How I’ll Write My Next Book

NaNoWriMo inspired me on a new way to approach writing a book

How I’ll Write My Next BookI’ve written several books, most of which didn’t have a deadline. Though I would regularly sit down to write and methodically plod through from start to finish, I wasn’t as intentional as I could have been. I would take several months to complete my first draft of these books—and it was arduous.

Last November I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time, where the goal is to write the first draft of a novel in one month. I effectively did this, but it didn’t happen as expected. (Check out my post of my first NaNoWriMo experience).

Going forward I plan to write all my books NaNoWriMo style. I’ll hunker down and crank through the first draft in one month. Here are the benefits of taking this approach.

Increased Focus: Writing a book in one month requires making it a priority. It’s not one of many things to dilute focus; it’s the one thing. This gives a hyper-intensive focus. In fact, I was so into my novel, which took place in May, that I actually thought it was spring in real life; I had to keep reminding myself that summer was not about to happen, but eight months out. That’s intense (or crazy). Regardless I had focus and finished writing that book.

Better Continuity: When writing large chunks of a book every day, it’s much easier to keep everything straight. One chapter easily moves into the next. But had time interrupted my writing it would have also caused me to lose my comprehension of the story arc. This would necessitate re-reading large sections, a too-frequent referring to my notes, and missed opportunities to produce a better read. But because I was able to stay in the writing zone, the words flowed forth with greater ease.

Faster Results: For me the difficulty in writing a book isn’t the number of words I need to write, it’s the number of days it takes. When I write a book in one month, there’s no time to bog down in the middle, yet a book that takes several months to complete will always produce a discouraging sag of motivation midway through. Taking fewer days to write a book gets me to the end faster and avoids a mid-book slump.

Sense of Accomplishment: It’s a great feeling to finish the first draft of a book. Writing with NaNoWriMo intention rewards me with that feeling of satisfaction faster. Having that great sense of accomplishment encourages me as a writer and motivates me to produce even more.

Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, I plan to write the first draft of my next book in a month. And I won’t even wait until November to start.

A Salute to Carrie Fisher and a Lesson for Writers

What writers can learn from the life and career of Carrie Fisher

A Salute to Carrie Fisher and a Lesson for WritersOn December 26, 2016 my wife and I went to see the movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The next morning I learned that Carrie Fisher had died. Like most people I knew her for her iconic performance as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise. Her obituary revealed so much more:

  • Worked steadily as an actress from 1975 through to her death
  • Author of several semi-autobiographical novels, including Postcards from the Edge
  • Wrote the screenplay for the film of the book
  • Starred in an autobiographical one-woman play
  • Author of the non-fiction book, Wishful Drinking, based on her play
  • Spoke about her experiences with bipolar disorder and drug addiction
  • Mental health advocate
  • Script doctor

All these items are impressive, but the last one caught my attention: script doctor. As the title suggests, a script doctor is someone who comes in to fix the screenplays of other writers. In short, when a screenplay is good but not working as well as it should, a script doctor reworks it to make it shine.

Carrie Fisher’s Wikipedia page says she was “one of the top script doctors in Hollywood.” Who would have thought? According to her Wikipedia page and her IMDB bio, here are some of the movies she worked on as a script doctor:

  • Hook
  • Sister Act
  • Lethal Weapon 3
  • Last Action Hero
  • The River Wild
  • The Wedding Singer
  • Coyote Ugly
  • My Girl 2
  • Outbreak
  • Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
  • Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
  • Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
  • Milk Money
  • Love Affair
  • Made in America

I’ve seen all but one of these flicks. In a lot of them she worked on dialogue or to develop a specific character. She worked as a script doctor for about fifteen years and said that at that time it was lucrative work (but apparently not so much anymore).

Carrie Fisher was known primarily as an actress, but she was also an author of books—both fiction and nonfiction—and screenplays, a script doctor, and an advocate. From her example, I have four takeaways for authors:

  1. Diversify our income stream. (She earned money as an actress, author, and script doctor.)
  2. Write in multiple genres. (She wrote fiction, nonfiction, and scripts.)
  3. Capitalize on our strengths. (She had a knack for dialogue and character development.)
  4. Use whatever platform we have to be a voice for what we’re passionate about. (She was able to use her popularity to talk about mental health issues and substance abuse.)

Thank you, Carrie Fisher. You entertained me and taught me about writing.

