolutely positively 100% sure that you were done editing your WIP before submitting to agents or uploading to Smashwords the other day, I noticed a theme cropping up in the comments: patience.

Ohh patience, you tricksy hobbitses you.

Patience does not come naturally to me, and I have a sneaking suspicion (correct me if I’m wrong) it doesn’t come naturally to many of us. Most people aren’t born with a large dose of patience (although some are blessed with more than others); it’s something we learn to embrace over the course of our lives.

Don’t believe me? Look at kids. Kids are about the least patient people on the planet. And it’s understandable; they’re kids. We don’t expect them to be patient. What about the elderly? As a whole, much more patient. Now of course, I’m making broad generalizations. I’m fully aware there are some patient kids out there and I’ve met some rather impatient senior citizens, but in general, patience is something we develop as we get older.

At least it was.

Nowadays we’re becoming accustomed to everything happening now. We have instant streaming online, music we can download in seconds, internet connections that (when working properly) get us from page to page within the blink of an eye, books we can download in minutes, on-demand movies available at our fingertips, now, now, now!

Not only that, but things are getting faster.

Ten years ago if a webpage took a minute or two to load, no one threw a fit about it. If downloads took five or ten minutes, we’d groan a little, but it wasn’t a big deal. Not so much today. Unless you’re downloading something HUGENORMOUS (like, say, Mac OS Lion?) we expect downloads to take a few minutes tops. Anything beyond three minutes is taking too long.

Technology is teaching us it’s ok to be impatient. It’s conditioning us to on-demand, to instant results. And I’m certainly not complaining about it, I like instant streaming and quickly loaded pages and speedy downloads.

The problem arises when people apply the expectation of now to other parts of their lives. Like writing. Writing is not a now industry. Writing takes time, editing takes time, and up until recently, publishing took time.

But once again, technology stepped in and told us it’s ok to be impatient. It gave us e-book publishing and offered us the gleaming red apple of now. You can get published now, it said. See? It’s easy! Just upload and press this button and voila! You’re a published author!

This is where traditional publishers are starting to run into problems. Why wait two years to get published when you could have your e-book up tomorrow?

So it’s true that publishing doesn’t necessarily have to take time anymore, but writing still does.

Repeat after me: writing takes time. Let me add to that, writing takes time and it always will. It doesn’t matter how quickly you can upload to Kindle or Smashwords or wherever you want to e-publish your book. Technology is getting faster, yes, but we aren't.

Here’s an important distinction: speed in technology = productivity; speed in humans = sloppy.

We can only work so quickly before we start to lose quality. We’re not computers guys, we’re only human. We need to take time in our writing, and we need to take more time in our editing.

Here’s a confession: I am currently working on a WIP that I’ve been slaving over for going on two years now. Granted I took a six month break, but that’s 18 months of writing, of editing, of re-writing, of re-writing, of gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair and REWRITING AGAIN.

Is it done yet? Nope. I’ll probably be re-writing it at least one more time. At least.

I know not everyone will take as long as I do, and that’s ok. Everyone is different; some people will take longer, some will whip out a fully polished manuscript or two a year like a machine. And that’s ok, too.

Guys, it’s entirely possible to get a first draft down quickly. But editing. Editing isn’t like that. You need to take time between edits to see your manuscript with fresh eyes. You need to let betas read it, critique partners rip it apart, then you need to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until it glows like the Eiffel tower at night (which, if you've never seen it, is very pretty and glowy).

So does writing require patience? Not always. But good writing does.

And it always will.

Have you struggled with patience in your writing? Tell me about it in the comments below! 

Are You Really Done Editing?

So you’ve finished editing. You’ve poured your heart and soul into your manuscript then spent countless hours cutting, rearranging, rewriting, reimagining your WIP. But have you really finished editing?

Time and time again I’ve seen new writers announcing to the world that their WIP is ready for submission after a month or two of writing and editing. I’ve seen the excitement turn to eventual disappointment when the stack of rejections arrives. And it’s frustrating. Because I’ve been there. I know how it feels. And when I see someone else making the same mistake I did, I kind of want to repeatedly bash my head into a wall.

But of course, that wouldn’t do anything but damage the wall and give me a migraine.

