Writing from the Heart: What Makes a Good Romance Novel?

Warning: Like any good adult romance, this blog contains content not fit for children.

Romance novels are like sexual fetishes—just when you think you’ve come up with something new, a brief Google search tells you someone’s already forged that path. Of course, that doesn’t mean your book is any less likely to succeed.

Romance, especially, seems to thrive on a well-worn story arc: An unlikely couple meets, falls in love, is torn apart, and must overcome all obstacles to be reunited. Toss in a few steamy scenes based on age appropriateness and target audience, and you’ve got a hit!

But basic plotline aside, what makes a good romance novel?

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The first step to writing a great romance is to understand where your talents are best suited. Imagine you’re on a “choose your own adventure.” The scenario goes something like this:

It’s sunset. Harley, the emotionally distant, but incredibly handsome cowboy, meets you out by the barn, just as you’re preparing to go home for the night. You’ve noticed him watching you these last two weeks, and you’ve had your eye on him. The tempting curves of his back and shoulders under his Fruit of the Loom white T-shirt; that chiseled jaw and those startling blue eyes, full of promise and mystery. You step out into the yard and find yourself between him and one of his newly dug fence posts. Does Harley . . .

A) sweep you off your feet and into his big, strong arms, whereupon he kisses you long and slow until you’re sure no one has ever experienced a love like this?

Or

B) rip the clothes from your body, tie you to the fence post, and commence all sorts of R-rated shenanigans upon your ravished, fully-consenting flesh?

If you chose A, you might be best suited for bodice rippers—those beloved front-of-the-grocery-store novels, like the ones written by Danielle Steel or Judith McNaught. If you chose B, you’re perhaps more in line to write erotica. In this vein, of course, is the notorious Fifty Shades of Grey series by E. L. James, or the perhaps better-written and no less thrilling Dinosaur Erotica series by Christie Sims and Alara Branwen.

These are just a couple of the most well-known branches of romance fiction. In fact, romances—like their protagonists—come in all shapes and sizes. From historical romance to LGBTQ romance to fantasy romance to paranormal, holiday, Christian romance, and more!

But finding your niche is just the beginning. Here are three essential ingredients to creating a successful romance novel love potion.

1. Relatable, yet fantasy-worthy protagonists

Romance writers have a tough job. They must create characters who aren’t only attractive and orgasm-inspiring, but also realistic and sympathetic. Flawless, yet flawed. After all, if we don’t like them, why should we root for their happiness? In between hot bods and sexy, husky tones, protagonists must have qualities that prevent them from achieving that “happily ever after” too soon.

  The flaw is he has back hair like nobody's business when the full moon rises.

The flaw is he has back hair like nobody's business when the full moon rises.

To ensure you’re writing characters others will want to see get lucky, spend some time with your protagonists one on one . . . or one on two if you’re into that. Flush out their insecurities, their annoying traits, their core hopes and dreams, their drive, and their passions. Find out what makes them tick and what makes them attracted to their counterpart. Know what drives them away.

Keep in mind that while a really great thriller or adventure novel may be able to push a reader through to the end on a wave of adrenalin, a good romance novel is character-driven, not action-driven. No one’s going to sit through a bedroom scene—no matter how hot you make it—unless the people between the sheets are characters the reader deems deserving of getting laid.

2. What else? A jaw-dropping climax

No, we’re not just talking about THE climax—or hopefully, more than one. But more on that in a minute. We’re talking the literary climax midway through your noxel, reached after intensive rising action, leading your reader through to a very satisfying resolution.

For a lot of writers, part of what makes crafting romance so difficult is achieving the right balance of rising action and romantic encounters. It’s easy to lose sight of the story in the wake of all those sex scenes. And for that matter, romance writers are challenged to not only build tension and character arcs, but to build on romance as well, both in the physical acts and in the emotional connection.

  Even Mr. Grey gets out of the house once in a while . . .

Even Mr. Grey gets out of the house once in a while . . .

Best-selling author of LGBTQ erotica Deanna Wadsworth advises writers to ask themselves these questions when writing a new sex scene: “What is the point of this scene? Are [my] characters experiencing something pivotal?”

In a 2015 guest post for Rainbow Romance Writers, Wadsworth writes, “Even in erotica, a sex scene should enhance character development and drive the story forward. **REMEMBER** If you can eliminate a sex scene and the plot or story does not suffer, then it did not need to be there.”

By focusing on your story’s plot and not just on the sexy scenes in between, you’ll find you’re able to bring your readers a worthwhile climax that’s every bit as satisfying for them as it is for your characters. And speaking of satisfying . . .

3. A sexual buffet

  Just look how satisfied Emma Stone is!

Just look how satisfied Emma Stone is!

Normally I don’t like comparing sex acts to food, but let’s face it: If restaurant offerings were scenes in a romance novel, the Golden Corral would be every reader’s wet dream. Think variety—a sexual buffet for the senses. Readers don’t want to relive the same encounter over and over. Or for that matter, the same verbs.

Do yourself a favor, and before you hand your book over to a likely trepidatious neighbor or friend, consider each romantic encounter with a critical eye. Does each one offer something different? Is there a new tone or involvement from a new part of the body? Consider adding in a scene that’s unusual for your characters. If their escapades are typically more vanilla, toss in something racier, or vice versa. There are no rules, so don’t be afraid to shock—and potentially delight—your reader.

Another tip is to run a ctrl-f on your story. Look for words like “suck,” “fondle,” “breast,” or “hard.” These are great nouns, verbs, and adjectives, but if you’ve used the word “boob” 100 times in as many pages (please, no), it may be time to open a thesaurus. Luckily, author and blogger Laurel Clark has already done the work for you with this delightfully naughty blog of alternative words and phrases, perfect for romance writing. Some of our favorites are “honeypot” under “lady bits” and “his length” under “man parts.” Be sure to check out part two of her “Sexy Thesaurus” blog as well, for an even longer list!


Whether your passions lie in human romance or something more beastly (centaur romance, anyone?), why not give writing from the heart a try? Once you’ve lubricated the mind and stroked those creative muscles, you may find you have all the inspiration needed to create a best-selling, blush-worthy novel.

Was this blog good for you? Let us know in the comments below!

What Authors Need to Know Before Selling Their Book’s Film Rights

As a writer, you see your book in your mind as you write it; the way your protagonist raises her eyebrow, which books she keeps on her nightstand, what kinds of trees are outside her office window. You may find yourself thinking it would be incredible to see your creations brought to life in film. And you’ve almost certainly played casting director and daydreamed about which actors would best embody your characters.

But if the opportunity for your book to become a movie or TV show comes around, do you know what you’re getting into? Will the adaptation be another Schindler’s List, or the next Queen of the Damned (shudder)? Here’s what you need to know before Hollywood officially gets its hands on your precious literary baby.

