Query Tips: Pitch It, Pitch It Good

After a sluggish start to my query journey in 2018, I’ve finally gained some traction. During the past month, I’ve had three agents request my full manuscript.

The dramatic shift came after a fellow writer introduced me to various pitching events on Twitter (i.e. #Pitmad and #Pitdark). Basically, during these one-day events, you get to pitch your novel to literary agents in 280 characters or less. If they “favorite” it, you’re invited to query them directly. It’s nerve-racking, but exciting. More than anything, it’s a great learning opportunity.

During my first #Pitmad, I quickly found out how vital it is to have a pitch that stands out from the slush pile; not only during pitch events, but also for query letters, conferences, and any time someone asks, “What’s your story about?”

It’s scary to sum up our stories in just a few words, but we all have to start somewhere. I started working on my pitch last fall, after I signed up for a Writer’s Digest workshop about query letters. Even though I already understood the basic ins and outs of querying, I thought it’d be smart to brush up on the dos and don’ts (I mean, it’s been over five years since I sent my last query letter to agents). More importantly, the webinar included a personal critique from a literary agent. Who better to help with a pitch/synopsis than a real-life literary agent?

To be honest, the feedback I received from the webinar wasn’t as in-depth as I’d hoped for. Mostly just tweaks and fine-tuning. However, at the time, I assumed that meant my query (including its pitch) was solid. So, with the utmost confidence, I sent my first batch of query letters in January.

Chirp-chirp. Chirp-chirp.

Yep, nada. Not even a form rejection letter. Ouch! I shook off the sting and told myself it was okay. Nobody hits a home run their first time at bat. So, I sent a few more queries and waited.

And waited…

I gradually started to suspect something was wrong with my query letter. The pitch, the comparatives, the entire thing–something!

As I began revising the letter (and digging myself out of a creative depression), a friend introduced me to #Pitmad. Initially, I balked at the idea of publicly pitching my novel. What if an agent didn’t favorite my tweet? What if I made an idiot out of myself? What if everyone hated my idea? Yep, the evil doubts so many of us experience came at me swift and hard.

After a full day of hemming and hawing, I decided to throw caution to the wind and participate. The next day, I copied the pitch I used in my query letter and pasted it into Twitter:

Lily Damour, a young woman, is forced to confront her inner demons when she is stalked by an obsessive artist.

I stared and stared at the single sentence. It was okay, but it didn’t POP! Sure, it would work if I only had five seconds to tell someone what my story was about, but I could do better. So, I rolled up my sleeves and brainstormed some new pitches, and shared them on Twitter.

The response wasn’t what I’d hoped for. I only received one favorite, and it came from an editor of a small press (cool, but not my goal).

Participating in my first #PitMad made me realize just how competitive querying/pitching is. Thousands of writers are clamoring for the attention of so few literary agents. (Look at me! Look at me!) It was time to buckle down and revise my query and pitch again. I had to find a way to make both STAND OUT! 

The next pitch event, #PitDark, arrived in May. I posted my first pitch and waited to see if I’d get a better response.

Of the nine favorites I received, two were literary agents and one was a publisher. YES! (Side note, as much as we love supporting each other, writers shouldn’t favorite each other’s pitches during these events. We should only comment and/or retweet to show our support.) Of the two agents who favorited my pitch, both requested my query letter and sample chapter(s). And within 48-hours, both requested my full manuscript.

Suddenly, my confidence shot through the roof. At last, I’d found a way to sell my idea and hook an agent’s attention. So, with hope like I hadn’t felt since I sent my first queries in January, I contacted a few more agents and participated in another pitch event (2018 Hot Summer’s Pitchfest).

During the Pitchfest, an agent requested additional materials (and included the hashtag #ExcitedToRead in her response–ha!). As for the batch of queries I sent out, I received a request for my full manuscript after only two days of waiting (eeks!). Now I just have to wait and see if my full manuscript is good enough to receive an offer of representation. Or, at the very least, an offer to revise and resubmit.

