NaNoPlanno: Get Ready for NaNoWriMo … by Chris Mandeville

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month: a frenzy of writing with the goal of producing a 50,000-word novel in the thirty days of November.

NaNoWriMo Logo

NaNo is a fantastic opportunity to push yourself as a writer. It’s all about quantity of words, not quality. It’s vomit writing, spilling your guts, taking an idea and running with it, sans editing, revision, and second-guessing. It goes to the core of the creative process of writing: putting words on the page.

The official NaNoWriMo was created by author Chris Baty in 1999 and is now run by the nonprofit National Novel Writing Month. Hundreds of thousands of writers have participated over the past sixteen years, writing billions of words.

Roughly 14% of those who sign up actually complete NaNo successfully.

That amounts to thousands of writers who wrote novels in just thirty days. So it can be done. But why would you want to?

The NaNo organizers say the aim of NaNoWriMo is to get people to start writing using the deadline as incentive. I say there’s even more to be gained. NaNo forces you to focus, put writing higher on your priority list, and say “no” to distractions – habits you may carry over into life-after-NaNo. It helps you build other good habits, like writing every single day and shutting up the “inner critic” so your story can flow out uncensored and uninhibited. It’s also a great way to try on a new idea without investing months or years to see if it will hold water. Overall it’s a short-term investment with a BIG payoff: one month of crazy-busy writing that results in a 50,000 word novel and the knowledge that you can do it.

I did it! Photo Credit: thephotographymuse via Creative Commons

Of course another reason to do NaNo is that you might be one of the lucky few whose NaNo book gets published. Some of the more recognizable titles to come out of NaNo are Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, both of which spent time on the New York Times bestseller list. This is a rarity, so it shouldn’t be your primary reason for trying NaNo. But heck, if you’re crazy enough to do NaNo, might as well reach for the stars.

The official NaNoWriMo is free! So if you’re inclined to sign up for NaNo’s 17th year or just want more info, visit

If you decide to participate in NaNoWriMo 2015, there are things you can—and I argue should—do to prepare. I call this “NaNoPlanno.”

Schedule. Take a critical look at your schedule for November and move or eliminate everything possible. Re-schedule doctor appointments, put off coffee with friends, cancel your weekend ski-getaway. If your day-job allows, take some vacation or personal time, compress your schedule, or reduce your hours. Find writing time wherever you can. Be creative. Can you move your Thanksgiving celebration to December 1st? Or at least move it to your sister-in-law’s house? Can you forgo Black Friday shopping just this once? Can you limit yourself to watching only the last quarter of the football game? Once you’ve eliminated all non-essentials, take that nearly-empty calendar and block out time to write every single day. Only you know how many hours it will take you to write 50,000 words, and your output can vary from day to day. When in doubt, budget for more writing time than you think you’ll need.

To write 50,000 words in 30 days, you must write an average of 1,667 words per day (or about 2,000 words per day if you take one day off each week).

Support. Let the people in your life know about the monumental task you have planned, and enlist their support. There’s a lot of time—and peace of mind—to be gained when your loved ones buy in to your crazy November endeavor. Maybe it’s as simple as them agreeing not to tempt you with fun outings or ask for favors. Or maybe they’ll take on some of your non-writing duties so you have more time to write. Why not trade cooking with your roommate or spouse? They cook in November, and you cook all December. Or December and January. Don’t be above bribery. Offer your kids a big reward in December if they agree not to interrupt your writing time in November. And don’t overlook hiring help—someone else can walk the dogs, do carpool duty, grocery shop, etc. You may think you can do it all yourself, but in my experience, your odds of finishing NaNo are a whole lot better when you have help and support.

Space. Where will you write? If you don’t have a private writing space, now’s the time to get one. It doesn’t have to be big—a friend turned a closet into desk space when she didn’t have any other option. So find, make, or clear out a space. Do it now! Next, create a sign to let others know you’re busy writing. It can be anything from a literal “do not disturb” sign to a hat you wear. Just make sure it’s a clear signal that you’re not to be interrupted unless something is on fire. If you can’t write at home or prefer not to, scout alternate spaces. Libraries and coffee shops are great, but what about house-sitting or using the conference room at your day-job after hours? Figure out your physical writing space now so you don’t spend precious November moments looking for it. Likewise clear up your virtual space: make a plan for turning off your phone and email, and even hiding your Internet browser from yourself during writing time. The official NaNo site has lots of resources to help you, but these, too, can be a hindrance, so use with caution.

When your writing space is littered with opportunities to “connect,” you can lose a lot of productive writing time to interruptions, distractions, and temptations.

Story. The official NaNoWriMo rules say that you can’t “count” any writing you do prior to November 1. But prep is okay. So prep away! Create characters with vast backstory, clear goals, and driving motivation. Plan out a difficult journey for your protagonist, complete with insurmountable obstacles, impossible conflicts, and terror-inducing villains. Build your world, do research, think about theme and character arc and all that good stuff. There’s no limit to what you can plan during this time, so take advantage of it. Even if you don’t normally “plot out” your story, spend time daydreaming about your characters. If nothing else, give your story a destination: where is it going? If you don’t know the end yet, that’s okay. Simply pick a spot between here and there. A midpoint, a hurdle, a victory. This will give you something to write toward. Once you reach that destination, chances are you’ll know where to head next.

