And then there were five (NaNoWriMo tips)…

It's NaNoWriMo Month

(National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated…)

For those of you who have begun writing your first book, every day I'll repost my fave creative writing tips here, just for you. 

Here's Tip #5, for Monday, November 5th…

The previous day's post can be accessed on this page, too.

Here's to your success as an author,

— Josie Brown

Don’t forget to enter my HOUSEWIFE ASSASSIN’S GUIDE TO GRACIOUS KILLING contest, for a chance to win a $100 gift card to the bookstore of your choice!




Are you ready for my NaNoWriMo Tip #4?


It's NaNoWriMo Month

(National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated…)

For those of you who have begun writing your first book, every day I'll repost my fave creative writing tips here, just for you. 

Here's Tip #4, for Sunday, November 4th…

The previous day's post can be accessed on this page, too.

Here's to your success as an author,

— Josie Brown

Don’t forget to enter my HOUSEWIFE ASSASSIN’S GUIDE TO GRACIOUS KILLING contest, for a chance to win a $100 gift card to the bookstore of your choice!




Day 3 of NaNoWrMo…

It's NaNoWriMo Month!

(National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated…)

For those of you who have begun writing your first book, every day I'll repost my fave creative writing tips here, just for you. 

In fact, here's Tip #3, for Saturday, November 3rd…

The previous day's post can be accessed on this page, too.

Here's to your success as an author,

— Josie Brown

Don’t forget to enter my HOUSEWIFE ASSASSIN’S GUIDE TO GRACIOUS KILLING contest, for a chance to win a $100 gift card to the bookstore of your choice!




NaNoWriMo Tip #30: The best advice I can give you is this: “Last author standing.”


Forget the Rolling Stones. I always wanted to be a Rockbottom Remainder.

You know: that grunge band made up of bestselling authors, like  Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, Scott Turow, Roy Blount, Jr., Greg Iles, James McBride, Ridley Pearson and Kathi Kamen Goldmark.

I've had one impediment, and it ain't my singing:

It's that niggling issue of actually making the New York Times Bestseller list.

And doing it again. And again, and again.

But I won't stop trying.

My mantra: Last author standing.

With it, I've beaten the odds and actually gotten published.

In fact, in regard to my publishing record, I've been blessed. Ten years ago I reached a very big dream: I had not one, but two books published by New York publishing houses. And as of December 9th of this year I will have had twenty novels and four non-fiction books published: five of them, traditionally by New York  houses — Simon & Schuster, Pearson/Alpha, St. Martin's Press, and HarperCollins — whereas the rest self-pub'd, including my best-selling Housewife Assassin series, and my best-selling Totlandia series.

I am living my dream: making a comfortable living as a writer, and living in the city that is my heart and soul: San Francisco.

But it hasn't all been a bed of roses.

I've had my fair share of agent changes and editor rejections. Some occurred while one family member fought cancer and survived, and another did not. 

Like so other authors in the past couple of years, I had a book contract dropped when it was obvious that Borders wasn't going to make it–and ironically, Borders sold a good chunk of my books. 

But I'm surviving. 

In fact, I can say I'm thriving in this business. My readers found me, love me, and anticipate my next novel. 

Because I hung in there.

I believed in my mantra: Last author standing.

My literary agent paid me the biggest compliment regarding this vow by saying, “I quote you on it, to my other authors.”

I thanked her. I hope they thank her too. She believes what I do:

If you're going to accomplish your dream, you have to stay in the game

To survive in a business that is ever-changing, this has to be your mantra too.

With what you've accomplished in NaNoWriMo, you've proven you can write.

Now, time to sell it. To an agent who will love it, and cheer-lead it to editors.

To let readers find you and love you.

Or to self-publish it.

No matter which path you take, give it your all–and never stop promoting your book. Never give up on the dream that you can be make your fiction a financial and personal success. 

I hope these tips have helped you. I wrote them because I believe in you.

Because you deserve success, too. 

Now, finish the job.

Make your dream a reality.

(c) 2011 Josie Brown. All Rights Reserved

The photo above: The Rockbottom Remainders





Question of the day: Do you have a mantra, that keeps you writing, despite the odds?

Happy post-National Novel Writing Month,

— Josie


NaNoWriMo Tip #22: If your dialogue doesn’t match the character, fix it. Now!


Most novelists have several characters walking around in their heads at any given time. Sadly, not all authors take the time to bring these wonderful imaginary people to life.

Where they fail most often is in the words they put in their characters' mouths.

If all of your characters sound alike to you and to your critique partners, rewriting their dialogue may actually save your book.

Here are three steps to take in order to bring your characters to life:

1. Know your characters.
Where are they from, originally? How were they raised? What do they do for a living? What are their fears? How about their desires? As with all of us, these live experiences shape us, and affect the words that come out of our mouths.

Some authors I know actually do character bios: not just for their heroes and main characters, but for every character in the book. It's really a great exercise, and may make the difference in how your characters act– and react — on the page.

Actors do this, too. Michelle Williams (in the photo, above) is proving to be one of the foremost actresses of her generation because, like a Meryl Streep or a Kate Winslet, she is a different person in every film. One of her movies, My Week with Marilyn, is proof that she can lose herself in the iconic Marilyn Monroe: not just with makeup, but in the walk, the voice, and by saying the words written for her character in a way that rings true.

Tfios_soundtrack_cover2. Do your “dialogue” homework.
Just as you'd research a moment in time for an historical novel, or a place (say, the Vatican, if were you Dan Brown, and writing The DaVinci Code), you should also research the tone, cadence and slang of your characters.

A female college student from Berkeley in the 1960s won't speak — let alone think — the same way as one who went to school at Wellesley. That is also true about a father raising his children in downtown San Francisco, and one raising his kids in Dunwoody Georgia. 

If these characters inhabit your book, it's time to do a little research into their lives, and how it affects the words that come out of their mouths

The most common dialogue mistakes come when an author is (a) writing in the voice of the opposite sex, or (b) writing a character who comes from a different country.

