Gifts for the young reader (and writer!)

Do you have a young person on your Christmas list, but don’t really have a clue what to get them? Or perhaps you know someone who is an avid reader of any age, but you’re not sure what they’d like?

I happen to have just the thing. As the community moderator for the Young Writer’s Program, I know what’s got the kids excited about reading these days. The roleplays they create, the fandoms they write, the things they’re going gaga for. These are the stories they’re talking about non-stop amongst themselves.  You may have even noticed some have been made into movies!

Here’s your perfect list, just in time for the holiday.

Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth

Warriors Series by by Erin Hunter

The Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare

Maximum Ride by James Patterson  (Yes, that James Patterson.)

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherine M. Valente

Matched Trilogy by Ally Condie

If there’s a budding writer, then a great choice are totable notebooks. Moleskines are my drug of choice, but I’ve also found Picadilly journals to be an adequate and much less expensive alternative. Great pens are never a bad thing for any writer. Even if they’re digital writers, at some point you’ve gotta break out the red ink. My personal favorites are of course the ever trustworthy Pilot Precise V5s, and they come in colors!

So tell me, fine readers, what are your go-to gifts for the readers and writers during the holidays? What do YOU hope Santa brings for Christmas?


NaNoWriMo: The Community

On October 1st, we relaunched our website with new features, new, squeaky clean forums, and more. The site reset is a physical reset, but for a lot of people, it’s a mental one, too. For many of our participants, the reset is the sign that NaNoWriMo is here, and the panic and planning begin in earnest.

The most valuable resource NaNoWriMo provides is its community. And I’m not just saying that because I manage the aforementioned community, either! Time and time again, people have told us how the community has transformed their writing, and I’ll be honest: I’m one of those people! For me, writing was something I did alone, in a corner, scribbling madly in a notebook or behind a textbook where the teacher couldn’t see me.

Mind you, I had writer friends, and we talked about it. Maybe we even shared work now and again. But write together? Madness!

NaNoWriMo changed all of that. I was suddenly surrounded by a community of thousands, all writing together, with a common goal and deadline. The community was sheer magic. It drew me like a moth to flame, and today, it’s quite literally my passion and my career.

So how can you leverage that magic for yourself?

First and foremost, if you don’t have an account, create one. Many people do the event on their own, or know it’s going on and kinda write along with us, but never really use the site. That’s great, but you’re missing out on a rich community of writers who want to help!

Once you’ve created an account, head straight over to the forums. That’s where the main, international community resides. Forums exist for just about every writing-related issue you can think of, and then some. There are age groups, genre lounges, tips, tricks, and more. There is also a regional community for most areas. You can find that under Local Events.

So you do all of that… now what?

Well, what’s your need? If you’re having trouble with naming things (one of my favorites) you can pop over to the Appellation Station. If you need prompts, or competitive word sprints, you can hit Word Wars, Prompts, & Sprints. If you’re looking for filler characters, chapter titles, motives, or just about anything, Adoption Society will have a thread to find one. You can find commiseration in the NaNoWriMo Ate My Soul forum, or check out the genre lounges.

The most important thing is to engage. Ask questions. Help others. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve improved a piece simply by looking at what others are doing, and getting inspired, or realizing what I did wrong… or any number of things. Sometimes, the process of typing out a question will solve the problem by getting me thinking in the right direction.

What do you have to lose? Well. I’ll be honest. Time. Your soul. NaNoWriMo (many a novel has been lost to the Games forum.) But you might just gain something instead. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

The Calm Before the Storm

September is here. That moment of sheer terror that fills my mind with to-do lists, a cluttered calendar, and constant contact.

I’ve discovered the last week or two that I’ve been disconnecting myself with my online life. Anyone who knows me knows that I am generally a very connected person. I’ve been known to spend upwards of 10-12 hours each day working at the computer, chatting, writing, working, and more.

I’ve been in a strange, almost withdrawn mode, staying away from chat, avoiding social media (well, more than usual. My G+ feed is depressingly empty, for me.)

This feels very much like the calm before the storm. It occurred to me while wracking my brain for a topic to write this blog about that this is me preparing for what is to come.

When October hits in earnest, I must immerse myself in the NaNoWriMo forums, answering questions, guiding thread creators to the proper forums, troubleshooting, wrangling beta testers, as well as near-constant staff meetings at OLL. I go to local write-ins, run sprints on NaNo Word Sprints, have lots of coffee, and in general, am more social and involved than I am with anything at any other time in life.

