NaNoWriMo, Goals, and Tight Pants

Two things make me uncomfortable in life: tight outfits and getting behind on a challenge.

Tight outfits?  I can't do much about that.  When Nick Fury tells me I'm going to a party and lays out my clothes for me, I can't really say anything.  Perhaps he's choosing my outfit with his left eye— I've heard he does that when he votes.  Still, you don't tell your boss to totter off and get some fashion sense.  You wear what he tells you, which is great when you're running around and fighting, but itches like crazy when you're just sitting still.

I sit still way too much.

But as I said, I can't do anything about the tight outfits.  What I can control, however, is being behind on a challenge.

November is National Novel Writing Month!  Whether you're participating in the challenge, participating in not doing the challenge, or participating in the first but thinking about the second, you deserve some encouragement.  To be honest, I deserve some encouragement.  I've been behind since day one, when I offhandedly decided I wanted to write but completely forgot what I liked writing about.  Day two, I didn't write a word.  It wasn't until day six that I finally got myself together and began writing in earnest.  By that time, I was kind of resigned to being 10k behind the game for the rest of the month.

As I said, getting behind on a challenge bothers me a little.  I like to be ahead of things.  I like to say "On your left" as much as possible, even if I'm saying it to myself in past years.  I don't mind letting others get ahead of me, as long as I'm beating my personal records.

Being 10k behind kind of beats my own record, I guess— how far behind can you be and still enjoy the novel you're writing.  I've failed NaNoWriMo challenges before, but that's because I hate the novel I'm writing and decide to start afresh.  I've failed because I forgot to validate my wordcount because I finished the challenge so early.  But I hate to fail when it's a good concept, I'm writing regularly, but I can't do anything to get ahead.

But that's where I have to talk to myself.  NaNoWriMo isn't about winning or losing.  It's about the novel you write along the way.  It's about la joie de l'√©criture.  It's about how long you can go without uploading a novel summary or title.

I know I hold that record, at least.

Every year, I have to ask myself this question, and answer it anew.  Do I stress because I might not make it this month?  Do I stress because I have high expectations and want to finish before November 14th?  Or do I calm myself down, allow myself to write what I want to write, and allow the novel to come first?  Once I put myself in that frame of mind, I find myself with plenty of time to write.

Put yourself in that frame of mind. Whether you're behind and pushing, ahead and relaxing, or on the cusp of failing or winning, let yourself step back.  Figure out why you're writing this novel.  Some people do it for the experience of writing a novel.  Some people do it for practice.  Some people, like me, do it to prove that despite all the other things going on in their lives, they can still support a writing life.

No matter your reason for writing, it's going to be hard.  It's going to slap you in the face at some point and make you wonder if it's really worth it.  That's something you have to overcome by yourself.

To me, it has always been worth it to at least try NaNoWriMo.  I have only ever completed two challenges in the month of November— the other two times I've tried, I've crashed and burned spectacularly.  The same goes for many of my Camp NaNoWriMo challenges.  Why do I keep doing it?  Because every month, I ask myself the same question.

Is this worth it?

And every month, I come to the same realization.


Yes, it's worth it to waste all my free time on my computer.  Yes, it's worth it to stress a little about the numbers and the ideas.  Yes, it's worth it to fight all my battles in a tight-tight-tight outfit, even though it itches when I rest.  Those battles have to be fought.  Those words have to be written.  All that free time, if I didn't waste it on writing, would be wasted somewhere else, somewhere even less useful.

Answer me this, readers: Is it worth it for you?  Is it worth it to write a novel in a month, even though you may have done it a million times already?  Is it worth it to write a novel in a month, even if it's your first time?  Is it worth it?

~Captain America

How to Break the Rules

You think I'm prim and proper, right?  You think I'm strait-laced?  You think I'm stuffed so far into my own principles they would die if I was ever extracted?

Well, I guess I am.  Some rules are definitely useless and should be ignored (Stark's rule about not using JARVIS as an encyclopaedia, for instance), but most are there for very good reasons, and I like them.  Seat belts, returning library books, not wearing the uniform into a fast food restaurant.  (That makes the food considerably slower.)

In writing, though, rules are fluid.  A lot of writing tips are set up as a series of rules that you ought to think about, but you'll find that as you grow, those rules no longer apply.  As you're just starting out, you might have to force yourself to describe things, because you'd rather just do dialogue and leave the world and the action blank.  Thus, you force yourself to describe more until you realize, actually, you're describing too much.  You forced it so much that you passed the proper amount.

Write what you know is a popular rule.  For beginning writers, yes, it's good.  By writing what they know, they spend less time having to research and possibly losing interest.  They are allowed to compare real life with fiction and get motivations, character arcs, and a seamless plot.  They figure out how the mechanics of the story work by doing something simpler.

But as you grow, you no longer need to write what you know.  You begin to realize how much things are parallel in life.  Saying goodbye is universal-- we make different connections to things, and the reasons we have to leave are different, but the emotion of saying goodbye never changes.  The same goes for sadness.  The reason behind it might be different, and the reaction might be too, but the emotion is the same.  Once you realize this, writing what you know means writing what you don't know.  You get to stretch yourself, looking at new characters in new situations that you've never experienced.  But because you understand how people function, you can write it.

So here's another rule/piece of advice: know the rules, then break them.

Spend a lot of time getting to know how writing works.  Write what you know, focus on description, dialogue, plot, whatever you need to focus on.  Make sure every character wants something from the beginning of the story.  Make plot diagrams and write different outlines and squish your story into three-act/five-act/seven-act formulas.  Figure out how storytelling works.  That comes first.  Just follow the rules.  It might feel annoying, but it has to come first.

But writers get published when they go beyond the rules.  That's when they prove they have mastery over the skills of writing.  They mess with grammar, or plot points, or characters, in ways that are off-book, but stunning in their effectiveness.  Authors are published because they can break the rules.  Also, they can break the rules because they're published.

That's not for you yet.  You're still in the learning phase, where a character's motivation might go wrong and you'll spend the rest of the book trying to keep them from becoming the villain.  I don't mean to discourage you, but at this early stage, following the rules is more important than pushing at them.