In my very first novel, True Hollywood Lies, the anti-hero, Louis Trollope, was both: male, and from England. Not only did I tap into my male side (the yin and yang/dominant and recessive traits are something we all have, and must use if we are involved in creative writing) and have my husband vet my male dialogue, I also sent the manuscript to a male friend who grew up in England, to check the authenticity of my slang research. It was a great move, as he was able to tweak a few phrases, and to verify much of what I'd written was in fact “spot on.” (Love that term. Used in Britain more than here, but it aptly makes the point.)

3. Read your dialogue out loud to yourself.
Charles Dickens was an actor as well as a novelist. He knew the power of great dialogue. It was part of his writing routine to read his chapters out loud to himself, in order to hear the flow of his prose and gauge the authenticity of his dialogue. 

You should do that, too. If it doesn't sound real to your ear, it won't sound right to anyone else, either.

 4. Unless your character is Father Knows Best, a super hero, Ghandi, or Mother Teresa, he or she is not perfect–and that's okay.

So write them that way. Let them make mistakes. Let them do, and say, stupid things. Let them do things that will come back and bite them in the but later in your plot.

In other words, let them be real people. Because no one is perfect.

Except for you.

At least, according to your mother.

The photo above: from the movie “The Fault with Our Stars” 


Question of the day: How many times do you re-read your manuscript before sending it out into the world?  And honestly, do you feel it's enough?


— Josie


NaNoWriMo Tip #27: Don’t do this in your query letter. Pretty please.

Johngrisha_6905555_11586349As mentioned in yesterday's NaNoWriMo tip (#25), you don't have to wait until your novel is completed to start the process of researching literary agents — or, for that matter, crafting a “I want this book”–inducing query letter.

Get started now, after you finish today's word count, of course.

Yesterday, I made some suggestions as to what a query letter should include. Today, I want to let you know what will get your letter tossed immediately:

1. Poor spelling.
 We all make mistakes. We make less of them if we proof our letters prior to sending them. And then proof them again. Then, to play it safe, have someone else proof them, too. 

While I'm on the subject: Since we live in the age of multiple submissions and cut-and-paste (and we should all be thankful for both), it is truly bad form to leave the name of the last agent you queried in the salutation of your letter for another. Not to mention calling a Ms. “Mr.” or visa-versa.

Proof. Proof. Then proof again. Trust me, you'll find something.

2. Bad grammar.
You are what you write. That goes for your query letters, too. Again, proofing should catch an “It's…” that should have been an “Its…”

3. Boasting.
You aren't J.K. Rowling. You aren't Stephen King. You aren't John Grisham. However, if you can attach a personal letter from an author of note espousing on your manuscript, you'll certainly get an agent's attention.

4. A biography that is longer than a couple of pertinent lines.
This isn't a job interview, so don't include a resume. And for that matter, it isn't a date either, so skip your hopes, dreams and future financial projections.

5. Threats.
Warning literary agents that they are missing out on the next Twilight series doesn't make them beg to see your novel, but may give them a needed chuckle for the day. The begging part comes when you whet their appetite with a surefire teaser that describes your book. Which brings us to…

6. An inability to sum up your plot in a paragraph.
The sole purpose of the query letter is to intrigue agents about your novel and to request that you send it to them to read. If you bore them with paragraph after paragraph of specific details about your plot or hero, they'll think that your manuscript reads that way, too…

And they'll pass on it. 

Sell it to them in a one-liner: “In (novel's title), a (middle-aged woman/shy teen boy or whatever) has their (life/ or whatever, cut short/changed forever) when (s/he finds a letter from…).”

Hopefully, you'll show more nuance and perspective than I did in the line above. In other words, it's your story, so sell it. 

And yes, it's okay if you need two or three sentences instead of one. 

7. Begging.
They don't care that you took eight years to write this novel, 24/7, or that you're supporting your invalid mother. Should they like what they read and get a bidding war started for your manuscript, trust me: that will be the backstory used by the publicist to get you an interview or two. So cut the sob sister act. Work on a killer one-liner instead.

8. Photos or Illustrations.
John Grisham claims he received twenty-eight rejection letters before he found a publisher for his first novel, A Time to Kill. I'm guessing that the bare-chested photo he included had something to do with it. (I kid you, John!) This isn't or the Miss America Contest, so resist the temptation for visual stimulation.

For that matter, don't send chocolate, either.

Save that for your first face-to-face meeting with your new agent.

(c) 2011 Josie Brown. All rights reserved.

Picture: The s(pec)tacular John Grisham. I'm sure the six-pack abs are under there, somewhere…




I've got a question for you: Have you already made a query letter faux pas ? Let's have a pity party, 'cause I've made some, too, lemmee tellya! 

Let your fingers do the talking during National Novel Writing Month,

— Josie


NaNoWriMo Tip #26: Yes, you can get an agent. Here’s how.

When should you start looking for an agent? That answer is simple:

As soon as your novel is ready for the world to see; at least, the world of agents and editors.

Fair warning: the process won’t be easy. If you’re lucky, it will take weeks. But it also may take many long months.

Don't get discouraged! Here’s what you can do to speed this process along:

Research agents who buy what you sell.

Your agent will be your manuscript's biggest cheerleader. But remember this: agents work on commission. That said, they don’t just want to feel comfortable talking up your novel; they want to feel a true sense of excitement about it.

Finding agents who sell what you write (say, mystery; or up-market contemporary female literature; or commercial lit; or romance; or thrillers, or cozies or whatever) will bring you both closer to the essential goal: a successful client/agent relationship.

And yes, you should start researching agents even prior to when your manuscript is ready to go.

Two wonderful online entities to do so are and Although the latter charges a monthly fee, it’s worth the subscription because the site is enhanced with listings of manuscript sales that are made, listing the authors, agents and acquiring editors.

Your final hit list should have at least fifteen – if not twenty – agents on it, all from different literary agencies. More on this later…

Send out a kick-butt query letter.

The query letter is the publishing industry's version of online dating: putting you in front of those agents you believe match up with you. As in dating, there are certain factors that make you desirable. For example:

As previously discussed, you're a good fit with a particular agent because you write what they sell.

(a)   Sell them on your story with a quick “hook.” You should be able to do this in one line, or at the most two, that sums up the story’s key premise.

For example: “In my international thriller entitled The Sleeper, the wife of a professor learns that her husband is in fact a terrorist whose mission is to kill the president of the United States while he visits the campus, and has planted evidence against a campus activist who is her former lover.”

