Posted in Writing

Start Writing Your Novel Today, not Tomorrow


So here’s the thing: if you want to write a novel this year, you should start writing it this month.

Not next month, not this fall. In fact you should start writing it today, not tomorrow!

There’s always going to be a long list of excuses. You don’t have the time (the big reason). You’re afraid of screwing up (the second big reason). You haven’t done an outline. You don’t know the first scene. You don’t know your ending. The characters aren’t fully developed yet.

There’s always going to be some excuse. Even if you have nothing to do for the next six weeks. Even if you have no responsibilities at all. (Wouldn’t that be nice, right?)

Because the truth is that novel writing is really, really hard. I just started drafting my twentieth novel this past Monday, and it hasn’t gotten any easier.

I still struggle every day I sit down to write, I do! I’ve been thinking about this new story for more than two years, and I’ve probably already messed it up in a few places. I feel like the chapters are too long, that the conflict isn’t compelling enough.

But you know one really great thing I did this week? I started it. I started writing the book after two years of thinking about it, and I’m giving myself three hours every day to get my words down.

Writing a novel is hard, but you know what’s fairly easy once you put your mind to it? Finding time every day to reach a word count, and then sticking to that schedule until you reach THE END.

I decided in May I was going to write 2,200 words a day on my new novel, seven days a week. That would get to me 15,400 words by the end of week one, and that would get me to 77,000 words by the end of week five.

Five weeks to write a novel. Seems kind of crazy, right? But, again, if you put your mind to it, you can get it done. You can do it!

I often say on here that you can write your book with just 200 words a day or just 500 words a day. And it’s true. You can.

The one problem with that method is that you have to stick to your schedule for so damn long. For months and months. And you might find yourself in week ten, week fifteen, week twenty, getting bored with your idea, or losing your way, and you might not finish it. I’m not sure if I could actually finish a novel if I wrote just 200–500 words a day.

But I can certainly finish a novel, and stick to a schedule, for five weeks. I just started my new book on Monday. It’s been only six days, and I’m already at 13,200 words. I’m almost twenty percent done with the novel’s first draft, which is kind of crazy.

Especially since six days ago I hadn’t written a word of it.

I thought about writing this new novel later in the summer. Or waiting until winter break. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to write this one. I wasn’t sure if I had the energy.

But I pushed past my fears, my reservations, and I just did it. I’m doing it. And four weeks from now, I will have a completed first draft of my latest novel.

So listen — if you’ve been thinking about writing a novel this year, if you want to finally get started on that idea you love, stop thinking about it, and do it!

Start today, not tomorrow. Give yourself permission to screw up. Give yourself permission to not meet your writing schedule on a day here and there.

Give yourself permission to write your novel. Not next year. Not next month. Not tomorrow.


Posted in Writing

6 Quotes by Suzanne Collins to Make You a Better Writer

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Suzanne Collins (born in 1962) is the bestselling author of The Hunger Games trilogy and The Underland Chronicles series.

Here are six awesome quotes she’s given us throughout the years that will help you in your writing life!

1. Whenever I write a story, I hope it appeals to both boys and girls.

I try to do the same thing. With every new story I write, whether it’s a love story or a horror story, whether it has a male protagonist or a female protagonist, I really hope to create something that appeals to all genders. I don’t think it’s smart to write something and assume only girls will like it.

At some point you have no control about the matter. Your story might not appeal to girls as much as it does to boys or vice versa. But the goal should always be that your latest story appeals to more than just one gender. That was certainly the case with The Hunger Games. That incredible trilogy has a mix of everything, and pretty much anyone from any background can find something to love about the story.

2. All the writing elements are the same. You need to tell a good story… You’ve got good characters… People think there’s some dramatic difference between writing ‘Little Bear’ and the ‘Hunger Games,’ and as a writer, for me, there isn’t.

You’re going to approach every new story a little differently of course, particularly if you’re writing something in a different genre than usual, but a story is a story, and some things shouldn’t really change. No matter what you write, first and foremost you need to tell a great, compelling story and come up with memorable, three-dimensional characters.

