NaNoWriMo Tips – It’s Over, So Now What

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

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

“Now what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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3 Tips on How To Improve Your Writing

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

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

1. Writing Contests/Challenges 

Writing contests and challenges are terrific for many reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Beta Reading

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

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

3. TV Shows, Movies, and Live Theater

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

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

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

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10 Tips For NaNoWriMo

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

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

Jen’s Top 10 NaNoWriMo Tips

1. Decide Why You’re Participating

“I dunno, I signed up just because.”

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

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

“I have a great idea for a novel.”

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

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

2. Just Write! 

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

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

JUST WRITE!

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

3. Don’t Skip Days

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

Bad idea.

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

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

4. Be Proactive

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

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

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

5. Find an Idea You Love

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

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

6. Evolve With Your Idea

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

Remember: JUST WRITE!

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

7. Embrace a Love-Hate Relationship

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

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

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

8. Lean On Other Writers for Support

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

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

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

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

9. Have Fun! 


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

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

10. Worst Case Scenario

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

Big. Deal.

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

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

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

JUST WRITE!

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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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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 Editing Tips – Why, Why, Why

The past few months, I’ve critiqued around 90 stories. During that time, I’ve noticed a common issue that has left me scratching my head all too often. It’s an issue every writer deals with, but not every writer knows to address until someone (a beta, an editor, a reader, etc.) points it out to them.

Jen's Editing Tips

“What’s the point of this story?”

“Your plot feels aimless.”

“Why is this happening?”

“Why is that happening?”

“Why? Why? WHY?”

As obvious as it is, stories need a purpose. Whether it’s something as grand as saving the world, or something subtler like self-discovery, every story needs something that drives it forward. A key motive that is the backbone of everything else. I like to call this the “Big Why.”

“Why am I writing this story?”

“Why does my protagonist exist?”

“Why will readers care?”

You should be asking yourself these vital questions while you write. No, you shouldn’t let them consume you to the point you can’t write anything at all. In fact, I’d recommend during your first draft (or two) you simply write and not worry about the Big Why. Let it develop as you go along. However, by the time you’re approaching your final draft(s), you should have a solid answer. If you can’t verbalize the main purpose of your story to a stranger (yes, I know we all hate the dreaded, “What’s your story about?” question) then you need to step back and think about it.

Once you’ve nailed down your Big Why, it’s time to support it. For example, you can say, “My story is about a girl with special powers who saves the world from an evil madman.” But, why? Why does this particular girl have to be the one who saves the world? Can’t someone else do it? And why does this evil madman want to take over the world? And why is he evil? And a madman?

As storytellers, we need to dig deeper with our motives. Saying, “I don’t know” or “Just because” won’t satisfy readers. Everything needs to have a reason, and those reasons need to be unique. Don’t say the girl has to save the world because she’s gifted (or, worse, because she’s “the chosen one”). Give her depth, obstacles, tragedy, hope–something that triggers her desire to rescue mankind. And don’t say the madman wants to conquer the world because he’s power hungry. Why does he want power? Why is he so hellbent on world domination? Again,  “I don’t know” and “Just because” won’t cut it. Give readers more. Help them understand so they’re able to connect to your story.

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Digging into the Big Why means digging into every aspect of your story. If you don’t have a viable explanation for each component, then you need to consider the reason for its existence.

Characters

Do you ever notice when a book gets adapted into a film, the film version sometimes (ahem, all the time) chops out secondary characters (and subplots)? Yeah, it annoys me too. But let’s think about why Hollywood does this: They have to condense a 400-page book into a two-hour film. That means they have to be picky and only use what matters. And what matters are the things that support the Big Why.

Although I hate seeing my favorite books butchered, I have to admit I like Hollywood’s general strategy from an editor’s standpoint. It’s brutal, but necessary. All of us (myself included) have to be willing to whittle our stories down to the essentials. Which means we have to examine all aspects, including our characters. As much as we want all of our imaginary friends and foes to stick around, sometimes–er, many times–it’s not in our story’s best interest. We have to put on our “Hollywood Caps” and start asking, “Why?”

“Why does this character exist?”

“Why do I need three sidekicks? Isn’t two plenty?”

“Why do I have two women with different names, but similar roles?”

Why, why, WHY? Just like The Big Why, we have to evaluate each character and figure out what the point of their existence is. If they’re not driving the plot forward, then give them a hug and part ways. Or take what you love about them and combine it with another (more valuable) character.

Plots

Just like with characters, not every plot line needs to stay in a story. In fact, the more plots you have, the foggier the Big Why can become. This isn’t to say multiple plots lines are bad. Not at all! Just look at “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Fall of Giants,” and “The Lunar Chronicles.” Each has multiple plots, but each of those plots matter. And, one way or another, they all contribute to the Big Why.

Unfortunately, many writers fall into the deep, dark Plot Pit. They keep inessential story lines that take readers away from the main focus and into a maze of, “Huh?” These include random tangents, excessive info dumps, and sentimental scenes nobody but the author understands. So, once again, as you’re editing, sit back and ask yourself why:

“Why does this plot exist?”

“Why is this scene relevant?”

“Why will this plot matter in the long run?”

Words, Words, Words

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I know we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty, but we must if we want our stories (and their Big Whys) to stand out. We can create the best plots and the best characters, but readers won’t be able to appreciate them if they get lost in translation. So, everyone grab their beloved red pen and start asking:

“Why do I need this paragraph? This sentence? This word?”

“Why did I use dialogue here?”

“Why not break up this paragraph and add more white space?”

Obviously this isn’t a step to take during your first couple of drafts (if you do, you won’t get anything done). But, when you begin to edit and polish your manuscript, go at it. Attack every page with your red pen. Slash the fat, rearrange words, and tighten things up until every aspect of your story reads loud and clear.

The more you ask, “Why?” about your story, the clearer its purpose will become. Just remember there’s a time and place for everything, and that includes asking this important question. Don’t let it bog you down every step of the way. Ask it when the time is right…Just make sure to ask it at some point.

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

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

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NaNoWriMo Tips – How To Manage Your Time

The countdown is officially on. NaNoWriMo is just days away!

Okay, perhaps the idea of writing 50,000 words in one month doesn’t freak you out. But, for many of us (including those who’ve “won” NaNo before) the endeavor is terrifying. That’s a lot–a lot–of work in a small–a small–amount of time. And, no matter how prepared you feel, I can promise you one thing:

You won’t succeed if you don’t manage your time.

It only takes a few missed days during NaNoWriMo to fall behind schedule. And it only takes a few more missed days to make catching up near impossible. So, managing your time and keeping your focus is essential. Today, I’d like to share some tips on how to do this.

Not only have these time management methods helped me win NaNoWriMo twice, but they’ve also helped me whip out revised manuscripts for agents within three weeks, and submit stories for contests with deadlines as short as 24-hours. I’ll admit, most of these strategies aren’t fun or pretty, but if you want to meet a tight deadline, then I’d recommend trying one or all of them.

Chop Out Distractions

Duh, right?

But, as obvious as this one is, it’s the most important. It’s also the hardest. Although many distractions are unavoidable (working a full-time job, taking care of your family, paying bills, etc.), there are many you can avoid: Watching Netflix, playing Candy Crush, going out with friends, Tweeting, etcetera, etcetera. You have to chop out these activities when you’re on a deadline. It stinks, but if want to reach the finish line, then you need to dedicate all of your free time to writing.

And on that note…

Accept Your Loner Status

We’ve all heard writing is a lonely job. Well, it is.

Even if you’re writing in a coffee shop, a library, or a park, you’re separated from the rest of the world. People can’t see what you see, or feel what you feel. It can be isolating and, well, a little depressing. Thankfully, on a regular writing schedule, you’re able to take frequent breaks to reconnect with humanity and remind yourself you live here, not in the fictitious other world you’ve created.

However, when you’re on a deadline, you don’t have the luxury of time to constantly re-root yourself in reality. You have to stay connected to that lonely other world for longer periods of time. You can’t hop on Facebook every thirty minutes, or text your bestie every hour. You have to live and breathe your story for as long as possible. Keep writing until you forget who and where you are. Keep seeing and feeling everything your characters see and feel. Keep going until you fear you might be losing your mind!

Then stop and take a break. Go eat dinner. Call a friend. IM a writing buddy. Reconnect with the real world. Do NOT lose your mind.

…And then get back to work.

Commit One FULL Day EACH Week to Writing

4a8b505cd84f1d0bcd7db17f17b2a584Nearly everyone in my life knows Saturday is my writing day. AKA, “Don’t Talk to Jenna Day.” From sun up to sun down, I write. It’s intense and it’s not always fun, but it’s vital to my production output.

And I bet it would be vital to yours as well.

By dedicating a full day to writing each week, you’ll not only give yourself a major word count boost, but you’ll give yourself a major motivation boost. It won’t matter how tired or busy you get during the rest of the week, you’ll want to keep your story moving along. You’ll want to finish that last chapter, or start the next one, or rewrite an old one to match the new one you wrote on your writing day, or…The list goes on and on.

There’s No Crying in Writing

Okay, okay. There’s lots of crying in writing. And trust me, when you’re writing under deadline, you’ll probably cry even more. But you know what? You gotta suck it up and push through the emotional breakdowns. Go grab a piece of chocolate, watch an episode of your favorite TV show, and listen to Journey’s, “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Then get back to work.

Go. Do. It. Now!

…That was my version of tough love. Did it help? No? Whatever. Go eat some more chocolate. GO!

Don’t Be Miss Congeniality

Confession: I have a horrible time saying no to people. Horrible! Whether it’s babysitting for a friend, making a hundred cupcakes for a birthday party, or editing someone else’s story, I always say yes.

However, when I’m on a deadline, I have to stifle my Miss Congeniality urge and say no. No, no, NO!

And if you’re a “yes” person like me, then you need to do the same thing. It’s terrible, but you have to be selfish when you’re trying to reach a deadline. You have to put yourself first. You have to!

To help ease your guilt, give your acquaintances, friends, and family members a heads up. Tell them you’re going to be crazy busy for the next month and you can’t help them a ton. If they know and respect you, they’ll leave you alone.

Even When You’re Not Chugging, Keep Chugging

Okay, fine. Maybe you can’t be a complete self-serving hermit during NaNoWriMo. You’ve got work, the gym, the kids, hundreds of errands, special events…

It’s okay!

If you can’t physically sit down to write, you can still keep chugging along. For example: During my hour-long spin class at the gym, I’ll close my eyes and think about my story. I’ll strategize my next scene, or create a new character, or discover a plot hole. That way when I’m finally able to sit down and write, I’m ready to go.

Of course, carrying a small notepad with you is a smart idea. That way if you come up with an idea, you can jot it down so you won’t forget it. And if you don’t have a notebook, use your phone. Most have apps now that allow you to take notes.

Just Keep Swimming

Just keep swimming. Just keep working. Just keep writing!

Swim, swim, swim. Work, work, work. Write, write, write!

Don’t. Give. Up!

Writing on a deadline is like running a marathon. It’s exhausting, difficult, and seemingly endless. But it will come to an end. Trust me. All you have to do is remember to keep your eyes on the finish line, breathe, and focus. If you do, you’ll make it. And you’ll make it on time!

So, there you go! Those are my tips for managing your time during NaNoWriMo (or with whatever project you might be working on with a tight deadline). I hope one or all of them help you meet your goals.

Good luck, everyone! If you’d like to add me as a buddy on the NaNoWriMo site, my username is jenspenden.

What about you? What are some of your time management strategies?

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