Writer's block is just writer's fear. Here's how to beat it.

Writer’s block and I have a too close relationship. In fact, we’ve had a co-dependent relationship since last spring. That’s when my literary agent told me he didn’t like the sample chapter I’d included in my most recent book proposal.

I knew the chapter was weak when I sent it to him, but I had hoped the book’s overall proposal—I believed its opening was powerful—and strong marketing plan would supersede the sample chapter. That was wishful, amateurish thinking on my part.

My agent suggested I solve the problem by incorporating my proposal’s opening into the first chapter. I know that would work, but if I move the proposal’s opening to the first chapter, how I will begin the proposal? He had a fix for that, too—write half the book and skip the proposal.

Oh, lordy, mercy.

It scares the heck out of me to think about doing what novelists must do—write the book first. Since I’ve been writing nonfiction books, I’ve always sold my books on proposal only.

Can we say I’ve gotten lazy? Spoiled? Then again, after writing a half dozen (or more) book proposals, I know that writing the proposal is harder—at least for me—than writing the book. So why don’t I just go ahead and write the book? The answer is because of the last thing my agent told me my proposal needed—humor. Again, I know he’s right. I know that laughter—amidst tears—is what’s going to make this book succeed.

So since I know what the problems are, why aren’t I writing? After all, I know the writing excuses:

  1. Family responsibilities and demands
  2. Day job responsibilities and demands
  3. Major holiday responsibilities and demands
  4. The need for a social life, as well as the responsibilities and demands of being supportive of friends during their trying times
  5. Illness of relatives, friends, and even self
  6. The need for exercise
  7. The need for some plain and simple fun
  8. The need to find inspiration
  9. The need to do book research
  10. The need to take that writing class, go to that seminar, go to that reading and book signing
  11. Volunteer work
  12. Grocery shopping and cooking
  13. Car repairs
  14. Picking a health plan
  15. Doing taxes
  16. Cleaning house
  17. Doing laundry
  18. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, i.e. creating that platform that we’re always told we must have

The list and the excuses are infinite. I’ve used several of them to delay writing this essay. But since I know all the excuses—well, okay, at least 18 of them—I should be able to avoid them like I avoid potholes when I’m driving.

Of course, winter is coming, which means there’ll be cold and rain and the number of potholes will increase. And when there are more potholes in the road, it’s harder to swerve around them all—like the potholes of Christmas, cleaning up after Christmas, post-Christmas shopping, New Year’s, implementing that New Year’s resolution to exercise while coping with post-holiday exhaustion and trying to get back into a routine, college football playoffs, Super Bowl parties, and that writing class we’ve got to squeeze in since we promised ourselves we’d take at least one to kick start our writing.

I recall one such winter class. I was teaching it; we were discussing what keeps us from writing. I listened to excuse after excuse, most of which were reasonable—family responsibilities, day job, etc. Then … oh, then … one retired man told me he couldn’t find time to write because he had to play golf. At that, I snapped, “Then I guess you don’t really want to write, so just give it up and go play golf.”

The class gasped at my harshness.

But you know that old cliché what goes around comes around? Well, my sharp words to that senior citizen are boomeranging and smacking me right in my hard head. And they’re forcing me to ask myself if my excuses are really me telling me that I no longer want to write. I mean, aren’t excuses a form of writer’s block? Perhaps the ultimate manifestation of writer’s block?

Yet I can’t imagine not writing—no longer being a writer. Writer isn’t simply what I am. It’s who I am. If I’m not a writer, then who am I?

So I sit here and tick through my list of tips that can break one out of writer’s block:

  1. Establishing a ritual. When I was a struggling novelist living in Los Angeles, I always sat down and wrote when I heard a pianist playing a few floors above me. I thought if she could spend that much time on her art, then I could too. This time, though, that hasn’t worked for me. I sit down at my computer every day and the next thing I know four hours have passed and all I’ve done is Facebook and Twitter and paid some bills and walked in circles trying to get in my exercise.
  2. Lying on the couch and going to that meditative/day dream state between sleep and wakefulness. I used to know a man who worked on the original MacGyver TV series. He told me he came up with his best plot ideas while dozing on the couch. That used to work for me, too. Now days, when I try that, I find myself turning on CNN and getting twisted into full stress mode.
  3. Putting pen to paper and writing for ten minutes straight, about anything, without lifting pen off paper. And when I say anything I mean anything—how I’m stuck, how I can’t think of anything to write, how my hand is cramping because I’m using a pen, how I can’t read my own handwriting anymore, how I wish I were typing instead.            That’s basically the Natalie Goldberg Writing Down the Bones method, and it’s something novelist Wally Lamb says he does to break through his writing blocks. Me? In truth, that method has never worked for me because I want everything I write to be useful. And I find writing like that provides me with inane ramblings that go nowhere. But if it’s good enough for Wally Lamb …
  4. Watching a great movie or listening to great music. That’s one of the tips novelist Anne Rice gives writers. In particular, she says watching the film Amadeus inspires her. And, yes, watching a film can inspire me, but by the time I get home (I still like to watch movies in theatres), the inspiration has been totaled in a traffic jam. If I’m listening to music, I feel I should be doing something else at the same time—like paying bills, cleaning the house, reading the news or tweeting. So …
  5. Reading a great book. While reading great books is certainly inspiring, that also defeats me because I think I’ll never write that well. However, reading a rotten book sometimes inspires me because I think if that person can get published, surely I can too. But I’ve gotten where I no longer resort to that because I don’t want to waste my time reading rotten writing. I fear it taints the mind and encourages me to settle for less than great work.
  6. Taking a walk, a shower, gardening. I’ve heard novelist Jeff Abbott say some of his best ideas come when he’s in the shower or gardening. I know that when I’m frustrated with my writing, I walk out to my backyard and start pulling weeds. That generally accomplishes two things—my backyard looks a bit better and I break out in an allergic reaction to words. No! I mean I break out in an allergic reaction to weeds.
  7. Breaking out of my routine and going someplace else to write. That’s the one that generally works best for me. It’s what got me started on this essay, since lately I seem to have an allergic reaction to my office. I drove to my neighborhood Whataburger, where there isn’t any internet access to distract me, and I sat down with a pen and paper and jotted a few ideas, then a sentence, then a paragraph. I thought I was ready to get on a writing roll. Then I got into traffic, got home, got on my computer, and got distracted by Facebook and Twitter and bills and CNN and … this essay that should have been written in one day, is now a week in the making.

Years ago, a friend of mine who is a far more talented writer than I and who was a featured author at the Texas Book Festival, invited me to attend the festival’s authors breakfast with her. At that point, my friend was a single mom struggling to balance motherhood and writing. No, that’s an exaggeration. Due to the responsibilities and demands of motherhood, she had stopped writing.

But as we left that breakfast, we ran into Jane Smiley, my friend’s hero of authors and a writer who is also a mother. My friend asked Jane how she’d kept writing after she’d had children. Jane answered that you just do it.

My friend was furious. Maybe she wanted Jane to say I stopped writing and didn’t begin again until my kids were grown, i.e. an easy-out excuse to stop writing like I gave that man who wanted to play golf. Or maybe my friend wanted Jane to list 1-7 easy steps out of procrastination and writer’s block.

Either way, I know Jane was right. In fact, that’s Anne Rice’s final advice to writers who are blocked—write yourself out of it. And that’s really the only thing that works for me. Sure, when I do that there are rotten sentences and paragraphs. But as Anne Lamott says in her book Bird by Bird, go ahead, write a shitty first draft. At least then you have some word clay to work with and mold into a powerful narrative, just like I have that powerful opening to my book proposal that I know will work great in the first chapter …

If I can only figure out how to shape it … pull it … trim it … twist it …

Oh, gee, I’m twisting myself into writer’s block again.

It’s that danged co-dependency issue.

According to the non-profit organization Mental Health America, co-dependency is “an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship.” In other words, my co-dependency on writer’s block is preventing me from having a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship with words and writing. (Yes, I’m going to believe my words and my writing have feelings and they’re happy when I put them together in an order that’s riveting, enlightening, coherent, and inspiring.)

Mental Health America further states that co-dependency “is also known as ‘relationship addiction’ because people with co-dependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive.”

Believe me, when I’m not writing, writer’s block is laughing at me and I’m feeling ridiculed, abused, depressed, alone, and like I’m a failure.