This is the case if you write a picture book. This is the case if you write a teen horror novel. This is the case if you write an historical literary short story. It’s the case with anything you put on paper. Tell a good story. Create good characters. Repeat.

3. I started as a playwright. Any sort of scriptwriting you do helps you hone your story. You have the same demands of creating a plot, developing relatable characters and keeping your audience invested in your story. My books are basically structured like three-act plays.

I do believe every prose writer has a lot to learn from playwriting and screenwriting. Read the craft books. Read a play and read a script. See how the story is told. A novel is extremely different from a screenplay, of course, but in both you are trying to write a fascinating story with relatable characters that keeps your audience invested.

That last part is something a lot of novelists might forget about. You have so many words to play with, so many scenes and chapters to write, that you feel you can slow things down often and not necessarily tell a story that’s always raising the stakes and keeping your reader invested. But you absolutely should! One thing I like to do is look at a scene from my latest novel and decide if I would keep it in a screenplay version or leave it out of the screenplay. If my choice is the latter, then that scene in the novel needs to go or be revised! It’s clear from The Hunger Games that Suzanne Collins understands how to write a story that never loses its grip on the reader. And studying plays and screenplays probably helped a lot in that aspect.

4. I wrote ‘The Hunger Games’ in a chair, like a La-Z-Boy chair, next to my bed. I had an office, but my kids sort of took it over.

It’s so funny. You look at a huge success story like Collins and The Hunger Games and you just naturally assume she wrote that trilogy in some awe-inspiring office that looks out over a gargantuan serene forest or something. You imagine her writing space as being incredible. The realization that she wrote these books in a La-Z-Boy chair next to her bed because her office had been taken over by her kids makes me smile.

Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where you write. What matters is that you write, plain and simple. Whether it’s in a fancy office or next to your bed. Whether it’s in your home or at the coffeehouse. Do whatever works for you. Figure out the best environment possible to put your latest story down on paper. Stephen King wrote his first few novels in a laundry room, if I’m not mistaken. Sometimes you have to make do. And if you have talent, it will come through no matter what.

5. I have a pretty big TV background, and I have clocked so many hours in so many writers’ rooms over the years.

Once again, Collins proves that you won’t become successful as a novelist necessarily if you only write novels and only study novels. Collins has experience working in writers’ rooms for TV shows, which is an entirely different experience than writing a book on your own.

In writers’ rooms you spend a lot of time breaking down a story into acts and scenes, and learning this method can be helpful to your novel writing, given that you bring complexity to your narrative and characters and not approach everything as if it’s some kind of generic TV episode. Writing is writing. The more you write, the better at it you get. Whether that writing is done at home by yourself or in a crowded writers’ room.

6. Telling a story in a futuristic world gives you this freedom to explore things that bother you in contemporary times.

The Hunger Games works as well as it does because of its time period, because of the genre Collins decided to tell that story in. And it’s completely true — you’re able to get away with so much, especially in a work of young adult fiction, when you set it in a futuristic world, a dystopian world.

I’ve written a little bit of fantasy, but I’ve never written a novel set in the future. I’d like to give it a try one of these days. If I ever get an awesome idea, the kind that struck Suzanne Collins at the absolute perfect time, I’ll definitely take a crack at it, even if it’s far outside my comfort zone. If something bothers you in contemporary times, you might want to write a non-fiction essay about it. Might want to send off a few tweets.

Better yet? Try writing a novel about it, and set it in a different time period. Who knows what amazing tale you might be able to come up with!

Posted in Grammar, Writing

Why You Need to be Careful about Shifts in Tense


Staying in the same tense throughout a piece is a skill that improves with practice.

I’m currently writing my twentieth novel. Some of my novels have been written in present tense. Most of them have been written in past tense.

Whichever tense you choose to do in your writing, it’s super important to stay consistent. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read in creative writing workshops that were 90% past tense and 10% present tense, or vice versa. Where suddenly a whole paragraph is the wrong tense, and you’re completely thrown out of the story.

When it comes to fiction writing, for the most part you’re going to stay in one tense or another. Except for dialogue, of course. Dialogue is its own separate beast. And yes, you might have a flashback here and there that takes you away from present tense and pushes you into past tense.

