9 Breakout Tips from Donald Maass

I have a huge bookshelf of self-help books for writing. If I get stuck, I roll my chair around to face my floor-to-ceiling shelves and explore tips from Donald Maass, Bob Mayer, Strunk and White, or James Frey on my problem-du-jour. These books are a wealth of information and take a long time to digest. I thought I’d take a few of my favorites and distill their highlights.

Literary agent Donald Maass is also the author of more than sixteen novels. I must admit, I’ve read none of those but have devoured his thoughts on how to write. I’ve reviewed both Writing the Breakout Novel (Writers Digest Books 2001) and The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for the Career Fiction Writer. These next nine tips are a distillation of both:

  •  When novelists whose previous work merely has been admired suddenly have books vault onto the best-seller lists or even achieve a large jump in sales, publishing people say they have ‘broken out’.
  • I first came to my conviction that the techniques of breakout storytelling can be learned around the moment that I first met one of my best clients…
  • Writing the breakout novel is… the habit of avoiding the obvious or of covering familiar ground, and instead reinforcing the conviction that one’s views, experience, observation of character and passion for chosen story premises can be magnified and pushed so one’s novels achieve new levels of impact and new degrees of originality
  • To survive in today’s book publishing industry, it is not good enough just to get published (as true today as ten years ago when Maass first wrote those words)
  • Most authors commit to story premises instinctively. Their gut tells them this is the one. There is nothing wrong with that, except the gut can sometimes be mistaken. It cannot hurt to subject your breakout premise to a little scrutiny.
  • The key ingredients I look for in a fully formed breakout premise are 1) plausibility, 2) inherent conflict, 3) originality, and 4) gut emotional appeal.
  • If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes
  • Relegate setting to the backseat or make it the chassis on which everything else rides, but do not ignore it.
  • …if you do not have a moment of unexpected tragedy or grace in your novel, …consider where you might put it in

What’s your favorite how-to-write tip? Share it in comments.

–published first on Today’s Author

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the upcoming Born in a Treacherous Time. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.


46 Transitions That Help Your Story Flow

writing tipsOne of the top recommendations experts share with writers is to read. Anywhere you find a list of tips on how to hone your writing skills it will include 1) read your manuscript aloud, 2) show don’t tell, and 3) read.

I have no problem reading, endlessly, about five books a week. I can’t stop. If I don’t read, I get hyper and dissatisfied with whatever I’m doing. Doesn’t matter what, it always goes better with a reading break. As I read, I collect favorite parts where the author quickly and effectively put me in the middle of the action, made me like their character, and/or fell in love with the setting. At first, I just added them to a bullet list, but soon, the list got out of control so I divided it into categories, like this:

descriptor list

To date, I have over 140 pages and 75 categories–most of which I’m sharing with you over the next months on my WordDreams blog (drop by and check out the category, Descriptors). Today, I’ll share transition phrases and sentences. Transitions are critical to superior writing. Readers must get from here to there fluidly, without losing energy or getting lost in minutiae. Without transition words, stories seem jumpy, awkward, and confusing.

A note: These are for inspiration only. They can’t be copied because they’ve been pulled directly from an author’s copyrighted manuscript (intellectual property is immediately copyrighted when published).

Another note: These resonate with me. They may make no sense to your muse. That’s fine–just skip those!


