My 5 Writing Must-Haves

Lately, I've read a lot of Twitter posts, blogs, and opinions on what writers "must have" or "must do" --from how often you have to write to be "serious" to how your work should be critiqued and by whom. All this advice got me thinking a lot about my writing process, and what's worked for me (and what hasn't) since I donned the official Writing Cap, grabbed my feathered pen, and unfurled my first piece of parchment...or rather, pulled my hair back into a messy bun, set my laptop on my knees, and decided to make plot happen.

A lot has changed since I decided to write my first novel, and I've found that with each new project, I modify my process to fit the needs of my story. I don't draft a contemporary rom-com the same way I do a semi-gothic Regency romance, and that's fine. I do what works for me to reach The End. But I have found that no matter the project, there are a few key things that help me get the words in my head onto the page.

1. An Idea Journal

I know there are plenty of people who think keeping an manuscript idea journal is a bad idea--if a story is worth holding on to, you shouldn't have to write it down, right? I'm not sold. Having now experienced what it's like to have Mom-brain, I can barely remember if I've eaten breakfast or showered most days. With the chaos of everyday life, if I don't write something important down, it's as lost as that Taylor Swift CD I haven't seen since we moved 3 years ago.

As far as I'm concerned, that idea I've come up with during a 5 a.m. diaper change is worth holding on to if I can remember it by the time the diaper's in the pail. I might never write the story. The idea might never make it past that single journal entry, but it's a visual representation of potential, especially when I'm knee-deep in writer's funk. Plus, it's amazing how many new ideas crop up just by paging through the old ones.

2. A Beverage in a Mug

Hemingway had his Mojitos. Fitzgerald has his Gin Rickey's. Me? I'll take a hot cup of tea, please.

When I'm drafting contemporary, I favor chai with a splash of French vanilla creamer. If I'm writing something historical, I opt for a London Fog (Earl Grey Latte). If I'm critiquing for someone else, I prefer black tea with milk. I think part of it, for me, is the ritual of preparing the tea. It takes time to brew, which gives me time to get into the author mindset.

I've also found that the mug makes all the difference. I have a mug that is magical when it comes to brainstorming. Another giant one that I use when I'm drafting. Yet another when I'm in the revision trenches, prepared to hack and slash my way through a draft.

A cup of hot tea is a must for me!

A cup of hot tea is a must for me!

3. A Word Receptacle

I prefer to draft my manuscripts in Scrivener (though I am far from a power-user, so I'm sure I only use 1/10th of the software's capabilities). I like how I can keep research, key notes, images, and other bits and pieces essential for my story all in the same place. I also LOVE the word tracking feature, which helps me to set goals and see how how the story's progressing.

Once I've completed the first drafts and it's been through my alpha readers, I like to export the manuscript to Word. This is a great way to catch problematic sentences, typos, and other issues that I've gone "eye-blind" to as I've been reading over the draft. I'll also change the font during my final pass to mix things up.

4. Books

I'm always inspired to write when I'm surrounded by books. Writing tends to be a very individual pursuit, but it's nice to have a reminder that there are others who have had a story to tell and made it happen. My to-be-read shelves (and the leaning tower on the floor) are daunting, but are a great resource to study when it comes to plotting, dialogue, voice, and style. There's nothing better than stumbling on a fantastic book, but there's a lot to be said for the books that make you go, "meh," too. I've learned a lot about what I don't like--or what I want to avoid in my own projects--by reading books that I'm not in love with. I also try to read books outside the genres I write, which I hope helps broaden my horizon as an author.

On the corner of my desk, I keep a stack of reference books: style manuals, dictionaries, thesauruses, and craft books. If I'm writing a historical manuscript, I also tend to have some non-fiction books for accuracy and ideas.

Some of my cluttered, crowded shelves.

Some of my cluttered, crowded shelves.

5. Writing Group

I'm really blessed to have an amazing group of writers and readers who are willing to support me on this journey. I have found amazing alpha and beta readers who provide keen insight on what's working and what isn't, and I have incredible critique partners who offer constructive criticism, bolstering when I need it, and a place to vent when the going gets tough. They push me to be a better writer and to hone my skills, and I know my manuscripts are better--I'm better--for it. I know that I would never have been able to weather the highs and the lows without them.

What does broccoli have to do with #PitchWars?

So, what does broccoli have to do with #PitchWars? I'm so very glad you asked! Broccoli. It's a vegetable. My son used to call it 'trees' when he was a toddler. Some people love it, some people hate it. I took a poll on Twitter last week, and here's what I found:

Survey says

That's great, you say. But who the heck cares about broccoli? I'm here for the #PitchWars stuff.

Fair point, so let's get to it.

  1. Broccoli isn't for everyone. And that's okay. It doesn't mean that broccoli is bad, or a lesser vegetable than peas, or doesn't deserve a spot in the garden next to the rutabaga. It just means that some people are going to pass on the broccoli.

    Translation: Not everyone is a fan of fantasy featuring honey badgers. And that's okay. It doesn't mean fantasy featuring honey badgers is bad, or any less valuable than a fantasy featuring --mole rats, let's say, or that it doesn't deserve as spot on a shelf at your favorite bookstore.

    Unfortunately, even though mentors created wish lists to let potential mentees know they were looking for broccoli, they still got some peas, carrots, and potatoes au gratin--excellent vegetables, sure, but not what the mentors asked for.

  2. Not all broccoli is prepared the same. You can bake it, boil it, steam it, fry it, cover it with cheese, eat it raw with dip, or blend it into a creamy, cheesy soup in a bread bowl...So many possibilities. As you can see from the survey above, 38% of the people polled like broccoli as long as it's cooked a certain way.

    Translation: Not all contemporary romances are written the same way. You can first person, third person, past tense, or present tense 'em. You can have multiple POVs, or sprinkle in epistolary sections. Prose can be rapid or literary, with a hefty helping of voice...

    So, even if you subbed a broccoli dish to a mentor asking for broccoli, there's still a possibility it wasn't prepared a certain way. Did you add some special spicy red pepper flakes and they're wimps? Are they lactose intolerant and can't sample your cheese sauce? Or maybe that broccoli casserole over there compliments their main dish.

    There's a good chance that not being selected has nothing to do with the quality of your broccoli. If you love your broccoli dish, there's a really good chance that other people will, too. Go ahead and query agents who are looking for broccoli. Do not toss your broccoli dish in the trash and end your broccoli-cooking for all time!

  3. Sometimes, even if you love sauteed florets, the broccoli recipe isn't quite right. Maybe a little less salt? A little more cook time? Some more experimentation in the kitchen might be needed. Or maybe the mentor has a cold and can't taste it, so they aren't quite sure how to help season it?

    Translation: Mentors want to help, and they want to help as much as they can. If a mentor isn't sure how to help or worries they may do more harm than good, they might pass. They might also pass if it looks like it hasn't been proofread or it's still in the early stages of inception. Or they might pass if it's so close to query there's nothing for them to do but say, "Bon appetite!"

    Whether you're selected or not, surrounding yourself with trusted taste-testers who love broccoli is key! Critique partners and beta readers can help you tweak the recipe until you've hit a broccoli creation worthy of Goldilocks.

  4. Serving size is important! Most restaurants serve similar sized sides. If you order a side of steamed broccoli, you don't expect a dime-sized floret. Or a 10-gallon pot of cream of broccoli soup.

    Translation: Know the appropriate serving size for your category and genre, and do your best to stick to it. For example, YA contemporary tends to run 50,000-80,000 words. If you have a 10,000 word manuscript or a 250,000 word manuscript, it's going to be hard to sell, especially if you are a debut author.

  5. Don't give up on your broccoli. Maybe you had a rough growing season. Maybe you under-cooked it. Maybe, you cooked the crap out of it and it's a charred rock of bitter disappointment. It happens! But the awesome thing about broccoli is that there are tons of broccoli seeds available to replant if the crop was decimated. If it's under cooked, toss it back in the oven. Over-cooked mess --take it back a few drafts or chalk it up as experience.

    Translation: Don't give up on your writing! Maybe the #PitchWars experience has been rough. Maybe your name isn't on the list of mentees. It's okay to be disappointed, but please remember, you aren't a failure. You put your words out into the world. That's BRAVE! That's BOLD! That's BADASS!

    So, maybe you have to go back and cook your manuscript a bit longer. Sprinkle on more seasoning. Remove excess fat. Maybe the broccoli has had its day in the sun and it's time to plant a new crop of seeds that will be stronger and better for the experience. Maybe it's time to try out that green bean recipe you clipped from a magazine a few years back.

    Just. Keep. Writing.

The thing with #PitchWars is that mentors can only chose one. And speaking as a mentor, choosing one manuscript is an incredibly complicated, painful, and humbling process. #TheSquad received so many amazing submissions. I am in awe of the talent in our inbox, and so very grateful to those of you who chose to share your work with us. It has been an amazing broccoli buffet!