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agent may ask for a synopsis and 50 pages of the manuscript, whereas another may want to see a full manuscript from an unpublished author.)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 #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 #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!