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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Writing process, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 569
1. Empty Mind

"Make an empty space in any corner of your mind, and creativity will instantly fill it."--Dee Hock "Once you are empty then there is no barrier for the divine to enter in you." - Osho It may sound like a contradiction to try to empty your mind when you write. After all, if your mind is “empty,” how can you possibly find the words and images you need to set down on paper? But I’d like to

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2. The Weekend Writer: More On Dialogue And Tagging

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote here about dialogue tags, the little bits in a piece of writing that indicate someone has spoken. Author Martyn V. Halm discusses some additional ways to deal with said and tagging in WRITING: Dialogue and the 'Said' Rule.

Also, in The Seven Deadly Sins of Dialogue, pay particular attention to Item 2, Impossible Verbing.

I caught both these articles at a Writer Unboxed Facebook discussion, by the way.

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3. My Writing Process…Lately: A Craft of Writing Post by Mindee Arnett

I am thrilled to welcome Mindee Arnett to the blog today. When I first started blogging and Tweeting, she was one of the first writers to welcome me in. Mindee is an incredibly talented and prolific writer, and I envy her ability to have 2 series going simultaneously. She's here today to share with us some of her secrets behind how she does it all. And I, for one, look forward to checking out the resources she recommends. Thank you, Mindee!

My Writing Process…Lately: A Craft of Writing Post by Mindee Arnett


The last five books I wrote—The Nightmare Affair, Avalon, The Nightmare Dilemma, Polaris, and The Nightmare Charade—were all written in more or less the same way, using an approach I like to call a “pantser who stops for directions.” Basically, this means that I didn’t outline, but I also didn’t just rush through the first draft pell-mell. I took my time, contemplating events carefully along the way.

I’m happy with this approach. It works for me, and I’m sure to keep using it whenever I’m drafting. However, with my latest two projects I have made a turn toward the dark side. Yes, you heard me right. I have become an outliner.



But wait, let me qualify that statement lest my little pantser heart breaks—I have become an outliner out of necessity. With the conclusion of both of my series, my agent and I decided to submit my next projects on proposal. Now, what all a proposal entails varies by agent, writer, and editor, I believe, but for us it meant opening chapters plus a detailed outline. Given that I had never in my life written an outline, I had no idea what constituted a detailed outline, so my agent helpfully provided two examples and said, something in between would work. The first example was four pages, single-spaced. The second was 35 pages, double-spaced. Although both were helpful in their way, that made for an awfully large margin.

I knew I needed help. Normally, I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen in a book until I’ve written the first draft. That first draft is an outline. It’s a way for me to discover the story, spending hours and hours with the characters and the world. But now I needed a short cut, or at least a semblance of a shortcut. There really is no way to get the same depth of discovery in an outline that you’ll get in a draft. But that’s okay. For a proposal I just needed to get the bones. The flesh and heart and muscles of the story could come later.

I decided to check out a book my writer friend Kristina McBride had recommended to me months before—The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby. One reason why I chose this book to help me write an outline is because it’s primarily focused on screenplays, and screenplays, it’s always seemed to me, are stories boiled down to their spine. Also, one of the tools I have relied upon in the past is specific to screenplays, too—Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure. You can find all sorts of examples of this online. For my prior five books I used this plot structure as a road map to help me gauge where I was in the novel while drafting. It was particularly helpful with word counts. Most of my novels come in around 100k, so using the plot structure, I tried to make sure I hit that 50% mark, the “Point of No Return” at about 50k. But more on this Six Stage Plot Structure in a minute.

What I found in Truby’s book were techniques to help me think about my story as a whole and how to flesh out the key parts without doing any actual drafting. And those techniques did help, although they weren’t enough on their own. I ended up using the Six Point Plot Structure as well. But together the two tools were enough to help me generate a decent outline. What follows is a breakdown of the process I ended up using.

  1. Idea Generation. It goes without saying that before you start a writing project you need an idea, preferably a good one, or at least an idea good enough to sustain a whole novel. I don’t really have any tips for this step or any insight to offer save this—good ideas require two parts. My author friend Jody Casella likes to say that stories are like fires. Just as it takes two sticks to spark a fire, it takes two ideas to spark a story. I sort of love this symbolism, and I think it’s definitely true. I know for me, the two ideas is critical. One idea sometimes feels like it’s enough, but when you get down to writing it, nothing happens. That’s the difference. For example, consider the movie Home Alone. The first idea in this movie is simple and promising: young boy is left home alone over Christmas while family travels to France. At first this seems like enough to be getting along with, but it’s not. It’s not until you add the second idea—two incompetent robbers are planning to rob the neighborhood over the holidays—that you get a story with legs.
  2. Exploratory first chapter. Once I have my two ideas, I write the opening chapter. Beforehand I will name my main characters, and I usually have a vague idea about their personality, but not much. What I do know at the beginning is the sense of conflict—the “what’s at stake.” This is something I’ve worked out at the idea generation stage.
  3. Seven Key Steps of Story Structure. If the first chapter went well and I have an idea for the next chapter, I will start to work on the Seven Key Steps of Story Structure outlined by Truby in Chapter 3 of his book. I won’t go into detail here, because they’re in the book, but these steps are:
    1. Weakness and Need
    2. Desire
    3. Opponent
    4. Plan
    5. Battle
    6. Self-Revelation
    7. New Equilibrium
  4. Six Stage Plot Structure. While I’m working on the Seven Steps, I will also be thinking about the Six Stage Structure with a goal of filling in the key points of the structure—especially the Point of No Return, the Climax, and Change of Plans, etc.
  5. Back and Forth plus Character Web. This stage is just a repeat of steps 3 and 4, and I will also start working through Chapter 4 of Truby’s book, which is all about identifying the character web. The cool thing I’ve discovered about these two approaches is that they work on different, but complimentary levels. Truby’s Seven Key Steps are all focused on character motivation, and on the deeper thematic elements at work on your story. Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure are focused on events, on the what happens. Together, they make for a solid approach to outlining.
  6. More Chapters. If I make it this far—if I’ve successfully identified all Seven Key Steps of the Story Structure, and at least the Climax of the Six Stage—then I know that I’ve got enough for a whole book. But I also know that I’m going to need some awesome opening pages. I go back to chapter one, make any changes I need to based on what came out of the steps above, and then I’ll move on to chapter 2. And then chapter 3, and then…
  7. Write the Outline. Eventually, I will get far enough into the draft that I know it’s time to start working on the actual outline. I always do this last, because I hate it. Fortunately, the exercises I’ve worked through make it easier, doable at least, but the process is still just the worst. Nevertheless, I still complete the task. To my shock and amazement, the first time I did this, my outline ended up being fifteen double-spaced pages long! Hell has never come so close to freezing over.
  8. Submission. Once I have an outline and some polished opening pages, I will submit them to my agent. She’s already seen the pitch for the story and probably the opening chapter, but she will need to review again. Most likely she’ll have comments that I will need to work on. But eventually, the proposal will be in good enough shape for us to submit to my editor.

And there you have it. My process as it exists today. Maybe it’ll work for you and maybe it won’t. But no worries. Give me a few months and a few new projects and I’ll come up with a new process. That’s the coolest thing about writing—it never gets routine. Always be searching for a new approach.

Happy Writing!


