Planning for your Draft and maybe Nano…

I know many of us are planning for NaNoWriMo.  I encourage you to set realistic goals and use NaNo to accomplish something meaningful for your book.  If it’s 50,000 words, great!  But maybe it’s a complete outline, or a Blueprint with a few scenes, or a specific number of scenes, or something else…

I would like to offer you a fun way to figure out how to set writing goals for your draft or revision. I have created a Writing Goal Calculator that allows you to enter the length of time you want to take to write your (average) length novel and get a formula to use for your writing goals.  It is based on scheduling yourself for at least three blocks of time per week for your novel.  One is for planning and preparation, one is for writing, and one is for editing/adjusting.  If you schedule more than three blocks of time, each additional block is more writing.  The word/scene count for your goal is how much you have to get done for EACH writing block (it excludes the planning and editing blocks) in order to meet your drafting goal.  
I like to think of this as a concrete way to figure out how to get your draft finished.  Choose Your Own Writing Adventure!

Book Review: Brontë’s Mistress by Finola Austin

Brontë’s Mistress is an exploration of what happens when women are socialized to be decorative and seem to have no other purpose.  Our anti-heroine, Lydia Robinson, is the woman who became Branwell Brontë’s mistress during the 1840s.  Some readers may find her unlikable, spoiled, whiny, even extremely self-centered.  As an anti-heroine, these qualities are not a problem.  To help make Lydia sympathetic, Austin lets the reader see how life has disappointed her.  In her forties and past child bearing, with an uninterested and uninteresting spouse, she is adrift.  Socialized to be a pretty coquette, she doesn’t know how to shift roles.  Her one outlet, music, is mostly cut off to her, since her husband complains about her playing too much.  All of which makes her vulnerable to a younger, handsome, attentive man who not only relieves her boredom, but seems to adore her, something she needs.

Austin has managed to walk the line of writing a book based on a real historical person and delivering an engaging story.  She did exacting research, including visiting places, and reading letters, even though she has a Master’s degree in Nineteenth Century LIterature from Oxford.  She also generously included a back section with historical notes, what she made up, and further reading.  The version I read included Book Club questions, too.  All in all this is a great Book Club pick. 

Sometimes as feminists, we like all female characters to have agency, but the truth is that sometimes in history, their agency was limited.  What if your choices were as proscribed as Lydia’s?  Can you honestly say you would have chosen differently?  This is the stuff of a deep conversation.

Top Five Takeaways from the Historical Novel Society Conference

I recently went to an in person conference, and wanted to share some of the wealth with you, dear reader. It was so much fun to rub elbows with writers and other industry professionals. Plus, who doesn’t love to visit a real castle… Below are my top five lessons. I have pages of notes, but these are the sound bytes, if you will.

  1. In Person Conferences are so WORTH it!  You get to meet people and have conversations and it is just so much fun to go places and talk to people and not worry about being on camera.  You get to focus on the moment, rather than the backgrounds, the chat box, and whether or not you are talking while muted…
  2. The History isn’t the story…the plot is the story and it centers on your characters.  This came from a presentation by Liz Harris.  Find out more about her here:  
  3. Historical Fiction is a conversation between the present and the past.  I LOVE this idea.  The present is always informed by the past, and historical fiction allows us to interrogate some of our assumptions and beliefs about it.  This is from a presentation by Laura Tisdall, professor and writer, find out more here:  
  4. Also from Professor Tisdall:  “The more history you read, the more you find out that what you thought could never happen, did happen.”
  5. When you choose to tell a story in a particular time period, you must know WHY.  Why it must be then and cannot be at another time. 

Finally, a couple of resources for those of you writing Hist Fic.

Food can be tricky, let this resource make it easier (and yummier)  From the Folger Shakespeare Library, Early Modern Foodways:  

Ever wonder when a word began to be used?  Need to know for your dialogue?  I use this all the time, but it was in a presentation at HNS and I realized maybe everyone didn’t know, so here it is, Etymology for you: 

The Layer Cake Method of Drafting a Novel

I am a big fan of The Great British Bake Off.  As a baker, I love watching the creativity, the beauty, the sheer miraculousness of what the bakers on that show pull off week after week.  I also happen to love cake.  I have written before how writing is like baking (see here), but as I considered drafting and layers, I realized that as writers we might use a Layer Cake Method for our writing projects.

Our layer cake has five layers, yum!  Here goes:

  1. Background reading and basic research:  the idea here is to get a minimum viable setting for your novel.  If you are writing a historical, do some deep reading about the time period and any real historical people who may be featured in your story.  If you are writing a mystery, do some research about police procedures, real-life murder plots that might inspire, methods, etc.  If you are writing about a main character in a particular industry, read about that, maybe interview a few people.  Get the basics down.  NOTE: some writers like to stay in layer one forever.  It can be a comforting way to procrastinate and “write” without actually writing.  Minimum viable is what we are going for here!
  2. Character work:  write some character sketches for your main protagonist and antagonist.  Ask yourself those important questions about their goals, motivations, and conflict.  Maybe even write a little backstory for them.  WARNING:  the backstory is to inform your writing and most of it will not end up in your novel.  It’s okay!  
  3. Inciting Incident:  AKA the What If?  This is what starts your story, so think it through and write the scene.  What is the THE thing that will force your protagonist to take action, make decisions, face consequences…
  4. Write the Islands:  Chances are you have several big scenes in mind.  You have a basic shape for your story.  At this point, you may choose to make an outline if you are a planner or wing it if you are a pantser, but either way, what are the big turning point scenes?  Write those.
  5. Write BETWEEN the islands:  Now, the most challenging layer of all.  Just like in baking, getting that top layer just right, can take some ingenuity.  How does your MC get from island to island?  Write it…

Once you have these five layers in place, you will have a first draft or a Discovery Draft.  It may be a little short, and that’s okay!  Having a draft is the most important step on the road to having a novel.  Without a draft, you can’t revise or make changes to the structure or edit or polish or do any of the things that will turn it into a real book.  You need the layers in place before you can add frosting or ganache… 

Robin Henry is an Author Accelerator certified book coach who works with writers of historical fiction, mysteries, and women’s fiction to craft the compelling stories readers crave, about people who’ve made a difference.  

