How to Write a Novel

by Stephanie Morrill

The good news is that every writer is different. I began my writing journey as a "pantser." A writer who writes by the seat of her pants without an outline. I wanted to be an outline type girl (After all, I love everything to be neat and orderly) but it just didn't work for me.

The pluses of writing as a pantser, I've found, is the creativity. The story can wander as you see fit that day.

The bad thing is ... the story can wander. Which means a lot of tightening up, trashing, and rewriting during the revision process.

After 11 years of pursuing publication, 8 years of doing it full time, and 4 years of being a published author, I've developed into a hybrid of pantser and plotter. I'm a plantser, you could say.

With every book I write, I learn more about the craft and more about what works for me as an author. It's hard to write a solid "Step by Step" guide for writing a novel, but this is my process more or less. Hopefully you find it helpful:

Before I Write Anything

• I might brainstorm with some writing friends and talk the idea over with my agent (who's amazing about dropping what she's doing to help me brainstorm ways to make the idea bigger).

• I write back cover copy, though at this stage I don't worry yet about making it quippy. Really, it's more of a "blurby thing" than it is back cover copy.

• I begin work on a one liner, which is my story boiled down to a sentence or two. They always take me forever, and I can never figure out the right balance.

Getting Started

• When I know my opening line and opening scene, I begin writing.
Related Posts: Writing a good first paragraphWriting a good first chapter, How to end a chapter, Writing Chapter Two
• I write the first couple chapters. Typically three. Because I'm published, I can sell a manuscript before I've written the entire thing.

• After I've written my three chapters, I have a decent idea of who my characters are, what they want, and how they interact with each other. So I pause my first draft to make a book proposal. That way my agent can be shopping the idea while I keep writing. A book proposal involves:
  • A title. For a series this also means a title for the series and the other books.
  • My estimated word count
  • My target audience
  • My one-line, or "The hook" as we list it in the proposal.
  • Comparitive titles, which I possibly hate even more than the one-liner. This is a handful of titles that's similar to your book. The point is for the publishing house to get an idea of similar titles that are already on the market and how they're selling. It's tricky stuff because you want to show that your book will be successful, but I've also heard agents say to not put down books that are phenomenal best sellers. Like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Amazon.com is a good resource for these, but I've actually found that my library's website is even better.
  • My author bio and a picture of me looking cute and likable and, "Don't I look like a professional, fun person to work with?"
  • Sales Hooks/Author Promotion, which is anything that will say to publishers, "I can sell some books for you!" I put endorsements here, awards my books have won, and stuff like being featured on the cover of The Kansas City Star. 
  • Marketing Strategies, which is what it sounds like. It's all the fun marketing stuff I've come up with for this particular book or series. 
  • Book summaries for all books being pitched.
  • Sample chapters
  • Synopsis, typically 2 to 3 pages.

Writing the first draft

• Once I've gotten the book proposal turned into my agent, I get back to writing my first draft. For me it works best to write without editing. It means my first drafts are lousy, but they're for my eyes only, so it's okay. I've learned to turn off my internal editor, and it's transformed the way I write. (And while many other writers are supporters of writing bad first drafts, many others like to edit as they go. Roseanna M. White wrote a guest post about that on here.)

Because of all the work I put into the book proposal, particularly with writing the synopsis, I now have a decent idea of what will be going on in my story. I've found this provides just enough structure for me that I know where the book is headed,  but I still have the "pantser" freedom to figure out how to get there.

The combination of composting and writing my synopsis has helped me determine all these things before I get into the meat of my story:
The first draft process will deepen all these things, of course. Some things that get deepened during the first draft are:

Even though I allow myself to write "bad first drafts" it's important that the structure of the story is solid. This means it's important for me to have:
If this is early in your writing journey, you might have some unique questions and struggles with the first draft. Such as:
• Because I'm more of a bare bones writer, I aim for about 10k less then I want the book to wind up being. That gives me plenty of room for all the adding I'll need.

• When I finish a first draft, I take a 6 week break before editing.

During my time off

After I've caught up on laundry and email, all of which were likely ignored as I finished my first draft, I often have a couple story-related things I want to do.

• Sometimes I'll do some general research. Like if my character is really into, say, trees, then I'll spend some time perusing books about trees just to build up my knowledge base.