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Make sure you own the film rights

First and foremost, if you’re being published, make sure your contract stipulates that you retain the film rights. Never give up your copyright to the publisher. You have to be careful about which rights you retain, and cover your bases by stipulating that any rights not specifically mentioned in the contract are yours by default. For more about what to watch out for when signing a contract with a publisher, check out this article by the Authors Guild.

You’ll need an agent to do the deal

Even if you self-published and are used to being the one who handles the business aspect of your writing, do not go the DIY route when it comes to selling the film rights to your book. Rights contracts are incredibly nuanced. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you could end up making a cringe-worthy mistake, such as accidentally relinquishing the rights to your main character. Tony Hillerman made that exact mistake, inadvertently selling the rights to his main protagonist, Joe Leaphorn, from his series of Navajo Tribal Police detective books.  

You’ll need an agent who specializes in book-to-film projects to help you protect your interests through the process. These agents have established working relationships with producers and will know if your book is best suited for film, TV, or stage. They’ll also know the market trends and what they can and can’t sell; just because your book is fantastic and has the makings of a great movie, doesn’t mean the marketplace is ready for it right now.

For example, say you’ve written a vampire book. In the wake of book series like Twilight, The Southern Vampire Mysteries, The Vampire Diaries, Vampire Academy, and a slew of others being made into films and TV shows over the past decade, the vampire market is tapped out for a while. In ten, fifteen, twenty years, the cycle will come back around, and we’ll be begging for bloodsuckers again, but the timing has to be right.

Selling your book’s film rights does not mean there will actually be a movie or your own private island in the future

When you sell your book’s film rights, what you’re really selling is the option for the buyer to use those rights. They sort of rent them from you for a certain length of time—usually eighteen months to two years. This gives them time to get some funding and a script together (and no, you probably won’t get to write it).

The good news is, you get paid for doing nothing. The bad news is, you don’t get paid much—anywhere from $500 to several thousand dollars for the option, and there’s a good chance the project will be burning away in Development Hell forever.

If the project gets the green light, meaning it’s going into production, you’ll get a much more substantial chunk. That’s where the real money comes from. Authors may also receive royalties after the movie is released, which it won't be, the majority of the time. Few optioned projects ever make it to production, let alone become successful. But if the adaptation of your work gets released and does well, it not only means a nice payday, but also a big, fat publicity boost for your book.

 

Creative control may involve some sacrifices

You may think you want some level of creative control over how your book is adapted, but many authors warn against being involved once the rights leave your hands. Ernest Hemingway famously said, "You throw them your book, they throw you the money, then you jump into your car and drive like hell back the way you came."

Filmmakers make all sorts of promises to authors about how involved they’ll get to be in the movie. But the fact is, the direction a movie goes in once it’s in production can be akin to a runaway train that you (the author) are powerless to stop. Some authors feel it’s less painful in the end to just stay out of it.

However, if you’re more interested in creative integrity than notoriety and a big payday, there are more outlets than ever to bring your work to life on the screen … just maybe not the big screen. With the rise of social media and a growing number of companies like Netflix offering original programming, you may be able to find the perfect outlet to bring your vision of an adaptation to life.

This New Year, Enjoy the Gift of Revisions!

Revising a novel, short story, or even blog article is never fun. Just writing this, I’m thinking about what Chantel is likely to do with this blog once I’ve finished it, and I’ve only just started!

The truth, though, is revisions are necessary! Even the best writer needs a second, third, fourth, or even tenth chance to look back and make changes—to have someone else take a look and point out places where clarity is lacking or the pacing is off.

And while we all know there’s nothing worse than putting your soul on paper and asking someone to strip that soul down as if they were peeling a banana for a snack, the truth is, revisions are a gift. When you have the chance to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, you uncover a final product that’s better than ever—a soul fully formed.

This new year, as you settle on your resolutions, or perhaps simply a word to live by in 2018, think about revising your opinion of revisions. Make a promise to trust only the best people to read and review your work—people who will handle that new soul with care, and give advice and opinions with compassion and selflessness.

Then, knowing their revisions were given in earnest, vow to look forward to the coming stage of revisions with positivity and purpose. Something good is happening. Your work is coming into its own.

With that light at the end of the tunnel in mind, here are a few HigleyFox tips for getting through your revisions with gratitude in 2018.

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Tip 1: Don’t respond too soon.

Currently, Chantel and I both work 9–5 office jobs. I’m a copywriter for a local tech company here in Boise, so you could say I’m familiar with revisions. In fact, while my job title might be copywriter, I’d say I only spend about half my time actually writing. The other half is spent making revisions—both in revising my own work prior to sending it over to our in-house editor, and making changes in response to her comments on my work. Using easy math, that’s around 20 hours a week spent on finessing work that was “finished” some time before.

All this is to say I understand what it’s like when a piece of writing you’ve worked really hard on comes back with notes. It doesn’t feel great, even when you know the person who left them gave them with the best of intentions. That’s why, on occasion, if I know I’m still too close to the piece, I let it sit for a time. Sometimes that’s a couple of hours, sometimes it’s overnight.

It helps me to open the document and scroll a little way down first. Then, as soon as I start to feel that small twinge of annoyance or defensiveness, I put it aside. Those feelings aren’t going to help me make thoughtful revisions.

When I’m ready, I return to the document with a cool head, and often, I find the edits aren’t as bad as I made them out to be.

As I go through, I pay special attention to comments that relight my flame of indignation. The editor isn’t following? How could they not be following?! There’s nothing wrong with the words currently on the page!

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When I start having thoughts like these, I take another pause. There likely is something wrong with that section, or the editor wouldn’t have said something.

These are the comments I leave until the end. This is my personal preference. It gives me the chance to take care of the easy stuff and mull over the problems I’ll need to address later. When I’ve finished all the easy changes, I go back. Sometimes I make a response to the comment that’s been left, explaining what I meant and perhaps even restating the point in a step-by-step manner.

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It’s often in doing this—rewriting my point in a snarky response—that I realize what’s missing. A good rule of thumb is, if you have to explain something to your reader after the fact, your original phrasing isn’t doing its job. Still, sometimes you have to write out your intent in order to fully understand the problem.

Once you’ve reached that moment of clarity, erase whatever curse words you’ve written in response and take a stab at revising. This brings us to tip No. 2.

Tip 2: Reword, even if just for the heck of it.

It’s hard not to take yourself too seriously as a writer. As much as we’d like to check our egos at the door, there’s something about walking the same path of punctuation and language used by great authors like John Steinbeck and Jane Austen that makes us think—even secretly—our words are special and lasting.

It’s best to get over that mindset as quickly as possible. When you’re making a revision you don’t like or even necessarily agree with, do yourself a favor, and just do it, even if it’s in a separate document or in suggestion mode. Then see what you think. If you’ve really got out of your own way and allowed yourself to jump into the revision, you may find you’ve answered the editor’s comment and taken it a step further.