NaNo Planning Photo Credit: Life in the minds of children by Mehdinom via Wikimedia Commons

As for me, I’m already NaNoPlanning for another November as a “NaNo Pirate:” writing like mad but not exactly following the official NaNo rules. In the past I’ve used November—with all the great support and benefits that the official program provides—to revise a novel. This year I’ll be attempting to add 50,000 words to my work-in-progress. I’m such a rule breaker.

Whether you join the official NaNoWriMo or engage in NaNo piracy, I encourage you to take November to push yourself as a writer. Do your own NaNo, whatever that may be. There’s a lot to be gained for a small investment of your time.

If you’ve tried NaNo, please share what you’ve gained in the comments. If you’re considering doing NaNo for the first time, post your questions and concerns so NaNo veterans can guide and support you. Then get to NaNoPlanning! November is coming up fast.


Photo Credit: Jared Hagan

Mandeville_SeedsMandeville_52waysChris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block.

Learn more about Chris and her work at her website. She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Over the Hills and Far Away

On the drive to Deadwood
On the drive to Deadwood

A report from South Dakota: Cool Writers, A Controversy and a Rock Star

Deadwood, South Dakota is 385 miles north of Denver. You shoot straight through Cheyenne, parallel the eastern border of Wyoming and watch trains tugging their long snakes of coal. The road climbs east through the Black Hills. In late September, gold aspen trees dot the high country.

Deadwood is clogged with casinos. The conference hotel for the South Dakota Festival of Books is reached only by walking past the slot machines and blackjack tables and finding an elevator in the back corner. All of downtown, in fact, is loaded with hotels and gambling tables. There isn’t one grocery store in town, although there are plenty of places to eat. And drink. The entire town is listed on the National Historic Register. Other than the slots, it has an old-west vibe.

During a jam-packed weekend, however, the festival transforms the town. Some 70 writers offer presentations in such places as the town library, the elementary school gymnasium, Deadwood City Hall and upstairs in the creaky-floor grand ballroom of the Martin & Mason Hotel (built in 1893). The festival also coordinates a series of programs in nearby schools and universities, all part of a busy few days in celebration of books and writing and reading. The words “books” and “festival” belong together, don’t you think?

William Kent Krueger was the star this year (Sept. 24—27). He was the keynote for RMFW Gold in 2014 and, of course, just as affable and easy-going in Deadwood as he was when he came to Denver. His book Ordinary Grace was the pick for the “One Book South Dakota” program. Kent was everywhere and was easily spotted every morning in a hotel alcove, writing away. On Saturday night, he was interviewed in front of a huge audience by South Dakota’s own Sandra Brannan. He stayed with writing his kinds of mysteries, followed his own path, and the work paid off. Ordinary Grace blew up.

Harold Johnson
Harold Johnson

I met Harold Johnson. He’s from La Ronge, Saskatchewan. That’s 1,200 miles straight north of Denver. He traps and hunts and lives off the land. He also has a Master of Law degree from Harvard (with no high school diploma). He served in the Canadian Navy and worked in mining and logging. He gave an interesting presentation on the power of story that challenged the notion of what’s real and what’s not. Fascinating. His latest book is Corvus, which “examines the illusions of security we build through technology and presents a scathing satire of a world caught up in climate change denial and the glorification of war.” Thoughtful guy, extremely likable. He smoked a pipe. His father was Swedish. His mother was Cree.

At the book signing area, I sat next to Garth Stein. Garth wrote The Art of Racing in the Rain after watching a Mongolian documentary about dogs and reading a poem by Billy Collins, “The Revenant.” The Art of Racing in the Rain was on the New York Times best-seller list for 156 weeks. That’s about three years. He sold precisely 1.2 bajillion books. Garth said he had no problem writing the follow-up book, based on a new idea. He’s a writer. Writers write. One really kind guy. He said when he started The Art it was different, but good. He had a hunch it would do well. So did his wife.

Garth Stein
Garth Stein

I met Ann Weisgarber, from Sugar Land, Texas. She’s friendly, easy-going, warm. She couldn’t interest any publisher in this country to put out her first novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. Then a publisher in England picked it up and she was short listed for England's 2009 Orange Prize and for the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. In the United States, she won the Stephen Turner Award for New Fiction and the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction. (Many other awards, too.) New York is now paying attention. So is Hollywood. Viola Davis optioned the book (JuVee Productions, her company). Ann Weisgarber—a picture of class. Take a minute. Go to her page. Check those wonderful reviews.

My panelmates at City Hall were Sandra Brannan (South Dakota’s own favorite crime writer) and Tom Bouman, whose Dry Bones in the Valley won the Edgar Prize for best first novel. It doesn’t get any bigger in mystery writing land for new writers. Tom read a passage he prepared—and transported us all to the early morning woods on a hunt in Pennsylvania. He concluded by pointing out there is no perfect story, no perfect book.  And that’s why we love it—we get to keep writing. And trying. Kent Krueger sat in the audience for our panel and asked thoughtful questions. Ann Weisgarber, too. Sheesh.

Sandra Brannan, Tom Bouman
Sandra Brannan, Tom Bouman

On the first night of the festival, the organizers held a reception for authors at the nearby Opera House in Lead. (That’s “Lead” like “need” not “Lead” like the tip of your pencil). Fielding questions while sitting on stage, writers and poets talked about what inspired us to write. One long-haul truck driver (Rod Hoffer) said he wrote young adult stories for his grandkids. He said he wrote during the times when his trailer was being filled—or emptied. Writing was a passion. He smiled a lot.

