Word Wars, Sprints, and Crawls (Oh my)

The main focus of my creativity quest is revolving around Camp NaNoWriMo, striving to hit my goal of 50,000 words by the end of the month. I came out strong, getting over 10,000 words in a single day at one point. But it never fails: I always start to falter when I make it to the halfway point. My stories lose a little bit of steam and I am easily distracted by household chores and reading other people’s books rather than writing my own. I’ve done enough of these challenges to know that this is pretty routine for me. So how do you re-energize yourself when you find yourself itching to pick up the TV remote? Simple: you turn it into a game.

            There are a lot of fun ways to step up your word count goal. There are prompts, sprints, crawls and wars; oh my, my darlings, wherever will we start?

The Prompts

Prompts are a pretty basic way to reinvigorate your writing, although it can feel challenging at times to insert a prompt right in the middle of an existing project- that’s the fun part. For these you can pick something off-the wall, a vague concept, or simply take a detour from your story to gain new perspective on your characters or the elements influencing them.

  • Fan-Fiction Freestyle: Pick a favorite character and insert them into your story (you can change their name and general appearance, but have the core of that person remain true to the character you chose). What will they do int the world you created, how will they interact with your characters? What kind of mischief could they insert into the story line?
  • Volcano Theory: What unexpected eruption would have the most impact on your character and how will they respond to it? It could be in a relationship (an unexpected kiss), emotional (a blind-siding truth bomb), physical (a building collapses, a sucker-punch in a crowd), or natural (an actual volcanic eruption, anyone). The key here is to make create an explosion that changes the landscape of your story
  • Extra, Extra, Read All About It: Flip through a magazine or a newspaper (or click a random link from a news site). Whatever the article is- incorporate it into your story. This one can be fun because you can tailor your choices a bit: interested in a sci-fi element, search out a science magazine. Want pop culture: hello, People. Want something truly random: National Geographic, Archeology Magazine- there are a lot of good choices out there. You never know what you are going to find. It could even be an ad for a new dry shampoo: perhaps your character will have to use it to cause an explosion in a bathroom so they can escape and hitch a ride on the nearest passenger plane.
  • Style Swap: Change up your genre. Writing sci-fi? Create a scene in the style of an over-the-top soap opera. Working through a post-apocalyptic piece? Insert some poetry. In the middle of a murder mystery? Why not toss in some hints at paranormal elements?
  • This is the Worst: What is the worst possible thing that could happen to your character right now? Make it happen. Our characters are forged through the crucibles we lead them through.
  • Getting in Their Heads: Stick your MC on the proverbial therapist’s couch. What are they thinking and feeling, how are they dealing right now? What is scaring them, what is motivating them, what is confusing them? Will they break down? Are they in denial? Will they push therapist away, start throwing things? Get under their skin and in their heads, do a deep dive to understand them a little bit better.
  • Playful POV’s: Write a scene from another character’s POV. It will help you find more depth within the scene and understand the motivations behind each of your characters- you want 3 dimensions for all of them, not just the coveted MC. What is their motivation, what makes them tic? How will they response to these situations? This one is really good to help develop a scene and give it more depth. Plus, sometimes those characters will take you in very unexpected directions.  

Word Sprints

Word Sprints are fairly simply. Just pick a certain amount of time you want to write, set your timer and go! Try to beat your own records, or join a group (you can find them in the Nano Forums, on Twitter- all kinds of places) to see how your word count lines up.

Word Wars

Wars are very similar to Sprints. You pick a friend, stranger, person in the street- and have a friendly competition to see who can get the most words in a set challenge. Most often you see this with timed sprints, but you can also challenge someone to a crawl, or an overall daily count challenge. Alternatively, you can attempt a ‘time trials’ version where you only compete with yourself. (Current-you can totally kick past-you’s booty, you got this!)

The Fifty Headed Hydra Challenge

This is perhaps the most famous of the sprint challenges. The premise itself is pretty simple, though it is considered to be one of the harder ones to accomplish. You set your timer for 5 minutes. The goal here is to see if you can hit 500 words before that timer goes off. The key to winning: write with frantic abandon. Don’t worry about punctuation errors or spelling. Just type/write as fast as your hands will allow. The legend behind the name is that the original creator managed to hit the illusive 500 word goal, but the only words they spelled correctly were ‘fifty,’ ‘headed,’ and ‘hydra.’ And thus: the lore was born.

World Crawls

Crawls are my absolute favorites. They are fun, challenging, and combine all of the previous challenges together into a pocket-sized epic adventure. My big NaNo goal is to do a crawl every single day of NaNo. I haven’t managed it yet- it usually requires a bit more prep than I’ve put into it. Perhaps in November you’ll see me giving it another shot.

Crawl are narrative-style challenges that walk you through a particular storyline while peppering you with writing challenges you have to complete before moving on. They are almost always themed. You can find just about anything: generic D&D style, fandom oriented, fantasy, romance- just about anything you can imagine. The most popular usually surround fandoms: think Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Sherlock Holmes, Hunger Games- the list is truly endless and new ones are being created every day. Some can be finished in under 30 minutes while others carry you through multi-day epic adventures. In the end you tally up the number of words the crawl got you and then you get to celebrate your victory.

Below is a link to the Fun and Games section of the blog. On that page I will be regularly adding new crawls and other games. At the moment there is just my own first attempt- The Mummy Word Crawl. Check back over time and you’ll be able to catch some new additions.

Fun and Games: Writing Edition

Word Wars, Sprints and Crawls- Oh My!

