Are you participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this November?

It's a fun time full of writerly companionship, and if you're on the fence I hope I can convince you to jump on in.  I thought I'd share part of a post (with a link to the rest) I wrote for Willamette Writers this summer to help persuade you.

Have you tried NaNoWriMo? You should—it’s a great way to get your words flowing and get your stories out on the page.

Admittedly I’m biased in favor of NaNo. I’ve been signing up for it since 2003 and actively participating since 2006 (turns out you actually have to write something to get to 50K). I’ve taken part as a writer (and a winner seven times). I’ve been the Portland, OR municipal liaison. I’ve attended and hosted local write-ins and events and participated in the online forums. But most importantly, I have written. I have written in November even in years when writing was a struggle. NaNo did that for me.

(Read the rest of the post here.)

I really do love NaNo.  I'm hoping to participate this year even in the middle of a house renovation and move (which may be completely crazy, but I'm still thinking about it).  I hope you'll give it a try and give your writing a jolt of NaNo energy.

Drop me a line, let me know if you're jumping in, let me know how it's going.  I'll cheer you on and see you at the finish!




That subject line is a lie.  There *is* no hierarchy.  No genre is better than any other.  Literary fiction isn't better than genre fiction.

I am so fed up with writers feeling like they're second class citizens because they write genre fiction. I'm even MORE fed up with literary fiction writers, along with critics and so many people in the publishing industry, treating genre writes as if they actually are lesser than in some way.  As if writing genre is some sort of flaw. It's not!

Even Stephen King said that he spent years and years feeling ashamed about what he wrote, as if it wasn't quite good enough. Stephen King, for Pete's sake!

Recently I was listening to a writing podcast I normally enjoy.  The host used the phrase "just writing genre fiction." I was angry and appalled, and honestly I lost respect for her.  If she is brushing off large bodies of work because they aren't literary or mainstream fiction I find her less trustworthy.

Let me just state up front that literary fiction is not better than genre fiction or mainstream fiction.  And it has a much higher chance of getting dry and pretentious because the first aim of literary fiction is to do art and make some sort of deliberate statement about society, politics, etc.  When you let yourself wander away from good storytelling, your book will probably suffer.

Does this mean you shouldn't try to write literary fiction? Of course not!  But if you are pulled to write literary fiction, don't do it at the expense of your story. Fiction writers are storytellers first. And that means the story is more important than any moral message you want to get across.

And if you find yourself thinking genre fiction is lower class than mainstream or literary, think again. It's about the storytelling. Every category of fiction has good stories and bad stories.  That's not about the genre, that's about the writing.  Focus on the writing, on the story, on building a world and drawing your readers into it.  Don't get hung up on labels.

There are no categories of writing that are superior simply because of their subject matter.  It's about the story.  Dismissing entire genres as less-than is lazy thinking.  It keeps you from having to judge each story on its own merit.  Don't get hung up in that trap. And most importantly don't put yourself down if you love to read and write genre fiction.  You are just as good as any other writer, and don't let the snobbery convince you otherwise.

ListenHere's a great The Journeyman Writer podcast from  StoryWonk about what to write when you don't have an idea. It also touches on what to do when you feel your story idea has been done before (hint: write it anyhow!). It's a perfect subject right before NaNoWriMo.

I think we get hung up sometimes on wanting to write something that's never been done before (that will happen because you have never told this story before, so stop worrying about it!)  And we get hung up sometimes on thinking we should do something different.  "I love ghost stories, but my last three stories were about ghosts so I should do something different." Write your story. Write what you want.  Get a little inspiration from this podcast then go get some words down.

The Journeyman Writer: The First Step


Stories to tell 3

I'm not a writer because I love to write.  I don't always love writing. I avoid it sometimes.  I even wash the dishes sometimes instead of writing.  Some days it not only doesn't come easy, it doesn't come at all, and I have to write "I don't know what to write" over and over in my notebook just to get a few hundred words to finally trickle out.

Some days the writing does come easy.  The words fly onto the page, and I look back and really like what I wrote.  I love the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment I get from a good writing session. That's still not why I'm a writer.

I am a writer because I have stories to tell.  There are stories inside me all the time, some half-formed, some less clear than that.  But it's constant.  I am flooded with story ideas and fragments and whole stories, all the time.  I need to tell them.

I think this is why most writers write, but I think it can be hard to let this be our reason. There's a lot of talk out there about your passion--living your passion, finding joy in your work (I'm sure there are hundreds of other phrases like this, but you get the idea).  We think we have to be constantly on fire about our writing, in love with it, living for it.

I bought into all these ideas about finding my passion, and when I didn't love writing I thought I was wrong about being a writer.  I thought I had to love writing or else I wasn't really a writer and was doing the wrong thing.

That is not true.  I am a writer.  You are a writer.  We might love writing, we might not; that might change every day.  We are not writers because we love writing. We are writers because we have stories to tell.


If you've been doing regular writing practice for a while (see Top 6 Reasons To Do Writing Practice) you will probably start wanting to spend time working on specific craft skills like descriptions, dialogue, action scenes, etc.  Good idea! Improving those skills makes your stories better.

So where do you start? There are lots of ways to work on your writing skills.  Do a search for "writing exercises about XYZ" and you will find tons of ideas to get and keep you going.  I thought I would share one of my favorite ways to decide what skill to focus on. Bonus--it involves reading!

First, pick out a favorite book or short story to re-read. If you choose a novel, you might want to go with a shorter one since it will be easier to analyze.

Next, write a few notes about what you remember about the book. Especially make notes about the parts you really loved (and the parts you weren't so thrilled with if there are any).  If you have thoughts about why you loved or hated different parts, note that too.

Now sit down to read, but keep your notebook and pen handy. When you come across something that is really wonderful write it down.  (If it's long, paraphrase if you like). Make a note of what category of writing it is (description, line of dialogue, etc.) and why you like it. Don't forget to write down the page number so you can go back to it later.

Once you've gone through the story making notes about your favorite bits, write up your overall impressions of the book. Give extra attention to what you liked the most about it and why.  Then go through your notes to see if there's one writing area that shows up most frequently.  Maybe you love the dialogue in this story, or maybe the descriptions thrill you to your toes.  

Whatever area really stood out for you in this book, pick that as your craft skill to work on.  Find some exercises that appeal to you, and make a plan to work on them for a few weeks until you're feeling happy with your skills in that area.  Don't try to emulate the author in your writing, but do think about how that author might write the exercise and what parts of that you would like to incorporate.  

You can also do this by picking an area to work on first and then examining a favorite story for great examples of that skill.  For example, if you know you want to hone your dialogue skills, seek out a book that you remember having great dialogue and read through it to find your favorite examples.  Analyze what makes you like them, then go to your writing exercises and work on putting those qualities into your own writing.

Of course you can pick an area to work on and do exercises without doing the analysis beforehand, but I find that doing this helps me focus on things I especially want to try to bring into my own writing.  I hope it helps your writing, too.




This is a fantastic episode of Writing Excuses with Peter Beagle about ditching the "aspiring" when talking about being a writer and getting into the mindset of a professional writer.  So much good advice and charming anecdotes--I love this episode.

This is important for all of us, especially if we're in the early stages of our writing careers and aren't published yet.  How you look at your writing, how you think about it, has a great effect on your success and your feelings about your writing life.

Writing Excuses 9.44: Getting in the Writer’s Mindset with Peter Beagle



I don't think I've talked to one writer who hasn't said some form of "I don't have enough time for my writing." It's our favorite lament!  It's also the thing we let trip us up and keep us trapped more than anything else.

Why does this happen?  Some of it is a real shortage of time.  You're busy, right? Probably very busy.  Right now in our world "busy" is the new default mode. People used to ask, "How are you?" and the answer would be something like "fine" or "good" or something of that sort.  Now at least half the time I ask the question the answer I get is "busy."

Okay.  Everyone's busy.  Does that mean you can't get your writing done?  Maybe. (Ooh, you thought I was going to say "no" didn't you?)

There are times in life when there really isn't enough time to get everything done. There are times--moving, planning your wedding, having a baby, changing jobs, etc.--when you have to give more attention to one thing while letting other things take a back seat.

If you're in one of those phases then you might not have time for writing just now. And that's okay.  There will be more time for it later. For now, do things to stay connected to your writing life so your well doesn't run dry (I'll write more about that another time) and get back to writing when the balance shifts again.

If you're not in one of these times of life?  You have time to write.  You just think you don't, possibly because you don't know where to look for it or what it looks like.

Mostly what keeps us thinking we don't have enough time to write is a combination of these things:

  • Thinking we have to write for hours a day all in one chunk
  • Thinking we have to write every day
  • Thinking we have to write at the same time every day
  • Thinking writing is hard and time consuming so we couldn't possibly have time for it if we don't rearrange our whole lives for it

None of these is true.  You have time.  You don't need to have big chunks of time, either.  You would be amazed at how much you can write in 15 minutes (go to and see how fast you can actually write). And the more you practice writing in smaller chunks and writing fast, the more words you'll be able to get down in a short time.

One other thing that can really make time into a stumbling block--not being ready with something to write.

Do not sit down to write with no idea what you want to write!  The one exception to this is if you're doing a free form writing practice session.  Then it's okay to sit down and just pour out whatever is in your head.  Other than that, have a plan for what your'e going to write.  Then sit down and do it.

Most importantly, just sit down and do it.  For five minutes.  Can you give me five minutes?  Try it.  And then let yourself be proud. Because five minutes of writing is writing.  It counts.  And it adds up.  It makes you a writer.



Do you love writing? Do you love stories and storytelling and find pleasure in doing the work, writing your stories, creating your characters?  Sometimes I let it become nothing but work, just another thing on my to-do list. I forget sometimes to reconnect with the pure pleasure and fun of making things up.

This fabulous episode of the even more wonderful Magic Lessons podcast from Elizabeth Gilbert is about the fun of making things just to be doing it.  It's a great reminder and listening to these wonderful women talking about creating for no one but yourself is a beautiful thing.

Listen, then go make something. And have fun!


Sharp 09

Back in June I wrote a post on reasons to do writing practice.  The first reason I mentioned was that writing practice sharpens your writing skills.

I gave some general ideas of how writing practice sharpens your skills.  Here are some more specific ideas on how to use your writing practice to hone your craft.

Before we dive in, let me say that I think sometimes you should just write. Start with a prompt or just start with a blank page and write for your 10 or 15 minutes or for your three pages or whatever marker you've chosen. Write to get words out.  Write to find out what you're thinking about.  Don't make every session about improving your craft or practicing specific things.  Let some sessions be only about letting words flow.

Now, for those times when you do want to focus more on craft, here are some ways to do it.

Sharpen Your Writing Skills:

  1. Use writing exercises from books and websites. Set up a file of exercises to use when you want to practice craft so you don't have to do a lot of searching to find something to write about.  You might want to create categories for your exercises: description, setting, action scenes, dialogue, character work, and anything you might need that's specific to your own story or your genre.
  2. Use a story generator prompt.  See my post about prompts or search for story prompts (a story prompt will give you a whole story premise rather than just an interested object or idea to write from as some writing prompts do).  Try to come up with a complete story from the prompt. (These kinds of prompts are great for writing flash fiction.)
  3. Write about your main character doing ordinary things--getting ready for work in the morning, having dinner home alone, having dinner out, getting ready for a date, preparing for a job interview, etc. Writing about these ordinary things will give you good writing practice and also help you learn more about your characters.  Then do some of these for your antagonist and other characters.
  4. Write about your main character's home, their favorite outfit or piece of clothing, their car, their desk, their bathroom.  Again, do this for other characters, too. This will give you description practice and, as with the above prompt, will help you learn more about your characters.
  5. Write about your own memories.  What did the kitchen smell like at Thanksgiving? What did your grandma's attic smell, look, sound like?  Keep a list of memories you can write so you can turn to them when you want to do this work.  Also search for memoir prompts to help you find what to write about.  Writing this will help you hone your descriptions, and it's enjoyable to visit your own past.
  6. Try out some poetry prompts.  Writing poetry, even partial poems, is great for developing your descriptive writing and for learning to use metaphors and other rich forms of language.

Writing to develop your craft isn't too much different from doing general writing practice.  It's really sitting down to write with the intent of practicing a particular aspect of writing much like sometimes a golfer goes out to play a practice game and sometimes he goes out to work on his putting.

Use these ideas to mix up what you work on in your writing practice sessions.  It will enhance your work and keep you from falling into a rut.  But mostly, keep writing.




Willamette Writers Conference Wall of Advice
Wall of Writing Advice

This past weekend I was at the Willamette Writers Conference here in Portland, Oregon (an amazing conference with great teachers and programs--I highly recommend it).

On Sunday I had the pleasure of presenting some programming about NaNoWriMo.  For one of the activities, the attendees wrote down their best writing advice on sticky notes so we could create the Wall of Advice you see above.  I promised to write up a post so everyone could see what was written, so here it is.

The advice:

  • First read, then write. Write every day.
  • The difference between your book and the last book you read that you hated is that they sat down and finished theirs.
  • Don't over-outline. Let your characters develop themselves. ~Stephen King
  • It is pen and paper not a monster howling outside your door splintering the wood as it crashes through to slice you to shreds with fearsome claws.
  • The importance of concepting. Being able to describe your work in a simple phrase so others get it.
  • Trust your voice--and follow it.
  • Allow yourself to write for just 2 minutes and stop if you want. Often, you will want to keep going.
  • When someone tells you writing is a waste of your time, ignore them. They don't know what they're talking about.
  • First, do a good, big vomit. Edit later.
  • Just get it on paper. You can fix it later.

So much great advice, isn't it?  That second one about finishing really hit home for me.

What's your favorite or best piece of writing advice? Leave a note in the comments so we can all gather some wisdom to rev up our writing lives.