Category: by oll guest

Pro Tips for Making Friends Through the NaNo Community


November is full of challenges—from supervillains to coffee shortages—so it’s important to have support from the community to help push your writing towards the finish line. Today, writer and ML for the USA :: Kansas :: Topeka region Lissa Staley shares her thoughts on how to make friends through NaNo and build your dream team:

is your chance. The time is now. All around the world, in your region, or in
your own city, people who share your creative values are joining together this November to write novels. These are your people, this community of frantic fiction writers, and they are inviting
you to join them.

you don’t know anyone else who writes fiction, or you haven’t written a novel
before. Maybe right now you don’t have writing friends, or you worry about how
your writing will compare to theirs. That’s all about to change. When you build
a community of fiction writers during NaNoWriMo, you are building
friendships that may reach beyond November and beyond writing.

You are befriending amazing people. NaNoWriMo is populated by people
who believe that seemingly impossible things (like writing fifty thousand words in
thirty days) are achievable and worth doing. In November, you see the same
people at events or online. You begin by connecting with people around writing
and then find you can connect in other ways. You may find another writer who
has something in common with yousomeone who knits, or appreciates your
Firefly references, or loves licorice, or is obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. 

may find yourself trying new things because of conversations you had with your
new writer friendswatching Star Trek, or playing Dungeons and Dragons, or
reading The Princess Bride. You may discover future beta readers, editors, and
collaborators or form book groups or critique circles.

“To me, NaNoWriMo is so compelling because the more that people encourage each other, the more we all win.” 

Or—you may not. You don’t have to become best friends with every writer you meet.
I have writer friends who I only talk to during November. The focus on quantity
of words means that I can cheer a fellow writer on to victory without knowing
anything about what they are writing or sharing any goals beyond that 50,000
word finish line.

me, NaNoWriMo is so compelling because the more that people encourage each
other, the more we all win. The shared experiences are richer for all of us
when we attend events, participate in word wars, post in the forums, and create
inside jokes during the act of writing fiction together. Here in Topeka,
Kansas, we give out “Ask Me About My Word Count” stickers and create an
intentional safe space for writing without judgement. We can support each
other’s writing endeavors because we are only competing in word sprints.

Be on the lookout this November for your own writing community:

  • Introduce yourself online in your local forums. Add local writers as writing buddies and send them a few supportive messages during the early weeks of writing.
  • Inspire others. Share quotes, encouragement, memes, plot twists and ideas for boosting word counts.
  • Put time to write on your calendar and prioritize it. Attend local events, or advertise your own impromptu write-in at a popular coffee shop, bookstore or library.
  • Ask for help! Use your forums in your region to suggest a writing dare or word war. Be on the lookout for opportunities to help other writers with encouragement or challenges.

NaNoWriMo, writers cheer each other on as part of their writing process. Your individual words count for more than just your
personal goal; you contribute to the regional word counts and the total on the
main website. We write novels in November because we want to be part of
something bigger than ourselves; in addition to the goal and the
deadline, NaNoWriMo gives solitary writers the opportunity to create community.

November, make friends while you make your story.


Lissa Staley became a novelist in 2003, approximately a month
after signing up for NaNoWriMo on Halloween.  She became the Topeka,
Kansas Municipal Liaison in 2004 and has talked people into writing
novels in November ever since. She also hosts Come Write In programs as a
public librarian, and helps writers learn the skills for self publishing through
the Community Novel Project at

Top photo (from the Night of Writing Dangerously 2016) licensed under Creative Commons from Buster Benson on Flickr.

So, You Want to Write a Book? Get the Answers with The Great Courses Plus


Every year, we’re lucky to have great sponsors for our nonprofit events. While it may seem like your list of questions about writing, editing, and publishing gets longer with every day of NaNo, The Great Courses Plus, a NaNoWriMo 2017 sponsor, is here today with some courses that may answer your most pressing creative questions: 

Where do I start?

What does it mean to show and not tell?

When do I use an Oxford comma?

How and when do I edit my own work?

Is this a dangling modifier?

Will my novel stand out?

What’s the best word for…?

Once I’m done, how do I (and should I) query agents?

When it comes to writing, there are lots of questions. And, luckily, we’ve got lots of answers.

The Great Courses Plus gives you unlimited access to streaming videos from the greatest professors in the world. These expert resources can help you navigate from the Once Upon a Time of sitting down and starting your novel to the Happily Ever After of your published work, and to each of the dotted i’s and crossed t’s in between.

Our esteemed selection of literature and writing professors know what it’s like to struggle, to get stuck in the details, to hit a wall, or to feel overwhelmed with possibilities once your book is actually done. We’ve curated a list of resources below to help you along for every step of the way, and the professors have provided some words of wisdom to help keep you inspired and motivated:

Need some inspiration? Check out “Mystery & Suspense Fiction”, “Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature”, “Folklore and Wonder Tales”, or “How Great Science Fiction Works”.

