EXTRA Portable Scene Card File

Not long ago, I shared a system I’ve been using as a portable plot book. I’m so in love with it! It involves a business card organizer and blank 2.5″ X 3″ flash cards. One scene per card, the book is divided into four parts (Act 1, Act 2-a, Act 2-b, Act 3), and I can carry it around with me.

The thing is, though, that I noticed I wasn’t carrying it around with me. Because it’s small and portable, but I usually leave it on my desk. And sometimes I find myself with a pocket of time where I can write, and I really wish I had it with me.

So, I came up with this little cutie.


It’s a truly pocket-sized card file that will let me carry 14 scene cards with me. It fits nicely in my notebook, which I really do carry every single place with me. I just clip the top with a binder clip and everything stays where it’s supposed to.

Which means that I have my scene cards AND a means for writing with me all the time.

Perfect, right?

I love it so much that I actually made a couple of them. I use one for business and credit cards.


And one as a habit tracker. I don’t actually bring the habit tracker with me, usually. It hangs by it’s binder clip from the same hook as my weekly docket, where I can see it while I’m working. It’s so simple! I have each part of the WRITER framework on one side and each one of my 7 Super Habits on the other. A couple of times a day, I flip through my little tracker and if I’ve done one of my habits, I flip the card over upside down. Looking through it reminds me to get on with the things I haven’t done.

At night, when I’m setting up my daily docket for the next day, I also review my habit tracker and reset it.


The front and back of the file are made from a deck of vintage animal cards I found at a thrift store. Super cute right?



I have a whole pile of the cards left and I’m experimenting with an Etsy shop and I needed a listing to open it up, so I thought I’d make the card files available to you guys if you’re interested. You can check them out here.

(The shop is going to be slow going at first. We’re just prepping it for when Zach gets to Reno. YAY! But it’s going to have some super fun stuff in it.)

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Ninja Writer’s Academy: A Little Better, A Little Worse


Welcome back to the Ninja Writer’s Academy. In case this is your first time, here’s how it works: every Friday I’ll post a quick writing lesson. You take the weekend to work on it. On Sunday, I’ll hold office hours on Facebook where I’ll answer all of your writing questions. (The time fluctuates because such is the life of a soccer mom, but office hours are usually at noon PST. Make sure to scroll to the bottom of this post to sign up for the academy to get  an email reminder on Sundays.)

I thought that this week I’d share with you an exercise we did during my MFA residency a few weeks ago. This one was taught to me by my mentor Lisa Papademetriou. It’s all about your story’s pacing.

Here’s what I want you to do:

Think about your MC. Put them in some situation in your story.

Let’s say that your MC is a 12-year-old kid who’s running a race at school.

Got it?

Good. Now . . . ask yourself how things could get worse for your MC. Go ahead and make a list. The first five or ten things on your list are going to be pretty run of the mill. Her ankle could twist. She could run out of steam at the last minute. She could be tripped by her worst frenemy.

You get the idea.

But when you’re done with all of those obvious worse things? Keep going. Now things will get interesting. A horse could come galloping through their race. Or a rhinoceros. Or a stegosaurus! They could stop to help that frenemy when she trips and falls. They could find out that the world depended on them winning–and then lose.

Now do the same thing, only think about ways things could get better.

They could see their long-lost sister in the bleachers. They could find that last ounce of strength and win the race. They could find out just before the race starts that their mother is going to recover.

Get all the obvious out of the way and keep going. They could find out at the end of the race that they’ve been chosen for a super secret fast-kid summer camp. They could get a boost of super speed.

Here’s the thing. No story goes straight up or straight down. There are peaks and valleys. Things get better and things get worse.

So your MC, running their race, might fall on the third lap, then get saved by a kid they thought hated them, then twist their ankle just before they reach the finish line, then feel their previously-unknown superpowers kick in.

constantly ask yourself how things could get worse and how things could get better for your MC, and challenge yourself to think beyond the obvious answers.

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know.

Take out your notebook and make a ‘worse’ and ‘better’ list for your MC. If you have a scene that’s you’re struggling with, this is a great way to give it a boost.

Come show work on Facebook.  It can help to get feedback from other writers.

Come hang out with me during office hours. I’ll be online in our Facebook Group on Sunday 2/11/2018 to answer all of your writing questions. Make sure you click the link below to join the mailing list so you get the email about the time of the office hours.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that.

If you’d like to support Ninja Writers, check out our Patreon page.

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The 5 Stages of a Story Idea


If you start telling people that you’re a writer, eventually you’re going to get the question.

You know the one.

Where do you get your ideas?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was, like, a story idea bodega that we could just run down to and pick up a bestselling idea when we need one?

Of course, it doesn’t work that way. But, ideas are kind of magical and they are out there. The key is to be ready for them and to capture them when they show up–without letting them derail the last idea. Because, without fail, I always get a shiny new idea as soon as my current work-in-progress gets hard.

One of my favorite books about the magic of ideas is Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. If you haven’t read it, I really recommend it. She has some interesting thoughts about the sentience of ideas that I really love.

The 5 Stages of a Story Idea

For me, ideas have a very definite five-stage progression that lead from the first inkling through a finished product that’s in the hands of publishing gatekeepers (or is self-published.)

Sometimes it takes years for one to get through all five stage.

I’ll use my upcoming release as an example as I go through them with you.

