Tag Archives | writing

Living The Dream

I arrived in New York Monday night. It was dark and cold and I will admit to feeling a little intimidated, but there’s an energy to this city that’s infectious. By the time I dropped my things at the airbnb, bought some flowers at the corner bodega and caught an Uber to the apartment of an old college buddy for a late dinner, I was giddy with excitement.

A big part of my fantastic attitude is that I’m here on business. I have meetings with my agent and my publisher, and I just have this deep sense of living the dream. I am a writer in New York, meeting with people who care about my work. I mean, how fabulous is that? Even the stupidly frigid temperatures can’t bring me down.

Yesterday morning while walking (scurrying) to the subway station, I saw a little white dog with red booties. I helped up an old woman who slipped on the ice. A man shoveling snow yelled out “this is America!” for no discernible reason as I walked past. I figured out the metro all by myself (it’s actually really easy) and got myself uptown to the Met where I popped in my headphones and spent a few hours wondering around listening to cello music and soaking up the art.

I took an Uber through the park (yes, it was only a mile, but it’s REALLY cold) so I could walk past the Dakota, which felt like a literary pilgrimage as I am reading Tom Barbarsh’s new novel The Dakota Winters, then had chicken soup in a little cafe where I sat reading said book and watching the snow fall outside.

In short, it’s been a fantastic trip so far. This morning I’m meeting the agent for breakfast, then cutting across town to my publishers office. I’m hoping my editor has had a chance to read those edits I worked so hard on so we can discuss how the book is coming along.

Tune in next week and I’ll let you know how it all goes.

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Celebrate Milestones

Celebrating MilestonesA few years ago I quit drinking. It’s changed my life, honestly. I sleep better, I’m more patient with my kids, and my writing improved on two fronts. The first was that I had an easier time getting up in the morning to write (no brainer, that one). The second was that I came to understand myself a little better. When I could no longer just drink away my frustrations I had to actually look at what was bothering me and deal with it. It’s a skill that translates well to understanding characters. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I finally finished my novel after quitting drinking.

All that said, having been a drinker my whole adult life, I celebrated every milestone with a cocktail. Maybe champagne. Maybe a glass of whiskey. But booze of some kind.

Then, in 2018 I finished my manuscript, found an agent (my dream agent), sold my novel to a publisher, and got accepted to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. I had a shit ton to celebrate. (Oh, 2018, I love you so much.) I had to get a little create with my revelry.

To set a framework, I calculated how much my husband and I could spend on a night of drinking back in the day. Bottle of wine with dinner. A cocktail or two (or three) at the bar after. Honestly, it wasn’t hard for us to spend $100 in a night. And that’s not counting dinner and the babysitter. So I set myself a budget of $100 and here’s how I’ve used it:

Ways to Celebrate for $100 or Less

The Korean Spa
I love, love, love the Olympic Korean Spa here in LA. It’s been a special treat since I moved here a decade ago and my sister took me there. They have this treatment called the Akasuri Scrub where a woman with unusually strong hands sloughs off the top few layers of your skin. It’s a little intense, but my skin is so silky smooth afterwards. And you can hang out all day in the soaking tubs (taking a cold plunge from time to time to balance things out). They even have a restaurant and a little spot for napping. This has become my number one go-to celebration ritual.

Frozen Treats With the Kids
My kids are old enough now that they understand that it’s a big deal when I finish a draft or sign a contract or get a short story published. If I don’t have time to spend a whole day at the spa, I like to take the family out for Pink Berry, or YogurtLand, or some other sweet treat.

Shopping
I almost never going shopping for myself, by myself. Most of the clothes I buy are from Target, grabbed from the rack as I walked by with the kids, hoping they will fit and look cute. So it feels luxurious to take a few hours and just go shopping on my own. That was how I celebrated the completion of my most recent edits. I bought a sweet pair of boots.

Being A Bum
After I drop the kids at school, I come home and read a book. I lay in bed, or on the patio if it’s sunny. I take long shower. I nap. Honestly, I can only do this for one day before I get antsy about all the shit on my to-do list, but taking one day to do nothing feels like I won the lottery or something.

What Am I Missing?

