Reasons Your Novel Manuscript Got Rejected by a Publisher (Even When You Got the Basics Right)

Your novel manuscript is formatted correctly. It doesn’t contain a single typo (okay, maybe one). It’s a coherent, interesting story that’s appropriate for the age range and interests of your intended audience. And you submitted it to a publisher or imprint based on detailed research that targeted this publisher/imprint as the ideal place for a book like yours. You even spelled the editor’s name right.

….And you’re still staring at a rejection.

Often, an editor who rejects an otherwise publishable and appropriate novel will tell you why they’ve kicked it to the curb. Whether or not you’re looking at this feedback, here are some “beyond the basics” reasons your novel may have been rejected:

rjection

1.  It’s too long (or too short).

Every genre has a conventional word count. This isn’t The Man trying to keep you down; it’s a function of (a) the audience’s expectations (and attention span), (b) the conventions of certain genres, and (c) printing costs.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix could be a YA novel and still clock in north of 250,000 words because, by the time it came out, the publisher knew that Harry Potter fans would read a novel of any length and pay just about anything to get it. If Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had been that long, it’d still be sitting in Rowling’s unheated flat: Sorcerer’s Stone contains about 76,000 words, a respectable length for a YA novel.

Know the conventions for novel lengths in your genre and stick to them – at least until you’re an international household name.

2. It’s too similar to another book that’s already on the market (which may or may not have come from this publisher).

About 350,000 books are published in the United States each year. While the Big Five account for most of those, scores of smaller presses put out books too – as do intrepid self-publishers.

Given that half of U.S. adults read fewer than five books a year, every book is broadly in competition with every other. The “real” competition, however, is between books in particular genres or on particular subjects – which means that small presses in particular are keenly aware of which books like your books have been published in the past five years, which are currently “frontlisted” in other publishers’ catalogs, and which are the subject of the most aggressive marketing campaigns.

Very few publishers will publish a book that is substantially similar to another book that’s already out there, whether or not they were the press to publish the first book. Marketing books is already a tough game: If your book is “just like [insert other book here],” that tough game becomes one neither you nor your publisher can win.

3. The book is great, but its author is a pill.

You don’t just need to find the right publisher. You also need to find the right editor.

If you’re going to harass your editor every other week about the status of your book, demand proprietary details as to the publishing process, or nitpick every detail of the contract, you need an editor with the patience to deal with that. Most editors do not have that patience.

It’s not always easy to know which questions are and are not reasonable to ask, especially if you’re new to book publishing. When in doubt, hedge the question: “I don’t know if this is a reasonable question, but….” Admitting your limits rather than demanding answers may (may) improve your editor’s patience, especially if you really are new to publishing.

Like your doctor, lawyer, or babysitter, your editor needs to be someone you can communicate with and trust. Pay attention to how your editor communicates. If you’re getting terse answers, no answers, or being told to sit down, your editor might be ready to cut you loose – or they might be so busy and/or bad at communicating that your best course of action is to choose another publisher.


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Three Ways to Become A Writer

Disclaimer: Despite having become a writer, I’m still not sure I know how to become a writer.

That said, here’s the stuff I did that, in hindsight, was the most helpful in getting me to the point where my first book is a Real Thing That Exists in the World, my second book is in editing, and I have lost count of the number of non-book things I have published and where I have published them.

3ways

1. Read obsessively.

Forget reading like it’s your job: Read like it’s the only thing standing between you and the gaping abyss of death. Read like your brain needs words and not oxygen molecules to survive. Read in bed. Read on the toilet. Read in the shower. Read while walking the dog. Read while standing in line at the grocery store.

It matters what you read…kind of. An understanding of novel structure and character development, for instance, is hard to get from Washington Post articles or the back of shampoo bottles. So if you want to write in a particular genre, keep a good mix of that genre in your reading.

But read other things too. Restricting yourself to one type of reading material will burn you out and limit your vision. Read ALL THE THINGS. You’d be amazed at how often my reading of technical articles on blockchain management, treatises on late 17th-century sailing, or academic tomes featuring modernist interpretations of child psychology appear in my neuroqueer sci-fi.