It goes without saying that finishing a manuscript is exciting, I mean, you just wrote a book for crying out loud, you have every right to be excited! And when you finish that first round of edits, it’s exhilarating—you’re that much closer to a completed, fully polished novel.

But 9/10 times, one round of edits doesn’t cut it.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to write a beautiful first draft that only needs a round or two of edits—every writer is different and I can think of at least one published author that I know of that writes tight first drafts, but that’s not the norm.

I’ve written before about the Never-Ending Editing Syndrome, but I failed to mention the other end of the spectrum: not editing enough.

It happens; even I’ve done it, and it’s an honest mistake, because when you’re looking at your work it’s hard to tell when it’s ready.

A few years ago, the consequences of premature submission were relatively minimal: most of the time, agents just wouldn’t bite. It hurt, but the determined writer would move on and create another book. They’d learn from their experience and become better.

But now, with self-publishing available, the consequences are much more serious. Publishing an e-book prematurely equates to low sales and mediocre (or bad) reviews. It damages not only your reputation, but your self-confidence. It’s a crushing blow.

Of course there are ways to recover from such a mistake, but it hurts a lot more than being privately rejected by agents. So what can you do to prevent premature submission?

Get beta readers and critique partners. I recommend readers who aren’t related to you or your best friends. Friends and family tend to go one of two ways when it comes to beta reading and critiquing: too nice or too mean. Are there exceptions? There are always exceptions. But for our purposes I’d suggest finding at least one writer to look at your work first. They’ll be the most helpful in making sure it’s ready.

Take your time. Repeat after me: this is not a race. This is NOT a race. Don’t rush through the writing, don’t rush through the editing, don’t rush through any part of the process. I don’t care if it takes you years to finish. Don’t think about publishing when you’re writing. Don’t think about submitting to agents or when you’re going to self-publish when you’re editing. Focus on making your story the best it can be and worry about that other stuff later.

Do at least three drafts. To repeat what I said about exceptions, I’m not claiming that it’s impossible to write a tight manuscript in less than three drafts. However, I am saying that for many of us, three drafts is a minimum. Why?

The first draft is the first draft. It’s to get your thoughts down, to learn about your characters and slap down a basic plot. It’s where you learn about your story.

The second draft is the beginning of refinement. That’s when you prepare it for readers, when you deepen your characters and fill in plot holes and strengthen the weak sections of your manuscript.

The third draft incorporates feedback from your readers. It’s takes into account where people got bored, what they didn’t understand, what they thought could use a little more work and it fixes it.

By the third draft you’ve hopefully covered most of your problems. But unless you’re the Chuck Norris of editing (and maybe you are! I’m not doubting your ability, really I’m not), please don’t submit before you’ve done three.

Stop comparing. Stop that. It’s not doing anyone any good and it’s just going to get you all nervous and doubty and you really don’t need the added stress.

There’s isn’t a magic number of drafts when it’ll be perfect every time. Everyone is different, every manuscript is different. But if you remember to breathe, to take your time, to focus only on improving your work, then you’ll know when it’s ready.

And it’ll be worth the wait.

What are your thoughts on editing? Are three drafts too much (or too little?) Have you ever submitted too early? 

Social Media for Writers

Photo credit: the tartanpodcast on Flickr
I have social media on the brain this week.

I’m sure many of you have seen little explanations of what each social media site is useful for, but in much of my searching, I’ve only seen a few directed especially to writers. SO. Figuring this must be amended, I thought I’d make one myself, based on my experience.

I’ll say right from the start I can’t account for all social media sites (there are SO. MANY.) and I think it’d be unfair for me to judge sites I’m not on, so I’m going to limit this to the ones I’m familiar with.
So here we go! In order of usage!

Twitter—I’m sure most of you guessed this would be first on the list. I use Twitter probably more than I should (but I regret nothing). Regardless of my not-addiction, I’ve found Twitter to be an enormously helpful tool for writers. Not only is it chock full of excellent, bookmark-worthy links (my bookmarks bar has exploded since joining Twitter, EXPLODED), but it just so happens there are tons of writers on Twitter (who knew?).

Twitter is a great place to connect with others in your niche, make friends, promote your work (and the work of your new Twitter friends) and find fantastic blogs. If you write and you don’t have a Twitter, go get one. Seriously. Go do it. Right now. I’m waiting.

