Choose your commitments wisely this holiday season

Squirrels have almost nothing to do with writing, but everybody could use more cute in their life.
Squirrels have almost nothing to do with writing, but everybody could use more cute in their life, happy holidays!

Christmas is right around the corner, and whether or not your family celebrates it, chances are pretty good that you still have holiday obligations. My family certainly isn’t religious, but we still have Christmas dinner every year. It’s a good excuse to get together and enjoy ourselves, and it’s usually pretty nice to get presents.

But most of us don’t have just one dinner with our family. We have friends eager to see us, holiday dinners with the in-laws, maybe even company holiday parties. Everybody wants some of our time, and ordinary life doesn’t just stop because you want to go to an extra holiday party.

As tempting as all these celebration offers might seem, think hard before agreeing to each one. A company holiday party might sound fun, but it might turn out to be more awkward than enjoyable. Going out with friends every day for a week might actually get boring on the third day.

Many years of school taught me to instead think of the holidays as a time to write more. I tend to write out more goals than are humanly possible when planning for the year ahead, and I see these last two weeks as my chance to make one final attempt to hit those goals.

If you have some time off in the next two weeks and you’re not hosting Christmas dinner, you might just want to do the same.

Even if you’ve accomplished almost none of your goals this year, you can still make these last two weeks matter.

Those of you who completed Nanowrimo this year already know the amount of work you can get done in two weeks when you really put your mind to it. And most of you completed Nanowrimo while maintaining full time jobs and some semblance of relationships with the people around you.

If you can write 25, 000 words–or even 15, 000 words–in two weeks, you can accomplish quite a few big things in those two weeks.

In the last two weeks I’ve done one quick read of a novel I edited last year, taken notes for the next edit, edited some spelling and grammar errors along the way, and then did the last editing pass on a novella I’ve been working on. Oh, and I created a booklet of 110 Novel Planning Resourcesfor people subscribed to my newsletter.

Now, I don’t have a full time job, but I’ve also been working for Musa Publishing part time, writing articles for money, working on pitches for potential freelance clients, doing a series of workshops on storytelling as it relates to advertising, and planning out what next year will look like here on the Dabbler.

These are my plans for the next two weeks:

  • Perfect the query and synopsis for my fantasy novella — I started on these today, and I already have a couple people, one who’s read the novella and one who hasn’t, who have agreed to give feedback on these so I can revise them a few times.
  • Submit said novella — I’ve got this written on my calendar for December 30th. Submitting this novella was actually on my goal list for this year. I think we call this “cutting it close.”
  • Identify 15+ companies to pitch in the new year — I really want to start off strong in January with a lot of pitches, and this will be easier if I have a list to start with. Once I get going, I know I’ll stick with it.
  • Draft January blog posts — I’ve got a pretty good idea what I want to write about here at the Dabbler come January, and not much work in the next two weeks, so I’d like to get these done and hopefully even scheduled in advance.
  • Plan first 3 months on The Dabbler — My plan for The Dabbler currently ends at the same time January does, and I’d like to have a more solid idea what I’m doing with this blog when the new year starts.

Ambitious, right? To be honest, once you get into the rhythm of these things most of them don’t take too long, and I’m confident I can accomplish them, especially since I won’t be posting here next week.

So what are you planning to do before the year ends? Are you going to be wrapping up any big goals? Let me know in the comments below!

Creating a content plan for your blog

agenda planner Last week I talked about my efforts to get serious about building my vlog to increasing your number of daily views by 50.

What matters is that you aim high but keep your goals realistic. Aim for a slightly larger input than what you’re comfortable with. This allows you to push yourself to the next level without pushing yourself too hard and burning out.

Don’t commit to posting more frequently than you can handle. It’s better to publish fewer posts and schedule them a couple months in advance in case you get really sick or busy. Of course, you can change the schedule at any time, but having posts ready to go several weeks in advance helps eliminate a lot of blogging stress.

Your long term goals should include how many posts you want to write this year, how many readers you want to gain and any content you want to release that’s related to your blog–say an email newsletter or an ebook based on your blog content.

Planning for each month

Your plan for each month should include the number of posts you’ll publish each week, when they’ll publish–consistency in your schedule matters more than frequency–and potential themes or topic ideas. You can choose to give each month a theme or create a point form list of post ideas. I usually do both. Ideally, your plan should include outlines for at least a handful of these posts.

