writing


National Novel Writing Month logoIt’s October 31! You know what that means!

…OK. Yes. It’s Halloween. I actually meant something else.

It’s the end of October. And tomorrow’s the start of November! And that means it’s time for National Novel Writing Month–also known as NaNoWriMo–a beloved annual event where writers try to write a 50,000-word story in a month.

Let’s chat about it!

I honestly didn’t like NaNoWriMo until I lived in a big city.

Honestly, the one-and-only reason I participated in NaNo last year–and the reason I’ll be doing it this year–is to socialize.

For a long time, I didn’t live in a place with a big writing community. I lived in small cities. I lived outside the United States. And no matter how many times I decided that I was going to hop on the forums and make digital friends, I… didn’t.

And NaNo is not that fun, at least in my opinion, if you do it alone. The thrill is in the community. It’s sitting in a room full of people who are desperately struggling to catch up, who are blazing through hundreds of words as fast as they can, and who are all encouraging each other to go go go! Without the community, well… I mean, you can write a book whenever you want, you know?

But if you’re in a place that has a decent local NaNo group (and you can check that by checking out NaNo’s Find a Region tool), it can be a lot of fun. Go to different write-ins. Chat with other writers. And if you don’t like them? Who cares! You’re there to write! Say your hellos, get to know everyone, then plug in your earphones and write for an hour. It’s the best of both worlds!

And even though I still think 50,000 words in a month is kind of silly…

Honestly. I know I said this last year, but 50,000 words is weird.

NaNoWriMo is an easy way for new writers to give themselves a challenge–and for that, 50,000 words is great. It’s high enough to be a challenge (especially if you don’t write) and it requires you to write nearly every day.

But most adult fiction is longer. Heck, most young adult fiction is longer. And I write fantasy, which can be just shy of twice that long. I could maybe write a middle grade fantasy inside of 50K. Possibly.

You don’t have to complete a novel to “win.” But NaNoWriMo isn’t nearly as exciting when the goal is “let’s write 50% of a novel really quickly, then finish the rest over the next few months!” How am I supposed to celebrate that?

…I’m doing it anyway! And won’t be posting in the meantime.

I know! You must be heartbroken.

I won’t be posting until December. Because let’s be honest–I write 1,000-word posts, and I’d much rather put those words toward making that NaNoWriMo graph shoot up.

I’ll be back in December, hopefully with 50,000 words of progress beneath my belt and a few stories about the new people I meet–and maybe a few new friends?

Advertisements

Banner with part of the cover for the novel Justice Unending, by Elizabeth Spencer.First thing’s first! Want to enter a giveaway for Justice Unending? Just hop over to LibraryThing, change the “Media” drop-down to “Paper Only,” and scroll down until you find it. (I wish I could link directly to the thing. Sorry for all the extra steps!)

And with that out of the way, let’s get back to my favorite kind of post. I was reading stuff on the internet, and someone said something I didn’t agree with, guys! Let’s talk for 1,000 words about it!

So! The other day, I saw a post worrying about their YA science fiction. It was a story about teenagers. They had jobs, were concerned about their futures, and were looking forward to college. But it was otherwise a very innocent-sounding story, with no sex, no violence outside of a few bumps and scratches, and a lighthearted theme, and it had an unambiguously happy ending.

And he was nervous: is this not a young adult story? Did I actually write a middle grade story?

I was shocked at the number of people who were like “Oh, yeah! That’s not YA! Drop those ages!”

Huh.

Middle grade novels are not just sanitized young adult stories.

This happens a lot, actually! Many people don’t think there’s that much difference between YA and MG. Since they’re both books for children, many assume that the only difference is the subject matter: light violence, no sex, and no cussing is a PG movie. That’s MG! And if there’s anything PG-13 in there? BAM! Instant YA!

(Also, in case you’re unfamiliar with the acronyms, YA = young adult, or books for people loosely in the 13 to 18 year range, and MG = middle grade, or books for those loosely in the 8ish to 12 year range. But those aren’t hard numbers. There’s a lot of blurriness around the edges.)

And if all you care about is subject matter, then there’s a clear line: everything gritty and serious goes into YA and everything full of childhood adventure goes into MG.

