From Writing Tips

How to Win at NaNoWriMo

It’s that time of year again, writers: National Novel Writing Month has presented its challenge to us! I’ve written before about Why I Said No to NaNoWriMo. But don’t let me stop you; who has taken up the gauntlet? Who will try to write an astonishing 50,000 words in just thirty days? Can it even be done? Of course it can — if you’re smart about it. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to win at NaNoWriMo — and have the pride, honor, and accomplishment that comes with having written a novel.

1. Bank extra words when you can.
The daily word average you must maintain is about 1600 words in order to reach 50,000. But there’s a problem with just telling yourself, “Hey, I’ll just write 1,600 words every day!” The problem is that day when you come home from school exhausted, or when you have a night flute lesson to go to, or a party out on a weekend night. Suddenly the 1,600 word goal doubles and triples. That’s when it becomes impossible to keep up. So you’ve got to work smart by banking more than the average on the days when you’re on a roll. Write 2,000 words whenever you can, and then you’ll have a little cushion of words to fall back on.

2. Make a plan and outline, outline, outline.
When writing novels, many published writers make an outline of where the story will go. They don’t plan absolutely everything, allowing room for spontaneity and imagination, but they have a general direction in mind, a final destination that must be reached. As you’re writing, you must keep that destination in mind, and make at least a few sketched-out notes of how to get there. Figure out where the characters should be on the final day, and bear towards that like a ship in the night heading for the lighthouse.

3. Don’t edit! Go, go, go!
NaNoWriMo is not a time for editing. In fact, if you stop to take a breath and examine your work, you’ll never make it! It’s essential to push on through the doubts and the self-loathing and just get words on the page. Follow your own momentum and let the sentence flow from your fingertips. Let characters clash how they will. And whatever you do, don’t stop!

How is your NaNoWriMo project going? Tell us about it on the Teen Ink newsletter forum!

3 New Skills Writers Need to Make It

Let’s face it: the world of writing, and writing careers, have changed drastically in the past decade. The internet and social media have changed what it means to be a writer, who can call themselves writers, and how we can succeed in this difficult world. If you’re a writer, you have to be a shark, constantly moving forward with the tide of how the culture reads. Here are three skills every budding writer should work on (on top of all that writing, of course).

1. Creating an online platform and persona.
Do you know how John Green won the hearts of millions? It all started with a Youtube channel he created with his brother, talking about his thoughts, telling jokes, and crafting funny videos. From there he created a platform of fans ready to read and enjoy his books. Today, many writers are expected to have a firm online presence. That might mean posting on Twitter or Facebook, or gaining fans and followers on sites like Teen Ink. If you want your writing career to take off, start creating relationships with followers online. Tell them your thoughts and solicit theirs.

2. Networking with other writers.
Never has it been more clear that connecting with other writers is a crucial skill. It’s a myth that writers must work in isolation; while the actual work needs peace and quiet, the other part of writing has always been about community. You can go back to Hemingway in Paris and note that he spent most of his time chatting with fellow writers in cafes, sharing his talent and helping with others’ writing. Being part of that community is still important today; after all, if you spread the word about a friend’s book, he’ll spread the word about yours! Think about making friends of other writers. Start a creative writing club at your school or a workshop circle. Share each others’ words, and you’ll be glad for those friendships in the years to come.

3. Be your own editor.
In the past, famous writers could dump a patchwork, sloppily-written manuscript at the desk of their editors and expect it to be polished to perfection. Now that competition is fiercer, what you put on the editor’s desk has to be near-perfect already. Whenever you send out stories to magazines, remember to POLISH it first! Make sure you’re happy with it in every way before it flies out of your hands; editors, agents, and publishers are hardly likely to be impressed with a story you’ve dashed off without a second thought.

What skills do you think you need to become a writer? And what’s your plan for working on them?

Tuesday Tip: Storyboard It!

Tuesday tips is a category of posts here at Writerly Life that promises to offer concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now.

This week’s tip:

Storyboard a Scene

It’s been a while since I sent out a tip for writing at your best, so it’s about time I gave my readers one. Today I’m thinking about techniques used in cinema, and how those techniques can really improve our fiction writing. One thing that cinema has on fiction is its tight, efficient use of plot. Movies usually move more swiftly than novels and just feel “plottier” than the average book. It’s only the most tightly-plotted books, for example, that end up getting translated into movies, and even then they have to be compressed and streamlined, with whole characters and plotlines eliminated, to work on screen.

There’s no reason that we can’t learn from movies and help make our stories tighter and “plottier.” Try using a technique that filmmakers use when planning their scenes. They work in the medium of images, so draw a few boxes on a few sheets of paper — typically two or three to a page, totalling six to eight boxes. Those are the keystone images or moments that will make up just one scene. Start filling in the boxes — what needs to happen in this scene? What are the essential character moments, choices, or confrontations that must happen? If you’re no artist, then stick figures will do fine. Try to picture the scene in your mind’s eye, and picture what the most important transformations will be.

The advantage of this strategy is that it will draw the crucial elements of the scene sharply into the focus, instead of letting you wander all over the world you’ve made before figuring out what you want. The other lesson a good movie teaches us is that every scene is essential: every scene features a furthering of the plot, or a crucial decision being made. It’s immediately obvious when watching a movie when a scene feels like fluff, or is irrelevant. We need that same laser focus in our fiction writing too.

Try storyboarding the scene that you’re struggling with, and report back here to tell us how it goes!

Writing Romance

Happy Valentine’s Day, readers! My return to a regular writing schedule is coinciding with this somewhat fraught holiday, so I couldn’t get away without commenting briefly on it. For lovers, Valentine’s Day is a good marker on the calendar, at least as a way to do something special for our significant others. For the single, Valentine’s Day can be a cause for frustration, bitterness, or resentment, or a reminder of loneliness — but of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re single and happy to be that way, just let the holiday pass you by. Treat it as one of those many calendar holidays that we don’t really pay attention to, such as Arbor Day or Groundhog’s Day (no offense to the arbor or groundhog enthusiasts out there).

In any case, Valentine’s Day is a chance to think about writing about love and romance. Check out past posts I’ve written about How to Write Romance, How to Write about Flowers, and How to Write Gender in Fiction. And below, check out a new Writerly Life exclusive: the post I wrote only for my ebook, How to Write Sex Scenes. Enjoy, and have a fun holiday, whether you’re alone, with a special someone, or among a crowd tonight.

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Tuesday Tip: Have Your Character Transform

Tuesday tips is a category of posts here at Writerly Life that promises to offer concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now.

This week’s tip:

Transform Your Character

It wa sonly recently that I discovered a common theme in many of my favorite books. What endlessly surprised and delighted me was when a character found him or herself capable of transformation. In one way or another, my favorite characters transformed themselves, underwent metamorphoses, changed a mindset or a station in life or even a body. This marvelous capability of the human mind and spirit is what I find inspiring.

I’m not the only one there who wants and demands transformation from characters. Many readers want the power and possibility of change to enter the story, particularly in a character based way. So why not incorporate some sort of radical transformation into your own story? We sometimes are afraid to change our characters because we have gotten attached to the clay sculptures we’ve been crafting so laboriously. But they are clay, you know — they are ripe to be pushed and teased and molded. To be interesting, truly compelling, the clay of them must be changed.

So this week, try giving your character some sort of radical transformation. It might be a bodily change, like Gregor Samsa’s move to a cockroach in Kafka’s Metamorphosis; or it might be a mental transformation. Perhaps your character will become a radical political conservative, or become cold and cruel to someone we thought he loved. Force your character to change, and then start exploring why. That’s the marrow of a good story.

Tuesday Tip: Go Somewhere, and Don’t Do Anything on the Way

Tuesday tips is a category of posts here at Writerly Life that promises to offer concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now.

This week’s tip:

Go Somewhere and Don’t Do Anything

The wonderful aspect of all this mobile technology these days is that it has made waiting for stuff so much more bearable. Whether it’s standing in line at the post office or sitting on a bench at the DMV, phones and tablets and other gadgets have made it possible to be entertained at all times, in all places. Nowhere is this more clear than on the commute or on a trip. As long as you’re not the driver (and there are still books on tape), you now have the freedom to be constantly soothed and entertained and stimulated for your entire journey. You can listen to podcasts or music, watch tv or movies. That bus trip up and down the East Coast that I do so frequently has become as full of media and activity as if I were sitting at home.

The problem with this is that traveling time used to be my most fruitful thinking time. I would plan out whole stories on that bus ride from Boston to New York, or get new ideas for other stories. I’d watch the road whip by or the trees changing with the seasons, and it would get me in that special mood, that mood that allows for creative thinking.

On my last trip, I consciously unplugged the device, turned off the music, and looked out the window the way I used to do. I recommend you do it too the next time you have to take a trip. Whether it’s your morning commute or your family road trip to Florida, try just being with yourself, being in the car or on the train. Let your thoughts walk where they want to, instead of being stifled by constant noise. You don’t need that latest comedy podcast; you’ll live if you don’t listen to that song you like the four hundredth time. Instead, think about your work. Your writing. The voice in your head that wants to get out.

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Tuesday Tip: Lie Awake a Few Minutes Each Night

Tuesday Tips is a new category of posts here at Writerly Life that will be appearing every Tuesday. It’s a series of concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now, and they’re chosen to immediately re-vitalize your writing in some small (but meaningful!) way.

This week’s tip is:

Lie awake a few minutes each night.

I am blessed with the ability to fall asleep at the drop of a hat. Within a few minutes of getting into bed, I am usually happily in dreamland. But there are some nights when I lie awake for a little while, thinking about the day and about tomorrow, and I think these quiet times are truly important for our creative lives.

This is the time when we absorb the day and try to make sense of it; maybe because of this, or because we’re starting to fade into sleep, that strange, different, or unexpectedly brilliant ideas can suddenly occur to us. Many great writers kept notebooks by their beds precisely for this reason, because as everybody knows, even if you pledge to remember the idea and write it down tomorrow, you almost always end up losing it.

So in the next week, try to use that time as a small freewheeling space for your brain and for your creative energies. Even if you haven’t done anything creative all day, this is your time to think about creative things. Try thinking about things while you’re lying awake that are a bit larger and a bit dreamier than the immediate problems of the next day. Think about your story; think about your life; think about big things. But stay relaxed; let thoughts swirl in your head. You might be surprised by what you come up with. Just make sure you’ve got a notebook handy to jot it down.

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My Favorite Productivity Tip: You Can’t Go Home Until…

When nothing else works, when I just can’t make myself sit down and work, when I have cleverly circumvented all the obstacles I’ve set in place for myself, there is still one fail-safe way I have of forcing myself to be productive and to think exclusively about my writing. It’s my absolute favorite productivity strategy, and it’s very simple.

The key is to go somewhere else.

That’s the first, crucial step. Your office or regular writing space has become polluted by procrastination potential. If you can check your email, if you can go on Facebook, if you can read a book or fiddle with your knickknacks, then sometimes that space is just not good enough. You must pack up your bag and go somewhere else. The first reason this works wonderfully is that you necessarily limit what you can bring with you. I recommend leaving the laptop behind; instead, take a notebook and pen, maybe a printout of the last few pages you were writing. And not much else. It’s going to force you to attend to the work at hand.

The second reason this is so useful as a tool is that a little public peer pressure can work wonders. Go to a quiet cafe or a library and everyone around you is supposed to be working too. You can’t be visibly checking things on your phone or texting randomly; you will get a healthy dose of embarrassment. The presence of others working around me always helps me stay focused on my own work.

But that’s only HALF of this brilliant procrastination attack.

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Tuesday Tip: Put Philosophy in a Character’s Mouth

Tuesday tips is a category of posts here at Writerly Life that promises to offer concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now.

This week’s tip:

Put your ideas in a character’s mouth

This week is all about Big Ideas, and how to incorporate them in your fiction in a convincing way. One thing we probably all dislike in fiction is when the author pulls up a lectern and starts pontificating on his or her theories of life. No one wants the story to grind to a halt just so we can be preached to about what this all means, why we’re here, and what all those symbols are doing anyway. We read for story and character, not to take notes hear someone else’s theories.

At the same time, we DO like reading stories that wrestle with big ideas. But the minute the narrator or author begins to deliver them, we yawn, or our eyes glaze over. You’ve got to be sneaky about it. Even famously big idea-focused writers like Dostoevsky always introduces his ideas by putting them in the heads — and mouths — of the characters we’ve already become fascinated by. This is something you can do too.

Big Idea exploration usually only belongs in a world where the characters are wrestling with the issues themselves. So instead of pausing the story to analyze, make sure you have a character who wants to give voice to the idea him or herself. Make the ideas PART of the story. Allow one intellectual character to mouth off about what life means or why our purpose is to do this or that. Allow him or her to get it just a little wrong, so that the reader can fill in the gaps. Make that discussion part of the story. Perhaps he’s keeping a journal, or a nosy child keeps asking him “why?”. Give your character your ideas, so that you can stay safely behind the curtain.

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Tuesday Tip: Get Outside

Tuesday tips is a category of posts here at Writerly Life that promises to offer concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now.

This week’s tip:

Get outside for inspiration.

It’s amazing what an indoor life I lead these days. I live in the city and I’m a writer, so that means there are whole days when I could hypothetically stay in my pajamas (not saying I do — I’ll leave that a mystery). Sometimes I look out the window and I’m amazed to see that the weather has changed or that the sun has set. I bet there are those among you who live similar indoor lives a lot of the time.

The good news is that at least on the East Coast, summer has finally arrived. The weather is beautiful and it’s time to enjoy it. Last weekend I went on a long hike with family and saw my hometown from a (small) mountaintop, and it filled me with a fresh new feeling. Just getting outside and allowing your mind to settle can be tremendously helpful for your writing; it can allow you to find beauty in your language, lengthen your attention span, and work out problems in your story.

So as you set your writing goals for the summer, consider building some much-needed outdoor time into your schedule. Take a walk in the woods, or just sit out on a park bench somewhere, taking in the light and the green of the trees. You’ll find yourself mysteriously refreshed — and your writing will benefit too.

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