Busting the Myth of the Creative Muse: Harnessing the Power of Concrete Milestones


Busting the Myth of the Creative Muse: Harnessing the Power of Concrete Milestones

Cross Posted from John Robin's Blog

I live in the very wintry city of Winnipeg, and this winter has been particularly snowy. In the five weeks spanning December and the start of January, this city had five blizzards, accumulating as much snow as typically falls in a year in this city.

And it’s still snowing.

If weather predictions are correct, we are in for a very snowy February, as there is a major winter storm pattern headed our way.

As you might imagine, shoveling the sidewalk and driveway is becoming more and more laborious with each snowfall. While I try to see each jaunt as an opportunity for exercise, I find myself now wondering if this winter will ever end.

Writing is a lot like winter in Winnipeg.

Sometimes a project feels like it will never end. No matter how much you chip away at it, no matter how many hours you set aside to write, that same deep exhaustion settles in and writers (myself included) sit back and contemplate giving up.  Maybe motivation and energy will come to me if I just put it aside for few months.

Imagine if I treated snow shoveling that way.  It would pile higher and higher with every winter storm, until it would become so overwhelming, I’d just give up. Snow would reach knee-height (or higher, given how this winter is going) and I’d do my best to ignore this problem that confronts me every day when I leave my house, until I can no longer open my door.

That’s the risk we run when we put our books aside for lack of motivation, or when we give into the many other pressures that might tell us the great writing idea we really want to be investing our time in just isn't worth our while. The feeling of neglect, that we're really not doing what we should be doing with our life, will only get worse with every passing week.

What about the case of setting aside one project to write something else? That's an entirely different topic (because sometimes it has merit, especially if the project you're working on is something you'd rather not be working on), but for the sake of this argument, let's focus on the project you are truly passionate about, the book(s) you really want to write. Maybe you're not even writing it now and, like the recalcitrant shoveler, you're realizing just how dissatisfied you are by not writing what you're truly passionate about.

Bust the myth of the creative muse: you are your muse, and you call the shots.

Many writers believe they are at the whims of their creativity, often citing their "creative muse" as the source of whether they can write or not. I've been one of those writers myself. There is indeed validity to the fact that certain seasons of life, or certain emotional highs or internal nodes we might hit align just so and bring to the page something special that is not merely the result of mechanical novel-writing. It feels like magic. To this day, I still hold in my mind the memory of my greatest writing experience ever, an all-night adventure fueled by a French Press of coffee and discovering just how deep and alive a story can become. To this day, that is probably one of the richest chapters I've ever written (and was incentive to return to A Thousand Roads because that one chapter in the old manuscript captured just what the manuscript was, and for me, 2 years later, helped me understand what the next steps were).

But I've long since busted the myth of the creative muse. True, there have been many moments where deep intuition and a sort of magic align like constellations and bleed into my work. I can never predict when or how. I can only predict that I will continue to show up and do the work and put in a session, good or bad, trusting that the hard work— like shoveling snow to keep the paths clear— will add up.

I’ve also discovered that creativity can be forced — if I sit down and force myself to write, it gets my creative mind going, and then the creativity flows from my fingertips and onto the computer. It requires the willingness to sit with my manuscript and accept that writing time might require time spent sitting in the chair, leafing around the manuscript, thinking about the story, or reading earlier chapters or related notes I've made on promises I need to fulfill. The act then becomes not throwing words on the page, but creative problem solving. I've learned, by rejecting the myth of the creative muse, that it's possible to be proactive about harnessing creativity, and the key is this:

Knowing what to write next is not about knowing what words to write next, but about asking deep questions about what the story wants from us. The answers inform then become our guide as we write forward, an intuitive counterbalance to hone our sense of if the story is on track or not on track, a bit like rails keeping a train on course.

Concretize your process: define incremental milestones for your project.

Every time it snows, I must go outside and shovel. If I just went outside whenever I wanted, I might discover when I do go out that there are packed layers of ice or uneven patches on the sidewalk that will break my shovel.

Likewise, having a regular discipline for your project, with concrete milestones, is a sure way to turn "I want to write this book and get it published" into a certain plan. This is important, because without developing a discipline that progresses in concrete forward units, you risk descending into relativism: the dreaded novel that you've spent years on, convincing yourself it's just "not right yet", when in fact, most of this time has been spent on lateral growth that hasn't advanced the novel. You're revising and changing, without moving forward so much as moving sideways, like a ship going in whatever direction the wind blows.

I'm not saying you shouldn't spend years on a novel. I'm also not saying those years blowing in many directions didn't add rich and unique layers that will make your book great; nor am I saying that lateral growth is not also a component of forward growth. What I am saying, though, is there's a more efficient way to do it that will take less time, and be more rewarding, if you develop a concrete discipline.

For myself, I've also found it helpful to have accountability. Not only am I a book coach at Author Accelerator, I also use the services myself.  Having a deadline, like needing to go out and shovel snow, for me makes the difference between spinning my perfectionist wheels and making clear-cut writing decisions that advance by one tiny, yet significant milestone my writing goals. It's helped me develop a concrete writing discipline of flipping into writing mode every weekend and putting in whatever time it takes (and that will vary depending on the specific story problems that come up) to deliver 20 pages. The process of doing this has defined for me the importance of committing every weekend to working toward a specific milestone with A Thousand Roads, and after I'm finished the second draft, I will continue to commit every weekend to further iterations through the manuscript, under a revision regime that will soon segue to pre-publication production with the editing team I have on board to help turn this manuscript into a finished book.

You don't have to write every weekend, but the idea is to define your end goal — the complete book in your readers' hands, amazing as you can make it be — then define achievable, incremental milestones that you can meet to get to that point.

And if you're snowed in and want to get back on track, maybe you need to bust out the ice-chipper and a blowtorch. Craig, our outreach manager here at Story Perfect, had a project he’d been putting off for months. I finally gave him a kick in the pants and told him to get it done. He sat down and wrote 16,500 words in one day. Talk about clearing away all the snow with sweat and fire!

Now, with that goal met, he's given himself momentum to take the next teps, and already has given it to his editor who is defining the process to publication so it can land well with readers.


Story Genius Scene Card Cheat Sheet

Story Genius Scene Card Cheat Sheet

Here is a cheat sheet to help navigate the Story Genius Scene Card:

Because [an action occurs] (CAUSE), one or more external reactions take place (EFFECT). This is plot, the visible part of the ship above the waterline.