  1. By the middle of September, he had changed his name three times and was in a new place every night. Today was Room 338.
  2. ten minutes later, top down on the Corvette, Hootie blaring from his car’s speakers, he cleared Candlestick Point and twenty minutes after that was parking in the courthouse lot 25-miles south.
  3. have I done something wrong?
  4. Ten minutes later, Bosch was standing with the remote control in front of the AV equipment…
  5. Well, I believe that about covers the situation.
  6. Ten hours later I was in the coach section.
  7. I was sitting in the front seat of a patrol car talking to a cop named Cataldo. We were cruising along.
  8. I spun my wheels for a couple of days until I finally met with …
  9. Finding Jonathan Parson’s former wife ate up another ninety minutes of his time.
  10. The song was running through his mind twenty-one years later when the bomb went off.
  11. “Good, I’m good!” he shouted. We all looked over to see what he could possibly mean.
  12. It was dark when I got there, and my head was so clear as to be empty. I check in, unpacked, went to the bar and had a sandwich and a couple of beers, went back up to my room and, exhausted from the excitement, went to bed.
  13. Long gone, despite what Hollywood would have you believe.
  14. if that’s all you know about Jack Murtha … you don’t know Jack.
  15. He stopped completely, standing, apparently distracted, outside the hotel, looking at his watch, checking the passersby, watching for someone who hesitated, someone who might slow down and stop.
  16. If she left now, she’d still make it to St. Camillus to light that candle.
  17. Frank sat on the tailgate of his glossy new Ford pick-up, watching the men in the trench work.
  18. After some light-hearted banter about the craziness of the music business and the foibles of the various artists, dinner arrived.
  19. Steered the conversation toward innocuous subjects.
  20. Rainie was missing. How could he be sitting in a luxury sedan?
  21. At the best of times, I’m a slow reader, this wasn’t one of those times.
  22. After hanging up the phone, I ate a solitary late-night snack, did some reading, climbed into bed and eventually got some sleep.
  23. Led him through greening hills and valleys, but he was only dimly aware of the scenery.
  24. The subtext is…
  25. He stirred powdered milk into the dark liquid until it turned the color of caramel.
  26. They’d covered some of this territory before.
  27. She sat for a moment, organizing her thoughts on how to proceed.
  28. Stromsoe was in high school when he met the boy who would someday murder his wife and son..
  29. I waited. The rain came down hard on the roof of the car. A station wagon with fake wood sides pulled in beside us and a man and woman and three children piled out and scooted through the rain. I could hear the running lines of a power boat as it edged along toward where Hog Island would have been had the day been sunny and clear. I waited. Me and Carl.
  30. I was going to be late for Susan if I didn’t close this off.
  31. I was just sitting here wondering what I could do to be nice to you, and now you call.
  32. If you ever find yourself in the part of the world where France and Germany meet and want your heart broken, drive up…. (describe the scenery).
  33. One scene with a character. Next scene on the same topic, but with different characters. Ie, Glitsky interrogating a suspect. Next scene, in his car on the phone, relaying the information to someone else for analysis.
  34. Carrying a tray with coffee and cups and cookies, she set it down on the table in front of Abe.
  35. Kind of guy you wanted out of the gene pool.
  36. While I waited, I read the vulgar graffiti on the phone box.
  37. what’s any of this got to do with…
  38. just couldn’t get the image of her odd blue eyes out of his head, and he had been dazzled by the firelight shooting burnished copper glints through her luxurious hair.
  39. Reminded him of his age, his descending career path and his developing sense of isolation.
  40. I walked all the way around the truck and pondered Weebe’s hypothesis. If I had…
  41. On both sides of the map were framed photographs (use them to provide background).
  42. Standing under the hot water, trying to punch holes in his plan.
  43. Diane was in early the next morning. After a workout at home, she jogged the museum nature trail and took a shower in her office suite. She felt invigorated. Her arm was healing nicely. She did some museum business and had put all the finished papers on Andie’s  by the time her assistant arrived. They spent a few minutes discussing museum business, then Diane went upstairs to the crime lab.
  44. more surprising than the crash was that she was dying in English.
  45. She’d be landing in about an hour. She’d stop at Heney’s, get Pearl, and go home. She’d feed Pearl, unpack and hang everything up carefully, iron things that had wrinkled, take a bath, put on the pajamas she usually wore when she slept without me, get in bed with Pearl, have a half cup of frozen chocolate yogurt sweetened with aspartame, and watch a movie. Pearl would burrow under the covers and then Susan would fall asleep.
  46. I ate in the silence and drank my coffee and looked occasionally at Susan’s picture on my desk.

Click for the complete list of 70 69 writer’s themed descriptions.

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning. 

Hook your Readers

Readers are a fickle lot. If your writing hasn’t grabbed their attention within a few sentences, its likely your story will be laid aside and another chosen in its place. There are a number of ways to entice a reader to continue with your words, but the most effective tool is the ‘hook’; a sentence that emotionally engages the reader. Obviously some of these opening sentences will be more applicable to certain writing styles than others; but are worth investigating none the less.

One of your characters can open with a question to bring immediacy and context directly into play. “What? You eat slimy slugs in your sandwiches?”

Short simple dialogue will have the reader question the story immediately, wondering what has just happened.

Dependent upon the style of your writing, you may open with a idiom. Slang and idioms are not normally accepted within formal styles of writing, but can give a deeper and richer meaning and texture to a sentence if used well. They also have the danger of being clinched, so care is required with their use. Examples of idioms which carry imagery which extends beyond simple words include “at loggerheads,”, “over the moon”, “vicious cycle”.

A characters view on the situation can be captured quickly with their exaggerated outlook, eg “A billion flies have defended on my face”.

This is perhaps the most utilized within the toolbox of hooks. Adjective and adverb rich, care needs to be taken not to overdo the setting and lose the reader inside it. Too much scenery or back story will send the reader packing. Use words and images in your opening setting which will convey the overall tone of your story, be it dark, whimsical or suspenseful. If you are using the setting as your opening, it can hint towards a characters mood or intent.

This opening works well for stories full of emotion. e.g., “I have a loving husband, a huge home with servants, an important job; but why do I feel like my life is falling apart?”

Onomatopoeia is defined as a word, or set of words, which imitates the natural sounds of a noun. Examples include “whispering pines”, “the slurp of the slushy”, “the last gulp of a coffee”. This stylistic tool allows the writer to vividly convey a scene quickly.

Another tool for a character to express something, or for the writer to engage the reader personally. “ Phew! If you thought it was hot in the desert, wait till you work in the bakery Matt does (or I do)…”

Writing an effective hook will pull your audience in but is not necessary to write first. As your story develops, you may discover the right hook to begin your story with and be able to mold your opening paragraph to include it. The hook should encapsulate what will be found within the story.

Writing fiction in layers results in more speed and less frustration

By Model Land Company, Everglades Drainage District (Everglades Digital Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Model Land Company, Everglades Drainage District (Everglades Digital Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Last week it struck me:  I’ve rarely read an article on how to write fiction—more specifically, how to actually put words down on the page!

When I started writing fiction regularly about eight years ago, I read many books and articles to help me create great plot, make dialog realistic, and strike the right balance between “show” versus “tell”.  I thought I was reading books and articles on how to write.  But instead I was actually reading books and articles on how to create great plot, how to make dialog realistic, and how to strike the right balance between show versus tell.

As a novice writer I’d sit at the keyboard for a couple hours and squeeze out two well-polished paragraphs that read as though they came straight from a book on the shelf of my local bookstore.  But the agonizingly slow pace raised self-doubt, and I’d quickly wind up with an unfinished manuscript of a story that I felt wasn’t worth telling.

Today I have a completely different approach to writing fiction compared to the past. Now I write my story in layers, resulting in a speedier process with overall reduced frustration and self-doubt.

Think for a moment about how a house gets built.  Most people don’t wake up with the idea to build a house and immediately run down to the hardware store to make a huge lumber purchase, or worse yet, buy a brushed-nickel faucet for the powder room.  In most cases building a home starts with an idea like desiring a 2-story, 4-bedroom colonial style home, then creating several hastily-drawn sketches, then more formalized measured drawings, then performing the rough framing/plumbing/electrical, then followed by the building shell until finally finishing up with the small details like soft pastel paint colors and finally that brushed-nickel faucet for the powder room.

Writing can be less painful if you write in layers:

Layer 1 – Outline

Start with a high-level outline.  I’m not talking about anything fancy here, so just go ahead and open a word processor and drop some bullet-point sentences on the page.  Re-arrange them.  Delete some.  Add new ones.  Get 10-20 sentences on paper in the right sequence that depicts the story you want to tell.  You can even insert page breaks after each sentence to visually depict the start of a new chapter.

  • Primary Lead attends wedding of his love interest to “speak up or forever hold his peace”

Layer 2 – Fleshing the Story Skeleton

Now go back to your word processor and start building in more bullet points to flesh out the story skeleton.  The objective here is not to write a polished product, but instead you just want words on the page:

  • Primary Lead attends wedding of his love interest to “speak up or forever hold his peace”
    • PL standing on church steps, conflicted whether to go inside
    • PL encounters another friend, Lauren, who challenges him on why he’s there
    • PL reluctantly goes inside, realizing he’s turned into “that guy”
    • PL doesn’t quite know his strategy, but feels this is his last chance for true love
    • Ceremony begins, bride looks beautiful, priest asks the infamous question to guests…

Layer 3 – Rough Carpentry

For me, this stage is where the real work begins.  However the frustration level is usually much lower because I can jump around to different parts of the story on different days, taking a sentence or two and writing a few paragraphs.  Maybe I spend fifteen minutes in one session, or two hours in another session:

Saturday morning arrived and I found myself standing on the steps of St. Bart’s Cathedral.  I was frozen, having now to decide whether this was really a good idea or not.  I felt a warm hand touch me on the shoulder.

