For Writers

How To Write A Novel Without Feeling Lost

It’s a commonly held statistic that 97% of people who set out to write a novel never finish it. 97%! I don’t know where the statistic comes from, but as someone who has finished novels (11 of them) and has struggled with every single one, I don’t doubt this statistic at all. Writing a novel isn’t for the faint of heart. Novels, even middle-grade novels, are big unwieldy things that can feel like putty running through your fingers. It’s very easy to get lost.

Take it from Lisa Simpson:


Recently I taught a new class specifically to help with this problem. The class proved so popular, I ended up teaching it twice: once at the Austin SCBWI annual conference and once for the Writers League of Texas. The class was called “How To Write a Novel Without Getting Intimidated” and it got great reviews, with attendees saying they felt more like they could tackle their project. I was excited it helped. When I first started writing middle-grade, I felt VERY intimidated and got lost often. Here are some of the tips I passed on:


I used to read books and think, “How can I do this? This whole thing?” Well, the truth is, you don’t have to do create the whole thing, not immediately. All you need to start is an idea, even the smallest idea of an idea. When I wrote THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, all I started with was a question: What if a boy woke on a deserted beach with no memory of who he was or how he had gotten there? Big trees are grown from a tiny seed, and your book will start with a small idea. You don’t have to know everything when you begin. Discovery is a big part of the fun of writing.


Many writers start writing as soon as they have their idea. They get excited and want to jump right in. And that’s wonderful! It’s good to be excited. But not knowing much about your story can make you get lost quickly and feel like giving up. I mean, imagine if you got the idea to make pancakes because you read about them in a book. You don’t have a picture or a recipe or anything, you just know they’re going to be great. So you go into your kitchen and… Just like in cooking, a little planning for your novel goes a long way. You don’t have to know everything about your character, your world, or your plot, but the more you do know, the less likely you’re going to get lost.

Some good things to figure out up front are:

  • basic info about your character (age, name, home)
  • basic info about your setting (rural, city, another planet)
  • your main character’s problem/goal (what they’ll solve over the course of the story)
  • and the main obstacle (another person, aliens, nature, or the character themself)

There are plenty of other things you can brainstorm before you begin, but if you have at least these ingredients, you’ll be much less likely to get lost and give up.


I started out as a pantser (writing solely by the seat of my pants and following the story wherever it went), but I quickly learned there are more efficient ways. Now, I can hear some of you saying, “I don’t want to outline. It stifles my creative freedom.” But done right, outlining can help to build your creative freedom! (I wrote about my outlining journey on my blog.)

To keep me from getting lost when I’m writing, I find it useful to have a map, even if I venture away from it. An outline for a novel can be as simple as just a few story highlights or as in-depth as a plan for every scene of the book. I like to think of mine as a GPS. I know where I’m heading, and if I veer off course, I can take a different route. Outlines don’t have to stay the same as you write. Mine change constantly. But having one, even a really basic one, helps me stay the course.


Even if you’re not into outlining, there are still tools you can use to keep you focused as you write your whole novel. Your story is about your character trying to achieve their goal, so as you write, keep that goal handy. One way is to write a one-sentence pitch. A one-sentence pitch has your character, their problem, and what they need to do about it. So for my novel ARROW, the one-sentence pitch would be: A boy who grew up in a magically hidden rainforest must figure out how to fix the magic before outsiders from the dry, arid world exploit his home.

Write a one-sentence for your book, then keep it available as you pants through your story. When you get stuck, pull it out and see what you can do to get your character back on track. If a one-sentence pitch is too hard to write right now, this also works with jacket copy. Write the copy that will be on the back or inside flap of your book when it’s published (because it will be if you finish and revise) and use that to keep yourself motivated.


I used to compare my first drafts with the already published books I was reading, and I’d get frustrated because I knew mine wasn’t as good. But I was forgetting that all the books on my shelves were revised over and over and over again. First drafts are just that: Firsts. Knowing that I’m allowed as many other drafts as I need freed me up from thinking my first draft had to be perfect.


I get it. You’ve got dreams of walking into your local bookstore and seeing your book on their shelves. You want that day to be tomorrow, even today! But publishing journeys are loooooooooooong, and the best way to get an agent or editor interested in your work is to create great work. So don’t stress. Take your time. Even if you spend five minutes on your novel every day, you will one day end up with a full novel. Then you’ll be like Kermit and beat 97% of other writers.


Happy writing!

