Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Repost: No NaNoWriMo? Eight ways to participate, sort of

This is a repost from around this time last year (with a few edits), for those of who who are not doing NaNo but want to share in the writing mojo that fills the air this time of year.

Not everyone has the time to participate in NaNoWriMo. Many of us who can't participate wish we could. But just because we can't dedicate that much time and effort to our manuscripts for four solid weeks doesn't mean we can take part in the spirit of the event.

Here, for the NoNaNoWriMos, is a list of eight things we can do to make November an especially fruitful writing month:

1. Dedicate time every day to writing.
Two hours. One hour. 30 Minutes. Whatever you can do. It's not easy for many of us to write every day. But for a month, we could probably do it.

2. Take one day as a solid writing day.
Maybe you can't do it every day, but take a day off from work, or take a single Saturday, and set a big writing goal. 5,000 words. 3,000 words. Whatever is a big stretch for you. Tell your family that you'll be happy to do whatever they need that day, but first you have to meet your goal. Then write until you've completed the goal. That might be a good use for that day off on the Friday after Thanksgiving, if you can't set a different day.

3. Revise.
Maybe you don't have the time to write a novel in a month. But you can probably do a revision pass, even if it's not deep revisions. Revising takes a different kind of concentration. I find I can do it in smaller bursts, when I need to devote longer stretches of time to writing my first draft. Revise a page a night. Four or five pages a night will likely get you through most of your manuscript in a month.

4. Brainstorm.
Write down a story idea every day. The ideas don't have to be any good. Ask yourself what if and then add odd situations. If you can come up with 30 ideas this month, chances are good one or two of them will capture your imagination. One of those will spawn your next writing project.

5. Read more.
Don't have time to dedicate to writing? Then read more. Shut off or shut out the TV for a half hour every evening and read. Read something in your genre. Read a classic you've been meaning to get to. Read research material for the story you are working on or planning. Read a book about writing. Read a biography of a favorite writer. Whatever, just read. Reading doesn't require the same intense energy as writing, but it's an important part of the process.

6. Plan your next project.
Even if you are usually a pantser, the process of outlining a story can spark your creativity. Don't worry about the rules of outlining you learned in school. Make a list of plot points. They can be in order or not. You'll probably change the order anyway. Write a rough synopsis.Then start to build it out, adding more detail. When you're ready to write, you'll have the material you need to get started, and you'll probably find you have less writer's block because you know what's happening next in the story. You could even skip around to the scenes that interest you if you have problems with one scene.

7. Market yourself.
Research a new market every day, then send those queries. Even if you spend two weeks researching and two weeks querying, that's probably better than you do most months.

8. Journal.
For one month, keep a writing journal. Keep track of whatever you do each day to work toward your goals, even if it's not actually writing. Let your journal be your slave driver. It feels cruddy to write "I didn't do anything today." It feels really cruddy to write that frequently. Journals don't work for everybody, but give it a try and see if it helps to keep you going.

Maybe you don't have the time or energy or willpower to write a novel in a single month. Or maybe that's just not the way you work best. You can still feed off the writing energy that fills the air in November. Try one of the above, or combine some of them. Whatever you need to do to make November a great month for your writing.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Word count

Even though this is a writing blog, let’s do some math.

Fifty K words for the NaNo November works out to 1667 words a day, about 12,500 a week. The daily count means almost 7 pages of double-spaced text.

I’m in trouble. 

The method I’ve been regular with is a daily timed writing session, with no regard to word count. If I had to guess, I couldn’t. I’ll write on the story, then type notes to myself or scribble them in a notebook. I’m sure it wouldn’t be near a thousand, probably less than 500.

With NaNoWriMo looming, there have been some articles floating around on how to ramp up word count. Then I Googled for other ideas.

Jessica Strawser, in a recent Writer’s Digest article, initiated this query. Juggling work and toddlers, she says it is about finding ways to write in between the times she actually sits uninterrupted at her laptop. One thing she does is use a voice recording app on her smart phone to record ideas that randomly floats into her head.  Scene snippets, dialog, plot ideas, etc., can even be recorded with a hands free device on the drive home from work. Sometime during the day, she emails herself notes about the next scene so she doesn’t go into it cold when she sits to write.