Remember to build a variety of posts into your plan, both in terms of topics and formats. You want to keep readers interested by providing something a little different each week. You’ll also want to figure out what posts attract the most attention so you can incorporate more of those into your future planning. Starting with a wide range of posts will allow you to narrow your work down to the most effective.

Any important dates–such as the release of your first email newsletter or subscriber freebie–should also be included in each month’s plan. After all, you’ll want to write a blog post about these dates, right?

Creating a long term plan

You don’t need all the details, but having some idea what you’ll be doing six months, a year or even two years from now can help keep you on the right track. A long term vision makes it easier to do short term planning–after all, how else are you supposed to know what you’re working towards? How are you supposed to measure success if you don’t know what that success looks like?

While a long term plan should definitely note changes in your posting schedule–say if you’ll be returning to school in September and will want to cut back on posting frequency at that time–and potential themes for future months, it’s also where you put goals related to building outwards from your blog. If one of your long term goals is to create an ebook from your blog, plan to start working on it in a few months and publish it in a year when your blog is fairly well known–or work with whatever schedule you’re comfortable with.

Think of your long term content plan as a business plan for your website. Any extra content, future ideas, and goals you have for your content–both in terms of how many people you reach and how much money you make–belong here.

The more solid your plan, the easier it will be to implement. It’s important to always leave some room for change, because the only constant in life is change and better ideas may surface, but give yourself a solid foundation to build your author platform on. Putting conscious energy into building your author platform now will separate you from the rest when it comes time to publish your first novel.

Before you finish that draft

After an excruciating process taking anywhere between a few weeks and several years, your first–or second, or third–draft is almost finished. Your adrenaline’s pumping and you’re ready to power through to the finish line.

As antsy as you might be to finish it, I suggest instead you pause and take a deep breath. It’s time to create a plan for after you’ve crossed the finish line.

Start by scheduling a couple says off. You can write, of course, but jumping straight from one book to the next isn’t a great idea. Give your brain some time to relax and refill the creative well by enjoying somebody else’s book or doing something fun. You might want to focus on stories very different from your current WIP so you can get out of that mode and prepare for the next project.

Speaking of which, make sure you choose the next project to work on before finishing your current WIP. Without a plan, it’s easy to stop writing completely once you finish your novel. Writers can be extremely indecisive. Don’t let yourself fall into that trap.

A good plan will include a start date, a deadline for completion and a list of things that need to get done before you start the actual draft. If you need to flesh out your world, do some research or develop your characters before working on your next project, write the steps you’ll take to do so out on paper. You’ll probably spend quite a bit of time figuring out exactly what preparations you’ll need to make. Don’t worry about it. Every moment spent planning is made up for with time saved during writing.

If there are some shorter pieces you’ve been ignoring to work on your novel, schedule time to finish these before starting your next book. You don’t want those unfinished tasks nagging at the back of your brain while you’re trying to write a novel.

Every writer plans differently. What matters is you create a plan that keeps you constantly writing. You don’t want to lose the momentum you’ve created writing the last draft.

Robin Burks on Character Development

Today’s author is debut novelist Robin Burks, whose novel, Zeus, Inc. began as a Nanovel. I hope you’ll give her a warm welcome and enjoy her thoughts on character development.

* * * *

What makes a good character in a story?

Character development is something every writer has to think about. A good character is key in readers enjoying your work and a good character will keep readers coming back for more of what you write. But where to begin when creating a character?

I tend to look at my own personal characters from an actor’s perspective because of my background in theatre. I ask myself about their motivations and I put myself in their shoes and try to react to situations in a way that I would if I were them.

But there’s so much more to character development than just that. As an actor, the character is already formed by the writer. In writing, you have to create that character from scratch and then continue painting on its various personality quirks, moods and physical traits.

So where does that come from?

When I sat down to write Zeus, Inc., I had to ask myself that very question. Initially, my protagonist, Alex Grosjean, was a young woman, fresh out of high school. I wrote three chapters before I realized that I could not relate to her.

