Rocking NaNoWriMo: 7 Tips for Reaching 50,000 Words

We’re almost halfway through National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, which encourages writers to participate in a 30-day challenge. The goal? Write 50,000 words in the month of November. Tens of thousands of people have participated since the program’s creation, and many of them have gone on to complete manuscripts, make great writing friends, or eventually sell books. Amazing!

50,000 words in 30 days can sound daunting (especially if you’re planning to spend a whole weekend in a Thanksgiving-dinner-induced food coma). But here are seven ways to make the most out of NaNoWriMo and to help you reach your goal.

1. Create time in your schedule. It can be hard to imagine when you will find the time to write 50,000 words. You know when your best time for writing is—early in the morning, midday, late at night—so find ways to create time for yourself. Stock up on easy-to-make meals for dinner. Save your Netflix binge watching for December. Try to eek out a little bit of time on your lunch hour. Maybe even wake up a tiny bit earlier (gasp!). All those minutes will add up.

2. Make an outline first. Even if you’re a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer, block out the basic vision for your story. The outline doesn’t have to be super detailed or set in stone, but crafting a beginning, middle, and end of your novel will help you fill in the gaps more quickly.

3. Set smaller goals. Unless you don’t work, go to school, have kids, or need to walk the dog, it’s unlikely you’re going to hit 50K overnight. Instead of staring down that huge number, give yourself smaller numbers. Your daily average needs to be about 1,667 words, which means you need to write almost one chapter per day. Now that sounds doable!

4. Have an accountabilibuddy. The entire purpose of NaNoWriMo is to create a community of writers. Take advantage of that! Look for a local group of writers that you can meet with to help cheer you on. If you’re low on free time and can’t make NaNoWriMo meet-ups, sign up for the challenge with a friend. Keep each other posted on your progress, and give each other necessary motivation, such as, “If we make it to 20,000 words, we’ll go get pumpkin spice lattes.”

5. Be social. Yes, social media is the devil that distracts writers from writing. But…it can also help you connect with fellow writers and enjoy the experience together. For great tips and advice, check out the #NaNoCoach or #NaNoWriMo hashtags, and be sure to follow the NaNoWriMo Facebook and Twitter pages. I’d also recommend keeping up with YA author Susan Dennard on Twitter and look into The Mighty Pens, which is helping raise money for the Malala Fund during NaNoWriMo.

6. Edit later. Strange advice coming from an editor, but in the world of NaNoWriMo, editing only slows you down. Think of these 50,000 words as a rough first draft, and allow yourself to make mistakes. The most important thing is getting the words down. (Just remember that come December 1, it is editing time!)

7. Write something you’re passionate about. Any writer will tell you that it’s tough to put words to paper when you’re not in love with a project. It’s even harder to crank out page after page, night after night, when you’re not feeling enthusiastic about your story. So use this month to write something you love, because that’s what NaNoWriMo is all about!

Are you already participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Best of luck! And if you haven’t signed up yet, there’s no time like the present: nanowrimo.org/sign_up

The Right Writer: A Quiz

With the recent press about the forthcoming novel American Heart, I’ve heard a lot of people asking, “Am I the right person to write XYZ type of story?”

First of all—this is not a stupid question! (And because I don’t subscribe to the belief that there are no stupid questions, you know I mean that.) “Am I the right person?” is predominantly asked by writers seeking to create books that feature diverse characters and stories. Hooray! Please do create narratives that are diverse and inclusive, because we can all agree that having more diversity in the book market is a very good thing. An even better thing is when those stories are written by own voices authors who share the experiences or backgrounds of their characters.

Now, few authors create characters exactly like themselves…that’s usually called a memoir. Writing outside our own lives and tapping into the collective human experience is a hallmark of storytelling, and there’s nothing wrong with creating characters who are different from you. In fact, we should always be exploring other points of view—if we didn’t, reading would be really boring! But are you writing a book that would be better (i.e. truer, richer, more compelling) coming from an expert voice? Because there’s a big difference between sharing a story and sharing someone else’s story.

To help you determine where you stand, I’ve created a five-question quiz. For the purpose of this quiz, I am going to use “marginalized group” as a term for a group that finds itself unfairly disempowered or discriminated against due to gender, orientation, ability, ethnicity, or religion. This term also takes into account people who have suffered trauma, abuse, or other significant hardship.

Ready? Here we go.