I had never heard of word sprints, word wars or really any form of writing game before Nano. I was oblivious to the tricks of the word count game. And then one year, as I was roaming through the message boards willfully ignoring my project, I came across the section that contained these magical little creations. You seen, while Nano is one of the most exciting challenges that I have taken part in, there reaches a point (some years it strikes much sooner than others) when you find yourself with a 100-yard stare and Cheetos stuck in your hair. You are exhausted, your creative juices are tapped, and you cant help but wonder if you should be carted straight off to the nearest mental health institution for simply signing up for such an impossible task. It doesn’t matter how great your start was- you will hit this wall, you wont be wearing a helmet, and it will hurt. Bad.

When this happens- there is only one thing to do to keep your word count on point: play a couple of games. I don’t know who began these creative ploys to reignite that competitive spark, but they deserve to sit in the Iron Throne and control all of the realms- they are that good. Over the next few weeks I am going to be periodically posting some of my own creations, but, as none of those have been completed or tested, today I am going to share just a few of my favorite pre-existing challenges that have helped me through some rough writing patches. These are pretty versatile and can be used in just about any first draft you could be working on- blogs included.

  • Word Sprints and Word Wars: This is one is very simple, you pick the length of time you want to write for, set your timer and hit the ground running. It’s best if used while competing with another person using the same time limit. Although I tend to prefer a ‘time trials’ version where I compete against myself. Rewards are optional (personally, I strongly suggest Rollo’s if you beat your previous ‘high score,’ but I am very food driven.)
    • Carrot and Stick: This can fall into the sprinting category, although technically you can use it anywhere. This is a very simple reward/punishment premise. You set a goal (for example, 500 words in 10 minutes), and then you have a reward or an punishment hanging over your head (perhaps if you meet your goal you get to watch an episode of your favorite show. If you don’t then you must do the dishes). This can also come into play with your daily word goals.
  • The Fifty-Headed Hydra: Legend has it that the creator of this challenge made the attempt and the only correctly spelled words on his paper after the carnage were ‘fifty’ ‘headed’ and ‘hydra.’ The challenge: to write 500 words in 5 minutes. Obviously spelling doesn’t count, don’t use the backspace, just start flying and correct things later. This is an insanely difficult challenge, but it’s fun when you are speeding so fast that you can’t get too far into your own head.
  • Word Crawls: This is my all-time favorite challenge, and it comes in many different forms. A word crawl is basically like an interactive writing game. There is a little bit of a plot, and as you read through it you are given random challenges to complete as you proceed. My favorites tend to revolve around fandoms, though they come in all shapes and sizes. Here is an example from one of my favorite Harry Potter crawls, creator unknown (I will gladly give full credit if I ever learn who made it). This one is a bit more involved than some, but it’s fun nonetheless, if you care to try.

Extreme Harry Potter Crawl: Year 1


Welcome to the Extreme Harry Potter Crawl: Year One! Depending on your writing speed, pick your blood status.

Muggleborn: Slower

Halfblood: Medium

Pureblood: Faster

Galleons can be used to purchase round skips. If you don’t want to do a specific challenge, spend a Galleon in order to move on to the next one.

You receive your Hogwarts letter by owl and are completely ecstatic to head out for your first year at Hogwarts. Sprint to 100 to let out your excitement and energy.

You arrive in Diagon Alley and your first stop is Gringotts, wizard bank. Write for ten minutes. The amount of words you write will determine how many Galleons are in your vault.


Less than 100 words: 1 Galleon

100-200 words: 2 Galleons

More than 200 words: 3 Galleons


Less than 150 words: 1 Galleon

150-250 words: 2 Galleons

More than 250 words: 3 Galleons


Less than 250 words: 1 Galleon

250-350 words: 2 Galleons

More than 350 words: 3 Galleons

You step into Ollivander’s wand shop. Roll a die and multiply your roll by 100. Sprint to that many words.

Finally, you’re done shopping! But before you leave, you decide that you want to purchase a pet. Write for 15 minutes as you search for the perfect animal for you. Pick one: owl, cat, toad.

After months of waiting, you’ve arrived on platform 9 ¾ and boarded the Hogwarts Express! Write to the nearest thousand as you settle into your seat and get ready for a long ride. If you need to write more than 500 words for this challenge and choose not to skip this round, take one Galleon.

Anything off the trolley, dear? Buy some sweets to help get you through the ride! Depending on your candy, find your challenge below!

Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans: Participate in a Fifty Headed Hydra as you frantically try to get the taste of vomit out of your mouth.

Chocolate Frog: Write for five minutes as you chase down the frog.

Licorice Wand: Sprint to 150 words

Pumpkin PastiesRoll a die and multiply by 50. Write that many words.

If you take the lot and complete all the challenges, take one Galleon as well. If you have a toad, you may skip this round for free.

You arrive at the castle and wait in the hall with the rest of the first years. You notice a boy with messy black hair and glasses talking with a redheaded boy, a girl with bushy hair whispering to the people around her, and a boy with pale… well, everything. Write for ten minutesas you attempt to socialize with the people around you.

Professor McGonagall escorts you and your peers into the Great Hall for the Sorting. After the Sorting Hat sings its song and several students walk up timidly, your name is called, and you sit yourself down on the stool, timid and worried about what is about to happen. McGonagall places the hat on your head, and you are sorted into your House. Pick from the four Houses- Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin.

Gryffindor: Are you brave enough to write ten times your typing speed in 10 minutes?

Hufflepuff: Remain loyal to your word count and write steadily for one hour with no breaks.