Storytelling is core to the human experience––you shape your identity through stories. Who we are, where we come from, why we’re here––these are all life-shaping stories. If you don’t know your story, you don’t know yourself.”

––Hannah B. Harvey, professor of Folklore and Wondertales

Want to take your writing to the next level? Watch “Building a Better Vocabulary”, “Building Great Sentences”, or “Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques”.

‘Whatever your motivation turns out to be, and whatever struggles and triumphs you have with writing and publishing, I hope the act of creation provides … meaning in your life.”

––James Hynes, professor of Writing Great Fiction

Time to brush up on the basics? Try “English Grammar Bootcamp” or “Becoming a Great Essayist”.  

“Each of us has the capacity to write meaningful essays that tap into the heartbeat of humanity.”

––Jennifer Cognard-Black, professor of Becoming a Great Essayist

And when you’re done? Don’t miss “How to Publish Your Book”.

“There’s no single publishing path that’s right for everyone. The correct choice depends on your goals and your personality as a writer.”

––Jane Friedman, professor of How to Publish Your Book

30 days of writing and 50,000 words: that’s no small feat. But, with some help from The Great Courses Plus, we know you can do it.

Happy writing!

Pro Tips from a NaNo Coach: Help! I’m 10,000 Words Behind!

NaNoWriMo is well under way, and whether you’re at 5,000 words or 50, you may feel like your word count—and your morale—could use a little boost. Today, author and podcaster Mur Lafferty reminds us that NaNo isn’t just about reaching 50K: 

So you started strong, and then fell off. Or something came up. Work happened. Car broke down. Cat got pregnant. Neighbor died. Life happens.

Or, maybe, you JUST found out about NaNoWriMo and thought it was a great idea—but then you looked up, saw it was already November, and are kicking yourself about missing the grand launch.

Oh well. Might as well quit. You can’t possibly catch up. But next year, right? You will totally be there.

Hold on there, camper. Just listen to me for a second.

The stated goal of NaNoWriMo is to make it to 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s what the event is on the surface. But in reality, it’s so much more.

NaNoWriMo gives you permission to write whatever you want, at whatever quality you want. No one cares how good it is; you just need to get some words down. It gets you moving, gets you writing, and moving toward that feeling of accomplishing a heck of a lot of words.

And here’s the deal: whether you write 50,000 words in November, or 5,000, those are words you didn’t have last month.

If you quit now, because you’re behind, or you’re starting late, or you’re discouraged, then there are many words you won’t write just because you feel the event has moved beyond you. Don’t let that stop you!

Confession time: Last year I didn’t hit 50,000 words. I was stressed out because of travel and current events, and only made it to 45,000 words. Some might say AUGH, YOU GOT SO CLOSE! But I didn’t feel regret, or even failure, at all. I wrote 45,000 words that I didn’t have in October, I got a good way into a new project, and I was very proud of myself.

You can move forward with your project if you’re on word 5000, or word 0. Write as much as you can every day. You can be involved with the community, you can go to an event, you can update your word count, you can still participate in NaNoWriMo. If you want to do the math and figure out how you can write 1667 + (missing words / days left) a day, do that. Or you can write 500 words a day and look proudly on those 15,000 words at the end of the month. Fifteen thousand words. That is a solid start to a project that you didn’t have before!

If you quit because you don’t think you’ll get those 50,000, then you won’t even get those 15,000. Or 10,000.

Don’t look at this as an all or nothing, like if you don’t hit 50,000, then you’re a failure. That’s simply not true. Whatever you write today, you will have more words than you had yesterday. And that’s the whole point of this.

I’ll be honest: I’m traveling to a wedding this month, hosting Thanksgiving, going to multiple shows, and doing a daily podcast to support my patrons who are attacking NaNoWriMo themselves. Will I make the 50,000 words? I honestly don’t know. But that uncertainty isn’t going to stop me.

What I do know I will have a lot more words at the end of the month than I have now. And that is a win in my book.

Mur Lafferty is a podcaster, author, and editor. She has two podcasts on writing: I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers. In 2017, her book based on ISBW came out, with the same title. When not supporting writers, she co-edits the Podcast magazine Escape Pod and publishes science fiction and fantasy with Orbit Books and Serial Box. Visit her website at

Author Photo by JR Blackwell. 

How to Use Social Media to Build a Writing Community


One of the best parts of NaNoWriMo is bonding with the community and writing alongside hundreds of thousands other novelists. Today, YWP participant and Teen Authors Journal founder Melissa Torrefranca shares her thoughts on how to use social media to find writing buddies and build a community:

Even if you lack writing buddies in real life, it is easy to find people online who share the same interests. In this post I will be focusing on how to use Instagram to find fellow writers, or even others also participating in NaNoWriMo.

Using Instagram to Connect with the Writing Community

Although the writing communities are active on many social media sites, I found the community on Instagram to be the most prominent. Instagram is centered around visuals—perfect for writers who want to showcase book covers, inspirational quotes, or even writing memes.