And… that’s not entirely untrue? Middle grade novels are designed for a younger audience, so they do need to be age-appropriate in the way they handle violence, romance, and relationships. They don’t tend to have PG-13 content like sex and intense violence.

But this doesn’t mean that a YA automatically becomes a MG if it’s not violent enough, or that a MG becomes a YA because it’s dealing with something serious.

MG and YA novels are fundamentally designed for different periods of life.

Let’s start with something obvious: YA and MG books are, in fact, designed for children who are at entirely periods in their lives.

YA Novels Have YA Themes. In the most generic way, YA books deal with teenagers who are on the cusp of adulthood. They generally have themes like:

  • Being independent
  • Relying less on their parents and family
  • Being self-sufficient, and making your own decisions in life
  • Dealing with adult responsibilities, or preparing for them
  • Having to deal with adult problems, like housing, rent, jobs, or whatever the adult equivalent is in your genre.

YA novels may include a lot of adult content, but this may be the characters’ first experiences with them: these characters may have their first relationships, their first jobs, or the first situations where they’re really expected to go off, alone, with no one else, and survive by their own means. They are people being tested by adulthood.

None of these require sex and violence. It’s entirely possible to have characters–and a plot–that revolve around what it’s like to become a self-sufficient, independent adult that don’t require graphic violence or sexy times.

MG Novels have MG Themes. MG protagonists are, at most, maybe about 12 years old. They legally can’t support themselves, or live alone, or have a job. Consequently, their protagonists are:

  • More reliant on family.
  • More dependent on guardians and adult figures in their lives to provide the essentials of life and to take care of the big responsibilities.
  • Less interested in relationships, or only starting to think about them.
  • Trying to establish their identities, to form personalities and opinions separate of their family’s, and to create their own self-image, their own goals, and their own dreams.
  • Looking forward to growing up, and getting to do things that older kids do.

But adulthood and self-sufficiency are probably very far away for these kids–and if they aren’t, it’s much more of a tragedy. These are kids who are looking forward to the freedoms and independence of being a teenager.

These themes bleed into EVERYTHING in the story.

Is everything I said above a cliche? Oh, yeah. Are there exceptions? Constantly!

But let’s say you have, say, a YA science fiction that’s written about teenagers being teenagers. Can you just remove their jobs and say “Hey, we’re middle grade now?”

Probably not.

Because those themes I mentioned above? They affect everything. A 10 year old is not interested in the same things, and doesn’t have the same thought process, as a 17 year old. Their lives are different, their needs are different, their expectations for the future are different.

  • It affects your characterization and character interaction.
  • It affects the plot: what happens, why it happens, and what the consequences are may be totally different based on your character can do, how your character is likely to react, and what your character wants.
  • It affects the core themes in the story–the elements that you focus on, the underlying message of the events that occur, the significance of what happens.

The dynamics between two 10-year-old friends are different–they expect different things, have different ideas of what they’re responsible for, have different kinds of boundaries with each other, etc.

A MG story about a rough childhood might focus on regaining trust, finding adults who care, rediscovering stability in life. A YA story might focus on learning that a home situation isn’t safe, breaking free, and finding independence.

But even now, even with all this in mind, you still can’t say “MG = light themes, YA = heavy stuff.” MG novels can absolutely have serious, darker themes. Many books are designed to help its readers cope with the world around them–and there definitely are 10 year olds who deal with dysfunctional families, violence at home and in their communities, and other “adult” topics. They, too, can find comfort in stories about protagonists their age dealing with these very real problems. The way they deal with it will be different than a YA book, and these scary topics should be handled in an age-appropriate way, but just having a darker, heavier theme does not necessarily mean that a book can’t be MG.

Consequently, it’s very, very rare that you can take a book, change the protagonists’ ages, and change nothing else.

So, in conclusion… No. If you’ve written a book about teenagers being teenagers, I’m going to guess that turning it into a MG might require significant rewrites. (And this is all without mentioning the more obvious things: like how MG books are much shorter than YA and that MG science fiction is, I think, much harder to tell in than YA.)