• I often use this time to make a marketing calendar, listing all the things I plan to do to promote my book and when I intend to do them. If I don't have a release date yet, then I make the dates generic.

Editing the first draft

• The first thing I do is read through my manuscript in as few sitting as possible. I keep a notebook next to me so I can keep a list of things I notice that need to be changed.

Editing the second draft

Now that the big stuff has been taken care of, I zoom in and start working on my scenes. The first thing I examine is if the scene even matters. Then I can move onto:
Within each scene, I'll examine the following:
Editing the third draft

Now is when I make it sparkle. The big story stuff - predictable plot twists or flat characters - have all been fixed, so now I get super picky about word choices and grammar.
Related Posts: Some lessons on commas, CAPS, "Quotes" (and parentheses too)
Finishing up

• After I've done my best with it, I send it to my writing partner to get her input. She points out all my comma mistakes and also draws attention to anything that doesn't feel quite right to her. ("Why does your main character say this?")

• When I've input her edits and suggestions, I often read over the manuscript one more time before declaring it done and ready for an editor's desk.

• There are a couple spreadsheets that are helpful for editors. (Or so mine have told me.) If you're more of a plotter, it might benefit you to make these before you start. Sometimes I make mine while writing the first draft, but more often than not they happen after I'm done editing:
• And then the process begins all over again with another spark...



68 comments:

  1. Hi, im new to Go Teen Writers and i just wanted to thank everyone running this site, it has been helping me so much in writing my first book!

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  2. Hi, I've been writing stories for forever and I think they're pretty good and as sappy as it sounds, it's been my dream to see one of my books in print. Do you have any tips for getting books to editors? I found a few but they are all really expensive. do you know of any that are cheaper than $200 and/or work specificlly with teen writers? thank you!

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    1. Anonymous, editors who work for a publishing house are different than freelance editors who help you improve the quality of your work.

      You never have to pay an editor who works for a publishing house - you just have to wow them with your stuff, then they work to get the publishing house to agree to pay YOU for your book.

      If you're paying for editorial services at a publishing house, that's self-publishing. Regardless of how they may present it.

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    2. Can you give me some names of these free editors? I'd love to hear about them

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    3. Hi Stephanie! I have written a few novels, one of which I am wanting to publish. Finally I have gotten to the point where I want to take it to the next step in editing. You mentioned that you don't have to pay editors working for publishing houses if you wow them.
      What I was wondering was if you had any suggestions on the steps I should take to actually getting my book into one of those editor's hands? Thank you so much!

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  3. Holy smokes! There's a lot of material to read on here!

    Thanks. It's been helpful so far :-)

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  4. I'm planning my Nanowrimo for this year, and I just discovered this post. I can't wait to check out all your links! Thank you! =)

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  5. I've just found out about this blog, absolutely amazing. I know for sure I'll very regularly check this out!

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  6. Thanks so much for spending time making this blog. It helps me so much. However, i'm one of the occasional wierd people who are better and enjoy writing the tearful/death scene more than the happy/love scene, which brings me to asking you: Any tips on writing the happy scenes where everything is good and there is no heartbreak? Thanks. :)

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    1. Even if everything is good and there's no heartbreak, there still needs to be conflict of some kind for a scene to work. Even if it's not directly spoken. Like if the reader knows that everything is good now, but what's going to happen when she finds out that huge secret he has? Or even an undercurrent of, "Things are so good now, and surely it can't always be like this."

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  7. Stephanie,
    Thank you so much for all the work you have out into this site. I discovered it today and I spent a good part of three hours just reading, and learning, and being inspired. I'm a teenager and have loved writing since I was ten, so this blog is the perfect thing. I've stopped writing for about four months now because my story idea just keeps getting bigger and better and more and more exciting, but i can't seem to get past the first three pages. Is there something that I should be (or not be) doing?

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    1. This is a great question Rachel - I'm going to answer in a blog post on the 31st.

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  8. any poets out there who would like to become poet buddies? xx

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    1. What do you mean by "poet buddies"?