No matter what kind of writing you do, there’s always a possibility of shifts in tense, sometimes even in the same sentence! How do you handle those shifts and make your sentences sound normal and not totally awkward?

When you’re talking to a friend, you probably never notice your shifts in tense.

You might go from present tense to past tense and back to present tense in the course of five seconds when chatting with a friend, and typically we never think twice about it.

Take a sentence like this one, for example:

Derek is super pissed because it turns out Sarah lost most of his money gambling.

The sentence kind of makes sense, I guess. If you were told this in person, you’d get the general vibe of what the speaker is going for.

But let’s look at the sentence closer. ‘Derek is super pissed’ is present tense, and ‘it turns out’ is present tense, and ‘Sarah lost most of his money gambling’ is past tense.

Now, Derek can be mad in the present about something that happened in the past. It’s a sentence you might be able to get away with.

But wouldn’t the sentence make way more sense like this?

Derek was super pissed because Sarah lost all his money gambling.

There. So much better, right?

There are some sentences where the tense isn’t what you might assume it to be.

And you should understand those areas in your writing to make sure you don’t make a mistake.

One place you need to look out for? When you’re discussing the work of another author. Let’s say you’re writing a research paper, and you just put in a quote from an article you discovered online. Now you want to write a sentence responding to that quote.

You might want to write,

Smith argued here that the characters in Shakespeare’s play were all morally corrupt.

I’ve seen sentences like these in my student’s papers all the time.

Actually, even though Smith did argue this point in the past, and even though Shakespeare’s play was written in the past, MLA format states you write a sentence like this in present tense, not past.

Smith argues here that the characters in Shakespeare’s play are all morally corrupt.

In fact, most academic and research papers written in MLA format use the present tense, rarely the past tense. Something to keep in mind.

But what about shifts in tense in the very same sentence?

This happens sometimes, too. It’s not common, but you should be aware when it’s needed and how it works.

In fiction, just because you’re writing your latest story or novel in present tense doesn’t mean everything is going to be present tense.

You might have a sentence like this one…

I hold no more animosity toward him, but I once wanted to kill him.

And in academic writing, there might be the occasional instance where the first part needs to be past tense, while the second part needs to be present tense.

Let’s take that example above Smith arguing about Shakespeare’s play, but we add a date that Smith actually argued the point.

Smith argued at the 2009 playwriting conference that the characters in Shakespeare’s play are all morally corrupt.

Because we have a specific date when Smith argued his point, we can’t use present at the beginning. Instead, we use past tense because a specific date is designated, while we keep the second part of the sentence in present tense because story elements from a work of literature is being discussed.

Whatever you do, make sure you pay attention to your tense.

At the very least, keep your tense consistent. Don’t write something in mostly present tense and then suddenly shift to past tense for a paragraph, unless you have a very good reason.

Your tense is often not something at the forefront of your mind as a writer, but I guarantee you it will be at the forefront of your reader’s mind if you make even one mistake in this arena. You have to stay consistent. And your sentences need to make sense.

Practice will help. So will not only revising your work but also editing it closely.

Your choice of tense plays a major role in your writing. Make sure you get it right every time!

Posted in Writing

6 Quotes from Beverly Cleary to Make You a Better Writer


Beverly Cleary (born in 1916) is the author of such acclaimed classics as Beezus and Ramona and The Mouse and the Motorcycle. She’s currently 103 years young and worth celebrating as often as possible!

Here are six wonderful quotes from Cleary that will help you in your writing life!

1. Quite often somebody will say, What year do your books take place? and the only answer I can give is, In childhood.

Beverly Cleary always knew she wanted to write for children, and it’s something that any writer of fiction for young adults and younger feel in their bones every day. I’ve tried writing a couple of adult novels and some short stories about adults throughout the years, but my greatest joy has always been writing books for younger readers.There’s something about returning to that time and finding a new story idea that will entertain, thrill, and surprise readers of a certain age that is always worth pursuing.

