Longhand NaNoWriMo?

This year, NaNoWriMo (AKA National Novel Writing Month, AKA November) is going to be different for me. I thought I was crazy to try to write a 50,000-word novel in one month in previous years, but this time, I really am a glutton for punishment. I’m working full-time for the first time in almost eight years, and November concerns me a teensy bit. I’m not worried at all about having a 50,000-word idea. In fact, I already have a novel idea for next year, too. What I’m worried about is not having enough hours in the day to get that idea on paper.

If you’ve read my recent posts, you know I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo in July, but although I met my word count goal, I didn’t finish that particular novel in July or even later in the summer. I hoped to finish the first draft by the end of September, giving me October to edit my 2013 and 2014 NaNoWriMo novels (which are the first two books of the trilogy that I will complete this year). But I can no longer carry my MacBook with me wherever I go and write in my spare time. I’ve had to squeeze all my writing into a few minutes after my kids go to bed and on the weekends. At the end of September, I dutifully (but regretfully) set Camp NaNoWriMo aside and started editing.

Then one day recently I had a stroke of genius – I can still write longhand. Actually, aside from the inconvenience of having to read and then type my sloppy scrawl, I prefer writing that way. Research shows that writing longhand (particularly cursive, which is how I write) makes what we write stick in our brains better than when we type. It’s how I took all my notes in college, in the dark ages before students carried tablets and laptops to every class. I rarely read over those notes after taking them; it was in the taking that the magic happened.

I used to carry a massive folder of loose pages – a novel in progress – with me everywhere, writing when I could. And then, I went back with a pen and edited over my hand-written draft. A guy in my fiction workshop saw me doing this once and marveled that I still “actually wrote longhand.” Gasp! Can you imagine? This was still the early 2000s, folks. He would really flip out now, but I’m excited to employ this method again – something I’ve hardly done at all since 2011.

You might think that there’s no possible way to write longhand and still validate a 50,000-word novel with NaNoWriMo, but they have a specific guideline for just this issue (read it here). Would it be a bit of a pain to keep track that way? Sure. But it’s possible. And who knows – maybe something magical will happen if I write this novel (or a good portion of it) by hand. It’s certainly a more laborious process, but it’s better than the alternative – letting my ideas fade because there’s not a word processing program nearby, losing the thread of my novel in the absence of technology.

As for Camp NaNoWriMo’s novel, I’m still working on it, pulling a pad of paper out of my purse and adding to it one sentence at a time. I may not be able to finish it until after November, but as long as I carry a writing implement and paper with me, I’m ready when inspiration strikes.

I am excited about NaNoWriMo. I know I’ll at least be able to type on November first, and maybe I’ll make up for the time I miss during the week on weekends (and our super long Thanksgiving break – yay!). My fingers are crossed, and I’m ready to go. Maybe I’ll even regain the mark of the writer, my good old friend, the callous on the finger where my pencil rests.

The Return of the Callous

The Return of the Callous

Steady Now, Inner Critic

It’s official: September is more than halfway over, and fall is on its way (even if it’s still in the 80s where I live). Pumpkin spice everything is available now, and our local warehouse store started displaying Halloween decorations several weeks ago.

It’s time for me to start thinking about this year’s National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo.

Last year, I had lots of goals going into November. My NaNoWriMo 2014 book was going to be the sequel to 2013’s novel. But before I could start writing the sequel, I had to finish revising the first one. This was particularly important because I needed to change the ending. In order to know how to start the second book, I had to know what happened at the end of the first. I revised NaNoWriMo 2013 up to the last minute – actually past the last minute; I finished on November first and immediately started writing the second book, barely giving myself a second to breathe. This can’t-catch-my-breath feeling continued throughout the month.

This year, I don’t want to stress myself out like that. It’s going to be hard enough to meet the 50,000-word minimum as it is. So if you know me, you know I have a plan.

No matter what, I am setting October aside for NaNo 2014 revisions. That gives my beta readers time to read – but even if they’re not done, I’ll go ahead and spend my month editing and prepping.

What that means for the remainder of September, though, is that I’ve got to get moving on my Camp NaNoWriMo novel. In case you missed my summer posts, I got the writing bug something fierce in July and dug through my old manuscripts until I found one with some promise. It was just a jumble of unconnected scenes with a loose outline at the time, something I would pull out and work on every once in a while. During July, it became a much more cohesive story as I filled in new scenes to connect all the old ones.

Having a number of scenes already written was a huge help. I always knew where I was going next. But then there came the day when I wrote up to the last scene that I’d already written. I had this sinking feeling, like: That’s it? Didn’t I write more than this? But no, I was on my own. And even though I knew where the story was going, my mind wanted very much to transition into editor mode and start fixing what I’d already written.

