The Little Story That Could

Never Give Up

It’s actually not a “little” story at all. In fact, according to an article I read years ago, at over 153,000 words, my novel would be considered by some to be a super novel.

I’m talking about my yet-to-be-titled NaNoWriMo 2016 novel, which I just finished minutes ago.

I’ve been waiting to make the “I finished!” announcement for a while. I thought that I would finish on my spring break, which was over two weeks ago. And I did spend two days in a row typing over 10,000 words, which got me a lot closer to finishing, but as I’ve learned with my novels, they never cooperate. They’re like children, each of them different, each with its own set of challenges. Good lord was this one unruly. It’s the longest of my NaNoWriMo books, and it’s taken the longest to write. I thought, at the outset, that it might be more of a novella, that I might not have enough story to fill out NaNoWriMo’s 50,000-word minimum. Ha!

I’ve adopted a motto from one of my favorite movies, Galaxy Quest: “Never give up, never surrender!” I know that NaNoWriMo considers WriMos winners if they successfully write 50,000 words from scratch during the month of November, but when I first undertook the challenge in 2013, I decided that I was done with leaving manuscripts incomplete. Even if the book will never see the light of day, I have to at least finish it, give it the chance to someday be edited into shape.

So that’s what I’ve done four times now. It’s a personal goal, but one in which I take pride. Years ago, when I was enrolled in a fiction workshop in college, one of our assignments was to write a piece of short fiction and have it critiqued by our classmates. The second part of this assignment, upon which our final grades were dependent, was to then take the critiques of our classmates and edit our stories. Some critiques were worthless, some priceless. But the assumption was that none of us walked in with perfectly crafted pieces; there’s always room for improvement. One day, nearing the end of the semester, I overheard one of these classmates pouring out his woes to our professor, how he “just wasn’t feeling it.” Yeah, I’ve had manuscripts like that. There’re lots of them, sitting in files that I haven’t touched in years. But when someone assigns me a task—especially for a college class!—I do my best to complete it. I couldn’t believe the nerve of this guy, saying that he couldn’t do what was required, yet he still expected a pass.

Whenever I feel like giving up on a story, I think of him and what a lousy excuse he made, and I realize that I’m not going to do something lame like that, even if I’m only myself letting down. I didn’t spend months on this to just give up. I haven’t put off editing other pieces that desperately need attention for nothing. I fought writer’s block and wrote… maybe not like a boss, but like someone who takes writing seriously. It’s not about producing something perfect. It’s not even about following an outline to fruition (conflict introduced—check! love interest refuted—check!). It’s about giving the story the chance to have its say—especially if it ends nothing like what I expected at the start.

I finished, and now I have the satisfaction of another novel under my belt. I haven’t let myself down. Breathe, edit, repeat.

 

NaNoWriMo 2016 Wrap Up

nanowrimo-winner-2016-badge

I had a hard enough time believing it was already November—and that was over a month ago. It’s always one of the busiest months of my year, thanks in part to NaNoWriMo. Now that we’re several days into December, I have to remind myself daily that I can relax—I no longer need to achieve a certain word count every day.

Still, even though I “won” a minute before midnight on November 23rd, that’s just a step on the path to finishing my novel. When I first learned about NaNoWriMo in 2012 (the year before I started participating), I wrote a post entitled “What Happens After NaNoWriMo?” I wanted to know if people called it quits after reaching 50,000 words or if they kept with their novels until the end (assuming their novels didn’t end at exactly 50,000 words).

As for me, I keep plugging away after 50,000 words (however long it takes). Otherwise, I would have quit after day 14 my first year. Winning to me isn’t just writing 50,000 words—it’s continuing until the story is finished telling itself. Last year, which was the most challenging so far, it took until day 27 to “win,” but it took months to finish the first draft. The experience made me tackle this year’s NaNoWriMo with more purpose.

I’ve slowed down since December first, though. Part of it is the pure craziness that is December. (Perhaps this is why no one was foolish enough to put it in December—who would have the time?) The first day of the month, when I was already up an hour later than usual, I sat down and typed 100 words, just so I wouldn’t feel guilty about leaving my novel hanging for a day.

Without November looming over me anymore, it’s a lot easier to procrastinate—even though I’m one story-day away from the scene I’ve been imagining for over a year. I’m getting hung up on things like voice. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m using four first person narrators this time. It’s what this story needs, but the problem is differentiating the narrators from one another. While this is really an issue for the editing stage, I can’t help but let the worry creep in that I should be doing a better job up front.

The other day, when writing the youngest of these characters, she said something that seemed particularly her, and I thought, This is it! But now, how to make “this” happen in every section she narrates? In a book I read over the summer, Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun, there are two narrators, twins (brother and sister). These characters are unique and a little peculiar, but their individual peculiarities shine through in such a way that it’s easy to pick out who is narrating without being told whose section it is.