So, what have I learned about pitching/querying? Here are my tips:

  1. Keep it short and sweet. Some writers try and cram as many details as they can into their pitch. My suggestion? Don’t. Get to the heart of the story and leave it at that. I recommend you focus on introducing two characters MAX (ex: protagonist/antagonist, lovers, best friends, etc.), the conflict, and/or what’s at stake. Remember, this is an elevator pitch. If you only had 30 seconds to sell your idea, what would you say? And how can you say it so the only question your audience has is, “When can I read your book?”
  2. Use comparatives. What books, movies, and/or authors can you compare your story and style to? This will give an agent a snapshot of your novel’s concept/voice. It’ll also show them you understand both the market and your audience. Just make sure your comparatives are relevant, honest, and enticing.
  3. Avoid spoilers. This is your hook, not your full synopsis. You want to dangle a carrot in front of an agent’s eyes, not feed them the entire salad with extra dressing.
  4. Be willing to revise. Nailing your pitch and/or query letter on the first try might not happen. That’s okay. If you don’t get any bites after 5-10 queries, consider changing things up: revise your pitch, rewrite your query letter, search for different comparatives, seek input from beta readers. I also suggest you look for advice from industry professionals. There are so many resources available nowadays with blogs, Twitter (#querytip, #amquerying, #pubtip, #askanagent, and other writing hashtags), Writer’s Digest, YouTube, and more.
  5. Participate in online pitch events. They’re scary, but they’re terrific avenues to practice your pitch and see if it captures an agent’s attention. If it doesn’t, then it’s time to consider revising both it and your query letter. If your story doesn’t stand out on Twitter, it probably won’t stand out in an agent’s slush pile.
  6. Don’t give up: If you believe in your story, and you know you’ve done everything you can to polish and prepare your manuscript for agents (i.e. fully developed, revised, beta’d, and edited it to oblivion), then don’t quit querying after a handful of rejections. Adapt, adjust, and keep fighting for your dreams. Remember, landing a deal is part talent, part luck, part perseverance. And a lot of hard work.

What are some of your tips for pitching your novel? Do you have any pitching events to share with the rest of us?

To all those who are currently querying or are planning to query in the future, good luck!

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Love Is A Battlefield – Overcoming Creative Depressions

For the past two years, I’ve put the majority of my creative energy into writing a novel. Yeah, yeah. I know. My attention has clearly been aimed elsewhere, far from my blog.

Rather than talk about my sporadic posting, let’s talk about something else today: creative depressions. Many of us experience miserable lulls with our writing every now and then. These lulls can last as little as a day, while others can last as long as a year–er, years. Personally, I’ve experienced two significant lulls in my writing career thus far: The first knocked me down–hard–after my YA option contract expired. For six whole months, I refused to pick up a pen. I even considered giving up writing all together. It was a dark, dark time.

The second lull struck more recently, in January. Right after I rang in the New Year, I sent out my first query letters for the psychological thriller I’d bled, sweat, and cried over for two years. I was so excited to embark on this part of the publishing journey, and I felt so confident with my material. My manuscript had been put through the beta reader ringer, and my query letter had been put through the Writer’s Digest gauntlet (which included an agent critique). I was ready! To add to my confidence, I knew the querying drill. I’d done it before (and semi-successfully). I just forgot one thing:

Querying is one of the most depressing things on the planet!

Despite telling myself there’d be lots of waiting and lots (and lots) of rejection, I forgot how hard the process is. I forgot how much tenacity and patience it takes. I forgot how it feels to hit the “send” button on a query email: like dropping your beloved baby into the gaping jaws of the industry.

Snap! Chomp! Gulp! Dreams get chewed up and spit back out (or, more often, swallowed for good).

On top of enduring the harsh querying process, I also received three rejections for short stories and failed to advance to the finals of a cinematic prose contest…all within the same week. To add insult to injury, my day job was insanely busy AND my dentist informed me I had to get my wisdom teeth yanked.

Put all of these unfortunate pieces together, and–kaboom! I toppled into a creative depression. For about three weeks, I wallowed in self-pity, ate lots of chocolate, punched a few pillows, and wallowed some more. I ignored my laptop, cursed everything I had ever written, and mentally abandoned my beloved novel, still out there fighting for its life in the wilds. Honestly, I couldn’t even pick up a book without having a flare of panic, followed by an existential crisis of some kind.

I finally had to–firmly–remind myself that love is a battlefield. And if you love writing enough, you’ll find a way to fight through a creative depression, however low it drops you.

