NaNoWriMo Tips – It’s Over, So Now What

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

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

“Now what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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3 Tips on How To Improve Your Writing

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

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

1. Writing Contests/Challenges 

Writing contests and challenges are terrific for many reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Beta Reading

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

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

3. TV Shows, Movies, and Live Theater

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

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

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

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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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NaNoWriMo – Find Your Reason

In a couple of weeks, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) kicks off. Thousands of writers from around the globe will attempt to write 50,000 words in one month.

Perhaps you’ve been among the thousands who’ve attempted to complete this insane challenge? Perhaps you’ve never considered it until this year? Perhaps you’re reading this blog and thinking, “Hmm, that sounds interesting. Maybe I’ll give it a try?” Whether you’re a seasoned vet, or new to the game, you should ask yourself an important question before NaNo starts on November 1st:

“Why am I doing this?”

The obvious answer is, “Because I want to, duh!” But, let’s take a step back and think beyond the obvious. We each need a specific reason for taking on such a massive task. Without one, we’re far more likely to fail. At some point during the process, we’ll smack into a wall and think, “Ugh, why am I doing this?”

Here are just a few reasons for participating in NaNoWriMo:

Start a Novel

Probably the most popular reason people decide to participate in NaNoWriMo is to start a new novel. And, why not? There’s no better way to dive into a first draft than word vomiting 50,000 words.

Write, write, write, write, write…

That’s what we’re supposed to do with a first draft: WRITE! Open the creative floodgates and go for it. But, often times, we act like perfectionists during a first draft. Many of us refuse to move on from chapter one because “It’s just not right.” Or we’ll find the strength to push on, and we’ll make it to chapter twenty before we suddenly realize we made a mistake in chapter one. Then we’ll go allllll the way back to fix it–which, inevitably, leads to starting over. Ahhhh!

NaNoWriMo prevents perfectionism. It forces us to suck it up and push through the horridness of a first draft. Because, yes, first drafts are horrible. They’re suppose to be! They should be heaping, steaming piles of plots, characters, typos, and loopholes that reek of general awfulness. Trying to make them perfect is…pointless. It’s like trying to mop the floors while your children or pets stomp around with muddy feet. Just let the mess happen and then clean it up.

If anything, think about this quote by Shannon Hale said:

I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.

Finish a Novel

Perhaps you started writing a novel last NaNo, but stopped the moment you hit 50K words. Perhaps you started writing a few months ago, but you’ve gotten stuck in the Perfectionist Zone and can’t bring yourself to move past the first 30K words. Or, perhaps, you’ve picked up your novel and written a few pages, put it down, worked on another project, picked it up again and wrote another few pages, set it down, walked off and neglected it for a month, picked it up and tried again…

Whatever the case, NaNo is a great way to finish a novel already in progress. Is this cheating? Um, no. Remember, NaNo is about writing 50K words in one month. That doesn’t mean those words have to be for a brand new novel. They can be for the second half of a novel, which is just as important as the first half.

Many writers don’t even make it to the second half of their story. They reach the middle and slam into a brick wall; and rather than kicking the wall down and trudging forward, they limp off to write another story instead. It’s just easier that way. Don’t take the easy way out. Try using NaNoWriMo to charge through the muck and mire of a story’s middle to reach the end. You might not love what you write, and you’ll likely change it in the next draft, but at least you’ll have a complete first draft. Which means you’ll have a story you can mold and shape into something fit for readers.

Get Motivated

Let’s say you’ve been out of the writing game for a while. Or maybe you’ve been battling writer’s block and just can’t find your footing. If you’ve lost your mojo, then it’s time to NaNo.

NaNoWriMo is one of the best kicks in the butt a writer can get. It’s our very own Loretta Castorini, who slaps us in the face and shouts, “Snap out of it!” (Yes, that was a “Moonstruck” reference.) When we NaNo, we don’t have time to think or question what we’re writing. We just write. Write, write, write, as fast as we can. Again, it’s all about word vomiting. We could start out writing a YA fantasy, and 10K words in realize we’re actually writing a contemporary drama. Great! Who cares? Run with it! And if the genre, plot, and/or characters change again, so be it. There are no boundaries with NaNo. We write what we want, however we want.

All that matters is we find inspiration to write and keep writing past November 30th.

