After I wrote my first (terrible) draft of my first novel, I spent a couple of years learning everything I could about how to write a good story. Every time I learned something, I went and applied it to my entire manuscript.
The one thing I learned that changed my writing the most was how to use strong verbs.
A lot of times people confuse weak verbs with passive verbs. They aren’t the same thing.
A passive sentence looks like this:
The street was run down by Mary.
The story isn’t doing anything, right? It’s the subject of this sentence, but it’s just sitting there having something done to it by Mary.
The good news is you’re probably not really using passive tense in your writing.
The same sentence written in active tense, but with weak verbs looks like this:
Mary was running down the street.
Now the subject of the sentence is Mary and she’s doing something. She’s just doing it with pretty weak verbs.
And the same sentence with a stronger verb.
Mary ran down the street.
Simple past tense (or present tense) is almost always stronger than the combo of a to-be verb + an -ing verb.
You can, of course, make it even stronger by using a more precise verb.
Mary sprinted down the street.
Mary jogged down the street.
Mary tore down the street.
Mary stumbled down the street.
Mary skipped down the street.
See what I mean? Each of these nice, strong verbs adds something to the sentence, which adds something to the story.
If you use a strong verb, you take away the need for an adverb. You don’t need to write Mary ran quickly down the streetif you use the verb “raced.”
There aren’t many technical assignments in this series, but this one is really important. It will improve your writing instantly.
Open your work in progress, or something else you’ve written. Search for the “-ing.” How many combinations of a to be verb and and -ing verb did you find? Could you use a simple, stronger verb instead? Start fixing them. I promise by the time you do that in a whole manuscript, you won’t use weak verbs anymore. (Or not as often. This exercise is still part of my editing process.)
I told you guys about my NaNoWriMo experience. I wrote the first draft of my first novel during NaNoWriMo in 2004. Once I knew that I could actually get through a first drat, that was it. I was hooked. I just needed to learn how to write well.
So, I started to study. I went to college and studied creative writing. I read (and really studied) every book on writing I could get my hands on. I found other writers to learn from.
I think that taking the time and the effort to learn is a major difference between someone who wants to be a writer and someone who really is one.
So, today, I’d like to encourage you to take a class.
You might be wondering why it took me so long to get around to this one.
It’s simple: you needed to build your writing habit first.
You’ve been writing everyday for 21 days. First–yes. You are a rock star! I’m so proud of you.
You’ve officially been writing everyday for long enough to officially have built a habit. You know. According to the people who decide these things. Scientists or something.
I hope that you’re starting to feel like a writer, down deep in your bones.
Because you’re going to set up a space to do your writing today.
Here’s where I write (officially.) It’s a corner of my den, next to my dining room.
I wish that I had an office, because it can be seriously chaotic trying to write in a house that’s as full of people as mine is. In fact, I often end up writing in my bedroom with a lap desk so that I can close the door.
When we first moved to Reno we lived in a tiny apartment–me, Kevin, and three kids in about 800 feet. That’s where I got into the habit of writing with a lap desk sitting on my bed.
All of that to say: writing on your bed with a lap desk counts as a writing space.
Writing at your kitchen table counts.
On your couch with a TV table counts.
An office inside or outside of your house counts.
All I want you to do today is think about where your space is. Claim it. Own it.
And think about what you need to transform where ever that space is into your writing space. For me that includes: good pens, cheap notebooks, a computer, a yellow candle, and warm feet.
Where is your writing space? What do you need around you to make a space your writing space? Come over to Facebook today and share with us.
How did that feel? If it felt great–hell, yes! That’s awesome.
But, it’s okay if your answer to that question is: it felt like a lie.
Trust me when I tell you that I get how hard it is to make the mental leap to considering yourself a writer. I’ve heard people say that they won’t do it until they’re a best seller (To be fair, none of those people were published. I’d be willing to bet they change their mind the first time they see a book with their name on it.) Hopefully your own criteria for when you’ll feel like a writer is somewhat lower than being on a best seller list.
I made a decision when was very young that I’d officially call myself a writer the first time I got paid something for something I’d written. That turned out to be an article about dog friendly restaurants in Las Vegas. I was paid ten bucks. A few weeks later I wrote “writer” on my daughter’s kindergarten registration form.