Then Charles Shields pulled the pin on a stink bomb. He’s a biographer. He wrote a biography of Harper Lee some years back.

Here’s what he said—that he starts every project only after a clear evaluation of whether it will make money.

William Kent Krueger at the Lead Opera House
William Kent Krueger at the Lead Opera House

You could feel the room tense up.

William Kent Krueger rose in defense of those who write, you know, without money in mind.

Here’s the tail end of what Kent said:

“And I think that in the end it’s not going to matter whether you become rich and famous because you will have spent your life following your passion. But what I also believe is this—if you do that, eventually, you will discover the writer you were always meant to be and you will write the stories you were meant to write and the doors will open for you.”

Eloquent? Very. Listen:

Yeah, the applause was pretty strong. And music to my ears.

I’m sure Charles Shields is a nice guy too but I’ve never met a fiction writer who thought in those terms.

The minor controversy didn’t impact the terrific weekend. There were more writers to meet—Minnesota’s upbeat Faith Sullivan, Colorado’s own Pam Houston, South Dakota writing mentor Linda Hasselstrom, and California’s quite smart Ron Carlson (Five Skies, The Signal, Return to Oakpine, Ron Carlson Writes A Short Story; one of my favorite writers in the country).

And then Robert Plant showed up. I didn’t see him. He was there to see Kent Nerburn (13 books on spirituality and Native American themes). Robert Plant, yes, came to Kent’s panel.

(The Led Zeppelin cover band “In the Led” are due to play the same conference hotel on Oct. 16; wonder if Robert Plant spotted the poster in that hotel elevator! What would he think??)

I drove home not thinking about money. I drove home thinking about writers and all their many varied passions.

The South Dakota Festival of Books is one ultra-friendly conference that pulls in lots of talented writers.

Bet on it.

Getting faster all the time… Not!

I’ve been writing fiction for almost 25 years. You would think in all that time it would get easier and the writing would go faster. But this is how it really is:

I begin my book. Three lines in, I start to agonize. Am I starting in the right place? Is this a dramatic enough opening? No, that sounds too passive. I need action verbs.

Eventually I move on. But, is there too much backstory? Is this description immediate enough? Am I using all five senses?

A few paragraphs more. Am I showing rather than telling? Oh, there’s an extra that. And you’ve already used really. Sheesh. Caught in your usual bad habits. But moving on, is there too much backstory here? It feels like an info-dump. Maybe you need to tell the character’s story through flashback. But that could interrupt the flow of the narrative.

I struggle through a few more pages. But are my characters likeable? Are they going to be able to change and grow enough to satisfy readers? And what’s the motivation in this scene? Their goal?

I finally reach the end of the first chapter. Am I in the right viewpoint? Can the reader really envision this scene? Is it dramatic enough? I can’t end the chapter here. I need a hook to keep them reading.

It goes on. I tell myself I can fix everything in the revision stage. But more and more I find myself going backwards, rewriting the previous scene and trying make it at least tolerable. Then I start worrying, are you trying too hard? Maybe you’re turd polishing, trying to shine up what is actually unredeemable crap.

I grit my teeth and move on. Just get the story down. Let it flow organically. Remember how you used to do it when you didn’t know all that stuff?

Admittedly, it was a lot more fun in those days. My first book I wrote without a critique group or any self-censoring/editing. I felt like if I could just capture what came to me, get down on paper what my characters were feeling and doing as I watched their phantom selves act out the story on my internal screen, it would be magical. I know now that it’s a lot harder than it sounds. The magic is in my head. Getting it on paper requires hard, grinding work.

And every year I learn more, and it slows me down. At exactly the time when I need to be more productive. Because to be a successful writer these days, (everyone says) you need to publish a lot of books, as quickly as possible. And here I am, writing slower than ever.

But the other thing that’s happened in the last 25 years is I have a different perspective. Some of the people dearest to me are no longer in this life. Their absence is a reminder that simply being alive is something to celebrate. And if you get too focused and obsessive, you might miss out on some of the joy.

So back to the story. Which seems to get a bit better all the time. I’m starting to like my hero. And my heroine’s not too bad either. And about all those passive verbs, don’t worry so much. You can fix them later.


I remember one of my first writers conferences. I pitched a project to one of the visiting agents or editors, and I remember being so thrilled when he asked to see the first three chapters. Later, one of the more seasoned conference attendees asked me how my pitch went and in my excitement I told her. Instead of being excited for me, she said, "Oh he asks everyone for the first three chapters."

Sad PuppyI don't know what was in this person's heart, what the intent was of the remark, but I know the effect. I was instantly deflated. I was being told, whether in mean spirits or total thoughtlessness, that I ought not be so excited, that I was not so special after all, and that in spite of having an actively acquiring New York publishing professional ask to see an excerpt of my manuscript I was in truth no closer to being published than I had ever been. It was a cruel thing to say, whether it was meant to be or not.

For several years after that, when asked how a pitch went, I always dodged the question, whether the pitch went well or not. It is easy to dodge such questions, just ask the person something about their work and they forget all about the question they asked. Whether a request for pages, or even the entire manuscript, meant I was about to be represented or not, I preferred the boost it gave to my inspiration to think so, than to have someone again poke it with a pin.

We are so often thoughtless in our comments to others that we often aren't mindful of how it may affect the listener. Especially new members or first time conference attendees. So let me set the record straight.

