Monday, October 28, 2013

30 Things I've Learned About Writing That Made A Big Difference

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.



We're back! I hope everyone had a great week and got lots of writing done. Jill and I had a long conference call last week talking about the blog. I'm still finalizing some of the details we talked about, and then I'll share them with you all.

One thing we'll be changing is when we post new content. This week we'll post five days, but starting next week, you can expect fresh posts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The biggest advantages are that Jill and I will be able to devote more time to the content we write, we can be more responsive in the comments section of the blog (right now we're decent at responding on the day of the post, but not so great afterward), and we'll have time to plan more special events like contests and virtual retreats and such.

So today's my 30th birthday - yay? - and I'm also celebrating the release of my sixth book - yay! 


To do that, I'm sharing 30 things I've learned about writing in the last ten years that made a difference in my stories, and I'm also giving away four digital copies of the Ellie Sweet books - your choice! Details for getting entered are at the end of the post.





1. Story ideas don't just come to you - you have to work for them. Sparks of ideas come to you, but that's different than a story idea.

2. I need to ask myself why my character won't just walk away from the story problem. Another way to say this is, "What are the stakes of the story?" but my brain had trouble latching onto the concept of stakes. The question, "Why aren't you just walking away?" somehow works better for me.

3. Write with strong nouns and verbs. Most of the time when I'm using an adverb or adjective, there's a better noun or verb I could be using.

4. Stephen King is amazing and I adore his book, On Writing. BUT he's Stephen King and that includes certain privileges. Like getting contracts for books he hasn't yet written and doesn't know all the details about. I'm not Stephen King, and I will have to do some plotting ahead of time if I want to sell my book.

5. I actually like doing a bit of plotting ahead of time! Here's an article I wrote about plotting, pantsing, and the combo of the two.

6. Finding a one word description for my character. I love doing this because it helps me determine what my character believes at his or her core.

7. That I should write bare-boned (but useful) first drafts. It was my husband who first suggested this to me when I was complaining about rewriting scenes time and time again and not making any progress on the rest of the first draft. I had read about bad first drafts in Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird but I had forgotten.

8. Cut dialogue tags. My writing tightened and became much more visual when I started using action beats to identify who was speaking rather than dialogue tags.

9. I have a voice. And I should use it. I love this article about voice that editor Barbara Scott wrote for Seekerville.

10. My character's voices come to life when I know them. In the first draft, when I'm still working out who all these people are, they all kinda sound the same - they sound like me. But around draft two I'm able to look at dialogue and think things like, "That's not really something Chase would say. That's more of something Ellie would say."

Sometimes I have to make rules for them. Like not allowing a character to speak or think with incorrect grammar. Or with Chase, I had a rule about not letting him use a a complicated word when a more simple option was available.

11. How to brainstorm plot twists and bigger story ideas.

12. My timer. Mmmwwwwaaa! (That's a kiss, if you can't tell.) If I'm having trouble staying focused on my book, I set my timer for twenty five minutes and ban myself from other activities until it goes off. By the time the buzzer goes off, I'm on a roll and eager to keep writing.

13. How to Write the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. Angela Hunt told me about this book when I was eating lunch with her at a conference back in 2003. It made a huge difference in the strength of my stories. The workbook is excellent too. Maybe even better. I guess it's what I pull out time and time again, but I also needed to read the regular book too.

14. I don't work well with elaborate note card or spreadsheet systems, and writing software isn't ideal for me either. I love the ideas of those things but they're just not effective tools for me as a writer. My time is better spent just writing.

15. Character journals are the best tool for helping me capture the voice and backstory of my other characters.

16. Give main characters a super power. Something special and unique. Harry Potter excels at defeating dark magic, Rapunzel has magic hair that can heal, and Cinderella sings despite being abused.

17. Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland. I read this over the summer so I haven't had very much time to apply what I learned to my stories. But I'm putting it on the list because I can tell it's changed the way I'm approaching my next story.

18. If a character isn't contributing anything, cut them or make them matter. My first few drafts of Me, Just Different were seriously crowded. I had already cut three friends from that book, rewritten it, and sent it to my first agent. She came back with, "One of these friends needs to go!" So I cut another one.

19. I need to write with my door closed.

20. When writing scenes, drop the reader in late and yank them out early.

21. The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell. I've enjoyed every writing book of Bell's, but this one is my favorite. Lots of great nuggets of wisdom in there.

