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Middle Grade books are generally defined as being books for children aged 8-12…. and at the moment, these books are hot-hot-hot. From the commercial successes of titles like DIARY OF A WIMPY KID and Rick Riordan’s LIGHTNING THIEF saga, to more “literary” award-winning fare, it seems most publishers are seeking the next great Middle Grade success story. But middle grade is also a tough category to write for. Much of what appears in the slush pile is cheesy or derivative, or just lacks “spark.” So what makes a great Middle Grade novel? What is selling? What are agents and editors looking for? And how can you make your book stand out and shine?
In this live webinar, “Writing and Selling Middle Grade Fiction,” instructor and literary agent Jennifer Laughran (of Andrea Brown Literary) will talk about what’s happening in the exciting Middle Grade market, as well as examine some recently published titles to see what they got right. She’ll also talk revision tips and tricks to help you take your work-in-progress to the next level. It all happens at 1 p.m., EST, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2014, and lasts 90 minutes.
ABOUT THE CRITIQUE
All registrants are invited to submit EITHER the query letter OR the first 500 words of their complete / work-in-progress middle grade novel for critique. All submissions are guaranteed a written critique by literary agent Jennifer Laughran. Jennifer reserves the right to request more writing from attendees by e-mail following the event, if she deems the writing excellent.
Please Note: Even if you can’t attend the live webinar, registering for this live version will enable you to receive the On Demand webinar and a personal critique of your material. Purchasing the On Demand version after the live event will not include a critique.
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN:
— What’s selling in Middle Grade… and what just isn’t.
— The all-important “Hook”, and what “High Concept” looks like
— Finding the elusive Middle Grade Voice
— Common mistakes of Middle Grade submissions
— Overused beginnings and clichés that can drag down a work
— How to polish your work and stand out from the slush pile
— What “core curriculum” guidelines for schools might mean for your book. Sign up for the webinar here.
Jennifer Laughran is a senior agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, the oldest children’s-only agency in the US. Before she joined the agency in 2008, she spent about a decade as a children’s book buyer and event coordinator for various successful bookstores. Her many years of experience in the children’s book field have made her one of the top kid’s book agents working today. She reps picture books through YA, but has a particular love for Middle Grade novels — the warmer and funnier the better. Clients include Daniel Pinkwater, Kate Messner, Jo Whittemore, Linda Urban, and many debut authors whose names you’ll know soon!
Sign up for the Jan 22 webinar here.
In a recent interview with the NYC Writers Network
I was asked what five books or authors I'd love to represent, but don't. When I get asked these kinds of questions I've learned to simply write down the first things that pop into my head (or on the Barnes & Noble website if I'm researching). If I don't do it that way these interviews would take hours.
I gave my list, in no particular order, of writers I preorder, can't wait to get my hands on or have read or own a number of books from.
Here it is in no particular order:
5. Sarah Addison Allen
4. Chelsea Cain
3. Ina Garten
2. Enemy Women, Paulette Jiles
1. Elizabeth Hoyt
And when I think of this list and these authors I usually think that, in most cases, they are writing books that I'd like to see more of from other people (hint, hint).
Now let's see if we can get other BookEnds agents to create their own five.
My adult suspense/thriller WAS 3rd person, multiple characters. In revisions, I saw the error in my ways and cut back to two characters. Many Critique Partners recommended putting the main character in 1st (something I toyed with anyway). Now, yet another CP suggested putting my other POV character in 1st.
I have not seen many adult thrillers with alternating 1st POV characters (other than GONE GIRL). But I HAVE heard that lots of editors HATE the 1st/3rd combo.
What is your opinion?
My opinion should not matter here. I haven't read the book. You should do only what the story requires. Do you absolutely need the intimacy of first person in both points of view? Do you need distance in one POV and intimacy in the other? What the story needs is what drives the structure.
That said, I think it's extremely difficult to carry off two distinct points of view in first person in a novel. Yes, Gillian Flynn did it brilliantly in Gone Girl. Yes, that was the brilliant exception to a lot of very bad manuscripts I've seen over the years.
There's a lot to be said for straight forward third person omniscient in a suspense novel. I like close third person a lot because it gives the writer lots more flexibility with getting plot on the page.
But again, this is YOUR story, and you should do what the story needs. It's easy for critique partners to suggest changes and sometimes they can see things you didn't but for structural things like POV, absent a huge gaping problem, you should decide and stick to it. Be confident in your choices.
By: Chuck Sambuchino,
Blog: Guide to Literary Agents
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Reminder: New literary agents (with this spotlight featuring Caitie Flum of Liza Dawson Associates) are golden opportunities for new writers because each one is a literary agent who is likely building his or her client list.
About Caitie: Caitie Flum joined Liza Dawson Associates in July 2014 as assistant and audio rights manager. She graduated from Hofstra University in 2009 with a BA in English with a concentration in publishing studies. Caitie interned at Hachette Book Group and Writers House. She was an Editorial Assistant then Coordinator for Bookspan, where she worked on several clubs including the Book-of-the-Month Club, The Good Cook, and the Children’s Book-of-the-Month Club. She is taking on her own clients in 2015. Caitie grew up in Ohio where she developed her love of reading everything she could get her hands on. She lives in New Jersey with her husband where, in her free time, she can be found cooking, reading, going to the theater, or intensely playing board games.
(Hear a dozen agents explain exactly what they want to see the slush pile. See if your work is a match.)
