Make writing worth your time, says Jennifer Nielsen

Jennifer Nielsen

Jennifer Nielsen

“Writing is such a diverse field with so many options and possibilities, it’s easy to choose the route with the immediate payoff, or the one that best strokes your ego, but if they don’t get you closer to what you want most, then it’s not worth your time.” — author Jennifer Nielsen

I love this quote from author Jennifer Nielsen, whose The False Prince series I could read over and over and over again. Her books are filled with twists and emotion and deep characters that couldn’t possibly have just rolled off her fingers so perfectly in a first draft.

Writing is not easy. Or rather, I’ll say storytelling, because a lot of people think writing a novel is the same as a shopping list. But storytelling involves creating great characters that live and breathe as much as the reader, locations that feel like you could step right into them, and plots that are more complicated than a teen’s love life.

I’ve heard writers say they’re ready to be done with their manuscripts and to send them out into the world, either to agents or editors or through self-publishing. While I completely understand that feeling, I always urge them to hold off, put it in a drawer and work on something else for a while. Sometimes, our desire to give the story to someone else is because we’re not sure what more to do with it, but that doesn’t mean it’s ready and can be the best that it can be.

To put our best work out there, we have to go the hard route, the long route, the frustrating route. Because that’s the route with the most rewards: characters we never want to say goodbye to, settings we wish we could live in ourselves, and stories so complicated, we’d love to stay up late unraveling.

Jennifer Nielsen will be speaking and teaching at the Austin SCBWI conference in March. I can’t wait. Hope I see you there.

Eight Ways to Keep Up Your Writing Momentum with Anna Staniszewski

Today I’m thrilled to have a guest post by Anna Staniszewski, author of My Very Unfairy Tale Life and its sequels, My Epic Fairy Tale Fail and the latest, My Sort of Fairy Tale Ending (check out the trailer below). Anna’s got another series starting in January, The Dirt Diary. With all those words in print, she knows a thing or two about keeping up writing momentum — actually, she knows eight things — and I’m excited that she’s sharing her secrets here.

Welcome Anna!

Anna Staniszewski

Anna Staniszewski

In my experience, momentum is one of the hardest thing to maintain when you’re working on a novel. If you’re like me, you start a project with a million ideas buzzing around in your brain…and then you get fifty pages in and those ideas feel as flat as pancakes.

How do you keep the momentum going? Here are a few things that have helped me.

Write a synopsis. I’m not an outliner, but it helps me to have a 1-2 page synopsis of the story. Then I can refer back to it when I get stuck and (hopefully) get excited about the idea again.

Have a deadline. It’s unbelievably motivating if someone is expecting the manuscript by a certain date. So if you need a push to keep going, try promising the book to a friend, for example.

Just write. This advice might sound obvious, but sometimes I get so caught up in how a novel isn’t working that I forget to just sit down and write through it. You’d be surprised how many ideas work themselves out while you keep forging ahead.

My Sort of Fairy Tale EndingSet a timer. Don’t put pressure on yourself to write for hours. Set a timer for twenty minutes and really commit to your novel for that amount of time. You may just find a spark that will help you keep going.

Celebrate small victories. You finished that tricky scene? Yay! You finished a whole chapter? Double yay! Sometimes the only way you’ll get through the big stuff is to celebrate the small stuff.

Have a carrot. By “a carrot,” I mean a reward that keeps you going. For me, the carrot is the promise of working on a shiny new project once I finish the one I’m writing. Find whatever will motivate you (a fun outing, a chocolate cake, etc.) and use it to keep yourself on track.

The most important thing: Don’t get discouraged. You won’t love your book every day. Sometimes you might even hate it. Do whatever you can to keep writing because there is seriously no better feeling than typing “The End.”

The End.  (See? Small victories.)

Thank you, Anna!

Click to check out the awesome trailer for My Sort of Fairy Tale Ending.

Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Stanszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. She was named the 2006-2007 Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library and a winner of the 2009 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award. Currently, Anna lives outside of Boston with her husband and their black Labrador, Emma.

When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time teaching, reading, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. She is the author of My Very UnFairy Tale Life and its sequels, My Epic Fairy Tale Fail and My Sort of Fairy Tale Ending, all published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. Look for the first book in Anna’s next tween series, The Dirt Diary, in January 2014, and visit her at

Inspiration at the Austin SCBWI Conference

At the Austin SCBWI conference last weekend, author/illustrator E.B. Lewis pointed out that writers and and illustrators are the same people, all trying to create art the captures peoples’ imagination.

