How to Pump Out 32,604 Words in a Month

Margy Rydzynski and I have been colleagues and friends for years. When I met her for coffee last June, she had an unexpected question for me. Would I be her NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) coach? The worldwide NaNoWriMo challenge is held every November, but Margy was going to do hers in July.

I knew Margy had been writing a novel. And I was aware that she had put it aside to take care of some other major demands in her life. So I was thrilled to know she was going to resume work on her manuscript, and happy to have a chance to help out.

After Margy completed the challenge, I asked her to tell my blog visitors about her experience. The first thing I wanted to know was why 20,000 – 30,000 words? Here are her answers to that and to my other questions.
– Lynette

Margy Rydzynski

Margy Rydzynski

Why that many words? I had already completed 50,000 words of my novel and didn’t think it would take another 50,000 to finish it. The 50,000 word count is provided by NaNoWriMo as part of their November writing challenge. I wasn’t sure how many more words my novel needed to be completed, so I just wrote until I was done! Lynette tells me I wrote well over an additional 32,000 words of the novel in July.

How did I prepare for an effort of this magnitude and what did I give up? I work as a freelance consultant and teacher. My working life is therefore unpredictable, but summer is generally a bit slower. Normally, I use the time to catch up on my own work and plan new projects. In order to produce the amount of writing on my novel as I did, I decided to put all but the most time-critical work on the back burner and treat the writing as my highest priority. I had to be available for current clients, but I didn’t take on anything new.

What was the most difficult part? Getting started! It took me a while to get back into the swing of things. I hadn’t worked on this novel in quite some time and had to read over a lot of my notes to pick up the thread. Fortunately, I’ve kept a blog with possible plot progressions, characters, etc. I spent a good deal of time thinking about the story and writing down ideas, many of which came to me while I was in the shower!

Did I achieve my goal? Yes, although the first draft is very rough. At least it’s done, though. Editing will be a lot easier (I hope)!

My advice to those considering doing NaNoWriMo: You need to jump into it completely, not just dip your toes in. Life can and will get in the way, so you have to look at the big picture and organize your time accordingly. You have to write when you don’t feel like writing and just go on with the story. Above all, DO NOT EDIT YOUR WORK as you’re writing. The goal is to produce a lot of words, and editing as you go will bog you down.

What support did I have to for my July NaNoWriMo challenge? I knew I’d need someone to keep my feet to the fire, since my life is so unpredictable. I immediately thought of my friend Lynette, who’s a writing instructor and coach. I hired her to be my official “nudge” and, I have to say, I got my money’s worth! She sent me daily quotes for inspiration, met me in person from time to time to see how I was doing—and more. I had to send her my word count and writing for each day. There was no way I could slack off with her as my task manager.

Have you participated in NaNoWriMo? Got any tips you care to share?

Want help making real progress on your writing? Use the Contact tab at the top of this page to get in touch with me.

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Edith Maxwell, Cozy Mystery Author

I met Edith Maxwell a few weeks ago when she appeared at our local senior center to discuss her work. Several of my creative writing students (two of them mystery writers) also turned up to hear from this multi-published writer. During the question and answer session that followed Edith’s informative talk, I learned that a number of others in the audience were nurturing mystery manuscripts themselves. It was clear they found Edith’s words enlightening and encouraging.
– Lynette

Author, Edith Maxwell

Author, Edith Maxwell

I’m delighted to be Lynette’s guest today, here at Tools and Tactics for Writers. I’m a full-time fiction writer. I wrote stories as a child in California, and then had forays into journalism, academic writing, medical editing, and technical writing.

Twenty years ago, when I was an organic farmer (and a wife, and mom to two little boys) in a small town in northeastern Massachusetts, I took the off season to start writing a mystery novel. For it, I invented single woman Cam Flaherty, a former software engineer, who leaves hi-tech and goes north of Boston to run her great-uncle’s farm.

I created a murder on her property, envisioned the antique farmhouse she lives in, and more. After joining a writing group I learned a tremendous amount about creative writing from my peers’ critiques.

When farm season resumed and on into the next fall, I started my career as a technical writer. I didn’t have time or energy to continue the farm mystery while also working and raising my kids. So I put it on hold and began writing short stories, landing several in competitive anthologies.

When I was laid off my job in 2008, I wrote a short story about murderous revenge after a company layoff called, “Reduction in Force.” It was published in an anthology of best New England Crime Fiction and I later self-published the story as a reprint. I found another tech-writer job after several months, and over the next two years I wrote a different novel. Speaking of Murder features Quaker linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau, who finds her star student dead on campus. It was tough to keep sending out query letter after query letter, but my buddies in the Sisters in Crime organization were hugely supportive, and I found inspiration to turn to small presses after I couldn’t find an agent who felt she could sell that book.

After dozens of rejections from agents, Speaking of Murder was acquired by a reputable small press, Barking Rain Press. When it finally sold, I was more than delighted.

I was then fortunate enough to land a three-book contract with Kensington Publishing for a Local Foods Mysteries series in which I finally got back to the farm. For the first book, A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die, I used the “world” I had invented twenty years earlier: same farmer, same farmhouse, even the same murder, but I rewrote all of it, because I had learned a lot about creative writing in the interim. I love immersing myself in the world of farming again, except now I don’t have to do the hard work real farming involves. Writing it is much more fun!

Full-time Writer
A year ago, at age 60, I left my day job to write fiction full time. I’ve completed all three books in the Local Foods Mysteries and have sent in my ideas for the next three books, although Kensington hasn’t yet let me know if they are renewing my contract. I finished the second Lauren Rousseau mystery, Bluffing is Murder; it will release in November.

I’m now writing an historical mystery set in Amesbury, Massachusetts, in 1888, featuring a Quaker midwife and the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Last fall I won an award for one of several short stories I wrote. And I’ve submitted a proposal for a new contemporary mystery series.

So I don’t consider myself retired; writing mysteries is my new full-time job. It’s not lucrative yet, but the more I write, the sooner it will pay off. And I’ve never been happier.

Advice for Would-Be Authors
If you’re considering a fiction-writing career (whether your first career or your last), I hope you’ll search out other authors. Find organizations that support your genre. Take courses, online and in person. Try to find an in-person writing group you mesh well with and the members of which give you constructive critique without negativity. Most of all, follow the writers’ mantra: butt in the chair, fingers on the keyboard. You can can’t sell what you haven’t written.

Click the cover image to learn more about this book

I’m running a contest until May 27: Anyone who pre-orders my new book, ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part can enter to win a gorgeous hand-painted signed silk scarf. Details on my web site!
Edith Maxwell writes the Local Foods Mystery series (Kensington Publishing).‘Til Dirt Do Us Part, which chronicles a murder that takes place after a Farm-to-Table dinner, releases May 27.

Maxwell has published short stories of murderous revenge, most recently “Breaking the Silence” in Best New England Crime Stories 2014: Stone Cold (Level Best Books, 2013); the story won an Honorable Mention in the Al Blanchard Short Crime Fiction 2014 contest.

Edith Maxwell also authors the Speaking of Mystery series under the pseudonym Tace Baker; Bluffing is Murder releases in late 2014 (Barking Rain Press). Edith holds a long-unused doctorate in linguistics and is a long-time member of Amesbury Friends Meeting. She lives north of Boston with her beau and three cats.

Edith blogs every weekday with the rest of the Wicked Cozy Authors. You can also find her at, on Twitter, on Pinterest, and on Facebook. She’d love to connect with you.

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Rewriting: When it’s Time to Start Over

I’ve heard Mary Wasmuth’s diary entries and essays in the journaling class I lead at the Weston (Massacusetts) Public Library. They’ve moved me, and made me laugh. And I’m pretty sure they’ve made me smarter.

I’m thrilled that after several years of inviting Mary to contribute to this blog, she has agreed.