Now we go below the waterline, to the story and third rail that drive the subsequent actions. The reaction(s) in the EFFECT section mean something to your protagonist (WHY IT MATTERS).

As a result of the reaction(s) in EFFECT and your protagonist caring about the reaction(s) because it affects their agenda for the scene and/or the story, your protagonist is forced to examine what they believe and, as a result, comes to a new realization about what they believe (REALIZATION) and/or why they believe it.

These last two are story/third rail, the rudder and engine and propellers on the ship, which are under the water and not visible to the reader, but which drive the ship and cause the events and actions and dialogue that the reader can see and read. The result is that the reader experiences what the protagonist experiences.

Now, if you're the list type, here's that again:

- An action occurs (CAUSE)
- One or more external reactions take place (EFFECT)
- The reaction(s) mean something to the protagonist internally (WHY IT MATTERS) based on what they have experienced in their life
- The protagonist wrestles with what they believe about the reaction(s) and comes to a new understanding about what they believe (REALIZATION)
- The protagonist does something as a result of their realization (AND SO...)
- Profit

Two things to keep in mind:

  1. The action(s) in CAUSE are usually the result of the AND SO from the preceding scene card.
  2. Be specific! "Jane Doe felt bad" as a result of John Doe throwing out her Jane Austen novels is not a good effect. "Because John threw out her Jane Austen novels, Jane Doe threw a frying pan with its exquisitely formed Denver omelette at John Doe's head" is a good effect. PRO TIP: Starting each and every item in the EFFECT section with "Because..." will make it a lot easier to maintain the "Because that happened, this happens" chain.

The Tyranny of “Just”


The Tyranny of “Just”

Cross posted from Michelle Hazen's Blog

Writers have a real problem with “just,” and I don’t mean in the filler word sense. I mean more in the way we treat our dearest accomplishments as filler words.

I’m not a real writer, this is just my first book.

I write, but just children’s books.

I’m published, but just small press.

I’m a bestseller, kind of, but just USA Today, not NYT.

Of course, writers aren’t the only artists guilty of this.

I’m not an artist, I just like to take pictures.

I scupt, but just in plain old clay, not marble or anything.

Most of us have done it, and I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I weren’t one of the worst offenders. It’s a defense mechanism, this self-protective way we downplay our attachment to the things we actually care about the most. And okay, humility has its place because nobody likes a swaggering assclown. But this constant downplaying contributes to a society-wide attitude toward art that is incredibly destructive.

For instance, politicians are always trying to cut fine arts in schools in favor of science. Science builds cities, they say. Science saves lives. Not entirely true.

Emotion saves lives.

Without emotion, nobody would have cared about anything enough to invent science. And art, even more directly than science, is made of emotion.

It would be difficult to find a part of the literary world less respected than romance novels. But I keep writing about love because it’s the most powerful thing there is. People will kill other people for hate, but they’ll kill everything including themselves for love.

That’s why I don’t believe in “just” a zombie show. “Just” a kid’s book. I don’t think a 10-foot painting of geometric, razor-edged penises is more or less valid than a Play Doh elephant.

Literally thousands of lives were changed by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. It doesn’t matter what you think of that book, or that genre, or her writing. What matters is that book mattered. Measurably. To the people who worked on the movies and the YA publishing industry that flourished as a result. To every person it spurred into fanfiction who then moved on to a writing career. To every person who met a lifelong friend through a fan site. Stephenie Meyer can afford a private freaking plane because the way she wrote sparkly bloodsuckers mattered to a whole damn lot of people.

Evoking emotion isn’t petty, or frivolous, or just for entertainment. Emotion is the energy that drives the entire earth. It, not fossil fuel, is what powers the creation of literally everything. And art keeps that that moving, like the water in the turbines of a giant power plant.

Which is why I want to pause here to tell a story about a concert.

Concerts are my church. In the synergy of movement and sound and the upswelling of pure emotion generated by a crowd, I can experience transcendence brought by connection to other beings. And, rather unfortunately, smell their beer breath.

This particular concert was from a band that’s one of my go-to writing playlists. They’re just a mid-level band, popular enough in the Northwest to headline their own venues but not stadiums. I’ve written thousands of words while immersed in their music. Watching them perform those same songs, I saw that they were playing with such absolute passion and heart… The lead singer had to set his microphone higher because every line of lyrics kept drawing him weightlessly up onto his toes like he was straining a little closer to something above us all.

I could see on all the band member’s faces that they were getting caught up in the flow of it, the same flow I had found while listening to their music and creating art made of words instead of sounds.

And snagged by that crazy connection between strangers, I thought, “You know, for everything that’s wrong right now, we’re still doing a few things really right with each other, with our time here on earth.”

Their band name, Blind Pilot, is a two-word metaphor for faith.

Some days, I see a little more clearly than others how all the pieces of art in the world can intersect, ricocheting off each other in arcs of inspiration that create new things of ever-increasing beauty and truth.

Fan art always reminds me the most loudly of that, whether it is paintings, stories, songs…even a really epic cosplay costume. The most beautiful line I’ve written in my entire life is in a piece of fanfiction: inspired by someone else’s art.

Art is seeing the butterfly effect in action. Creation begets creation. Creation begets emotion. Emotion begets everything.

There was no “just” in that sentence.


How Much Does Editing Cost (aka Why the Heck is Editing So Expensive?)


How Much Does Editing Cost (aka Why the Heck is Editing So Expensive?)

Cross Posted from John Robin's Blog

I drive a 2004 Toyota Camry. It’s a good car — I got it second hand and seemed to really luck out with it. Even though Toyotas last a long time, or so I’m told, this one is doing quite well for its age.

Part of it, I believe, is that I have it regularly serviced and maintained. There’s an autobody shop around the corner from where I live, which happens to be the one that my husband and his family have used for decades.  The mechanic’s name is Tony (if I were editing a book about a mechanic, I’d suggest the author change the name because Tony is a little stereotypical a name for a mechanic) and he knows my car very well.

Tony isn’t the cheapest. If I wanted cheap auto maintenance, I’d find a friend who is a mechanic, or learn to do it myself. But that's just asking for trouble (though if you know the right mechanic friend you might be as lucky as, say, the survivors in a Russian roulette game).

While Tony isn't cheap, he's honest and reliable, and never leaves me in the dark. One time, for example, I wanted him to investigate a periodic clunking that came from under my car. He told me it was about a $300 job but not critical. "When you have some spare change and want it fixed, we're happy to do that for you, but if you want to save some money it's not going to cause any harm." Another time, my husband's car wouldn't start in the winter — it turned out his plug-in cord was severed. It took fifteen minutes for Tony to replace it and he only charged for the cord, a mere $30.

