Why Use a Pen Name?

man with penDeciding whether or not to use a pen name is just one of many choices writers have to make when preparing to publish. It’s an easier decision for some than for others.

Two years ago I published This New Mountain under the pen name Cate Macabe. I had never intended to write a memoir (not mine or that of a private detective/grandmother), but from the start of that journey I knew I would use a pseudonym. My reasons were simple: 1) I write science fiction and fantasy, and I didn’t want to confuse future readers who might someday search for my other work; and 2) my writing style is significantly different for the memoir and my speculative fiction.

If you’re not sure taking on a pen name is right for you and your writing, here are ten reasons in favor of using one, followed by possible complications if you do.

Why to Use a Pen Name

  • Need to separate genres – keep them separate if your audience has different expectations (children’s books vs. erotica)
  • Recognize that gender names sell better in specific genres
    • women for romance, men for science fiction
    • some names bring to mind a specific type (strong, manly names for military or crime fiction, girly names for chick lit)
  • Your real name is too hard to pronounce or spell, or sounds “ugly” or silly
  • Create a brand or persona (a name to identify with; catchy, easy to remember)
  • Separate your work as a writer from your private life or from your profession
  • Avoid confusion – your real name is the same as another author or celebrity, or a personality/profession you don’t want to be identified with
  • Your real name is too common
  • Present your work without the pressure of living up to a previous success
  • Different writing styles – readers come to expect a consistency in style
  • Fresh start – if previous work has not sold well


  • People might see you as being phony or trying to hide something.
  • People who know you under your real name might have trouble finding you and your work
  • Payments – for indie authors, make sure payments are made out to your real name or that you can take payments under your pen name
  • If published under one name already:
    • You start from scratch – not all readers will follow you to your new work, messes with branding
    • Social media – keeping up with posting under different names (maybe separate websites, too)
    • Contract violation – some contracts forbid publishing under a different name or in a different genre

Choosing to use a pen name is a decision that should be made carefully, knowing it will add complications to your life (and deciding which one to use is even more complex). Rachelle Gardner, author/blogger/editor, gives this advice for those considering using a pen name:

We’re not going to completely get away from pseudonyms, since there are real reasons people use them. However, for now I’d say, only use [a pen name] if it’s crucial – if there’s no other way. And if you use one – it’s best to use only one name in your online presence – website, blog, Facebook, Twitter. Just inhabit that name and become it.

If you’d like to find out which authors use a pseudonym, go to this site for a comprehensive list.

Have you thought of using a pen name? Do you already use one for your writing or an online presence?

Image “Carrying Pen” courtesy of rattigon / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Pacing

3D Man on Green Arrow3The best books give us a varied experience of pace. They create continual shifts in our perception of time as we read, expanding and contracting based on what’s unfolding on the page….Some scenes demand a slowing of the pace, a settling in and luxuriating over minute details. Some demand a quick, surface treatment that moves us along with very little feeling of traction. ~ Lorin Oberweger

Pacing is essentially the speed at which prose flows, evidenced by the reader’s engagement. A study of your favorite book, the one that keeps you turning pages late into the night, will reveal a perfection of pacing. The opposite is true of a book that takes you out of the story with bogged-down narrative. In this case you might find yourself cursing the author with, “Oh, please get on with it. I can’t suffer through more description of ball gowns and medieval livery.”

Pacing as it applies to story
A well-told story carries a reader into a character’s life but moves quickly through those parts which don’t directly impact the main storyline or conflict. This would be information the reader needs to know, but a brief mention or presentation through summary is sufficient, such as relaying bits of back story, observations about the weather, or a transition or passage of time during which nothing truly important happens.

Example: A man is dressing for his wedding, but the day has been filled with omens that make him wonder about the future. It might not be necessary to go into the details of looking for lost car keys, changing a flat tire, stepping in dog poo, and ordering broccoli and beans for lunch. A summary will do, unless the specifics are important for the story later on.

It’s just as necessary to slow down the pace during portions of a story that are more intense physically and/or emotionally. Take the time to set the mood through description. Unfurl the emotional state of your characters, plant seeds of mystery.

Examples: Recounting a tragic event such as a murder (which might happen quickly in real life) would be made more powerful by presenting it slowly. And there are moments that stretch out and become important for the epiphany that follows. I once had the pleasure of falling backward off a telephone pole from 20 feet off the ground. The world passed by in slow motion as I watched clouds float across the summer sky – right before I slammed into the ground.