If you want to use Instagram to connect with people in the writing community, you will have to do more than liking a few posts. The first step is to do a bit of searching. I recommend exploring hashtags like #writing and #writersofinstagram. This is a great way to find people online who are enthusiastic about sharing their love for writing. Make sure to like and leave comments on posts that interest you. The more you interact with writing posts and accounts, the more people will recognize and reach out to you.

Instagram’s Direct Messaging Feature

If you find a writer who looks like you have a lot in common with, do not hesitate to send them a direct message. You can initiate a conversation by asking questions about when they started writing, how their current manuscript is developing, and if they are also participating in NaNoWriMo. Keep in mind that not everyone is going to reply to you, but the few who do can turn into great friends.

Once you have a few chats with people and know some writers well, you can take things to the next level by creating a group chat. Just like you, these users are also looking to make new writing friends and will appreciate the introductions. Over time you will notice other people including you in group chats as well, and the list of people you know will slowly grow.

Create Posts to Share Your Own Enthusiasm About Writing

When I first started my Instagram writing account, I began by posting quotes I admired and would sometimes share about my current writing struggles. I gave them relative hashtags, and the majority of my followers were all within the writing community. It is not necessary to make your account exclusively about writing, but having a few writing-related posts or sharing that you are a writer in your bio will help more people find and reach out to you.

Another option is to create an Instagram blog account. I personally know many writers who post pictures and blog about their writing progress for that day or week. Here’s an Instagram blog account that does this well.

Being a Supportive Member of the Writing Community

Tuning in with a community through social media is a beautiful thing. The writing community on Instagram in particular is one of the most helpful and motivating niches I have ever experienced through social media. Writers push each other to conquer NaNoWriMo, but also encourage those who fail to meet their goals. Without my online friends, I would not be the same writer I am today. I might not even be a writer at all.

If you are participating in NaNoWriMo and have not yet taken advantage of the Instagram community, I encourage you to use these tips I shared to get involved. It will open the door to a whole new writing experience.


Melissa Torrefranca is the Founder of Teen Authors Journal, an online community for young writers. She has been working on books since she was seven but did not fully immerse herself in the writing community until the age of twelve. She is using NaNoWriMo November 2017 as an opportunity to finish the first draft of her novel and make new writing friends. Visit Melissa’s personal website here.

Top image licensed under Creative Commons from BrickinNick on Flickr.

NaNo Prep: Create Your Personal NaNo Prize

NaNoWriMo is almost here! As we wrap up our NaNo Prep season and start getting ready to write, we’ve talked to some participants about their tips and tricks for staying motivated. Today, author Jacqui Jacoby shares the personal reward system she’s come up with:

“Mom, you have to try this new program. You write 50,000 words in November.”

I doubted the logic of what my daughter proposed, but was interested enough to look into it. That was October 2001—and I now have sixteen NaNoWriMos and nine wins under my belt.

These days, I’m a professional author. I’ve written millions of words that ended up going some place for some reason. Sometimes there was a payment, sometimes not. I was still doing what I wanted to be doing.

That fall, in my car, when my daughter suggested I try NaNoWriMo, it seemed incredibly hard. But it wasn’t long before it became an intrinsic part of my writing process. I wasn’t published at the time, but eventually writing became my profession, not just my dream.

In fact, NaNoWriMo became my annual vacation.

Every January when I fill out the new day planner, the first thing I do is head on over to November to block out the month for fun. Though I have published several books that started as NaNo Projects, publishing them was never my goal. I use the month to play, to develop ideas I might otherwise ignore if I was working on a set assignment.

I read No Plot, No Problem every year starting on October 1st as a refresher course and to get me in the mood. When I have finished that, I begin to fill out Ready. Set. Novel. I buy myself a new mechanical pencil to use in my notes and workbooks. It’s usually just a step above the pencils I normally buy, in a pretty color to set it apart.

All this is a good start, a place to find direction. However, direction isn’t the only challenge in NaNo. Sometimes, the challenge is showing up on a day you would really rather watch a Friends rerun. I needed to find that edge that would get me through the hard days.

I came up with the ‘NaNo Purse Program,’ or as I call it, the NNPP.

The NNPP is simple. I like purses, but I rarely buy. I have a designer I like that I can find used on eBay and I like to have something that I can look at and say “I earned that because…”  In October, I start looking for the purse that will be my prize. It doesn’t have to be expensive and it doesn’t have to be fancy. In fact, it doesn’t have to be a purse. It could be anything you collect, something that you can look at later and associate with your accomplishment.

My rules are simple:

  • I have to have my NNPP before November 1st.
  • The NNPP is unpacked and set in a position where I can see it from my chair when I type.
  • The NNPP is not touched while I am writing.

The final rule…

  • I only get the purse if I hit 50,000 words.

If I miss the mark for whatever reason, I have to give the NNPP to someone who I will see use it on a daily basis. I will see it and understand that maybe I should have typed faster.