After several more attempts, I made Alex older, closer to my own age, and I started adding personality traits that were similar to my own. Perhaps this was cheating, in a way, but I made her an idealized version of myself. And once I started, I found the character easily enough. As I wrote, I put myself in her position and asked myself “What would I do if I were a private detective being hired by my best friend to find her dad?”
And from there, Zeus, Inc., was born.

But I also had to make Alex flawed because in real life, we are all flawed. And reading about someone who is perfect is also rather boring, right? So I had to come up with something in her background that made it difficult for her to take her friend’s case. Alex needed something personal that she had to overcome. I do not entirely remember where the missing girl case in Alex’s history as a police officer came from, but it gave her that much needed thing to overcome.

As an actor, motivation is key, but so also is conflict. And Alex was written with both in mind.

But Alex wasn’t the only character in Zeus, Inc. There were also a host of other characters. Again, I cheated by writing everything from Alex’ perspective (first person), so I wrote those characters as Alex (or myself) saw them. I ended up basing many of them on people I knew or television characters that I had come across. For example, Aleisha Brentwood is based on a relative of mine, someone that I hold very dear to my heart, as Alex did Aleisha.
But I will admit that the handsome and mysterious Pip was an idealized version of a television character I tend to have a major crush on.

The best thing that worked for me with Zeus, Inc., was to write what I know, and that’s exactly what I did. And it’s probably the best advice I could give to other writers. Take things from your own life, people you know or other characters you’ve seen and use that to create your own characters. Picasso famously said that great artists steal, and I believe that’s exactly what he meant. Let the things around you inspire your characters.

Robin Burks is not only a novelist, but also writes for RantGaming.com, Syfy Network’s DVICE.com and as well as her own blogs – FanGirlConfessions.com and Robin-Burks.com. Robin’s first novel, Zeus, Inc., is now available on Smashwords, BN.com, Amazon.com and in the iBookstore. She also occasionally speaks French and loves Doctor Who.

Bringing your Ideas Together

Earlier this week we went over a few ways to find ideas for your Nanowrimo novel. With any luck you successfully used one of the brainstorming techniques I mentioned on Monday and came up with a few ideas or managed to flesh out an idea you already had.

Today I’d like to help you organize those ideas. While having a mind map or a right brain left brain list is great and either can be used as a basic guide, a linear list of ideas–or a few lists consisting of different categories of ideas–is sometimes more helpful. Personally, my mind maps tend to be horribly disorganized and messy, so I myself will be doing this exercise as soon as I finish writing this post.

First, you need to find a good place to put all these ideas. You can use a folder, a spiral notebook, a binder, and probably a couple things I’ve never heard of. The important thing is that you find something large enough to hold all your ideas and small enough to fit next to your computer in your workspace. I personally keep binders for all my novel length projects. I like binders because it’s easy to put in dividers and keep them organized, and because my binders are big enough that I don’t want to take them everywhere but small enough that I can take them places.

Once you’ve chosen your storage method, it’s time to sort through your ideas. Create categories for plot, world and character on separate pages. With any luck you’ll have had a few ideas about each of these while brainstorming. Create a simple list. For example, your character page might look something like this:

Characters

  • Young female MC–Potential names: Valtessa, Vamira, Kari.
  • Tribal chieftain, MC’s grandfather, needs a name
  • Young male MC–Potential names: Kormir, Thorin, Kaldon.

And so on and so forth. Make sure you put every idea you’ve decided to keep into one of these categories, and if you feel the need to create another category, feel free. Simply writing these ideas down into lists will probably give you more ideas–expand the lists as much as you can. The more you know about what you’re going to do with this novel, the easier it will be to write–or to decide how you want to change your approach.

If you’re going all out and creating an intensive plan and world, this is a great time to grab and label some dividers and to make sure your binder’s well stocked with both lined and blank paper. Graph paper is particularly good for anyone looking to create maps. If you’re going to keep it basic, I’d still suggest stocking it with paper in case you find quotes you’d like to include online or decide to take on dares–or make notes to yourself for when you decide to edit the monster. If you decide to edit the monster.

Where do you like to store your ideas?

Creating a Plan B

Every blogger–or other writer who’s actually expected to produce something regularly–should have a plan B for when things hit the fan. Rather than a small white pill, the plan B for a writer should be a back up of writing: a collection of spare blog posts, article drafts, half-finished fanfiction chapters ready to be rounded out at any moment, or whatever else you’re expected to publish on a regular basis.

