5 Steps to Take Before Writing a Novel

There are so many tips about how to write a novel. And there are even more tips on what to do with that novel once you’ve finished it. But, what about the things you should do before you start writing a novel?

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Okay, I can already hear some of you out there saying, “Sometimes you can’t think about what you’re doing. You just need to jump in and go. Write, write, write!” Yes, I agree. However, if you’re serious about doing something with your novel after you finish it, then there are some important steps to take before you go full throttle.

5 Steps to Take Before Writing A Novel

1: Fall in love

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It’s not always easy to know if you’re in love with a story until you begin developing it. However, you should be in love with the idea. Novels are no picnic. They take months (or, more often, years) to write, invite criticism, and get rejected–again and again. If you don’t love yours from the very beginning, then you’re probably not going to make it past the first obstacle (which could come as early as the first draft; heck, maybe even the first chapter).

So, before you begin writing a story, ask yourself, “Do I love this idea?” If the answer’s, “No, not really,” then you might want to consider another idea.

2: Sell it!

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You came up with an idea that you love. Excellent! But, wait. Don’t start writing yet. Just because you love an idea doesn’t mean the rest of the world will. To others, it might sound dull, or confusing, or similar to a story they’ve read before. So, swallow your nerves (and pride) and go talk to your most trusted–and honest–friends/family/writing pals. See what they think of the idea. Note their facial expressions, read their body language, and listen to their words. It’s hard for many of us to accept criticism, but if someone finds a flaw with our work, even in its earliest stages, we need to consider it.

Now, if your idea gets a lackluster reaction, don’t automatically throw it in the trash (if you do, you probably didn’t love it as much as you thought you did). Talk to your critics first. Ask them why they don’t like it. Is it because it sounds like another story they’ve read? Is it because they’re not a fan of horror (or whatever genre your story is)? Is it because they started daydreaming in the middle of your pitch? Remember, your friends and family are human. Therefore, they’re subjective.

My best advice: pitch your idea to at least three people (preferably those who will, without a doubt, give you their most honest opinion). Then gauge their reaction before you fully commit yourself to a project that could consume years of your life.

3: Research the market

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Say you have a dream about a world where love is outlawed. You wake up and think, “Hmm, that was weird, but it could be a cool book.” So, you mull it over and decide you love the idea. But, instead of outlawing love, you decide to make love a disease that needs to be cured, and your main character needs to prove to the world it isn’t. It’s a gift!

Ooh, that’s good. Really good.

So, you roll up your sleeves and begin writing your story. You mention the concept to a friend, but they’re not a big reader, so they think it’s great, too. Encouraged by their positive reaction, you write and write and write. Finally, you have a presentable draft to send to your beta readers. Three of the four tell you, “I’d be careful. This story is really similar to Lauren Oliver’s, ‘Delirium.'” You frown and Google “Delirium.” Your jaw drops. The plot is nearly identical to yours.

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Don’t let this scenario happen to you! Before you dive into an idea you love, find out if it’s been done before. Ask Google, talk to your bookworm friends, get input from your trustworthy writing pals, chat with a librarian, etc. If your idea is popular enough, someone is bound to give you a head’s up. And then you can decide to either alter it, drop it, or continue to write it knowing it’s already been done before.

4: Pinpoint your target audience

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You have a cute idea for a romance that you really like, so you pitch it to your friends. They think it’s cute too (yay!). You sit down and begin writing. You don’t really think about what type of romance you’re creating (you don’t really know there are different types of romances out there, each for a specific audience). So, you write in happy bliss until you finish and send the novel off to a handful of beta readers. Their feedback trickles in. Most are positive and think it just needs some tweaking. One, however, is confused. They can’t figure out if your novel fits in rom-com, erotica, or women’s fiction. It has a little of everything. But, you decide to ignore them because they’re the only one who complained, and polish the manuscript up. You send it off to agents, nervous and excited, confident you’ll have a request for your full manuscript within weeks.

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Crickets! Why? Because you had no defined audience. Instead of narrowing your focus, you tried to appeal to three different markets: Women who wanted a lighthearted, funny story. Women who wanted hot, steamy sex. And women who wanted an emotional, soul-searching journey. As tempting as it is to reach far and wide with your story, you have to zero in on a specific group. Not only will that help an agent sell it (or yourself if you’re self-publishing), but it’ll help you put together a stronger, more cohesive story.

Now, I understand figuring out your target audience might be difficult before you start writing a novel. However, you should have a decent idea of who you’re writing for before you type the first word. Children? Young adults? Women? Men? Both men and women? As you write subsequent drafts, narrow your focus to a specific group.

5: Set goals

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“I guess I’ll write today.”

“I’m not really sure what I want to do with this book.”

“I’ll just go with the flow and see where things lead.” 

If you enter a project feeling aimless, then chances are you’ll never finish it. Or you’ll stop and go, stop and go, and it’ll take you years to reach the final chapter. Trust me, I’d know. That’s why I strongly urge you to create goals. They become the backbone of our success. Personally, I like to set three before I begin a novel.

  1. An ultimate goal. AKA, what to do with a story once it’s finished. Get published by one of the Big Five? Self-publish? Or write purely to write? There is no wrong answer.
  2. A deadline goal to help you reach the finish line in a timely manner. Circle a date on your calendar and aim to finish your first draft by it. Or present a copy to your beta readers. Or send your first batch of query letters. Or hire an editor to evaluate the story. Whatever! The type of deadline is up to you. Just try and be as specific about it as possible.
  3. A daily goal to keep you on track to meet your deadline. This should be a quantifiable objective, like word count, timed hours, or completed chapters.

Sometimes when we sit down to write, all we want to do is write. No plan, no concept, no long-term commitment. Just write! And that’s great. However, once we make the decision to commit to a novel, and finish it, and do something with it, we need to consider each of these steps. You might not come up with an exact answer for each one, but you should at least consider each one before embarking on your writing journey.

Good luck with your project!

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Jen’s Editing Tips – Then, and then, and then

There’s a word out there many writers love to use, including myself. We like to insert it into a sentence and then sit back and smile. Then, without realizing it, we like to use it again three sentences later. Then again, then again, then again.

Jen's Editing Tips

And then, after we’ve put the finishing touches on our work, we send it off to our beta readers to critique. Then, after waiting on pins and needles, we get their feedback and discover we’ve used and abused this most beloved word. So, we then grab a red pen and start crossing it out.

Cross, cross, cross!

With each deletion, our adoration for this word cools, colder then colder. Then, before we know it, we realize the word is nothing more than a crutch. A filler. A fluff word that acts like a catalyst for action and movement, but then turns out to be a hinderance in disguise. So, we then decide to avoid the word unless it’s absolutely necessary.

But then, and only then.

And Then

Like the word “as,” many writers tend to overuse the word “then.” Who can blame them? It’s a great word! Unfortunately, when we repeat it again and again, we risk a handful of problems:

Fluff, fluff, fluff

In a way, “then” is like “that.” At least 50% of the time, we don’t need it. It’s a fluff word we insert on instinct, not necessity. We also tend to add words around “then” to help us transition into the rest of a scene; fluff words that lead to over-explained actions, cluttered sentences, and stilted tones.

To show you what I mean, here’s an example from my action-adventure, “La Jolla.”

With “then”:

Cole pried himself free and then struggled on. He had to get to Finn.

But then, before he could reach his brother, the bridge heaved, like a briny belch had blown out of the waters below. Cole cried out and then his knees buckled. Cal Poly made a mad grab for him, but then missed.

Right then, Finn’s shrill voice cut through the metallic booms and wails. “Cole!”

Then the tracks collapsed.

Then the train plummeted.

Without “then”: 

Cole pried himself free and struggled on. He had to get to Finn.

The bridge heaved, like a briny belch had blown out of the waters below. Cole’s knees buckled. Cal Poly made a mad grab for him and missed.

“Cole!” Finn’s shrill voice cut through the metallic booms and wails.

The tracks collapsed.

The train plummeted.

Laundry List 

The more we use “then,” the more our stories resemble a laundry list of actions. Mr. Character did this, then this, then this, then this

After a while, our stories start to sound like a broken record. And we all know what happens when a reader gets bored or annoyed by a story’s repetitive rhythm…Yep! They stop reading.

Here’s another example to illustrate what I’m talking about.

With “then”:

And then gravity’s force lifted Cole off the ground and then smashed him into the ceiling. Purses, cameras, and then even backpacks whipped past him.

“Grab my hand!”

Cole then looked down.

Finn raised his arm and then strained to reach him. Their fingers brushed once, twice—and then Finn lunged and grabbed Cole’s wrist. Right then, as he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and then catapulted him into the rear window face first.

And then, for a breathless moment, he stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm.

Without “then”: 

Gravity’s force lifted Cole off the ground and smashed him into the ceiling. Purses, cameras, and backpacks whipped past him.

“Grab my hand!”

Cole looked down.

Finn strained to reach him. Their fingers brushed once, twice—Finn lunged and grabbed his wrist. As he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and catapulted him into the rear window face first. He stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm.

Spoon-Feed 

Then this happened, Ms. Reader. Then this. And then this–Are you following along, Ms. Reader? Am I being clear enough? Because then this happened. And then this…

Readers are smart. They do not need to be taken by the hand and guided from point A, to point B, to point C, etc. So, be brave and trust your audience’s intelligence by transitioning scenes in simpler, more creative ways than “then.”

Here’s one more example from “La Jolla” to show you what I’m talking about:

With “then”: 

Then Cole rolled over. With the train vertical, everybody, including Finn, hung above him. Then he sat up and blinked. All around him, a symphony of sobbing pleas, splintering glass, and grinding metal deafened his ears. Then he took a deep breath and struggled to his feet. Then he reached up and unbuckled Finn. “You okay, buddy?” He lifted him down and then set him on the ground.

Finn nodded.

“Good, cause we gotta go.” Then he kneeled down and struck the damaged window with his elbow. Then again and again.

Nothing.

Then, out of nowhere, Cal Poly appeared. “Watch out!” She peered over the top of her seat with a five-pound dumbbell. Then Cole blinked. He thought about asking her how she’d found it, but then decided it didn’t matter. People packed the weirdest stuff. Then he took hold of Finn’s arm and shoved him back, out of the way.

And then Cal Poly dropped it.

Without “then”: 

Cole rolled over. With the train vertical, everybody, including Finn, hung above him. A symphony of sobbing pleas, splintering glass, and grinding metal deafened his ears. He struggled to his feet and unbuckled Finn. “You okay, buddy?” He lifted him down.

Finn nodded.

“Good, cause we gotta go.” He struck the damaged window with his elbow.

Nothing.

“Watch out!” Cal Poly peered over the top of her seat with a five-pound dumbbell. He didn’t ask her where or how she’d found it. People packed the weirdest stuff. He shoved Finn back.

She dropped it.

So, how do we prevent ourselves from overusing “then”? Well, here are a few strategies I have found helpful:

  1. Read your story out loud. You’ll be amazed how many repetitive words and phrases you hear when you do this.
  2. Ask someone to read your story to you. That way you can close your eyes and listen to it without being distracted by how it looks on screen/paper.
  3. Use the “Find” option and search for “then.” Remove as many as you can.
  4. Replace “then” with a ridiculous word like “hiccup.” See if you need to keep it. Chances are, you don’t.

So, there you go! I hope you’re able to take this editing tip and apply it to your work. Heaven knows I have to every time I sit down to write.

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

For more tips, visit my Jen’s Editing Tips page!

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Jen’s How To: 5 Tips For Writing A Short Story

Up until the fall of 2013, I’d only ever worked on novel length projects. Then I decided to sign up for an NYC Midnight (NYCM) challenge and attempt to write something shorter. Much shorter. About ninety-nine thousand words shorter!

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the art of writing short stories. And, with the rapid approach of the next NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, I thought I’d share some of those lessons with you.

5 Tips For Writing Short Stories

1. Choose One Main Event

Don’t confuse your readers! Keep things simple and choose one main event to base your story on (ex: a killer virus, a confrontation between two friends, a blind date gone wrong). If you do that, you’ll have an easier time identifying your story’s motives, characters, and ultimate goal (aka, “the big why”).

You’ll also make it much easier for your readers to follow along. They won’t get confused as you jump from a grisly murder in an alleyway, to a deadly car chase, to an arrest at a gas station, to an epic prison break, to a fugitive on the run, to a hostage crisis at a bank, to a bomb explosion that kills everyone…

See? It’s too much for 2,500 words (or less). So, keep it simple.

2. The Fewer The Characters, The Better The Story

“I don’t know. What do you think, Maddie?” Sam asked.

Maddie shrugged. “No idea. Pete?”

“Why are you asking him?” yelled Sandra. “He doesn’t know anything!”

“Yes, he does.” Rachel rested her hand on Pete’s shoulder and shot Sue an uneasy glance.

Sue nodded. “We should listen to him. Or Alice. She’s done this before.”

“No way.” Timothy shook his head. “Pete and Alice are crazy. You’re all crazy!”

“Quiet! I can’t think straight with all this ruckus.” Charles picked up a knife and glared at everyone. “I think we should kill half the group so the rest of us don’t starve.”

Did you keep up? No? Well, trust me, if you do this in a short story, your readers probably won’t either. There aren’t enough words to gradually introduce a dozen characters and ensure the audience understands who they are, what their roles are, and why they’re important to the plot.

That’s why I suggest you limit yourself to four named characters. Four. Beyond that, readers lose track of who’s who.

3. Avoid Time/Scene Hopping

This tends to be a hot debate amongst writers. Some believe time/scene hopping works in a short story, while others (like me) believe it should be avoided. Why? Because, in my opinion, the more you move a short story around (especially through time), the more you dilute it. Characters lose depth, motives get fuzzy, and conflicts lose their edge.

Let’s look at an example. Below are two synopses based on my flash fiction horror, “Why?”.

Without time/scene hops: A little girl goes to the beach with her parents and brother. While there, a commercial airliner crashes and kills everyone except her.

With this version, I’m able to dig in and write a detailed story about a little girl experiencing a terrible tragedy. Sights, smells, sounds, emotions, conversations. From start to finish, I’m able to convey this horrific event to the reader. Nothing has to be skimmed over or left out.

With time/scene hops: A little girl goes to the beach with her parents and brother. While there, a commercial airliner crashes and kills everyone except her. Ten years later, she drops out of high school and runs away from her foster parents. Along the way, she meets a young man who convinces her to let go of her tragic past. Five years later, she marries him and they have a little girl. Ten years later, she agrees to visit a beach for the first time since she lost her family. Twenty years later, she smiles at her husband, children, and grandchildren, thankful she was able to rebuild the family she lost so long ago.

Rather than diving into the little girl’s head and experiencing the tragedy through her eyes, we skim over it and jump to the next phase in her life. Then the next, then the next…Although it can work if done right, this skim-jump rhythm doesn’t tend to satisfy readers. It’s too broad and jarring.

So, I say time hop if you must, but only do it once or twice. After that, your story starts to sound more like a summary of a much bigger project.

4. Single POV

When you write a story under 2,500 words, one of the best ways to cut down on confusion and strengthen your plot is to use a single POV. It doesn’t matter if you’re using first or third person; just decide who your protagonist is and then tell the story from their perspective. If they can’t see, feel, hear, or think it, then it doesn’t exist. Period.

Personally, I like to think of POV like a camera. I set it up in my protagonist’s head and then push record. That way while I’m writing, I can continually ask myself, “Is this getting recorded?” If not, then I have to either chop it out or find a way to convey it from my protagonist’s viewpoint.

5. Think Outside the Box

Yes, I know. Duh! But you’d be surprised by how many stories I’ve read that have used obvious premises. For example, during the NYCM Short Story Challenge 2014, my group was assigned these prompts: Suspense, Chef, Wedding. What’s the first idea that comes to mind?

Are you thinking?

Got it?

Okay, was it a chef poisoning food at a wedding? Or, perhaps, a groom trying to off his bride? Well, guess what? Over half the people in my group wrote stories like that (and I almost did before deciding to take things in a different direction). So, before you start writing (especially if you’re in a competition like NYCM), ask yourself, “Will others think of this idea?” If so, you might want to discard it and keep brainstorming.

My personal policy? Throw out the first idea. If I thought of it, then someone else did, too.

Well, there you go! Those are my top five tips for writing short stories under 2,500 words. Of course, not everyone will agree with them, and I know many writers who’ve taken opposite approaches and succeeded. But, for me, these tips work. And I hope they work for you, too!

How about you? What are some of your tips for writing stories under 2,500 words? We all have our own methods of madness, so share, share, share!

Don’t forget, the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016 kicks off this weekend. You still have time sign up, so go check it out!

Related Articles

Why You Should Enter the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016

The Differences Between The NYC Midnight FFC and SSC

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NaNoWriMo Tips – It Isn’t About Winning. It’s About Writing.

The past few days, I’ve had a few people approach me about NaNoWriMo. They keep asking, “Why bother finishing if I’m not going to win?”

Here’s my simple answer to them (and to anyone else contemplating the same thing):

NaNoWriMo isn’t about winning. It’s about writing!

…Okay, I can see all of you competitive souls out there rolling your eyes and muttering under your breaths. I know, I get it. I’m competitive too and I despise it when I fail.

But, let me clarify something:

NaNo is a writing challenge. It’s not a writing competition. There are no judges or tangible prizes (besides those offered via third parties). And there’s definitely no waiting on pins and needles after November 30th to see if your slap dash, half-finished manuscript beats hundreds of thousands of other slap dash, half-finished manuscripts. If you want that, then you’ll need to sign up for an actual writing competition.

…Okay, okay. Now I can hear all of you Mr./Ms. I Always Win‘s saying, “It’s not about winning a prize. It’s about winning.”

Yep, I totally get it. But…let’s face it. We can’t succeed at everything we try. Failure is part of life, and failing to write 50K words in one month isn’t the end of the world. Not at all! It’s really just the beginning.

Okay, everyone, here’s the truth about NaNoWriMo:

If you sit down and start writing on November first, then you’ve won. If you keep writing beyond November 30th, then you’re a star. If you finish your manuscript, then you’re a champion.

The whole point of NaNo is to write. Period.

So, whether you’re currently at 1K words, 50K words, or 100K words, go ahead and declare yourself a winner (yes, even you, Mr./Ms. I Always Win). And give yourself a trophy if you keep writing on December 1st. And give yourself a crown if you don’t stop until you finish your novel (extra kudos if you rewrite, revise, and edit).

I hope you take my words to heart and persevere no matter where you are on the word count scale. And I really hope you don’t shove your manuscript into a drawer on December 1st and say, “Cool, I’m done.”

You’re not done.

Keep going.

Keep writing!

Congrats to everyone who participated in NaNoWriMo 2015. You’re all winners in my book!

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Why You Should Enter the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016

It’s that time of the year again! Time to convince you to sign up for an NYC Midnight writing challenge.

I know many people don’t want to take the time or spend the money on entering writing contests. I was in the same boat up until I entered the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2013. Then, whoa! My entire attitude changed.

Before I began entering NYC Midnight (NYCM) writing challenges, I assumed my writing skills were at their best…Wrong! In just a handful of NYCM Flash Fiction and Short Story Challenges, my abilities grew exponentially. I’m actually embarrassed by what I considered to be my “best.” I won’t even let people look at my old work.

So, what has writing flash fiction and short stories taught me? Here are just a few things:

  • How to write a complete story. To make a story truly shine, all facets of it must be fully developed and balanced equally. Plot, characters, scenery, etc. If you miss or skimp on one, it stands out to readers.
  • Characters count. Characters carry a large portion of a story’s weight. Developing them so they’re as 3D and likable as possible is a must. Also, too many of them tend to be confusing and burdensome for a reader. So, you need to make sure each one counts.
  • Keep it simple! Chop, chop, chop. Do you really need that character? Do you really need to go into that background information? With their limited word count, short stories force you to take a step back and consider what’s vital to a plot. If it’s not pushing it forward or making it deeper, chop it out!
  • Take the road less traveled. Go outside the box. Be creative! Ask yourself, “Is this different? Will it make me stand out?” Example: In round one of the Short Story Challenge 2014, I received these prompts: Suspense, wedding, chef. My first impulse? Write a story about a bride and groom who are trying to off each other, and in the end the bride poisons the groom with the help of the chef. I immediately tossed it out and forced myself to dig deeper and think beyond the obvious. And I’m glad I did. Most of my competitors wrote stories about poisoned food and vindictive brides and grooms. Mine, “Chasing Monsters,” was nothing of the sort. And because of that, I landed myself a 2nd place finish.

Those are just a few things I’ve learned while participating in these challenges. To list all of them would take a decade.

I will, however, point out some specific benefits of participating in an NYCM writing challenge. The main one is their private forum. NYCM offers competitors a location to interact and share stories with each other. And I love it! The forum helps you:

  • Overcome the fear of sharing your work. I’ve been sharing my stories for years and I still get butterflies whenever I let others read them. However, sharing our work is a must if we want to learn and take our writing to the next level. Plus, if you dream of being published like me, then sharing is a basic requirement. So, why not get used to it and learn how to manage those pesky butterflies?
  • Discover what you do well. Not only does positive feedback give you a nice ego boost, but it also helps you understand your strengths. And understanding your strengths helps you understand who you are as a writer.
  • Discover what you don’t do well. Yeah, I know. Who wants to hear what they’re bad at? Unfortunately, opening yourself up to constructive criticism is a necessary evil if you want to become the best writer you can be. Plus, if you’re planning to enter the Harsh Land of Publishing, then you will need to learn how to handle constructive criticism. And the forum is a great place for that. It’s safe, inviting, and supportive!
  • Learn by critiquing other stories. You wouldn’t believe how much you can learn by reading and critiquing other people’s work. When you (tactfully) explain to someone what you liked or didn’t like about their story, you will naturally apply those observations to your own work.
  • Meet other writers! While doing these challenges, I’ve gained a lot of amazing friends, writing pals, and trustworthy beta readers. So, believe me when I say, the forum is an excellent place to connect with other writers and find the moral and professional support you need to succeed.

One of my personal favorite things about the NYCM challenges is the discovery of new ideas. I have now participated in thirteen rounds, which means I’ve written thirteen stories I would never have written otherwise. And from those thirteen, I have bigger plans for at least eight of them. Three I’d like to polish up and send to publishers. One I’d like to adapt and expand into a screenplay. And, four I’d like to expand into novels. In fact, the manuscript I’m working on now is an expansion of my second round story from the last Short Story Challenge. So, if nothing else appeals to you, think of this as an amazing way to increase your idea inventory!

Anyway, with all of that said, registration has officially opened for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016. I strongly–strongly–encourage you to consider entering it. Yes, it costs some money, and yes, the actual challenge is, well, a challenge. But I promise if you go into it with the right attitude and participate on the forum, every penny and stressful second will be worth it.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 9.45.29 AMOf course, the NYCM writing challenges aren’t the only ones out there. If you aren’t ready to take the plunge, or aren’t in a position to spend the moola, then I still encourage you to look into a blog or website that hosts free weekly challenges. My favorite is Chuck Wendig’s, terribleminds.

 You have until December 17th to take advantage of the early entry fee. There’s also a Twitter discount, so be sure to use that to lower the cost even more. Final deadline is January 21st.

Hope to see you all on the forum!

For those of you who’d like to understand the differences between NYCM’s Flash Fiction Challenge and Short Story Challenge, click here!

To learn more about the NYCM Short Story Challenge 2016, click here!

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NaNoWriMo Tip – Don’t Compare Yourself To Other Writers

A couple of days ago, I officially “won” NaNoWriMo.

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 4.11.48 PMAfter I did a happy dance, I went online and skimmed through posts and Tweets about NaNoWriMo. As I did, a sense of unease overcame me. So many writers were acting discouraged and defeated because their word counts weren’t as high as others. It made me wonder:

Do early winners kill the motivation of other writers?

I decided to ask a handful of writing buddies this question. Some declared early winners inspire them because it proves NaNo can be done. But others admitted early winners make them feel overwhelmed, panicked, and even resentful.

Okay, okay, I’ll admit it. During the last NaNo I signed up for, early winners irritated me more than they inspired me. While they declared themselves finished, I continued digging myself out of the 10K word hole I’d  fallen into…It wasn’t a fun or happy time.

So, today I thought I’d offer some encouragement to anyone out there who might be feeling overwhelmed, panicked, and/or resentful by early NaNo winners (or anyone with a higher word count). First off, let me assure you, writing 50K words in less than two weeks isn’t normal! It’s crazy.

Second, a variety of factors play into how fast people finish NaNo. To finish in ten days or less, I discovered you need to:

  1. Have ample time. Life is calm, work is slow, sleep is futile, etc. Writers who finish NaNo early tend to have plenty of time on their hands. Personally, my life was abnormally peaceful the past ten days. The only thing that prevented me from writing all day, every day was my job, and even that happened to be calm and stress-free.
  2. Be extremely focused. I made NaNoWriMo my main priority the past two weeks. I passed on invitations to events, turned down requests from family and friends, and resisted blogging and working on other non-essential projects. If it didn’t have to do with my manuscript, I ignored it. (Hermit, party of one!)
  3. Act like a competitive overachiever. Early NaNo winners can deny it all they want, but the majority of us are competitive overachievers. That doesn’t mean we’re trying to beat other writers. Not at all! It means we’re trying to beat ourselves. We have to match or do better than we did the day before. It’s a natural compulsion we can’t control.
  4. Experience creative energy overload. All writers experience creative highs and lows. Sometimes the words have to be ripped out of us, and sometimes they tumble out faster than we can type. During NaNo, some of us get lucky and experience a high. We get in an amazing groove and can’t stop writing even when our eyes hurt and our fingers cramp. It’s a blessing, and it’s a blessing that needs to be embraced before it disappears.
  5. Word vomit. A lot. I’m usually a sucker for revising as I write, but this time during NaNo, I refused–absolutely refused–to revise anything. I word vomited all over my pages and didn’t care about the giant mess I made. If I had a new idea or discovered a plot hole, I jotted it down in my notebook and kept going. I never went back to fix things. Never.

unnamedAnd if I didn’t like the direction I was taking my story, I added a few spaces between my paragraphs, wrote “SWITCHING GEARS” , and carried on as though I’d made the change. Nothing stopped me from writing, writing, writing.

Bottom line: It takes a magical combination of luck and hard work to finish NaNoWriMo early. Time, inspiration, and determination play key factors in propelling some to the 50K mark in the blink of an eye.

But, that’s them.

And you are you!

You can’t look at another writer’s stats and then question your own. You can’t! I learned that during my first NaNo when I kept comparing myself to those who finished early. Their amazing success didn’t inspire me. It hurt me and it made my journey harder.

So, if you’re like me and get dragged down rather than lifted up by early winners, here’s my advice:

Tell yourself everyone handles NaNoWriMo differently, and a million factors influence how fast people reach the finish line. Some writers are able to sprint, others must jog, and others are forced to walk. The truth is, the pace doesn’t matter. What matters is you achieve your goal. If that goal takes two weeks, one month, or an entire year, then so be it.

Just keep writing!

Take it one day at a time. Don’t think about how far you still have to go, or how much work you will need to do in the future. Think about today. Today is all that matters in the land of writing.

Keep up the good work, everyone. You can do this!

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Jen’s Editing Tips – Delete “Ing”s, Chopping Them Out For Good

A few weeks ago, I discussed a simple word that can ruin a story if overused. Today, I’d like to discuss a similar topic.

Jen's Editing TipsJust like the word “as,” this thing can wreak havoc on your writing, heaping on unnecessary problems if overused. In the past, I made this mistake too, babbling on and on. But, with a lot of hard work, I broke the habit, shattering it with sharper, clearer sentences. Today, I hope to help you break the habit too by showing you how to refrain from tacking on extra thoughts at the end of your sentences, carrying on for no good reason.

Some of you have might’ve already caught on to what I’m doing here, formulating my sentences in a way to show you what I’m talking about. In fact, you’re probably rolling your eyes at me, shaking your head, and praying I stop soon. But, sorry, I can’t stop doing this, extending my sentences to prove a point. I must keep going until everyone picks up on the clues I’m dropping, placing them right before their eyes.

Speaking of eyes, my own are starting to hurt, burning from the horridness of this sample. And it is horrid, carrying on the way I am, stringing my words together, connecting them so you can see for yourself how overdoing this thing can damage a story, killing it slowly, but surely.

To be perfectly blunt, I don’t understand why writers overuse this method to transition their sentences, forcing audiences to keep reading instead of adding a period and starting a new sentence, giving them a break, making their lives easier, and remembering they’re only human and their eyeballs can only take so much before they well up and overflow, streaming with tears and silently wondering if this sentence will ever end, or if will it keep going and going, racing to infinity and skyrocketing to a level of ridiculousness that makes me want to cackle with glee at my ability to use this subtle, but destructive weapon to blast clarity and cohesion to smithereens and annoy the you-know-what out you amazing weirdos who are still somehow reading this gibberish, squeezing your fists and thinking, “If this girl doesn’t stop, I’m going to scream and throttle her, silencing her for good!”

Okay, okay. I might’ve overdone it on that last bit. 😉 But, hopefully, you were able to follow along and pick up on today’s topic.

maxresdefaultJust like the word “as,” “ing” transitions can hurt your story. The more you use them, the more problems occur: Redundancy. Wordiness. Confusion. Over-explaining. Telling, not showing…The list goes on and on.

For now, I’ll focus on the three main issues:

Never-Ending, Ending Never! 

Let’s get the most obvious out of the way first, shall we? As you probably noticed in my example above, “ing” transitions tend to drag sentences on and on and on…and on. They extend sentences beyond the point of clarity and comfort, cause repetition, and have the potential to suck all of the drama and tension out of a scene.

One way to avoid this? Read your work out loud. Yes, you heard me. Out loud! If you run out of breath while reciting a sentence, then chances are you need to chop out an “ing”, or two…or three.

Let’s test the method with an example from my horror, “Why?:

With “ing”:

“Yeah, see!” Gracie cried, pointing triumphantly at the orange flare that once again sparked in the distance, shimmering brighter than the sun and lighting up the foggy skies to a glittering canvas of doom. It was followed this time by a deep, resonating boom that rippled through the water and up along the beach, quivering through the sand pebbles, startling a flock of seagulls, and silencing the crowds, chattering and laughing only a few seconds before. Everybody froze, including the squealing children playing with their shovels and buckets, as well as the aloof teenagers acting like they didn’t care about anything and listening to music. The children stopped playing and the teenagers yanked the buds out of their ears, focusing on the horizon with everyone else, watching as the light grew brighter and brighter, casting its eerie glow on the choppy waves and illuminating the gray skies, humming with the buzz of impending disaster. 

Without “ing”: 

“Yeah, see!” Gracie pointed triumphantly at the orange flare that once again sparked in the distance. This time, it was followed by a deep, resonating boom that rippled through the water and up along the beach. Everybody froze. Even the children stopped playing and the teenagers yanked the buds out of their ears. In unison, the crowd turned and stared out at the choppy waves and foggy skies.

As you can see, I was able to convey the same scene in half the amount of words simply by chopping out my “ing” transitions.

Unnecessary Information

Writer: “I’m not sure if the reader will completely get this sentence, so I’m going to add an ‘ing’ transition to give them extra details, saving them from possible confusion and helping them see the picture I’m trying to paint.”

Reader: “Okay, I get it! Sheesh, why doesn’t the writer trust me?”

Seriously, trust your readers. They’re smart. They don’t need to be told every single thing, and they definitely don’t need “ing” transitions to help them understand something already mentioned or implied.

Let me show you what I mean with another example from my horror, “Why?”

With ing:

The rumbling grew louder and louder, deafening Gracie’s ears, and the orange flares grew closer and closer, blinding her. Small, black shapes appeared through the fog, shocking and unexpected. At first, Gracie thought they were birds soaring over the water, flying towards her and everyone else. Then she realized they weren’t flying. They were falling, plummeting into the ocean with silent splashes and disappearing into the deep blue, vanishing from sight.

Why does the reader need to know the rumbling deafened Gracie’s ears? Or the orange flares blinded her? Or the sight of black shapes in the sky shocked her? Those reactions are implied. I don’t need to spell them out for the reader.

Without “ing”:

The rumbling grew louder and louder. The orange flares grew closer and closer. Small, black shapes appeared through the fog. At first, Gracie thought they were birds flying over the water. Then she realized they weren’t flying. They were falling into the ocean with silent splashes.

Every time you use an “ing” transition, ask yourself, “Why I am writing this?” If the answer is, “Because I don’t trust the reader.”, then hold back. Leave the extra information out and see if your beta readers, critique partners, and/or editor(s) miss it. Chances are, they won’t.

And if they do, big deal. It’s better to add information than subtract it.

Bueller?…Bueller?

Bueller?…Bueller?

Monotony?…Monotony?

I’ve said it once (or twice), and I’ll say it again (and again): A story is like a song, and readers listen to it closely. If they’re unable to groove to its beat, then they’ll probably find something else to jam to.

When you overuse “ing” transitions, you basically hit the repeat button and play the same song, over and over. And that means your story has a monotonous sound. Even if the length of your sentences change, or you insert plenty of white space, you won’t be able to escape the redundant rhythm you’ve created with your excessive “ing”‘s.

Let’s do one last example from “Why?”:

With “ing” 

“It’s a plane,” she whispered, trembling at the terrible realization. “Oh my god…Phil!” Her shrill scream echoed through the humid air, shattering the trance that had been cast upon the beach, jolting the crowd back to life. Everyone began moving, bolting for safety. Mothers grabbed their kids, screaming and crying. Surfers clutched their beloved boards, holding them over their heads and using them like shields. Lifeguards jumped from their lofty towers, blowing their whistles and waving for people to run for safety. Everyone fled, scurrying away from the destructive onslaught of debris hurling towards them.

Without “ing”

“It’s a plane. Oh my god…Phil!” Her shrill scream echoed through the humid air and shattered the trance that had been cast upon the beach. The crowd jolted back to life and ran for cover. Mothers grabbed their kids, surfers clutched their boards, and lifeguards jumped from their towers. Everybody fled from the destructive onslaught of debris hurling towards them.

The more “ing” transitions you have, the louder they become. And the louder they become, the more your readers will notice them. And the more readers notice them, the more redundant and monotonous your story sounds. So, find them and ask yourself, “Is this helping my story’s beat?” If not, delete it.

In fact, delete all “ing” transitions from your work if they aren’t necessary. And, yes, “ing” transitions can be necessary. Sometimes longer sentences are beautiful and wonderful. Sometimes additional details are needed for clarity’s sake. And sometimes a story’s rhythm demands it. But not every time.

So, hunt down your “ing” transitions and ask yourself, “Do I need this?”

If you don’t, chop it!

I hope you found this editing tip useful! Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running. If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

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