When my 13-year-old daughter, Ruby, was five years old she was obsessed with superheroes. She loved them. All of them. She used to dress up like a superhero by putting her swimsuit on over her clothes and tying a baby blanket around her neck. We called her Wonder Roo and I filed away the idea of one day writing a Wonder Roo story.

Three or four years ago, I went to Los Angeles to the SCBWI conference with my best friend. While we were there, I was really exposed to the idea of picture book writing for the first time. I was especially in love with a talk that Judy Schachner, who writes and illustrates the Skippyjon Jones books, gave on how she comes up with a scrapbook for each of her books before she writes them.

My little idea seedling took firmer hold that weekend: I wanted to write a book about a little girl named Wonder Roo who loves superheroes. I tossed it around for quite a while. I thought it would be a picture book. Then a chapter book. At one point it was a straight-up YA idea.

Two or three years later, the idea for Wonder Roo finally moved from Brewing to Plotting. I started to plot out an idea that I could use as my MFA project for the semester. This happened super fast, because I had deadlines for school. I moved almost immediately from plotting to writing.

I finished the first draft during the semester and spent a few weeks editing it. Those are stages three and four. And then I submitted it to agents–stage five.

So, that’s five stages. While it might seem like the writing part should take the longest–it usually doesn’t for me. Usually, it’s the early brew that takes the most. Typically, I have four or five ideas in the brewing stage at any given time and no more than one each in the others. But not always one in all of them.

At the most, I might have several ideas brewing, one that I’m plotting, another that I’m writing, another that I’m editing, and another that’s submitting. I never have this many balls in the air, but I guess I could. I often have a book that I’m writing and another that I’m either editing or plotting–the tasks use different parts of my brain and I can work on more than one story at a time if they are in different stages.

On the other hand, I’d have a really hard time writing two stories at the same time. Or plotting two, or editing two.

The five-stages of an idea feels, to me, like everyone’s in the pot, just kind of hanging out and marinating. Brewing away.  And then someone is suddenly ready to move on up into something a little more heavy duty. When idea is ready to be plotted, it’ll spark. The characters will start talking to me, I’ll starting getting inspiration for scenes.

Let’s take the stages one at a time.


I keep a list of potential characters, settings, and situations. Some of them have been there for decades. Maybe one of these days I’ll find a use for the man I saw from a bus window in the early 1990s, praying on his hands and knees by the side of the road beside his muscle car. Or the brothel museum in Virginia City. You never know!

Every once in a while I’ll take a character, a setting, and a situation, and build an idea. I just collect those like some people collect coins or stamps. Each one gets a page in my notebook. I read over them sometimes to see if anything stands out to me. If I get an idea about one of these little idea seeds, I write it on the notebook page so I don’t forget it, but I don’t let it derail me from more active stories.

If I get a bunch of ideas around something that’s brewing, it’s time to move it on up to the plotting stage.


The first thing I do when I’m ready to move forward with a story is something we call H2DSI around here. That’s shorthand for How to Develop (and test) a Story Idea. Basically, I develop the character, setting, and situation more fully, and then come up with five key plot points. I have a ton of ideas sitting at this stage.

I guess this is like brewing-and-a-half.

When I’m ready to go beyond that, I move into real plotting. I have an exercise I love that helps me get inspired. I really develop those five key plot points. I come up with 30 scenes, which is something I learned listening to a talk Walter Dean Myers gave one year at the Vegas Valley Book Festival.

And then I build a plot board and get my scenes on it.

Sometimes a story will stay here for a quite a while, because I don’t write more than one book at a time. I rarely go this far on more than one book at a time. The brewing-and-a-half stage is the waiting place. I might have half a dozen stories there at any given time.


And then I write. Because I’ve done so much plotting, and my personal style happens to be writing a pretty sparse first draft, the writing usually happens rather quickly. When I’m writing the first draft, I have a long-standing (like decades) goal that’s ridiculously small: I write for at least ten minutes a day.

Really,  I just keep writing through to the end. That’s my only goal: get to the end of the first draft. Not necessarily as fast as possible, but with consistent forward motion. This is my least favorite part of the whole process. I love having a finished draft to work on. I’m all about revision. So I just put my head down and make sure I hit my bare minimum goal every day. Most days I write many times more than ten minutes.

Before I get to the editing phase there’s a . . . let’s call it an editing-lite phase. This is where the finished draft rests. Ideally, I don’t look at it again for at least a month. While this is happening, I get more serious about plotting the next thing. Or maybe I start editing something else that’s been in the waiting phase.


Straight up . . . I love editing. It’s my favorite part!

I’m the kind of writer whose first draft is short–sometimes only half or two thirds as long as the finished draft will be. So when I edit, instead of cutting, I have to expand. Some writers are the opposite–they write long and have to cut (sometimes, again, as much as half or a third) to find their story.

There is no right or wrong here. The editing phase is about tightening your story up, making it shine. If I’m going to have beta readers, that happens as part of the editing stage. If I’m workshopping the story, it happens in the editing stage.

After I’ve edited as well as I can, the story goes to submission. In reality, a story kind of rotates between editing and submission some. If the first round of submission doesn’t work, it might come back to edits for more work before going back out. If submission works and I find a publisher, then it definitely goes back to edits again–this time with my editor.

If you’re an indie author, by the way, hopefully, the editing stage is where you hire an editor to help your story shine.


Submission just means sending a story out into the world.