This year presents even more challenges, but I realized that I am actually retreating from this hyperconnectivity before it begins.

I’ve been thinking of the novel I want to write; for the first time in a long time, I know what I’m writing before NaNoWriMo. At a time when many people are getting more connected to the event, I’m trying to disconnect more.

It’s a survival technique, I think. For more than a decade now, this has been my fall. Fall is synonymous with falling leaves, cooling temperatures, and NaNoWriMo.

I don’t think this is a bad thing, either. For me, writing has become intensely social; something that was once painfully solitary has become the precise opposite. In a way, that need to be a part of something has almost crippled my ability to write anything else.

But I’m finding balance. Any writer has to find balance; for that matter, it’s not a problem exclusive to writers at all. I often devote myself with a frightening focus to a particular task or interest for months at a time, only to drop them and find something else later. It’s a pattern that is starting to bother me more and more, as I reorganize my mind and my life. I want to devote the right amount of time to everything… not just one thing to the exclusion of all else!

So, as NaNoWriMo comes, what are you doing to prepare, if anything? I’m planning my deep breath before the other shoe drops. What about you?

Notebooks and pens and cramps, oh my!

Purple V5 Pilot Precise and a Moleskine notebook

One of my favorite ways of writing is the notebook. There’s a few reasons for this; primarily, it’s because when I write at my computer, my ADD kicks in and there are a million things that need to be done. I need to check NaNoWriMo forums, or my email, or a chat window pops up from a friend or client, or… any of a million things.

Notebooks take me away from all that. I can curl up on the couch, pop in some earbuds, tuck my feet under my butt, and write more or less distraction free. If something bothers me, I can pick up and move. If the power goes out, it’s okay… I can keep writing without the need for a battery backup.

I’m particular, though. I prefer journal-sized notebooks. Especially Moleskines. They have the right weight of paper, and are the perfect size to drop in my purse and go (although these days, my purse is large enough to accommodate a small child). I can’t tell you how many words I’ve churned out waiting at a doctor’s office or surreptitiously when I should be paying attention to other things. Like church.

The problem with all of this is my pen obsession. I have a deep-rooted love of the Pilot precise line of pens. They were the pens my father used, and when he died, it became almost a religious need to own and use them. Not only are they consistently even pens throughout their life, fun to use, and easy on my arthritic fingers, they remind me of my father. It’s a way to stay connected to him, even though I haven’t been able to talk to him since I was 15. I’ve even branched out from my default Pilot Precise V5 black to green, pink, red, or my favorites, dark blue and purple.

And I will fully admit it: I harbor hopes of rivaling J.K. Rowling in my success, and perhaps I can auction off one of my handwritten masterpieces for charity when I get rich and famous. Imagine how much the handwritten version of Harry Potter would sell for at auction!

The most important tool in my writing toolbox isn’t a tangible one at all, though. It’s an exercise routine. When I’m really in the grips of writing fury, my wrists will cramp, and my carpal tunnel will kick up something fierce. So solid exercises which stretch and strengthen my wrists are critical! I have mild arthritis in my hands and wrists, so it’s important that I stay on top of this or the pain gets worse than an ibuprofen or two can handle. Doing a full-body exercise routine (I’m a huge fan of yoga, and recently started DDP Yoga) helps reduce the stiffness and pain that can result from long periods of sitting in one position, writing furiously. This is doubly true if you are writing on the computer; we tend to sit in less-than-ergonomic ways that leave our bodies sore.

So no matter how you choose to write, be it by hand in a notebook, on the computer, or by carving your deathless prose in a stone tablet in your back yard, take care of your body. Writing may not be a contact sport, but if not conducted properly, can result in injury nonetheless, as I learned much to my chagrin the year I wrote 50,000 words in 10 days during NaNoWriMo.

Stuck in a Rut!

In the past few years, I’ve been really struggling with completing my novels. I have at least four that I really believe in, that have great characters and fun plots, that I want to see published. The problem is, I never finish. Even when I do, I am dissatisfied by the ending. In one case, the novel randomly ended when I least expected it, and I couldn’t figure out why.

I’ve also been struggling with some pretty major depression, and one very late night, while staring at the ceiling, listening to my husband snore and my two girls talk to themselves in their sleep, I had an epiphany.