I have yet to type too slow to get my purse. Motivation screams at me when I picture Jane in Accounting carrying MY purse. This is what I do to propel me forward and it puts a smile on my face.  

What will you use as your personal prize?

Award-winning author, Jacqui Jacoby lives and writes in the beauty of Northern Arizona. Currently adjusting to being an empty nester with her first grandchild to draw her pictures, Jacqui is a self-defense hobbyist. Having studied martial arts for numerous years she retired in 2006 from the sport, yet still brings strength she learned from the discipline to her characters. She is a working writer, whose career includes writing books, novellas & short stories, teaching online & live workshops and penning short nonfiction. Follow her on her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Top photo: Winning purses, c/o Jacqui Jacoby
Magic Man Victory, 2005
Dead Men Seal the Deal Victory, 2013
Aaden’s Hope Victory 2015

NaNo Prep: How to Go From Plotless to Polished

November is just around the corner, and as we gear up, we’re sharing advice on how you can best prepare for a month of writing. Today, author and designer Derek Murphy shares his advice on how to turn a messy work-in-progress into a polished draft in November:

NaNoWriMo is a
great opportunity to push your boundaries and see how much writing
you can get done in thirty days. If it’s your first time shooting for
50K, write whatever is easiest for you. However, if you’ve been
doing NaNoWriMo for a few years and have struggled to turn your newly
generated manuscript into an actual book that sells, here’s some advice that should help:

Save a Darling—Plot Ahead

First of all, if
you started your story with very little plotting, it’s likely you
have dozens of powerful scenes but no backbone to hold it all
together. And it’s very difficult to go back and operate on
your manuscript after it’s finished. “Kill your darlings” is
good advice, but painful for a reason. It’s hard to cut the stuff
you love—but if it confuses the narrative or doesn’t need to be
there, it’s hurting the story.

Rather than spend
a month generating content and then months of frustration trying to
polish it into something that actually sees the light of day, it’s
much easier to plot before your start—at least loosely.
For most commercial fiction, I use a simplified
hero’s journey
with 12 major plot points.

As long as I hit
most of those points in roughly the right places, I know my story
will stand strong even if the writing falters. You don’t have to
chronicle the exact details of every scene, and you shouldn’t worry
about writing beautiful prose, but having a rough idea of your
pivotal scenes will make it much easier for you to finish a powerful
story in record time.

If you get stuck
halfway through your NaNoWriMo novel, it’s usually because you’re
sinking into the muddy middle—where you didn’t plot enough events
to carry the story forward—so you invent a bunch of random and
increasingly incredible plot developments to span the gap, then rush
towards the epic conclusion. The problem with this is your story will
feel rushed and implausible.

Let your characters drive your outline.

A basic story
might look like this:

  1. Character
    wants something but can’t get it. Something happens that forces
    them on a new experience or journey. They resist, but are forced by
    circumstances to move forward.
  2. The
    antagonists appear, showing danger and consequences. There is a
    conflict or battle and the protagonist’s forces lose. More is
    revealed, until the protagonist finally makes a deliberate choice to
    fight back or take control.
  3. The
    protagonist makes a mistake; a failure that causes irreparable harm
    to one of their allies. They feel guilt, fear, loss and almost give
  4. The
    protagonist reaches into themselves, finds a new will to continue,
    discovers a new power or ability, and overcomes the antagonist’s
    forces… this time.

But how do you
fill it all in? And what do you add when your plot events are sparse? You can make your characters’ problems harder. 

You might have already plotted something like:



overcome problem

introduce new problem

But that’s too

You can extend
the sequence by adding steps:


problem 1

try to
overcome problem 1, meet problem 2

try to over come problem 2,
meet problem 3

try to overcome problem 3, meet problem 4…

That sequence can
go on until they have too many problems and are overwhelmed.
Eventually they succeed in one and go back through the sequence to
solve the original problem.

Make your characters fail. 

Characters shouldn’t succeed easily. You want them to
fail, again and again. So have them discover new problems and
setbacks at every turn. No matter what they want to do next, give
them three big and insurmountable problems that get in their way.
Don’t make them all accidental (the weather / a broken leg). Some
of them should come from opposition, either the antagonist’s forces
or the protagonist’s allies.

Create more

You don’t just want a happy band of comrades agreeing
with each other; your inner circle needs conflict, too. Each of your
main characters should have their own desires, agendas, and
problems to solve. They will have priorities that put them in direct
conflict with your main character. Even if they’re friends or
lovers, they will be forced into opposition based on their personal
desires, and each will be fighting their own dragons to get what they
want—leading to betrayal, jealousy, guilt, dishonesty and anger.

I recommend three main characters (protagonist + best friend + love interest), a
teacher or voice of wisdom, a hidden antagonist directing mayhem from
the shadows, and also a system of legal enforcers (who persecute the
protagonist but think they’re acting for the good of society). The
sides should not be clear cut, and everyone will have to wrestle with
moral decisions, like when it’s OK to break the law or do something
evil for the universal good.