Caitie is seeking: Commercial and upmarket fiction with great characters and superb writing, especially historical fiction, mysteries/thrillers of all kinds, magical realism, and book club fiction.
“In historical fiction, I would love to see unusual perspectives and stories told in a unique way. I am eager for police procedurals, cozy mysteries, psychological thrillers, and amateur sleuths, especially those with series potential. I love book club/women’s fiction that shows characters that have made the hard or unpredictable choice or are funny yet poignant stories. Please send me books of all these genres that have diversity!
“I am looking for Young Adult and New Adult projects, particularly romance, historical fiction, mysteries and thrillers, and contemporary books with diverse characters.
“In nonfiction, I am looking for memoirs that make people look at the world differently, narrative nonfiction that’s impossible to put down, books on pop culture, theater, current events, women’s issues, and humor.
“I am not looking for science fiction, fantasy, westerns, military fiction, self-help, science, middle grade, or picture books.”
How to submit to Caitie: Email your query in the body of the e-mail to querycaitie [at] lizadawsonassociates.com.
(How can writers compose an exciting Chapter 1?)
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And what a week it was!
We're hard at work here at The Reef on the end of the year tax forms we send to clients. Making sure we've got updated addresses, and all the decimals are in the right place. I actually like this task. It's got a start date, an end date, a measurable success rate, and it only happens once a year. In other words: the exact opposite of what I do most of the time.
The rest of the week was taken up with negotiating contracts and pitching projects. That doesn't change much week to week, month to month, year to year, but what I actually DO during negotiations and pitches does change. Even boilerplate contracts change as publishing circumstances change.
As an example: routinely First Serial Rights were licensed to the publisher. Now, I never do that automatically. That's because most publishers don't actually have the staff to do those placements anymore, and there's a shortage of big magazines that actually buy first serial rights. Time to clean up the boilerplate to match reality.
My Saturday reading was Bill Loehfelm's THE DEVIL IN HER WAY. I loved the first Maureen book in the series THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS but hadn't managed to snag the second book till last week. When you need a really good break from the work week, you want a book that's utterly captivating and this one was up to the job.
Here's just one paragraph that will show you what I mean:
She breathed in the tainted air again and wondered if crime scenes became like wines, each with their own smells and flavors --top notes, grace, notes, and finishes. Girl, she thought her own ideas making her queasy, you did not get out of the cocktail business quite fast enough.
This week I was asked to lead a workshop on query letters on Feb 1, 2015 here in Brooklyn. Of course I agreed. The details are here on my Facebook pag
e. I'm working on the workshop handouts during spare minutes here and there. So far it's ten pages!
The comment section on the blog continues to amaze and delight me. A couple questions popped up that I though deserved some further attention:
Monday's blog post was about a writer whose retiring agent wanted to hold on to her manuscript that was on submission. I'd listed the steps the writer needed to take in the situation:Blog post: 5. You start querying. You mention your agent left mid-submission and you have editors who were considering the work.
sagelikethespice asked: Will this work for or against the author at this point? Assuming they were good editors for the work in question, would a potential new agent look at this list as a positive, a negative, or neutral? I know that when an author has been rejected by editors already, agents see it as a negative because they can't pitch to those editors. But these subs were pulled. Will a new agent be able to pitch to these editors again?
Short answer: yes. If a submission is withdrawn at the agent's request, then another agent can resubmit. This kind of thing (withdrawing subs) doesn't happen a lot, but it does happen. Editors are aware that circumstances can change. I've had to withdraw submissions on several projects over the years. Some were because the author wanted to make extensive revisions. We actually were able to go back to those editors with revised manuscripts when he did.
Editors, like agents, are looking for good work. That's the bottom line.
Kelsey Hutton wondered if my use of UK spellings meant that perhaps I was from Manitoba, a fact I quickly corrected and reminded everyone that I'm from the West Coast. Go Ducks!
Kelsey replied: Janet, we would welcome you as an honourary Manitoban any day!
Summer reports of our moose-size mosquitoes are almost all exaggerated, and a slug of Caribou keeps you warm in the winter. Go Jets.
Well, that's certainly an enticement to visit, but honestly we need to work on the geography here. The Jets play in New Jersey! They may pretend to be from New York, but everyone in Jersey does that.
Go NETS! They at least play in Brooklyn!
On Thursday's post about which query to use, the one that got results or the "good one" Colin Smith asks:
@Janet: Would you say crafting "the perfect query" is more important when the agent does not ask for a sample (e.g., first 5 pages)? I can imagine an agent reading a query and saying "This query sucks, but I like the idea, let's see if the writing's better in the pages." But if those pages aren't to hand, might that agent be more likely to just hit the "form reject" button?
Impossible to know, but certainly logical. If the query is the ONLY thing the agent will see, it does seem like you'll want it to be perfect. But what is perfect? Perfect means only that the agent wants to read pages. That's it. I've gotten some horrendous queries that enticed me to read on. Would I suggest writing horrendous queries? No, no I would not. I think they enticed me to read on mostly cause I had more than a passing interest in the subject matter, or concept of the novel. I'll read just about anything set in NYC. Same for horses. Africa is high on my list too.
Later in that same comment column DLM said:
I just wish I could in-person pitch 'em all. My in-person pitch rate is 100% - at least for full requests.
As you all know I hate in person pitches. I hate them with the passion of a thousand suns. I might have ranted about that
a time or two.
And DLM's comment just makes me hate them more because they induce false hope.