(b)   Include any pertinent information which demonstrates that you know your subject matter. In regard to the sample hook above, I might say: “As a journalist who has covered international stories, my national security sources have lent my novel the sort of true-to-life details that make it stranger than fiction…”

(c)    Follow the directions of the agent as to what s/he wants included with the query letter, be that the first three chapters, or 50 – 100 pages, or the whole manuscript, or to wait to hear back from them as to whether they want to see anything at all.

The query letter itself should be no more than one page.

Make sure that query letter goes to your first five must-have agents.

Most agents know that you’ve submitted to other agents as well.

Yes, there are a few who require that they are the only ones who see your work at any given time. That is for their convenience, not yours. Remember: you are a brand with a product in hand (and, hopefully, more to come). You should not have to sit on the shelf while this one agent takes a month (or two, or three) to decide s/he wants to work with you.

You’ve done your homework as to the quality of agents you’d be willing to work with. At this point focus on quantity: making sure you put your work in as many hands as possible, so that you get more than one agent interested in representing you.

Four weeks later, make sure it goes out to your next five must-have agents.

At the same time your query letter hit the agent’s desk, so did several manuscripts from his/her clients. Guess which ones takes precedent?

You got it: their current clients—because  these clients are proven commodities to that agent. Either s/he has sold their previous novels, or they already have an editor waiting to see their latest manuscript. And since the agent’s job is to read it, too, time is of the essence.

Sorry, that’s just the way it is. And if that agent becomes yours as well, you’ll want that same priority.

In the meantime, start filling your dance card. Better to have two – or three, or more – agents to choose from than just one.

Eight weeks after you sent out the first agent letters, send it to another five must-have agents.

By now you will have gotten a few rejections. Don’t take it personally. Remember: publishing is a business. Agents are looking for manuscripts which fit their comfort zones: those they feel they can sell to the editors they know, and what they know these editors are seeking.

The worst thing that can happen is for an agent to take you on – and then do nothing to sell you. If they don’t truly believe in your manuscript, it won’t leave their desk. The time wasted is yours—all the more reason you need to broaden your agent search.

Before it goes to any agent, make sure your manuscript is as great as it can possibly be.

While there are exceptions (for example, an encouraging letter that asks to see other manuscripts you’ve written) for the most part you’ll only have one shot to woo any particular agent. More than your query letter, they are judging you on your manuscript.

Remember, don’t take it personally! They reject the majority of submissions, choosing only those writers whose manuscripts they feel they have a chance to sell now, or that this author is one whom they want to work with, over the long run.

All the more reason to heed my previous tips, which have emphasized the need to  join a critique group, so that you have others with whom to work through any plot holes. I’ve also mentioned the importance of doing several reads of your manuscript, to gauge it for flow, to catch typos, and to work through any plot holes you may have missed, and to smooth out any stilted dialogue.

A clean manuscript often leads to more agents interested in representing you. The more agents who are interested, the more choices you have to choose the right agent to sell your manuscript–

Which is the ultimate end game.

Picture: Back in the day, this was what an agent's desk or credenza looked like. Now most of them read the manuscripts as Word Doc files, on an eReader. It's the way we live now….




I've got a question for you: Have you already tried to get an agent? How did that go?

Let your fingers do the talking during  National Novel Writing Month,

— Josie

NanoWriMo Tip #23: Don’t send out a half-baked novel manuscript


Around Thanksgiving, pies are my thing. Besides pumpkin, I've been known to make a mean pecan pie, too.

Unless I feel the grocery store is gouging their customers on pecans. Then I choose walnuts. (See my recipe, below…)

And because the pie is soused with so much Amaretto and lined with so much dark chocolate, it doesn't really matter to my family what kind of nut they're eating, because they're enjoying the hell out of every bite.

Unless the crust is under-baked.

Sadly, that can ruin everything.

To ensure the crust at the bottom bakes fully but that I don't burn it around the edge, I will bake my crust first, for about ten minutes, prepped with tinfoil on the bottom and along the sides of the inner shell, which if then filled with dry beans or dry rice to hold it down and reduce heat exposure.

Saves my arse every time.

Now that you're in the last few days of National Novel Writing Month and are feeling great about your word count, I want to give you a gentle reminder that this is just the first draft of your book.

In other words, it's only half-baked.

Before you get literary agents and editors to bite, make sure you've done the following to ensure it's as tasty to them as possible:

1. Re-read your manuscript.
Specifically, for holes in your plot. Trust me, there are some. Perhaps a story thread that isn't knotted to anything else, and therefore isn't necessary. Or for scenes that go nowhere: that have no spice. If it bores you, it will bore those critical first readers too. Or for any little niggling thing that bothers you about your story, whether that be a character's name, or a location that hasn't been fully visualized for the reader, or for a paragraph that seems to slow the plot down.

Re-reading encourages editing.

Editing tightens your plot.

A tight plot makes for a great story.

2. Now, re-read it again.
This time, for character flawsThis does not mean that your characters should be perfect people. BOOORRRRRING. It means that your writing has to make them come alive on the page.

You won't be doing this by telling us about them, but showing them in situations that make us love them, hate them, be annoyed by them, root for them….

In other words, we've got to care about them.

3.  Once again now: read it. I'm begging you, please.
You're doing this in order to catch typos you've missed during the first and second reads. (They are there, just waiting to be found!)

You're doing this because tight (plot, characters, dialogue, story flow) makes right. 

And you're doing this in order to fall in love with your manuscript all over again. Because when you're high on it, you'll write a fantastic query letter for it, too.

Between that letter and your fully-baked manuscript, you'll have agents beating down your door.




Question of the day: How many times do you re-read your manuscript before sending it out into the world?  And honestly, do you feel it's enough?

