How to Get Back On Track When Your Writing Plans Go Awry

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So you’ve made a plan for the next seven months.

For a month or two, everything goes fine. You’re writing regularly, hitting your targets, and feeling great about your progress.

And then something happens. You’re knocked off-course. You’re understandably discouraged, perhaps ready to give up.

Plans do go awry, more often than not. That’s not your fault, and it’s not necessarily a problem. You just need to be prepared in advance to deal with things not going quite according to plan.

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Are You Planning Your Writing Career … or Winging It?

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If you’re a novelist, you’ve probably come across two different camps of people: the “plotters” and the “pantsers” (seat-of-the-pants writers).

While there’s no right way to approach a novel, I’ve definitely started moving from the “pantser” to the “plotter” end of the spectrum over the past few years. I like plenty of room for exploration and spontaneity … but I don’t like having no clue where I’m going.

In your writing life, too, having a plan makes it much easier to actually get somewhere.

I got lucky in the early stages of my writing career. I got into blogging on a whim, then started freelance blogging entirely by accident.

It was one of the best things that ever happened to me … but I realise now how fortunate I was to be in the right place at the right time.

These days, I’m a lot more strategic. I don’t plan in obsessive detail, but I do set goals and take conscious steps towards them.

If, like me, you want to do a bit more planning and a bit less winging it, here’s how.

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Reviewing Other People’s Writing: How to Use Comments and Track Changes in Microsoft Word

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At some point in your writing life, you’re going to be invited to workshop, beta read or even edit someone else’s work.

Maybe your friend has written a novel, and wants feedback. Or you’ve joined a local writers’ group and swapped short story manuscripts with another writer there. Or you’re a blogger, and a fellow blogger asks for your help with an important guest post. Or you decide to take on some paid editing work to supplement your writing income.

Whatever the reason for offering feedback or editorial changes, you need to be able to give the author your comments in a way that’s easy and efficient for both of you.

You could simply print their manuscript and write in red pen in the margins or between the double-spaced lines – this is how I used to critique a decade ago. But these days, you’re likely to have a digital copy of their work … and there’s a considerably better way to give feedback.

In Microsoft Word, you can insert “Comments” alongside the text – just like writing a note in the margin, but neater and easier.

You can also use “Track Changes” to make alterations to the text itself, without completely overwriting the original.

Note: Although I’ll be giving instructions and example from Microsoft Word in this post, many other word processors have Track Changes and Comments functions – including Google Docs and Open Office’s word processor.

Comments and Track Changes are used by professionals and publishing companies as well as by authors reviewing peers’ work.

For instance, when I wrote Publishing E-Books For Dummies, I got the manuscript back from the editorial review process with comments added into the text in a special font, using Track Changes.

My freelance editor Lorna Fergusson also uses Comments and Track Changes to mark up manuscripts. Here’s a bit of Oblivion at the editing stage:

track-changes-lorna

So, if you’re likely to work with a publisher or a freelance editor in the future, it’s worth getting to grips with Comments and Track Changes, as they may well use these to mark up your manuscript for you.

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How (and When) to Develop Multiple Streams of Writing Income

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How many different sources of writing income do you have, right now?

Maybe you’ve got a novel up for sale on Amazon.

Maybe you’ve got a blog that brings in a little bit of advertising or affiliate revenue.

Maybe you write occasional articles for a magazine.

Maybe you’re a full-time freelancer with a couple of major clients.

One big danger in the writing life is only having one or two sources of income. If all your money comes from one particular client, you’ll really struggle if that client suddenly no longer needs your services.

(If you have a day job, then only having one source of writing income is obviously less of a problem, but it can still make it difficult for you to build towards a writing career.)

I’ve been writing for a living (ie. without a day job!) for nearly eight years now, and one of the ways in which I’ve made it work – particularly during the past three years of motherhood! – is to develop multiple different streams of income.