When We Should and Shouldn’t Self-Publish

Writers need to balance the considerations of self-publishing and traditional publishing

When We Should and Shouldn’t Self-PublishThere is much debate in the writing community about going with a traditional publisher versus self-publishing. Neither is a panacea. Both have their advantages and their disadvantages. Considerations include career objectives, time investments, speed to publishing, potential revenue, and personal goals. Though I am pursuing a traditional publishing deal, I will also self-publish (indie-publish) other works.

The key is to know when it’s the right time to self-publish.

Here’s When You Shouldn’t Self-Publish:

  • Publishers Reject Your Book: It’s an unwise reaction to self-publish your book just because a couple publishers said “no.” Some well-known books and classics were rejected scores of times, but their authors didn’t give up and kept trying new avenues. And I’m sure they continued to work on improving their book in the process.
  • Agents Won’t Sign You: The same thing applies with agents. Agents only make money when they sell books, so if they don’t think they can sell your book, they won’t take you on as a client. Not being able to land an agent may be the worst reason to self-publish because you’re probably not ready.
  • You’re Tired of Hearing “No”: Rejection is a part of writing. It’s often a sign that you or your book isn’t ready. Self-publishing prematurely will just give more people a reason to reject your book.
  • You’re Weary of Waiting: Traditional publishing takes time and requires patience. Being impatient with long production times is not (usually) a sound reason to self-publish.

Here’s When You Should Consider Self-Publishing:

  • You’ve Written The Best Book Possible: When your book is the best it can be you might want to consider self-publishing it. This means you have carefully edited and proofed it, you’ve received feedback from others, and you’ve hired people to make it shine.
  • Your Book Has Been Professionally Edited: There are three types of editing and you need a different editor for each type. Usually you need to hire these people. If someone gives you free editing, you often get what you pay for. First there’s a development edit (the big picture stuff), copy-editing (sentence structure, flow, and word choice), and proofreading (grammar, punctuation, and typos).
  • You Will Invest In Your Book: In addition to hiring editors, you will need to pay for a front cover design. Since “a book is judged by its cover,” don’t skimp on this. Other considerations include the book jacket, the interior layout, and file conversion. Each one costs and your book will look “off” if you try to do these yourself.
  • You Are Ready to Market Your Book: Successful self-publishing requires marketing. While traditional publishers will also expect you to help promote your book, when you self-publish, it all falls to you.

Consider both of these lists before you self-publish your next book.

What Does It Mean When a Publisher Rejects Our Book?

No one likes to hear “no” but it’s part of writing, and we need to understand it

What Does It Mean When a Publisher Rejects Our Book?We work hard to write a book. We edit, seek feedback, and hire professional help. It’s our baby, and we love it. We cherish each word. We send it into the world with high expectations, but someone shoots it down by rejecting it. We must learn how to deal with rejection and we must learn what rejection means:

The Book Isn’t Ready: Sometimes our book isn’t as mature as we thought. It may require more work, or we may need more time to improve as a writer. If we push our book into the world before it is ready, we’re bound to hear “no.” Yep. I’ve done that.

The Concept Isn’t Good: Other times our writing is great, but the concept behind it isn’t strong. Excellent writing seldom salvages a weak idea. I’ve had my share of bad ideas.

The Execution Falters: Another possibility, despite good writing in support of a great concept, occurs when the implementation falls short of expectations. I’ve had great ideas I wasn’t ready to pull off.

The Platform Isn’t Big Enough: The sad reality of writing is that writing a great book isn’t enough. We also need a means to promote our books. That means we need a following. The publishing industry calls this a platform. Though our book can contain great writing around a unique premise with superb execution, we might still hear a “no” if our platform is deemed inadequate. Yep, I’ve heard that, too.

The Timing is Wrong: Publishers strive to publish books that people will buy. Sometimes readers grow tired of a certain genre or want to move to a different experience. That’s when publishers will stop producing one type of book in favor of another. The book we just finished may be a victim of a changing market. Perhaps in a few years the pendulum will swing back.

They Don’t Know How to Market It: Even when we hit all of the preceding items, the publisher may not know how to market the book. They reject our submission, not because it’s bad, but because they don’t know what to do with it.