And in this way, many of my manuscripts have fizzled out and died.

I couldn’t let this happen this time. Often, when I have trouble moving on with a story, it’s because I just can’t get it right. That’s the trouble with perfectionists. But the wonderful thing about NaNoWriMo is that you have a deadline. There’s no time for perfectionism. You just have to get the job done. And even though I met my Camp NaNoWriMo goal in July, I still need to employ that NaNoWriMo urgency and finish this manuscript.

I found this the other day, and it was just what I needed to hear at the time:

James Thurber Quote

If I had an office, I would have one of these posted on each wall because when self-doubt sets in, it’s easy to pull the writer’s block card and quit. One of the easiest ways for a manuscript to go from boiling to tepid is to decide you need to start editing when you’re stuck in a tough spot. Maybe if I edit for a while, I’ll get my groove back. Hey, it sometimes happens, but often, it’s exactly what it sounds like: an excuse to stop writing.

Just this week, when thinking about one of the thin spots in my plot – one of the places I knew my beta readers would pick apart – I had an epiphany that solved the problem. But this epiphany came when I was already 78,000 words deep into my novel. I’m going to have to weave this new info in and cut a lot of the old out to make it work, and I don’t have time for that right now. Instead of worrying about it, I silenced my inner critic by going back to the first page of my story and writing a two-word reminder in red. When I go back to revise, there it will be, screaming at me to make this massive change. (Of course, from this point on, I’ll be writing as if I’ve already made this change, so if anyone were to read my first draft, it would be extremely confusing. A reminder why no one but the author should ever be subjected to a first draft.)

As of this moment, I know where my story is going. I just have to help it get there. It may be sloppy and full of holes. It may be some of the worst writing I’ve even put on paper, but I can’t let myself worry about that now. October first is coming quickly, and November first will be right on its heels. This year, I vow to be ready and excuse-free.

Camp NaNoWriMo Recap

Camp NaNoWriMo 2015 Winner

This time last year, I never would have thought of participating in Camp NaNoWriMo. I was too concerned with having enough material for NaNoWriMo in November to use up all of my creativity in July. But of course, a year before that, I never would have thought I would participate in National Novel Writing Month to begin with. Write 50,000 words in one month? It seemed like the kind of thing that crazy people with no life would do.

So I guess I’m a crazy person with no life.

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I participated in NaNoWriMo 2013. I didn’t even decide to do it until the weekend before November 1st. I never expected to actually write 50,000 words, but I wrote much more than that. In 2014, I signed up for NaNoWriMo again, and although it wasn’t nearly as easy the second time, I wrote the sequel to the 2013 novel, and I plan to write the third book of the trilogy this November.

Camp NaNoWriMo, which is a more laidback version of NaNoWriMo, takes place in both April and July. Instead of writing a 50,000-word novel from scratch, you simply declare your writing project goal for the month and then try to complete it. The minimum word count is 10,000, and you can even work on something that’s not a novel. April was a no for me both times because I was in the middle of editing the previous Novembers’ novels. But if you read my recent summer writing post, you already know that things changed for me this summer.

After finishing the latest revision of my 2014 novel, I gave my Muse a few days’ rest, but then she came back, apparently ready to get to work on a manuscript that’s been kicking around since 2009. It’s a story that I would add a scene to every once in a while, but I probably hadn’t opened the document in two to three years. After reading through everything I had – a little under 17,000 words at the time – I realized that I was ready to fill in the missing scenes, maybe even finish it.

I started writing, and much like my NaNoWriMo 2013 experience, it was like to direct the wall of water after the dam has broken. Then I realized that it was July, and if I was going to be writing anyway, I might as well declare my intentions officially by participating in Camp NaNoWriMo. When I signed up on July 9th, I was already at 20,000 words. Just in case the ideas petered out, I gave myself what seemed a pretty easy goal of 35,000 words total. That meant I only had to write 15,000 more in order to succeed. There were a couple days when it felt like I might be pushing it, but for the most part, inspiration was on my side.

I was at almost 54,000 words – well past my goal of 35,000 – when I began to slow down. I still had a week left, but I was already feeling the itch to edit. This is a no-no in NaNoWriMo because it can compromise your word count and keep you from finishing. But for Camp NaNoWriMo, I had more flexibility, and I really needed to go back and fix a big problem. I realized that I had too many main characters, one of whom was only the shell of a character. In my own mind, I considered him a throw-away – what would readers think? So I decided to cut him, but doing that meant going all the way back to the first page.

I also happened to have several unwritten scenes floating around in my head that I wanted to add to earlier parts of the book. Going back through it from the beginning helped me do this, and my word count slowly went up again. By July 31st, I recorded my word count at 55,652, and I have no intention of stopping, even though July is now behind me.

