Monday, October 16, 2017

Mistakes I've Made So You Don't Have To: Believing I Would Find The Perfect Novel Writing System

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of 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.

I love organization, tidiness, systems, and color-coding.

For a very long time I looked for the "right way" to write a novel. The perfect way, where I always felt like I had control of the story, and the creative process never felt messy or misguided.

Even recently, I've had times where I've thought, "Ooh, maybe this is it. Maybe I've just found The Technique that will make writing stories easy and efficient!" Only to find that yes, this new fill-in-the-blank technique helps, but it's not a magic bean from which the story sprouts perfectly formed. (Spoiler: There isn't one.)

Many of the questions I receive via email ask a surface question about crafting a story—how do I create a good plot twist? what's the best way to start a book?—but often hint a deeper question: How do I know I'm doing this right?

I used to think that one of these days I would "arrive" as a writer and have my perfect, trusty novel writing system. I have finally (mostly) accepted that writing a book is a messy, doubt-filled process no matter how many times you've done it.

Yes, over the years my system has evolved and improved, but you can't perfect your system the way you can an assembly line. It's important to do what I know works for me, but also to try something new with each book. That's how my system has become more efficient over the years, and it's what's keeps writing fun and adventurous for me.

So here is a list of what works for me, the stuff I do with every book. I've talked about all of these in detail in previous posts, so rather than do that here, I'll include links for each one:

Brainstorming early with a friend. 

This is something I did not do for a very long time due to some pride issues. You really have to have the right person in your life for this. They don't need to be a writer, I don't think, but they also can't be the type of person who wants to turn your horror novel into a sweet romance. They need to "get" you and your writing.

Links: How To Have an Effective Brainstorming Session

Writing a blurb that’s a paragraph or two long and the hook sentence.

This is something I used to put off until I absolutely had to write them for a requested proposal. Now I like to write them early on. Why? Writing a few paragraphs in the style of backcover copy helps me to identify the main focus of the story, something I'm prone to lose sight of as I write the thing.

And my agent used to have to pry hook sentences out of me, but now I really like having them written before I dig into the novel. This is a mental thing for me. If people in my life ask me what I'm writing, and I can't tell them in a very interesting way, I start to lose confidence in my book.

Links: Writing Killer Backcover Copy, What Is a Logline And How Do You Write One?

Identifying key scenes.

I used to be a total pantser with writing (and a pretty snobby pantser who distrusted plotting) but now I identify key scenes before I write the book. This gives me enough structure that I can usually keep my story on track (though not always...) but also gives me creative freedom.

Links: How to Develop Your Story Idea Into A List Of Key Scenes Part One and Part Two

Writing my 2-3 page synopsis before my draft.

You think you hate writing synopses, but you're wrong.

Okay, maybe that's not completely fair, but I do think that synopses are waaaaay more fun to write before you've written your book. Then it just feels like fun brainstorming! If you go off on a crazy tangent and decide it doesn't work, you're just erasing a couple of sentences rather than a couple chapters.

Links: How to Write a Synopsis for your Novel, How to Edit a Synopsis for Your Novel, and Using Your Synopsis as an Outline

Logging my work time/Using the story workbook

In a spreadsheet, I keep track of lots of different details about my story, including all my characters and key info about them, the timeline of the story, and other useful things. The link for getting a tutorial on how to make your own is below.

My favorite page within the spreadsheet is actually my work log. I input what time I start and where my word count is, and then when I'm done, I record my ending time and finished word count. Doing this has helped me stay focused during writing time, and it also gives me the same happy feeling of crossing something off my to-do list.

Links: A Snazzy Timeline Tool and Free Story Workbook Tutorial

Writing a first draft without stopping to edit.

Though sometimes the messiness makes me a bit crazy, I really do believe this is the best way for me. This was also one of the hardest techniques for me to learn how to embrace.

Links: Useful Bad First Drafts and for the counter point of view, How to Edit As You Write Your First Draft

Taking 6 weeks off from my first draft.

Ditto to what I said above.

Links: Six Reasons to Take Six Weeks Off From Your First Draft

Reading my finished manuscript in as few sittings as possible and making notes.