The problem I’ve been facing has not been that I don’t know how to finish a novel. The problem is that all my novels have the same basic, flawed premise where I take great characters and neuter their ability to help themselves.

If I’m good at anything, it’s that I create interesting, flawed characters with strengths, weaknesses and great backstories. I tend to write about women; what with me being a woman and all, my main characters tend to be female. I enjoy writing my men, but my women tend to be my main characters.

The problem is that my novels tend to be a bit relationship-focused. It’s not romance, but they all follow the same basic pattern.

  1. Female is living an independent life on her own.
  2. Encounters male.
  3. Female is challenged or captured (at least two have an imprisonment)
  4. Male rescues female.
  5. Story stalls and has more to go, or ends and is lackluster.

In short, in none of my stories is the female main character anything other than a victim who must be rescued. Given that I actually write strong, independent females, this is distressing. The only one who does not need rescue? She is literally not what I would consider a strong female. However, she’s also the most interesting character I’ve written, in my opinion. She’s a sheltered priest who is sent on a quest, where she partners with the evil male character at the behest of her god. It’s a story about corruption and the definition of evil.

I’m in such a rut of bland plot development. There is no impact. These women have no impact on their world, not in any recognizable way. The world and its villains act upon them, they are victimized in some way, and are rescued. They are captured, imprisoned, rescued, just like a good little damsel in distress.


No wonder I get tired and don’t want to finish them. They’re all the same story.

So I need to stop this. No more will I write victims. I’ll let one (the original) keep her imprisonment, because it really is interesting, but she doesn’t need to be rescued. Not completely. Yeah, she’ll need help, but she must be instrumental to her own escape, not just rescued like a damsel in distress.

I want these women to make noise. They need to make a mess. They need to leave the world changed, unsettled, even broken in some way if I have to. What’s the point of a protagonist who affects no one but the one bad guy?

My favorite stories have always been about characters who may come from humble beginnings, but by the end the world knows they’re there, for better or worse. They make waves, they disturb the status quo. And that’s my problem; all of my novels are a bunch of Freudian navel-gazing, tiny microcosms where the tale ventures no further than a few dozen people. If I want to break this rut, these women need to start making some noise.

So tell me, what are your biggest plot flaws? Are you, like me, able to hand your manuscripts to psychiatrists so they can analyze them for the inner workings of your own psyche? What hangs you up when you write stories?

Writing Spaces and Rituals

I’ve developed a series of rituals over the years that really help me get “in the mood” for writing. If I’m out in public, a coffeehouse, a cup of coffee, a laptop, and even better, a writing partner, all can get me really going. There’s something so very writerly about it. It’s even been the subject of many comics and blogs, some amusing, some a bit more truthful.

The best cafes for me to write in are the independent types. Not to knock Starbucks (because Rob Diaz just might take out a hit on me if I did) but I like the sort of eclectic, homegrown place that just bubbles over with creativity. Being surrounded by creative people helps, too! I’m not the first to notice the power of a write-in, surrounded by your fellows, sometimes even competing to see who can write the most words in ten minutes. A cup of coffee, or even a up of tea, as my tastes have turned to lately, can really inspire that writing mood.

Sometimes, though, budget concerns, or the pull of a little person on my pants leg as I try to flee out of the front door keep me from making it to my favorite cafes. Sometimes, my favorite cafes even close, leaving me bereft and lost as I try to find a new one. So I have to figure out how to carve out some space to write in my very small, very noisy and decidedly uninspiring home.

Writing by hand, in carefully chosen and draconically hoarded Moleskine notebooks, is one of the best ways for me to inspire writing. I can write anywhere, even without power. I can sit at the picnic table next to the above-ground pool we got for the girls this summer, curl up with my husband before bed, or tuck one in my purse for scribbling while I wait at doctor’s office and the kid’s taken over my iPod for distraction. A Pilot Precise V5 writing pen, a cup of tea (imported from England and lovingly brewed in my bright red kettle) is all I need for inspiration. If I need to shut out the distractions of my home, my iPod loaded with inspiring symphonic music is all I need to get going.

So what gets your muse dancing? How do you prepare for writing? Where? When? We’d love to see pictures of your writing spaces!

Broken Glass and Chicken Noodle Soup

It’s a commonly accepted principle of physics that if you cool something hard down quickly (like glass) from a hot state it can crack, break, or shatter.  This is a commonly accepted principle of physics that two days ago, I chose to ignore.