About the Author:

Mindee Arnett is the author of two young adult series: The Arkwell Academy Series, a contemporary fantasy from Tor Teen (Macmillan), and Avalon, a sci-fi thriller from Balzer+Bray (HarperCollins). She has a Master of Arts in English literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing. She lives on a horse farm in Ohio with her husband, two kids, a couple of dogs, and an inappropriate number of cats. She’s addicted to jumping horses and telling tales of magic, the macabre, and outer space. Find her online at www.mindeearnett.com.


Website | Twitter | Goodreads

About the Book:

http://www.amazon.com/Polaris-Mindee-Arnett/dp/0062235621/
Jeth Seagrave and his crew are on the run. The ITA, still holding Jeth’s mother in a remote research lab, is now intent on acquiring the metatech secrets Jeth’s sister Cora carries inside her DNA, and Jeth is desperate to find the resources he needs to rescue his mother and start a new life outside the Confederation. But the ITA is just as desperate, and Jeth soon finds himself pursued by a mysterious figure hell-bent on capturing him and his crew—dead or alive.

With nowhere to run and only one play left, Jeth enters into a bargain with the last person he ever thought he’d see again: Daxton Price, the galaxy’s newest and most ruthless crime lord. Dax promises to help Jeth, but his help will only come at a price—a price that could mean sacrificing everything Jeth has fought for until now.

The conclusion to the story Mindee Arnett began in her acclaimed novel Avalon, Polaris is a dangerous journey into the spaces between power and corruption, life and death, the parts of ourselves we leave behind and the parts we struggle to hold on to.

Amazon | Indiebound | Goodreads


 -- posted by Susan Sipal, @HP4Writers

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4. The Weekend Writer: Dialogue Tags


I haven't done a Weekend Writer in quite some time. This week, though, I stumbled upon this post on dialog tags at Page Curl Publishing and Promotion. No idea, noooo idea how I find these things. But dialogue tags can be a problem for new writers, and this Page Curl post makes some good points. Thus, a weekend writer post.

Rule 3 is of particular interest to me. "Dialogue tags aren't a place to break out your thesaurus." Indeed. Fancy synonyms for "said" are distracting. On the other hand, if you've spent much time reading out loud, you know that the repetition of "said," all by itself, becomes distracting, too. This is one of the many cases in life where one must find a happy medium.

Also, it usually isn't necessary to describe how something is said. "...said happily..." "...said sadly..." "...exclaimed in despair..."  Try to show the way these things are said rather than tell your readers about it.



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5. Writing Happens Like This

Writing happens like this: You never know what will appear when you sit down to write. You only know you are a little scared that nothing will happen—no words, no ideas, no thoughts will come—and you'll be left staring at a blank page. So, you sit and wait for something that isn’t yet on the page. And when you find the courage to take that leap of faith and start writing, words do

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6. YAY! for lucky accidents!


The Celebrate Oops! initiative we TeachingAuthors are currently exploring in our February posts celebrates both Barney Saltzberg’s picture book BEAUTIFUL OOPS! – and – the Teachable Moments accidents fortunately bring us.

I had such a fortunate Teachable Moment while brainstorming my picture book FANCY THAT with my Holiday House Editor Mary Cash.
I knew the setting – Berks County, Pennsylvania; I knew the time – 1841; and I knew my story’s Hero – young Pippin Biddle, orphaned without warning, the son of a limner - an itinerant portrait painter.

Mary agreed with me that such a picture book would be ripe with historical and arts curriculum connections.

My sketchy plotline was just that – i.e. sketchy: accompanied by his dog Biscuit, (whom I pictured to be lap-size), Pip would travel the Pennsylvania/New York area through the first 3 seasons of the year unsuccessfully earning his keep painting people’s portraits, returning at Thanksgiving with an empty purse and heart.

“But why would young readers care about such a boy on such a journey?” I asked my editor. 

“Well,” Mary began, “could he have a few sisters who needed Pip to earn his keep?” she asked.
Orphans, Mary shared, can be lovely in a story.
“And, maybe,” she suggested, “Pip’s dog could be part of the resolution?”
And then she paused, her gaze meeting mine.
“You know, Christmas books do so much better than Thankgiving titles,” she commented.  “What if Pip returned at Christmas?”

Driven to tell this singular story, I back-burnered Mary’s 3 delicious suggestions with an open mind, even though I’m a nice Jewish girl from West Philadelphia and writing a Christmas picture book was not in my wheelhouse, as they say.

But guess what?

Fast forward to the stacks of the Wilmette Public Library, one week later, when I discovered (1) there wasno Thanksgiving to celebrate in the U.S. in 1841 and (2) few Americans celebrated Christmas at that time!

OOPS!
And OOPS²… except...the German immigrants, who’d just happened to settle in Berks County in central Pennsylvania, had brought along their Christmas tradition of making evergreen wreaths and decorating their fir trees!

So,
while Pip’s dog Biscuit gathers the greenery of each season, and Pip paints his portrait to send home to his Poor House-ensconced sisters Emma, Lyddie and Martha,

 


before too long,
Pip’s sisters themselves, inspired by Pip’s portraits, create a livelihood that builds them their home


and Pip discovers his hidden talent.

 
Fancy that!

Lucky Pip and his sisters! Lucky me and my readers!

And all quite by accident.

Esther Hershenhorn

P.S.
Jennifer T won the SKIN AND BONES giveaway!

P.P.S.
A writer with whom I corresponded this past week shared the following Dalai Lama quote benath her name.  I thought it relevant.

 "Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck." 

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7. The Write Stuff

There’s this belief among writers that hidden inside us is all the stuff we need to write. Maybe we're born with this stuff, or maybe we get it from our teachers or parents, or by reading the work of other writers, but we have it and only have to dig deep enough to find it. Of course, we still need to learn how to write. We still need to read lots of books and write lots of words. 

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8. Go, Write!

In the beginning, the page is blank--just blue lines and white spaces. It’s like looking into a mirror. The page serves as the release mechanism, the trigger, the catalyst for thought. But thought itself doesn’t take place on the page. You may look at the lines and the spaces between the lines, but what you see is the image in your head, the image that is not yet on the page. A

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9. No New Stories, Just New Writers' Reactions

Last Wednesday I had to do some baking--New Year's Eve and all--and while I was working away at that, I listened to a terrific podcast of Colin McEnroe's radio show. In Connecticut, McEnroe is like...like...well, maybe our James Thurber, a James Thurber who writes for the local big city paper and Salon and is on his second local radio program. He's all over the place. I, myself, have been to two writer festivals at which he appeared, and he and my son sat at the same table at a Christmas party this past year. I'm not kidding you. The guy is everywhere. Probably everyone in the state has had a McEnroe sighting.

Anyway, the podcast he did on December 3, Why We'll Always Need New Books, was terrific. His guests were Brian Slattery, Lev Grossman, and Ruth Crocker.

What Was Said


Many juicy things were said during that program. I'm going to focus on three:
  • Are our lives stories?
  • Are writers' books an attempt to explain their lives?
  • There are a limited number of stories. So most writers aren't dealing with new material. It's how they react to the material that can make work different.

 

Hurry Up And Make A Childlit Connection, Gail


A lot of children's lit is...um...well, repetitive. New and different isn't a huge issue in children's literature because there are always new readers coming up who will find this year's book about the quirky small town girl surrounded by eccentric adult characters and maybe a dog new and different because they weren't reading the quirky small town girl surrounded by eccentric adult characters and a dog book from last year and the year before and the year before that. And publishing, particularly children's publishing, is like TV and movies. If something does well, the way the Georgia Nicolson books did a decade ago, there will be dozens of copies.