Other articles list things like establishing a writing routine and never vary from that schedule. Some swear by writing in the morning, others must wait until the kiddies fall asleep at night. 

There is the Pomodoro Technique (Google it) in which you set a timer for 25 minutes and work interruption free, then take a 5 minute break, the repeat.

Most writing on the subject confirm Stawser’s idea of having a notion of what you will write about before you sit to type. Rachel Aaron devotes the first 5 minutes to jotting down a quick description of the scene she’s going to write. Aaron claims she has gone from two to ten thousand words a day with her three-tier approach. The first and most important is the knowledge phase. She always spends 5 minutes, never less, sometimes more, writing a stripped down version of the scene; no details, she simply notes what she will write when the time comes to actually write it. This step alone increased her daily 5K. 

Aaron took two other steps to increase her writing. She noted the time and places she was most efficient and built her writing time around those periods. Lastly, she says enthusiasm ups word count. The fun scenes fly by faster than the boring scenes that work up to it. Which leads to, if it’s dull for you to write, what expectations do you have of your reader? 

I am not doing the Rachel Aaron justice with this quick recap. The whole article can be reached following the link below and is pretentiously titled “How I Went From 2,000 Words a Day To 10,000 Words A Day.” 

I’m not sure I’m ready to jump in at that pace. I’d settle for 1667 words. 

(This article also posted at

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Adding in the History

I’m writing a historical fiction novel, which was such a big, daunting thing to me when I started (and still kind of is sometimes), that I was tempted to make the storyline take place in an alternate universe just so I wouldn’t have to do the research to make it somewhat historically accurate.
Yes, that’s called laziness. I’d always written fantasy before, and the joy of fantasy is you can make up your own reality and no one can tell you it’s wrong. But, at some point I decided it had to be done. My novel wanted to take place in the real world. Still, I decided to write out a first draft before doing any historical research. I didn’t want my story to be defined by my research; I just wanted the research to make the story believable in the time period I was writing it.
What helped me about writing my draft before I researched is now I know exactly what I’m looking for. I made a lot of notes as I went along of things I was unsure about, questions I had about what technology existed at that time, what clothes were in style, what they did for fun, what people did for work, etc. I had vague ideas from things like A Room with a View and Downton Abbey, but sometimes you get really specific in a novel and you don’t want to get it horribly wrong. It’s kind of terrifying sometimes, that that one history expert one day will read what I’m writing and just be horrified at me. So I try.
Now that I’m closing in on finishing my first draft (I think my personal NaNoWriMo is going to be making myself just get that done!), I’ve started gathering some books. Wikipedia only got me so far. My time period is late 1890s-early 1900s England, so the very end of the Victorian era and the very beginning of the Edwardian. Turns out, not the most popular era to write educational books on. It’s been harder than I thought to find the material I want. I don’t know what people did before the days of Amazon and Goodreads, because the library and the bookstore did not come through like I thought they would. Thanks to the internet, I've found some good books and some of them got sent straight to my Kindle.
The Boer War also factors largely into the story line of my novel. It was actually amazing how well the Boer War fit into the story line I had already made up with knowing at all what I was doing beforehand. It’s like it was meant to be. The Boer War took place in Africa, most of the soldiers died of diseases, and it was just a badly planned disaster—perfect for my narrative purposes. Hurrah. But, I found a total of two books at the library on it. A little bit depressing, except that one of them was written by Winston Churchill. Did you know he was a journalist in the Boer War before he was prime minister of England? I sure didn’t.
Some of my history-related questions are getting so specific I may have to go find myself a history professor someday and bombard him with my author craziness. I wonder if he’ll even know everything I want to know. Probably by that point I should figure that no one will know and be satisfied. Then I will have to begin the task of deciding what needs to be included in my story and what will just be exhausting info-dump. I hope that having already written my first draft will help with that too. I’ll just be inserting the info I’ve found where I already know I need it. Wish me luck.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Outline quickie

NaNoWriMo is coming.