Is it better? Do you like it more? If you find you’re still struggling, put it aside and give it another go later.

If, even then, you find you still like your first attempt best, let the editor know you’re struggling with that particular revision; don’t just ignore it. Now that you’ve taken a hard look at it, you’ll likely know what about that section is making it so difficult to let go. With the right words to explain your point, you and the editor can have a thoughtful conversation about why they saw the need for a change and why you like the section as-is.

Maybe you can take a look at that part together and figure out not only if a change is really needed, but what exactly that change should be. Whether your editor is a friend, family member, or one of us here at HigleyFox, that person is pretty smart. And between the two of you, you’re sure to get to the bottom of those tougher revisions.

Tip 3: Don’t always settle for your first revision.

This is especially true before you send your work over to someone else to read. Before I send this blog to Chantel, I’ll have reworked some sections two or three times. If you’ve had someone comment on your work before, it’s a good time to keep in mind your own vices and read with a wary eye.

For me, it’s wordiness. As I reread this blog, I’ll be thinking about where I can tighten up my points. Where have I led a sentence on too long? Are there areas where I’m redundant? Is there a good mix of short sentences and long sentences?

There is, of course, a time to put the pen down—a time to recognize there’s always more that could be done, but this is good enough. It comes after you’ve made your own changes and then made changes to your work based on others’ suggestions. If you’re self-publishing, your work is finished when the whole thing goes to print. When you’re submitting to a publisher, your work is done when your editor sends you their final thumbs up. Until then, yours is a beautiful, full-of-potential work in progress. It’s an incredible time.

This January, we at HigleyFox wish you a year full of revisions—a year to make good great and great even better. Naturally, we’d love to be part of your revision process. If you have a book or blog you’d like us to take a look at, feel free to contact us here on our website, or shoot us an email directly at Queries@HigleyFox.com.

How to Write a Great Cookbook

Do you have a passion for cooking? Are your friends and family always saying you should write a cookbook? If you’ve dreamed of having your recipes published, and you’re ready to make it a reality, there are a several things to keep in mind.

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Writing a cookbook worthy of professional publishing is not for the faint of heart. It’s an intense, time-consuming process, and can involve devoting a year or more of your life to recipe testing and writing (and maybe even photographing and designing) the book.

Also, we live in the time of celebrity chefs, so there is a lot of high-profile competition in the marketplace. Couple this with the fact that everyone and their brother are trying to get a cookbook published, and it’s clear you have to stand out.

Have we scared you off yet? No? Good! Read on for our tips on how to make your cookbook the best it can be, so it can rise above the competition like a soufflé. Yep, we went there.

Read, read, read

Do you think someone who’s only read a handful of novels could write a high-quality book? Nope. Same goes for cookbooks. Read as many cookbooks as you can, and discern what you like and don’t like about each one. Pay attention to all aspects of the book, from the layout to how the author’s personality comes through. Why is your favorite cookbook—the one covered in oil splotches, flour fingerprints, and unidentified sticky substances—the one you reach for over and over again?

Find your voice

Think about it—there are a heck of a lot of dessert (or pasta, or vegetarian, or dog food, or anything else you can think of) cookbooks out there. So why are some successful and others not?

Differentiating your project from similar books isn’t really about the recipes. There’s only one aspect of your book that’s guaranteed to be unique: the fact that it’s yours. If you imbue it with your personality and voice, there won’t be another book like it out there.

Think about how you want to present yourself through the design and photography, and, of course, the writing style. Make sure your unique point of view shines through in the recipes, headnotes, and section introductions. Make connecting with the reader your priority.

Build your audience

Start a blog. Like, right now. You may not be as famous as Rachel Ray (yet), but one of the best ways for us non-TV types to get a book deal is having a successful blog.

Blogging will give you time to develop your voice, writing style, and recipes, and to learn what your audience loves about you and the food you make. Run the numbers on what resonates with your readers, and replicate those successful characteristics in your book.

And let’s be honest—when it comes to books, the name of the game is sales. Publishers like to know their author is a marketing force of their own who can sell copies to their already-established fan base. Being able to say to an agent or publisher, "This many people subscribe to my blog, and I get this dazzling number of new page views a week" can be the defining factor in convincing an agent or editor you're worth their investment.

Give good headnotes

Your recipes’ headnotes—you know, those short paragraphs that introduce each recipe—are one of your best opportunities to engage with the reader and motivate them to give the dish a try. You might use this space to tell personal stories and anecdotes about the recipe. Did you get creative one night when there were only a few items in your pantry? Did Grandma make this every year for your birthday? Maybe you found yourself with a comical amount of zucchini and had to come up with an interesting way to use it. Tell your reader all about it!

Headnotes are also where you can tell the reader why Hoppin’ John is traditionally a New Year’s dish, where they can find that red curry paste the recipe calls for, and what they can use for a substitute if they don’t have any buttermilk in the fridge (because who does?).

Learn from your predecessors

It’s wise to study up on tips and potential pitfalls from people who have already been through this (often grueling) process. The Institute of Culinary Education has a great series on their blog called “So You Want to Write a Cookbook?” that takes you through just about every aspect of the process, including things you may not have thought about, like how much of the recipe you need to make at the photoshoot.

Several food bloggers who have been around the butcher block a few times have also offered their advice to anyone looking for it online, from how to write a proposal to how long recipe testing can take to the truth about how much money you’re likely to make.

If, after all this research, you find the how-the-sausage-is-made aspect of cookbook-writing discouraging, just remember the words of chef and cookbook author Brooks Headley: “... getting to hold in your hands a two-pound, 287-page manual of recipes with a foxy dust jacket is a rush the likes of which drugs got nothin’ on.”

HigleyFox Highlights: Our Favorite Books from 2017

There’s a reason we got into the business of editing other people’s writing. We at HigleyFox love books! If you’re like us, though, you probably don’t get as much time to sit down and read for pleasure as you’d like.

It’s that time-to-books ratio that makes picking your next read so hard. When you don’t have many spare moments, you want the book you pick up to be engaging from the start—to wrap you in and keep you on your toes all the way through. Who has time for boring books?

Naturally, boring books are in the eye of the beholder, but to help you maximize your reading time this year, we’ve decided to share our favorite reads from 2017. Happy reading!

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Danielle’s Favorite Books from 2017

I love young adult fiction, and as someone who enjoys editing YA, I think it’s important to familiarize myself with some of the more well-known authors writing today. As I read, I try to not just sit back and enjoy, but to keep one ear to what’s working for me as a reader.

What are the characters doing that makes this interaction stand out? How does the pacing add to the overall enjoyment of the story? What makes these characters believable as humans? And what is it about their voice or their perspective or their internal/external conflict that’s compelling me to care about their cause?