Then there was the time, a few months after I bought my car, when something went seriously wrong. The engine seized on me and the car shut down, right in the middle of an intersection. Three different warning light went on that had me worried I'd bought a lemon after all. I had no choice but to get it towed to Tony's. The next day, when I got the call from him with the prognosis, he explained that it was a special part called the throttle body, and the repair was a $1200 job. It was standard for such resilient engines like those in the Toyota for the computer to kick in and shut the engine down when it detected the part needed replacing, so as not to cause further damage to the engine. Such features are a large part of why many Toyotas make it up to 700,000 km and even then refuse to die. So, I paid the extra money and did so with optimism, because of the trust I had in Tony. I knew the  work was necessary and indeed, to this day, the engine has run strong.

Here's where I shift gears to writing.

When an author finishes writing a manuscript, they’re similar to someone with a car in need of repair. The author could manage a self-edit or perhaps get a well-read friend to edit it.  While there is some benefit, for sure, in self-editing or having a friend look at it, there is a greater benefit in having a professional editor go over your manuscript.  It’s more expensive, yes, but just like a higher price for car repairs ensure you'll get service you can trust, paying for editing can help ensure you receive a more professional and comprehensive edit than you or your friend might be able to do.

Just like the example of my $1200 engine repair, a good investment in an editor can give your story true mileage with readers and reviewers. While your investment might not earn out from book sales, it will earn out in a much more meaningful way in that the book you put out will stand strong and be something you can be proud of as an installment in your writing career.

But you don’t have to pay for everything. When it comes to editing especially, author beware is a very important motto to stick to.

What kind of editing you can't cut out

At the very least, make sure you have an edit that addresses developmental issues. This is sometimes called a substantive edit, or a content edit. Both terms imply the edit is considering the "meat" of the story — so the editor is considering the abstract level of the story itself beyond just the line-by-line correctness of the prose. (Such an edit is called a copyedit, which I'll get to next.)

The reason developmental editing is so important is because there are many stories that are published that get "edited" when in fact all that's been fixed are various typos, spelling, grammar, punctuation, and repetitive words. An editor who does a developmental edit is thinking about the story and using storytelling principles to instruct you on rewrites, and that editor will catch plot holes, inconsistencies in characterization, problems with voice or point of view (usually called POV), pacing, and narration — to name a few of the heavy hitters.

Having developmental (or substantive or content) editing done is like making sure you get your trusted mechanic to work on your engine and the parts of the car you'll likely break if you try to fix it yourself.

A developmental edit can sometimes cost a lot of money. Typically, when I do a developmental edit I average about 6 manuscript pages / hour when there are a lot of problems, and 10-15 pages / hour when it's smooth sailing. If your manuscript is 300 pages, then you do the math and you'll see it comes out to anywhere between 20-50 hours. (I want to be absolutely clear though: in my career working on more than 100 manuscripts to date, I have yet to see a manuscript that was that length and needed an hour for every six pages from front to back.)

Now, I'm going to make a very bold statement here: editors deserve to be paid as much as auto mechanics because the work they do is as complicated (maybe more complicated). Just as auto mechanics know all the basic components of a car and what needs to go where, editors are trained in all the essentials of storytelling, writing craft, and grammar, to know what in your story still needs work. Most importantly, like auto mechanics who have stripped down and put back together countless cars, editors who have earned their stripes through editing many manuscripts aren't just going to use book smarts on you.

How you can save yourself a lot of money on editing

I don’t take my car in to the shop when I’m out of windshield wiper fluid, nor do I take it in when I’ve got a burnt-out tail light.  There are some tasks I can do myself, or get a good friend to help me with.

Likewise, you can save yourself a lot of money by developing an effective self-editing and revision strategy.

Let me talk a bit about that universe often feared and not well understood by most writers. Revision. I've heard it said that revision is 80% of writing a book, and though I doubted it in the beginning, I've come to understand that it's true. If you think you can bowl through a draft then rush it off to an editor, then either you're asking for a steep bill or you're so gifted you will be the object of contempt by 99% of the rest of us who say "Amen" when we hear Ernest Hemingway's proverb, "The first draft is always shit."

The problem, though, is that many writers take it to the opposite extreme and feel there is no end to revision. In reality your book is never going to be perfect. But it can be sufficiently amazing, a term I just invented which means: "Revised to the point that the reader cannot tell the difference between their version of perfect and yours."

As a writer, you're wise to develop a drafting strategy. Many writers use beta-readers or critique partners, and will plan to write at least two drafts (usually three or more). There is no magic number, because it's going to differ based on the writer and the specific project, but the idea is, with every step of revision, you want to make sure you're getting closer to the final vision you have for your book.

And when you reach that point where you're convinced this is done, then off it goes to your editor.

I hope you see that if you develop a great drafting strategy (I will be elaborating more on the art of self-editing and revision in a few weeks), you can save yourself the need for multiple rounds of editing, or a $2000 bill for a developmental edit vs. an $800 one. It's the same as saying good auto maintenance can mean your trip to the mechanic only requires you replace some O2 sensors, not that you have to repair a cracked cam shaft (the demise of the first car I owned).

What other editing you should have done if you plan to self-publish

You may be familiar with the term copyediting. Sometimes you'll see it written copy editing. Both are correct, but I use copyediting just because the term has stuck and I enjoy rebelling against the spell-checker in another case of knowing I'm right and it's wrong.

Strictly speaking, copyediting comes after developmental editing, and this should make logical sense. After you've done the incredible juggling act of cutting scene X and transplanting it in the middle of scene Y to address a cause-effect issue in your narration, or rewriting the crap out of the three paragraphs where your POV character's motives weren't clear, you're going to have a big mess to clean up. The idea is you can get your hands dirty when you're doing a developmental edit, knowing after it's all done, a new editor with a fresh set of eyes is going to come and focus on keeping everything tidy.

If the developmental editor is the same as the guy at the mechanic shop who goes in and rips your car apart and fits everything back together the right way, the copyeditor is the same as the girl (let's keep this a gender-balanced work place) at the shop who comes in after he's done and looks everything over to make sure all the plugs have been put back on the right way, maybe tightens a few bolts, and while she's at it, checks all your fluids to make sure there's no other issues before you come and drive your car back home.