If you’re an indie author, this would be where you actually publish your book.

If you’re a traditionally-published writer or hope to be, you’ll be submitting to agents and/or editors. For a long time, submission for me meant sending query letters to agents. Now that I have an agent and a publisher, it means turning my finished book into them.

There is a huge amount of waiting involved with submission to agents and editors. Weeks, at least. Maybe months. While I wait around for other people to do their part, I go back to the beginning and start all over again.

Always. That’s the key. This system is a perpetual motion machine.

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Ninja Writer’s Academy: Be an Idea Machine


Welcome back to the Ninja Writer’s Academy. In case this is your first time, here’s how it works: every Friday I’ll post a quick writing lesson. You take the weekend to work on it. On Sunday, I’ll hold office hours on Facebook where I’ll answer all of your writing questions. (The time fluctuates because such is the life of a soccer mom, but office hours are usually at noon PST. Make sure to scroll to the bottom of this post to sign up for the academy to get  an email reminder on Sundays.)

About a year ago I came across this post by James Altucher. Basically, he challenges himself to come up with ten ideas a day. He writes a lot more about it in his (amazing) book Choose Yourself. It’s such a simple thought: flex your idea muscle every day. I started writing ten ideas down every night and truly, it’s been life-changing.

But, because it’s what my brain always does, pretty soon I started thinking about how I could adapt the ten ideas a day thing to writing. And the answer was simple: come up with ten ideas a day ABOUT MY WORK IN PROGRESS.

Things like:

Ten reasons my MC might get mad at their mom.
Ten things my MC and their friend might bond over.
Ten things my MC wants to do when they grow up.
Ten problems my sidekick has that make them the hero of their own story.
Ten songs on my antagonist’s playlist.

And so on, and so on, and so on.

Just think about your work in progress. Is there anything you’re having trouble with? How about a plot point you’d like to deepen? Or maybe  a character you want to make more three-dimentional.

Make a list of ten ideas to solve whatever problem you’re having with your story.

My lists are dictated by what I’ve written that day, usually. If I’m struggling with daily writing, my idea list might be a way back into my story. Or maybe I feel stuck in a certain scene and my daily list is a way to start working my way through it.

The thing about lists is that they are fluid and interactive. So if today’s list is ten reasons my MC might get mad at their mom (because I need some conflict there), tomorrow’s list might be ten ways mom might react to MC being mad. Or ten things MC might do about a perceived unforgivable injustice. Or–maybe my list is ten MORE reasons my MC might get mad at their mom. Sometimes the first ten are just getting the obvious out of the way.

James Altucher uses a waiter’s pad to make his lists. I’ve been super tempted to do the same thing, but in the end I realized that I need something a little more permanent. I keep a section in my writing binder for my daily lists.

Do this: 

Start today to make a daily list of ten ideas about your WIP.

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know.

Pick a notebook. Think about a problem you’re having with your WIP. Make a list of ten ideas for solving that problem. Then do it again tomorrow. And the next day. And so on.

Come show work on Facebook.  It can help to get feedback from other writers.

Come hang out with me during office hours. I’ll be online in our Facebook Group on Sunday 2/11/2018 to answer all of your writing questions. Make sure you click the link below to join the mailing list so you get the email about the time of the office hours.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that.

If you’d like to support Ninja Writers, check out our Patreon page.


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Systems that Work for Writers: One Notebook


This week I want to introduce you to another system that has really worked for me in the last year or so. It’s pretty simple, really: keeping a single notebook, instead of having multitudes of half-used notebooks laying around all the time.

In 2017, I used this Marquis 300-page grid notebook. (Mostly, because it’s the notebook Austin Kleon uses.) I enjoyed it so much–just always having one notebook. I wrote every note to myself for a whole year in that thing. Recipes, grocery lists, to do lists, story notes, rough drafts, notes at conferences. And I’d just go through it once a month or so and transfer anything that needed to be transferred–like recipes into a more accessible recipe file or quotes from a conference into my commonplace book.

I started to use a fresh copy of the same notebook for 2018–but I realized that I needed to actually evaluate it first. For one thing, I’m not Austin Kleon. He’s an artist who writes. I’m a writer who isn’t an artist at all. And as much as I enjoyed this particular notebook in 2017, and it was such a revelation to just have one notebook, it’s not the easiest to write in. It’s so thick that you have to kind of prop one end up so that the other will lay flat.

For another thing, not everything I wrote down in a year really needed to be immortalized in a ginormous notebook. The purpose of the thick notebook in the first place is so that I can just use ONE for the whole year. But I realized as I looked back through my one notebook from 2017 that a lot of the notes I took were just taking up space. Some I never need to look at again, like grocery lists or to-do lists.

I decided what I needed was one notebook COVER that could hold a couple things. I looked and looked for one at a thrift store because that’s  how I roll. I finally put one in my cart on Amazon when nothing just right presented itself. And then I came across a really gorgeous cover at Goodwill for $3. I mean, it is completely perfect.

It’s an orange leather classic-sized (about 9″ X 7″) Franklin Covey cover for a spiral planner. When it’s full, it’s about 2 inches thick. It came without the planner, which is fine because I don’t want the planner, and I would have felt guilty about getting rid of it.



I have been carrying it in my purse. It is slightly bulky, but so far that hasn’t bothered me.  I’m a tote-bag kind of girl. If you’re a cute-little-purse kind of girl, you’ll have a steeper adjustment!