Happy Thanksgiving — and happy National Novel Writing Month,

— Josie



  • 1/2 stick of butter or margarine
  • 1 BAR of at least 70% dark chocolate
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup dark corn syrup
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 Amaretto (Bailey's or Carolans works, too)
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
  • 1 unbaked 9-inch pie crust (my favorite is Trader Joe's roll-out crust, found in the refrigerated foods area)
  • Pinch of salt


  1. Heat oven to 350°F.
  2. Prick bottom and sides of pie crust with fork. Press heavy-duty aluminum foil onto bottom and around side of pie crust; fill with uncooked rice or beans. Bake 10 minutes; remove foil and rice. Bake additional 7 minutes or until pale golden brown. Cool on wire rack.
  3. Reduce oven temperature to 325°F. Stir together chocolate, walnuts and flour in medium bowl; set aside.
  4. Beat butter and sugar in large mixer bowl until well blended. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in corn syrup, vanilla and salt, beating just until blended. (Mixture may look curdled.) Stir in walnut mixture.
  5. Pour mixture into baked pie crust.
  6. Bake 55 to 60 minutes or until outer edges of pie are set and a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out with just melted chocolate. Center will still be jiggly. Cool completely on wire rack. Cover; store up to 2 days at room temperature or if storing longer, refrigerate. 8 servings.

NaNoWriMo Tip #17: The emotional depth of your characters is important.

Throwing words onto the page is the essence of National Novel Writing Month. But meeting a word quota isn't the most thoughtful way in which to craft a story. When you go back and read what you've written, inevitably you will re-edit each scene.

This will be the time in which you can ask yourself if your character is all he (or she) should be — and strengthen them even further.

When it comes to developing characters, most writers seem to fall into two camps. The first works from a great plot premise, allowing it to determine what characters will inhabit the story, and to drive his or her plot forward. The second starts with an idea for a unique hero, then creates plot challenges that showcase the hero's character strengths and (hopefully) flaws.

There are pitfalls to both approaches. When a story is plot-driven, sometimes the author will leave out all those things that allow readers to empathize with the hero. Remember: you want your readers to fall in love with your hero.

However, if your story is character-driven, the author may be telling us all the reasons why we should love this character, but is not giving the hero anything to do. If the hero is not challenged, he is not given a reason to grow and change.

And the reader has no reason to care for him.

As in real life, character is demonstrated through actions (plot) and words (dialogue). A strong narrative voice — not necessarily first person — allows us into the heads of the hero: not just to hear what he is thinking, but to gauge how he is feeling, too.

Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind was her debut novel. It took her nine years to write. No NaNoWriMo deadline, there!)I

t is a perfect example of a hero whose strength of character is revealed through the challenges that come with a sweeping plot.

Mitchell's heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, is a young Southern woman who is unable to let go of  her unrelenting obsession for a childhood sweetheart, Ashley Wilkes, through the course of the Civil War and Reconstruction. This obsession destroys her chance for true happiness with the man who has stood beside her from the beginning: Rhett Butler.

In her novel's nine-year journey, Mitchell edited, and re-edited and re-edited her unwieldy none-hunderd page manuscript, and still wasn't satisfied with it. Everyone in her social circle knew she was writing a novel, but she never had the courage to show it to friends.

Mitchell's break came when she met an editor from MacMillan Publishers at a local tea. He was in town looking for novel manuscripts that his company might consider. Although Mitchell kept silent about her own project, a scornful remark about Mitchell's efforts made by an acquaintance gave Mitchell the kick in the pants she needed to box up the manuscript and hand it off the the editor just as he boarded his train to New York.

The rest is publishing history. Her effort proved to be Pulitzer- and film-worthy as well.

Despite a devastating war that has turned Scarlett O'Hara's fortunes upside down, and in spite of her flaws of vanity and pettiness, for decades now readers have been drawn to Scarlett and her story, for good reason:

We know people like her. We are her.

We are annoyed by her, we pity her. And we love her.

Even Mitchell's secondary characters — Aunty Pittypat, the Tarleton twins, Charles Hamilton, Mrs. Merriweather — are so well-written that we feel as if we know them. Even if they annoy you, they raise emotion in you.

This says a lot about the author.

What do your characters say about you?

PICTURE: in the movie version of Gone with the Wind, Vivien Leigh played Scarlett O'Hara, and Clark Gable played the man she should have loved, Rhett Butler. It was casting at its best.




I've got a question for you, and be honest: Would you want to hang out with your hero/heroine? Tell me why (or why not)…       

Happy National Novel Writing Month,

— Josie

NaNoWriMo Tip #16: How to get out of “paragraph paralysis.”

Indiana Jones
You've written your hero into a cave, and he can't get out.

Or maybe he's hit a wall. Or hanging from a cliff.

In any event, you've put him in a corner, surrounded by bad guys, in every direction.

Now, you're stuck — both literally and creatively.

To quote former Republican presidential candidate and subsequently Dancing with the Stars hopeful, Rick Perry, Ooops.”

This is what I call “paragraph paralysis.

Let me put it this way: If you were Stan Laurel and I was Oliver Hardy, now is when I'd turn to you and say, “Well Stanley, here's another fine mess you've gotten us into!”


Laurel and Hardy: “The Piano” video. Click to play.

One of the most notorious solutions to paragraph paralysis that I can recall occurred on the television show, Dallas. Whereas the Season  7 cliffhanger had one of the characters, Bobby Ewing, killed off, it's revealed at the beginning of Season 9 that ALL of Season 8 was just a bad dream happening to his wife, Pam. (And the viewers, I'm presuming.)

Okay, I feel your pain. I get that you're freaked out. Like your hero, you've come to a complete stop.

Here's how you (and he–or her, as the case may be) can get out of that hole:

1. Remember: In your novel, you are GOD.
That means you can move mountains, both literally and figuratively. If he's in a cave, maybe it has a false wall, or ceiling, or floor. Help him find it.

2. Think outside of the box/cave/cliff/wall/bridge.
There is a reason why today's illustrative photo is of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom bridge. Quite frankly, my example could have been taken from any of the Indy movies, since he's always stuck somewhere. In this case, there were bad guys on all sides, and no plane or helicopter to swoop down and save him–

But he had his trusty machete.

And he knows how to swing it!

So there you go: a solution. If you just hang in there, he (and you) will survive, and live to see another chapter.

3. Rewrite your scene, so that you are more comfortable with it.
This untenable position may be your subconscious telling you, “I don't know where I'm going with this (page/chapter/story). If so, it's time that you revisit the full outline of your plot. If something isn't working now, it will affect your plot down the road. The sooner you make the change, the better. (After you've written the day's 1,650 words, of course.)





I've got a question for you, and be honest: Have you ever left a character out on a ledge? Did you come back to save him, or is he still out there?