Ravenclaw: Calculate how many words it will take for you to write to the nearest 1000.

Slytherin: You’re an ambitious one, aren’t you? Write 1000 words in 30 minutes!

The feast is delicious! Do the Three Digit Challenge as you eat at your House table and talk with those around you, as well as your House ghost. If you have an owl, you may skip this round for free.

You’ve settled into your dormitory quite quickly and nicely, and your first couple weeks of class go well. Write for an hour as you grow accustomed to your new classes and all of the magic you’re learning.

Muggleborns: If you write 750 words within the hour, take 2 Galleons.

Halfbloods: If you write 1,000 words within the hour, take 2 Galleons.

Purebloods: If you write 1,250 words within the hour, take 2 Galleons.

On your way to Potions, the messy haired boy who you now know is Harry Potter stops and asks you if you know where Professor Binns’ classroom is. Write 200 words in 10 minutes as you try to remember where his classroom is.

If you succeed: Harry hurries to Binns’ classroom and gives you a Galleon as a thank you for your help.

If you fail: You spend so much time trying to help Harry that you are both late to your next class. Write another 200 words as you apologize to Snape and try not to lose any points for your House.

You get locked out of your common room and Mrs. Norris finds you! You run with Harry, Ron, and Hermione to the third door corridor, and you find a giant three-headed dog! After making it back to your dormitory safely, roll a die, multiply your roll by 100, and write that many words as you try to calm down. If you have a cat, you can skip this round for free.

Troll! In the dungeon! You go with Harry and Ron to find Hermione and end up fighting the troll with them. Sprint to 500, and try not to get yourself killed.

You go down to Hagrid’s hut to have tea with him. When you try his treacle fudge, your teeth get stuck together! Write for twenty minutesas Hagrid tries to help and Madam Pomfrey magically loosens the cement-like effect the fudge had on your mouth.

Months pass, and it’s Christmas morning! You receive 3 Galleons from your parents, as well as a challenge from the Weasley twins. Write 1000 words in under an hour.

If you succeed: they give you a Galleon.

If you fail: they hit you with snowballs until you’re buried under heavy amounts of snow and make you write 250 more words.

During the Gryffindor vs Slytherin Quidditch game, you get incredibly excited. Roll a die. If even, you’re cheering for Gryffindor; if odd, you’re cheering for Slytherin. Word war for fifteen minutes with someone cheering for the opposite team. If you beat them, you win your bet, and you take 2 of their Galleons. But be careful- if you lose, you give them 2 of your Galleons. A bet’s a bet.

Harry tells you that he suspects that Snape is going after the Philosopher’s Stone and you decide to go with the trio to try to get to the Stone before Snape does. But before you can even go down the trapdoor, you need to make it past Fluffy. Write for ten minutes as you lull him to sleep sneak through the door.

Oh no- you and your friends are trapped in a patch of Devil’s Snare! Hermione tells you that you need to write 250 words in five minutesin order to safely escape.

If you succeed: You make it out of the deadly plant without a scratch and even spot a Galleon on the ground. What luck!

If you fail: Hermione has to set the plant on fire to get you out alive. She thinks very poorly of your skills now, so write another 250 words to impress her.

Harry catches a flying key and opens a large wooden door. Inside the next room is a giant wizard chess set. You and your friends need to replace some of the pieces and play the game. Ron takes the place of a knight, Harry becomes a bishop, and Hermione takes over for a rook. Pick a chess piece and complete the challenge below!

Pawn: You know you won’t be of much use to the game and think it would be wisest to be taken out early. Complete a Fifty Headed Hydraand take a fifteen minute writing break to recover from your injuries.

Rook: You take the place of the other rook and spend the game running across the board, strategically taking out important pieces of the other side’s team. Sprint to 200 and take a five minute writing break once the game is won.

Bishop: You take the place of the other bishop and sneakily take out pawns on the other team. Write for 20 minutes and take a five minute writing break once the game is won.

Knight: You take the place of the other knight and become the wild card of the match. Write 300 words in 15 minutes until you’re taken out by one of the other team’s rooks. Take a fifteen minute writing break to recover from your injuries.

Harry and Hermione move ahead into the next room when you stay with Ron. When Hermione comes back, sprint to 300 as you run to find Dumbledore and explain the situation to him.

The word gets out that Professor Quirrell is the one who wanted the stone, not Snape! Rumors also spread of your bravery in helping Harry, Ron, and Hermione as you four went through the challenges the professors set to protect the stone. Dumbledore awards you fifty points for your courage. Write for five minutes as your peers congratulate and admire you.

Summer vacation is here! Take an hour long writing break– you deserve it! In the meantime, post your words written during your first year at Hogwarts as well as how many Galleons you have left in your vault, and stay tuned for the Extreme Harry Potter Crawl: Year Two!

And there you have it, my friends- some more fun and games to keep you motivated throughout the month. There will be some original ‘games’ coming your way in the next few weeks, if you care to take a gander at them. I am also toying with the idea of a work-out version (ugh, the adult inside is beginning to feel guilty for these long hours in front of the laptop), and perhaps and adult drinking version- although I suspect that would not yield the best results.

Cheers my friends, and may the odds be ever in your favor this writing season.

We do it 4thewords (a new writing challenge)

Writing is hard. There is no way around this fact; the longer you work at it, the more tedious the tasks become. Writing is my passion, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t fall into the same ruts as everyone else. When you begin taking your work more seriously your investments become compounded and the flittering fingers on keyboards occasionally morph into plodding digits squeezing words from a stone. It is easy to fall into a familiar pattern- sometimes this is good, sometimes this is comforting, and sometimes the rut grows so deep that you begin to feel trapped by the very thing that you adore.