Blogger—I say Blogger because (obviously) I use the Blogger platform, but Word Press is another fantastic option. I suppose I should have titled this one blogging, but I digress.

Blogging is great for writers for many different reasons. First, it gets you writing. I know that seems obvious, but you need to write consistently to maintain a blog, and learning about self-imposed deadlines is essential to anyone’s writing career.

The second reason is slightly less obvious: networking. I wrote an entire post about how it’s not about you, and I’m going to say it again: building your blog isn’t only about building your blog. Go out there and connect with other bloggers. Create a blog roll, promote each other. Making connections with other writers is just as important (if not more) as building your blog.

tumblr—I was really confused when I first started a tumblr account. Who am I supposed to follow? What do I do? WHAT DOES THIS BUTTON DO?

I wouldn’t call myself a tumblr expert, I still stumble around the site and I’m relatively sure I haven’t used it to its maximum potential, however there is a LOT of good stuff on tumblr. From fantastic quotes, to articles, to amazing pictures and works of art, tumblr has a little bit of everything. Great for inspiration (and distraction).

Best part? You can link it to Twitter and whatever you reblog (the equivalent of re-tweeting for my Twitter fiends) will be sent to your Twitter to share with your followers.

See why having a Twitter account is so useful? Hmmm?

Facebook—You’re probably wondering why this is so low on the list. It’s not that Facebook isn’t useful (it is), it’s just that I haven’t quite maximized the potential of my page yet and I did say I was ordering this list on my usage.

Despite that, Facebook is another great place to connect with other writers and share with each other. The like button has virtually invaded the internet (try to count how many times you see it while surfing the web in one day—it’s a LOT), which makes it another great platform that should definitely be on your list.

Goodreads—I’ll be honest, I haven’t utilized my Goodreads page AT ALL. I go there to update what I’m reading and find out more information about books I might be interested in. Occasionally, I’ll browse the forums, vote on various lists and post a book review. That’s about it.

But just because I haven’t used it as much as I could, doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Goodreads is chock full of readers and writers (big surprise, right?) just waiting to be connected with! Plus, it’s a pretty fantastic site for discovering books. And it’s kind of fun to build your online bookshelf.

There are other platforms of course (Google + for example) that I’ve yet to check out, so I can’t really tell you about them. However, the theme with social media is pretty much the same: sharing. Every site does it a little differently, but in the end, the goal (regardless of the site) is to share and make connections.

So go out there and make connections.

What social media sites do you use? Which are your favorite? 

Social Media: It's not About You

Photo credit: JanneM on Flickr
Before I joined Twitter, I had a lot of ideas about what it would be like. I assumed it’d be mostly people tweeting randomness about their lives that no one really needed to know or cared to hear about. And although randomness does appear on Twitter (even I couldn’t resist telling the world about the success of my attempt at Butterbeer cupcakes), it’s a lot more than that.

I assumed a lot about what it would be like, but I never imagined what a huge role community would play into it.

I know so far I’ve really only mentioned Twitter, but this applies to just about any form of social media, be it Facebook, Tumblr, LinkedIn (I’m guessing), Blogging, et cetera et cetera.

I’m not any expert, nor will I pretend to be. I only really dove into social media this past April, so really, I’m still a newbie. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned so far, it’s that when it comes to social media, it’s not about you.

Whoa, there. Not about me? Isn’t social media about building my platform and getting my name out there? Well…yes and no.

I’d be naïve to say that the overall goal isn’t to build online influence. It is—even I get excited when my Klout score goes up, when I get a bunch of new followers on Twitter, when my blog has a successful day with a lot of page views. Yes, the goal is, for most people at least, to build a platform and get known.

BUT. If you really want to flourish online, if you really want to get a group of loyal followers, if you really want people to like you (and when your goal is building a platform, trust me, you do), you have to accept that this isn’t about you.

Your blog? It should give helpful/interesting/entertaining information to your readers. It’s not about you.

Your Twitter? It should be used not only to spread your own ideas, but those of others. Networking means reaching out to other people and supporting them in their journeys. It’s not about you.

Your Facebook? Yes, it has your personal information, your picture, your interests but that like button isn’t for promoting your own posts, now is it? It’s not about you.