There really are a limited number of stories in children's literature.

I think The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern is a perfect example of what McEnroe was talking about on his program when he said that while most writers don't deal with new material, how they react to their material can make it different. The autobiographical Meaning of Maggie starts out with a stereotypical childlit situation. A clever, spunky girl is beginning to keep a journal and is dealing with a parent's tragic illness. But Sovern's reaction to that material is what makes it different, and her reaction is all about her life's story. She is, indeed, explaining her life to us.

So I guess maybe writers should ask themselves if there is something in their lives that can bring something new to whatever story they're thinking about writing.

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10. The Joy Of Day-To-Day Work

Norah O'Donnell was interviewed for the November issue of More. Missed it, did you? At the very end of the article, she was asked a question about how she sees her future. She said, "...I guess one of the things that I still struggle with to this day is that focusing on the expectation of something is actually never fulfilling. Focusing on the day-to-day work is much more so. And then you end up falling into your goals anyway."

So true, so true.

Fixating on the big sale that's coming up, the conferences we're going to attend, the speeches we're going to give...no. That kind of activity, if you even want to call it activity, rarely leads to a big sale, a conference, or a speech. It's the day-to-day work that does that. Focusing on that leads to those other things or something like them.

If you can enjoy the day-to-day work, focusing upon it becomes not just easier but sort of the point. And then you don't have to deal with the lack of fulfillment from dwelling on what might happen in the future.

This whole live-in-the-work-moment thing may be part of my problem with the holiday season. I actually like focusing on day-to-day work, dragging my laptop all over the house and peering into it. I like planning and researching and struggling to work out what I'm doing wrong. When I've had to be away from work for a few days for family or house issues, wrapping presents and baking on a weekday (baking on weekends is another thing), getting back to the day-to-day feels like the beginning of a vacation.

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11. So-called Writing Facts

Here are two “facts” about writing I’ve been hearing lately that I must beat until their stuffing falls out and their non-factness is apparent to all.1

1. On average published authors write 2-3 novels before publication.

Um, what? How was such a statistic arrived at? Where does it come from? Why is everyone repeating it? Oh, who cares. It’s irrelevant.

It does not matter how many novels other authors wrote before they were published. It has no effect on you. I wrote two novels before I was published. Scott sold the first one he finished. I know of authors who wrote more than twenty novels before they finally sold one. Who knows what your path will be?

It’s like asking an agent how many authors they sign per year on average. Knowing that doesn’t increase or decrease your chances. The only thing that will increase your chances of finding an agent to represent you is writing a book an agent likes. It could be that the agent who falls in love with your book will take on no clients but you that month or year. Or they’ll take on ten. It doesn’t really matter as long as they fall for your book and your writing.

Being above or below this random number of 2-3 written books before selling first book makes zero difference to your writing career. It predicts nothing.

That stat is only useful if it helps people realise that selling your first novel is unlikely. Though, yes, it happens. In publishing pretty much everything has happened. Learning to write well is a long process. As I have chronicled it took me years to learn how to rewrite.

2. People’s second published novels are always much worst than their first.

Crap. Bullocks. Rubbish. Bulldust. Wallaroo droppings.

Yes, people talk about second-novel syndrome. But it mostly applies to people whose first novel was a huge success. Surprise! The vast majority of authors do not have a run away bestseller with their first novel. Therefore they do not have the over-the-top pressure for their second book to be as successful as their first.

Most novelists don’t have a huge hit with any of their novels. And for those that do get lucky? Well, it can happen with their fifth or sixth or tenth or whatever-th novel. Sometimes in the wake of all that attention and money raining down on them it can take a long time to write their next book.

I don’t think there is a second-novel syndrome; I think there’s next-book-after-a-huge hit syndrome.

Now I’ve cleared that up, let’s take a moment to consider what people mean by the second novel. Shockingly some authors’ second novels were written before their first novels, which is the case with Jonathan Lethem. Michael Chabon’s second novel was the third novel he wrote. My first published novel was the third novel I wrote.

Often we don’t know what order novels were written in. All we know for sure is the order in which they were published and, why, yes, there are many authors with super successful second novels whose second novels were better than their first.2

There’s Jane Austen’s second novel, Pride and Prejudice, which you may have heard of. Many consider it to be her best. I love P and P but for my money Persuasion is her finest work. Scott’s second novel Fine Prey is way, way, way better than his first Polymorph. Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, is an amazing debut but I reckon her second novel, Price of Salt/Carol, is much, much better and breaks my heart every time I read it. Then there’s Infinite Jest, which I’ve never been able to finish, so not my thing, but which was certainly more successful than his first novel.

I could go on like this all day long. There are many great second novels and great third, fourth, fifth, sixth etc. novels. Most novelists get better the more novels they write.3 Usually, the more you do something the better you get at it. It’s called practice and training and like that. With most of my favourite living writers it’s their most recent book that’s their most accomplished.

I would argue that amazing debut novels are the exception not the rule. I’l blurb a flawed debut novel. I expect debut novels to be rawer. I cut them more slack because they’re a novelist’s first baby, their first attempt at that impossible task: writing a perfect novel.

In conclusion: most so-called “facts” about the writing life are no such thing. Every writer writes differently. There are as many different paths to publication as there are writers.

  1. Or, you know, the people who read this blog. Both of them.
  2. In these discussions the word “successful” is usually used to mean “sold lots of copies.” I don’t think that’s the only measure of a book’s success. Quite a few of the so-called second-book failures are quite good. They simply failed to sell as well as the first.
  3. Yes, there are exceptions. No, let’s not name them.

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12. Keep On Writing

I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this month. It’s a mad-sprint to write 50,000 words of a novel in a month, and we just reached the half-way mark. This means we’re wading through the murky middle of our novels when it feels like nothing is happening and it’s hard to keep our momentum.

If you’re like me and you need a little internet inspiration, I’m happy to provide these pep-talks of writing wisdom:

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start-writing

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Keep calm and write on

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Why are you still here?

I thought all that was pretty clear.

Get to your keyboard, and remember…

being-a-good-writer

Happy writing everyone.


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13. The Importance of Writing Badly

I used to write very, very slowly. At the time, I thought that was the only way to write. Each word had to be perfect before I moved on.

There is nothing wrong with writing this way, if it works for you. I am a huge believer that each writer has her own writing process. But for me, it wasn't working. I was worried too much about perfection and not creating anywhere near enough writing.

Recently I was working on a first draft of a new manuscript, and I kept reminding myself...
perfection is not the goal!

"Just get something down," I would tell myself. "And then you can make it better."

And it worked! For me the blank page is incredibly intimidating. Whatever will I write?

But, once there is something (anything!) on that page, revision is so much fun! I love polishing (and polishing and polishing and polishing), my words until they shine!

Once I had something down for each stanza, that sense of blank page intimidation went away. Then I just got to play to make each stanza better.

And play I did! It was so much fun!

To be clear, I am sure this manuscript is not yet done. But, I am equally sure that it is much further along than it would be if I had worried about perfection from the very beginning.

So I wonder: Do you allow yourself to write badly? Do you encourage (or even celebrate) it? Why or why not?