While I can’t say that Camp NaNoWriMo is the reason I’m working on an unexpected project in the middle of the summer, I am thankful that it lit a little bit of a fire under me, at least as far as making a writing goal is concerned. If you’re the type of person who has to be accountable to someone (or something) else in order to finish a writing project, I highly recommend it. You also have access to a community full of fellow campers who will give you support when you need it.

Not to mention that, if you’re unsure of if you should try the full NaNoWriMo experience, it’s a great way to practice. I know that I’m ready. Any experience that encourages me to write my heart out is a welcome one.

Summer 2015 Writing

So far, summer 2015 has been one of the best summers in recent memory. My husband and I aren’t big summer vacation people. In fact, other than weekend trips to visit his parents, we haven’t taken a big summer vacation since our honeymoon 11 years ago.

When we decided to spend two weeks in the Pacific Northwest, I thought we were crazy. We’re not the type of people to just leave for two weeks. But aside from taking our hot Florida weather with us to Washington State, it was a great time away from home with our family.

During the first half of our trip, I was a little anti-social. (Let’s be honest, I’m anti-social anyway, but this time it was because I had a deadline to meet.) I spent most of my down time polishing my NaNoWriMo 2014 novel for submission to CreateSpace. As a NaNo winner, I was eligible to claim two free copies of my book, but I had to have it submitted and approved before midnight EDT on June 30th. On the west coast, that meant I had to be done by 9:00 P.M., and I was nervous about pushing it that late. Last year, I had my novel submitted in plenty of time, but CreateSpace’s approval process took almost 24 hours, and by then, it was too late to get two free copies.

This year, my goal was to submit my manuscript on June 28th. I didn’t achieve that goal, but that’s because I decided to submit more than just the 2014 novel. Since it was the sequel of my 2013 novel, I included both novels in the same volume. The 2013 novel has gone through significant revisions since last year, and my beta readers for the sequel will need to read the new version of the first novel in order for the story to make sense. So I finished editing and formatting both books, then submitted them on the evening of the 29th.

When CreateSpace sent me the book preview, it was with a note that they couldn’t publish it because there were three blank pages in the middle. After hours of frustration (because my copy didn’t have three blank pages), I figured out a way to eliminate the blank pages on their end. I submitted the new version after one in the morning, went to sleep, and woke up to see that it was perfect – except for the headers. Since there are two novels in one volume, I thought it would be helpful to have the titles listed in the headers, but after making the change that eliminated the three pages, apparently the second header was deleted. Oh well. I went with it rather than risk fixing the problem, only for it to go past the deadline. These are just beta copies, after all, and I finally got my two free copies.

NaNoWriMo 2013 2014

It was an immediate relief to have that project behind me. I spent a few days filling my free time with reading. But then it happened – the itch to write again. After giving my creative juices a few days to percolate, I started looking through my unfinished manuscripts for something I could sink my teeth into.

Then I found it – a book that I started writing years ago and that I come back to every once in a while. I’ve written a scene here, a scene there. It’s not even a skeleton of a book yet, but it’s something. I read through everything I had – about 60 pages in a Word document – and decided I wanted to dig in and really get something done with this story.

I was surprised with how easy it was to sit down and just write. It’s a great feeing – one that I’ve only been able to capture during National Novel Writing Month the past couple years. There’s a reason that I have so many unfinished manuscripts, and it’s that I’ll start with a lot of inspiration, and then my Muse will just abandon me. It’s wonderful to have the motivation back.

So wonderful that, after several days of writing and having no inclination to stop, I decided I might as well sign up for Camp NaNoWriMo. I have friends who sometimes participate in Camp NaNoWriMo in April or July, but I never wanted to do it before. I’m always too busy editing and revising. But this year, while I wait for my beta readers to give me their critiques, I want to be productive. There’s nothing better than writing because I want to – and having the time to do it. I might as well enjoy it because I’ll be working full-time in November and don’t know if I’ll be able to make the 50,000 word minimum.

For anyone else who’s interested, Camp NaNoWriMo allows you to set your own goal (I think the minimum is 10,000 words). My manuscript was already at 20,000 when I started, so I set my goal for 35,000 by the end of July. As of today, I only have 10,000 words to go, and I think I have enough momentum to maybe even finish this book.

Happy writing!

To-Done!

If you read my post last week, you know that I had great hopes for this week. My to-do list needed to get a lot shorter, and guess what? I am happy to report that my first full week of summer break has been a success.

On Sunday, I finally finished Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, the last book of which I’d been waiting for read for four years. I have to say, whatever my complaints about Paolini’s style in his early books, the last one more than made up for it. The only problem, of course, was that I was sad to be finished.