Pacing as it applies to structure
Think variety when forming sentences and paragraphs. Reading sentences of the same length and rhythm becomes boring after a short period of time. In general, vary their lengths by using short, long, and compound constructions. Also vary paragraph size. Keep in mind that large blocks of text slow the reader down – a good thing if that’s the effect you’re trying for, but huge paragraphs can also signal information dumps.

The way a scene or chapter begins and ends also impacts pacing. Cliffhangers (not necessarily literal or extraordinary) are a good way to entice a reader to turn the page, but can be overdone. Structuring the end with hints of what’s to come, leaving a situation unresolved from one chapter to the next, or dropping in a new conflict will keep a reader wondering what will happen next. Begin a new scene or chapter with something happening, close to the heart of the action. Again, variety and writing with an awareness of what you’re trying to accomplish in a particular scene or chapter will keep the story flowing unhindered in the right direction.

Here’s a table with suggestions on how to speed up and slow down the pace of your story. Go to Controlling the Pace of a Story for the pdf version.

Controlling the Pace of a StoryPerfecting story pacing is a skill that comes with time, whether through years of practice or by focusing on it during the editing process. It’s one of the most important elements of any fiction or nonfiction project for keeping the reader engaged through the end.

So, think of pacing as the lungs of your story, which expand and contract as more oxygen is needed to breathe life into your scenes. Where your scenes merit it, don’t be afraid to take a deep, deep, breath and let it out ever so slowly. Your reader will breathe and live along with you, which is, after all, the power of a good read. ~ Lorin Oberweger

Image “3d Man On Green Arrow” courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Dialogue, Disclaimers, and Diarrhea

ForestPathWhat do dialogue, disclaimers, and diarrhea have in common? They’re three of the topics of my most popular blog posts for 2013. Just over half the articles were related to writing, the rest included recipes and one remedy for – yes – diarrhea. If you missed any of these, here are the top ten posts from my blog for last year.

  1. Ten Favorite Country Sayings – Wisdom (or country wisdom, anyway) must have been on many people’s minds this year, evidenced by my No. 1 blog post.
  2. Writing the Memoir: Disclaimers – Most works of fiction include a disclaimer to help ward off potential lawsuits, and it’s even more essential for a memoir. I include examples of different types of disclaimers and a link to where to find disclaimers for many kinds of fiction and nonfiction books.
  3. Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Dialogue – The fourth post in my Writing a Memoir Like a Novel series discusses how to write natural dialogue.
  4. Free Resources for Writers: The Basics – This is a short list of free foundational resources that continue to help me in my writing journey.
  5. Southwestern Recipe: Green Chile Sausage Gravy – The flavor of green chile is popular both inside and outside of the southwestern United States. Here’s a recipe shared by a New Mexico fireman that never fails to keep the firehouse happy.
  6. Country Remedy: Diarrhea Relief – Who knew this country cure would be so popular, but AJ Jackson says this simple remedy has never failed to provide relief from diarrhea.
  7. Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Story Arc – The first in the series of Writing a Memoir Like a Novel, this article discusses the beginning-middle-end structure of a memoir.
  8. 5 Tips for Retrieving Memories – An excellent article by Lisa Hase-Jackson (reprinted with permission) originally titled “Five Tips for Retrieving Memories and Developing Your Memoir.”
  9. Country Recipe: Old-Fashioned Tea Biscuits – This is one of AJ Jackson’s favorite family recipes that makes a ton of cookies.
  10. Writing the Memoir: Consider the Consequences – Three important things to think about before deciding to write a memoir.

12 Tips to Topple Writer’s Block

KeyBreaksChain2Writing a novel belongs to that category of thing – like surviving the Hunger Games, and eating an entire large pizza by yourself – that appears to be impossible but actually isn’t….Being a novelist is a matter of keeping at it, day after day, just putting words after other words. It’s a war of inches, where the hardest part is keeping your nerve. ~ Lev Grossman

Sometimes we writers slam into a wall and can’t figure out how to scale it and keep running and dodging through the rest of the obstacle course to reach the final scene. Sometimes the ideas stop coming. Or the words that find their way onto the page shrivel up and die before the ink is dry. Maybe we don’t know the characters well enough. Somewhere between the lines, we’ve lost the passion for the story. Whatever the reason is, it’s a real thing. And it happens to most writers sooner or later.