It’s a Great Book That Doesn’t Fit Their Vision: Last, everything with our book could align, but it’s not what the publisher wants at this time. There could be a number of reasons for this, and each one falls outside of our control. Just because a publisher won’t publish a book, doesn’t mean it isn’t a quality work. Their rejection doesn’t automatically mean our book is no good. It could suggest something else.

As writers we need to understand the various causes for rejection. Although I don’t know for sure, I suspect all of these have happened to me.

Though we have no influence over some of these reasons for rejection, we need to do all we can to avoid the ones we can control. This starts by submitting our best work and continues as we seek to improve our writing. These are the two keys for success.

What I Learned From NaNoWriMo

The journey of writing a novel in one month has much to teach about being a writer

Can You Write a Book in a Month?Many times in this blog, I’ve talked about NaNoWriMo—the effort to write the first 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. I also announced in October that this was the year I would actually participate. Though I did pursue NaNoWriMo, I almost bailed before I even started, and I would have had I not told you about it.

Here’s what I learned.

Prepare to Write: Though you can’t write prior to November 1, you can plan for your novel. I had an idea bouncing around in my head for several years. I know the characters, the inciting incident, the ending, the story arc, and all the scenes. But in mid-October I realized my tone and vision were wrong, and that I wouldn’t be ready to write come November 1.

On to plan B: write a sequel to my novella, which was on its way to becoming a novel. I already knew the characters and had determined the opening, ending, story arc, and most of the scenes for the second book. The only problem was that I didn’t want to start the sequel until I finished writing the first book. But I couldn’t finish the first book until I received feedback from my developmental editor, which didn’t come soon enough.

Despite many efforts to the contrary, I wasn’t prepared for NaNoWriMo. Strike one.

Schedule Time to Write: I write in the morning. On November 1, I wrote nothing because I had nothing to write. Strike two. On November 2 through 11, I worked on finishing my first book, which was a great feeling of accomplishment, but it didn’t count for NaNoWriMo. I took the twelfth off from fiction writing and started writing my NaNoWriMo book on the thirteenth.

Monday through Saturday I would start writing about 5:30 a.m., with a goal of not stopping until I hit 2,500 words. A few days I worked again in the evening, which I also did on Sundays.

Remove Distractions: I should have scaled back on other activities. I should have stopped reading, cut back on TV, and put my blogs on hold or have written posts a month in advance. I didn’t. Another strike. (If you’re keeping track, I’m allowing myself more than three strikes.)

Be Flexible: I began November flirting with a cold, which took me out of writing mode for a couple of days (another strike), and I had two websites get infected with malware, which took several hours, spread over a week and a half, to fix. (My anti-malware noticed the incursion, but didn’t prevent it. Bummer.) More setbacks and another strike.

Focus on the Goal: If my goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel, which I didn’t start until November 13, than I would have just given up. Instead I set new goals, which was to relish the participation and see how far I could get.

Celebrate the Journey: I enjoyed my writing to finish the first book, which spanned November 2 through 11. And I really enjoyed writing the second book, which started November 13. I liked sitting down to write, the progress invigorated me, and seeing me move closer to the end spurred me on. I had fun!

Rest as Your Reward: When NaNoWriMo is over (and anytime you finish writing a book), you need to rest. For me one or two days are usually enough. But when December 1 rolled around, I couldn’t rest because my book wasn’t quite done. I suspect that will happen around December 5—and I can’t wait.

For the record, I logged 78,600 words in November, which I’m both amazed and shocked at. Of those, 15,700 were to complete my first novel, 12,100 words were for work (yes, I have a day job), 8,300 words were for my blog, and . . . drum roll please . . . I completed 42,500 words on my new novel, which isn’t bad at all for just eighteen days of work. (I’ve continued writing, and it currently stands at 46,400 words with one more scene to write, which should add another 1,000 or so words.)

My low word count day for NaNoWriMo was zero, and I had a couple of them. My high word count day for NaNoWriMo was 3,800 (plus another 1,700 for work, bumping that day’s total word count to 5,500). My writing goal, once I actually started, was 2,500 words a day. Most days I hit it fine and wanted to keep going, but I had to stop for work. A few days were real struggles. I typically wrote at a pace of 500 to 600 words an hour, sometimes a little less and occasionally up to about 1,000.

Over all, the month was exhausting and exhilarating. I can’t wait to do it again next year.