If I think back to when co-dependency was a trendy topic that everyone discussed seemingly every day (thank you, Oprah), I believe that co-dependency is about fear—fear of letting go of that abusive relationship, fear of being out “there” on one’s own, fear of being alone and lonely, fear of the unknown.

Fear.

Isn’t that what writer’s block really is? Writer’s fear? Fear that the words will reject us. Fear that the agents and editors will reject us. Fear that the readers will reject us. Fear that our families and friends will reject us because of what we write. Fear of letting the world (and our families and friends) read our true thoughts and real emotions. Fear of being vulnerable. Fear of being hurt. Fear that we’re really not good enough.

I think back to my last book where I expressed my fears and insecurities and weaknesses and joys and confusions and some readers loved that, while others hated it and have shamed me for it.

Do I really want to do that again? Put myself out there like that?

As I asked myself as I struggled with the ending of that book and wondered how much of myself to reveal—am I a writer or what?

I’m a writer.

I do what’s best for the book.

So I sit down and I face those fears, battle that writer’s block co-dependency, and I write. Day by day. Word by word. I move the opening of the proposal to my first chapter. Sentence by sentence. I remind myself that I’ve never written a funny first draft, only a self-pitying one. Paragraph by paragraph. The humor comes in the second draft. Page by page. I remind myself that if I write just one page a day, by the end of the year I’ll have a book. Chapter by chapter. And I forget about writer’s block because I have a new, healthy relationship. It’s with writing.


Suzy Spencer headshot cropped more vertical.jpg

Suzy Spencer is an award-winning journalist and author of four nonfiction books — Wasted, a New York Times bestsellter and Violet Crown Award finalist; Wages of Sin, which was featured in the 2013 season of Investigation Discovery’s Deadly Sins; Breaking Point, a Book of the Month Club, Doubleday Book Club, Literary Guild, and Mystery Guild selection; and The Fortune Hunter, which was called “riveting” and “block-buster” by Globe magazine. In 2012, the Berkley Books division of Penguin published Suzy’s first memoir, Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American SexualitySecret Sex Lives was named a Publishers Weekly Fall 2012 pick, a Barnes & Noble editor’s recommendation, and a Writers’ League of Texas 2013 Book Award finalist, among other accolades. Suzy holds a Master’s of Professional Writing in fiction and screenwriting and a Master’s of Business Administration in marketing and finance, both from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Baylor University.

AREAS OF SPECIALTY: Creative and narrative nonfiction, memoir, adult fiction including contemporary fiction, upmarket fiction, commercial fiction, women’s fiction, and thrillers.

AVAILABLE FOR: Manuscript critiques, content editing, developmental editing, first chapter evaluations, nonfiction book proposal edits, private writing coaching, media coaching.

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How to Write a Query Letter

There is a lot of conflicting information going around for writing queries to literary agents. Some say that they should be lengthy professional letters; some say that they should be a brief “get in and get out” kind of email—almost a memo, if you will.

The answer is that a query should be exactly in between those two descriptions. Why the disconnect between the two, you might be asking. Well, that’s easy. Before the internet, it was important to write a pristine, professional letter. Agents received several letters a week, but not an overabundance. They could take their time and truly consider each and every letter. But we don’t live in that day and age any more. Now, agents are bombarded by emails in the hundreds every week, if not every day. They constantly struggle to keep ahead of the pile and an eye out for promising material—while also having to muck through the writers who have jumped the gun and sent a first draft that is, well, a royal mess.

So, what should be in a query?

  1. An opening sentence that is also a hook. (Example: “Sexuality is about more than just sex in my young adult novel, TITLE.”)
  2. A brief synopsis of your story. (Ideally, two paragraphs with three to four sentences apiece. It should address the situation, the complications, and the cost of the conclusion.)
  3. A demonstration of where your book fits in the market, the genre, age group, and word count.
  4. Your credentials and a polite thank you.

To help you on your query journey, here are ten Dos and Don’ts for querying!