But the most important thing is that YA and MG aren’t interchangeable. A fluffy YA isn’t “basically” a MG, and a darker MG isn’t a YA in disguise. Whether a story is MG or YA is a much more complicated decision.

flickr_journaling_vic

Picture taken by Vic on Flickr.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I lost a ton of time this year by trying to bully myself into coming up with awesome ideas, on a deadline, during my daily hourly writing time.

It really, really didn’t work.

And because this wasn’t working, I decided to try some other, gentler brainstorming techniques. And while most didn’t do too much for me, journaling turned out remarkably well.

Here’s what I did.

First, let’s set the stage: I had a draft of a novel I didn’t want to use and a lot of ideas I didn’t like that much.

I wrote a novel for last year’s NaNoWriMo that was, unsurprisingly, not very good. I outlined it a week before I started and didn’t have a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. I stopped at 70,000 words.

And while NaNo was fun, the story was a mess. It had multiple points of view, and one of them–which made up a bit less than half the story–was pointless. The two POVs never interacted in any way. The main villain was a ton of fun to write, but she didn’t really do anything. This left the protagonist to kind of… wander around, do her own thing, and have a small, meaningless little adventure until it got trashed in the climax.

It was not a good story.

The more I dug, the more I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the secondary characters. I didn’t like the backstory I had created. I didn’t like the big reveal at the end of the book. I wanted to throw it out and do something totally different with everything–the characters. The story. The lore.

I needed to do a lot of thinking. I started by trying a lot of things that didn’t work. Then I tried journaling.

What do I mean by “journaling”?

Basically, I just sat down every day during my scheduled writing time, opened a Word file, and wrote about my feelings. I wrote about things like:

  • What ideas in my story did I like? Why?
  • What ideas did I not like? What bugged me about them?
  • What kind of characters do I usually like? What character dynamics do I like? Why?
  • Why did I not like the characters in the previous draft? What bored me?

So on, so forth. I wrote down my thoughts about my plots. I wrote my feelings about my backstory. I wrote about my theme. I wrote down what sort of things I enjoyed and what sort of things I didn’t.

I didn’t not come up with solutions. (But if one burst into my head, great! I’ll take it!) But if I didn’t know what I wanted, that was fine. If I did try to come up with new ideas, I’d just be brainstorming. And brainstorming is good, but I–again–had spent several months being bad about brainstorming. So I tried, very hard, to not pressure myself.

If my thinking aloud naturally, gracefully led me to an idea, I followed it. But if I was just angry and tearing apart my old story and ranting about how it bored me, I just let myself complain, then moved on.

Some approaches worked better than others.

I had never done this before, so I wasn’t quite sure how to do this correctly. It took me a while to figure out some good techniques:

  • I tried to balance “why didn’t I like [something I made]” with “what do I like?” I wasn’t trying to start a pity party. I was just trying to pinpoint why I didn’t like certain things, not insult myself.
  • I eventually pulled all the ideas I liked into a single file and tried to imagine a story that included all of them.
  • Similarly, I played around with how it’d feel if I removed everything I didn’t like from the original story. What was left? What holes were there? Could I fill them with the good ideas?
  • I also wrote down things I enjoyed from my favorite books, stories, and games. Why did I like them? What appealed to me? Why?
  • I tried to fangirl a little. What if I took the ideas I liked the most and tried to make them as big and dramatic as possible? What if they were the crux of the story? What if everything revolved around them? What is the coolest scene I could do about them?

Could I have just laid down and thought through all this? Sure. But writing it down made me process these thoughts more slowly. And, more importantly, it created a record of them. That let me come back the next day, look through my previous thoughts, and analyze them more deeply.

It helped a lot, actually.

For several weeks, this is all I did. I mused. I wrote down my thoughts. On most days, I made no measurable progress at all. I just thought.

But when I started making lists of everything I liked and didn’t like, and started to imagine a story that had all the good stuff and none of the stupid stuff… it started to congeal into a better story. And I started to outline.

It wasn’t perfect. There’s still a lot of messiness, a lot of weirdness, and at least one giant hole in my outline. But it’s definitely better. And there’s a lot more in this story that I’m genuinely excited to write.