I love how discovery happens through reading someone else’s story. I dream of inspiring someone with one of my own stories someday—but it’s not going to happen if I don’t go ahead and write—no matter how ragged the first draft is.

The Book Birth Plan

 

Keep Calm and Write On

If you read my last post, it was all about birthing a book. And since NaNoWriMo loometh, it’s time to talk about book birth plans.

Oh, she means outlines, you might think.

But no, in fact, I don’t.

Outlines are key for writing non-fiction manuscripts, in which the author needs to present information in an organized format, but fiction is a whole different animal.

In my novel-writing experience, outlines kill creativity. I’ve written a couple novels that stuck right to the outlines I prepared for them. I would write a scene, then have to look and see what to write next. I didn’t write anything without consulting the outline first because I was afraid of messing up what I wanted to happen later in the plot, but the result was that they read like someone dragging the novels along against their wills. Those novels are now collecting virtual dust because I haven’t touched them in years.

There is a time to tidy up your mess of a novel, and it’s the next stage: editing. When writing, it’s good to have bullet points, things that you know need to happen over the course of the story, but I am here to say that some of the scenes I thought were the most important at the start of a book ended up on the cutting room floor.

If you’re querying and have to provide an outline, you should create it from a book you’ve already written, not the other way around. But that’s not to say that I think books—especially serial novels—should be written without any direction whatsoever. This is where the book birth plan comes in.

If you’ve ever had a baby and tried to have a birth plan, you’re probably laughing. From experience, I can tell you that birth plans are often tossed out with the bath water (just not with the baby). It’s more about comforting the soon-to-be parents by letting them think they have control than actually checking off every box on the list.

So if you’re gearing up to start your novel on November first, what would your “birth plan” look like? How will you know you’re ready to tackle this huge task?

I have a file for “notes” for every one of my NaNoWriMo novels. For my first, I didn’t even decide to participate until late October, so there was no time to plan at all. I had a few scenes in my head and just let the story flow with a vague idea of what I wanted to happen. Once I started writing, I wrote notes, like a quick reference guide, so I wouldn’t have to scroll through the entire document to remember something like a character’s birthday.

The next two years, I had notes already written before I started, so I had a general idea of where the books were going, but like having a baby, they certainly didn’t cooperate with all my expectations. The one thing I wish I’d done with the third book in particular was to decide on how to begin the thing. That little hiccup had me stuck in front of a blank document for a long time.

So write notes, by all means, like how to start your book (who’s narrating? where does it happen? etc.). You can scrap that scene or put it somewhere else later, but at least it will get you rolling.

If you’re dying to write a scene but know you can’t until November, jot down the parts you don’t want to forget: “Brenda runs into her ex at the store”; “Josh’s future plans change when he doesn’t make it onto the football team.” Your character(s) may have a complicated family tree, or you may have a timeline that jumps all over the place. Write these down if you’re afraid you’ll forget, but don’t stay married to them! Therein lies the trap. Read over your “plan” before you start typing on November first, but then set it aside, and write whatever wants to be written. You may discover that your story has some surprises that you never imagined—and that wouldn’t be realized if you stuck to a rigid plan.

This year, I know how I’m going to start the book and certain events that I want to happen, but this one is more about the characters than the plot. And there is every possibility that these characters will be difficult. Actually, I kind of hope that they are. Since I won’t actually be having a baby, it should be fun to see how far this story deviates from the “plan.”

Birthing a Book (as told by memes)

01-become-a-writer-they-said

If you follow my blog at all, you know that I’ve participated in both NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo for the past several years. If you’ve read my most recent blogs, you’ll know that I’ve been struggling to finish writing my latest book for several months now. Even dedicating both Camp NaNos to this book didn’t do the trick.

I find that writing is often akin to jumping on a treadmill—I keep going without actually moving forward. With this latest book, in particular, I already had the ending written and just couldn’t seem to get the story to go there. Yes, I wrote—thousands and thousands more words than I wanted to write. And I was still just as far away from the end as I had been when I started. Or so it seemed.

I’m glad to say that I finally made it (and completely changed the ending, of course), and in celebration as well as exasperation, I would like to document this latest writing experience via some memes that must have been written by some poor souls who’ve had similar experiences.

 

So you get an idea for a book, only to discover that

02-scariest-moment

But

03 Madeleine L'Engle Quote.jpg

Yep, Madeleine L’Engle. At least you get it.