Is it possible you’ve queried too soon?

Are you wondering whether you are ready to query your novel?  You may be!  It’s always a good idea to take a hard look at your one sentence pitch and your first 5-20 pages before you hit send.  Sometimes, in our excitement, we query too early. When I was thinking about how to illustrate what happens when we query too soon, I thought about Joe Bob Briggs and his movie reviews.

Those of you outside of Texas, or who are too young, may not remember Joe Bob Briggs, a fictional persona who writes satirical movie reviews. He is actually still around…you can see one of his reviews here, and you can Google him and go find his home page if you really want to know more.  Go ahead, I’ll wait…

In his heyday, he wrote a syndicated column that reviewed B-movies, usually, but not exclusively, shown at Drive Ins.  His favorites were horror flicks.  He had several signature phrases, but his most useful one for our purposes was about not allowing the plot to get in the way of the action.  He always included a count of various features of the films at the end of the review, which might list the number of dead bodies, body parts, and whether there was any one or several varieties of XX-fu, which was Joe Bob’s way of poking fun at the silly fighting in the movie. 

In homage to Joe Bob, I present a fictional satirical review of a fake book opening that might have gone on query too soon. 

NOTE: This review is snarky—it is also completely fake, and there is no intended relationship to any actual writer’s work. The review mentions common issues with opening pages.  If snark bothers you, please skip it!

The novel opens with a long description of the weather and what everyone is wearing.  Of course, it is in first person, and the protagonist describes herself, because she is aware of the reader. Don’t we all describe ourselves in our thoughts?

Nothing much happens for about ten pages or so.  It is just one long stream of consciousness and list of things that a person is doing that don’t seem to have any bearing on a story of any kind. And then, there is some dialogue, but it is unclear whether this is happening now or whether it is a flashback.  There are a number of convenient coincidences that the reader isn’t supposed to notice.  I noticed.

The next five pages are all backstory, because readers need to know every detail of the main character’s back story right from the get go. It’s important, so it has to be at the beginning. There are lots of names, but no connection to any action.  In fact, there is not much action at all.  So. Much. Thinking.  

There is not much story getting in the way of the backstory here.

Roundup: Twenty unnecessary adverbs, twelve uses of the verb wink, at least five body part drops and/or clenches, and four questionable metaphors. Six lines of dialogue. Zero scenes, zero decisions, zero stakes.

All kidding aside, does your opening need a little work?

Whether you are just starting your novel or  getting it in shape to query, consider coming to the Readerly Virtual Writing Retreat.  It will be a great time! You can use the writing time to work on your opening and get coaching on it, too.  🙂

Find out more, including the schedule at 

The cost is $197 for the whole shebang, including the recordings and the  follow up session.  Best of all, you can attend in your PJs.  🙂

Book Review: The Fell by Sarah Moss

NOTE to writers: this book breaks a lot of the “rules” you’ve been told in good faith to follow. Please realize this is not her first novel, so she has more freedom to experiment. It’s okay to break the rules sometimes, if you can do it well, which she does. 🙂

This book is about the Pandemic without being about the Pandemic.  It’s about the choices we make and how they play out in our lives; how trying to do the right thing sometimes goes wrong; how occasionally what we need is acceptance without judgment and to listen to other people, really listen to hear them.

Kate is supposed to be quarantining at home, but she goes out walking in a moment of high frustration—a woman who is so left-leaning and environmentally conscious, it would be a struggle to find another as “righteously liberal.” She won’t be gone long, no one will even know, or will they?  

This tightly written, multi-POV novel reads fast, but it will stay with you and force you to examine questions raised about love, morality, community, and responsibility. When people think they know all the answers, they need a book like this to ask them more questions.

The Readerly NaNoPlanMo Virtual Retreat is Coming!

Do you struggle with finding time to write, because you have a busy schedule and no trust fund? Do you start writing a new novel because you have this fabulous idea, but then run out of gas about 30 pages in? Do you have a draft that needs revision, but you aren’t sure where to start?

You are invited to join me, guest authors, and other writers to stop procrastinating and get started with concrete steps. We will talk about using structure to plan or revise your novel and making time to write no matter what your schedule looks like;  we will spend time together in a small group writing community to support each other so we can make REAL progress. 

Here’s what is included in the retreat:

  • Sessions to help you get organized and motivated to write
  • Dedicated Writing Time (four hours) with support
  • A copy of Seven Ways of Looking at an Outline workbook for your personal use.
  • Access to recorded sessions from the retreat for 6 months
  • Laser coaching session with Robin (15 minutes) around the issue of your choice
  • Access to a followup group coaching session on November 7 to keep your progress going through NaNo.

Find out more, including the schedule at 

Click on the image below to reserve your spot!

The cost is $197 for the whole shebang, including the recordings and the  follow up session.  And, you can attend in your PJs.  🙂