22. Try a new technique with each story. At the same lunch where Angela Hunt told me about Writing the Breakout Novel she mentioned that tries out something new with each story she writes. She had been writing novels for twenty years at that point in time, and I loved that she was still pushing herself. That made a big impression on me.

23. A story feels bigger when the character has a way to "stick it to the man."

24. When I'm early in the brainstorming stage, it's helpful to make myself write the concept in one sentence. It helps with a lot of marketing things later, but as I'm writing it helps me remember the essence of the story.

25. Every story needs a black moment.

26. I need 6 weeks off after I finish a first draft.

27. Writing middles is the hardest part for me, but I've found tools that help.

28. Write Away by Elizabeth George. I'm still reading this one and learning how to apply it, but it's lovely.

29. How to write active sentences rather than passive sentences. Figuring this out was literally the skill I had to conquer before my first agent would sign me.

30. How to edit for the big things first and then the small things. (This one was so big to me that Jill and I wrote an entire book about it.)

What's something you've learned recently about writing? Shout it out and you're eligible to win one of four digital copies of your choice of The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet or The Unlikely Debut of Ellie Sweet.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

87 comments:

  1. http://thankyoustephanie.blogspot.com

    Happy Birthday, Stephanie!! This is a wonderful post. I think you might want to check out the link ^above^.

    ~Sarah Faulkner

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    1. Awwww! (Yes, I had to check it out too, LOL.) What an awesome gift for the awesome Stephanie!

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    2. Oh, Sarah! I can't even come up with adequate words of thanks. This is...this is SO kind of you. I'm touched. I'm also late for getting my daughter out the door for school, so I'll have to respond more fully later.

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    3. YAY! Looks awesome, Sarah! This was such an amazing idea :) Thanks for coordinating!

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  2. Happy birthday, Stephanie!!!!!

    I think the most important thing I've learned as a writer who stinks at applying systems is that it's okay to be intuitive, but I have to trust my instincts when something feels even slightly off, and not be lazy about it. And know what those systems are to help me when something is wrong.

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    1. You're right - sometimes it's a gut thing!

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  3. Happy birthday, Stephanie, and congratulations!

    Something I've learned about writing is that if I only write when I feel like writing, I'll never get anything done.

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  4. Happy Birthday! And remember that as you learn, you've teach me too : ) I love what I've learned from you!

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    1. wow! that sentence was written poorly : ( I guess that's what happens when I'm in a rush ...

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  5. Thanks for the post!

    Happy Birthday too!

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    1. Oh yeah, one thing I've learned is just that if I give up on one novel and think that the next novel will go along smoothly, I'm wrong.

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    2. YES. I still fall into that way of thinking!

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  6. Happy Birthday Stephanie!!
    I have learned that characters are one of the most important aspects of a story. If your characters are flat, everything else will be too

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  7. Happy Birthday :)

    Recently, something I have learnt about writing is that I have to make goals with my word count. Before I would just wait for inspiration to come ( and sometimes I would be waiting for awhile) If I say I have to write x y and z amount per day, my progress with my novel feels like its supercharged.

    - B :)

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  8. What a great post! I agree with so many of these points. And have a wonderful birthday! :)

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  9. An idea, a first draft, and a moral are not stories. Neither is a character or theme. But PLOT is. :D

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  10. Happy Birthday!! Enjoy your day!
    I've learned that if you want to be a writer that you actually have to write! I know it sounds crazy, but I have many ideas for stories, yet I have trouble putting it on paper sometimes.

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    1. That's not so crazy. I meet lots of people who want to write...but don't. Thanks for sharing, Angelica!

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  11. Happy birthday! :D

    I'm so excited to read this next book!!! I read the first one in one (very late) night. I'm so excited it has a sequel!!!

    Something I've learned about writing is that deadlines are hard. I'm a huge procrastinator, but I'm slowly getting the hang of writing things that really need to be written earlier rather than later!

    http://thankyoustephanie.blogspot.com/ :)

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    1. Deadlines ARE hard! I thought my last one might be the death of me.

      And thank you for your part in the thank you blog card. I was so touched by your note :)

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    2. Oh, you're welcome. :) You're such an inspiration to me!