Happy DanceIf the agent or editor you pitched to at September's Colorado Gold conference, or any conference for that matter, has asked to see pages, never mind how many, that is rare. Don't pay attention to how many others he or she may have requested from other people. The fact is each agent/editor will never request pages of something in which they are not interested, they just don't have the time for such foolishness, even to spare feelings. Remember that the agent/editor you spoke to was at the conference for a reason. They want you to be a good writer, they want your project to be the one they pick for representation, they are there to find the next great novel for their list, and they would not have requested pages from you if they didn't want you to be the author of that novel. They are actually rooting for you.

Be excited. Be very excited. And don't let any off-hand comment from anyone dampen that excitement. Enthusiastically polish that excerpt and kiss the screen before you email it out for good luck. Then, don't sit by the phone with baited breath and wait for that phone call. Use the energy from your excitement to finish the project, or start another one. Take the inspiration and run with it. If an agent/editor asks to see pages, you are that much closer to getting published. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise!

Is It Enough To Simply Tell An Entertaining Story? … by Glenn Rogers, Ph.D.

Glenn RogersIs it enough for a writer to simply tell a good story? No. In the process of telling an entertaining story, a good writer, even if only implicitly, deals with important ethical, social, relational, or personal concerns. A good writer helps readers think about important things while they are being entertained.

There is a long and proud tradition in the Arts and Literature, going all the way back to ancient Greece, that utilizes stories as a way not only to entertain, but to teach and to provoke consideration of and reflection on important issues and concerns. Being born in 1951, one of the cartoons I grew up with was Rocky and Bullwinkle. One of the regular segments of Rocky and Bullwinkle was Aesop’s Fables, a collection of morality tales designed to teach important concepts. Aesop was a Greek storyteller who probably lived between 620 and 560 BCE. His stories were meant to teach lessons about good character and proper behavior. They were designed to make people think. Why did the creators of Rocky and Bullwinkle use these ancient stories in a cartoon program meant to entertain children? Could it have been that they believed that it was the responsibility of those who have the attention of people, even children (or maybe especially children), to say something meaningful, to provoke thoughtful consideration?

But even before Aesop and the ancient Greeks, tribal peoples utilized stories not only as a way to entertain but to teach. Anthropologists who work with tribal peoples know that this is still the case even today. Through storytelling, tribal peoples taught their children about their origin as a people, their religion, their culture, and wise and moral behavior. Storytelling has always been a way of teaching and provoking insightful reflection.

Good storytelling—in our Western tradition, good writing—has always involved more than just entertainment. A good story has to be entertaining. But it must also provoke insightful reflection. Consider Shakespeare’s work. He writes about moral corruption, social interaction, politics, love, and desire. He provides contrasts between virtue and appetite, sobriety and revelry, being trustworthy and untrustworthy. And in what may have been Shakespeare’s last work, The Tempest, at least one scholar believes him to have provided a theodicy, that is, a justification of God’s benevolence in a world filled with evil and suffering. Shakespeare did not simply write to entertain.

Later in the 1960s, Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek. One of the reasons the TV and movie franchise has remained viable may be due to the fact that Roddenberry’s approach to exciting and entertaining storytelling, an approach that has remained foundational to the franchise’s success, was the use of morality plays. Episode after episode of Star Trek, especially the original TV series, deals with important human issues or concerns.

Those who are considered great writers today have adopted that same approach. Consider a few examples:

Jane Austin, in Pride and Prejudice, deals with the status of women and the institution of marriage in eighteenth century England.

John Steinbeck, in Grapes of Wrath, addressed the economic challenges faced by the rural class during the depression.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, wrote about conspicuous consumption, the generation of wealth by questionable means, and a deplorable general lack of interest in the social concerns of his day.

Ernest Hemingway, in For Whom The Bell Tolls, wrote about the brutality of war.

Upton Sinclair, in The Jungle, wrote about the dangers and health risks of the food industry of his day.

Harper Lee, in To Kill A Mockingbird, wrote about the coexistence of good and evil and the moral nature of human beings.

George Orwell, in 1984, wrote about the dangers of totalitarianism.

Rogers_THE IMMORTAL AlabasterWhat made those writers great? Was it that they got the grammar right? Probably not—though getting the grammar right is important. Was it that they knew how to construct an intriguing story? That was probably part of it. But each of those authors has a distinct writing style and their books have a different feel. So what made those books great books produced by great writers? While there was likely not one single thing that made their work great, I suspect one of the things was that they wrote not just to entertain, but to provoke thoughtful reflection. The fiction of these well-known writers (all of it, not just the stories mentioned above) helped readers think about important issues. They (and other authors like them) didn’t just write. They wrote about something, about something important.

Could it be that too many writers today have lost sight of this important component of good writing? Is it enough to simply write an entertaining story? No, it is not. The good writer finds a way to touch on some important human issue or concern. The good writer not only entertains, but also provokes thoughtful reflection.

The important human issues or concerns don’t always need to be huge issues such as the status of women, the brutality of war, social equality, or health issues. Things that might be considered lesser concerns by some can still be important. Issues such as personal integrity, self-control, loyalty, friendship, kindness, discretion, moderation, courage, trustworthiness, and the like are important concerns for human life and interaction. Think about what J.K. Rowling did in her wildly popular and influential Harry Potter books. While she entertained us with a wonderful world of magic, she wrote about the struggle between good and evil. She wrote about courage, friendship, loyalty, determination and sacrifice. And while some critics might say that Rowling is not a great writer, maybe it is possible for a good writer to write a great book … or two or seven.