Here’s a little secret: people will tolerate listening to you talk about yourself sporadically. Hey, sometimes they even ask and that’s great. But if all you do is promote your own work, if all you do is talk about yourself and spread links galore to your various sites, guess what? People will stop caring. Why should they support you if all you do is support yourself?

You know that old saying “There’s no I in team?” (and yes, I’m aware there IS a “me”, but that’s beside the point.) Well it applies here. Social media is a team effort. It’s a community.

And unless you start supporting your fellow members, you’ll find that people will let you keep doing what you’re doing. They just stick around to listen.

How has community affected your social media experience?

Confessions of a Techie Book Lover

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I am very picky with the things I love, namely: writing, reading and technology.

I’ve talked about being picky with my writing. It’s called perfectionism

I’ve mentioned that I’m picky with what I read when talking about my epic TBR pile (which I REALLY need to get started on).

Technology…now that I haven’t quite covered. You’re probably thinking, well duh Ava, this is a writing blog, not a geeky technology blog. And that’s true. Except as well as being a reading/writing/movie/CG/X-Men/Harry Potter/Photoshop geek, I also happen to have a love for all things technological and it totally relates to writing/reading, I promise.

Before I buy any new technology, I read the reviews. Actually, that’s a bit misleading; I live and breathe the reviews for at least a day (usually more like a week) before I make any decisions. And if the reviews are bad, guess what? I’m not spending my money on it.

I also have this really bad habit of falling in love with technology I totally can’t afford (can you say MacbookPro?), but that’s another matter entirely.

So what does this have to do with all things literary, you ask? One word: e-reader.

The e-reader combines two things I love the most into one boss item, so you’d think I’d totally jump onto that ASAP, right? Well…

As of right now I don’t buy e-books. It’s not because I thumb my nose at self-publishing (I definitely don’t, I have mondo respect for all you indies out there), it’s not because I think e-books are inferior to actual books (even I will tell you that it’s the writing that matters, not the format), it’s not even that I love the new book smell so much I don’t know what I’d do without it (ok, maybe it’s a LITTLE bit that). The reason I don’t buy e-books, guys, is just that I’m really picky about the way I read.

Technically, I have an e-reader. It’s called an iPod Touch and it’s a little bit frightening how addicted I am to it. I take it everywhere and I don’t even use it to listen to music half the time. And yes, I’m fully aware that I can buy e-books on it, in fact I’ve even downloaded a few free samples to try it out. And although the samples were all fine, I wouldn’t read anything more than quick excerpts on it. Why?

Two reasons:

  1. The screen is too tiny. I don’t know how many of you have an iPod Touch or iPhone or have played around with one (I’m willing to bet it’s most of you, though), but that screen is tiny. It’s fine for playing games, for listening to music, even for jotting down little notes. But reading? I don’t know guys, I just don’t buy it.

    I have pretty decent eyes, I can deal with the tiny type (and I know I can make it bigger if I want to). What annoys me is only being able to read about a paragraph before I have to flip to the next page. The reading experience goes from flowing through an entire page (or two, depending on which page you’re on) to something like this:

    Once upon a time there was a boy and a girl. The girl met the boy and…

    …decided she didn’t like him very much but the boy liked the girl very…


    Ok, lame story, I’m feeling a little lazy right now but that’s not the point. The point is that having to “flip” to the next page every few sentences drives me crazy.

  2. The battery life. I don’t know what the official count for iPod Touch battery life is (I don’t have the newest one either, so it’s probably not as much as the newer models), but I do know that if I read on it all the time, it wouldn’t last very long. As it is I often have to charge it part-way through the day because I’ve overused it and it’s 3:00 and my iPod only has 20% battery left and it keeps giving me these little notifications that say I’M RUNNING LOW ON BATTERY and I’m like OK, OK iPOD I’LL CHARGE YOU IN A MINUTE and it’s like CHARGE ME NOW I’M RUNNING LOW, MY BATTERY IS RED, SEE?

    Now imagine trying to read while having that (totally normal) argument when your iPod. Maybe you could deal with it, but I can’t.

Now technically I have another e-reader, too. It’s called a laptop. And technically I could download e-books for reading onto it. And I’ve tried.

