The First Novels Club blog!

Today I was thrilled to find The First Novels Club blog, full of fun and info-filled posts by four writers who met in a Writing for Children workshop and decided to form their own critique group:

“October, 2007: We draft rough versions of what will become our first novels (YA contemporary fantasy for Frankie, YA fantasy a la Tamora Pierce for Sara, upper YA contemporary for Donna, and a picture storybook for Janine).”

Check out these FNC pages and posts:

What Is My Writing Worth to Me?

I remember reading an interview with Jane Pauley, former host of The Today Show, several years ago in which she said that she realized quite early in her career that in terms of a family, a career, and a social life, she could do only two of those things really well. She chose family and career, and she happily bowed out of the busy New York social scene. In a different interview for TIME she said that cooking wasn’t a high priority for her family, and she rarely watched television for pleasure. The point is that she made choices based on what was important to her. Others might choose a career and social life, foregoing a family, or they might focus on family and social life while their children are at home, then pursue an active, intense career.

And there might be some people who can do all three well, with energy to spare, but I’m not one of them.

What is my writing worth to me? What am I willing to trade?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself lately. At first I phrased the second question as What am I willing to sacrifice? However, sacrifice isn’t quite the right word. It’s not as though I want to feel I am suffering, or that I am killing a goat so as to enter the kingdom of novelist’s heaven.

The idea of trading works better, at least for me. We have only so much time, so much energy, so many roads we can explore in one lifetime. Yet, especially for people who are more generalist than specialist (and I assume this is true for most writers), today’s world offers so many opportunities and sources of information that, the more we do, the more aware we are than ever of what we are missing out on. And when we are missing out on something that is important to us, we need to trade something else for it.

What are you willing to trade for your writing time and energy?

  • Sleep?
  • Television?
  • Made-from-scratch meals?
  • Clothes that need to be ironed?
  • Unlimited texting?
  • An unfulfilling hobby?

How many extra minutes can we trade for more writing time? And what do we trade for those minutes?

Sometimes we trade money. While it is true that writing is a fairly inexpensive vocation, if you are working in insufficient light or on a laptop with a dead battery, buying yourself a good lamp or a new, affordable laptop might help you to feel more professional and be more efficient.

Most of all, though, I think we trade choices. I am reminded of one of my favorite TED talks, “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz, in which he argues that, sometimes, giving ourselves fewer choices–putting ourselves in a kind of fishbowl–makes us happier:

I am beginning to understand that my most valuable trading is done not with activities or events or money, but with my own thoughts and the choices I make every day in my mind.

  • When I trade fuming over some perceived or real slight or an old grievance, I gain valuable mental space and emotional energy to channel into my writing.
  • When I trade worry over future events that may or may not happen, I gain “now focus” to give to the page in front of me.
  • When I trade regret for past mistakes or lost time, I gain courage and hope for today and tomorrow.
  • When I trade wishing I could control the actions or words of others, I gain control over my own decisions and words.
  • When I trade obsessing over what others may or may not think about my writing, I gain confidence in my work.

What is your writing worth to you? What are you willing to trade?

What’s In Your Notebook? The Value of Lists for Writers

Let’s talk about making lists.

I don’t know what I like more about Patricia Morrisroe’s “More Than Enough Hours in Every Day”: the author’s mother-in-law’s red spiral notebook filled with book lists, or the thought that I might need less sleep as I age and will have more time to do all the things I want to do.

I have a friend who keeps a similar book list, not only of books she’s read (and when she read them and what she thought of them), but also books she wants to read. It’s the kind of task that might seem pesky in the moment, especially for people who aren’t natural list-makers or who feel they have precious little time to read books much less record them, but it can be very satisfying over time, like adding one penny at a time to a gallon jar.

Even in the short term, such a project might give us more satisfaction than we might expect. Tyler Cowen in his book Create Your Own Economy suggests we can get pleasure from “mental-ordering,” perhaps especially in our modern world of information overload. I’ve never thought of myself as very good at organization in general, but reading his book helped me to understand why I get an inherent joy from the work I do as a freelance book indexer. Starting with another’s book manuscript, and pulling and creating order from it so that readers can find what they are looking for or curious about is the ultimate organization word game.

“List not only what we want or need to do (which can become a source of anxiety and pressure) but what we have done (a source of accomplishment).”Since reading Cowen’s book, I have looked for ways to re-create that pleasure in other areas of my life, such as sometimes planning weekly menus rather than cooking whatever I can make with what is in the refrigerator, or putting together a calendar of writing tasks. But I think that the Red Spiral Notebook is another source of pleasure that we often overlook: Listing not what we want or need to do (which can become a source of anxiety and pressure), but listing what we have done (a source of accomplishment).

Morrisroe writes of her mother-in-law:

“Having worked her way up through James Joyce’s shorter works — next to Darcy, she’s crazy about Stephen Dedalus — she has recently embarked on ‘Ulysses.’ ‘Since all the action takes place over the course of one day, I do think it probably should be a little shorter,’ she says. ‘One thousand pages for 24 hours? What’s Bloom doing that’s so interesting?’ At the moment, she has only reached page 12, because she’s determined to look up and record every unfamiliar word in a separate yellow notebook. Two pages are already filled up.”

I was reminded of the value of lists recently on my visit to our family farm. My step-mother is a list maker extraordinaire. She is one of the most productive, wonderfully busy people I know. In the kitchen, next to her most-used counter, is a large piece of paper with several small, practical lists filling every corner, such as these:


  • east side of house
  • front yard
  • back yard


  • bathrooms
  • kitchen
  • front steps

Today I’m going to think more about the role of lists in my writing.