Pantsers will jump into a brand new story with merely an inkling of an idea. They can stop reading this post right now. Plotters should have started a few months ago. As a born-again plotter, I need to go into the month with more than just a notion. And, as a person whose been busy the last few weeks (haven’t we all), I need something quick.

Remembering a recent Writer’s Digest article, I pulled it up. It is called “7 Steps to Create a Flexile Outline for Any Story” and written by K.M. Weiland, a plotting guru.  

The seven steps are:
1. Craft your premise
2. Roughly sketch scene ideas
3. Interview your characters
4. Explore your settings
5. Write your complete outline
6. Condense your outline
7. Put your outline into action

KM uses this approach in a more drawn out fashion. She may spend as much as six months filling three notebooks to complete step 2. We’ve only got two weeks. My goal now is to slap something down, taking the rough ideas thats been bouncing around in the head for a while. The following is my interpretation of Weiland’s suggestions, watered down for quick application to your NaNo story. Go to the article for complete details.

1. Craft your premise
Weiland and John Truby advocate developing a strong premise, the basic idea of the story. It should answer these questions:
-Who is the protagonist?
-What is the situation, the hero’s personal condition at the beginning? How will that condition be changed by the hero himself or the antagonistic force?
-What is the protagonist’s objective? What moral choices will they have to make to gain the objective?
-Who or what is the opponent that stands in the way of the hero achieving their goal?
-What misfortune or disaster must the hero overcome?
-What conflict will arise from the MC’s reaction to the misfortune? What is the logical flow of cause and effect action throughout the story?

2. Roughly sketch scene ideas
Write a list of the ideas you have thus far for the story. It is not important to have all the details worked out or know the order of the scenes, just record them. I would suggest brainstorming session of possible scenes and events if the story is undeveloped. Weiland says to look back over the list and highlight any ideas that raise questions. Last is to go back and address each of the highlighted questions.

3. Interview your characters
In order for your characters to carry the plot, you will need to know all about them, not necessarily for their hole lives, but as they are when they come into the story. Work backward from the moment they become involved in the plot, at the disaster listed in the premise. What events have led them to this moment and caused them to react to it as they do? There are online resources that have a list of questions, or you may go freestyle, asking each character questions and then allow them to answer.

4. Explore your settings
You will need to intimately know your setting before you begin to write. Scenes can can shift from place to place, but the time and world where your story occurs should be fundamental to your plot.

5. Write your complete outline
Armed with this basic understanding of your story you’re ready to seriously plot your story. Using the ideas listed in step 2, develop a linear timeline, scene by scene, molding the existing ideas into a solid structure. You can be as extensive as you like, writing out a single sentence or something detailed, identifying the key components of each scene’s structure. These include, who the narrating character is, their goal and obstacles to the goal, the outcome and character’s reaction, and the lead-in to the next scene. Watch for possible lapses of logic or blank areas.

6. Condense your outline
As the outline may have a lot of rambling and thinking out loud, condense it down to the main points so that you have something easier to deal with as you write. You may want to write out the scenes on index cards, or do so using a program such a Scirvener or yWriter. 

7. Put your outline into action
Armed with a highly organized plan, you are now ready to write. Begin each writing session by looking over the outline and reading the notes for that scene. Work out any remaining issues before writing.  This is just a guideline to direct the session’s writing. Should an unexpected idea pop up, feel free to pursue it, knowing you can always fall back to the outline if that new venue does not work out.

Okay, that was easy. Now all yew have to do is plug in a story. We’ve got 14 days. Go.

(This article also posted at

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Critique Groups

If I could give only one piece of advice to those who want to write for children and teens, it would be to find a good critique group and make a commitment to it. I value my critique group more than you can imagine. Some of us have been in it for more than 10 years, while others are fairly new. They are all amazing writers, and as we have evolved, we have learned what works for us. Most importantly, we have learned how to offer really useful and necessary critiques, which is definitely a skill that can be learned and perfected and which doesn't necessarily just happen.