But guys, six years of reading work that needs editing on my computer has trained my brain to think if I’m reading it on the computer it isn’t finished and I know that’s seriously nitpicky and I’m sorry but that’s what it feels like to me. Not to mention that reading on the laptop screen gets tiring pretty quickly anyway.

Ok, ok, so obviously my solution is to go out and buy an e-reader. And I’ve tried a whole bunch of them out in the stores to see how I like them.

Well guys, I found one I like. Remember that bad habit I mentioned? The one about falling in love with technology you can’t afford?

Yep. I decided that the iPad is the best fit for me. Crap. (I’d go into huge detail about why I think the iPad will suit me best, but this blog post is long enough as it is.)

Seeing how I’m still saving up to replace my laptop, I don’t think I’ll be buying an iPad any time soon. Will I cave in and dish out money for a cheaper e-reader before then? I don’t know, it’s certainly possible. We’ll see how I feel around Christmas, I suppose.

One thing’s for sure though, I have a nice list of e-books in my head that I will most definitely be downloading when I do get one.

So what do you guys think? Am I being too nitpicky? (It’s ok, I know I am). What e-reader do you use if you have one? (I like reviews, remember?) 

When They Don't Understand

Photo credit: Majicdolphin on Flickr
I've noticed an interesting phenomenon. Maybe it’s just me, but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s not. When you tell people that you’re a writer, their reactions (in my experience) tend to vary depending on how well they know you.

It goes a little bit like this:

Strangers: Oh wow! That’s great, what do you write? Have you been published?

Friends: Cool! I’ll definitely buy a copy when you get published!

Best Friends: Oh nice, how’s that going?

Family: Right, right, but you have a job, don’t you?

To further illustrate this phenomenon, I drew a little graph (I did it on Paint, don’t judge):

(Noooo it’s not a triangle, it’s a graph. SEE?)

Ok, so artistic merit aside, I think you get the point.

It’s not that your family thinks less of you than a stranger you happen to talk to at Starbucks, it’s not that they’re selfish, or insecure or don’t want to see you succeed. It’s the opposite, actually.

The problem is the more that people know you, the more that they care. A stranger on the street can be excited about your career and never see you again. They aren’t worse for the wear if things don’t work out, if you can’t pay the bills, if, in the end, your dream doesn’t turn out so dreamy after all.

But your close friends, your family, they don’t want to see that happen to you.

When your family asks about your job, about how you’re going to pay the bills, they’re not trying to crush your dreams; they’re trying to be realistic. It doesn’t mean they don’t believe in you, it doesn’t mean they think you’re a loser, it means they want the best for you. They want you to be able to pay the bills at the end of the month and live a healthy lifestyle.

Until writing starts to bring in some income, they don’t equate writing with job. They think hobby. And let’s be honest, that type of reaction is perfectly natural. Because they don’t understand.

They don’t know that writing is a job long before you make a penny off of it. They don’t know that the time you take to build your platform, the connection you make with future readers, with other writers, the work you put into every page, every paragraph, every word to make it as good as you possibly can is invaluable.

They don’t understand that if you keep improving your craft, and you don’t give up, and you write and edit and read and write, then one day all that effort and time you put into it might just pay off.

They don’t understand and that’s ok. They love you, don’t forget it.

And when your hard work does pays off, they’ll be happy for you and though I hope you don’t say it, you’ll be able to smile and think I told you so. Because you did.

Am I the only one who’s encountered this trend? Have you faced something similar? Share your thoughts! 

Finding Your Zone (Again)

When it comes to increasing productivity, one of the most important things to recognize is when (and where) you work best. Of course since this is a writing blog, I’m talking primarily about writing, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it could be applied to other things, as well.

I’ve read a lot about finding that “sweet spot” of the day when the writing comes easier. They often talk about how it’s different for everyone—how one writer may pound out a few thousand words before  bed and another first thing in the morning. They talk about finding that place where you can just slip into your writing—be it a library, a café, an office, outside on the deck, etc.

What they don’t usually talk about is how it can change.

You see, in my experience anyway, you have to be flexible when settling into you zone, because after a while it might not feel right anymore.

A few years ago, my sweet spot was in the early afternoon, between one and three. I worked best in at the kitchen table with a pair of headphones and iTunes running endlessly. For reasons I will never know, wearing a pair of headphones made it easier for me to shut everything else out (even when there was little noise distraction to worry about). I could write for hours like that.