  1. Do: Be concise. If your query is longer than 3/4ths of a page single spaced, your query is too long. Remember that the agent in question is most likely reading twenty to fifty of these today, so make your query attention-getting, but not over the top.
  2. Don’t: Jump the gun. Querying before you are ready is one of the biggest mistakes. You will know that your manuscript is ready to find an agent when it has been revised thoroughly at least a few times, and it has been scoured for typos. Ask yourself, is your manuscript “shelf ready?” Meaning, could you slap a cover on it and put it on a shelf? If the answer is yes, you’re ready to query. If your answer is no, and you’d like some help, check out our developmental and line editing services.
  3. Do: Be professional. Professional means smart, to the point, and clearly written. Absolutely no typos or grammatical errors. Under this heading, it’s also important to add that your query should never feel like a “blanket query.” It should address the agent by name and feel as though you wrote it specifically for him or her. Also, follow the explicit instructions for writing a query letter as provided on the agent’s website. Every agent likes different pieces of information, so make sure you tailor each query to the agent’s preferences.
  4. Don’t: Add extraneous information. This tends to happen in the “credentials” section of the query, meaning you want the agent to know everything that’s made you a fine writer. Well, the agent will want to know that information once she or he has read and loved your manuscript, but until that time, only include information that is pertinent to your story. (Example: Say you’ve written a book about a teenage spy. It would then be pertinent to add, “I am the daughter of a CIA agent.” Or if your book is about a rare medical condition, it would be very important to say, “I am a licensed, practicing physician.”)
  5. Do: Include your story’s unique voice in the brief summary. If your story is funny, the summary can be funny. If it’s a sad story, let it tug on some heartstrings. If it’s a thriller, by all means make it sound like a Hollywood movie trailer.
  6. Don’t: Name drop another one of the agent’s client unless you have specifically asked that person and they have given you permission to do so. Another one to add here? Don’t say that your manuscript is exactly like a book that the agent already represents. They’re likely NOT to read your pages because, well, they’ve already got a writer like you!
  7. Do: Demonstrate your knowledge of the market value of your manuscript. This doesn’t mean that you should say, “My book is just like The Hunger Games.” But it does mean that you could say, “My book is for fans of The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game.” However, I would encourage you to aim slightly lower than bestsellers. Know the books in the field you are writing, and that will be one of the best ways to prove to an agent that you have done your homework.
  8. Don’t: Query twenty-five people at a time. Querying is a waiting business, which means that a lot of people try to rush it. You will do much, much better if you make an A list of five agents, and a B list of five agents. Some agents even prefer having “an exclusive” look on the manuscript (this will be on their website). You may offer an exclusive to one agent at a time, and if the agent agrees, make sure you set up an expiration on the exclusive so that you can return to querying in a timely manner. 
  9. Do: Be selective. You do not want just any agent. I repeat: YOU DO NOT WANT JUST ANY AGENT! The agent you want is someone who is currently selling things in the market. Check Publisher’s Weekly rights reports. Check the agent’s clients’ websites. Every agent has different specialties. Some are editorial. Some are not. Some work with clients on a variety of genres. Some do not. The more you know before you query, the more likely that you will not get stuck with the wrong agent for your writing.
  10. Don’t: Lose hope. Querying is tough. Finding the right agent is tough. But if your manuscript is ready and the winds are in your favor (meaning you’ve done all your homework on the market and who would be the best fit for you), you will find the right person to help you launch your career. In the meantime, Yellow Bird Editors are here to help you! An affordable query critique is one click away.

Cori McCarthy is the author of four young adult novels and the middle grade category winner of the 2014 Katherine Patterson Award for her novel in verse. Cori’s books include the space thriller The Color of Rain (Running Press Teens, 2013), the near-futuristic thriller Breaking Sky (Sourcebooks, 2015), the contemporary mixed format novel You Were Here(Sourcebooks, 2016), and the forthcoming Now A Major Motion Picture (Sourcebooks, 2018). Breaking Sky is in development at Sony Pictures to become a feature length film. Cori holds three degrees in writing: a BA in Creative Writing from Ohio University (emphasis in poetry and memoir writing), as well as a graduate certificate in screenwriting from UCLA, and an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Cori lives in the Midwest and is the cofounder of the charitable initiative Rainbow Boxes. She has been writing fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and poetry for 15+ years, and editing all genres for 5+ years. For more information on Cori, please check out her website www.CoriMcCarthy.com.