Copyeditors do not focus on story, unless the element of the story is an actual error. Copyeditors, typically, focus on spelling, grammar, punctuation, formatting, logic and clarity. I want to expand on that "logic" item, because it's a loaded term. By logic, this is the part that sets a copyeditor apart from a proofreader. That word means the copyeditor is thinking logically about everything your manuscript is saying, line-by-line, and questioning if what you've written is the best way to write it.

You might sometimes find a copyeditor has cut a lot of words from your manuscript, or rearranged many of your sentences. This all comes down to that "logic and clarity" part, because many times the way you will write a sentence has made what you're trying to say confusing or otherwise difficult to grasp. "He rushed up the steps, his niece following close behind," is much clearer than, "His niece close behind, he rushed up the steps, ascending hurriedly." The first kill in that sentence is due to logic: "ascending hurriedly" is implied by "rushed up the steps." The reversal of clauses is due to clarity (and partly logic too): seeing his niece close behind him is immediately confusing: what's he doing for her to be close behind him? He rushed up the steps establishes for the reader an immediate vision of exactly what's happening, then adding his niece following close behind him allows us to add in an extra detail from an already established visual. Now it's clear, and logical.

I hope I've convinced you that copyeditors put in their share of sweat and hard work, and, like the girl in our example mechanic shop, the work they do is just as important. You wouldn't want to take your car home only to find out a loose screw on your engine came off and caused damage, nor should you as a writer want to pay for developmental editing only to find that all the juggling around you did in your rewrites confused your readers.

Last but not least: proofreading

Let's face it: editors are human. People miss things. Even the big publishers, who often have up to 30 sets of eyes on a book before it goes to print, still will miss a typo or two. Even if you're just paying a thank-you sum of money to a friend, or if you're lucky to have a group of die-hard fans who will gladly be the first readers of your book before it comes out, do not skip this step before you publish. A third (at least) set of eyes, especially after copyediting is complete, is vital. This is a chance for someone to read your book as though it's published, and make a list of outstanding typos.

If you can afford it, have a professional editor do it. The editor, unlike a friend or beta-readers, is trained in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and formatting, and will spot more in the proofread than a reader who might not be familiar with all the rules of spelling and grammar. Your friend / beta-readers might catch the part of your manuscript where you have the,y went to the store but they might not catch the typo go to the sign in table (sign-in is the correct form since it modifies the noun table).

So there you have it. If nothing else, I hope you learned that editing, while as expensive as engine repair on your car, is just as important.

All right, your turn! Have you had any bad experiences with editors who charged too much? Who didn't give you the editing you were expecting? Are you one of those authors who sees the color red when you hear the word revision? I'd love to hear what you think about the cost (and necessity) of editing and why we can't live without it.


Do you dare to Freewrite?


Do you dare to Freewrite?

If you’re a millennial like me, you might be more used to the slight tinking noise of your laptop keyboard. Perhaps it’s the click of your cell phone keyboard. But, when the developers of Freewrite decided to bring the past back to life (with a just a touch of modernity), they realized they’d capitalized on something people take for granted… nostalgia.


Deliberate Practice and Writing


Deliberate Practice and Writing

A few months ago while driving home I caught part of a Freakonomics radio episode and I’m still thinking about it – specifically, how to apply it to my own writing and to my work with other writers. It’s called “How to Become Great at Just About Anything.” Link here: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/peak/.

The description of the episode reads:

What if the thing we call “talent” is grotesquely overrated? And what if  deliberate practice is the secret to excellence? Those are the claims of the research psychologist Anders Ericsson, who has been studying the science of expertise for decades.

Go have a listen or check out the transcript if you have time. The episode is excellent. Host Stephen Dubner interviews researcher Anders Ericsson and author Malcolm Gladwell, as well as a few people who have had success using deliberate practice to achieve inspiring goals, including Susanne Bargmann, a Danish psychologist who, in her 40’s, returned to her childhood dream of becoming a famous singer.

When I first tuned in, all the talk about practice reminded me of the theory that Malcom Gladwell made popular in his book, Outliers – basically, that it takes 10,000 hours to become great at something. It turns out that theory actually comes from this same research of Ericsson and his colleagues, but – and here’s the key – Ericsson says that it isn’t just the volume of practice that’s important – that is, that “there’s really nothing magical about 10,000 hours.” Instead, it’s “the quality and the nature of the practice” that matters.

First, there’s purposeful practice. “Purposeful practice is when you actually pick a target — something that you want to improve — and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect.” To me that sounds like writing with specific goals in mind, maybe taking a class, reading craft books, or doing revisions or exercises aimed at improving a specific aspect of the work. It’s the difference between just sitting down and writing, versus writing with the goal of improving in a specific way.

And then there’s deliberate practice. Ideally:

  • it includes working with an experienced teacher
  • you receive feedback so you know what kind of adjustments to make
  • it “involves well-defined, specific goals”
  • “it is not aimed at vague, overall improvement”
  • “it takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities”

Sound familiar? This is exactly the kind of work that writers can do with a book coach, developmental editor or mentor. Perhaps even with a critique partner, if you have a good one. But whether you work well with a coach or want to go it alone, every writer can take away important lessons from this research. Write with purpose, with specific goals. Get feedback from someone who knows what they’re talking about, if you can. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and strive to improve. And always remember in the darkest moments of doubt to keep working. Practice and hard work do make a difference. A breakthrough is just around the corner, but it will only come if you’re doing the work.





One of our Author Accelerator members, Julie Brown won the SF Writer's Conference Scholarship and we were so proud of her. Not only did we get to sit down with her IN person, but we asked her to give us a brief interview to share with all of our readers. Enjoy!

You won the SF Writer’s Conference Scholarship! How did that make you feel? How did it change your experience of the conference?

The best part of winning the scholarship was that it validated my writing. It was an important reminder for me that as long as I continue to write and submit, I’m still in the game. Writers are rejected regularly, and I’ve had my share of rejections for sure. Receiving compliments on my essay, both for the writing and the message, was great.

Julie Brown and Jennie Nash at the SF Writer's Conference

Julie Brown and Jennie Nash at the SF Writer's Conference

As for how my win impacted my experience at the conference, I think it got me a little extra attention. Fellow writers were very impressed and congratulatory!

What was your favorite part about attending the conference?

My favorite part of the conference - first of all, it was so much fun. I met wonderful people. Writing can be a lonely vocation. It’s important to share the experience with other writers who truly understand what we put ourselves through to be writers. I heard incredible stories - some hilarious, some heartbreaking. I also learned a great deal in the sessions I attended. Overall, the speakers and presenters were excellent.

What was the most frustrating part?