Change the scenery.

If your book is getting boring, give your protagonists
a new, incredible setting and a reason to get there. It could be a
treasure hunt for a necessary item, or a shelter, or a lost city—make it epic and larger than life. Your story will keep readers
reading, but your settings and descriptions are what will stick in
their brains. I like to think of my scenes like a painting; a
dramatic backdrop and a central character doing something amazing.

Once you
have a basic plot outlined and have built in enough conflict, writing
a successful book will be easier, and take much less time to revise
and polish before it’s ready to be share. During
, add in more details like what characters are wearing,
improve the dialogue, strengthen the transitions and openings, and
fix any lackluster character motivations. Remember, adding conflict
is as easy as giving a character a different backstory (”your father
killed my father”) or withholding a secret (”you lied to me”).

Once your book is
ready, share it with beta readers, put it on Wattpad, or even get a
cheap cover and publish it on Kindle. It’s scary letting go, but
getting feedback is the best way to learn and improve.

If you take an hour to ask and answer these questions before November 1st, you’ll be able to win NaNoWriMo with more than 50,000 words of slush as a reward—you’ll have a clean rough draft you can polish up and publish, without ending up in editing purgatory forever. 

Derek Murphy has
a PhD in Literature and now writes young
adult fiction
. He’s renting a castle for NaNoWriMo, drinks too
much Coke Zero, and loves supporting indie authors—his publishing
and book design
have had over 20 thousand downloads.

Top image licensed under Creative Commons from Project 404 on Flickr.

NaNo Prep: Don’t Just Write a Novel — Tell an Amazing Story


November is fast approaching, and with it comes plenty of great advice from around the NaNo community on how to create your novel. Today, author Dinty W. Moore shares his thoughts on one of the most challenging questions asked of any writer: what’s your story really about?

Why do people read books? Why do people stream Netflix long into the evening? Why do people sit for hours in a coffee shop chatting about their co-workers?

The answer is simple: we love a good story.

With NaNoWriMo just days away, now might be the best time to remind ourselves what constitutes a good story—or better yet, what is it that makes a story absolutely compelling. The goal for our NaNoWriMo month shouldn’t be merely to write a novel in 30 days. The goal should be to write a novel that folks are clamoring to read.

Remember this: Stories which leave readers eager to follow along through each moment and every surprising turn did not begin with Shakespeare, Dickens, or Stephen King. Captivating storytelling goes back to the origins of language itself.

Long before printing presses and book clubs, our ancestors kept fear at bay by spinning tales of heroic hunts, of memorable victories, and of mysterious, powerful gods. These early stories mark the beginnings of imaginative fiction. How to explain thunder, floods, birth, death, the inexplicable movement of the sun? Our ancestors created stories to explain these. Stories that gave them both understanding and solace. Or, as author Barry Lopez puts it, stories are part mystery, part ministry, and absolutely indispensable. 

“We need them, I believe, in the way we need water…” he writes. “The reason we tell stories … is to keep each other from being afraid.”

Novelist Ben Percy suggests that the most enduring stories reach readers at the deepest level by taking “a knife to the nerve of the moment.” Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein—the story of a mad doctor who uses electricity to create a superhuman monster—found its root power by reflecting people’s fears of the industrial revolution, while Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers – later made into the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers – connected directly to mid-20th-century fears of communist spies infiltrating small-town America.

“Stories revive us, challenge us, startle us, and offer us new ways to reflect upon our world and the current moment’s most perplexing questions.”

Percy’s own book, Red Moon, begins with a man on a commercial jetliner inexplicably transforming into a werewolf and attacking his fellow passengers. This transformation is happening not just on the one plane, but simultaneously on two other airplanes, one of which crashes into a wheat field.

Does that sound at all familiar?

“We fear, more than anything, terrorism and disease,” Percy explains, “and I braided the two together.”

Not all stories are horror stories, of course, but all enduring stories find their power by addressing intrinsic human concerns, those vexing problems that keep us awake and thinking late into the night.

Consider these:

  • Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice features neither werewolves nor body snatchers. Instead, this tale of five unmarried daughters in 19th century England and the eligible bachelors who come calling enchanted readers by reflecting upon contemporary concerns about class, gender, and morality.
  • The Harry Potter series is about more than schoolchildren and magic spells; it explores the power of self-sacrifice and the importance of tolerance.
  • Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is, on the surface, the story of African-American women living a generation or two beyond slavery, but the underlying issues of prejudice and family violence resonate with readers of any race, any age, any time.

This is why people tell stories, and why we listen to the good ones with such rapt attention. Stories revive us, challenge us, startle us, and offer us new ways to reflect upon our world and the current moment’s most perplexing questions.

Now, as you prepare for NaNoWriMo, is a good time to ask: How does your story touch “a knife to the nerve of the moment”? 

What’s your story really about?