I haven’t always been the greatest at this. For the last two weeks I’ve missed blog posts due to crisis situations–and because I didn’t have a plan B. I should have had at least three spare blog posts on hand. I didn’t, and therefore my blog sat unloved for a day.

So last week, instead of beating myself up over missing a post, I started creating a plan B. Nevermind that it’s too late for my most recent crisis, it will be helpful in the next one.

Today I’d like to help you create your own plan B. This exercise was designed specifically to help create a backup of blog posts, but with some modifications should be able to fit whatever kind of writing you need it to.

And now, let’s make our plan B:

Step One: Prepare a list of categories. The first thing you should do is write the name of your website/blog at the top of a large piece of paper. Then, every four or five lines down the page, write down a category of potential posts/articles for your blog. For me, these categories include novel planning, revision, character development, and dialogue. List the things that you talk about most often which can be divided into subcategories if you can’t figure out what your proper blog categories are.

Step Two: Brainstorm for each category. Now, in the space between categories, I want you to brainstorm post ideas which fit within each category. For example, when I did this exercise most recently, under revision I had a post about staying motivated through the edits, and under the dialogue section I wrote out a series of writing exercises which I plan on sharing with you later this month. Just put in whatever comes to mind, whatever can be written about each sub-topic.

Once you have each category filled, it’s time to move on to the next step…

Step Three: Give each idea its own space. Depending on the size of the notebook/paper you’re using and how detailed the posts/articles you usually write are, you can give each idea either half a page or a full page. Write each post idea you’ve had in big bold letters over its own section with enough room to brainstorm. Then start figuring out how you’re going to fill in each post. Ask yourself questions: what can I mention to prove my point about this? How can I help my readers learn more about this? How can I get my readers to reach up and out for their goals?

By the end of this exercise you should have a handful–I usually aim for about a dozen–back up blog posts outlined with point-form notes, ready to be made into complete blog posts at a moment’s notice. It’s always a good idea to draft a couple of these posts, too, so that they’re ready and waiting for when your next crisis hits.

Do you have a plan B for when crisis makes it hard to write?

Creating a Nanowrimo Survival Kit

Every year in at least one of the Nanowrimo forums you’ll find a thread talking about people’s Nanowrimo survival kits. A Nanowrimo survival kit is a big box full of items that will help you through Nanowrimo. Unlike most kits, not all of it will be in a box. Some of these items are better off in the fridge or cupboards around your home. Some should be carried with you all the time. Today I’ve created an example Nanowrimo survival kit, which contains many items most Nanoers find useful during the month of November.

  • Ramen Noodles- Mr. Noodles are a quick, simple meal to make when you’re deprived of sleep and chained to your computer. Picking up a big box of these noodles is a good idea. Even if you don’t eat them all in November, they’re good to have around when you’re tired and sick. Think like a college student–not a lot of time, not a lot of money. Embrace the noodles.
  • Stickers- These are for your calendar to mark key achievements. Some people have different kinds of stickers for when they hit different word goals: one kind for their daily word goal, one kind for their weekly word goal, and others for major points like halfway and of course 50, 000. Usually these go on a calendar or a chart of some sort for the month.
  • Spiral Notebook– This is to carry around with you everywhere, and to keep beside your desk. Use it when you have an idea that doesn’t have a place in the story you’re working on for Nanowrimo. Write down little things you hear people say on the subway that are particularly interesting. Collect dares from the forums that you can use in your Nanovel. Whatever you do, make sure you don’t go anywhere without your notebook next month.
  • Pens– These of course go with the notebook. You should have a couple in your writing space at all times, and you should bring at least one with you everywhere you go. I don’t like to leave my house unless I have at least two pens, even when it’s not Nanowrimo season.
  • Sugary Treat of Choice– Some people like chocolate bars. Some people like hot chocolate. Some people, who may or may not be freaks, prefer strange gummy candies to chocolate. Whatever your favourite sweet thing is, make sure you have a stash for next month. These will be used both to reward hitting massive word goals, and to inspire you in moments of complete desperation.
  • Caffeinated Beverage of Choice– Some people don’t like caffeine at all. Most Nanoers aren’t those kinds of people, so don’t forget to grab an extra box of tea or coffee for next month. You’ll need to load up on caffeine if you’re going to write 50, 000 words while working or going to school, and time spent going to the store could be better spent writing.
  • Dried fruits– And of course other food items which will aren’t going to rot too quickly. It’s convenient to have a stash of healthy snacks. Try to pick ones that won’t grease up your keyboard. When November hits, keep a bowl of healthy snacks on your desk so you don’t end up just eating crap while typing up your novel.
  • Story Totem– Some people have several of these. I sometimes don’t even have one. Creating a totem for your novel–an object of some sort which represents your story–is a good idea. It’s something physical that you can hold in your hands and play with when you get stuck. It’s a great way to keep yourself inspired.