Literally, everything I need is inside this one notebook, so it’s pretty much the only thing IN my bag. My notebook, phone, keys. If I want to go out without my bag, I just stick my driver’s license and debit card (or whatever I need) in my phone case. I keep a little pocketmod tucked into my phone case, too, so I’m never without something to write on.

Left Side

On the left side of my notebook, there’s a pen holder, a flat pocket, a secretarial pocket, a series of card slots, and a slit pocket for a notebook. I wanted an extra pen holder, so I whipped out my glue gun and I made one out of a little elastic and a binder clipleft-side

I keep my favorite pen, a Pilot Frixion gel pen. In the homemade pen holder, I keep an Expo Vis-a-Vis wet erase marker and one of my special favorite pencils–a Blackwing 602. I love to write by hand and I’m fairly picky about my writing implements. The pencils are pricey–they were a gift from my brother that I will definitely buy again when I’ve used all twelve down to nubs. I’ll show you in a minute why I keep a wet erase marker in my notebook. I like wet erase over dry erase because it absolutely does not smear and because it has a much finer tip and writes like a regular fine-point Sharpie-style pen. And the Frixion pens are like magic to me.


In the flat pocket, which is just to the right of the Frixion pen, I keep a few index cards clipped with a binder clip. A super basic Hipster PDA. I use them if I come across something that I want to put into my Commonplace Book. I also use them if I need to write something down for someone else.


In the secretarial pocket, I keep a little insert left over from when I tried (again) a traveler’s notebook system that just didn’t work for me. I keep some cards that I want with me but don’t use often–like health insurance cards. It also has a zipper pocket I can use for money, stamps, tickets, etc.


I keep the cards that I use more regularly (driver’s license, a credit card, my Movie Pass, and my Costco card) in the card slots. I also keep some tab clips attached to the top of the card slots. I can use those if I want to mark a page in my notebook.

In the notebook slot on the left side, I keep a NuBoard dry erase notebook. At $17 it was the most expensive part of my notebook, but for me it’s indispensable. This little thing is ingenious. It has four sheets of whiteboard and five sheets of acetate. I can use it for things like to-do lists and grocery lists that I have no reason to keep beyond their usefulness. I use it on a daily basis and it should last me for several years.  I love that it has a plain black front sheet. There’s a corner elastic that I use to just keep all the pages closed. The black sheet keeps things private when I’m whipping out my Movie Pass or whatever.



If a $17 whiteboard notebook isn’t in your budget right now, you could just leave it out.

Right Side

The right side of my notebook cover has two side notebook slots and one top notebook slot.

In the first side notebook slot, I keep my main notebook. It’s a Fabriano Eqoqua A5-sized notebook with dot grid paper. It’s not as thick as the one I used for 2017. In fact, at 90 pages it’s less than 1/3 the size. I think with the other tools in my notebook, it’ll last me all year, or at least most of the year. If it doesn’t–that’s okay. The point isn’t so much to have only one book, it’s to just use one book at a time.


Full disclosure: this notebook is a little weird. I love the paper inside. It has a nice feel. But for some reason the spine of the cover isn’t attached to the spine of the paper–which means the pages fall out easily. I got this a while back at Ross for about $5. I just used my glue gun and attached the spine to the cover and it’s fine now. Any soft-cover A5 sized notebook you have or come across would be fine here. (I don’t think you’d want a hardcover bulking your notebook up.)

I keep a 5X8 index card clipped to the inside of the front cover to use as an index for my notebook.


In the second side notebook slot, I keep a cheap little monthly calendar. I think it cost $2 at Wal-Mart. It’s nice to have a calendar with me. Also, though, I use it to write down appointments that come up when I’m away from home. I highlight the note when I transfer it to my planner so that I know that it’s done.


And last, I keep a mini-legal pad in the  top-loading slot. Mostly, I just have a thing for yellow legal pads. I have since I was ten years old and Tomie DePaola came to my school for an author visit and talked about writing his stories in one with a Sharpie marker. The cover had a slot for it, so I put one in. I’m not sure what I’ll use it for and it will probably last me all year.

That’s it. A kind of cobbled together One Notebook system that’s only One Notebook by technicality if you count the cover as the actual book. This notebook was obviously designed to hold a LOT. With all that in it, it closes easily and could hold more.


I’m not big on being super decorative with things like planners and notebooks. I know that to some people they are art. But I just needed mine to be functional. I like pretty things though! So I was really happy to find a thrift store binder that I would have chosen even if I was picking it brand new.

I would like to point out that while I was about to buy a new notebook cover out of impatience, it really only took me about three weeks and four trips to Goodwill to find one. And I found a couple that would have been okay but weren’t exactly what I wanted. One of them I went ahead and bought to use for something else because it was so pretty and only cost $1 or so. It just wasn’t big enough for what I wanted to do.


If you can’t find a thrifted cover, here’s the one that I had in my cart. It costs $17.

You could obviously spend a fortune putting together your own One Notebook. A similar Franklin Covey leather cover can cost more than $100 and you could easily spend $30 on a notebook.

I tried to keep my costs down as much as possible. Here’s what I spent:

Cover: $3
Notebook: $5
NuBoard Notebook: $17
Calendar: $2
Pens/yellow pad/index cards: I already had them.

So that’s $27, with the NuBoard Notebook and only $10 without it. (But if you can swing the $17, that little notebook is so cool.)