How to find or form a critique group:

One easy way is to check out the SCBWI walk-in critique groups via the web site. These are walk-in groups, so you can simply arrive and check it out. You might find others with whom you'd like to start a regular group.

While on the web site, you can also contact one of our region's critique group coordinators to get their help in finding others near you.

Attend local writing events, including SCBWI meetings and conferences, where you might meet others to form a group or others who are looking for a new group member.

Post on the SCBWI Utah/southern Idaho Facebook page and see if others want to form a group with you.

How do critique groups work?

There are several logistical choices available to a group.

PLACE and FREQUENCY: Some groups meet weekly, others monthly. Some are online groups. The group might have to try different meeting options to find what works best for that unique group of people. My critique group meets in one another's homes. I've been in other groups that meet in a public place or the home of just one group member or a mentor.

MANUSCRIPT SUBMISSION: I've seen this issue handled dozens of ways. In one group we brought several copies of our submissions to the meeting, where each person would receive a copy to read along as the author read out loud. This was fun for me, as I love being read to, but it had some limitations as far as critiques. Reading aloud took up much of our meeting time, and the critiques usually weren't very in-depth, as the readers never had time to ponder or reread the piece. My current critique group sends in 1-2 chapters (we are all working on novels, so this works for us) about a week before the group meets. It is up to each group member to read all the submissions before coming to the meeting. Then we use our meeting time more efficiently, as we jump right into critiques. Some groups do only a few pages of each manuscript each time, while others will do large chunks. How you handle this depends on a lot of factors, such as how many people are in the group, how much each person is writing between meetings, and how much time you have during a meeting. My group meets on Saturday evenings, so we can take more or less time if we feel like it. A group I used to be in met on Wednesday evenings and had only two hours to get through about eight manuscripts, so we were very focused and limited.

NUMBER OF PEOPLE: I think the ideal size of a critique group is somewhere between 3-8 people. More than that is just unwieldy in terms of having enough time to give each person a useful critique. You want at least three people so you have a diversity of opinions. I value the varied opinions of my critique group members, because if they ALL agree, I am pretty certain what needs to be revised. And if they don't all agree, I can pick and choose which approach I might take.

HOW TO CRITIQUE: This is the crucial piece. Some people like to focus on commas and spelling. That's not critique. I suggest focusing on questions. If something brings up a question for a reader, that is useful information for the author. If you're writing a mystery, those questions may be exactly what you're going for. On the other hand, maybe you thought you were being really clear, but the critiquers' questions indicate you need to do some revising to get at the clarity you want. Another way to look at the big picture is to think about the main elements like character, setting, plot, world building, etc. Sometimes it's fun to bring some useful exercises or information from any conference or workshop you've attended and focus on that element in all the manuscripts. The "sandwich" critique is always a nice way to approach a work: say the things you like in the manuscript, then concentrate on problem areas, then end with more nice things.

CHOOSING/ADDING MEMBERS: Our critique group is straightforward and sometimes ruthless. We are all veteran critiquers who are used to the give and take of brutal critique (not mean or harsh, but just absolutely honest), and not everyone is up for that. Some people have less thick skins and require a softer approach. We screen any potential new members to make sure they are up for our kind of blunt critique. If everyone can be honest about what they are ready for, it helps. I find it's also helpful if all the members of the group are writing in the same genre--such as picture books or YA. One magazine writer in a group I used to be in felt like her two pages each month versus everyone else's full chapter was just not a fair give and take. She was not the best fit for the group.

My best advice is to find a group of fellow children's writers and jump in. Be patient with each other and with the process as you find your way as a unit. If you feel like you don't know what you're doing, maybe occasionally bring in a more experienced author for some mentoring, or do some research. There are plenty of books on starting critique groups. Attending conferences and workshops will also teach you skills that will help you improve your critiquing skills.

by Neysa CM Jensen
in Boise, Idaho

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Writing Without Pants

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am on a four-week sabbatical from my writing job, and of course, I'm spending it writing. I'm now in my fourth week, and it has gone very well. So well, in fact, that I have been able to start a new project.