Now, this is not forever.  The rules are necessary for the beginning, but eventually you'll find yourself at a crossroads.  You want to do this with a scene, but the rules won't let you.  If you can accomplish it, the book will be so much better.  Now might be the time for some rule breaking.

Here's a simple example.  You've got an action scene, and the rhythm of your sentences is important.  Someone does something.  Someone else does something.  Some big chain reaction happens and everything is going wrong and the main character is panicking and something is about to happen and she doesn't know what it is but--




Ta-da, I broke the rules of grammar.  You aren't allowed, by the rulebook, to write a sentence with each word on a different line.  You aren't allowed to leave off punctuation, or stop capitalizing letters.  What I just did is not okay.  If I did it every chapter, it definitely wouldn't be okay.  But once, in the middle of an action scene, to take the emphasis from very high to WHOA PLEASE STOP, that's worth it.

What is the rule here?  Use good grammar so you can get your point across.  What if your point is so big that regular grammar can't understand it?  You might have to break a rule.  If you break that rule all the time, it loses effect.  If you break it once, it has an enormous effect.

So break stuff!  Once you know what you can and cannot do with the rules of writing, start going beyond.  For instance, if Stark tells me I'm only allowed to use the refrigerator for research, I can stick with it for a while.  I'll write a couple food-related fantasies, or maybe an ice-world science fiction.  But when I need to research the effects of erosion, I'm going to need something stronger.  Rest assured I'll ask JARVIS behind his back.

Rules are made to be learned.  They'll keep you in line while you start out, and allow you to learn the mechanics of writing.  But eventually, they'll fall short.  When that happens, you're going to have to get creative and break something.  If that's the case, don't be afraid to break a rule just because it's a rule, as long as you know what you're doing.

Know what you're doing, and have fun.  That's my favorite advice.

~Captain America

Don't worry, I'm still me. Just breaking the rules.

Writer Appreciation

Do you know how hard it is to admit that other writers are better than you?

Self-esteem is one of the biggest problems and benefits a writer has.  It races upward and plunges downward in mere moments as you get a good criticism, then a bad criticism; as you read through a part that you love, as you start writing a part that you hate.  Writing is full of these twists and turns, making you revel in the joy of creation and sending you to burn in doubt and self-pity.  Hateful?  Yes.  Everyone hates it.

But when it comes to comparing ourselves to others, we push all this aside.  We put on the face of confidence and assuredness.  Yes, I might be stuck in writer's block and my critique partners are a little too confused about the story, but I'm still a writer.  I've come this far.  I am learning, and growing, and already quite competent.

When we see another writer, however, this changes.

They just finished a novel, or a short story, or something.  They're sharing it with the world.  They're obviously euphoric and proud of themselves-- good for them.  They should be.  You've been there, you know how it feels, and even though you're stuck in writer's block, you're happy for them.  And then you actually read what they wrote.

And it's good.  Not just okay, or a good start, but it's solid.  Flaws, yes, but everyone has flaws-- this thing could probably query pretty well as it is.  You blink at it.  Then you blink at your writer's blocked WIP.

You start comparing.

Some comparison is healthy.  If you use the Plot Twist In-A-Box (guaranteed to get a reaction out of 99% of readers), and a published author uses it better, you can compare the two to see how you can improve.  If you think your setting is taking too much space, you can look at another writer with a massive setting and see how they handle such a problem.  Comparison works.

But you'll notice I mentioned specific things.  You aren't comparing your entire novel with A Tale of Two Cities.  You aren't comparing your life experiences with those of Alexandre Dumas.  You're comparing characters with characters, or descriptive style with descriptive style.  You're comparing elements of the whole, not the entire thing.  You are comparing with the goal of learning.

When you compare yourself with another unpublished writer, it's often not that simple.  You aren't comparing to learn, because you've been around much longer than this other writer.  Or, you aren't comparing to learn, because they've been around longer than you and that would give them a big head.  You're comparing because of pride.

We see a published author and think, Since they're published, they must have a lot to teach.  I'm going to learn from them.  We see an unpublished author and think, I'm not published yet, they're not published yet, but who's closest to it?  We learn from the people who have finished the race, and compete against the ones who are still running.  But publishing isn't a race.

Everyone can teach you something.  You can learn philosophy from a child.  You can learn nursery rhymes from an octogenarian.  It doesn't matter who they are, they can still teach you something.  We know this when it comes to published authors, but unpublished writers?  People who just started a manuscript yesterday and already have prose more polished than us?

Yes.  You can learn.  Everyone can learn from everyone.  Instead of looking at it with the competitive mindset, look at it with appreciation.  When you compare, you realize how good they are and despair about how you measure up-- just lose the last part.  Realize how good they are.  Say how good they are.  If we build each other up, we create a community of unpublished writers that is healthy and strong.  We create a community that can push more people toward publishing, rather than hold most back while a couple shoot to the top.  The goal is for everyone to be published someday.  That's not going to happen if you keep comparing yourself negatively.

So what if someone learned in a month what it took you years to learn?  They're going to have other struggles, that you also had but overcame already.  They're going to look at you and try to learn.  It's your job to encourage them.  It's your job to encourage yourself.  You're both learning, you're both headed for the same goal, and there's plenty to go around.

Comparison can be healthy, but appreciation is so much more so.  Enjoy what other unpublished writers write.  Revel in their progress just as much as you do in your own.  Positivity is so worthwhile.

~Captain America

The Emotional Ups and Downs of the Writing Process

Writing is not for the faint of heart. I'm talking here more about an emotional courage that's required, though there are physical perils as well (paper cuts are no joke). I'm talking about the times when you're thrilled with the glory of your creation and you resemble this guy as each brilliant word flows effortlessly from your brain to your keyboard:
You're a wizard and your book is soon to be an international bestseller!

And then you hit a snag. You realize a character, a plot point, or the whole concept is just not working. You're worthless and so is everything you have ever written, including last week's grocery list. You feel like this:

If you're a writer, chances are you've been there- both places. And chances are equally good that anything I am about to say isn't going to make you feel any better if you're in the slough of despond right now about your work in progress. But these ups and downs, these swings from elation to despair, are all part of the rich emotional pageant that is the writing process, and the sooner you accept that, the better your chances are for survival. And publication.