What kinds of lists do you keep for your writing?
Do you ever make lists of what you have already accomplished?
Let’s share ideas of what works!

See Also

10 Reasons Why We Love Making Lists (from NPR)

40 Great Resources for Making Lists (a Mashable guide)

Making Your List, Checking It Twice (from Psychology Today)

Tyler Cowen on Umberto Eco on Lists (from Cowen’s blog Marginal Revolution)

A Lists Art Exhibit (from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art)

Post updated July 9, 2014.

200,000: When will you get there?

Yesterday at Wisconsin Dells I got to 200,000: Miles, that is, not words.

When we bought the car in 1995, I had no idea we would still own it now, much less if or when we would reach this milestone. Yesterday I was so excited that I took an exit when the odometer was getting close, so that I could drive around slowly and pull to the side of the road for the photo.

When do you plan to finish your novel? Will you set a deadline? Or will you work on it steadily with daily or weekly writing goals until the work is complete? Which strategy works better for you?

Last year, I used the deadline for the Random House first middle-grade novel contest as a goal, and it worked very well as a way to keep me on track and focused. If you write young adult fiction, you want to consider using Random House’s First Young Adult Novel Contest deadline as a goal this year (manuscripts must be postmarked after October 1, 2010, but no later than December 31, 2010). A friend of mine is using a contest deadline this year to finish her romance novel, as well.

For my current work, I am not going to set a deadline, at least not now, because I don’t have a good handle yet on how long the finished novel will be. Instead, I’ll stick with continual work and daily writing as my goal.

More Writing Goal Resources

Ami Mattison, in a post on her wonderful blog poetryNprogress (not just for poets), offers advice on “Developing a Writing Routine: How To Write Every Day,” including this:

“So, how do you stay motivated and maintain your writing routine? One way I stay motivated is to share my completed poems or more developed drafts via email to friends or my personal blogs. By doing this, I tend to get positive and constructive feedback from the supportive people in my life. Also, sharing your work with your greatest fan, such as your mother or your best friend, can be a great way to get instant gratification. I share my work with my partner who, of course, thinks everything I write is utterly brilliant.”

Finding a way to share your writing with someone you trust, whether that means sharing portions of the work itself or just talking about what you are doing, is a way to keep the work present and tangible. Since I began meeting monthly with a writing buddy, my direction is clearer, my writing is stronger, and my written output is greater, even if all we do is share our goals and be each other’s cheerleader. And, of course, this blog is also my way of keeping myself accountable.

For yet more inspiration, take a look at the the blog Write It Sideways, especially the posts  “A 6 Month Weigh-In of Your Annual Writing Goals,” self-reflection from another author whose goal is to finish her novel this year, and “The #1 Reason You’ll Never Finish Writing Your Novel” (thanks, Ami, for the link).

And, yes, I did write my page last night! In doing so, I got so excited about the story that I woke up at 3:30 a.m. as the plot lines work themselves out in my mind. I don’t mind the lost sleep. 🙂

What are your daily writing goals?

She who fails to plan, plans to fail.

Last year, for my birthday, my then 17-year-old son gave me what turned out to be one of the best birthday presents I have ever received. He admitted that he hadn’t gotten around to buying anything, so, on a simple card, he wrote that he knew I wanted to take my writing more seriously, so he was giving me the gift of telling me to write 250 words per day for a month. I asked him if I could email my daily output to him as a way to keep myself accountable (reassuring him that he didn’t have to read it if he didn’t want to), and he agreed.

I decided to use his gift as a way to begin a work of children’s fiction that I had been planning in my head for awhile. Two months later, the first draft was complete.

Two hundred and fifty words might not seem like a lot, but it was the perfect goal. It wasn’t overwhelming. Even if I didn’t get around to writing during the day, I could crank out 250 words in twenty minutes before bed, if I put my mind to it. I had no excuses. And, most days, I wrote much more. My son knows me well, especially my being a late bloomer when it comes to learning to make detailed goals, and my need for baby steps in the planning department.

Ali Hale, in a DailyWritingTips’ review of Stephen King’s book On Writing, agrees that setting modest, pragmatic goals may work better for many writers than aiming too high:

“King strongly believes in setting writing goals, and recommends a minimum of a thousand words a day, six days a week. I tried following his advice (whilst working a full-time office job) and didn’t last long – you might prefer to set your own goal at five hundred words a day or even two hundred. Since King himself says he writes 2,000 words a day whilst working on a book, I suspect his advice is aimed at those aiming to make fiction writing their career (especially given his advice to read for four-six hours a day as well!).”

In Publish Your Nonfiction Book, Sharlene Martin and Anthony Flacco suggest a goal of two pages per writing session, which is a bit different from a measurable daily output, because it applies whether you write once a week or every day. Their “Two (2) Page Rule” includes any new writing that directly contributes to your current project, from character sketches to first drafts, outlines to dialogue.

Since I will be traveling next week, I am setting an interim goal of writing one long-hand page of manuscript every day until I come home. Writing long-hand will be easier in hotel rooms and at my parents’ house than trying to find a computer. Also, I want to experiment with writing first-draft material by hand, something I haven’t done in awhile. Finally, I know that one page is do-able. If I write more, great, but I want to be sure that I begin this project with some success upon which I can build. Once I get home from my trip, I will reassess and set more permanent goals.

I have also decided to keep a small notebook with me at all times for this project, in which I keep a running list of ideas for scenes or even short descriptions or bits of dialogue. That way I will never be at a loss for something to write each day, even if it is a snippet from the middle of the story or a description of a character’s clothes.

What are your writing goals? Do you aim for a certain number of words per day? Pages per day? Something else?

What works for you? What hasn’t worked before?