What you should be thinking about when it comes to your fiction writing is what kind of books you love to write the most. Never write something you think you should be writing. I’ve tried that too, and doing so doesn’t get me anywhere. Write what you love. Write what your heart tells you to write! And good things will follow.

2. My favorite books are a constantly changing list, but one favorite has remained constant: the dictionary. Is the word I want to use spelled practice or practise? The dictionary knows. The dictionary also slows down my writing because it is such interesting reading that I am distracted.

The hardcover dictionary used to be a staple in every household in the twentieth century, but now the dictionary is a quick Google search away, so we don’t really think about it anymore. But I’ve always loved the dictionary ever since I was a kid, and I remember reading through various pages of it at my grandparents’ house. It was fun to discover a new word and try to memorize its meaning and potentially use it in a sentence.

Even today there is nothing wrong for a writer to spend a few minutes here and there perusing an old dictionary, or clicking through an online dictionary, and learning a few new words. The more words you learn as a writer the better, so why has the dictionary become such old news as of late? The dictionary can bring you tons of success, especially when it comes to your description and imagery.

3. I write in longhand on yellow legal pads.

This is an old-school way of writing too, but there’s something kind of magical about writing your story out in longhand rather than type it onto the screen. I remember writing my first few stories in longhand as a kid, and I loved every minute of it. Lately I of course type everything, but I will jot down notes about my novels and stories in longhand in one of my journals, and often it’s really helpful to get your thoughts straight by writing something that way.

Writing an entire novel is really, really hard to do in longhand. I would never even attempt to try it, unless something happened to me where for whatever reason longhand was my only option. It’s so much easier to write on my laptop than on a piece of paper. But maybe once a year, just for fun, you should try writing a flash fiction story in longhand over the course of a few days. Doing so might give you a new burst of creativity!

4. I don’t necessarily start with the beginning of the book. I just start with the part of the story that’s most vivid in my imagination and work forward and backward from there.

This is a really interesting perspective. I’ve heard of writers who start with the end of their story and then work backward, but I’ve never really heard of someone just starting with a key scene that’s vivid in the imagination, and then working forward or backward from there. I definitely wouldn’t be able to write something like this. The only way I know how to write a story is from the beginning to the end, and then later in revisions I decide if maybe I started too early in the story or too late, if the ending needs a few more scenes, things like that.

But if you don’t start writing from the middle of the story, at least take into account the moments of your piece that are most vivid in your imagination. If you start from the beginning like I do, keep those later scenes in your mind every time you sit down to write, even if the scenes themselves won’t be appearing for many days to come. I’m currently drafting my twentieth novel, and there’s a scene I simply can’t wait to write toward the end, that’s super vivid in my imagination, but it’s still three weeks away, and you know what? That’s fine. The vividness from that upcoming scene is actually adding to the energy of the earlier scenes I’m currently writing.

5. I wrote books to entertain. I’m not trying to teach anything! If I suspected the author was trying to show me how to be a better behaved girl, I shut the book.

This is one of the best things you can learn as a writer, particularly if you write stories and books for younger readers. The worst thing you can do is try to teach the reader something in your writing. What you should care about instead is telling a compelling story that entertains and offers three-dimensional characters that the reader wants to learn more about.

Can you imagine if John Green had simply tried to teach teenagers about cancer with The Fault in Our Stars? What Green did instead was tell a beautiful, life-affirming love story with two of the most memorable YA characters in recent years. Cleary is right: write to entertain. Write to dazzle the reader. And keep any teaching off the page.

6. I enjoy writing for third and fourth graders most of all.

The sooner you figure out what age range you like to write for the better. This goes even beyond, say, the middle grade readers and the young adult readers. What exact ages do you feel like your stories are meant for and that you like writing for? Cleary enjoyed writing her stories for third and fourth graders. That’s a whole lot different than fifth or sixth graders, or middle school ages, or high school ages. Third and fourth grades? That’s super specific.