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14. The Case for Morning Writing

morning-windowI know everyone isn’t a morning person. I wasn’t always a morning writer. I used to be a mid-day writer, believing I was like a flower that fully bloomed when the sun was high in the sky. But in the last few years I’ve changed my tune. I’ve started to brave the dark cold morning hours away from my cozy bed. It isn’t easy. Who wants to give up those precious hours and minutes of sleep before the day begins? But I gave it a shot, and I’ve discovered I’m a lot more productive as a result.

I know morning writing won’t work for everyone. But I want to share a few of the ideas that influenced me to give it a try. Finding a process that works for you is essential to being a successful writer. For me, morning writing has become a staple of my process. It affects both my productivity and the quality of my work. Who knows, maybe it will work for you too.

Three reasons to consider writing in the morning:

1) It Helps You Find “The Zone”

One of the most inspirational reasons I started writing in the morning comes from Robert Olen Butler’s craft book From Where You Dream. Butler argues that to write you must enter a dream-space away from your intellectual thinking brain. This dream-space is a “zone” that lets you tap into the unconscious, which is where true creation comes from. Writing from the unconscious allows “a work of art to become an organic thing, where every detail organically resonates with every other detail.”

Realms Of Human MindTapping into this space is not an easy thing to do. Butler suggests writing in the morning because it helps you to find “a way to clear your sensibility of abstract uses of language,” which is important for helping you get into the zone. The problem, according to Butler, “is that we naturally use language in so many non-sensual ways all through the day. It’s helpful, then, to buffer those hours in which you necessarily use language in those analytical ways from the hours in which you dive into your unconscious and seek language in quite another way. One obvious way to do that is to put your night’s sleep in between. You go to your writing space straight from another dream state and go to language before you’ve had a chance for all those other uses of language to intrude on you. So after you wake up, don’t read the newspaper, don’t watch CNN; if you have to pee don’t pick up the back issue of The New Yorker in the basket nearby. You go to your fiction without letting any conceptual language into your head.”

Of course, there are different philosophies on writing. I was pretty skeptical of Butler’s “unconscious dreaming” concept. But I’d never tried it before. I’d intellectually talked myself out of its benefits before giving it a whirl. I’m a convert now. My writing has new depth because I write in the morning and I’m able to tap into that dream-zone.

For more information on this writing process, I highly suggest reading Butler’s craft book From Where You Dream. 

2) It Creates a Sense of Accomplishment

making-bedAdmiral McRaven’s gave a commencement address to the University of Texas earlier this year in which he said, “if you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” That may sound odd, but consider his outlook: “If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”

Morning writing works in the same way as making your bed in the morning. Many of us say writing is a priority in our lives and yet we struggle to find time for it. If you start off your day by writing, then this important priority has been accomplished first. Now you can meet the rest of your day without guilt because you’ve already accomplished your writing goals.

3) Don’t Check Your Email

Email_Bad-resized-600Tim Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Work Week suggests you never check your email before noon. He makes a strong case, pointing out the importance of making room for the tasks you need to get done before you open your email and see what the rest of the world wants from you. Sid Savara adds to the conversation with his 7 reasons you shouldn’t check email in the morning. Both authors point out that checking your email first thing in the morning makes your day about someone else’s to-do list, not yours. Write first! Resist the temptation to check your email and put your priorities first.

Anyone else out there a morning writer like me? Have you found it beneficial? Please share in the comments!


5 Comments on The Case for Morning Writing, last added: 11/6/2014
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15. Work Smarter: Use checklists throughout a unit of study …and beyond

I’ll begin by being honest – I don’t like checklists. It’s a personal thing.  Checklists make me anxious, they fill me with the fear of impending failure. As soon as I’ve taken the… Continue reading

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16. NaNoWriMo Prep

TypewriterAre you participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year? It starts this Saturday (November 1st) and is a mad dash to write 50,000 words of a novel in one short month! I participated for the first time last year and loved it. It’s true, I was a big snob about NaNoWriMo before I tried it, but now I’m a complete convert.

If you’re taking the plunge and trying NaNoWriMo this year, I have a few quick suggestions that I learned from my experience last year. Hopefully these will help you stay on track and reach your 50,000 word goal.

1) Make an Outline

Make a list of scenes you want to write for your novel. This doesn’t need to be fully formed outline. All you need is a list of events or moments that you think might be a part of the book. The fun thing about NaNoWriMo is that you’re writing so fast that everything you try counts toward your 50,000 word! Even if you cut it later, you can try it now and it’s productive. You can pick a scene to write each day and see where it takes you. If it doesn’t go anywhere, try another scene on your list. You’d be surprised to see how many scenes will snowball into whole sequences, chapters, and eventually full novels! An outline gives you a place to start each day, and a new scene to jump to if the one your working on isn’t going anywhere.

2) Create Scene Cards

After you make your outline, create scene cards for each of your scenes. These cards outline the major action and emotional change of the scene. This will help you to make sure you have a plan and direction when you write. This way you won’t sit down and stare at a blank page. When I re-read my novel after NaNoWriMo, one of the big things I learned was that scenes I had a plan for were worth keeping. Scenes I didn’t use a scene card for often got cut. Read more about scene cards and see examples here: Scene Cards Blog Post.

3) Don’t Edit

I know it seems counter intuitive to not edit. Part of writing is choosing the right phrase and sentence to communicate your ideas. But when the end goal is word count, editing is your worst enemy. NaNoWriMo is about getting your ideas on the page and moving forward. It isn’t about writing a masterpiece in the first pass. That’s what revision is for. Who cares if you’ve added adverbs everywhere. Who cares if you spend half a page describing a character’s hair style. This draft is about creating the raw material that you can shape and mold later. It’s easier to revise a novel once you have that raw material to work with, rather than trying to come up with a brilliant and perfectly crafted page out of nothing. Yes, your NaNoWriMo novel isn’t going to be spun gold. That’s not the point. The point is to get material on the page that you can revise with.

nanowrimo-poster

4) Write the Fun Scenes First

We often think we have to write in linear order. We also think we have to finish scenes. I give you permission leave scenes half-finished and to write out of order! Write the scenes you’re most excited to write first. Those scenes are going to have the most energy and excitement behind them. They’re going to create inertia that gets you excited to get up and write again tomorrow. If a scene isn’t going well, don’t finish it. Leave yourself a big note that says: finish this scene later and move on. Don’t worry about it right now. There are going to big plot holes, sure, but you can fix them in revision. Focus on what is fun and keeps you excited to keep writing this project. That’s the trick to writing faster than you should. Have fun and forget all the rules you’ve made for yourself in the past. Create, enjoy, and fall in love with your story.

5) Write in the Morning

Not everyone is a morning writer. I understand that. But personally, I’ve have found that writing in the morning during NaNoWriMo keeps me motivated. It allows me to get through my 1600 words a day early on. This also means any additional words I write that day are a bonus and help get me closer to 50,000 words faster! If you get behind in NaNoWriMo it can be discouraging. So don’t wait. Write first thing and make it a habit. One of the great side effects of this exercise is the way it motivates you to work on your project every day.

Looking for more tips to help with National Novel Writing Month? Try these:


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17. Collaboration: Two writers are better than one(?)

Writing Life Banner

by

E.C. Myers

Eugene_ClaraOne of my favorite young adult books (and films) is Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, written by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. These authors have written two other novels together, and Levithan also teamed up with John Green for another of my favorite books, Will Grayson, Will Grayson. I’m fascinated when writers work together to tell a story, and I’m curious about how these things come about, what their process is, and how the story develops along the way. After all, writing is supposed to be a lonely business, isn’t it?