Whether you’re trying to finish a first draft on your own or are involved in a large-scale endeavor like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) where word count is paramount, you’ve got to find a way to keep going.

There are a lot of techniques that can be used to bust through writer’s block but many of them involve not writing, like taking a break to draw a map of your setting or design your book’s cover, or hashing out your problems with a writer friend or group. Or switching to a different project altogether. These are all good ideas, but the following list of tips is focused on keeping you writing on your current work in progress – the one that’s actually giving you grief.

  1. Write a scene in long hand – it means transcribing it onto a computer file later, but it could be just enough of a change to help break through the wall.
  2. Write a scene from a different point of view character, even one you haven’t used yet or thought to use at all – a secondary character, a love interest, the antagonist, the protagonist’s dog, the biggest maple in the forest.
  3. Write flashbacks – here’s a way to dig deeper into your characters, where they came from and what shaped their lives.
  4. If you’ve written yourself into a corner, determine where that errant branch began to grow and start writing again from that point. But don’t throw the old stuff away, it may be useful in the future.
  5. Switch your point of view style and rewrite a scene or two – first person instead of third, third person instead of first.
  6. If you can’t decide how a scene should play out or your story should end – pick one way and write it, then go back and write another, decide later which one works the best.
  7. Write out of order – who says you have to write chronologically? If you’ve got a scene in your head that’s vivid, write that one no matter where in the storyline it’s supposed to happen.
  8. Play with a scene that doesn’t feel quite right, and you may just find the perfect way to move forward. As they say, sometimes the best way to move forward is to rewrite the past! ~ Rochelle Melander
  9. Write an entire monologue with your main character if you have to. Spend a chapter just exploring the life story of an antagonist. Write a scene with nothing but dialogue between your hero and your villain. Write a steamy love scene between your favorite couple. They don’t have to be scenes in chronological order. They don’t even have to end up in your book. But they will help you to keep going. ~ Marie Lu, NaNo Pep Talk, Nov. 21, 2013
  10. Switch into a telling mode if you need to. This allows you to “tell” the story. You can then go back in and convert it to showing/action based scenes later but being able to “tell” helps you keep moving forward. ~ Robin LaFevers
  11. Without stopping, give your characters a reason to change. Incite them into action. ….you’ve got to keep them moving and the tension must be taut, so drop bombs. Problem after problem. Anything and everything….Nothing short of potential death. And then, you and your characters must have a way to get out of the story. Solve their dilemma logically. Sure, twists and turns to ramp up tension, but aliens can’t land out of the blue with an antidote. ~ Susan Arden
  12. Pull out that book of writing exercises – and do them with your cast of NaNo characters. Who knows, maybe you’ll find the secret ingredient your story was missing?  ~ Rochelle Melander

If any of these suggestions can help you break through the wall or help you understand a character better or where the story should really be going, it will be worth the time spent deviating from “the plan.” And if you’re participating in NaNo, it gives you the benefit of adding to that golden goal of writing 50 K words towards the first draft of a novel.

What techniques help you bust through the dreaded writer’s block?

A Wordplayer’s Manifesto

While following the links on K.M. Weiland’s resource page at her website Helping Writers Become Authors, I found A Wordplayer’s Manifesto that I wanted to share, below.

K.M. Weiland is the published author of three novels and two how-to writing books. She mentors writers through her blog, vlog, and nonfiction books. You might want to check out her Recommended Reading for Writers and excellent Podcast Episodes. And if you sign up for her newsletter, you’ll get a free copy of the eBook Crafting Unforgettable Characters.


10 Great Writing Tips (Not Just for NaNoWriMo)

TypingButton2The Internet abounds with writing advice, and especially every year right before National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) beings on November 1. I have my own advice for mastering time and using the pantser or plotter methods to plan your novel, but I’ve also compiled a short list of great tips to use for any writing project, not just NaNoWriMo.