There are dozens of other things you can include in your own personal Nanowrimo survival kit. I haven’t included all of the items in my list, and there are probably things you’ll find incredibly helpful that I haven’t listed here. But this is a really, really good place to start. Remember, Nanowrimo is all about creating a novel in a month, but you’re going to need some things other than a story to make it easier on yourself.

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What’s in your Nanowrimo survival kit?

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Staples Business Depot would like us to believe that August and September make up the most wonderful time of the year. Most people seem to believe that Christmas is the most wonderful time of year.

And then there are a few hundred, maybe even a few thousand strange people that are convinced that October and November, especially November, are the best time of the year.

Why is that? Well, it’s simple. November is National Novel Writing Month. Each year in November, thousands of people gather both on the interwebs and in real life, all with the same goal: to write 50, 000 words or a first draft of a novel. They gather on forums and in chat rooms. There are local Nanowrimo groups in hundreds of cities around the world with varying levels of activity. People come from all walks of life: university students, dentists, scientists, web designers, artists, mathematicians. You name it, we’ve got it.

I participated in Nanowrimo for the first time when I was eleven. It changed my life. I became more confident in my writing. I knew I could write a novel–a big deal for most eleven year old kids–and even better, the community loved the excerpts I brought to the social events. When people ask me how long I’ve been a writer, I tell them that I’ve always wanted to write books for a living, but that I started seriously writing when I was eleven. During Nanowrimo. It changed the way I think about life, about writing.

To make it even better, I made lots of new friends. My mother also participated in Nanowrimo that year, and she took me to a number of the social events and a handful of writing events. I’m blessed to live in Toronto because we have one of the most active local groups–we even have our own website (http://www.torontonano.org/v2/) with our own chatroom. The people I met that year, during my first Nanowrimo, and the people I’ve met every year since are some of the most awesome people I’ve ever met. I love them dearly, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.

Nanowrimo isn’t for everyone. Published authors all have different opinions on it. Some people enjoy it. Some people don’t. But I think everyone with a serious interest in writing should give it a shot at least once. You might not succeed, but at least you can say you tried. And even if you only write a thousand words, that’s a thousand words you hadn’t written before. It’s an accomplishment. Something to be proud of. Only those of us who hit or surpass 50, 000 words will get winners’ certificates, but one of the most important things to remember about Nanowrimo is that every participant who tries is a winner. It’s all about stepping out of your comfort zone and forcing you to do something potentially life-changing.

This year for Nanowrimo, I’ll be working on a novel currently titled Some Secrets Should Never Be Known. It’s a story about a ward of the Queen who’s actually the rightful heir to the throne but doesn’t know it. With her best friend Logan, she sneaks into a secret room deep in the castle, and she discovers the secret of her lineage. She narrowly escapes execution by the Queen. Somewhere along the way she is separated from Logan, and a bit later she’s found by a couple. The couple belong to a village of outcasts, people banished by the Queen, and the village takes her in. Eventually she becomes a renowned warrior and leader, and she finds Logan in one piece. Together they take back the kingdom that’s rightfully hers.

It’s a project that’s been sitting in my head since sometime last year, when I had a dream about it. It wasn’t a dream about it–the dream was the story. The whole story. In my head. Kind of eerie, but I’ve written up pages and pages of notes about the mythology, the legal system, and the story itself. This is the part where I blush and admit that the legal system is worked out better than the one for Moonshadow, hence the halt in my revision on that book. All in all, I can’t wait to get started on this story.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be putting the finishing touches on my worldbuilding (though I’m sure I’ll need to come back and do a lot more once I’ve written the book) and I’ll be discussing how you should prepare for your own Nanowrimo novel. A couple of the things I’m planning to talk about are character development, basic outlines and of course, your Nanowrimo survival kit. (That’s where you put the chocolate.) And then, in a few short weeks, it’ll be time to start our novels.