I think most working writers will agree that all published stories are ultimately collaborations. There’s the critiques you get from your beta readers, feedback from your agent, changes from your editor. There’s also the input of copy editors and proofreaders, who can sometimes save a story at the last possible moment and catch all your mistakes. Your friends and family help you brainstorm, or happen to say something at just the right moment. Your read another story or watch a movie that inspires a brilliant idea for yours. Along the way, many of these suggestions are entirely optional — it’s still your book — but it’s good to listen and be open to anything that will make your book stronger. Your crit partners, agent, and editor all want it to be the best story it can be, and you know what? Even if you agree with them and make some changes, it’s still your book.

sat_121_2014So far, I have only collaborated with another author once, on a novelette titled “Lost in Natalie,” which was recently published in the summer issue of Space and Time magazine. I wrote it with my friend Mercurio D. Rivera, a critically acclaimed science fiction writer; he critiqued an early draft in our writing group and thought it was a great premise but the light, almost campy tone was jarring against the darker themes. He wanted to take a crack at working on it together, and I agreed. (There was also some sort-of-incest in the story, which I think is what really got him interested…)

The basic plot was about a guy who attends a sex party called a “swap meat” at which everyone switches bodies throughout the night. But there’s a police raid — because of course that kind of thing is totally illegal! — and he has to escape in someone else’s body. Hijinks ensue.

As this was our first collaboration with anyone, let alone each other, we approached it as sensibly as we could. Mercurio had my original draft, which he reworked into a new outline, and we decided to simply use that as a guide and alternate chapters, sending them to each other to pick up the thread like a round-robin game. As we reviewed the other’s section, we were free to make any changes we wanted — without tracked changes — no questions asked.

Mercurio kicked it off:

Attached is my stab at an opening scene for “Lost at the Swap Meat” (working title).  I’m afraid that my outline has sort of fallen apart.  Nonetheless, I’ll also send you the outline in its current state in a separate email.My skin is very thick; feel free to re-work any or all of this if it’s not working for you.

 

I worked on it. A few days later I sent him this:

Here’s my first pass on the second scene, along with some changes and additions to the first section, which was quite good. Wow, it really is porny though–where are we going to market this thing? Anyway. Feel free to change whatever you need to. I’ll choke down my pride :) I basically stuck to your outline here, and threw in some other threads we might explore or lose along the way.

 

I got it back a week later:

Tag!  You’re it!P.S.  Outline is broken.  Luckily you don’t normally write with one, right?
PPS. I ramped down the sexual flirting in the cab–I figured they’d be too shaken up from their near arrest, but I kept it in the apartment
PPPS  My latest scene sucks.  Please make brilliant
PPPPS “Conner” is now “Gustavo”– to make the characters slightly less white-bread

 

Gustavo? Okay. We changed that to Enrique at some point.

Look! It’s a whole day early! This latest scene is still a little rough, but I think we have some direction. I updated the outline with some ideas for the rest of the story, but feel free to ignore it if you can come up with something better. I am really excited about this and I like how it’s coming along–we’ll obviously have a lot of editing to do when we’re done, but nothing we can’t fix.

It’s coming in a little long as well, so I think we may have to trim a lot if we can’t sell it at that length and with its mature content. We’ll see after we finish.

Carry on! I expect something soon :)

And so it went. Back and forth. It was awesome.

collaborators

The collaborators (Photo by Matt Kressel)

Reading through our old e-mails, I was also working on my first draft of Fair Coin at the time, and at least one other short story. But I always looked forward to getting the next section from Mercurio, and my faster turnaround times kept him working and motivated. And the end result (many, many critiques and revisions later) was something better than either of us probably could have managed on our own.

Mercurio writes wonderful dark, thinky stories with beautiful prose, while I think my strengths are in dialogue and character, and our different approaches to plotting meshed very well. The story ended up having a really interesting, provocative theme and the ending is one of the best things “I’ve” written. I learned a lot from him in the process, and because we were constantly revising each other’s sections, and then our own sections and lines, the whole story smoothed out so even our friends couldn’t tell which scenes we wrote. (Actually, we barely remember anymore either. We’re each happy to take credit for the bits we like though.)

Moreover, our friendship survived the experience, and we eventually sold the story to a great market, so I count that a win. So why did this go so well? Being friends helped, but that also could have gotten in the way. First and foremost, we kept our egos out of the equation. We admire each other’s talents and instincts, and we respect each other. We’re both used to receiving constructive criticism and revising our work. It was also a lot of fun! We both loved the story and wanted it to reach its potential, and I am so energized by that creative process with other people.

You would think two writers would make the story go twice as quickly, but that isn’t always the case because you also have two people with schedules and responsibilities and lives to work around. Sharing the workload did help though, and I am often still amazed — and a little shocked — at what we created together. (A small caveat if you’re interested in checking out the story in Space and Time and are familiar with most of my other work: It is really not young adult.)

The experience of writing with Mercurio also prepared me for other projects down the line, including my new novel, The Silence of Six, which took a more collaborative process with my publisher than I was accustomed to. And I would definitely love to collaborate on another story or even a YA novel, with the right project and the right person. (E-mail me!)

Writers, have you collaborated on any stories? What was that like? What are some of your favorite collaborations?

E.C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts and raised by a single mother and the public library in Yonkers, New York. He is the author of the Andre Norton Award–winning young adult novel Fair Coin and Quantum Coin, as well as numerous short stories. His new novel, The Silence of Six, a thriller about teenage hackers and government conspiracies, will be out on November 5, 2014 from Adaptive Books. You can find traces of him all over the internet, but especially at http://ecmyers.net and on Twitter: @ecmyers.

 

 

 

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18. Things I’ve Learned About Writing a Memoir—And a Personal Challenge

So, I’ve been working on my YA memoir for a little over a month now. It will be coming out from Dutton, though I don’t know when yet (hopefully 2016) and it still doesn’t have a title, so I’m just calling it “The Zine-Style Memoir” or “The Memoir.” It’s a VERY different experience than writing a novel, which doesn’t surprise me, but um, I must confess… I thought it was going to be easier than writing a novel! Why not? I don’t have to come up with a plot or characters, it’s just MY LIFE and I know what happens. But as it turns out it, The Memoir has its own set of challenges. Here’s what I’ve been grappling with so far:

  1. It’s just as emotional, if not more emotional to write. I write intense books. If you’ve read them, you know that. I deal with heavy shit like addiction, abuse, sexual assault, depression, self-injury and I don’t pull any punches. The reason I write so honestly about these things in my fiction is because these are the stories I needed to read as a teenager. And why did I need to read them? Because I was going through all of that shit. And now my job—the one I signed up for in some moment of total insanity (kidding… sort of)—is to rehash all of that very real shit that I went through. Now I’ve been doing this for a while in my essays for Rookie, but now I’m spending all of my writing time doing that, which is not exactly fun. I mean, I knew what I was getting into, and for the most part, I’ve processed all of this stuff in therapy (and through writing fictional versions), so it hasn’t been too detrimental to my emotional well-being—my revisions on BALLADS were actually much worse… at least, so far. BUT when you get up at 5:30 am to write and/or you spend most of your Saturdays writing like I do, it can be… unsettling. I went to a party on Saturday night after writing all day and it took me a couple hours to pull myself out of my own head. And some days I get to work and just feel anxious and tightly wound all day for no reason—except I spent the first hour of my day recounting a horrible fight with my childhood best friend. So yeah, it’s emotional work and I expect that it will get harder.
  2. This is what research looks like:



    Yeah, those are my diaries. Clockwise from the top, they are from grade school (as you may have guessed from the pink kitty), 8th grade, summer before and all of junior year of high school, the two composition books are from my senior semester of high school (I took a journal writing class and I had A LOT to say, so much that when I filled them, I went back to black-and-white cat journal and finished filling it during the rest of what would have been my senior year when I was living on my own in Madison, Wisconsin), and the last journal is from my year at Antioch College and the two years I lived in Madison after dropping out (I was the opposite of productive then). Conspicuously missing are 7th grade (that was a very bad year and I tore my journal—also a Star Trek log book—to pieces, and I think, flushed them down the toilet) and freshman and sophomore year. That was a green spiral bound notebook. My abusive boyfriend demanded to read it in my sophomore year, so I ripped out a bunch of pages and REWROTE THEM. I’d saved the ripped pages and tried to reassemble/rewrite the whole thing on a couple of occasions, but since I never did it all, this led to confusion later about what was real and what wasn’t and eventually I threw the whole thing away. It kind of sucks because my memory is imperfect and these diaries (along with calls to my mom, who usually is my medical resource for my novels) are the easiest way to jog it. Well, easiest in terms of remember what happened when. Re-reading them is actually horrible. Like when this book is done, they might all go in the trash. And no, this isn’t me being critical of my writing skills (those aren’t actually that bad), this is because of my worst discovery about memoir-writing so far, which is…
  3. Writing about yourself sorta makes you hate yourself.  I cringe every time I flip through any of those old diaries (aside from maybe the grade school one—not that I can flip through it because I thought what I’d written was so damning, I tore the pages out and stuffed them in an envelope addressed to my cousin presumably because I trusted her to dispose of them in the unlikely event of my tragic demise). The 8th grade one is pure obsessive love. Yeah, it was my first crush. That’s probably normal to a degree, but holy shit is it embarrassing. I thought I was going to marry this guy and have three babies (the Ouija board told me so). I thought I was gonna die when he asked another girl to the graduation dance. It includes other things I’d rather not recall either like when I got into Pearl Jam just to impress my best friend’s new friend. I hate Pearl Jam, but boy did I convince myself that I loved them, just to fit in… at a time that I swore I was done trying to fit in.

    The obsessions and the hypocrisies are the worst and they continue through all the journals. I’ll blast girl for spreading rumors and “girl hate” while saying the most awful, hateful things about her. And during the fucked-up relationship from my late teens there are actual entries written in my own blood. The worst of the worst though is from the summer between sophomore and junior year right after my abuser and I broke up when I was still in love with him and that period after I realized what he’d done to me, but I still loved him. Of course the anger that followed was not any easier to stomach.

    Basically reading these diaries forces me to revisit the weaknesses that I hated most about myself and also forces me to look at how self-centered and cruel and angry and awful I was at times. I have to recognize that I was not always a good person and I made A LOT of mistakes. Of course this book is about identity and how the many pieces of us come together to form something whole (or mostly whole). I thought I was writing about that in a retrospective way, but I’m realizing now that there is still going to be some self-understanding and self-forgiveness that is going to have to come from the writing process. And while I’m in the thick of it, I’m going to have to remind myself that I’m not that person anymore and I learned from both her good and bad decisions and traits.
  4. Just because my life has an arc or a “plot” doesn’t mean I’m not going to have to make major structural decisions within each essay/chapter and for the book as a whole just like I would for a novel. This has been my biggest writerly problem so far. I sold the book on proposal and I thought I had a solid idea of what it would be—more like a collection of essays than a memoir. But as soon as I started writing in earnest, I realized it wasn’t really working. I can’t just plug this essay fromRookie about my struggle with self-injury in to the place where it seems to fit best chronologically—junior high because that’s when the cutting started—because the essay covers my whole journey, from twelve to twenty-two or twenty-three. Reading that and then reading the next thing about me being fourteen and struggling with self-esteem or something, it’s jarring. It doesn’t flow as a narrative. It makes you feel like fourteen-year-old me should be better off because she was at the end of that last piece (even though she was also in her twenties). My editor noticed this, too, of course, and we talked about it for an hour. I have ideas about how to fix it, but the structure still feels very murky right now. That seems to be happening within each essay/chapter I write too. I start off one way, then change my mind, then end up with alternate versions of each piece. It’s frustrating and I don’t want it to be. I know that if I agonize over structure now, it’s going to really slow me down and it’s all going to change later. So this has led to…

The Plan

I need to create the puzzle pieces. Only then can I dump them out on the table and figure out how they fit (and probably reshape a bunch of them, but that doesn’t go well with my puzzle metaphor). So I want to write really rough versions of the essays/chapters/parts of the story I know I need to tell. I’m doing it linearly right now, but this might be the time to jump around (in a way I haven’t done since I wrote my first novel!) and write in chunks, some of which will probably feel really unpolished and incomplete. The problem is I HATE unpolished and incomplete. I hate rough drafts and it is hell for me to get through them. Speeding through did help me with my last novel, though, and in this case, so I don’t waste a lot of time figuring out a structure that will change once I have all the pieces, I think it’s going to be essential. To make it work, I’ve set up…

The Challenge

I decided pretty much arbitrarily that I would like to write all of the rough pieces by November 1st. This is going to be a pretty enormous challenge because I work full-time, I teach a class once a week, and… I’m going on vacation from October 2-8. So yeah. This might be totally unrealistic. But what the hell. Setting intense deadlines works for me (as long as I don’t get too angry at myself if I can’t make them, which I am promising here, publicly, that I won’t. Hold me to it, please!). Conveniently, the place where I teach, the Hugo House, is running a 30/30 fundraising challenge this month! Basically if you sign up, you commit to writing 30 minutes every day for the first 30 days of October. So I’m doing it. 30 minutes a day. Even on my anniversary trip to Hawaii. (Writing on the beach is great, right?) I am trying to raise some funds for Hugo House, which is an incredible organization for writers, so if you want to cheer me on and donate a few buck to a good cause, I’d love it. Here’s my fundraising page. You can also join the challenge if you are so inclined and I hope you will! In fact, if you are a YA writer (or a friend of mine!) you are welcome to join the team, my I've formed with my YA class (and my friends!)

So, if you don’t hear from me much next month (aside from vacation pics on my instagram and tweets about my writing progress), you’ll know it’s because of my lofty goal. What are your big goals for October?  

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19. Things I Don't Do (But Sometimes Wish I Did)

I've been reading this awesome book called Songwriters on Songwriting by Paul Zollo.

It's a compilation of LOTS of interviews with amazing songwriters, such as Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Carole King, Randy Newman, Frank Zappa, Carlos Santana, Dave Brubeck, Brian Wilson and on and on and on.

One thing I love about it is reading how different their writing processes are.

Some write every day.

Some don't.

Some write only when inspiration strikes.

Some force the writing.

Some write the whole song at once.

Some write part of it and let it stew for a while.

Some need total quiet.

Some write on tour buses or in hotel rooms.

So, that got me to thinking about writing PROCESS.

And I've come to the conclusion that.....different strokes for different folks.

There should be no RULES, because everybody is different.

So....here are the things I DON'T do, even though I've heard that I should:

1. I don't write every day. Some days I'm not inspired. Some days I'm in a school. Some days I'm watching Judge Judy reruns. But I've written 10 books, so I do, eventually, get the job done.