And it worked because I wasn’t just brainstorming. I wasn’t sitting down, revving up my brain, and expecting fully-formed ideas to fall out. And because I was just working through my feelings, there was no way for me to slot my days into “success” or “failure.” (And if you’re just brainstorming? Yeah. Ideas you can use = successful day, no good ideas = hurray, I just wasted my time.)

I have a terrible habit of pressuring myself to produce something measurable, quickly. New words! New stories! New ideas! NOW. It helps to have a technique in the toolbox that lets me feel a little productive–I often came up with hundreds (or thousands!) of words of journaling every day–while not actually requiring me to produce!!

So if you fall prey to the same vicious thoughts, give it a shot. It’s like tricking your brain into a kinder, gentler form of brainstorming. Maybe it’ll help!

Are you a plotter or a planner? Well? Do you plan things or do you wing it? Are you organized or spontaneous? Do you structure your books or do you wait for the muse to take you by the hand?

You’re one or the other! Choose!

If you’ve been writing any amount of time, you’ve heard this approximately five million times. And like most things that separate people into groups, people can get tribal about it.

And you know what’s nuts? It’s nonsense. There’s no black-and-white line between plotting and pantsing. I don’t even know how we got here. Who decided that the only choices available are to write a story completely blind or to plan everything ahead of time?

When it comes to planning a story, your choices aren’t “plan everything” or “plan absolutely nothing.”

Here’s the problem with plotting and pantsing. If there are only two choices and you have to choose one, you might think there are only two ways to write: you plan everything in advance or you plan nothing.

This is so, so limiting.

I’ve seen people commit to planning, try to figure out every scene in their book, then despair when they come up with new ideas mid-story. They act like these unplanned-for ideas mean they did something wrong.

And I’ve seen people try to pants a story and hit a creative wall. They don’t know what to write next. Nothing seems natural, the characters could go a dozen different ways, and they may not know where the story is going. But they’re so bought into the idea of creativity as spontaneous experience that they feel they are not allowed to plan ahead at all.

These people have squeezed themselves in tiny little holes. They’re a “planner,” so innovating in the writing phase is wrong! They’re a “pantser,” so planning ahead is forbidden!

Why do people do this to themselves?

Plotting and pantsing is a continuum, not a binary choice.

OK. So let’s throw away the idea that you have to be in either Camp Planning or Camp Spontaneity. Let’s think of it like a continuum.

Imagine a line. On the faaaaaaaaarthest left side is “plan absolutely everything in your story.” And on the other end, the line ends with “plan absolutely nothing.”

And in the middle is a great, vast expanse. What belongs there, you ask? Everything! Anything! Because you know what? There are degrees of planning and degrees of spontaneity.

  • A really hardcore planner might map out all ~40ish scenes in their book before beginning.
  • …But they could still give themselves permission to deviate from it if they come up with a better idea when they’re writing it. They may even end up with a totally different book than what they planned.
  • Or you could do a lighter outline and sketch out bullet points for each scene (or chapter!), but go into the story not specifically knowing how all those events will happen.
  • Or hey, you could do some really light planning and go in only knowing your Inciting Incident, Midpoint, and Climax, and wing everything in between!
  • Maybe you like to plan your characters and world, but not your plot? That’s good, too!
  • Or you could jump in without an outline, pants the story, but “micro outline” one or two chapters ahead of where you are, so you never start a writing session “blind.”
  • Or you can wing the story, but have a backup plan in case you ever hit a wall. Maybe you can be spontaneous until you really don’t know what to do, and then you can brainstorm some ideas, write down the best of them, and see how to integrate them into your work.

Or maybe you have your own technique! That’s even better!

And you know what? These are all perfectly viable techniques. You can plan a lot or a little. You could write an outline and also write organically. You can wing a story but still plan certain parts of it. You can make your own system, where you do the things that work for you and don’t do the ones that don’t.

And you know what? I’m willing to bet that most people do this. The people who pants an entire story and start without knowing anything that will happen? They are the panstiest pantsers there are, but they certainly aren’t the majority. They’re just as much an outlier as the people who plan 100% of their stories in the outline phase and never, ever deviate from it.