2. Write even when you’re not supposed to be writing.

First: write when you’re supposed to be writing. Pick a time every day you will sit down with your writing tools of choice, and then BE THERE ON TIME READY TO WORK. Hiss angrily and throw things at anyone who tries to distract you. Be there even if you feel like you have no ideas and never will have any ideas. Be there especially if you feel like you have no ideas and never will have any ideas.

But: also write even when you’re not supposed to be writing. Taking a class where the lecturer repeats things you’ve already learned? Write instead of taking notes. Boring meeting? Write. Have six loads of laundry to fold? Write. Kids have a recital or soccer game? Write. (Okay, this one might be kind of mean. Don’t be mean to your kids.)

Over the course of my tenth-grade history class alone, I wrote over 300 pages of fiction. It’s all terrible fan fiction and I will never let anyone read it, but I wrote it. And it taught me a lot about how to write.

3. Practice courage.

Courage isn’t a character stat. It’s not an inherent quality that some people are born with “enough” of and the rest of us are doomed to deficiency in.

Courage is an act. Courage is what you are doing when you say, “Hey, I’m scared of this thing, but accomplishing X by doing the thing is more important to me than my fear,” and then you pursue the more important thing.

I didn’t link this one to writing until I started my first novel. But by that time, I’d been practicing courage for years as a figure skater, a colorguard performer, a litigation attorney, and a teacher. I’m still scared every time I submit a piece of writing to an editor, even if that piece was specifically commissioned and I know they won’t reject it. I submit it because getting the work out there is more important to me than indulging my fear of criticism.

There are lots of ways to practice courage, and courage is an essential skill. You can write for years (I did), but putting your work out there is what makes you A Writer.


4. Drink a lot of coffee. Buy it for friends. Friends like me.

If You Like It Then You Shoulda Put a Paycheck On It: My Real Problem With The Mighty (#CrippingTheMighty)

The Mighty, a content site catering to parents and families of disabled and chronically ill people, has been criticized repeatedly in the disability community for its continuous publication of mocking, demeaning, or “inspiration porn”-y stories that are, like so many things about disability, about us without us.

This time, the outcry addressed a piece by a parent of an autistic child, called “Introducing: Meltdown Bingo.”  The piece mocked the acute distress that autistic people express during meltdowns.

The Mighty later removed the piece (a cached version is available courtesy of Un-Boxed Brain here). The site also issued an apology of sorts.

Many bloggers in the disability community have called out The Mighty both on this particular misstep and on missteps in the past.  I agree with the way in which posts like these have gone to the heart of the matter, and I see no reason to repeat their many excellent points.

Instead, as a professional writer and an editor who works with a press specializing in disability-related texts, I want to point out a deeper problem The Mighty has: it does not pay its writers.  Specifically, it does not pay its disabled writers – members of the very population it claims to support.

The Mighty actively solicits submissions from its readers, with a large yellow “Submit a Story” link placed front and center on its main page.  Many of the writers who submit pieces to The Mighty are disabled.  In its apology for the “Meltdown Bingo” fiasco, The Mighty specifically asked for more disabled writers to step forward – and the site’s Twitter account, @TheMightySite, “followed” just about every disabled writer and activist whose name was recommended to them in the #CrippingTheMighty hashtag (including yours truly).

The Mighty’s tagline is “we face disability, disease, and mental illness together.”  The stated goal of its founder, Mike Porath, was to “build a media company that actually helps people.”  Boasting hits in the tens of millions each year, the site could be a force to be reckoned with in the battle to end disability discrimination and demand the full respect of disabled people as people.

It could.  But it’s not.  And not paying its contributors – especially not paying its disabled contributors – has everything to do with that.

Disabled people are notoriously unemployed and underemployed.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17.1 percent of disabled U.S. adults were employed in 2014.  17.1 percent.  Employed.  Not “employed full-time”; employed at all.

(By contrast, 64.6 percent of non-disabled U.S. adults were employed in 2014.)