Agent Spotlight: Molly Ker Hawn of The Bent Agency

Molly Ker Hawn, Managing Director and Literary Agent at The Bent Agency

Hi, everyone! I’m so excited to welcome Molly Ker Hawn of The Bent Agency to our Agent Spotlight here on The Mixed Up Files. Molly leads the London office of TBA and works with authors from all over the world — including Angie Thomas, Hilary McKay, Dhonielle Clayton, Casey Lyall, Stephanie Burgis, Meera Trehan, and many more—selling directly to publishers in the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia. I’m also lucky enough to call her my agent, and she graciously agreed to answer some questions about querying, author-agent relationships and the publishing world today. Thank you, Molly!

MD: Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to the podcast The Sh*t No One Tells You About Writing, where each episode begins with the agents critiquing query letters listeners have sent in for feedback. What are you looking for in a query letter? Other than NOT addressing you as “Dear Sir” or “Dear Agent”, how important is the personalization part of the query letter for you? 

MKH: I know writers really agonize over query letters, so I’m pretty forgiving when I’m reading them. A hook-y pitch is most important to me, and maybe a line or two of bio. It doesn’t have to be long. You don’t have to convince me that you’re interesting; I’m trying to evaluate your book, not you. Personalization is less important  – I don’t need to be flattered or to be convinced that I’m The One. If there’s a particular reason they’re querying me, then I’m glad to hear it, and it’s always nice to hear that someone enjoyed a book I represented (and why), but there’s no need to scrabble around for a connection that isn’t genuinely there. 

MD: My query to you was the old fashioned way: a cold query with no connections. What percentage of your clients would you say have come to you that way?

MKH: That’s such a good question! I think a lot of people assume that you need an ‘in’ to find representation, but most of my clients have come to me via out-of-the-blue queries. There is nothing – nothing – like the feeling of reading a submission from someone I’ve never heard of and feeling that zing of recognition that they’ve written something special.

MD: Something that’s not often talked about is that sometimes a writer’s first agent is not their forever agent. My understanding is that before querying a new agent one must no longer be with a previous agent. What other etiquette is important to know when looking for a new agent? How should the author handle putting information about it in a query letter? Have your clients who’ve previously had other agents come to you through recommendations or through the slush pile?

MKH: I think most agents would agree that it’s bad form to approach a new agent before you’ve parted ways with your current one. I personally am uncomfortable with it. Once you’ve formally terminated your agreement, you can say in your query that you were previously represented by [name] — you might as well say who your old agent was, because potential agents are likely to ferret that out anyway via Publishers Marketplace or Twitter or some other online source. The important thing that agents will want to know is whether your current project has been submitted to publishers by your former agent.

In the last couple of years I’ve started working with a few writers who’ve had previous representation, but not even all of those came with a personal referral. It’s lovely when they do, because a recommendation from a current client is the kind of praise I value most. It’s not at all necessary, though.

MD: In the UK, it’s uncommon to see middle grade novels in hardcover. In the US recently there was a lot of brouhaha on social media about Barnes & Noble no longer stocking a majority of hardcover middle grade novels. Have you seen this hurting newer North American MG releases? Have you seen this changing how publishers are buying middle grade novels—and going about their sales and marketing of them?

MKH: I know that many children’s writers saw B&N’s shift to stocking fewer hardcovers as a targeted attack on MG, but we’ve been watching their overall buying practices change for a while now. And when you look specifically at MG, B&N has reported returning about 80% of the hardcovers they bought in from publishers. You don’t need an MBA to see that the status quo wasn’t sustainable. 

I’m starting to see more publishers plan to release new MG simultaneously in hardcover and paperback – that’s an interesting solution. A lot of libraries will be happy to keep buying the hardcovers, and the retailers can have the editions that they think they can sell. I don’t love the effect this has on advances and royalty earnings, of course – a paperback sale earns less than a hardcover sale. But I want there to continue to be a wide range of children’s books published for a diverse audience, and some experimentation is going to be necessary to make that happen.

MD: What are you loving about being a children’s book agent these days?

MKH: The same things I’ve loved since I started: the thrill of discovery, the sense of satisfaction I get from helping books I care about find an audience, the camaraderie of the children’s book industry, the satisfaction of effectively advocating for authors and making them as much money as I can. And I love working with my team at TBA. We have such a good time, and we’re constantly learning from each other. I’m very lucky.

MD: Where can people find out about what kind of projects you’re looking for and how to query you?

