Monday, September 25, 2017

How to Build Systems so You Can Reach Your Writing Goals



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.


This post is the third in a series about goals. In case you missed it, we talked two weeks ago about stating our writing goals. Even those big ones that we can't control 100%. Then last week, I talked about recognizing and documenting our personal writing rules.

Today we get less dreamy and more boots-on-the-ground. We're going to examine each goal, identify what we do now to action on achieving it, and building systems so that we make sure those actions happen. Working on these steps feels like constructing a ladder so we can more easily climb to where we want to be.




To make this post super accessible, let's use a goal that many of you have mentioned to me, that you would like to be traditionally published by the time you graduate high school. (Those of you who are interested in self-publishing, we're going to talk about that too.)

First, let's start brainstorming actionable items:


If you want to take action on your goal, the place to start is assessing what you have control of. To get traditionally published, you'll need a few things in place:

1. A stellar manuscript
2. An agent (probably) and an editor (definitely)
3. A platform (likely)

This is an overly simplistic list, but it'll serve our purposes for today.

Let's take these one-by-one. If you don't yet have a stellar manuscript, that's the first thing you need. (It's basically impossible to get a book published if you don't have the book written, right?) There are lots and lots of actionable items that I could list on this one alone, but for time's sake, I'll include a few. Assuming you've already written the book, your actionable items might be:
  • Do at least two rounds of edits. If you're feeling overwhelmed by edits, the Go Teen Writers book was written to be a helpful guide through that process.
  • Ask several friends to read the manuscript and give you feedback. Ideally these are friends who know a thing or two about story structure, grammar, and writing. But before I had writing friends, I received several very thoughtful critiques from friends who simply enjoyed reading, so receiving their feedback can still be helpful. (I also received some very bad, damaging feedback along the way, which is the nature of opening yourself up for critique.)
  • Continue to study the craft of fiction by reading books, listening to podcasts, taking courses, or reading blog posts.
Obviously, this isn't an exhaustive list of everything you need to do to write a fabulous, shelf-worthy book. We have several fairly detailed series on the blog about writing novels from beginning to end, so maybe start with the Looking for Something Specific tab if you're wanting a more extensive list of posts on that subject.

Onto agents and editors. There are lots of different ways to look for these seemingly illusive people. Most of the time you need an agent before you can gain access to editors, but not always. Writing conferences are the easiest place to get direct access to agents and editors, but if you live somewhere rural or can't afford to travel, that may not be an option. Here are some ways you can take action on finding an agent or editor from home:
  • Lots of agents have blogs or are active on social media. This is a great way to learn about their personalities, tastes, and what they're looking for. 
  • You'll need to know how to explain your book in an interesting sentence or two, so you can work on that. You should also have an idea of where your book fits in the market. What other books are like it? What established authors do you have a similar style to?
  • You could take part in (or stalk) an online event like #pitmad 
Again, these are just a few ideas to get you started.

Lastly, if you want to be published traditionally, you need to have some kind of internet presence. No publishing house will expect you to have a ridiculous number of followers, but like editor Jillian Manning said when she was with us back in May, it's concerning when she searches for a writer online and finds nothing. 
  • If you haven't yet, at least reserve your website name, which should be yourname.com. If you can't get that, you can add "books" or "author" to it, but it's best if you can get your name.
  • If you haven't already, and if your parents say it's okay, pick a social platform and focus on growing it and learning how to use it well. Don't put pressure on yourself to be everywhere, but be somewhere.
  • Start your email list. This is a metric publishers care more and more about. If you want to see what kinds of things authors talk about in their emails, start by signing up for a few lists. Like maybe mine, Jill's, and Shan's. *Wink, wink*
These suggestions are all items that will help you move closer to your goal of being a published author, whether that ends up being in high school or after.

Maybe your goal is self-publishing. While many of the suggestions above still apply, here are some other ideas that are unique to indie publishing:
  • The indie author community is a generous one. Find the experts. Read their books, listen to their podcasts, and take their tutorials.
  • Follow indie authors on social media. When you find authors you really like, buy their books and see if there are ways you can help them out. Like being on a launch team or writing consumer reviews.
  • Look for Facebook groups or blogs dedicated to indie publishing. Not only can you connect with and learn from other authors, but this will also be a good way to find freelance editors and designers.
  • Work on growing your platform, same as if you were trying to be traditionally published. You will need ways to tell people about your books!
Once you've brainstormed a list of ideas for taking action on achieving your goal, you can start to find space for those tasks on your calendar. The easiest way I've found to do that is to build systems:

Create systems:

Meeting a big goal always involves making regular space in your schedule to chip away at the tasks. You can't spend a day building a social media presence and then mark it off your list forever, right? Instead, it's better to come up with ways that you can make a little progress on a regular basis.