Overall, it took me about three months to battle through my creative depression. To overcome my doubts and insecurities, anger and bitterness, and utter lack of motivation to put pen to paper, I enlisted various war tactics. Some of these included:

  • Getting support from my writing group: The first time I went through a creative depression, I only had one writing friend (and he wasn’t the supportive type; at least, not in the way I needed him to be). The second time, I had a strong, tight-knit writing group that caught me as I plummeted into a deep, black pit. Their rock solid support raised me back up and set me on firm ground again. Well, the ground continued to tremble and shake for a while, but every time I threatened to fall over, they steadied me. (If you don’t have a supportive network of writers, find one! It will change your life.)
  • Listening to new music: Music is a big inspiration for me. While I can’t listen to it during my writing sessions, I like to listen to it as I drive, work, exercise, read, clean the house, etc. Basically, all the time. Around the middle of March, it hit me I’d been listening to the same playlist since January (about 100 songs on repeat, over and over). I realized the repetitive music likely contributed to my lull, almost like I was stuck on replay. So, I clicked on a random music video on YouTube, and then let fate choose which songs popped up next. Ta-da! A spark. An idea! With a low groan and a rusty creak, my imagination started running again.
  • Reading: As I mentioned before, reading can be such a turnoff when you’re stuck in a creative depression. It reminds you that you’re not writing, you’re not published, and you might never achieve your lifelong dreams of being a New York Times bestseller (or whatever your ultimate writing goal might be). But, whether you like it or not, reading is a key ingredient for writers. It’s like fertilizer for our imaginations. A couple of weeks ago, I finally admitted this fact to myself and began reading a highly recommended book many agents mention in their bios (“Luckiest Girl Alive” by Jessica Knoll). Surprise, surprise, it’s helped. A lot!
  • Participating in writing contests: Around Easter, I found out that I took first place (in the first round) of a writing contest. Receiving that news gave me a much needed jolt of confidence. It also literally forced me to sit down and write for the second round of the contest. To be honest, it was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had. However, the story I churned out was…decent. Not great, but decent. Better yet, it spurred me to participate in two more contests, one of which led to an idea for a new novel. Yay! Suddenly, I was excited to write again.

Writing is hard. No doubt about it. It’s even harder when you’re hungry to succeed, but can’t seem to get your foot in the door. It’s harder yet when you get knocked down–again and again–and eventually lose the strength to stand back up. But, remember: you can stand back up. It might take days, it might take years, but we all have it in us to overcome a creative depression. We all have the power to shake off a knockout punch, crack our knuckles, and charge back into battle!

What are some of your strategies to snap out of a creative depression?

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2018 – The Year to Dream, Write, and Read

My number one goal in 2017 was to buckle down and finish my novel…and have it ready for literary agents by year’s end. Thanks to avoiding writing contests and cutting back on blogging (er, sorry guys!), I achieved my goal.

Now it’s time to create some new goals for 2018. Just like 2017, I plan to keep my goals simple. I’ve discovered the simpler the goals, the more likely I’ll succeed. So, without further ado, here we go:

#1 goal: Find a literary agent. YIKES! I’ve been on this journey before and it isn’t easy. There’s lots of work, waiting, and rejection. Oh, the rejection! No matter how great I feel about my novel, and no matter how confident I feel about its commercial appeal, rejection is inevitable. It’s just how the industry works. An agent might not be looking for the type of project I’m selling (even if they represent the genre). Or they might be having a rotten day and dislike everything set in front of them. Or they just might not like it (ouch).

I can only hope I’ll find an agent who loves my novel as much as I do. It might take all of 2018–or even longer–but I’m determined to find someone who’ll give me a chance to finally achieve my lofty dream of being a New York Times Best Seller.

#2 goal: Start a new novel. The last time I queried a novel, I refused to think of any other stories. I kept my focus on that novel for almost three years. Granted, I spent a lot of that time revising and editing for the agent/Hollywood producer who had optioned it. But, still. There would be months where I’d twiddle my thumbs and wait for news and/or requests for additional revisions. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock…

Waiting and waiting and waiting. Not once daring to think of starting a new book.

Talk about wasting both my time and creative juices! I also had no net to catch me for when my option contract expired and my entire world seemed to collapse. It took me six months to pick myself back up and start writing again. It took me another year to find an idea that inspired a new novel. It took me another two years to actually write it. GAH!

I refuse to repeat history. A new novel is a must. Right now! Before the waiting games begin, the ominous silence sets in, and the rejections pop into my email. I want my safety net. More importantly, I want to keep writing. I love writing, so why wouldn’t I start a new project? The one I’ve chosen is actually from an exercise my writing group does every month called “Don’t Think Just Write.” We get a prompt and have exactly one hour to write a 1K word story. I decided to participate in December and the story I came up with triggered an idea for a plot for an entire novel. As with my last novel, I won’t go into detail about it, but it’ll be in the same genre as the novel I’m currently shopping around.