Writing that focuses attention on important aspects of human existence, even if only implicitly, is, I believe, better writing than that which simply entertains without provoking any kind of thoughtful consideration.


Dr. Glenn Rogers is Professor of Philosophy and Social Sciences at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville, Iowa. He is the author of twenty-six academic books on cultural studies, theology, and philosophy. Dr. Rogers is also a novelist, writing mysteries and thrillers. His fiction includes a frontier thriller trilogy: The Colemans The Reckoning, The Colemans The Journal, and The Colemans The Knife. He has a mystery series featuring a private investigator named Jake Badger: Family Secrets, Love and Lies, and Abducted; and another mystery series featuring an immortal detective named Aaron Archer: The Immortal Alabaster, The Immortal Betrayal, and The Immortal Carnage.

Glenn is a movie buff and a dog lover. His favorite author is Robert Parker. He especially enjoys Parker’s Spenser series.

Glenn’s fiction can be found on his website:

Fear, Failure, and Respect by Terry Banker

“There are three types of hooks used to open a book: fear, lust, and curiosity.” This is what Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard out of Carolina, told me after we slammed our shot glasses onto the bar*. She added, “…and curiosity is never enough.” Ever since then, Dorothy’s words haunt me.

I have a confession. Like a good hook, my writing days are filled with fear.

As a novelist, the one thing I fear the most is not a book’s hook. I fear I will run out of time, money, energy, that I will lose my health, faith, or my luck, etc.—all before I can complete the book I’m working on. I worry that as my life changes, so will my writing, and that what I believed important in the beginning will be different by the time I finish.

To summarize: on the bad days, fear of failure leaves me paralyzed.

I have good reason. Out of every writer I’ve ever met, I am the slowest, the least intelligent, the pickiest, the weirdest, the worst speller, the most eccentric, the most regimented, and the least patient writer I’ve ever encountered. Sometimes, I forget what I’ve written, or worse, I’ve forgotten what I’ve edited out. Sometimes I call characters by the wrong names. Sometimes in the middle of a book, the object of importance magically transforms into something else—and I have to go back to the beginning to rework the entrance. After months of work, only Ariadne’s Thread can help me find my way to The End.

How could this be? I used to be smart—well, smart enough. When I was a “new” writer and had yet to write millions of words, writing came effortlessly.  I wasn’t bothered by making situations worse or by what technique to use to tell a story. Point of view and perspective came naturally. I didn’t worry about First versus Third (and never 2nd)—but since then, writing has become more complicated. Now, I think long and hard about using Henry James’ effaced narrative in the simplest of paragraphs.

Something happened to me.

After 10,000+ hours of writing, I became hyper-aware of the many different story elements to select from, and my day-to-day production began to slow. Had I lost my way? More importantly, was I the only writer on the planet who felt like this? The subject seemed taboo. Was it just me or did famous writers fear failure, too? I asked a few.

Dani Shapiro writes memoirs and fiction that Anne Lamott calls “rich in honesty and intelligence.” Dani told me fear of failure never leaves her side. She compares writing to leaping into a pool without water. Every day she stands on the diving board.

It gets worse.

Akhil Sharma wrote over 7000 pages that he edited into his 220-page, bestseller, A Family Life. He explained writing 7000 pages was the equivalent of writing 32 books. The New York Times named A Family Life one of the 10 Best Books of 2014. Akhil told me he feared death (or the haunted house in his head) would take him before he could finish his 12 ½ years of edits. His book was so big, he told me he regularly got lost in his personal history. Even after the book’s immense success, he remains afraid to approach a blank page. The lesson he shared? “Learn to abandon things quickly.”

Andre Dubus III told me to “Always respect fear.” Without facing his fear, he added, he would never have become an author. Andre’s father is the great poet and short story writer, Andre Dubus. Andre III almost couldn’t write a word out of fear of his father’s constant presence. Yet, he was a National Book Award finalist and Oprah beneficiary for his 1999 novel, House of Sand and Fog. Andre is tough. For every hour he works, he hopes for 20 good minutes of writing. Over beers he confessed: more often, he gets less.

And then there’s Richard Russo, who told me he was once lost in fear—despite his 2002 Pulitzer for Empire Falls. When he worked on his first book, Mohawk, he suffered from a “crushing sense of self-doubt and loathing” and was ready to “make a pact with the devil” to pull him through. (He too admitted to forgetting his characters’ names.) What he learned? “I, the author, don’t matter. Only the characters matter.” This fuels his writing to this day.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only writer afraid of failure. Oddly, this didn’t make me feel better. I polled my writer friends for suggestions. This is what we came up with:

  1. BIC – Butt in Chair. Without BIC, nothing gets done. You must be present to win.
  2. Guard your time. It’s all you have. You have the same amount of time as anyone else, from Aristotle to Russo to Zora Neale Hurston. (Get. Off. The. Internet.)
  3. Failure is imminent. Budget your emotional energy.
  4. Not getting what you want is often better than getting it.
  5. Failure at one (paragraph/page/book) is not failure of You—as a writer or a person. Experiment with your eyes, ears, and heart open.
  6. Know your strengths and make them stronger.
  7. Know your weaknesses and learn from them.
  8. Be a kind and generous person.
  9. Find a mentor. Be a mentor.