AREAS OF SPECIALTY: Speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy fiction (including high fantasy), poetry, novels in verse, contemporary fiction, humorous fiction, middle grade & young adult novels, screenplays, thrillers, unique memoirs, graphic novels, adaptations of fairy tales.

AVAILABLE FOR: Manuscript critiques, query letter editing, content editing, developmental editing, writing coaching.

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How to Land a Literary Agent: Don’t Make These Common Mistakes

The querying process is an exciting step in any writer’s path to publication, but it’s often one of the most nerve-wracking. It can be fraught with questions of etiquette and common practice. To add to the confusion, agents’ query guidelines have slight (but important!) differences. Today we’ll focus on mistakes you can avoid as a writer as you look for the perfect person to represent your work.

1. Don’t bombard an agent with your full manuscript if you meet in person. If you’ve signed up for a conference--even if you’ve purchased a one-on-one with an agent--don’t expect them to take your manuscript home with them. Don’t bring a hard copy and press it into their hands, even if they express interest in your pitch. If you meet an agent at a conference or other industry event and they invite you to send them your work, follow up with a polite email reminding them of how you met.

2. Don't query before you have a full manuscript. Ever. If the agent likes your query letter, requests a partial or the full manuscript, and you can't send it, because it isn't finished, that shows you haven't done your homework. You never want to query before you have a completed manuscript for the agent to consider. The agent has just wasted the time that would have been happily put into looking at your work--when it's ready. 

3. Don’t query without reading the most up-to-date guidelines on an agent’s website, and following them to the letter. As I mentioned above, agents all have slightly different guidelines. Some use a form on their website, others have a dedicated email. Some prefer a query letter and a synopsis, others only want the query. Many will ask you to send attachments in specific formats (or not use them at all). Make sure you’re following each agent’s guidelines, and that you’re not taking them from somewhere else online. Other sources are often outdated. And know that if you don’t follow the guidelines, you probably won’t receive a response at all. Agents have far too many queries coming in to go out of their way to people who didn’t research and follow the guidelines.

4. Don’t toss your manuscript out to any/every agent you find listed online. Be targeted and focused in your queries. Take the time to look into each agent you’re submitting to, including the genres and publishing categories they work in, their #MSWL (manuscript wish list) if they have one, who they already represent, etc. Educate yourself on the agents you’re querying. The more specific you can be, the more likely you are to find success. If you’re sending out a manuscript to 50 agents at once, you’re probably not narrowing it down enough!

5. Don’t forget to tell the agent if your query is an exclusive. Some agents prefer exclusive queries, while others prefer that you don’t send them exclusives. This is another piece of information you should be able to find by visiting an agent’s website. If it doesn’t include any information on exclusives, assume that either (an exclusive or a multiple subsmission) is okay. Make sure, in all cases, to include in your query letter if this is an exclusive or a multiple submission.

6. Don’t follow up too early/constantly. Once your query is out there, give agents time to respond. It can be tempting to check in and make sure the agent has received your query, to see if there’s any progress, or to find out if they’ve passed, but trust that the agent has a professional system for handling queries as they come in, and know that they are juggling many things--client manuscripts, submissions to editors, contracts--and that your query is only one thing on that list. Don’t follow up with an agent until a specified window of time has elapsed (again, something you can find on an agent’s website.) Even then, a single, brief, polite email is best. If no window of time is specified, consider four weeks the minimum amount of time to allow before checking in.

7. Don’t send a new/updated/revised version of the manuscript to an agent after you’ve queried. This is hugely important, and it’s the darker side of the very important advice: Don’t query until you’re ready. Make sure that manuscript is powerful and polished, because once you’ve queried, you don’t get to send a frantic email five days later saying that you’ve done a few more revisions. If you send a new version to the agent, it signals that you weren’t ready to query in the first place. If they’ve already begun reading, you’ve wasted their (very precious) time by sending a new version.

8. Don’t worry about asking the agent questions about how they work—yet.  Questions of this sort are best saved for when an agent offers you representation. At that point, you will have plenty of opportunities by email or phone to ask them about their communication style, how they handle submissions, sub rights, contracts, etc. Any question about working together should be saved for the moment when the agent expresses interest in working with you.