And you would be best served to decide what specific ages you like to write for yourself. I’ve always had a wide net in terms of my fiction. I’ve written young adult and middle grade. My fiction is kind of aimed at anybody, in a sense, which doesn’t always serve me well. You should definitely learn the difference between middle grade and young adult, and figure out what the expectations of each are, but if you really want to be successful, you should learn what the nine-year-old readers are looking for, and what the twelve-year-old readers are looking for, and what the fifteen-year-old readers are looking for, and decide what age group out there you most want to write for.

Cleary did it, and she did it well. So can you!

Posted in Writing

Why the Best Way to Become a Better Writer is to Write


In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. Writing-class discussions can often be intellectually stimulating and great fun, but they also often stray far afield from the actual nuts-and-bolts business of writing.

It sounds so simple, but there’s no way around it: the best thing you can do as a writer is write.

Isn’t it funny how much writers like to avoid the actual writing part? I’m certainly no different. Especially when it comes to my fiction writing. It’s so damn hard! It is so damn hard. Every day I sit down and I struggle. I write a horrible sentence, and another horrible sentence, and then I think to myself, I’m a fraud, I need to quit, this is absolutely terrible.

But even on my worst writing days, whatever I’m putting on the page is always way more useful than not writing anything at all. You might think long discussions about writing with your friends is the same thing as writing. You might think three and a half hours in a workshop is the same, too.

Workshops can be really helpful. Talking about writing with your friends can give you inspiration.

But always remember, to get better at writing, you need to put your ass in the chair and write. You need to work at this craft every single day and practice, practice, practice!

Writing all the time won’t necessarily make you great. But it certainly will make you good.

I’m currently drafting my twentieth novel. I’m almost to the halfway point. Is this my best novel yet? I have no idea. Probably not. But is this novel better than the first one I wrote nine years ago? Oh my God, absolutely!

Reading every day and writing every day has helped me become the best writer I can be after nine years of seriously working on my craft. I’ve gotten to the point where I can write a scene in my latest novel and I know how to find balance between description and action. I take more chances. I trust in my ability to pace the scene well. I recognize that any mistakes I make I can always work on later during revisions.

I’m still discovering new strengths in my writing. I’m still amazed at those amazing moments when you get lost in your story and the characters’ voices begin to take over. I’m still hopeful that this latest novel might be the one where I get everything right.

Or hell, maybe it won’t be. Maybe I’ve already screwed up this new novel to a point of no return, I don’t know. But at least it’s getting written.

Writing should always be your number one goal, remember that.

There’s a lot to enjoy about talking to friends about writing. There’s a lot to take away from writing workshops and seminars. You can’t just only write all the time. You need to mix things up here and there, and a little inspiration can go a long way.

But if you want to get better at writing, remember that the best thing you can do is write. Aim for at least thirty minutes a day, if that’s possible. Write a little in the morning or at night. Write at the time that works best for you, and stick to that schedule whenever possible.

Whatever you do, just keep practicing. Keep trying new things in your writing. Don’t let your stories and characters ever get stale. Don’t repeat something you’ve already written before.

Just write, write, write. Write to your heart’s content! And eventually amazing things will happen, I guarantee it.

Posted in Education, Writing

Why So Many Writers End Up Being Teachers


In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

Another argument in favor of writing courses has to do with the men and women who teach them. There are thousands of talented writers at work in America, and only a few them can support their families and themselves with their work.

So many writers have to take day jobs to support themselves.

Stephen King is absolutely right when he says there are thousands of talented writers in America alone, let alone elsewhere around the world, and only a few of them can support their families and themselves with just their writing.

Of course those writers are out there. You might even be lucky enough (and work hard enough) to become one of them. It’s the dream of any writer, really, to be able to just write every day and be able to support themselves from that work.

But for most of us, we need at least a part-time job, if not a full-time job to help supplement our income. And teaching for many writers has always been a great position.

I’ve been an English instructor at the college level for seven years now. I love teaching. I love sharing what I know about writing to students. And I always think it’s a great position for those of us who like to spend part of their day creating.

So what are a few reasons why teaching works so well for writers?

One, teaching allows us at least part of the day to focus on our creative work. As a college instructor, I get to give part of my day to my teaching duties and part of my day to my writing.