  1. Is your main character(s) part of a marginalized group?
    • Yes
    • Sort of—I have supporting characters in this group
    • No
  2. Are you part of that same marginalized group?
    • Yes
    • Sort of—I am an ally with close friends and/or family members in this group
    • No
  3. Are you drawing on personal experience when writing this story?
    • Yes
    • Sort of—I am drawing on the experience of a close friend and/or family member with their permission and support
    • No
  4. Does your book focus on personal, social, or political issues related to this marginalized group?
    • Yes
    • Sort of—issues are a factor, but not the focus of the story
    • No
  5. Are you working with a sensitivity reader(s)* to review your story?
    • Yes
    • Sort of—I am not hiring a professional, but am having my story read by people who share the experience or are part of the group I am writing about
    • No

*If you’re not familiar with sensitivity readers, learn more here.

If you answered mostly YES, it sounds like you’re on the right track—keep writing! If you answered mostly SORT OF, keep being thoughtful as you move forward. Be sure to do your research and work with sensitivity readers and friends or family members to make sure you are representing the story appropriately. If you answered mostly NO, you should probably head back to the drawing board. You may not be the right person to write this book.

Some authors may think this is censorship (which, may I say, is a very problematic view), or at least a limitation. But instead of viewing this as a lost opportunity, think of all that we gain by having the right people working on the right stories. We get books like The Hate U Give, Brown Girl Dreaming, You Bring the Distant Near, When Dimple Met Rishi, If I Was Your Girl, American Born Chinese, More Happy Than Not, American Street, and dozens more. Books are made better by having authors who have not just observed but lived their stories. And readers are made better by getting diverse, authentic perspectives of our world.

“Am I the right person?” can be a tough question to ask yourself as a storyteller, but it’s an important question to ask nonetheless. There may be some stories or themes out there that you simply aren’t meant to write, and even the best intentions and scrupulous research won’t change that fact. The good news is, acknowledging what won’t work is an important step in finding what you are meant to write. And trust me, whatever that story is will be made infinitely better by being told through your voice.

“What Kind of Book Should I Write?” An Editor’s Plea to Ignore Trends

When I meet with aspiring authors, I’m often asked, “What kind of book should I write?” Everyone wants to know what the next big trend will be and if they should start writing in that niche. My answer? Ignore trends. Don’t ask someone else what kind of book you should write—write the book that speaks to you. Don’t follow the crowd—stand out from it.

Here’s the thing about publishing: it moves slowly. This may not be news to you if you’re a George R. R. Martin fan (though let’s be real, that one’s all on George), but some folks are surprised when they learn a book can take a year—or two or three—to get published. Factor in the time it takes to write a manuscript and query it, and you can be looking at anywhere from two to five years. Sometimes even more.

I won’t get into the nitty gritty of the publishing process here, though I will note that those years are well spent developing a manuscript, creating a cover, building a marketing strategy, and launching a book into a competitive market. The real point of this post is that writers should ignore trends no mater how enduring those trends seem to be.

What? That sounds crazy! Why wouldn’t you want to write in the current bestselling category? Well, the key word here is current. Although publishing moves slowly, reading fashions move quickly. By the time you’ve written, queried, edited, and published a novel, whatever trend you were chasing is probably long gone. Readers have moved on, and you’re left with a manuscript no agent or publisher will touch for another decade.

If you’re a YA fan, you’ve lived through the Twilight craze (paranormal), the Hunger Games craze (dystopian), the Fault In Our Stars craze (contemporary issue-driven), and the past ten years alone. (Okay, John Green will always be popular, but you see my point.) Dozens of books came out after those blockbuster titles, flooding the marketplace to the point that readers had topic fatigue.

I should also point out that very, very few of those titles got even close to the levels of success that Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, or John Green saw. There’s nothing wrong with trying out new styles or topics in your writing, especially if you’re feeling inspired to shake things up. In fact, I encourage you to challenge yourself and test your writing abilities! But if you set out to duplicate the success of other authors in a specific category, you’re unlikely to find good results.

Most importantly, you’re going to be a million times happier writing a book you’re passionate about instead of writing a book you hope will have a trendy readership. So rather than writing toward in vogue in the hopes of hitting it big, write the book of your heart. The book you need. The book that keeps you up at night.

As Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” You may not be the next trendsetter, but that’s far better than being a trend-follower.

Platform for Fiction Writers

Ah, the dreaded p-word. “Platform” is an all-encompassing term that can include blogs, websites, social media, speaking events, TV/radio appearances, celebrity fame, and other outlets that help an author connect to readers, writers, and other gatekeepers in the literary industry. Jane Friedman describes it best: “an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.”