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Ninja Writers Academy: Build a Portable Plot Book


Now that I can come up for air–my edits are in, my copy edits are done–I realized it  was time to revive my favorite part of Ninja Writers. The Academy.

The Ninja Writers Academy works like this: On Fridays, I’ll post a concise lesson. You can work on it on Friday and Saturday, and on Sunday I’ll hold office hours. The thing about being a soccer/basketball mom is that sometimes it’s super hard to make set-in-stone weekend plans. So I’ll email everyone who has signed up for the academy on Sunday morning to tell them what time office hours will start.

During office hours, you can come to Facebook and ask questions about the lesson or about anything to do with fiction writing. I’ll answer them all in real time!

Office hours is my favorite. So fun!

This week, I want to walk you guys through building a Portable Plot Book. It’s something like a plot board–only you can slip it into your bag. I’m absolutely in love with mine.

I’m going to share with you exactly what I used to set mine up, then give some ideas for how you might be able to set it up a little cheaper or with things you have on hand or can get at your local Big Box Store without waiting on Amazon to deliver stuff to you.

Here’s a little video walk through I made for you:

I bought this Deli business card binder for about $10. It’s a good, sturdy book with a nice hand feel, if you know what I mean. It feels good to use. It came with five dividers and twenty sheets that will each hold six 3X2.5 cards. (That’s a standard business or credit card.) It’s ring bound, which is awesome because it lets me configure the book the way I want to. And I take all the pages out if I ever want to see my book laid out all at once.

I actually liked the book so well that I went ahead and bought another one.

I also bought a box of 1100 3X2.5 inch flashcards that came in five colors. The color coding appeals to me. And since the book holds 120 cards and I anticipate that for my purposes that will encompass all the scenes I want to plot out in a single book, that’s about 9 books. If I turn the cards over and use the other side, that’s 18 books, and that’s pretty close to a lifetime supply, I guess. The cards cost about $13.

Here’s a quick and dirty video walk through of my Portable Plot Book.

There are four important parts to a Portable Plot Book: The binder, the dividers, the pages, and the cards. I’m going to share some ideas for each one.

The Binder

If you have a business card binder of any kind laying around, it will work. The moveable pages are nice, but if you’re short on funds, not necessary. I’ve seen these a zillion times at Goodwill and other thrift stores for a dollar or two. In fact, they’re on my list now to actively look for.

In fact, just today I ran into Goodwill and found this little 24-card holder for 49 cents. It’s small for a whole book, but if you write picture books or chapter books, it would work. Or if you just wanted to hold one act in it at a time. Just keep your eyes open!


You could also use a 5X8 three-ring mini-binder. You can buy one at just about any big box store or on Amazon for about $5. I’ll talk about  the inserts for them in a minute. It’s a little less portable, because of the size and bulk, but big enough that you can either hold lots of cards for a big story OR hold the cards for several stories in one place.

You also get a 4X6 six-ring pocket binder or use one if you happen to have one on hand.

The Dividers

If you use a ringed or disc-bound binder, you can almost certainly find dividers to fit it. You’ll need five for each book (so if you’re going to use a larger mini-binder and want to store two books worth of plotting in it, you’ll need ten dividers.)

You can make your own dividers out of stuff you already have.

You can buy stick on tabs for about $3 to turn regular sheets of paper or the first card page in each section into a divider.


There are business card holder inserts available  for mini-binders. Each one holds 12 cards instead of 6, so you’d probably only need two packs of 5 (that would give you two sheets or 24  cards in each section.) The inserts cost about $3.50 for a package of five. The good thing about this system is that if you’re writing something epic and long, or you just like to plan on a more micro-level, you can add more pages.

I found this on Amazon: A set of 20 pages for a pocket-sized 6-ring binder for $7.


If you have a box of leftover business cards laying around, just use the back sides of them.

You can cut 4X6 index cards in half lengthwise, then widthwise and make four 2X3 cards that are a little smaller than a business card, but still work. You can buy 500 4X6 index cards for about $6, which will give you 2000 cards or, again, basically a lifetime supply.

Set Ups

Mine: $23

Disc-bound business card binder with dividers and pages: $10

1100 flash cards in five colors: $13

Super Cheap: $7

An mini binder you already have.

DIY Dividers

If you don’t have pages, you’ll have to buy them for about $7.

Business cards or cut-down 4X6 index cards that you have stuck in a drawer somewhere. You could even just cut down sheets of printer paper, although it might be hard to get them in the slots.

Wal-Mart Version: $17

A mini-binder: $5

A pack of stick on divider tabs: $3

Two packs of mini-binder business card inserts: $7

A pack of 4X6 index cards: $2 for 100

Do this: 

Put together your own Portable Plot Book!

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know.

Put together your Portable Plot Book, then come share your work on Facebook.  It can help to get feedback from other writers.

Come hang out with me during office hours. I’ll be online in our Facebook Group on Sunday 2/4/2018 to answer all of your writing questions. Make sure you click the link below to join the mailing list so you get the email about the time of the office hours.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that.

If you’d like to support Ninja Writers, check out our Patreon page.

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Systems that Work for Writers: The Ninja Writer Dockets


You may have noticed that I haven’t posted in a while.

To be honest, I’ve been holding on by my fingernails for months. For good reasons. I’m in the last semester of my MFA and I sold a book in July (!!) But the result, regardless, was a heavy course load and the edits of my book all coming at the same time.

