How do you choose what to write?

A narrow tunnel of old stones leading to a bright light

Photo via Visualhunt.

I always find it bewildering when someone asks a novelist “How do you decide what stories to write?” or “Where do you get your ideas?” Can they really be expecting a straightforward answer, as if we run a finger across the spines of books on the library shelves of our minds, stopping to pull a tome from the shelf and declare, “Ah, yes, this will do. This is the story I’ll write about today”?

That’s not how it works.

It’s more like those fantasy stories where a teenager is inexplicably and without warning suddenly sucked from their world and thrust into another one, where they’re called The Chosen One. They have abilities and powers they don’t understand and have never experienced before, and yet are forced by strangers to shoulder an incredible amount of responsibility by saving the kingdom—or worse, the whole world.

They stumble through as best as they can, giving it their all to do what seems right (and maybe just to survive), when all at once it’s over and they’re spat back out of the new world and into their old one. They’ve felt things, seen things, experienced things no one around them could ever believe let alone understand, and yet are expected to carry on as if none of it ever happened.

Writing is a lot like that for me. An idea pops into my head out of nowhere and consumes my thoughts, spiraling forward in plot but preventing me from experiencing my actual reality. Overwhelmed, I spill it all out onto paper, trying to satisfy the foreign world’s demand for a conclusion. When the end is reached and it has no more use of me, I’m left back here on earth, with kids to pick up from school, laundry to wash, and supper to make… my hands trembling and my mind reeling all the while.

As Stephen King in his book On Writing quoted Alfred Bester saying:

“The book is the boss.”

To think we story writers are in control of the birth of a story shows how little the inquirer understands the process. We raise the story until fully grown with the skills we’ve learned in the craft, and then release it into the world. But we don’t choose this baby over that baby before giving birth; it’s just born.

When you write, do you find yourself swept away by your story, too? I think readers can get a taste of what I’m talking about. Book hangover, where you finish the book but now your real life feels weird and you can’t stop thinking about the story you just finished, is a real thing. It’s also the closest thing to what I experience as a storyteller. How do YOU answer the question, “Where do your ideas come from?” or “How do you choose what to write?”

How I learned to love research

Aisles of books at a library

Photo via Visualhunt.

I used to think I didn’t like research. It was, to say the least, frustrating to have to interrupt the scene I was writing to figure out the difference between two kinds of swords, or how long it would take a horse-drawn wagon to go 60 miles (including any necessary breaks), or what the hook holding the pot over the fireplace was called.

It’s a pot crane, by the way.

One of the things I loved about fantasy vs contemporary fiction was that I could make it all up and no one would say, “I’ve been to that city, and what you wrote isn’t accurate.” But as I began to take my writing more seriously, it became evident that no matter WHAT genre you write in, not everything can be made up—you still have to do at least some research.

I would mumble and grumble my way through it, eager to get back to my story.

But then I converted from pantsing to planning my stories, and all that changed. Who knew that it wasn’t RESEARCH that I disliked, but rather the interruption of my workflow that I didn’t like? Seems pretty obvious now, but it was eye-opening for me.

Now I do almost all of my research ahead of time. Here’s my current process: Before I begin writing my novel, I write a pitch for my story, and then a synopsis. The synopsis always reveals the research I still need to do, after which the results will sometimes alter the synopsis. After I have a completed and polished synopsis (a summary of my novel from the beginning to end), THEN I write the novel.

This has dramatically cut back on the times I’ve had to stop writing to figure something out, so I don’t get as irritated. I also end up with better stories with less effort, because it’s easier to rewrite a summary paragraph than to rewrite three full chapters. Final bonus: I write faster when I don’t have to keep interrupting myself.

And now that I research at the beginning, when excitement is running high and I can stop and start more easily, I’m finding that research is fun! I love to learn, and reading or watching videos about topics that educate me and expand my story’s world is so interesting.

