Posted in Writing

3 Quotes by Joan Didion to Make You a Better Writer

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Joan Didion (born in 1934) is one of the most acclaimed writers of her generation. The winner of a National Book Award, she was most recently a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her book, The Year of Magical Thinking.

Here are three of her fantastic quotes to give you some writing inspiration!

1. What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.

It’s something I try not to think about a great deal, but it’s absolutely true: your first chapter, your first page, your first paragraph, your first sentence, is so important when it comes to every new writing project, especially a short story or novel. Where do you begin? It’s almost always a head-scratcher. Begin too early, and you might lose the reader. Start too late, and you might confuse the reader. I always try to start as late in the story as possible, but you’re never convinced it’s the exact right spot ever.

And then you have to draw the reader in with something. You can’t start a new story or a novel talking about the weather or about the main character’s feelings or on a random line of dialogue. That first sentence is everything. And Didion is right: what’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything flows from that, the entire narrative, really. Even if you change the sentence in revisions later.

That first sentence is the starting point and always will be. So make sure it’s a good one!

2. [Writing is] hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.

I absolutely love this quote. It’s one of my favorites I’ve shared in this long series about author inspiration. I’ve now written twenty novels in less than ten years, and never for a second have I ever thought of writing as hostile.

But it kind of is, isn’t it? You are trying to make somebody see something the way you see it. Sure, every reader will come at a story from a different place and imagine different things, but every author still imposes ideas and pictures on that reader through a deliberate choice of words.

I like to think of writing as good hostility. It’s not bad hostility. It’s the kind of hostility I want from a writer when I pick up a book and go on a new journey. The hostility, in a way, is what makes the best books so great. Because the writer has a clear vision of what he or she wants the story to be, the characters to be, and I absolutely love to give myself over to that. It’s when a writer doesn’t have a lot of hostility actually, and leaves most of the narrative up to the reader’s imagination, that the book often doesn’t work.

3. Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.

I don’t know about you, but I often revise a novel three or four times before I send it to anyone. I will often spend six months on a project or longer before I feel it’s ready to query, to pitch, to get feedback. And then later I will often revise even more. I’m currently in the middle of my tenth draft of a novel I first wrote in 2017. And a novel I currently have on submission to editors? It went through sixteen drafts over the course of three years. Yep, sixteen!

But you know what the funny thing about revising is? No matter how much you change, no matter how much you add and cut in the long run, the original strokes are almost always still there in the story, Didion is absolutely right. I look at the sixteenth draft of my middle grade book on submission, and while so much has changed throughout the years, definitely for the better, my original intention of what I wanted the book to be remains. That initial vision, that initial idea, hasn’t been wiped out in any way, it’s still there.

I don’t often think of writing novels like painting a picture, but the two are fairly similar, wouldn’t you say? You paint a picture one brief stroke at a time, the same way you write a novel one word at a time, putting one hopefully solid sentence after another. So many writers don’t attempt a novel because it seems intimidating, but once you think about it as tiny strokes, as one word at a time, you soon realize that it can be done, that you can write an entire book.

If you’ve ever thought about writing a novel, go for it! And never forget to look to Joan Didion for some extra inspiration along the way.

Posted in Fiction, Publishing, Writing

Wow, My Short Story is Being Published in a Paperback Journal!

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It usually doesn’t work out this way.

Usually I write a new short story, and I brace myself for two years or longer before it sells.

I have two stories I wrote in 2016 that still haven’t sold. Two stories that have been rejected more than fifty times each.

I have a story called ‘Character Driven’ I first wrote as a screenplay way back in 2005 before I eventually turned it into a short story in 2017 and received dozens of rejections over the course of eighteen months before it finally sold to a paperback anthology.

I’ve even had stories that took four years to sell, like my piece of creative non-fiction ‘A Window to Dreams’ which I wrote in 2012 and then sold to a literary magazine in 2016.

And like my story ‘I’ll See You in the Morning,’ one of my favorites I’ve ever written, which I wrote the first draft of in May of 2015. I revised this story more than a dozen times and I collected probably seventy to eighty rejections on it before it finally sold to an online literary magazine earlier this year.