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Your Two-Year Plan for Writing, Editing and Publishing Your Novel (However Busy You Are)

Have you ever told yourself something like this:

  • “Once I have a bit more time, I’ll start work on that novel.”
  • “Once life is less manic, I’ll get back to my novel.”
  • “If only I could take a year off work, I could finally write my novel.”

A novel is a major undertaking. But it’s also one that can fit around a busy life.

You don’t need all day, every day, to write.

If you can find just 30 minutes each day, you could finish a novel (to the point where you’re sending it out to agents, or self-publishing) in just two years.

If, like me, you know some super-prolific novelists (like Joanna Penn and Johnny B. Truant), one novel in two years might sound a bit slow.

But … one novel in two years is definitely better than no novels at all.

The Quick Version

If you want the quick version of the “novel in two years” plan, plus simple tips on making it work, here it is in a slideshow format:

In case you have a particular aversion to slides, or want to see everything in one place, the rest of this post covers the same ground but with a lot more explanation.

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Want to Write a Novel? Here’s How to Get Started

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You’d like to write a novel … but how do you even begin?

I’m not thinking here about ways to write a great opening (if that’s what you’re after, check out this excellent article from The Write Practice). The issue of “getting started” deals with more fundamental questions like:

  • How do you come up with a novel-worthy idea – one you want to work on for months, possibly years?
  • How do you grow that idea into an actual story – with a setting, plot and characters?
  • How do you find the courage (and the time!) to sit down and start writing?

I imagine that if you spoke to a dozen different novelists, you’d find their novels had a dozen very different starting points. You’d probably find that some of those seemed unpromising or simply odd.

Chances are, though, you’d also find some common ground between those starting points. Here are some potential ways in which novels can begin

#1: With an image. C.S. Lewis’ famously said that The Chronicles of Narnia “all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.” Perhaps you have a particular scene, or part of a scene in your head. Like Lewis, you might have carried that image with you for years, even decades.

#2: As a short story. The second novel I attempted began in this way (and the short story, as I recall, began with an image). I finished the short story, then realised there was a lot of backstory to it that I wanted to write about.

#3: From a prompt. My very first novel, when I was 14, started in response to a competition entry … and kept going. If you’re coming fairly new to creative writing, try spending a few weeks playing around with prompts and trying out some freewriting – you might find that a particular idea catches hold.

#4: With a concept. My novel Lycopolis began with one clear concept: “a group of online roleplayers summon an evil demon into their game … and into the world”. A ton of things changed from planning to drafting to second draft, but that core idea is still central to the novel.

#5: With a character. Some authors come up with a compelling character then develop a story around them. If you enjoy character-driven fiction, this could be a good way to make it work. (Most often, though, you’ll probably find that a character comes to you along with a concept or an image.)

#6: From other art. (“Art” here including literature, music, etc, not just what you’d find in an art gallery.)  Perhaps something you’re reading inspires you – it could be a particular character, a plot point, or even a single line of dialogue. Maybe the lyrics in a piece of music speak to you, or there’s a photograph or painting that you keep returning to. A novel could grow from that seed.

(If you want to read several authors’ descriptions of where their novels began, check out What Inspires Authors to Write Their Novels? on the Huffington Post.)

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Are You Using “Said” Too Frequently? Dialogue Tags and Dialogue Beats Explained

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How often can you use the word “said” in one page?

Probably more than you think.

Yes, you’ve been told (by tutors, your writing group, or beta readers) to watch out for words that occur too frequently. But “said” isn’t one you need to worry about.

The word “said” can crop up quite a lot and go almost unnoticed. As a reader, you barely notice it; as a writer, it’s more obvious (since you write far more slowly than you can read, and you may be pausing to think through the dialogue as you craft it).

In fact, it’s much more problematic to keep finding alternatives for “said” in an attempt to make things more interesting. These do draw attention to themselves. They also risk becoming a bit silly:

“Sophie!” he exclaimed.