Usually, I think about a new story for months, even years. Not this time. I'm working on a story I've been thinking about for about a month.

What that means is, I don't have a plan. I have a concept and setting and a character type, and that's about it. In the past, when I've started writing, I've had a character and some major plot points. I've known more or less where I want the story, what I want it to be. I don't really outline, but I write a brief summary of the story as a way of thinking through it.

This time, I'm totally pantsing it. Some prefer the term "discovery writing." That's not a bad term, but it doesn't seem to fit. I feel more like I'm building a house by putting up random walls in random places without even considering a foundation and hoping that eventually they'll become a dream house. I'm not even sure all those walls are on the same lot.

They call it "pantsing," but there's a constant fear that it will end up more like that dream where you're walking around school or work or wherever and discover you're not wearing pants.

To be sure, I am discovering things. Around 30,000 words in and I have a better idea who my main character is and what some of his relationships are. I still don't really know what he wants. I'm starting to feel little twinges about what he might want and what his character arc might be. Weird things are happening to him, and I know how that ended up happening, but I don't know why or what he's going to do about it.

In a way, I guess I'm doing my own mini Nano. Just getting the words down, building scenes that may or may not survive, and will definitely not survive in their present order. As I write, I learn more about some aspects of what's going on, but rather than going back to fix what I've already done, I just keep plugging away.

I don't know how this will turn out. It's frustrating. I've never written without at least a vague idea of a direction, and I don't think I like it. But this week, while I still have pretty much as writing time as I want thanks to a very supportive wife and family, I'm just putting down words, about 2,000 a day.

The words are flowing, they're just flowing in all directions over a flood plain rather than in a controlled channel. It's a strange way to write.

But as long as the words keep coming, I'll keep letting them. I just hope that eventually, I'll be able to create a livable house that I'm proud of and want to show off.

Monday, October 13, 2014

NaNoWriMo Tips to Success

By Julie Daines

With NaNoWriMo looming in the very near future, I thought I'd share a few tips that have helped me. If you know me at all, you know I'm a huge NaNo fan. All of my published books are NaNo projects. When I NaNo, I'm in it to win it.

So this Monday and on my next post--on the 27th, I'll put some quick NaNo tips on the blog.

1) Make it work for you. Advice on how to succeed at NaNoWriMo is flooding the internet this time of year. Sift through it all and find what works for you. If you try to force yourself into a method that doesn't work for you, you will have a hard time succeeding.

2) Plan ahead - even if it's just getting to know your characters. If you're an outliner, great, outline as much as you can, even if most of it doesn't end up in the book. (During Nano you have to keep your mind open and not get stuck trying to stick to an outline that's not working.)

If you're not an outliner, at the very least, do some serious preparation in getting to know your characters. The better you know your characters, the faster you can write because you will know what they would do in every situation. You will know their desires and objectives. You will know how to raise conflict and create story by denying them those desire and objectives. It will help with character arc.

Get your research done ahead of time. Research is a great way to generate ideas for your story, so do as much ahead of time as possible.

3) Be accountable.  Tell everyone you are doing NaNoWriMo in November. That way they'll ask how it's going and you'll have to answer. Give them an opportunity to cheer you on. Join online or local groups of NaNoers that have places to post your word count. Do word sprints with friends online. Go to NaNo write-ins. Let your competitive nature give you a motivational edge.

4) Adopt a new mindset.  It's easy to spend years writing a novel, so for many, the thought of writing one in 30 days is an insuperable barrier. But not if you change your mindset. It's been said that writing a first draft is like shoveling sand into a sandbox that you will use later to build a sandcastle.

So it is with NaNoWriMo. Don't expect anything but a very rough, very detailed outline by the time it's over. But once you get your butt in the chair and write without any inhibition, you will be amazed at what you can do. It's easier to keep track of plot, easier to delve deep into your characters because you spend so much time with them. No editing. No fear.