How do you celebrate your milestones? I know there must be things I haven’t thought of yet. Or maybe you just go with the old faithful champaign. To be clear, I’ve got not problems with that. It’s just not for me anymore.

So lay ’em on me. What are your go-tos?

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Waves of Self Doubt (and a knock knock joke)

I have three weeks until the latest draft of novel is due to my editor and I’m surfing some serious waves of self doubt. I look at what’s on the page and I think “how did I ever get a book deal?” Then I turn the page and I think “actually, this isn’t all bad.” Then I turn another page and congratulate myself on being fucking brilliant. Then I start the cycle over again.

It’s brutal. I promise to write a full post about it, with examples and everything. I might even convince my husband to write a post about how this all looks from his perspective. But today it’s all I can do to keep working. Editing is the only thing that keeps me from sinking under the emotional weight of this process, because with each little tweak I know the manuscript is getting better.

So, until next week, here’s a little gem of a joke to share with your writer friends:

Knock knock

Who’s there?

To

To Who?

(wag finger) Ah, ah, ah… it’s “to WHOM”

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My In-Person Creative Writing Class

Over the past nine years I have used this platform to share what I’ve learned about the craft of writing as I worked toward finishing my manuscript, finding an agent and selling my debut novel. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the act of expressing ideas in writing and so I’m very excited to announce that, starting next week, I will be teaching an in-person class on creative writing at my local community center.

Starting on January 17th, I get to sit down with fellow writers every Thursday night for eight weeks and explore the specifics of storytelling as an art. I’m super excited about it. And if you will permit me a little shameless self-promotion, you can sign up for the class by visiting the CCLCF website. (In terms of geography, La Canada is north of Downtown LA, just west of Pasadena. It’s an easy trip for anyone on the east side and the Community Center has lots of free parking.)

For anyone who can’t make it to the class, I thought I might compile a few of my most popular blog posts from over the years.

  1. Seven Tips for Getting Up Early to Write (Even if You’re a Night Owl)
  2. Friends Becoming Enemies, Enemies Becoming Friends…
  3. How to Write Faster
  4. A Few Thoughts on Better Book Titles
  5. The Dreaded Cliché (And How To Avoid It)
  6. Making Your Characters Want Something
  7. Oh S**t, Oh Cool (or How to Keep a Story Interesting)
  8. Keep Focused with a Writing Punch List
  9. Hang a Lantern on Your Plot Problems
  10. Beta Readers

In summary – sign up for the class if you can. I would love to meet you in person. But if that’s not feasible, just keep writing! And cheers to a prosperous 2019. May all your writing dreams come true.

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Rules of the World

Rules of the WorldI went to a reading in November at Skylight Books to hear Wayétu Moore discuss her recent debut novel She Would Be King. Without giving too much away, it’s a cross between a slave narrative and a super hero story and it’s no surprise that the book is getting a lot of attention. As with any good super hero story, it plays with reality, bending the rules of the world as we know it.

Magic in Stories

I absolutely love stories that play with magic (and or advanced science that reads as magic), but there is a trick to it and sometimes I feel like authors get in over their heads. Stepping away from reality in a story can go awry quickly if you don’t establish the rules of the world and stick to them. Nothing will make me ditch a book faster than a story that breaks its own rules.

For instance, say you’ve set up a world where anyone can do magic, but they have to be holding a wand. Then you have a character cast a spell without their wand. Bam. That’s me putting down the book.

Say your characters can fly, but then you have one character who can’t. You have about three pages to tell me why or I’m getting frustrated and losing interest.

A Few Thoughts on the Rules of the World

I read a lot, in a lot of different genres, and there are a few things I’ve noticed that are critical for magic to work (whether you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, super hero stories, or some combination thereof):

  1. Establish the rules as quickly as possible.
  2. Do it with example. This is the big challenge to you as the writer. Using exposition is boring, so you have to find a way to show the rules of the world, as quickly as you can, through example. It’s difficult, but you’re a writer, damn it. Make it happen.
  3. If there are exceptions to the rule, tell us right up front. I would actually prefer a bit of exposition here so that I understand the rules up front before someone breaks them, but again, if you can, better to show than tell.
  4. Once they’ve been established, do not break the rules of your world. Don’t do it. If you come upon a point where your story really can’t continue on with the rules you’ve established, you have to go back and change the rules throughout. You can’t bend them just to get through a scene. It’s cheating, and your readers will notice.