I think this is critical to the editing process.

Links: How to Edit Your Book in Layers

Character journals for troublesome non-POV characters.

I usually have a good handle on my POV characters, but there are always a few major non-POV characters who read completely flat. Character journals, where you free-write from their POV, is the fastest thing to help me clarify motivation, backstory, and personality. And it's way more fun then filling out all those character info sheets.

Links: Character Journals

Editing big changes first regardless of chronological order, and then editing scene by scene.

Jill and I wrote an entire book about this, and it continues to be the way I edit.

Links: Go Teen Writers: How to Turn Your First Draft Into a Published Book

I've tried lots and lots of other techniques. Some helped me to think about story in a different way, even if I didn't totally adopt the methods in the book. (Story Genius by Lisa Cron and 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron) Some, like pantsing my novels, worked for certain seasons but don't work for me now. Others were just NOT my thing. Like the Snowflake method. Or scene cards. Or Scrivener.

Some tools are already on my radar for the next novel I write, like K.M. Weiland's Structuring Your Novel and Creating Character Arcs workbooks for brainstorming more fully before I dive into my first draft.

Is there something you've found that works well for you that you plan to do with each book you write? And/or is there something new you want to try with your next book?

Friday, October 13, 2017

Writing Exercise #17: That's the hobbit's problem

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

Last week we started where JRR Tolkien started and we created our own hobbits. I was so impressed by your imaginations, you guys. Among other things, I hope the exercise showed you that even when we start with the same sentence, we are incapable of telling precisely the same story as anyone else. Because you are you and I am me and we all have our own worlds brewing inside us.

Today, we're going to take our hobbits and give them a story. More specifically, we're going to give them an obstacle. We're not going to fully develop a story problem today, but what we want to do is give our fictional creature something to overcome.

This can be something simple (like making a cake without a bowl) or something complex (like escaping an assassin). Your hobbit and its obstacle are yours and yours alone, so let your imagination run wild.

A couple tips:

1. If you did the exercise last week, start with the hobbit you created and the details you scratched out about his life underground. You can make changes to that idea, but starting with something is always easier than starting with nothing. Your previous ideas will spark new ones.

2. If you did not do the exercise last week, consider doing that one first. Understanding who your hobbit is and why it lives in a hole in the ground will help you develop the creature's dilemma.

3. Keep the problem very clear and simply written. Don't give your hobbit multiple obstacles to overcome. We're taking our hobbit in a very specific direction and I don't want you to have too much to juggle when we reach next week's exercise.

4. Do not solve your hobbit's problem today! We will work on that, I promise. But that's not today's goal. Just give him a bit of trouble, alright? We'll come to solution seeking soon.

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!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ready, Set . . . Platform! Three Social Media Tips to Get You Started

Jill here. Taylor Bennett is one of us. I'm sure that many of you have seen her comments, saw that she was a GTW contest finalist, or interacted with her through this site at one point. Well, Taylor, I'm SO PROUD to say, has signed a three-book contract with Mountain Brook Ink for her young adult series. We are all looking forward to watching her career unfold. Please extend your congratulations to Taylor in the comments below. I'm sure we'll be seeing more of her in years to come. I love the topic she chose to blog about and hope you all find it helpful. Please welcome Taylor.