1.  Feed the Subconscious, Fuel the Muse

“We must fill our creative well before we write, or we have nothing to draw from….Too many writers fail to finish NaNo because they haven’t fueled up properly….Often a lot of the subplots or cool twists and turns come from all the stuff we fed the muse ahead of time….My recommendation before writing ANY book is total immersion…fluff and filler [can be] avoided if the writer [has] more research to draw from…The more facts, images, and stories (even news stories) we have in our head, the richer the work and the easier to give our writing texture.” ~ Kristen Lamb

2.  Star in Your Story

“Even when you plan your hero down to the fingernails, the persona, the effect of the backstory and the general nature and energy of the character doesn’t fully emerge until you bring him/her alive in your pages. Unless the hero is you. If you allow yourself to star in your NaNoWriMo story…you’ll find yourself knowing more about your hero than you ever will otherwise. Literally put yourself into the skin of your hero and vicariously experience — and then translate into words — the journey you’ve created.” ~ Larry Brooks, Storyfix

3.  Don’t Worry About Chronology

“Write the scene or chapter you really want to write today. Who says you have to write the darn thing in order? Nobody. That’s who.” ~ Christina Katz, The Prosperous Writer

4.  Use a Timer

“Your inner procrastinator may try to convince you otherwise, but there are only so many hours in November. Spend your time wisely by using a timer (we like e.ggtimer.com). Set it for thirty minutes and see how many words you can write. Take a five-minute break. Then, set it for another thirty minutes and see if you can beat your word count from last time.” ~ Joe Bunting, The Write Practice

5.  Don’t Forget to Fall in Love…with Your Story

“One way to move toward [falling in love with your story]…is to build this project around an idea — a concept, a character, a theme, or something that happened to you or you wish would happen to you — that’s worth a few pints of your blood and sweat…[an idea] big enough, exciting enough, to be the one thing that drives you toward doing this right. An idea you can’t get out of your head. An idea that you’d read if someone else wrote about it. Make your NaNoWriMo novel about that. Nothing less. Don’t settle. Honor the craft, honor your time, honor your dream…It’s like a relationship…they’re hard at times, and when it is, only if the other person is worth it will you proceed forward productively, and with a chance at bliss. Love your story….That’s the only way it will ever love you back.” ~ Larry Brooks, Storyfix

6.  Know Your Protagonist

“The protagonist’s internal misbelief must already exist before the plot kicks into action. Every protagonist must enter already wanting something very badly, and with an inner issue — fear, fatal flaw, wound, misbelief — that keeps her from getting it. You must know these before you start to write because they define what the story will be about….The protagonist’s worldview is the lens through which she’ll see, experience, and evaluate everything that happens, beginning on the very first page. So if you don’t know what her worldview is going [into the story] — and, as important, what specific events created it — how will you know how she’ll react to anything? Or what things mean to her? Or what your plot must force her to realize?” ~  Lisa Cron, Writer Unboxed

7.  Take a Break and Share the Confusion

“You’ll be amazed at how many story problems and dead ends you can overcome simply by telling your story, in sequence, to someone who can keep quiet enough to allow you to encounter your own roadblock.” ~ Larry Brooks, Storyfix

8.  Enjoy the Writing Ride

“Whatever you are writing, whether you ‘win’ or not, you are learning things about your creative capacities and they are worth their weight in gold. Walk away with a clearer understanding of what makes your creativity hum, and you will definitely win.” ~ Christina Katz, The Prosperous Writer

9.  Have Word Count Boosters Handy

NaNoWriMo is all about word count, making sure you get that 50K first draft finished. But even if you’re working on a “normal” project, you might find yourself stuck at some point. Try giving some of the following ideas a go — even if you’re not focused on word count.

“Writer’s block is something writers handle all the time, but when you’re on a deadline, you can’t really afford to lose any time staring at a screen. Having some word count boosters handy can be a really great way to add a few hundred words and/or get your creative juices flowing. This can be as simple as adding a new character or having your main character realize it was all a dream. Or it can be as complicated as adding a plot twist or a new point of view (maybe from your antagonist or your supporting character’s point of view — the choice is up to you!). Remember you can always go back and edit or cut these things out once NaNoWriMo’s over. You don’t have to keep everything you write.” ~ The Magic Violinist, The Write Practice

10.  Write Your Own 10 Commandments

I was looking through the NaNoWriMo forums and came across “Your 10 Commandments for NaNo” in NaNo Tips & Strategies/Reaching 50,000! The idea is to write down the “things that you promise to do or not do during the month of November. You can [write] them in the ‘Thou Shalt Not’ language, or in normal English.” Your own ten commandments can be easily adapted to any writing project. Here’s the first thread in the forum, from Olafsta:

  1. Thou Shalt Not win until Thou writes [50,000] words.
  2. Thou Shalt write every day within Thy month of November.
  3. Thou Shalt not let thy grades decrease during Thy NaNo.
  4. Thou Shalt value writing over sleep during thy Weekends.
  5. Thou Shalt not visit thy NaNoWriMo Forums at all during thy November unless thou is fully caught up on thy word count. Thy only exception is for thou word wars/sprints.
  6. Thou shalt not give up until thy November is over.
  7. Thou shalt not become a rebel.
  8. After every half hour of writing, thou must do 25 pushups and 25 situps before continuing to write.
  9. Thou shalt show at least some attention to thy family/friends.
  10. Thou shalt not visit any other forums during thy November aside from thy NaNoWriMo Forums.
  11. If Thou decides to not follow one of these commandments, thou shall do 50 pushups and 50 situps whilst wearing only thy undergarments. It must be done within thy 24 hours of the breaking. If done late and/or clothed, it must be doubled. If thy breaks the commandments twice within any 72 hour period, thy shall also skip lunch on the school day immediately following the most recent breaking. If lunch is eaten on that school day, thy must then skip lunch for two school days in a row as soon as is possible.

What tips can you add to the list? What are your 10 Commandments for Writing?

Paying the Price to Improve Your Writing

WritingPenAn athlete spends time training to strengthen muscles and improve endurance and agility. Musicians spend countless hours in the pursuit of making music flow from their instruments. Even with a natural knack, it takes performance/visual artists years of practice to reach a certain level of expertise in their field. It’s foolish to think that becoming a good writer will take any less of a commitment or sacrifice for the craft.

Whether you’re a beginning writer or one with a list of publishing credits, there are two things that should be done every day to improve your writing:

Read for pleasure, in and out of the genre you write in. Read and re-read the masters and those works that thrill you, those books that grab ahold of you and make you wish you could write like that. This kind of learning creates a subconscious feel for pacing and flow and the power of words, and will eventually pour out naturally in your own writing.

Just write. You know this, I know this, and the greats practice this without fail. Set a daily or weekly word count goal. Play with words. Write in snippets, sonnets, scenes. Finish what you start. Commit, and write every day.

What good writers have over beginning writers is a head start on time spent on the craft plus a testing of commitment and the willingness to sacrifice – they’ve added to their busy calendar the time to do such things as:

Read to learn. Be conscious of what you read and how it makes you feel. Try to determine what an author did to pull you along, to make you turn those pages. Why do you love some characters and hate others? Take the time to break it down.

Join a writing group, spend time with other writers especially those with more experience than you. The old saying “Iron sharpens iron” is true. You will be encouraged in your writing journey and inspired to write.

Join a critique group when you’re ready to share your work. This is something that has to be done at some point. Putting yourself “out there” can be difficult, but it’s necessary to get feedback on your writing (from other than family or friends) in order to improve. And learning to critique the work of others will help you in recognizing the problems in your own writing.

Attend classes, workshops, and conferences. Eventually, most writers have to sacrifice not only time but money to see their writing improve. Target your writing weak spots, network with other writers, and learn the business.

Getting better at anything requires practice. Be an athlete-artist. Commit yourself to your craft and follow the path to better writing.

What commitments and sacrifices have you made to improve your craft?

Plan Now for NaNoWriMo Success: Time Mastery

Whether you’re planning on participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November or are committing to a writing schedule to finish a project, finding the time to meet your daily word count goal is essential to success. After formulating your novel basics (see my post “Novel Focus“), embrace time management skills and use the rest of October to plan the time you need.

  1. Use a November calendar:
    • Mark off those days or partial days in November you know you absolutely won’t be able to write (like a birthday or Thanksgiving).
    • Block off time every day/week for writing – before/after work or school, during commute time, lunch hours, your child’s naps. Get up earlier or go to bed later than usual. Even finding 15 minutes here and there will add up.
  2. Plan catch-up or get-ahead days – make up for the days you know you can’t write and build in time for unexpected, but inevitable, glitches in your perfect plan.
    • Once a week marathons alone or with writing friends.
    • Local NaNo chapters often schedule writing get-togethers.
  3. Plan November’s meals
    • Don’t forget Thanksgiving – delegate to family/friends if possible.
    • Slow cooker meals, sandwiches, breakfast-for-dinner, fast food.
    • Start cooking extra servings in October and freeze for November meals.
  4. Don’t set doctor/dentist appointments for November.
  5. Restrict television viewing and social media – reward yourself with these when you meet your word count, record for later, or build in time on your calendar.
  6. Restrict socializing – again, reward yourself after meeting word counts or build in this time. Or just say “no” and schedule a post-NaNo celebration to make up for your transgression.
  7. Enlist help for daily/weekly chores, like laundry and dishes, and other important responsibilities such as childcare – letting family and friends know how important this commitment is to you should elicit help.
  8. If you can’t write at home, scope out one or more places to write – a local library if you like quiet or a coffee shop if you don’t mind the noise. (I used to write in my car on my lunch hour.)
  9. Prioritize – plan to do those things that are necessary and let the rest slide.
  10. Embrace your OCD side for a month – be relentless in your pursuit of time to write those 1667 words per day.