Most importantly,

  1. Be your own voice.

Easy to say and hard to do, right?

One final confession: sometimes I fake it.

To get by, I look at the many successful people around me—in the writing community and in my life—and I emulate their confidence. I pretend that every day in my office is a good day, and that every word I write takes a reader to a magical place. And when I fail, I pout—then I return to work and move on.

Writing is a solitary sport. This world doesn’t need another damn book, yet we continue to write more. Writing is who we are—and we are an obstinate bunch. Success comes when least expected. Remember J.K. Rowling’s final effort to publish a book about a young wizard? Recall a young Stephen King, whose wife pulled his first book, Carrie, from the trash to launch him into living-legend status?

“Don’t fake it until you make it; fake it until you become it.” (Attributed to many people.)

To summarize: on the good days, anything is possible.

No one ever said life is fair. Now get back to work.

Respect the Fear.




Terry Banker

Novelist, Ghostwriter, Creative Consultant

*Regarding Dorothy Allison: Okay, we were drinking coffee and didn’t slam our mugs, but what’s the drama in that?

50 Shades of Happy: How an RMFW “Failure” panel brought this topic home

Welcome to the third installment of my happiness series. If you’re just joining us, you can read the first two installments:

The Happiness Advantage - To write better novels, lighten up!
The Happiness Advantage – Don’t set a goal without it!

As promised, I’ll ask, did you try the “Three Acts of Gratitude” exercise? The Fun Fifteen? If so, did these simple strategies nudge you up a step on the happiness scale?

I tried it. It didn’t launch me into euphoria, but it did instill a quiet happiness inside me, an inner strength that made each day a little easier, a little brighter.

When happy, our creativity triples. Be grateful for the simple things in life, recall specifics about them, and this daily practice will retrain your brain to see the world in a brighter light. Think of one positive experience in your last 24 hours, day after day, and it will empower you to find new meaning in your life.

Simple but powerful stuff.

I started this happiness journey because my life was feeling flat. I felt my options slipping away, as if I had been given X number of days left to live and that all the pleasant surprises and opportunities I would ever receive had already been sent—and there would be no more.

These exercises (Gratitude and Fun Fifteen) reminded me that the joys and pleasant surprises of life were still gracing my days. Once I started focusing on happiness, some sunny and cumulative effects began occurring.

First, I noticed the proliferation of “happy” articles in the media, as outlined in the first installment. Second, I noticed tips on how to regain happiness.

Then Mary Gilgannon, who is always so generous in sharing some of the more frustrating details of her writer’s journey (not just the triumphant moments), spoke on our RMFW loop about writing journeys gone bad. She announced that a panel of published authors would discuss failures and frustrations at this fall’s RMFW conference.

Being in the happiness mode, I was fascinated. How can we sustain happiness after we’ve been flattened by circumstances beyond our control? That’s exactly what Bonnie Ramthun, Mary Gilgannon, Shannon Baker and J. A. (Julie) Kazimer revealed during the discussion launched and moderated by Jeff Seymour.
First, kudos to them all for being willing to share the failures hidden from view by an exterior curtain of traditional “success” --

  • First contract with a reputable agent.
  • First publishing contract with a Big Five Publisher.
  • First multi-book contract.

Who among us, seeing such success, would approach these authors and say, “Oh, poor you!!”

Yet each of these authors suffered a punch in the gut that would floor most of us.

Bonnie Ramthun. Landed first contract, followed by a series contract. Series cancelled. Random House, landed new contract. Sold well but not enough for a sequel. A stunning FOUR-book contract with Grosset & Dunlap in 2012, followed by a nightmare when Penguin Putnam acquired them, her editor left, and Bonnie became an orphaned author.

Mary Gilgannon. After a Cinderella beginning when she was first published 20 years ago, her career became a nightmare of four different editors, three pseudonyms, six agents and a ten-year drought filled with dozens of rejections.

Shannon Baker. Her Nora Abbot series was picked up by Midnight Ink, but never made it past the third book. She was so overwhelmed by defeat after the first book’s release that she didn’t even promote her second book. Now? She recently signed a multi-book contract with Forge.

J. A. Kazimer. Julie collected a record one thousand rejections prior to her selling her first book in 2010. She’s now at 8 traditionally published books and ponders how many more it will take for her to make a living from her writing.

One of Jeff’s most interesting questions of the panel was this: How did you turn things around?

Shannon just kept writing. Those who know Shannon also know her wicked sense of humor, and it has been a valuable tool for her as she navigates the more treacherous waters of publishing.

Mary used her sense of humor, also, when she told us she vented and indulged in whiskey and chocolate. What Mary did instinctively each time she suffered a setback was to come up with a new plan. This gave her a sense of direction, a modicum of control, a way to get through the tough times. “Exercise. It makes you feel better. And write.”

Bonnie recommended that you move to a different direction. Don’t keep butting your head against a blocked path. Try a different route.

Employ your good sense of humor. Use your creativity to create new paths. These women all used their own assets to weather the storms.

They also reached out by venting with their fellow writers, who understand.

Returning to the topic of the first installment of this series, first find happiness in yourself, and then go forward to claim success. Don’t wait for “success” to make you happy because, as these experienced published authors can attest, publishing success can be erratic, punitive, unpredictable or nonexistent. Be happy, and then go forward with your dreams.