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  9. I am new to teen writers. And I love what you are doing. I find you guys so amazingly helpful! Thank you! I have just started writing my book with my sister. It seems okay so far I think we are up to page 16. We havent got a title yet.
    I was wondering if there was any special way that you thought of titles for your books?
    Thanks
    -Anonymous

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    1. I'm getting ready to do another post on titles, but here's one in the meantime: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2011/07/what-makes-good-title.html

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  10. I always use this post as a reference when I write or edit. I always come back and make sure that my novel includes the right things and before I start an idea I always answer the questions you ask here. THANK YOU :)

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  11. I love this post so much, read it about five times now...helps me more than you know! THANK YOU :)

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  12. So I'm half way through my book and everything seems good but i have too many twists in the plot and i don't know how to get to the ending i planned. I'm not sure whether to change some of the plot or just carry on and try and wrap it all up?? :)

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    1. Try writing the ending first and then backtrack

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  13. I love to write anything that comes to mind, but I can never finish a novel. I have started several, but i either lose track of the plot or I hit a writer's block and won't write for a while. By then I forget the story line. Any advice on this? What can I do to at least be able to finish a novel?

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  14. Chapter 2! You have a post on chapter 2!!! THANK YOU SO MUCH I'M LOVING YOU GUYS RIGHT NOW! I can't stand writing chapter 2s, they never seem right, but just read the post and you have given me a GREAT idea for my WIP! :) I could not possible love this blog more, it is AWESOME!!!

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  15. 11 years of pursuing publication? That's so inspiring! I WISH I had that kind of determined perseverance. I'm working on it :/

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  16. Hi everyone! I'm not a teen writer (I'm 22 :P) But I am a teen reader if that makes sense. I recently graduated college where my second major was creative writing (my first was dance) and I'm so glad I found this site! I'm the kind of guy that has to have everything stated as simply as possible and everything organized so its so nice that I found both here. While I cant participate in competitions I wish everyone who does the best of luck and I cant wait to read everyone's work!

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  17. Dear Stepphine,
    This may seem weird that i'm writting this in the format of a letter but thats what im doing. Anyways i love to write and even though i may be young (I'm only eleven) i have big ideas that i believe someday could become great novels. I have just a few questions for you.
    1. How long should a chapter be?
    2. Can a kid my age go to a writers conference?
    3. Finally... "What is your best advice to a writer my age?

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  18. Hey, I'm wondering just how long you would *suggest* taking off after finishing a draft. I know you take six weeks, but what's the minimum time, do you think? What are the pros and cons of taking six weeks off? Do you write other things during that time? Thanks!

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  19. From Amo Libros:
    Ok, so I'm not Stephanie (you can email her, though), as for number 2: check to see what writers' conferences are in your area, and then see if they accept/have a program for teen writers. One about 40 minutes from me had a scholarship and special afternoon classes for teen writers.

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  20. This is coming off your how to write a good first paragraph. I am including mine and would love to see what you think. Here it is: Julius Mazarvarki was not an especially cute baby yet neither looks nor character nor condition could change the dreadful fat that was being forced upon his innocent, childish soul, just like everyone else's. When the nurse put him in the chair, he was smiling, laughing, not knowing what would be put inside of him, what he was going to be, where he was going.

    Please get back to me and tell me if you like this. I really need your opinion on this.

    Layla.

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    1. I liked that! I thought it was good.

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    2. that's a great start! good luck with your novel~

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  21. How do I keep myself from writing so many I's??
    (Such as "I did.." "I quickly.." etc) I'm having a serious problem with that!

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    1. Maybe this post will help, Holly: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2012/03/tips-for-writing-good-sentences.html

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  22. Hiya! (:
    I've got an idea for a book, and I've got the basics of the plot sorted out and so on, but the problem I'm facing is that I really don't know how to start. This is really new for me, because in all the books I've started to write before, I've never had this problem.
    I'm just not sure how to get into this story, introduce my character, and so on. I find myself writing a line, or a paragraph, reading it through and thinking it absolutely terrible, and so I scribble it out. So after a few days (weeks even, I'm not sure when I first started 'trying' to write this) I'm still looking at a page that is completely blank apart from the words 'Chapter One' scribbled at the top.
    Have you got any tips on how to start a story and introduce characters? (:

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    1. Abigail, it can be easy to get stuck on the beginning. You might consider just starting the story and then working on the perfect first paragraph/chapter later. A lot of writers do that.