5) Just do it. Excitement and passion will get you started, but you'll quickly find that it is discipline and determination that carry you to the end. Don't get behind. Try to get ahead in word count as quickly as possible. Have a cushion. Kick spelling, grammar, finding the perfect word or the perfect metaphor out the door. Dedicate yourself to getting the backbone plot out in those 50K words. Then look forward to January to start making it perfect.

Do you have any tips you'd like to share or questions about NaNoWriMo?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pre NaNoWriMo

Ah, nothing like autumn. Summer heat gives way to a refreshing crispness in the air. Turning leaves offer glorious color for the eyes and an earthiness for the olfactory senses. Pumpkin pie, football, jack-o-lanterns, and candy corn. NaNoWriMo is just around the corner.

Are you getting your NaNo on?

I’m not sure if I am or not. Making good progress on the current WIP, I’m not sure I want to stop and change gears. And there’s last year’s NaNo project waiting to be dealt with. But other ideas swirl around the brain. Articles on NaNoWriMo keep popping up and I start to see merits in going for it. I do love the idea of the thing - write, write, write and don’t worry about editing. You can fix it later. The month is pure word count with a rough draft to show by December 1.

Everyone has their own way to go about this writing marathon. The most common way to take a zero editing approach. That actually can be refreshing. If word count is the driving force, editing is the roadblock. It hinders momentum. For eleven months of the year, my daily word count is hampered by my self-editor. During November, I freely and wantonly let the words flow. Rather than nitpick and constantly correct, when trouble arises, I start the sentence over and proceed. It’s such a rapid way to produce that I try to write that way the rest of the year. But that little self-editor really is a pain in the tush. By the middle of January he returns, digging in deep like winter, slowing me down.

There is also the panting vs plotting argument. Taking time out to plan out the novel slows the actual writing. I am becoming more of a believer in the plotting approach. Rambling for page after page may add to word count in the first draft, but leads to hard choices in the revision stage. Now is the time to figure out those major plot twists and character traits.

To NaNo or not, that is the question. Am I ready to ignore family and responsibilities and plunk out 1700 words a day? I’ve never achieved the NaNoWriMo  50,000 goal, but each year I’ve ended with a solid start to a new story. I could live with that.

(This article also posted at

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The False Prince

Remember way last winter? I went to an author event at a bookstore and got to meet Utah writer Jennifer A.  Nielsen. Of course, I had to buy her book.

I’ve got more books than time to read and just added that one to the pile. Then I attended the 2014 Professional Writers Series, sponsored by this Utah Children’s Writers blog, at the Pleasant Grove Library, where she was among a panel of MG writers. I didn’t buy another book, but decided to read the one I had. The False Prince is now among my favorites. 

Jennifer knows how to spin a tale. At the heart of her book is an interesting premise - install a false prince. In the fantasy world of Carthya, the king, queen, and heir prince to the throne have been killed, though the general public is not aware of this. Years before, the younger Prince Jaron went away and is assumed dead, though no body was found to confirm the death. A power hungry regent, Conner, devises to plan to search orphanages, find a boy who resembles the younger prince, and pass him off as the legitimate heir. Conner selects four boys and hopes one can be trained to pull off the deceit. Dang. Wish I had thought of that plot idea.

Nielsen does several things to makes this a great piece of writing. One is the way she delivers the backstory. Rather that just dump it out, she uses Conner to offer food to the hungry boys if they can list some specific facts about Carthyan history and government. Another thing she does well, is allow the reader to fill in gaps. One of the orphans asks what will happen to the boys that aren’t selected and is told that he knows the answer to that. Sometimes writers feel a need tell all. We need to trust our readers to come to their own correct conclusions. Nielsen employs an engaging main character. Sage, one of the orphans, is bold, defiant, mischievous, and cunning. He has swagger. He’s developed the street smarts to get by and doesn’t want to be a part of this ploy. Lastly, the author holds back a big surprise she reveals near the end. 

