Top Ten Tips for Aspiring Writers

One of the questions I get asked the most--by friends, family, co-workers, and even strangers, is "what advice would you give to aspiring writers?" Sometimes, I feel thoroughly unqualified to answer this question since I still feel like such a newbie myself. I've only been published for just shy of two years, so I'm probably not the most qualified person to give advice. But on the other hand, I was aspiring not that long ago, so maybe I can provide some insight that authors who've been published for, say, ten years, might not be able to.

A lot of you might set a New Year's resolution to finally start (or finish) that book. You might have a nebulous goal (write something, anything, and let someone, anyone read it) or something much more concrete (get an agent, self-publish, or sell to a publisher). So, here are my top ten tips for aspiring writers (in no particular order) based on what I've learned, where I've been, and what I wish someone had told me three or four years ago.

  1. If you want writing to be your career one day, you have to treat it like one. Take it seriously and give it a place of priority in your daily life. Don't make writing one of those things you'll get to if you have time. It'll never happen. This might mean giving up other things, like spending your weekends bingeing Netflix or going to bed earlier so you can get up before work to write. If you really want to do it, you have to actually do the work. Make time, not excuses. Sometimes the hardest part is just starting.
  2. Believe in yourself. Sounds super cheesy, I know, but it's important. Writing is really hard, and you have to put in a lot of work behind the scenes before you see any sort of progress. If you don't think you can do it, you probably won't. So stay positive, post little sticky notes with inspirational quotes on your desktop, change your computer's wallpaper to something that motivates you and keep going. You will face rejection (over and over again) so you need to be your own biggest cheerleader.
  3. Realize that you are Jon Snow. You know nothing. Take classes (online or in person). Read books on writing. Read books on creativity. Read books, period. Study your genre intensely and pay attention to what you like, and what you don't like. Learn. Apply. Learn some more. Join a critique group. Enter contests. Go to conferences. Figure out your strengths and weaknesses and work to continuously improve. Don't be afraid to push yourself.
  4. Find your tribe. These are the people who will support you, give you advice, cheer you on, and commiserate with you. Your tribe can be family, friends, co-workers, fellow writers or any combination of the above. Surround yourself with people who will boost you up—and give you a kick in the pants when you need it.
  5. Stay in your lane. No good comes from comparing yourself to other writers, especially ones at different career stages than you. Someone else’s success isn’t your failure. Remember that there are many paths, all of them valid. Focus on yours.
  6. Open your mind to the inspiration around you. Ideas are everywhere. Keep a notebook handy, or a file on your phone to jot things down as they come to you. You think you'll remember that amazing bit of dialogue, but I bet you won't. Pay attention to the world. Soak it in. Listen. Observe. Let things marinate in your brain.
  7. Pay attention to the industry, to trends and awards and bestsellers. Understand what it is you're trying to participate in, but don't let it dictate what you write. Write what you're passionate about, not what you think will sell (while still striving to understand where you may fit in the publishing world).
  8. Seek out feedback and advice. Be humble, gracious, and kind to those who give you time and advice, even if you don't necessarily agree with it. Your writing can't exist in a vacuum. Share it. Get notes. Learn. Improve.
  9. Ignore most writing advice. You don't have to write every single day. You don't have to write what you know. Use adverbs if you want. Flashbacks work sometimes. Find what works for you and run with it. Don't worry about pleasing others--write the story the way you want. It might be a stinky first draft, but hey. You'll have a complete first draft!
  10. Don't give up.

Good luck!

A Day in the Life

If you follow me on social media (my closed Facebook group and Instagram especially) you'll get little sneak peeks about what my day-to-day life is like. I've talked a little about my writing routine, or how I balance working full-time with writing, but I thought it might be interesting to share what a day in the life looks like.

Spoiler alert: my life isn't glamorous. I work really hard, and a lot. I don't have any magic solutions for how to fit more stuff into your day. Nor is this meant to be a brag--I want to give you an honest look at the life of a published but not really all that successful author, and if I can inspire you to follow your dreams too--even if it's hard and sucky sometimes--then I've done my job.