Plus, I have a kid who plays soccer and basketball, a family that needs at least basic meals and clean laundry, parents-in-law in my basement apartment who both have dementia. A dog who wants to be walked fairly regularly. You get the idea.

In the last couple of months I’ve been fairly obsessed with figuring out some systems that will help me get all my stuff done. Really help me. Not just look pretty.

I’ve learned a few things thanks to that obsession:

  1. I’m great at filling out planners–in the beginning.
  2. I won’t actually open a planner during the day to refer to it.
  3. Eventually, I won’t even fill it out at all.
  4. I have zero time for an artistic planner, no matter how much my maker’s heart yearns to BuJo.
  5. I need to see, in my face, what I have on my list to do everyday. In. My. Face.

I’ve actually come up with a few things that have come together into a whole-life system that helped me get my edits AND my MFA packets all in on time over the last six months. Go me!

I’m going to share all of them with you in the next few weeks. Today, I just want to share ONE. (Well, two. But really two halves of one, so who’s counting?) Read all the way down to see how you can get your own Dockets!

The Dockets

I was a paralegal for a long time. To me, a docket is a list of all the things that have to be addressed TODAY. I’m taking some liberty with that and saying that while docket one is for TODAY, docket two is for THIS WEEK.

The Daily Docket

The Daily Docket is a single page, printed just in two columns on one side. It gives me an at-a-glance overview of my entire day all at once.


Left Side:

The date.

Today’s Focus is a box that lets me choose ONE non-negotiable for the day. The one thing I’ll do, even if the whole day derails. (It happens.) If I have some kind of deadline, that goes in the focus box.

Today’s Priorities is a space to prioritize three goals for the day.

Today’s Scene is a space to write down what I plan to write for the day.

Finally I have a little checklist that I lightly revised from James Altucher’s (amazing) book Choose Yourself. It’s just a list of 8 things that make my life run better if I manage to do them. Everything from sleeping enough to managing anxiety.

Right Side:

The right side is almost entirely taken up with a TaDa List. A TaDa List is a magical thing. Just list everything you need to do today. I have a list of a few things that I try to do everyday that I just pre-print on my docket. Then there’s room for more. I look at my planner the night before and just transfer any appointments, practices, etc. over. I also transfer anything that I didn’t get finished the day before. Trust me, if you make yourself write ‘put away the laundry’ enough days in the row you’ll do it just to stop having to write it.

And at the very bottom, a space to write down what’s for dinner that night.

The Weekly Docket

The weekly docket is laid out the same as the daily: a single side of one piece of paper, divided into two columns.  ninja-writerweekly-docket

Left Side:

The date.

A section to write the next steps for my Big 6  Goals for 2018. I don’t write the goals–just the steps I want to finish in the upcoming week.

A checklist for the WRITER framework. I try to Write for 10 minutes, Read for 10 minutes, Ideate (write down 10 ideas, another James Altucher idea. Really, read Choose Yourself), Talk to someone I don’t live with, Exercise for 10 minutes, and Review my day before I go to bed. There’s space for marking off when I’ve done each thing, each day.

And lastly, a space to write down a meal plan for the whole week.

Right Side: 

The right side of the page is a week-at-a-glance calendar. I don’t write EVERYTHING on the docket. Usually just things that I know are on the schedule–like sports practices and games, school breaks, doctor’s appointments, etc. I’m mostly looking at the shape of my week here. On Sunday nights I look at my planner and transfer the pertinent stuff over.

There you have it.

I keep my Weekly Dockets on a clipboard hanging on the wall near where I work. And the daily dockets on padfolio that has a clipboard on the front. (I’m able to keep a whole month’s worth clipped to the front of the padfolio with no problem.) Everyday I just take off the current day’s docket and fill out the next day’s.

I linked to the right kind of padfolio on Amazon. I bought mine at Target for about $8 and I just today saw one at Wal-Mart for less than $5. You want one with the clipboard on the inside and a pad of paper and a pocket on the inside. You can take notes and keep things that you need for the day inside the padfolio.

I make a Pocket Mod booklet out of each day’s docket when I’m done with it and use it the next day to take down notes or doodle on whatever. Just make sure to fold it so that the printing is on the inside.

You might be asking yourself how writing down my stuff three times (in my planner, on the Weekly Docket, and on the Daily Docket) is an efficient use of my time. The truth is that I WISH I could use a planner efficiently. That I could write everything down and actually look at my planner throughout the day. Or that I could use a digital planner. (For me, digital is even worse. Out of sight is definitely out of mind. Ask my kids some time how I do with text messages.)

But I can’t.

And, hand writing things cements them in my brain. Even though it’s a little bit of repetition of work, it saves me a lot of time because I’m NEVER scrambling. And I actually get things done. It’s kind of like a budget–for my time.

Want your own Dockets?

I’m super excited to let you know that I’ll be offering Daily and Weekly Docket printables to Ninja Writer Patreon Patrons at the $10 and above level every month. (Your weekly docket will have a completely blank TaDa list, so you can totally customize it to your schedule.) Since February is month one, I’m releasinging the February dockets out on January 31.

Starting in February, I’ll send the next months dockets out on the 20th of each month. (So, on February 20th, patrons will get March’s dockets.) Patrons will also get a printable February FRED.