Nielsen said she had a kissing scene in the book and the publisher wanted it out in order to market it as an MG. At the time, she was anxious for anybody to pick it up so MG or YA, it didn’t matter to her. The story is now in production as a movie and at the Pleasant Grove event, she made an important point about audience levels. In books, we differentiate the two and most YA readers will not read down and rarely will MG audiences read up. In the film industry, they have audience quadrants which are kids, teenagers, 20-30 year olds, and everyone else. There is more crossover of the age groups than in written stories and thus wider audience appeal. She was pleased when one of the story consultants for the movie wanted a kissing scene exactly where she had previously put one.

Right here, in little old Utah, we continue to produce some great writers. Next event I’m at with Jennifer, I’ll have to purchase the rest of the Ascension trilogy. If I can wait that long.

(This article also posted at

Friday, October 3, 2014

Why I Love Teens (and the books we write for them)

So, teens. They get a bad rap. They're viewed as irresponsible, impulsive, messes of hormones, naive, and irreverent. But come on, don't you ever wish you could be any of those things sometimes? I do. (Except for maybe the mess of hormones.)

When I interact with teens, I see none of those things as deterrents. I see them as invitations. And I see a whole mix of other attributes that I find supremely engaging. Teens think big thoughts. I mean big. Change the world big. During adulthood, we tend to lose sight of those big dreams and ideas as we juggle the everyday survival of our families and livelihoods. I love hanging around with teens as they explore what possibilities their lives hold. As they deal with all the fear and anguish they've experienced in life and try to make sense of it. As they stand on the threshold of adulthood, not sure they really want to go there. 

Teens have big troubles. Okay, so we know maybe some of those troubles aren't as big as they seem to teens, but in their minds, everything is huge and life changing. Every subtle rejection hurts like a stab to the heart. Every joy is declared epic. Their entire future hangs in the balance with every decision they make. 

This is the stuff that makes for great conflict in fiction. That's one reason I write for teens. But more than that, I write for them because I want them to know their joys, pain, fears, anguish are shared by others and that they have the ability to handle these life experiences. I want to reassure them that they are okay, or they will be okay. That life hurts, but relationships with good people are healing and make life worth the living. That there is a way through this maze. I want them to see that whatever is huge at the moment is worth living through, and that whatever hurts the most will forge them into someone wonderful. I want them not to give up. On themselves. On love. On the future.

Perhaps I write for teens because I spend a lot of time with teens and I find them astonishing. My son, a senior in high school, was doing a research project last spring for his AP chemistry class, and he chose nuclear energy. This is a passion of his and he hopes to be one of people who brings clean cold fusion to the world as a reliable energy source. He got so excited as he worked on the project, you could see him almost chomping at the bit to grow up and get on with it. 

Another time, when his group of friends were gathering at our house (yes, we are THAT house), I overheard them commenting about one of their friends who wasn't there, and who was having some personal troubles. They were very sympathetic in their thoughts about this friend, brainstorming ideas on what they could do to support him and help him. It would have been so easy to write him off as a jerk, but they showed genuine concern and caring. 

At a summer camp where I was a camp counselor for several years, I heard stories from teens that brought me to tears. One girl's father had been brutally murdered. Another girl's father was about to get out of prison and she was afraid for her safety, as he had a history of abuse. One boy told the story of his mother's drug dealer boyfriend and the abuse he and his brother had suffered by his hand. One kid had a medical condition in which he had never gone through puberty and was in his early 20s just experiencing a medically-induced puberty. One girl in my cabin talked about being one of the "invisibles" in her town and school, a kid nobody really took any notice of. 

As my own kids have gone through their teen years, I have been touched by the journeys their friends and they have taken. One boy, who is gay, was considered by his father to be useless, and his mother could barely tolerate him. He had a really  hard time in high school. But he found a college that was the perfect place for him, and he has come into his own, embracing himself and his talents. Another boy was kicked out of his house on Christmas Eve because his mother just couldn't stand another minute of his normal teenager troubles. 

While all of these people have or will probably make it into one of my books, it's not just the fodder for stories that keeps me involved with teens. It's the emotional impact they have on my life. It hurts my very soul to hear them talk about these horrors. It warms me up to hear the concern they share for a friend. And it delights me to know they want to do things in the world (besides play computer games). Their hearts are huge and exposed. 