As I said, writing is hard. When the world is throwing as many distractions as it can at you, some days it is all too easy to throw in the towel and tell yourself that tomorrow you will make up for the ground you lost today. I have fallen into this trap many a time. And as a survivor of the pits of despairing inspirations, I have learned to combat them.

Nano was the first venture that taught me to view my work in a different light; it was exciting, exhilarating- playing off of my competitive nature to get me to sit down every night and string one word after another when all I wanted to do was curl up in bed with a movie. Fifty thousand words in one month, however, can become a bit daunting. And that is where the games come in. If you go to the forums you will find them- speed writing challenges, the fifty headed hydra, and my personal favorite- the word crawl. There are many games to keep you invested, to keep you plugging away at your work. And now, my friends, I have a new one to introduce you to.

I am a sucker for a good story, for a plot. Even in my fitness routines- my favorites are the apps that give you a distraction from the difficulty of what you are doing. There is the one that pretends you are a super hero or a space invader and you work out as you work your way through the story. Or the Zombies run app- an audio game that plays as you go for your daily jog, to keep you moving and excited to get back out there. And now we have a writerly version.

About a year ago I ‘won’ a beta subscription to a website called ‘4thewords,’ I believe it was something I wound up with through Nano, but that doesn’t particularly matter. It was a fun interactive website full of daily writing challenges that appear in the form of monsters you must battle (your timed word count is what determines whether you win or lose). You work your way through a storyline while battling creatures and collecting items- your success is dependent on your word count. The concept was something that I quickly fell in love with. However, technology can be a fickle friend, and , as they were still in beta, the site was fraught with technical bugs and glitches. It reached a point where my frustration grew too large and I stopped ‘playing.’ Opting to come back after a while when some of the issues might be a bit more ironed out. There was no blame to be hashed out- the idea was gold- but a bit more time would allow it to ripen.

Fast forward to now. Yesterday I was curious what happened to my old writing venture, so I came back. And behold- the beta clouds have passed, and we have taken the first bold steps into the early access mode. I have to say- I am so impressed with the huge strides the creative team has made in expanding and enriching the site. The visuals are bright and eye catching, the storyline is a bit more developed, the monsters are as cute and ferocious as ever, and the outcome is the same- it gets me writing again with a feverish determination that I haven’t felt in months. I will candidly admit that I have been struggling lately, and I have needed a boost. I have desperately been looking for that catalyst that will remind me why I do this every day. I have found it. I am on the adventure yet again.

The downside: there is now a subscription fee to the site, but at $4 a month, I think it’s worth it. Lucky for me, I got a few ‘crystals’ that I can use towards me fees for a couple of months- a thank you gift in exchange for being a part of the beta. For those of you who have never tried it- there is a free trial month if you are interested in giving it a whorl. I’m not trying to advertise, and I don’t get anything for sharing this site with anyone. But as fellow writers, it seemed like a fun thing to pass along. Perhaps I will meet you on the trail, my friends. I hope you are willing to take a leap and try something new. You might be surprised what you wind up with.


Introductions: Hook, Line and Sinker

Introductions are the most exciting and ultimately terrifying of the literary endeavors. There is a firmly held belief that without imbuing the essence of a meteor shower into your first few lines, your manuscript will summarily find its new home in the overly-inhabited trash pile of the publisher. I disagree with this sentiment, primarily because I firmly believe that by now they have fully embraced the art of recycling.

How do you make your own beautiful creation stand out like a beacon of hope to prospective readers? I’ve never felt particularly qualified to answer this question. After all, its not exactly like I’ve got a slew of best sellers standing proudly at attention while bearing my name. No, I do not have that. But then I realized that I have something else, something better. I am an avid reader- one of those book junkies you hope to hook on your opening line, fiercely loyal to my favorite authors and quick to recommend their newest work. What could possibly make me more qualified than being a proud member of what is ultimately the target audience?

I believe that there is something universal that all agents, publishers and readers are looking for when they peruse the pages; they want to find something honest, original and brave. The best work will keep your mind reeling and your fingers feverishly thumbing through the pages. In your first chapter, you need to catch their attention and give them a reason to stay. Think of it like an appetizer, giving them a taste for what the kitchen has to offer. But how do you get them to stay?

There are a thousand theories on the do’s and don’ts of a first chapter, a lot of it can be pretty conflicting; don’t open with a dream sequence, don’t have too little dialog but also don’t open with dialog; don’t open with a character’s thoughts. Now, while there may be some level of merit to some of these ‘rules’ in regards to specific publishers, I’ve never turned a book down because the character had a dream on page one. I think a lot of this has to do with the context of the story, and while you should perhaps be cautious using different techniques, I don’t think there are any automatic disqualifiers. So instead, I am going to focus on the style of the first chapter as opposed to the concrete content.

Keep your prose tight. This is the biggest struggle of the first chapter. Tight verbiage is the sign of a seasoned writer. We all want to show off our skills, to pull someone in. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of flourishing descriptions and intense back-stories. I strongly advise that you be sparing. You don’t need to explain your entire world in the first chapter; you can let the mysteries slowly unfold throughout your work. Don’t lay all of your chips down up front. Remember who you are and why you are writing this book. What is it about? What is your purpose? Hold on to that and do not lose your focus.