This might not be the case if you’re teaching secondary education. I have had friends who teach at the middle school and high school level who say it’s extremely difficult to write during the school year. But, worst case, you still have a few lengthy breaks throughout the year, including summer break, where you can catch up on your writing.

Second, teaching is also great because you get to share what you know about writing to your students. You might not be writing, but at least you’re talking about writing, and giving inspiration to others. And what I find often is that the students then give me inspiration for my own work when we discuss writing. They have this ability to open up your mind to so many possibilities.

Third, teaching allows you to step away from the darkness and isolation of a writing room once in awhile and interact with incredible students and potentially other teachers about subjects you love.

There are so many writing courses out there, and someone has to teach them!

Of course there’s nothing better as a teacher than the opportunity to teach actual creative writing. I’ve gotten the chance to teach it here and there, and it’s always such a thrill.

Pretty much every college has at least one creative writing course. Many colleges have MFA programs where creative writing is offered as a degree. This country is filled with universities where creative writers teach other creative writers. Where writers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to support themselves manage to do so by teaching in a creative writing program.

So King is right: that’s definitely a bonus about writing courses. There’s so many people who want to learn how to write creatively, and do it well. Why not turn to the most talented of writers who may have something to contribute?

I begin my thirteenth semester as a college instructor this fall (wow!), and I’m looking forward to it. Teaching is a really sweet gig that lets me write and dream to my heart’s content, and I continue to enjoy the balance it gives to my long, creative life.

Posted in Writing

Why Being Taken Seriously as a Writer is So Important


In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

Writing courses and seminars do offer at least one undeniable benefit: in them, the desire to write fiction or poetry is taken seriously. For aspiring writers who have been looked upon with pitying condescension by their friends and relatives, this is a wonderful thing.

Writing is hard enough. Being looked at with condescension from others makes it even harder.

Being is a writer is a hard life, there’s no doubt about it. There’s no financial stability. There’s lots of rejection, so much rejection. You stare at blank pages every day in the hopes that you’ll be able to fill it up with something great. There are many, many days when the writing doesn’t go well and you feel like a total failure.

And what makes all this even harder? When you have people in your life, particularly friends and family, who look at what you do and what you love with pitying condescension. Who look at you with sorrow as soon as you’re asked what you do and you say that you’re a writer.

I still struggle saying I’m a writer when strangers ask what I do for a living. Until I started making some decent income on Medium these last two months, I never made any money at all as a writer, so I would tell strangers I was a teacher, because at least that part of my working life put some income in my bank account.

I very much believe you should call yourself a writer, and the more you say it aloud, the more you’ll actually feel like a writer. Even in the face of friends and family who think what we do is a dumb hobby that won’t lead anywhere.

Some of us are luckier than others.

I’ve been lucky to surround myself with people who for the most part support me in my writing endeavors. My best friends are all writers. My parents have been 100% supportive since I started writing short stories in elementary school, and they’ve still got my back even as I reach ten years of seriously writing fiction and having no traditionally published novels in the world yet.

My partner has always been the least supportive person in my world when it comes to my fiction writing, but he at least understands my love for it, and he gives me the space to pursue this dream. That’s sometimes the best you can hope for when it comes to people who don’t quite understand that inherent desire to be creative.

So what Stephen King says in the above quote is exactly right: one amazing thing about creative writing workshops and seminars is that you surround yourself with other people who love writing as much as you do.

It’s almost like speaking an alternate language when I meet up with writer friends at conferences. We all get it. We all understand the struggle and the fight and the passion and the endurance.

So do your best to surround yourself with people who take your writing seriously.

Sometimes you have no control over this part, especially if, say, you’re still living with your parents, and they want you to do anything but write. I know it’s hard. I know you might question if they’re right, if you should pursue something else that has a better chance at financial stability.

The truth of the matter is this: if you believe in your writing, if you know deep down writing makes you happy, you need to do everything you can to push against that negativity and try to surround yourself with more people who support you.

Creative writing workshops are helpful for this. Seminars, too. Sometimes all it takes is one amazing writer friend to open up your whole world and give yourself the permission to write to your heart’s desire.

So find that person. Find all your people. Do it however you want.

And no matter what, keep writing!