At one time, nonfiction authors were the ones who had to worry about platform—they had to prove there was an audience who wanted to read about their particular memoir, advice, or topic. But now, most fiction writers are expected to have a platform too. The content of a story always comes first, but many publishers want to see an author’s connections in the early stages of the game. So let’s take a look at frequently asked questions about all things platform for fiction writers. Continue reading

Writing Conference Pitches: Dos and Don’ts

Many writing conferences offer aspiring writers the opportunity to pitch agents and editors. These meetings can be a chance to get representation or even a book deal, and as a result can seem totally intimidating. But don’t get overwhelmed—follow these dos and don’ts to make the most of your face time with a publishing pro!

Do…research the person across the table. Spend time before the meeting checking out the agent or editor on their website and on social media so you know exactly what kind of project they’re looking for. Choosing the right person is the first step to finding a home for your book. Continue reading

Seven Things to Do Before Querying Your Novel

Finished your book? Starting to query agents and editors? Wondering how you can stand out from the slush pile? Check off these seven steps before sending off your manuscript, and you’ll be well ahead of the game.

1. Edit. A book that has not been edited by a third party is not your best book, and working with a critique partner or hiring a professional editor is always a smart move for your manuscript. You can connect with thousands of other writers online or in your local community and even find folks in your genre who are willing to read your work and provide notes. A second set of eyes can provide invaluable feedback and catch those pesky typos that you’ve overlooked. Continue reading

10 Things to Do When You Have Writer’s Block

It happens to all of us, that agonizing moment when you sit down to write and…nothing happens. You try all the tricks you can think of to break the cycle, but the words just aren’t coming.

Instead of banging your head against the wall, try the 10 activities below. Some get your creative juices flowing, some engage your research skills, some are just plain fun, and all them allow you to keep moving forward with your manuscript without actually writing the text. And who knows, maybe you’ll be back at your keyboard before you reach #10.

1. Go back and edit what you’ve written. Stuck on a chapter? Go to the beginning of your book and start editing. By the time you reach the sticky chapter, you will have gotten reacquainted with your book and will be full of news ideas to improve. Continue reading

Writing with a Coauthor: 6 Smart Strategies

Thinking of cowriting a novel? A lot of folks have done it. Some recent YA examples include Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan, Doon by Carey Corp and Lorie Langdon, Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, and my personal favorite, My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

Cowriting can be a blessing…and a curse. On the pro side, you only need to write half a book and you have a built-in brainstorming buddy. On the con side, think of how agonizing it is to write your own first draft, and then imagine having to share that with another human being who is writing an equally agonizing first draft. Or consider having to make compromises when you really, really don’t want to. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Avoid disaster with the six strategies below that will help you make cowriting work. Continue reading

How to Write a Fiction Book Proposal

A book proposal is a document most commonly associated with pitching a nonfiction book. It includes information on the content, the author, the market, and the salability of the project. But when it comes to fiction, few agents or editors expect or require book proposals. I certainly don’t, though I have to admit that I am always happy to receive one. A book proposal helps me learn more about an author than a two-sentence bio. It gives me insight into marketing opportunities. And it provides a snapshot of the project that saves me hours of work when I’m preparing to evaluate a project.

Whether or not you need a book proposal, I recommend going through the exercise. Putting together a proposal will help you hone your pitch and get a feel for being the “brand manager” of your book. A proposal makes you think like an editor, a marketer, and a salesperson all at once.

Ready to give it a try? Here are some elements I love to see in a fiction book proposal (and if you’re writing nonfiction, most of these still apply!): Continue reading

Writing Conferences: Get Your Money’s Worth

Can I just say, I can never figure out if it is supposed to be “writers conferences” or “writers’ conferences.” No one seems to use the apostrophe, but aren’t the conferences for/belonging to the writers? These are the things that keep me up at night!

Grammar existentialism aside, let’s talk about writers(‘) conferences. They are incredible places to meet agents, editors, and fellow writers, to work on your craft, and to pitch you book. However, they do tend to come with a price tag. So how can you get your money’s worth?

1. Go with goals. Before your conference begins, write down a list of 5 or 10 realistic goals you want to accomplish. Do you want to finish drafting your novel? Meet a new critique partner? Find an agent? Make an effort to cross each of your goals off during the conference. Continue reading