You see, while baking the split chicken breasts, I’d forgotten to add a little water to the bottom of the pan. If I don’t, it burns and gets all icky. I filled up a cup with some very hot water from the tap, opened the oven, and well… you know what happened, don’t you?




The entire 13 x 9 Pyrex glass baking pan shattered. Into a hot oven.

I stood there, with a cup in my hand staring at it like a moron. I was stricken by the fact that the chicken pieces were still sitting nicely on the largest two remaining bits of glass.

This could have gone one of several ways. I could have dropped into a classic redheaded temper tantrum, thrown things, and cussed a lot. I could have thrown the whole lot away and ordered pizza. Instead, I opted for another option. I carefully cleaned out the bits of glass I could from the bottom so I could shut the door safely, pulled the glass pieces out, and inspected the chicken. Most of the glass broke downwards, into large pieces. There was no sign of any shards in the chicken itself, so I took a chance, set it aside, and pulled out a pot.

Life gave me lemons, so I made lemonade. Or more specifically, chicken soup. A little asian seasoning, some chicken broth and water with a bit of soba noodles, and bam, chicken soup. The whole family had seconds.

This is something you can do with your own writing, if you weren’t aware. Sometimes, when you’re working on a story, you discover halfway that you’ve forgotten something. Maybe the plot’s not working. Or the characters suck. We’ve all hit that point where you take your fingers away from the keyboard, and stare at the screen and know that this is just not working.

Many people throw their hands up, scrap it, and give up. Maybe they do something else like start another book. I say you don’t have to do something so drastic. You can salvage any piece, no matter how awful it is, with a little ingenuity. Open up your mind’s pantry and see what you’ve got lying around! Often, I don’t worry about changing what I already have, I just start the new project as if I’d done that from the beginning. I figure I can fix things later.

Too often when we’re working on a draft, we decide that the whole thing is just terrible, but we get wedded to the idea that what we’re doing is the only way it can be done, or it’s not worth doing. Had I chosen to do that with my chicken dinner, I would have ended up with nothing. After all, I couldn’t move forward the way I was going, I had a hot stove full of glass and no pan to cook in! But by changing perspectives, and going in a completely different direction, I wound up with something that in the end turned out better than the original.

So tell us: what sort of road blocks have you run into with your stories, and how are you working around them– or not?

When Helping Hurts!

The overused knee brace

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years of moderating the National Novel Writing Month forums is the wide variety of skills, talents, and abilities of the participants. From published authors like Brandon Sanderson to the first-time novelist who has never written for fun before, you will find writers who are seeking or offering different things to the community.

One sort of writer that stands out to me, though, is the kind that lacks all trust in their own ability and seems incapable of solving even the most basic of problems on their own. They reach out to the rich community hoping for help and support, but seem to get addicted to that resource. They become hobbled by the easy availability of those who seem to know more than they do. They seem addicted to asking questions about the tiniest details of their work. Nothing is original and all details of their novels are decided by popular consensus.

How do you grow if you never trust in your own abilities? One of the toughest skills a writer must learn is how to make their own decisions. I have seen too many good writers crippled by their constant need for validation and support from others. Writing is generally a solo art; the proliferation of the internet has opened doors to us that our spiritual ancestors could never have dreamed. We have become used to the social nature of the beast.

I have known writers who become absolutely crushed by the feedback of their beta reader. When they get negative feedback, or receive none at all, they are paralyzed by this lack of positive feedback. They become addicted to fan fiction communities (where near-constant feedback is the norm) and abandon their own original work. Like the athlete who uses a brace too often, and weakens the muscles instead of healing an injury, writers must learn not to lean too heavily on their own support systems.

If one ever hopes to succeed at being a writer — whether or not professional publication is your goal — you must find your spine and learn to stand on your own two feet. It’s a fine balancing act– don’t ever be afraid to reach out for help if you need it, but you must understand that your own writing must stand on its own and all that feedback means nothing when it’s time for the editor to look at your precious manuscript. It’s you who has to trust your own instincts and put in the blood, sweat, and tears needed to whip it into shape. Your critique partners, beta readers, and other support people may often have feedback that doesn’t fit with your vision. It’s okay not to include it all! I’ve run my novels through critiques before. Much of the feedback was vital, but some just didn’t fit. I didn’t use it all.

The point is that you must learn to accept some things, and do things without needing your hands held at all times. You will never grow into a writer without understanding how to work through plot problems, how to characterize, or just how to work the audience. Can you learn these things from others? Absolutely! Working with others is a critical part of the growth process.

But when it starts to hold you back, you may need to sequester yourself from all that support for a while. Don’t allow the easy access to support to become your crutch preventing you from learning to walk on your own!

Have you ever become too reliant on feedback? Have you found that the easy availability of support sometimes holds you back, or are you more balanced in your approach to feedback?

For the Love of Books

Library Books

I got into a discussion today about reading. Inspired by a forum post over on NaNoWriMo, I asked myself the question:

Can you be a good writer without being a reader?

As I was growing up, I was a voracious reader. We were poor, so I couldn’t afford a lot of books (although honestly, I doubt my parents could have afforded my reading appetite even if we weren’t poor… reading 4-5 books a week is expensive!) so we went to the library at least once every two weeks. I would check out an enormous stack of books, mostly from the science fiction section (back when Fantasy was lumped in with them all) and read them all. Most could be read in a day. Some heavier tomes with heavier themes might take a day or two.

These early reading experiences shaped my writing in incalculable ways. It shaped my understanding of how interesting stories are told. It helped me to understand how I could reach my own readers. It taught me language, a love of words, and a vast vocabulary that to this day occasionally confounds my friends and family. I cut my writing teeth on Isaac Asimov, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey, and Neal Stephenson. I learned about tropes and cliches before I knew what they were.

So that begs the question. Can you be a great writer, or even an adequate one, without reading? If you don’t “like to read”, can you ever be a true writer?

I would say both yes, and no. Reading shapes who we are, and what we do. Many of us here no doubt grew up devouring books. It’s part of what gives us the drive to write! Can you write without reading? Sure. There are tons of different styles of writing. Poetry is a deeply personal expression that depends less on what other people are doing, and more on what you’re thinking and wanting to express. Short stories are very different from long fiction. A screenplay is a different art form altogether, and relies more on the movies you watch than the books you read.

But honestly? I strongly feel that you don’t become a great writer, or even a good one, without reading. Reading expands your mind and broadens your interest. The stories I write today are very much a reflection of the books I read yesterday. Novelists, particularly, need to read the same way a farmer must learn about plants and seeds, the way a carpenter has to learn how tools operate, and how to bang nails in a way that won’t shatter the wood.

Reading is the writer’s university, the authors of those books are your professors.

What books did you read growing up that shaped your love of writing?

Dastardly Deadlines

 Manuscript Targets

One of the toughest things for me to deal with is self-motivation and deadlines. Even when I’m dealing with a fantastically set-in-stone deadline like NaNoWriMo (finish (win!) by November 30, or I wear my failure on my profile for an entire year) I procrastinate. I’m not good at Butt In Chair mechanics.

So when a good friend I’m beta-reading for threatened to withhold further story until I promised to actually finish a novel and get it transcribed, I had a choice. I could roll my eyes and say “whatever”, and thus deny myself tasty, free fiction. I could fake it and lie to her and get it anyway. Or I could use this as actual motivation to keep myself moving forward, and really grow as a writer.

The first wasn’t even a consideration. I like her story, and to give up on it now would crush me. Plus, I’d have to wait potentially years for it to come out, as she wants to traditionally publish it, and waiting for that long would suck.

The second option was tempting, but let’s be honest: what would be the point of lying? It would be like cheating at solitaire.

So. I set up a schedule. A deadline. And actually decided to do this thing.

March 25th, 2013. An estimated 80,000 words of handwritten fiction. If I can get past my own chicken scratch, I will have something I have not had in years:  A completed first draft of a novel which, in my humble opinion, is good enough to seek publication.

So, I’ve set up a spreadsheet with which to track my progress. I’ve been terrible the last couple of weeks, but with some dedication, I can still make my deadline.

Man, how I hate deadlines. But they work.

I love handwriting my novels; it makes it easier to be distraction free, and I can do it literally anywhere, regardless of the presence of wireless networks, chargers, or power sources. Heck, as long as I have light, I don’t need no stinkin’ power! It just means that I have to transcribe it, and that takes time — time away from my fun pursuits like Bejeweled Blitz and reading Facebook memes. But now I’m developing some actual discipline to get this stuff out of its spidery handwritten journal to a real, editable, Scrivener-based computer document. And though I still have a long way to go, it feels good.

So here I go, off to defeat a deadline. Think I can make it? What deadlines have you set for yourself?