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  12. Thank you for the awesome post! I hope you have an amazing birthday! :)

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  13. I've recently learned that we're often our hardest critics. This time last year, as I was going through the final round of edits with my editor, I thought my book was terrible. I dreaded the horrible reviews that might come in for Purple Moon. I seriously thought that was the only feedback that I would receive for Purple Moon. However, the very things that I have feared were just the opposite. (For example, I feared that everyone would think that Purple Moon was too preachy. I have yet to receive that kind of review. Instead, people have said that they appreciated the way I stayed away from preaching a sermon.) It is such a relief to realize that your book isn't as bad as you thought it was.

    I'm trying to remember this, especially since I am now editing my second book. I'm trying to remind myself that--although it is good to be critical of ourselves in these editing stages, we shouldn't allow ourselves to become discouraged. Because story errors/writing issues can always be improved in these edit/rewrite stages. And the thing that we dislike most about our story/writing might turn around and be the very thing that our readers will appreciate.

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    1. I agree, Tessa. If I read my books a hundred times, I'd make changes with every read, I'm sure. At some point, you just have to let it go.

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  14. I always have to write with nobody in the room. If people are in the room I get distracted.

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  15. I've learned a lot about adding back story and how to make better minor characters without detracting from the main character.

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    1. That's great! Makes a big difference in a story, I've found.

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  16. Happy Birthday! Great post, thank you for the advice. I write with my door closed too:)

    www.alicekouzmenkowriting.blogspot.com

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  17. Something I've learned about writing is that if you stick with it and don't give up, it is very rewarding!

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  18. I keep writing a few chapters and then giving up on whatever I'm writing, but I am coming to realize that the first draft will always be terrible, especially the first of my first drafts. Happy birthday Stephanie!

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  19. I have learned soooo much this year but one of the most important things I learned is that any good writer writes all the time. They practice and practice and practice never ceasing. I have also learned how to analyse novels I love and pick them apart to find various techniques that I can apply to my own writing as well as things to avoid. Thank you so much for all the help you have given all of us. We would be lost without you! I hope you have a fantastic birthday!

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    1. Those are great things to have learned, Lauren!

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  20. Happy birthday! One thing I've recently come to realise about writing is that I can't plot things out too much. I've had a couple projects that I've been really excited to work on, and I decided to learn from the error of my previous ways and do some plotting ahead of time, so I don't have such a mess to deal with afterwards. But I ended up fleshing way too much out. I got bored when it was time to actually write, because there wasn't much room left for creativity. So now I'm trying to find the happy medium and just pick out my main plot points as a guide, while leaving plenty of room for spontaneity.

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  21. Congrats, Stephanie! I learned a lot about writing the past years, but when I have to pick one special thing, it is the 'bare bones first draft'. That's SO helpful, I mean, I can just go on writing without having to make every scene, every sentence perfect before continuing. Also helpful were the action tags, I love them. And finishing what you start is also something I learned. Some years ago, I wouldn't have get over the 10,000 words. Summarized: I can't say how much I learned the last year(s)!

    One question, though: I'm kinda editing a story which is really close to me, but the first draft was so horrible I'm sorta editing it before digging out the plot holes and things. Is that oke? Does there exist something like an in between draft, something between macro and micro before you start with the 'big work'?

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    1. I've had that happen, Arende. ESPECIALLY if the story is a personal one. I think it's a good sign that you recognized that, honestly.

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  22. Great post. I really need to look at all these things, and invest in some of these craft books. I have learned so much about writing... mostly because of you and Jill. One thing that I learned from here was the dialogue tags! I can tell that my writing is stronger since, so thank you!

    http://thankyoustephanie.blogspot.com/

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    1. Bethany, thank you much for taking part in the blog thank you card. Lots of tears over here this morning! (The good kind!)

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  23. Happy Birthday Mrs. Morrill! And thank you so much for everything you do to teach us about writing. I have greatly benefited from reading this blog. The most recent lesson I've learned about writing is the value of "composting" when preparing to write a novel. The last two novels I tried to write were full of problems. I was so excited to write that I jumped right in without any planning. For the novel I am writing now, however, I took the time to flesh out my story's plot and characters by using the composting questions found here on this blog and some of my own. The result is a deeper and more complex story, and, best of all, I am able to identify and solve potential problems with my story before I even begin. The result is a novel that is much easier and enjoyable to write.

