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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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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When Your Novel Is Ready For Agents – 6 Tips

As many of you might’ve noticed, my blog has fallen by the wayside the past year. In my defense, there’s been a good reason for my absence: my novel. Last January, I made a New Year’s resolution to finish my manuscript and have it ready for agents by late 2017/early 2018. That meant I had to resist using precious time and mental energy for things like blogging, social media, writing contests, and other enjoyable but, unfortunately, non-novel work.

Despite missing out on all the fun, I’m pleased to say my method of madness has worked. By the end of the year, I’ll have a novel ready for agents!

As exciting as it is to take the next step in the publishing journey, it’s important to know when to take the next step. Many writers tend to rush through the process, while others hesitate and question if they’re really ready.

Here are six tips to help you decide if your novel is ready for agents:

1: You’ve written at least two complete drafts. 

Unless you’re a seasoned pro who knows how to pound out a perfect first draft, then you’ll need to write, revise, and edit at least two drafts before you deem it worthy of an agent’s eyes. Depending on your process, you’ll likely write many, many more. Personally, I’m a pantser and I’m approaching my 20th draft.

Because we all have different processes, there’s no exact number of drafts needed to deem a novel “done.” The best thing to do is to ask questions like these:

  • Is my plot fully developed? Are there any missing scenes? Do I have any scenes that can be chopped to tighten the story?
  • Are my characters believable? Likable? Do I have any unnecessary characters?
  • Do I have plenty of conflict?
  • Does my pacing work well?
  • Is my dialogue organic?
  • Have I proofread? Like, a million times?
  • Have I asked others to critique my work?
  • Does anything about the story bother me?

Whether it takes two or 20 drafts, we need to flesh out our stories and polish them up before we send them to agents.

2: You’ve recruited beta readers.

Some writers will write a chapter and share it with critique partners. Others will write 15 drafts before they feel comfortable sharing a single word with a single soul. There’s no right answer on how we share our work, just as long as we share it before sending it to literary agents. Otherwise, we’ll likely miss glaring plot holes, spelling and grammar blips, underdeveloped characters, and many other problems.

The real question is how many beta readers should we use? Well, once again, it’s an individual choice. There’s no magical number. However, there’s such a thing as too few and too many beta readers.

If we only use one beta reader, we’ll likely miss out on critical feedback. Why? Because every beta reader is different. Some are great at critiquing plots and characters. Some are better at correcting grammar. Some love to focus on pacing and pure entertainment. Some delight in dissecting every. Single. Word.

On the flip side, if we send our manuscript to 15+ beta readers (especially all at once), then we’ll likely regret our decision. Too much feedback, and we’re bound to feel overwhelmed and confused. In fact, we’ll likely experience a small meltdown and question everything we wrote.

Personally, I handled my beta readers like this:

Beta Draft 1: Four readers who were asked for big picture feedback. I simply wanted to know if the plot and characters worked. (And if not, why?)

Beta Draft 2: Five readers who were asked to point out any and all flaws. Plot, grammar, characters, pacing. ANYTHING!

Beta Draft 3: Five readers who were asked to pretend they found my novel in a bookstore and read it for fun. If it wasn’t fun, or if something stopped them dead cold, why?

The strategy has worked very well for me. But, again, every writer is different. Some might only need a couple of betas. Some might need more. The important thing is to recruit at least two, and ask them to point out the good, the bad, and the ugly.

3: You’ve reached a solid, marketable word count.

No matter what genre we write, we need to know word count expectations. If we send an agent a chick lit novel that’s 115K words, they’ll likely laugh and toss our query into the trash. However, if we send a historical fiction novel that’s 115K words, an agent will probably consider it. All genres have a general range agents expect our story to land in. Only a few get the “okay” for larger word counts (sci-fi, historical fiction, and fantasy).

When it comes to adult fiction, Writer’s Digest breaks it down like this:

80,000 – 89,999:        Totally cool
90,000 – 99,999:        Generally safe
70,000 – 79,999:         Might be too short; probably all right
100,000 – 109,999:     Might be too long; probably all right
Below 70,000:            Too short
110,000 or above        Too long

Before we submit our manuscript to agents, we need to research our genre. It’d be a crying shame to realize our MG novels are 40K words too short, or our thrillers are 20K words too long.