Some new releases on the topic of happiness:

THE GRATITUDE DIARIES: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life by Janice Kaplan—how living gratefully leads to a richer, more fulfilling life.

BROADCASTING HAPPINESS: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change by Michelle Gielan

RISING STRONG: THE RECKONING. THE RUMBLE. THE REVOLUTION, wherein social scientist Brene Brown takes us through the process of getting back up after stumbling and falling.

Finally, a pretty blonde took me aside at the RMFW panel discussion and recommended a series on happiness. Hopefully, she is reading this blog, and will respond with the title to that series, which sounded very good, also.

Wishing you all much happiness in your writing journey!


Kay Bergstrom and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers

Kay BergstromI joined RMFW before it was for Fiction Writers. The original group was affiliated with national RWA (Romance Writers of America), there were a handful of members and the only published author was Maggie Osborne. Yada, yada, yada, I sold my first book, Tongue-Tied, to Harlequin Temptation and realized exactly how much help I needed.

Hence, the critique groups. Jasmine Cresswell had just moved to Denver and joined our little RWA group, and we started doing critique in people’s homes. I loooooove critique, especially in the RMFW style. The idea is to give a couple of nice strokes in the beginning (good kitty!), then the actual criticism (kitty sucks!) and a happy ending (still a good kitty!). I still remember the day when Jasmine said the writing was elegant...not my writing, but I was happy for the other person.

We moved critique to Capitol Hill Community Center. It grew. Many other genres of writers were appearing, which made it a little creepy to read sex scenes. I do, however, believe that it’s helpful to have men do critique on romance. (Really? You think about sex that often? Really?) And we decided that these thoughtful, gentle, fiction-writing men (and women) shouldn’t have to become members of the national Romance Writers of America. We disaffiliated and split into two groups.

Colorado Romance Writers and Heart of Denver Romance Writers are terrific resources for romance writers and others as well. I’ve found that romance writers are incredibly generous in sharing their time and expertise. Because RMFW came from the romance genre, I think the tone of the organization is unique. RMFW is more welcoming to all genres—from erotica to literary. Very seldom have I heard an RMFW member bad-mouth the romance genre. On those rare occasions when remarks are made about trash, pulp and/or smut, the snotty pseudo-intellectual who spewed such venom is generally corrected in such a way that they never denigrate the Big R again.

As for Colorado Gold? It’s the best opportunity to stick my head out of the rabbit hole and find out what’s going on in the world of publishing. Hell, yes, I was there. I love to meet new people.

My New Venture

Partly because I enjoy playing with plots and partly because it’s easier than robbing a bank, I’m getting ready to start a plotting and editing service. I’m still figuring out the important stuff, like how much to charge and how to do it.

I’m still figuring this out and would love any sort of feedback.

Right now, my thought is to offer three services: Developmental Editing: tangling my fingers in the plotting of your fiction manuscript when you’re getting started or when you have a synopsis or if you’ve started and gotten stuck. (This is the fun part I would really enjoy). Page Editing: reading with a wider scope, if needed suggesting major changes, cutting scenes, a more hands on approach. Copy Editing: sticking with the script and making mostly stylistic and choreography changes.

Still getting my act together (finishing a book under contract), but I have set up a new e-mail for this: kaybedits (at) goodle (dot) com and I’m hoping I’ll have my Facebook page operational very soon.

I am trying to think of what to call this endeavor. For now, it’s Plots&Edits, mostly because “plots” is a fun word to say. Plots, plots, you’re such a big, old plots.

Same Old, Same Old

In addition to the New Venture, I will continue writing (for as long as they’ll have me) for Harlequin Intrigue. Though I’ve written other types of romance and even did a couple of straight suspense books, I keep coming back to Intrigue. These books are just about everything I want: They’re fast-paced, not too long (55,000 words) and they pay real money.

I like writing Short and Fast (my nickname in high school) because I can pretty much keep the whole story in my head. I would need to do brain push-ups to do longer books.

My worst habit in writing is procrastination. Putting things off until the last minute isn’t cute, and I MUST stop doing it. In the spirit of “do as I say not as I do,” my advice to all writers is write every day and don’t fall behind.

My practical writing advice: Practice Deep Viewpoint.

I didn’t start out wanting to be a writer. I was going to be an actress. I studied the Stanislavski Method and read An Actor Prepares, which could easily be re-titled A Writer Prepares. The idea is to lose yourself entirely in your viewpoint character so that you can really tell their story. If it helps, surround yourself with objects they would have, eat the food they like, etc. Use caution in writing villain viewpoint, i.e., it’s not necessary to use real blood. The main idea: Take yourself (the author) out of the picture, and focus on the character.

Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art. –Constantin Stanislavski.


For those of you who don't know Kay, she writes the romance novels under the name of Cassie Miles. Her books can be found on the Harlequin Intrigue website as well as bookstores and online booksellers. Find her on Facebook and Goodreads.

How Many Drafts Does It Take To Get To the Gooey Chocolate Center of a Bestselling Novel?

So recently, in the writing community, we’ve been a-buzz over a blog post that warned no writer should ever write four books in one year. I won’t paraphrase, but issues came up over quality and care and other such fears for people who write fast.

I thought I could write a big long blog post defending the slow writer, or villainizing the fast writer, or saying nasty things about political candidate, but naaaahhhhhhh.  Other people who are smarter than me have already done all that.

I wanna talk about drafts. How many drafts does it take to complete a finished novel? And then there’s how many drafts do I WANT it to take to get a finished novel.

