There is a writing book for every problem.
When people find out that I review how-to books for writers, they often ask me, “What’s your favorite?” I always sweat and stammer and give a vague answer, because how can I choose just one?
I have over 200 how-to books on my shelf, and those are just the keepers. My favorites are the practical ones. Airy theory is nice, but I prefer the books that get right into the trenches with me, through concrete examples and positive action steps.
Even though I can’t recommend a one-size-fits-all book, I’m good at recommending specific books for specific problems. So here are ten books to take with you on your novel writing journey. Whether you’re looking for help with character, plot, or just getting your butt in the chair, these are my top ten problem-solvers.
For help with plot, read Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. This book breaks down popular novels to show you exactly how they were put together. Understanding story structure is the fastest way for a writer to “level up” her craft.
For help with characters, read Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress. This book gives authors tools to create three-dimensional characters. All the examples are positive ones, focusing on what works, rather than what does not.
For help with emotion, read Writing with Emotion, Tension and Conflict by Cheryl St. John. This is the book to read after you’ve mastered plot and character, because the deeper you can make your readers feel things, the more they will connect with your novel.
For help with dialogue, read Writing Vivid Dialogue by Rayne Hall. This is a book I’ve wanted for years. There are dozens of very bad books about dialogue on the shelf. Ignore them. This is the one you need.
To learn about stakes, read Story Stakes by H.R. D’Costa. It will give you tools you to make your stories as gripping as possible. There’s an art to upping the stakes, and this book will show you how.
For help with outlines, read Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland. It’s truly the outline book for everyone, whether you’re a meticulous plotter or a fly-by-your-seat pantser. This book will show you how to use an outline and why you should.
To learn good habits, read Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox. It’s guaranteed to help you get your butt into the writing chair every day. The books listed above are great for story craft, but it’s the daily grind that will make a real writer out of you.
To learn time management, read Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracy. It’s the book you need when just getting to the writing desk is a struggle. This book will help you beat procrastination once and for all.
To push yourself, read Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth by James Scott Bell. It’s inspirational, but it includes solid instruction along with its cheerleading. This book is about never-ending self-improvement, stressing the inner work a writer must do to have a long-term career.
And for a dose of wisdom, read Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel by Lawrence Block. For so many reasons, this book will always be special to me. It’s a practically a complete writing course in one volume and is so full of good advice it’s like having a paperback-sized mentor you can consult at any time.
Nothing worthwhile was ever accomplished without a deadline.
I finished with half a day to spare. In fact, my final day was an easy one, and I only had to write a few hundred words today.
So how did I do it? How did I go from so far behind to easily ahead? I could think of all kinds of abstract reasons, from having a better schedule this week to coming to an easier part of the book. But the real reason I finished on time was because I had a deadline.
It’s funny. National Novel Writing Month is completely arbitrary. Nobody really cares if you write fifty thousand words of fiction in November. You don’t gain anything by finishing and you don’t lose anything if you fail. Reporting is done on the honor system—no one knows for sure if you’ve done what you said you did. But something about having that silly deadline made me want to meet it.
I pushed myself at the end, and I had a couple of very long days. I could have pushed myself just as hard in the beginning of the month. Only I didn’t, because things weren’t urgent yet. Deadlines have a wonderful way of narrowing a writer’s focus, so the writing becomes the highest priority. That’s what I love about them. A deadline names one goal, and one goal only, and that kind of tunnel vision is great for creativity.
In fact, I was wide awake most of last night, not because I was worried about the deadline but because I was excited about accomplishing my goal. I knew which chapter I wanted to work on and I was eager to get back to the keyboard. These last few days have been productive, happy ones for me, thanks to the pleasure of a deadline.
As of today, I am officially 5000 words behind.
I started off NaNoWriMo so strong. Like many writers at the beginning of November, I was energized by the prospect of writing quickly, encouraged by the community of authors, and in love with my novel-to-be. My novel idea was perky and full of promise and I knew I was going to have fun writing it.
I attended three write-ins, once driving an hour each way just to write with my buddies. Election day came, and I added words to my novel in between checking online for results. My fridge went kaput, but I got it fixed. A friend asked for an emergency beta read, and I found a way to sandwich that in, too. I got ahold of an ARC from my favorite writer of all time and I absolutely couldn’t resist reading a little bit of it.
And still, my word count grew. I love the novel I’m working on so very, very much. My characters are delightful, my world is interesting, and my plot is fun.
But then Thanksgiving happened. I have a big family, we all love to cook, and I was all set to make three dishes, which meant cooking most of Wednesday.
Then my power went out.
After some scrambling, I figured out a solution. I packed up my ingredients, carted them across town to my friend’s house, baked everything there, and then transported it back home. My power returned about four hours later, just in time to think about making Wednesday night’s dinner.
On Thanksgiving day, I went to my sister’s house. I carved the turkey like a boss. My nephew made me cry laughing. We got my mom to play Cards against Humanity with us. Unlike previous Thanksgivings, this year, my sister’s dog did not sneak into the kitchen and eat an entire cheesecake.
Thanksgiving was awesome. But it certainly didn’t leave any room in the schedule for writing.
I admit, my first emotion when looking at today’s progress bar on the NaNoWriMo website was resentment.
Why did NaNoWriMo have to happen during such a busy month? How could anyone be expected to write during Thanksgiving? Maybe people who don’t have families can do it. Maybe young people who don’t help their parents cook or do dishes. Maybe rich people who don’t cook at all. So unfair! Woe is me! Wah wah.
I’m ashamed to say that it took me most of this morning to get over myself. I remembered that every single month of the year is busy, not just November. I remembered that I chose most of the activities that were cutting into my writing time. And I remembered how incredibly blessed I am to have such a loving family who wants to spend time with me.
And I remembered that there is never a perfect time to write. I know the origin story of NaNoWriMo. It was accidental that it landed in November. It could have just as easily been another month. But November is actually perfect. It’s a reminder that writers write, period. It doesn’t matter what else is going on, because there will always be something else going on. If it’s not a holiday, it will be a vacation or extra work or home repairs or health problems.
Sometimes my word count will fall behind. Sometimes I’ll surge ahead. Sometimes (okay, a lot of time) I’ll freak out about an upcoming deadline and work extra fast at the end. It’s all normal.
This is my first-ever NaNoWriMo and I’m in it to win it. So if you have any encouraging words to spare, I will take any and all you’ve got to give me. Right now, I’m going to eat another slice of pumpkin pie and dive back to the world of my novel. I’ll check in next week with my word count total.
Even professional writers can do NaNoWriMo.
I’m doing it. I’m going to participate in National Novel Writing Month this year. I’ve signed up on the website and I’ve got my project outlined and ready to go.
I also feel a little bit silly. I’m a professional writer, author of four published books and numerous short stories. I teach a class for beginning writers, encouraging new authors to write more, and I practice what I preach. As a full-time writer, I typically write more than 1667 words a day and will have no trouble finishing 50k words in a month. I’ve written fast before, and sustained it long-term, so I know the pace is reasonable.
And yet, I still want to try NaNoWriMo.
National Novel Writing Month has gone on every November since 1999. The challenge is to write a 50,000 word novel in a single month. There are no prizes other than bragging rights, but NaNoWriMo is extremely popular, attracting hundreds of thousands of participants. Some people take it on as a fun lark, just to see if they can do it. Others see it as a viable way to write a first draft quickly. Most of the participants are beginners or early in their careers. Professional writers are usually on the other side of the fence, cheering the participants on.
But today, I’m a beginning writer too. I’ve started writing in a new genre, which means basically starting over. As I’m learning the tropes and conventions of romance novels, I’m freaking myself out a little bit. I’m keenly aware of how much I don’t know, and it leads to second-guessing myself at the keyboard.
Writing with one finger on the delete key is no way to finish a book. If I’m ever going to get out of my own way, I’ve got to keep moving forward, filling page after page until I reach the end. NaNoWriMo seems to be the perfect opportunity at the perfect time. I’ll have an online community of writers, accountability, and no fear of bad results. In NaNoWriMo land, there is no such thing as awkward sentences, nonsensical plots, or putrid prose. Those are problems for later, during the revision stage.
In November, the only thing that matters is word count. You either have words on your page or you don’t. By the end of the month, I will have 50,000 of them.
I made an expensive mistake so you don’t have to.
At the beginning of September, my co-author and I tried an experiment to market our new book. The idea was to do a free promotion for five days right out of the gate, when the book was new, in hopes of goosing the Amazon algorithms and finding new readers.
This wasn’t an easy decision. It’s hard to see your book as a “product,” where its value is divorced from its content. After pouring all our creativity and love into Sleepless, it was difficult to step back and make hard-nosed business decisions about its fate.
But we did it anyway, in hopes that we’d either have wild success, or learn a valuable lesson.
Only the second one happened.
The promotion itself went very well. When Sleepless was free, it rose to #2 on the cyberpunk bestseller list and #3 in the science fiction action adventure category. It even briefly was one of the top 100 free books in all of Amazon.
Since Sleepless has gone back to full price, its sales have flatlined, while page reads in the Kindle Unlimited program have grown. That means that Amazon is only promoting our book to people who have bought a Kindle Unlimited subscription. People who read on Kindles, but don’t subscribe to KU, aren’t seeing our book. Since KU payouts to authors are so low, we haven’t yet earned back what we spent on promotion.
That’s helpful information to know. The inner workings of Amazon are mysterious, and it’s good to have confirmation that Amazon will promote a book, but only inside their own walled garden. It makes our decision to leave the KU program easier.
And also, we got seven new reviews—all of them five stars—which makes me cry some happy tears. A thoughtful review from a serious reader is truly the best thing on Earth!
So am I sad we did this experiment? Not really. It was an expensive lesson and we learned some things the hard way, but now we know what doesn’t work.
And you do too.
This is my week to write.
I need a break. Lately, I’ve had too much internet, too much political news, too many interruptions, too much time in the kitchen and the laundry room and the car. Too much of trying to fit writing into the edges of my life. I’m craving long, uninterrupted hours to be creative. Forget chocolates and flowers and diamonds—a writer girl’s best friend is a quiet room with the day stretching out in front of her.
So I’m taking a week away. Not away from my house—I’m staying right here. But I’m taking a week away from the world. For the next seven days, I won’t socialize or do housework. I won’t read books or the news or the internet. I’ve put an autoresponder on my email and I won’t answer the phone unless it’s my mom calling.
My kids will be gone this week, so I’ll be home alone. I can wake up when I want, eat when I want, and go to bed when I want. I’ll let the crazy news cycle roll on without me for a few days.
I’m just going to write. I have a half-finished manuscript I set aside a few months ago and I’m aching to get back to it. I miss it the way you’d miss an absent lover. I want to lavish it with attention, get to know all its secrets, and write every page until I’m completely satisfied. I want to have my way with this book, and I don’t want to do it on the margins of my life. I want to give this book my full attention.
I’ve been trying to find a name for this week. It’s not a staycation, because that implies leisure. The words retreat and sabbatical make me think of relaxed study. A friend suggested unworkshop, which I like a lot but it still doesn’t quite fit.
Then I thought of the words “Productivity Break.” It’s an oxymoron. It’s also perfect. I’m taking a break from the world to be more productive.
See you on the other side.
[Photos: Bitstrips/Snap Inc.]
I did it! I wrote over half a million words this year.
Back in January, I made a pact with my brother. We each committed to doing 2017 of something in the year 2017. For him, it was running 2017 kilometers. For me, it was writing 2017 pages (504,250 words).
My brother won the challenge. So did I. In fact, we both finished a week early! I finished my 2017th page on the 24th and he got his last steps in on Christmas day. We are proud of each other. And proud of ourselves. And really, really tired.
I’ve had a lot of people ask me about the challenge, so I’ll answer as many questions as I can here.
You: how did you keep track of how many words/pages you wrote? Did you count each one?
Me: At the end of each writing session, I did a quick word count and jotted down the total in a spreadsheet. I also kept track of what time I started and how long I wrote.
You: Did you learn anything from these spreadsheets?
Me: I learned that I average 1000 words an hour of rough draft. (That does not count editing/proofreading/publishing.)
I also learned that I was wildly inconsistent in the first three quarters of the year, with no set time of day to write. I put words on the page 6 or 7 days a week, which was good, but lacking a routine is how I fell behind in quarter three.
You: If you were behind in quarter three, how did you catch up and also write so much you finished a week early?
Me: In November, I took a class taught by the incomparable Becca Syme. The class changed my life. It sounds like an exaggeration, but I’m serious. This class changed my life.
The class was called “Write Better, Faster,” but really it should have been “learn how your brain works so you can get out of your own way.” It was the most gentle of instruction, but it kicked my ass into gear like nothing else. I learned how look honestly at my own process, know my strengths, and figure out what could be changed and what couldn’t. At the end of November I had a workable action plan, and the moment I started implementing it, the words started pouring out. This past month has been the most productive of my entire career and I’m happier too–probably because I’m working with my natural tendencies instead of against them.