“What is it, John?” she demanded.

“You look stunning today,” he opined.

Of course, having “he said” or “she said” after every piece of dialogue will indeed start to grate on the reader. In this post, I’ll be giving you some alternatives – and explaining how to use each effectively.

First, we need to define a couple of terms: dialogue tag and dialogue beat.

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The Getting Things Done (GTD) System … and Why Writers Need It

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Do you ever feel swamped by way too many different things to do … and to keep track of until you can actually do them?

Do you find yourself forgetting important commitments or struggling to make progress on the projects that really matter to you?

Getting Things Done could be what you need. It’s both the title of a book, Getting Things Done, and the actual system presented in the book.

I’d recommend getting hold of a copy of Getting Things Done, but if you want the in-a-nutshell version (and one with examples geared for writers), here it is!

The key principles of Getting Things Done (GTD) are:

  • Keeping everything in your head is a bad idea: it’s stressful and inefficient. If something has your attention in any way, write it down.
  • You need an “inbox” – one single place to collect all the incoming “stuff” in your life (this is NOT the same thing as your email inbox).
  • You should process this inbox on a regular basis, deciding what to do with the stuff in it.
  • Professional and personal actions all matter, and all need to be tracked in (ideally) the same system.
  • Projects often get stuck because you’ve not identified your “next action”. What do you physically need to do next in order to make progress? (This could be almost anything from “get that book from the library” to “spend 15 minutes brainstorming”.)
  • Separate your calendar and your to-do list. This was the hardest thing for me to get to grips with because I’d integrated mine years before, and was used to managing tasks by assigning them to a specific date.

Unlike some systems, GTD doesn’t begin with setting ultimate goals or objectives: David Allen feels (and I think at least somewhat rightly) that it’s very difficult to focus on your ultimate vision when your day-to-day life is in chaos.

Here’s how it works, assuming you’re implementing it from scratch.

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What is a Scene? Understanding and Using the Basic Unit of Story Structure

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Scenes are the building blocks of your novel. When you plan (if you plan!), you’re thinking in scenes: individual little chunks of story that build on one another as they work towards the conclusion.

Like me, you probably feel you have an intuitive grasp of what a “scene” is in a short story or novel. If you feel your scenes aren’t quite working, though, or if you struggle to outline your scenes, thinking through what exactly a scene is might help.

Let’s take a quick look at a few definitions:

A scene is a sequence where a character or characters engage in some sort of action and/or dialogue. Scenes should have a beginning, middle and end (a mini-story arc), and should focus around a definite point of tension that moves the story forward.

Teach Yourself How to Write a Blockbuster, by Lee Weatherly and Helen Corner (pg 40, 2006 edition)

By “scene” we mean here all that is included in an unbroken flow of action from one incident in time to another […] The action within a scene is ‘unbroken’ in the sense that it does not include a major time lapse or a leap from one setting to another – though the characters may, of course, walk or ride from one place to another without breaking the scene, the camera, so to speak, dollying after them.

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, John Gardner (pg 59, 1991 edition)

For me, a scene is a unit of story in which something changes. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and at the end something is different than it was at the beginning. It may be a character or a situation, or just our understanding of a character or a situation, but whatever it is, it’s changed when the scene is over.

What’s a Scene (And What’s A Chapter?), Timothy Hallinan, TimothyHallinan.com

Some writers like to think of scenes as chapters, starting a new chapter for each new scene. There’s no reason you can’t do that – but chapters play a different role.

I sometimes end chapters mid-scene (so there’s a cliffhanger) and I only switch viewpoints when I switch chapters, even if one chapter contains multiple scenes. That’s a personal preference – yours might be different.

There’s never going to be a perfect definition of “a scene” that works for every circumstance, so don’t get too caught up in trying to decide whether a small time gap or a change of location definitely means it’s a “new” scene. If it feels to you like the same scene, treat it that way.

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