My goal is to add to the printable packet that goes out to $10 and above Patrons over the next year. I’m pretty excited with the ideas we’re noodling around with. In March I’ll be adding a monthly calendar just for writers.

This a organizational tool especially designed for writers. I hope you love it as much as I do.

Head on over to Patreon and get signed up if you’d like your printable packet. You’ll have access to it no matter when you sign up.

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The One Thing You Need to be a Successful Indie Author

Okay, I’m not going to draw this out. I hope you’ll read the rest, because I’m on fire with this whole thing.

The one thing: a serious, serious work ethic.

If anyone ever tells you that they have an easy path to being an indie author they are lying. LYING.

I’ve learned more about indie publishing in the last two weeks than I’ve learned — ever.

The kind of learning that’s left me wandering around muttering, “What in the world is happening.”

And, “This is all insane.”

And, “If they can do it, so can I.”

What I thought.

I’ve known for a long time that I was going to at least give self-publishing a try.

I have books written that didn’t sell traditionally.

I have a series that ends on a cliffhanger, that I won’t be able to finish up with a traditional publisher.

But, if I’m being totally honest, I’ve been struggling with the idea.

No matter how many times I told myself it wasn’t true, indie publishing after being published by a big New York publisher (Penguin) felt like a massive and ugly step backward.

But, I was going to do it.


Let’s just say that I have FIVE books written. Two half written.

I think the technical term for what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years is ‘spinning my wheels.’ Or, maybe, ‘being a big fat chicken shit.’

When I’ve thought about indie publishing, my idea was that I’d just follow the model of traditional publishing — sans publisher. In fact, I thought I’d be super prolific and put out two books a year.

I’d write whatever I wanted (freedom!) and ask everyone I knew and this email list I’ve kicked my own butt building to buy it. And then hope for the best.

Let’s call that the ‘fingers crossed’ method of publishing. It’s the way traditional publishing goes, mostly, and the way that many writers who transition to indie approach it.

What’s real.

What I’ve learned in the last couple of weeks is that, holy crap, I had it all wrong. All. Wrong.

Publishing isn’t about luck.

It’s not some magic formula where the God of literature looks down and picks you.

It’s just this: a really good story, written in a genre that has a lot of readers who don’t have quite enough of what they love to read, some marketing that isn’t nearly as difficult as I’d thought it was.

This new world of indie publishing (or at least new to me) is so exciting because it is so, so centered on story. And story is where I live. I’m a writer, but that’s really just the way I’ve chosen to be a storyteller.

In order to make sense of the vast quantity of information I’ve been learning, I’ve narrowed the whole process down to six steps.

The steps seem to be:

    1. While you’re doing all the rest, build an email list of readers who read your genre.
    2. Write a compelling, addictive story that continues over multiple books. (AKA a series.)
    3. Repeat step two. A LOT. What traditional publishing would consider prolific (one or two books a year) doesn’t scratch the surface. You need to publish at least once every 90 days if you’re going indie. Every 60 days is better.
    4. Write as well as possible, but remember it’s more about the story than the presentation between the covers.
    5. Except when it comes to a cover. You need a cover that A) fits your genre and B) is professionally designed.
    6. You also need a really good blurb and sample chapter, plus an understanding of Amazon key words and categories.
    7. Selling your book, in the first days, to readers who read your genre — so that Amazon can find other readers like them to market your book to.
    8. A slow build up of sales, instead of a fast burst of everyone you know, followed by a drop off. Amazon will interpret that burst as an anomaly (which it is.)

There’s more. Like formatting. And how to actually get your book onAmazon or any other platform. Whether or not you should let Amazon sell your book exclusively, or ‘go wide’ (which means putting your book on lots of platforms.) And . . . I can’t even. A lot of stuff.

Moving parts. There are a lot of them.

But those are the big eight. They’re a starting point, anyway. And they make sense.

I’m an utter newbie, still wiping the traditional publishing out of my eyes, who has been walking around with her brain cracked like an egg for the last weeks.

It’s been a long, long time since any part of writing felt new and exciting to me.

Here are some resources you can start with, so that your brain, too, can be cracked like an egg.

Some books: (The first one is a MUST if you’re going to wrap your head around that book-every-60-days thing.)


Some websites and podcasts:

Doing what I always do.

I’m going to implement all the exciting, sort of scary, overwhelmingly awesome stuff I’m learning.

That’s right. I’m going to dive into an experiment.

Bryan Harris would call this learning out loud, because I’m absolutely bringing you with me.

I have three books already written in a paranormal romance series. I went looking through my email, trying to figure out when I started working on it. Back when romance was my main genre. I found an email I sent to my long-time critique partner — in 2010.

So seven years.

If you asked, oh, two weeks ago, I’d have told you that I don’t write romance anymore. But I managed to write three full books over the last seven years. I love the world I’ve created. The love story.

It’s a good experiment. I only need an edit and a cover for each book. The heavy lifting is done. I can practice being prolific, because the work is already done. They fit squarely in a genre that has a lot of readers. And I love the stories enough to keep going if my experiment is successful.

So — first steps.

In case you want to play along. Maybe experiment yourself.

I’ve uploaded a book to Instafreebie, to start building an email list of people who enjoy reading paranormal romance. Keeper is actually the first novel I ever sold. The rights reverted to me a few months ago. So, perfect.

You can download it here. It’s free. It would help me out a lot — especially if you read paranormal romance regularly.