Ensure that your tense and point of view stay uniform. If you have a changing POV in your story, make it clear quickly who is speaking. I’ve read a book or two where I had no idea which character I was following for a few pages, and that can get very frustrating for a reader. You want your work to be smooth, to be concise and easy to follow. Unclear shifting of tense and POV will leave your reader confused, which doesn’t exactly entice them to continue on to the next page. Consistency will be key.

Introduce a strong character right away. The quickest way to get a reader hooked is to give them something to care about. Typically, this means that you need to give them a character that will matter to them. The main point here is to give them a character that feels real; one that you could picture living and breathing, a three dimensional being that draws them in. In my personal opinion, the focus should be more on their personality traits and how they are interacting with the world around them, as opposed to flower descriptors. Teach them about your character through movement; let their actions speak for them. You don’t have to explain that they have a chip on their shoulder, or that they would give you the shirt off their back- show the reader these traits, let them come to these conclusions on their own instead of having to take your word for it. After all, you created them- of course you love them. Let them fall for your creation too.

Be sparing with your descriptive settings. The main point to take away from this piece of advice is that you don’t want to get lost in your setting; unless your scenery is essentially acting the part of a character, it’s best to be concise. You can show off your descriptive prowess later in the story when your reader has a reason to care; right now, you still need to convince them to turn the page. It is easy to get lost in descriptors. I have put some books down simply because the explanations overpowered the story itself. If it’s not going to add to the scene, then perhaps it doesn’t belong there. Pack a punch with the least amount of details, get creative with how you describe your scene. For example; in Crime and Punishment, the scene is described in terms of the way that Raskolnikov resented the opulence of St. Petersburg. You were able to understand the setting through your character’s eyes in a way that helped lay the groundwork for the rest of the story. Describe without making it obvious what you are doing. It might be an excellent passage, but if it doesn’t add to the story, then you might need to let it go, or perhaps find a more fitting section for it to call home.

Choose your details carefully, create a sense of urgency. When you do use your descriptive words, make sure they pack a punch. Instead of saying that the bike was dusty from lack of use, show the reader the corroded metal and the blanket of unused cobwebs. Use imagery that will stick, something that will hold the attention. Amp up your word choice, step outside of the box.

If possible, attempt a mini plot. This wont work in every situation, but in some situations, having a mini-plot to delve through will give your readers something to sink their teeth into. It will introduce your characters and show how they handle tough situations. This could be something similar to a magazine excerpt with ‘false closure’ at the end. It will only be the tip of the iceberg, but it will show what your story might contain. Take Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for example; the first chapter stood alone quite well, it introduced the setting and the life that Harry was going to have, it ended with ‘false closure,’ and it successfully hooked the reader enough to start in the Chapter 2 where the crux of the story began to unfold.

Be fashionably late to your own party. Begin your story as late as you can, as close to the drama as possible. You want your reader to jump in with a sense of urgency, you don’t want them meandering through page after page without a clear path. Throw them into the action just before the elevator door closes, right as the plane is about to take off, when the cab has sped by.

Conflict is the key. Bait them, give them a reason to see the story through to the end. Make them care about what happens. Make them believe in your characters the way that you do. And make them squirm a little bit. We all love a touch of conflict, a dash of drama- do not disappoint, give them a taste of what your book has to offer.

Be bold. Put your best work out there. Do not humbly introduce your story, do it with a flourish. Make it memorable. Have confidence in your work. Remember why you are doing this and show them.

Take my advice with a grain of salt, like I said- I do not have a number of best sellers behind my name. I am bumbling along like everyone else. What works for me or my pieces might not work for yours- that doesn’t mean that one way is right and the other is wrong; they are different creations in need of different elements. I am a reader, that is where my insights come from. I acknowledge the elements that I crave to read and try to work those into my own pieces. Do your own research to decide what works for you.

Pick your favorite books and find a common thread. What made you turn the page, what hooked you, what was it about that story that made it impossible to turn down? Read your favorite books and look at them with your writerly eyes. You might be amazed at the simplistic beauty that brought you back for more. No two stories are ever the same, therefore the advice to imprint on each project will not be universal. You know your style and your stories better than anyone. Make them shine.

The Rough Draft: Building Sand Castles

Once upon a time in the land of the laptop, hidden in the obscure folders no one but the renowned author would ever dare visit, there lived the mysterious first draft. And what a horrendous creature he truly was. Stitched together with well-intentioned words and colored with a myriad of flourishing descriptions, he grew into something unrecognized by his creator. He face was pocked with plot holes, he was verbose with his descriptions, and minimal where it truly counted to make a point. His word choices were elementary and unrefined, he had more ‘buts’ than an ashtray and more ‘ands’ than this sentence. His grammar was tragically outdated, and his conclusory comments were rather anti-climactic. The average author would run in sudden fear at the sight of such a monster. But not this author, no. Much like Shrek, this author saw the potential buried under the grimy prose of the creature. This author was the Belle that would turn this beast into a beautiful prince.

Anyone who has tried to write a novel knows that the first draft is only the beginning, it is the tiny tip of the colossal iceberg. It’s not like in the movies where you sit down, you type and then in one fell swoop you have an instant best-seller with no need for revision. I tried to explain this once to someone who has been asking to read my work for a while now. I mentioned that I needed to do one more round of editing before the project would be ready. Their response, while well intentioned, was fairly misled. They believed that I had worked hard enough on the draft that someone should enjoy it. While it is true, I had put my blood, sweat and tears into the project- that was exactly why I didn’t want anyone to see it yet. When you work so hard on something, you want it to show, and often time the first draft does not reflect the work that went into it.