Yes, you will survive National Novel Writing Month,

— Josie

NaNoWriMo Tip #15: Recognize these three ways in which you sabotage your writing goals.


Yay! It's November 15th, and that means you've made it to National Novel Writing Month's half-way mark.

If you've been hitting (or exceeding) your daily word count of around 1,650 words, then pat yourself on the back. You drank the Kool-Aid and thrived.

If, on some of those days, you've found yourself staring at a blank screen, my guess is that your problem isn't that you don't make the time or effort, but that some subliminal self-sabotage is at play.

Here are three ways in which you may be holding yourself from reaching your NaNoWriMo goal — and more importantly, your life dream of writing a novel:

1. You haven't done your (creative writing) homework.
Like every task, there is a skill set to learn. In creative writing, this includes plot structure and character development, not to mention such basics as sentence structure and grammar.

Words are your tools. The artistry of fiction comes with knowing how to use them: when to chip away at paragraphs that ramble, how to use less words to create more nuance. 

Take time to read other authors who have succeeded with these skills. (My personal favorites, to name a few, are Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Mitchell, Martin Cruz Smith, and John LeCarre.) By immersing yourself in their stories, the art of word play will soon be second nature to you. Eventually you will develop that sixth sense all great writers have: to craft moving sentences from the simplest words.

 2. You are writing during a time when you can be easily distracted.
The best time of day to write may not necessarily be when it is available to you. That said, consider the time of day (or night) in which you have the fewest distractions.

If it's while your children are at school, chances are you'll be at work. Make your lunch hour that time—but get out of the office, so that co-workers can't distract you.

If it is at night, turn off the TV and write, write, write. If, like me, it's late at night when everyone else is asleep, take a nap, then set the alarm for midnight and write for a couple of hours. By accepting the fact that your creative clock is different from the rest of the world's, you'll make your goal after all.

3. You are afraid of failing.
Most of the never-been-published authors I know have written wonderful stuff. The writing part isn't their problem. It is fear of rejection.

What they tell me is, “It isn't perfect…yet” or “I'm still tweaking.”

Bullshit! Their manuscripts have been tweaked to death: every word scrutinized, every phrase agonized over.

In fact, they have read other author-pal's manuscripts — those who have been published, and continue to succeed — and have given great feedback to make those unpublished manuscripts even stronger. They have the chops. We've read their manuscripts, too.

Whereas they consciously know that writing is a subjective art and that everyone gets rejections, they don't feel they can bear that rejection themselves.

Are you this person? If so, I want to give you a mantra: “If I don't let an agent read it, it will never be sold, and read by millions.”

Yes, you are holding your book hostage.

I've just played hostage negotiator with you. Set your manuscript free, and enjoy the accolades it is bound to receive.

One issue, which is not self-sabotage, can still get in your way: when the rest of your world is in crisis.

I've known many authors who have been under deadline to deliver a manuscript, but before they could do so, real life got in the way. Let me make this clear: this is not a form of self-sabotage.

It happens to all of us. The fact of the matter is that real life (as opposed to those lives we create on the page) brings with it some real problems. And real life takes precedent over your creative writing goals.

Some of my own deadlines had to be met during a time in my life when those closest to me were going through major health perils. Forget the word “distraction.” During a life-or-death situation, all you can think about is the pain your loved one is suffering, and the heartache you'd feel should you lose them.

As much as you may want to write every day, you have to face the fact that you may not be able to accomplish this goal.

Time to punt.

Deal with the ordeal. Take a breather. Then get back to your writing.

Because, like a true friend, it will always be there, waiting, for you.

IMAGE: F. Scott Fitzgerald, with his wife, Zelda. Talk about a man who wrote, despite adversity! His wife's mental illness was always a distraction, as was his alcoholism. And yet, Fitzgerald wrote until his dying day. Even his unfinished manuscript, The Last Tycoon, is a masterpiece. Talk about consummate word play!





— Josie

NaNoWriMo Tip #14: Is writing a craft, or an art?

Sargent in his Studio

It's a trick question: creative writing is both a craft and an art.

Those who master the “craft” part have taken the time and effort to hone the skills needed in order to push out the words in a timely fashion (just as you are doing throughout National Novel Writing Month). They use proper grammar and syntax. And of course, they know how to format a book manuscript (a one-inch border all around; double-spaced: and in  the header, the book's title / your name / page number).

They've also taken the time to learn the business of writing. By this, I mean that they:

(a) Have critique group. Every author should have access to other like-minded writers who meet at least once a month in order to read each others' pages and help each other work through plot holes; and

(b) Listen to what others are saying about literary agents who are actively seeking manuscripts.Then they research these agents to assess which of them will be the best champions for their stories. (Broad hint: it is those agents who are already selling stories similar to yours, and have established strong contacts with the editors who love those types of stories.

Writers who are good craftspersons follow each agents' specific rules for querying. (One agent may ask for a synopsis and 50 pages of the manuscript, whereas another may want to see a full manuscript from an unpublished author.)

At the same time, these authors break rules, too: they aren't shy about introducing themselves to agents at a networking event or industry party, because they know that a little face time–coupled with an intriguing one-liner about their book–will get them an immediate response, like: “Sounds interesting! Email me your manuscript, and be sure to put in the subject line that we met here….”

(c) Listen what others are saying about publishing houses and their various imprints. Who are the editors, and what are they buying now? Are cozies selling well? Have zombies peaked? Is Steampunk holding its own? Is YA aging out?

Here's the bottom line: even if you are a Nazi grammarian, or are the best networker in the world, if you haven't embraced the art of creative writing, it won't matter how many agents you query, or how many editors' desks your manuscript ends up on–

Because everyone is looking for the next great book, and that ain't yours. 

Unless you are an “artist,” too.

Authors who are artists recognize a wonderful “what if” premise for a story, when they run across one.

They know to create a story arc, with a “got to keeping reading this”  beginning, a rachet-it-up middle, and a climatic as well as satisfying ending.

Their characters seem so real that you want to love them, or despise them, or hang out with them — forever.

Their dialogue makes you laugh out loud, or gasp, or cry.

If they describe someone, your mind's eye can see him immediately.

The art of writing is what makes a book great.

Your book is great, too. But you'll have to challenge yourself once again: both as a craftsperson, and as an artist.

Once NaNoWriMo is over, take the time to review your manuscript for craft issues. Do you have too many typos? Do you know when to use a comma? Is the document formatted correctly? Have you researched the best agents to send your manuscripts (Multiple submissions are okay, and most accept online submissions as well).

After you've got the craft side down, you're ready to sculpt it into the work of art it should be.

This means making the effort to rewrite your plot holes, your unrealistic dialogue, or peripheral characters who don't move the story forward (let alone in any direction).

The artist in you will make sure that readers can empathize with your hero. They have to feel his pain.

Your narration must be potent, intoxicating your readers to stay within the world you've created for them, here on the page.

To do all this, both as a craftsperson and an artist, you can't just read over your manuscript once or twice. You'll read it at least four times. That should take four weeks, with breaks in between (otherwise you'll go cross-eyed and hate the sound of your own writing voice.)

Then, by January, you should query agents with a boffo letter that will have them intrigued.

All agents appreciate craft. But they live to sell art.

So you have to get it into the agents' hands. You can't be a Van Gogh: that is, afraid that agents won't love it as much as you do. How can they, if you don't let them see it?

You've got to be a John Singer Sargent—that is, someone who proves himself in public. (something he was doing since his very first submission was accepted in the Paris Salon in the late 1870s), You must be spectacular in your craft. More to the point, you must be a steady producer. One novel won't do it.

More on query letters in a future tip…

PICTURE: John Singer Sargent in his studio. His paintings, both his portraits and landscapes, are revered and timeless
His most famous (and infamous) was Madame X.
Sargent had the chops alright. But unlike some painters of his time, he knew his art was also his business, and he made money from it..




I've got a question for you, and be honest: As an author, do you consider yourself a craftsperson, or an artist? Tell me why…

Happy National Novel Writing Month,

— Josie

NaNoWriMo Tip #13: Make sure your readers love your hero.


If you ran into your hero at a cocktail party, would you talk to him?

If so, what is it about him that would have attracted you to him in the first place? Would it be the way he stands out in the room? Or his laugh? Or his voice?

I'm guessing it's the way he attracts a crowd (other great characters) around him. If he looks like a fun guy, then just like you, others will want to hang with him, and soak up his vibe.

If your character isn't engaging to you, trust me: he won't hold his own with readers, either.

Sure they may finish the book. But that's no guarantee that they will come around for a second book, or recommend it to others.

Those of you participating in National Novel Writing Month know that the prime objective is moving your story ahead each day in November, at a clip of 1,650 words a day. That averages around five pages a day (or 330 words per page). Much of what I've written about in the twelve tips that have preceded this one involves crafting a solid, fast-moving plot, which, if your story were a sandwich, is the tasty bread that holds the story together. But your main character is the meat in the middle:

If he or she ain't tasty, your story is plain. Blah.

It's just dry as toast.

Case in point: There are a vast number of spy novels, but the ones that attract legions of ongoing readers have one thing in common:

Characters who are smart, fun, fearless, and flawed enough that they aren't (in Mary Poppins-ology) practically perfect in every way. (My god, think how boring that would be?)

In that genre, my favorite authors are John LeCarre and William Dietrich, for different reasons. In the case of Mr. LeCarre, I enjoy the tortured backstories of his heroes just as much as the intricacies of his plots, which demonstrate the amount of skill and research that go into his into his novels. I love the flaws that are etched into his heroes.

As for Mr. Dietrich — especially in his Nathan Gage series — his plots are fun romps built around history and mythology, and his hero is a delightful scoundrel and an adventurer.

Both writers are skilled enough at their craft that their characters'  backstories aren't “told” to us (show, not tell, as in Tip #5, remember?) but appropriately intercut as flashbacks (LeCarre), or worked back into the ongoing plot (Dietrich).

A strong character wears his backstory heavily in his eyes, his gait, or on his sagging shoulders. It is sprinkled into his conversation, and that of his friends and enemies.

Like all of us, your hero's traits are the sum total of his life experience. They are why he makes wrong choices, and why he seeks redemption. 

They are what make him interesting.

It's why we want to hang out with him.

It's why we fall in love with him.

Otherwise, we can be doing something else.

And so can you.

Like re-examining your hero, to take advantage of every opportunity to make him more interesting.

PICTURE: Yep, that is Daniel Craig tux'ed up as James Bond, the iconic spy as written by master novelist Ian Fleming. Your main character doesn't have to be as self-assured , but he or she will have to have traits that allow readers to want to hang in with them, for the three hundred or so pages of your story. 




I've got a question for you, and be honest: Have you ever written a character that was so boring that you had to get rid of him/her?

Happy National Novel Writing Month,

— Josie

NaNoWriMo Tip #12: Choose the right time to write.


A wonderful thing about National Novel Writing Month is that it gets participating writers into the mindset of writing under deadline. This may come easier to those of us experienced in doing so (like journalists, or advertising copywriters), but it's still a challenge for anyone who is working on a creative project — like a novel — for the very first time.

During the thirty days of NaNoWriMo, there will be many of those days in which you'll be on your game. Metaphorically speaking, that “game” is similar to the one we played as kids called Chutes and Ladders. Some moves put you far ahead, whereas others put you back to Square One.

I'm presuming you've already had more than a few days in which you've been knocked off your pace. Perhaps real life got in the way. Or maybe your muse took the day off (that is probably what keeps her mossy; and maybe you should follow her lead…after NaNoWriMo, of course).

A lot of your success as a novelist will depend on the habits you develop to nurture your creative writing. A very important consideration is what time of day you write, and why you've chosen it.

If you're one of the lucky people in this day and age who actually holds down a full-time job, obviously those eight hours are out the window. If you're too tired to write after you come home, then maybe the best time to write those 1500 words is prior to leaving for work. (Hey, it worked for John Grisham. Make him your role model).

Granted, if you have to get your kids ready for school in the morning, there goes that writing opportunity, too.

Which leaves your lunch hour. Can you throw 1500 words onto a page in 60 minutes?

If you're focused, yes you can.

If you're driven, yes you can.

If you are well-hydrated well-fed, and away from distractions, yes you can.

Many writers will work in groups. Seeing your pals clicking away may be the best motivator. You don't want to be the only one staring off into space. That said, seek out a local NaNoWriMo daily/weekly writing group. It may light a fire under you like nothing else can.

I've always been in awe of my writer friends who can write anywhere, like a favorite coffee shop, or their local bookstore. It's what works for them: to be out of their home and writing, even if they don't have an out-of-house office.

Okay, here's my little secret: some of my best writing takes place on airplanes. It's psychological: back before WiFi invaded airplanes, I was actually relieved that I couldn't be distracted by email or surf the web.

Today I'm cheap enough that I refuse to pay the $5 fee to get connected.

At least, that's what I tell myself.

The truth is, I love those cross-country flights because it's five hours of uninterrupted writing time (especially now that I've purchased a tiny Netbook, so that when the guy in the row in front of me reclines his seat, I don't end up with my keyboard sitting on my chest.)

If I were under deadline for a book, it might behoove me to buy an unlimited ticket, so I can stay up in the air. Yeah, right. Financially, that's out of the question. So I do the next best thing: I've noted that my best writing has been done after a full day's work (yes, of writing). I seem to get a second wind sometime after 11pm. It's quieter. No hubby pawing at me. No kids whining at me. No dog asking my thoughts about an evening stroll.

It's MY time.

And my books are worth my taking the time.

So are yours, so figure out WHEN you can write optimally, and go for it.

Because yes you can.




I've got a question for you: What writing habits work best for you? Which haven't worked?

Happy National Novel Writing Month,

— Josie

NaNoWriMo Tip #9: What to do when your story is boring.

Portrait of young businesswoman sleeping on computer at office
You're procrastinating.

You'd rather be flossing your teeth than making your word quota.

This isnot a good sign.

It means that your story is so boring that even you can't bear to be around it.

If you wake up to find that you've been drooling on your monitor, it's time to put on the brakes.

Yep, you heard me: I want you to start over.

Don't panic. I'm not talking about a complete re-write (hopefully). I'm just asking you to take the time to assess where you think your story went off track. It's better to do so now, only nine days into National Novel Writing Month, than on, say, Day 14 or 22 or 30, when rewrites will be even more extensive.

Besides the fact that my snores are louder than the tapping on my keyboard, here's how I know when it's time for a course correction:

Problem #1: I don't like my lead character.
Solution: Make him/her more lovable.
You can do this by adding a few scenes that show his/her softer side, demonstrates their insights. Or add a backstory scene. If you don't like your character, neither will your readers.

Problem #2: The plot is going nowhere.
Solution: Go back to your outline, and figure out what is missing.
The need for an outline allows you to build in the conflict where needed. Your story should be a page-turner: one that keeps your potential agent, and editor (and, eventually, readers) at the edge of their seats. Every chapter needs to keep us informed and engaged. Do the math: if a book is around 300 pages, and every chapter were, say, ten pages each, that means 30 chapters: each one building to a great climax.

If  your response to this is “But I don't have an outline,” consider this a tongue lashing. NO WONDER YOU'RE STUCK! Now, go back and read my Tip #2… 

Problem #3: I'm stuck on a plot technicality.
Solution: Do some research, then fix that plot point or dialogue that makes you sound like a phoney, even to yourself. 
It happens to the best of us. Not all of us are a doctor (or a lawyer or an indian shaman) but we're going to play one on the page, we better sound and act the role.

And, FYI: No, I am NOT backtracking off my advice in Tip #7 (Fixing your story in post-editing). I'm just trying to save you a whole lotta heartache.

Believe me, you can still make your daily word count. This fix is your above-and-beyond.  Extra homework, if you may.



(c) 2011 Josie Brown




I've got a question for you, and be honest: Are you stuck? If so, what do you think is your problem? 

Your story is exciting–so just WRITE IT,

— Josie


NaNoWriMo Tip #8: Why every story needs a beginning, a middle and an end.


I make it a point to peruse readers' reviews: not just of my own novels, but those of best selling authors as well.

Doing so allows me to process what it is that readers look for, when plucking down precious dollars on what they hope is a satisfying read.

Ironically, most complaints stem from something that goes awry in the structure of the plot: say, a great beginning and end, but a sagging middle.

Or maybe it's the end that fizzles out.

The worst thing that can happen is when the book doesn't grab the reader from the start. Book reviewers may slog through in the hope that there is light (or a plot) at the end of the tunnel, but the average reader will toss it aside if there is no there, there.

You can't just presume that your wonderful characters are going to carry the book to the end. You have to give them SOMETHING TO DO. You have to give them real conflict and hard choices.

It's even better if those choices are wrong. This allows them to redeem themselves later in the book.

When I moved to California from Georgia, I thought it was cute that so many of the folks I met out here were seeking a “higher consciousness.” Usually that meant following some guru who handed out mantras like M&Ms, to be chanted for hours on end.

If his accent made it hard for the acolytes to get it right, they'd write down what they thought they'd heard, then compare notes–

Only to discover that while Fred was chanting “Aw wah no dah cal ah”, Barney had been mumbling “Aw no dah wah cal ah”….

Go figure.

If you don't understand the goal, no amount of gibberish is going to get you where you want to be.

I'm going to make it simple for you. Throughout this 30-day process, repeat this mantra:

Beginning, middle, end. Beginning middle, end. Beginning, middle, end…

To get there:

Your beginning must make your reader feel for your hero/heroine.

Your middle must be filled with twists, turns and dilemmas; it must ratchet up the action on every page.

Your ending can't be a cliffhanger. It must satisfy your readers' need to know that the journey meant something….

Even if they don't want it to end.

Because if they want to stick around for more, they will read your next book, too.

(c) 2011 Josie Brown. All rights reserved.





I've got a question for you, and be honest: does your story have a soggy middle? If so, what will you do to fix it?

Mantra this during National Novel Writing Month,

— Josie

NaNoWriMo Tip #7: Chapter doesn’t work? Fix it in “post.”

Microphone ready to present at a book store

Both my husband and I have broadcast backgrounds. One very important lesson we learned in those previous gigs serves us well when we're editing text articles or, in the case of National Novel Writing Month, novels:

Should you feel something isn't working on your project, you can always fix it later.