I might be a bad person to talk about this. I mean, I was pantser for a long time. My first novel took four years to write. I can’t tell you how many drafts I had. It was re-write city and I was the mayor. I then turned around worked on a book for seven years. Again, playing dice the story. Paper cuts, man, nearly bled to death because of paper cuts.

Then I discovered story structure by reading Robert McKee’s STORY. And I started outlining. And while that helped, it’s still taken me years to write books.  Several. Years.

I’d be lucky to get one book every four years let alone four books every one year. But I’ve been talking to people. I’ve been looking to see what other writers do.

It seems Stephen King writes a book, puts it aside for six weeks or six months, picks it up, goes through and reads it for big stuff (in one sitting if he can), does that second draft, and it’s off to his editor. He incorporates the edits into a third draft, it goes through line edits, and bam, four drafts and he is out the door. But that’s Stephen King. He’s been at this for a bit.

Other writers I talk do something similar though. They do this:

  • Rough draft
  • First draft
  • Beta reader’s draft
  • Editor’s draft
  • Copy edits draft
  • Line edits draft

And out the door. So that’s still six, which is a whole lot less than what I’ve done in the past. Now, most of the novels I’ve written were practice, working on my chops, getting my sea legs under me. But others, well, I didn’t want to give them up out of fear.

What if I sent a bad draft out and no one loved me anymore? I’d die alone.

So I’d go over the words again and again and again. Out of fear.

Notice in the bullet points above, there’s no entry for “Edit Out of Sheer Terror Draft”. Nope. That’s not up there because the brave warrior writers I know get their books done and out into the world. Bam. Fearlessly!

I think people can write successful books and publish multiple a year. I believe that. I also believe that books need several drafts to be tightened up and beaten into shape. In the end, it’s how much time do you want to spend on this?

And the other thing?

There are no rules. Crappy, unedited books do really well sometimes, while golden books of platinum-level editing go unnoticed. No rules, baby. Do what you want.

I’ve been lucky. Well, I’ve been lucky and I’ve been smart. I paid a copy editor to go over my last draft even though I’ve had publishers edit my stuff. RMFW’s very own Chris Devlin is a great copy editor, and she’s saved my books.

But in the end, no matter how much editing you do, you’re not going to please everyone. People will find stuff. A million people could read your book, and the one million and oneth person would find a typo, or find a plot inconsistency, or notice your character probably wouldn’t have eaten the English muffin on page fifty-fix.

I’ll leave you with an example. I was talking to a Star Wars fan, and he pointed out that it was quite the coincidence that you had a Skywalker on Tatooine after the Anakin became Darth Vader. Wouldn’t someone had called up Mr. Vader and said, “Hey, kind of a funny story, but there’s this kid named Luke living on Tatooine and his last name is Skywalker. Is he a relative of yours?”

Yeah, editors missed that one. But it’s pretty safe to say Star Wars did pretty well however imperfect it is.

I’m thinking six drafts, multiple readers including a professional editor, will do for me. I don’t know about you. Find your own path, Padawan learner, find your own path.


Life Work Balance

closeup view of golden scales on whiteYeah, I know, it’s backwards. Everyone always says Work/Life balance, right? Well, after Colorado Gold this month, I can see how we’ve had it wrong all this time.

I mean, really, which is more important: Life or Work? (Hint: this is not a hard question to answer) Yes, most of us need to work to make money to pay the bills, put food on the table, and keep a roof over our heads. But we can do lots of things that accomplish that. Some might not be all that fun, but it’s not called funning, it’s called working.

What does this have to do with Colorado Gold? We’ve heard from a lot of people, including the incredible writer of the year Susan Spann, about how great Colorado Gold was. And it’s all true. But what I really took away from it, besides the (OMG/Yea/Holy Cow) requests for pages/full reads, was that writing fits into the “life” part of the equation above, not the work part. I am not one of the stupendously lucky people like Jeffrey Deaver who get to combine the life and work parts and write for a living. But I can still write. And I make a little money doing it. Enough that I can almost say it pays for itself (OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but who the heck cares!).

Being surrounded by other writers, agents, editors, drinks, food, drinks (hey, it helped counteract the smoke in the air from the California fires), was like what I imagine a Prius feels like when it gets plugged in. My life, love, and pursuit of happiness batteries were recharged. All the way home (and it took 5 hours!) I was thinking of new and improved scenes, a kick-ass ending, and having a bunch of other writing-related epiphanies (and let me tell you, those epiphanies make it damn hard to keep from getting a speeding ticket!).

Those of you can’t see a good reason to fork over the money, or take time off from your job (see above equation!), or are afraid to admit that writing is more than a hobby for you, are missing out on something that can make your whole life a better place to live in. I know a bunch of you out there are saying, yeah, yeah, it’s just a bunch of people sitting in rooms listening to a bunch of other people talk blah-blah. But until you are there, soaking up inspiration, motivation, craft and just having the opportunity to talk to other writers who have been there/done that JUST LIKE YOU, you have no idea what you’re missing. It’s not “What happens at Gold stays at Gold.” It’s “What happens at Gold sticks with you for the next twelve months.” Really.

So start saving your milk money, hang on to a couple days of vacation, and make plans to attend in 2016. While you’re at it, check out the submission guidelines for the RMFW Anthology. Maybe you have “THE” short story inside you that gets you published along with some other really great writers. Go for it…and Write On!