I have to constantly remind myself that the first draft is just the first stepping stone, the true heart of the work happens after the crude words are penned. I keep some quotes taped to my writing desk, right at eye level so that they are easily seen when I am ready to toss down the pen or close the laptop and walk away. They remind me to keep fighting for my goals, they propel me to give it just one more try. There are hundreds of quotes floating around out in the world that tell about the difficult struggle that is the first draft, leading me to believe that even the best writers feel the same pressures that the humble little no-name me feels too. These are just a few of my favorites:


No one is going to see the first draft unless you decide that you want them to. Think of it like the solo runs, preparing you for the big race. Don’t take yourself so seriously, and don’t expect your work to glitter and shine at this stage. There will be parts that you write that will make you beam with pride at your own genius, and there will be parts that make you cringe and seriously contemplate burning it all. But in the end, the first draft is only the groundwork.



This draft is for you, to flesh out the story and figure out what it really is that you want to say. Personally, I usually go into my first draft with a particular idea in mind, but by the end I am starting to see a glint of something new shining through. It isn’t until I begin my revisions that I start to see what it is that had been hidden under all of my other thoughts and bubbling words. I find the heart of my work and start brushing all of the clutter away to make it shine. Tell yourself the story that you want to hear so that you will be ready to speak it to the world when the time comes.


Then again, if you prefer to be blunt…


Oh Hemingway, never one to mince words. Perhaps you prefer the route of brutal honesty, if that is the case, then this is the quote for you. I have to say, to know that someone with such talent and success felt this way about his work- it gives me hope that perhaps I am not too far off the mark myself.

This next one is the one that I keep right in front of my eyes at my desk, it is my constant reminder of what I am actually doing…


Every time I write a first draft, I hate it- I can see the promise, but it is never the grad word I had hoped for it to become. I always have a vision in my head of what the story will look, sound and feel like. I begin my draft with the best of intentions, and yet my final product never matches what I had thought it would become. There is always a trace of it’s true potential underlying the mess I have made, a beautiful string that echoes the truth I had hoped to convey. That is the moment when it is time to wield the red pen with a vengeance, slicing through the muck and the grime to let the true promise shine through.

I can tell as I an writing that I am not doing my story justice. There are days when I feel like I should quit my current project, put in some more work practicing, and then come back when I feel like my skills are more on level with the caliber of story I want to write. Don’t fall into this trap. The first draft is not meant to be beautiful, it is not meant to be good. There may be people out there who think that writing is simply sitting at your keyboard, running through one draft and then shopping for a publisher- they have simply never bled over a keyboard the way that we do. Your work is like an iceberg. The first draft is just the tip that pops out of the water line; all of the editing is below the surface. A first draft is a warm up, the work out is in the editing. I could come up with a hundred other analogies, but I bet you get the picture.

Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect- if that is what you are aiming for, you will never reach your goal. The first draft is meant to be ugly and messy. It is the bones of your story, to be molded and shaped later. It is simply a start. Don’t give up when the first draft is not what you envisioned. You are simply shoveling sand into a box so that later you can build castles. And what beautiful castles they will eventually be, if you are willing to take the time to sculpt them.

The Planning Process: Pre-Nano Panic

Less than one week- a little over four days (98 hours to be exact), and the last minute panic is starting to set it. I started out this month with a plan held together by my best intentions, and in the typical style of life- everything went sideways. In spite of my best efforts, I am reaching crunch time with a mountain of prep work to do before nano begins in four days plus some change. This is the last minute scramble, the mad dash to get to the starting line before the race begins. The panic is rising, but I have a plan.

A few years ago I started to finally get organized with my prep work. Above my work space I have a shelf full of binders, each with it’s own little sticky note saying what story is contained within it. Each one holds my ‘story bible,’ so to speak. All of my prep work and notes are in it, organized into categories. And as I work, that binder is typically my constant companion. There is even one on that shelf for this blog right here- with all of my ideas for future posts and notes on ones that have already been cast out into the world.

Prepping for any new story is an exhilarating and also slightly daunting task. It’s like a relationship- when you have your first idea, it’s all fresh and exciting, you are constantly learning something new about it, it takes up all of your waking thoughts. And after a while, the honeymoon starts to end. You begin to learn where you will each fit in one another’s daily lives: this is the prepping stage. I have a pretty steady process I use when I’m getting ready to start on another big project.

Step One: The Research.

I love this part of the game, soaking up new information that will inevitably give me another inspired idea to chase down. I will peruse the internet and find books to take notes off of. The library and kindle unlimited become a writer’s best friend. Usually this is the stage that will help morph the ideas of my work, changing my original track subtly. I like to key into little details and let those take on the role of deciding factors. At this stage I am also starting to think about the bones of my story and reviewing my options re: world building and characters. Everything is still fluid and malleable.

Step Two: World Building.

I think it’s always important to know the ‘rules’ of the world you will be working in, I like to get as much detail as possible in this section, though only a small portion of it will actually make it into the finished piece. To see more on this process, take a look at my post: World Building Brick by Brick. You can also find a copy of my worksheet on my Resources page here: Top Shelf: Writing Resources

Step Three: Character Analysis:

This is perhaps one of my favorite parts of the planning stage: getting into the heads of my characters. The current project has more players than I usually work with, so that will make it a bit more complicated. I go through and make up an analysis for each one. I think it helps with the continuity of their actions throughout the story if you know what motivates them. A writing exercise that I like to take part in when I’m at this stage is delving into their backstory. I will pick a certain moment that might have been prominent in their personal background and write a scene about it. It’s good practice and helps you get to know your characters on a deeper level. Also, as I am in the process of writing a story, I will occasionally pick a scene and write it from a different character’s perspective. Sometimes it is fun to take a step back and look at the problem of your novel through fresh eyes. It can give you some new ideas that you hadn’t thought of before. To see more about my Analyses, check out this prior post: Character Analysis. As with the World Building Worksheet, you can find a copy of my character analysis sheet on my Resources page right here: Top Shelf: Writing Resources.