Broadcast producers can always rely on post-production: the time spent in the production booth, editing the footage shot or recorded for the project. If, while shooting the segment, what you're getting on camera runs too long (exposition; needless scenes, etc), or the subject stutters or talks too much (dialogue) — you rarely say “Cut” and start over. Instead, you'd wait until you were in the studio and saw the raw footage to determine which scenes needed to be trimmed.

The same goes for your manuscript. You job over the next few weeks is to put the story on the page. Afterward, you'll go through it page by page, chapter by chapter. If something reads false, go ahead and chop and dice it, until it reads to your satisfaction.

This won't happen in second draft either. You'll go through several drafts before you're truly pleased with your work.

Even after it sells to a publishing house (YES IT WILL SELL; YOU MUST BELIEVE THAT) you'll get notes back from your editor on how a scene or character should be tweaked. Then it will go through copy edits, where someone with a better grasp than you of grammar and syntax will take a shot at it, as well.

Because when it's ready for its public debut, your readers deserve the best story possible.




I've got a question for you, and be honest: How many times do you read a chapter before you write the next one?

— Josie

NaNoWriMo Tip #6: When your “backstory” should be the story.

During National Novel Writing Month, many an aspiring novelist will start with a great character. He will know his hero backwards and forward, as if he is his very best friend.

He'll describe how the hero looks, down to the cleft in his chin. He'll know about his childhood, his teen angst, his tribulations and his desires.

But now that it's time to give his hero something to do, the writer stalls out.

Why does this happen?

Because in this case, the backstory is the story.

So why not move it front and center?

If you can answer yes to these four questions, then the Muse is trying to tell you (HELLOOOOO!) that the better book to write starts where your hero first intrigued you:

1. When describing your book to others, do you find yourself spending more time describing your hero's past, but get stuck on telling what will happen to him in the book?

2. Is half of what you wrote in your synopsis his backstory?

3. Did it take all of Chapter One to describe your character before you realized you had nowhere to go with Chapter Two?

4. Do you find yourself rewriting the details of your hero's past, because it's more interesting than considering his future?

Take a broad hint: There is gold in the hills of his backstory.

Harry Potter is a perfect example of this. Can you imagine if J.K. Rowling had started her epic story with, say, Book 6 The Half-Blood Prince — when Harry was already at Hogwarts and just realizing his true role in a world turning darker, more sinister? Surely this book in the series and the seventh, could  have been tweaked to stand-alone…

But consider how much was gained by knowing so much more of Harry's backstory.

That's because it was never just his backstory. It was the story.

Bottom line: start at the real beginning: when you first realized that your hero intrigued you.

Maybe it was when he did that old-soul thing at age three. Or when he had his first kiss. Or when he accidently drove his parent's car into the lake.

Not all stories were meant to start where we want them to begin. Sometimes they start earlier, or later.

If you start your story at a point that is most interesting in your character's life, your readers will be sucked along on his journey, too.

So take them along for the ride.

It ain't the prequel. It's the beginning of a wonderful friendship between your hero and your reader.




I've got a question for you: Which character's backstory would you have liked to have read about, as a book?

For me, it is the character of Ethan Gage, in the wonderful historical suspense series by William Dietrich. We know that Ethan once studied under Benjamin Franklin. it would be a hoot to see his antics stateside, before we're introduced to him in Napoleon's Pyramids.

— Josie

NaNoWriMo Tip #5: Show, don’t tell.


Because your goal each day of National Novel Writing Month is a word count, it's very easy to fall into a common trap: writing long passages of narration or exposition.

In other words, telling your readers, either via a narrator or the omnipotent third person, what is happening to your characters.

Do yourself a favor and FIGHT this temptation.

Why? Because what you're doing is “telling,” not “showing,” your readers.

Instead, craft your scenes with dialogue. It is much more interesting to your readers to have your characters talk to each other.

No doubt, narration or exposition is also important: for adding atmosphere, for setting up your scenes, for describing where the scenes take place, or how the characters look or feel.

And it utilizes takes more words than dialogue.

But if your characters don't verbalize their thoughts to each other, they aren't interacting normally.

For the majority of us, telepathy isn't an option: all the more reason your characters need to open their mouths to express their feelings.

If you're having a hard time moving from tell to show, pretend you're writing a play. What dialogue would you add to each scene?

Snappy dialogue. Snarky asides. Anger. Heartfelt revelations. All of these expressed emotions make scenes come alive, and make your readers laugh with — or more importantly, fall in love with — your characters.

This NaNoWriMo first draft may not be on par with Arthur Miller or Edward Albee or William Shakespeare, but it will go a long way to being completed if it engages readers.

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? Certainly not you!




NaNoWriMo Tip #4: Meet your word count first; edit it later.

SpaghettiOne analogy about the tips you often hear regarding National Novel Writing Month is to imagine your your sentences as strands of spaghetti that you toss onto the wall of your manuscript.

As with any wall that gets covered with wet noodles and tomato sauce, at some point it either looks like a mess—

Or, like a work of art.

After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Remember: you are your own Jackson Pollock. This project is just the first of your many masterpieces.

You'll have a natural inclination to go back, re-read it, and edit what you wrote.


Why? Because the whole purpose of NaNoWriMo is to put as many words on the page as you can in these precious thirty days.

If you're spending an hour — or worse yet, a full day — honing a specific page (or paragraph, or sentence) you will NEVER make your word count. The sheer weight of writing — and endless re-writing — are like ankle weights strapped onto a marathon runner: well before you reach the finish line, you will collapse in exhaustion.

Right now, you have only one goal: those 50,000 words, which is about two-thirds or half a standard manuscript submitted for publication, depending on the book.

After your thirtieth day, having reached your 50,000 words, most definitely you should re-read your story.

And re-read it again. And again.

And rewrite it. Continually.

Take note of misspellings, phrasing that is awkward, scenes that are deadly, and characters who don't move the plot forward.

The time you take to reshape your manuscript is what makes it a masterpiece, not how many words it is, or that you even finished it.

Your characters have to be engaging.

Your plot has to challenge them, give them moral dilemmas.

Your story has to be satisfying to your reader.

But your first step is to move that story from your head to the page.

Because ultimately, others want to read your masterpiece, too.




Okay, now, tell the truth: Are you meeting your word count? And tell me why, or why not…

— Josie