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Developing Good Writing Habits, by Kashmira Sheth

Unless we are fortunate enough to write full time, finding time to do can be as elusive as catching a dream with a butterfly net. I remember talking about writing for many years before I actually sat down and did it. Something or another was always more important to do than my writing. There was taking care of my children, cooking, cleaning and gardening, so everyday I told myself, I will write tomorrow. For a long time that tomorrow never came.

My writing is important to me. I knew that even before I wrote my first story, because I kept thinking about it. One morning I decided that unless I wrote 500 words I wasn’t going to do anything else that day. I wasn’t even going to shower. Writing had to be a sacred duty that had to be performed before I could do anything else. That idea really helped me get started.

Here are some suggestions for finding writing time that have worked well for me.

Start with a word count

Decide how many words you can write per day and stick to it. For me, the 500-word rule has worked well. 500 words fill up 2 pages and no matter how busy I am I can find time to write those pages. If starting to write was difficult, keeping up with 500 words has been easier. The word-count rule is better than committing to write for two hours. In those two hours you may answer your email, surf the internet, talk on the phone, and still feel like you have fulfilled your two hours.  In contrast, the word count is results-oriented.

Stop in the middle

One trick that I have heard other writers use, and have used myself, is to end the day’s writing in the middle of a scene. That way it is easy to pick up and finish the scene the next day, and then start a new scene. If the scene is long, it can even take a few days to complete.

Try to write at the same time each day

If you keep some kind of writing schedule it makes it easy to get to your writing. When you are making other appointments, commitments or social plans, you know that between 10 and 12:00 it won’t work.  This rule makes it easy to keep writing time special, and to remember to write every day.

Disconnect from everything else

Turn off your internet, phones, and other devices: This is easier said than done, but if you don’t check your email and answer your phone during your writing time you can reach your goal of 500 or even a 1,000 words much faster.

Get up to walk or stretch

This may seem like it’s working against writing but it is good to get up and move about a bit. Sometimes, just throwing a load of laundry in the washer or vacuuming a room can help move the blood in your body. In the spring I like to take a walk in my yard for a few minutes to see what is coming up in the garden.

No rules against writing more

If you find that you are on a roll, keep on writing. There is no rule against writing more than your daily word quota.

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Kashmira Sheth’s author website: www.kashmirasheth.com

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Dealing With The Idea Of Writer’s Block, by Paul Volponi

That’s right. I said the idea of writer’s block. Why the idea of it? Because, in reality, there’s no such thing as writer’s block. Whether you’re producing pages of useful prose or just sitting in front of a computer screen without the correct words coming to you, your brain is working on the novel. It’s probably working on it when you’re asleep, too.

So now that I’ve clearly established for you that I don’t believe in writer’s block, I’ll tell you what I do when my output starts to slow down. First of all, I write everyday, no matter what. Usually, a sitting can last anywhere from 45 minutes to three and a half hours. Some days I work through two sittings. My standard rule is this: When I feel like I’ve gone dry and my thoughts aren’t flowing naturally, I stop. I’m not done by any stretch of the imagination, though. I just walk away for a while. What might I do next? Anything physical, which I believe opens my mind back up to a good flow. I’ll jog, shoot baskets, practice Kung Fu, or just go for a walk with my dog. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been six or seven blocks from home when the ideas started coming again in waves. That’s why I started taking a pen and pad with me, to write on my way back home.

When I go dry, I also like to change writing stations in my house. I move from the basement to the kitchen or from lamplight to natural light, just to spark something inside of me. There’s a McDonald’s I particularly like that has a second floor to it. Sometimes I sit there with a notepad. I think the light and sounds there inspire me. Music is good for me, especially when I’m singing along. I stay away from TV during a dry spell. Ironically, I never ever read to loosen up.

How fast does it come when I’m flowing? Rikers High took me eight months, with absolutely no novel experience behind me. I wrote The Final Four, my longest book, in the shortest amount of time, five months. On the slower side, just the final one-third of Black and White took about seven months.

I don’t like to give in to the notion of writer’s block, because I believe that writers should never give in. There are already too many reasons not to work and not to produce. When those reasons start coming from the writer himself, I consider it a type of self-sabotage that I want no part of. So don’t allow it to grab hold of you. Know that every moment you’re thinking about a story is a productive one on some level. Then discover your own ways to get back to your writing comfort zone.