Step Four: Plotting/Outlining:

This is when you finally get to delve into the heart of the story. I prefer to work with a bulleted outline noting key scenes, and then I will fill in more detailed information about the scenes/transitions below it. This is either hand written or done on the computer, whichever seems to be working better for me at that particular time. I like to leave my outline somewhat open so that I can still follow the natural flow of the story as I am writing it- if a new idea sparks inside as I’m actually working through the scenes, I want the freedom to be able to follow that without having major issues with the remainder of my plot. My outline is pretty fluid, I will usually add and subtract from it as I am working.

Step Five: This is where the magic begins with the rough draft. It is an exciting and terrifying time. I am constantly having to remind myself that I am simply shoveling sand so that later I can build castles.

With only four days left to go, I am currently still on step one. Slightly overwhelmed with the amount of work I have ahead of me, but I know I can get it done. The madness will just be starting a little bit early this year. July 1, the start of Camp Nano is when the rough draft will finally be in progress. I can do this, I know it- that will be my mantra for the next month. Wish me luck, my friends.

Character Analysis

We all have a favorite character, the one that leaves us entranced and longing to reach out for more. Its the one we would love to meet, if only they were real, or perhaps we simply adore the thought of getting lost in their lives through the pages of their story. Whether it’s Hermoine Granger’s notorious wit, the brooding Heathcliff, the adventurous Frodo Baggins, or the simple ass-kicking Katniss Everdeen: there is an underlying current of authenticity that ties these characters together. They feel more like actual living, breathing human beings than mere characters on a page. They speak to us in a way that cookie-cutter fiction cannot. Their stories become our stories if only because we allow ourselves to believe in their magic, to believe that someone somewhere is just like them. Or perhaps it is simply because we can glimpse pieces of ourselves within them.

Even the most blindingly original plot can stall and die namelessly if the characters appear too one-dimensional. Bland characters will leave your story flat and easily forgotten. As readers we crave the human elements, a balance between flaws and redeeming traits. We crave the push and pull of conflict, watch the turmoil unfold before our very eyes. We want to see drama that doesn’t directly belong to us. We want to feel something real.

So how do you do it? How do you take a piece of paper and use only the written word to create a fully fleshed out human being? I would love to tell you that there is a secret formula to it; that all you have to do is add a dash of insecurity, a dollop of wit and a whole spoonful of bravery, bake on high for thirty minutes and viola: the perfect character will magically appear and dance across your blank page. But alas, the reality is far less glamorous than the fiction I can spin. What it really comes down to is taking the time to sit down and work hard. Read a few psychology articles if you have to, don’t forget to throw in your common sense and delve deeply. To create the perfect character you need nothing more than a lot of creativity and careful planning.

Personally, my character planning stage is one of the longest and most thought-out portions of my writing process. This is mainly because I am a firm believer that the characters are what truly make a story. As a reader, if I can’t form some type of feeling about the characters involved, I am drastically less likely to finish the book. I don’t even have to like them- but I have to feel something.

I tend to work off of a general worksheet that I’ve created over the years and continue to alter as needed. One of my favorite things to do to really get into a character’s head includes a fun little writing excersize that I encourage anyone to try. I will take a character and start writing about a pivotal moment in their backstory. This is a story that will, more likely than not, never make it into the final product- I write it for me alone. I will also occasionally take an existing scene and write it from another character’s perspective. I find it helpful to figure out their individual motivations throughout the story. My personal motto is to treat each character as though they feel the story is about them.

My character analyses are constantly evolving, I don’t stop adding to it just because I’ve started my writing. In fact, I tend to go back through and do a lot of updating during my editing process to clean it all up. It is at this point that you start to see how your characters fully develop during the story and can fine-tune their journey and reactions along the way.

Below is the general worksheet that I use. Feel free to take it and change it to fit your own process, or send me some suggestions- I am always open to new ideas. For your convenience, I have this worksheet in Word and PDF format, along with a few other tidbits, over on the resources page right here:

Top Shelf: Writing Resources

Without further ado, here it is:

Character Analysis Worksheet


  • Name:
  • Nicknames:
    • Story behind nicknames (if any):
  • Main or minor character:
  • Character’s role:


  • Age:
  • Gender:
  • Race:
  • Eye color:
  • Hair color:
    • Hair style:
  • Complexion:
  • Build:
    • Height:
    • Weight:
  • Style of clothing:
  • Scars, tattoos or piercings:
  • Most striking or memorable physical feature:
  • Describe their speaking voice and likely vocabulary:


  • Type of personality (ex: perky, broody, quiet):
  • Introverted or extroverted:
  • Characteristics/mannerisms:
  • Strengths:
  • Special skills/talents:
  • Weaknesses:
  • Critical flaw (and how it will impact the story):
  • Quirks:
  • Nervous traits:
  • Biases:
  • Passions/convictions:
  • Best friend:
  • Any enemies:
  • Favorites (ex: food, books):
  • Education Level:
  • Effects of their environment on them:

Inner Journey:

  • Back story:
  • Motivation (What does the character really want?):
  • What is the character most afraid of:
  • What is the character’s ‘mask’ that lets them hide from the world:
  • Character’s journey at the end of the story looking back- what they didn’t know:
  • Internal conflicts:
  • External conflicts:

Factors to Identify for Later Writing:

  • How will you set up the story to help your audience relate to the character when they are being introduced into the story?
  • Character flaws and how they are introduced:
  • Meetings with other characters or pivotal scenes from this character’s viewpoint:

World Building Brick by Brick

A truly gifted author will transport you to another realm without you even noticing. You can smell the stench wafting from the gutters, hear the clicking of your boots on the marble floors, feel the droplets of rain pattering against your hood, dripping onto your nose. You will nod your head in agreement, faintly believing in the back of your mind that you have been to this world before, you have run your fingers over the mortar of it’s brickwork, you have listened to the locals bicker about politics by the flickering flames of a campfire or stared in deep concentration at a map trying to figure out how to get back to the main road. A talented writer will gently lie to you, lulling you into the dream of a world that never existed. When you wake from it, you will ache for that place, long for a world you desperately wish you could hop in your car and drive to.

So how do you build castles from thin air? I know I will probably never join the ranks of J.R.R Tolkien, J.K Rowling, or Patrick Rothfuss when it comes to their detailed worlds, but I would like to think I have learned a few things over the years. I love creating an entire society out of nothing but my words. I am an over-planner, I thrive on details. The vast majority of what I plan doesn’t actually make it into my novel, but it does influence the way that I write and helps me give my world a certain feel, painting it in the appropriate shades. It creates authenticity out of something that is essentially a lie.

You will be tempted to color your world from the moment the reader opens the first page; this in itself is not necessarily bad, you want your reader to be able to visualize your creation. However, a twenty thousand word explanation of the culture and socio-economic strengths and weaknesses will not draw your reader in, enticing them to turn the page. If you want to teach them about dragons, don’t have a character regurgitate a text book; perhaps create an argument between two of them, maybe one does not believe and the other swears he has seen them. The scene may be longer, but your reader will walk away with more than just a bulleted list of information. They will learn about the culture through the argument, the beliefs of the characters that will fill your pages, and perhaps they’ll start to get a feel for how your characters view one another. Their is an art to the way you present your world; usually less can be so much more. Don’t tell them, show them with subtle hints and clues. Describe your world for them through actions, not through flourishing paragraphs that, though beautiful, do not actually add to your plot.

As I said before, I over-create. I like to make the background of my story as rich as I can, though only a small percentage of it might make it into the final product. I want to understand my world. Over the years I have created a general worksheet to help me plan. It gives me a roadmap, a template that I can base the rest of my work on. With this new map, I can find the foundation that I need for a consistent story; at the end of the day, it is the consistency that will make your novel feel genuine. It’s only a general outline, every story will have different areas that might need more vetting out before I start my actual writing.

If you decide that you might be interested in trying it out yourself, you can find a Word and PDF version, along with other little goodies I like to use, on my resources page right here:

Top Shelf: Writing Resources

That page is continuously updated, so feel free to check back again for new content.

Without further ado, I present to you:

The World Building Worksheet

Physical Traits:

  • World Name:
  • Type:
    • Planetary: Earth? If not, what is the planet like? Mostly rock? Three moons? A purple sun?
    • Style: Is it more medieval, modern or futuristic? Steampunk? Magical?
    • Style: Is it more medieval, modern or futuristic? Steampunk? Magical?
  • Geography:
    • Make a map (surprisingly fun, no artistic talents required)
    • Where are your major resources and settlements: Such as rivers, forests, lakes, agricultural , etc. (keep in mind the people you will have living there and how they will survive, along with any social issues that might cause- for example, fighting over resources)
    • Climate: Keep in mind your general geography, as well as the people living in each area

Settlements and Societies:

  • Settlements: I usually do a separate sheet for each major settlement
    • Type: City, Town, Village
    • Population:
    • Layout/Geography: are the houses close together, far apart? Is it clean, dirty?
    • Security: Gates surrounding, soldiers, form of law enforcement (if any)
    • Allies and enemies:
    • Building types: wood, brick, etc.
    • Technology Level:
    • Transportation:
    • What are the inhabitants: certain type of creatures, magical, race
    • Education system:
    • Type of medicine: doctor, priest, wizard
    • Major professions of the people: Mining community, predominantly agricultural
    • Economy:
      • Rich area/poor area:
      • Monetary system:
        • Type of currency:
        • Trade:
    • What resources do they use:
    • What resources do they need:
    • Political system/Government:
      • Type of government:
      • Local leaders:
      •  cities/people that may rule over them:
    • Religion:
    • Language:
  • Creatures/Types of People: (for this subject, it is good to create a separate page for each creature/type of people)
    • What creatures populate your realm:
    • Where do they live:
    • Clothing styles:
    • Their allies and enemies:
    • Interesting facts/histories:

Magical Elements

  • Magic: (if any)
    • What type of system (ex: arcane, dark, etc.)
    • How does it work:
    • The magic laws:
      • What can be done with the magic and how:
      • What cannot be done:
    • How do people feel about it:
    • Who can use it and who can’t:

World Background

  • History:
    • Major wars or conflicts:
      • Key players:
      • How it started:
      • Major battles/events:
      • Who won and how:
      • The aftermath: (how were the people treated, how did they rebuild themselves, any remaining grudges)
    • Key figures:
      • Why they are important:
    • Current conflicts:
      • How they began:
      • Current status:
      • The ‘sides’:
        • Prejudices between groups:
      • Reasons:
        • Ways to fix them:
    • Important myths/lore: