For authors, finding community is vital to success.
It’s a strange business. Most of the time, writers sit alone in a room and make things up. We need to be perfectly fine with doing this for hours every day, for days on end. Then, when it comes time to sell what we’ve written, or talk to readers, or…you know…go to the grocery store, we’re expected to suddenly be at home in the world. And for most of us, being at home in the world is hard.
We have to go to dinner with our in-laws and talk about spaghetti recipes and why they like French wine and why neighborhood garbage pick-up was delayed this week. We have to talk about the weather with the dry cleaner. We have to go to parent’s night at school and make small talk and fit in and don’t make it weird.
Writers need friends. And we really, really need friends who share our quirks.
So I’ve spent most of my adult life hanging out with other writers. I met them in college or at conferences or online. I’ve had coffee and lunches, attended write-ins and retreats. It wasn’t easy to form these connections. An introvert befriending other introverts can be a slow, awkward process. But it’s so, so worth it.
Twice a week, I meet a friend for a quiet writing date. I also attend a weekly critique group, and have breakfast with my co-author every Sunday. I have monthly lunches with friends who feel like family.
That’s a lot of social interaction for a writer, but I don’t just like these groups. I need them. My writing buddy understands the daily grind. My critique group helps me pursue excellence. I bounce ideas off my co-author at Sunday breakfast and get marketing advice from my lunch group.
Without these friendships, I don’t know if I’d even call myself a writer. By sharing our troubles and triumphs, we’re reinforcing that identity. I look at my critique group or my friends or my writing partner and I see myself reflected clearly. We’re all doing this thing, and this is a good thing to do.
A writer alone is an oddity. A group of writers? That’s called the cool kids’ table.
This is the end.
My co-author and I spent most of last year trying—and failing—to write a fifth Detroit Next book. No matter what we did, we couldn’t make it work. We were either rewriting a plot we’d already done, or going in a direction we didn’t like. After months of little-to-no progress, we knew it was time to stop. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the right one.
When we started writing and publishing the Detroit Next series, the world was a very different place. This was before datapads and Google Glass and self-driving cars, before the revitalization of Detroit, before CRISPR took gene-altering out of the imagination and into every university lab, and before hacking had gone from stealing the design of a car company’s fender to something that could change the outcome of an election.
One thing we’ve always liked about reading and writing cyberpunk is the glimpse five minutes into the future. But it’s hard to write near-future stories when the world keeps catching up. We’re constantly trying to walk that line between a plausible future and a fantastical one. How do you do that while the line itself is moving so quickly?
By ending things now, we’re satisfied that we’ve left our characters in a good place, each with their own happy ever after. And as for Detroit itself? The Detroit of the future is probably going to be a whole lot like the Detroit of today—a city that’s struggling with a difficult past and looking for a brighter future. It will have some rich parts, some poor parts, and every citizen will love the city as it is, while wanting it to do better
We’re grateful that we got to spent time with those characters in that imaginary place. And we’re grateful that you spent that time with us. It’s been a good ride. Thanks for coming along.
And we’re not giving up writing—or even our collaboration. Harry and I still meet for breakfast every Sunday morning, where we share chapters of our (solo) works-in-progress. Harry is writing hard SF, while I have switched gears completely into a new genre with a new pen name. We will always be each other’s first readers, so even if you see a novel with only one of our names on the cover, you can be sure the other had a hand in it.
We wouldn’t want it any other way.
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.
Three very different authors each tackle writer’s block their own way.
The other day, someone asked me about writer’s block. Did I ever get it? Did I ever blog about ways to cope with it? Did I have any advice for him?
Like I usually do in such circumstances, I recommended a book. Three of them, in fact.
If you want to know why you’re blocked, read The Courage To Write. Ralph Keyes takes a deep dive into the fears that all writers experience. Why are writers afraid? Because a good novel is an intensely emotional experience. In order to make our readers feel things, we have to feel them too. Few people want to face their own deepest passions and then put them on a page for everyone to read. But Keyes will show you that you’re not alone, and that your anxiety is totally normal.
If you’re looking for the kind of compassionate wisdom an older sister would give you, read Make Your Writing Bloom. Shonell Bacon is frank about obstacles that get in the way of writing. But she overcame those obstacles and is absolutely sure that you can do the same. With a positive outlook and gentle encouragement, Bacon reminds writers why they love the craft so much.
On the other end of the spectrum is Break Writer’s Block Now. Jerrold Mundis is serious about writing, about hard work, and about getting out of your own way to get those words written. He wants writers to stop loading writing with a bunch of emotional baggage and just get it done. Mundis advocates forming a habit and writing no matter what.
So there you go. Psychology, sisterly love, or a kick in the pants. If you’re suffering from writer’s block, one of these should fit the bill. At different times in my career, all of them have helped me.
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.
My new book was published on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it was free.
In this new world of ebooks, we’re used to seeing freebies. Indie authors put their books on sale for scandalously low prices, including giving copies away. Often, the first book in a series will be permanently free.
But those are older books, some of them years old. Certainly an author wouldn’t set the price of a brand-new book to free and then keep it there for five whole days?
Oh, yes, we would. My co-author and I released SLEEPLESS, our fourth “Detroit Next” book, on Tuesday. The book was free the very next day. It seems counterintuitive and backwards and flies in the face of all the traditional marketing advice we’ve been taught. So why would we do that?
One word: Amazon.
Amazon is really, really good at selling books. We are not good at selling books. If you judge by our reviews, we’re good at writing books, but we need Amazon’s help to sell them.
And Amazon wants to help us. It has sophisticated algorithms that are awesome at matching the right book with the right reader. But what the algorithms can’t do is guess. They need data. Lots and lots of data. The bots need to know who this book appeals to. What kind of reader likes books about near-future Detroit and a badass female PI and her hacker sidekick and a twisty mystery and nanotechnology run amok? Who buys such books?
We need to teach Amazon. We need to feed the algorithms a core set of interested readers so they use those readers as mirrors to find similar readers. Once it “learns” who buys books like SLEEPLESS, Amazon’s own marketing machine (emails and such) should kick in.
But we have to do this quickly. Amazon needs to understand readers of new titles within the first 30 days, or they’ll stop trying. And the best way to get SLEEPLESS into the hands of many readers quickly is to do a free run, and then advertise the freebie in reader-centric newsletters like Fussy Librarian and Freebooksy.
And it’s working! As of last night, SLEEPLESS was #3 in Amazon’s cyberpunk category and #4 in science fiction adventure stories. That’s amazing! Usually, books that climb that high in the charts have hundreds of positive reviews and we have none.
So that’s what we’re doing. I’m not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just a thing. This is the ebook world we live in now. And also? Honestly? We’ve tried everything else.
I hesitated writing this. I didn’t know if it was too much a peek behind the curtain, but I feel like I can be honest with you guys. And I also feel like I can ask for your help. As I mentioned, SLEEPLESS doesn’t have any reviews right now, and boy, could it use some. If you read SLEEPLESS, please give it a review. Reviews can be as long or as short as you’d like, and they don’t have to be positive to be helpful.
SLEEPLESS is free until Sunday night. And it’s the fourth “Detroit Next” book but the books can be read in any order, so don’t let that stop you from reading and reviewing.
Who knows? Maybe this won’t even work. Maybe SLEEPLESS will fizzle at full price. If it does, then we’ll all have learned something—you the easy way and me the hard way. In any case, I’ll report back in two weeks and let you know.
In the meantime, thank you in advance for the reviews. And happy reading!
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.]