Tools for Writing a Novel

I’ve been to many conferences were successful writers share their tools for writing a novel, and I now have my own set to share. I am working hard to get my current manuscript done – and basic proofreading corrections made – before February 26.

The novel is called DNF (Did Not Finish) and it’s middle grade contemporary fiction. Maybe I will post a teaser when it’s out on submission.

Because I love checklists and measuring my productivity, I’m using a checklist log to record my daily activity.

tools for writing a novel


This isn’t a word count tracker, although I do have a handy little Numbers file that can function as a word count tracker just like the one NaNoWriMo provides on its website. I decided not to focus on words for this draft of my manuscript. Instead I focus on WHEN I am in the timeline of the story.

Paper Tools

I needed some other tools for writing a novel, and because I’m focusing on WHEN, I needed a calendar. My main character is a runner, so I use a training plan. And because this story has a large cast of characters (many more than in Dare Club) I needed a character list.

Each one of these tools helps me stay on track, minimize confusion, and prevents the kind of writer’s block that isn’t about ‘not having ideas’ but forgetting where you are in the story. I’ve found the calendar to be especially helpful.

Online Tools

My story takes place in a specific year, I use Weather Underground‘s website to find the weather for each of my key scenes. I also look online for popular baby names of the year 2000, and for popular songs, apps, and television shows. I’m sort of a stickler for minimizing anachronisms.

What tools for writing a novel do you use?


What a Writing Coach Offers

The writer’s playing field

In 2017, I embarked on a new part of the writer’s journey and became a writing coach. My first client is actually a young man interested in a challenging creative writing program in the area. We are working together to help him set goals and achieve them.

One aspect of his writing that doesn’t work: creative ideas.

As his writing coach, I feel my job is really focused on accountability and productivity.

Almost all writers and creatives could use a little boost in setting reasonable, measurable goals and working to meet those goals. There are lots of little steps between stating a goal and achieving a goal. Sometimes, the ability to achieve a goal is not within our power, it rests in some one else’s hands.

So what’s it like to meet with a writing coach?

First, we discussed some of his hopes and dreams. Then we talked about what he likes to write, doesn’t like to write, and his habits. We also discussed what and how much he reads. After I learned about those aspects of his writing life – and I learn new things in each session – I developed some systems to help him show off his strengths as well as confront his weaknesses.

Coaching Sessions

A typical session for us looks like this:

  • Free write for 5 minutes on a prompt that I choose, usually focused around describing a scene or memory focused around an emotion. We’ve written about moments when we’ve been happy, angry, embarrassed, guilty, and sad. The goal here is to capture the events that caused the feelings and to access the emotion in our brains and bring it to life on the page. Five minutes is short – we’ve got to write quickly and efficiently, as well as honestly.
  • Next, we dive in to the current project. My client shares any new sections, I read them over and offer positive comments as well as constructive criticism on areas that could be improved. We discuss plot, dialogue, the classic show-don’t-tell problem, and setting. We also spend a lot of time hashing out what endings might work and WHY.
  • After his projects, I like to share a short piece of my own writing and ask him to offer feedback and critique. I think this is really important for a young writer. My goals here are to model HOW to accept critique and how to think about revising existing works.
  • As our session wraps up, we discuss next steps. My client, like many writers of all ages, doesn’t relish revising, but that is always one of his assignments. Other goals include selecting a publication to submit to or working on a synopsis of his current story.

As his writing coach, I never tell him what to write. I do encourage him to develop good habits related to writing. Habits like reading and writing every day. Some other best practices I encourage him to adopt are completing his stories (even ones that aren’t his favorite) and being open to writing different versions so he can really find the one that resonates.


For the new year, I offered four options for big goals. I’m offering you these four goals, too, and I encourage you to attempt them and share your progress!

  1. Write a 500 word story with a plot.
  2. Revise a story.
  3. Re-write a familiar story in your style.
  4. Submit a story to a publication.

For more writing encouragement, check out my Twelve Days of Writing post and get busy.

Girls Write Pittsburgh

Remember when we were in school and we had to write essays or copy lines as punishment?

Why do some people make writing a punishment when it’s so redemptive?

It’s like running laps when you messed up in phys ed or on another sports team. Running doesn’t punish me. It saves me.

Girls Write Pittsburgh knows this and right here in Pittsburgh offers writing as a source of inspiration and empowerment.

girls write pittsburgh

Girls Write

When I was a young girl, I didn’t know it was possible to have a job as a writer. I knew that some people had jobs as newspaper reporters, but that wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I wanted to write and tell stories, fiction and non-fiction. Perhaps I wasn’t particularly bright, because while I knew that people authored and wrote the stories I loved, I didn’t put it together that it could be a job.

Nobody said I couldn’t be a writer, but nobody said I could, either. But it’s ok. That didn’t stop me from writing. I’ve written my whole life. It just took me a long time to realize it could be my real-life job.

I always imagined I’d be a teacher. And in many ways in my life, I’ve done that and loved it.

But now, thankfully, I’ve gone and made a life for myself as a writer.

Being a writer is incredibly fulfilling and not just because I get to do what I love, but because I get to meet amazing people like the creator of Girls Write Pittsburgh.

I’m incredibly inspired by Girls Write Pittsburgh and I’m looking for ways to support this project. First, they need donations. Second, they need mentors. They need places to host events and they need authors and writers to mentor and host workshops.

I’m so committed to expanding the voices that are telling stories in our world, and I see Girls Write Pittsburgh as an important way to do that. If you’re an author, illustrator, storytelling, creative, writer, or just love good stories please consider supporting Girls Write Pittsburgh.

Highlights Foundation Workshop: Novel Beginnings

In March 2017, I returned to the Highlights Foundation for my second workshop, Novel Beginnings. Our amazing instructors were Clara Gillow Clark and Kelly Going (who writes as K.L. Going). This year I was in the Lodge, which I enjoyed just as much as the cabin. Another difference from my October 2015 visit: snow.

highlights foundation

Calkins Creek

highlights foundation

The scary bridge I made myself cross

highlights foundation



There were about a dozen of us there for four days. Workshops like this are great because they are small enough to get to know the people but large enough to meet a diverse group of writers. And one of my favorite parts of Highlights Foundation workshops are that I don’t have to cook anything.

Each participant was able to submit the first 50 pages of their manuscript and received an in-depth one on one critique on their work. I found Clara and Kelly to be really open and honest about our stories and our writing. I know they offered sound guidance, because one of our attendees re-wrote her first few pages while at the workshop and when she shared them with us…WOW.

Group Critique

In addition to our one on one critiques, we also did a group critique session of our first three pages, hosted by Susan Bartoletti. Susan suggested we structure our critique feedback using the five points below, and I really loved the results.

highlights foundation critique

One thing that pleased me a lot was after only hearing my first three pages, a person in the critique group was able to lay out the overall plot of my story. If a writer can put that in front of readers and still make it funny and interesting, there is something good happening there.

Kelly shared a lot about the business of publishing. The time away from daily life helped me hone in on what I really wanted to do with my story. I received solid, positive feedback on my story from Clara and felt very motivated to keep working.

I haven’t yet told Clara that the week after I returned from the workshop I wrote every single day and made big progress through my manuscript…but was still really unhappy with the arc. I called up a friend, he’s 10, and talked it through with him. He brainstormed so honestly with me and I can’t ever thank him enough. After my conversation with him, I revamped the stakes in my story completely and now have a much better source of conflict that will interest kid readers. I hope.

Highlights Memories

But the Highlights Foundation Workshop isn’t all writing. Aside from working on my own story, I did a lot of running in the snow. And I spent some time traveling down memory lane and looking through Highlights from 1985 and 1986. I recognized covers and stories that I had read, re-read, and re-re-read as a kid, much the same way my son reads Match.

Word play and word history! I would love to write something like this for Highlights today.

highlights foundation

When I saw this story about the marathon, I wondered if it had influenced me, in a subtle way, to try running.

This is probably the first place I read about silkies. They are a favorite mythological creature of mine.

This story stuck with me forever. It could be one of the first science-fiction stories I ever read. It blended ordinary life elements with a strange idea and was also effortlessly entertaining.

This one made me laugh out loud. Reading this made me want to make my own butter so much and now that I’m the grown-up, we do!

Here’s a story about a young woman who played a role in shaping historical events. Could this be any more up my alley?

Six Word Stories Part 2

Who doesn’t love good six word stories? They are short and sweet.

I am so lucky to be able to visit classrooms and hang out with kids. As a writer, there’s nothing more valuable than learning from and listening to your target audience. So when I had a chance to go into my son’s sixth grade class, I decided the topic would be “brevity.” Now, I didn’t tell them that, but it gave me a framework.

Picture Books

First,  I read a short but very skillfully done picture book. You’re never too old to read a picture book and really learn about the essence of story. A picture book needs to tell a story in very few words.


Then, we worked on a 26 word alphabet story about sixth graders. There were some funny parts, like when we included eating and farting. We had tech, including iPhone, video games and memes. One girl suggested we delete “sleeping” and write “Zzzz” – which was GENIUS. We had a lot of sports like gymnastics and karate and soccer.


Six Word Stories

Finally, we got to dessert: the six word story.

As I took them through the first two parts of the visit, I explained how stories build to a climax of emotion and action and then offer a resolution. I challenged them to include all of those elements in their six word stories.

Here’s what we came up with:


Last man on earth heard knock.

I am cool, you are not.

Roasted, toasted marshmallow on the fire.

Learn something!

I really loved hearing their stories. And since the main character in my current project is in middle school, I decided to write some six word stories for her.


She quit everything, until she didn’t.

She botched everything except dreaming big.

For Fun

Do you agree that a lot of six word stories sound so ominous? I love to laugh and have fun and wanted to write a humorous six word story.

Apology accepted. Now explain the bird.

How a Book Smells

I love how a book smells. I love that slightly dusty, dry papery smell mingled with the chemical odor of ink. Unfortunately that smell can often fade, but it’s in my memory.

Writers are encouraged to use smells in their books because when our brains read the description of the smells, our sensory areas light up just like we’re actually smelling the smells. Our brains can’t tell the difference between smelling with our noses, or reading about a smell that we know.

I do try to weave scents and smells into my stories, but only when they are appropriate. Recently I read a YA (young adult) book that I think was a tad heavy handed about incorporating smell data into the story.


Book Smells in A Cure for Dreaming

A Cure for Dreaming is a mix of humor and horror set in early 1900s Portland. A young girl is hypnotized in an attempt to remove her egalitarian views. There is some romance, parental tension, references to Dracula and a slight education on women’s equality and suffrage. I wanted to love the story, but I basically just enjoyed it.

What stuck out to me was that in every chapter, the author inserted an odor, scent or smell somewhat early. It was part of setting the scene but it also felt a little like checking a box. Maybe that’s not really a problem. I’m probably more picky than the average reader for this book. It really stood out to me as a task, not a story element.

Several smells appeared in the first sentences of the chapter.

Cigarette smoke and warring perfumes. How long until most readers are unfamiliar with cigarette smoke odor? Neither of these smells are very appealing.

book smells cigarette

“cigarette smoke…warring perfumes..smelled overcooked”

Food smells trigger not only our scent memories, but our appetites, too. Does your mouth water when you read this?

“smelling of chicken”

The smell of black coffee is unmistakeable and quite enjoyable in my smell collection.

book smells food

“poached eggs, black coffee and a touch of rosemary”


In later chapters, the smells appear after a few pages. Here we have that tingling dental office smell that often triggers fear in people. Did you get tense reading this?

book smells fear

“A sweet, antiseptic, and metallic potpourri”

And the smell of peppermint makes me think of Christmas. This book is set at Halloween. Maybe she should have referenced cinnamon.

book smells holiday

“peppermint-scented candies”

These three scents aren’t really familiar to modern day readers. The purpose here is to reference a society from a different time.

book smells historic

“Cologne and pomade and the scent of wool suits”


Reading How a Book Smells

So not only does the physical book smell, but the book has smells. As you read your next book, take note of the book smells that are mentioned and think about how they help set the scene, the time period, the mood. Or, just read the book.

Writing Prompt: The Lost Potato

Do you see that? There on the ground? It’s a potato. It’s just sitting there, all by itself, on the sidewalk. How did it get there?

This lost potato is the perfect writing prompt. I can think of lots of stories about how that potato ended up there.

Send me your stories about the Lost Potato. Feel free to change the title. I’ll share them here and someone (or ones) may receive some kind of recognition for their creativity.

Room for Improvement

room for improvement

Stop here.

Running has a finish line, but with stories, there’s always room for improvement.

Virginia Wolf wrote that it’s essential for women to have a room of one’s own, and I don’t disagree. But there’s another room that’s also essential. Room for Improvement.

I don’t usually write stories for specific contests, but I will revise them. There’s this website, Mslexia, that I like. I like what they say about women and writing. I want to send them a story and get good feedback. They have a contest with a deadline of March 1, 2017. I have a story I think they will like. Their contest has a word count limit of 3000 words. My story is 4719. I’ll have to cut 36% of my story to have it qualify. I worked on it for two weeks and I finally have the story down to 2995.

Is it the same story? Is it better or worse? Who knows.

There’s always room for improvement.

I have another story that meets the word count for the next round of Pen Parentis, in fact, it’s well under. It got great reviews on another website but when I pulled it out to re-read it today, I realized I can rewrite it even better, stronger. I overused the word “too” for example. I can spruce this up, get it proofread, and send it off to the contest, which opens March 1.

There’s always room for improvement.

Back in October 2015, I wrote a 50,000 word draft of a novel for NaNoWriMo, but I didn’t really write the full story. I wrote the fun scenes of a story. Now as I’ve pushed this manuscript through one round of revision, I realized I didn’t have a strong story line and I need a synopsis. So I’ve paused my revision and I’m now telling the story in synopsis form. This is a good exercise because I have to turn in my first 50 pages to the hosts of a Highlights Foundation workshop, and the pages are due March 1. (It’s a busy time.)

Once the synopsis is done, I’ll go back and revise those first fifty pages and make sure they really set up the story I plan to tell, so the workshop hosts know what I’m bringing them. I know my revision won’t be perfect, but that’s why I’m going to the workshop. I’m eager for their advice and feedback.

Because there’s always room for improvement.


Pen Parentis Fellowship Now Open

This is a photo of me in New York City with antlers, not horns. That’s significant, if you’ve had a chance to read my story “Cernunnos and Me.” The story is about being a hunter, about going after what you want. The day I took this photo was the day I attended my first Pen Parentis salon and received my fellowship award.


Antlers, not horns.


Writers are hunters. We chase after our prey – the elusive story – consume it, and crave more.

Sharpen your weapons, writers, because the Pen Parentis Fellowship is now open to submissions. From now until mid-April, Pen Parentis wants your new, never published stories. One skilled writer will be selected as the 2017-2018 Fellow and have their story published in Brain, Child and receive a $1,000 stipend to continue their craft.

pen parentis fellowship

I still remember the day I received the call from M. at Pen Parentis. I was smack in the middle of parenting. It was summer and I was picking the boys up from art camp and they were telling me three different stories at once and I had my hands full of art projects and was trying to thank the teacher and my phone rang with an out of state number. I don’t often pick those up, but this time I did.

As I answered the phone I said, “Boys, can you just give me one moment to take this call?”

M. laughed and laughed and told me she knew she had the right person and told me I had won the fellowship. I was in shock. I sat down. My kids stared at me and then broke out in cheers when I explained what was going on. It was one of the most special moments of my life as a writer and as a mom, and honestly, I’m glad they were there with me.

Pen Parentis Salons

The Pen Parentis award night was in September, my birthday month, and I was so lucky that my mother-in-law could stay with the boys while my husband and I spent three fun days exploring the city and attending a literary salon in Manhattan. I’m not really a shy person, but I felt surprisingly nervous about reading my story aloud. It’s quite different to share my stories at critique group, or have people read them quite a distance away from me. But reading aloud at a salon meant the reactions were immediate and quite visible.

I met other wonderful writers who offered support and some very kind compliments on my story. My favorite, most thrilling part, was when the audience laughed at just the right moments.

My children do inspire my writing, but it also seems like sometimes they conspire against it. It’s a balancing act, but groups like Pen Parentis know that and want to support us. I look forward so much to returning to New York this fall and meeting the next fellow. When I won, I was passed an invisible crown. I am thinking I might pass on something more personal, something inspired by my story.

I wish you a bountiful hunt.

Submissions Rates for 2016

I keep track of my submission, acceptances and rejections monthly and annually. I like to see what parts of the year I am slow and prepare for that. I also like to see if I’m getting better at sending the right submissions to the right publications or if I’m still sending stuff wildly into the unknown.

I love to color code my charts using the Pantone colors of the year. 

2016 Submissions

Here’s a look at my 2016 activity in terms of submissions.


2016 Chart 


I had the most submissions in February and March, but it’s clear my best months for acceptances were May and October. What isn’t highlighted by this simple numerical record is my selection as Pen Parentis Fellow in August. If I could put a big star by that one acceptance, I would!

Another highlight this chart doesn’t show is that all four acceptances in October were actually assignments, not responses to queries. That’s a great sign that editors look to me for work, instead of me constantly pitching them.

Another big improvement is my overall acceptance rate. In previous years, I had 6.3, 8.8 and 10.8 percent acceptance rates. A 14.6 percent acceptance rate is a definite improvement. I think that indicates a greater knowledge of what certain publications want.

2017 Submissions


2017 Chart

Things are starting off just a touch higher than last year. I feel very satisfied with this rate, especially when I look back at my submissions rate from past years.

Do I have a monthly submissions goal?

Yes, but I won’t freak out if I don’t meet it. I’d love to send out 10 pieces a month. I think that shows I’m an active writer. Yes, a writer is someone who writes everyday, but I’m also a business owner and I want paychecks and clips. I know it’s not always going to be possible to submit more than 10 pieces a month, but I need a goal.

This tracker also doesn’t include contracts that involve writing but aren’t exactly submissions with acceptance or rejections. I have some assignments coming through Upwork that are based on contract proposals, not story ideas, so I’m not tracking them here. I also have contracts that involve editing but not a lot of writing and I’m not counting them here, either.

In some ways, these charts are just ways to prove “I’m busy.” But they are always ways to boost my confidence and encourage me to keep working.

Do you track your submissions and rate of acceptance?

Have you noticed an improvement?