Here's the horrible truth about in-person pitches: It's VERY hard for an agent or editor to say no to your hopeful face. Most editors won't. Most agents will say yes to things they KNOW aren't right for them because unlike ME they can't bear to break your hearts. Me, I just chomp on you till you bleed and then swim merrily away.
Ask any agent they'll tell you that a well-written query is a much better introduction to your work.
If you do have an in-person pitch session, take your query and ASK if it's effective. Three minutes of help is going to do you more good than a request for a full that is getting rejected UNREAD in a month.
Still in the Thursday comments, SD King notices we're painting the new office!
This is completely off the topic, but didn't we just read that the QS office was being painted? Reading the archives (as directed) I noted that the office had just been painted in 2013.
I always think that after living with a paint job for about 10 years, you should take a good long look at the walls and plan to choose a new color in the next five years, or so.
The only reason to put yourself though the trouble of drop cloths and mess is if you smoke 3 packs of Lucky Strikes a day and the paint breaths smoke back at you.
No Shark could smoke like that and still swim.
I painted my apartment in 2013. Well, let me say "I was painting my apartment in 2013. I'm STILL painting it in 2015."
The office paint is new new new. Yay! And I'm NOT doing it, we have a nice guy who comes in and does a much better job. DOUBLE YAY!
And no one smokes in the office. Occasionally however we set our hair on fire.
@SD: New offices. New paint job. The last re-paint was in the old office space which, I believe, FinePrint moved into in 2011...?
We moved in to our new office on 29th Street in August 2012. Trust me, I will never forget that day, week or month. The move next door will be child's play compared to that move.
On Friday's rant about not wasting my time, Colin Smith asked:
Okay, Janet, call me a woodland creature, but define "least suitable client." Are we talking axe-murderer crazy, or won't-answer-the-phone reclusive, or...? It's a bit off-topic (like that's ever stopped me before), but I often hear "agent success stories" where either the writer or the agent talk about how they knew they would have a great working relationship because they "hit it off" over The Call. Is that what you mean?
I suspect you might answer something along the lines of "they need to be serious about their work, meeting deadlines, listening and responding to editorial comments, etc." But it seems to me that's something you would only know AFTER the query has done its job and you've had The Call. Or are there signs of problems to come you've learned to discern over many years of swimming these waters? Things you can pick up even from a query or a brief phone conversation?
Yes, I'm getting picky over a detail. Don't get me wrong. I love the spirit of your rant, and I wish you could be QOTKU so all agents would think this way. I just saw that phrase and wondered... :)
Figuring out who will fit well into the ranks of The Fabulosity is something I've honed over the years. First, of course, they can't be the wrong kind of crazy. Generally I can pick up on that in a phone call. I can pick up on unrealistic expectations there too.
But one of the best tools I have now is Twitter and Facebook. Here's where you really find out about someone. Is every Facebook post about them? All the pictures of themselves? Is the Twitter feed only about them? That's an author that you're going find is pretty self-involved.
Are they absent from social media? That's a big clue and I'll want to ask if that's intentional, or they just don't know how to use social media tools effectively.
Do they have bombastic posts on every hot button topic of the day? Probably not a good fit for me.
Do they tweet too much? Probably someone who's going to need a lot of attention…also not a good fit for me.
And the turnabout here is: authors can find out a LOT about agents by reading their social media sites. Don't want an agent who drinks whisky and swears like a sailor? Cross me off your list.
Need an agent who is available night and day to ease your fears? Nope, not Janet Reid.
Don't want an agent who HAS a social media presence at all? Cross me right off the list.
And Colin, you're right, sometimes the suitability is discovered only after the contract is signed. And that's why there's a 30-day, at will, get out of the contract clause in my author/agency agreement. If it turns out we're not a good fit, you get to decamp posthaste.
And my all time favorite question of the week was from GingerMollyMarilyn
Two things. First and foremost, thank you for your solidarity, Janet. You really "get" us writers. Second, if you're the Queen of this universe, who is Queen of the next one over?
That would be Barbara Poelle.
Blurbs. You know, those little quotes about how awesome an author or their book is that are often on book jackets or in advertisements? Like: "Author is a certified genius and this book is a revelation!" Yeah. Those little tricky devils are the cause of no small amount of angst for all parties concerned. So here are some blurb facts and some blurb etiquette that might help. (Maybe).
FACT: * Pretty Much Everyone Hates Blurbs. * I'm gonna go out on a limb and say the majority of people in the publishing industry LOATHE blurbs. Agents and editors and publicists and their ilk know how hard they are to get, and more than that, how little most of them are worth. Authors generally dislike being in the position of begging for favors OR having favors begged of them. The process of blurbery can cause anything from mild stress to genuine anguish in its victims. :(
FACT: * Blurbs Are Mostly Worthless. * Did I say "how little most of them are worth"?? Am I implying that Blurbs are mostly WORTHLESS? Well... no. I wasn't implying it, I was saying it. I mean look: If you are lucky enough to get a blurb from an extremely well-regarded author in your genre, you might get some of their fans to perk up when they see it. But those fans are PROBABLY fans of the genre in general, and they probably already knew about your book or would have come across it anyway, and nobody is going to read it JUST because of the blurb.
It's much more likely that a personal recommendation or review from an author - on their twitter, blog, vlog or whatever - will bring the book to fan attention. The blurb that is in the catalogue or on the back of the book is only good if somebody has already picked up the publishers catalogue or the book to look at it. So, you know, it's SUPER NICE, but there isn't any proof that blurbs really help move the needle, sales-wise.