Using social media as an example, the system you build could be something like, "In the five minutes that I wait for my bus to arrive, I'm going to look up an author I like and follow them on Twitter." That's a system (or the start of a system) you're putting in place to build your following. Donald Miller refers to this as "adding something to the plot" of achieving your dream or goal.

Or if you have a personal writing rule that involves learning more about the craft, maybe instead of listening to music while you clean your room, you instead listen to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast. We're just looking for little habits we can change that will help us chip away at our goals.

Even though new systems can feel stiff and difficult at first, it doesn't take long for them to start making your life easier. My system for getting books written is that when my baby naps and my kids are at school, I write. I never think about turning on the TV instead of writing during my designated time, unless I'm really sick. That hasn't always been true for me, but because I've been working my system for almost ten years now, writing is a habit and watching Gilmore Girls reruns isn't.

What are some ways you can take action on your goal? Do you need to develop a system to help?

Friday, September 22, 2017

Writing Exercise #15: Quick answers

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.  

We've talked before about the importance of writing practice and as I ease my way into a new project, I'm reminded again just how important it is to keep my imagination in shape. Even a few minutes of free writing a day can keep our minds in a posture that is ready to receive and create new ideas. Practice keeps us thinking like writers. 

The trick to any writing exercise, is to simply get going. There is something magical about those first thoughts you have when sitting down to write. In her book, Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg talks a lot about first thoughts. Here's one of my favorite quotes:


With Goldberg's thoughts in mind, let's practice writing a bit, okay? And today we're going to kick off our exercise session by simply, and quickly, answering a single question.

Here's how it will work:

I'm going to ask you a question you may or may not have an answer to. It doesn't matter either way. You're a storyteller. Make something up and leave your answer in the comments section.

And then just keep writing.

For a total of three minutes (set a timer, friends!), I want you to continue writing. Don't stop. Just let your fingers run with whatever narrative your mind is wanting to tell.

When three minutes are up, you're welcome to check for typos, but don't stop to edit your writing as you go. And don't worry if it makes little sense when you read it back to yourself. We're just practicing here: the art of writing down our first thoughts. It's supposed to be messy.

Also, please be a team player and delete anything that might be inappropriate for younger readers. We like to keep it fairly clean around here.

Be sure to come back throughout the weekend to encourage your friends as they practice. Remember, we're all learning the craft of writing. Not one of us are experts. Anytime you bravely share your work, we're grateful.

Okay! Everybody ready? Here's that question:

Are you going to the football game on Friday?


And, remember! When you participate in our writing exercises you can enter to win an opportunity to ask Jill, Steph and me a question for one of our upcoming writing panels. Once you leave your response to the writing prompt in the comments section, use the Rafflecopter below to enter. Next week, Rafflecopter will select one winner and we'll contact you for your question via email. Happy writing, friends!


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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

How I Cut 33K Words (Twenty Percent) From My Epic Fantasy Novel


Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

Many of you know what I’ve been doing the past few months. If not, let me recap. I received the content edits on King’s War (Kinsman Chronicles, book three). This is the last book in the trilogy. There was a lot to tie up, and I knew the book was long. Too long. The full book came in at about 265K. So I wasn’t surprised when my editor asked me to cut some words.

He asked me to cut 40,000-50,000 words.

I failed.

But I came close! This was partly because I had to add some new content, which took up some space. In the end, I managed to get my word count down to 33,695 words, which made me dance and sing. There is an unwritten rule that says when you rewrite your novel, you should trim at least ten percent. This has never been the case with me. I write sparse rough drafts, and my final drafts always grow. Which was why when I first heard how much I needed to cut, it knocked the wind out of my sails.

If I was going to do this, I had to have a plan.

I like plans. I work best when I have a plan. So I knew I’d need a good plan if I was going to come anywhere close to cutting so many words. I thought you all might like to see how I tackled this daunting project.