Taylor Bennett is the author of the contemporary YA novel, Porch Swing Girl, which releases from Mountain Brook Ink in January of 2019. When she isn’t pecking madly at her computer, she’s playing violin on her church’s worship team, snapping pictures, or walking in the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. She loves to connect with future readers on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram (her favorite!) as well as on Goodreads and her author website.
When I first started working on Porch Swing Girl, the book that got me my publishing contract, I could have cared less about having a “platform.” I had little more than an overstuffed Pinterest account and five “friends” on Facebook. But then I started hearing those mystical words: platform, marketing and—gasp!—social media.
So, when I made the decision to get serious about my writing, I reluctantly got accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, and the like.
I’d even snap a random pic, throw it up on Instagram every now and then, and call it good, right?
As I pursued publication, I discovered what it truly means to have a “platform.” It isn’t about how many accounts I have. It doesn’t even matter how many pictures I post.
Having a social media platform is about connections.
When I’m interacting with others on social media, I’m engaging with potential readers all over the world. A single hashtag (#amwriting, #bookstagram, #booknerdigans are popular among writers) can reach thousands.
And, before you start thinking that all of this “platform building” is done out of selfish ambition, let me tell you.
It’s not.
When I connect with others on social media, it doesn’t always benefit me. In fact, I’d say that it often doesn’t benefit me. (Be honest. What’s more productive—writing a hundred words or watching a fellow author’s live Facebook chat?)
This leads to…
Social Media Secret #1
It’s Not All About You
When you get on social media (hopefully after you’ve hit that word count goal), what do you want to see—spammy posts begging readers to check out the latest ninety-nine cent ebook bargain?
You want to see real people connecting, engaging, and being…well…real.
I’m not usually pushing myself or my upcoming book release. When I am promoting myself, I’m doing it in a friendly, conversational way—“Hey, I turned into a computer nerd just so I could make myself a website. Check it out!”
What am I doing when I’m not promoting myself? I’m helping other authors. I share their posts, leave encouraging comments, and generally present myself as the person I am—an enthusiastic reader, not a greedy author.
Social Media Secret #2
Be True to You
I’ll let you in on a secret.
My “author account” on Instagram is my personal account. Sure, I throw in the occasional artsy shot of my fountain pen or my laptop charged and ready for a day of work, but I’m also sharing pics of what I ate for dinner, the beautiful morning sunrise, or anything else that strikes my fancy.
And it’s working.
As of right now, Instagram is my strongest social media platform (which still isn’t saying much but, hey, I’m learning.)
Why is it working?
I’m being me. I’m not forcing myself upon would-be readers. I’m having fun, I’m sharing my life, and—again—I’m engaging.
But how do I find people to engage with?
Welcome my next tip.
Social Media Secret #3
The first time I saw a hashtag, I scoffed.
That’s not a hashtag. That’s the number sign.
Did I mention I’m old school?
Sometimes, though, even the oldest dogs need to learn new tricks. My new trick was the hashtag.
By using hashtags, I’ve helped my posts get over ten times the number of likes I got on my first post.
The hashtags that work best are those that are simple, relevant, and engaging.
Simple--Easy to use and read. Seriously, it can't just be me that has to do a double take when they see #whyamicryingifthisissofunnyrightnow. Okay...I made that one up, but you get the point.

Relevant--People who find your post through a hashtag want one thing. If they search #cat, they want a cat. They don't want a picture of your little sister (however cute she might be) twirling in the living room with her stuffed kitty toy thrown off in a corner. Now, if she was making friends with the neighbor kitty...go for it! Just make sure your hashtags are chosen for a reason
Engaging--This is the key that brings it all together. Some hashtags have tens of millions of posts and, while this means you'll be reaching a huge audience, it also means that your post will get buried in the sludge pile. Quickly. In order to reach the maximum number of people, choose hashtags that are slightly less trafficked but still popular.
Let's get an example:
What kind of hashtags would you use to go along with this pic? I started with the obvious: #work #tea #laptop #etc 
Okay...not that last one.
Seriously, though, start with the *boring* stuff. Each hashtag I listed has MILLIONS of posts, which means that my post has the potential to reach millions. BUT, as mentioned above, these posts get covered up quickly. That's why I added hashtags directed at a smaller audience--writers. By using more unique, less-trafficked hashtags (#amwriting, #writersofinstagram, #bookstagram) I have a greater chance of more people seeing my post, PLUS the people who are looking at these hashtags are more likely to engage with my post because...we’re all writers.
I’m not saying it’s easy to learn the art of hashtagging, but it’s definitely worth it. And, while we’re on this topic, I’ll leave you with a bonus tip.
Bonus Social Media Secret
Hiding the Hashtag
Want to use hashtags to reach readers but afraid you’ll look spammy? Here’s a tip: After you write your post/caption, press enter and type a single period. Repeat this about six times, until you have a line of periods going down the page. Now you’re free to list your hashtags—most people will never see them because they rarely click on the “read more” option.
You can see an example of how this is done on any of my recent Instagram posts.
What about you? Have you thought about building a platform?
If so, post your social media links and I’ll follow you!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Project Canvas and a Call for Submissions

Caroline Meek is the author of The Drawing in of Breath and founder of Project Canvas. She has a passion for bringing writers together and is currently studying English & Creative Writing and Theatre at the University of Iowa. Look for her on her blog, website, Twitter, Pinterest, or in your local coffee shop, wearing flannel and drinking coffee with too much sugar.

