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Category Archives: Review

Three Things I Learned from NaNoWriMo

November has been dubbed National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) by Chris Baty, a writer from San Francisco. For 11 years, he’s sponsored an event for writers, challenging them to write a novel (50,000 words) during the month of November. Thousands of writers have taken him up on the challenge and participated through the NaNoWriMo website.

I’ve been a part of the challenges for several years and I’ve learned some things in the process that I’d like to share with you.

Challenge Yourself

Use NaNo as an opportunity to challenge yourself. You don’t have to adhere to the “50,000 words on a new novel” rule. It’s more of a guideline, than a rule. The point of NaNo is to challenge yourself–stretch beyond what you think you’re capable of.

  • If you already have a story started, write 50,000 more words on it in 30 days.
  • If you’re writing short stories, instead of novels, write 50,000 cumulative words on a variety of stories in 30 days.
  • If your novel is done, edit 50 pages a day on it.
  • If you’re submitting, send out 5 queries a day for 30 days.

Think of what you could accomplish under normal circumstances and then double your output for a month. You don’t have to keep it up forever, just for a month. See what kind of a kickstart that gives to your writing.

First Draft Freedom

NaNo requires fast writing. For many writers, 50,000 words in 30 days is really fast. You don’t have time to edit, to fuss with point of view, to layer your characters. You just write and get it down on paper.

As a writer who gets stuck in perfectionism, NaNo is a refreshing change for me. I can’t fuss over the first chapter for six months, getting the words just right. Instead, I have to throw something on to the page and keep going.

Now, mind you, I’m not deliberately throwing garbage on to the page and calling it my novel. No, I’m writing the story the best I can without self-editing during the process. Forward motion is my goal. I’ve come across several writers who feel that writing the first draft is necessary for you to figure out what story you’re actually telling. Then in the second draft (and subsequent ones), you shape the story to that vision. Since I know the story will change (possibly radically), then getting my first draft perfect isn’t necessary. It’s kind of useless, even, since I’m going to change it. So write fast and get to the end of your first draft so you know your story.

Help, My Plot Has Fallen and It Can’t Get Up!

One of my favorite “tools” I learned from NaNo is the plot ninjas.

Let’s pretend that you’re writing along on your novel and you start to realize that your characters have been sitting in a kitchen, sipping tea and chatting for the last 30 pages. Drinking tea in a kitchen is the kiss of death for a novel. Where’s the tension? Where’s the conflict? You need to get those characters moving and reacting to something.

Suddenly there’s a knock at the back door. Your main character answers the door and discovers ninjas who immediately start attacking him!

Now there’s tension and conflict in your story. Nobody stands passively by while ninjas are attacking.

Ninjas may not fit your genre, but you can adapt the plot ninja idea to other types of stories.

  • If you’re writing a mystery, someone totally unexpected is murdered.
  • In a romance, another man (or woman) shows up and claims to be married to your main character.
  • In a scifi story, aliens attack or a nanite plague breaks out.
  • In a crossover novel, the secret spouse of your main character’s love interest is murdered by aliens wielding nanites.

The only criteria for using plot ninjas in your story is that the ninja event be something unexpected and startling. Something that your characters must react to. Then they’re no longer in the kitchen drinking tea.

I’ve learned other things from participating in NaNo, but these are three biggies–enjoy the challenge, write freely in my first draft, and use plot ninjas to shake things up when my story has stalled.

What things have you learned from NaNoWriMo?

I’ll be participating in NaNo again this year. If you’d like to follow my progress, add me as a Writing Buddy.

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Best Author Response EVER

Published authors get hit with the worst criticism at times. Everybody has an opinion and is happy to spread it all over the Internet. So what do you do, as a writer, when you receive a negative or downright slamming review of your book?

Some writers suggest you ignore the negative ones. That idea has a certain amount of merit. Why dwell on the bad? Not everyone in the world is going to like you and not everyone will like your book, so just ignore it and let it go.

Above all, experienced writers will tell you not to respond to a negative review. You won’t be able to change the reviewer’s mind and you’ll just come across as defensive and possibly as attacking the reviewer. Not to mention, opening yourself to more criticism based on your response.

That seems like wise advice to follow. But recently I came across an author who chose to ignore that advice and the results were incredible.

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books is a site that posts reviews on romance books. They aren’t timid in their reviews–oh no, they tell you exactly what they think of a book, good or bad. One of the books recently reviewed was Pregnesia by Carla Cassidy.

Okay, I see the confused look – Pregnesia is a coined term stemming from “pregnant amnesiac”. Yes, the heroine in the story is… a pregnant amnesiac. (I’m sure Carla’s publisher stuck her with that title, though which person at Harlequin thought that was a great marketing title is a gigantic and confounding mystery.)

The review is typical SBTB–it pulls no punches in its list of 26 reasons why Pregnesia is the best book in the history of pregnant amnesiac romance books. Yes, you see the tongue-in-cheek comments coming, don’t you. The review is hilarious. It pokes fun at various aspects of the novel–unbelievable characters, plot holes and other general ridiculous happenings.

So far… a typical negative review. Funny, but negative. As the author I’d be embarrassed and probably angry to read such a review. We put our hearts into our books–who can stand to see them ridiculed?

Conventional writer wisdom says that Carla should have just ignored the review. But she didn’t. And her response to the review was the absolute BEST author response in the history of writing.

10 Reasons I love this review and other musings by the author of Pregnesia

  1. Any publicity is better than no publicity
  2. My original title was Pregnesia-The Story of A Pregnant Princess with Amnesia Who Lusts For An Ex-Navy Seal Turned Sheik Cowboy. Unfortunately, it was too long.
  3. Any publicity is better than no publicity
  4. I was working out my issues about being kidnapped by a blood-thirsty cult who might think I was eight months pregnant.
  5. Any publicity is better than no publicity
  6. I was hoping you’d tell me about the big plot hole. It’s been bothering me for months!
  7. Any publicity is better than no publicity
  8. Stay tuned for my next blockbuster – Virgin Bride With Secret Babies Wants A Cop who Rides The Range
  9. Reading the Review Made me think of comfort food. Thanks for giving me a reason to eat a box of Twinkies, four cupcakes and a box of macaroni and cheese. And it’s not even noon – and now I will have to watch out for those evil cult members who might lust after my pseudo-pregnant body!
  10. Thanks for reminding me you gotta take the good with the bad and I hope readers will check out my next book, Five Minutes to Marriage and my OCT release from Signet – Up Close and Personal. Hey, I should be able to get a little self-promo from all this!

Carla Cassidy

Is that not the best?? Carla responded with grace and humor that exactly matched the tone of the review. I don’t think I could respond so well to a negative review. I’m in awe of her.

And the best part of the entire thing was how the blog readers responded to her classy, awesome comment. 32 readers left comments that they had bought the book, were going to buy the book or were going to buy ALL of Carla’s books because of the great review and her incredible response to it. Is there any better publicity for a writer or easier marketing plan than to answer critical reviews with a sense of humor? How long would it take you to hand-sell 32 books? Carla did it in just a few minutes.

Note to all writers out there: If you can’t ignore negative reviews, take a lesson from Carla and make your response fun and light-hearted. The reward in reader loyalty and free publicity is more than worth it.

And go check out the review of Pregnesia and then buy the book!

Review of How to Think Sideways – Month 2

As mentioned previously, I’m taking a 6-month class on writing from Holly Lisle. While I promised a review of each month’s worth of material once a month, I’ve been working through it at a slower pace, hence the long gap between review posts. That’s the beauty of this type of class. The lessons come out once a week, but I can work on them at my own speed, taking as long as needed before moving on to the next.

In the second month of Think Sideways, we’re doing our Project Planning.

Week 5 – Define Your Project’s Needs

Holly teaches the Dot and Line technique in this week’s lesson. The Dot helps you to focus on the most interesting, extraordinary or significant details of your character, setting, conflict, etc. The Line marks off the differences between things.

How do you use them? Well, the Dot helps you focus on the details that are pertinent. For example, your heroine has long, blond hair. Who cares? Lots of people have long, blond hair. That’s an ordinary detail. The Dot helps you make that into an extraordinary detail. Not just long, blond hair, but hair that is twenty feet long (ala Rapunzel) and strong enough to support the weight of an adult. Now that’s an extraordinary detail about your heroine that deserves to get mentioned in your story. You focus on the Dot details to make your characters, settings, and conflicts unique and extraordinary.

The Line helps you figure out potential conflicts for your story. For example, Rapunzel is on one side of the line, the Witch is on the other. Rapunzel is young, beautiful and yearns to get out of the tower. The Witch is old, ugly and thinks Rapunzel should stay in the tower forever. Pitting them against each other via the Line, you have young vs. old, beautiful vs. ugly, and escape dreams vs. long-term imprisonment. Lots to argue about there and plenty of material for sarcastic or angry dialogue, or sneaky acts against each other. In other words, plenty of conflict between those two characters. You can apply the Line to characters, settings, motivations… almost any part of your story.

The Dot and Line technique were a real eye-opener for me in how to enrich my story with extraordinary details and conflicts that I might have overlooked before.

Week 6 – Discover Your Project’s Markets

In this week we learned three things:

  1. How to identify the market that our project fits into.
  2. How to change genres with a technqiue called Book Mapping.
  3. How to create our own genre (if one doesn’t currently exist to fit our work).

This is an extremely useful lesson for writers planning a long career of writing. Genres don’t stay static. They grow, change, wither, sometimes die, and morph into other genres altogether. If you can’t flex with the changing markets, you’ll have a hard time staying successful in the publishing world.

Week 7 – Develop Your Project-Creation System

Holly gives an excellent example of how she spent way too much time world-building on her first few novels, only to find that nobody wanted to publish those stories set in her heavily-detailed, fascinating worlds. Over time she learned to build only enough world to get her story started and then add pertinent details along the way. This saved her a bunch of time by eliminating all the hours she spent building worlds, characters, and plot details for stories that were never used, i.e. published.

She walks you through the eight core planning modules that allow you to build just enough details to get your story started. Five of the modules are mandatory for every story – Character, Conflict, Time & Place, Scenes and Math. Three are optional, based on the type of story you’re writing – Maps & World, Culture, Language.

Week 8 – Plan Your Project

In this week, you’re almost ready to start writing. Holly walks you through creating an effective and efficient outline. No, not the scary roman-numeral outline that you learned in school. This is a fluid, easy-to-use outline that provides a high-level summary of each scene in your story. The techniques she teaches in this week are how to use Plot cards and The Sentence Lite. The combination of the two helps you create active scenes with conflict to keep your story moving.

Recap

I’m really enjoying this course. Holly is presenting many techniques that have proven to be super useful already in planning my story. I’m adding interesting nuances to my characters and plot that I doubt I could have come up with on my own. I’m very eager to see how the final story turns out when it is all done. Feels like it could be a breakout novel for me.

If you’re interested in signing up for How to Think Sideways, you can check it out here. And check back here in a month for the next report on Month 3.

Review of How to Think Sideways-Month 1


I’m taking an online class this year, How to Think Sideways: Career Survival School for Writers from Holly Lisle. It’s a six-month class with a lesson each week. Since this is turning out to be a terrific class (like all of Holly’s stuff, really) I’m going to give you a review each month of the material we’ve covered and how it worked for me.

Week 1 – How to Break the Thinking Barriers to Your Success

In this lesson Holly addresses four areas of thinking that will hold you back from achieving the success you want as a writer. We all know that a lot of our success is built on our attitude. If you have a negative attitude and give up easily, you aren’t going to achieve much. Holly zeroes in on four specific thinking problems that writers face – Safe, Perfect, Victim, Feel. Perfect is my barrier. I think I need to make my stories perfect from the beginning. Even though I consciously know that, there is a small, nagging voice in the back of my head that says, “You could do this better. You should do this better. If you aren’t going to make it perfect, why are you writing?” And before you know it, I’ve stopped writing, or never really started on a project, because I’m defeated before I even begin.

Holly gives practical exercises for each of the four barriers to help you break through them. For Perfect, she advises using a ten-minute timer and practicing just writing–no corrections, no rethinking, just keep writing the entire ten minutes. Tell the Editor in your head to shut up and let your fingers fly.

Week 2 – How to Discover Your Writing “Sweet Spot”

I loved this lesson, but it was HARD. The basis for this lesson is on how you define yourself as a writer. If you define yourself as a writer of Westerns, what did you do when the Western genre dried up and rolled away like a tumbleweed? Same thing for the horror genre, unless your name was Stephen King. Holly advises that instead of defining yourself in terms of a specific genre, you uncover your “Sweet Spot” material. This is the material that resonates with you, that is unique to you as a person. It can be objects, themes, sounds, sights, tastes–anything.

Here’s an example. Holly provides six prompts to get you started. One is “I am drawn to”. On my Sweet Spot diagram, I have listed outer space, sparkly things, sad songs, sacrifice, tragedy, rain, and blank journals. If the science fiction genre dried up tomorrow, I could still write stories about outer space by using that element in a different way. Maybe my contemporary romance character is an astronomer, or maybe just a head-in-the-clouds stargazer. The themes or elements of sacrifice and tragedy can be found in any genre.

What Holly is doing here is giving you the key to being able to continue writing material that means something to you, no matter what the publishing world does. This week is priceless, in my opinion.

Week 3 – How to Generate Ideas on a Deadline

For this week, we got to practice listening to our Muse to get ideas. We “seed” our minds with our Sweet Spot material, not picking anything deliberately, but just reading over the diagrams to plant the items in our head. Then she recommends you walk away and do something else. Anything else that is NOT writing. Don’t deliberately try to come up with ideas for a story. Just let your Muse throw up ideas to you as it decides to.

It might seem a little hocus-pocus, new agey, but haven’t we all experienced that moment when you’re busy working on something and out of the blue you get an idea for a story? What Holly is trying to do here is to train your mind to be receptive to those ideas that your mind comes up with, instead of shutting them down immediately with a “That idea’s no good” or “I hate Westerns. Why would I want to write about a cowboy?” Negative thoughts shut down the Muse, so Holly shows you how to work with your Muse to keep the ideas coming.

Week 4 – How to Recognize and Build on Good Ideas

In this lesson we learned about the Sentence. I’m sure you’ve heard other writers talk about how you need to be able to state your story idea or premise in one sentence–the 10-second elevator pitch, if you will. Holly shows you how to construct a sentence first, before you start creating background and doing worldbuilding for your story. If you don’t have the Sentence, all the worldbuilding you do is for nothing. Holly learned this by personal experience with her Korre series (Talyn and Hawkspar).

If you want to be able to “sell” your novel to an agent or an editor, you need to be able to capture the essence of the story in the Sentence, so they “get it”. If you can’t, good luck selling your story, no matter how finely detailed and crafted it might be.

Holly is teaching from the standpoint of starting a brand-new novel, but all of the material is applicable to a current work-in-progress. I find this especially helpful as I’m currently rethinking the science fiction novel I’m working on. I’m a bit lost in a muddle and I think it is because I don’t have the Sentence worked out for it. Give me another month of lessons and I’ll be well on my way.

If you’re interested in signing up for How to Think Sideways, you can check it out here. And check back in a month for the next report on Month 2.