What are you writing about this November? Are you actually participating in Nanowrimo?

Creating an Outline

There are plotters and there are pantsers, but usually I find that it’s best to be somewhere in the middle. I find it’s much more important to understand and be familiar with your setting and characters than to know all the details of your plot. This is because you’re writing from that point of view in that place, and those details help you decide what decisions characters make and how they influence the story. With that in mind, I’ll help you create a basic outline.

I prefer to use printer paper for this and to draw my own border near the edges of the pages, but it’s really up to you what kind of paper you use and the aesthetics of your outline. I do however insist that you use paper, not your computer, for this exercise. Paper is much more inspirational and I find it much easier to create background notes and info on a piece of paper than to try to conjure them out of thin air onto a computer.

Look at your factsheet and decide which events are most important to your story. You should start with the three most important: the one that really gets the story started (like your characters finding an ancient relic and learning that they have to go on a quest), the rising action (the turning point in the story, when you feel the conclusion creeping up on you), and the resolution of the story-the final battle and the scenes that follow. Put the first event in big letters at the top of the page, the second one in big letters a third of the way down, and the third one in big letters near the bottom.

Now that you’ve got the main events down, it’s just a matter of filling in the details. Now you go back to your factsheet from last week and start listing the smaller events that need to happen to create the story. These should be in order from first to last-in between the three you’ve already established of course-and in point form. You don’t want a lot of details here, just enough so you know what each event is.

Once you’ve got all the essentials on the page you can start adding fun stuff, new scenes and subplots. Remember that every empty space is a place where you can put a new scene as you’re doing this, but that you don’t want to fill up the page entirely. Why? Because if you fill up the page completely, you won’t be able to add things to this outline as you’re writing and new scenes appear-which makes editing harder.

How do you outline?

Previous Posts in this Series
5 Questions to Ask Yourself when Starting a Project
Setting in Early Planning
Characterization in Early Planning
Plot in Early Planning

Plot in Early Planning

Now that we’ve talked about setting and character, it’s time to talk about plot. Plot is the conflict and its resolution, the story itself, which is built upon the building blocks of setting and character. Today we’re going to talk about the things you should establish before you write your outline.

Today you’re going to create a fact sheet in relation to your story. The first thing you need to put on this sheet of paper is the location in which your story takes place. Next, write down each of the characters’ names and their roles in the story. Leave some room here-you’re probably going to run into more characters along the way, and it makes it easier if this list stays up to date. Finally,write down the main conflict and the point-what you’re trying to accomplish with this story.

Now that you’ve established the basics, it’s time to start asking questions such as:

What other conflicts might arise? These are the minor conflicts that make up the story. Things like characters not getting along, or characters getting lost, or encountering an obstacle not directly related to the main story. This is where most of your subplots will come from.

What internal struggles do each of the characters face? These are the struggles that make up the real emotional tension in books. Lord of the Rings wouldn’t be half so amazing if not for Frodo’s internal struggle regarding the ring.

What events absolutely have to happen to reach the conclusion? These are the things that will for sure be included in your outline, the things which are unmovable in your story (at least how you see it now).

Which parts of characters’ pasts are most important? This is the backstory which again, you need to include. These are the things you want the readers to know to help them understand your characters and your story. The things that are crucial to knowing them, like if they used to have a wife who’s dead now, or if both their parents were killed by goblins when they were young. Remember there’s not too much of this that you want to include, but you want to have at least one important item in every character’s past-including the villain’s-to help the reader understand them.

What are each characters’ motivations? This is what each character wants, why they act the way they do in the story. These are important to keep in mind and to weave in during the story.

There are lots of other questions that you can ask, but these are the ones that I find most important. These should give you all the material you need to write your outline and begin your novel.

Previous posts in this series:
5 Questions to Ask Yourself when Starting a Project
Setting in Early Planning
Characterization in Early Planning