I’m glad that I set the “I’m a writer” bar fairly low. I probably would have given up years ago if I’d decided I needed to be traditionally published first. Or worse, that I had to be a best seller.
I called myself a writer well before it was obvious to anyone else that I was. As a direct result of that, I mustered up the nerve to apply for a job as a newspaper reporter, when I didn’t have a college degree or any experience (I got that job.) I believed I was a writer and that formed my vision of myself.
If you’re holding back from telling people that you’re a writer because you think maybe it’s not okay to say that if you’re not published or you haven’t written a novel yet or no one’s paid you anything–here’s me giving you permission to just do it. Break whatever rule you think there is about who gets to say that they’re a writer.
You get to, Ninja Writer. Today. The next time someone asks you what you do. When you look in the mirror and need a boost. You are a writer. It’s okay to own that.
Did you already say “I am a writer” out loud? Good. Now, say it out loud to another person. You can practice by coming to say it in our Facebook group.
A couple of days ago I mentioned that it took me seven years to go from crappy NaNoWriMo first draft to having a book published by Penguin.
I want to talk to you a little more about that.
I wore a new dress the day my second book launched. I wore lipstick and fixed my hair. My kids and my husband were spit-shined like we were about to meet the president. We trooped into Barnes and Noble, up the escalator, to the G shelf in the YA section.
We’d done this same thing the day before, when my first book launched. I was prepared for the excitement of seeing my new book on the shelf.
Only, this time, it didn’t work that way.
Rebel Nation wasn’t there.
I wonder if you can imagine the way everything inside me tightened, like it was being squeezed by the giant fist of the publishing industry.
Barnes and Noble hadn’t picked up my second book.
Because of that, Penguin didn’t pick up my third book.
It didn’t matter that my first book had good reviews. It didn’t matter that my editor had encouraged me to end Rebel Nation on a cliffhanger. It didn’t matter that I was getting daily emails from readers who loved my story.
The giants spoke and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. All of a sudden, I went from having a shining literary future ahead of me to being the devastated owner of a career that consisted of two thirds of a failed trilogy that ended on acliffhanger.
So I fell into a funk. For the first time since 2004, I stopped writing. For a whole year, I didn’t write a word. I teetered on the edge of going all in on my Plan B and becoming a classroom teacher.
It was how close I came to giving up writing altogether that, in the end, made me stop feeling sorry for myself and tell another story. And it was The Plotting Workshop, believe it or not, that carried me through the first steps to getting back to writing.
I sat down and wrote out all the steps that I needed to take to plot a new story. And then I just started taking them, one by one. And when I was done, I had a road map that I could follow through the story.
Every time I start a new story, The Plotting Workshop takes me through finding my inspiration, the steps of the Hero’s Journey, developing 30 key scenes, building a physical plot board, and finally writing a synopsis.
If you click here, you can pick up a free worksheet detailing those steps. (And my favorite writing exercise from The Plotting Workshop.)
Writing is hard, Ninja Writer. I told you that in my last email. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking. But if you’re a storyteller, you’re driven to it. Not writing, then, is even more heartbreaking.
What I’ve learned over the last couple of years, since being traditionally published, is that I don’t have to rely on traditional publishers to give me a career. If I write a good story, I can find an audience for it. And there has never been a more exciting time to be a writer, as far as publishing goes.
For exciting, of course, you can read scary. But there’s all of us, Ninja Writers. We’re in this together. I’m so grateful for that.
In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote: “Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.”
That’s how we got Ninja Writers. I wanted a strong writing community. More than strong–I wanted a magic writing community. I trusted that if I reached out, other writers would find me and we could build that community.
And we did.
Ninja Writers is, by far, the most amazing writing group I’ve ever been part of. It’s a family. And it’s the thing that’s going to make the difference for all of us, between wanting and being.
I have a local writers community, too. I belong to my local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and I’ve been part of Romance Writers of America (RWA) even though I don’t write romance anymore, because the community there is so strong.
Today, I’d like you to take a minute to think about your writing community. Do you have local friends who are writers? I’m writing this in mid-October, which is a great time to find local writing groups as they gear up for NaNoWriMo.
Are you part of our Ninja Writers Facebook Group? If you’re not, I’d like to invite you to join us. Nothing would make me happier.