Getting my pitch right for the “speeding dating” session - three minutes to sit down with agents and blow their minds with a two sentence description of our manuscripts. I actually never got my pitch pinned down and ended up winging it, which worked out okay but not great. Needless-to-say, I’m pretty sure I failed to blow anyone’s mind. Also, I realized my query letter (which is closely related to a pitch)  still needs work. I had it professionally edited about a year ago, and now I’m revising again. Ugh.

What is your goal/intention for your work after coming home?

Get my query fixed up; send it and sample pages of my manuscript to the agents at the conference who “invited” me to query them; query other agents on my list; keep going until I find my literary agent soulmate :)

You have a group of writer friends who have all taken programs or classes through Author Accelerator. How does your group work?

There are four of us, and we met intially to share our experiences working with AA. We had so much in common and found our discussion so helpful that we decided to get together regularly. We call ourselves “Jennie’s Girls.” (Cute, right?) Our meetings take place every month or two over coffee and/or lunch. We talk about anything related to writing - the hard work, staying motivated, new ideas, successes and failures, etc… We will critique pages if somebody wants to bring them, but our purpose is more to encourage and support one another.


5 Commandments of Beta Readers


5 Commandments of Beta Readers

Cross-Posted from Michelle Hazen's blog.

Hi everybody! In honor of today’s #CPMatch (thanks, Megan Lally!), and all the people polishing their ms for upcoming #PitchWars, it seems like a good time to talk about how to work with beta readers or critique partners. Really anybody reading your writing and giving you feedback. For my definition of CP vs beta reader, see ** at the bottom.

At the bottom of this post, I included a cheat sheet of potential questions to send to your betas/CPs with your manuscript. If you’ve worked with betas before and don’t need tips, feel free to scroll down to that. I’ve found that talking to beta readers is sort of like running a therapy session as a counselor: You get a lot out of what people volunteer, but you get more out of them if you ask the right questions. So look forward to that. In the meantime, let’s talk the Five Commandments of what you should do for your betas. Not ten, because ten is a lot and I don’t like rules that much.

1. Thou shalt not Lie

Find a way to be positive. But if you didn’t like their ‘Jeremy rides a giant squid’ scene, DON’T say you did. This will help no one.

2. Thou shalt be specific

Don’t just say, “You know, Darla’s reaction just didn’t read true to me.” Where? FOR THE LOVE OF CHIPMUNKS, WHERE? It is a 450 page book and Darla has at least 350 different reactions to things in this book. Also, don’t say: “Your grammar sucks. Your punctuation needs work.” Say where or how, or something they can grab onto like a lifeboat in a storm. Make sure they know what to fix, and how to start.

3. Thou shalt not be a d*ck.


Find something nice to say. Did you like that one funny line of dialogue in Ch 5? Did you like the way they had an aunt character because nobody remembers that fictional people have aunts until the parents are killed in a horrible accident? Did you like that their grammar was strong and consistent? Find SOMETHING to compliment. In any piece of writing, no matter how rough, there’s something good, and if you tell the writer what that is, they will find something even better to show you. And folks? Stick around for that moment because it feels reeeeal good. Don’t you like making people happy?

Also, amount of positive feedback: this is different for every writer, but take whatever amount of positive feedback you THINK they need, and double to quadruple it. They know what they did right, you think. I don’t need to say it, do I? You do. In fact, most writers don’t know their strengths and even if they do, they’re probably afraid that they’re wrong and are in fact a fraud and a sham and should probably burn their laptop and take up knitting or perhaps sitting very still in the corner of a dark closet. You need to mention more positives than you think you do in order to convince them they’re wrong.

4. Thou shalt not take everyone

Seriously, don’t sign on with everyone who wants to beta read or CP for you. Try them out first. Trade a chapter or two. See their writing, see how helpful their comments are to you. It’s okay to shake hands, say, this is fun but let’s just be friends. You know? Because first, you want somebody that’s close to your level of skill or better. If they’ve just written their first Post-It note and you’re on your fourteenth epic fantasy cycle, you’re not going to benefit much from the relationship. Which is fine. There is a time and a place for helping out writers and it can be super rewarding and fun and help you organize the knowledge you didn’t even know you had.

BUT. For a really quality beta relationship, you want somebody close to your skill level who writes in a moderately similar style to you. That doesn’t mean you can’t go outside your genre (I have one CP who is a romance writer, and another who writes fantasy. They have different strengths and I need them both to make me whole.) but it does mean just because another writer is good doesn’t mean that their style will be close enough to yours for you to help each other. Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Stephenie Meyer would not be great beta partners for one another, even though they’re both seen as fairly successful authors. Similarly, John Green and Tolkien might not be a superb pair. Also, some people are great writers but they suck at giving feedback. They’re snooty or they tear you down to feel good about themselves or they just don’t know how to articulate how you need to fix your book. There, I said it, so you don’t have to.

5. Thou shalt remember thy purpose.

Sweet, you think. My purpose is to make them better and I told them all the stuff that’s wrong with their book. They’ll thank me later.

WRONG. Your first purpose as a beta is to make sure that writer doesn’t quit. They will be a better writer tomorrow than they are today. In ten years, you won’t even BELIEVE the stuff they’re pulling off. And if you discourage them so much today that they quit, the world will never see any of that. Trust me, you don’t want that kind of karma hanging over your head. Also, I will find you, and I WILL kick you in the shins. I have literally nothing better to do than find people who discourage writers and give their shins a good kicking.

So your first purpose as a beta is to encourage the writer and make sure they know what they’re doing right and what their potential might be so they don’t quit. Your second purpose is to help them get better.

And now, because I hate rules and I’m sort of tired of them, let’s talk questionnaires. This isn’t a comprehensive questionnaire. It’s just one my CPs and I made up, to make sure your beta reader notes will cover all the bases. I encourage you to add questions for your specific concerns for each manuscript. Like, “Does Jeannie look like a bitch when she steals Tommy’s pet roll of toilet paper?” “Is it too slow when you watch Kent sort his coin collection or is it good character development to see his precision?” Whatever you’re worried might not be working but you want to make sure it’s not your self doubt talking. Also, I added some happy questions in there because you need to know the good stuff, not just the bad. One of my fave lessons from fanfic writing is that your readers’ favorite parts aren’t necessarily your favorite parts. It’s super fun to see what’s working for people.

The Questionnaire

-Does the ms have a strong hook at beginning? Does it start in the right place?

-Strengths/Weaknesses of the ms?