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  24. Happy Birthday Stephanie!!!!! One thing I have learned about writing is that even if you do have many good book ideas, you have to shelve some of them in order to finish one. Also, as fun as it is to write-as-you-go it might be easier if I had an outline first. I'll have to remember that next time I go to write a book. Thanks for the post.

    HP

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  25. HAPPY BIRTHDAY STEPHANIE!! I hope you have a great day! :)
    Thanks for this, it was a good post. :)

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  26. Happy Birthday Stephanie!
    One thing I've learn is, you need to write in your space, with no one around, some where, where you can really think about what your doing.

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  27. Happy birthday, Mrs. Morrill! One thing I've learned? But I've learned so much! :) I've learned I use 'that' WAY to much in first drafts... :) I have learned about putting your story in the correct form.

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  28. Hey Stephanie! Happy Birthday and congrats on the book! :)
    One thing I've learned is that I am NOT a pantser for novels. It's not really the characters that need planning, because they kind of come out on their own. But the plot needs to be planned, or else my writing dwindles to nothing. I usually end up changing the plot half way through, but at least I know sort of where it's going. :)

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  29. HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Thanks so much for the list! I'm coming back to this for sure.

    There's so much I've learned recently about writing. How do I ever pick?! Okay, here's one thing: I should always write something I'm going to be proud to show people. Excited to talk about, to share. I should never write something I'd be embarrassed about, because what's the use of that? And likewise I don't ever need to be embarrassed about my writing :)

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  30. Happy Birthday Stephanie!! :D

    I learned that not every writer is destined to write in the morning. For some reason, I always assumed that writers wrote either really early in the morning or at some point in the afternoon. Whenever I write, I have a hard time coming up with anything in the morning or afternoon, but at night (and by 'night,' I mean 'that gap between my siblings' bedtime and midnight') I am on fire.

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  31. I've learned that in order to improve, you must write. And write. Then write some more. Writing just when you feel like it isn't being a dedicated writer, it's being lazy.

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  32. I recently bought a book called "The Pocket Muse" by Monica Wood. It's FULL of things that inspire creativity. It's a little bit different than most "writing books" , but I love it.

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  33. Happy birthday and congratulations! This is exciting!

    I've learned that it comes down to time and dedication. I don't do much fiction writing anymore but any Knopf of writing requires time and commitment.

    Thanks so much for all you do here! :D

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  34. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!! And welcome back!!! :D

    One thing I have learned is that you can't give up on whatever you are doing if you ever plan to be published. These are some great tips that I really need to try out sometime! ;)

    http://thankyoustephanie.blogspot.com/

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  35. Hi! I am so excited about my writing! I am being published in Stone Soup Magazine in January and Creative Kids Magazine in December! I also received my first cheque for writing this month. I now have $40 dollars to spend.
    Also, I attended my first writing conference on Saturday. I live in Toronto and the library has an annual young writers conference for teens. It was amazing!

    -Sam

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  36. Happy birthday, Stephanie!

    One thing I've learned is that you have to keep pushing yourself to write, even when your brain feels fried. I made the mistake of waiting for inspiration to strike last year during NaNoWriMo, and although I didn't lose I know it did hinder me somewhat in my writing.

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  37. One thing I am learning is that writing really is a "rinse and repeat" process. So much work goes into preparing and writing a novel. And then when that one is done, you have to start all over again! I love it, though, and I find myself blessed that God has called me to this profession :)

    Hope you're having a Happy Birthday, Stephanie! :)

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    1. Can you tell I've just finished reading Go Teen Writers? ;)

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  38. Happy happy birthday, from all of us to you!
    We're glad it is your birthday so we can honor you.
    Happy happy birthday, from all of us to you!
    We're glad it is your birthday, so we can party too!
    (with Rice Krispies. And sprinkles. And gf cupcakes? A girl can dream.)
    Happy birthday, sweet Stephanie. You make the sun shine brighter. Xoxo.

    I've learned to go easy on myself. I'm not a writer (yet). I'm a girl who writes because it frees her. So I don't beat myself up about my lack of skill, finesse, or follow through. I'm not in the season of my life for that yet.

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    1. Oh, Lydia! You're so sweet. (What about the Oreo's??)

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  39. Happy Birthday, Stephanie!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  40. Thanks so much for the great list, and all of the book recommendation!