Whether we’re using paint or words, we’re both making pictures that tell stories. And those stories have to have a few things to be successful:

Drama: E.B. pointed out shadows create drama in pictures. In stories, it’s the shadows behind what people are saying, the subtext, the conflict.

Mystery: E.B. said pictures shouldn’t give you all the details, because if the brain has everything it’ll get bored and move on. Writers also want to give just enough detail for readers to understand but not so much that there’s no need for them to figure things out on their own. Readers, like art viewers, want to be able to interpret some of the details themselves.

Off-center composition: E.B. explained that the center of an image is the “not important” area; what’s important should be off-center. Similarly, a story shouldn’t have characters that are all centered (okay, maybe I’m stretching this a bit, but you get the point). Characters should be a little off-center, because real people are off center. No stereotypes because in real life, even the most stereotypical person has his or her own identity.

Dark and light: E.B. showed us that good picture composition contains three dark corners and one light. Stories don’t need that structure, but it’s good to have dark and light. Too much dark, and readers will be depressed. But equally, if everything goes too smoothly, what’s the point of the story?

One bit of advice that E.B. gave applies to everyone: “Love playing in the sandbox.” A good reminder that no book is brilliant in the first draft and the best art comes from experimentation.

So, embrace your inner artist, get your hands dirty and create.

Got any insights you’ve learned from a conference lately?

Character and new agent Alexandra Penfold

Alexandra Penfold

Agent Alexandra Penfold talks character.

In her first event as an agent, former Simon & Schuster editor Alexandra Penfold spent a weekend teaching writers about character, and I was thrilled to be among them.

After an impressive career in book publishing, Alexandra moved to the other side of the desk this year, accepting an agenting position at Upstart Crow Literary. And after spending the weekend listening to her lectures and workshops at The Writing Barn, I know she’ll be a brilliant agent. She’s smart, passionate, insightful and a lot of fun.

At The Writing Barn, the first of the venue’s Advanced Writing Workshops, Alexandra gave two lectures on characters. “Characters are the heart and soul of any story,” she said, adding that the story should flow naturally from character.

Readers know when plot is being forced and characters are doing things they wouldn’t normally do just to advance the plot.

So what is plot? It should come from what the character needs or wants and what’s standing in his or her way.

Samantha Clark and Varsha Bajaj

Me (l.) chatting with author Varsha Bajaj at the cocktail party that kicked off the weekend.

Readers also like to figure things out for themselves, Alexandra pointed out, and that’s why showing character, instead of telling, is so important. Character can be shown through their decisions and actions, but their emotion also can be revealed through things like how they walk and sit. Do they walk tall or hunch over, for example.

Alexandra gave us a worksheet of questions that we can ask our characters. I’ve seen a lot of character interviews online with questions like what our characters’ favorite food is, favorite color, what their bedroom looks like. That’s all fine, but I like Alexandra’s better because it offers questions that are linked to the emotions of our characters, such as, what’s the last thing our character thinks about at night and the first thing in the morning? How do our characters think of themselves? How does that compare to how others see them? And more…

Bethany Hegedus and Alexandra Penfold

Author and The Writing Barn owner Bethany Hegedus (c.) introduced Alexandra (far r.) to an eager crowd.

Characters can also be shown in word choice. And Alexandra read to us some wonderful examples of this, including the opening chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Anne of Green Gables and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. All brilliant.

Alexandra certainly knows a lot about character, and passed it on in a fun and informative manor. If you’re writing YA, middle-grade or quirky picture books, I definitely recommend you query her.

Next up in The Writing Barn’s 2013 Advanced Writing Workshop is National Book Award novelist Sara Zarr in April and award-winning author Francisco X. Stork in November. I can’t wait.

Stay accountable! Write with a buddy

blank computer screenLet’s face it, writing is hard. That blank page staring back at you expectantly, the blinking cursor daring you to put it to work. And your brain going I think I can, I can’t, I think I can, I can’t…

With all that, it’s no wonder that we writers clean and do laundry, among other less thrilling exercises, just so we don’t have to write.

But without that butt in chair time, we’ll never finish that manuscript, never get an agent, never sell that book to a publisher and never see our work on bookshelves.

So, back to that blank page…

Want help with getting the work done? Get a writing buddy.

The wonderful Bethany Hegedus and I buddied up for writing, and it has been a huge help. Sure we have our good days and our bad days with our individual manuscripts, but we have each other to celebrate and commiserate.

Here’s how it works: Bethany and I set a joint weekly goal of 25 pages. Then each day, after our separate writing sessions, we email each other with our weekly take. No judgement if we’re below; we reply with supporting emails pushing each other to go further tomorrow. And if we did well, our emails are filled with congratulations and more supporting pushing for our next session.