Examples to Check Out

If you’re working on a story with unusual world rules, be it magic realism, fantasy, or sci-fi, you can learn a lot by checking out some rule-heavy works to see how they do it. Here are a few to read:

  1. Ready Player One (fantasy/sci-fi by Ernest Cline). This book is FULL of rules. Rules for every section of the made-up world. Rules that change constantly. And yet I didn’t feel bogged down in them as I was reading. A great example of how to set the rules of the world without losing the story.
  2. Red Shirts (sci-fi by John Scalzi). Or really, pretty much anything by Scalzi. He is great at making up worlds (and even whole universes) where the drama is dependent on the rules of the world.
  3. The Name of the Wind (fantasy by Patrick Rothfuss). This book, and it’s sequel The Wise Man’s Fear, exists within a world with pretty hard and fast rules. Certain powers can be evoked to make certain things happen. The fun comes when our hero begins to learn magic and can manipulate the rules.
  4. The book by Wayétu Moore mentioned above: She Would Be King. For all its magic, it’s pretty straight up literary fiction. So if you’re working on something in that genre that plays with reality at all, it’s definitely worth a read.
  5. Not a book, but the movie Wreck It Ralph is another example of story with a TON of rules. Yet, the narrative roles along easily without getting mired. An easy way to check out how rules can be shown through example.

If anyone else has some examples they can point to, share ’em here. To be a writer is to be always learning.

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Writing Every Day (5 Things I’ve Learned)

writing every dayIf you’ve been a writer for any length of time you’ve probably heard people argue about writing every day. Stephen King is a pretty famous proponent of the practice, insisting that he writes 1,000 words a day, no exceptions.

I don’t. So I’ve always cringed at that little bit of trivia. Then, a couple of months ago, I realized I write ALMOST writing every day in my journal without even trying. Writing in my journal isn’t work for me. It’s how I organize my thoughts and prepare for the day. So I decided to make it official and commit to doing it every day, just to see what happened.

Then I read about the Runner’s World run streak challenge. The idea is to run at least a mile every day between Thanksgiving and January 1st (#rwrunstreak). It seemed like a great way to keep in shape during the holiday season, a time that I traditionally get super lazy. So I’ve been doing it. Today is day 21. Three weeks! It feels good.

As I have worked to do these things every day, I’ve been fascinated to see how my relationship to them has changed. Here’s what I’ve learned about doing it (whatever it is) every day:

1. You’re going to have to say it out loud

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you have to tell the people in your life what you’re doing. Because there will be a day (probably many days) when you need help carving out a little time and it’s going to be really hard to do that without a little help from the people in your life.

The scariest part about telling everyone that you’re trying to do something every day is that they might *gasp* be supportive. Even if it’s just a simple “how’d it go today?” people will ask. If you’re inclined to keep your work secret, this might be an uncomfortable situation. It was for me. But the simple act of saying I needed twenty minutes to write in my journal (even though it made my throat tighten up) turned out to be the difference between getting it done and not.

2. Your mood will no longer be a factor

When you commit to doing something every day you have to get over any excuses about how you’re feeling when it’s time to get the job done. Some days you will have a sore throat. Some days you will be tired. Some days you will feel sad, or hungover, or (fill in the blank).

But something really cool happens as you push through those excuses. They start to have less power. On my fourth day of running every day I woke up with a sore throat. I almost didn’t do my mile that day. But instead of letting a mild sore throat derail me, I sucked it up and pushed through. And I actually felt better for it.

3. You will discover that you have preferences

I like to write first thing in the morning and I like my Uni-Ball Ultra Micro pen.

It’s nice if I can get the running out of the way then too, but not as critical. I can always hit the treadmill while dinner is cooking if I have to.

As a runner, I’ve discovered I can’t stand thick socks. I like thin little ankle sock. I just do.

When you do something every day you figure out, real quick like, what little things help or hinder and because you’re committed to keeping going, you add or subtract those things from your routine without hesitation.

4. You will get better at it, whatever it is

There’s just no way around this one. If you do something every day, you will get better at it, but it’s also important to keep in mind that your gains might not be linear. That is to say, you will have good days and bad days.

For instance, on my thirteenth day of running a mile every day, I ran my fastest mile ever. The next day, I ran one of my slowest. I was tired from my stellar performance the day before. So tired that I was tempted to quit, telling myself that I’d earned a break, but I slogged it out. On the whole, I am getting faster, but I still have days when I run at a slow pace and that’s okay, because I know I have tomorrow to try again.

Also keep in mind that this little bit of truth holds true for our bad habits too. If you flop down on the couch after work every day, ignoring that little voice that tells you how you could be writing or running or whatever, eventually you will get better at ignoring that little voice. Something to keep in mind.

5. It helps to have an end date

Committing to do something every day is easier if it’s for a specific period of time. I’ve tried to run every day before, but without an end date, the task felt somehow overwhelming and I never lasted more than a few days. I mean, forever can be daunting.

It’s really helpful, psychologically, to know that come January 2, I will have met my #rwrunstreak goal and can stop if I want to. I’m not sure if I will. Maybe I’ll keep going. Or maybe I’ll take a one day break and then try to go another month. I haven’t decided yet.

As for writing, I just really like starting my day with my journal. And because I’ve been doing it almost every day for so many years, taking the leap to actually writing every day isn’t daunting at all. That one I will keep up.

Do you have something you do every day? Or is there something you might try to do every day for a little while? I would love to hear what other people have found with this sort of practice.

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Please Don’t Send Your NaNoWriMo Manuscript to Agents

Well, it’s officially December, and for a lot of writers out there that means NaNoWriMo is over. Did you do it? Did you hit your goal? If you did (and, hell, even for those who gave it their best shot) I’m so effing proud of you. You did it! You should do something to celebrate: go out for drinks, get a massage, buy yourself a tub of cookie dough ice cream and go to town. The one thing you should not do, under any circumstances, is send your NaNoWriMo manuscript to agents.

Seriously.

I’m kind of surprised this even needs saying, but apparently there is a whole contingent of writers out there who slap out 50,000 words and start querying agents. WTF?

First of all, 50,000 isn’t even long enough to be considered a proper novel. And never mind that, you’re sending a first draft to an agent? I don’t even let my husband read my first drafts. First drafts are supposed to be shitty. And they are. Count on it.

Okay, okay, I’m sure you’re the exception. I’m sure that you are so brilliant that an agent will totally overlook the typos and inconsistencies in your writing. I’m sure they will be so enamored of your pages and pages of dialogue that they won’t be able to sleep and will sit by the phone until it’s 8am and they can reasonably expect you to be awake so that they can call you and beg you to be their client.

I’m also sure you’re insane.

Please, please don’t send your NaNoWriMo manuscript to agents. It’s not only embarrassing for you, it builds a bad reputation for every serious writer who used the NaNoWriMo challenge to kick off (or make progress on) a serious writing project.

Here’s what to do instead:

  1. Keep writing (until you get to about 80,000, depending on what you’re writing – check out this word count guide to see what the standards are in your chosen genre.).
  2. Then stick it in a drawer for about three months and do something else.
  3. Come back and read it through.
  4. Edit. A lot.
  5. Have some trusted friends read it. 
  6. Edit some more.
  7. Stick it in a drawer for another three months.
  8. Read it again.
  9. Edit again.
  10. Repeat steps 5-9 as necessary
  11. Hire a professional editor to do a final pass.

Then, and only then, start sending out your query letter.

Or don’t do all that. There’s no law that dictates what you have to do with your 50,000 words. You could serialize them on your blog, or self publish, or make yourself a suit by stapling the pages together then use the remaining pages to make a paper mache hat to match. It’s your art.

But if you want to go the traditional route of finding an agent and a subsequent publisher, you still have a lot to do.

Writing is work. To pretend it isn’t is insulting to us all.

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Setting Goals for a Writing Career

writing career goalsLast week I was at a Halloween party where a tarot card reader was telling fortunes. I love fortune tellers. I love to geek out over their predictions and try to suss out how much is coming from some cosmic source and how much they’re just reading me. So of course I was the first one to sit down.