      Here's a post I wrote a few weeks ago on figuring out where to start a story in regards to your character: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2013/04/how-do-you-know-if-youre-starting-in.html

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    2. All right, I'll try that. (: Thank you!

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  23. I'm new to Go Teen Writers and I'm in the process of writing my first book. I know I probably won't be as successful as J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins but I hope I'm on my way. I'd just like to think everyone who runs this site. You guys are awesome.

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  24. I'm a new writer and want to be published thanks for the advice! Now I'm going to go over what I've already written and figure everything out!

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  25. Thanks for the advice!! I plan on outlining my story (actually it's a trilogy). First by the trilogy's plot, then by the book's plot, then the turns/major events of the story, then chapters, and finally, scenes. It makes it much easier to begin my first draft since I know (for the most part) where my story is going and why (especially since the story is complex). When I'm done outlining, I'll probably look here for reference.

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  26. Hi!!


    Thanks for this!! And for this blog. I just found it. I'm working on a book of my own and hope to get it published between May 2014 - January 2015, while I am in America ( i live in Asia). I'm having lots of fun writing it! ;) Can't wait to read more!!!

    ~Abrielle Lindsay~

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  27. This Has helped so much!! Thanks soo much Stephanie!!

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  28. Hello!
    I'm a young writer, and I'm working on a novel. I found out about GTW through a friend who is an amazing writer, by the way, and it has really helped me a lot. Thank you so much! You guys are all full of amazing ideas, and I can't wait to read more!
    However, I have one question to ask.
    Do you have any tips for dragging out the plot too much? I seem to struggle with this. I can't space out discussions and main events evenly, and I feel my chapters and paragraphs need more spice.
    Thanks!!
    Elizabeth xx

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  29. Stephanie, I just wanted to let you know that I still reference back to this page on a regular basis. It's super helpful to me, especially when I'm editing.
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    www.inklinedwriters.blogspot.com

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  30. I just found this site today and I love it. I have a plot and know where it is going and I write everyday. I only write one page per day. do you think that this is enough?

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  31. Hi! I'm so happy to have found this site today. It's really late, but I have a big imagination at the most random times. I'm a middle school student, and in most people's perspective, I'm very creative; Art,writing,Drama Class,all that jazz. But, I always have a hard time getting a unique plot. Whenever I make a plot, I think, and think, and think. I try to make sure it's unlike any other plot I've read. Such as... I had a cool fantasy plot, and I thought it was so unique! And then I went to a book fair at my school, and there was a book with the same plot, that I had never read before. Scrap that idea. This happens a lot. Do you have a hard time with making new plots, and do you have any tips for a young writer-in-training?

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    1. From Amo Libros:
      Actually, I think Stephanie or Jill have a post on making plots unique. If it's not in the side bar, you can try using the "search this blog" function up at the top.
      Good luck!!

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  32. Hi! I'm new here and I have a couple questions. I have so many stories swarming around in my head, I can't stick with just one. Do you ever have this problem? What do you do about it? Also, how do you find an editor/publisher? I'm not necessarily wanting to have anything published right now, but I would like to hear a professional's opinion on my writing.

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    1. Hey Ash. I may not be Stephanie or Jill (ok, i'm definitely not ;) but I have your same problem, ahem, *had* your same problem. :)

      I finally just started writing down my ideas on a document and maybe started plotting when not writing, but I choose my favorite idea and stick with it until 'the end'. :)
      hope this helps! Stephanie and Jill probably know know a lot more about this. :)

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    2. From Amo Libros:
      Hi, Ash!
      You probably noticed this already, but there is a HUGE section on GTW (see side bar) on How to Get Published, Find a Publisher, figuring out how you're ready, etc.
      And I think I'd have to agree with TW - write down all your ideas somewhere where you won't lose them (I'd recommend typing them up on the computer, then printing them off, so you have two copies - one digital, one physical) and then picking one or two to work on. Most writers don't recommend working on more than one project at a time, but if you're still in the early Spark/composting/synopsis (for me these three follow almost instantaneously) you can probably work on more than one. Once you have everything down (because some ideas may leave your head once you start focusing on a single project) and you've composted your favorites/most pressing ones, pick one to start working on. this could be your favorite, or whichever one you have the most ideas for, or simply the one that's "screaming" to be written the loudest.
      Hope this helps!