When disabled adults are employed, it is frequently “under”employment: employment for fewer hours per week, or at less challenging tasks, than the individual is willing and able to do.  We are one of the few populations in the United States to which it is legal to pay only a handful of pennies per hour, under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  It’s no secret that undergraduate programs do not want to accommodate us, graduate programs do not want to admit us, and employers do not want to hire us – and that when we are “let in,” we are under-utilized, under-respected, under-retained, and underpaid.

If this sounds like exploitation, that’s because it is.  And The Mighty is participating in it.

Despite being a site dedicated to the topic of disability, The Mighty has yet to hire a single disabled editor.  Despite being a site that actively solicits the writing of disabled authors, The Mighty does not pay these writers – or rather, it claims to pay with “exposure.”

As I said in another blog post earlier this week, a site that offers to pay you with “exposure” falls into one of two categories.  Either it’s too small for the “exposure” to be worthwhile to you, or it’s big enough to make the “exposure” worthwhile – and therefore is big enough to pay you.

The Mighty, with  a claimed 80 million visitors, falls into the second category.  It’s got enough clout to make the “exposure” worthwhile.  And with a seed round of $2.5 million, a claimed 300 non-profit partners, and paid advertising landing in front of the eyes of every one of those 80 million visitors, it has enough money to pay its writers, as well.

Instead, The Mighty does what every “for exposure” outlet does: it begs for charity from its readers by asking them to submit the results of their labor, to generate ad revenue clicks, without compensation for their work.  The Mighty claims to have the backs of one of the most unemployed, unpaid, and exploited populations in the United States – and IT asks THEM for charity.  Proudly.  When asked for compensation, The Mighty pays out – to a non-profit instead of to the writer whose labor pads The Mighty’s bottom line.

In a recent blog post, David Perry proposed two possible ethical futures for The Mighty.  One was to incorporate itself into the community it purports to support; the other was to “be professional” and pay its writers.

I propose that these two futures are actually one future: that The Mighty cannot be an ethical participant in the disability community without compensating the disabled writers from whose work the site generates its revenue.  We are, as I mentioned, an exploited community.

To those who object “But how is The Mighty supposed to pay writers?”, I point back to two facts:

  1.  The Mighty started with $2.5 million in seed money,
  2. Autonomous Press exists.

Autonomous Press, founded in 2015, has published only one book containing the works of disabled writers who were not paid cash money for their contributions.  The writers were, however, compensated with at least one physical printed copy of the book apiece (to my knowledge, The Mighty does not print copies of contributors’ submissions for distribution).  Contributors to the press’s second compilation, The Real Experts, were paid with contributor copies and cash; contributors to its third, The Spoon Knife Anthology, will be paid in similar form.  Every single-author book Autonomous Press has produced to date is also paying royalties to its respective author.

(Incidentally, AutPress’s payment to me for my own contribution to Spoon Knife is the most any publisher has ever paid me for a single piece of short fiction.)

If AutPress can produce physical, printed books with a four-figure startup budget and compensate its contributors, The Mighty has no excuse for running a digital-only realm on a seven-figure startup budget and not paying its writers.  And a print publication outranks a digital one on a CV every time – which means that, in at least one sense, AutPress is offering better “exposure” as well.

As David Perry put it, “I don’t actually think [The Mighty’s goal is to] “give people a platform to share their stories.” It’s to make money while feeling good about themselves.”

And, I might add, while exploiting the very population they claim to help.

This is my problem with The Mighty.  This, as I see it, is a bigger problem than inspiration porn, bigger than all the stories that broadcast the personal details of disabled children’s lives in order to mock them.  As long as The Mighty continues to exploit us by demanding our unpaid labor to pad their egos and their bottom line, the site will do damage to the disabled community that no quantity of good writing from disabled contributors to the site can ever hope to repair.

Want to prove you value the lives of disabled people, The Mighty?  Value our labor.  Pay us.

How You, the Client, Can Get Fired by Your Freelancer

Sometimes freelance writers and artists just have to fire a client. Here are some of the easiest ways to find yourself searching for a new contractor.

So you want to hire a freelance writer. Or an artist. Or a graphic designer. Or a web developer. Or a drill writer. Or a “consultant.”

There are plenty of articles out there about how to hire a freelancer. This isn’t one of them. This article is about how to get the freelancer you hired to say, “Sorry, I won’t accept any more work from you.”

I’ve been freelancing for nearly a decade now, and in that time, I’ve had outstanding clients, terrible clients, and everything in between. I have been fired by a client exactly twice (both times for the same reason–see below), and I have fired more clients than I can count (every time, for one of the reasons below).

Here’s how to make sure that all the time, money, and energy you put into advertising for freelancers, screening candidates, and developing creative briefs goes entirely to waste:

how to get fired by your_a guide for clients

1. Don’t say what you want up front.

I asked a community of freelancers what it takes for them to fire a client, and some version of this problem came up in every single answer.

To send your freelancer packing, don’t say what you want up front. Provide just enough detail for your freelancer to think they understand the project–but when they turn it in, send it back with demands you never made in the original ask.

Do you want your freelancer to fire you, but you aren’t sure this method will do it quickly enough? Do you want your freelancer to fire you and to call you out publicly at every opportunity, making it even harder to find qualified freelancers in the future (and yes, we network too)?  Then I recommend….

2.  Blame your freelancer for not reading your mind.

Not telling us what you wanted is provoking, but it’s not insurmountable. Provide a reasonable amount of time to make the fix and clarify whether or not you’re going to need the same thing going forward, and generally speaking, we’re happy to do the work (assuming it’s covered by our contract).

However, if you want to torpedo any chance that your freelancer will roll with the punches, blame your freelancer for failing to read your mind the first time.

Both clients who have fired me as a freelancer did so because they blamed me for something that they messed up. The most memorable one was in 2013 or so. The client had asked me to do an extended project that required me to contact their end client and get some information.

I tried. I tried contacting the end client for months, via every avenue my client would allow me to use: email, telephone, you name it. I got nothing. The end client would not communicate with me.

Eventually, I told my client about this, and was told “Okay, I’ll take care of it.” When I emailed a few days later, asking “Do you have anything else you need me to do?”, I was assigned another project. Every time asked if they had anything else they wanted done, I was assigned another project.

Fast-forward a few months. Suddenly, Silent End-Client’s project is coming due, and my client is emailing me in a panic, wanting to know where their copy is.

Excuse me?

Last I heard, client, you were going to take care of it, and every time I asked if there was something I should be working on, you directed me to another task (at one point, to another editor!) instead of asking how this client’s website is coming. I am not the one who dropped the ball on this.

Nevertheless, I got fired. My client found it easier to cut me loose than to admit their own mistake.

I fired a different client some years later for utterly failing to articulate their expectations for copy.: everything from basic organization to what counts as “personality” in tone to when to use a serial comma. When I asked for clarification, the answer was always: “Oh, there are no hard and fast rules….”

So I’d send in the project–and get personally berated for failing to follow some “rule” the editor had chosen not to tell me was a rule when the project began.

Needless to say, I dumped that client pretty quickly.

Definitely blame your freelancer for failing to read your mind. If you don’t want to work with freelancers anymore. Or you could….

3. Presume you’re entitled to your freelancer’s time.

In truth, treating your freelancer like an employee in any way is a great way to get us to walk out. We’re professionals and this is a B2B service, not an employer-employee relationship.

But one of the best ways to treat us like employees so that we’ll walk on you is to act as if you’re entitled to our time when you want it, whenever you want it, for no additional pay.

I fired a client just a few months ago for this exact problem. I warned this client up front that I do not do the sort of copy the client sought with fewer than seven business days’ lead time (now, thanks to this client, that’s a month’s lead time). The client decided that “seven business days’ lead time” meant “three to five calendar days’ lead time, always over a weekend” and threw a complete fit when I refused to turn work around in that time frame.

Oh, and of course this client never offered to pay me extra for the rush job. Which reminds me: you will find yourself out on your freelancer’s curb posthaste if you…

4. Screw with payment terms.

Early in my career, I did $1500 of web copy once for a client and was immediately ghosted by not one but two editors on the project. Attempts to contact them were unsuccessful. I never saw that money. Meanwhile, I know the end client used the copy because I saw it on their website.

The second client who ever fired me only got the title because I was lazy about firing them. I was planning to walk because they were a stellar example of Point the First (don’t articulate what you want), but they sent the Dear John email first.

Honestly, that’s fine. It wasn’t working out, and had that email been the end of it, this client would not have made my Wall of Shame.

But they’re on the Wall of Shame now because, after firing me, they then decided to announce they were only going to pay me about 2/3 of what they had initially agreed to, based on terms they made up as they were writing the email and that had never appeared in the original contract.

Thanks for confirming my decision to stop working with you, former client!

Wait! What If I Don’t Want To Be Fired?

Naturally, the inverse of this post is also true: if you want to keep a freelancer around (and save yourself the time, money, and hassle of hiring a new one), clarify your expectations from the start, take your share of the responsibility for errors or miscommunications, respect our time like you would any other business you do business with, and pay promptly and fully according to the agreed-upon terms.

For every client I’ve fired, I have one in my portfolio who has been there for years and for whom my work is practically magic. They tell me what they want, I send it to them. Voilá. You, too, can have outstanding relationships with your freelancers–if you treat them right.

Freelancers love coffee. Buy me one.

How to Get Motivated to Write Your Novel

Many writers struggle with motivation. Motivation is a fickle thing; it comes and it goes, and its visits rarely coincide with several free hours in which to focus on writing.

Yet people do, in fact, manage to finish writing entire novels. Or stick to an exercise plan. Or build a house. As someone who has managed to complete two of these three goals, I frequently get asked, “How can I maintain the motivation to write a novel?”

My answer: Don’t try.

how to get fired by your_a guide for clients(1)

Motivation is the drive to complete a certain action. That drive can result from a number of factors, whether internal (like interest, hunger, or pain) or external (rewards and punishments). For most writers, the trouble lies not in the drive itself but in channeling it in the ways and means most effective for writing.

In order to goad ourselves into writing, we often turn to extrinsic motivators. “If I write for half an hour, I can have two cookies.” “No video games until I finish this chapter.”

It’s common to turn to rewards and punishments; after all, they’re a pillar of our educational systems and workplace environments. The problem is that they not only don’t work, but they actually degrade our intrinsic motivation over time. In other words, giving yourself a cookie or time on the Playstation in exchange for writing actually makes you less likely to want to write – and it makes you less likely to turn out quality work when you do write.

If you’re seriously considering writing a novel, however, you already have some intrinsic motivation. The key, then, is to provide yourself with the support you need to move from motivation to a finished product.

Planning: The Key to Motivation

Motivation is a primarily internal sense, feeling, or drive. To create tangible results, it needs to be focused into action. That’s where planning comes in.

A 2002 study in the British Journal of Health Psychology split 248 adults into three groups. The first group was given motivation to exercise in the form of a pep talk and a pamphlet on the benefits of exercise in reducing heart disease risks.

The second group received the same pep talk and pamphlet. However, before Group 2 left the talk, each member was asked to complete the following statement: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].

The third group got none of the above, thus serving as the control group.

Each group then tracked their exercise: day, time of day, and place. The control group, who had received no motivational materials at all, saw 38 percent of its participants exercise at least once a week.

The first group, who got the pep talk and pamphlet, had a 35 percent exercise rate – actually lower than the group that got no motivational materials at all.

And the second group? Ninety-one percent (91 percent!) of its participants exercised. By writing down what they would do and where and when they would do it, this group managed to boost its ability to achieve its goal by more than both of the other groups combined.

The takeaway? Motivation doesn’t matter. Planning matters.

How to Plan to Write an Entire Novel

Writing an entire novel is a big task. Getting it published adds additional challenges. But since your manuscript has to exist before you can pitch it to publishers, let’s start with how to get it written.

1.  Break down the goal.

Your ultimate goal is “finish the novel,” but that’s a big task. Broken down into smaller pieces, that task might look like:

  • Create character profiles.
  • Create a timeline.
  • Choose major plot points.
  • Outline the novel.
  • Outline a chapter.
  • Write a chapter.
  • Write a paragraph.
  • Write a sentence.

Every item on the list should be something that leads in a concrete way to the goal of writing an entire novel manuscript. “Research cover artists” won’t help you get anything written. Neither will “buy the perfect notebook.” If it doesn’t lead to you putting story words on paper, save it for a later list.

2. Work out timing.

How much time do you have to devote to writing each day? Write it down, whether it’s 12 hours or 12 minutes.

At what time of day can you take this time to write? Write it down, whether it’s 2 p.m. or 2 a.m.

On what days of the week can you write? Write these down, whether it’s “all seven” or “just Tuesdays.”

Congratulations: That’s your writing time.

Put this time in your calendar. Right now. And treat it as scheduled time. When something or someone else wants that time (and they will), say, “Sorry, I have something scheduled then.” You don’t have to tell people what it is or why it’s more important than their yearning to binge-watch Seinfeld or rinse out their socks in public drinking fountains with you. “No” is a complete sentence here.

You may find yourself adjusting this time period, and the days of the week in which it occurs, as you write. That’s fine. The focus is to find your time to write and guard it against all other possible intrusions.

3.  Slot #1 into #2.

You might get profiles for every character written in 12 hours. You might get a sentence, or even two, written in 12 minutes. Once you know how long your writing time is and on what days, you can break down the first list into chunks that are as large or small as you need in order to spend your writing time on writing.

Voice of Experience: I recommend being flexible here. Show up to your writing time intending to outline a chapter, only to have a character in your head insist on spilling their life story? Write it out. Tempted to skip writing time because you don’t know what comes next? Show up anyway and freewrite about the worst things that could happen at that moment.

The point is to land your butt in the chair during writing time and to put down words that directly relate to the story, whether those are plans and outlines or the story itself.

4.  Save other plans for later.

The urge to edit while writing overwhelms a lot of writers, especially on their first novel. If it arises, remind yourself that you will plan the editing and revision phase after you are done with the writing phase – not during the writing phase.

Then, do that. Once you have a novel’s worth of story on paper (or in pixels), follow the same steps for your revising and editing time. Then for publishing. Then marketing.

By building a plan and sticking to it, you eliminate the need to “feel motivated.” Instead, you turn writing into a habit – allowing you to focus your energy on the story itself.

How I Wrote a Novel in 10 Months With Untreated ADHD, Part 3: The Notebook

Part 1, I talked about how I organize my schedule, or when I write. In Part 2, I talked about my workspace, or where I write.

Now let’s talk about how.

ADHD III

Part 3 is the story of the heart of this entire operation: The Notebook.

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“The Notebook” makes it sound portentous, like I spend hours searching for just the perfect vessel to hold my Great American Novel(TM) and I might die without it.

Not going to lie: I went through that phase, in my late teens. I still have the two Moleskines I filled back then. But it was only about eight months before I realized that putting The Notebook on that kind of shrine was actually making it harder for me to write.

These days, I use single-subject college-ruled notebooks I pick up during the back-to-school sale at my local big-box store for about $0.25 apiece. I buy at least a dozen every year, and I keep the unused ones within easy reach:

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Back in the days before I published the vast majority of my work on the Internets, I filled a notebook a month. These days, it takes 1-3 months for the same amount of handwriting.

The used ones occupy several different shelves. This photo is the central repository but by no means the only one:

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Once, in 2009, I went through all the notebooks I’d filled since 1998 and broke them down, discarded everything I thought wasn’t “useful,” and put the rest in a giant three-ring binder. I have regretted it ever since, which is why I will not be repeating the process anytime soon.

It took me quite a while to make the notebook work for me. I loved it from the start as a writing tool, but like a lot of folks with ADHD, I really didn’t grasp how to make it work as a planner and an extension of my memory. For years, I juggled The Notebook, notebooks for work, notebooks for school, a day planner, a to-do list, you name it.

I tried a Franklin planner. I tried OneNote. I tried bullet journaling. And it all made me even more confused.

Then, while browsing the Intertubes one day late in 2015, I stumbled across a system that was far simpler than keeping a bullet journal. The blogger I read this from claims to have learned it from a Japanese businessman he was sitting beside on a flight once.

I just know it works for me. Here’s how:

The very first thing I do with any new notebook is flip to the back side of the final page.

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Here, I write the major categories of stuff in the notebook, and make a little “tab” by blacking in the edge. I like to space my categories widely because it makes the tabs easier for me to find.

Often, I’ll start with the first thing going in that particular notebook. This one, for instance, has outlines for Nahara and The Ambassador on the first few pages, so the top tab is “novel.” The first not-novel page I used had a to-do list on it, so that went under “personal and journal.”

You can tab as many things as you like, or as many as you have lines for. In theory, you could also flip to the second to last page and tab again in different colors, too. I rarely have more than five tabs in any notebook, and these four are always on the list.

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Each page then gets a corresponding tab. Here are the first three pages in this notebook, all of which are outlines.

(I am sorry to report that the rumors are true: Nahara does not feature fully automated luxury gay space communism.)

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Every time I start a new page, it gets a new tab. This is the page I started for the outline for this blog post series.

I love this system for two ADHD-y reasons:

  1. It cut me down to one notebook. Much harder to lose, especially since it lives with my wallet and keys on my desk. (Not impossible to lose, though, which is why my name and email address are always on the inside of the front cover.)
  2. I don’t have to care what order the pages are in anymore. I used to juggle two notebooks because I cared about page order. A lot. I hated having a to-do list pop up halfway through a chapter I was drafting, for instance. I found it super distracting.

Now I don’t have to care, because every page has its tab:

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I also appreciate how the tabs help me see where my time went over the past month or two. This notebook, for instance, makes it obvious that I spent a huge chunk of time on marketing and “outside” writing smack in the middle of it, taking a pretty obvious hiatus from the novel to do so.

Those chunks, btw, include both the pieces I submitted to Spoon Knife 3: Incursions, which you’ll all get to see in a few months.

Here are two pages from the draft of Nantais:

 

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When I sit down to write, I date the margin, just because I like to see my own progress. I tab each page as I start it. Notes about things I need to go back and fix, scenes that are relevant to this scene, or character background I don’t want to dig into here but that I’ll need for consistency later on all goes in the margin as well.

My goal, in my nightly two hour writing slot, is 350 words. That’s it.

They don’t even have to be story. If I’m particularly stuck on the story, I’ll spend time sketching what could happen next, or working out character motivation, or detailing someone’s history or mythology. As long as it’s related to the novel and written with the intent of helping me get unstuck, it counts.

After the Notebook But Before Editing: The Typing Stage

Approximately every ten pages, every chapter, or just when I’m starting to get a little lost as to what the heck happened to get me to this point, I’ll take the handwritten draft and type it up. But the first draft of all my fiction is always written longhand.

 

The reasons are a mix of practical points and straight-up “I like doing it this way so there”:

  • I find the Intertubes distracting as heck. “I went to look up one thing and eight hours later I realized I had 422 Wikipedia tabs open and also it was Tuesday” isn’t a meme; it’s literally my life. If I drafted on the screen, nothing would ever get done.
  • I revise as I type. The first typed draft is always my second draft. Rewriting the entire draft this way allows me to address a lot of mistakes and clunky text. It also lets me do things like write “[nearby star with habitable zone]” in the draft, then Google that when I get to the typing phase, saving me from the Wikipedia hole.
  • I feel free to screw up. Since I know no one will ever see the handwritten draft, I can cross things out, rewrite entire sentences mid-draft, draw giant arrows to move pieces from one place to another, and write things like “FIGHT PIRATES, DO A SCIENCE” or “THIS BOOK DOESN’T EXIST WTF IS HE READING” in the margins (two comments that actually exist in the margins of the handwritten draft of Nantais).

…And, perhaps most selfishly but also most importantly, I just like the way it feels. I like the feel of writing and the look of my own handwriting covering pages and pages of notebooks.

Writing longhand greatly increases my joy in the process. It feels like making something. And that’s really the only reason I need to do it – and the reason I never insist other people do it the way I do.

The whole point of the entire system is to move the crap out of the way in order to find the joy in the work.

Ironic twist: While starting Ritalin has changed my life with regards to my work, my relationships, my ability to eat and sleep, and the general orderliness of my house, it has actually made fiction writing harder. I don’t write on Ritalin. I wait till it wears off first.

Why? I’m still trying to pinpoint the reasons, but the biggest one appears to be that having everything on the whiteboard of my brain at once, while a major challenge in ordinary life, is actually exactly what I need in order to keep track of all the moving parts of a story as it unfolds.

I wrote Nantais before I ever started Ritalin, and now that I have, I only write fiction after it wears off. Go brain!

Part 2: The Workspace
Part 1: The System


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How I Wrote a Novel in 10 Months With Untreated ADHD, Part 2: The Workspace

In Part 1, I talked about how I organized my time to ensure I had both the gap in my schedule and the mental wherewithal to write every day.

Here in Part 2, I’ll talk about how I organized my writing space.

ADHD II

This is where I write:

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I got lucky in our current house: this desk fits perfectly into this alcove in our spare bedroom. On the walls of the alcove are Chalkboard Left and Chalkboard Right, which I mentioned in Part 1.

You can see some of the paperwork hanging off the bottom of Chalkboard Left in this photo, next to the lamp.

Chalkboard Left contains my weekly schedule; Chalkboard Right contains the basics of whichever novel I’m working on at the moment. Right now, that’s Nahara, the sequel to the novel I just released.

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On the left is the outline for the novel in progress. On the right are some notes I need nearly every time I write, and above those are the list of works I want to write or that come after the novel in progress. (The list on the top right is a recent addition; I got tired of keeping that list in my head.)

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I use Blake Shelton’s “beats” system to outline each novel. It was designed for outlining screenplays, but since I tend to write off the movie screen in my head, the beats system was remarkably easy to adapt.

The outline helps me remember the central theme or idea of whatever point I’m at in the story, as well as how I got that far and what needs to be set up in order to move to the next scene or chapter.

In addition to this outline, I typically write an outline or synopsis of each chapter as I’m working on them. Since I only need those for as long as I’m working on that part of the draft, they live in my notebook (which I’ll cover in Part 3).

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These are photocopies out of my notebook, which I pinned to the board after I got frustrated flipping back and forth between pages and (later) with remembering where I had put this particular notebook. The top one is a bit of core mythology; the bottom is a general outline of all three novels in the trilogy. Behind it are a few more pages I refer to frequently, like main character bios/histories and a timeline.

The list above is works in progress. On the left are short story ideas; on the right, book-length ideas.

Because the desk sits so closely between these two walls, my peripheral vision is pretty well filled up by the chalkboards. But then there’s the view. Take another look at my desk:

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That view is many writers’ dream, but for me, it’s distracting as heck.

One of the main reasons I write from 9 to 11 p.m., aside from the fact that I can focus then, is because it’s dark out. About the only thing I can see is the neighbor’s yard light, which doesn’t light up much – and the neighbor is usually in bed well before dark anyway.

I keep a few fidget toys in the mug along with my pens. The Pygmy Puff to the left of the mug is also a cozy fidget, and the disapproving stare of Mr. McShade on the right keeps me motivated.

Apart from the writing space and the lamp, the desk is allowed to hold only certain items:

  • My wallet and keys. If they’re not here, I don’t know where they are.
  • Things that urgently need my attention. When I took this photo, those included returning a purchase (the small box), sorting out my business receipts (the paper pile), and giving my cat her nightly meds (the pill bottles and the other box).

Other stuff does end up on my desk from time to time, usually on its way to the trash, my backpack, or one of the drawers. The drawers are the nightmare clutter hiding beneath my otherwise sorted desktop.

I do nearly all my novel drafting here and 100% of my novel revision here. I also work from home as a freelance writer, but I do that writing downstairs, in our office/library. Other essential desk stuff, like my noise-canceling headphones, live in my backpack, since I need those out in public more often than I need them at home.

Part 1: The System
Part 3: The Notebook


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