Let’s just say I’ve had my share of difficulty with trying to sell my short stories. I don’t write too many of them — one or two a year — and so each one means a great deal to me.

Earlier this year I wrote my newest short story, ‘Walter.’

This was my first story I’d written after receiving my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Reno, in 2018, and the process of it was kind of great.

For the first time in years, I was writing a story I knew wasn’t going to be workshopped. That I was writing more for me than anybody else.

I had an encounter with a homeless man last March in Portland, Oregon, where I was attending the AWP Writers Conference, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the encounter when I was traveling home to Reno. I thought those ten seconds or so held the nugget for a new story.

Wouldn’t you know it, in mid-April of this year I sent the latest draft of my middle grade horror novel off to my literary agent, and I suddenly found myself with two to three weeks with no creative project to work on.

These periods don’t happen to me too often, actually. Usually I’m writing the first draft of one novel and then revising the fifth draft of a second novel and then maybe tinkering away on the twelfth draft of a third novel. I usually jump from one project to the next all throughout the year, with little time to dedicate to a new short story.

But suddenly I saw myself with three weeks to work on something new, and the encounter with the homeless man was still lingering in my mind.

So I wrote the story. And I wrote it really fast.

I wrote the first draft in five days. I started it on a Monday morning. I finished it on a Friday morning. I wrote 800 words a day, and the first draft was 4,000 words exactly. The original title was ‘Spare Any Change?’

The following week I changed the title to ‘Walter’ and I cut about 300 words and added about 200 new words.

The third week I cut another 300 words, got the manuscript to a place I felt really good about it, and then I let the story rest for a month.

At the end of May, I read through the story one more time, tweaked a few final things, then sent the story off to ten literary magazines.

I hoped I might hear back from a few of them throughout the summer. I heard back from half of them. All rejections. But that was okay. I’m used to rejections.

In June I sent it to two more magazines, and at the end of July I came across a literary magazine called Bosque Journal that took literary stories under 5,000 words and ONLY accepted submissions between July 1 and July 31! So I sent it off quickly. The editors at Bosque rejected a story I wrote last year, so I didn’t have high hopes.

On Tuesday afternoon, I received an e-mail.

I’ve been hard at work on other projects. I haven’t even been thinking about ‘Walter’ much lately.

I heard the ding sound from my phone telling me I had a new e-mail. I clicked on my inbox. And saw the following word.

ACCEPTANCE.

That really is a great word, isn’t it? Especially when you’re a writer. Acceptance. Not rejection. For once in my lifetime, it’s not rejection.

I figured I’d was going to be sending ‘Walter’ to literary magazines well into 2020 and beyond. And I was okay with that, honestly. It’s my philosophy that you should send out a short story 100 times before you give up, after all.

I felt it’d be a miracle for this new story to be accepted in less than a year. I didn’t think I was going to hear any good news this summer, that’s for sure.

So color me surprised when I learned that the story was accepted by the editors of Bosque Journal, a well-regarded paperback literary magazine, and will be published in its ninth issue this November! How cool, is that?

This brings me number of story acceptances on Submittable.com to 5.

5 acceptances, and 428 rejections. Yep, you read that right.

This great news about my latest story is further proof that if you want to be successful as a fiction writer, you can never give up. You have to keep going no matter what. You might go a whole year receiving rejection after rejection. You might think your fiction is worth absolutely nothing.

And then one day, you discover your fiction is worth something. That it’s actually worth more than you thought. You discover you have talent, that you have something to say. Someone out there loved your story… and you’re about to be a published author!

Amazing moments like this one is exactly why the writing journey is worth taking.

Because when you’re rejected most of the time, an acceptance is truly an out-of-body experience.

My little story I wrote mostly for me is now going to be released into the world later this year… and I couldn’t be more excited.

It’s like what I’ve said before. You won’t get rich writing short stories, but if you love writing fiction, if you want to have a long career, it’s worth doing anyway.

So do what I did. Write the next story, revise it a few times, send it out widely.