Prove You Can

Have you ever been told you can’t do something? Or maybe you’re super competitive and want to win just to win?

Many people take on ridiculous challenges just to prove they can. I know I do. For example, this past summer I ran my second half marathon after I swore I’d never, EVER run one again. I was convinced my body could not handle the miles and miles and miles of asphalt, dirt paths, hills, and mountains. So, what did I do? I signed up for a race just to prove I could do it. I wanted to silence the negative voice within me that said I was too weak, too busy, too out of shape, too whatever. And silence it I did. Not only did I complete the half marathon, but I had a blast doing it (much more fun than my first half marathon ten years ago).

Writing can be like running a race. It’s hard work, it’s emotionally draining, and it can be overwhelming. We often question ourselves and everything we put on paper. We doubt our talent, our imagination, and our goals. NaNoWriMo helps silence these doubts and prove we can write. It might not be pretty, and it might be exhausting, but we can do it. And once we gain confidence, we can tackle even bigger challenges (yes, even bigger than NaNo).

Create a New Routine

Life gets busy. Chores, family, school, work, bills, meetings, special events, exercising, etc. Sometimes life gets so busy, writing plummets to the bottom of the totem pole. It’s sort of like the gym. We miss going one day and tell ourselves we’ll make it up the next. But then the next day arrives and we just can’t find the time for it, so we delay another day. Then another and another until suddenly working out is no longer part of our regular routine. It’s only something we do when the mood strikes–and it probably doesn’t strike often because we’re out of shape and–ugh! It’s gonna hurt.

Writing is the same way.

If we’ve fallen off the wagon, one of the best ways to get back on track is NaNoWriMo. Think of it like bootcamp. The first week is going to be painful, and we might not even meet our daily word count. But, as we stick to it, we’ll start to get our rhythm and flow back. Not only that, we’ll start to make time for it again. We’ll squeeze in a writing sprint while we’re waiting to pick up our kids from school. Or we’ll wake up a half hour earlier–or stay up a half hour later. Or we’ll choose to skip Netflix after dinner and escape somewhere quiet to write instead.

NaNoWriMo forces us to adjust our schedules, reset our priorities, and make time to write. Better yet, we’ll be able to carry our new routines past November 30th.

There are many reasons to participate in NaNoWriMo (far more than I’ve listed). Whatever your reason is, make sure you have one. And don’t just say, “I want to start a novel.” Be specific. “I’m going to start a novel, and I’m not going to revise as I go.” Or “I want to finish my novel, and then revise it starting December 1st so it’s ready for literary agents by May 1st.”

Find your purpose with NaNoWriMo, and you’re sure to win it. Good luck!

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Protected: Zili – 2nd Round – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

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Cheers – Round 1 – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

Greetings, blog followers! Yes, it’s me. And, yes, I’m still alive.

As you’ve may (or may not) have noticed, I’ve been absent from the blog world the past few months (er, maybe longer). I made a New Year’s resolution to put all of my attention and free time into finishing my novel, which I almost have! By the end of summer/early fall, I should have my manuscript and query letter ready to go for literary agents (eeks!).

This past weekend, I decided to reward my good, focused behavior by participating in my 5th NYC Midnight (NYCM) Flash Fiction Challenge (FFC). To be honest, I signed up for this writing contest a couple of months ago hoping my novel would be in my betas’ hands when the challenge kicked off…Wrong! My betas returned their notes a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been revising ever since. So, it was really hard to shift gears on Friday night.

But, I did. And I had so much fun!

As a quick reminder, the NYCM FFC is a writing contest where writers from all over the world are given three prompts (genre, location, and object), and then 48-hours to write a 1,000 word story. It never fails to stress me out, but it’s always worth it.

Round one kicked off last Friday night at 10 p.m. (MST). I prayed and prayed the prompt gods would give me comedy. Why? Because 1) it’s the complete opposite of what I usually write, and 2) it’s one of the few NYCM genres I’ve never been assigned.

Well, guess what? The prompt gods finally answered my prayers! I was put in group 40, which had to write a comedy that took place in a bartending school and incorporated sandpaper.

 

First impressions: 

Comedy

Bartending school

Sandpaper

I literally squealed when I saw comedy as my assigned genre. It’s taken five years and 17 rounds of NYC Midnight contests for me to get this genre (I don’t count rom-com or political satire, because those are very specific comedies that push you into a smaller realm of the comedy world). As for my other prompts…ugh. The location threw me. I’ve never been a bar-kinda girl, and I don’t drink much, so finding inspiration was tough. The sandpaper prompt didn’t faze me. I’ve had much, MUCH weirder objects to incorporate, so I pushed it to the back of my mind.

My process with these contests has become fairly streamlined: Friday night, brainstorm/plan general gist of story. Saturday, write. Sunday, edit/beta read.

So, as usual, I brainstormed on Friday night and went to bed with a solid idea. I planned to sleep in on Saturday because I had a really rough week at work and needed the rest, but my body refused to listen. It’s been hardwired for pre-dawn workouts in preparation for a half marathon I’m running in August, so I ended up waking up, bright and early, at 4 a.m. Which meant I only got about four hours of sleep. Which meant I was exhausted all. Day. Long.

Somehow I managed to find my groove and dig into my story by noon. As I wrote, my original concept changed quite a bit. I discovered comedy is different from other genres because you have to let the humor evolve organically. If you find something funny, then you have to keep going with it and play up the joke. My joke ended up revolving around millennials.

*cue millennial eye rolls across the world*

Sorry not sorry, millennials. But, hey, I’m partly millennial too, so I was the butt of my own jokes.

By 3 p.m., I had a rough first draft that was 500 words OVER the limit. Blerg! I decided to let it rest while I attended my brother’s 30th birthday bash (yes, I was a fantastic social butterfly at that event.) When I got home later that evening, I rolled up my sleeves and began revising–er, chopping. I successfully hacked about 200 words before crashing for the night.

The next morning, I had to get up early for my pre-dawn workout. Thankfully, I felt pretty calm about my story. Still, I was eager to get home and back to writing. I only had until 4 p.m. that day to finish and submit my story before I had to leave for yet another event. (Yeah, it wasn’t the best weekend to participate in a writing competition.)

As always, my wonderful, patient mother came over to my house and helped me edit. I was more nervous than usual to get her opinion on the story because it was so far out of my comfort zone. And because I had NO idea if it was actually funny. But, thank the Lord, she laughed a lot. So did the six other beta readers who helped me chop my comedy down from 1,200 to 996 words. Phew! I whipped together a synopsis and submitted my story eight hours ahead of the official deadline.

Yeah, despite the lack of tears and heart palpitations this round, I was exhausted. But, I genuinely like what I came up with, and I’m really proud of myself for tackling a genre so completely out of my comfort zone.

In the past, I shared my story publicly. However, I’ve begun sending my work to publishers, so I’m no longer posting them here for any and all to read. Sorry! If you are interested in reading it, please send me a message and I’ll provide you with the password. For now, here’s my title and synopsis:

“Bottoms Up”

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A millennial needs a job to handle life’s necessities, like yoga, Netflix, and Starbucks. He decides to try bartending (#thestruggleisreal).

Congrats to all those who participated and submitted a story for NYCM’s Flash Fiction Challenge 2017!

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Jen’s Editing Tips – Beta Reader Etiquette 201

Around this time last year, I wrote a blog post regarding beta reader etiquette, all from the perspective of the writer. Today, I’d like to turn the tables and discuss beta reader etiquette from the perspective of the beta.

Jen's Editing Tips

Yes, believe it or not, there are basic etiquette rules to follow when you volunteer to read another writer’s work. You don’t get a free pass to act however you please because you kindly offered to help out. Certain guidelines should be followed to not only ensure your feedback gets taken to heart, but also to maintain healthy, productive relationships.

Be Tactful

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Every beta reader is different. Some are brutally honest, others are overly sweet. Most try to land in the middle. Whichever direction you lean, you should be as tactful with your words as possible. No, this doesn’t mean those of you who like to cut straight to the chase have to sugarcoat everything. It simply means you need to choose your words wisely.

For example, do you hate a character? Well, don’t tell the writer, “I hate Character A.” Or, worse, call them a crass name (yes, I’ve had a beta call one of my protagonists the “C” word.) When you take this blunt, zero-filter approach, you risk losing the respect of the writer (no matter how thick their skin might be). They won’t care why you hate the protagonist. They’ll be too offended to take anything you say seriously.

Instead, consider voicing your dislike in a direct, but helpful way. For example, “I admit, I wasn’t a fan of Character A. They lacked emotional depth…” and so on.  You can still be honest (to the point of giving the writer a little slap in the face), but you won’t knock the writer out. They’ll shake off the sting and read the rest of your feedback.

Of course, there are exceptions to this “rule.” Some writers beg their betas to be as blunt and cruel as possible. (I’ve had writers ask me to say exactly what was on my mind, however horrible it might be.) However, the majority of writers react better to negative news when it’s presented in a tactful manner.

Listen

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When a writer asks you to beta for them, they might request a certain type of feedback: Big picture, character arcs, pacing, grammar, etc.  If this happens, listen to them. Don’t nitpick grammatical mistakes when all they want is a general first impression; and don’t nitpick the plot when all they want is a proofread. Focus on what they ask for. Give them the answers they seek.

If a writer doesn’t give you specific instructions, then I suggest you ask them. Many will respond, “Any and all feedback would be appreciated.” But others might clarify. If they do, follow their directions. Listen!

Give REAL Feedback

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Beta reading is a tough job, especially for those who are sensitive and don’t like to hurt other people’s feelings. But, when you volunteer to beta, you volunteer to point out the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are no rewards for being Miss/Mr. Congeniality. If you tell a writer you absolutely LOVED their AMAZING, INCREDIBLE, AWARD-WINNING MASTERPIECE, then you aren’t doing them any favors. You need to help them find their story’s flaws, however big or small, before the rest of the world does.

Does this mean you should only look for flaws? Absolutely not. Telling a writer what you enjoyed about the story is just as important as telling them what you disliked about it. It’s all about balance. You need to be honest, but constructive. Encouraging, but realistic. Explain to a writer why you loved their concept, but disliked their characters. Explain how the beginning and ending worked, but the middle grew murky and slow.

Remember, even the strongest stories have flaws that need to be addressed. Don’t be afraid to address them.

Think Before You Commit

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Everyone is busy nowadays. We all have jobs, families, chores, writing projects, etc. Therefore, before you volunteer to beta for someone, find out what you’re committing to. How long is the story? 1K words? 10K? 100K? How quickly does the writer need your feedback? A couple hours? A couple weeks? A couple of months? How much feedback is the writer looking for? A few sentences? A handful of paragraphs? In-depth notes in the margins?

These are important questions to ask. Why? Because you don’t know what the writer expects from you. You don’t know if they’re on a deadline, taking a long break between drafts, or staring at their computer every second of every day, anxiously awaiting your judgment.

Although you’re doing the writer a favor, you’re still working on their watch. This is a fact. Every project has a timeline. You must stick to theirs, not yours. So, before you volunteer, make sure you can deliver. If you can’t, that’s okay. Be honest with the writer. Tell them why you can’t help out (“I have too many projects on my plate at the moment.” Or “I could get my notes back to you in a month, not a week.” Etc.). They should be understanding. Or, if they really, really want your opinion, they’ll adjust their timeline to fit yours.

Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

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If you critique another writer’s story, then etiquette dictates that writer offers you one in return. Beta reading is and should be a two-way street. You give, you get. You get, you give. Easy-peasy.

However, not every writer follows this rule. In fact, I’d say at least a third of the writers I work with don’t return the favor. I’ll admit, it’s frustrating, but…what can I do about it? Beg? Bribe? Guilt-trip? That’s not how things work. When you offer to beta, you can’t expect to be rewarded for it. You just can’t. You have to enter the process with the intention to help someone else (not yourself).

With that said, I urge you to resist getting used, again and again. Apply a Three Strikes policy to every writer. If you do not receive a return critique from them after reading three of their stories, then stop offering to help. I know it can be hard to do that, but there are plenty of writers out there willing to give back. Don’t choose the ones who only worry about themselves. It isn’t right, it isn’t fair, and it most definitely isn’t proper.

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Beta reading is a hefty, responsible task. But, if you do it right, and do it well, you should come away from the experience satisfied. Not only have you helped a fellow writer improve their story, but you’ve likely made connections that will help you improve your own work in the future!

How about you? What are some of your beta reader etiquette tips?

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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Photo credits: giphy