(See what I did there?)

#3 goal: Read, read, read! For the past two years, I’ve struggled to read more than 20 books/year. To some this might sound like a lot. To others, pitifully low. For me, it’s on the pitiful side. I use to read between 60-80 books every year. But ever since I joined a writing group, entered more interactive writing contests, and started a freelance editing service, my reading habits have dramatically changed. I spend more time reading unpublished work than I do reading published work. I’ve also been working on my own novel, and that involves a lot–A LOT–of reading. I think I re-read my manuscript at least 15 times as I edited and revised (thrilling, I know).

However, I’d like to find a better balance between the unpublished and published stories I read. So, in 2018, my goal will be to read 30-40 books.

That’s it! Those are my top three goals for 2018. What are some of yours?

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Jen’s Top 5 Favorite Books of 2017

Even though I failed my 2017 Goodreads Reading Challenge, I still had a very productive reading year. It, uh, just wasn’t done in the traditional way. On top of the 20 published novels I read, I also read and critiqued three unpublished manuscripts and hundreds of short stories. I also read through my own manuscript at least 15 times as I wrote, revised, and polished it up for querying in January.

*deep breath*

Since I can’t recommend any of the unpublished stories I read, I’ll stick to those I read as part of the Goodreads Reading Challenge. Compared to last year, I had a much more enjoyable experience in 2017. In fact, it was difficult to narrow it down to my top five favorites. But, I did. So, here we go!

Jen’s Top 5 Favorite Books of 2017

Dark Matter” by Blake Crouch

“You’ll gulp Dark Matter down in one afternoon, or more likely one night… Alternate-universe science fiction [and] a countdown thriller in which the hero must accomplish an impossible task to save his family. There’s always another door to open, and another page to turn.” —New York Times Book Review

I’m not a big sci-fi fan, but “Dark Matter” was excellent!  It was, by far, my favorite book of 2017. I could not–NOT–put it down. I truly felt like I was reading a movie. It had a breathless pace, a unique premise, and unexpected twists and turns. Plus, it made me think–and it kept me thinking long after I finished it. So, even if you don’t love sci-fi, give “Dark Matter” a shot. It’s downright fun!

To read more about “Dark Matter,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.

I Let You Go” by Clare Mackintosh

The next blockbuster thriller for those who loved The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl…a novel with “an astonishing intensity that drags you in and never—ever—lets you go.” -Daily Mail, UK

Without sounding like an annoying know-it-all, I’m one of those readers who tends to figure out a story’s twist long before it’s revealed. In “I Let You Go,” I was duped. The book’s twist totally caught me off guard–and I loved it! Fair warning, however: the first chapter is pretty intense and includes a disturbing event that might make some readers consider putting the book down. I know I needed to take a few minutes to catch my breath and shake it off before I kept reading. I’m glad I did. This was an outstanding thriller!

To read more about “I Let You Go,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.

Strange the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor

“Gorgeously written in language simultaneously dark, lush, and enchanting, the book will leave readers eager for the next.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

My favorite YA author, Laini Taylor, published a new book in 2017 (*cue confetti and champagne*). Now, I’ll admit, I didn’t love “Strange the Dreamer” quite as much as I loved Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke and Bone,” but it was still great. Laini Taylor is a master of language. She also knows how to herd characters into a corner and make it seem impossible for them to escape–sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. It always makes for an exciting read. I can’t wait for the next book in the series!

To read more about “Strange the Dreamer,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.

All Things Cease to Appear” by Elizabeth Brundage

“Frequently shocking and immensely moving…. It was for such extraordinary books that the term ‘literary thriller’ was coined.” —The Wall Street Journal

Haunting. Tragic. Gripping. If you’re looking for a thriller that is unique and beautifully written, then “All Things Cease To Appear” is perfect for you! I think the most common complaint I’ve seen about this novel is the lack of quotation marks around the dialogue. I’ll admit, it initially threw me off, too. But, as I acclimated to Brundage’s unique style, the problem “ceased to appear” and I was able to thoroughly enjoy this dark, mystifying drama. Definitely worth a read!

To read more about “All Things Cease to Appear,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.