She told me to shuffle the cards while thinking of my question and the one that came to mind was: how do I build my writing career? Well, she wasn’t the greatest card reader. She asked me to tell her my question, so I did, and the rest kind of felt like a therapy session. But there was one thing she said that stuck with me. She told me that if I didn’t know what my goals were, I would never reach them.

Um, duh. This is not rocket science. This is not even fortune telling. This is just plain common sense. But I had to admit, I don’t have any goals in place right now.

The thing is, I’m usually ALL ABOUT planning. I mean, if you follow along at all you’ve seen my bullet journal posts. You know I’m a total nerd for making plans and executing. But here’s what I realized: for the longest time my goal was simply to finish my novel and get it out into the world.

Well, it’s not out in the world yet, but it has been bought by a real honest to goodness publisher and has a publishing date set for March of 2020. Done and done. And while I wait for things to progress on that front, I’ve been working on another story. I just finished a draft of that one last week. It’s a mess, but its a story. So I’ve just been writing and writing without any real sense of what my goal is.

The Money

I know I want to make a living with my writing. Good news for me is that I don’t have to make six figures to make this happen. My husband makes a good living, so I really only need to bring in half of our household expenses. That’s a goal.

But there are just so many unknowns when it comes to writing and income. A person could write a dozen books in obscurity and then have a breakout hit that makes bank. They might get a book optioned by Hollywood and make some money that way. They might hit it out of the park on their first go, getting a six-figure advance on their debut, and then not be able to sell their next book because they didn’t sell out their advance.

There are just so many unknowns around the money side of a writing career that it’s hard to hitch my goals (and my eventual joy or depression) on whether I hit some arbitrary financial goal. It’s not about the money. (That said, if you’re curious, this website does an interesting breakdown of what some writers are making.)

So I’m inclined to set other goals, centered around inputs I can control, and hope the money comes sooner rather than later.

Books Per Year

When I first met with my agent he asked if I thought I could put out a book every year. I’ll admit I flinched. He adjusted: how about a book every two years? Well, this idea is actually really appealing to me. At that rate, the odds of making money go up. Not only is a writer more likely to get to that one book that is a big hit, but with each book you gather a few more readers who like your books and might be inclined to buy them when they hit the shelves. They might go back and buy your previous books.

Some writers write four books a year to reap the benefits of accumulated work, but there’s just no way I can do that. Maybe if I had started writing before I was a mom, before I started spending five hours a day driving these little people to various practices and appointments, not to mention a husband that I actually like spending time with. Oh, and my two blogs. There’s no way.

But a book every two years? That I feel like I could plan for.

Three-Month Chunks

I started thinking about how, as I pushed to wrap up the draft of my second story, I was writing about 2,000 words a day without sacrificing too much in terms of life balance. At that rate I could put out a rough (and I do mean rough) draft in three months.

But then, I’m supposed to get notes from my editor on my first novel this week. Contractually I have four months to make the edits, but I’m hoping I can do them in three.

Then, I will switch to outlining novel 3. Yep, I already have ideas in the works, I just need some focused time to get it all worked out. I have never made outlining my main writing activity. I didn’t outline novel 1 at all (which I’m pretty sure is why it took my nine years to write it). Novel 2 I outlined while working on novel 1 and that baby was SO much easier to write. Turns out I’m a planner (big surprise, right?)

Anyway, I’ll spend three months outlining novel 3, then jump back to do another draft on novel 2, then work on a first draft of novel 3. I sketched it out on some graph paper. Here’s what it looks like:

writing career goals

The question is whether I can actually keep up this schedule. Because if I could, I would be sending a manuscript to my agent in January of 2020 AND January of 2021. I haven’t accounted for time editing in response to my agent’s feedback. Because I don’t know how long it will take to get feedback. There are frankly just too many unknowns. But if I could…

Writer Goals

All of this is to say that it’s hard to know how to set goals as a writer. There are so many external variables, so many things we can’t control.

How do you set goals? Do you go with dollar amounts? Do you maybe go for awards or accolades of that sort? Number of copies sold? I’m so new at this, would love to hear your thoughts.

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The Lesson of the Super Suit Scene

I’ve been thinking a lot about this scene from the movie The Incredibles (the first one). In case you haven’t seen it, it comes near the end of the movie, when the big bad is attacking the city. It’s the Super Suit Scene.

