After #NaNoWriMo: A Writer's Checklist

It's December 1st.

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#NaNoWriMo is over. Or as non-writers/sane people call it, November. You're sitting at your desk, unkempt and exhausted, a pile of papers in front of you that resembles a manuscript. You've done it! Congratulations are in order... You have a first draft!

You have a first draft. Now what? As my own book nears its publication date, I look back on the whole process from first draft to here and I wish I'd had a better sense of all the stages. And writers love lists, right? So I put together a list. I hope it helps.

The First Draft is Done: Twelve Next Steps for Writers 

1) Celebrate. Enjoy a beer or a Pinot Grigio or a chocolate milk or a big huge cake or a dance party or whatever else feels celebratory to you. Finishing a book manuscript is no small feat, especially if you wrote the bulk of it in one harried month. Pause for a while to bask in what you've accomplished, to ceremoniously cross write a book off your bucket list. Print out the manuscript and carry it around under your arm just to feel the bulk of it. Maybe throw a picture or two up on Twitter or Instagram. Caption it: Look! I wrote a book! But don't celebrate for too long, because the time will come to...

2) Take a deep breath and acknowledge that a first draft is only about 50% of the work, if that. I've written about my own lowly first drafts here and here. I once read that agents are so swamped with manuscripts pumped out during #NaNoWriMo that many have taken to closing off December submissions. Sending your NaNoWriMo draft to an agent/publisher on December 1st is sort of like signing your newborn baby up to write the SATs. Not ready! Slow down! Put your book in a drawer for a while, a few days or a week or longer. The editing process will be - should be! - arduous. Take a breather before you start. And when you feel ready, pull it out of the drawer and...

3) Read your manuscript really closely. Be cruel and be kind. Remember, this is just a first draft. Don't let sloppy writing get you down; this isn't a line edit. The first read should be about taking notes and asking bigger picture questions. Do you see your book as a thriller? What are the elements of a good thriller? Do you have them in your story? What about your characters? Are they thin? Contrived? Can you find major plot holes? Scenes that are too short/long? Scenes that could be cut without changing the story at all? Sections where the pacing is too fast or too slow? The She's Novel site has some excellent suggestions on how to proceed. Some writers may want to start their second draft on their own, others might need to...

4) Find an outside reader or two. Find someone who reads a lot, someone who can understand the limitations of the first (or second, if you've gotten that far) draft. Ask gently and humbly and be okay with people saying no, because reading an early draft is sort of like agreeing to babysit someone's child for a weekend; it's no small undertaking. Ideally, you'll find someone else with an early draft and you can exchange. #Nanowrimo local groups are a good place to look, and meetup.com also lists many writing groups by geography & genre (will I sound like a mom if I add here that you should always use your street smarts when meeting up with strangers?) If funds allow, consider hiring a professional editor to help you. In Canada? Find an editor here. Once you have a reader, you'll need to give them time to read and absorb. So...

5) Use the time between drafts well. Published writers will tell you that over the course of a book's lifetime, from first draft to book-on-shelf, there will be lots of waiting, and some of it will be agonizing. One way is to pass the time is to write other things. Use daily prompts like those Sarah Selecky tweets daily. Outline your next project. READ A TON. Read books that match your own genre, books with similar themes to yours, and take notes on what you feel works or doesn't as you read. Read books entirely unrelated to your own work. And while you're at it...

6) Engage in the marketplace. If you're not already there, join Twitter and follow writers, editors, booksellers, agents, publishers, literary magazines, book reviews, book bloggers, etc. The Write Life offers great Twitter suggestions for writers. Attend local readings or literary events. The publishing world is relatively small and supportive, and connecting with other writers can be very helpful at every stage. Also, when the time comes to put your work out there, it's a bonus for agents and publishers to see that you're already active in the publishing scene. Immerse yourself. And soon enough, the waiting will be over, your manuscript will be returned to you with feedback and you'll be forced to...

7) Accept the trials of the editing process.There are endless quotes from famous writers on the torturous editing process.  Writers must be open to it, must be humble and ready to get to work. Ignore constructive feedback at your peril. Edit with a "customer is always right" sensibility; of course, your readers may not always right, but if they are telling you that something isn't working, you'd best take a good look. Be prepared to cut passages or scenes or even characters you love simply because they don't fit. Be prepared to kill your darlings. Need some guidance? Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is one of my favourite books on the editing process, and Joanna Penn's website The Creative Penn also has lots of great tools. Push through that second draft until you've got something better than the first. Then...