I chatted recently about this sort of writer-specific bipolar condition with a friend of mine. She's a YA writer and a teacher, and, like most teachers, she doesn't usually get summers "off"; most teachers I know work some other job over the summer, and she's no exception. This summer, though, was the first in over a decade that she wouldn't be teaching. It was The Summer of Writing and she was so excited about it. 

At first, after some rusty starts at reacquainting herself with her characters and her story, the full-time writing life was the bliss she had anticipated. With no other job to worry about, she could focus 24/7 on her story, and it was exhilarating how quickly, easily, and varied the ideas came. By mid-July, she had two hundred pages written and pages of notes and a thriving Pinterest inspiration board. She swears even the neighborhood birds chirped around her like that scene out of Disney's Snow White.

And then it stopped.

Doubts began to creep in. Had she started the narrative in the right place? Were the characters interesting enough? What was going to happen next? Dear God, had she been mindlessly producing a string-of-pearls plot* all summer long? Panic set in followed by despondency and sleepless nights. Until one night she woke up and knew what she needed to do, which she remembered had happened to her with an earlier manuscript (now a real published book), which reassured her. The solution, however, did not.

She had to scrap all two hundred pages and start over again.

And that's what she's doing. She's opened up a new file folder on her desktop for this version and trying not to feel like those two hundred pages were a waste of time. Because they weren't. They led her to the realization that is - hopefully - going to make this a better and stronger book in the long run. And as any writer knows, to create something worthwhile and lasting, you have to play the long game.

So if you've hit a snag in your writing, don't despair. Take a break. Work on something else and let the problem percolate in the back of your brain until the solution comes to you. In this way, writing is very much like scientific inquiry: there's a lot of trial and error, no matter how carefully you outline and pre-plot and prepare. Sometimes you just have to go back to the drawing board and see all the previous experiments as learning experiences. Because that's what they are, though it's not easy to remember that when you're clutching your laptop and weeping.

Drop the Team a line about a snag you hit and how you've overcome it. In the mean time, I'm going to talk the Other Guy out of destroying his work in progress and his laptop just because Natasha pointed out that the "it was just a dream" plot twist had been done a few times before. He's not big on the whole "trial and error/learning experience" thing.

Until next month. Banner out.

 * a "string of pearls plot" is called this because while lots of stuff happens to the characters - problems arise, problems are solved - none of the events really move the story along or contribute to any overarching theme. You can read a good definition here.

Writing While Busy

Fury has had me in a few dozen countries these last months. It’s safe to say that I’ve been busy. The trouble with Americans is that we subscribe to an idolization of business. We are all busy, to varying degrees. We like it that way. We keep it that way. Busyness goes far beyond what you’re physically doing. We keep our minds busy with podcasts and music and Netlfix binges. The trouble is: how does one stay busy and write a novel?

The short answer? You can’t. We have time for what we make time for. Writing takes a lot of time. If it isn’t at least near the top of your priority list, you’ll never finish that story or novel or poem or whatever else you’re working on. And really, there’s no shame in that. There are plenty of writers who are hobbyists, who write for fun and that’s all they need.

I am not one of those people. Part of what makes me a good agent and a difficult person to date (sorry Bruce) is that there is no half way with me. I’ll succeed or fail, but there is no in between.  When it comes to writing, I’m the same. I will finish and sell this novel. It’s another world saving mission.

So then, how do I write while actually saving the world?

My rule: write three sentences every day. That's all I require of myself, especially on days I don't feel like writing. Especially on days when toppling regimes or interrogating dictators takes priority. Most of the time, I end up with a lot more than three sentences. That’s it. That’s all I require of myself each day. Usually those three sentences turn into five or ten or forty. Sometimes it’s only three.

 I used to subscribe to the Hemingway 500 words a day thing. But 500 words can be a daunting number, on bad days, it sounds impossible. Three sentences, on the other hand? No problem. I can do that while scaling the side of a building. I can do that during a hostile takeover.  I can build a story one paragraph at a time without guilt or worry. It might not seem like a lot, but it’s a hell of a lot more than writing nothing.

How do you break through the busy?


Active Rest for Writers

Writing skill is like a muscle.

I say this all the time: you have to practice, practice, practice, to get better at writing.  Keep writing, keep reading, but mostly just keep writing.  Write, write, write.  This skill is like a muscle.  The more you exercise it, the more it will grow.

But muscle-building is not a constant process.  If you push yourself to run faster, lift more, and work harder every day, you will see something weird happen.  Instead of zooming into muscle proficiency, you will remain at the same level.  You might find yourself slowing down, not recovering as quickly, and generally losing your mind.  You're burning yourself out by working at full steam all the time.

By taking a day or two each week out of a workout schedule, you can take time to recover and come back energized.

Obviously, the writing metaphor extends to this as well.  You can't write all the time.  Seriously.  Even if you think you can, I'm telling you: you can't.  If you write all the time, you'll burn yourself out, just like in a workout.  So take a break.  I've talked about this before.

Now, there's a problem here.  In a healthy lifestyle, working out five days and vegging the other two doesn't work.  Running, swimming, whatever is no good if you spend the two break days lying on the couch, eating junk food.  Yes, it's rest.  Yes, you'll be able to recover.  But it's not healthy.

An active lifestyle combats this with active rest.  There are certainly times for lying on the couch with mountains of ice cream.  However, they are balanced by actual activities.  Go on a walk.  Clean out your garage.  Offer the ducks at the park a special interpretive dance.  Get out and do something active, without pushing yourself to constantly be better.  Don't run, don't swim, don't do pushups.  Just be active.  That's active rest.

I'm going to stretch the comparison even further.  In a writing life, the same thing applies.  Sitting on the couch watching movies is very passive.  The story is given to you-- you don't have to imagine the characters, you don't have to think about their motivations, you just watch, and the movie gives you everything.

Reading is a little bit better.  You're forced to imagine everything that's happening, interpreting the words for yourself.  It's a way to refresh yourself actively.  Reading, absolutely, is a great option.