Do Your Part Before You Ask Others For Help; There is No Easy Button

Too many novice writers don’t invest in the craft and expect seasoned authors to give them an easy button to publication

Do Your Part Before You Ask Others For Help; There is No Easy ButtonI post on this blog, send out a writing newsletter, and speak at conferences because I want to give back to the writing community, to share with others what I have learned over the years. By helping others the best that I can, I help myself. As I give, I also grow as a writer.

Though I can’t help everyone who asks and my time is limited, I do give a higher priority to those who are part of my writing community, those who journey with me to become better writers and share our words with others. These are the folks who put in the hard work to improve as writers, study the craft, and learn about the industry. They are worthy of receiving help. Not everyone is.

Recently a friend asked me and some others to review her manuscript. This is a big ask, and I had misgivings. As far as I know, my friend isn’t part of a writing group, doesn’t attend writing conferences, fails to write regularly, and neglects to study writing and the industry. Instead she seeks those who have put in the hard work for help so she can skip doing the hard work herself. She’s hoping for an “easy button” to turn her rough draft into a publishable book.

And I’m not too excited about helping with this. I prefer to invest what time I have into writers who are putting forth effort to improve. Too often I’ve tried to help people who asked for advice but weren’t ready to hear it. They lacked the basic tools to receive, consider, and apply my input.

They wanted an easy button, but in writing there is no easy button.

How Can a Writer Conform to Industry Expectations and Still Stand Out?

Trying to follow every bit of writing advice can push writers into a no-win situation

How Can a Writer Conform to Industry Expectations and Still Stand Out?I listen to many podcasts, follow blogs, read magazines, attend webinars, and study books  so that I can become a better writer. But somedays I wonder if it helps. Somedays my head spins with confusion, and I want to give up – not give up writing but give up trying to figure out the “right” way to do it.

My biggest struggle comes from seeking a balance of the seemingly ironclad, unwavering set of industry expectations with the near constant plea from agents and editors to submit something unique. How can we rise above all others while doing what everyone else does?

The answer, I am realizing, is that we can’t. And that’s the rub.

Slavishly following today’s “standard writing procedures” makes our work formulaic, predictable, and boring. Yet in breaking from those requirements we run the very likely outcome of rejection for not fitting in. Either way, we lose.

In trying to obey the dictates of publishing experts I have sacrificed my vision, degraded my voice, and sapped my spirit. Yet in going with my instinct I have encountered criticism and rejection. The first is disheartening; the second is discouraging.

I’m now charting a middle ground. Yes, I will still seek to conform, to obey today’s expectations. But I won’t do so blindly. Going forward I will make informed decisions on my writing, choosing to confidently break the rules when my instinct tells me I must, while following them without question whenever I can.

The result, I trust, will be conforming enough to garner attention but differing enough to stand out.

What writing “rule” really bugs you? How can you make your writing stand out?

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3 Reasons Why Writers Need Deadlines

Having a firm due date provides authors with three essential benefits

3 Reasons Why Writers Need DeadlinesFew people enjoy being confronted by a deadline. And due dates apply to writers perhaps more than most others. Deadlines harass us; they make us write when we’d rather do something else, something fun, important, or beneficial. Due dates force us to make sacrifices, too. But deadlines are not our enemy. They are our friend because the offer us three key benefits.

1) Avoid Procrastination: Most people put off doing things, even important, essential tasks, such as a writer putting off writing. We call this procrastination. The reasons for this are many, and those who struggle with procrastination should explore the reasons behind it. Regardless, having a firm due date provides the motivation to avoid the ugly threat of procrastination. For example, I post on this blog each Saturday. This is my deadline – no excuses.

2) Avert Perfection: Another characteristic of many writers is an inner drive to make every word, phrase, and scene be exactly correct, to be perfect. Without deadlines writers will continue to edit and tweak without end, day after day. A friend recently completed writing her novel. I asked how long she would spend editing it. Her simple answer spoke volumes: “Every day until it’s due.” Without a firm due date, she would have continued an endless pursuit of perfection.

3) Advance Production: When we hit deadlines we produce content, one piece at a time. Our writing production grows. Sometimes we see our submitted work published; other times, not. Regardless, these annoying, inconvenient deadlines cause our writing output to soar. Deadlines serve to expand our portfolio.

To realize these three advantages assumes that writers take deadlines seriously and don’t miss them. Otherwise a due date becomes nothing more than a nagging distraction. We need to embrace deadlines for the benefits they produce and thank them for pushing us forward.