I've spoken to hundreds of readers, booksellers, librarians and others, and the fact is, the vast majority of the time, the blurb is not the deciding factor about whether or not they spend time and money on a given book. It's just not.
FACT: * Sometimes They're Not Worthless. * I can see the value of a blurb from a LEGIT FAMOUS PERSON that may help you get customers you wouldn't normally get. There are a few "legit famous person" authors: John Green, Neil Gaiman, Judy Blume, and maybe a handful of others. A blurb from one of these people may translate to a buy from some of their fans, and that is not anything to sniff at. Most famous people, of course, are NOT authors.
I am in the publishing industry, I already knew about the book X: A NOVEL, read it in galley form with no blurbs attached. But even I, hardened and cynical, raised an eyebrow in appreciation at the nice blurbs from Chris Rock and Muhammad Ali. These quotes, if printed in advertisements in mainstream publications (ie, NOT trade publications like PW that only industry people read) will likely catch the eyes of people who aren't "the usual suspects" -- customers that DON'T normally shop in the YA section or have a clue about kids books, but who will be attracted by these very high-profile endorsements.
FACT: *Blurbs Aren't Going Anywhere. * - For better or for worse, this practice of trying to get blurbs for nearly every dang novel that comes out seems to be a trend that is lasting. Part of it, I think, is that success is so ephemeral. Nobody knows what exact combination of factors causes a breakout book. Is it about Great reviews? Word of mouth? Right place right time? Pure dumb LUCK? Or what? WHAT? Everybody wants to catch this lightning in a bottle. But there is very little that is actually within the publisher or authors' control.
You can write the best book possible. That's in your control. But virtually nothing else about the process really is. And ultimately, even the biggest, fanciest publisher can't make people write reviews or talk the book up or influence the Great Beyond to work on the books behalf. They can make a great looking package, but they can't force people to buy or read it. They can spend money on marketing but they can't guarantee that it will DO anything. So "getting blurbs" at least makes people FEEL like they are doing something to encourage the success of the book. And it probably doesn't hurt at least, so what the hey.
Here's how to live with it, with less stress:
ADVICE: * If you are a BLURBEE * - that is to say, a person whose work is in the publication pipeline, who is seeking blurbs: If the subject doesn't come up, you really don't have to bring it up. If your publisher isn't anxious about this, you shouldn't be either. (See "mostly worthless", above).
BUT, if/when the subject DOES arise, I suggest working with your agent and editor to brainstorm a list of possible authors to approach for endorsements. These should be authors that you think are actually appropriate for the material at hand -- so I would not suggest a picture book author to blurb an edgy YA. It just doesn't make sense. It makes logical sense that your book should appeal to the same audience as the person who is potentially endorsing you.
So you have your list of awesome, appropriate names that you brainstormed. Now you and your agent and editor figure out who will approach whom. The person with the strongest connection to that author (or their agent or editor) should be the person to approach. You as the author should NEVER have to "cold-call" (cold email?) people you don't have any connection to. Nor should you ever be asked to make the request if it makes you feel uncomfortable. When in doubt, your editor should approach their editor or agent.
YOU MIGHT HAVE WEIRD FEELINGS. Like: a) They'll feel sorry for me, as they know what it's like to "need" a blurb; b) They'll be put on the spot and feel like they "have" to blurb and then hate me; c) They'll have to say no and then feel guilty. DO NOT FEEL WEIRD. This is just part of the process. Nobody will hate you. Nobody will give a blurb unless they are genuinely able and willing to do so. And if they aren't, that's OK. Blurbs are nice, but a lack of a blurb has never killed anybody.
If you are approaching somebody - whether they are your BFF or just somebody who you know tangentially, or even a total stranger - take Curtis Sittenfeld's advice and be polite, succinct, and pre-emptively let them off the hook. DO tell them what the book is about, and why you think it is a fit, but do so briefly. Don't say no FOR them obviously - but don't be offended or upset if the answer IS no. When you are more famous, people will be asking YOU for blurbs, and you'll remember this experience.
ADVICE: * If you are a BLURBER * - that is to say, a person who is being approached for a blurb: Value your own time and sanity. If you are on deadline or just busy with life stuff, or hell, if the book just doesn't sound interesting to you, nobody can be offended by your saying No. If they are offended, they are jerks.
YOU MIGHT HAVE WEIRD FEELINGS. Like, a) I feel sorry for the author, and I know what it's like to "need" a blurb; b) I'm worried the author will find out I was asked and said no and then hate me; c) I'm worried if I say no this fancy classy editor will hate me. DO NOT FEEL WEIRD. This is just part of the process. Nobody will hate you. If you have time and ability and are moved to do so, by all means do it! But if not, that's OK. Blurbs are nice, but a lack of a blurb has never killed anybody.
My Personal Blurb Rules: 1) You should genuinely like the book and want other people to read it. 2) It should fit your "brand" or target audience. Would you recommend this to the same people who buy your book? 3) Don't be a "blurb whore" - if you blurb everything, your endorsement will stop being meaningful.
Your blurb rules may vary, but whatever they are, if you want to avoid burnout, I suggest you and your agent come up with a blurb plan. Perhaps it is that you NEVER blurb, or you will only blurb one book per season or year. You can always reserve the right to CHANGE that blurb plan, you aren't locked into it with manacles, but if you are approached unawares, it will give you a handy excuse to say no if the stars aren't aligning, and you can always make your agent into the bad guy. "Ah, my agent doesn't want me to blurb until my deadlines are passed" or "Oh, my agent says only one book per year, sorry!" (Agents are fine with being the bad guys).