Reading Dilemma

With my recreational reading done, I plunged into work on Monday. And I even involved the kids. They sat at their table and had work time while I cleaned the kitchen. I have to tell you this because a day during which I clean an entire room (actually more than that because I cleaned the laundry room and one bathroom, too) is a day for the record books. (Please tell me I’m not crazy to be proud of this.)

I also spent my younger son’s entire naptime working on my biggest freelance project, a memoir that I’ve been working on for a year now. Thank goodness my client isn’t in a hurry. Although she still has some copy to turn in to me, my hope was to finish arranging and editing the material she’s given me so far and return it to her by the end of the week. I must have spent anywhere from three to six hours on this project every day this week, and although Microsoft Word had me practically pulling my hair out by the end, I did finally get a draft to her. (I would give details, but just know it had to do with pagination – if I try to be any more specific, I’ll most likely be reduced to gibberish and &%*!@ in order to keep this a family friendly blog.)

With one project out of the way (at least until that client gets back with me), I have one last freelance project (a much simpler one) to finish before our family vacation. I understand that I will come home from our vacation with work still to do, but my clients will have that time to decide what changes they would like for me to make, and I will only have to worry about finishing touches.

And then I will be done. As of this week, I am no longer offering my freelance writing services. And it’s not just Word that’s made me fed up enough to quit. Although I won’t go into details now, I am going to join the work force again soon, and if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that I can make myself and my loved ones very miserable if my plate is too full. So while I will be glad to help friends with blogs or editing projects that don’t have critical deadlines, I am no longer pursuing freelance work.

It’s a relief, actually. Anyone who is self-employed understands the pressures of finding enough work to pay the bills. Last summer, I was able to land enough steady projects to earn a paycheck while I wasn’t substitute teaching, but it meant that when I was at home with my kids, we weren’t able to do much fun stuff; I was stuck at my computer working very hard for very little monetary compensation. This summer, I will be able to spend more time with them, and the time that I do spend at the computer will mostly be writing my own fiction.

Speaking of my fiction, now that I have one freelance project behind me, I have time to concentrate on editing last year’s NaNoWriMo book. I am determined to get my two free copies from CreateSpace. Beta readers, I will be reaching out to you sometime in July, so get ready!

Lastly, while I am reducing the stresses in my life, one of them will be this blog. No, I’m not quitting! Believe me, I still have a lot to say, but I won’t be pushing myself to reach my own personal deadline (which is once a week) anymore. Many weeks, I get to Sunday and panic because I don’t know what to write about. Or I have a lot to say but am too brain dead to arrange much of a coherent thought.

I have a friend who used to blog weekly, and she made the announcement earlier this year that she will now only post when she feels inspired to do so. At the time, I was saddened because I loved reading her blogs, but I could certainly understand – and I kept her idea in the back of my mind. To remove another stress that I put on myself sounded like bliss. I told myself that if I ever went back to work, changing from a weekly blog post to a “when I’m inspired to write” blog post would be the way to go.

Don’t worry. Even if you don’t hear from me next week, I still have plenty to say. I’ll likely update my book list sometime soon, and I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about NaNoWriMo 2015. But when you don’t hear from me, know that I’m enjoying my family or a good book… and, as always, striving make more of my to-do list items to-done.

Playing Catch Up

During spring break, I was excited about the possibility of being able to cross off many much-neglected items on my to-do list. During that week, however, I was disappointed (as I often am) with the amount I was actually able to accomplish. Sure, I was home more than usual, but then so were the kids, and they had expectations, as well.

Since spring break, life has not become any less hectic. I’m not going to summarize all my busy-ness here – you can read any number of my recent blogs to get the idea. Just suffice it to say that, with the end of the school year drawing near, I was excited to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Last weekend, I planned to partially unplug – which I did! My husband and I spent the night away from home sans kids, TV, and wifi. It was somewhat of a surreal experience, and we couldn’t help but say “The kids would love this” or “We’ll have to bring the boys here” at the beach and the fort and a little fudge shop near our bed and breakfast. But we survived and even managed to enjoy ourselves.

One of the things I’d hoped to do was catch up on my reading. If you follow my yearly list of books that I hope to read, Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle has been on there since 2013 – and I’m finally almost done! I had hoped to finish by the time my son finished school on Thursday, but I knew that was a very ambitious goal. Still, I only have a little over 200 pages to go, so I’ll definitely be through in the next couple days.

The reason I am so eager to finish (other than wanting to know what happens – this is a great series!) is because I have so much work that I need to do. While many other moms are posting selfies from the beach and running around like crazy people trying to keep their kids occupied, I plan to spend a lot of time at home. (Don’t worry – I still have plenty of fun activities planned for my kids!) This is partially because I’m tired of my commute, and our gas bill needs a little bit of a break, but it’s also because my to-do list includes clients’ projects, and these clients have been very patient. They know that I substitute teach during the year and, therefore, have an erratic schedule, but now they’re expecting results. I mean, what excuses do I have anymore?