8) Go back to #1 on this list and start again. Then again. My rule of thumb is that no publishing professional should see anything earlier than a third or fourth draft. Find new readers or give it to willing previous ones again. Hone it. Move from bigger picture to scene by scene to line edits. Keep editing until you find yourself reading pages and pages at a time without catching anything you want to change, until it reads like a novel you'd pull off your own bookshelf. The editing process could take up 8 steps on this list, it's that important. When you've finally got a polished draft in hand...

9) Now you're ready to begin the submission process. Like every other stage, submission should be a thoughtful one. DO NOT write a form query letter and send it to every agent or publisher in the world. Start by doing your research. Will you self publish? Jane Friedman offers an excellent guide to self-publishing if that's your preferred route. If you want to publish traditionally, would you rather work with an agent or submit to publishers directly? What are the pros and cons of each option? Either way, you'll need to find agents or publishers that best suit the genre and audience for your particular book. Writer's Digest The Writer's Market & Guide to Literary Agents are both super helpful. Curate the ideal list of recipients. Once you have that list in hand...

10) Write a strong query letter and synopsis of your book. No skimping here! Your query and your synopsis need to be perfect. Your query is the first thing (and if it doesn't grab them, the only thing) an agent or the intern in charge of the slush pile will read. Again, Writer's Digest's Chuck Sambuchino and The Writer's Market have excellent samples. Be sure to personalize all correspondence and follow agents' or publishers' submission guidelines to the letter. If they want you to start with an email query only, don't mail them a hardcopy of your entire book. Get it right. Agents and editors are profoundly busy people, so the adage applies: You only have one chance to make a good impression.Once you've nailed the query letter and the synopsis, it's time (finally!) to...

11) Press send. But only when everything is in perfect order, when you feel confident you've honoured the process and written the best book you can write. Then remember...

12) No matter what, try not to lose sight of #1.The celebration. The acknowledgement of your feat. Keep your writerly chin up, even if the rejections come in droves, even if the waiting seems unnecessarily long, even if news from the book world seems discouraging. As Edward Albee said, writing is an act of optimism. Writing is art and sacrifice. Just by doing it you're acknowledging an important part of yourself and you're putting something good into the world. Try to remember that and keep your pen to the page, your fingers to the keyboard no matter what.

Good luck! 

@amyfstuart

#NaNoWriMo

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It's November 1st. There are too many candy wrappers strewn at my feet, my children are splayed around the house in varying degrees of sugar coma, and the clocks have gone back to standard time, meaning up here in Toronto the sun will go down shortly after lunch. It's also the day my Twitter feed fills up with 140-character musings on #NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It's a movement that compels writers, in the dark and cold of each November, to attempt to write a novel in 30 days. It has a website and lots of joiners, and also lots of detractors who say there is something blasphemous about trying to hurry an inherently slow creative process, that trying to write 2000-3000K words a day is like throwing cups of paint at a canvas and hoping it bleeds together to look something like art. They have a point.

But today, I respectfully disagree with those detractors. Today, I've joined #NaNoWriMo.

My goal is a little different than the standard write a book in a month. I am writing the second novel in a series and I'm lucky to have a contract to do so. The first book (Still Mine! ORDER HERE!) comes out in April, and my goal all along has been to have the second book drafted and the revision process fully underway by the time Still Mine is in readers' hands. But transitioning back to the first draft writing has been harder than I thought it would be. I thought it would be same old, same old. But alas, it turns out you're not good at the second book just because you were eventually good at the first. I'm not sure there's ever such thing as mastery in writing. The muscles I built writing Still Mine will no doubt help me this time, but I'm not playing the same sport. The learning is new. I'm a beginner again. That's slowed me down more than I thought it would.

My goal for #NaNoWriMo is to force my brain out of the doubts and questions and into full-on writing mode, to run with the writing I already have. I'm not aiming for a full first draft, but I am aiming to write prolifically, to meet ambitious daily goals. I'm aiming to be part of a wider community of writers trying to do the same. I'm aiming to stop eating candy.

Keep warm, writers. I'll see you December 1st, pages in hand.

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Sarah Faber's Wonderful Book News

Writers tend to roam in packs and for years (decades, really, for we aren't so young anymore, are we?) I've run alongside my dearest friend Sarah Faber. She's always had a love for writing and a willingness to learn and grow and hone her craft; she's taught me so much about what true commitment to writing looks like. So I'm insanely thrilled that her beautiful, haunting novel LIGHTNING TO THE CHILDREN has been picked up by M&S in Canada and Little,Brown in the US. It's not surprising, but it's fabulous news nonetheless. Just wait until you read this book. Sarah will leave you in awe with the simplest turns of phrase. The story is gorgeous and her writing stuns. She is a monumental talent. I've known that for years and now the world will know it too!