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Paul Volponi’s author website: www.paulvolponibooks.com

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The Benefits Of Taking A Break When Writing, by Kashmira Sheth

Writing is more than a task, a job or a chore to finish. As writers we are constantly thinking about our characters, how to get them into trouble and how to get them out of that very same trouble. We don’t simply think about writing when we sit down to write. The thinking goes on while we drive the kids to their classes, have dinner with friends, fold laundry, and plant spring flowers. One part of our brain always seems to be thinking about our stories.

Do we need to calm down these constantly churning ideas in our writerly minds?  For me, the answer is yes, and I suspect it is for others too. Our minds need that break.  Just like a good vacation gets you ready for the upcoming challenges at work, a break from writing prepares you for another creative spurt.

We don’t have to take a long break from writing. We certainly don’t have to go on a long vacation. Every day we can give a few minutes of our time to calm our minds. This can be done with activities such as meditation or long walks. When you are walking, immerse yourself in your surroundings to avoid thinking about your characters and stories. I don’t count watching TV or a movie as a break because they engage and stimulate our minds rather than calm them. The important thing is to rest your brain. Gardening is an activity that works well for me. While I am digging my mind settles down, the cycle of the seasons and the rhythms of the natural world sooth me, and the fresh air calms me. Some may find other exercise such as jogging, skiing, or biking similarly helpful.

If you do take a vacation, you can use that time to step away from your story. When I take a vacation with my family I give myself the chance to be in a new place and enjoy my experience, without worrying about my current story. But I don’t necessarily take a break from my writing. I keep a journal about my trip, including the things we do and see. That way my commitment to write every single day is fulfilled.

How do these breaks help my writing? What I find is that when my mind is still, something new and exciting floats up. It may be a plot solution that I had been trying to find for the past month. The answer suddenly becomes clear when I am not actively trying to figure it out. Sometimes, a new idea about a picture book or a story pops up.

Stepping away from the story I am currently working on gives me a fresh perspective on it. When I return to the story I see it more in its entirety than before. So not only can I solve small problems, but I also feel I can see the entire story in a new light. For all of these reasons, it is important to put away your writing, give your brain a break, and then go back to the story.

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Kashmira Sheth’s author website: www.kashmirasheth.com

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My Fiction Writing Process, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

I’m going to talk a little bit about what works for me when it comes to the process of writing. Everyone’s different, and no doubt you will be too, but here’s a little insight on how I work and how I came to use this process, and with any luck it can help you find your way as well.

I taught myself to write in gradual steps, by need, generally. My first ‘writing’ was my short comic strips. It doesn’t sound like much but writing comic strips is a great boot camp – every strip has a beginning, middle and end, or set up, development and punch line. You’re essentially telling a small story every day. By the time I was working on my Emo Boy comic book, I figured I’d read enough comics and watched enough TV. I knew the basic gist of how a story should look and feel. Some issues had one issue-long story and some issues had story several smaller stories. I’d generally set up the storyline, come up with some events and jokes, then wrap it all up, and if Emo Boy could learn a lesson by the end, all the better.

In 2008, I was working on two projects at once. One was Happyface, a full novel I was writing for Little Brown Books For Young Readers and the other was a screenplay for an Emo Boy movie for Vanguard Films. In 2008, I learned I knew absolutely nothing about storytelling.

The main complaint I kept hearing was: “Where’s the structure?” This was coming from both companies. Having worked on short comic strips and comic books, my stories tended to feel too episodic. Emo Boy, the movie was having multiple adventures stemming from the comic book storylines. Happyface was jumping from month to month and place to place with little arc.

I’ve since become a strong outliner – I often spend as much time, if not more, outlining a book as I do actually writing it. I start in broad strokes and break it down piece by piece. It goes something like this:

  • Have an idea.
  • Give the idea a basic arc – a beginning, middle and end.
  • Flesh those pieces out into 3 acts – so the beginning, middle and end each have a beginning, middle and end.
  • Jot out ideas, scenes, character traits and lines of dialogue. Picture a video trailer for the book. Think up themes arising from big ideas. I ask myself: what is it about this story that excites me and makes me want to write about this in particular? How do I connect with the story? I take all those puzzle pieces and try to fit them together into some kind of loose outline.
  • From there, I start thinking in chapters.
  • For each chapter, I’ll write a beginning, middle and end. I’ll add more dialogue, locations and characters.