But if the book does sound great, and you do have the time, and you do read it and love it -- well, what the heck. If you CAN do it and WANT to do it, by all means do! Nothing will make an authors day/month/year more than kind words from an author they admire.
Did I miss anything? What are YOUR blurby feelings?
*PS: If you are too young to get the title reference: in the late 80's/early 90's there was a satirical magazine called SPY that had a feature called "Logrolling in Our Time" that showed blurbs that famous people gave each other. Quid pro quo, Clarice. (And if you're too young for THAT reference, don't tell me).
0 Comments on Logrolling in Our Time*, or, You Can't Take Blurbs With You as of 1/17/2015 5:51:00 PM
Sometimes it’s a lone writer who’s been putting off a story idea for too long, and decides it’s now or never. Sometimes it’s a pair or a group determined to find out what they can achieve by sharing self-imposed deadlines and strong pots of coffee. Sometimes it’s peer pressure or curiosity about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo.org), that challenge that rallies ever-increasing numbers of writers around the globe every November to band together in pursuit of a 50,000-word “win.”
This article is by Jessica Strawser, editor of Writer’s Digest. For more great writing advice, follow her on Twitter @JessicaStrawser.
Book-in-a-month challenges take all forms, fueled by all stripes of writers with all manner of motivations—make the most of that time alone in a borrowed cabin, hunker down for the winter, stop procrastinating, have something ready to pitch at that conference, prove to yourself you can do it, prove to someone else you can do it, get a fresh start—and in this hyperconnected age of 24-hour fingertip resources and networks, of tiny portable keyboards and glow-in-the-dark screens, they’re more popular than ever.
What do writers really glean from these write-a-thons? What have those who’ve set out to achieve the seemingly impossible learned, good or bad, and what advice would they share with others thinking of setting out with that same single-minded focus? We asked the WD writing community, and responses came in waves—with refreshing honesty, admitted mistakes, tales of redemption, palpable pride, self-deprecating humor and, above all, contagious enthusiasm. We’ve collected an array of the best insights here—one for every day of the month—along with a roundup of resources offering more help along the way. Because who knows? It’s so crazy, it just might work.
1. Embrace a new mindset.
After working five years on perfecting a novel, I sent out a round of queries, received some requests for the full manuscript, but ultimately was rejected every time. I’m not one to give up, but I also knew my novel still wasn’t right. I decided to shelve the manuscript and start a new book. That date was Oct. 30, 2010.
For years friends had been trying to get me to participate in NaNoWriMo. I didn’t want to spend five years writing my next novel, so I decided this time I’d give NaNoWriMo a shot, but without putting pressure on myself—either I’d complete 50,000 words in 30 days or I wouldn’t. That November was crazy busy: I was chairing a big awards banquet, raising two boys and juggling a host of other responsibilities that I couldn’t set aside. But writing is my dream. So, on Nov. 1, I set out to write 1,667 words a day.
The results were amazing. I forced myself to write with a new mindset (no editing, not even for misspellings), and the more I just let the words pour forth, the better my story became. It was easier to keep track of plot and I was able to delve deeper into my characters because I was spending time with them daily. I ended that first 30 days surpassing 50,000 words, and, despite hosting two major family holidays among other commitments, I used that momentum to complete the first draft of my 90,000-word thriller by early January. That novel has since been revised numerous times and is currently being read by four literary agents at top agencies considering it for representation.
[21 Fast Hacks to Fuel Your Story With Suspense]
I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo every year since, and now share what I’ve learned from writing quick first drafts. I teach a “How to Write a Novel in 30 Days” seminar at The Carnegie Center, Joseph-Beth Booksellers and Kentucky libraries. Also, I’ve helped establish a new event—the Overnight Write-In—which I’ll host for the second year at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington this November for local NaNoWriMo participants.
I had no idea in 2010 that so much would happen just because I embraced a challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. My life has improved, as has my writing. What do you need to do to pursue your dream? Give yourself a 30-day gift, and as the folks at NaNoWriMo proclaim, “write with literary abandon.”
Jennifer Hester Mattox, Paris, Ky.
2. Answer yes.
Before you jump in, think about it long and hard. Do you want to spend hours sitting in front of your computer? Do you want to have characters and plot twists swirling around in your head at every turn? Do you want the daunting task of placing the perfect words in each and every sentence? Do you, at times, want to smash your head against your keyboard? If your answer is yes, and not a mousy yes, but a standing-on-the-couch-Tom-Cruise yes, then maybe you’re just crazy enough to write a novel in a month.
Jocelyn Frentz, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
3. Do the math.
Daily or weekly word count goals help you track your progress toward your end-of-month goal, regardless of whether you average the same number of words every day. For instance, NaNoWriMo challenges participants to write a 50,000-word novel, and provides word count trackers to help you log and measure your progress as you go—but it’s worth noting that in most genres, 50,000 words doesn’t constitute a commercial book-length manuscript. So no matter when your write-a-thon takes place, know what you’re setting out to accomplish. A rough draft of a draft? A full-length manuscript? Then do the math. For an 80,000-word novel, for instance, that’s 2,666 words/day for 30 days—or, if you prefer weekly goals, 20,000/week for four weeks.
4. Plan to make sense.
My advice is simple: Plan ahead and outline. It’s possible to write 50,000 words in 30 days, but what is really difficult is having a finished product that really makes any sense. When you’re in the heat of the moment trying to crank out thousands of words every day it is very easy to get off track. That’s where your planning and your outline can save you.