So, without further ado, a typical day in my life:

5 am - Wake up, shuffle downstairs and hit the Keurig until coffee comes out, and grab my laptop. This is my main writing time, and I'll spend the next almost 2 hours working on my current draft, or on edits, or on a final read through of a manuscript. I try to use this time as efficiently as possible--after all, I could be sleeping! This involves plotting out what I'm going to write before, you know, actually writing it. As the day goes, I'll make notes to myself in my phone about upcoming scenes. On a great day, I can get about 2,000 words during this early morning writing session. However, I'm happy with anything over 1,000. I track my daily word count, and hope to have about 7,000 words by Friday. I'll try to make up any shortfall on the weekend if I didn't hit my goals. (In the future, I think I'll write a separate post about how I write...)

6:45 am - Time to hop in the shower and get ready for work. Get dressed, do my hair and makeup, feed my dog, and if I'm running ahead, make a lunch. I'm out the door by 7:30 at the latest.

8 am - The day job starts. I work in a large public library system, and the main part of my job is to order materials for the library. I work at my desk, and usually listen to music and daydream about my current WIP as I do. I might use any downtime to check my personal email, update Facebook, or *ahem* write a blog post...

12 pm - Lunch. I'll usually try to sneak off to the lunch room so I can read during my lunch hour. If I stay at my desk, I'll just end up working.

1 pm - Back to work, either back at my desk, or I might have meetings.

4 pm - Home time! If I have errands to do (grocery store, post office, etc.) I'll stop on my way home from work to do them. They know me really well at the wine store.

4:45 pm - Time to walk the dog, check the mail, and get dinner going. My level of planning and organization when it comes to dinner varies from week to week, and depends on my husband's schedule, too. He's a police officer who works shift work, so if he's home, he'll cook (which is hugely helpful AND he's a better cook than me!).

6 pm - Dinner time (for pupper too!). My husband and I will usually watch the news while we eat and talk about our days. Or, if the news is too depressing, fail videos on YouTube.

6:30 pm - Downtime after dinner. I use the next hour (ish) for professional development type stuff. I'll read Writer's Digest or a book on creativity or entrepreneurship. It's important to me that I keep learning and growing. If I'm on a tight deadline, I might use this time for a second writing session of the day instead.

8 pm - My husband and I will watch an episode or two of whatever TV show we're currently bingeing. We just finished Mindhunter and The Good Place, and I got him hooked on Supernatural. (PS--any recs?) During the summer, we might watch baseball instead. If my husband's working, I might watch a movie on my own, or have a bubble bath.

9:30 pm - Time to get ready for bed. I like to read before bed, and I'll usually read whatever novel I'm currently into until I'm falling asleep. True story: I've hit myself in the face with my e-reader more than once.

10:15 pm (ish) - Lights out so I can get a decent night's sleep. 5 am comes fast!

What Makes a Story Suspenseful? Hint: it's not the plot

This is something I've been thinking about a lot as I work on finishing up the rough draft of Stripped. Unlike the Bodyguard series, which was straight up romantic suspense, the Blue HEAT series is a little bit different. It leans more towards contemporary romance with elements of suspense. Are there guns and bad guys? You betcha. But the hero or heroine isn't in danger from the start of the book, and I've made the decision not to include the villian's POV in these books. But just because the suspense doesn't play as big a role in story doesn't mean that it's not just as important as the other threads, such as the individual character arcs, or the development of the romance between the hero and the heroine. So how can we develop suspense successfully, even if it isn't the main driving force of the story?

Developing suspense within a story is about questions. The author poses a question and the reader has to keep turning pages to find out the answer. At its heart, suspense is the distance between what the reader wants to know and what the reader knows already. Sometimes that distance is short--a question that's asked and answered within the same scene or chapter; or the distance can be long. For example, at the outset of a murder mystery, we know someone's been murdered, and the question of who did it and why won't be answered until the very end of the book, with many smaller questions along the way.

The suspense--the question that needs an answer--is dialed up when we factor in urgency. This is how badly the reader wants to know the information they don't know.

So the question, then, is how do we create that sense of urgency for the reader?

And this where I came to a realization. I'd always assumed suspense--building it and sustaining it--was about the plot. About the external events of the story. But after really thinking about what makes a story suspenseful, I've come to the conclusion that it's actually about the characters.

Let's break it down.

What the reader wants to know has nothing to do with the plot and everything to do with your protagonist. The reader has to care about the character and be invested in him/her getting what he/she wants in order to want to know in the first place. Good suspense requires strong character development.