Enjoy her guest post! May you be wiser after reading it.
– Lynette

Mary Wasmuth

Mary Wasmuth

I need to start this novel over. Again. No, I mean I want to start over—really. I have a framework now that retains the plot and characters; pulls the story together; and, in a death-defying feat of writerly liposuction, surgically removes great droopy hunks of midsection.

Then why am I spending my time writing this post? Shouldn’t I be starting a new folder, opening a new document, giving it my new title? Why do I sit in front of Call the Midwife—unlikely, I thought, to inspire binge watching—instead of my computer? I’ve seen eight episodes in five days. And why did I choose this moment to reorganize my writing files? Toss out my reams of painful early drafts?

It’s because I’ve started over so many times, so blithely. And, though I really believe (as I keep telling myself), I’ve found an approach that works, my memories of all the other hopeful starts paralyze me. I shouldn’t have gone through those files.

You see, I taught myself to write—with a great deal of expert help and guidance, though perhaps a little late in the game—by writing this novel. I learned and revised, learned and reshaped, learned and rethought and reshaped again. I eliminated narrators (whittling ten down to four) and killed off characters, including my carefully crafted, and re-crafted, second protagonist. I believed I was nearly done.

Thinking to polish things up a little, perhaps add a few final touches, I took the “Setting, Subtext, and Suspense” class in Michelle Hoover’s terrific novel series at Boston’s Grub Street. I rewrote three scenes in the one-day class, and I caught a glimpse of how much richer they could be, how much richer the novel could be. Which gave me the courage to cast a coldly objective eye over my first chapter. I deemed it . . . not good enough. I started to rethink. Again.

Of course, this is how you do it if you want to do it right. I know that. In Do Not Hurry—a blog post I reread whenever I start over, Michelle Hoover makes it clear that writing a novel simply “takes as long as it takes.” No way around it.

This time, at least, I know what to do, and I know why. Rather than the story of a mouthy, defiant girl who starts a punk rock band (called Fatgirlz), the novel will be a fictional history of Fatgirlz, a fictional punk band started by a mouthy, defiant girl. Suddenly, the four narrators make sense. Bands are unstable amalgams of individual musicians; a band story would have to incorporate several personal stories. Why, I could bring back some of my lost narrators!

I pause briefly to squelch this idea.

The new structure will be cleaner. More coherent. Maybe even funnier—because I am going to sneak in one more voice, a music critic. Band histories require critic-penned introductions. The more obscure the group, the more florid and pretentious the preface—and Fatgirlz is very, very obscure.

This could be fun. I really should just make that new folder. Open that new document. Call it Meet the Fatgirlz instead of Tastee Girl. And start over. One last time.

Have you ever decided to rewrite (and rewrite) a piece you’d considered finished? What was your approach? Did you take a break first? Tackle the thing head-on? Or, decide to catch up on all five seasons of Breaking Bad? Perfect your jump shot? Spring clean your apartment? Write a post for Tools and Tactics for Writers?

I hope that's not her novel in that bag.

I hope that’s not Mary’s novel in that bag.

When she’s not avoiding rewriting her novel, Mary Wasmuth works as a librarian and job-search coach. She’s president of the advisory board for Framingham Adult ESL Plus and recording secretary for the Boston chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. Mary has studied at Grub Street, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and in Lynette Benton’s journaling class.

Follow Mary on Twitter.

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How Do You Feel About Writing Contests?

A bit of controversy exists about whether or not it’s beneficial for writers to enter their work in writing contests.

Some feel that contests are a waste of time and money, contending that publishers aren’t impressed by a writer winning a contest. And they’re not very happy that most contests require an entry fee of $10.00 or more.

On the other hand, entering writing contests can be a way to get your work measured against other writers’ work. Sometimes the contest judges will give a contestant valuable feedback; many contests offer publication of your writing, if you are among the winners.

Recommended Resources
One of the best sources of writing contests is Poets & Writers. Read one perspective (okay, a rant) about submitting stories to writing contests in “Common Faults in Short Stories,” by Stephen Moran, The New Writer’s Handbook, Volume 2. (It’s a book.)

What’s your opinion on writing contests? Have you entered any? Benefitted from any? Been burned by any? Leave a comment to share your experience.

I’d be honored if you’d subscribe to this blog and follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton for more writing tips.

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A Reader Talks About Reading and Writing, Part 1

Lesley Peebles is my close friend who’s been part of my reading, and just as importantly, my writing life for 25 years.

Because she’s so prolific and thoughtful a reader and has given me feedback on so much of my writing, I wanted to present her ideas about writing and reading here.

– Lynette

How do you feel reading benefits people?

Lesley vacationing in Montreal

First, there are the pragmatic reasons. Most of us have to read to do our jobs, even if we’re just reading memos or instruction books. The more you practice on your own, the better you get—not just faster but deeper. Reading taught me how to write grammatically, a skill that’s still valuable though increasingly rare. It taught me how to think from different perspectives—I’m able to translate two sides of a conversation that otherwise would go nowhere.

And then there’s the sheer delight of a plot turn, a character, even a perfect sentence. The pleasure of new companions, all with new stories to tell. The escape from the mundane, the escape to a new culture. The sobering reflection to count my blessings. Reading has taught me empathy.

I share my favorite books with my friends and family. When my mother started passing me books she’d just finished, it was a rite of passage. I read aloud to my children long after they’d learned to read themselves, right up to the point where their longing to know what happened next overwhelmed the comfort of my presence.

What do you read—and why?

Read Part 2 of this interview.

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A Reader Talks About Reading and Writing, Part 2

My interview with my long-time friend and voracious reader, Lesley Peebles. continues below. – Lynette

What are your favorite books from various eras in your life?

Lesley vacationing in Montreal

The Narnia books still inform my spiritual life.

When I was 11, I must have read The Descent of Woman—in which the author proposed that homo erectus spent a couple of millennia on the beach, thus the lack of fur and the presence of sub-cutaneous fat—at least ten times. I was like a toddler watching a movie over and over again, deriving new meaning each time.

As an adolescent, I loved Les Miserables. The melodrama of it, especially the resolution—the hero on his deathbed, with his daughter and her beloved beside him—reflected my own emotional life.

Now I have so many favorite book, but I don’t reread them the way I used to. Instead I press them on my friends. The most recent was Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. I read Cider House Rules when it first came out, and could hardly wait the ten years or I needed before I’d forget enough about it to read it again.

Have you ever thought about writing a book? 

There’s one book I want to write. It would be for grade-school or younger children. It’s about a young man finding his vocation in a very abbreviated and visual way.

Do any particular topics appeal to you?

I dream constantly about parallel lives. About the door I’ve never opened in my house. About the back stairs and hallways that servants used in estate houses. About worlds you can move between if you follow the correct ritual.

In one recurring dream, I enter a spiral staircase at the bottom, climb to the first landing and turn around. Suddenly, the staircase doesn’t end where I came in, but spirals down into another country.

These books would be for young readers: as you can tell, my imagination is plot- and location-based, not character driven.

Do you think you’ll ever write one?

Maybe. My cousin could illustrate my story. But I’d have to conquer my internal editor first, and she’s fierce.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I have opportunities to write from time to time. I wrote a devotional for my church’s Advent booklet, for example. I find writing very satisfying – but only when I have something compelling to say.

What do you read—and why?

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My Wonderful Creative Writing Teens

Recently the extraordinary teens in my creating writing class read from their work in a public forum. It’s true the audience was mostly made up of the teens’ relatives, but even that’s meaningful. Some of my students had never allowed their parents to see their work before. And trust me, their writing is worth sharing.

When I agreed to teach teens creative writing at my local library, I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t have teens, and haven’t spent much time with teens since I was one. In fact, the only teens I’ve spent any time with were my husband’s and my two nieces and two nephews.

I teach creative writing in numerous locations—to students decades older than these teens. In my first meeting with the group a year or so ago, I brought along my usual lesson plans. I’m glad I listened to them read their work before I got started teaching, because after I became familiar with their writing in that first class, I told them, “You don’t need any of this stuff,” and I tossed my plans.

These teens were well beyond my introductory material.

What they needed from me were those tools and tactics published writers use to keep readers engaged; reminders to avoid cliches in favor of sharp, original wording; ways to shape a story so that is flows well; and methods for making their ideas as clear as possible.

They also needed a place where they felt comfortable revealing their work. I’m amazed at how considerate they are in offering feedback to their classmates, and how willing they are to help one another come up with a title or a name for a character.

They write dystopian and fantasy/SF fiction. One writes mainstream novels. Another writes brilliantly intellectual, yet thoroughly accessible short fiction. And one of them even undertook the ambitious writing of a villanelle, a highly-structured, 19-line poem. (Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” is a villanelle.)

While I listened to my students read their work to the public yesterday, I was as proud as their parents.

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3 (or 4) Terrific Books for Aspiring Writers

Are there books you turn to again and again to inspire your muse or strengthen your writing?

This post (and a few to follow) is about those books I most often recommend to my creative writing students. Why? Because each of these books covers a lot of ground in an easy, accessible way. You won’t have to search through dozens of densely-written paragraphs or pages to find the information you need.

Give these titles a chance. Give your writing a chance.

If you’re lacking in inspiration, curl up with a copy of If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland. This classic retains its value, especially for the overly self-critical writer. It gives you delightful permission to write as yourself. It’s sincere, spiritual, and wise.

No writer should be without the Beginning Writer’s Answer Book, edited by Jane Friedman. Published by Writer’s Digest Books, this book is a nearly complete reference for newbies and experienced writers, alike. It covers writing and selling novels, nonfiction, and short fiction; how to market scripts; and addresses how to write a book proposal and find an agent. It contains hundreds of questions, and more importantly, their answers.

The next on my list is The New Writer’s Handbook: A Practical Anthology of Best Advice for Your Craft and Career, edited by Philip Martin. It comes in two volumes, both superb resources. They contain helpful essays on a variety of writing topics. Don’t miss essays by This American Life‘s Ira Glass (whose brief advice on writing stories applies to both fiction and nonfiction) and by Stephen Moran, who could be billed as the literary Simon Cowell.

These are the first books I recommend to my students. Got any you’d like to share?

For more tips on being a better writer, see How to Become a Writer and Calm Down! It’s Just a Draft.

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Bestselling Author Leigh Russell’s Advice to Aspiring Writers

Author Leigh Russell writes the bestselling series of crime thrillers featuring detective Geraldine Steel. Her novels are CUT SHORT (2009); ROAD CLOSED (2010); and  DEAD END (2011). Leigh generously shares tips for aspiring writers in her guest post below.


Guest Post by Leigh Russell

Author Leigh Russell

We hear so much these days about how difficult it is to become a published author, it’s a wonder anyone even tries. I hope my experience will encourage aspiring authors!

I was never particularly interested in being published and didn’t even start writing until my fifties – but once started I couldn’t stop. Four years on I’m still hooked and find it difficult to go a single day without writing.

My history is well documented. The original draft of what became my first novel was completed in six weeks. I submitted the manuscript to three publishers without any expectations of hearing back. You can imagine my surprise when I was called two weeks later by someone who is now my publisher.

The rest, as they say, is history.

My debut crime thriller was shortlisted for a major award, and received enthusiastic reviews in numerous journals, including The Times and US Publishers Weekly. It got me an invitation to appear at an international literary festival, a string of BBC radio interviews, accolades from such luminaries as Jeffery Deaver…

I was thrilled to be invited to write a guest post here, offering advice to aspiring writers. Here goes…

Work hard. Make sure your submission is as good as it can be, because you face stiff competition.

Be brave. As an author, you stick your head above the parapet. If you don’t welcome constructive criticism, publication is not for you.

Be lucky. Who knows? This time next year you too could be the author of a bestselling novel!

Join Leigh in France, where she will spend a week in October, running Creative Writing workshops. Click on the link to find out more. To keep abreast of Leigh’s work, follow her on Twitter @LeighRussell.

Leigh Russell's latest crime thriller

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