1. I “saved as.”
If I was going to cut that many words, it wasn’t going to happen bit by bit. This book was going to undergo major surgery. I was going to have to hack into the thing with a machete. And I wasn’t going to do that without saving what I had someplace safe. Because I was pretty sure I would cut some things that later I would wish I had again. By saving a copy, I could always go back and find those things if I needed them.

2. I made a list of scenes.
Lists of scenes help me be able to see my whole book at a glance. In the past, I simply make a long list. This time, I wanted something a little easier to see. So I used Excel to create a page with twelve empty boxes. Then I scrolled through my book and put the chapter number, point of view character, and title at the top of each box. I wrote down how many pages that chapter was. Then I listed the gist of each scene in the chapter. That gave me a really nice way of looking at my book as a whole.




3. I cut twenty percent—in theory.
Math has never been my favorite, but it wasn’t too difficult to go through and subtract twenty percent from each chapter’s page count. If a chapter had ten pages, I was going to try and make that chapter have only eight pages in my rewrite. I went through my list of scenes and wrote my target page count at the bottom in a circle. Now, instead of a somewhat horrifying goal of cutting 50K from my story, I had close to one hundred tiny goals of cutting a few pages here and there. This was much easier to handle. And I could take it one chapter at a time.

4. I made a "To Do" list and added it to my manuscript.
I had my notes from my editor on things he wanted changed. I also had a pile of notes from myself of things I wanted to make sure were added to the story or got tied up in the end. I went through all of this, one item at a time. If it was something I wanted to fix or add, I scrolled to the right place in my manuscript and left a comment. “Add description of castle here” or “plant bad guy subplot.” With more complex matters like the latter, I would scroll through the manuscript and add comments in several key places. These acted as reminders for me. And if there were things in my To Do stack that I no longer wanted to add, I threw away those Post-Its or scraps of paper, which was a very liberating feeling. “Almost there, Jill,” I kept telling myself. “Almost to the end!”

5. I cut twenty percent—for real.
Then I started at chapter one and worked my way through the story. I cut everything I could. I especially looked for conversations that added nothing to the story or places where characters were being too wordy. I trimmed and trimmed. And if a chapter ended with five or fewer lines of text on the page, I went back through that chapter again, searching for paragraphs that ended with a few words of dialogue on the last line, then I cut and cut until I managed to pull those paragraphs, and eventually that chapter up until it ended one page earlier. This is a tedious process, but it really creates a tight manuscript. And it cuts words!

6. I added when I needed to.
When I needed to tweak or add things, I did. And there was a lot to add. I kept a spreadsheet in which I kept track of my word count each day, and it was always painful to have to log a positive number instead of a negative one. Still, overall I did pretty well. I had to add two new chapters at the very end, so that hurt my word count, but it also made the story better.

So that’s how I tackled the beastly rewrite of King’s War. I’ve turned it in, so it will be interesting to see if my editor finds more to cut. I will get the story back for line edits, then again later on for a proofread, so I’m not quite done yet. I’m close, though. I’m very close.



What do you think of my process?

Have you ever had to cut a lot of words?

If so, how did you go about it?

Monday, September 18, 2017

What Are Your Personal Writing Rules?



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.


What are personal writing rules?

We all have them, even if we haven’t officially listed them anywhere. I first came across the idea of making a list of my personal writing rules in the June 2017 issue of the Romance Writers Report in an article by Katharine Ashe. Her article was specific to the rules she’s developed for herself as a romance writer, but the concept applies to anyone who has been writing for a bit.

"Personal writing rules" refers to the truths you've learned about you as a writer, the stories you like to tell, and your methodology for making the magic happen. If the word "rule" skeeves you out, think of them as guidelines or truths.



A quick example is something like, "I'm a plotter." When writers make that statement, it's a short way of saying something like, "I have learned that plotting my stories is important to me and the quality of my work."

For many of us, we begin with a rule like, "Writing matters to me. I make time for it." If you're early in your journey, this might be a rule that you repeat to yourself regularly. It might be the only rule you have so far, and that's okay! Depending on your upbringing and current environment, this might be one of the biggest hurdles you ever cross as a writer.

Here are some other examples of writing rules you might have:

"I write every day." This is one that Lydia Howe can claim. That's a practice that has brought her joy and discipline over the years. For other writers, that kind of rule feels like a noose.

"I edit as I write." Many writers, like me, prefer to plow as quickly as they can through the first draft and then spend more time in edits. That doesn't work for Roseanna M. White, however. She learned that she works better if she edits as she goes, regardless of the frequently repeated advice about how valuable bad first drafts are.

"Pretty writing matters to me." Beautiful prose is something that brings joy to Shannon Dittemore, and it influences her writing voice. If she focused just on being efficient with her words, she would lose a lot of what she loves about storytelling.

"My first drafts are private." This is really important to me, and it gives me the freedom to get the story on the page. It's a rule I had to develop so that I could be messy without fear. Nobody sees my manuscripts until I've edited them at least once.

Why bother?

I see several valuable reasons for writing down your rules, and I'm sure there are others.

1. Writing them down creates a good reminder. Same as writing down your goals instead of just storing them in your head. Sometimes we need reminders of what's important to us and who we are. So when you come across a blog post by a know-it-all writing teacher who says the very best way to write a book is to write a bad first draft (which I probably said in the early Go Teen Writers days when I was much more fond of the words "always" and "never") you can shrug it off and say, "Yeah, that's not what I've learned about myself. I've learned I edit as I write, and that's okay."

2. You can see how they serve or contradict your writing goals. When you put your rules side-by-side with your vision of where you want to go with writing, they can provide some great clarity.

Like if one of your goals is to publish your novel next fall, then a rule like, "I write every day" serves that well. If, however, one of your writing rules is, "I write when I feel like writing," you'll see how those contradict each other. Writing when you feel like it is great for joy, but not so great for deadlines.

3. You'll be able to watch yourself evolve. One of my personal writing rules in high school was that I didn't plot. I had tried several times and it just didn't work for me. I was a pantser.

In my early twenties, I took a class from Angela Hunt, a bestselling author who had been a professional for twenty years at that point. She said, "I like to try one new thing with each book I write." I loved her teachable spirit, and I embraced the rule for myself.

That new rule invited me to give plotting another try. With my deeper understanding of story structure, I found that I understood how to plot much better than I had in high school, and that there were some methods that worked for me.

Personal writing rules are meant to be tools to empower us, not chains that keep us from growing or trying new things.

Want to play along? What are some of your personal writing rules?

Next Monday we'll look at our writing goals and rules, and we'll brainstorm ways we can take action on them. I love making lists and dreaming, but if we don't get some actionable items on our calendar, then these exercises aren't very useful!


Friday, September 15, 2017

Writing Exercise #14: Endings As Beginnings

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.  

Every writer goes through dry seasons. Seasons of time where the words just won't do their thing. They're either stuck in your head or hiding from you entirely. If you're lucky enough to get them out of your pen and onto the page, the sentences are ugly and you find yourself wondering if you've forgotten how to write stories.

It happens to us all. It really does. The only way to claw out of a dry season like that is to {wait for it} write your way through it.

I know. I know. It's rough. It is. And I'm a huge advocate of taking time off when you need time off, but at some point, you're going to have to sit back down in that chair and knock the rust off. One of the best ways to do that is to just write.

"WRITE ABOUT WHAT?" you ask.

My answer is a simple one. Write about anything. Write about nothing. Just write.

The internet is full of writing prompts--and you should totally avail yourselves of those--but sometimes cyberspace can be like all those rabbit holes little girls fall into. There are so many options to choose from. So many shiny ideas. You just keep falling and falling and never getting any writing done.

So, today, instead of trolling Pinterest for writing prompts, I want you to grab the nearest book (puh-lease keep in PG, alright?). Flip to the very last page and put your finger on the very last sentence.



That, my friends, is your beginning. That's right. The last line of the book in your hand is the first line of your shiny new paragraph.

I want you to write me that paragraph and leave it in the comments section below. And then be sure to come back throughout the weekend to see what you're friends are coming up with. We all need a little encouragement now and then.

A couple things:

1. We frown on spoilers here, so please do not tell us the name of the book and if there are recognizable names in the final sentence (like Katniss or Hermione), do us a favor and change them.

2. Your goal is not to continue the book your holding. Use this sentence as a jumping off point. Start something new. Something that's all yours.

3. And, remember! When you participate in our writing exercises you can enter to win an opportunity to ask Jill, Steph and me a question for one of our upcoming writing panels. Once you leave your response to the writing prompt in the comments section, use the Rafflecopter below to enter. Next week, Rafflecopter will select one winner and we'll contact you for your question via email. Happy writing, friends!

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