Hook readers with a compelling character at the outset and then parcel out information on a need-to-know basis. Don't drown your readers in backstory, or tell them everything up front. Let them discover the story along with the character, bit by bit.

So we've got a compelling character, and we're creating distance between what the reader already knows and what the reader wants to know using small questions and big questions throughout the book. So how do we add in urgency, the magic fairy dust that can take a story from so-so to page-turning?

It's all about the stakes (which, again, are about the characters, not the external plot). Stakes are like oxygen for suspense, especially when applied to compelling, three-dimensional characters. Take something that matters and threaten it--and this works in just about any type of story, not just traditional suspense. For example, you could have a hero who's a single father who'll lose custody of his child if he can't get a new job within thirty days.

What the reader knows = he's a single dad. He loves his son, but he'll lose custody of him if he can't get a new job.

What the reader wants to know = how did he come to be a single dad? who's threatening his custody and why? And most importantly, will he be able to find a new job in time to keep custody of his son?

Stakes = his son matters more to him than anything in the world, and that relationship is being threatened.

But, none of that matters if we don't care about the single dad himself. Do we like him? Are we rooting for him? Do we care about him and the threat to his happiness?

Create compelling characters that readers can't help but care about and throw stakes at them--threaten the thing that matters most to them in the world. The suspense will blossom from there.


Hitting the Wall - A Survival Toolkit

Everything was fine until it wasn't.

I'd been cruising along, working steadily, writing 1500-2000 words a day. I was motivated, focused, and enthusiastic about my work. Over the course of two years, I'd written three full-length books (the Bodyguard series), three novellas (the Graysons series), and had co-written another three full-length books (the Blood and Glory series). I was consistently filling pages with words, my work was winning awards and receiving good reviews, and I thought everything was fine, until suddenly...I had nothing but blank pages. My motivation disappeared. My focus turned to fog. My enthusiasm dried up like a raisin in the sun.

I wasn't blocked. I knew what I was supposed to be writing--I had characters, and an outline, even a soundtrack for my work-in-progress. No, the blank pages were because I'd hit a wall. I was tired. Worn down. My books weren't selling well. I'd been dealing with a lot of stress--from my day job, from writing and, more specifically, publishing, and from some pretty heavy stuff going on in my personal life. But I'd thought that as long as I kept writing, I'd be fine. Everything was fine.

SPLAT. Like a fly into a windshield, suddenly I was at a complete standstill. I didn't care about the book I was working on. Even getting a page of new words was excruciating. In darker moments, I didn't even care about my career. Hitting the wall had thrown me into an unshakeable funk. But I had a deadline approaching, and I knew I needed to come up with a strategy that would help me get my ass in gear. So, I turned to my agent sisters to ask them for advice. How did they cope with non-existent motivation? How did they overcome flagging enthusiasm?

And let me tell you, I was so glad I asked, because their answers gave me the foundation for the survival toolkit I've implemented (more about that in a bit). Here's what they had to say (with small edits for clarity):

April Hunt: Sometimes I've found just avoiding it [the manuscript] for a week helps. Sometimes binge-reading everything in sight. But I don't think there's any real way to avoid it [burn out]. It's inevitable and happens to the best. A group of us check in with one another at night, and when we're sitting down to work, we DM [each] other and keep each other moving through the night. We sometimes help each other when we get stuck.

Bronwen Evans: What I found was I went back to reading instead of writing for a while, and found my love of the genre once more by reading my favourite authors and rereading my keepers shelf! I hope you find your joy soon and remember this industry is hard and we have to be tough if this really is your passion! You have to find a way to balance work and writing OR do not get hard on yourself. Set realistic targets and publishing dates. If 1500 words a day is a struggle (and I only have that target without a full time job) lower it to 500 words a day. Make it realistic or you'll stress and nothing kills the joy or creativity like stress. The guilt [of being late on a book] stifled my creativity, I kept panicking because it was late then couldn't write. We need to be KIND to ourselves.

Sally Kilpatrick: Okay, so here's what I did: I made a deadline before my deadline and I set a daily word count. If I got behind then I had to figure out how to make word count for the week. But that's how I work: I need a deadline and then smaller manageable goals like 2k a day. Full disclosure: I got behind and ended up with 4K/day at one point. I don't recommend anything over 3 if you can help it. Do you have specific rituals [to get ready to write]? I don't recommend this, but I had Dr Pepper, Chips Ahoy, and the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack to get me through my last book because it reminded me of writing in high school and made it more fun than job. Healthy suggestions are a specific essential oil--I hear citrus helps you stay alert, a specific song, decaf tea--anything that becomes part of a routine/ritual.

Rachel Lacey: Sometimes, I just have to take a night (or nights) off when I'm just useless for writing. Sometimes, I work on promo on those nights, or I might just read or watch TV. I give myself weekly word counts (10k/week is my usual) so that I can have more productive days and less productive ones. Also, I do feel like having someone online to check-in with when I'm writing is helpful.

Heather Heyford: It always helps me to read an author who inspired you early on (or your most recent favorite). Or buy or reread a favorite craft book. The other thing I do is free-write my feelings down in a doc. Whenever I feel down I reread it/add to it/edit it.

Annie Rains: Sometimes I will free write something that's different, that I'll never publish (or will). Reading inspires me. Workshops inspire me. Talking to my writer friends always helps. When I'm not feeling it though, I still try to do a little something so I feel productive. Write something that makes you happy.

Gina Conkle: 1) Make your writing time about stories you love. We get caught up in the business (ie. must post on social media, must send a newsletter, must join that group blog, must do that blog post, must...must...must). In all that noise, we forget what inspired us in the first place--telling stories. I made a list of the stories I want to write and I'm working my way through it. I'm a firm believer your passion shows in your words and likewise so does malaise.

2) I listened to Deep Work on audio book. The author reminded of the trance-like happy place I was in writing two of my early books. Now I protect that writing time and my word count has soared (I had a 7K day last Monday and 4K the day before). I discovered I work best in "deep bursts" (what that means is I have days where I put in a regular word count such as 500 - 1800 words but then I have a stretch of those phenomenal days). I also know I write in layers. It all comes down to understanding how you work best.

3) You have to take care of yourself. I'll say "when I get to this point, I'll have a facial" or I'll feed myself smoothies and juice b/c junk food is a short fix that weighs you down. I bought flowers for myself (well, tulip bulbs this last time). You know what feeds your soul. When you're running on empty, it's hard to produce words or give/take care of others.

Nicole McLaughlin: I recommend [the book] Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and the podcast to go along with it.

Mia Sosa: More likely than not social media (and being on the internet generally) isn't helping you to stay motivated. I spend way too much time checking my numbers, checking for reviews, analyzing what other authors are doing, second-guessing the decisions I've made, agonizing over the state of the world, and so on and so on. It's draining, and it in no way helps me to finish the book. I can't say this will work, but I've decided that until I turn in the book, I'm going to alter my social media presence to fit my writing schedule rather than the other way around. Social media sites will still be here when I turn in this book, so I'm going to focus on the thing that brings me the most joy--writing. Now might be a time to sign up for Hootsuite if you don't have it already.

It may be hard to believe this right now, but your work matters, and there are readers who want to read your books. To remind me of this, I'm creating an inspiration board that includes reader emails, motivational quotes, a few tweets from writing friends that brought me joy, one or two positive reviews, and the first line of each of my books. I'm not doing this because I think I'm fabulous and want to swim in my greatness. No, I'm doing this because I'm often crippled by self-doubt and I need those things to counteract the negative thoughts in my head. When I'm feeling down, I'll stare at that board for a few minutes. I hope it'll help me to press ahead. [If you make one for yourself] I suspect even the process of putting it together would help you recapture some of the excitement you once had for the book.

Asa Maria Bradley: I learned that things like grief, self-doubt, and burn-out cannot be conquered by my regular "mind over matter" attitude. I'm still struggling, but found that things like positivity journaling, shutting out the news, exercising, and allowing myself to binge read and binge TV watch works.

With the help of a close writer friend I also examined what outside of my writing life steals my creative energy and inspiration. Mostly it was things in my day job. I made a list of things about my day job that inspire me even if they are time consuming and require hard work. And things that I put a lot of effort into but never feel like I reap any rewards from. And then my friend gave me permission to remove myself as much as possible from the items on the list that drain my energy but give nothing back in terms of inspiration or motivation. Once I saw those things on paper and very symbolically scratched them out, it was easier to work on boundaries at work and not let the day job steal my writing time and/or energy.

It sounds so easy now, but it was emotionally hard for me to set boundaries where I'm only available for people from work during certain times during the week. I took my work email application off my phone and only check email on my work computer. I resigned from several committees that were great for me politically but accomplished nothing and were time suckers. I don't get caught up in drama and gossip. And I try very hard to not let the words and actions of others get to me. Don't let anyone or anything (including negative thoughts) steal your light. Nurture yourself and believe in your brilliance!


As I read the responses--all thoughtful, all empathetic, all full of useful, helpful advice--I could feel a strategy emerging. I could see patterns in the suggestions, and even better, as I read, I could feel my funk starting to lift. My writer brain wasn’t broken. Reading what all of these other talented authors had to say made me feel like I, too, could get through this. They’d struggled with the same thing—lack of energy, and feeling depleted, emotionally and creatively.

And so with all of these ideas swirling around my brain, I sat down and did one of my favorite things: I made a list. I think it's a pretty good one, and so I'm sharing it with you.

Burnout Survival Toolkit

  1. Take a break. We put so much pressure on ourselves to produce and keep grinding, but sometimes this is the opposite of what we need--mentally and emotionally. If you need a night off, take a night off. The manuscript will still be there tomorrow.
  2. Read. Fill your creative well with old favorites and new discoveries. Read fiction. Read books on writing. Give yourself permission to fall back in love with the written word.
  3. Binge watch TV. Immersing yourself in another world is fantastic stress relief, and sometimes giving your brain a break is what it takes to get things flowing again.
  4. Have other writers to check in with while you're working. A little motivation can go a long way.
  5. Set attainable goals, whether it's revising your daily word count to something more manageable, committing to writing for a set amount of focused time every day, or writing a certain number of days per week. Reward yourself when you hit milestones--a small treat every 10K words, a bigger treat at the half way and ending points. As Donna Meagle would say, treat yo'self.
  6. Practice self-care. Eat well, get proper sleep, spend time outdoors, exercise, take breaks, and be kind to yourself.
  7. Create positive rituals around writing to help your mind get into the proper headspace. Use all the senses--burn a scented candle, have a cup of tea, wrap yourself in your favorite blanket, listen to your book's soundtrack, etc.
  8. Write something else. Instead of forcing things on your work-in-progress, give yourself permission to write a few pages in a project that's just for you, or take some time to journal.
  9. Step away from social media. It's not conducive to productivity and can steal a lot of joy and energy.
  10. Treat your writing time as something sacred. Protect it fiercely, and figure out what drains your creative energy and (if you can) take those things off your plate.
  11. Create an inspiration board to help you remember and reflect on the joy that writing brings.
  12. Reach out to other writers for support and encouragement. Writing is a solitary endeavor, but you're not alone.

Now when I'm feeling like that bug on a windshield, I turn to these tools. I'm learning to cut myself some slack, set more reasonable goals, and rediscover the joy of storytelling--the joy that made me want to write in the first place. I thought I'd lost it, but thanks to the advice I received, I've realized that it's still there.

It just needed a little breathing room.

The Untarnished Joy of Creativity

Last week, something happened that I really needed. Something that reminded me of why I started writing in the first place, and the joy that comes from creating stories that make people happy. Something that inspired me to try to be more positive about my creative endeavors. Something that reminded me that when we face roadblocks, passion and resilience will see you through.

That something? I went to a Hanson concert.

Wait. Stay with me. I'll explain.

Way back in 1997, thirteen year old me (I can hear you doing the math) developed a raging crush on the band Hanson. I loved absolutely everything about them--their music, their infectious happiness, their long hair, and the way my friends and I connected over our shared love of all things MMMBop and beyond. There was something about them--maybe it was the music, maybe it was the fact that they were all around my age, maybe it was the fact that they were so darn cute--that struck a chord in me, and for the first time in my life, I felt that exciting twinge of creative inspiration.

During the summer of 1997, I started writing. It started out as a little project for a friend. Her dog had died, and to cheer her up, I wrote her a cute little story featuring her, a trip to Disney World, and a magical date with Taylor Hanson that included ice cream, hand holding, and a kiss at the end. (I was thirteen, remember?) I would sit in my room, cross-legged on my bed with the story pouring out of me. I'd fill page after page in my Hilroy notebook until my hand cramped and I couldn't possibly write more. I'd go to bed with my head and heart full, excited to wake up the next morning and continue the story. It was exhilarating and FUN.

My friend loved the story, and so I kept going, writing story after story about Hanson and posting them on fan fiction websites. I loved connecting with people over something I'd written. I loved knowing that what I'd written made people happy. Creativity was pure joy for me, and if you've ever experienced anything like that, you know it's a powerful, heady feeling.

Fast forward twenty years to the present, and I'm now a multi-published author. I've written three full-length books, three novellas, and co-written a three book series. You would think, based on thirteen year old Tara's hopes and dreams, that I'd be happy and fulfilled, bursting at the seams with the satisfaction of having "made it." I'm published! People are reading my books! I'm a professional author!'d be wrong.

Because the truth is, somewhere along the way--between the crazy deadlines, editorial interference, poor sales, and having to fire an agent--I'd lost that creative joy. The passion. The excitement. I was feeling lost, unfulfilled, unmotivated, and uninspired. My creative joy had become tarnished by all the sludge that comes along with publishing. It was no longer shiny and beautiful. Writing just felt like work. It was no longer this all-consuming passion that set my heart and my pages on fire. Bit by bit, the joy had slipped away, so slowly I wasn't even fully conscious of it until I realized that my well was dry, my gas tank was empty, and I was staring at a blank computer screen with a deadline looming.

And then last Wednesday happened. My friend Sarah and I bought tickets to Hanson's 25th anniversary tour months ago, and while I'm not really a believer in things happening for a reason, I do think that I was meant to go to that concert.

Hanson has been playing together for twenty-five years now, and during the show, they talked a little about the ups and downs they've faced in their career. The highs--selling ten million copies of their Middle of Nowhere album and being nominated for a Grammy--and the lows--getting dropped by their label, receiving rejection after rejection, and having to strike out on their own, investing their own hard-earned money just to keep making music. So many others would've given up in the face of that kind of adversity, but they didn't. Why? Because music is their passion. Performing fuels them. Connecting with fans and entering their lives through song gives them meaning and purpose.

Hearing them talk about staying positive in the face of overwhelming adversity, about resilience, about letting your passion both guide and fuel you, about doing something because you love it and it's who you resonated. Big time. And in between all of these positive messages that I could feel right in the center of my chest, they played the songs that thirteen year old me had started writing to. Songs that reminded me of what it felt like to embrace that all-consuming creative urge. The concert was like polish to my tarnished creative joy, stripping it away, bit by bit, showing me that the joy wasn't gone, only hidden under a layer of gunk. The joy was still there. Still within me.

Walking out of the concert hall, I felt like a new person. Clearer. More focused. Happier, and more relaxed than I'd been in a long time. And on top of that, I felt the burning desire to create. To open myself up and let a story pour out. Not for an editor or a publisher, or even my agent, but for me. Because this is who I am.

And I have Hanson to thank for reminding me of that.

Welcome to The Hustle

Holy crap. I've gone and done the one thing I said I would never do. The one thing I fought against for years; the one thing I said I had no time, energy, or desire to do. 

Yeah. I've started a blog.

It's called The Hustle. Not because I love disco (although I do love me some 70's music), but because I've found myself wanting a place to explore the hard work behind writing. A place to share craft tips, insight into life as a writer, thoughts on creativity and inspiration, and, because it's my blog, pretty much anything else I feel like. 

Even though I've only been published for about a year and a half, I've been writing seriously for several years now, and let me tell you, I've learned some serious ish along the way. I've won awards and been dropped by publishers. I've dealt with poor sales and rejections. And through it all, I've been learning--about publishing, about the craft of writing, about success and failure, and how to survive in an industry that regularly eats people for breakfast. 

There are no easy answers. There are no elevators that will shoot you to overnight success. But even when a book sells poorly, or gets a stinky review, or a publisher drops you, there's always the Hustle. The work. What YOU can control. 

I'm really not sure how often I'll post, but stay tuned and hang out with me as we navigate the trenches of trying to make it as a writer. Oh, and there'll be wine.