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  41. Happy Birthday! Thanks so much for taking the time to post here. There's alot of things this blog has taught me about writing, but one I've been learning recently in my writing is that it doesn't need to be perfect. Sometimes I'll feel like giving up on a first draft but I have to remind myself that even though writing is fun it takes work and it can't be perfect at first.

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  42. From Amo Libros:
    HAPPY BIRTHDAY MRS. MORRILL!!!!!
    You, Ms. Williamson and this whole blog are such a gift from God. Happy Birthday!!
    And happy 6th book! I shall have to purchase it!

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  43. Happy Birthday Mrs. Stephanie!!! So far, on my writing journey, I've learned that I write best when I am having fun. For a while I would get worried when I would hear how far other people have come with their books, and I would think back to the fact that the last time I wrote was probably 10 days ago, so I would try to write as much as possible, even if I wasn't enjoying writing. But when I went back, to edit what I had been writing, I noticed that my writing content wasn't nearly as nice as it had been when I had been writing for fun. So I guess the point that I am trying to make is that I've learned not to worry about how many words I have written but more about that fact that writing should be FUN! If I am enjoying myself, my characters will be deeper, my plot will be thicker, and my twists will be crazier! :)

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  44. Happy birthday, Stephanie! You've taught me more about writing than I can even put into words.

    One thing I've recently learned is that I work a whole lot better when I write alone on a computer with no internet. (Hehe, I wonder why . . .) I've also learned that writing isn't something that's automatically going to come easy--at least for me it isn't. I really have to work at it.

    Thanks, Stephanie! :)

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  45. Happy birthday Stephanie!!! I hope you have a fantastic day!

    I've learned that it's okay to write messy first drafts. Like you, if I don't tell myself it's okay if the writing is bad, I tend to edit as I go along and not make much progress

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  46. Firstly Happy Birthday!!

    Secondly, one thing I've learned as a writer is don't just flop on an idea for a story, take time and learn the story, to expand on your ideas and make not just a good book, but a great book.

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  47. I'd learned that sometimes you have to makes yourself write. It may not turn out smashingly, but editing comes later. :P

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  48. I'm so excited that The Unlikely Debut of Ellie Sweet is coming out, Stephanie! Though I still haven't read The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet, I did get to run through the first chapter and really wanted to read more!

    Happy birthday!

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  49. First, Happy birthday!!!
    As for what I've learned recently, I've learned to write what I want to write. It doesn't matter whether or not it'll sell, or whether it's the most popular thing right now. But I need to write what I like and deal with the rest of it later. Because, if I'm not enjoying it, it'll come out that way.
    I've also learned that writing what you know is important, but if you don't know about it, research till you do

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  50. Happy (Belated) Birthday! And CONGRATULATIONS on your sixth book!
    Thank-you so much for all that you do with Jill to run this blog for us. It is such a great encouragement and resource; the time and work you pour into it is so greatly appreciated. Thank-you.

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  51. Thanks for all the birthday wishes, guys! And I'm having a tough time responding to each comment, but I love hearing about what you've learned :)

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  52. happy belated birthday and congrats! you've got some good stuff on this blog :) here's what i've learned through my own experience: if all your characters are perfect, unnatural sounding people and even if the dialogue is flawless, it makes for an impersonal, boring book. the characters need to be people with feelings your readers can relate to :)

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  53. Happy birthday, Lady Stephanie!(belated, yes.) Hope you had a wonderful day. Just remember--with every birthday, people get younger! :)

    -Ryebrynn

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  54. Happy Birthday late!

    Rebecca R.

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  55. Happy belated birthday!
    I've recently learned that I need to do some plotting before I start writing. I can't just think of a scene and then write a whole story based on that one scene from the seat of my pants. I abandon stories when I don't have an idea how to pull things together and end the story.
    Thanks for the giveaway! And congratulations on your new book release!

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  56. Thanks for the wonderful advice! Happy birthday, and can't wait to read The Unlikely Debut of Ellie Sweet... Yea, I adored the first one!

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  57. Happy Belated Birthday Stephanie!!! :)

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  58. This is beautiful! Happy birthday, and thank you for the lovely birthday gift! An amazing list of links and advice that makes me eager to get started, and I'm a procrastinator at heart! You've had a wonderful year, clearly, and this is lovely!

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