Friday, November 30, 2007

5 Things I've Learned from NANOWRIMO

National Novel Writing Month, the annual event in which thousands of writers around the world all attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November, has ended once again. And on my third try I finally made it all the way to 50K this year. That's 174 frantically typed pages. Ah, what a feeling!

And over the past 3 years that I have been participating in nanowrimo I have discovered various truths that I think are relevant to all novelists who have deadlines to meet. And so here they are, listed in reverse order of importance:

5 things I've learned from Nanowrimo

5. A novel is LONG, and the middle is super tough, whether you're writing it in 30 days or 3 years. But it can be done. YOU can write a novel.

4. No Plot is a problem -- Despite the great title of brilliantly witty Chris Baty's book, "No plot, No problem." It really is essential to know:
WHO your character is
WHAT is going to happen to him or her (generally,) and
WHY that stuff that's about to happen is a PROBLEM he or she will have to resolve.
Until you've figured that out it's best not to get too far with the writing.

3. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. If I'd stopped doing nano in my first or second year I'd never have reached 50K in 30 days, and missed out on the joy of it. Similarly perseverance is important in any kind of novel writing. Many published authors will tell you they still have one or more of their first novel manuscripts sitting in a desk drawer somewhere, and that no one will buy those even though their other novels are now flying off the shelves. So, keep on keeping on. As Richard Bach once said: "A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit."

2. Peer support is essential in any great writing endeavor - this is why critique groups are so essential. (Thanks to Amy, Bish, George, Joan, Jules, Wendy, Doug, and all of the Goalies for being my crit-supporters during nano and all year round!) Afterall, we writers need cheerleaders -- people to say "This is great, I can't wait to read what happens next," or "Hey only 5,ooo more words to go :); piece of cake!" And we also need them to say things like "Wait, that plot line there makes no sense, might I suggest you get the older sister arrested here?" This is especially helpful when we're drowning in that horrible noveling wasteland called "the middle. " It happens to all of us. So, if you aren't a part of a critique group, you can find both online and local Children's Writer's Crit groups by seaching google or better yet, by becoming a member at

And the number one thing that Nanowrimo teaches me again and again each year is that:

1. Writers Write Regardless. Real writers - writers who meet deadlines, who publish, who succeed at getting books out of their hearts and onto the paper, write every day whether they feel like it or not. They do NOT wait for inspiration to strike them -- if they did, they would never get out of the middle! Yes indeed, inspiration is wonderful, but there are those days when just saying "I'm going to write 500 words today" is enough; perhaps they won't be great words, or inspired words. But that is not the point. We can (and should) revise it all later. But to get to the end, to reach the finale, we must write enough to get over the next hill then stop at a place we find interesting, close the manuscript, and smile. We've made progress today. Hip, Hip, Hooray! And we will do so again tomorrow...


*Additional info. on nanowrimo: National Novel Writing Month has continued now for 9 years. Participation is free and novelists of all ages are welcome. Items purchased in the nanowrimo online gift shop, like the mug pictured above (thanks nanowrimo,) provide funds to build libraries in third world countries, and also to keep the annual writing event going strong around the world. The "young writers" program, a part of nanowrimo, also encourages kids as young as elementary school to imagine and plot and then write their own stories. For further information about the event or to purchase from the online store and support this excellent adventure, visit .

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Book Toast to Kathleen M. Reilly

Big Congrats to my friend, the prolific magazine writer -- and now book author -- Kathleen Reilly, on her new book "Planet Earth: 25 Environmental Projects you can build yourself." What a fun way to look at a very important topic! The book will be coming out in June '08 from Nomad Press. Go Kathleen Go! Kids and parents will both love it. And so, we toast you!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

On Actually Making Money...

So, the other day I realized it was November. And I started thinking about tax season, which will be coming up in less than 6 months. (It's morbid, I know, especially since we've just entered the Christmas shopping season. But still, it's important to plan ahead.) So, here I was, stuffing a receipt into my "take this off from your taxes" writer's expenses slot, and I had a rather horrible epiphany. I have not made much money on my writing this year.

And yet it isn't that I haven't been writing. I have actually been working very hard...

You see, I've been putting in 10 - 20 hours a week on my literary career -- which isn't too bad since I have a full-time "day job" that I have to go to first. I've been writing, revising, getting critiqued, writing and revising again, (novels, mind you). In addition to that I've been researching publishers, querying agents, attending conferences, networking with other writers, and staying active in two critique groups. I've been preparing my first two YA novel manuscripts for their journeys into the publishing world. And I've been feeling pretty excited about that -- until right now! : )

You see, during tax season the IRS will reportedly let any new business (like the business of being a freelance writer) experience a couple of years of spending more than you make. They'll let you take off some of those writing expenses with the understanding that you, like any other new business, should soon be making some money. You should soon be coming out more often in the black than in the red. (Now, I'm not a tax person, so I'd recommend consulting yours if you have questions about what writing expenses you can take as deductions, what forms to use, and other rules and details). But for me, I realized that my novel-writing is much slower than whipping out an article here and there. And that the novels that have been growning longer and longer on my computer, are not yet at the point of making me any money.