I Am The Greatest Good…

The movie cuts away from our main characters (Mr. Incredible and his family) and jumps to Frozone, the sidekick. As you can see, in the clip, it would have been really easy to simply show the man getting ready for a night with his wife, when – bam – a robot comes stomping down the street. Done. Six seconds. And scene.

But no. The scene goes on for another forty seconds in what is arguably one of the best moments of the movie. In that forty seconds, without EVER seeing the wife that he’s arguing with, we get to know this character and what his life is like:

He lives in stylish condo.
He is a dude who cares about his appearance.
He is married to a woman who keeps his shit together for him.
They have the kind of relationship where they can just yell at each other from the other room (also – she is probably in the kitchen cooking, which is why she doesn’t come to argue in person – which leads one to believe that he’s not much for helping out in the kitchen).
They host dinner parties, but have busy lives that make it the kind of thing you have to plan far in advance.
He is prioritizing being a super hero.
She knows his priorities and isn’t happy about it.
They have had this argument before.

It’s an awesome scene, because all of those things we learn about him are things we can relate to. Who hasn’t had an argument with their spouse from the other room? Who hasn’t had priorities that our spouse didn’t understand? Who hasn’t found themselves rushing around to find their shoes/keys/super suit?

And they could have totally just cut it after those first six seconds. Those were enough to explain his presence in the next scene, but instead they ran with it, and it’s one of the best scenes in the movie.

Giving Our Sidekicks The Time

It has me thinking about my own minor characters. What scenes have I cut after the first six seconds (so to speak)? Would those scenes be better if I let them run a little? What could I learn about the character if I did? Would those things make them more relatable? Would it serve the story as a whole?

I don’t know that I will ever write anything as brilliant as the Super Suit scene, but it’s good to have goals.

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Four Easy Ways to Make Scrivener Instantly Awesome

Scrivener 3.0Last week I had lunch with a writer friend who recently took the leap and downloaded the Scrivener app. I was so excited for her, because, well, I’m such a Scrivener nerd. I pulled my laptop out right there in the restaurant and showed her a few of my favorite little tricks, just enough to get her started without being overwhelming. And it seemed to me that others out there might be interested. So here we go:

Four Easy Ways to Make Scrivener Instantly Awesome

1. My number one favorite way in which Scrivener helps me with my writing is with the daily word count. Especially if you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year, you have to check this out. It allows you to enter your writing days (for example: I write Monday through Saturday and take Sunday off), and then calculates how many words a day you have to write to hit your goal. If you miss a day it recalculates automatically. It’s AWESOME for keeping on track with writing goals.

2. Second is Scrivener Snapshots. This has changed the way I organize versions of my story in ways I didn’t even appreciated when I started. Used to be, every time I changed something significant in my story, I would save a new version and my files were cluttered with drafts and I could never find anything. Scrivener Snapshots made all that a thing of the past.

3. Similar to how I used to save drafts, I used to have files stuffed full of research, both on my computer and in my web browser, and I could never find anything. In Scrivener, you can drag and drop whole websites into your research files and never have to go looking for shit ever again. You can even access them when you’re offline. Awesome.

4. Then, once you have all that research, you can open it easily without losing your place in your writing by using Quick Reference Windows. Sometimes I’ll use this function to open an image so I can look at it as I’m describing it. Sometimes I use it to reference historical facts, or orient myself geographically in a city. You can also use it to open another chapter and view it beside the one you’re working on. So handy.

Using those four basic tools makes Scrivener instantly awesome, but there’s much more, when you’re ready…

For Instance

You could just type “Scrivener” in to the search bar here on my website (top right there) and see everything I’ve ever written on the topic, but here are a few of my favorite, slightly more advanced, tricks and tips:

Color coding your files/chapters
Using the Corkboard View
Word frequency function (great for highlighting those pesky adverbs)
The handy name generator
Track your work history
Get nerdy with meta-data

And the coolest thing about Scrivener is that I keep discovering ways in which it makes my life easier (well, my writing life at least). To keep learning with me, consider signing up for my newsletter (to get these posts in your inbox every Friday), or follow me on Twitter (where I share links to all kinds of good Scrivener info).

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