Andrew Setters, Cincinnati
5. Just start—and keep going.
NaNoWriMo? It looked like a text message. What the heck was it? I discovered the challenge just two days before Nov. 1, opening day. I had no idea what I would write about, but I was determined to do it, just to see if I could.
This was 2009, and my first time writing any length novel in any length of time, let alone 50,000 words in one month. Up to then, I’d written a few magazine articles, a how-to book, a children’s book and untold numbers of unpublished short stories. And now for something entirely different.
I did finish that year, and went on to finish every year since. You never know what you can accomplish until you try. Everyone tackles the job in a different way, some with a meticulous plan or a detailed outline—but not me. Here’s my advice: If you have an idea in mind, it helps. Otherwise, pick it out of the air and start writing. The key is to keep writing and let everything else fall by the wayside. Turn off your phone. Disconnect the TV. Buy paper plates; send out for pizza or stock frozen tacos, whatever—just don’t take time to cook. Or clean. Or shop.
[Learn the 4 Successful Approaches You Should Consider for the First Chapter of Your Novel]
Get those words onto your page and count them each day. And kick that persnickety editor out of your head. To hell with spelling, punctuation, the precise word, the perfect reference (and I’m a copy editor by profession!). What you need right now is the story and nothing but the story, no matter how outlandish or unorganized.
I wrote a lot of junk, and stuff that had possibilities. What was in 2011 a 51,000-word story-in-the-rough has grown to a 71,000-word novel that will be on its way to an agent soon. But even if you don’t get that far, there is satisfaction in meeting the challenge and finding that you can do it.
Jenny Garden, Seattle
6. Go all in.
Passion will get you started, but discipline will see you through. The only way to succeed is to set a schedule, write like mad and never stop, even if you despair. Get your first draft finished before you pay attention to your feelings, because—in the early stages—most of your feelings will steer you off a cliff like a GPS for lemmings. The first words will rarely be your best, and the fear of bad writing often keeps writers from the initial click on the keys. But writing is like jumping into a cold lake: You squirm less once you’re all in.
Rev. Dr. David McDonald, Jackson, Mich.
7. End a writing session only when you know what’s next.
During my first two Novembers of novel writing, most of my time was spent cajoling characters instead of penning the daily words. But sometime between my second and third year, I discovered words of wisdom from author Scott O’Dell that changed everything: At the end of a writing stint, stop before the ideas run out. Write a sentence or two about what happens next. Next time your fingers meet the keyboard, you already know where the story is headed.
S.B. Roberts, Orlando, Fla.
8-9. Do what it takes to make it feel real. Fill the sandbox, then make castles.
I worship at the altar of NaNoWriMo. Anytime someone says, “I’ve always wanted to write a book,” I tell them about it.
So often this writing stuff can just feel pretend. It exists in solitude. Some of it exists only in my head. The only thing I have to show for years of work is a huge Word document. Sometimes when I do try to share it with people I feel crazy. So one gift of NaNoWriMo is its tangibility. It’s a concrete, external goal. There are pep talks. You watch your word count widget grow. You share the experience with others. There are rewards. I have a NaNoWriMo poster hanging in the stairwell of my house. It says things like, “The world needs your novel.” NaNoWriMo helps it feel real. NaNoWriMo helps ideas become things.
NaNoWriMo also reminds me of this superpower I keep forgetting I possess. One year I committed potential NaNoWriMo suicide and on Day 8 started over with a new idea. I wrote 10,084 words in one day. It made me feel like I could do anything. I managed to win that year, too.
While being reminded of your superpower is important, I think the biggest takeaway is remembering that you’re not done when you hit 50,000 words. Bask in the glory of victory. But don’t leave it alone forever. Rewrite. Edit. Fix it. Finish it. NaNoWriMo helps you fill the sandbox. It’s up to you to build castles.
Emily Echols, Fort Polk, La.
10–11. Find your rhythm. Learn as you go.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. One day, I’d actually do it—write a complete story. I just hadn’t done it yet. I had plenty of ideas, and many starts, but no completion. Then one day my 10-year-old daughter was given an assignment to write a 15,000-word novel for NaNoWriMo. I was encouraging her, letting her know that she could accomplish anything if she set her mind to it, when I thought I should put my word count where my mouth is and join her. If she could write a book in one month, then why couldn’t I, a grown woman who has aspired to be a published author my whole life?
I had a lot of theoretical time on my hands as a stay-at-home mom, but let’s just say some things suffered. There was no from-scratch pasta sauce that month. November is also the month of my daughter’s birthday, and of course Thanksgiving is an unfortunate timing issue. But I plodded ahead. I was surprised to find that my biggest challenge was finding my writing rhythm. I didn’t have that much creative gasoline when everyone was awake, but after they went to bed I could accomplish anything, and I did. I didn’t, however, sleep much, and one of the things that keeps me awake and engaged is eating and drinking while I write. I put on 10 pounds that month, but I wrote the story—all the way through to that ever-elusive ending. (Sadly, there is no one-month path to publishing … NaNoPuMo, anyone?)
After that first year, I convinced a friend to join me, so I would have a partner to meet and write with in the daylight hours, far from food temptations. I plan to be successful at this writing gig, and I don’t want my jacket photo to look like Jabba the Hutt.