We all have something we're passionate about. It's possible that nothing brings you joy like making blanket forts and hiding in them until someone finds you and makes you come out. Maybe it's writing. And whether you've been writing for ten weeks or ten days, you know something about what you're doing. You've got knowledge to share with others. 

Project Canvas started out pretty small. Olivia Rogers and I hung out in a coffee shop one day, and here’s what went down:

Olivia: *sips coffee and doodles on paper* Concept: writing a book about writing.
Caroline: *dumps sugar into coffee* True. But let’s get someone else to write the chapter about world building, ‘cause yikes.
Olivia: *doodles have turned into the actual Mona Lisa, how is she so good* Concept: everyone writes a chapter.
Caroline: *coffee is now mostly cream-colored* A book of writing advice and motivation from our writing friends all over the world!

So Project Canvas was created. Now, it’s a book scheduled to be released in 2018, with over 70 contributors from 9 different countries - including mini-chapters from people in the Go Teen Writers Community like Sierra Abrams (The Color Project), Bethany Baldwin, and Brian McBride! I’m blown away by this lovely, inspiring, teen writing community.  

(It was here that I paused in my writing of this post and freaked out because I was drafting a post for this blog oh my goodness and I just want to let everyone know how much GTW has changed my life. I don’t have words).

Anyway! The call for submissions.  We didn’t want the project to end after the publication, so we decided to launch a blog connected to Project Canvas.  This blog will follow the theme of the book, with admin posts on Mondays and guest posts every Friday by teen and young adult WRITERS LIKE YOU.

Some guidelines - like, three of them

  • Posts should be related to writing advice/inspiration/motivation
  • Length: not excessively long. We don’t have a word count limit at this time, but just...a good, sensible length would be very nice
  • No deadline!

Simple enough.  Go to our submissions page for a few more guidelines, and email with submissions and any questions.

There’s a lot of ‘news’ in this post, but I wanted to stop for a moment and look back to the core of it….

You have a message.  And it’s important.  I don’t care if you’re sitting there thinking ‘shoot, my message probably isn’t good enough’.  Or maybe that it’s gonna take four more years to perfect before you can show anyone.  Perhaps you’ve never shown anyone.  Or you don’t know what your message is yet.

And that’s okay.  But I want to make sure that you know -
your words aren’t leaves that fall in deep red colors, 
staining the earth and the sidewalk 
until they disappear for the winter. 
Your worth doesn’t have a time span, 
you’re not an explosive,
you aren’t taking up too much 

You are worth the breath it takes to say what’s been brewing in your heart, and I want you to know that I’m listening. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Writing Mistakes I've Made: Obsessively Rewriting First Chapters

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of 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.

I have a love/hate relationship when it comes to talking about my mistakes. 

What I don't love:
  • The vulnerability. Over the summer, I gave a talk about my writing mistakes. The topic seemed like a fabulous idea until I started rehearsing. Spending all that time focusing on the many, many mistakes I've made over the years left me feeling so insecure and inadequate. (My listeners were very kind and responsive, though!)
Things I love:
  • The hope that I feel when I share mistakes. Not only do I see how I've grown as a writer, but I feel hopeful that I can either prevent writers from making the same mistakes I did, or help them to see mistakes they're making currently and break away.
  • Mistakes can feel like a weight, but talking about them takes away the power they have over me.
Many writers are perfectionists. We want to write perfectly, publish perfectly, and have perfect writerly lives. This, my friends, is impossible. 

I want you to see evidence that you can make mistakes—lots and lots of mistakes—and still get to where you’re wanting to go. I would even argue that you won’t get there unless you’re willing to make decision that might end up being mistakes.