Writers tend to be introverted. And sometimes when we start writing, it can be hard to be confident enough in our work to want to reach out or to feel like we should. There is something truly magical, though, when you find your people. You know–your tribe.
Ninja Writers is our tribe. Hopefully, you can find a local tribe as well.
First come join Ninja Writers if you haven’t already and introduce yourself. Let us know where you are, what you write, who you are.
Second, make an off Facebook connection with another write. Exchange emails or phone numbers with another Ninja Writer. Reach out to someone in your real life who is also a writer. Google writing groups in our area and plan to attend a meeting.
I also reinvested some of the money I earned from my first class launch in joining a small coaching group run by Jeff Goins. Tribe Writers taught me the basics about running a blog. The coaching group went much deeper.
Most important, though? I sought out advice from experts and then I implemented it. When Bryan Harris said ‘text your best friend and invite them to join your email list,’ I did it. When Jeff Goins taught me his three bucket system for creating content for my blog, I used it. When Tim Grahl mentioned a three-email system, I wrote it.
I figured out how to make Facebook ads pay for themselves
I have this little loop that’s the coolest thing.
Above I told you that I earned two years of my annual income with my first course launch. Everything is relative, right? I was a $9.75 an hour teacher’s assistant (loved the kids, but the teacher was an absolute nightmare. That’s a story for another time.) I worked 27 hours and forty-five minutes a week, because the school district didn’t want to give me benefits.
So, I didn’t have money to pay for traffic to my shiny new blog. What I did have was a writing planner I’d designed for myself that I thought other writers might like. So I put it in my thank you page and sold it for $7.
Whatever I earn one day selling my planner on my thank you page, I spend on Facebook ads the next day.
So the cool little loop looks like this:
FB ad sends a visitor to my blog > Visitor subscribes to my list > Visitor gets sent to my thank you page > Maybe two or three visitors a day buy the planner for seven bucks > I use that money to pay for more FB ads.
This little loop is so cool that I got to talk about it on the stage with Tim Grahl at his conference! Here’s photo proof:
I wrote about something that a lot of people are passionate about
Unless you’re J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, literally no one cares about your personal writing process.
I know that’s harsh, but it’s the truth. If it helps, that goes for me, too. I’m a published author and literally no one wants to read a blog about me writing my books.
Instead of starting an author blog where I talked about my process, tried to drum up interest in a cover reveal, and shared pictures of myself speaking on a panel at my local comic con, I wrote about something that lots and lots of other people are passionate about.
I wrote about their writing processes.
I wrote about helping them write their own stories. I offered to help them learn to tell them well.
Jeff Goin’s Tribe Writers course involved coming up with a worldview. This was mine: I believe that a good story told well can change the world. In fact, I believe that very little else ever has.
As soon as I stopped trying to get people interested in my stories and started paying attention to theirs — they magically started caring about mine, too.
I think this is maybe the one thing I did that made the most difference. Instead of trying to sell myself, I set out to be of service to other people.
I Taught What I Knew: ConvertKit
This one came from Nathan Barry at ConvertKit. Teach Everything You Know is the motto over there. And that’s exactly what I did.
(And ConvertKit helped me do it, because it is the most fantastic email service. Ever. If you’re a writer, you need to build an email list. I highly recommend you do it on ConvertKit. #fangirlmoment #sorrynotsorry)
I’ve developed a method for writing a novel that works really well. So, I taught that, too. I launched A Novel Idea (a year-long class that teaches that method for writing a book) for the first time in March. And, you know, the whole two years’ income thing happened.
I sent out an email to that list I’d been working on about six weeks after I started my blog, then went to a movie. While I was at the movie, I was pretty sure that I’d made a mistake and decided I’d just quietly shut it down.
Only, by the time the movie was over, a couple of people had bought the class.
But here’s the thing. Teaching what I know helped me earn a living wage (finally), but it is also the one thing that’s built my list more than anything. More than Facebook Ads. More than give aways or guest posts or SEO.
If you teach something that you’re good at and that other people want to be good at, too, you’ll find students.
Leave a comment and let me know if you’re a writer building an email list. What’s one thing that’s working for you?
In our Facebook Group, I hear Ninja Writers talking often about being afraid of sending their work to readers–whether that’s a friend, a beta reader, or a publisher. Writing a story can feel like having a baby, and then suddenly shoving it out into the world, unprotected, straight into the arms of people who feel like it’s their purpose to be judgmental.
I want you to pull the trigger. I want you to think, today, about the places where you might be able to place a short form work.
Whether or not you have something to send out into the world, you should be familiar with the market. Whether you write , poetry, or creative non-fiction, there are publications that are eager to see new work. In fact, they spend all their time seeking it out.
Spend a little time today exploring the market. Just get your feet wet. If you have a short story or poem or essay that you feel is publishable, consider sending it out. But, even if you don’t, this is a good step toward that day.
Duotrope is a website that lists more than 6000 markets for fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. It also features a submission tracker, which will help you keep track of where you’ve sent your work. It costs $5 a month after a week long free trial, but even if you don’t feel ready to pay for a subscription yet, check it out for a week.
Click around. Visit some publication websites. Read some submission guidelines. Start to familiarize yourself with what’s required if you want to be published in short form.
Go to Duotrope and get signed up for a free 7-day trial. Come on over to Facebook today. Let’s talk about pulling the trigger.
I was 33 when I wrote my first novel during NaNoWriMo in 2004. I needed something to distract me from the longest November in the history of Novembers–before my daughter Ruby was born on December 8th that year. As November gets close, again, I thought I’d share my Nano story with you today, and give you some NaNoWriMo tips.
So, in 2004, I did it. I wrote like a fiend every day for a month and I finished a first draft. It really sucked. Like, really, really, really sucked. But I did it. And doing it was magical for me, because once I knew I could write a novel, I knew I could learn to write one well.
But all that mattered to me on November 30, 2004 was . . .
I wrote my first novel!
Then I gave it an edit and I was so proud of myself. To celebrate, I sent out a round of agent query letters. This was in the olden days of the early aughties, when you still had to send an actual letter with photocopied pages and a SASE.
I expected a long wait time, while these agents read the sample of my masterpiece and considered how they might best help me to become a bestselling super star.
What actually happened was that my mailbox filled, rather quickly, with a flurry of little slips of paper (agents didn’t even give a whole sheet to queries they insta-bounced) that said something along the lines of:
Thanks for sending in your work. It’s not for me, but keep trying.
What that sounded like to me was more like this:
Hey, Shaunta! You suck. Give it up now. Don’t make me, or any other agent, read another word of your incompetent attempts at being a writer.
Best of luck finding some other career. May I suggest being a teacher? That’s your Plan B, right? Right.
What I’m saying is, its hard to write your story. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It sucks to write something that you know is crap. It’s miserable, sometimes, to keep working and keep pushing and keep trying, when there isn’t any real outward sign that success is imminent.
You might finish your first draft this November, but it takes a lot longer than that to produce a work of fiction that’s fit for public consumption. In fact, it took me longer to make that first book readable because I rushed it out.
NaNoWriMo was worth it, because knowing I could write a novel at all was a game changer for me. But it’s not a sustainable method for creating a writing career. In reality, it takes closer to a year to write and revise a book. And that’s why just about every writer (Nanite or not) out there has a file or a drawer full of half-finished good starts.
We are the collectors of good starts, when what we need to be is the perpetrators of strong finishes.
NaNoWriMo is great for pushing writers past the start, through the middle, straight to the end. To the finish.
And that’s the only real secret to being a successful writer: You have to finish. And you have to be willing to keep finishing and keep finishing.
A few years after that NaNoWriMo, I’d studied Creative Writing at the university level. I’d written four more books. None of them were publishable, but each one was better than the last.
Then, in 2010, I finished another story. And I sent out another round of query letters (electronic this time.) And instead of a shower of ‘dear author’ form letters, I found an agent. Actually, in addition to a shower of ‘dear author’ form letters, I found an agent. And she found me a publisher. That publisher was an imprint of Penguin and they bought two of my books.
Learning to be a finisher took me from being someone who wrote ‘write a novel’ at the top of every New Year’s Resolution list to being a Writer.
My mission is to help you make that leap from being someone who wants to write, to someone who is a writer. I’m so happy to be on this journey with you. I truly believe that a good story, well told, can change the world. In fact, very little else ever has. I can’t wait to see yours do its thing.
If you’re getting ready to give NaNoWriMo a shot, I want to teach you some things I wish I’d known that first time around. These things would have helped me get from that first terrible first draft to being a published author faster.
These things also would have helped me realize the one-word secret to going from being someone who wants to write to being a writer. They would have helped me FINISH a first draft a lot sooner. Even years sooner.
Start with a plan (I made you a workbook!)
I can’t stress this one enough. If you’re going to try to write as fast as NaNoWriMo requires, having a road map through that story will make all the difference. My favorite way of doing that is with a system we call How to Develop + Test a Story Idea, or H2DSI.
I’ve created a H2DSI Workbook just for you! Download it now and use it to help plan your story before you start to write it. (Just put your email in the form below.)
H2DSI: The Workbook
Leave your email address here and I'll get you your copy of the workbook that will help you to Develop + Test your awesome idea.
Success! Now check your email to pick up your workbook.
Don’t edit until you’re finished with your first draft
Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of trying to edit while you’re writing a first draft.
I have this theory: writing is so hard that the writer’s brain will go to any length to make the writer feel like they’re writing, when really, they are not. Editing is the number one culprit. Because it makes so much sense to think that you can’t move forward if what you’ve already written sucks.
Pull out a calendar and write down your writing schedule for this week. In ink. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo next month, know that you’re going to need two or three hours a day, every day, and find them. Commit to them.
FRED (the Folder for Reaching the End of your Draft) is the best tool I know for managing your writing time. You can download your FRED by clicking right here.
This is your job, Ninja Writer, long after November is over. You don’t have to have hours a day to dedicate to it, though. Just remember that whatever time you set aside for writing is as important as hours you’re scheduled to work at a day job.
William Faulkner said: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
Stephen King said: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Kill your darlings, is perhaps, the scariest, most intense piece of writing advice ever.
But I don’t want to murder my darling!
I’d like to make a case, today, for the idea that you don’t actually have to do it. At least, not every time. Instead, you just have to identify your darlings. Then make a decision.
So, a darling is a piece of your writing that you’re super attached to, to the point that you’re not seeing it objectively. It’s a scene or a character or some other part of your stories that you’re bending over backwards to make relevant.
And sure, sometimes you have to kill your darling. You just do. Maybe your story has changed to the point that the scene you love so much just doesn’t fit anymore. Maybe your favorite character just has to wait for another book.
But sometimes you can make it work.
The key is to remove ego from the equation. Forget that it’s your hard work you’re going to have to toss if the scene gets a double thumbs down. Look at the problem with fresh eyes (if you can actually have fresh eyes take a look, even better.)
Here are the three steps to (Maybe) Killing Your Darlings.
Identify the Darling
If you really love the thing, but you have to keep fighting with it–you probably have a darling.
If your beta readers are confused by it, but you feel heartsick when you think of cutting it–you probably have a darling.
If you have a scene that’s your best writing ever, but feels like it belongs in a different book–you definitely have a darling, Darling.
I’m willing to bet that as soon as you read the title of this post, you thought of a scene in your work-in-progress.
Evaluate the Darling
Ask yourself what it is about the scene that’s giving you fits. If you cut it, will you have to write something else in its place, or could you lift it out whole and not really make a difference in your work? Does the darling scene play well with others–does it interact with the scenes before and after it?
Most important: What does the darling do for your work and what would happen if you took it out?
Kill it, or Not
The hard truth: If you can lift the scene out of your story and you won’t have to do any work to cover the loss, you probably need to do that. Every scene in your book should be indispensable. Often what makes a scene a darling is the fact that it’s too separate from the rest of the story.
The better news: If the scene is an important part of the story, but just doesn’t quite blend just right yet, you might be able to salvage it in revision.
The best news: You don’t have to actually revise it unless you’re finished with your first draft. Remember the one rule?
If you’re in revision, then evaluate your darling scenes with open eyes and an ego-free heart. If you do have to cut it, place it gently in it’s own file for later use. (Even if you never use it, you’ll feel better if you know it’s there. Just in case.)
Identify a scene in your work in progress and ask yourself: Am I going to have to murder my darling? (You don’t have to actually do it now. In fact, you’re not allowed to unless you’re in revision!) Just make a note of the scene in your writing notebook.
If you need some commiseration, come on over to Facebook. We’re here for you.