The last month has been an exciting time here at The Winged Pen as Pennies have been hard at work behind the scenes coming up with a surprise for you.
Today, to coincide with Camp NaNo – the virtual writer’s retreat that helps you fit writing into your busy life – we’re excited to launch our new blog series: Master Your Craft with the Winged Pen (#WPMYC).
Every Wednesday for the next several months, we will take you through the entire process of writing a novel – everything from getting the Big Idea, all the way to the final, ready-to-query manuscript.
Our Pennies will share with you all of our best techniques and tools, starting with pre-writing tricks, including character development, research and world-building, to make your drafting as painless as possible.
Of course, writing a novel is going to include some pain, so we’ll walk you through the drafting process, too. We’ll help you fight that terrible enemy of the drafting novelist: the fear of the blank page. And we’ve got a host of tips and tricks to help you overcome the stalls, blocks and annoying plot bunnies that threaten to derail every first draft.
And once you’ve got your story down on paper, we’ll give you all of our favorite techniques for making a story shine until it positively gleams.
Each of our Pennies has a slightly different process and does each of our steps in a different order, so don’t feel like you have to follow this formula exactly. Instead, think of it as a compendium of writerly advice designed to help you on your novel-writing journey.
Writing a novel can be a lonely, demoralizing process. But it doesn’t have to be. Let us help you – and help each other – to shape the vibrant and enduring stories that are living so vividly in our heads into the best manuscripts we can possibly make.
We can’t wait to start sharing this treasure trove of posts with you! If you’re not already following us, go ahead and sign up so you won’t miss a single tip. And if you know someone struggling to write a novel, tell them to sign up, too. The fun starts next Wednesday, so don’t miss out!
Finally, if you have questions, comments or just want to cheer us on (sometimes we need cheering, too!), comment away here or on any of our Master Your Craft posts. We love to hear from you!
If Pitch Wars 2017 seems too far away or too selective for you, you can always try out other mentorship programs available online.
Some are free and some come with a fee. I have listed both below.
What should you expect from a mentor?
A mentor is a professional who is ahead of the game and understands the industry better than you. By definition, a mentor advises, guides.
However, a mentor is not your friend, like a CP (critique partner) could be. A mentor is NOT someone with a magic wand like a Book Doctor or a Ghost Writer.
A mentor will point out what you need to work on, and will give you pointers and references.
Mentors will talk to you periodically, from just a few hours up to a year.
Finally, a mentor will be most helpful if you’ve tried your best, maybe won a few awards or competitions, sent a bunch of queries that did not amount to anything, and you’re now ready to move to the next level.
Gemini Ink Mentorship Program: Spring.Apply to the Gemini Ink 2016 Mentorship Program and be one of four writers chosen to work one-on-one over a six month period with a nationally recognized author on a book-length project, free of charge.< http://geminiink.org/writing-mentorships/>
SCBWI Mentorship Programs.Any SCBWI regions offer mentorship programs that match established members with up-and-coming authors and illustrators. Some of these programs are open to just members in a particular region, others are open to any SCBWI member.< https://www.scbwi.org/scbwi-mentorship-programs/>
WNDB (We Need Diverse Books) Mentorship Program: October. For the 2017 year, WNDB is offering mentorships to ten upcoming voices—eight aspiring authors and two illustrators—who are diverse or working on diverse books.<http://weneeddiversebooks.org/aboutapply/>
Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. Your Novel Year: Summer.Arizona State University. Online Certificate Program in the country for those looking to write Young Adult novels. <https://piper.asu.edu/novel>
The WoMentoring project.Accessible to only women, especially women who cannot afford a traditional mentorship program. This organization depends entirely on volunteers.<https://womentoringproject.co.uk/>
The Dzanc Creative Writing Mentorships is an online program designed to allow writers to work one-on-one with published authors and editors to shape their short story, novel, poem, or essay. Has an extensive list of authors ready to work with you.<http://www.dzancbooks.org/creative-writing-mentorships/>
Blue Pencil mentorships.Professional children’s authors and illustrators who are Members of CANSCAIP will give a critique and answer five follow-up questions. You need to be a current CANSCAIP member before applying.<http://www.canscaip.org/Mentorship>
Australian Writers Mentoring Program to offer high-level mentoring to new and emerging writers of fiction and non-fiction. The program runs over six months, providing five one-on-one meetings with an established, award-winning writer. Before each meeting the mentor will read up to ten thousand words of your work-in-progress. <http://writermentors.com/>
It’s the New Year – new calendars, new notebooks, a new start!
I am a New Year junkie. I love the reminders to reflect on the previous year and lay out plans for the year to come. But as a staunch list-maker, I don’t just noodle on my goals for the year, I write them down.
At the end of each year, I pull up my 12-months-old list, x-ing out the goals I’ve accomplished, and mulling over the ones I haven’t. Some goals surprise me – did I really think that was a priority in 2016? And some are oddly outdated, reflections of circumstances that no longer exist in my life, like the year I insisted I was going to get back into shape, only to discover I was pregnant before I could even make the appointment to tour the gym.
I have a friend who writes herself a letter every New Year’s Day, telling her future self about the things she hopes to accomplish, the problems she’s currently facing and the hopes and fears she holds for the coming twelve months. The next New Year’s Eve, she opens the letter and reads the time capsule from exactly a year ago.
It turns out, my friend and I both practice a key strategy for success: writing down your goals.
New research reported here in NYMag.com, appears to show that the simple act of writing down your goals makes you much more likely to achieve them.
Of course, a big section of my 2017 Goal List is devoted to writing. Every year, I think about where I am now – what am I working on? What do I have waiting in the wings? How much time/energy will each of these projects take? Where do I want to go with each? And then I formulate a plan.
Are you ready to set your writing goals for 2017? Grab your coffee, your notebook and some chocolate and follow these tips:
DO be specific:Write a best-seller is not a great goal. Not only is the sales status of your book almost entirely out of your control, but the goal itself is too vague to be of use. Instead try to hone in on what you’ve already got going on. Finish first draft of my dog in space book or Query Yellowstone Adventure YA are more realistic.
DO set deadlines: I love to give myself a rough timeline. On my list this year is Finish first draft of YA WIP by March. Knowing how much I have to go and my current pace, this feels like a reasonable, achievable goal – and it serves as motivation if I start to slow down or slack off.
DO be flexible: Sometimes we can’t or don’t accomplish our goals for reasons out of our control. Sometimes our goals change completely. You can be determined to query your picture book about fairies, but if you hear fairies are done, or you suddenly realize you were meant to write adult true crime, that’s OK. Adjust mid-year.
DON’T beat yourself up: All too often, I’ll check in on my goals halfway through the year and zero in on how much I haven’t accomplished, instead of seeing how much I have. If you need to course-correct, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad or lazy person. It means you have a life! And you still have another six months to get back on track.
For me, the act of writing down my writing goals also becomes an affirmation that this endeavor is important, worthy of my time and attention. And in a business where progress can be achingly slow, it is heartening to see that I really have moved forward as the months have rolled past.
Do you write out your writing goals? How does it work for you? And if you’re trying it this year for the first time, let me know how it goes! Maybe we can do a check-in in June and see how much progress we’ve all made.
If you read Julie’s post, you know it’s National Novel Writing Month again, which means a whole bunch of us are sweating through each day trying to write 50,000-ish words by the end of November.
While I’m not participating this year, I am still trying to keep up my own momentum on my current WIP.
But time has been so very tight for me this fall, and my normal writing routine wasn’t working for me. Instead of getting frustrated, though, I decided to try something new: sprinting.
Here’s how it works for me: I set my timer (generally for 15 minutes, though you can aim for more time if you have it), shut down the Internet, put my document in “focus mode” and start typing. I do not stop until the timer dings.
When I first started sprinting, I would get 250-400 words down each session. But as I got more used to it, I started hitting well over 500. Two fifteen minute sprints a day gets me back to my old goal of 1,000 words a day – all in a lot less time.
Of course, sprinting can be a little scary. I still sometimes have a moment of panic before I start my timer: what if I can’t find the words? But that fear is offset by the freewheeling joy of writing without second-guessing, without going back to edit, without stopping to ponder this word or that one.
There are a couple of different ways to approach sprinting. I like to keep working from where I left off – I find that sprinting forces me to be more focused about where I’m going with each scene. I have to know what’s going to happen each time I sit down to sprint, which means I have had to plot out each scene – and know what its purpose is in the overall story – beforehand.
If that’s too daunting or you’re worried about getting stuck, you can also plan out sprints for specific scenes. Some writers like to sprint through difficult-to-write scenes, knowing that sometimes getting something down is better than getting it down perfectly. Others sprint through character sketches or other important background writing.
I’ve always done my sprints solo, but there is a whole writing subculture devoted to social sprinting. This month, the NaNoWriMo Word Sprint feed (@NaNoWordSprints) will run periodic group sprints, some of which might include prompts or challenges to help you get unstuck.
There are even apps you can download, like WriteOrDie!, which rewards (or punishes!) you for reaching (or not reaching) your goals.
I think my favorite thing about sprinting is that it doesn’t allow me time to go back. I could easily spend half my writing time re-reading and tinkering with the words I’ve already written instead of writing new ones. With sprinting, I’m saving that word-shining for revisions.
I don’t know that I’d want to write an entire novel in sprints. But I’m enjoying the sense of accomplishment I have each day after my sprint is done. And I know that as I race one kid to volleyball practice and my husband shuttles another to soccer while I text instructions to my oldest on how to put the rice on without burning down the house, that even if there’s chaos all around me, my writing is still getting done.
I’d love to hear about your sprinting techniques – please share them in the comments!
Did you ever wonder why this is The Winged Pen? It’s because this group of writers make the words fly. How do they do it?
When you face the dreaded blank page, what helps you start your writing engines? Do you have a daily word-count goal?
Read the Winged Pens’ answers in our own words:
Laurel Decher: I’ll go first. 🙂 I realized I aim for at least 1000 words at a time because 500 words doesn’t always get me into the story, even when I have a scene list. *cough* Too much caffeine makes my characters chatty.
For first drafts, I like to prep with mind-mapping to find the scene conflict and then freewrite with a kitchen timer.
Halli Gomez: When I write a first draft, I aim for about 1500 words. Sometimes I make it sometimes I don’t. I usually have to stop because I have to be somewhere.
Michelle Leonard: I’m a very goal-oriented person, so I tried giving myself word total goals for writing days. For some reason, it didn’t work for me. I ended up achieving the goal with words I didn’t like. The pressure to achieve a certain word level seems to mess with my creativity. I always put a lot of pressure on myself to do more than I think I can, but I’ve found for writing, to stay happy (and not give up on writing), I have to give myself a free pass to let my mind roam and be unproductive to be productive. That being said, when I get on a roll, I can churn out 5000 words in a day.
Kristi Wientge: I don’t think I’ve ever followed the same routine for any of my manuscripts. I just try to get something on the page in the beginning. No real word count goals, I need to really feel the voice first and then things flow (for the first draft).
Sussu Leclerc: First, make sure I know my characters well. Then I plan my set pieces for the whole novel. I make sure I know which tone the chapter will have, what I need to accomplish and what the character arc is going to be. I do not write until I have this pinned down. When my chapter brainstorming is done, I start writing. Word count is unimportant to me. If I have reached my goal for the day, I’m happy and have a feeling of accomplishment. 🙂
On a daily basis, I decide what I am going to do that day. I try to tell someone and then tell them at the end of the day what I have accomplished. Usually it’s my son. He never misses asking me if I have done what I planned. He checks on me as I check on him and his work. So voicing goals is important to us.
Julie Artz: 1000 is a solid day for me. At the start of each novel, it was a struggle to even get 400 words down in a day, but once I get going, I can sometimes crank out those bigger days (2,000 to 3,000, 3,000+ days).
It usually takes me 1 to 3 months to draft, so I give myself a deadline. (NaNoWriMo for first book) With Kalevala, I was submitting 10k word sections to a professor as part of a novel writing class, so that gave me a 10 week period of time with set deadlines. With the latest, I have recreated that on my own over a 2-month period..
I use Scrivener’s Project Targets to keep my word count on track and am always racing myself toward the green, which means I’m close to my daily word count (which is usually 1000 a day, but as I approach the deadline and am inevitably behind, it creeps up toward 1500).
I typically try to stop when I still know what needs to happen in the next scene so that I have an easy place to start the next day and I often reread the few scenes previous (and do very light editing/revising) to get me in the groove for the day’s writing session.
Gita Panjabi Trelease: When I know where I’m going with my story, there is nothing that helps me write faster than the growing green bar on Scrivener’s targets. 🙂
Kate Manning: Ack, you guys are definitely making me feel like a slacker. I tell myself when writing the first draft that I have to write at least 250 words every time I sit down to write. Sometimes I write more, but usually it’s not more than a thousand at a sitting. I do occasionally take a weekend writing retreat, where I crank out all the words.
Richelle Morgan: When I’m drafting, my goal is 1000 words each time I sit down to write, but I try to be satisfied with whatever I get down. It’s all progress!
I do have one trick that helps me, though: I leave myself a roadmap when I close out for the day so that I can jump right in the next day. Sometimes it’s hard to make myself stop, but if I write until the end of my ideas about where the scene/book is going to go, I struggle a LOT when I sit down again. Giving myself that little bit of work still to do tricks me into diving in, and once I dive in, it becomes pretty easy to keep going.
Gabrielle K. Byrne:I always start with editing what I wrote the day before. It helps me dive back in and warm up, not to mention improving the work as I go.
When I’m drafting, a word count between about 1,500 to 3,000 is a good day. If I hit a hurdle or a tough scene or impasse, I focus on that and if I can get through it that’s a good day too, even if it’s only 250 to 500 words.
Here’s my quick overview of our best Winged Pen tactics:
PLAN to write. Freewrite for 15 minutes by the clock, take a weekend writing retreat, or plan something in between.
Set STRATEGIC word count goals: 0-5,000 words per day. Most Winged Pen writers build momentum over time. “Just show up” might be perfect for the early draft. But once writers feel the voice of the story, know their characters and/or set pieces, word counts zoomed up and up.
TRACK your progress. Swap goals with a writing buddy and follow-up. Use Scrivener‘s famous green bar (or your trusty calendar) to link your daily word count to a deadline.
MAKE it easy on yourself. A tiny bit of preparation takes the edge off the blank page. Mindmap to find your scene’s conflict, edit the previous day’s writing, leave a roadmap for the next day, stop when you know what will happen next.
Need more help getting airborne? Try these excellent resources:
LAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.