2. I don't outline. I would LOVE to outline. I'm a super organized person whose favorite possession is a label maker. But they just don't work for me. I develop the story as I'm writing.

3. I don't keep a writer's journal. I want to. So. Bad. I want to write really cool stuff like Linda Urban does. OMG. I LOVE her journals! I love reading how her thoughts and ideas turn into novels.

When I'm in schools, I want to tell students that I keep a writing journal. I want to tell them I carry a little notebook wherever I go. I've considered lying, but I'm a terrible liar. 

And I love journals. I buy lovely leather ones with handmade paper. And then I write stuff like, "Ate too many chips today. Dang it!" or "Got the cutest sweater on sale at Nordstrom! Yay me!" Maybe I'm just shallow like that. *shrugs* But journals just don't WORK for me. I journal in my head. Seriously.

4. I don't use color-coded Post-It Notes on the wall, rearranging them for plot and scenes and characters and all that stuff. I WANT to! Really bad. But that just doesn't work for me.



5. I don't create character sketches. I HATE them. You know the ones: What's your character's favorite vegetable? What does your character's bedroom look like? *Shudders* Before I put pen to paper, I know my characters really, really well. My characters tell my story for me (after a lot of prodding).  

But I know them in the context of the story. I don't give a rip what she has in her backpack or what her favorite ice cream flavor is - unless it has something to do with the story. I know my characters in the context of the story. That's all I need to know.

6. I don't write in airports or cafes or hotel rooms. Trust me. I've tried. I need a quiet, still, private space. Just because. (Although I did write a great deal of Moonpie and Ivy on a train. It's never happened since.)

So what's my point?

My point is that you should do what works for you. 

Try some of the techniques other writers use. They might work for you. They might not.

Write on a train.

Write in a car.

Write in a bed.

Write in a bar.

Outline, journal, post-it, too.

Just do whatever works for you.

[My poem for the day.] 

BUT - there are some things that I do do that help me - coming in a later post.




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20. I'm Teaching My Dream YA Class--And You Can Sign Up For It NOW!

I had the most amazing summer (see my Tumblr for proof, it is filled with whale-watching and hiking adventures), but I’ve always loved fall and its back-to-school vibes. I’m ready to get down to business on my own writing so that I can get my new memoir out to you all as soon as possible. (I’ll be looking for early morning and Saturday writing buds on Twitter!) But I’m particularly excited about this fall  because in addition to getting back to writing, I’m getting back to teaching!

I love teaching Young Adult Fiction as much I love reading and writing it. Being in a room with other writers who are just as passionate about YA as I am and working with them on their ideas.. it doesn’t even feel like a job! It’s an incredible privilege that keeps me inspired to work on my own manuscripts.

I got my start teaching YA at Columbia College Chicago where I taught semester-long courses to undergraduates and graduate students. I got to help them start their novels. At least 40 pages were due to me at the end of the course and most students went well beyond that. Of course, I really missed those writers and their characters and often found myself wishing that I could have seen the story through a full draft. The same thing happened to me when I taught online for Media Bistro. Those classes  lasted twelve weeks and the students—most of them working professionals who were out of college, but driven to carve out time to finish a novel—produced ten pages a week. Still, not quite a full draft. 

When I moved to Seattle last year, I started teaching at Hugo House, an incredible organization for writers in one of the most literary cities. Like with Media Bistro, my students were mostly working professionals (and one very committed high school student who will probably be published before she graduates college!) who were very serious about completing a YA novel. They came to me in various phases—some with a fresh idea, others with a NaNo book that was SO close to be ready to go on submission—and again, I fell in love with their stories and characters and was awed by their writing ability and commitment. But alas, our classes were only 6 weeks! This was a real stab to the heart!


Then Hugo House offered me the DREAM teaching opportunity… a YEARLONG YA MANUSCRIPT CLASS!!!! I said yes in an instant because finally, FINALLY, I’ll get the chance to work with my students through a WHOLE manuscript. It might be something they’ve already started, maybe even wrote an entire draft of, or it might be a fresh new idea, but I’ll get to the be there, through the plotting, the discovering, the messy middle, all the way to THE END!

This fabulous, wonderful, total-dream-come-true class will start two weeks from today on Wednesday, September 17th. It runs from 7:10 to 9:10 pm at the Hugo House in Seattle. It will go until the end of May (with breaks for the holidays of course!) for 32 total sessions. Two of those sessions are weekend publishing intensives—one with general (and very valuable) information about the publishing biz and one specific to YA with a kid-lit agent coming to visit us.

The first third of this class—fall quarter—will focus on generative and craft activities to help build your story world, useful whether you are starting from scratch with a brand-spanking new idea or getting back into ongoing material. We’ll be working to  will develop and polish the teen voice, pace your storylines, and write the engaging characters that readers of young adult fiction have come to expect. Since every writer is different, we’ll also work to set personal goals and establish a writing schedule to help you meet them. The last two-thirds of the course—winter and spring quarters—will be more of a workshop. Every student will get a chance to receive feedback from the entire class (and me, of course!) and we’ll be working in small critique groups, so you’ll have a space to receive regular feedback, encouragement, and support as you work your way through toward “The End” and beyond into revisions and line edits.

So, if you live in the Seattle area and have a YA novel in your head or on your laptop that you want to see all the way through, please register! I’d love to have you! If you don’t live in the Seattle area, but have friends who do please, please, please spread the word! I want to fill this class with awesome writers! If it takes off, hopefully I’ll be able to do more classes like this (and yes, maybe online!).

BONUS: For those of you in the Seattle area, the fabulous Karen Finneyfrock is also teaching a great YA Craft Class called Doorways to the Young Adult Novel in October also at the Hugo House. It's a six-week class, so if you can't commit to a full 32-week class, TAKE IT. Or if you are just really committed to pounding out that novel, take BOTH of our classes! They don't conflict time-wise and will only compliment each other. And for those of you ANYWHERE, read Karen's new YA, Starbird Murphy and the World Outside! It was my absolute favorite read of the summer! I seriously can't recommend it enough! If you love books with unique, fully drawn characters on a real journey to figure themselves out, you'll love this. Also Karen is a poet. The language in this book... I have a serious writer crush. She has a way with words like no one else in YA!

Happy Fall, Happy Writing, and Happy Back To School! What are your writing or school-related plans?

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21. Scenes May Make Everything Different

I'm working on the eleventh draft of a middle grade mystery because you just can't write something over too many times.

I'm paying attention to scenes this time around, inspired by Rachel Aaron's 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. I never gave any thought to scenes in the past. I just wrote. Was writing like that a good thing? A bad thing? Something you can only do for a while?

Let's put that aside for a few minutes, or months, or years.

Anyway, what I've been seeing is that in some chapters I have material that doesn't appear to be part of a scene at all. It's what I'm thinking of as narrative connector. And I'm finding that I'm not that crazy about a lot of it. Look at this stuff, I keep thinking. It's just hanging here.

I'm cutting some of it down and moving some into existing scenes. It's kind of fascinating.

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22. Books That Changed Me

Today the Sydney Morning Herald is running my entry in their long-running Books That Changed Me series. I struggled mightily to get it down to four. Especially as they initially told me I could name five. There are too many books that have changed me! Too many books that I love with every fibre of my being!