Read all about her deal(s) HERE.

(On top of her beautiful, haunting writing, Sarah also makes beautiful, haunting dolls like the one below. Read all about them HERE).

First Draft Take 2: Starting Again

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Here's a post I wrote 2.5 years ago titled The Truth About First Drafts. I'll sum it up for you: First drafts usually stink. As Hemingway said, The first draft of anything is s**t. First drafts are a quagmire of half-formed themes, of thin plot lines & dropped threads, of characters who started out named Mark somehow ended up named Mike. First drafts are the kitchen when you're halfway through preparing that massive and complex meal: A complete mess. It's been a long time... years... since I've stared a first draft in the face. A month ago, I handed in a final draft of a novel. That sweet, spell-checked, edited, organized beast of a final draft that will never be perfect but it's pretty good to me. I birthed it and raised it and loved it and sent it out into the world.

Time to let it go. Time to start again.

I began my first novel by writing 50 pages at the Muskoka Novel Marathon. I was working from a one-page outline that dropped off at the end of the first act. I had a premise but not a plan. With the second novel, I'm trying a different approach by creating a thorough outline, the writer's equivalent of using an elaborate recipe. The best cooks may not need one; maybe they can add and remove and dabble and correct and invent as they go. But I'm pretty sure writing the first book without a strong outline made the process more complex and lengthy than it needed to be. Because I wrote a thriller with thriller elements like plot twists and red herrings and sneaky characters doing sneaky things, not having an intricate plan made for a lot of stops and starts later. In essence, if you're writing a whodunit, it's a good idea to know whodunit before you start.

I'm no fool: I know that an outline won't absolve me of extensive editing. I know that the first draft will still be a big mess. But this time I'm hoping for some method to the madness. I've often gone back to these two little essays by Andrew Pyper and Sheila Heti, each taking a side on whether to outline or not. Both make excellent points. Last time I was with Heti, and this time I'm with Pyper. I'll let you know whose side I'm officially on when I finish the second book.

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On a practical note, there are some tools of the trade that writers can use for outlining. My most beloved writing software Scrivener has features that support the planning stage. I've also tried The SnowFlake Method, a program designed specifically to help writers build a plan before they begin writing. Here's the idea: Think of a snowflake. You start in the centre with a premise, and you slowly build the complexity from there. The software is well-designed and easy to use, leaving lots of room in my brain for pesky creative things like inventing characters and putting them in dicey situations.

This time I'm not as afraid of the first draft. I'm ready, outline in hand. I'm prepared to get messy. Here I go.

STILL MINE

Writers might tell you about the weeks right before a book goes to copyedit and the scramble it takes to get the final edits done. I am in that phase right now. The book flies out of my hands in about two weeks. So I'm writing, editing, tidying, checking, fiddling, hoping. In the meantime, things are starting to happen to this book outside of my brain/computer.

It has a title. Still Mine.

It has a publication date: April 5, 2016. 

It has a pre-order page at Chapters.

The next year will be a thrilling time, preparing for the publication of this book, seeing cover art and galleys and ARCs, working with the sales and publicity teams, and finishing the first draft of the second novel in the series. I can't wait!

For now, back to work.

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The Muskoka Novel Marathon

Writers are often asked how they started a project or where they found their inspiration. It's usually a murky question, but in the case of my novel (still untitled!) the where question is easy. I started my book at the 2010 Muskoka Novel Marathon. The MNM takes place over a weekend every July at a gorgeous and inspiring lakeside setting in Huntsville, Ontario. Writers gather over a weekend and spill out as many words as they can on a new project. There's the spur of competition, because participants can submit their manuscripts at the marathon's end and the winners receive a consult from an agent or a publisher. There's a sense of purpose, because all the funds raised (usually well over $20000) go to literacy initiatives in the Muskoka region. 

But mostly, there's a deep sense of community, a room full of writers experiencing the waves of thrill and angst together. Some writers work through the night and others come and go. Some are working on third or fourth or fifth novels, others are first timers. By the end of the weekend, it feels familial. There's camaraderie, free food, good coffee and a great view. It makes for an excellent place to write; in 2010 I managed 50 pages in a weekend, and I was a slow poke compared to some of my fellow scribes.