9. Don’t forget to tell other agents you have the manuscript out with if you receive an offer of representation. This is a matter of agent etiquette. Even if you’re received an offer from your top agent, you need to go back to anyone who has your query and let them know that you’ve received an offer. Oftentimes, an agent hasn’t responded yet because they’re intrigued, but haven’t gotten to the project yet. When you give them this nudge, it lets them know they have to pass or offer in a short amount of time. Two weeks is usually considered a reasonable window, and you should specify a time period in your email. If you follow up, you’re more likely to receive multiple offers, and be in the enviable position of choosing between agents!

10. Don’t rush a revise and resubmit. If an agent offers you a chance to revise your work, and takes the time to critique or offer suggestions, do not send the manuscript back in less than a week. Writers are often afraid that they need to move quickly on R&Rs, but that’s not the case. You already have the agent’s attention and interest with your project. What you need to do now is show them that you’re capable of revising thoroughly and improving the story in ways the agent believes would help it in submissions and on the shelf. If you’re unsure that an agent’s feedback resonates with you, talk it through with friends or fellow writers. Make sure that you take R&Rs seriously, because they mean that an agent is invested in your work.

11. Don’t ignore a trend in rejections. If you send out five queries and receive five passes with different reasons for rejection, you probably just haven’t found the right fit yet. If you send out five queries and everyone points to the same issue, one that’s fixable with revision, take the time before you send the manuscript out for another round of queries, and fix it. The agents you’re sending to are masters of story--they deal with pitches and manuscripts all day long. If they’re all pointing out the same problem with your work, make sure you address it before continuing to query.

12. Don’t send a revised version of the same manuscript to the same agent, UNLESS they specifically ask to see it. When an agent passes, they are passing on this project. Not this version of the project--the entire project. It doesn’t mean they will never read anything from you again, and you will find many stories of writers ending up with agents they have previously queried. But if you send the same query or manuscript in a slightly altered version, the agent will notice, and you’ll burn a potential bridge.

13. Don’t respond to a rejection from an agent. Many of you are probably thinking: but the agent sent such a nice email! But we bonded over our love of puppies/mochi/HEAs! I want to build a relationship so I can query with a different project later! Those reasons make sense, but the agent needs to allot their time elsewhere. If you had a pleasant, polite, and professional interaction, the agent will often remember you when you query (with a new project!) later. Sometimes there are more negative feelings when a query is rejected. This is the moment to confide in your friends, your writing group, your significant other, your cat--ANYONE but the agent in question. Rejections can feel personal, but they’re not. When you take them personally, you’re moving out of the realm of the professional, and you don’t want to send this kind of email to someone in your profession. Walk away from the rejection, shake it off, and live to query another day! 


Amy Rose Capetta is the author of a YA sci-fi duet, Entangled and Unmade (HMH). Her third YA novel, Kiss/Kill, a queer love story wrapped in a murder mystery, is forthcoming from Candlewick in 2017. Amy Rose holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has previously worked for the Writers’ League of Texas and served as assistant editor for the Children’s and YA section of the literary journal Hunger Mountain. In addition to novels, she has written screenplays, the most recent of which debuted at the Toronto ReelHeart International Film Festival.

AREAS OF SPECIALTY:  Sci-fi, fantasy, mystery/thriller, dystopian, supernatural, middle grade, YA, literary fiction, genre-bending fiction, LGBTQ fiction.

AVAILABLE FOR: Manuscript critiques, content editing, developmental editing, first chapter reviews, synopsis editing, private writing coaching.

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6 Tips For Fast Drafting

Fast Drafting

There is no reason to wait for November to bang through a novel draft. Nope. No reason at all. And while NaNoWriMo excels in getting writers to go butt-in-chair and pound the keys each Turkey Season, you should feel free to do your own draft writing months whenever you have the time. (Because seriously? November? Thanksgiving week messes up my word count every time I NaNoWriMo. Anyone else have this problem?)

To send you on your way, here are some tips to run your own fast draft any time you want:

1.     Perfection is unrealistic. You’re rolling your eyes, aren’t you? You know that you can’t write perfectly if you fast draft, and yet I have to type this. And it has to be number one. And when you hit page eighty and the muse is off taking a cat nap, you need to remember this. It’s not only that your writing won’t be perfect, but your scenes won’t be either. Neither will your plot. Your goal is to get to the end so that you know if this novel is a shoe or a houseboat. A barn or a skyscraper.