And then see what happens.

Posted in Writing

Here’s One Easy Way to Finish Your Novel Quickly

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You might feel like there’s no easy way to finish your novel.

There are so many ways to write a novel, after all.

I’ve talked about how if you’re pressed for time, you can always find 10 to 20 minutes a day and write a little bit. If you write 200 words a day, you can complete a novel in just one year!

But what if you want to get a first draft of your novel completed quickly and not slowly? What if you could finish your novel in a few weeks time, not a few months time?

I finished my twentieth novel in July. My twentieth novel in less than ten years.

I often spend a year or longer revising these projects, but I always write the first draft quickly. In 4 to 5 weeks typically. Only in rare cases longer than 6 weeks.

Even if you have a full-time job, it can be done. You don’t have to spend a long year slowly writing here and there before you reach THE END.

Here’s one easy way to finish your novel quickly…

Write 500 words in 30-minute sprints.

This is the big one. Especially if you have little time to devote to your project every day.

When I write a novel, I often write 2,000 words a day. 2,000 words is a lot, so something that helps me get started is not looking at the session as 2,000 words but as four 30-minute sprints of 500 words.

There’s something about this weird way of thinking that always helps me get through the writing session not just well but fast.

I’ll sit down at, say, 10am. And I almost always will be done with my writing for the day by 12pm, as long as there are no distractions.

I give myself between 10am and 10:30am to reach 500 new words. Sometimes, when I’m on a roll, I can get there in 15–20 minutes. And if that happens? I give myself a 10-minute break!

I’ll look at the clock. It says 10:20. And I get to goof off for 10 minutes.

Then at 10:30 on the dot, I start the second 30-minute sprint. If I finish before 11am, another brief moment to relax. Maybe get a snack. Maybe surf a couple websites. Maybe check my e-mail. But only after I’ve finished a 30-minute sprint.

Then I move onto the third sprint, and then the fourth sprint. Voila, in two hours typically I’ve written 2,000 new words!

Now if you don’t actually have two hours… no problem.

If you need to, find four 30-minute sprints throughout your day!

I typically write my 2,000 words in two straight hours, and if you’re able to write that way, I recommend it. It’s easier to get into a groove when you stay with your writing in one period of the day rather than several.

However, what’s neat about the sprints idea is that you can split it into two parts if you want — one hour of two sprints in the morning, and one hour of two springs at night!

You can even split it into four sprints if you want. One in the morning, one at lunchtime, one in the evening, and one late at night.

I wouldn’t necessarily advise that, but if your time is limited, and you want to finish your first draft quickly, then go for it!

One other thing to remember? It’s okay if you can’t reach 500 words in 30 minutes. I’ve had days where I can only get 200–300 words in 30 minutes. I’ve had days where I sat there staring at the screen for 30 minutes, no words achieved at all!

This will happen sometimes. Don’t beat yourself up over it. If you don’t get 2,000 words a day, it’s not the end of the world. If you only get to two of your sprints instead of four, there’s no need to panic.

But I guarantee you, when you start looking at the writing of your novel in 30-minute sprints, you will start writing more.

And you’ll finish your novel sooner rather than later!

Posted in Writing

Why a Fresh Take on an Old Idea is More Important than a New Idea

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In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,

Don’t obsess about writing the story that nobody’s ever written before. What makes every story unique in today’s marketplace is execution. A fresh take on a story idea will be just as valuable as starting with a great premise.

Don’t. Obsess. About finding a new idea.

In the fall of 2014 I took a graduate creative writing course at the University of Nevada-Reno where we focused for the early part of the semester on the seven basic storylines we find in pretty much all literature, film, and television.

We read from cover to cover the fascinating book by Christopher Booker called The Seven Basic Plots, and he certainly brought up some good points.

What are the seven basic plots?