Do you enjoy research? In school I had always disliked homework but enjoyed in-class lectures, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that I enjoy watching YouTube videos of an expert discussing something I want to learn. I’d love to hear any tips for how you manage your research or story writing!

Treat your writing as a job

A woman walking with purpose through nature, next to the words: I will write every day. I will write every day. I will write.

Photo via Visualhunt, modified under CC License.

As much as I love babies, mine are growing up and I just registered my youngest for kindergarten—that means from this fall I’ll have more hours during the day to dedicate to my writing! I’m sad about the growing up part, but I’m excited to be able to write without “Mommy? Mommy? Mommy?” interrupting me every few paragraphs.

I’ve worked freelance before, so I’m using my past experience to set myself up for success. Without a plan I’d be ending each day still in my PJs wondering where the time went. So, how can I ensure I treat my writing as a job?

Show up every day

We don’t go to work only when we feel like it, or when it’s convenient. We go to work every day because that’s our job and we’ve committed to it, even when it’s hard. The same goes with writing. Sit your butt down in your chair each day, especially on the days you don’t feel like it or your writing seems terrible. Often we’ll look back and see it wasn’t so terrible after all, or find that all the practice increased our skills over time—practice we wouldn’t have had if we hadn’t written in spite of our feelings.

Set up your office

It’s harder to get focused on your writing if your set up is the same as when you’re just surfing the Web at leisure. Have a special spot that you only sit in when working, whether that’s a designated desk or just at the kitchen table. My writing is better when I sit in a chair with both feet on the floor and my computer off of my lap, than when I’m curled up on the couch with my laptop like I do in the evenings when I try to relax.

This mindset shift is really important. Other ways you can help yourself get into work mode quicker is to have a uniform and/or have a beginning ritual, in addition to a dedicated work space.

The uniform doesn’t need to be a literal one, so much as clothes that feel like work clothes. People often quote being able to work in your pajamas as a benefit to working from home, but you’ll find you’re more productive if you dress with intention.

A brief ritual before beginning your writing can help as well: Pour the tea into your mug, sharpen your pencils, take a deep breath, and then re-read notes you left yourself when quitting yesterday (or whatever ritual works for you). Now you’re focused and ready to start.

Another part of setting up your office is to have any supplies you may need close by and organized so you don’t have to waste time looking for a pen, that specific notebook with all of your plot scribbles, and so on before progressing with your work.

Make a plan

You’ll never reach your destination if you don’t know where you’re going. Decide what it is you want to accomplish. Write a novel? Sell at least one article to a magazine or online publication a month? Draft a book proposal and query X number of agents by the end of the quarter?

Figure out your goal and how long you want it to take you. Let’s say you want to have a finished and polished novel in a year. Set the final deadline, break the project down into manageable steps, and then plot backwards in time until you reach today. Now you’ve got deadlines to keep you on track throughout the year.

Also, your goals will determine your daily process. Should you be spending each day only writing, or do some days need to be dedicated to learning about the craft? Perhaps one day a week is for research and another for marketing, and the rest are for writing. Your plans will shape your schedule.

Stay accountable

It’s easy to let things slide when you don’t have a boss or coworkers depending on you. Avoid this by becoming your own boss. You’ve already set deadlines on your calendar, so make sure you keep them. For me, it helps if I have set rewards for meeting each deadline and set punishments if I don’t (I get to buy a new book if I do, I have to take one of my husband’s chores for a week if I don’t; etc.).

You could also ask someone to be your accountability partner and have them occasionally check in on your progress. But “How’s it going?” and “It’s going well,” can be ambiguous sometimes, especially if your deadlines (checkpoints that are more defined than how you feel about your productiveness today) are spread far apart.

That’s why you should track your actions, and then their results. In the book 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron, she talks about keeping a spreadsheet tracking not only her hours and the number of words produced during those hours, but also where she was when she wrote them. This helped her to realize she produced her best work in a coffeeshop rather than at home, and if she had 4-6 hours to write uninterrupted. She didn’t have the Internet to distract her, and she could get in the zone if she wrote for more than 4 hours… but her energy petered out by the seventh.

So far I’ve learned that I do my best writing mid-morning, in quiet (no other people or music), and if I have ample time to spare. I don’t know how much yet though, because I haven’t had the liberty with children underfoot. But I hope to find out this fall!

Keep office hours

If this is your job, treat it like one. That means you begin and end at specified times, you turn your phone on “do not disturb” during those hours, and you don’t do house chores. You are not at home, doing work on the side. You are at work, which happens to be in your house. Your chores can wait until you’re done with your job for the day, just like anyone else who goes to work.

If you thrive with structure, you can even set a lunch hour and “smoke” breaks (mental breaks). I plan to give myself a 40 minute lunch break and two 15-minute breaks. I can check social media and the like during this time, but I also plan to use them for stretching or short walks to make up for all the sitting I do while writing.

I will also set a specified number of PTO days and sick days, to accommodate life being, well LIFE. This way I don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “Well, I already fell off the wagon so what’s one more day of skipping going to hurt?” In the long run, it hurts a lot. Keep your accountability partner (or your spreadsheet) updated with the days you take off from writing.

Whether you work five hours a week or thirty hours a week, you need to set them in stone. This isn’t just so that you’ll take your work seriously, but also so that others respect your work as a real job as well. Which leads me to…

Protect your writing time

No, you can’t pick up the dry cleaning. No, you can’t walk your neighbor’s dog midday. No, you can’t make that call, run that errand, or take responsibility for something that’s not yours because you’re conveniently home during the day.

You are not available for the convenience of others. You have a job, and you are working during those hours.

And on that note, you are not available for your own convenience either. If you’re going to set a dentist appointment during your work hours because it’s easier than working around your hours, then take PTO off for it.

You won’t take your writing seriously if you don’t respect it as your job. Others won’t respect your hours either unless they see you drawing clear boundaries.

Having said that, the great thing about working from home is that you can set your own hours. So, you can decide to work from 10am until 2pm, leaving you time to run errands or make appointments in the early morning or the afternoon. How convenient! But don’t let yourself or others take advantage of your writing time just because you’re home. Unless you’re on your lunch break or take PTO, you need to keep your work hours for work.

I know I still have the rest of this school year and the summer left before I can start my new schedule, but I’m getting really excited! I can’t wait until I can make this my full time job (well, while the kids are in school anyway, heh).

Did any of this advice resonate with you? I hope it helps you with your writing, even if you can only devote slivers of time to it right now. And if there’s anything I missed, please share your wisdom! I’m always eager to learn more about how to improve my writing and my writing process.

NaNoWriMo prep, part four: What to expect

Four matches; the third is burned out

Photo via Visualhunt.

Hurray, you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year! It’s going to be so much fun and you’re going to have a whole novel written by the end of it and it’ll be amazing and you’re going to get published and you’re going to become rich and famous! Right?

Uh, no.

So, hold your horses, because if you’ve never done NaNo before, you need to learn what to expect. Here’s what your November may look like.

Week one

You’ve been waiting for NaNo to start and you’re so excited! You might have even stayed up late on Halloween so you could start your novel as soon as it was midnight. During the week the story is flying out of you. This is fun! Things you didn’t plan for happen, like new characters or your MC’s personality is different than expected, but who cares! That’s part of the experience. Uh, that was not your best sentence just now, but oh well! We’re supposed to be turning off our inner editors anyway, right? You’re doing pretty good about staying on track for your word count goal… sort of. But if you’re a tad behind or skip a day, no worries, because you totally can make that up later. This is great!

Week two

Oh. This is a little more complicated than you thought. You’re still having fun, but issues are cropping up in your story. Your real life is as demanding as ever and it’s easier to think, “Well, I’ll catch up on my word count later,” and deal with those things instead of making room for your writing. You notice that some members in the forums are already past the halfway mark on their word counts and you begin to doubt whether you can do this. But you still like your story and you don’t want to be a quitter, so you keep plugging away.

Here is where the path splits.

Week three

This week looks different depending on which fork you took in the road. Some of you will manage to stay on track with your word count goals. It’s hard to ignore the glaring problems with your story but you’re going to muscle through. You committed to this. Plus you’ve probably been to at least one write in or have a buddy doing NaNoWriMo with you, so the additional motivation and/or accountability helps you keep going.

Or, you’re falling behind. You kept telling yourself you’d catch up, but the gap between what you do have and what you should have has grown so much it doesn’t seem possible to reach 50,000 words by November 30. Plus you know you’re going to cut huge chunks of what you’ve already written from your novel because it doesn’t serve the story or is just plain terrible. Or maybe you know you’re going to have to go back and rewrite some, if not all of it. You feel guilty and frustrated. This was supposed to be fun. Now you feel bad.

And to make it all worse, if you’re an American, it’s Thanksgiving! How can you get any writing done with all of those relatives around?

No matter which path you’re on, don’t give up! This is the hard part for everybody. Whether you’re hanging in there or falling off the wagon, once you stop writing you guarantee that you won’t reach the end. If you quit early at, let’s say, 24,000 words, you’ll end the month with 24,000 words. But if you keep writing you might end the month with 32,000 words. That’s 8,000 more words than you would have had if you had quit early! So, don’t stop. During week three you will doubt that you’ll have any more fun after this, but there is still more fun to be had in week four. Going to write ins will really help in the fun department, too. Try to attend at least one, if not more of them.

Week four

The end is in sight. The clock is ticking. There are only seven more days until the end of NaNoWriMo! If you took the first path, you’re excited again. You’re nearly there! Your friends are cheering you on. You write like mad trying to finish on time. You keep updating your word count tally and are marking down the days until they open the official word counter that determines whether you’ve won yet or not. You might stay up late a few nights if you’re cutting it close, trying to get more words in. Here it is, November 30, and you’re still writing! Will you make it? Will you make it? WILL YOU MAKE IT???

Boom! You made it! You’ve won!!! Pop all the party poppers and drink a glass of bubbly (grape juice, if you’re not old enough for champagne). Dance in your pajamas—because of course it’s nearly midnight if you’re cutting it this close—and try not to wake your parents/roommates. You feel great. You feel accomplished. This was so much fun! Good job.

If you took the other path, this week will also drum up excitement in you, but you may be interpreting those feelings and the tightness in your chest as anxiety or guilt. Remember, there is no penalty if you don’t reach 50,000 words. There are no NaNo police. The point of this whole thing was to motivate you to write.

Did you write? Yes! Whether you have 5,000 or 50,000 words, be proud! What you’ve written is an accomplishment. Even without reaching your word count goals, you’ve already won.

So, throw off those negative labels to what you’re feeling and rename them. You are excited. The clock is ticking and you’re feeling a rush. This is fun! Race towards the finish line with everyone else. See how much more of your novel you can eke out before midnight of November 30 hits your region. And when it does, be proud of what you’ve produced. I’ll say it again, BE PROUD! Because you have every right to be. You did a hard thing and didn’t give up. Good job.

Now what?

Remember the first paragraph of this blog post? It’s time to address those misconceptions. First, even if you reach 50,000 words, you won’t have a completed novel. Most novels are about 80,000 to 100,000 words. At the end of November, you might be about half way through your plot.

Second, even if you manage to write over 50,000 words and finish your plot, it probably won’t be amazing. Yet! Writing a novel is fun, hard work, but that’s not even half of it. Editing it is just as much work, if not harder work than writing it in some cases. Yes, publishing firms will have editors on site, but they won’t waste their time on a manuscript that’s littered with errors (editors are polishers, not construction crews.) And if you self-publish, no one will want to buy and read it if there are typos or glaring plot holes. Before you even consider publication, you’ll need to take the time to make it the best possible version of itself that you’re able to make it with the resources you have.

At the end of November, your NaNo story is not ready for publication. I’m saying this again because it’s important and often people don’t believe it—it is NOT ready, no matter how wonderful you think it is, or your friends or mother says it is. Do NOT submit it to any literary agents/editors or self publish it until you’ve let the novel rest for a few months and THEN you’ve edited it thoroughly. You’ll save yourself from a bunch of heartache (rejection slips, poor reviews, embarrassment) this way.

Well, that was a downer

I know. Hearing that your novel is a mess when you’re still on a NaNo high is hard to stomach. But the point of NaNoWriMo isn’t to churn out quality work. It’s to help you to shut off your inhibitions and self criticism and just write. Get it out. Get it done. And have fun while doing it.

Some NaNo novels have been published and have seen success—but they didn’t submit them the December after they wrote them. It took a lot of hard work after NaNoWriMo was over.

But now that you know that, you can avoid the crash and instead end NaNo on a high note. You can celebrate having done a hard thing. You’ll have had fun, and will probably learn a thing or two about yourself or about your writing along the way.

Between the friends you make, the lessons you learn, and the words you write, NaNoWriMo will be worth it. And addicting. I can’t wait to join you on this journey next month, as well as every November after that!

I can’t believe we begin next week. Where has the time gone? I have a few more kinks I want to work out in my plot/notes before I start writing. How about you? Are you ready? If you know what you’re writing about, share the premise in the comments!

This article is the fourth in a series about NaNoWriMo.
To see the other posts, click one of the links below.

NaNoWriMo prep, part one
Part two: Getting started
Part three: Notes and plans
Part four: What to expect [that’s this post]

NaNoWriMo prep, part three: Notes and plans

A hand writing notes on pieces of paper

Photo via Visualhunt.

You’ve committed to NaNoWriMo this year, you’ve determined your goal for November (to have fun, to reach a word count goal, to finish a story, to make friends with other writers, etc.), and you’ve begun a daily writing routine to prepare yourself. That’s a great start!

But to further increase your chances of meeting your goal successfully, it’s time to make a plan.


You are a planner if—before writing—you need to figure out not only who you’re writing about and the general premise, but also all of the secondary characters and their backstories, the history of the world, the characters your protagonists know well (even though they never show up in the story), how your protagonists would react in scenarios that aren’t even a part of the plot, and so on. And of course you know the beginning and the end of the story, because you also know all of the scenes that will happen along the way. The climax is a given.

If this sounds like you, you’re a planner. My main tip for you is to not go so far into your prep that you get tired of the story before the story is even written. It’s okay to leave some things unknown, as inevitably things will change as you write, even with the best laid plans. Also, be aware that you tend to use research to procrastinate on writing.

If this doesn’t sound like you but you wish it were, it can be! I am a convert just like you. A lot of things contributed to the change in my writing habits, but the book 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron played a big part. She focuses on how to write faster, but she teaches in detail how to plan better so that you can write faster. Faster is only possible because of the planning.

I have always been and probably always will be a slow writer. When competing in word sprints (write the most words in 15 minutes) with other writers at NaNoWriMo write ins, I am almost always last place. But learning to plan in detail before writing has enabled me to write the rough draft only once. No more writing the same story over and over, trying not to write myself into a corner this time. No more multiple chapter deletions! Because I’m prepared, I can write the whole first draft in one go.

I love editing—tweaking, polishing, making the good even better. But I loathe slaughtering large swaths of words. I hate to have wasted the effort it took to write them.

Another influence in changing my habits has been Gail Carson Levine’s blog post “Taking Notes.” She mentions her notes process in many other posts as well.

If I do have to kill an otherwise amazing sentence or paragraph, I put them in my notes so they’re removed, but not gone. If I need to remind myself to insert something earlier in the story or pay attention to something during editing (anything to be taken care of later so I don’t lose my groove now), I make note of it there. If I need a place to keep track of details I’m not as familiar with, such as the MC’s sister’s boyfriend’s name that I just made up while writing, I keep it there for reference. If I’m daydreaming and suddenly think of a new scene I want to work in or some witty dialogue I want to use later, I keep them safe there until I can get to it later. And so on.

The great thing about these notes is that they are completely flexible and can hold whatever you need it to, and also completely private. No one but me will ever see these, so I don’t have to worry about complete sentences or typos. They’re also a safe place to rant when I’m struggling with something, like a difficult scene or some negative feedback. I usually feel better after writing down my frustrations.

So, when I write, I always have three windows open: my detailed plans for reference, my notes to type in as I write or edit, and my current draft.


If all of that sounds like way too much prep and not enough story for you, consider chucking it all out the window and becoming a pantser—someone who writes by the seat of their pants. This is the best option for someone who wants to write during NaNo for fun and has no intention to publish the end result. The point is to see where the story goes and to just enjoy the process.

It can be great fun! Often your characters will say and do things you never expected them to say or do, and you will learn things about them and from them. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t reach the end of the story. You might, but pantsers often get entranced by new ideas before they can see old ones through. If you’re okay with that, have at it.

Some published authors use this method all the time though, not just for NaNo. They love to revise, so exploring the plot and characters through the narrative instead of on a page of notes is more interesting and fun for them. They have the patience to see the story to its end, even though they’re taking the longer, more scenic route.

They feel more creative with this method, and maybe you do, too. But when I try to pants my stories, my plot becomes predictable and I often don’t reach the end. You can use NaNo to try this method and see if it works for you. It took me several years to realize it didn’t work for me.


If you like the idea of pantsing (the rush! the excitement! the mystery!) but want a little more structure (prevent loopholes or writing yourself into a corner), the middle ground is for you. Planner-pantsers, or plantsers, have a general outline they follow with some notes about the important things, but figure out the spaces in between as they go.

When trying this method, make sure you have your key scenes planned. The beginning (how the adventure starts), a few hurdles (what’s at stake), the climax (when everything goes to pot), and the end (how it all gets resolved). This will guide you in the right direction when you explore as you write so that you don’t end up stuck. If you feel stumped, jump ahead to the next key scene and work backwards to clear your way. (Remember, there’s no such thing as writer’s block.)

As a NaNo plantser, you’ll want to do some basic research ahead of time, but you won’t be as thorough as a planner. Take some time to consider what you might need to know.

Is this a fantasy world? Go to the library and check out some kid books on horses, swords, medieval fashion, or what have you. Nonfiction books for kids are great because they’ve been fact checked and have reliable information, but are quick and easy to digest.

Is this a contemporary world? Use Google Maps to explore the city you plan to base it in. Use Pinterest to look up outfit ideas for your characters. Go to a place that people of similar age to your characters hang out and just listen to the way they talk (and what about).

Let all of this mull around in your brain during October. Come November, you’ll be able to write with the confidence of a planner and the freedom of a pantser. Just watch out for either extreme of this style—too much research, or writing an impossible scene out of ignorance. Plantsers have a narrow balance beam to walk.

Have fun

No matter what method of writing you prefer, don’t forget that NaNoWriMo is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to stretch you as a writer, so though there will be times that you struggle, it isn’t supposed to make you hate everything. Try different methods and see what works for you. And enjoy your story, no matter how it comes out of you.

Next week we’ll talk about what you can expect during your NaNo journey. That first week will be so exciting as you begin the race, but what about when your enthusiasm wanes? What about Thanksgiving??? I’ll have some tips for you. In the meantime, start daydreaming about your potential story, and maybe check out a few books from the library to help you plan. You can even check out the official NaNo prep page they encourage participants to look at. Also, if you’re lucky, your region might be hosting a pre-NaNo meet up (either for prep or just for fun). Be sure to check the forums to find out!

This article is the third in a series about NaNoWriMo.
To see the other posts, click one of the links below.

NaNoWriMo prep, part one
Part two: Getting started
Part three: Notes and plans [that’s this post]
Part four: What to expect