How have deadlines helped you? What sacrifices have you had to make to hit a due date?

May is Short Story Month

Celebrate the resurgence of short-form fiction this May: write, read, and share

May is short story month. It even has its own Twitter account: @ShortStoryMonth, which often uses the hashtag #shortreads.

short story monthAfter falling out of favor for a time, interest in short-form fiction is rebounding. Fueled by e-readers and online publishing, the resilient short story has freed itself from the word count shackles of traditional book publishers. Length no longer matters. Additionally, time-strapped readers enjoy a work they can consume and enjoy in one sitting.

Long live the short story.

As a longtime nonfiction writer, I’ve recently embraced the short story, too. I pursue the art of short story creation as an effective way to learn how to write fiction, to experiment, to hone my craft, and to develop skill in the art of storytelling. One day I plan to apply what I’ve learned to novels.

My friend Susie Finkbeiner once embraced the short story art form in a big way. She took a month and wrote a short story every day. But that wasn’t her plan when she started.

She put out a call to her blog readers, asking them to provide a protagonist, a setting, and a conflict, she recounts. “I promised to write a story for each idea submitted. I anticipated getting three or four responses but ended up with thirty-two!”

So in one month she wrote thirty-two stories and posted them on her blog. Each one was up to two thousand words long. Imagine that, writing a couple thousand words a day, every day for a month. Not just the first draft but an edited, polished piece. That’s enough words for a short novel.

“My goal,” she says, “was to be challenged and to grow as a writer. I sure did! I learned so much about how story is constructed and how to feature just a snapshot, which is what short stories really are.”

Susie admits it was fun but also “extremely hard.”

Yeah I get that, both the fun and the hard aspects. Though I write my short stories in one day (usually mine are under one thousand words, though), doing one every day is daunting. Some May I see myself doing that, but not this year. Maybe next year.

But the purpose of short story month isn’t to write a short story every day. It’s simply to embrace the art of short-form fiction. Whether you are a writer, a reader, a publisher, an editor, or an educator, join me in celebrating short stories this May.

As for Susie, she says that “One day I hope to have the time to edit many of those stories for a collection.” But for now she’s writing novels: Paint Chips, My Mother’s Chamomile, and A Cup of Dust. I’ve read all three. Her fourth novel is on its way.

I suspect her earlier embrace of the short story was a key in making this happen.

Join me in celebrating May as Short Story Month.

What is your experience writing and reading short stories? What will you do to celebrate Short Story Month? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Is Your First Draft Too Long or Too Short?

Some authors write too much and need to delete; others don’t write enough and must add

Is Your First Draft Too Long or Too Short?Do you write long or short? Some writers produce long first drafts and then shorten them – sometimes a great deal – as they edit. Others write shorter first drafts and then add to them – sometimes a lot – as they work on revisions. Which camp are you in?

Write Long; Edit Later: Some writers produce long first drafts. Then they remove the parts that don’t fit or edit it down to hit a target word count. I suspect discovery writers (those who “discover” what comes next as they write) or those who write fast tend to fit in this category.

I try not to do this. It pains me whenever I need to cut something from my work. If you do cut a section, a chapter, a scene, or a character, always save what you remove; it could come in handy later – especially if you need to put it back.

Writing long feels unproductive to me. Writers who do this spend more time writing their first draft and more time editing it later. That’s why I try to avoid writing long. This is why I plan before I write.

Write Short; Add Later: The opposite is writers who write a short first draft and then expand on it as they edit. They insert scenes, characters, sections, or points. Sometimes this is to round out the text. Other times it is to hit a minimum word length.

I needed to do this once. After including all the information I was provided for a ghostwriting assignment, I was 10,000 words short. I added paragraphs, lengthened sentences, and inserted words. The result was longer but I fear not much better. This arduous task drained me, as well as taking up a lot of time.

For another book, my dissertation, it seemed everything I added messed up the flow of what came next. So each thought I inserted caused me more work with the following text, requiring even more rewriting. That wasn’t fun either.

Just Right: My goal is to write the right length in my first draft. That’s a big reason why I outline, either on the page or in my head. This saves me the pain of cutting and the agony of adding.

Usually I come close to meeting this goal. But not in this post. I just deleted 225 words because it was running long, but I saved them to use in a future post. So it’s all good.

Do you write long or short? Would you rather add or delete as you fine-tune your work? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.