I held off writing this post for a couple days, hoping that I’d be able to report that I spent the first full day of summer break plowing through my jobs and striking off to-do list items left and right. And I did make some progress, but it’s been slow. The children are still underfoot, although they’ve been great so far. My little one even likes my implementation of “work time” (where I have them sit at their table and color, write, or do quiet projects for a few minutes), thus giving them some structure and me some peace while I do my own work.

My goal (you know how I love goals) is to keep forging ahead, even if I only have two or three hours a day to devote to my projects. Although I’m not going to totally unplug during our upcoming family vacation (a girl still has to blog and write fiction when the mood strikes, right?), I don’t want to leave projects hanging over my head – or clients calling, only to be disappointed that I’ve put their work on hold for two weeks.

Okay, goals set. Deep breath. Next week, my to-do list is going to get a lot shorter.

Identity Crisis

As both an editor and an author, I used to assume that if someone claimed to be a author, he had to know how to spell (or at least turn over a manuscript relatively free of typos). But I’ve learned that that is not the case at all. And while it’s handy to be able to easily pick out typos, bad syntax, and gaping plot holes, it is something of a disadvantage when the editor part of me gets in the way of the author part.

When I participated in National Novel Writing Month, both in 2013 and 2014, I had to remind myself that to write 50,000 words in 30 days, I had to set my internal editor aside. A friend of mine posted this on Facebook recently, and I can totally relate:

Month-Long Novel Agreement

As I’ve said many times, I love both the outpouring of raw story as well as the subsequent cutting, adding, tweaking, and rearranging that come with the editing process. It’s hard to say which I enjoy more, although it’s quite satisfying to read something I’ve edited and note its improvement. And it’s also wonderful to have those Aha! moments (usually in the car or shower – totally not convenient times to write) that provide just the right solution to a problem that’s been irritating me.

This last can happen in either stage. When writing this past November, I counted on these moments to get me through long periods of stagnation. This book was the sequel to my 2013 NaNoWriMo novel, and as such, I sometimes wrote something that either solved a problem in the first book or necessitated a change in that earlier storyline. I had to jot down these ideas and come back to them later; I didn’t have time to both write 50,000 words of my new novel as well as edit the old one.

But I finished NaNoWriMo 2014, set it aside to percolate while I made those necessary changes to NaNoWriMo 2013, and I even had a date written in my calendar for when I would switch gears again to start editing the sequel.

February 24th was when I was supposed to get back to the 2014 book. It’s now May 9th. I’m still on the first book. Granted, all the changes I’ve made so far have been necessary – and I even had an Aha! moment as recently as this past week. But the editor in me is tired. She wants to move on to something else. She wants to talk to the frustrated author of NaNoWriMo 2014 and hash some things out. But I can’t give equal space to both right now, and the more they argue, the less work I get done.

I presented this issue to my husband, and he gave me the answer that I knew all along (but that I needed to have reaffirmed): finish editing the first book. After all, I have to make sure I know exactly how it will end in order to have a smooth transition to the sequel.

I often hear jokes about artists and how they’re flighty and unorganized. That’s why it’s so odd for me to be a stickler when it comes to grammar, punctuation, formatting – you name it – but also creative enough to invent new worlds. For me, the two are so interconnected that they will always need to work in tandem. But I wonder if it’s freeing to not worry about spelling properly, to just hand a manuscript over to someone else to correct. Not that I write without any outside input at all – a second pair of eyes to catch typos and plot inconsistencies is always necessary. Especially because…

Writing Quote

I don’t know what numbers one through three are, but number four certainly does have a point – all the more reason for me to find out if the story in my head gets across at all, even if it’s not as eloquent or funny or moving as I originally thought. Because of my Grammar Nazism, I sometimes worry that I’m not the author I should be. Maybe I’m too careful, too precise, too self-censored (God forbid). Maybe one part of my inner writer holds back the other.

Editing my novel is necessary (it really is – auto format deleted about two-thirds of my sections breaks, and I have to put them back in), but it’s almost time to move on. Besides, I have a good incentive: CreateSpace is offering two free copies of NaNoWriMo winners’ novels again, and I don’t want to miss the deadline like I did last year. I want to give my beta readers the chance to tear another novel to shreds, to give me good reason to sink my teeth into another good edit… and to gear up for NaNoWriMo 2015. After all, these books are a part of a trilogy, and unless my muse materializes and does the dirty work for me, the author in me is going to take the driver’s seat on November first.