You: So you took a nice class and you got your priorities in order, but readers only care about the finished product. Did you publish anything this quarter?
You: Anything else?
Me: Blog posts, book reviews, classroom materials for the workshop I teach and a monthly newsletter for readers. My co-author and I also wrote a fun short story exclusively for our newsletter subscribers.
You: How many words in this blog post?
Me: 568 words. Combined with the other words I wrote this week, it brings my total to over 509,000 words (2037 pages) for the year.
You: Awesome! What’s next?
Me: Well, today is my birthday. I think I’ll celebrate it by taking a nap.
It takes guts to write something. It takes even more guts to delete it.
I recently got a new job working as a part-time editor for a small press. The first book I was assigned to work on was a memoir called Ginger Stands her Ground. It was written by the bravest writer I’ve ever met.
Ginger Ford has lived with polio for 66 of her 70 years. Her life’s story details the complexities of being disabled before the ADA. In the era before ramps and automatic doors, Ginger had to learn to adapt to a world not built for her. She recalls trying to hide her leg braces to fit in at school, the terror of learning to drive a hand-controlled car, the near-impossibility of finding an accessible college, and the worry that she’d never get married and have a family of her own.
But here’s the thing. Ginger Stands her Ground is not a downer. Ginger has a relentlessly cheerful spirit and she always, always looks on the bright side of things. It’s as if the word “resilient” was coined just for her.
The memoir she wrote was utterly fascinating. It had a problem, though. A big one. The manuscript she turned in was 235 pages long, but the story effectively ended on page 200. The final 35 pages were well-written, but they didn’t fit the current story whatsoever.
I paced the floor, agonizing. Could I really ask her to lop off the entire last section of her book? How would she take it? Would she complain to my boss? This was my first project with Fifth Avenue Press. Ginger was a first-time author. I saw so many ways this could go badly.
But I’m an experienced editor, and I knew my instincts were right. Those 35 pages had to go. So I wrote the most gentle editorial letter of my life, explaining what needed to be done, and then I held my breath, waiting to see what Ginger would do.
She cut those pages without a second glance.
It was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen a writer do.
Some people might think it wasn’t a big deal, but let me tell you something. It was. I’ve seen professional writers who’ve been writing for decades fight to preserve pages they know aren’t working. I’ve been one of those writers from time to time.
It would be one thing if I’d asked her to cut bad or ineffective writing. But I was asking her to cut pages that were very, very good. Later, Ginger took that section and submitted it as a stand-alone piece to the Writer’s Digest competition, where she won an honorable mention. But at the time, she didn’t know she could do that. For all she knew, removing those pages meant they were lost forever. But her editor asked her to remove 1/6 of her book, so she immediately ripped it out and didn’t look back.
That’s not just brave. That’s like, writer superhero brave.
And the thing is? She didn’t think she did anything remarkable. She approached the editing of her memoir the way she approaches everything—with cheerful good humor and the determination to make the best of the situation, no matter what.
If you want to check out Ginger Stands her Ground, it’s on sale now at Amazon and everywhere else. Ginger isn’t on social media, but she gave me permission to post this, and I’ll be sure to pass along any words of encouragement left in the comments.
The darkest part of every story is also the most essential.
There comes a time in every story, about 75% of the way through, where the heroine gives up. She feels utterly defeated because try as she might, she can’t find a way to achieve her goal. She’s beaten and knows she’s beaten.
This is called the all-is-lost moment.
It’s the moment in ET: The Extra-terrestrial when the little alien dies. It’s the moment in Inside Out when Joy is lost in the memory dump. It’s the moment in Mad Max Fury Road when Furiosa discovers the Green Place is gone.
It’s in every novel, every movie, every short story. Even children’s books include it. Three-quarters of the way through Where the Wild Things Are, Max discovers that being with the monsters doesn’t make him happy, and he longs to be where someone loves him most of all.
This is a necessary part of every story. It’s the dark before the dawn. There is an important reason the heroine needs to be brought to this low, low point. She has tried, and failed (so far) in her quest because she hasn’t changed. She’s still trying to solve her problems using old methods, and they aren’t working anymore. She can’t achieve victory until she learns the lessons the plot is trying to teach her. Heroes don’t want to change. All-is-lost moments force them to change.