MKH: I’ve got detailed information here and I keep it up to date. I read all my queries myself and respond to all of them, as long as spam filters don’t get in the way.  

Thank you again to Molly for this fabulous interview!


Creativity Boosts

Sometimes, a month or so before the end of a long, dark winter, I start to feel my creativity wane. Everything feels a little cold. A little hidden. A little like it’s waiting for some magical thing to energize it. This year it’s taking longer than usual for that energizing force to show up. And, I’m not alone here. Even the buds on my fruit tree aren’t bursting forth yet. Maybe it’s the still too dark days, or the snow storm in the middle of April, or maybe it’s just not yet time yet. Whatever the reason, I weary of waiting, so I have been poring through my bookshelves, the internet,  and the local library, looking for inspiration. Here’s a list of what I’ve found:

Fairy Tales, Folktales, and Archetypes.

The symbolism of the shoes in Cinderella. The archetype of the Dark Man in dreams. The Ugly Duckling. The Baba Yaga. I’ve dug up old stories, new to me stories, and some new ways of thinking in the following books.

Fearless Girls and Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters

Dismayed by the predominance of male protagonists in her daughters’ books, Kathleen Ragan set out to collect the stories of our forgotten heroines. Gathered from around the world, from regions as diverse as sub-Saharan Africa and Western Europe, from North and South American Indian cultures and New World settlers, from Asia and the Middle East, these 100 folktales celebrate strong female heroines.

Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters is for all women who are searching to define who they are, to redefine the world and shape their collective sensibility. It is for men who want to know more about what it means to be a woman. It is for our daughters and our sons, so that they can learn to value all kinds of courage, courage in battle and the courage of love. It is for all of us to help build a more just vision of woman.


Women Who Run With the Wolves

Within every woman there is a wild and natural creature, a powerful force, filled with good instincts, passionate creativity, and ageless knowing. Her name is Wild Woman, but she is an endangered species. Though the gifts of wildish nature come to us at birth, society’s attempt to “civilize” us into rigid roles has plundered this treasure, and muffled the deep, life-giving messages of our own souls. Without Wild Woman, we become over-domesticated, fearful, uncreative, trapped. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D., Jungian analyst and cantadora storyteller, shows how woman’s vitality can be restored through what she calls “psychic archeological digs” into the bins of the female unconscious. In Women Who Run with the Wolves, Dr. Estes uses multicultural myths, fairy tales, folk tales, and stories chosen from over twenty years of research that help women reconnect with the healthy, instinctual, visionary attributes of the Wild Woman archetype. Dr. Estes collects the bones of many stories, looking for the archetypal motifs that set a woman’s inner life into motion. “La Loba” teaches about the transformative function of the psyche. In “Bluebeard,” we learn what to do with wounds that will not heal; in “Skeleton Woman,” we glimpse the mystical power of relationship and how dead feelings can be revived; “Vasalisa the Wise” brings our lost womanly instincts to the surface again; “The Handless Maiden” recovers the Wild Woman initiation rites; and “The Little Match Girl” warns against the insidious dangers of a life spent in fantasy. In these and other stories, we focus on the many qualities of Wild Woman. We retrieve, examine, love, and understand her, and hold her against our deep psyches as one whois both magic and medicine. In Women Who Run with the Wolves, Dr. Estes has created a new lexicon for describing the female psyche. Fertile and lifegiving, it is a psychology of women in the truest sense, a knowing of the soul.


Creative Kick Starters

I picked up a couple of old favorites and some new reads for a fresh perspective, a pep talk, and a reminder to just keep going.

Big Magic:  Creative Living Beyond Fear

A must read for anyone hoping to live a creative life… I dare you not to be inspired to be brave, to be free, and to be curious.” –PopSugar

From the worldwide bestselling author of Eat Pray Love and City of Girls the path to the vibrant, fulfilling life you’ve dreamed of.

Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s books for years. Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity. With profound empathy and radiant generosity, she offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives. Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the “strange jewels” that are hidden within each of us. Whether we are looking to write a book, make art, find new ways to address challenges in our work, embark on a dream long deferred, or simply infuse our everyday lives with more mindfulness and passion, Big Magic cracks open a world of wonder and joy.


Keep Going:  10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad

In his previous books Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work!, both New York Times bestsellers, Austin Kleon gave readers the keys to unlock their creativity and showed them how to become known. Now he offers his most inspiring work yet, with ten simple rules for how to stay creative, focused, and true to yourself–for life.