Procrastination (I’m Writing This When I Should Be Writing Something Else)

Anne Tyler Quote

Anne Tyler might just have a point. Take this post, for instance: I’ve been thinking about writing about procrastination for a while. And what’s the best way to do this? Well, to procrastinate, of course. (I find it’s often helpful to write about things that I’ve experienced first-hand.) Granted, I did have other topics to cover first, which I did. Then I even sat down and wrote a few paragraphs. Which I let sit for five days. Then I came back and erased them all.

Sometimes I don’t write because I have other things to do. I am a very structured person, and as such, I cannot allow myself to write a blog post or edit my novel or read for pleasure when I need to pack my son’s lunch or send an important e-mail or wash a load of laundry. But sometimes I don’t write because… well, maybe I’m just wasting time on Facebook. Granted, I don’t do that too often – and I even got rid of all the games on my phone to eliminate those distractions – but there are still plenty of times when I should be writing, but I do things that could easily wait until later instead.

If such a self-disciplined person as me has a hard time staying on task, what hope is there for writers who aren’t nearly as structured to ever start the writing process?

I have a two-part answer, and the first part is that I think it’s a me thing, separate from being self-disciplined.

This isn’t something that’s just happened to me since having kids. It’s something that’s gone on as long as I’ve written. I remember spending afternoons at my parents’ business, pacing through the same four rooms, building scenes in my mind, sometimes even muttering the lines. I would hash over those same scenes ad infinitum. I still do this, although nowadays, I’m not a teenager with a bunch of free time but a mom who squeezes all of her creative thinking into stolen moments in the shower or car or while folding laundry.

The second part of my answer is that thinking is a part of the writing process – or any creative process. Now, the problem is that if you don’t ever move beyond thinking – to the actual doing part – you are not a writer or a painter or an inventor (or whatever) but merely someone who aspires to be one of those things.

Philip Pullman Quote

Thank you for making my point, Mr. Pullman. And my problem is that I don’t always take my ideas to my “desk.”

Sometimes I’ll think over a scene so much that I just assume I’ve written it. And then, as often happens, I’ll move onto something else. Months or even years later, I may look for that scene, only to discover that it was only ever in my head. Other times, I do sit down to write, but the words that were perfected in my mind have all but evaporated. Or they just don’t ring true anymore. Something has changed between the initial thinking and the writing.

Madeleine L'Engle Quote II

Well said, Ms. L’Engle – and the same thing can apply to blogs. But I don’t think it’s a totally bad thing. I think internalizing a scene or some dialogue or just an idea is all a part of the writing process. As long as I do eventually sit down and write (like I’m doing right now), it adds up to the creative whole.

Earlier this week, I discovered an incongruity in my novel. A scene hinged on my protagonist having an opinion based on a conversation she overheard. Unfortunately, I realized this conversation happened when she was three or four and would have been way over her head at the time (if she’d even been paying attention). I had to re-work the scene, keeping the content but changing how it happened. I couldn’t move on until I’d fixed the scene, and I had to think it through first. For several days.

I’ll admit, I was a little intimidated by it. When you realize that you’ve created a problem that you have to write your way out of, sometimes the easy way out is just to give up – set the manuscript aside. And I’ve done that before, but I can’t with this one because I’m shopping literary agents. I had to tackle that scene, and after letting it simmer and then reading a few scenes around it, I figured out a solution.

Madeleine L'Engle Quote

Yet again, I feel like Madeleine L’Engle is talking to me. I am that woman with children and another job – a woman who wants to write, who needs to. After all, I can only procrastinate so long before the creative dam breaks. I have legitimate distractions, but I also have stories to tell. So I will continue to fight myself but understand that sometimes it’s okay to just think – as long as I do carve out that time to take my ideas to my desk-slash-laptop.

Speaking of which, I think it’s about time to wrap this up so I can get back to it.

What’s in a Title?

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Recently, when speaking with a group of kids about being an author, one of the questions was how to come up with the perfect title. Good lord, I wish I’d been able to give an adequate answer. Instead, I pointed out titles of books I knew they’d read, like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. It started the conversation, at least, but it didn’t give them a fool-proof formula. Such a thing doesn’t exist.

I used to keep a list of what I considered brilliant titles. The problem, of course, is that they have nothing to do with anything I’ve ever written. And even tougher than coming up with book titles was deciding what to call all those pesky chapters lurking between the covers. (It never occurred to me until recently that I could just use “Chapter One” or simply “1.”)