I've done a few marathons over the years but I haven't been able to return for a while because of births or travel or other obligations. But I still feel very much a part of the community. When my book deal was announced, my friends at the MNM took the news and ran with it, writing a press release that resulted in a lot of attention (see here and here, for example), shouting it from the internet rooftops. I'm humbled by the support and championing they continue to give me as I work away at the project I started while there.

Every writer, emerging or otherwise, needs a community. If you are in search of one, I urge you to have a look at the Muskoka Novel Marathon. It will be held July 10-13th this year. Registration is March 10th and it fills super quickly (we're talking minutes). The best way to get more information is to follow them on Twitter or join the Facebook group.

How to Stop Worrying & Keep Writing

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There's a picture of me as a little kid that tells it all. I'm slumped in a church pew, my eyebrows bent in a look of unbridled worry. My childhood is full of scenes where I'm ruminating and my mother steps in to tell me to stop worrying about it. But what if this? I would ask her. What if that? When I was old enough to read it, she dug out her worn copy of How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie and gifted it to me. Never mind the strange 1940s writing style or the religious undertone, I could swear the old man with the horn-rimmed glasses on the jacket cover had written that book just for me.

I worry less these days, even if there's more to worry about. I have offspring now, a job that immerses me in the lives of wily and struggling teenagers, and lots of writing to do. But in my daily life I keep it (mostly) in check, in part because I keep that worn copy of Carnegie's book on my desk as a steady reminder, in part because I married a guy who is always philosophical and easygoing, always gazing over to the bright side and nudging me to do the same. In very large part because I might be better at recognizing that in the grand scheme of the world these days, my troubles are piddling.

Or maybe I haven't been cured of it, but now I just dump it into my writing. Last year, a good friend read a draft of my novel then joked that I wasn't so sunny after all, that she understood where I funnelled all my darkness. The book is about a missing woman, about abuse and addiction and loss - no hilarity ensues anywhere within it. I write about dark things, and I worry as I do it. I frown and bite my nails as I write, regressed to that kid in the photograph with the furrowed brow. I worry this is not the right word or that sentence is too long or I'm not quite telling that bit like I want it to be told. Sometimes, I worry at once about every book I'll ever hope to write, and my heart rate will actually pick up at the magnitude of all the pages yet unwritten. But mostly, I worry about my characters and what will happen to them. This one confounds me. It's stupid, right? Worrying about the characters in your own novel is sort of like worrying about how your food will get chewed once you put it in your mouth. You have full authority over it! Just chew!

Writers talk all the time about flaky stuff like our characters existing outside of us, how we are capable of loving them and hating them and worrying about them as though they walk the earth alongside us. It's like parenthood, but with way more control at the outset- you pick not just the name but the hair and eye colour, the tics and the inclinations. You chart their course as you please, conjure up their friends and family, decide where they'll live and what they will and won't eat. You have all the control, indeed, yes, at first you do, but you know that soon the characters will become someone not-real-but-real, they will step away from you somehow, morph into beings with immutable strengths and foibles, and so every choice you make for them now will limit the choices you can make for them later. You can't just have your vegetarian eat meat or dye her hair pink; she is too steadfast for that. You know it's a bad idea to send her on that solo kayaking trip or to hand her that loaded gun, because you've already pegged her as lonely or prone to rage or both, and who knows if she'll stick to the plot/plan? So you worry about her. I do. I worry about her! I want her to be okay.

It's true that I probably worry more because I am in the midst of writing a series. Some of my characters will migrate from the first book to the second. As I work away at the final edits on this draft, my worries can be encapsulated in the notion of a leather briefcase. It goes like this: I can't decide halfway through book two that my main character carries a leather briefcase. She needs to have had it all along. She's not the kind of character who goes shopping for briefcases. She hates to shop. What if she really needs it? If she's going to need a briefcase, I have to put it in her hands now, in book one. Or at least mention that she's got it in her car, a gift from her mother. But wait, her mother's dead. That makes the briefcase sentimental, and we don't want to get into that. It's just a #*(&@)$ briefcase.

It took only one or two meetings with my editor Martha before she caught on. Sometimes, as we're hashing out a character or a plot point, I'll hear echoes of my mother in her response. Don't worry about that! What's the point in worrying about that now? Stop it! I've thought of lending her Carnegie's book just so she can gift it back to me. Just like my mom, she's firm but kind in her delivery. Do I doubt my ability to write these characters? No. This story? No. Then why worry? Right. But what if she needs that briefcase? Then you'll find a way to get it to her. Yes. I will.

(Really, there's no reason she'd ever need a briefcase.)