Can you imagine a novel or movie without the all-is-lost moment? It would be terrible. The heroine would either achieve her goal without any self-reflection or internal change, which would be trite, or she’d keep using the same old methods and never get anywhere, which would be pointless. In fact, the entire story would be pointless without that crucial moment of character change.
And of course, right after this dark night of the soul, a plot twist happens, the heroine finds a new way of dealing with the problem, and faces it head-on. The more horrible the all-is-lost moment feels, the better the climax of the book. Overcoming that failure is huge. It means the victory wasn’t handed to the heroine. She earned it.
I’ve been experiencing an all-is-lost moment myself lately. Here we are 75% of the way through the year, so it’s arrived right on schedule. I made an ambitious goal for myself this year: I would write 2017 pages in the year 2017 (which is 504,250 words). And for the first and second quarters, I was right on track. And then I tried to shoehorn a bunch of big projects into my already-full life. I took on several freelance editing jobs at once, ramped up hours at my volunteer job, tried to edit a couple of my own manuscripts, all while doing home improvement and social activism and working around my kids’ strange summer schedules and staying glued to the 24/7 news cycle.
And, like any plucky fictional heroine, I decided I could do that without making any changes to my life. In addition to writing, I would edit, teach, volunteer, and parent. I would also still have coffee with my friends and socialize on the internet and read the newspaper and ride my unicycle. I’m not exactly sure where I thought the extra hours would come from. Something had to give, and I stole time from the two places that could least afford to lose it: writing and sleep.
I got cranky, and my daily word counts got smaller and smaller. I slid further from my writing goals with every passing day. My editing jobs went really well and I’m proud of the other work I did but the cost was high because I gave up the wrong things in order to achieve it. I should have cut down on house cleaning and Twitter, not on writing and sleep.
I’m staring my quarterly word count total in the face and I don’t like what I see. I only wrote 458 pages this quarter, which is 46 pages short. 458 pages is a ton of writing, and I know I should be proud (I am!) but I also know I could have made my goal if I’d spent my time wisely.
Things aren’t hopeless. I still have three months to make up the difference. But I’m seeing what a blessing the all-is-lost moment can be. It’s forcing me to change. The next time a big project comes in, I’ll have to make better choices, because the world keeps turning and we all have 24 hours in a day. How I use those hours is up to me.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. She is learning how to prioritize writing and sleep.
[Photo credits: Warner Brothers/Village Roadshow pictures and Harper & Row]
Please play along as I give my quarterly update.
Back in January, I made a pact with my brother. We each committed to doing 2017 of something in the year 2017. For him, it was running 2017 kilometers. For me, it was writing 2017 pages.
We did the math. To reach our goals, he would have to run 5.5 km per day and I’d have to write 5.5 pages per day. If you figure an industry-standard 250 words per page. It’s about 1400 words every day.
My brother is keeping me accountable, but public accountability helps too. So I need you to ask me all the tough questions about how I did this quarter. Ready?
You: Did you reach your goal or what?
Me: Close. Sooooo close. I wrote 125,318 words, which is less than 750 words (3 pages) short. But I had a cushion from the first quarter, so I’m still ahead for the year.
Of that, 80 percent was fiction (short stories, progress on the novel, writing exercises) and 20 percent was nonfiction (blog posts, book reviews, class materials for my writing workshop).
You: Was the second quarter easier or harder?
Me: It was harder. A lot harder. I was busier, for one thing. My volunteer job needed me almost every day in May and my basement flooded and generally, life happened. I didn’t use that as an excuse. I still got my words done, but some nights I didn’t start writing until 9:00 at night.
Also, this wasn’t new anymore. The first quarter was a fun challenge. By March, the newness wore off and reality set in. I realized that woke up every single morning already 1400 words behind.
You: So why not give up?
Me: Oh, hell no. I’m in it to win it.
From now on, I will allow myself a deliberate day off once a week. I’ll have to increase my word count on other days to make it up, but it will be worth it. I think that by taking a day off once a week, I’ll feel more in control of my output, and less like I’m always scrambling to catch up.
You: So you wrote your little exercises or whatever, but readers only care about finished, edited work. Did you publish anything this quarter?
Me: I published two more stories under my super-secret penname. The rest of my word count went toward progress on two new novels, which are nowhere near finished.
You: You’re still not sharing your secret pen name with anyone?
Me: Nope. Taking that to my grave.
You: How many words in this blog post?
Me: 455 words, and I’m totally counting them toward next quarter.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. She is writing half a million words this year.