If I can do it, so can you! It helps to have a general idea of your story and characters before you begin, but once the clock starts, get cracking! Don’t fret over word choice or character names. Don’t reread and edit. If you decide to change your protagonist’s nationality 1,000 words in, just do it and move ahead. You can fix it when you sit down with a smile to read your completed draft a month later, red pen in one hand and giant latte in the other (nonfat, of course).
Angela C. Lebovic, North Barrington, Ill.
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12. Don your painter’s smock.
My first finished book is thanks to NaNoWriMo. The experience was a whirlwind of creativity, as I was forced to put aside my Inner Critic and Grammar Nazi (a rowdy bunch that like the last word). By the end of the 30 days, I had a manuscript of which I realized I could only keep less than half, but that was OK. I’d learned a lot about story building. I knew exactly how I wanted to edit my manuscript—and I did, over the next couple months. Forcing yourself to write 50,000 words in 30 days is a bit like putting paint into a shotgun and pointing at a blank canvas. Something will stick, but there’ll be a lot of clean-up.
Himani Shah, Scottsdale, Ariz.
13. Claim every spare minute.
I’d been thinking about this fantasy/thriller trilogy idea for about a year, but hadn’t written anything, not even notes. One day, though, I just felt the overwhelming need to start writing. I didn’t set a deadline of a month, but that’s how it played out.
[Here are 10 Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters]
If you’re like me and work full time, you might be hard-pressed to find time to write. What I did was write at every opportunity. I wrote during breaks at work, on the train in the morning and evening, and—just between us—occasionally at my desk when my manager wasn’t looking.
In the past, I’d spent too long overthinking chapters, characters and plots, to the point of making my stories convoluted. My month-long power session produced far better work, and was the best thing I ever did with my writing.
Gregory Paul Burdon, Melbourne, Victoria, Canada
15–20. Build Your Bookshelf (Resources for Writing a Book in a Month Include …)
15. Book in a Month: The Fool-Proof System for Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D. (WD Books): This book takes an interactive approach to help you complete your
write-a-thon step by step, with expert instruction accompanied by spreadsheets to track your progress.
16. Fast Fiction: A Guide to Outlining and Writing a First Draft Novel in Thirty Days by Denise Jaden (New World Library): Jaden’s books Losing Faith and Never Enough began with NaNoWriMo, and in Fast Fiction, she shares what she’s learned to help you speed-complete a rough draft you can revise into publishable shape.
17. First Draft in 30 Days: A Novel Writer’s System for Building a Complete and Cohesive Manuscript by Karen S. Wiesner (WD Books): Award-winning author Wiesner is a big believer in detailed outlines—and she’ll show you how to create one that will keep you on track for a month and beyond. Includes worksheets, day-by-day planners and brainstorming exercises.
18. No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty (Chronicle Books): The new revised edition of NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty’s guide is stacked with how-tos, week-by-week checkups and trademark motivation to help you cross the finish line on schedule.
19. Write-a-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days (and Live to Tell About It) by Rochelle Melander (WD Books): Melander teaches the muscle mechanics of writing at a marathoner’s pace. Chock full of brain-stretching exercises, this book will have you running to keep up.
20. Write Your Novel in a Month: How to Complete a First Draft in 30 Days and What to Do Next by Jeff Gerke (WD Books): This comprehensive guide embraces the process start to finish, from shaping your preliminary ideas to exploring next steps for your completed draft.
Kenneth McNulty, Writer’s Digest Intern
20. Tap into a network.
When I started getting serious about writing, one of the first things I did was seek out like-minded individuals. That’s how I discovered NaNoWriMo, in 2009. I love the idea of banding together with others poised for the same goal. Our competitive streaks help us shine. I’ve met some of my best friends and most trusted literary advisors as a result of participating, and can promise you my writing success (with the publication of my NaNo books Modified Flight Plan, the true story of a triple amputee pilot, and Walk Me Home, about the last execution in Nebraska) is in a large part because of the discipline I learned by undertaking the book-in-a-month challenge.
Lisa Kovanda, Lincoln, Neb.
21. Work ahead.
The trick is getting extra words in the bank early. Things always pop up as the month goes on. You will also be more burnt out by the end of the month, meaning that both the quality and quantity of your writing may suffer.
Michael Young, Eagle Mountain, Utah
22. Silence your editor.
NaNoWriMo is a marvelous tool for the über-editor. Normally I edit my words in my head before the poor things can even get on my computer screen, so it was very freeing to just get it all out because of a deadline.
Tricia Pimental, Zambujal, Portugal
23. Gain insight into your past—and future—writing process.
The first year I participated in NaNoWriMo, I learned:
1) My usual slow pace didn’t make my writing more thoughtful or grammatically correct. I whipped out 25,000 words in a month, and darned if they weren’t just as good as the 27,000 words I’d previously spent a year and a half on.
2) I should know more about science if I’m going to set my story on another planet.
3) Although I didn’t make the 50,000-word goal, 25,000 still made me happy.
The second year I participated, I learned:
1) Having an outline helped.
2) Setting my story in the here and now eliminated the need for research (which consumes precious writing time).
3) Apparently 25,000 words/month is the fastest I can go!
Marie Millard, Rohnert Park, Calif.
That’s ridiculous, I thought. One month to create a story that had been brewing in my mind for years. But what kind of a writer am I if I didn’t accept a challenge?
And it was a challenge. Forcing myself to write when I wasn’t feeling “inspired” was my biggest obstacle. I would berate myself every second I stared at that blinking cursor. It would be a half hour, an hour, as my eyes darted back and forth between the screen and the glow of the TV.