My editor says my first draft for a chapter is always very loose, like I’m racing to the end. It’s closer to a comic or a screenplay: this person says this, that person says that, they both do this, the end. I’ll go through it again to add more observation, detail and surroundings. I’ll go through it again and add more mannerisms and movement, what the characters are thinking, sensory details like how something looks, smells or sounds. In final drafts, I pay attention to word choices, how sentences flow and the general feel of the text.

Things change a lot as I write. The outline will bend and sway, characters will reveal themselves to be far more important than I’d anticipated. So, even though I have a blueprint, I’m still discovering along the way. Some people prefer to start blind – they have a germ of an idea in mind and they start writing. I’ve tried this but I just stare at a blank page trying to think of something clever to say. It doesn’t work for me – but we’re all different. This is just my process.

In a more general day-to-day look at my writing process, I like to write outside of my home. I find I’m easily distracted at home, I have all my books there, my TV, video games and, worst of all, house chores. I also find that other places have better lighting. It makes me feel more awake. It could be a library, a cafe, a Panera Bread or a Barnes & Noble. I listen to music while I write – nothing with lyrics or too distracting – or sometime movie scores, and there are some indie bands that do instrumental music. I like jazz, anime soundtracks and, lately, I’ve added hip hop instrumentals into the mix.

Writing is hard. This is an issue for me and I know it is for a lot of people. Sometimes you know you want to write but you think, “I don’t have any ideas. I don’t know what to write.” So you don’t. It takes me a few minutes to get started. My head is racing, full of to-do lists, distractions, it’s been a long day, my brain is fuzz and I just want to tune out, but once I sit and just stare at the blank screen or notebook paper my brain will, one by one, shut off all those distractions. I start to think, one thought leads to another and eventually I’ll be lost in my own little world. Time slips away and I can easily sit there for an hour or two and not even feel it. I imagine it’s what meditation is like.

Anyone can write: you need to find what works best for you. Find that process and put your trust in it, and you’ll be piling up pages before you know it.

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Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com

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Making Time To Write Your Novel, by Lish McBride

I dislike the phrase “finding time to write”. It implies that this precious time can be just stumbled upon, like maybe one day you might move the couch and find a whole pile of it and think, “There you are, you clever rascals!” Now, I don’t know how busy you are, but I feel like playing hide-and-seek with writing time might not be the best way to go about things.

Most people I know are really busy. If you’re a teenaged writer, you probably have school, homework, sports, drama, choir, chores, a job, friends and so on to juggle. If you’re an adult writer, your list is just as long, though obviously with a few changes. Waiting to stumble upon time just isn’t going to happen and quite frankly I think it sets up a bad habit. If you wait for time to arrive and the muse to strike, you’re never going to finish your novel.

I know what you’re thinking. “But if I just get published, everything will get so much easier. I’ll have so much writing time that people will have to move it just to sit on my couch! I’m going to write a million novels!” (Apparently, I’m obsessed with couches today.) I get this thought process; I really do. I had the same ideas. I’d like to say I’ve never been more wrong but, really, I’m wrong about a lot of things.

When I was trying to write my first novel in graduate school, I kept thinking about how hard it was to juggle school, writing, work and family, and how much easier things would be if someone bought my novel. I had this amazing fantasy of what my writing day would be like. I’d wake up after a great night’s sleep. I’d have breakfast and drink my coffee and ease into the day. Then I’d head to my office where it was quiet and maybe there was a window for me to look out of while having my deep thoughts. (My deep thoughts mostly consist of things like, “What would a pygmy chupacabra look like? How much swearing is too much? Can I work an obscure 80’s reference into the plot?) I would drink tea and write in an oasis of books, notes and tiny post-its.