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  33. Hi, I just wanted to say thank you to Stephanie and Jill for writing Go Teen Writers (pretend it's italicized) because it is helping me a lot. I have recently gotten the full story in my book planned out (and a frame of Part 1 written), but I'm having a hard time rewriting and filling in the blanks. However, Go Teen Writers (in italics) is walking me through the steps and helping me get organized. (I, too, am a pantser who wants to be more organized.) Thanks to this book, I should have it all untangled in no time. Thanks! :)

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  34. An elaborated step-by-step method explaining how to draft your first novel.Thanks for such a write up.It helped me a lot.

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  35. Oh my goodness! This website is what I have been looking for soooooooo long! This is perfect.

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  36. Just Another Creative Teenage FemaleFebruary 23, 2014 at 5:02 PM

    How do I write the first chapter or so to make the story actually flow... I mean I write good "middle chapters", but lousy "beginning" and "ending" chapter... (well i think so anyway, i've never actually got past chapter 4)
    I have great ideas, I just don't know how to write a good first chapter...

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  37. Hi :)
    Thank you very much for this posting, it totally gives me ideas! Thanks for the inspiration! I especially like how you mention the 6 week break.

    Can you give more advice on the part where you mention "marketing calendar?" What is that like?

    Bests!

    Massiel

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  38. This is the BEST writing site ever!! I am currently attempting my first novel and I hope to get it published. I am sure that this site will help! Thanks Miss Jill and Miss Stephanie! Can you give any tips on how to get my word count up? My highest word count is currently 11,000. I want to be able to easily write 70,000+.

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  39. thanks so much!
    very helpful!

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  40. Wow, this helps so much and answers some of my questions. Thank you!

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  41. Hi! This site was suggested to me by someone from BlogClan. I love writing and I have written a few books that I really want to get published. Thank you so much for creating this site. It has helped me so much and I am so greatful. Thank you and I hope that I can get my books published. It is my dream to be a famous author.

    One of my books:
    http://freerealmswarriorcats.wikia.com/wiki/Mooneye~The_not_so_happy_story
    ~Gianna Jones

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  42. Wow. Your blog is exactly what I've been looking for! I love writing, but I often get stuck or lost because of all the little things that come along. Your tips and tricks are worthy of awards. Seriously, thank you for caring about other writers out there! I hope someday I can help others with their writing like you've helped me!

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  43. This is amazing!! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your process!

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  44. This was so very useful, thank you so much Stephanie. I was having trouble keeping one of my novels in order until I came across this and I was especially greatful for the 'Questions for "Composting" an idea'. That really saved my life and I have used it so much to help me get everything in order. I owe you my life, thank you so much for posting this! :)

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  45. Hello! I am a teen writer who has no time, place or motivation to write. It is my goal to publish a novel by the time I'm 35...I'm 12 now. I share a home computer with another teenager and my parents, so I can't take it to my library or up to my room for quiet. When I write, I like to listen to music fairly loud to block out other noises. My parents always tell me to turn it down or put earbuds in...then I can hear everyone else's conversations and the tele...I also have commitment issues with my writing. I can finish some, but they don't stick to the storyline, are short, and are just horrible quality. I have my own laptop for school, but we are not allowed to use them for personal all that much. I start school August 20...tomorrow. When we are required to write for school, we are not allowed to express ourselves and we have to keep it under ten pages...when I do find time to write, I usually write ten pages in a sitting. Do you have any suggestions for times, places, and how to finish a novelette?
    Thank You

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  46. Hi! I'm elven and I am writing a book series the first book is called Council Of Seven Crystals, i'm currently writing the first chapter I already figured out most of my main characters but I need some advice if you have any email:
    mtb@slinghshot.co.nz

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  47. Hi, I'm twelve years old and an aspiring writer, and I have a great idea for a book I have been toying about with for the past few months. It's based on Norse mythology and dragons. But every time I try to write, I get stuck. Once I wrote the first ten chapters, but I realized they weren't as good as I thought, so I decided to start anew. Any thoughts?
    Jonathan

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