I’m not sure about you. But for me? All of this is insanely complicated and full of moving parts I barely understand. I’m excited to dig in and figure it out. And I’m super excited, if I can make it work, to share the process with you.

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You don’t suck. You just haven’t practiced enough.

I want you to do something for me.

Think about something you really suck at. I mean, something that you are 100 percent sure you were born without the gene for.

Got it?

Here’s mine: dancing.

Now ask yourself this question.

How much time have you spent as an adult doing that thing?

My answer: Maybe ten hours. Total. And four of those were last month in Nashville. One hundred percent of them were after I’d had a drink or three.

Now, think about something you’re really good at. Something you’re confident you just were born to do.

Here’s mine: cooking.

Now ask yourself the same question.

How much time have you spent as an adult doing that thing?

My answer: An average of at least an hour every single day. That’s very close to 10,000 hours in the years between 18 and 45.

Do you see where I’m going here?

It’s ridiculous to judge how good you are at something without taking into consideration the amount of practice you have doing it.

Every month I release a digital product or program for the people who support the Ninja Writers on Patreon at the $3 level or more.

In May 2017, that thing is a Medium Post-a-Day Challenge. There’s a Facebook Group where people who take up the challenge can share links to their daily posts, ask questions, connect with each other.

My plan is to just keep it going. Anyone who wants to can become a patron and join us, anytime. We don’t all have to be at the same place in our challenge.

I’m pretty excited about this whole thing. Really, as excited as I’ve been about anything for a long time. (And trust me, I get excited a lot. Ninja Writers is an exciting thing, all around, so that’s saying something.)

Here’s why: I love that I’m going to be able to be part of watching a whole bunch of awesome writers bloom.

A Post-a-Day Challenge is one of those things that is such a stretch that you won’t be able to help but see progress as it happens. Like when I go to the gym with my husband and his friend and lift weights. Every time I do it, I can tell I’ve gotten stronger, because I can lift more than I could before.

I’m always operating at close to capacity when I lift weights, so there is zero doubt when progress happens.

That’s the same with this challenge.

Also, it’ll be at least thirty hours of practice writing for an audience.

I told you. Exciting!

True Story

No one is born good at anything but bodily functions. And some of us even have to learn how to be good at those.

Obviously, someone who writes for an hour a day is going to be a better writer than someone who spends an hour a day really thinking hard about being a writer.

One wasn’t born proficient and the other born a loser.

Don’t write one book, then decide you suck if it doesn’t light the world on fire. Write ten books. And keep learning with each one. You’ll become a better writer. You won’t have any choice. It’ll just happen.

And then keep writing.

You don’t get to say “I’m a crap writer” if you haven’t put 10,000 hours into it. You haven’t given yourself the opportunity to know.

You can say that you don’t want to put 10,000 hours into it. That’s something else entirely.

I’d like to be a musician, but I’m not willing to put in the time. I’d like to learn to speak Spanish fluently, but I’m not willing to put in the time. Or at least, so far, I haven’t been willing.

Know what?

I’ve said, “I’m just not a musician.”(Maybe 10 total hours practice since age 18.)

Also, “I suck at languages. My brain doesn’t work that way.” (Maybe 50 total hours practice since age 18.)

I’m totally confident in my writing ability. (At least 10,000 total hours practice time. Probably closer to 30,000.)

It’s time to retrain my thinking. No more deciding I’m not good at something that I’ve never learned to do.

You, too.

Write every single day. Just do it. You’ll see, quickly, what I’m talking about.

Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. — Ray Bradbury (My life’s motto.)

You’ll get faster. You’ll get better. You’ll start to enjoy it more.

And your confidence will grow.

You’ll believe you’re a better writer. BECAUSE YOU WILL BE.

Ready? Join the Post-a-Day Challenge here.

Or you can get started for free with the Anti-Blogging for Creatives mini-course.

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Want this? Free Anti-Blogging for Creatives Course.

sketch drawing UX creative highlighter pens pencils iphone mobile technology mac business office desk mouse hands working

After I wrote this post about why I think that most bloggers come at it backward, a bunch of people emailed me and asked for help figuring it out.

So . . .I’ve created a little five-email course. It’s a mini version of a much larger Anti-Blogging for Creatives (ABC) thing I’m working on that will be ready this summer.

I was planning on making it a reward for my Patreon patrons.

What I’ve decided to do, though, is give it free to any of you who are interested. And then the May patron reward will be access to a private Facebook group in May for a Medium Post-a-Day Challenge.

Posting everyday for 30 days worked so well for me, that I’ve extended my own experiment to 90 days. And I’m beyond excited to have you join me.

So, I created this free course.

Mostly because I don’t want anyone who wants that little course to miss it.

And because ABC is all about putting your effort and funds into a decent email list, and writing here on Medium, instead of into designing and hosting a website.

And because a big part of it is how to use ConvertKit to start to grow your email list and ConvertKit is offering a free month right now, which is pretty rare for them.

It’s part of a free course they’re hosting, which is all about creating a digital product. If you’re interested in that, the course looks awesome. And I just got an email today that says that they’ll feature any finished product on their site, which is awesome.

But, even if you’re not into product creation…

Go ahead and sign up so you can get the free month of ConvertKit.

And then sign up for Anti-Blogging for Creatives. You’ll get the first email on April 24. It’ll show up in your email inbox. (Don’t forget this step!)

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