Man, wouldn’t that be nice? The thing is, I just seem to be getting busier. I have a full time job, as many writers do. Unless you’re independently wealthy or marry someone who is, you will probably have to have one as well. If you’re lucky, it’s not forever. Most of us aren’t lucky. I volunteer once a week at 826 Seattle. I have an eight-year-old, which means school lunches need to be packed, soccer games attended and a lot of driving time in between. That’s already a lot. Then I have writing time and editing time. Plus I do a lot of extra things like blog posts, interviews and manage my social media like Facebook and Twitter. I consider these sorts of things part of the job. I like reaching out through the internet and talking to readers, bloggers and librarians but it does take time. I answer emails – which takes longer than you might think – and talk on the phone a lot. Then there are bookstore, library and school events. Some of these things may not seem like much. It only takes 5-15 minutes to reply to an email, but what if I have thirty emails that I absolutely have to reply to today. It adds up and you end up nickel and diming yourself to death, so to speak.

I’m not even going to get in to my to-read pile.

I don’t have days off; not really. Now, I’m not trying to whine. I choose to volunteer and I can say no to some of these things, and I do. I can’t do everything. So I have to be very careful with my time and choices. I don’t have an office (I live in an apartment) and I certainly don’t get to ease into my day. I do, however, get coffee. So while the quiet office oasis is an ideal, a far-off wispy dream that I am working toward, it is not yet a reality.

What I’m saying, my writing friends, is that you have to take a hard look at your life and prioritize. What must stay? Work pays your bills and feeds your stomach but you have to feed your mind and soul too.  It’s hard to create and write when the tank is dry. You’re not going to stumble across a pile of free time. You have to make it happen.

When I was struggling over my novel/thesis, I was trying to figure out how other writers did it. I remember checking out Kelley Armstrong’s website because she is very prolific and I knew she had kids. She basically stated that you have to schedule time to write. Treat it like an appointment, something that has to happen, like going to the dentist. Give it importance. I still think that it was a wise thing to say.

Don’t fight yourself. Know what will help or hinder you. I often get distracted at home, so I go out. I have regular writing dates with friends. We hold each other accountable. If you can’t afford to do the coffee shop thing, find a free space like a library or a friend’s kitchen table. Sometimes my friend Brenda will organize a writing day where we’ll all bring food and hang out all day and work. It’s great.

I have wonderful family and friends who support and understand what I need to do. Whether that means my partner might take on extra house/kid duties or a friend might babysit so I can get an hour or two of editing done, every little bit helps. It’s hard to make time happen. I know it is. Even if you can only get thirty minutes a week, that time does add up. When you get it, attack it. Fill those few, precious minutes with as many words as you possibly can. In the end, it all comes down to you.

Homework: Think about the times you were successful in getting some writing done. What made those times a success? How can you replicate it? What gets in the way of your success? How can you weed out these things?

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Lish McBride’s author website: www.lishmcbride.com

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My Novel Writing Process, by April Henry

I used to write books just for me. No publisher was waiting for them (although I certainly had the fantasy that once publishers saw the finished book they would fall all over themselves buying it). And the books were done when they were done.

I’ve had 13 books published in 13 years. Most are written under contract, which means they have a fixed due date. (Although I still sneak off to work on a ‘spec’ book now and then.)

My current writing process is now more like this:

  • One year before the book is due: I have plenty of time. And I deserve to relax after how hard I worked to get the last book done. I might make some notes and brainstorm a little… after I clean out the basement.
  • Nine months before: This plot idea is intriguing. The characters are starting to seem like real people. Maybe I should create a thorough outline… after I finish alphabetizing the spices.
  • Six months before: The outline is finished. This is going to be so easy. I should outline all the time! I’ll just take it step by step, like paint by numbers. The book is practically going to write itself now that I have all the hard work done. I think I’ll call my friend and go out for ice-cream to celebrate.
  • Three months before: Holy crap! This outline doesn’t work at all. And why do my characters keep doing things I never planned on them doing? This one guy was meant to be a secondary character but for some reason he thinks he’s the real love interest. And my main character refuses to do this one dangerous thing the outline says she should do. She says it’s a bad idea.
  • Two months before: I will never be done in time. Never. The only way I can do it is to write two thousand words a day, every single day. Didn’t manage more than three hundred today? No problem, I’ll make it up tomorrow.
  • Two weeks before: There’s too much blood in my caffeine stream. I’m writing like a mad woman. But I can do it. If I just give up on this sleeping thing.
  • Due date: There. Finished. Is it any good? I’ve read it over but, to be honest, I have no idea. I hit the send key. I really should celebrate. Or work on that other book that’s due. But how long has it been since I swept behind the couch?

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April Henry’s author website: www.aprilhenrymysteries.com

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