4: You start overthinking things.

Many writers are perfectionists. Some of us are so focused on making our stories so perfect that we fail to realize we’ve crossed through the Perfect Zone and entered the Overthinking Zone. We start chopping words unnecessarily, dramatically alter flowing sentences, and tweak characters to the point we ruin what made them so special in the first place.

A few ways to know we’ve reached the Overthinking Zone include:

  • Beta readers tell us, “Stop! You’re ready for the next step.” (Let me emphasize this “green light” needs to come from those who’ve read the manuscript. Don’t let friends, family, and other writing pals pressure you into skipping important steps. They don’t know where you’re at in the process. Your betas do.)
  • Edits become infinitesimal. (i.e. You change the word “stare” to “gape,” and then back to “stare.”)
  • We’ve proofread our story to death (and asked others to proofread it to death for us).

The truth is, many of us will never consider our stories perfect. Ever. Even if it lands on the New York Times Best Seller list, we’ll still find flaws. It’s just who we are. That’s why we need to recognize when it’s time to step back, close our eyes, and take a leap of faith.

5: You’ve prepped all of your submission materials.

If we choose the traditional path of publishing, then we need to be prepared to submit more than our manuscript. Most agents will require a query letter, but from there it varies. A query letter might be all an agent wants. Others might request a three-paragraph synopsis. Some might want a three-page synopsis. And then there’s the dreaded pitch to practice in case we need to present our idea verbally. For example, when I optioned my YA novel to a Hollywood producer, I had to pitch my story dozens of times to various executives (usually via an unexpected phone call (talk about nerve-racking!)).

If we are lucky enough to receive that spectacular, dream-worthy phone call from an agent, we also need to be ready to speak to that agent. In fact, we shouldn’t query an agent until we’ve done homework on them. Remember, these are the people who will determine if our books (and our careers) rise or fall. We need to know what type of agent they are. Are they hands-on? Distant? Better at negotiating deals than developing projects? Are they great at both? For me, I want an agent who cares. The last (and only) agent I had treated me like a chore. I’d get a call once every three to six months with an update on the status of my project. That was it. Granted, this was a Hollywood agent who had bigger fish to fry, but still. I learned my lesson: before committing to an agent, ask questions. We need to know who we’ll be partnering up with.

Bottom line, take the time to properly prepare your submission materials, and research agents. It’ll make life easier and happier if you do.

6: Your novel is presentable at a moment’s notice.

Let’s face it. Writing a quality book is hard, and it takes for-evvver! And it’s really, really tempting to skip to the end of the process and see if an agent would even read what we have.

Resist the urge!

One of the biggest no-no’s a writer can make is querying an agent before a novel is finished. Agents don’t want concepts, first chapters, or half finished manuscripts. They want the whole thing–and they want it on demand. So, before we send our query letters, we must have a polished, 100% COMPLETE manuscript.

“Eh, an agent is probably going to take at least a month to respond to my query, so I may as well send it and continue editing.” Nope, don’t do it! Just because we’re almost done with our book doesn’t mean we’re done. Besides, what happens when an agent asks for our book in less than a week? Maybe even sooner? I’ve had a full request within two days. It happens. Play it safe and polish up the story before hitting the submit button.

Some writers are impatient and want to speed through the writing process. Others drag their feet, despite their eagerness, and want everything perfect before they contact agents. We all need to know when we’re truly ready to take the next step. We can’t rush to the finish line, but we also can’t keep running lap after lap.

Resources: Writer’s DigestTwitter

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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 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 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, 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, but you should at least consider each before embarking on your writing journey.

Good luck with your project!

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Jen’s Top 5 Favorite Books of 2016

I have to admit, I’ve been a terrible reader the past year. In fact, I only managed to consume about 20 books (compared to my usual 60+). I’m not sure what happened. Maybe it was fatigue from working a new job, writing a new novel, and critiquing over 200 stories? Or maybe it was pure lack of interest? (I picked up and put down so many books!) I’m not sure where I can place the blame, but I’m definitely ashamed of how few books I read.

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Even though my book pile was pitifully small in 2016, I still read some great novels. Each of them captured my attention, delivered great entertainment, and made an impact of some kind. So, if you’re looking for a good book to read, check out my top five favorites from this past year.

Jen’s Top 5 Favorite Books of 2016

Edge of Eternity” by Ken Follett

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“Edge of Eternity is the sweeping, passionate conclusion to Ken Follett’s extraordinary historical epic, The Century Trilogy.”

I’m only about a third of the way through this 1,000+ page novel, but I know it’s going to be my favorite book of 2016. “The Edge of Eternity” is the third and final novel in Ken Follett’s series, The Century Trilogy. What I love about it (and its predecessors) is how it brings history to life with sharp, believable characters, engaging plot lines, and a galloping pace. I can usually finish one of Follett’s behemoth novels in just a few weeks (and that’s taking my time). Whether you’re a fan of historical fiction or not, I highly recommend this series!

To read more about “Edge of Eternity,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.

Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett

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“Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.”

During my driest reading spell in early November I decided to check out Goodreads’s nominations for the Best Books of 2016. I skipped around each genre, reading synopses and adding those that piqued my interest to my TBR list. “Commonwealth” was one of those novels.  Not only am I a big fan of Ann Patchett’s, but I’m also a sucker for family dramas. So, I had to believe this book would save me from the reading desert I’d stumbled into. And it did! “Commonwealth” was chock-full of intrigue, emotion, and drama. I couldn’t put it down!

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

Winter” by Marissa Meyer

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“Can Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter defeat Levana and find their happily ever afters? Fans will not want to miss this thrilling conclusion to Marissa Meyer’s national bestselling Lunar Chronicles series.”

Finally! I got my hands on the last book in Marissa Meyer’s series, the Lunar Chronicles. And it was as good as I’d hoped it’d be.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with this popular young adult series, it’s basically fairy tale meets sci-fi. The tales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White are given new twists and threaded together into a fresh, amazing plot. My only suggestion to those who’ve taken a long break between book three (“Cress”) and “Winter”: Read the series again! Refresh your memory, or else “Winter” won’t be nearly as magical.

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

The Nest” by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

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“A warm, funny and acutely perceptive debut novel about four adult siblings and the fate of the shared inheritance that has shaped their choices and their lives.”

There was a lot of hype about “The Nest” in 2016. I became aware of it over the summer when I kept seeing pictures of it all over Instagram. The cover kept grabbing my attention–over and over. Finally, I surrendered and reserved it at the library. When I went to pick it up, I was apprehensive and a dash cynical. If there’s too much chatter about a novel, I worry my high expectations won’t get met. However, I was pleasantly surprised by “The Nest.” If you like family dramas, then you’ll want to read this one. It’s addicting!

To read more about “The Nest,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.

Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes

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“A Love Story for this generation and perfect for fans of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Me Before You brings to life two people who couldn’t have less in common—a heartbreakingly romantic novel that asks, What do you do when making the person you love happy also means breaking your own heart?”

Okay, full disclosure, I did not LOVE “Me Before You.” However, it held my attention when so many others failed to do so. This novel is definitely not your typical romance. In fact, I felt it belonged more in the drama section of the bookstore than the romance. But, that’s neither here nor there. “Me Before You” delivers an excellent plot, engaging characters, and a great hook that pulls you through the pages–fast! If you like romances that are less fantasy and more reality, then check this one out.

To read more about “Me Before You,” 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 some fantastic books. I hope you get a chance to read one or all of them!

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What are some of your favorite books from 2016? Let me know in the comments section! I’m planning to participate in the Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge, so I’ll need plenty of recommendations to help me reach my goal.

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

NaNoWriMo is just about over (t-minus two days). At this point every year, I hear many participants say, “Why bother finishing? I’m not going to win.”

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Here’s my answer to anyone contemplating this question: 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.

giphy-1 But, let me clarify something: NaNo is a writing challenge, 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 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.

Here’s the truth about NaNoWriMo: If you sit down and start writing on November first, you’ve won. If you keep writing beyond November 30th, you’re a star. If you finish your manuscript, 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). Go ahead 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.

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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 2016. You’re all winners in my book!

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