But then it changed. It wasn’t drastic—I probably could’ve continued in that spot if I really pushed myself to, but it didn’t feel as easy. Everything felt too routine, and I had trouble focusing.

Then one morning, I woke up earlier than usual and couldn’t fall back to sleep, so I dragged myself to my computer and checked Twitter (because that’s what EVERYONE does right? Right? Ok, moving on). There was a #wordmongering session about to start in a few minutes and I figured, why not? and jumped in.

Then something happened.  The writing flowed. By noon I’d written well over my 1,500-word quota. I felt energized. I’d already completed my writing goal and I had an entire day ahead of me. I was proud of myself. I was happy.

I wanted to do it again.

So now I write in the morning. I still often use headphones (don’t ask why, I can’t explain it myself) and my writing goals haven’t changed, but the writing comes easier again. Not only that, but when I do reach my goal (and I don’t often stop until I do), I feel great for the rest of the day.

So, my fellow writers, moral of the story is sometimes, your zone changes. If your writing starts to feel stale during that “sweet spot” of the day, maybe you need to change things up a little. If you usually write in the morning, maybe you need to try after lunch. If you usually write at night and lately the words have been about as easy as pulling out your own teeth with only a tissue in hand, maybe you should give it a try earlier in the day.

When the routine stops working, try new things. You never know when you’ll find a zone that works even better for you than it did before.

When (and where) is your zone? Has it ever changed? 

How to Be a Happy Writer

Photo credit: ohskylab on Flickr
Most writers are ambitious people—we have to be, after all, just setting out to write a novel is an ambitious move on its own. Many of us understand the worth of delayed gratification, and those of us who don’t learn it very quickly or quit.

So, ambitious people that we are, we tend to focus on the future. We’re motivated. We work hard to accomplish our dreams and focus on completing our goals—which is a good thing.

But although we put in the blood and sweat to see our dreams realized, we often forget to pause long enough to celebrate what we’ve already achieved.

What I’m saying is, we forget to enjoy the stage we’re in.

Many writers fall into the “I’ll be happy when…” trap. I know I did. We tell ourselves, I’ll be happy when I finish the book, when I finish editing, when I get an agent, when I get published, when I publish my second book, on and on and on. But guess what? When we do finish the book, when we do get the agent, we tend to celebrate for a short time, then amend our statement.

Now I’ll be happy when I sell x many copies. Now I’ll be happy when so-and-so blurbs my book. Now I’ll be happy when I have a five-star rating.

Forget that, guys. Don’t be happy later. Be happy now.

I’m not published. I don’t have an agent. I have four books in the drawer, many of which will probably never see the light of day, two more that I’m editing and another that I’m brainstorming. I don’t know if I’ll ever have an agent, if I’ll ever see my book at Barnes & Noble, if I’ll ever make any sort of best-selling list at all. And sometimes it’s heavy. Sometimes I want to stop and do something that other people will recognize as productive. Something my friends and family will understand.

But then I remind myself why I write. It’s not for the money, for the book contract, hell, it’s not even for readers (although all of those things are very nice).

It’s for me. Because I love it.

Sometimes we need to stop and remind ourselves all that we have accomplished. No I’m not published, but who cares? I’ve written six novels and I’m proud of every one of them. I’ve had journeys with my characters, I’ve fallen in love with them, I’ve developed them and then moved on. But they’re mine, and they’re alive because I wrote them.

And that in itself is something no one can take away from me.

Maybe you haven’t written a book yet. Maybe you’re too afraid to start. If that’s the case, ask yourself why you want to do it. If it’s for the money, for the fame, then maybe writing isn’t right for you. If it’s because it’s something you want to do for you, if it’s because you have a story and you want to write it to life, then go for it. Even if it never gets published, it’s a story that you’ve created, a story that will always be with you.

Maybe you’ve written a book and like me, haven’t been published or picked up by an agent. That’s ok too; I challenge you to take the time to see all you’ve accomplished. I challenge you to take a moment to remember the characters you’ve created, the lives you’ve pulled from the depths of your mind.

I don’t care what stage you’re in; take the time now to enjoy it.

And whenever you’re feeling discouraged, remind yourself why you started it all in the first place. And smile. Because you’re a writer, my friend, and you’re just doing what writers do.