Brilliant, I know.

So, I decided I needed to re-diversify my writing. You see, I did make some money on writing shorter things last year. It's just that this year I put most of my eggs in one basket. And unfortunately that was the novel basket, where the payment comes more slowly because first you have to write the darn thing, then hope to find a publisher, do any revisions they ask for, and then wait awhile more!

And so I've learned this lesson: Unless a writer is planning to keep two day jobs forever, putting all your eggs in the novel basket when first starting off, is a bad idea. And yet, I suspect that I am not the only novelist in this boat.

So, I am posting my change-strategy here for others to consider. And I'll be diversifying my writing again, starting now.

This means that I'll be pausing every so often in my noveling to send some work out to a few places where writers can write shorter things and get paid for them. (Imagine that!)

And, in case there are others out there who need to diversify their writing as well, here is a helpful list of opportunities for us all:

  • Magazines -- accept fiction and nonfiction pieces for children, teens, and adults, and their
    writer's guidelines are usually available on their websites.

  • Writing Contests -- often have cash prizes (in addition to the fame you'd get for winning). And some of these will take your novel excerpt or a short story.

  • Compilation Books -- like Chicken Soup for the Soul, Poetry books, Devotional books or Short Story Anthologies accept short writings from various authors and group them together into a larger work. Not only do these pay you, but they get you published in a book.

  • Curriculum and Standardized Tests -- educators can find opportunities online to write curriculum on almost any general school subject. And there is often a need for writers to pen the questions for the newest version of the SAT's.
So this Thanksgiving, let's be thankful for diversity. Because diversity in our writing will keep us in the black when tax season rolls around next year.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Drowning in Revision? Grab the hand of another writer.

MARCO.... POLO..... Marco.... Polo....

The waters of the pool are chilly when I stand still and indecisive like this. And my throat hurts from the chlorine. I shout again,
"Marco," then I listen. And the voices whisper back from my right, and straight ahead, and behind.


I splash toward the closest voice. I'll corral them this time. But when I get there, I find only the swish of moving water and the cold, hard side of the pool. My quary has eluded me, again.

For me, revision is sometimes like this. I know where I'm trying to go, but I just can't seem to get there.

You see, revision is all about making everything in the second, third, or fourth drafts of our novels better than it was in the first. We want to make the story stronger, the action faster, the characterization deeper, the plot more logical and the writing more flawless. We can see the problems in our stories but, for me at least, there are times when I am at a loss about how to fix them.

This is where the help of other writers comes in. You see, the techniques of many exceptional writers are all on display on the shelves of your local library or Barnes and Nobles. The novels that others have written contain techniques that can help you and I catch the elusive brilliant paragraphs in our own revision pools.

There are many stories out there with strong secondary characters, action-filled plots, and great dialogue, for example. And if we read these, it can't help but make our own writing stronger.

So grab the hand (er, the book) of another writer. They are like literary life-jackets for those of us who are drowning in revision. They teach us; inspire us; they move us forward in our own stories...

So here are some of my favorite literary life-jackets. Because we all need need a little outside inspiration sometimes!

For Main and Secondary-Characters
  1. The Truth About Forever (YA) - Sarah Dessin
  2. The Lord of the Rings, the Two Towers - JRR Tolkien
  3. Shakespeare's Secret (MG) - Elise Broach
  4. Harry Potter (all 7 books) - JK Rowling (Because Dumbledore, Hermione, Ron, Snape & Malfoy are all secondary characters, and they are well-rounded and alive.)

For Plot, Timing and Action

  1. Alex Rider, Storm-breaker (YA) - Anthony Horowitz
  2. The Black Stallion Returns (MG) - Walter Farley
  3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (MG/YA) - JK Rowling
  4. The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp (YA) - Rick Yancey

For Portraying Emotion effectively

  1. The Truth About Forever (YA) - Sarah Dessin
  2. The Black Stallion Returns (MG) - Walter Farley
  3. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (MG/YA) - JK Rowling
  4. High Wizardry (YA) - Diane Duane
  5. Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  6. The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King - JRR Tolkien

For Great Dialogue, and Characters with difinitive voices

  1. Tom Sawyer (YA) - Mark Twain
  2. The Wizard's Dilema (MG) - Diane Duane
  3. And all of the Harry Potters (MG/YA) - JK Rowling

(JK Rowling makes this list because, as you may have noticed, Professor McGonagal, Professor Trelawney, Aunt Petunia and Mrs. Weasley are all middle aged, female, tertiary characters who all manage to sound completely different. That's phenomenal.)

So these are some of my life-jackets. They have recently been an inspiration to me, and I would love to hear which books, in which categories (above) are an inspiration to you as well.