One of the earliest mistakes I made was firmly rooted in my perfectionism:

Obsessively Rewriting First Chapters

Raise your hand if you find yourself rewriting the opening of your story over and over and over again.

Then imagine that lots and lots of other young writers are raising their hands too, because this is a really common issue when you're learning how to write a novel.

This was the first real writing hurdle I had to get over. I loved writing story beginnings. They're still my favorite part. I would write my first few chapters and pass them out to my friends. They would give me feedback, and I would rewrite and pass the chapters back out. Then I would have an idea for writing the chapters differently, so I would rewrite them again...

On and on this went. Sound familiar?

There are obvious reason why this is bad:

You can’t finish a book this way. 
If your goal is to write a full book, constantly rewriting the prologue isn't going to get you there.

This is usually the reason that writers cite when they’re asking me how to fix this problem. They want to finish a book, they realize this isn’t going to work, and how do they move past this?

Your growth as a writer is stunted. 
I was doing the same piece of the process over and over. It’s like if all you ever did was create characters, but you never put them in stories. Maybe you created amazing characters … or maybe you didn’t, because you can only find out if you plop them into their story and see how they work. 

I had no idea if my beginnings were good, because I never found out what the rest of the story was. I didn’t know what made a good story idea, or what ideas were big enough, or what kind of characters I needed, because I had never gotten past chapter three. It wasn’t until I found a story idea that I loved enough to push past chapter three that I started to grow as a writer.

There are some not-so-obvious reasons why obsessive rewriting is bad:

Or at least they weren't obvious to me.

I was training myself to be a shiny object chaser.
You know what happens if you don't discipline yourself to push through hard things? You don't learn how to do the hard things. Until that point, writing had always been pure joy for me. I wrote when I wanted, and I wrote what I wanted, and if I wanted to write something else, that's what I did.

When writing is a hobby, that's fine. When you're wanting to get traditionally published, that mindset no longer works. I had to train myself to push into the middle of a story rather than rewriting or starting a new story.

By erasing my writing mistakes and starting over, I couldn't learn from them.
After I gave this talk the first time, a man came up to share how in many art classes they don't want you to use pencils, because they don't want you to be able to erase. Art teachers want you to see the lines that are wrong, so you can more clearly see the lines that are right. 

By rewriting the same part of my story over over, I wasn't improving anything, just changing it. I lost perspective on what worked and what didn't.

I wasn't letting the first draft do its job:
My nine-year-old calls first drafts, "the sloppy copy." The job of the first draft is to get the story down without worrying about how to fix things that aren't quite right yet. When we rewrite those first few chapters over and over without the rest of the story, we're not trusting the first draft to do its job. The first draft just need to be "good enough" that we can go back through and hone it in edits.

Learning how to write a book--even a lousy one--from beginning to end is a huge accomplishment. I learned more from doing that once than I did from writing 50 different story beginnings.

If you struggle with obsessively rewriting, what can you do to get past this? Here are a few ideas:

  • Not every book idea is worth pushing through to the end. Even now, after publishing multiple books and writing many others, I still sometimes write a few chapters and then give up on a story. Sometimes I think I'm excited about an idea, but then I get in there and it just doesn't work for me. Be kind to yourself if you decide to put a story aside for a while, even if you've rewritten those first chapters hundreds of times and you don't want to "waste" your time investment. Just because you're putting it aside now doesn't mean you're putting it aside forever.
  • Push yourself to write a little further before giving up on a story. My pattern was to hit chapter four (which is usually around the time that a story transitions from beginning to middle) and then feel lost on where to go. Then I would either hit the eject button in favor of a new, exciting story idea. Or I would rewrite the first few chapters. If you've only ever gotten to chapter three, try to make it through chapter five. Even if you're not sure you're going in the right direction with the story. Just try to push your discipline a bit before walking away.
  • Give yourself permission to be imperfect. This was huge for me. My issues with rewriting were rooted in my desires to turn out a perfect story. When I embraced the advice of writing bad first drafts,I began to make it through to the end.

What about you? Do you struggle with obsessively rewriting?