  • Overcoming the Monster (Beowulf, Dracula, James Bond)
  • Rags to Riches (Aladdin, Cinderella, David Copperfield)
  • The Quest (The Odyssey, The Lord of the Rings, Apocalypse Now)
  • Voyage and Return (Alice in Wonderland, The Time Machine, Gone with the Wind)
  • Comedy (Much Ado about Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Four Weddings and a Funeral)
  • Tragedy (Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Bonnie and Clyde)
  • Rebirth (Beauty and the Beast, A Christmas Carol, Groundhog Day)

Now think back on the stories you’ve written. Any novels you’ve worked on these past few years. Does your narrative line up with one of those seven basic plots?

It can be a variation on one of these plots. It can be totally unique and only loosely tied to one of them.

But I’d bet everything you write in your life will likely have an element of one of those seven plots, often without you knowing!

I’ve written twenty novels to date. Overcoming the Monster is often the basic plot of most of my work, like my MFA thesis novel and latest middle grade work-in-progress, but my book currently on submission to editors is The Quest, absolutely, and I’ve also written Tragedy and Rebirth plots in the past.

You might think you have no talent, have no imagination, when all the work you’ve produced to this date fits snugly into one of those seven plots. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth!

Because a fresh take an old idea and executing it well is your key to success as a fiction writer.

You can spend the next year waiting for the inspiration to hit, waiting for that incredible new idea that no one’s ever written down before.

You know what? You’re probably going to have to wait longer than a year.

Every story, basically, has already been told. Even the most audacious, most unexpected, most unbelievably creative ideas we see here and there in film, television, and literature, are still variations on these old basic plots.

So don’t obsess over finding a new idea. Instead, find fresh takes on existing ideas that you can put your own spin on, give your own voice to.

Don’t just write the same old thing with a few small differences. Write something new and fresh that just happens to be a take on an existing idea. Make your story so dazzling and complex and original that no reader will even consciously realize it’s one of the seven basic plots.

Mary Kole is absolutely right: a fresh take on a story idea will be just as valuable as starting with a great premise.

And what makes every story unique in today’s marketplace is execution.

This reminds me of what the late, great Roger Ebert once said: it’s not what the film is about. It’s how it is about it.

The how you tell your story is always more interesting than just what the story is. The execution of it, that’s what you want to pay the most attention to.

So don’t stress, okay? Don’t panic if you think your latest idea isn’t new enough, isn’t original enough.

If the idea excites you, and there’s something truly awesome you plan to do with that idea, then go for it!

Posted in Writing

3 Quotes by Philip K. Dick to Make You a Better Writer

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Philip K. Dick (1928–1982) was a science fiction writer most celebrated for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which became the movie Blade Runner, as well as his other acclaimed writings like Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, and Minority Report, all of which became major motion pictures.

Here are three of his fantastic quotes to help improve your writing!

1. In 1955, when I’d write a science-fiction novel, I’d set it in the year 2000. I realised around 1977 that, ‘My God, it’s getting exactly like those novels we used to write in the 1950s!’ Everything’s just turning out to be real.

One thing I marvel about the world of science fiction, in books, television, and film, is that moment when you realize something imagined as a future possibility actually does become an aspect of the future. It’s why I think Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 continues to resonate decades after its publication, because Bradbury got so much right, all the way down to the little details, about the future world that very much has become a reality.

Philip K. Dick has certainly been able to predict a lot that was to come as well. And it’s why he and so many other science fiction writers have an easier time setting their stories way, way, way in the future rather than just a few years away. Write a book that’s set thirty years in the future, one of two things happens. You get a lot right, or you get a lot wrong. If you get a lot right, that’s scary! If you get a lot wrong, your book might lose interest from readers. Therefore, it seems almost smarter in a way to set a science fiction book hundreds of years in the future… or not give it a year at all.

2. We live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. I ask, in my writing, ‘What is real?’ Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms.

Words mean something. Words can make a difference. Words have power. And they’re not meant to be taken lightly, throughout your life, and of course in your fiction. A big theme Dick uses in his writings is “What is real?” and it’s an important question to ask in whatever work that you do. But especially in the world of fiction writing, it’s essential to keep in mind the power of your words and how you go about using them.