Take time to celebrate your accomplishments and share them here; I’d love to hear about it. J

On Critiques

When I was in high school, I took two Creative Writing classes. Since I’d devoted myself to writing every spare moment I had since the eighth grade, by the time I took these classes in my final two years of high school, I’d honed my craft more than most of my peers. I’m not saying I was better than them—I was just more dedicated than most.

So when time came to give critiques to my classmates, I’d sit down with my colored pen and makes notes all over the page. I underlined, circled, crossed out and made as many annotations as I could think of.

Then I’d receive my work back and look at my critique. Nine out of ten times it said: “Great job,” or “I like it.”

I’d stare at the page and wonder what the hell I could do with that. Great job? Yeah, ok, I was glad they liked it, but “great job” didn’t tell me what needed fixing. “I like it” is not a critique.

High school aside, I think it was that experience that made me appreciate critiques the way that I do today. Do I still occasionally get feedback that although makes me feel all fuzzy inside, doesn't help me edit my work in the slightest? Absolutely. But when I receive a “harsh” critique, I get excited. I tell the whiny, insecure part of me to shut up and turn on the editor. I attack my writing and look over the critique notes until I’m sure I've tackled every issue. 

But I know not everyone shares my competitive nature, so not everyone sees the critique as a challenge like I do.

Does it hurt to swallow an honest critique? Yes. But the most helpful ones aren’t the ones that are easy to take.

If you look at a critique and want to hide, that means your crit partner has done their job.

Let me clarify: I don’t mean that your critique partner should be a jerk; I mean they should be honest. When you get back a chapter or manuscript or whatever it is and see notes all over the page with suggestions, it can be daunting. But it’s good.

Repeat after me: dripping red ink is good.

Here are some tips that have helped me review critiques without wanting to drown myself in confetti and cupcakes:

  • Read it. Then put it away. This is especially helpful if the critique has made you emotional in any way. Emotional editing is dangerous and often unproductive. Read your critique, then put it away. Let it sit for an hour, a day, however long you need. Set your emotions aside, then come back and look at the notes again before you dive into edits. Remember this will make your work better. It will. I promise.

  • Take it in pieces. I know when I read critiques for the first time, with every suggestion or weakness that’s pointed out, I saw it added to this mountain in my head of things that need changing. Don’t let the mountain overwhelm you. When it starts to feel like too much, close your eyes, take a deep breath and if you need to, take a break. Go do something else. Relax. Then come back and tackle one issue at a time. Don’t worry about the rest. Pick one thing to focus on and cross it off the list, then move on to the next.

  • Remember perfection is not the goal. This is a big one for me. If you've read more than two of my posts, you know I’m a perfectionist. I have to remind myself that perfection is not the goal just about every time I sit down to edit. Guess what? Not all good books are well written and not all well written books are good. Your goal should be to make your book the best you can. Tell the story, make your characters alive, make your readers care.

  • Then move on and tell the next story.  One book doesn't make a career. You have more stories to tell. Go write them.

So that's my take on critiques. What tips do you have? 

Loving Your Villain

Photo credit: Martin Cathrae on Flickr
I’m going to do this thing where I give you guys a tip I’m going to start taking myself. As of right now.  

Not too long ago I wrote about getting to know your characters. Today I’m going to be a little more specific. Getting to know all of your characters is excruciatingly important, we know this. Knowing every intricate little detail about your protagonist and second lead pretty much goes without saying. We know we need to know everything about those guys because we spend the most time with them.

But the villain…he tends not to get as much love.

As you probably can guess by the first sentence, I am guilty of this in many of my WIPs. I usually start with good intentions—in two out of the last three WIPs I wrote I went in thinking ok, this time I’m going to make my antagonist sympathetic. It’s going to happen!

But then it doesn’t happen.

See, it turns out villains don’t magically become sympathetic (shocker, right?) They’re the villain—they don’t want your pity, they want your respect, your fear, those kind of delicious goodies. But sympathy? Villains scoff at sympathy.

They also tend to make you—the writer—forget that they were supposed to be multi-faceted at all. They want to be evil.

For me at least, the problem was that I didn’t love my villain enough. I loved my protagonist, I loved my second lead, I even loved some minor characters. But the antagonist? Well, yeah, he was cool too. But did I love him? Not really. I just needed him. You know, for conflict.