It’s not just the little people like me who deal with this. I’m re-reading Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, and while the book titles are decent, the chapter titles are inconsistent and often the pits. Yes, this is opinion speaking, but whenever I read some of them, I think, This guy was trying way too hard. Other times it seems like he just gave up. The first couple times I read these books, I didn’t give the chapter titles much thought, but this time around, I’m in a pickier mood. (Recently, I heard of a scholar who criticized the Bible for using subtitles for the various sections. It gives away what’s about to happen, she says. While I discounted her argument at the start, it’s niggled me enough to make me write this post.)

Unless you’re writing cookbooks or some other form of non-fiction, in which you need chapter titles and subtitles for quick reference’s sake, why bother with fiction? At first I thought it might just be a young adult thing, but then I remembered an adult series, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which uses chapter titles throughout. While these are great books, the chapter titles leave a lot to be desired. Sometimes they’re melodramatic (“I Shall Go Down to the Sea”), and sometimes they kind of act as mini spoilers (“In Which Jamie Smells a Rat”). Other chapter titles read like throw-away lines that simply reminded the author what she was writing about in this particular chunk.

What I find most helpful are chapter titles that place the reader. For instance, in Rick Riordan’s The Heroes of Olympus series (great books, by the way), the chapter titles are simply characters’ names. Although narrated completely in third person, this tells the reader whose perspective is represented in each chapter. (The only problem I see with this is when you accidentally open to the last chapter and see that it’s narrated by a character that the author wants you to believe is dead. Whoops.)

Both Stephenie Meyer and Veronica Roth used this character-name approach in books later in their series (Twilight and Divergent, respectively). This is especially helpful, considering these books are both narrated first person. Paolini tries it once in Eldest. It’s the first time he switches to a perspective other than Eragon’s. Instead, it’s his cousin Roran, and the oh-so-imaginative title of Roran’s first chapter? Right, it’s “Roran.” Which I would be fine with if other chapters weren’t titled “Requiem” or “The Beginning of Wisdom.” Like I said, sometimes he tried too hard, and others, he didn’t try hard enough.

I know, for someone who admittedly can’t write a good title unless she just lucks into it, why am I complaining? I guess I’m really not. I’m just wondering aloud (or in print). Chapter titles are convenient if you have a table of contents. And there are some brilliant ones out there. “The Boy Who Lived” comes to mind. (Please tell me you understand that reference – but just in case you don’t, it’s from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. What a great chapter title to pull you right into an amazing series.) So I guess they can’t all be bad. I’d just like some consistency, please.

Until reading Outlander and re-reading Eragon, I never gave chapter titles much thought. Some books have them, and others don’t. But now that I’ve started thinking about them so much, I know I’m going to scrutinize everything I read. Do I make predictions when there are titles, or do I forget the titles as soon as I finish reading them? Out of curiosity, I’ve picked a few books, different genres, different time periods, a diverse range of authors, and here’s what I’ve found:

Books with Chapter Titles:

Books with Only Numbered Chapters:

Books with Part Titles but No Chapter Titles:

There are other books that defy these kinds of categorizations, such as John Green’s Looking for Alaska and Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. To see their unique chapter distinctions, I guess you’ll just have to check them out.

After looking back at all these books, some of which I’ve enjoyed multiple times, I realize that the chapter titles (or not) aren’t what I usually take away. Only when they get in the way are they problematic, such as with Outlander and Eragon. Yet with The Heroes of Olympus and Harry Potter, they actually helped orient me in the fictional worlds I was visiting – and sometimes even encouraged me to keep turning the pages. (She’s finally going to tell us about horcruxes! Oh wait, she isn’t. Darn, I guess I’ll just have to read another chapter…)

There isn’t a right or wrong way – or even one type of book that must follow one particular format. If I could, this is what I’d tell that middle school girl who asked me about titles: write what feels natural. If coming up with a creative name for each chapter feels contrived, don’t do it. But if titles are your thing, give them a try. At the end of the day, writing your story is the most important thing; fiction titles really should be secondary.

It seems that authors pick what they deem right for whichever books they’re writing at the time. After going over all the different types of chapter designations on my shelves, it’s obvious that I can’t just throw out one or another; there are some pretty awesome books that I don’t want to miss out on just because their chapter titles might put an idea in my head about some possible outcome.

Besides, you never know when an author is trying to trick you. Sometimes they can be pretty sneaky.

How Do You Know What to Cut?

Last year I asked a number of beta readers to read my 120,000-word NaNoWriMo 2013 novel. After receiving an excellent critique from one of these beta readers, I shared with him how annoyed I was that I was somehow supposed to cut my word count in half. “What would you cut?” he asked. He understood that the novel had issues that needed to be fixed, but he didn’t think length was one of them. He couldn’t fathom how I could drastically cut yet keep the same story.

But I’ve done it. (Well, I haven’t cut it in half, but I’ve cut over 40,000 words.) When he recently offered to read the edited version of my novel, the question changed to, “How do you know what to cut?” My friend is simply curious and fascinated about the writing process, but many writers want to know the same thing. Lost, they wonder if they can cut and still keep the integrity of their stories.

It comes down to more than just correcting typos. Typos I can fix all day, and in fact, I was the queen of clean copies back before I took my first fiction workshop. Clean copies that weren’t all that great to read, as it turns out.

After my first story was critiqued, I discovered that I wasn’t the prodigy I’d always imagined myself to be. I assumed, at first, that people just didn’t get what I was trying to say. It was their problem. It was humbling to realize that they didn’t get me because my stories were a mess.

The credit goes to Ari, who led those fiction workshops. Much of how I write and edit today goes all the way back to those seven semester-long workshops that I took from 2002 to 2005.

Reading others’ stories and discussing them brought to light so many issues that are common among many writers, not to mention learning a lot of tough lessons when my own stories were critiqued. Ari has all kinds of pet peeves, and to this day, I don’t think I’ve written a sentence that starts, “As he went to the fridge” or “As she tied her shoes.” That particular type of sentence drove Ari nuts, and I guess it’s because it shows up so often. The point isn’t to avoid that one kind of sentence but to be intentional. Don’t fall into the trap of using the same sentence structure over and over again. You’ll find yourself on the slippery slope to lazy, sloppy writing.

Showing instead of telling was another biggie. (You can read more about that here.) I used to be the type of writer who had to describe the layout of every room and the outfit of every character. Was this necessary? Nope. That’s not to say that all descriptions are bad, but what you write must add to the story.

For instance, Harry Potter’s lightning scar, green eyes, and trademark glasses form a quick mental picture, and the scar and eyes have their own stories. But is it important to know what brand of jeans or what color shirt he wears? Do we need to know every single item he keeps on top of his dresser? Only the ones that may come up later. Why? Chekov explains it so well: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Eragon and its sequels are popular young adult novels that run to excess when it comes to descriptions and scenes that don’t move the story forward. Each book could easily be cut by tens of thousands of words. Some descriptions are helpful. We’re dealing with a fantasy world, after all. But too much bogs down the text, gives it a plodding pace. I enjoy these books, but I know I have to invest a lot of time when I want to read them. Not because they’re thick books but because there’s a lot of unneeded padding packed into those pages.

You may have heard the phrase, “Kill your darlings” (attributed to just about every well-known writer, and it’s because they all know it’s true). Does this mean that I need to cut every word, every line, every scene that I’m proud of? Well, not quite. But what it does mean is that writers often get attached to bits of prose that ought not be included in the manuscripts where they currently reside.

Ugh. But I worked so hard on that scene. The words flow beautifully. If there’s one thing I won’t cut, it’s that line…

I’ve been there and cut that. My trick to save myself from writer’s remorse is to save all major revisions as separate documents. Then I don’t feel quite as bad about nixing a line or scene when I know I can go back and paste it in again. Which I’ve done.

It takes a certain willingness to cut any- and everything that is not essential to the story. It takes a thick skin when you realize what you cut the first time wasn’t enough (even if it was a lot), and you have to go back and perform major surgery again. It also takes a certain editorial know-how, which may mean that you’ll either have to hire an editor or babysit your favorite reader’s kids for the next five years. Even if you’re a proficient editor, I highly recommend beta readers. (Just be ready to read their stories, too. It’s only fair.)

As Stephen King recommends in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, temporal distance also helps. Take a month off; then come back to a manuscript with fresh eyes. You’ll be surprised at the number of throw away scenes that seemed brilliant at the time but are really just filler – and conversely, the number of excellent scenes you’re surprised you actually wrote. (And while we’re talking about On Writing, which I highly recommend you get, King also gives an excellent example of a block of text before, during, and after editing, so you can see the actual process.)

You may notice, after coming back to your story after a break, that you don’t like your opening chapter. You don’t even need that first scene, in the grand scheme of things. Or maybe it belongs much later. Be open to not just cutting words out of sentences, but restructuring completely. We’re not just talking a face lift or a nose job. We’re talking vivisection. It’s going to be messy, and it’s not going to look like the story you started with, but as I reassure everyone who’s read my beta novel and liked it, I haven’t changed the content, unless I improved it.

Last, please read your text aloud. I know it’s difficult if you have a full house and little privacy, but you really need to do this. You will be surprised how good something sounds in your head but how terrible it sounds when spoken. You’ll notice where you start to bore yourself. Or if you read aloud to another person, you’ll see where you lose your audience.

In all of these ways, you can transform a story, for instance, that opens with a girl thinking about how scared she is and how much she misses her old life (and why) to a story that puts the thing she fears on her doorstep and makes her take action.