This might all sound fanatical, but at the end of 30 days you’ll know how important your writing is to you, how committed you are to it, and what you’re willing to do to succeed. And if you keep on track, you’ll have the first draft of a 50K novel for all your hard work and sacrifice.

What is your favorite way to master the time needed to write?

Plan Now for NaNoWriMo Success: Novel Focus

crest-bda7b7a6e1b57bb9fb8ce9772b8faafbValuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved. ~ from the NaNoWriMo website

On November 1, hundreds of thousands of writers from around the world will begin National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a crazy journey to write a 50K novel in thirty days. If you’ve never participated in NaNo, you might think such a thing is an impossible feat, but it is possible and you can do it (I’ve done it twice).

But writing a novel in thirty days is not something you just dive right into, even if you use the pantser method. Planning is the key to ending up with a useable first draft instead of a manuscript made up of the phrase “I hate NaNoWriMo forever” scribbled 10,250 times.

Pantser Method

I’m a pantser, I dive right in when I write. If you’re like me, you have an oh-so brilliant idea for a story and one or more interesting characters to populate it. If you don’t already have a vision of where the story starts, use October to think about your story world and where your storytelling will begin. Visualize the setting. Who are the characters and what are their goals? If you’ll be writing in a sci fi or fantasy world, what are the rules of this place (and/or its magic), the politics, religions? Make notes – remember nothing has to be set in stone. Doing as much pre-thinking as possible before you sit down to write will save time during NaNo and multiple your word count. You might even venture into the darker planner/plotter side and jot down ideas for scenes, perhaps even the ending of the story.

Planner/Plotter Method

Since I’m not a major planner when I write, I defer to those writers with more experience in this area. Janice Hardy suggests the following six steps when planning your novel, whether or not you’re doing NaNoWriMo (see the complete article here with links to more posts about planning your novel).

  1. Is your goal to complete a 50K novel or the first 50K of a longer one? Answering this question first will help with pacing and plotting.
  2. Write a pitch line or several sentences of what the story is about. Clarifying the central conflict of the novel will make it easier to plot and will give clear goals for your protagonist (and antagonist).
  3. List the major points of your story (Hardy calls these set pieces): the opening, inciting event, first major crisis, midpoint reversal, and the second major crisis, point of no return, climax. These can be vague or set guidelines of where your story needs to go.
  4. Write a rough synopsis. This expands on steps 2 and 3 and will give you more of a guide to where your story is heading.
  5. Write a rough outline (Hardy considers this optional). Detailed or not, it will help break the novel into manageable pieces over the 30 days of NaNo.
  6. “Write down any other ideas about the novel…think of it like an idea bank for later.” Snippets of ideas could become scene sparkers or come in handy in other ways you can’t foresee.

If you follow Janice Hardy’s six steps in advance of NaNoWriMo (or any other novel project), you’ll have a good overview of the novel you want to write – and “don’t worry if it’s vague as long as you can see a story unfolding there.”

There’s a protag with a problem, a series of attempts to solve that problem, a conflict keeping them from their goal, stakes if they fail, and a resolution to the problem. If you have that, you have a much better chance of avoiding writer’s block during the month and actually finishing the novel. ~ Janice Hardy

Does writing a novel in 30 days sound so impossible now? If you’ve put off writing that novel you’ve always wanted to write, make this the year you follow through. Sign up for National Novel Writing Month at NaNoWriMo.org and begin planning your novel now. And if you’re still not convinced it can be done, check this list of WriMos who have gone on to publish their NaNo manuscripts (like Sara Gruen and her Water for Elephants).

Are you doing NaNo this year? Why or why not?