And if you’re not trying to cram yourself into a box, you can take advantages of BOTH ways to be creative.

And that’s the magic: planning can be useful. Letting the story guide you in an unexpected direction can be useful. So wouldn’t you want to give yourself permission to do both? It just gives you more tools to use.

And who wants to cram themselves in a box, anyway?

So, seriously: why is this a thing? Why are people so rigid about it? Can’t we treat plotting and not-plotting like techniques we can all use, and stop telling ourselves that we “have” to be creative in a certain way?

Just do whatever works for you.

The Scribbler logo.I’ve got something a little different this week! You’ve probably heard of these monthly subscription box programs that have been so popular lately. If not, here’s how it works: people send out monthly mystery gift boxes based on a theme. You sign up, and you get mailed a box every month. I’ve never signed up for one before, although I’ve been mightily tempted–there’s a lot of cool stuff out there!

Then I saw a writing-related one, and I couldn’t resist anymore.

Scribbler, which you can find at goscribbler.com, was created by two authors: Victoria Scott and Lindsay Cummings. Each box comes with a novel, a “writing passport” with tips and tricks from the author of that book, an exclusive invitation to an event with an industry professional, and some goodies.

The first Scribbler box launched last week, on March 23. Let’s look at what was in it!

The Goodies

Let’s get the little stuff out of the way. This box came with:

The Scribbler box poster: I will write 500 words and I will write 500 more!

A mini-poster. This was printed on heavyweight paper and was coiled to fit into the box. Interesting idea, but I had to pin the heck out of it to make it lie flat.

Decal that reads #WRITER.

A decal. Slap it on your stuff.

A sheet of stickers. It includes multicolored typewriters reading 'word count'

Word count stickers. Cute and colorful, although I admit that I don’t know how you’d use them. I write on the computer and I keep track of my words in Excel. I guess if you had a calendar and wanted to give yourself some kudos, you could put one up for every day you write? Unfortunately, these are also tiny. You’d need a fine-point pen and a careful hand to put four digits on these.

A set of 10 Yoobi mini-highlighters in a rainbow of colors.

Mini-highlighters! They’re on the small side (as you can tell from the mini) but they’re cute and come in a variety of colors. It’s also a pretty nice brand. This is probably my favorite gift out of the goodies.

Pencil bag that reads 'The Throne of Glass Series, From #1 Bestselling Author Sarah. J. Maas, worldofsarahjmaas.com, Bloomsbury.'

Photo Mar 26, 11 10 49 AM

And a little pencil bag from the Throne of Glass series. I’m not the largest fan of the design. The back is alright (it has a tagline from the series, at least) but the front seems kind of silly. I’d rather have a picture or a logo. It seems a bit anticlimactic to literally write just “The Throne of Glass Series” on a bag.

The book!

Brigid Kemmerer's More than We Can Tell, next to an autographed bookmark, an autographed sticker, and temporary tattoos that resemble the cover of the book.

This month’s box came with Brigid Kemmerer’s More Than We Can Tell, a YA contemporary. It also comes with a few goodies for fans of the author, including:

  • A plain sticker with Ms. Kemmerer’s signature on it, so you can stick it wherever you want
  • A bookmark, also signed, from Ms. Kemmerer’s previous book, Letters to the Lost
  • A set of temporary tattoos consisting of the text bubbles seen on the cover of the book.

More Than We Can Tell is a bit out of my genre, unfortunately–I will read almost any genre fiction and non-fiction, but contemporary fiction has never been my cup of tea. But this seems like a highly acclaimed book from a really successful author, and I am probably now required to at least give it a shot.

The Writing Passport

Small, stapled pamphlet reading 'Writing Passport: Emotional Touchpoints, Volume 1, March 2018.'

Going hand-in-hand with More than We Can Tell is this month’s Writing Passport. This is a regular feature where the author of this month’s book gives some tips on how to do the things they do best.

It’s a cute little book. It’s a decent length (23 pages) and is printed on decent, sturdy paper. It includes an introduction from the Scribbler team that explains what the pamphlets are for and how the Scribbler boxes generally differ from other boxes. Then there’s a bio for Ms. Kemmerer and her tips on Emotional Touchpoints.

She briefly goes through her approach and includes three mini-exercises. I didn’t take toooo very much away from them–the tips weren’t radically different from what I’ve read in most books on craft. All in all, it was a nice, quick read, with some nice concepts, but nothing super groundbreaking.

A Special Invitation to an Event with an Agent

An invitation to an exclusive skype chat with Literary Agent Mandy Hubbard. Explains that a private link will be emailed before the chat.

Now this is something I’m excited about: an event with Mandy Hubbard from the Emerald City Literary Agency. Apparently, the folks who signed up for this Scribbler box will get to attend a Skype chat with her.

I have absolutely no idea what it will entail. But isn’t that awesome?

Unfortunately, I’m not quite as excited as I could be, because while Ms. Hubbard represents YA, including fantasy, it looks like she only wants stuff with strong romance elements. And I… am definitely not writing anything that can be considered fantasy-romance. So if this does turn out to be a pitch event (and it may not!) I don’t know how much it’d help me. A presentation from an agent is always a fun and illuminating experience, though!

The concept is absolutely killer, and this is, hands down, the most useful and interesting part of the box.

And that’s it!

So what do I think? I don’t know!

…What, “I don’t know”? Yeah, that was a lame response. Sorry. But I really don’t know how I feel. I’m truly excited about the agent invitation, even though I don’t know what kind of event it is. And it really doesn’t matter what kind of event it is! It’s an awesome idea, and the idea of getting something like this every single month is amazing.

But outside of that, I admit I’m kind of meh. Out of the goodies, the only thing I really love are the highlighters. They may be mini, but they are genuinely something I’d buy on a whim.

The others? Ehhh. I’ll probably slap the decal on my laptop, but it’s nothing I’d normally go out of my way to get. The wordcount stickers are a nice idea, but they’re small. And again, when and how am I going to use them?

The book may be highly rated, but I really don’t read contemporary. Like, ever. (Wouldn’t a touching tale of two kids in school be better if they were slipping through time, or possessed of an ancient power, or at least being hunted by a creature of pure darkness? No? Come on. Can’t it at least be set in space?) Is it good to read widely? Yes. Should I read it anyway, because the author is really good at what she does? Maybe? But I have such a long reading list already!

All in all, this is… pretty much par the course for a subscription box. It’s a gamble. You spend a chunk of money and hope, at the end of it, that you get enough stuff that you actually like. And for me, I’m on the line. The agent thing is great. So are the highlighters (but, then again, they’re $5, and this box is $30/month.) The pamphlet is a cool idea, although I didn’t get much out of this month’s.

So is this a good value? Financially, it’s reasonably priced–a hardcover book, one $5 big-ticket item, and a bunch of tiny goodies is a good amount of content for $30. But it’s a subscription box, and that means that you might end up getting a bunch of stuff that isn’t up your alley.

Personally? I’d love to see more craft-related stuff, even if it’s just a one-sentence thing that fits on a notecard: a writing prompt. A step-by-step writing exercise. A challenge. Something that tells people to go out and write something. The pamphlet kinda scratches that itch, but I’d love to see more.

All in all, it’s not a bad box for a writer. I wasn’t blown away by this box, but I’m interested enough to give it another month. And if you’re interested, give the April box a look–it’s about point of view!

Within the writing world, you sometimes run into people who are obsessed with finding The Best Idea Ever. These are the folks who write posts like:

  • I’m terrified to talk about my story because someone will steal my idea!
  • I have an idea for a story that’s so good that it’s guaranteed to get me an agent!
  • I keep abandoning stories because I want to find The One Idea that is guaranteed to be a success!
  • And, of course, everyone’s favorite: “I’m an idea person, but I hate writing, so I think someone should write my idea for me and split the profit 50/50!”

These people believe the idea is all that matters–that their idea will get them published or that their idea is worth something. Sometimes you even encounter writers who are afraid to write at all until they hit on the best idea.

And all these people are getting hung up on the wrong thing. A good idea won’t get you published.

First thing’s first: having a good idea for a story DOES matter.

Ideas aren’t completely worthless. It is good to start with an idea that’s unique or underrepresented in some way. A fantasy that involves a dumb barbarian, an archer elf, and a drunk dwarf on a quest to destroy the Lord of Darkness is probably extremely cliche. Everyone on earth has already seen Harry Potter, and there are now two decades of “So-and-so is a [fantasy creature], in [fantasy creature] school!” stories. Overdone ideas are hard sells.

Does that mean they can’t sell? No, of course not. That’s the whole point of this post!

And if you have a unique, interesting twist for a story, then awesome! That’s a great starting point, and it may very well help you sell your story.

So that’s good! But it’s not enough. That one beautiful idea won’t get you published. And even if your idea is kind of overdone? That doesn’t mean you won’t be.

You see, I have an absolutely shocking truth to share with you.

What actually gets you published is the quality of your writing.

Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t warn you! You should have been sitting. I’m sure you’re all beside yourselves with shock now. It’s all right. Take a moment. Relax. Let that settle in.

Yes, unsurprisingly, the thing that agents actually care about is the quality of your writing. And “writing,” in this case, refers to the five zillion skills any talented writer has to juggle. Grammar? Absolutely. Excellent word choice? Yes! But also pacing, plotting, characterization, and an understanding of the genre they’re writing in. And more! Writing is complicated!

And let me tell you: good writing can make anything good.

I’m sure you can think of books that are popular, that have a lot of readers, and that have an extremely common story at its core. Heck, just look at the entire trend of fairy tale retellings: yes, they’re generally a mixup of Common Fairy Tale + Interesting Twist, but part of the challenge of that genre is taking a familiar story, with familiar themes, and making it new.

A really good author can take an idea that you’ve seen a million times and make it genuinely engaging. Their characters are just that dynamic, or their worldbuilding that gripping, or their tension that absolutely page-turning. If you reduced their story to a one-sentence summary, it might not sound like a completely groundbreaking concept–but it’s still good.

And, sadly, the opposite is also true: a bad writer can ruin a good idea.

So you have a really awesome concept. That’s great! But maybe your characters are flat. Maybe your pacing is terrible, and you spend thousands and thousands of words on scenes where no one learns anything and nothing happens. Maybe you struggle with words, and your story is riddled with grammatical errors and strange word choices.

No one–no agent, no publisher, and no reader–is going to say “Well, the underlying concept is cool, so I’m going to read this absolute mess of a book anyway!” It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to find an agent, a publisher, or if you just want to self-publish. A good idea is not going to give you a golden ticket to success if you don’t have the writing skills to back it up.

For that matter, two people can start from the same idea and write totally different books.

And if you’re one of those souls who worries that someone’s going to steal your ideas, stop. Just stop. It’s fine. Idea theft generally isn’t a thing, but even if it were, it doesn’t matter.

A villain could steal your complete and final draft and do harm to you, sure. (That also doesn’t really happen, but whatever.) But no one can really steal an idea.

And that’s because of what I said above–an idea fits in a few paragraphs. A story may be 100,000 words. Can you just imagine how many decisions someone has to make to write 100,000 words? You have to write dozens and dozens of scenes. What happens? In what order? How are those events described? What details are included? Which aren’t? What characters are in those scenes? How is the world set up? How is the tension described?

I mean, just look at writing prompts! Do you think everyone who uses the same writing prompt ends up with the same idea? I attended a writing group just this weekend where everyone wrote about “Two people meet for breakfast.” We ended up with a paranormal fantasy, a thriller about someone getting kidnapped, and a romance about two old flames. Do you genuinely, sincerely think that two people can write two stories that even vaguely resemble each other unless they’re working from a full-novel outline and the same batch of character/worldbuilding notes?

And no, of course they can’t.

In the end, good ideas are nice. But it’s only your writing that matters.

That’s basically it.

Your agents, publishers, and readers are not going to settle down with their Kindle and read your ideas. They’re reading a novel. And in the end, that matters: your writing. Your skill. Your craft.

So don’t let yourself get hung up on ideas. They’re the sprinkles on top of the cake–but they don’t do you a ton of good if you don’t know how to bake one.

I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before: get your first draft down. Don’t overthink it. Just get the thoughts down, get the words down, and finish.

It’s common advice, and it’s not hard to see why. One of the hardest lessons for a new writer to learn is that you have to actually finish projects. And that’s really friggin’ hard! Unless you’re very, very fast, writing 80,000+ words will take several months of work. And that’s just finishing draft #1!

Thus, the advice: just finish, even if it’s garbage.

But you know what? “Write a shitty first draft” means totally different things to different people.  So here’s what it means to me, and why I think it’s an excellent idea… if you’re doing it the way I do.

What does it mean to write a “shitty first draft”?

So, first thing’s first. Finishing is important. Finishing is really important! But this doesn’t mean anything goes. Specifically:

  • Write all the events that you want to happen, even if they’re out of order or don’t have the right emotional tone.
  • If you have scenes you absolutely love to death, put them in here.
  • Connect those scenes as best you can, and foreshadow them as best you can, even if you aren’t 100% sure you’re going to keep all this content.
  • Don’t worry about how nice it sounds. Your scenes don’t have to be beautifully crafted. They just have to exist.
  • Attempt to put all the connections in. For every plotline or character arc, you should put all the major events in: every plot twist, every reveal, every important landmark of character growth.
  • Write all the way to the end.
  • Try to structure it as a story. This means that there are no holes, no “And then everyone was somewhere else, with no explanation!”, and no “WRITE FIGHT SCENE HERE”s. Try to connect the dots.

Does that mean that you only write stuff you want to keep? Of course not! I always have a few scenes (or a few chapters, or many chapters…) that I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to throw out. But I write them if I have to do so to finish the story, then push through to the ending. But I write everything I know I want, connect it with stuff that will probably be similar, and finish.

The end result usually looks like a coherent novel that you could theoretically read and understand. It’s just not very good.

What does a “shitty first draft” NOT mean?

So here’s the problem: I’ve seen people take this advice really differently. “Just finish, no matter what? Great! There are no rules anymore! Nothing matters! There are no standards! Now, as long as I reach 80,000 words, I’m successful!”

And then they just write nonsense. Your story isn’t long enough? Throw in two chapters of backstory! Add characters or events for no reason at all! Who cares! We’re just aiming for a word count!

No! No no no no! You should definitely not:

  • Write nonsense.
  • Completely give up on telling a story and only care about producing a full novel’s worth of words.
  • Change your mind about the story you want to write, but write the old idea anyway so you can “just finish” something.
  • Write filler for the singular purpose of raising your word count.
  • Give up on writing anything that resembles a linear story.

And why not?

The point of finishing a story is to create something you can edit.

When people say “JUST FINISH THE STORY,” they aren’t giving you permission to write anything–anything at all!–as long as the end result is longer than 80,000 words (or whatever your goal is.)

The goal isn’t only to finish. If you want this to be more than just a learning experience, you also need to make something you can edit. And what can you edit?

  • Characters you want to keep
  • Events you want to happen
  • Plot arcs you like

…Even if these are all trash! If your characters exist but are poorly fleshed out, you can fix them. If you have events you like, but they’re not in the right places, you can move them. These things may be poorly written and not very engaging, but they exist, and you want them, so you can fix them.

But if you needed 20,000 words to finish a story, so you padded out the ending… who cares? You don’t care about that content. And when it comes time to edit, and to decide what stays and what goes, your only choice will be to throw it all out. And now you’re 20,000 words poorer and you have nothing to edit.

Remember: it’s okay to write messy. Just be strategic about it.

A first draft is like a puzzle. You can finish it if you have all 1,000 pieces on the table in front of you. If your pieces are gross? That’s fine. You only have the outline, and you’re missing big parts of the middle? Still a place to start. You have a bunch of pieces that don’t even belong to this puzzle? That’s okay! You can fix it.

But you can’t make a puzzle by starting with 1,000 mixed-and-matched pieces, especially if your master plan is to just sweep the table and start over from scratch. In that case, why bother? You wrote a full-length novel, sure. But you didn’t make it any easier to write the story you want to write.

So write messy. Write imperfect sentences. Write not-beautiful things. But write with purpose, too.

Next Page »