“Kevin?” asked Lauren.

“Lauren!  What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to stop you from making a fool of yourself!”

It’s a sloppy mess and it won’t win me any awards, I agree.  But at least now I have something down on paper to react to when I come back to revise in another pass.

Layer 4+ – Revision

I generally find my full-length novel equates to about 20,000 words at this point in time.  What’s that, about 80,000 words shy?  Queue the self-doubt.  But alas, now you can begin seasoning your story and adding bulk.  Writing now gets even easier because you have something to react to:

Saturday morning arrived and I found myself standing on the steps of St. Bart’s Cathedral.  It was nearly six years to the day since I last stepped inside the church for my nephew Evan’s baptism.  But today was much different.  Today I was frozen, having now to decide whether this was really a good idea or not.

I stood on the granite steps for several minutes watching many smiling faces enter the church.  Every time the decorative brass doors opened, I could catch a whiff of the residual incense that burned earlier in the morning for Mr. Covey’s funeral.

I felt a warm hand touch me on the shoulder.  “Kevin?”

I turned to find Lauren with a tear on her cheek, and she immediately embraced me in a loving hug.

“You know, there’s still time to turn back…” she whispered in my ear.  “I’m here to stop you from making a fool of yourself.”

Iterate, iterate, iterate…

I’m skeptical whether there’s value to me in the lather, rinse, repeat directions provided with each bottle of shampoo.  When it comes to writing, however, I’m sold on the iterative approach to building long manuscripts.  For me, it’s invaluable to have something down on the page at each writing session to react to and revise.

Diagnosing Dialogue

Dialogue is difficult to get just right and, like many others, I struggle with it mightily. Even so, I love writing good dialogue. But, if it’s so hard, why do I like it?

  • I love how good dialogue shows us more about a character than the author could ever tell us.
  • I love the energy that comes from tight crisp banter between characters.
  • I love how good dialogue can control the pace of a story.
  • I love the feeling I get when someone tells me that my dialogue sounds real.

But what is good dialogue? What is real dialogue? And how do we write it? Here are a few tips and tricks to get you started.

  1. Record and listen to real conversations among friends. Now compare what you thought was said, to what was actually said. The lesson here is that real dialogue should not be your goal. Real dialogue is terrible–full of pauses, ums, stutters, repetition and bad grammar. What you need to strive for is dialogue that sounds like what you thought you said.
  2. Strip it down. This trick is one of my own inventions. If you have dialogue and it’s just not working, copy/paste it into a new document and spend a few minutes stripping away everything except what the your characters say–kind of like a stage play. When you read the dialogue with all the exposition and attributions stripped away, does it hold up? Does it hold your attention? If not, then it still needs work.
  3. Cut the fancy tags. Attributions are those verbs we add to dialogue. He said…She asked. Many times you don’t need them at all. When used, their purpose is to make it clear to the reader who is speaking. Don’t get cute, and don’t break out the thesaurus. If you find yourself striving for tags like he queried or she opined, you already know your dialogue is weak and you’re looking for a crutch.
  4. Don’t overuse names. People rarely use each other’s names in conversation. If you find yourself starting every other line with someone saying someone else’s name, then you’re characters don’t have strong, original voices. Maybe they both sound like you. Maybe they both sound like each other. Whatever it is, you’re having trouble distinguishing between them. Clear that up and you won’t need to keep repeating names.
  5. Stories are all about conflict, and dialogue should be no different. In many conversations the different players have competing motives. If Sam has a slightly embarrassing secret, Alex can’t just ask her what’s bothering her. She has to tease it out. And Sam has to resist. Try thinking of the conversation like a fencing match. It’s boring if there’s a single lunge and it’s all over. Lunge, parry, riposte, counterparry, lunge, dodge…
  6. Dialogue CANNOT be predictable. Take another look at that real conversation you transcribed and notice how much of a real conversation is predictable. Compare these rather mundane examples:

    “Did you have lunch?”
    “Was it good?”
    “It was great”

    “Did you have lunch?”
    “Pizza. It was great”

    By eliminating the expected responses, the dialogue gets tighter, crisper, and more compelling

What tips for writing dialogue do you have to share?

