Some things to remember when brainstorming

The phrase “back to the drawing board” should not induce panic or stress. Starting a new project is like being released into the wild: you are free, and the world is yours to explore. Your art can go anywhere, limited only by the bounds of your imagination.

So why can it be SO DARN INTIMIDATING?

As I pass into another phase of idea generation myself (brainstorming not only for the “next” project, but numerous which I could see myself pursuing), I’m (re)discovering key things that enable me to proceed in what can be an otherwise paralyzing freedom. Because they help me, I hope they will also be of use to others.

When brainstorming, remember:

  1. It’s all been done before. And that’s okay. Embracing this can be liberating rather than constrictive. [Recommended reading on this.] [A helpful chart.]
  2. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Not everything you write has to be toward your best novel yet, or even toward a novel at all. Pressure is crushing. Allow yourself to breathe.
  3. Writer’s block only truly happens when you stop writing. As long as you are writing, you are creating, and the act of creating is more important than whether what you create is good or not. (Hint: if you KEEP creating, even when you have nothing to say, every idea sucks, and you don’t know why in the name of France anyone ever encouraged you to pursue writing ever, eventually SOME of the stuff you make will be good, and you will find your springboard.)
  4. On the flip side of #3, epiphanies tend to occur away from the screen, so it’s also important to spend time not writing. This may sound totally contradictory to the previous point, but it isn’t. Writing is great for digging and jumpstarting and sometimes finding little pieces of your next idea, but often the great What if? questions that spurn whole novels come to us in the quiet moments we aren’t looking for them: washing dishes. Showering. Exercising. When we let our minds wander. So be sure to spend some time in a place your thoughts can unfold without interruption.
  5. When you’re really at a loss, go do something new. The greater our experience, the greater our pool to draw from. If your new experience doesn’t help you today, it may very well feed into another project tomorrow.

Other ideas? Share in comments below!

Forum Friday: Do you write in sprints or marathons?

What I mean by that is, Do you power-write in quick bursts (say, 300-500 words in an hour) or are you more likely to stake a place in a café or library for the day and work at a slower but steadier pace?

I think this is an especially relevant topic as the ~1,700 word-a-day madness that is Nanowrimo approaches. Tell us what works best for you!

Forum Friday: Unsatisfactory Endings


Has the ending of a book ever just made you wanna scream, cry, destroy sandcastles, or hoard Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches in your room and never come out again? You’ll never get those 7 hours back! Why did you think it was a good idea to read this book? How did it ever end up on bookshelves in the first place? HOWWWW?

Hyperbole aside, I think most of us have read at least one book whose ending left us wanting, wondering, frustrated, confused, or otherwise unsatisfied. However, I am of the opinion that most unsatisfactory experiences can be learned from, and an unsatisfactory novel ending is no exception. That said:

Have you ever read a book whose ending left you unsatisfied? What made it unsatisfactory– and if the pen were in your hands, what might you have done differently? (Please note this is asked in the spirit of readers and writers thoughtfully critiquing and coming away with something– not to book bash unnecessarily.)

Petty Man(uscript) Problems

In the last couple days I’ve been converting my latest version of a WIP to manuscript format. A simple task in theory. I mean, I already wrote the book– drafted and added to and cut and changed and edited and critiqued and revised and revised and revised (and did I say revised?) it– how hard could it be to make sure the thing was double-spaced and had one-inch margins?

How indeed.

As I read through assorted manuscript format guidelines, it quickly became clear that spacing and margins are about the only thing most (yes– not even all!) sources agree on.

Then other issues began to surface:

  • Scene breaks: hashtags or returned lines?
  • How many spaces down the page should chapter headings be (and how many returns after it)?
  • Can I call my chapters “ONE,” “TWO,” and “THREE,” or do they have to include the word “CHAPTER”?
  • Should I include a dedication in the manuscript when submitting it to agents?
  • Do I end the novel with “THE END,” “END,” a hashtag, or nothing?
  • #THEEND?

You get the idea.

And for every picky question of detail, there might be two to a dozen answers: that’s Eenie, Meenie vs. Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo, Bob, Tom, Curl, Larry, George, Sal, Wally, and Cousin Chip.

As a first-time author, formatting your manuscript is not something you want to play guesses at. You want to get things right– and all of the conflicting sources out there can make this endeavor both difficult and stressful.

BUT THERE IS GOOD NEWS. After an absurd amount of time and Googling, I realized a few things:

  1. Some agents specify manuscript format preferences right on their websites. BOOM. Guesswork gone.
  2. Agents that don’t specify how many enters before chapter titles or whether the Last Name/Title/Page Number header should be flushed left or right aren’t going to discount your manuscript for discrepancies in such petty details, and

Have you ever been stressed over a ludicrously small detail like this? If so, share below!

Writers: Are we all a bit mad?

I remember the ill-slept, thrilling and simultaneously stomach-turning first morning of Assistant Language Teacher orientation in Japan. It was then a lovely English girl asked the breakfast table, “Are we all a bit mad?”

No one had slept well.

But it wasn’t just jet lag. I can’t tell you how ridiculously torturous that first night in Tokyo was: everything was question marks. I had no concept of the place I would be living. Of what my job would be like. How to live day to day there, from grocery trips and operating a Japanese ATM to cultural etiquette, food staples, transportation. I was a stranger in a strange land, and in three days I would part with everyone else who spoke English.

So I loved the question when someone else asked it: Are we all a bit mad?

Writers– especially novelists, I think– live this way. Every book is a journey: a new land. New people, new language, new trials, new pleasures. It blights the mind trying to envision what a project will be like when in reality you can only handle it one page, one task, one day at a time. And we sign up for this! This long-term, sink-or-swim, learn-on-your-feet, by-the-seat-of-your-pants whirlwind! This madness! Again and again with every book!

Well. I may not know what comes next. But if it is anything like my time in Japan was, it will surprise and delight me in a thousand ways.

Kampai, as they say.

Looking for a Literary Agent: 3 Starter Resources

So you’ve written a book. (If you haven’t yet, go back a few spaces: agents rarely consider queries for unfinished, debut novels!) What next?

You begin the search for an agent, of course!

First, before you start the search, I highly recommend reading this Writer Beware: Agent Advisories and Tips from SFWA. It’s a comprehensive list of cautions and “things you should know” before you start looking for agents– including how to make sure the agent you’re looking at is qualified and reputable, fees to avoid, and more. Arm yourself with knowledge.

Once confident about what you’re looking for and what you should eschew, check out these 3 great resources for finding agents:

  1. Agent QueryThis is a searchable database designed expressly for finding literary agents. It’s far faster than its hamster-squashing, colossal textbook counterparts: you check the boxes of your book’s genre(s), enter in any relevant keywords and BOOM! results. Agent Query also offers excellent guidelines about how to write queries, how to submit, formatting, etc.
  2. Query Tracker – This is a multi-purpose resource website and features something like Agent Query’s searchable database with easy-to-read icons and results. It actually offers more search-refining filters than Agent Query does, including search by query method and even agent gender!
  3. Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents Blog by Chuck Sambuchino Remember the godsend that established the Successful Queries series? Well, among other things turns out he also hosts a rolling segment all about literary agents, and frequently features “spotlight” agents that are either new to the literary scene and actively seeking clients or are established and calling for new clients. Either way, you can’t go wrong!

That’s all for now, but trust me, those three resources alone are enough to keep you busy a while. When I first found the Guide to Literary Agents Blog I might’ve read all day if my eyes hadn’t started to water!

Explore and let us know what you find. And if there are any agent-finding resources you yourself favor, feel free to share below.

Best of luck, aspiring novelists!

Book Queries: What’s Your Opening Line?

For today’s Forum Friday I want to talk about how we pitch our books, starting with our opening line in the query letter to agents. This past week I have been reading successful query letters, mostly from the Writer’s Digest Successful Queries series, and I have made several observations. I’ll talk about this more in detail in a later post, but the one I want to discuss briefly today– and get your take on– is this:

Of the two tried-and-true approaches to opening a query letter below, which do you prefer?

A) The Hook. Opens the letter with a point of intrigue or a question specific to your story. “When XYZ happens, what’s a Quirky-Details-of Main Character to do? Why, *charming/quirky/action-packed development*, of course!” There are many approaches to the hook, but what I’ve noticed is that it often reads just like a book jacket: it’s intended to pull the reader in and KEEP them reading (i.e., really sell your book).

B) The Facts. Opens with something along the lines of “Please consider representing” or “I am seeking representation for” and includes the title of your book, the genre/target audience of your book, and the novel’s finished word count. This is key information that the agent will be looking for and having it at the start can save the agent valuable time.

Alternatively– if you’ve already written your query letter– would you be so kind as to share the opening line with us? It’s educational for the writing community, and free promotion for you! 🙂

At present, between the hook and the facts approach I favor the facts. Reading through actual queries, those that said “Dear Ms. Agent: When…” struck me as unnatural openings and hard sells. Granted, I understand that the purpose of a query is to get the agent to make a book deal with you. It is, in fairness, a business relationship, and when an agent opens a letter from a prospective client there’s no guesswork as to what that person is seeking.

Still, I can’t help but feel that an agent should be treated as a person first, and not as a potential buyer. That may not the best approach from a marketing standpoint, but I think that’s the main reason I favor the facts over the hook. Opening with “I am seeking representation for” or “I’m writing because” still says (and outright!) that you are looking to do business, but is more personable, and also gives the agent that crucial classification data of genre, audience, and word count.

Let us know your thoughts!

Forum Friday: If you could be ANY fictional character…

Today’s Forum Friday is for fun: if you could be any fictional character, who would you be and why?

Some considerations:

Lord Henry Wotton

Drops aphorisms like hot potatoes

Harry Potter

Uhhh…accio sundae!!!

Plus: be a Cheshire cat!

Artemis Fowl



Dorian Gray

Forever young and beautiful…don’t mind the rotting soul in the attic!


Holden Caulfield

Shoot the crap and call the phonies.

Katniss Everdeen


David Rice


Elizabeth Bennet

Witty, pretty, loved by all & RICH (via almostwritten)

Hermione Granger

The witch with all the answers (via a girl who reads)

James Bond

Posh, pissed, and privileged with super-cars despite inability to drive (via DrFrood)

Open to all genres, literary and non. Chime in, and let’s have fun with this– I’d be glad to post more pics and captions 🙂