But you can do something more.  Active rest for writers is more than just reading.  It's creating.

The muscles you use for writing are the muscles you use for creating.  When you draw a picture, you exercise your visual and expressive skills.  When you play music, you work on performance, structure, and making things sound perfect.  When you spend thirty minutes fitting every last dish into a dishwasher, you're exercising the muscles that put words and sentences together, or that juggle ten characters in the same scene.  Creation, whether it's art, home maintenance, or interpretive dancing for ducks, is active rest.

Ever notice that when your hands are moving, you can think up ideas more quickly?  That's active rest.  Ever notice that when you dedicate yourself to a non-writing-related project, you get more excited for your own writing?  Maybe this doesn't happen to you, but it happens to me.  Active rest lets you recover from the exercise of writing.

I still hold to the advice that you should write as much as possible.  Write everything you can.  But when you feel yourself burning out, don't push yourself past your limit.  That's foolishness.  Instead, take a break.  But use your break wisely.  Create.  Imagine.  Keep your mind active even during your rest.

And yes, filling out a spreadsheet counts as creative.  Fixing an old clock counts as creative.  Cleaning out your refrigerator counts as creative.  (Hey, I'm not going to give you an excuse to procrastinate either.  That thing needs cleaning and you know it.)  I'm telling you that work counts as active rest.  That's why writers with day jobs don't burn out as easily.  You'll notice that I'm not saying that binge-watching Netflooberwhatever counts.  Trust me on that.

My best advice will always be to write.  If you can't write at the moment, create.  You'll thank me for it.

~Captain America

We Will Write

My friends, we will write.

Everyone Else: This isn't just like a journey to a bookstore, where you summon your credit card and buy all of the books that speak to you. This is writing.

My fellow writers have defeated their armies and they have succeeded. We will just be writing. My friends, have you forgotten all that we have done together?

J.K. Rowling, who was rejected by 12 publishers for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, did she give up when she was told "not to quit her day job?"

C.S. Lewis, was he not rejected over 800 times before getting anything published and is not now The Chronicles of Narnia published in 47 languages?

Louisa May Alcott, was she not told to give up her dream of publishing Little Women and is not still in print 140 years later?

Stephen King, the man who has terrified millions, was he not told to stop writing after giving up on his first book?

E.L. James... no.

Writing alone is folly. I have known many great writers who have passed beyond because they attempted to write on their own. They fought nobly, but they were forced to give up. Writing is not for the faint of heart. Without my fellow Avengers, I would find it harder than I would like to do this. Join this community of writers! Connect with others on social media sites, share your pain and your success in all of your battles.

Sometimes, those fellow writers, will help with your ideas and inspire you. I have a friend who shared a video from the Inter of Nets, that inspired me to write a novel that I am very proud of.

My fellow Avengers spoke to you about your ideas this month - how to find them, how they morph and change. But the important part to remember is not to give up. Assemble your team. Writing is not something you need do alone.


Out of the Loop: How to Keep Writing When You Get Stuck

Sometimes you look like this when you're writing. You've found the  flow and you're so happy, you don't even mind (much) when someone interrupts you. You might even smile at them.

And then there are those times
when you've hit that metaphorical wall and you're so frustrated you're coming out of your skin. The words won't come and the brilliant idea you jotted down in the middle of night looks dumber than a bag of rocks in the light of day.

So what do you do? You could put your fist through a wall or trash a small city, but I don't recommend that. You could delete all the work you did and move on to something else in that hope that you're not completely delusional in your desire to write something worth reading, but I wouldn't recommend that, either.

You need, instead, to get in the loop.

Loop writing is a technique I learned from a writer-teacher friend who learned it when she was in grad school and teaching her first freshman composition classes. It's a version of freewriting, and I admit I was skeptical about it when I first tried it, but it actually worked for me, and has worked well for many people. So before you go smashing that sleepy small town, give it a go. Here's how.

1. First, just write. Make yourself write, nonstop for five, ten, fifteen minutes if you can stand it, even if what you write is utter nonsense, put it on paper or screen. You can just start writing gibberish about a scene you need to work out, or the opening paragraph of your opus or notes on what to do next or how to flesh out a character.

For example, my friend was stuck on what to do with a character that she felt was getting a little too cliche, a little too much a stock character, the conniving, clueless Hollywood wannabe, in this case. So she got out a fresh piece of paper (she's kind of old-fashioned that way. I should introduce her to Cap). For about five minutes, she made herself write about everything that came into her head abut this character, even if the ideas made her cringe - or go "What the crap?", as you'll see below - just to see what happened. It looked something like this:
 always wanted to be famous worked
hard at it dance lessons @3, pageants, contests
local kids show in Texas wins national American
Idol type context show eats a tapeworm

2. After she reached her allotted freewrite time, she went back and circled everything that jumped out at her as possibly interesting or just plain weird ("eats a tapeworm?" what is that?) If you're writing on a laptop, highlight or change font color on any intriguing words or phrases, anything you think you can work with or might be worth thinking about more.

3. Start writing about the word or phrase for the next five minutes. Musicians call this "riffing" - you've got the basic notes, the melody, and now you're playing with it, exploring it, seeing where it can take you.

My friend was kind of freaked out by the "eats a tapeworm" idea so she highlighted that phrase and then just started writing about what that could mean:
wants to lose weight, pressure to look a certain way 
buys a tapeworm of the internet ???? find out how to
get a tape worm because she's on tour and has to maintain
her weight people are tweeting mean things wants to be loved

She kept writing and while eating a tapeworm is certainly a weird idea (and one that no physician would recommend), she realized that there was a level of pain and sadness to this character that she had always thought of as just vain and shallow. She saw the potential for pathos here in a young woman who wants so much to be famous, to be loved,  that she'll eat a parasite to stay thin if that will make people want her more.

4. Repeat as necessary. My friend highlighted the last part of her second freewrite - "wants to be loved" - and wrote about that and as she wrote she got to know and care for in that way that writers do as they come to see their characters as real people. She realizes that she has a more three-dimensional character now who will continue to grow and not just a stock antagonist for her main characters.

And as she fleshes out this character, my friend will Google whether or not people can buy and eat tapeworms on purpose. She figures she must have heard about it somewhere and it certainly underscores the character's desperation to be thin.

So that's loop writing. Some writers feel too self-conscious to do it, and if you're one of them, I have one more suggestion: If you're writing on a computer, turn off the monitor or tape a piece of paper to cover your screen so you can't second-guess and edit yourself. Just write and see what you came up with when you're done. There's bound to be one word, one image, you can explore.

Let us know where your exploration takes you, friends. I've kind of isolated myself from people for awhile, so I appreciate the emails and comments here. 

Whatever you do, keep writing.

The Idea Morph

Ninja goats.

You’re in-between projects, reading a couple books as a break after your last magnum opus; or maybe you haven’t written in a while, but you have other things to focus on.  Your writer mind, however, is always working, and out of the blue you get this idea.  Ninja goats.  Some people might have questions about this, but there’s no question in your mind.  You need to write this.  You need to write it like you need an actual ninja goat in your life.

But this idea needs a little bit of fleshing out first.  Whatever your pre-writing strategy is, whether it’s deep thought or encyclopedia-writing, you start working.  What would make ninja goats possible?  What would make them effective?  What would make them become a conflict, and who would be a good main character in the center of this conflict?  All your thinking leads you to great places, where you’re excited about the story and can’t wait to actually write it.  If you’re a pantser, you probably already started writing, but now you’re even more excited.

As you progress, whether in thinking or in writing, you come to a sticky place.  Everything you’ve worldbuilt thus far has been great-- the characters are going to be tested, the plot is going to flow, and you’re going to have a blast.  But… it isn’t working completely.  It isn’t working the way you expected it all to work.

Horror of horrors, the ninja goats are being pushed out of the story.

See, in order to have ninja goats, you had to uplift their psyches so they could actually think instead of becoming highly-trained eaters.  In order to do an uplift, scientists would need sufficient technology, and the process requires a zero-gravity workspace.  You could accomplish this by dropping the lab from a great height (Thor knows what I’m saying here-- that cage Loki trapped him in started falling and he lost all sense of up or down), but the easiest and coolest way to do it is space.  You shoot the lab into space.  The main characters are on a space station lab, but they’re a botanist and an archaeologist-- they have no reason to be on the specific goat-uplift-centered space lab.  They’re on an offshoot lab dedicated to botany-archaeology in space.

Are you seeing the problem?  If they’re on an offshoot lab, and ninja goats are uplifted elsewhere, the main characters will never see a ninja goat.  Which is a problem.

Oh, that’s easy to fix, you say, and suggest putting all the different labs into the same space station.  But that’s bad for two reasons: one, on the practical side for the scientists, archaeologist-botanists don’t want ninja goats running through their literally dirty work.  On the writing side, though, you have an enormous plot twist planned for halfway through the book where the life support starts killing people (I’ve researched long and hard and know for a fact that that is ironic).  The life support on ninjagoat!Station is an older model than on the archaeologybotany!Station, and thus wouldn’t fail that way.  It’s only because of science and funding and weird politics and media that the newer life support ever existed.

Anyway, Stark is feeding me all this science and I’m doing my best to explain it all, but it’s not really working.  The point is, your main characters will never see ninja goats in their lifetime.  Thus, your readers will never see ninja goats.

Your initial idea has failed.

I’ll let you blink at that for a little while.  Ninja goats thrilled you.  They made you get off your rear and start working on a new story, when you hadn’t written in a while or you were still tired out from the last story.  Ninja goats burst from your mind fully-formed like some Athena of the imagination, the perfect idea ready for battle.  You needed to write ninja goats.  You needed to write ninja goats like you needed to write a good story.

There’s the tipping point.  No, ninja goats are not greater than a good story.  They aren’t even equal.  If you tell a bad story about ninja goats, it’s worthless.  A good story is so much better than ninja goats.

Look at your archaeology-botany-space-station-life-support story.  Look at those well-rounded characters in their vivid world, thrown about by the twisty plot.  That’s a good story.  Even if the first draft turns out like trash, as first drafts do, there’s a lot to love in there.  You could make this work.
What price glory?  If it means giving up your ninja goats, your muse’s once-in-a-lifetime gift, is this really worth it?  It’s sacrilege even to consider giving up the ninja goats, but…  Well, choosing between the idea of the century and a genius story is always tough.  But this is one facet of killing one’s darlings, as they say.  In order to tell a great story, you have to sacrifice a couple ninja goats.

This happens all the time.  You get a great idea, you begin fleshing it out, and the story you create has no place for the original story.  It’s always annoying when it happens, but here’s the thing about ideas: they aren’t time-sensitive.  Write down the ninja goats.  Put that idea somewhere you’ll find it in the future.  Maybe there will be a great story that features ninja goats-- for now, you have the opportunity to say that ninja goats inspired your archaeology-botany space story.  Which is not something many people can say.

Thanks to Stark for helping me figure out the science stuff, and for letting me post this without describing everything perfectly.  Apparently brain chemistry has some extra facets that I didn’t mention.  Which is probably wise because I’m still trying to figure out the zero-gravity stuff.  If I ever write this story, I’ll get it all straight.

Don’t worry if your idea morphs into something unrecognizable.  You have the last word on what this story will be, and you’ll choose the idea that gives the best story.  I have confidence in you.

~Captain America

A Change of Mind

Greetings, fellow writers.

I, Thor, have come to you today with a special announcement. My current alter-ego has chosen to move on from YAvengers, and will be leaving the team. This does not mean, however, that I am leaving as well. I have found a new alter-ego, and would like to introduce her now.

Meet Krista McLaughlin.

I am Thor Odinson of Asgard. There is no one worthy to carry my hammer, only I, the God of Thunder can wield it. I write as one called Krista McLaughlin, who frequents tales of young adults being contemporary or something of the sort. I must have a cup of coffee to write! My alter ago also prefers to be known as a Hufflepuff, Hobbit, and serious Trekkie. You may follow her on FacebookTwitter, and her Blog.

I have already gotten to know Krista, and we are sure to be a fantastic team. She and I will likely give a post toward the end of this month.

Farewell, and good day.


Publishing, Food, and a Teensy Bit of the Future

The end of an era!  The passing of a once spectacular time!  The slow goodbye of a thousand tears in the night of--

Wait, what?  No, nothing's going on.  I just finished my food.

Well... something is going on, but I'll get to that later.  First of all, we have the end of a great month.  May's topic dealt with Publishing in all forms, along with a little bit of networking and other things.  We didn't dive too deeply into it (there's still plenty to research, in other words), but we're still researching it too.  I don't think that job is ever quite finished.  But this month is a great place to start.

Speaking of great places to start... Well, he might be the worst place to start, but here it is: Stark starts!  He wrote a spectacular post on self-publishing, which is something about which I'm always curious.  He also relabeled it 'punk rock publishing', which I admit is something about which I'm less curious, but I'd try it if someone with my taste in music suggested it.  As for the post though, he makes a lot of good arguments for going self-published, debunking many of the myths surrounding the field.  It's a daunting way to go unless you've done the research, which Stark has.

Moving into the traditional field, Banner talks about cover art and the kind of control an author has in traditional publishing.  Authors don't have much control.  As someone who believes the cover and synopsis should further the book's intent just as much as the story itself, I wish it weren't so, but you take what you can get in traditional publishing.  There are some side effects with both punk rock and traditional, but there are benefits of each.

Hey, there's me, looking slightly out of place as usual.  I spent a post trying to figure out how to use hashtags, but also talking about connections in publishing.  How do you get them?  Do you really need them?  You'll find out your own formula for both of these answers-- the publishing world is different for everyone-- but this is a good place to start.

To round out the month, Thor weighs in (a lot of weight, may I just say, most of it hair) on conferences.  Networking is difficult for someone who spends most of their time in the dark with a glowing screen and a keyboard, but it's still important.  Know the types of conferences you might find, know what you're looking for, and above all, be yourself.

That's the month from the blog's perspective.  Behind the scenes...  Well, there's a lot going on.

You may have noticed I'm laying off the Thor jokes this time around (comparatively, at least).  Thor is having a bit of an identity crisis lately, and it's going to be tough.  His current alter-ego might have to go in a different direction soon.  We'll keep you all posted on what's going on-- look for an official announcement before Thor disappears entirely, and rest assured that we'll have a replacement on the team before too much time passes.  We enjoy having the full squad on deck.

That's only half of the problem, though.  I too am shimmying my responsibilities into a different area.  I have a mission to complete that might take some time.  Right now I'm working on stacking up posts to schedule over the next four months, over which time I can't tweet, can't write wrap-ups, can't do anything.  It's wonderful that technology has advanced far enough for me to stick around even while I'm off working.  I don't like the idea, but it must be done.

So what does this mean for you?  Very little, actually.  The blog is still active.  We'll keep producing posts for you to enjoy.  If you'll bear with us for this next period, I think we can keep you pleased.  As always, thank you for being here.  Without you, none of us would have a reason to exist.  We might have to change a little bit, but our reliance on you never does.  Thank you for that.

As always, have a fun month of writing!


Thor's Thoughts on Conferences

Greetings, mortals.

Before I begin, allow me to invite you to join me for a #YAvengers Twitter chat this evening at 7pm Pacific Daylight Time. (That is 10pm Eastern.) Come with your questions about publishing, agents, editors, self-pub, and what have you. We will do our best to answer your questions and direct you to appropriate research in whatever regard you require.

Now, being that is it conference season, and my alter-ego had the privilege of attending one recently, I thought it would be beneficial to all if we speak on this topic.

With regards to conferences, you, as writers, should be aware of the differences between various types. There are conferences with classes to help you improve your craft, panels to give you perspective or advice from published authors/agents/editors, classes geared toward librarians, booksellers, agents, editors, etc.

If you are unpublished, you should be focused on your writing craft. Some conferences are geared more toward the sellers (bookstores, libraries, publishers, reviewers) but until you have a book to sell, you should learn as much as you can about what you are doing. Always seek to grow and improve.

Side note - always bring snacks.
This month, my alter-ego went to the LDStorymakers conference in Provo, Utah. She had the opportunity to see agents' and editors' first-responses to queries, she was able to pitch to an editor, and even chatted in a group with an agent. All of these opportunities made her nervous (she gets shaken quite easily, though she refuses to admit it). However, it was through these experiences that she saw how much agents and editors truly love what they do.

There are many lists of tips and tricks for meeting agents and editors, do's and do-not's, and the truth is, there is no hidden secret to doing this. However, through her experience, my alter-ego has one simple rule for you to follow:

Be Yourself.

You're either going to be nervous, or you're not. There's not much you can do to change that. What you can do, is let yourself behave the way you would with any other random stranger. Be polite, (don't shove your manuscript in their face) and don't pause what you're doing just because an agent or editor is in your vicinity or even talking to you. They love books as much as you do. They do this because they love authors and stories. They love working with words.

The first time you meet an agent, you'll probably freeze. If you're anything like my alter-ego. But if you push through it and be yourself, you'll showcase your personality in the best way. And you never know, you just might draw someone's attention.

Good luck,


#Connections in Publishing

#ThingsWritersSay: "I wish I could meet an agent or editor in real life; that way I'd have a foot in the door for traditional publishing."

Did I fool you with my use of a hashtag above?  Apparently they're useful, and I'm doing my best to learn how they work.  I think I've got it down.  I love how modern I sound.  (According to others, use of a semicolon destroyed the modernity of the hashtag.  Oops.)  Hashtags aside, we're talking about publishing this month.  I'd like to talk about the above statement.  It's now below as well.

"I wish I could meet an agent or editor in real life; that way I'd have a foot in the door for traditional publishing."

Let's split it into two parts: the wish and the reason.  The wish, I think, is good-- and because of that, I'd like to share a couple of ways to befriend agents and editors without coming across as the slobbering amateur.  The reason, I think, is bad-- not because putting your foot in a door really hurts (which it does), but because connections do not a book deal make.

I wish I could meet an agent or editor.

Good wish.  Agents are experts in the business of publishing as well as reading, and they often have interesting takes on books and things they'd like to see in their to-read pile.  It's important not to focus on their to-read desires and try to write for the market, of course-- that makes a lot of stress for you without much promise.  The market can and does change over the course of a week, and even the best of us can't write, edit, submit, and publish novels in that space of time.  Trying to mold your WIP to whatever genre or form an agent thinks is selling well, that doesn't work.

But agents are more than their to-read piles.  A relationship with an agent is a long-term thing-- it's very seldom insta-love-your-book-I'll-buy-it.  Don't see an agent as a direct, quick path to publication that you have to seize in the next five minutes.  Through talking with an agent, you'll realize how agents work; how their enthusiasm drives their business, how queries and pitches catch or lose their interest, and how the agent/author relationship works.  Also, when an agent raves about a book they just read?  Read it now.

Editors are slightly different, but the same rules apply.  You don't walk up and shove your book in their face.  Don't expect them to buy your book immediately.  Keep it simple.  Learn about the things they look to fix in manuscripts, so you can fix them yourself.  Learn what makes them excited and why.  Learn from them, don't see them as one of those slot machines where you put in a pitch and get out a book deal.  That's always when things get...

#Awkward!  (Nope?  Okay.  I'll keep trying.)

Here's a great rule of thumb for talking to people in the business without shoving yourself down their throat (it also works for talking to anyone, if you struggle with that sort of thing): start the conversation by asking, "What are you excited about?"

Usually they're excited about books, but you never know.
This opens an enormous door.  Agents and editors will be most excited about the book they just found, or the book they worked on that's about to be published, or the book that just got published that's getting them money.  They're going to start talking about themselves, the books they like, and the business they have running.  That is exactly your goal.  Be interested in what they have to say, because all of it is important.  Eventually, they'll ask you about your stuff.  Time for your pitch.

Wrap up the conversation by focusing again on them.  Ask for advice, or ask about a book that hits shelves soon, or whatever you want-- just don't push them.  You've made your pitch, they've said something nice about it (hopefully they've asked for something more), and that's all they can do for now.  Your goal is to finish the conversation as their new friend, not as the writer who tried to negotiate a ten-book series before their sushi arrived.

#ThatsHalfOfThePost!  (I'm not getting better at this.)

I'll have a foot in the door.

Now we see the reason for wanting to know an agent or an editor.  If I know one or both, it's basically a free pass to publication, right?  Inside tips, query-free submissions, and if they reject me, I can pout at them for not being a good friend!  Right?  ...Right?

That is not the relationship you want to cultivate.  When you meet an agent or an editor, you're doing something many amateurs never get a chance to do-- you're lucky.  Don't destroy that fragile thing with READ MY BOOK PUBLISH MY BOOK DO IT DO IT.  Yes, you now have an acquaintance that makes things happen in the publishing world, but it's like any other business.  Bribery doesn't work.  Blackmail doesn't work.  And would you want someone to publish a manuscript of yours that still had glaring mistakes in it?  It's not fun, but rejection does have a refining effect.  Although you have a happy new friendship, it's wise to think of the business side of that as any other business relationship.  You won't get a handout, and you don't need one.  You're good enough to get published without charity.  A little independence and pride in this area won't hurt.

Now, that doesn't mean ignore the business aspect.  But knowing an agent or an editor does not equal getting published.  It does not mean you're eventually going to get published.  I met an agent briefly back before the army-- then I ate my spinach, crashed a plane, and woke up with one Hydra of a hangover.

#IUnderstoodThatPopeyeReference!  (Yes, he was around in those days, although I only found out about the spinach thing recently.  Also, hashtags working?  No?  Okay.)

It takes a bigger superhero than I to track down a publishing contact ninety years after I last saw him.  Also, you can probably tell I didn't get anything published back then.  I'm trying again now, but although I've met an agent or two, I'll say it again: knowing an agent/editor does not mean instant publication.  It doesn't mean eventual publication.  It is no guarantee of anything.

That sounds harsh.  I apologize.  Knowing an agent/editor has incredible value to someone just learning about the market, revision strategies, and networking.  It teaches lessons you can't learn anywhere else.  It just doesn't guarantee publication.  Having a connection in the publishing world is valuable, but your writing is far more important.

That's what I want you to take away from this.  If you want a career as an author, writing will get you much farther than anything else.  I keep saying it, but here it is again: practice.  If you know thirty agents but haven't finished a story, it doesn't help.  If you've written fifteen separate novels, revised four, and queried three, you have more of a chance of publication than someone who wrote one novel and refuses to query unless her agent/editor contacts request it in person.  If you're good at chatting people up but can't deliver on paper, you need more practice.  If you're good at your job and persistent, you will get published.

Connections are useful, but they aren't everything.  Make sure you focus on your writing, and make your connections count as relationships rather than as name-dropping opportunities.  You'll be great.  I believe in you.  I'll leave you with a final hashtag as a hint.



The Inscrutable Science of Book Covers

 You could say that as a scientist, I know a lot about a lot of things. I've even successfully explained string theory to Hawkeye - sort of. He glazed over at one point but didn't ask any questions so I assume that he understood it.

But the very real and very mysterious science behind the choosing of cover images for books, in print and electronic form, still eludes me. Maybe you feel this way, too. Maybe you've picked up a book with a striking cover image of - I don't know, let's say the silhouette of a tiger - and you read the whole book wondering when the tiger was going to show up. And you think about all the ways a tiger could be a metaphor for what happened in the book, but the book was about Inuit people fishing so you're left scratching your head and thinking that some editor somewhere must have heard that tiger silhouettes sell books. Or you've read a book with a blonde blue-eyed girl on the cover and been annoyed by the middle of the book because the main character has brown hair and, furthermore, it is very important to the overall meaning of the story that she has brown hair. You're not irritated because you bought the book only because you like books about blonde people. You're irritated because the cover image doesn't match the content. It's not quite false advertising, you admit, but you still feel some sacred trust between author and reader has been violated.

I have a friend who has released five YA contemporary romances and she's gotten cover approval on some of them. The first tine around, she couldn't wait to see what the publisher put together, and her first set of choices struck her as all wrong. It wasn't just that the couple on the prospective covers didn't look like her couple - though that was important to her, as I bet it is for lots of writers who get to know and love their characters as much as parents must know and love their children. It was that some of them just seemed so wrong. One of the cover boys was balding, which doesn't exactly scream "seventeen-year-old cutie pie" to most YA readers. This chapter in the saga ended well, though, as they found the perfect couple and the perfect image. But with each book, despite it being about the same couple depicted in each book, it was always a different pair on the cover. My friend didn't want to be a pill and knew that her publisher knew a heck of a lot more than she did about selling books, so she but her tongue when one of the covers featured a girl in tight jeans and high heels but privately wailed to me, "Bruce, my MC would never wear, those shoes! She wears beat up Chuck Taylors!" She worried that readers would expect the book to be a whole lot racier than it is and be disappointed. She takes these things seriously. Still, she trusted her publisher to know what they're doing, and all of the books have sold well.

But if you're the kind of person and writer who likes to control things,
 then self-publishing may be the best option for you, so you can get precisely the image you want. You can make your own art or scour stock photos or images at places like or or or for photos and clip art. (They're also useful for making promotional material images, like photo collages). Just read the fine print on the site about what rights you actually have for use - even if you are purchasing an image, you're not always allowed to use it in any way you want to, so check the licensing.

You're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, they say, but  a book cover design is chosen carefully, using some sort of science or algorithm I have not yet cracked, precisely to sell that book. Which book covers have been your favorites, the ones that drew you to pull that book off the shelf and dive in? Were there any books you liked despite their covers? Drop he team a line and let us know. I'm at an undisclosed location right now, but I can still get email. 

And if you see Natasha. tell her I'm okay, please.

Banner out.
P.S. If Stark tells you he knows the formula 
for the perfect book cover, 
be skeptical.

Punk Rock Publishing: Do It Yourself

I propose a motion: let’s change the name of self-publishing or indie publishing to ‘punk rock publishing’, and recognise its ideology of doing it yourself and rejecting the establishment and all of those glorious punk rock traditions. Right? Way cooler. A hundred times cooler.

Now that’s out of the way, I’m going to talk a bit about punk rock publishing, because it’s something I’ve a bit of experience in. There are a lot of reasons people choose to do it themselves, and also a lot of misconceptions about it, so let’s debunk the latter while discussing the former, all at once. Multitasking.

random computer gif

Misconception #1: People self-publish because they can’t go the traditional route.

For some people, self-publishing is a route that they pursue because they’re fed up of rejections from agents and editors. That’s true. That doesn’t mean they’re not good enough for ‘traditional publishing’. People do choose to self-publish because the traditional publish route isn’t a viable option, but that’s for all sorts of reasons. 

1) They don’t follow genre, so their book is hard to categorise. A lot of publishers are wary about taking on books like this, so it can be a reason to self-publish.

2) They’re writing in a genre or category that’s difficult to market because it has a small audience. Case in point: poetry. It’s exceedingly hard to get a poetry collection published traditionally, but very easy to do yourself.

3) They don’t want to hang around. Self-publishing is a lot quicker, and while it can still take time for one’s efforts to pay off, it’s still faster than the traditional route, which has a lot of waiting around.

Misconception #2: Self-published books are lower quality

This isn’t entirely wrong. Writers who go to the punk rock route by definition don’t have the benefits of the publishing house, which has editors, cover designers, formatters, proof readers and the like. But that doesn’t mean what they’re churning out is rubbish.

The writer needs to write well, that’s true. They need to proof-read their work. They should ideally have a cover created professionally, not by a friend using MS Paint. It might be worth hiring an editor, rather than relying on critique partners who may not be very experienced.

At the end of all that? It’s a book. The one you buy from the shop with the publisher’s mark on the spine is also a book. Look really hard, and tell me if you can tell them apart.

how bout that

Misconception #3: Traditional publishing is the only way to make your name as an author.

It’s not. There are benefits to it, absolutely. It’s far easier to get your books into libraries and bookshops if it’s being churned out by Penguin than if you did it all yourself. But doing it yourself can allow you to build up a dedicated reader base, and that’s what it’s about, isn’t it? In fact, they might even be glad you’re not traditionally published if that cuts the waiting time between books.

The way to make your name as an author is to write good books and to encourage word-of-mouth to sell them. That’s basically it. It helps if you’re famous like me, of course, because I’m pretty sure people would buy anything I wrote without questioning it too much, but I’m Tony Stark. Not everybody gets that chance.

arrive with crowdsthere are boring book launches and then
there are Stark book launches

Misconception #4: Self-publishing means you can only publish e-books.

Absolutely not true. Seriously. Where are you getting this information from? It is easier to publish e-books by yourself, sure. You upload a Word document (how quaint) to Kindle Direct Publishing, it sorts out the formatting, you upload a cover and you’re done. You don’t even know how to format stuff, although it helps if you do.

Print copies are more complicated. You need to choose a distributor. Are you gonna go with CreateSpace and sell your soul to Amazon? What about Blurb, or Stark On-Demand Books?

Depending on which you choose, formatting will be easier or harder. You may need to design a wraparound cover, which can be more difficult, although sometimes using your Kindle front cover and a plain coloured back cover can work (quick tip for you). You might have to worry about mirrored margins and page numbers and contents pages.

But ultimately, print-on-demand makes it just as cheap to produce print books than e-books, so you can start selling paperbacks like the most traditionally published of all traditionally published folks.

Side note: here’s the kid who has been disturbing the Twittersphere by pretending to be me, which is absolutely absurd and unbelievable (we’re dealing with it) with a paperback copy of her third poetry collection, printed by Blurb:


Therefore, friends, if you think your best option is to go it alone and do it your way, I encourage you to go forth and be punk rock publishers.

Just don’t tell Pepper I’m egging you on, because she thinks I’m a bad influence. -- Iron Man

The YAvengers Twitter account saw activity this week from JARVIS as well as the rest of the team. You’re missing out if you’re not following it.