What’s your advice to help someone get started in writing short fiction, poetry, or web serials?

Hello, December.  It feels like just yesterday that you knocked on my door to ask all kinds of probing personal questions about my writing goals and objectives for the year 2013.  And here we are one year later, and now you’re back asking for a progress report?  Please go away!

Does this conversation feel familiar to you?

Seeing less available writing time for 2014 due to a work promotion, I’m contemplating making the switch from stage plays and novellas to short fiction, poetry, or web serials.  I feel like I need to increase the frequency of “accomplishments” or “milestones”, which in my mind translates to completed works of writing rather than contributing to two or three longer works of fiction.

Although I’ve been writing fiction regularly for the past six or seven years, I’ll be honest in saying I’ve never really investigated methods to get started in writing shorter forms of fiction.  And other than plugging a few keywords into a search engine, I’m lost where to begin.

Below is a small sample of some of the questions in my head for several weeks now:

  • What online resources are available to help explore short fiction, poetry, or web serials?
  • What, exactly, is this Friday Flash notion I’ve read about for the past few years?
  • Besides haiku, what forms of poetry exist, and what resources exist to help improve writing them?
  • Where can I see some examples of web serials?

So what’s your advice to help someone get started in writing short fiction, poetry, or web serials?  Are there other forms of writing not mentioned here that you recommend one focus on?

18 Tips for Memoir Authors

memoirI’ve been writing a series over on my ‘other’ writing blog about genres. So far I have:

Today, let’s talk about memoirs. What is a ‘memoir’. According to Google, a memoir is:

…a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge or special sources. An essay on a learned subject.

A lot of people confuse ‘memoir’ with ‘autobiography’. Sure, they’re similar, but with big differences. According to Linton Weeks (“It’s the ‘Me’ that Makes a Memoir an Incomplete Tale”):

“A real autobiography traffics in facts: a memoir relies on memory.”

That’s the core of it: If you write an autobiography, you must be accurate. You can’t claim you took the plane to NYC when no such plane existed. Autobiographers must fact check. A ‘memoir’–that’s based on your memory. You rely on that imperfect nine pounds north of your shoulders for data. Everyone understands the story may or may not be accurate, but it’s as you remember it. ‘Facts’ are as you remember them, which may be at odds with reality. There is no apology for that and much value in it.

Another form of writing that memoirs are NOT is journaling. According to those who journal (which doesn’t include me), these chronicle a life where memoirs often focus on one event of note in that life.

Some famous memoirs–

  • Elie Wiesel’s Night (true stories of fellow concentration camp sufferers during the Holocaust)
  • Irene Spencer’s Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamists’s Wife

Do you get the trend here? As a reader, we are less concerned about historic accuracy than how the person starring in the memoir handled events. What is it like to live in a concentration camp? How could anyone agree to wed a polygamist?

If you decide to take up this writing genre, here are some tips to help you excel:

  1. Make sure the topic of your memoir is interesting. Most people’s lives aren’t. True, the writer’s skill can make it so, but what will inspire readers to pick up the tome? You need a hook–maybe you’re Octo Mom. Maybe you raised George Will. The theme must generate enough interest to make people turn the first page.
  2. Write in first person, from the author’s POV
  3. The unique voice of the person telling the story should be human, approachable, and not sound like a ‘writer’.
  4. Write narrative non-fiction, but in story form. This is similar to creative non-fiction which uses the characteristics of fiction to make nonfiction more interesting.
  5. NPR’s William Zinsser says memoir authors should “think small” (you don’t have to provide all the details) and make a series of “reducing decisions” (same idea). And–‘be yourself’, ‘think freely’.
  6. Memoirs can be written at any time in your life, about any corner of your world. It need not sum up your existence, just that event.
  7. According to literary agent Barbara Doyen, a memoir questions “what happened and come(s) to some kind of new understanding or lesson learned by it. The author shows us how he or she was affected by this experience, how it has profoundly changed the way (s/)he sees the world. And by extension, reading the book will change the way the reader sees the world.”
  8. Sometimes memories are difficult to uncover. Heather Sellers, author of You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, suggests you just start writing. It’ll come.
  9. Don’t worry about gaps in the history. That doesn’t matter in a memoir. Just get to the next part that deals with your theme.
  10. Understand that when you write a memoir, you will hurt people. It can’t be avoided. They’ll disagree with your memory and that’ll upset them. Be prepared.
  11. Can you get sued for writing your memories? Maybe you’re writing about abuse and the perpetrator’s identity will surprise readers. Yes, there are topics and reasons that could generate a law suit. Consider what you’re writing, your purpose, before publishing. Consider consequences and if you’re willing to face them. Consider whether you’d prefer to hide real names and focus on the event.
  12. In memoirs, ’emotional truth’ is more important than ‘factual truth’. Understand the difference.
  13. For many people, the one book they have inside of them is a memoir.
  14. Readers don’t connect with whining. Be substantive.
  15. You are the protagonist in your memoir, what William Zinnser calls the ‘tour guide’.
  16. Be honest. Don’t sugar coat, don’t tweak. Represent your memories honestly, in the raw. See what comes out.
  17. Know how to tell a story. Don’t include the boring stuff readers will skip. Only include the meat.
  18. Pearlsong Press’s Linda Wisniewski suggests using props to jog your memories.

What do you suggest? What works best for you when writing a memoir?

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blog, IMS tech expert, and a monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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Encouragement to not change your NaNoWriMo story concept mid-month

We’re roughly halfway through NaNoWriMo and, if everything is going according to plan for us, we’re also roughly halfway through reaching our 50,000 word count goal of our first draft.

In reality, many of us are stuck.  We feel our characters are flat.  Or maybe we’ve written a series of scenes, but when strung together they don’t resemble a cohesive story.  And now, we’re desperate – ready to change our story concept or throw in the towel entirely!

I want to try and convince you why it’s a good idea to stick with your original NaNoWriMo story idea instead of changing to that newer, better idea that came to mind yesterday while sipping lattes and listening to smooth jazz at the local coffee shop.

First thing, take a deep breath.  Let’s look at what you’ve learned so far.  Go ahead and make a short list, and maybe it’ll look something like this:

  • I thought I had a clear idea in my mind of what I’d write.
  • I thought writing by the seat of my pants would be easy.
  • I thought writing based on an outline would be easy.

There’s a great quote attributed to author Mark Twain that summarizes the NaNoWriMo experience:

“If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way.”

NaNoWriMo is a bit like that.  You can read other peoples’ posts all you want about how challenging it’s going to be, how beat up and battered you’re going to get, but it’s not real for you until you learn it for yourself.

While it may be tempting to change story concept mid-month, I want to suggest that you don’t.  In reality, you’re going to run into the same challenges as you did with your original concept.  You’ll question your creativity every time, I promise!  So why not embrace this struggle and push through it now?

Imagine if you will that you were being paid to write this novel.  Maybe you stepped in to finish a novel for someone else, or perhaps you’re paid to write a screenplay for a major motion picture studio.  You wouldn’t necessarily have the freedom to change your romance story to that of a sci-fi novel.  Therefore, you should stick it out with your original story concept.  Plus, it’s only a month.  So look at it from the angle of taking with you for life the lessons you learned from this experience.

So how can you recover and make the most of NaNoWriMo 2013?

What I like to do is take a step back and revisit my story concept at the highest level.  I’ve been known to do this daily.  Maybe it can be summarized in simple bullet points like:

  • It’s a love story.
  • Boy and girl meet in summer at the beach.
  • Boy and girl risk losing each other when the summer ends.

I then look at what I’ve written as part of my story so far.  Have I deviated from these bullet point objective?  If yes, let me put myself back on course.  If not, then I am reassured I’m still on track.

See, that part is pretty easy to do.  Now take it a step further and write a dozen or so bullet points that show progress and setbacks.  These can be used for chapter breaks:

  • Boy and girl make eye contact as one is getting onto a bus.
  • Boy or girl talk to their friend about the missed opportunity.
  • Boy or girl goes on a hunt to find the other.
  • Boy and girl meet.
  • Boy and girl schedule a date; spend afternoon strolling the beach.
  • Boy or girl seen talking to another; other becomes jealous and suspicious.
  • Boy and girl work through the misunderstanding.
  • Boy or girl has to tell other that they are leaving earlier than expected.

Now I look at the rising and falling action of these bullet points against what I’ve written so far with my novel.  Is there alignment?  If yes, perfect.  I’m still on track.  If not, then I push my existing chapters to the bottom of my document and start fleshing out new chapters.

Now I have a clearer picture of my structure.  This is where I go ahead and start filling in details, jumping around and writing the details of chapters out of sequence.

I promise you if you take these actions every day, in a few short days you’ll find yourself no longer questioning the validity or merit of your story and you’ll find yourself feeling back on track.

Happy noveling!

November: A Novel Month

To be bound by a designated entry point, a predetermined finish, and a trivial concern for quality—at least at the initial stage, for the first draft—doesn’t necessarily sound like the finest makings of substantial art (although I don’t know if during this yearly November event you’re asked to do that). Because during your involvement in National Novel Writing Month, ‘NaNoWriMo,’ you are required to achieve a quantity of words that translates to a novel-length manuscript.  The amount is the goal. You’re asked to write continuously, to reach daily checkpoints, and to work without pause and heavy reflection; being overly watchful of your prose may hinder your progress.  It’s daunting, especially because we surely want to write something good and to move on from a sentence, a paragraph, a page of something that we aren’t fully satisfied with requires trust.  And that isn’t always easy.

Although I don’t like the idea of writing a novel in a month’s time, I can see it’s value for others and, therefore, the effort deserves to be celebrated.  Just as January 1st marks the beginning of our newest weight-loss journey and Monday marks the beginning of, well, anything we hope prompts good change, November offers the writer a digestible meal in an otherwise overwhelming feast.  If anything, your involvement in NaNoWriMo will help teach you about your own process, that maybe you are the type of writer that needs to write daily, without self-editing, to just spill it all out.  Or maybe you thrive on a patient year focusing on one longer piece where a month’s time results in the satisfactory completion of ten damn good pages.  Either way, you learn, about you, and that’s a very good thing.

And November is just the start, really.  You will hopefully go back into your novel, repeatedly, to polish it.  Often, the best writing comes in the revision stage.  So if the month works for you, what a great springboard. You’ll have 50,000+ of your words to work with. It’s a commendable endeavor and talking with others that have endured NaNoWriMo before can offer some beneficial pearls. (Maybe even some folks here on this site.)

But it isn’t for me and may not be for others. Hemingway said, “I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.” Having to write a certain amount of words in a day may not allow that approach. And moving on too quickly when writing something I’m deeply engaged in just doesn’t work for me.

That, though, may not be you, which is good. Our craft process takes different forms and you need to be dedicated to yours. So dig your heels in and be kind to yourself daily, throughout. Take some time, perhaps before bed, to softly reflect on how the day’s writing went. What worked well for you? What will propel you the next day? What practice might you scrap?

Feeling the Arpeggio Resonate in Your Chest

No doubt at one time in your life you encountered an artistically-composed photograph or painting that deeply resonated with you.  You may have only looked at the portrait for thirty seconds but it felt like you completely lost track of time as conjured emotions and memories swirled across your mind’s eye.

Something similar happened to me a few days ago while driving and listening to the song And You and I from the album The Ultimate Yes – 35th Anniversary Collection.  At the 0:07 mark I heard an acoustic guitar arpeggio – low E, A, D, G, B, and E.  This got me thinking about my own experiences playing an acoustic guitar, specifically holding the guitar firmly against my body and feeling the resonance within my chest.

Now if you’ve ever played an acoustic guitar, you completely understand and can feel the words of that last sentence resonate in your own chest.  But if not, likely you still appreciate the words on the page without any sort of emotional connection.

Upon having this realization, it hit me why I’m not enjoying a current fiction novel I’m in the middle of reading.  Basically there aren’t any details in the entire novel I can relate to, specifically whenever we (the readers) are sitting and traveling in one of the protagonist’s vintage collector cars.  All we’re told is “the car started” or “we pulled out onto the road” or “the motor growled as we picked up speed.”

As a “car guy” this upsets me.  Where’s the gurgling of the exhaust or the chatter of the door handle or the sun glimmer off the chrome clock bezel for such a key aspect—the cars—to the story?  It may be a 1968 Aston Martin DB6 I’m traveling in, but the words on the page are conjuring images of a more modern, tame car – like I’m a passenger in my neighbor’s Toyota Corolla!

My takeaway in these recent experiences is that I’m not going to hesitate adding in specific sensory details that may only appeal to a small handful of my readers.  If it’s interesting to me, I’ll add it with hopes it will strike a chord with a small percentage of my readers.