-How is the characterization? Was there any place where you felt you couldn’t follow the motivations, or didn’t buy them? Were there any places your reactions to the characters undermined your enjoyment in the story (not that they pissed you off so you turned pages faster- that’s positive)?

-How is the pacing? Were there any places where it slowed down?

-When did you feel the most/least engaged with the text? At what point did you start getting bored/distracted?

-Were there any scenes you didn’t get the point of, or felt that they didn’t serve the story as a whole?

-How was the imagery/description? Do we need more, less, just right?

-What did you think were the overall themes of the book? How would you strengthen them, if needed?

-Did anything in the book seem fake/unrealistic to you?

-What are issues you see agents/editors/other readers having with the book?

-Was there enough conflict? Did it feel natural to you? Were there any points where it felt contrived or forced?

-How was the romance? Did you like both characters? Did you care if they got together, and when they did, did it feel realistic and believable to you? (This should be genre specific. For fantasy: how was the worldbuilding, etc.)

-What was your favorite part/thing/scene of the book?

-What was your least favorite part/thing/scene of the book?

-What is the one problem with the book that you are hesitant to bring up, possibly because you’re not sure how to fix it?

That’s it, folks. So now go forth, get betas and CPs, and be very very nice to them, because your writing future depends on their wisdom.

**Definitions. Many people have different definitions of beta reader or CP. Whatever works for you is fine, just talk clearly to the other person about what you expect from them and what they can expect from you. For me, a critique partner (CP) = somebody who gives you line by line feedback (Wouldn’t ‘dick’ work better here than ‘manroot’? Or ‘add a comma’. Or ‘You spelled schnitzel wrong again.’) and also big picture feedback on pacing, characterization, plot, conflict, whether your story is working, etc. A beta reader is someone who reads and JUST gives you big picture feedback, not line by line comments.


On Writing Emotion

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On Writing Emotion

By Julie Artz - Book Coach

Recently, one of my clients asked me for pointers on writing character emotion without falling into telling or cliché. As I wrote my answer, I realized it would make a great blog post because, let’s face it, writing emotion is hard. Here’s a technique I’ve come up with over the years that I hope you’ll find helpful.


A good place to start is with the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The book catalogues the physical responses, mental responses, and sensations associated with each of a broad list of emotions. A lot of authors (including me when I first started learning this technique) stop there. That's why you get a lot of anxiety describes as sweaty palms & thumping hearts in books. But instead of just telling us the character's palms are sweaty, try showing the character wiping her hands on her skirt or shying away from shaking hands with someone, hiding those sweaty palms behind her back. Show her wiggling an eyebrow because she's in a cold sweat that's tickling her as it drips down her face. It's OK to do some physical cues--face getting hot, skin prickling, electricity running up the back of her legs--but don't only do that.

Once you have reviewed the entry/entries for the emotion you’re trying to convey, put yourself into the character's body and conduct a character interview. Why are you doing what you’re doing in this scene? What does it mean to you? How does it make you feel? Then dive deeper, leveraging your own experience with these emotions: How do your legs feel when you’re scared/nervous/angry? How does your stomach feel? What gestures might you make (tugging your hair when nervous, biting your lip or the inside of your cheek, shoving your hands in your pockets, tugging at the bottom of your shirt)? Different characters may tend to feel emotions in different parts of their bodies, and this can be a great way to differentiate voices in a multiple-point-of-view story.

Description also plays a role in getting emotion on the page. What your character notices about the world is influenced by how she’s feeling. For example, if I'm sad, and I look outside and see it's raining, I might feel the rain is heavy and depressing and awful. But if I'm happy, I look out the window and see how the water glistens on the leaves or how the intense green reminds me of my honeymoon in Belize. So you write the emotion not by putting feelings on the page, but by showing how the character's feelings (and their backstory) influence how they perceive everything in the world around them. The details you as the writer choose will help convey the character’s emotions without ever naming that emotion on the page.

Same goes for dialogue. An easy crutch to fall back on is using dialogue to convey emotion such as, “Mom, you make me so angry when you talk to me like that!” I’m not saying you can never do that. In fact, it can be very effective, especially when it’s more voicey than my example, but make sure it’s not the only way you’re conveying emotion.

If you can identify the emotions you want to convey, and then convey them with a mix of gestures, physical sensations, description, and dialogue, you’ll be well on your way to writing emotion that will keep your reader turning pages.

Next time you’re reading one of your favorite authors, pay attention to how they do this.Two of my current favorites,Leigh Bardugo and Maggie Stiefvater, are masters of showing emotion without naming it on the page. Their styles are very different (Bardugo is more lush and Stiefvatermore sparse in style), but they both end up delivering gripping stories in part because of how they write emotion.

What tips have you learned about conveying emotion in your writing? Which authors do you think do it particularly well? This topic could fill multiple books, so feel free to continue this discussion in the comments.

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The Story of a Growly Dog and a Not-So-Growly Writer


The Story of a Growly Dog and a Not-So-Growly Writer

One of our current students in the Story Genius novel writing workshop is a successful indie non-fiction author. Beverley Courtney is the author of seven books dedicated to improving communication between owners and their dogs, including Why is My Dog So Growly? and the amazon bestselling book, Calm Down! Step-by-step to a Calm, Relaxed, and Brilliant Family Dog. I don’t have a dog (as anyone who has been following along my slowly developing new novel knows!) but if I did, those titles would delight me. Just the words Growly Dog delight me!


Scrivener vs Word for Writers


Scrivener vs Word for Writers

Cross-Posted from Michelle Hazen's Blog.

I’m not a computer girl, but when I discovered Scrivener software for writers, it was like I’d been putting in screws my whole life using a nail file, and somebody finally gave me a drill.

Of course, by “discovered” I mean my CP raved for a year about this program and I ignored her, because much like the book Eat Pray Love, I assumed that anything that trendy and popular must be crap.


First, I’d like to say I’m not getting kickbacks from Scrivener or Word to write this. I do what I want, and what I want is to HELP WRITERS SUCCEED.

I’ve written 16 books in Word, and 1 in Scrivener, and while I’m not a master of all its many bells, whistles, and upgrades, Scrivener kicks Word’s butt on the following issues: Planning, Visuals (swoon!), Organization, and NO DISTRACTION FORMAT. It so knows us, peeps. It knows we want to click over to Pinterest to check out cupcake recipes and blurt on Twitter that we just hit our word count goals for the day, and it freaking KNOWS we don’t remember what color we said the backsplash was in Darla’s kitchen.