Janice Hardy has more in-depth articles about planning for a successful NaNoWriMo in the following posts and in her archives: NaNoWrMo Prep: Planning Your Novel’s Beginning and NaNoWrMo Prep: Planning Your Novel’s Middle.

A Writer’s Approach: Plotter, Pantser, Hybrid

CampNanoPlannerBadgeCampNanoPantserBadgeIt’s been said and much debated that there are two kinds of writers – those who outline and plan before starting a writing project (plotters) and those who dive in and write “by the seat of their pants” (pantsers). Many writers, myself included, are hybrids who fall somewhere between the two, combining the traits or techniques of both to one degree or another.

…imagination is limitless. Do not, therefore, reduce your story to outlines and sketches, notes and 3×5 cards. You will make your story finite this way and it will suffer because it cannot grow beyond your outline. ~ author David L. Robbins

Plotters have a lot of tools and techniques at their fingertips to help plan out their stories:  outlines, scene cards, storyboards, character profiles and personality charts. Many plotters have folders filled with things like diagrams and photos, notes on history, culture, and languages. There are two possible problems in this type of approach. First, a writer could get so bogged down with accumulating information, building plot structure, and the need to plan, that he doesn’t write. And second, creativity could be sacrificed for structure, leaving the story as lifeless as a textbook. The positive side to being a plotter-type is a writer will always know what the next step is. He will not suffer from writer’s block. And by the time the first draft is complete, he won’t have to worry about things like plot holes and continuity issues.

A pantser needs to plot on the fly so she can stay enthralled with her story. Her creative psyche requires a challenge in order to operate optimally. ~ author Kathleen Baldwin

Pantsers tend to throw themselves into a story and go for it, letting the characters reveal themselves and the plot unfold as they go. There are two main problems that can arise from using this approach. One, the story – though truly character-driven – often suffers from either too little or too much plot. The main plotline can become convoluted or there might be so many sub-plots it’s too hard to keep track of them all. And halfway into the project, the characters can easily drive the story into a corner. This leads to the second problem. The very nature of pantsing means the writer doesn’t know where the story is going and that can translate into writer’s block and unfinished projects. Pantsing is a fun and creative way to write, but at the end of the first draft, much research still needs to be done, along with structuring, etc.

Chase your story, believe in your characters and follow them. Do not predetermine every step they take but record what they do, and do the recording breathlessly but with control, as if you just came inside to report…a marvel you have just witnessed. ~ author David L. Robbins

So it seems that too much of a good thing is not so good a thing. Enter the hybrid writer. Not to say a plotter isn’t creative or a pantser can’t write a coherent story, but combining the techniques of both could make for a better story overall. But whether a writer tends to be a plotter-pantser or a pantser-plotter, story plot and structure still need to be addressed at some point in the process.

Author Janice Hardy takes a hybrid approach to crafting stories. She creates the framework first but keeps the story fresh in her mind by giving her characters free rein within the structure (see her excellent article “Going Both Ways: Outlines for Plot, Pantser for Character”).

In my own writing, I jump into a story without an outline but only characters and a vision of the story landscape as a guide. After a few chapters of writing this way, I usually know where the story will end up and I begin a loose outline. I continue to write and craft my outline, adding notes to aid in continuity and reminders for research. This process keeps me moving forward but leaves room to let the characters drive the story. I still have work to do after the first draft is finished but catering to the way my pantser-plotter brain works is worth the extra effort at the end.

In the article “Writers – Plotters or Pantsers” author Trish Jackson discusses the differences between the brains of a plotter and a pantser. She believes plotters predominately use the left side of their brain which controls logic and order. They’re more likely to create a detailed plan and write plot-driven stories. Pantsers tend to be more right-brained – creative but disorganized – and tend to write character-driven stories.

woman_spinJackson’s article also includes this moving graphic. To see if you’re right- or left-brained, watch the spinning woman. If she spins clockwise, you’re using your right brain. If she spins counter-clockwise, you’re using your left. And if you can change the direction of her spin, you’re a little of both – and probably have hybrid tendencies.

If you find yourself struggling with a writing project, keeping a tight grip on your writing approach could be the problem. A consistent struggle with writer’s block or finishing a project might be helped by stepping over into plotter territory. And if your story seems a bit on the lifeless side or you’re not enjoying the process, letting your pantser-self loose for a while could be the answer.

 In the great debate, are you a plotter, a pantser, or a hybrid?