A fellow writer pointed out to me recently that, especially in the face of good things, like, say, the publication of one's book, you should only work hard. Worry is indulgence. Toil away at the writing with your head down and be grateful for the opportunity to do it. When the what if bubbles up, crush it with time and effort and a lot of ruthless editing. The fact that my novel will be out in the world someday soon is an excellent thing, the thing of dreams. The characters will be fine if I take them seriously and tend to them. They will survive whatever I throw at them. And when it comes down to it, if I really need one, briefcases are easy enough to come by. Stop worrying and start writing, as Dale Carnegie (or my mom, or my editor) would say. Start writing and keep writing once you've begun.

An act of optimism

Writers aren't renowned as a particularly optimistic bunch. It can be a lonely toil and the rewards are never guaranteed. I've recently started another big project (I won't use the n*vel word until I hit 20K words) connected to the last big project, and when I wake up early or wander out late into the icy dark to write, I need that sense that I'm doing it for good reason. Even with all the ominous news of decreasing readership and closing bookstores and such, I keep on believing that writing is worth my time and sacrifice. I'm hopeful because there is still so much good writing coming out into the world, so many books each year that I buy and read and love. I engage in great discussions on the topic all the time, either at my book club or on Twitter or in my classroom or anywhere else. Also, I'm quite certain my students are reading more now than they ever have; I can see them turning away from their screens and back to old-school books, perhaps a renaissance before the death of the written word was truly upon us.

So, I'm optimistic.

Years ago my hubby gifted me a journal and I think the inscription - care of Edward Albee - says it best.

But I hate to be alone...

Ferry to Island
Ferry to Island

Because I fancy myself a writer, I like to think I am an introvert too, a craver of solitude. When the day-to-day of family life is particularly grinding, I’ve often used the evenings hours to google things like “cabin retreat” or “writing escape” with visions of myself alone in the woods with nothing but a calcified kettle and a rickety table for my laptop. Scrolling through the results, I actually deselect options like “WiFi” and “Close to Town” because apparently I’m the sort of person who wants to be alone for days and days so I can write.

But, I’m not. On a windswept weekend in June, I left my gaggle of children with my brave husband and boarded the ferry from downtown for the 10-minute ride to Toronto Island. That I was the lone passenger on the ferry probably wasn’t the best omen, but it felt somehow Victorian, my bags on my lap on the damp bench with all those old red lifejackets tucked into netting overhead. Out the window the rain fell sideways. Victorian and writerly, right? Except I spent most of the ferry ride texting my sister. About my kids.

On the western tip of the islands is Gibraltar Point. This used to be what we born-and-raised Toronto kids called The Island School. It is now an artist retreat/colony/work space run by Artscape, a Toronto non-profit. My lovely and gracious host picked me up at the island terminal then showed me to my private space, an old school portable converted into a studio. I was by myself, no children or obligations aside from writing for 2 whole days. The stuff of dreams. Yet as soon as my host pulled the door closed behind me, I texted my husband to say I’d be on the next ferry home. If it wasn’t for the pelting rain and the 25-minute walk back to the island terminal, I would have left. Stay, my husband wrote. You are not allowed to come home. He knows me well. Next came a walk on the beach with ocean-worthy storm surges. Two ducks sat on the sand with their wings shielding their bills from the wind. Instead of admiring them, I pulled out my Iphone and tried to secure a photograph to text to my husband, sisters, best friend and mother. I wanted to share even the mundane details of this experience with them.

There were other people at the retreat. They seemed happy there, alone with their art. Some of them planned to stay for a month. These are people with the true artist’s temperament. Making art is life, and everything else is waiting for the next chance to make art. When I wandered over to the common space and struck up a conversation, they had trouble looking me in the eye, though they smiled often and asked me many questions about my work. My work. Right. I worked all weekend. In fact, I wrote almost 10000 words – a magnificent tally. But the entire time I longed for those people I so readily left.

In the seven years I have been writing seriously, two things about me have changed. For one, I have developed my own version of the artistic temperament. It allows me to conjure my characters at any time, even when surrounded by the din of my children. I suss out their strengths and flaws by surmising how they might handle a standoff with my 3-year old, the true test of anyone’s character. When I am away from writing for too long, I feel strange, sad, edgy. This is my artsy side. I hide it well from others. The other thing I’ve learned, something I probably should have figured out years ago, is that I am not a solitary writer. I am not a solitary person. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I hate being alone.

 So now, I google a different kind of escape. Somewhere with a house for my family, and then a shed where I can write. The perfect balance. Leave me be when I am writing. But when the writing is done, bring me back to my people.