But I soon discovered that just typing away was the key. The more I typed out my grocery list, my “I hate myself, I’m not a real writer” notes, and quirky-things-I-could-be-tweeting-right-now tangents, the more the words just came. And out of the nonsense came a thoughtful sentence, and then another, and another. I had to sift through a lot of garbage to find a few treasures. But I found them.
[Did you know there are 7 reasons writing a novel makes you a badass? Read about them here.]
You know how they say you need to unplug? Well, they’re annoyingly right. Turn off the TV, the iPhone, the Internet, all of it. If I needed a break I picked up a book. Every time I read, I got an idea for what to write next.
Write anything, write everything. Read what you love. And in the end know that you are a real writer. You always had a story to tell. And it may take longer than a month. But you can do it!
Pamela Delupio, Lakewood, Calif.
My co-author Erin McRae and I wrote our first novel (a 70,000-word gay romance) in a month. We didn’t do it as part of NaNoWriMo, and in fact told no one about it.
Having each other as an audience kept us going, and wanting to be able to share it with others kept us going fast. We did the next two drafts in a month each as well, and then submitted. Our book was published by Torquere Press in September, and the publisher has bought its sequel.
My advice: Find someone to work with as a first audience even if you aren’t collaborating, and don’t tell anyone but your partner about it until that draft is done. Sharing it with others is your reward for the work.
Also, if you do have a co-author, find one in another time zone! I was in Europe for my day job for a big chunk of our writing cycle, while Erin was in Washington, D.C. With the six-hour time difference, one of us was working on the story at almost all times.
Racheline Maltese, Brooklyn, N.Y.
26. Don’t force methods that don’t work for you.
I had fallen behind early with my word count, and then started obsessing with trying to catch up. Halfway through the month I asked, “Is this about numbers or words?” There is value in monitoring word count, if not setting word count goals. An apt comparison is running, where one may set out to run four miles a day, but some days runs may be shorter (or longer) based on how the runner feels on the trail. I’m beginning to believe it’s best to write from scratch for a set period each day, a stream of consciousness download, and then to return to works-in-progress and revise, revise, revise.
Jim Breslin, West Chester, Pa.
27. Write fearlessly.
If NanoWriMo taught me anything, it was to not be afraid to try.
Kait Heacock, Brooklyn, N.Y.
28–29. Entice your muse with whatever will make the process enjoyable. think of yourself as a conduit for your story.
In February 2014 I finished the fourth book of my Amazon bestselling series Whill of Agora. I’d been tossing around another story idea and was eager to start the project.
I wanted to try to write the book in 30 days. My plan was 2,000 words a day minimum, and February was a great month to attempt such a feat, as it can reach -20 degrees here in northern New York. I outlined my ideas (most of which never made it in—my work tends to take on a life of its own and not conform to my plans) and made myself comfortable at the kitchen table with my laptop and Bob Marley playlist.
That first week I drank 21 coffees and wrote over 26,000 words, averaging 3,800 a day. The following week I wrote another 24,000 words, averaging 3,400 a day. By now the plot was getting thick, as were my character worksheet folders. I was writing 6–10 hours a day, getting up early so I could do most of my writing while my daughter was in school. (If I work too much while family is around I feel like I’m neglecting them, even though I write full-time.) When I started to lose steam, it would keep me going to log onto the Kindle author boards’ “2,000 words a day club” to find (and offer) motivation.
I finished the book in 18 days at 70,000 words—not a heavyweight, but a good size for my genre. I self-published The Windwalker Archive, Book 1, Talon, on May 7, 2014. As I write this it is No. 4 in Amazon’s Children’s Coming of Age Fantasy Books Kindle store.
My advice: Lure your muse out with some chocolate and pinot noir, grab a hold of her, and tie her to your desk until you are done. Show up every day with your goal in mind and do not leave until you’ve surpassed it. Don’t try to create the story—listen, and let it be told through you. When you take the responsibility of creating the story out of the equation, it becomes quite easy. You are simply a conduit.
Michael James Ploof, Brushton, N.Y.
30. Know that the end of 30 days really marks the beginning.
In September 2010, the idea for a novel fell onto my lap. Knowing NaNoWriMo was six weeks away, I stockpiled mental notes, developing character profiles, plots, conflict. I’m a morning writer. Once my day job invades my head, the brainpower and willingness to work on fiction dries up. So on the evening of Oct. 31, I set my alarm for 4 a.m., excited to write a novel in a month.
Some mornings I managed at least the average number of words I needed to hit 50,000. Others, I struggled and vowed to make it up the next day. Every day, I marveled at the twists my story took from the sparse outline in my head. I typed the last word—58,313—on Nov. 29. Success!
But what I wrote wasn’t a novel. Sure, it had a beginning, middle and end, it had a theme, and yes, the main character’s story had an arc. But it was disorganized, overly ambitious, repetitive and, for some reason, full of foul language.
Four years later, Men of Sorrows is longer, structured, less repetitive, less cuss-laden. And it has a theme readers can relate to: How far will a person go to make life seem worth living?
There has been one deleterious effect of the 30-day-novel exercise: I can no longer sleep past 4 a.m. And what’s worse, I don’t even need an alarm. I spend my early mornings now writing my synopsis and elevator pitch, and researching agents to try to get Men of Sorrows published. Maybe when that happens, I can finally get up after the birds do.
Stephen D’Agostino, New York, N.Y. WD
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.
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