Bethany is a morning person, waking around 6:30 am and writing before I’m even at the computer. I usually start my writing day around 9 am and go through noon. Her check-in email is usually in my inbox before I start writing, and my reply is in her inbox later to help her start her next day.

Having a writing buddy gives you accountability and support. Setting writing goals, either pages or word count, is an invaluable way to help you keep moving forward. But no matter how you try to stick to those goals, on days when the words aren’t flowing, it’s easy to wander off to water the plants or rearrange your closet. Who’s going to know? Only you.  And quickly, that manuscript or revision that could have taken you a year or less is stretched to two years, three… more.

If you have a writing buddy, someone you have to email every day with an update, it gives you more of a reason to put your butt in your chair and get down to work. None of us want to feel like we’re disappointing someone else.

So, keep your writing on track and find a writing buddy. You don’t have to have the same goals, but make sure you share your goals so your buddy can support you.

Do you have other ways that you stay accountable to your writing goals?

In Doubt? Try a New POV

BinocularsI got stuck this week.

I’m revising one of my earlier novels, trying to speed up the beginning, but I couldn’t get chapter two to work correctly.

The story is told in the alternating points of view of two characters, and chapter two is the all-important introduction of one of them. I had written it and re-written it so many times, but none had the oomph this commercial science-fiction middle-grade novel needs.

What to do? Break out the chocolate? Punch a pillow? Try another re-write and question my writing skills?

All were tempting, but instead, I took my dog out for a walk. When in doubt, a walk is always good for clearing your head.

During that walk, I let the character play around in my head and he started talking to me — first person. Hmm. When in doubt, try a new POV?

The other side of my brain was screaming NO!!!!! This story is a third-person story. Everything about it works in third person. First-person will not work, not with the dual-POV in middle-grade. No! Third person.

But at this point, what did I have to lose?

At the SCBWI Summer Conference a few years ago, I heard some advice that has always stuck with me: Try it! If you have an idea, no matter how crazy, try it. Even if it doesn’t work, it might lead to other ideas. And if not, you now know it won’t work and can try something else. The important thing is to try it!

So, I tried it. I tried the first-person, sure that it wouldn’t work.

And guess what? It worked. The character jumped onto the page and ran around shouting to me what was happening in the scene. I couldn’t type fast enough.

But here’s the interesting part: After about five paragraphs, the words shifted. The scene was still working, but the voice moved from first-person to third! Yes!

The copy editor in me quickly went back and changed all the Is to make them third person, then I continued on in the scene. The whole chapter came out with oomph, character, humor and everything else this book needs.

A change of point of view can help you discover new options in your story. First change your point of view and get out and walk around. Then change your character’s point of view and see what happens. It doesn’t mean you have to stick with it, just try it. You never know what it’ll lead to.

Have you had any enlightening moments with a POV change?

To Outline or Not to Outline Part 6

Over the last week, I’ve been exploring writing processes and outlines with some of my writer friends, and today I’ve got the final writer weighing in. Bethany Hegedus is the author of two middle-grade books, Truth With a Capital T and Between Us Baxters, both from Bank Street Books, and her next book, Grandfather Gandhi is coming from Atheneum Books soon. She’s also the editor of Hunger Mountain, the Vermont College of Fine Arts journal.

Before Bethany starts, don’t forget to check out all the arguments in this online To Outline or Not to Outline debate, with P.J. Hoover, Donna Bowman Bratton, Nikki Loftin, Jessica Lee Anderson and myself.

Bethany Hegedus

Bethany Hegedus

And now, here’s Bethany’s take on the subject. Take it away…

How do you start a new book?

New novel ideas come quite often—especially during the time where I have just finished one and it is in the process of being shopped around by my agent. When there is that void, when I am not writing consistently, I see possible stories everywhere. In the newspaper. In the way the wind blows on a hot day. From my own set of circumstances. (When I first moved to Texas, I began a manuscript tentatively titled Creation Creek about a little girl who moves from Georgia to Texas and who rides with the truck driver in the big rig while her Daddy, who is agoraphobic, has strapped himself to the Lazy-Boy inside the double wide, and has decided this is the safest way for him to get from point A to point B. I am not agoraphobic but moving from New York to Texas, half made me want to hide like the Dad and half want to go explore and make new friends, like my main character Fancy.) I don’t write the ideas down but the ones that stick, or the ones that I decide to pursue have some emotional connection for me right then and there. I have a sister story, an idea that hasn’t left me for about six years, it’s a story I feel I will right one day but not yet … how I take this emotional temperature gauging I don’t know, but thus far, it has served me well.

Do you outline or write more by the seat of your pants?

I used to write by the seat of my pants—more plunger than plotter. A friend turned me on to a fabulous craft book, The Weekend Novelist by James Ray, and he takes the writer on a series of exercises to develop their work in progress key scene by key scene. The idea of key scenes appealed to my structure oriented brain, but I still write organically, following the character as closely as I can, and then when I run into a wall, I look back to see where I have been. Perhaps this is backward, but it reminds me of explorers who set out into the wilderness and instead of following someone else’s map, charted the territory they had covered after they had been there. It takes a lot of backward and forward movement and, though it may not always be time effective, I think it helps me create layers as I write and not go with first thoughts.

There is an article coming out in the fall issue of Hunger Mountain, a literary journal where I edit the Young Adult and Children’s content, called “Writing with Both Sides of the Brain” by Kelly Barson that may interest you. Your question, Sam, about outling or writing from the seat of one’s pants, made me think of this essay. What Kelly does that is really interesting is show how writers need both the analytical and the creative sides of the brain and how to get them to work together. In reading her essay, I had so many ah-ha moments in terms of how my process works currently and how my process has been changing. It also made me realize that the right and left sides of an artist’s brain need not be at war with one another. They may not create in perfect harmony—we may lean toward one side more than the other—but to do what we do, we must create a partnership between the more analytical side and the side that can come up with wholly new imagery and subtext.

Did your process evolve, and/or how did you come up with your process?

I am glad my process keeps changing, though the part of me that wants to get it “right” — whatever “right” is — wishes my writing process would stay static or  that I had stumbled upon someone else’s process that could be prescribed to all artists across the board. Eureka! Like new math—we all must approach writing this way!

Writing a novel is a lot of trial and error. It is engaging with action and plot but at the same time investigating the internal reactions and sometimes unconscious decisions that lead characters to make certain choices. It is a lot like life—messy, never fully finished, and always a work in progress.

What is great in sharing about process and talking about it with other writers is that we see the universal connections and struggles we have in common and we are also exposed to new tools and new ways of thinking that we wouldn’t have come up with on our own. There is nothing I love more than process talk!

I totally agree with you there, Bethany! Thanks for all the insight.

What are your best outlining tips?

To Outline or Not to Outline, Part 5

The wonderful Jessica Lee Anderson is my guest today in my To Outline or Not to Outline blog debate. Jessica has written five books, two nonfiction (What Is A Living Thing? and Presidential Pets) and two novels for teens (Border Crossing and Trudy). Her newest teen novel, Calli, arrives in September. Like, P.J. Hoover, Jessica also is a member of the author group The Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels.

For more in the outlining debate, check out my process, then nonfiction Donna Bowman Bratton and novelist Nikki Loftin. Coming tomorrow is Bethany Hegedus.

Jessica Lee AndersonNow, here’s Jessica:

How do you start a new book?

For me, a new book usually starts with a concept or a character voice that captures me by surprise. From there, I usually try to get to know the protagonist and what he or she is looking for/wants. I often have to do quite a bit of free writing whenever I start a new book.

Do you outline or write more by the seat of your pants?

I’ve done both! For my new novel-in-progress, I’ve spent much more time working on an outline since writing by the seat of my pants has led me to needing to write quite a few drafts. My outline is loose enough that it allows for some seat of the pant moments, though.

Did your process evolve, and/or how did you come up with your process?

While I’ve become a believer in outlining, my process has been different for every novel I’ve worked on. With my first novel, I knew how the book was going to end before I knew much about the middle or even the beginning. With subsequent novels, I’ve either started at the beginning or in the middle. Each book is a journey in every way imaginable!

So true! Thanks, Jessica.

Is your process similar? Let us know in the comments.

To Outline or Not to Outline, Part 4

In today’s installment of my To Outline or Not to Outline blog debate, I have a bonafide outliner — with some great insight into her unique outlining techniques.

P.J. Hoover is the author of a series of three middle-grade fantasy novels, The Emerald Tablet, The Navel of the World and The Necropolis, which chronicle the adventures of a boy who discovers he’s part of two feuding worlds hidden beneath the sea, and her new novel for teens Solstice, which takes place in a Global Warming future and explores the parallel world of mythology beside our own. She’s also a member of the author group The Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels.

Before I sign over to P.J., don’t miss Bethany Hegedus and Jessica Lee Anderson talking about their processes later this week, or Donna Bowman Bratton, Nikki Loftin and yours truly from earlier.

P.J. Hoover

P.J. Hoover

And now, here’s P.J.’s great wisdom:

Thank you so much for inviting me to weigh in on the evolution of a book. It’s always such a fun subject to discuss. So the question is, what’s my process for a new book?

Let’s see. The first thing I do is make lots of little notes about all the ideas for the book that come to mind. Once I’ve thought about these ideas and maybe done some Googling to see what else pops up, I then start a new Excel spreadsheet (it’s the engineer in me). In Excel, each character gets a tab at the bottom of the page, all my ideas go onto a tab, and then I start a tab that will evolve into something resembling an outline.

For my outline, I’ll list all my key events and then try to set some sort of timeline by each event. When I’m feeling especially motivated, for each scene I come up with, I’ll categorize it into what I’m trying to accomplish in the particular scene. And if I notice some elements of the book getting more attention than others, I’ll find a way to remedy that, either by shifting scenes around, adding more scenes, or enriching current scenes.

I’ve been using Excel since I first started writing, but my level of organization changes for each project I work on. Some projects almost write themselves and require less attention to the spreadsheet ahead of time, while others really take advanced planning.

So do I outline? I guess when I answer it this way, the answer has to be yes. That said, I do allow for changes to my outline, and in fact, as I’m writing and these changes occur, I embrace them. I love when I deviate from outline, because it’s a sign to myself that the creative process is really kicking in.

Awesome! Thanks for sharing, P.J. I feel like opening my Excel right now and exploring.

Chime in. What’s your writing process?

To Outline or Not to Outline, Part 3

The writing process is different for every writer. So, I thought it would be fun to compare the processes of some of my friends and see which outline and which create by the seat of their pants.

The week stared with my process, then nonfiction writer Donna Bowman Bratton chimed in. Today, we’re hearing from the lovely Nikki Loftin, whose debut middle-grade novel The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy will be published by Razorbill (Penguin) in summer 2012. Later in the week, we’ll hear from Bethany Hegedus, Jessica Lee Anderson and P.J. Hoover.

Nikki Loftin

Nikki Loftin

Now, here’s Nikki:

There is no part of writing more wonderful to me than the Great Beginning. That first thought of “what if,” that image of a nest balanced between two branches that makes me imagine a magical girl sitting there, the turn of a leaf in the wind that spurs an unravelling of thought — that’s my favorite time. (Honestly? It’s better than the advance check. But don’t tell my editor I said that.) But for all the poetic bliss of those beginnings, I have to admit I start most of my books out of spite.

Yep, spite.

For instance, my most recent manuscript — a book about a boy who isn’t allowed to believe in anything supernatural then moves in next door to the devil and his daughter — came about when some well-meaning friends complained about the presence of witches in a previous book. (THE SINISTER SWEETNESS OF SPLENDID ACADEMY, coming out in summer 2012!) “Oh,” I thought, “you don’t like witches? You think kids shouldn’t read about witches??? Well, how about… SATAN??!! And then I gave an evil laugh and began typing. I have other examples, but I think you get the picture.

Outline vs. Pants

I’m firmly on the fence here. When I was studying writing at UT, I turned in a story that had a lot more plot than usual. (We wrote literary fiction, and most of my stories were just setting, setting, setting. BORING.) My professor asked me if I had known what was going to happen at the end when I began writing. When I admitted I had, he beat me about the head and shoulders with a copy of Dante’s INFERNO, and made me promise never to make such a dreadful mistake again.

I think outlining too much makes my work predictable. So I like to live with the “what if” in my head, wait for the characters to sort of gel, and get that first sentence by Muse Mail before I start writing.

Then I write about the first 10,000 words. After that, I outline a bit, so I can get an idea of where I’m going, otherwise, I could end up wandering the literary desert for 40,000 words with no end in sight.

I always leave the ending in slight doubt, even in my own mind. That way, I’m still discovering the story as I write.

My process evolved from 100% pantser to about 75% pantser, 25% plotter. I do a LOT of thinking about motivation and stakes before I write.

And of course, revisions are a completely different story. I outline the whole book in revision, to get an idea of where I might have gone astray, and to help myself trace the plot and character arcs. I hate revising like the Devil (who is actually a very nice character in my book).

I’ve finished seven manuscripts, and started quite a few more, so I’m sure the process will continue to evolve. And who knows what editorial deadlines will do to my process! I hope I find out. I really do like those advance checks.

Really, really like them.

Part outliner, part pantser. Great, Nikki. Thanks!

Do you outline or not?

By the way, Nikki goes into more reasons why she writes on her blog.