Scrivener is like your best friend, because it knows you and it makes you better. Lovingly. Gently. It knows you left your tea in the microwave, and it will build you a conveyor belt from the appliance back to your desk so you don’t have to get up, because it loves you.

Let’s start with the visuals, because my latest book has some smoking hot uh… “inspiration”


If you’re a visual person, Scrivener lets you drag pictures in ALL OVER THE PLACE. Right next to where you’re writing, so you can remember the mood of a character or see their face while you’re writing:

You can put pictures in your research file, or your character or place sheets, to remember what things look like. Before, I storyboarded all this in Pinterest. (Link to my latest WIP hot-guy-extravaganza Pinterest page here. There are also lots of beautiful horse pics in this one). This is loads of fun, but lets all admit that clicking into Pinterest fifty times a day has a very high potential for ab-distraction. Because of the abs. And the distractions. Pinterest has so many of both. Now you can have less distraction, but still keep the abs and inspiration. Hells yes.


Speaking of distractions, one of my favorite features is called…


It takes you full screen so you’re away from all those tempting other tabs. In many Scrivener modes, you can keep your scene outline at your fingertips, reminder pictures and details, your word count target bar… But in this mode, it simplifies for your eyes so you can focus on MAKING THE WORDS. You can do plain black backdrop, or you can upload a picture. I found this strangely helpful for keeping the “mood” of the writing.

At times, I had hurricane pictures, sexy times biceps pictures, farmhouses on the prairie, colorful New Orleans’ streets…I will admit I may have spent a touch too much time getting distracted by choosing pictures for my no distraction mode. Don’t do this.

Bonus: No Distraction Mode makes it one guilt-ridden click farther to get to anything else but writing, so you’ll stay on track longer.


This is where Scrivener really shines to make you a better writer. They have ready-made character sheets and place sheets with prompts loaded into them. Let’s face it, when you’re writing a series, do you remember what color the dad’s eyes were in Book 2? Do you remember IF you’ve ever said what color the dad’s eyes are? *looks in horror back at three books, one novella and one short story*  Before, I kept this info in my chapter by chapter outline, which meant it was ALL OVER THE PLACE. Now, it’s all grouped together for each place or person.

Plus, SCRIVENER KNOWS WHAT YOU NEED. It prompts you to put in each character’s role in the story. What their internal and external conflicts are. If they have any twitches or physical habits like twirling their hair. If someone would have asked me these questions during my first book…well, let’s not talk about that, shall we?

Trust me, if your character’s role in the story is: “I don’t know, they live in the building, so they have to be in the story, right?” you’ll feel like an asshat typing that into your character sheet, so you’ll get rid of unnecessary characters. Similarly, if you have internal conflict but no external, that line of question marks will haunt you until you come up with something. *clears throat* Theoretically. Hypothetically. Speaking for a friend.

It also has sheets for places, and prompts you not just WHAT the place is, but what season it is, what it feels like, what it smells like, what its purpose in the story is. It forces you to have a fully-realized setting for each place before you even start. And now you can remember if the kitchen is in the front of the house or the back, and CRAP you made the table wobble in two houses in two different states. Click over and fix that.

Scrivener also has lots of spots for different research files, all of which are one click away from your ms. It’s much like multi-tabbed browsing instead of having lots of browser windows open. Where before I would have had a file up my Hurricane Katrina research, and another one on French Creole names, and another one on the timelines for training quarter horse colts, now I can click over to what I need and back to my ms in seconds. Plus, I don’t crash my program because I have 13 windows open, because Scrivener KNEW I would need 13 windows open. *mind blown*

Here you can see the sidebar where you can easily click between chapters, place and character sheets, and research files.

You can also write in split screen, so you can SEE your research at the same time as you’re writing it. Or see your last sex scene so you can remember if you’re repeating any of the same positions. Then click over to your Kama Sutra research tab and get some new ideas!

Another helpful planning function is that in a variety of places, Scrivener tracks word count.

You can enter a target for each scene and watch your little bar fill up, going from red to yellow to green as you fulfill your goal. This is great for underwriters, but if you’re an OVER writer like me, what it really needs is a bar that goes red once you go over, and a hand that reaches out and slaps you in the face once you’re 10% past your plan.

It also lays out word count goals vs actual by chapter, scene, and the ms as a whole.

You can use this function to plan word count scene by scene until you realize you’re never going to keep your novel under 100K if you include the scene with the skinny dipping, and the one with painting the old woman’s house, and you really need to trim the lemon cake scene…*weeps*

In addition to research, places, and characters, there’s even a handy spot for deleted scenes so you can use your murdered darlings as extras on your website later when you’re so famous John Green challenges you to race cars against him.


All people’s minds organize information differently. That’s why Scrivener takes your information, and with one click at the top of the page, it can transform it into:



Notice this includes word count targets and actual word counts, whose POV each chapter is in, what draft each chapter is on…you can customize what shows up.


This is my favorite, because I’ve always loved that very writerly wall of haphazardly taped up index cards. It’s like a visual of creativity. But if you follow this blog, you know I’m nomadic, so I can’t take my walls with me. For a few months, it’s dry erase marker on the truck windows because index cards would blow away in the desert wind. Or a few days in an Airbnb rental where the landlord doesn’t want tape all over the walls. Or a few weeks in a bus or a plane and…you get the idea. This way, I can take my “wall” with me. You can outline on these and drag the scenes around at will, and click on them to expand each chapter into smaller index cards denoting each scene. Plus, you can mark them with what stage of the process you’re in. First draft, first revision, fourth revision, etc.

Mind you, you don’t have to ENTER your information seventeen times to get all these different formats. Scrivener does it automatically. *buys Scrivener flowers*

Formatting is the area of Scrivener where my CP and I tend to disagree on its functioning. It is easier to format in Microsoft Word, that is true. But once you learn HOW to format Scrivener, it stays as is and you don’t have to mess with it all the time. This can be really great if you are like me and you’re an old school fanfiction writer who CANNOT stand to write in submission-ready format. So in Scrivener, you set your preferences. For me, this means I write in single spacing with spaces between paragraphs because THAT’S HOW FANFIC IS DONE and I can watch my paragraph lengths without the endless scrolling that comes with double spacing. But then when I’m ready to export Scrivener to a Word file, it automatically puts it into manuscript formatting, complete with headers and double spacing.