The four that made the cut:

Kylie Tennant’s Foveaux (1939) is a novel that reads like history. Like geography. Almost geology. It’s slow, there’s no plot to speak of, it’s everything I don’t like about literary novels. I love it. Tennant lays bare Surry Hills from before the first world war up to the first hints of the next war. She swims in her joy at the Aussie vernacular. It’s bloody bosker.

Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber & Other Stories (1979) because, well, fairy tales. When I was little I made up my own, and the ghostly echo of “Once upon a time” shapes all the fiction I’ve ever written. But it wasn’t until I read this explosion of a collection that I realised how much could be done to fairy fales, and how much they could do to me. Carter taught me the anatomy of the fairy tale and how to make use of the viscera.

I give people Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly (1998) when they demand proof that novels for teens (YA) can be as good as the best novels for adults. In a scant 200 pages Woodson delves deep into New York City’s geographical, class, and racial fissures, and then she breaks your heart.

About Writing (2006) by Samuel R. Delany is the smartest book about writing I’ve ever read. In a series of letters and lectures Delany leaps from the intricacies of punctuating dialogue, to those of creating character, to existential questions about what it is that a writer can make a reader know. Delany with both his fiction and his non-fiction changed the way I write and how I think about writing.

These are the ones I couldn’t include:

I don’t know how old I was when I first read Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (1813). Very young. I’ve read it so many times that I could probably read it from memory. Yet every time I read it I find something new. On the last reread I focussed on the world of the servants. The time before that on her extraordinary world building with her razor focus on economics. It’s true that Persuasion (1818) is now my favourite of her novels but it was not the one that changed me when I first read it as a pre-teen.

I’ve always read True Crime as well as fictional crime. Always veering towards the dark: Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, Walter Mosley, Denise Mina. At their core are these questions: What is evil? Why do people do evil things? Why are we fascinated? I picked up Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter (1974) when I was very young and didn’t know who Charles Manson was and hadn’t thought much about the question of evil. This book meant I never forgot.1

I didn’t know which Octavia Butler book to pick. They’re all amazing. Even Survivor (1978), an early novel that she never wanted to see in print again. I read it in the bowels of the Rare Books section of the University of Sydney. It’s not her best but it’s still better than most every other novel by anyone else. Her stories in Bloodchild & Other Stories are a revelation. Each one perfect in a different way from the last. Read everything she wrote!

Courtney Milan is my favourite writer of historical romances. She’s brilliant at torpedoing the constraints of the genre while working within it. Take Unclaimed (2011) in which a courtesan has to seduce a Victorian rockstar professional virgin who’s written the book on how to be celibate. She neatly upends the heroine as virgin; hero as rake paradigm of most historical romances and she does it with wit. Her latest, The Suffragette Scandal (2014) is her best book yet.

Each of these fiction writers showed me what was can be achieved with writing. They taught me to push past the constraints of genre and to think about the impact of every single word. They changed me as a writer and as a person. I recommend them all. In fact, I kind of feel like rereading them all right now. For the millionth time.

  1. This is the one book on the list that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend. But I think it’s important to note that some books that change you aren’t particularly good.

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23. Coming to Terms With Yourself

When Harper Lee was asked what advice she’d give a young writer, she wrote: “Well, the first advice I would give is this: hope for the best and expect nothing. Then you won’t be disappointed.” And she went on to say: “You must come to terms with yourself about writing. You must not write “for” something, you must not write with definite hopes of reward. People who write for reward by way of

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24. Sometimes we don’t write in writing workshop

On our first full day of sixth grade, I hand each of my students a reading and writing survey and ask them to tell me a little bit about themselves as readers and… Continue reading

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25. The Habit of Getting Ideas and Turning Them into Story

I no longer dread the question “Where do you get your ideas?” That’s because I finally figured out the answer.

Don’t get me wrong I’ve answered it a million times over my more than ten year career as a writer. I’ve nattered on about brain monkeys, ends of rainbows, stealing ideas from Maureen Johnson, ideas not being that important, blah blah blah.

The actual answer does not involve light bulbs or muses or brain monkeys or Maureen Johnson. Well, not directly. My true answer involves lots of work. I apologise for the lack of glamour.

Here’s what I realised: I’ve been practising getting ideas and turning them into stories for most of my life. Just as an athlete develops the muscles and reflexes necessary to be able to play their sport by training and playing for many, many years, so do writers develop their story-creating muscles.

I started when I was little. As I suspect many novelists do. I was one of those kids who was forever coming up with whatif scenarios.

My Parents: “Don’t answer the door if we’re not home.”

Me: “What if it it’s someone saying the house is on fire?”

MP: “They’d shout through the door.”

Me: “What if they’re mute?”

MP: “Aaaaaarrrggghhh!”

As you can see I’m already building a story. There’s a child at home alone, there’s a fire, and the only one who can warn the child cannot speak. What happens next? Will the parents get home in time? Will the child survive?

MP: “Don’t hit your sister!”1

Me: “But what if hitting her is the only way to kill the tiny alien that’s attempting to crawl in through her pores?”

MP: “There is no excuse for violence under any circumstances.”

Me: “But what if . . . ”

MP: “What if we say no more books for you until you turn 30?”

Me: *side eyes parents*

Here we have a world in which there are nano-aliens who can get inside us through our pores but who can also be destroyed by squashing them. What happens if they get inside us? Do they eat us? Turn us into pod people? How did they get here? Have they been here all along? Are they only after little sisters?

I played at what ifs almost every day of my childhood. When I wasn’t tormenting my parents and teachers I was making up stories for my sister and then for my friends.

If I lost a book before I’d finished it I’d make up the ending. Ditto for movies and tv shows I didn’t get to watch all of.2

It becomes a habit to start extrapolating possible stories out of, well, pretty much anything. Why is that banana peel on the ground directly outside a jewellery store? Genetically enhanced monkey jewel thief. Obviously.

When I overhear odds snatches of conversation I extrapolate the rest of the conversation and the story it’s part of. It’s fun to imagine whole lives and adventures for the people I overhear on the tram.

Having done this every day for decades now it’s no surprise I get ideas for novels many times a day. I see a fantastic tweet like this one:

BwK_T5jCEAAo08X

And I start thinking about writing a novel where a kid does that on their first day of school: walks in dressed very fine, holding a big sign that says FEMINIST. The rest of the novel would be them slaying the evil trolls, defeating the misogynist school board and principal, and saving the world.

When you get a bunch of writers together they often do this, bounce ideas off each other, extend them into a story. Whatif-ing each other for hours. It’s how collaborations often begin. That’s how Sarah Rees Brennan and I wound up writing Team Human together.

Of course, I pretty much never write the novel if I’ve already figured out how it ends. When ideas really spark for me I have to start typing. But even then I have oodles of half sketched out beginnings of novels, sometimes several chapters, sometimes just a paragraph or two, sometimes no more than a few lines. A very small percentage of these ever become novels. All that practise turning ideas into story pays off every time I finish another novel.

There is, alas, a huge distance between coming up with ideas, extrapolating a story, and turning them into a fully fledged novel. The first two are a matter of moments; the latter a matter of months, if not years. But without the ideas the novels never happen.

Finally, to tie this into Scott Westerfeld’s marvellous series on how to write YA, extrapolating about other people’s lives is a great way to build empathy, which Scott argues is one of the most important functions of a novel.

  1. I was a truly awful older sister. I’m not kidding. It speaks volumes as to what a fabulous sister I have that she forgives me.
  2. Punishment meted out by parents. Possibly for asking a few too many what ifs.

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