The creative life is not a linear journey to a finish line, it’s a loop–so find a daily routine, because today is the only day that matters. Disconnect from the world to connect with yourself–sometimes you just have to switch into airplane mode. Keep Going celebrates getting outdoors and taking a walk (as director Ingmar Bergman told his daughter, “The demons hate fresh air”). Pay attention, and especially pay attention to what you pay attention to. Worry less about getting things done, and more about the worth of what you’re doing. Instead of focusing on making your mark, work to leave things better than you found them.

Keep Going and its timeless, practical, and ethical principles are for anyone trying to sustain a meaningful and productive life.


The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

A succinct, engaging, and practical guide for succeeding in any creative sphere, The War of Art is nothing less than Sun-Tzu for the soul.
What keeps so many of us from doing what we long to do? Why is there a naysayer within? How can we avoid the roadblocks of any creative endeavor-be it starting up a dream business venture, writing a novel, or painting a masterpiece?

Bestselling novelist Steven Pressfield identifies the enemy that every one of us must face, outlines a battle plan to conquer this internal foe, then pinpoints just how to achieve the greatest success. The War of Art emphasizes the resolve needed to recognize and overcome the obstacles of ambition and then effectively shows how to reach the highest level of creative discipline. Think of it as tough love . . . for yourself.Whether an artist, writer or business person, this simple, personal, and no-nonsense book will inspire you to seize the potential of your life.



Write for Life: Creative Tools for Every Writer

Julia Cameron has been teaching the world about creativity since her seminal book, The Artist’s Way, first broke open the conversation around art. Now, in Write for Life, she turns to one of the subjects closest to her heart: the art and practice of writing.

Over the course of six weeks, Cameron carefully guides readers step by step through the creative process. This latest guide in the Artist’s Way Series:

– Introduces a new tool and expands on powerful tried and true methods.
– Gently guides readers through many common creative issues — from procrastinating and getting started, to dealing with doubt, deadlines, and “crazymakers.”
– Will help you reach your goals, whether your project is a novel, poetry, screenplay, standup, or songwriting.

With the learned experience of a lifetime of writing, Cameron gives readers practical tools to start, pursue, and finish their writing project. Write for Life is an essential read for writers who have completed The Artist’s Way and are looking to continue their creative journey or new writers who are just putting pen to paper.


The Creative Fire: Myths and Stories on the Cycles of Creativity

In Search of La Chispa: The Elemental Source of Your Creativity

An expanded edition of the classic on creativity by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, this spoken-word masterpiece guides you through the dark labyrinths of the psyche in search of la chispa–the ember that is the elemental source of all creative work.

Dr. Estés teaches about the hidden aspects of creativity, including the negative complexes that prey upon creative energy. The Creative Fire includes many special insights for people who create for a living: artists, writers, teachers, and others who must depend on their creative instincts every day.



I treated myself to some books that were just fun. Playful books. Silly books. Joy for joy’s sake books.

Fortunately, the Milk

An absolute delight of a madcap story for the young (and young-at-heart) by New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman, with equal parts pirates and piranhas, adventure and aliens, oddity and love.

“I bought the milk,” said my father. “I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: t h u m m t h u m m. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road.”

“Hullo,” I said to myself. “That’s not something you see every day. And then something odd happened.”

Find out just how odd things get in this hilarious story of time travel and breakfast cereal, expertly told by Newbery Medalist and bestselling author Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Skottie Young.



Get to know the only kid on the FBI Director’s speed dial and several international criminals’ most wanted lists all because of his Theory of All Small Things in this hilarious start to a brand-new middle grade mystery series.

So you’re only halfway through your homework and the Director of the FBI keeps texting you for help…What do you do? Save your grade? Or save the country?

If you’re Florian Bates, you figure out a way to do both.

Florian is twelve years old and has just moved to Washington. He’s learning his way around using TOAST, which stands for the Theory of All Small Things. It’s a technique he invented to solve life’s little mysteries such as: where to sit on the on the first day of school, or which Chinese restaurant has the best eggrolls.

But when he teaches it to his new friend Margaret, they uncover a mystery that isn’t little. In fact, it’s HUGE, and it involves the National Gallery, the FBI, and a notorious crime syndicate known as EEL.

Can Florian decipher the clues and finish his homework in time to help the FBI solve the case?


I’m still trekking through the woods, but I’m starting to see the beginnings of a pathway out of the creative darkness. The breadcrumbs left by these books helped me. How about you? What are your go-to reads during tough creative times? I’d love it if you’d share in the comments.