I've heard it said before that children's writers tend to write for the age group that they identify with most, or where their inner child is stuck. Maybe that's it. My whole childhood was a wonderful pastoral life, but as a teenager, I was a mess on the inside, while wearing a mask of perfection on the outside. I certainly remember the pain and the longing, and the fear that I would be found out as a horrible hypocrite one day. 

I know this for sure: adults who love and work with teens can help those kids reach adulthood with their spirits intact and their hopes for the future still strong. It is never a waste of time to invest in a teenager. Maybe when I read teen fiction, my inner teen hears those messages and is able to heal, too. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Livin' La Vida Writer

I am a week and a half in to a four-week paid sabbatical from my day job. As a result, I'm on a 12-day streak,  spending at least three hours a day on my dream job.

Some of my friends think it's odd that I would spend the four weeks away from my writing job writing, but I'm loving it. Although I refer to it as "working" every day, i'm working on my own stuff, doing what I want to do.

I spent the first week writing original material. In the recent PitchWars, a Middle Grade manuscript I considered finished got an excellent response. The people who gave me feedback agreed on one thing, however: my book was too short. So I fixed that, writing just over 15,000 words in six days. Since then, I've been revising my WIP, writing new scenes (including one I've been dreading for months).

It's the most productive I've been since I took a two-week writing vacation a couple years ago. Part of the success is due to the lessons I learned during that vacation.

Follow a Routine

As tempting as it may be to sleep in while I have the chance, I know I'm most productive between about 10 and 1:00.  That means that, although I do stay in bed a little later than usual, I am in my home office (my Schreibwinkel) by about 9:30. I've started as early as 7:30 and as late as 10:00, but on all but a few days, I've started between 9:00 and 9:45. Except for one day when I worked on a scene that exhausted me so I had to stop around 12:30, I've worked until around 1:30, occasionally as late as 2 or 2:30.

That's a fairly aggressive schedule, but it works for me. I work through my most productive time and stop when I feel the mojo weakening.

Because I write at the beginning of my day, every day, I wake up ready to go. Sometimes, my morning dreams are even related to the work I need to do that day.

Minimize Distractions

My family is used to me needing to be left alone in my Schreibwinkel. I frequently work from home, so they've been trained for years to let me work. They're used to me being unavailable, even if I'm in the house. 

Because I'm working shorter hours than usual, they know that if they leave me alone for a few hours, I'm theirs when I'm done. Most things they need from me can wait.

I've also made it a rule that, for the most part, I check email and Facebook before and after I work. Once in a while, I'll check during a break, but I've mostly been good about this.

I'm used to working through the typical household noises, but I am easily distracted by talking and laughing. It helps me minimize distracting noises to listen to music. Music can also distract me, though. I've learned that putting my music on shuffle instead of listening to favorites works for me. I recently read an article that suggested putting on music you don't especially like. I don't take it that far. In fact, sometimes a scene calls for a certain kind of background music, even though nobody else would necessarily connect the two.

Take Breaks

Because my writing period is fairly long, I take breaks. Some are informally scheduled. For example, there have been several days when I've written from 9 until about 10, then stopped for breakfast.

There have also been scheduled breaks. There have been some days when my writing group has scheduled writing sprints where we work for a specified period, then check in with each other on our Facebook page.

Each writer has unique break needs. Some of us can only write for so many minutes without a pause. Some of us need to look away from the screen now and then during an intense scene so we can keep enough distance to write well. And some of cannot stop without breaking the spell.

I know when I need a break. My only real rule for breaks is that I don't allow myself to become distracted by another task. My breaks are no longer than necessary, and my family members understand that I may be showing my face, but my time is not theirs yet.


This is what works for me. My family situation allows me to work this way. My kids are older. Two grandkids live with me, but I'm not the only caregiver in the house, like a lot of moms (especially) are. And I already have work routines when I'm home.

The result of putting structure around my writing time is that I remain productive, and that I enjoy my writing time because other stresses are reduced as much as possible during those hours.