And Dory has some valuable advice, too:

04-just-keep-writing-dory

So you do, but sometimes

05-i-dont-know-what-im-writing-about

Or you read over what you wrote yesterday and wonder,

06-what-idiot-wrote-this

Because

07-reason-4

And there are those times when the page stays blank because of

08-writers-block

But no matter what,

09-you-should-be-writing-batman

So your days start to look like this:

10-rapunzel

Through it all, you have to remember that

11-oscar-the-grouch

By the end of the process, you think this is a pretty good approximation of your mental state while writing:

12-stages-of-writing-a-book

You’re glad you stuck with it, however, because

13-happiness-is-a-good-book

But you’re not quite there yet. You still have to

14-keep-calm-and-revise

Why Not Sign Up for Camp NaNoWriMo?

Fiction Fix Typewriter

For those who may be learning about Camp NaNoWriMo for the first time, it’s offered twice a year – the months of April and July – as a kind of warm up for the biggie, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in November.

Last year, I finished editing my previous NaNoWriMo novel at the end of June and signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo in July to work on an old, unfinished manuscript. This past April, I signed up again to work on a different novel that I’d started in December.

So why am I writing this when it’s almost halfway through July? To be honest, I almost gave up on the idea of participating this time. No, I haven’t finished the novel I worked on in April (although I did achieve the word count goal I set for myself). What happened is that I came up against a writer’s roadblock that I’ve written about numerous times: the mid-novel slump.

There is little more frustrating for a writer than knowing how your novel will end but then getting lost on the way. It reminds me of the family vacation we recently took, in which my GPS simply wouldn’t believe that our destination was on Sugarloaf Road. It was glad to take us to an empty field on Sugarloaf Mountain Road. While it’s a little misadventure we can laugh about now (and others who have been mislead by GPS can commiserate), at the time, it was aggravating because we knew where we wanted to be, just not how to get there.

Of course, with my novel, I can’t blame GPS. I was cruising along just fine and decided on the perfect twist to give my story more tension. The only problem was that I wrote myself into a hole in which I couldn’t write myself out.

Not knowing what else to do, I committed a big no-no: I went back to the beginning and started editing. Although it’s cost me a lot of time, I’m glad that I did. I’d written quite a few things that I’d forgotten, so I took notes along the way. I also trimmed a lot of extraneous words. And as I went, I realized what I would have to do when I got to that problematic scene that had effectively stopped my forward momentum: I would have to cut it.

There’s still tension, just not nearly as much. Although my scene isn’t the shocker that I originally planned, it’s no longer stalling the manuscript. It meant cutting 20 pages out that I spent days writing, but sometimes that’s what you have to do. I’m just glad that I’m moving forward again.

So now that I know what I’m doing, even though it’s 13 days in, I’m signing up for Camp NaNoWriMo. I am giving myself a low word count goal (12,000 words) because I hope that’s all it takes to finish this novel. Knowing my propensity for verboseness, it’ll likely be longer, but that’s okay. It’s often the scenic route that is most memorable.

 

Read. These. Books.

It’s already July – that time of year when I look at the book list that I created on January first to assess how well I’m keeping up. This year, I am pleased to say that, of the 27 novels I hoped to read, I’ve already read 22. I hope I’m not speaking too soon when I say that 2016 may be the year I’ll finally read every book.

Of the books I’ve finished, I would like to highlight the multitude of teen fiction titles that I’ve recently read.

Florida Teen Reads books

Read these books!

I mentioned in my book list post that my cousin’s wife is on the Florida Teen Reads committee. Last fall, she gave me a pile of the books she’d read for the committee, assuring me that there was a little bit of everything: sci-fi, romance, mental illness – you name it. I was excited to add them to this year’s list.

As always seems to happen, I read a few books from my list, and then I deviated some – that’s life, right? By May, I’d only read one of teen books I’d borrowed, but a message from my cousin-in-law gave me the little kick I needed to keep going. She would need to get two of the books back by the fall because they’re Florida Teen Reads finalists. I read both titles back-to-back – Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone and Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. It was apparent why these books were finalists, and since I was on a roll, I continued reading the other FTR books, too.

Some of these books shine brighter than others. Knowing his taste, I had my husband read some of them and not others. One I had to twist his arm to finish, and he was glad he did. Another was the first book of a series, and Thomas liked it so much that he bought the whole trilogy – we both read them all.

Girl in PiecesIn the middle of reading all this teen fiction, I received an interesting opportunity: to read and review a teen fiction novel that hasn’t been published yet. While I’ve read books prior to publication before, it’s usually because I’m editing them, and that’s a completely different experience than being able to read a book to enjoy it. In this case, “enjoy” is a little too tame a description – I devoured Kathleen Glasgow’s Girl in Pieces in two days. (Read my review on Goodreads, and purchase it this fall.)

Before you say, “I’m not a teenager – why would I read any of these?”, let me assure you that teen fiction is not just for those in the 13 to 19 demographic. When I was in college, I took a class on young adult lit, and it was a rather recent genre classification at the time (in fact, much of what we read had previously been grouped with children’s lit). Books that fall into the YA genre star characters who live the issues that real young adults face. