2017 – The Year of the Novel

In the late winter of 2013, I came to a screeching halt with my writing. After failing to secure a publishing deal during a two-year option contract, I lost more than my confidence. I lost a piece of my heart.

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After my dreams crumbled before my eyes, I spent the better part of six months drifting around, unsure what to do next. Write? Don’t write? Every time I thought about picking up a pen, I cringed and threw myself into a different activity or hobby. The gym became my favorite place in the world. I signed up for all sorts of fitness classes (even Zumba, which shows you just how desperate I was to keep myself occupied).

As time trickled by, I grew more and more certain I’d never write again.  Then, out of the blue, a co-worker suggested I sign up for a writing contest. At first I balked at the idea (and probably ran off to the gym for another Zumba class). But, after I danced away my crippling doubts, I decided to give it a whirl. That whirl transformed into a whirlwind of revived passion. I started a blog, began working on a new novel, and participated in more writing contests.

Write, write, write! I couldn’t get enough.

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Ever since, my writing whirlwind has continued. For the past three years, I’ve split my focus into multiple projects: Two novels, 20 short stories, 365 blog posts, seven writing contests, and dozens of editing jobs. Looking back, it’s been a lot of work, but I don’t regret any of it. I needed every single project to learn and grow, and to become a better writer.

But now it’s time to narrow my focus. Dramatically. I can’t keep up the pace I’ve set for myself and expect to achieve my dreams. That’s why I’ve decided to keep my goal for 2017 sweet and simple: Finish my novel and send it to agents. Period.

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Sounds easy, I know. And, theoretically, it should be achievable. If I maintain my current pace, I should have a beta-worthy draft to send to my first readers by the end of January. Depending on their reactions, I should have my next draft (or two) done by late spring/early summer. From there I should be able to spend the summer revising and sending subsequent drafts to readers for feedback. And, by fall, I should have a polished manuscript and my first batch of query letters ready for agents (ahh!).

Yes, I should be able to get all of that done. But, I’ve had the same plan the past two years and failed miserably. Hence the reason I’m making my novel my main priority this year. Besides blogging and accepting the occasional editing job (because, hello, money!), I won’t work on any other projects. Enough’s enough!

 

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To be honest, the toughest part of this will be giving up writing contests. I absolutely adore the adrenaline, ideas, and friendships I get from them. Unfortunately, the contests I like to participate in eat up TONS of time. Not only do I write a story, but I also get sucked into a forum where I critique hundreds of other people’s stories. During the past three years, I’ve critiqued at least 1,500. That’s roughly 750-1,500 hours of work!

Or, rather, 750-1,500 hours I could’ve dedicated to my novel.

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No. More! As much as I love competing, I need to put a hold on it until I finish my novel. I need to put a hold on a lot of things until it’s done.

Hopefully my narrowed focus will keep me on track this year. And, hopefully, by next January I’ll be able to hold up my manuscript and say, “There! It’s done!” Or, better yet, “I have an agent, and I’m on the road to publication!”

Let’s do this 2017!

How about you? What are some of your goals for the new year?

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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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Top 2015 Posts – Can You Write a Story in 150 Words

To end the year, I’ve decided to spotlight my top 10 favorite blog posts from 2015. Each of these made a special impact on me and readers, so I hope you enjoy them (again or for the first time). Today, I present to you my 9th favorite post from the past year:

Can You Write A Story In 150 Words

#9_1Writing stories under 1,500 words is tough. Writing stories under 150 words is insane! That’s why I liked this post. It offered a tough, but terrific challenge to writers (including myself). It also offered a lot of fun.

So, check out the details below and, if you haven’t already, consider entering one of Ad Hoc Fiction’s free contests!


A few weeks ago, my online writer’s group introduced me to a weekly flash fiction contest hosted by Ad Hoc Fiction. Basically, writers are given a prompt word (ex: feather, bark, note) and must incorporate it into a 150-worded story…Yep! That’s it. Just 150 words to address all the vital components of a story and satisfy readers.

*gulp*

Once the deadline passes, the submissions are posted on Ad Hoc’s website and the public votes for a winner. It’s free (yes, FREE), it’s fun, and it’s a great way to challenge yourself. So give it a shot! Whether you want to learn, warm up, or win, you’re sure to have a blast with Ad Hoc Fiction.

Below is a story I submitted a few weeks ago. The prompt word I had to include was “plaster.” Enjoy!

“Crumb Layer”

by Jenna Willett

When I was little, my mom would let me help her frost cakes. “Remember, Annie,” she’d say, “the first layer is the crumb layer. You frost, wait, frost again, and—voila! See?” She’d point at a finished cake. No crumbs, no blemishes. The decorating method worked beautifully.

It still does.

I hum to myself as I spread a second layer of white goo over the crumbly surface. I dip, swirl, smear, and wipe my metal spatula down and up, left to right. Over and over. I work carefully, but quickly. I have to. Even with the heater on, the house is cold and the cold makes things set faster.

I give one final swipe and stand back to study my handiwork.

I smile.

The plastered wall looks great. With a layer of paint, it’ll look perfect.

Nobody will ever suspect I hid a dead body behind it.


To learn more about the contest and Ad Hoc Fiction, click here.

Top 10 2015 Posts

10. Are You a Positive or Negative Writer

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Jen’s Editing Tips: The Power of White Space

Since I’m now a freelance editor, I’ve decided to start a new feature on my blog: Jen’s Editing Tips. This will give me a chance to share some of the common mistakes and missteps I come across in the work I edit, and hopefully help you avoid them.

Jen's Editing TipsTo kick things off, I’m going to discuss one of my biggest editing pet peeves: White space.

Or rather, the lack of it.

white-space-journal-3As you probably assumed, white space refers to the empty areas on a page. You know, the lovely gaps between paragraphs. The simple, yet powerful tool writers use to present their stories to audiences.

Before I get into the exact reasons why white space is so important, let me show you an example. Below is my 150-word flash fiction piece, Crumb Layer.

Without white space:

When I was little, my mom would let me help her frost cakes. “Remember, Annie,” she’d say, “the first layer is the crumb layer. You frost, wait, frost again, and—voila! See?” She’d point at a finished cake. No crumbs, no blemishes. The decorating method worked beautifully. It still does. I hum to myself as I spread a second layer of white goo over the crumbly surface. I dip, swirl, smear, and wipe my metal spatula down and up, left to right. Over and over. I work carefully, but quickly. I have to. Even with the heater on, the house is cold, and the cold makes things set faster. I give one final swipe and stand back to study my handiwork. I smile. The plastered wall looks great. With a layer of paint, it’ll look perfect. Nobody will ever suspect I hid a dead body behind it.

With white space: 

When I was little, my mom would let me help her frost cakes. “Remember, Annie,” she’d say, “the first layer is the crumb layer. You frost, wait, frost again, and—voila! See?” She’d point at a finished cake. No crumbs, no blemishes. The decorating method worked beautifully.

It still does.

I hum to myself as I spread a second layer of white goo over the crumbly surface. I dip, swirl, smear, and wipe my metal spatula down and up, left to right. Over and over. I work carefully, but quickly. I have to. Even with the heater on, the house is cold, and the cold makes things set faster.

I give one final swipe and stand back to study my handiwork. I smile.

The plastered wall looks great. With a layer of paint, it’ll look perfect.

Nobody will ever suspect I hid a dead body behind it.

See the difference? With just a few taps of the return key, I was able to strengthen my story without changing a single word of it. It read faster, cleaner, and easier. It also had more tension and landed a bigger punch at the very end.

So, now that you’ve seen what I’m talking about, let me list some specific benefits of using white space:

Reader-friendly

The majority of readers love to see white space on a page. It immediately welcomes them into a story, encourages them to keep reading, and tricks them into thinking they’re reading less (even though they’re not). To most readers, white space says, “Hey, I’m your buddy. I’m not gonna overwhelm you with long, dense paragraphs that make you want to quit before you’ve even begun.”

Trust me, your readers will be more enthusiastic and less intimidated if you insert white space into your work.

Pacing

White space is one of the best and easiest ways to control the pacing of your story. To speed things up, use more of it. To slow things down, use less of it. Simple, right?

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should use tons and tons of white space.

Just because you use more doesn’t mean people will zip through your story.

In fact, too much white space can be as detrimental as not enough.

Why?

Because, as you might see here, white space can become distracting.

Too much of it, and your story loses its cohesion and fluidity.

It also takes on a jagged feel.

And readers might get lost.

Or irritated.

Or both.

So don’t overdo it!

…Don’t.

Rhythm

Think about how a song would sound if it stayed in the same key from start to finish:

Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum.Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. 

Not exactly thrilling, is it? Let’s mix things up by adding some variety.

Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum.

Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum.Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum.

Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum.

Bum-bum-bum. 

See? Even without changing the monotonous “lyrics,” the rhythm changed because I added white space. That’s how you should approach a story. You should remember it isn’t just words on paper. It’s a song and your audience listens closely. If they’re not grooving to the beat, then there’s a chance they’ll switch to another station (er, book).

Emphasis

One of my favorite things about white space is it ensures readers know something significant happened. Like, a new character was introduced or a plot twist was revealed. It also helps magnetize key moments in a scene. It ups the level of drama, hilarity, or, as seen in the example below, terror.

The smell of rot stung her nose, making her eyes water. Howls and groans she couldn’t comprehend echoed around her. They seemed to be coming from every direction.

Pete shoved Andy into Kate’s arms. “Run, dammit!”

She hugged Andy to her and bolted. The sky shrieked with inhuman sounds, and the ground trembled so violently, she feared she’d tumble.

The sky went white.

Blinding, icy, horrifying white.

If I hadn’t isolated those last two lines in my story “Inevitable,” they would’ve been diluted and lost amongst the other horrific events in the story. And they wouldn’t have amped up the tension and propelled readers to the very end.

Limits Confusion

In addition to emphasizing vital plot points and powerful moments in a story, white space helps cut down on confusion.

Think about it:

If you clump everything together–characters, plot twists, scene changes, time leaps–it’s likely your readers will miss something important. And once that happens, they’ll inevitably get confused. And confused readers tend to become bored readers. And bored readers will likely set your story aside to read one that doesn’t have them scratching their head.

Bottom line, no matter what your personal style is, white space is a key element in storytelling. Whether you enjoy using a lot or a little of it, it must be used to some capacity to ensure your story is presented in the clearest, most satisfying way to readers.

So, what do you think about this simple, yet strategic editing tool? Is it something you think about while writing? Or is it something you haven’t considered? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Can You Write A Story In 150 Words

A few weeks ago, my online writer’s group introduced me to a weekly flash fiction contest hosted by Ad Hoc Fiction. Basically, writers are given a prompt word (ex: feather, bark, note) and must incorporate it into a 150-worded story.

Yep! That’s it. Just 150 words to address all the vital components of a story and satisfy readers.

*gulp*

Once the deadline passes, the submissions are posted on Ad Hoc’s website and the public votes for a winner. It’s free (yes, FREE), it’s fun, and it’s a great way to challenge yourself. So give it a shot! Whether you want to learn, warm up, or win, you’re sure to have a blast with Ad Hoc Fiction.

Below is a story I submitted a few weeks ago. The prompt word I had to include was “plaster.” Enjoy!


“Crumb Layer”

by Jenna Willett

When I was little, my mom would let me help her frost cakes. “Remember, Annie,” she’d say, “the first layer is the crumb layer. You frost, wait, frost again, and—voila! See?” She’d point at a finished cake. No crumbs, no blemishes. The decorating method worked beautifully.

It still does.

I hum to myself as I spread a second layer of white goo over the crumbly surface. I dip, swirl, smear, and wipe my metal spatula down and up, left to right. Over and over. I work carefully, but quickly. I have to. Even with the heater on, the house is cold and the cold makes things set faster.

I give one final swipe and stand back to study my handiwork.

I smile.

The plastered wall looks great. With a layer of paint, it’ll look perfect.

Nobody will ever suspect I hid a dead body behind it.


To learn more about the contest and Ad Hoc Fiction, click here.

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Music Monday – Love Runs Out – OneRepublic

Welcome to Music Monday! As many of you know, music contributes a great deal to my writing process. Whether it’s a song’s lyrics, beat, rhythm, or tone, I find myself constantly inspired by it.

writing-to-musicAs you might have (or might not have) noticed, I didn’t publish any blog posts last week. I decided to take some time off to relax, spend time with family, and work on my manuscript. It ended up being a great week. I took a day trip to Vail, visited the Denver Zoo with my nephews, and even won the Wicked lottery with my sister!

11666132_10102297028238983_2248675542357559971_nNot only did I have fun during my week off, but I made tons of progress with my new novel. I managed to write over 26,000 words in five days. Ahhh! Seriously, it’s amazing what you can do when you shut the world out and focus. Hopefully this major boost means I’ll be able to meet my goal of finishing a first draft by July 31st, when the first round of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge kicks off.

Anyway, on to Music Monday! Today, I thought I’d share a song that helped inspire me as I wrote my booty off last week: OneRepublic’s “Love Runs Out”.

D96028B1249DC92023B3DF5A5443E7F9201421220339876The number one thing I love about this song is its rhythm and beat. It’s edgy, energetic, and even a little dark. Every time I listen to it, I close my eyes and get lost in the incessant thumping of the drums, piano, and cymbals. And every time it finishes, I realize I’ve thought of a new layer to my story. A new drama, a new twist, a new character trait, a new something.

one-republic-love-runs-out-music-video-2014As always, the lyrics provide oodles of inspiration as well. I didn’t really listen to them the first few times I played “Love Runs Out”, but then I Googled them and I realized they fit my story perfectly.

Ooh, we all want the same thing.
Ooh, we all run for something.
Oh for God, for fate,
For love, for hate,
For gold, and rust,
For diamonds, and dust.

I’ll be our light, your match, your burning sun,
I’ll be the bright and black that’s making you run.

5ee20a4a8ccff7886e0566fcd5604dc0If you’re looking for an energetic song with an amazing rhythm and inspiring lyrics, then check out OneRepublic’s “Love Runs Out”.

What song(s) are you in love with right now? Which one(s) offer you inspiration? Let me know! I’m always searching for songs that motivate my writing.

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Music Monday – James Horner Tribute

Welcome to Music Monday! As many of you know, music contributes a great deal to my writing process. Whether it’s a song’s lyrics, beat, rhythm, or tone, I find myself constantly inspired by it.

writing-to-musicLast week, the world lost an amazing, creative, and inspiring composer.

James Horner.

james-hornerLike so many, I was devastated when I heard the news of his death. For years, I’ve been listening to Horner’s compositions, and not just while watching the many blockbuster films he scored, but also while writing. Many a scene has been choreographed in my mind while listening to his music. In fact, I’m certain I have at least one James Horner composition on every book playlist I’ve ever created.

james-horner-collageJames Horner’s work is dramatic, suspenseful, and touching. It not only brings the movies we love to life, but it also has the power to bring a writer’s imagination to life. It helps us experience the emotions of our characters, visualize and plan the scenes of our stories, and develop the twists and turns that take our work to the next level.

I encourage you to take a moment today to listen to some of James Horner’s work below. I promise you’ll find inspiration in at least one of them.

One of my all-time favorites (and a previous Music Monday).

I like listening to this one whenever I take a step back and look at a story’s bigger picture. (Almost like imagining its trailer).

This is a favorite whenever I’m writing a particularly dramatic scene.

Thank you, James Horner, for composing such beautiful music, and offering writers like me such amazing inspiration. You will be greatly missed.

james-horner-oscars-2010-1415881552-article-0

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