Scrivener also indulges another of my weird tendencies: I love to write with chapters in separate documents. Then I can look at each one on its own, watch its word count separately, and take my editing in managable bites. However, at a certain point in the process it becomes unwieldy to do this. You may want to scroll through large chunks of ms, or search for how many times you used the word “need” or “cock” or “just”. With Scrivener, each scene is separate, nested within each chapter, but they’re all together in one big happy manuscript family with one click of a button.

See the theme here? With Scrivener, everything is in ONE screen, ONE click away instead of having four programs and three internet tabs open with thirty documents and getting the green screen of death ALL THE TIME, which used to be my life. You get better visuals, better organization, better planning, and a better writing experience. Plus, because it’s so well designed for exactly US, there’s something ephemeral about it that evokes the creative writerly experience. It makes typing on a computer seem like scribbling in a notebook under a big tree, like taping index cards all over your walls and ceiling and husband. Like wadding up a piece of paper and throwing it at a trash can shouting “This will never work” while tearing at your hair.

Scrivener makes you feel like a real writer. And it makes you a better one.

For those who are interested, Scrivener offers a lengthy free trial that does NOT charge your card automatically if you forget to cancel or buy it at the end. Which is good, because that shit is just annoying. It’s $45 to buy and you can find coupons all over the internet, including a 50% for NaNoWriMo.



The Slow Change of Seasons: Finding Your Next Fiction Project


The Slow Change of Seasons: Finding Your Next Fiction Project

Cross posted from John Robin's Blog

The deepest, coldest part of winter may finally be over here in central Canada. We still have a least two months of winter before all of the snow is gone and spring finally takes hold.

It’s an interesting time of year. The days start to get longer, even if only minutely so, and the days start to get just a little bit warmer. There’s hope for the rejuvenation of spring, for the new life that the new season brings.

Yes, this happens every year, but every year is a little bit different. Every year is a new spin on the same old story, and I always find myself in December, when the snows capture us in their relentless hold, anticipating something new amidst something familiar.

This winter, barely half over, saw my city receive 150% of our annual snowfall in just five weeks. Our arctic temperatures caused my back door to freeze shut — which I had to thaw with a hair dryer every time I wanted to leave the house. On Boxing Day, my husband and I had to divide an conquer the shoveling it took for us to get out to the family breakfast we had planned for that morning, and that still took us 40 minutes. And yet, for all the adversity in the weather, as each day of late December and early January has passed by, I'm reminded how this winter, and this year ahead, is unique and something I'm living now that I will never live again.

As ever, I’m reminded of stories and the process of storytelling.

When you choose your next project, how do you know which is the right one to be telling? How do you know, even, that the story you're writing now is the right story to be telling? You get up, go through your day and get your writing time in — or perhaps your week, if you batch your writing time to the weekends like I do; you push forward into the unique season that is your current story and those moments translate into prose.

Winter is winter. There's snow. There's cold. There's space heaters and cozy indoor offices with a narrow window to look out onto the whiteness and stillness. It's all the same, and yet, it's not. It's always different.

And so it is with stories. No matter what you're writing, what I'm writing, there's a good chance it's been done before. But what's not been done before is this: it's never been done before by you.

You, the author, with your unique vision and your unique voice, are the only person on the planet capable of writing the story that is your story. Perhaps you're feeling discouraged because you're writing a YA fantasy romance and you feel like you're an imitator. Or maybe you're writing in a genre you're so passionate about but you feel hopelessly inferior to your contemporaries — there's just no topping that, so why bother writing the story you're writing at all? Does any of this sound familiar?

If so, step back for a moment and ask yourself, archetype and genre and tropes aside, what is it that you bring that will make your story unique?

Allow me to share how I relate to this problem and that question. As many of you may know, I'm presently writing a dark epic fantasy novel called A Thousand Roads, a reworking of my third novel which I devoted most of my writing time to in 2013 and the majority of 2014. While I am disciplined to show up, weekend after weekend, to write 20 more pages of the second draft, and I'm more than halfway and am on track to finish by March, I'm met, more often than I like, with self-doubt.

These are just some of the Gollums that echo in my mind:

"This isn't unique."

"This is too generic."

"The pitch falls flat, who wants another epic fantasy book anyway?"

"Story of an orphan who wants to find a home? What kind of book is that? Plain. Bland. Blah!"

"Just give up. Write something marketable. Epic fantasy isn't for you!"

Seriously — these are very real thoughts I struggle with on the way through the writing season for me that is "A Thousand Roads draft 2". But what I find, when I put aside those thoughts, particularly when I'm at my keyboard early on a Saturday or Sunday morning for my usual startup 3-4 hour writing session, is that regardless of those thoughts, I'm telling a story that I'm very passionate about. In fact, when I write and the storytelling muscles kick in and the story has a way of just coming to life I flip to the other, almost delusional "wow, this is great!" side of the spectrum. I'm here, right now, in this, and what's coming out of me isn't a "generic epic fantasy" or a work that's going to fall flat because it's been done before. It's my unique vision, my passion, the fruit of painstaking hours spent learning more about what this story is and translating that for others to enjoy it.

The season will change. The next story will come (already I see glimmers of that spring that is the next novel waiting for me), but right now, like our cold Winnipeg winter, I'm here in A Thousand Roads and fully in it. Like when a snowfall comes and the choice is there to curse it and wish I had a blowtorch instead of a snow shovel, so do I have the choice to fret over my work and let all those doubts poison the results — or to go in eagerly with a positive outlook, and discover that extra layer that I would have missed otherwise.

Shoveling snow can be fun! It's good for the muscles, a good way to remind you that you are alive, a chance to feel like you're strong against whatever the environment will throw at you, a time to think about hot chocolate waiting for you after you go inside and put your wet mitts on the heater to dry. Likewise, really going in and giving your time to your story, to pour out your unique vision and understanding of the world into your prose, is a chance to showcase all your skills, techniques, and insights into the world as you've come to know it, to grow as a writer and a human being and a storyteller.

So, while there might be plenty of bestsellers on the shelf which you feel are telling your story better than you can, those books are not your story. Your story has your spin on it and is unique. The framing might be the same, but the dressing is different. And no one turns a book down because it reminds them of another (in fact, many people pick up a book because it reminds them of one they read where they wish they could get "more of that"). Often, when someone turns down a book, it's because there is nothing fresh and unique that comes from it. It "falls flat" as the expression in the industry goes.

What is it that you bring to your fiction? What is your unique vision and unique touch? Even if you can't put it in exact words, just thinking about this and being aware of it as a key part of what makes the difference between living fiction and stilted fiction is a sure way to navigate to books that will always matter.

No matter how much has been done before, stories will never get old. Ever.