With all that out of the way, here are two of the YA novels I loved in 2017.

Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

This was my first Jennifer Niven novel, and as soon as it was over, you can bet I kept that train running with All the Bright Places.

The book stirred up a lot of controversy when it was first published, due, in part, to its blurb on the back, and in part because people love being dicks on the internet (My favorite people are the ones who say “Oh I thought this book was going to be terrible, and since this person says it is, I’m just going to blindly follow and encourage others not to pick it up, because who could possibly have a different opinion?”).

Maybe I’m insensitive, but I thought the sarcasm was hilarious and real. While the humor may not hit home for every reader, for me, Jennifer’s (I would consider us on first-name terms, because that’s how personal this book felt to me) tone was spot on. If you’re going to write a teen romance about two awkward characters learning to feel comfortable in their own skin, laughter is essential.

The protags of the story are Libby Strout and Jack Masselin. Libby was once America’s Fattest Teen. After her mom died, she ate a lot to cope, and she ended up gaining so much weight, she had to be physically removed from her house by a crane. Jack is the other side of the coin: naturally good-looking, athletic, gifted in robotics. But he has prosopagnosia, which is essentially extreme face blindness. He has terrible self-esteem and acts like a bit of a dick because he’s trying to constantly cover up for the fact that he doesn’t recognize people—not even his own mom.

You can read the bad reviews if you want, but personally, I loved this book (and for that matter, so did Publisher’s Weekly, so there to all you haters). I loved the emotion and the characters and the beauty of it, because Jennifer Niven is an amazingly gifted writer when it comes to imagery and voice.

Part of why I loved it had to do with the fact that Jennifer understands grief. Like really gets it. I don’t know if this book would have hit me so hard if I hadn’t lost someone important to me, but every word out of Libby’s mouth about loss cut true.

“I feel the hollow in my heart that's been there ever since my mom died. Loss does that, hits you out of the blue. You can be in the car or in class or at the movies, laughing and having a good time, and suddenly it's as if someone has reached directly into the wound and squeezed with all their might.”
 

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

If you’re a Prime shopper like I am (I know, and I’m in disgrace), you’ll notice Amazon recommends you read this book and Holding Up the Universe together, which is how The Sun Is Also a Star ended up in my shopping cart.

I read two of Nicola Yoon’s books this year (Everything, Everything as well), and I’m not sure who does this woman’s covers, but they are seriously irresistible. I loved them both, but I chose The Sun is Also a Star as my 2017 pick because it was the one that stuck with me for days and weeks after I’d turned the last page.

First of all, this book is told from different perspectives (pretty much my favorite literary device). But it’s not just told by the boy and girl protagonists. Nicola Yoon understands that the fate of individuals rests in the hands of everyone around them. So when someone does something that affects the trajectory of the story, that person also has a chapter. It’s crazy, beautiful, intentional, and so well-done.

Then there’s the plot and the timeline. For the most part, this story all takes place in the scope of a day—the day Natasha and Daniel meet. If you’re thinking this is a set-up for every teen romance ever, you’re wrong. This one packs a punch.

Natasha’s family is about to be deported back to Jamaica—a place she barely remembers. She’s spending her last day in New York trying to get an immigration attorney to work a miracle that will keep her family from having to leave that night. Then there’s Daniel, the son of South Korean immigrants, who has his college interview that day with a Yale alum. Daniel’s a romantic, while Natasha loves science and order and wants only to live in a less chaotic space. Over the course of a day, these two strangers become friends and then more, tied together in a web of poor timing, enormous consequences, and crippling expectations.

In a way, this book reads like one of its many, wonderful quotes, so I’ll just leave you with it and tell you …

“The thing about being a fish on a hook is the more you try to get off, the more trapped you are. The hook just buries itself deeper and you bleed a little more. You can't get off the hook. You can only go through it. Said another way: the hook has to go through you, and it's gonna hurt like a motherfucker.”

… for me, this book was that hook, but that hook was absolutely worth it.

Chantel’s Favorite Books from 2017

I love true stories. Don’t get me wrong; I love fiction too. As a horror freak and loud-and-proud geek, fiction takes up a lot of my heart space. But I’ve always been drawn to the incredible events that happen to real people, or the incredible events that real people make happen.

Autobiographies of talented, troubled, and influential people; true crime stories of tragedies that have changed society; history-filled analyses of events that caused major cultural shifts — I can’t get enough. Even as a child, I spent as much time reading books like The MGM Story and Unforgettable Fire: The Story of U2 as I did Sweet Valley Twins and The Babysitter’s Club.

Here are a couple of my favorite non-fiction books I read this year.

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero

Author Greg Sestero had the dubious honor of being the supporting actor in what is truly, in my opinion, the greatest bad movie ever made, The Room. The now-famous little movie—written by, directed by, and starring the baffling Tommy Wiseau—is hilariously bad in all respects, though sincerely intended. Sestero describes the movie as “a drama that is also a comedy that is also an existential cry for help that is finally a testament to human endurance.”

Wiseau, who is unusual-looking (“The only casting directors who’d be willing to call Tommy in on the basis of this headshot were the ones curious about what it was like to be murdered.”), obviously far older than he laughably claims to be, and of somewhat mysterious foreign origin, is a lifelong admirer of the U.S., and had the misguided confidence and ambition to follow his dream of making a very American movie.

“What I was sure of was that Tommy had something I'd never seen in anyone else: a blind and unhinged and totally unfounded ambition. He was so out of touch, so lacking in self-awareness, yet also wildly captivating. That night there was this aura around Tommy—an aura of the possible.”

The Disaster Artist chronicles the adventures of shooting the movie from the perspective of Tommy’s best friend and co-star. The book is funny, heartwarming, and honest, and even won Best Non-Fiction book at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

This book and the movie it’s based on may be on your radar since the release of James Franco’s film adaptation. Even if you’ve seen The Disaster Artist, I highly recommend reading the book. One caveat, though; it will really enhance your experience if you watch The Room before you read the book. I will stop short of saying it’s an absolute must, but … it kind of is. Besides, no one should deprive themselves of the joy that comes from viewing The Room.
 

Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello is one of the most prolific musicians of all time. And after over forty years in the music business, he certainly has a lot of fascinating stories to tell. With his first (and long-awaited) book, Costello uses an engaging non-linear structure to tell the story of his life so far, and proves that his talent for writing complex, poetic song lyrics translates well into writing equally poetic prose that are delightful to read. He can even imbue meaning into something as benign as a guitar sitting in the corner: “There was a Fender Palomino acoustic lying in the corner in an open case, which, as you know, often symbolizes low morals or easy virtue in paintings of antiquity.”

Though filled with themes that are familiar in rock stars’ autobiographies—tumultuous relationships, scandals, and the inflated ego that comes from achieving fame in youth—Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink also includes a great deal of introspection and self-awareness that never devolves into navel-gazing. Costello doesn’t shy away from telling the truth about himself, even when it’s ugly and lacking the benefit of being salacious.

I will warn you that, at 674 pages, this book is quite long for an autobiography and is bursting at the seams with information that may become tiresome to anyone but a hardcore fan. But the writing itself really is worth it, even if you only have a passing familiarity with this legendary artist, and especially if you love music.

“Songs can be many things: an education, a seduction, some solace in heartache, a valve for anger, a passport, your undoing, or even a lottery ticket.”

 

Other Picks from 2017:

Danielle

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Chantel

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shower by Robert Graysmith

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill

The Self-Publishing To-Do List: Have You Considered These 3 Steps?

There are a lot of reasons to self-publish. You retain all the money from your book’s sales. You have final say over every edit and every illustration. You don’t have to wait for a publisher to tell you yea or nay. You can write it and print it whenever you want.

But really, it’s not that easy. There are a number of steps you’ll need to take once you’ve decided to go the self-publishing route, from making a budget to picking a publisher. Here are three steps on the self-publishing to-do list you may not have considered.

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Step 1: Make a budget.

Self-publishing can be incredibly expensive. Thousands of dollars expensive. Reedsy, a website that helps match writers to editors and other publishing professionals, has a fantastic infographic that goes through the major costs of publishing—everything from a developmental edit to the cover design to the interior design. They also have a pricing calculator toward the bottom of the page that can help you estimate how much your book will cost to publish on your own, based on genre and word count.

One interesting fact they’ve found in their research is nonfiction books can be up to 40 percent more expensive to publish, primarily because you’ll want to hire someone to fact-check your research and statistics. Romantic fiction is the least expensive genre.

When you set out to write a book, chances are your first thought won’t be “I should set aside some money.” In fact, practical thoughts like, “Damn, this is going to be expensive” really shouldn’t be on your mind at all, as they might demotivate you from pushing onward in your goals.

But if self-publishing has always been a dream of yours, it’s important you consider the cost, and eventually set some cash aside. Sure, you can always take your Word doc down to FedEx and have them print up a copy you can give to your mom, but if you want a beatiful, error-free product with a high-quality look, you’re going to have to cough up some change.

Step 2: Keep track of your research.

Speaking of nonfiction, if your book requires any research at all, whatever you do, don’t forget to write down your sources.

Remember writing research papers for school? You’d go to the library or onto EBSCO and find sources to make your case. The worst possible reality was realizing, in the middle of writing your paper, that you’d forgotten to write down the citation information for one of your sources. I can remember spending hours, once, just trying to re-find a source whose quote I’d built an entire paragraph around and neglected to cite.

In our last blog, 3 Tech Tools to Make Writing Your Book a Little Easier, we talked about Scrivener, a program that gives you room to store your research as you write. Of course, you don’t need a fancy program to record all your references (though it is nice to have). A Google doc on the cloud with titles, author names, and links would be sufficient. Or, for those who want something more tangible, a physical file with printed-out pages or hand-copied notes would also work.

The main points to consider are legibility, accuracy, and thoroughness. In other words, you have to be able to read and understand your notes when you look back later. What’s written down must be correctly summarized, or better yet, quoted (and attributed). And finally, the citation you’ve written down must include all the necessary relevant information—not only so you can locate the source later, but so a proofreader or reader can as well.

Step 3: Think about other formatting options.

Understandably, self-publishing a printed book isn’t for everyone. If cost is an issue for you, the thought of skipping the printer and sticking with digital copies only may be highly appealing. A 2014 study by AuthorEarnings.com found 61 percent of Amazon’s daily unit sales were e-books, as opposed to print books, which made up the remaining 39 percent.

But a digital version of your book, laid out like any traditional e-book, isn’t the only option to consider.

Did you know audio books make up the fastest growing segment of publishing? That’s according to this 2017 blog by TheCreativePenn.com. As a self-published author, one perk of the process is being able to share your book in whatever format you choose, including as an audio book. Hire a voice actor (someone impressive if you’ve got the money) or record the reading yourself (like Neil Gaiman and Stardust).

Recording your novel as an audiobook will help you gain access to a whole new market of readers. Plenty of people prefer listening to sitting down with a physical copy. Creating an audiobook could potentially increase your profits, as it’ll help you stand out in a highly saturated market.

For an in-depth explanation of the different options for publishing an audiobook, check out this 2015 article from Publisher’s Weekly.

Another format you may not have considered, but should, is the interactive book—particularly if you’re putting together a children’s book or how-to guide. For instance, if you’re writing a book on meditation, you could insert audio files into your e-book to make the lessons more engaging. Better yet, record videos of the different poses or exercises you describe so the reader can better visualize what they should be doing.

Out of all the self-published books on meditation, yours will stand out as a high-value purchase, complete with audio and visual resources. Interactive books come with a higher price tag to create, but they have the potential to reap greater rewards as well. Websites like FlipBuilder.com and Kotobee.com can help.

Have any self-publishing tips you think others would want to know? Leave a comment below!

3 Tech Tools to Make Writing Your Book a Little Easier

Writing a book might seem like a monumental task, and, well, it is. But there are tools out there that can make every stage of the process a little simpler and better organized, so you can focus on your ideas and the writing. Check out these handy apps, websites, and software tools that will make that mountain you’re climbing a little easier to summit.

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Brainstorming: MindNode

When you’re in brainstorming mode for your next book or writing project, mind mapping can be a great way to generate and record ideas. You can mind map on paper, of course, but MindNode helps you to organize and share your mind maps. It even takes care of the visual layout for you. Just type your ideas, and the app does the rest.

Also, unlike paper, you can easily reconfigure parts of your mind maps as they evolve. This is especially helpful when you’re first figuring out the basic outline of your story or a character’s arc. If you need to see your mind map in a more linear way, you can switch to outline mode and expand and collapse parts of your document as needed.

MindNode is free, and available for Mac and iOS only.

 

Writing: Scrivener

Writing a book, or any large document, can be a daunting task. Scrivener offers several features to make it go a little easier. If you’re like me, you don’t strictly write your story from beginning to end. This software allows you to break up your project by scene, chapter, or paragraph to make it more manageable, then edit as if it were one document.

At this point, you may be already done with the prep work. But even if you’re halfway through writing your book, it’s still easy to move your project to Scrivener to simplify the rest of the process. Import research or drafts from other word-processing software, as well as images, PDFs, sound files, and movies.

Some of the best assets of this software are its organization tools. Keep your ideas in one place—and move them around at will—with the corkboard. Virtual index cards allow you to organize and arrange characters, scenes, and plot points. The Outliner tool gives you an overview of your manuscript, or even just a section or chapter. You can drag and drop to reorganize anything.

With Scrivener, you can create templates, like character or location sheets, that you can use over and over. And you can use the app’s ready-to-go MLA and APA templates and footnote support for academic papers and non-fiction.

Different viewing modes can make your task easier, whether you need more information or as little as possible. There’s no need to switch back and forth between tabs. You can view up to four different documents in the same project window at the same time. Check a previous chapter for consistency, translate or transcribe a passage, or describe an image. You can also use full-screen mode to block out distractions and see only your text.

Scrivener even helps with motivation and productivity by allowing you to set word-count goals for your whole manuscript. Set goals for this week or just today’s writing session, and easily see how much you’ve written each day.

When your manuscript or paper is done, export your finished document to any file format and font you need, and even create an e-reader version for self-publishing or proofreading.

Scrivener is available for Windows and Mac. It costs $45 for a standard license ($38.25 for students and academics), and mobile versions can be purchased separately.

 

Proofreading: Natural Reader

Have you ever typed “had” but you meant “head”? Natural Reader will read your text aloud to you, so you’ll be able to hear those mistakes that spell-check isn’t smart enough to catch.

Your brain is the original version of autocorrect, causing you to miss mistakes in your writing as you read. Hearing your words read aloud is a useful weapon in the battle for typo-free text.

You can choose from dozens of voices with different accents, languages, ages, and genders for  a custom listening experience. Is the speaker in your story a young British boy? No problem. Hear your text as though the character were reading it to you.

If you hate robotic voices, you may want to sample Natural Reader anyway—it doesn’t get all the intonations and inflections of your text correct, but it’s certainly better than some auto-readers I’ve tried. It also offers a pronunciation editor if the voice just can’t seem to say your characters’ names correctly.

You can use Natural Reader on their website (with free, premium, and premium plus plans), or download it as software.
 

Writing for Children: These 5 Christmas Books Will Show You How It’s Done

I’ve completed two internships in children’s editorial departments, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s there are no shortage of Christmas books in the submissions pile. Having read several of these, I feel confident saying most of them were downright terrible. This is, in part, because they broke the golden rule of children’s publishing: Don’t patronize your reader.

It’s a problem consistent with many submissions, Christmas stories or no. Somewhere along the line, most adults forget what it’s like to be a kid, and the voice they use to write to children is akin to the voice you might use with your dog, rather than a young human. It’s a voice that assumes the child knows nothing, understands nothing, and needs the world “dumbed down” for them to understand what’s going on.

But kids are smarter than most adults give them credit for. They’re perceptive. Now that doesn’t mean your next Christmas book idea should be The Truth About Santa or How the Commercialization of Christmas is Taking Over the Holiday Season. It just means the way you tell your story should reflect the intelligence of your readers. Don’t spell it all out for them. Give them the chance to keep guessing, to form real emotions and feelings for the characters, to use their imagination to the fullest. And for the love of all things Holy Night, if it’s going to rhyme, be intentional.

Here are a few of our favorite children’s Christmas books and the lessons you can learn from each.

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1. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

This has to be one of the most magical Christmas books of all time, with good reason. The Polar Express is the kind of children’s book that gives you goosebumps, just reading the text. The story is easy to relate to: The night before Christmas, all our protagonist wants is to hear the sound of jingle bells on Santa’s sleigh. Another child has told him Santa doesn’t exist (Who hasn’t gone through that heart-wrenching moment?), so when the boy hears the sound of a train outside—the Polar Express—that is going to take him to the North Pole, it’s a moment of victory and triumph for children’s fantasy and imagination.

Because the book is in the first person, it’s easy to imagine this is a first-hand account—a true telling of what really happened to the author one Christmas night when he was young. When the protagonist asks for a bell from Santa’s sleigh and then loses it from a hole in his pocket, the reader’s heart breaks with him. Here is a moment of true sorrow and empathy. What child hasn’t lost something so precious? And then, to be redeemed on Christmas morning with a special gift to carry for all time ... it’s a moment that makes children and parents alike stop and wonder at how special Christmas magic can be.

The Polar Express, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 1985, and winner of the 1986 Caldecott medal, is everything a good Christmas story should be, all while breaking several children’s publishing rules.

One of these is length. It’s a long book. While it might be condensed down to the standard 32 pages of a typical picture book, word-count-wise, it sits at just over a thousand. While a thousand words may not be unheard of for a picture book, most publishers encourage authors to cut down on the text and let the illustrations help tell the story. The Polar Express does have some truly awe-inspiring illustrations, but Allsburg has taken no pains to hold back on his descriptions of the journey and settings.

What Authors Can Take Away:

First, make it magical. Christmas is one of the most enchanting times of the year, full of myth and legend. Think like a kid. What might be most alluring to a child around Christmas? How can you use the setting or journey to enhance that feeling? Check out books like The Nutcracker or The Christmas Wish for inspiration. Then, when you’re crafting your story, don’t forget the heart. The Polar Express poses a simple problem for its readers: To have proof of magic and then to lose it. There’s no need to drive the point home over and over. The sheer magnitude of the loss is enough for kids to feel the pain the protagonist must feel. Conflict, particularly in Christmas books, doesn’t have to be high drama to inspire feeling.

2. Cajun Night Before Christmas by “Trosclair”

Let’s talk about plays on Christmas classics. As we all know, The Night Before Christmas reigns supreme as the most well-known Christmas book of all time. Heck, it might just be the most well-known children’s book of all time. The original version by Clement Clarke Moore was first published anonymously in 1823, then claimed in 1837, and has been enchanting families ever since. It’s no wonder, then, that entire websites have been created just to try to chronicle the various versions of the story.

One of my favorites is Cajun Night Before Christmas, which is best experienced through listening to the story read aloud by someone who can actually do the dialect justice. Published in 1992 by Pelican, Cajun Night Before Christmas has all the rhythm of Moore’s original, wrapped up in a historical New Orleans theme. Imagine a Santa who drives a skiff pulled by “’gators” and whose bright red cheeks are a product of blackberry wine. Awesome, right?

What Authors Can Take Away:

If you’re going to create your own version of a well-known original, it’s important to do your research. There are literally hundreds of versions of The Night Before Christmas—from space versions to patriotic versions to one about cats. Seriously. Cats. So before you accidentally reinvent the wheel, see what else is out there. Keep an eye on the versions that seem to be selling well. Take note of the versions that don’t. It’s just as important to understand why a dud is a dud as it is to know why a winner’s a winner. And then, when all the research is over, get creative. Get personal. Dive into a new take. Part of what makes Cajun Night Before Christmas so special is it’s part of a cultural narrative. It introduces a different perspective, and it’s not shy about its identity. Your take on an old favorite should be just as original.

3. Mortimer’s Christmas Manger by Karma Wilson

Mortimer’s Christmas Manger manages to walk the line between a traditional, Christianity-based Christmas book and a humorous anthropomorphic tale.

Giving animals human-like qualities isn’t anything new, particularly in holiday stories. Books like Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, The Magic of Christmas, and The Snow Tree all feature animals decorating Christmas trees (so seriously, if this is your idea, stop now, because enough is enough).

The book starts with little Mortimer mouse who is determined to find a home that’s not cold, cramped, or creepy like his own. When he sees a house that’s “just [his] size,” he decides to move in, current occupants be damned (excuse the pun). Inside, he finds a bunch of small statues, including a baby, lying in a manger. Mortimer tosses them all out the door—including baby Jesus—and takes the manger for his own cozy bed. It isn’t until he overhears the Christmas story, and learns about how Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn, that Mortimer decides he has to put everyone back. In the end, Mortimer prays for a new house and finds something even better, just his size.

What Authors Can Take Away:

This one really depends on the kind of Christmas story you want to write. There are plenty of beautiful, highly approachable, Christian-based Christmas books out there that feed into the larger, more general market. The Legend of the Candy Cane was one of my favorites growing up, as was The Littlest Angel.

Likewise, Mortimer’s Christmas Manger knows its audience: children of Christian/semi-religious families. After all, the book has the word “manger” right in the title. It’s not a story an atheist family is likely to pick up, though the cute little mouse on the cover still makes the book tempting to chreasters.

Kids love to laugh, and this is one picture book that does humor very well. For children who’ve grown up with the Christmas story, it’s a chance to beat Mortimer to the punch line. The author never tells the reader that Mortimer is house-hunting a nativity scene, leaving that bit of dramatic irony up to the kiddos who can deduce what’s happening from the colorful illustrations. Even funnier is watching idolized figures like Mary and Joseph—not to mention the Christ child—get evicted by the determined little mouse. It’s just a tad scandalous, with a sweet, heartfelt ending to tie it all up.

If you can, try to create some dramatic irony in your next draft. It’s a great method for building suspense and an excellent opportunity to practice letting the illustrations play a bigger role in the reader’s discovery.

4. Olive, the Other Reindeer by Vivian Walsh and J. Otto Seibold

This ten-year-old Christmas favorite is all about a little dog named Olive who mistakes the words to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and ends up thinking she is one of Santa’s helpers (Get it? All of the other reindeer/Olive, the other reindeer?). She takes two buses to the North Pole, and when she gets there, Santa lets her come along on the night’s adventures. When trouble strikes, Olive is there to lend a hand, and in the end, it’s her keen canine senses that save the day. Olive, the Other Reindeer is a story about how being yourself is often the greatest gift of all.

What Authors Can Take Away:

If there’s one lesson to be learned from this book, it’s that authors should be like Olive, or rather, be themselves.

So many Christmas books are just the same. It seems like every Christmas story has to end on a note about the Christmas spirit, the importance of family or forgiveness during the holidays, or how the season brings people together. Olive, the Other Reindeer is special because it’s unique. It’s crazy and creative, with silly scenes like flutes raining down from the sky and a fog so thick and pillowy, it’s putting the reindeer to sleep. When authors remember to look beyond the scope of what’s been done and challenge themselves to think differently, that’s when something amazing is born.

5. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

If you’ve been living in a cave for the last 60 years since The Grinch was published, here’s a brief recap: How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the story of how the Grinch steals Christmas from the Whos of Who-ville. Only, his plan is spoiled when Christmas comes anyway, and even without all the gifts and fancy food, all the Whos still come together to sing and celebrate, inspiring the Grinch to bring back all their stolen stuff and join in the fun.

What Authors Can Take Away:

The Grinch is a classic. And what’s more, it’s a rhyming classic. Now, I’ve left this one to the end because as St. Nick knows, there’s no shortage of rhyming picture books, particularly around the holidays. Think everything from Llama Llama Holiday Drama to Snowmen at Christmas to the aforementioned Cajun Night Before Christmas.

Personally, I don’t love all these books. In fact, a bad rhyming Christmas book actually turns me into a bit of a grinch. In my experience, a picture book can’t rhyme just to rhyme. That rhyme has to play its own part in telling the story. I know—nothing says festive like a book that reads like a Christmas carol, but trust me: I’m not the first editor to toss out a decent story for the sake of its bad rhymes.

Fortunately, fun and creative rhymes are a trick Dr. Seuss always excels at, and it’s a skill particularly prevalent in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Beyond the great slant rhymes and made-up words, Dr. Seuss is bold and intentional with every rhyme he writes. It takes some serious poetic practice to come up with this particular gem: “And he stuffed them in bags. Then the Grinch, very nimbly, stuffed all the bags, one by one, up the chimney!”

If you’re thinking, “I can be as resilient as a Who! I can make it with a rhyming picture book!” that’s fine. I wish you luck. But keep in mind, your rhyming has to be good, and it has to make sense. You can’t sacrifice the story for the sake of making a rhyme. My advice is to focus on the story first. If rhyme can play a part in telling the tale, and what’s more, makes it better, then by all mean, go for it.

 

If you’re doing your best to keep up your writer’s momentum from NaNoWriMo, brainstorming a few picture book ideas for the holidays is a fun and easy way to destress. Plus, it’s a heck of a lot easier than putting down 50,000 words. Task yourself with the job of seeing what’s out there, then sit down with your own cup of hot cocoa and let the words flow. Keep in mind the tips above, and like Rudolph, your Christmas story is sure to go down in history.

What’s your favorite Christmas book? Why do you think it works when others don’t? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

NaNoWriMo Ends Tomorrow. What's the Next Step?

Maybe you’re one of the tens of thousands who achieved the dream. Did your toil, anxiety, and frustration pay off with a 50,000-word manuscript that makes you beam with pride and accomplishment? If so, we offer you a heartfelt congratulations and rejoice with you. If you think you have the first draft of your novel, check out our posts about how to proceed with the editing process and get your book published.

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If you fell short, that’s okay. You’re in good company—hundreds of thousands of participants are in the same boat. Life may have gotten in the way and spoiled your plans (life’s favorite pastime), or you may have just lost steam. But what did you accomplish? Did you write more than you had in months? Did you finally figure out how to fill in that plot hole that had been perplexing you? Did you develop any positive writing habits that you can build on to eventually accomplish your goal?

Most importantly, there’s something you, a writer, must remember. NaNoWriMo is never really over. This may be the last thing you want to hear right now, but on December 1st, NaNoWriMo Part II: The Revenge of WriMo begins. On New Year’s Day, we start NaNoWriMo Part III: Return to WriMo. Okay, so maybe these aren’t formally organized events you participate in with three- or four-hundred-thousand of your fellow writers, but every month—every day—is still about working toward that shiny word count and finishing your manuscript.

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Try these tips to prepare to jump back on the horse after NaNoWriMo is over.

For the love of all that is good and holy, get some sleep

If you met your word-count goal, or even came close, you likely were not focused on self-care and healthy habits this November. Make sure you’re doing what you can to practice good sleep hygiene. And yes, the article in that link includes the dreaded advice to stay away from electronic screens before bedtime. If the likelihood of staying off your laptop (i.e., not writing) during one of the few precious free hours of your day seems as laughable to you as it does to us, at least try an app like f.lux that changes the color of your screen based on the time of day. Better sleep makes for a better brain, which makes for better writing.

Take this time to set new goals

One of the appealing elements of NaNoWriMo is the pre-set goal. You try to write 50,000 words in 30 days, which breaks down to about 1,667 words a day. The black-and-white, set-in-stone rules of the event make it easy to stay focused on what you’re supposed to accomplish. But once December comes, you may find yourself feeling a bit lost. The idea of trying to bust out 50,000 words a month (particularly during the holiday season) may feel unrealistic. But that doesn’t mean you should cruise along aimlessly.

Decide now what manageable daily, weekly, or monthly goals look like for your schedule. Write them down. If you need to adjust them each month, each semester, or to your time constraints or life circumstances, do it. Flexibility and adaptability is key to staying the course in the long term. But write your goals down every time you change them, and never abandon them altogether. Even a hundred words a week during a busy or rough time in your life can help you keep up the momentum.

Find accountability partners

Another element of NaNoWriMo that helps participants push toward the end goal is the accountability factor. There were literally hundreds of thousands of people all over the world battling through the writer’s block, plot speedbumps, and late nights alongside you. You were able to connect with your fellow warriors online to encourage and commiserate with one another. But once November’s over, everyone leaves their comrades and goes back to a solitary writer’s existence.

Now is the time to build yourself a new group of motivated writers to engage with. Workshopping is an invaluable tool if you can find a group of people who understand your genre and challenge you to improve. Not interested in workshopping? Grimace at the thought of having to endure scrutiny if you don’t have new pages at each group meeting? There are plenty of groups out there that just offer support, encouragement, and accountability.

NaNoWriMo may be over for this year, but you are a writer for life. Take a moment to rest, plan, and build a support network, and every month can be NaNoWriMo (but with more sleep).

68 Years of Inspiring Action: The Winners of the 2017 National Book Awards

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to start a new book. After all, if you’re going to be laid up on the couch, recovering from a massive food coma, you might was well be nourishing your brain at the same time.

Plus, now that we have the names of the winners for this year’s National Book Awards, you have even more reason to curl up with an amazing read. Be sure to check out the books below and enjoy the best of the best this holiday season!

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Fiction: Sing, Unburied, Sing

This year’s winner for adult fiction is Sing, Unburied, Sing, written by Jesmyn Ward. The novel explores some of the darker secrets of the South, including “the complicated legacy of slavery and mass incarceration.” Most of all, though, it’s a novel about family and the past that haunts us.

In an interview with the National Book Foundation, Ward says, “I fell in love with classic 'odyssey' novels early on—especially As I Lay Dying, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yet I always felt somehow outside these books. This novel responds to that tradition, reflecting the realities of being black and poor in the South, the realities of my people and my community.”

Full of emotion and struggle, Ward takes on the harshest realities of life. Tracy K. Smith, writer for The New York Times, says, “Such feats of empathy are difficult, all too often impossible to muster in real life. But they feel genuinely inevitable when offered by a writer of such lyric imagination as Ward.”

If you’re looking for a book that will make you question today’s social climate and inspire you to see life from a different perspective, be sure to check out Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Nonfiction: The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

In The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by Masha Gessen, Gessen uses her journalistic talents to write about the lives of seven Russian individuals, including four young people who were born at what was expected to be the “dawn of democracy.” Each is grappling with the Russia they see before them, coming to terms with the past and wondering what the future holds.

Readers who are fascinated by Russian history and society will find Gessen’s novel intriguing, as she details the events that have taken place in Russia since the 1980s. Some of her findings are terrifying, such as the number of Russians who feel homosexual individuals should be “liquidated” (a number that decreased in the 1990s, but has grown since Putin came to power). The New York Times writes, “In [Putin’s] struggle with the West, as Gessen shows, the regime has whipped up hysteria over homosexual pedophilia, and presents itself as a defender of the traditional family and Christian values against an international LGBT conspiracy. This is one reason conservative groups in the United States and Western Europe have been steadily warming to Russia.”

Um, are you scared? Cause we sure are …

If you’re interested in real-world Russian events and struggles, be sure to check out The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, 2017’s Nonfiction winner.

Poetry: Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016

This year’s poetry winner is Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 by Frank Bidart. The publisher’s synopsis reads, “His pages represent the human voice in all its extreme registers, whether it’s that of the child murderer Herbert White, the obsessive anorexic Ellen West, the tormented genius Vaslav Nijinsky, or the poet’s own. And in that embodiment is a transgressive empathy, one that recognizes our wild appetites, the monsters, the misfits, the misunderstood among us, and inside of us.”

Bidart’s poems are a cynical study of destiny. With an eye toward today’s social and political climate, Bidart uses mythological or historical figures to comment on topics ranging from unrequited love to guilt to art. Half-Light is a book not just for poetry lovers, but for readers who enjoy a good philosophical challenge and who crave the chance to see the world through another lens.

Young People’s Literature: Far from the Tree

Fans of Robin Benway’s YA novel Emmy & Oliver will be thrilled with Beneway’s latest project and winner of this year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Far from the Tree.

Part of what makes this book so special is that it’s about siblings. For whatever reason, the majority of YA novels seem to be led by an only child or eldest child protagonist, powering through the world alone (think this season’s YA darling, John Green’s Turtles All the Way Up).

In this regard, Benway offers a fresh perspective, using the unique points of view of her three main characters—biological siblings Maya, Grace, and Joaquin—to weave a story of family, forgiveness, and belonging.

Separated from birth and previously unknown to each other, Maya, Grace, and Joaquin have the chance to form a bond they’ve never had. Raised in completely different circumstances (Maya and Grace with their adoptive families, Joaquin in various foster homes), each has their own burdens to carry—and their own hopes for the future.

Like any truly good book, Far from the Tree will make you laugh and cry, and it’ll stick with you long after you’ve reached the end.

If you haven’t yet watched the 2017 National Book Awards Ceremony, you absolutely should. As Cynthia Nixon, host of this year’s event, says,

“For some of us, books provide a welcome escape into someone else’s world. For others, they serve as a valuable resource for arming ourselves with indispensable knowledge of history. But all books offer something we need so desperately right now: broadened perspective.

“Books allow us to view circumstances through the eyes of someone else. They cultivate empathy. They inspire action. … Books matter.”

Here at HigleyFox, we too believe in the power of books to inspire action and empathy. If you haven’t yet had the chance to check out our services, we invite you to do just that on our How it Works page.