Dinty W. Moore is author of The Story Cure: A Book Doctor’s Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir and many other books. He has his work in The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Normal School, and elsewhere, and has won numerous awards for his writing, including fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. You can find Dinty at and on Twitter as @brevitymag.

Top image licensed under Creative Commons from Dave Herholz on Flickr.

5 Tips for Writing a Bestseller with Ulysses

Every year, we’re lucky to have great sponsors for our nonprofit events. Ulysses, a NaNoWriMo 2017 sponsor, is a professional writing app for macOS and iOS.  Today, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Layne shares her best tips for writing books that sell:

I’m what one might call a “process-junkie” Although I’ve been a full-time author since 2013, my
background is in the corporate world, and I was on an operations team. Figuring out the best way to
go about accomplishing tasks and goals was literally my day job.

And it’s a proclivity that’s carried over into my writing life. I’ve published over two-dozen books, and
in my early days, half the battle was figuring out how to write those books with the most effective,
stress-free system possible.

It took me a couple years and several writing programs, but I’ve finally found my Holy Grail of
systems: Ulysses.

I’ve been using the writing app since 2015, and it’s the first and only program that I’ve never
cheated on. In the past, I’d flit from program to program, convinced that the next one would make
the writing process easier. I’ve used Ulysses for two years now, and never once wavered in my
loyalty. Simply put, it works. Ulysses is built for writing quickly and writing well. Since switching to
Ulysses, I’ve signed multiple book deals, hit the USA TODAY bestseller list multiple times, and even
made the elusive New York Times list. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Here are my 5 top tips for writing books that sell, as well as how I utilize Ulysses to achieve

1. Your story comes first.

Looking to write a book that sells? It won’t matter how compelling your characters, how nuanced
your setting, how exquisite your prose if you don’t have a story—a plot. Bestsellers tend to be high-concept; they’re stories that can be described in 1-2 sentences, in what’s often known as an
“elevator pitch.” 

Take a look at these examples: Orphan finds out he’s a wizard and gets sent to wizarding boarding school. Teen volunteers to take sister’s place in death match on live television. A Harvard professor
follows clues left in Da Vinci paintings to solve a two-thousand year old secret. Harry Potter, The
Hunger Games,
and The Da Vinci Code. Three wildly successful books that pique reader interest right
from the very first: “It’s a story about …”

Even if you’re not a planner/outliner, it’s crucial to know what your story’s about before you write.
Luckily, Ulysses makes it extremely easy to keep your plot front-and-center as you begin the writing
process. Unlike traditional word processors where you have to work with one long scrolling
document, Ulysses allows you to create “sheets” within your book’s project folder/group. The first
thing I do before starting any book is to create a sheet that I label STORY. It’s where, in a single
sentence, I sum up the core of the book’s plot. I’ll use other sheets/features for more detailed
planning, but having a single sheet with a single sentence serves as a quick reminder of what the
story’s about when I start to lose my way.

2. Think scenes, not chapters.

When I first started writing, I used to picture my manuscript as one big entity (the book) chopped by
into random intervals (chapters). The result was a meandering, often boring, slog. My breakthrough
came when I moved beyond books on writing too books on screenplay writing. That’s when it
clicked. A book, just like a movie, is made up of scenes. Small, mini-stories, that are interesting in
and of themselves. Often, those scenes are contained neatly within one chapter, but not always!
Some scenes span multiple chapters, other chapters contain multiple scenes. Think of your book
like a movie—something should happen in each scene. It doesn’t have to be an action scene, per
say, but each scene must move the story forward in some way (even via dialog) in order to keep
readers turning the pages.

Ulysses is perfectly designed for this “scene” approach to writing. I set up all of my books so that
each scene gets a dedicated “sheet,” and the list of scenes sits along side the left side of my screen
as I write (or can be hidden, for distraction-free writing). If I want to access a particular scene, I need
only to click on it from the list. No scrolling through hundreds of pages to find “that one part …”

3. Leave breadcrumbs for yourself.

The hardest part about writing a book in a month (or writing a book at all!) is staying excited when
we get to what’s known as “the sagging middle”—that part of the story where the fresh newness
has worn off, and The End seems very far away. To combat this mid-book slump, I like to skim over
all of the scenes I’ve already written, as well as create placeholder sheets/scenes for whats to
come. As mentioned above, Ulysses makes it easy to organize your book by scene, but there’s
another trick that makes this even better: by putting two “plus signs” on either side of a piece of
text, you can create a note to yourself, that won’t show up in the final document. For example, I can
also remind myself what Chapter Twelve is about putting two plus signs around this chunk of text at
the top of my Ulysses sheet for that scene:

The above text will show up for me in Ulysses, but the plus signs tell Ulysses not to export that
particular “note to self” in the final Word document. Not only does this scene summary make for
easy quick reference looking back at what you’ve already written, but it can serve as motivation/
inspiration on future scenes! You can see the crux of that exciting climax scene waiting to be
written, even if you’re not quite there yet.

4. Break the writing rules.

I used to think there was one “right way” to write a novel—that precise writing was good writing. I’d
agonize that all of my chapters had to be roughly the same length, and at least 2,000 words. I’d
think that if I did alternating POVs at the start of the book, I had to keep that going throughout the
entire book. I thought that one-sentence paragraphs weren’t allowed. Or that you could never ever
start a sentence with but or so, and that sentence fragments were completely off limits. I followed all
the rules, published a few books with a big publisher… and sold almost no books, and made
almost no money.

I figured if I wasn’t going to make much money from my books, I might as well have some fun with
it! So, I started breaking rules. If a particular scene ended up at 898 words, and I loved the idea of it
being its own chapter, I did that, even if the surrounding chapters were 3,000+. I once wrote a book
where 80% was the heroine’s POV in first person, 20% was the male POV in third- person. I’ve
written scenes made up primarily of text messages.

And you know what happened when I started breaking rules? I started hitting bestseller lists.
Breaking rules and trying something different doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer—it means you’re
developing your own style. This again, is where Ulysses really shines. Traditional word processors force
you to see your book in a very “finished” format, even in your earliest drafts. You may not realize it,
but this “formal” appearance can really hamper any creative innovation. Ulysses provides freedom
of structure, and because it’s a Markdown editor, you’ll be focused on what your words and stories
are, rather than whether they or not they adhere to the “rules.”

5. Push through to the end.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, don’t stop until you reach the end! This seems so obvious,
but it’s truly the most crucial advice I can give. A finished book is what separates authors from
writers. Writers write. They put words on a page. But they also sometimes stop. Authors push
through to the end so they have something to publish. Confession: my official story is that I wrote
my first book in 2011, but the truth is, I tried NaNoWriMo 3 times in the early 2000s. I’d always
start out November strong, excited about my new story, already envisioning the mansion I’d buy
when I edged out Stephen King in book sales. All three of those times, I quit before even reaching
30,000 words. But the strange thing: it was never a sudden stop. It’s not as though I was on an
inspired writing tear one day, and then would just abruptly abandon the book the next day. It was
slow. Subtle. I’d tell myself that I had writer’s block, and just needed to “reevaluate” my story, and
go back to fiddling with the my outline. Or tweaking my notes. I’d tell myself that I just needed a
little time away from my story, and would watch TV instead. Or I’d tell myself that my problem was
lack of organization. I’d spend hours (yes, hours) in my then-writing program, playing with formatting
and cork boards and style editors. Slowly, I’d fall further and further behind in my word count, until
finally I just… quit.

This is why Ulysses is so crucial. I know I sound like a broken record, but Ulysses is one of the few
programs that gets it right. It keeps the focus on what matters: words. But with just enough
organization prowess so that you don’t lose your way.

Lauren Layne is the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen romantic comedies. A former e-commerce and web marketing manager from Seattle, Lauren relocated to New York City in 2011 to pursue a full-time writing career. She lives with her husband in midtown Manhattan.

NaNo Prep: How Understanding Conflict Will Make Your Plot Explode


November is almost upon us, and in the build up to NaNo, we’ve asked for guest contributors to share their advice on how to craft great stories that will engage writer and reader alike. Today, author Cari Noga tells us why “GMC” should be in everyone’s vocabulary, and how it’ll help drive your plot. 

Fiction is

You’ve probably
heard something like that before, and filed it away with other
writing advice. Take it out, shake it off, and prop it up it next to
your coffee mug. Besides caffeine, you won’t find a better buddy on
your NaNo odyssey.

definition. Conflict is the obstacle(s) between a character and his
or her desire. It varies with novel genre: the enemy agent out to
kill the hero; Mom’s new job that forces the middle-school kid to
move and change schools; the character’s yearning to spurn
expectations and do what she really wants. Conflict is fundamental to
advancing plot, setting it back, twisting and turning it, as the
characters wrestle with their particular nemeses. It’s also crucial
to reader engagement. 

In the best stories, we become invested in a
character overcoming their conflict. We root for them to get what
they want, worry when they seem to succumb, and, above all, keep
turning pages to see which way it goes. Steven James, one of my
favorite writing coaches and a bestselling thriller author himself,
puts it this way: You don’t have a story until something goes

Sold? Then how do
you insure conflict? Key to my two NaNo wins (out of four tries) were
the Goal, Motivation and Conflict (GMC) charts I created for each
character during prep week. (See Debra Dixon’s great book, Goal,
Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction
more on this.) The charts are a grid of nine squares. 

Left column
contains the labels: Goal, Motivation, Conflict. Middle column
contains each character’s EXTERNAL goal, motivation and conflict.
In the right column goes each character’s INTERNAL goal,
motivation, and conflict. (Not all characters will have external and
internal, but your protagonist and other major characters likely

It’s a simple
way to approach what can be hard for new novelists. We typically like
our characters, at least our protagonists, so we want them to
get what they want. That leads to making their lives too easy, which
gets boring for the reader. In contrast, think of Star Wars. Nine
films and 40 years on, they’re still pulling in millions (people
and dollars) to watch the same basic conflict of good guys trying to
save the galaxy from bad guys. Since that conflict is compelling, and
because we care about the characters, we‘ll show up for No. 10,

The GMC charts
help you create compelling conflicts because as you’ll likely see
in the grid, some goals are inherently at odds. In my first novel,
one character, Deborah, wanted to have a baby, badly. Her husband,
Christopher, wasn’t so sure. Presto, external conflict, and a
highly resonant one at that – a couple wants different things. When
I visit book clubs, the different reactions readers have to this
couple’s conflicts make for the liveliest discussion.

While not as
formal as an outline, I’ve found the GMC charts help keep me on
track, too. If (when) the story veers off course, the chart is a
touchstone. Is what’s happening on the page consistent with GMC? If
not, does the story need to change, or the GMC? Does someone’s
conflict need to intensify? Motivation made clearer? Goal denied
longer? Your original GMC decisions can guide the answers.

Your ultimate
goal as a Wrimo is to reach 50,000 words by Nov. 30. Your motivation
will vary. Your conflict: whatever dares to get between you and
those 1,667 words per day. There’s plenty. Armed with your GMC
charts, you’re ready to slay a big one.


Cari Noga is
the author of SPARROW MIGRATIONS (Lake Union, 2015), and the
forthcoming THE ORPHAN DAUGHTER (Lake Union, May 2018). First written
during NaNo 2010 and 2013, respectively, NaNo was instrumental in
transforming her from an aspiring to a published novelist. A
five-part miniseries adaptation of SPARROW is now in development as
well. She lives in Michigan with her family and enjoys writing haiku
on social media. Twitter: @carinoga

Road Trip to NaNo: Use Your Surroundings to Ground Your Novel

NaNoWriMo is an international event, and we’re taking a Road Trip to NaNo to hear about the stories being written every year in our hundreds of participating regions. Today, Mac Johnston, our Municipal Liaison in the Australia :: North Queensland region, shares how her region has shaped her writing:

I’m currently on a self-imposed writing retreat within my region as I try to write this article. I’ve left my phone at home to intentionally limit distractions, and my laptop is connected to a solar powered battery pack. Internet is patchy at best, which means I can’t be distracted by social media. I’ll admit that bringing a camera would have been useful, but I didn’t think that far ahead so you’re stuck with my description instead. 

I’m leaning against a trunk as leaves sway above me, and my feet are curling in the sand with the sunlight sprinkling on me, the breeze wafting the gorgeous smell of the ocean to me as I hear the waves lapping gently against the shoreline. I’m on one of the islands within the Whitsundays, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Later this week I’ll be traveling west to visit a friend on the fringes of the Australian Outback, and I’ve just come from the rainforest in the Daintree. I’m suddenly realizing that my region has a variety of different landscapes I can both write in and include in my writing.

I once heard that your story’s scenery is another character for you to write: it can make you smile, laugh, cry, and tremble. Just imagine Harry Potter without Hogwarts, The Three Broomsticks, Diagon Alley, or various other places JK Rowling mentions. The story would probably still be interesting, but nowhere near as compelling or as popular as it is. I’ll admit I have yet to base a story in my region, but that doesn’t mean that the landscape and the people haven’t leaked through to the settings that I’ve created.

Last year’s NaNo novel was a prime example, as I had gone away from my traditional fantasy theme and decided to go with a space theme. Now, being a pantser, I had planned nothing of this story and, in fact, I hadn’t even worked out the genre I was writing until 12:01am on November 1st. I suddenly had to create planets, space stations, spaceships, and different cultures to create a believable story. 

The places that I’ve traveled to in North Queensland made their way into my story: there was the tropical island getaway planet (based on the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef), the rainforest full of weird creatures and cannibals (based on the Daintree––the cannibals inspiration was crocodiles), a drought-stricken mining based planet (based on parts of Australian outback), and various other planets. It wasn’t until I started writing this that I even realized how much of Australia and, in particular, North Queensland was in my writing.

How do you place importance on the setting in your own writing? Does it become another character to your story, or is it something that you just simply gloss over? Is your setting influenced by places you’ve lived or hoped to live? A character is not just the hero, or the villain, but also the place they lay their heads. Why not try thinking of your setting as a living, breathing character that changes with personality or seasons? You’ll never know what it’ll turn into.

NaNoWriMo in Australia :: North Queensland

During her first year of school, Mac was introduced to writing books through her teacher who encouraged the pursuit. Over the years Mac stopped writing but continued to read, which lead to her career in law. A chronic pain condition halted Mac’s law career, but during a bored moment whilst in hospital she discovered NaNoWriMo and she re-discovered her love of writing. Mac now has a career as a writer and she couldn’t be happier.

Top image licensed under Creative Commons from descon7 on Flickr.