2.     Don’t write the stuff you don’t want to write. I often hear my writing coaching clients say, “I couldn’t get myself to sit down and work because the character had to go to grandma’s funeral and I didn’t want to write that part.” So? Skip it. You heard me. Skip to the next chapter, summarize or leave yourself bullet point notes if you must, but keep typing. Keep going!

3.     There is no such thing as a Plotter or a Pantser. The only way to keep your story from being underplotted or overplotted is to both plot and fly by the seat of your pants. So, try to write down all the important plot events on one piece of paper while drafting, but don’t get married to those plot events. This will give you the limitation you need to keep being creative as well as the permission to let your story evolve.

4.     Writer’s Block isn’t real. It should be called Character’s Block, because it’s not the writer who has hit a wall, but the character. If you get stuck, back up at least twenty pages. You’re not going to want to because you want to keep moving forward, but almost every case of writer’s block I encounter is because the character made the wrong narrative choice several scenes earlier. Fix the choice and keep writing!

5.     Leave the beginning alone. I can’t tell you how often I work with writers who have re-written the beginning seventeen times and the ending twice. That’s because whenever the writer learns something new about their character, the writer tends to double back to make sure that said epiphany is in the beginning. But you really don’t want to do that. Keep a running list next to your workspace of all the things you’d like to change about the beginning, but don’t backslide and go fix it. Writers who can’t avoid heading back to the beginning over and over tend to overwrite and stiffen up their opening into oblivion until it’s become unusable.

6.     Set yourself a goal and don’t let it go. The reason that NaNoWriMo gets novels written is that there is a support network. You can go on your social media and say, “Can’t talk now. I’m NaNoWriMoing.” So when you set up your own fast draft season, make sure you have your schedule and intentions arranged upfront. Meet those intentions no matter what, and make sure that the people in your lives know that you’re drafting and therefore busy with a capital B.

Remember that the first draft—the fast draft or shitty draft—is about embracing the calamity of inspiration. Let it be a mess, and it will launch you on your way. All you have to do is let it.


Cori McCarthy is the author of four young adult novels and the middle grade category winner of the 2014 Katherine Patterson Award for her novel in verse. Cori’s books include the space thriller The Color of Rain (Running Press Teens, 2013), the near-futuristic thriller Breaking Sky (Sourcebooks, 2015), the contemporary mixed format novel You Were Here(Sourcebooks, 2016), and the forthcoming Now A Major Motion Picture (Sourcebooks, 2018). Breaking Sky is in development at Sony Pictures to become a feature length film. Cori holds three degrees in writing: a BA in Creative Writing from Ohio University (emphasis in poetry and memoir writing), as well as a graduate certificate in screenwriting from UCLA, and an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Cori lives in the Midwest and is the cofounder of the charitable initiative Rainbow Boxes. She has been writing fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and poetry for 15+ years, and editing all genres for 5+ years. For more information on Cori, please check out her website www.CoriMcCarthy.com.

AREAS OF SPECIALTY: Speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy fiction (including high fantasy), poetry, novels in verse, contemporary fiction, humorous fiction, middle grade & young adult novels, screenplays, thrillers, unique memoirs, graphic novels, adaptations of fairy tales.

AVAILABLE FOR: Manuscript critiques, query letter editing, content editing, developmental editing, writing coaching.

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CLICK HERE TO REQUEST A QUOTE.


The 5 Best NaNoWriMo Apps for Planning & Plotting Your Novel (HINT: Start Planning in October)

This is the year! You are SO IN! You’re going to knock out 50,000 words in November, then spend the next few months revising and adding until you have that glorious thing: a completed novel, polished and shiny, ready to be sent out to an eager world.

You got this. But as every writer knows, before you begin, you need to lay out your tools: cup of coffee, notebook and pen for helpful scribbles, laptop or tablet . . . and the right apps.

PLANNING IN OCTOBER

Planning is the fun part! But that’s the danger: you can get lost in planning and diagrams and research and oops! It’s almost Thanksgiving. Don’t succumb: come November 1, be churning out your one or two thousand words a day.

In October, though, plan away. Scapple ($14.99 for Mac and Windows; free to try for 30 days), from the people who brought you Scrivener, the writer’s best friend (see below), is a simple mind-mapping app that allows you to plop down characters, events, or ideas and connect them with lines, shift them around, or arrange them however you like. Like scribbling on a whiteboard, but faster.

The Cult of Mac also points us to Lists for Writers, $2.99 for iPhone/iPad or Android. When you’re writing fast—and you’ll be writing fast—this is a great go-to for prompts and ideas. What kind of hair does the bridegroom have? What does my earth-bound angel actually do for a living? What attitude does my super-spy’s husband have toward her work? Flick through a list, grab a likely answer, and go. This app will stay useful well into November.

WRITING IN NOVEMBER

Scrivener ($45 for Mac and Windows; $19.99 for iOS (universal); free to try for 30 days) is often accused of having a cult, and if that’s the case, I’m a happy member. I’ve been using it for nine or ten years, first on large business documents at my then-day job, and then as a novelist. I genuinely do not understand how people write big projects without it. Some of my favorites of its many features:

  • Allows you to break your work into chunks – chapters and scenes—that you can color code and swap around easily in the “binder” that organizes them on the left of your screen.
  • Gives you a place to keep all your research right within the project. Photos, sound clips, videos, PDFs, entire web pages—they’re right there at hand in your research section.
  • Split screen feature allows you to have two windows open at the same time. Describing a magic raven? Pull up your raven photo and set it right next to the scene you’re typing in.
  • The project word counter tracks your progress every writing session and alerts you when you’ve hit your goal—useful for NaNoWriMo.
  • And of course, Scrivener easily exports your document into Microsoft Word format so that you can send it out into the world.

Some people find Scrivener a bit intimidating initially. With so many ways to help you write, research, and organize, using it for the first time can be like sitting down to the controls of a jet plane. Here are three key things to know if you’re new to Scrivener:

  1. If you’re planning to use it for NaNoWriMo, get it ahead of time and play around a bit to see if it’s for you.
  2. The Scrivener tutorials are famously excellent, so give one a spin.
  3. Forget about all the stuff it can do. Just begin by using its most basic features—the binder that organizes your documents, and the Research folder—and don’t worry about the rest. Those two features alone can be writer’s-life-changing.

For years Scrivener cultists, I mean fans, have been begging the creators for an iOS version, and it’s finally here. Now you can sync a project to Dropbox and work on it anywhere, from the coffee shop to the line at the post office. The transition to iOS was worth the wait: Macworld gave the iOS version a four-and-a-half mouse rating and said “Scrivener for iOS does just about everything you could ever need in order to research, plot, and write a short story, doctoral thesis, novel, or a review like the one you’re reading right now. . . a robust, flexible writing tool that will serve you well.” (Note that because of screen size limitations, a few features are not available on the iPhone version.)

Tried Scrivener, and it’s not for you? Ulysses (Mac ($44.99) and iOS ($24.99, universal) (sorry, Windows and Android users) gets raves from the Scrivener-decliners. One iTunes reviewer said, “Ulysses hits perfectly between the hack of using a standard word processor and folders to create long-form writing, such as a novel, and the too-much-to-be-worth-the-effort kitchen sink approach of Scrivener. I have become many times more productive since I started using it and it quickly, quickly, QUICKLY justified itself in terms of cost.”

The Mac desktop app has been around for a decade or so, and a 2010 Macworld review sings the praises of its clean interface and “superb design.”

The Ulysses iOS version is new this spring, and the five-mouse Macworld review is a rave beyond raves.

Finally, if NaNoWriMo (or any writing, really) demands anything from you, it’s time management skills. That’s where the Pomodoro Timer (iOS and Android, $1.99) comes in. This little app keeps you writing for 25 minutes, then gives you five minutes to stretch, walk around, or play on Facebook. But it dings you back to work when that five minutes is up. Let this bossy, cheerful tomato keep you churning out words.

Good luck! And remember the Rule of First Drafts, coined I am not sure by whom, which should become your mantra for November: The only thing a first draft needs to be is done.

Ready? GO!