So now as I’m brainstorming again, I came to a stunning revelation. I already knew that I needed to give my antagonists more attention before I starting writing—that much was obvious. But I came to realize that not only do I need to love my villain, I need to love him more than my protagonist.

Now before you burn me at the stake for heresy, hear me out.

You’re predisposed to love your protagonist—if you don’t, you have a bigger problem on your hands you should probably fix, but nine out of ten times loving your protagonist isn’t an issue. It’s also pretty easy to love your second lead, especially if said lead will be involved in a romance with your protagonist (which, let’s face it, happens a lot.)   

But your antagonist. Falling in love with your villain takes a little extra work. You see, you’re predisposed not to love your villain. After all, your protagonist hates him and in the end (in most situations) your villain will fail. Why would give a character that’s going to fail (or possibly even die) in the end extra affection? Especially after all the crap he’s putting our MC through!

The answer is simple: if you don’t love your villain, your writing will show it. Your antagonist will have one side: EVIL, and fall under the category of stereotypical bad guy. Why? Because you didn’t spend enough time getting to know his other side.

Take a look at your villain. Do you know his family? Does he have siblings? What are his dreams? What does his mother think of him? What is his guilty pleasure?

Spend some time with your antagonist. Let him tell you all about himself, get to know him and don’t stop until you absolutely love him.

Because once you love your antagonist, something funny happens—you want your readers to love him too. And you’ll make sure they do.

Bet you guessed this question: who are your favorite villains? I’m going to remember to answer this time—I love many killers from Ted Dekker’s thrillers (like Boneman’s Daughters, Adam, The Bride Collector and The Priest’s Graveyard). All have really excellent villains.

Survivor's Guide: The Internet Abyss

So as many of you know, I was deprived of internet for over 24 hours. It was a trying time in which I began to suffer serious withdrawals around the 30-hour mark. Ok, I exaggerate, but I really wanted to check my Twitter…and blog…and everything else.

Thankfully I have just about the best tweeps known to man who RTed my corny pre-scheduled tweets like no tomorrow so that Friday’s blog post didn’t suffer a painful and lonely death.  I also had an epiphany and was able to fix my Facebook like box and add it to the blog just moments after I reconnected to the internet. (See it? Isn’t it pretty?)

It’s beautiful, I know.

ANYway, I thought it’d be fun to create a guide for surviving lack of internet. I’ve titled it…


Catchy, right? It’s catchy.

So here we go. The brief, and life-saving Survivor’s Guide:

The Internet Abyss is a frightening, dangerous place and must not under any circumstances be entered unprepared. Venturing into such a place without training or tools for survival may cause serious injury or death.

I barely escaped with my own life.

Should you ever find yourself in the abyss, take these steps to ensure you escape unharmed.

DON’T PANIC. I know it’s terrifying. The little red “X” over the internet access symbol is enough to send even the most experienced veterans into cardiac arrest. Take a deep breath and know that this is temporary. Breathe in, breathe out, relax.

Repeat after me: This is only temporary. This is only temporary.

SHINY DISTRACTIONS. FIND THEM. My shiny distraction was a brainstorming notebook. Once I regulated my breathing, I found a pencil and began sketching out a WIP. I didn’t finish, but I made a lot of progress. You can too.

Other productive distractions: Books, Microsoft Word, bills, grocery shopping, NOTEBOOKS, to-do list, books. Prioritize as you wish (but books are there twice for a reason).

Other (less productive) distractions (but equally shiny): Movies, cupcakes, music, ferrets, confetti, puppies, video games and that song that’s been stuck in your head all day (Arabian Nights, anyone? No? Ok, just me then.)

GET A BUDDY. Strange things happen to people when they’re isolated. They start pacing, rocking back and forth, talking to themselves and occasionally even find an old volleyball to be their new best friend. Don’t enter the Internet Abyss alone if you can help it. Your mental health may suffer.

UPON ESCAPE…REJOICE! And create your own Survivor’s Guide. So, you know, your friends don’t suffer the same fate as you.

Oh yes. And since you have internet now, watch this because it’s pretty hysterical:

Have you entered the Internet Abyss? What survival tips do you have? 

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