You have to tell stories that feel real to the reader, that linger in the reader’s mind long after he or she has turned the final page. To write something that feels fake, like something manufactured, is not a place you ever want to be in or want your readers to suddenly find themselves in either. You want to choose words that don’t feel forced into your many sentences and paragraphs but instead create a realistic world that come off as something unique and authentic for your reader. Whether you’re writing science fiction or another genre, that’s something you should always aim for.

3. I want to write about people I love, and put them into a fictional world spun out of my own mind, not the world we actually have, because the world we actually have does not meet my standards.

One of the beauties of science fiction is creating fascinating, three-dimensional characters that readers can fall in love with in an instant and completely relate to, and toss them into a world we don’t at all recognize. The great thing is that tossing these characters into a fictional world does not make them any less real, any less important. Usually one can use a fictional world to build upon themes and give the readers ideas that wouldn’t have been possible if the story were told in our world.

I think about all the classic science fiction novels I’ve read and adored. All the television shows and films in the science fiction universe that have opened my eyes to other worlds and new ideas, that have had major impacts on me. When done well, there’s really nothing else like stories in this genre. Because there’s no limit to the imagination, no limits to what can be explored and discussed.

Philip K. Dick gave us some of the most fascinating science fiction stories of all time, and his work will continue to mean something for many decades to come. All the way to 2100, 2200… and beyond!

Posted in Writing

Here’s One Thing You Need to Ask Yourself Before You Start Your Novel

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In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,

As you’re sitting down to write, you need to ask yourself: Am I writing a specific story that could only happen to this character, in this world, in this time?

There’s a lot you need to ask yourself before you begin your novel.

And there’s a lot of preparation you need to do, too, of course. Each writer embarks on a writing project differently, but when it comes to new novel, there are a few things you simply must do.

You should understand the expectations of the genre you’re writing in. You should figure out a schedule so that you stick to a word count every day until you reach THE END.

You should also spend a long time figuring out who your main characters are, what they’re all about, what they want, what’s keeping them from getting what they want, what their flaws are, how they might change throughout the course of a novel.

I’ve talked about how you don’t necessarily need to write a strict outline to a novel beforehand, that writing down every chapter and scene before you write the first sentence of your book can actually hinder your creativity because there’s nothing really to surprise you as you go about your writing days.

But knowing more than ever about your characters is a must. Get comfortable with their physical descriptions, yes, but also pay attention to everything else. The more you understand your characters the better the writing will go, I guarantee it. I’ve definitely learned this the hard way!

So figure out your characters, especially your protagonist, and then ask yourself another big question.

Am I writing a specific story that could only happen to this character, in this world, in this time?

Once you’ve figured your main character out, now you need to move onto setting and time period. This part might seem simple, might feel like you don’t have to pay close attention, but you really should.

Setting of course depends on the genre of novel you’re writing in. If you’re writing a science fiction story set not on this Earth, you’re going to need to spend just as much time with setting as you do with character. What planet does the story take place on? What aspects of Earth will we see and what aspects unlike Earth will be presented?

But funnily enough, sometimes it’s even harder to come up with a setting for a realistic literary story. You might be inclined to just use the city you currently live in. I’ve certainly done that before. You should ask yourself, though, what would change about your story if it was instead set in L.A., or New York, or a small town in North Carolina.

If literally nothing changes about your story, you haven’t put in enough work yet. There should be something specific about your setting that impacts your story, and how that setting impacts your main character!

Finally, you have to think about the time period of your story. Is there something about your story that makes sense to be told in the past? Five years ago? Fifty years ago? So many beloved and respected published novels are set in extremely specific time periods. Is setting your novel in 2019 your only choice?

Now, you shouldn’t ever just pick a random year to set your novel in if you don’t have a really strong reason for doing so. Don’t think you’re going to stand out just by setting your novel in 1987 instead of 2019. If you’re writing a contemporary story, then by all means, set it now, and make sure it feels like today, and not five or ten years ago.

But if the story you’re telling about a specific character and a specific setting would be better suited for a time in the past (or the future!), then, by all means, go for it!

Posted in Writing

5 Quotes by Sarah Dessen to Make You a Better Writer

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Sarah Dessen (born in 1970) is the acclaimed author of such novels as That Summer, Someone Like You, and The Moon and More.

Here are 5 awesome quotes Dessen has shared with us about her writing life to inspire you!

1. Each time, I think I’m never going to write another book. It never gets easier.

Sarah Dessen feels this way when she finishes a new novel. And I always feel this way, too. Writing a novel is so difficult I’m often amazed that I’ve been able to write twenty of them in less than ten years. Writing a book takes a lot out of you. And it never gets easier, truly.

But months go by. You forget the pain. You get excited by a new idea… and you write another one. Look at Sarah Dessen. Her debut was published in 1996. And fifteen books later she has another one coming out in 2019! Just because writing novels isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. As Tom Hanks says in A League of Their Own: the hard is what makes it great.

2. I really just love to read, period, whether it be books or magazines or the back of the cereal box. It’s the one thing I can always count on to calm me down, take me away and inspire me, all at once.

Why do words calm me down so much? They calm Sarah Dessen down too, and they calm down millions of people out there, writers and non-writers alike. There’s something about blocking out everything else and just focusing on sentences that manages to be so incredibly soothing.

I typically don’t turn to cereal boxes for my reading, but it’s true that when there’s absolutely no reading material around I will search for anything. I think a big reason lots of people get into writing is that initial love for reading developed at an early age. Words mean something. Words can make a difference. And words absolutely calm us down always.

3. I can’t sit and twiddle my thumbs. I have to start writing even if it’s miserable some days.

The part of writing I hate the most is that period before you start where you have no idea what to put down on the page. This happens to me on every novel. Even if I stopped my writing the day before at a place where I know what the next scene will be, occasionally I sit down and still don’t really know how to get started. This happened less than a month ago, when I spent almost an hour trying to figure out how to get myself into one of the final scenes of my latest project.

The big takeaway from this quote is simply that you need to start writing even when it’s miserable. Yes, we all hope hope every writing day is going to go well, going to go fast. Those are the most awesome days, when the words just fly off your fingertips and you’re able to get you’re 2,000 words down in an hour or less. Most days aren’t like that. Most days are much harder. And the key to your success is writing even on days when you don’t want to write!

4. Maybe other writers have perfect first drafts, but I am not one of them. I always try to get the book as tight as I can, but you reach a point as the author where you have lost all perspective.

I don’t think Sarah Dessen is the first author to admit that she doesn’t write perfect first drafts. Who does? I would honestly be curious to know if anyone has written a near-perfect first draft, where everything works, where everything comes together in a way that pleases readers immensely. Neil Gaiman has famously said that the second draft is the step in the process where you make it look like you knew what you were doing in the first draft.

There are two big things I believe in when it comes the first draft: write it as best you can, and finish the thing. You can’t ever find success in your writing life if you don’t finish things, and that’s especially true if you’re writing novels. Don’t worry if your book goes astray at some point. Don’t worry if you, like Dessen, lose all perspective. You can fix things later. Revise things later.

5. I’m famously secretive about my work. Nobody reads my books till they’re finished.

I’m absolutely the same way when it comes to my fiction. I’d even go a step further to say that I won’t even tell anyone about my work until I’m at least two or three drafts in. I feel like just describing your work-in-progress to somebody, whether it’s a family member or close friend or stranger on the street, sucks some of the life out of the project. There’s something about only you knowing the ins and outs of the novel that makes it incredibly exciting. You’re working on something new, fresh, original, and there’s no telling if this might be the one that gets you published.

One of the worst things you can do is tell everyone who will listen about the novel you’re currently writing, or have one or more people read chapters and scenes before you’ve finished the first draft. Please, please, please don’t do this. There shouldn’t be any feedback given before you’ve at least reached the end of the manuscript. If you’re working on chapter 12 of 20, and people are giving you feedback about chapters 1–10, what are you going to do, stop and go back to revise? Doing so might prevent you from ever finishing the book in the first place. So stay secretive about your novel. As long as you possibly can!