Behind Closed Doors” by B.A. Paris

“A hair-raising debut, both unsettling and addictive…A chilling thriller that will keep you reading long into the night.” —Mary Kubica, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Good Girl

To be completely honest, I have a love-hate relationship with this novel. I was not a fan of the main character for most of the novel. In fact, I kinda wanted to slap her for making the decisions she did. BUT I loved the entire concept, as well as the big, bad villain. And I really loved how B.A. Paris kept me on the edge of my seat. She put the protagonist in an awful situation and kept her there without any real promise she’d find a way to save herself. So, even with the protagonist’s faulty character, I’d recommend this book to those who love thrillers.

To read more about “Behind Closed Doors,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.

So, there you have it! It wasn’t a fantastic year of reading for me, but I still read a lot of fantastic books. I hope you get a chance to read one or all of them!

What were some of your favorite books from 2017? Let me know in the comments section!

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NaNoWriMo Tips – It’s Over, So Now What

It’s December 1st. That means NaNoWriMo is officially over!

Victorious. Exhausted. Excited. Disappointed. If you participated in NaNo, you might be feeling one or all of these things. Maybe you excelled and blasted past the 50K word goal? Maybe you clawed your way to the finish line? Maybe you tripped and stumbled early on and never found your footing again? However you’re feeling, there’s one question you should be asking yourself today:

“Now what?”

For many, December 1st arrives and they shove their manuscript into a drawer and leave it there until next November–or until it collects so much dust, they trash it years down the road. Hey, that’s totally fine if your goal is to simply tackle a crazy writing challenge and then move on with life.

Many other writers, however, go into NaNo with the intention to write and finish a novel. Unfortunately, by November 30th, many are:

  1. Burned out: You just wrote for an entire month. You need a break. Just a small one! But, a few days turn into a few weeks. Then a few months. Then, before you know it, it’s November 1st again and you haven’t touched last year’s NaNo project.
  2. Disappointed: You didn’t reach 50K words. You’re mad, you’re frustrated, you’re defeated. Why bother continuing?
  3. Overwhelmed: November 1st hits and you have a clear purpose in mind: NaNo! You write, write, write with only one goal in mind: reach 50K words by November 30th. Now NaNo is over and you have a lot of words and no idea what to do with them. You try to maintain your NaNo routine, but it’s exhausting and you aren’t sure if you’re even going in the right direction. What is this thing you’ve created? Is it even a story? Or just word vomit? Ugh, it’s too much. Can’t think. Must run away!
  4. Distracted: You’ve been working on the same project for a month, and although you like what you’ve come up with, you decide to shift your focus to a smaller project, like a short story. You fully intend to return to your manuscript within a week or two, but then it’s the holidays and you’re consumed by festivities. You make a New Year’s resolution to finish your novel, but you keep procrastinating by tackling smaller projects. Let’s face it, they’re easier than diving back into a messy NaNo novel.
  5. Impatient: You feel GREAT! You exceeded 50K words and love–LOVE–your story! In fact, you think it’s good enough to publish. All you need to do is make a few tweaks here and there, and boom! Off to agents it goes. By January, you’ll have a publishing deal and be on your way.

This is the truth about NaNoWriMo: It’s only the beginning of a long journey. But, listen. If you have the passion and right mindset, you can conquer that journey. So, before you throw in the towel and give up (or jump the gun and declare your half-finished, slapdash novel worthy of an agent’s eye) consider these options:

  1. Keep writing: Maybe you reached 50K, maybe you didn’t. It doesn’t matter. If you like the story you’ve started, then keep writing. No, you don’t need to write at the breakneck pace you did during November, but you should do everything in your power to maintain a writing routine. Get that puppy finished! And once you’ve finished your first draft, keep going. Rewrite, revise, edit. Send it to a couple of beta readers for feedback. Revise some more. Write, write, write until you’re 100% happy with the finished product. It might take you three months of hard work. It might take you three years. If you keep at it, you’ll reach the real finish line: a complete, polished story.
  2. Start over: You reached 50K words and you like your story, but you don’t love the direction it’s going–at all! In fact, you worry that if you keep going, you’ll lose all motivation and quit. Well, you know what? It’s okay to start over. Really! Although I’m a strong believer in plowing through the murky, fuzzy, I-have-no-idea-how-I’m-going-to-get-from-A-to-Z section of a story, I also believe sometimes the best thing to do is to stop the bleeding and go back to chapter one. Start fresh and set yourself on the right track. That way when you approach those pesky roadblocks that halted you before, you’re able to smash through them. Or, you know, chisel through them. Whatever works best for you. The point is to keep writing until you have a complete novel.
  3. Ditch it: Okay, so you don’t love the story you chose for NaNo. In fact, you don’t even like it, not even a little. The plot is stagnant, the characters are stale, and the very thought of continuing is headache worthy. Stop wasting your time! Seriously. One of the reasons NaNo is so great is because it lets you experiment. You get to choose an idea and see if it has any legs to stand on. Sometimes–er, many times–our stories don’t make it past the crawling stage. It’s okay. At least you know the story’s a dud. Now you can hop straight into a new idea in December.

A few additional things to consider to help you succeed with your novel:

  1. Create new goals: Whether you decide to keep writing, start over with the same story, or ditch your idea completely, it’s prudent to create goals. Specific goals. In November, your goal was to write 50K words in one month. In December, maybe your goal will be to write 25K words in one month? Or write one chapter per week? Or write one hour per day? Your goal can be anything you want it to be. Just make sure it’s specific. If you say, “I just want to finish my novel,” you’re probably not going to finish it (at least, not in a timely manner).
  2. Incorporate writing into your daily life: Like anything in life (eating healthy, working out, reading before bed, etc.), if you make writing a habit, you’re more likely to stick with it. Instead of worrying about your novel once a year, you’ll worry about it every day.
  3. Be realistic: If you start a brand new novel on November 1st (or if you decide to finish one you’ve already started) that doesn’t mean it’s ready for literary agents on December 1st. Even if you’re a writing machine and an editing wizard, you won’t be ready. At minimum, you need to spend the month of December revising and editing. It’d also be a good idea to take a step back for a couple of weeks and clear your head. Gain some distance and come back with fresh eyes. You may think your book is PERFECT right now, but I assure you, it’s not. Give it the treatment it deserves. You’ve already worked so hard on it. Don’t ruin it by rushing it.

Personally, this is the quote I cling to every time I start a novel. Maybe it’ll help those of you who are thinking of quitting at the 50K mark?

Congratulations to all those who “won” NaNoWriMo. And good luck to all those (“winners” or not) who are determined to continue writing!

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3 Tips on How To Improve Your Writing

When I first started writing years ago, I had no idea what I was doing. Like, NO idea. I just sat down in front of my laptop and started writing a story. In theory, that’s what writers should do. Sit down and write. Period! However, in order to become the best writers we can be, we need to broaden our practices beyond the obvious.

Many of us have read or heard the Stephen King quote, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Yes, King is right. To become a better writer, we need to read–a lot. But, what are some other ways to improve our writing? Well here are three of my favorite practices to consider:

1. Writing Contests/Challenges 

Writing contests and challenges are terrific for many reasons:

  • They push us out of our comfort zones. Are you a novelist who’s never written anything under 80K words? Have you only ever written romance? Or only horror? Contests push you to explore, experiment, and challenge yourself in new (sometimes terrifying) ways.
  • They introduce us to new genres and categories we’ve never considered. For example, I always thought I’d be a YA author (I even optioned a YA novel to a Hollywood producer). After a few writing contests, I realized I’d missed my calling. I have a stronger knack for adult fiction, namely suspense, thriller, and/or horror.
  • They teach us to tell tighter, fuller stories. When we only have 1K words at our disposal (maybe even less), we learn the art of brevity. We also learn the importance of developing every aspect of a story (plot, characters, descriptions, etc.). If we miss one, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
  • They lead to new stories. One of the biggest benefits of participating in writing contests and challenges is walking away with a new story that can be developed into something bigger. For example, the novel I’m about to query is the byproduct of a short story I wrote in 2015 during a contest; and I have about ten more I could develop if I wanted to (and probably will at some point).

If you’re looking for some excellent writing challenges to participate in, here are some I recommend:

Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenges (Check out his blog every Friday to see if a new challenge has been posted).

NYC Midnight (Let me emphasize, I recommend this as a challenge, and I highly recommend you participate on their forum. The contest aspect is a bit laughable.)

Fiction War (A newer contest that’s still working out its kinks, but I’ve heard decent things. Definitely worth the challenge, if nothing more.)

#WritingContest on Twitter. (You’re bound to find the perfect challenge for you!)

2. Beta Reading

Whether we’re a self-taught writer, or we’ve received an MFA from a prestigious institution, we can benefit from critiquing other people’s stories. When we beta read, we:

  • Learn through others’ mistakes. Slow pace? Cliche characters? Too much exposition? As we point out these flaws in other people’s work, we notice them in our own.
  • Become more analytical. It’s difficult to be objective with our own work, but the more we evaluate other people’s stories, the more we evaluate our own. Naturally. Yes, our stories remain our precious babies, but we learn how to “parent” properly. We no longer turn a blind eye to problem areas. We face them head on and address accordingly.
  • Grow thicker skins. Sharing our work with readers can be a scary experience. We’re basically displaying our souls to the world and opening ourselves up to criticism. Well, the more we participate in beta reading (both as betas and as those being beta’d for), we overcome a lot of our fears. We gain confidence by seeing other writers struggle too, and we learn how to accept positive and negative comments.

3. TV Shows, Movies, and Live Theater

Okay, this may seem like a weird one, but there are a lot of benefits to critiquing the TV shows, movies, and live theater we watch:

  • Be an active audience member. Who are the characters? What are their motives? What subtle clues are being dropped that will come into the story later? Do all the dots connect? Was the pacing well done? When we breakdown a production as we’re watching it, we learn how to rapidly evaluate our own stories. We ask more questions and critique every sentence to decide if it’s contributing to the story as a whole.
  • Cinematography lessons. Whether we’re writing a character-driven, literary piece, or a sweeping commercial blockbuster, films and stage productions teach us how to bring our stories to life. They spark our imaginations so there’s more color, more movement, and more oomph! They teach us how to show rather than tell.
  • Reactions, actions, and more. Let’s face it, we don’t always have firsthand experience with the types of theatrical events depicted on screen or stage (thankfully for some things): violent riots, spectacular romantic gestures, devastating betrayals, flying into space, etc. As we watch TV shows and movies, our brains naturally archive various facial expressions actors make; or dramatic action sequences we’d never see in real life (ex: bombs dropping on Dunkirk); or chilling atmospheres that leave us cold to the bone. Film and stage productions are emotional, heart-pounding, beautiful buffets for writers. We may not even realize we’ve memorized little details (like an actors subtle grin or sultry voice; or hazy sunlight glinting off a decrepit skyscraper in the far future)–but our imaginations do!

How about you? What are some of your off-the-wall methods that have improved your writing?

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10 Tips For NaNoWriMo

Guess what starts today? That’s right. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! Although I’ll be too busy finalizing my manuscript  to participate this year, I’ll be cheering on everyone crazy enough to tackle this daunting challenge.

For those brave souls who’ve decided to take on the task of writing 50K words in one month, here are ten tips:

Jen’s Top 10 NaNoWriMo Tips

1. Decide Why You’re Participating

“I dunno, I signed up just because.”

No, no, no! Don’t say this when people ask you why you’re doing NaNoWriMo. Give a valid, reliable, motivating reason to participate:

“I’ve been slacking lately and need a kick in the butt.”

“I have a great idea for a novel.”

“People say NaNo’s impossible. I’m gonna prove them wrong!”

Whatever your personal motive, make sure you have one. Don’t sign up for NaNoWriMo “just because.” If you do, you’ll likely fail. You’ll inevitably hit a rough patch and think, “Ugh, why am I even doing this? Forget it. I’m done.” (If you need help figuring out your “why,” check out this post about Finding Your Reason).

2. Just Write! 

 NaNoWriMo is a great way to start or finish the first draft of a novel, or to completely rewrite an old one. It’s not a great way to revise or edit a novel. And it’s definitely not a great way to write a masterpiece that’s ready to be published on December 1st. Nope, sorry!

So, stop stressing about making things perfect, resist the temptation to edit or revise along the way, and don’t get upset about a watered down plot or 2D characters.

JUST WRITE!

Close your eyes, open your mind, and tap, tap, tap your fingers against your keyboard. And, remember, this is a rough draft. You won’t be showing it off to many (if any) people. So, let the words flow and don’t stop to question them. If you do, you’ll never make it to 50K by November 30th.

3. Don’t Skip Days

The first time I participated in NaNo, I missed the first three days because I was in a writing contest. And after that, I missed a few more days because, well, I missed them. Life happened. I didn’t feel like writing. I was tired. I had better things to do. Etc., etc.

Bad idea.

Missing one day is okay. Not good, but not horrible. But after one day, the word count deficit starts to pile up–fast! Within one week of my first NaNo, I was behind schedule by 10,000 words, and the only way I was going to catch back up was to increase my daily word count–ack!

Do yourself a favor and spit out those words every day, even if you don’t feel like it.

4. Be Proactive

Don’t live on the edge if you don’t have to. Give yourself a word count cushion.

After I climbed out of the deep, dark word count abyss I’d fallen into, I decided to take the bull by the horns and get ahead of schedule. On days I had extra time, energy, and motivation, I blasted past my daily goal and kept writing. Why not? Who knew how I’d feel the next day, or if my life would blow up and I wouldn’t be able to sit down and write?

Because of this “get ahead” strategy, I was able to finish almost a week early.

5. Find an Idea You Love

When you hit those “ugh” moments, or you’re just flat out tired, it’ll be your passion and excitement for a story that gets you through. So, make sure choose one you love. Find a plot you want to explore and a cast of characters you want to know better. They should have the power to enthrall and entice you, and keep you motivated on a daily basis.

I promise, if you feel “meh” about your story before you start it, you’ll feel “meh” about it the whole time. And, sooner or later, you’ll throw in the towel.

6. Evolve With Your Idea

There is a very good chance the story you set out to write won’t be the story you end up writing. This is especially true for those of us who are “pantsters” rather than “plotters.” We assume we’re going to take a left at the fork, but end up taking a right instead. That’s okay.

Remember: JUST WRITE!

Don’t add constraints or limit yourself because the story “was supposed to go this way.” Go with the flow and see where things take you. After all, this isn’t a final draft. It’s an exploration of the story you will–hopefully–continue pursuing long after the November 30th deadline.

7. Embrace a Love-Hate Relationship

 Even if you’re infatuated with your story, you’ll probably become infuriated with it at some point. You’ll have moments when you question your concept, or realize you despise a certain character, or fear you chose the wrong path back in chapter five.

It’s okay! First drafts aren’t meant to be 100% lovable. They’re ugly, troublesome, and, more often than not, a total nightmare.

So, accept the inevitable love-hate relationship you’ll have with your story, remind yourself you’ll be able to revise those despicable spots in the future, and keep chugging along.

8. Lean On Other Writers for Support

I often tell people, “Writers have their own language.” And, it’s true. We do. We naturally understand each other and are able to relate to each other’s woes. So, why not befriend a few? Trust me, you’ll need their cheers, pep talks, and internet hugs to survive the NaNoWriMo roller coaster.

If you aren’t sure where to find potential writing pals, here are a few suggestions:

  1. NaNoWriMo’s website. It allows you to network and make solid connections. If you’d like to add me as a buddy, my username is jenspenden.
  2. Twitter. I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve met there and have created genuine, supportive friendships with. Be sure to check out hashtags like #NaNoWriMo, #NaNoWriMo2017, #NaNoPrep. And, of course, feel free to follow me (@jenspenden). I’ll happily follow you in return!
  3. Writing Blogs. Follow them, read them, and leave genuine comments on posts. If you do, you’ll naturally connect with other writers.
  4. Writing Contests. This one might sound strange, but some of my best writing friends have come from participating in writing contests, especially those that allow you to interact with other competitors (ex: NYC Midnight).

Whatever your method, I highly recommend you befriend other writers. Life becomes so much better once you do.

9. Have Fun! 


I mean it. Enjoy the experience. Yes, NaNo is stressful, insane, and a lot–a lot–of work. But nobody is forcing you to do it (well, I hope not). So, why not have fun with it?

Whenever I hit a low point during NaNo, I like to sit back in my chair and laugh at the absurdity of writing 50K words in one month. Who does that? Seriously? Or I like to take a deep breath and embrace my accomplishments. I figure every word I write deserves a round of applause, even if it wasn’t the best word in the world.

10. Worst Case Scenario

The worst thing that can happen? You don’t reach the 50K goal by November 30th.

Big. Deal.

Okay, maybe it is a big deal and you want to focus on that goal to keep you motivated. Great! However, in my opinion, the point of NaNoWriMo isn’t to barf out 50,000 words for the sake of barfing out 50,000 words. It’s to help writers focus and kick-start a steady writing routine that carries them past the November 30th deadline.

So, if you’re approaching the deadline, and you’re nowhere near the 50K word finish line, who cares? Keep going. Keep writing! The only true failure in NaNoWriMo is giving up completely.

Well, there you go! I hope you found at least one of my tips for NaNoWriMo useful. Good luck, everyone! And remember:

JUST WRITE!

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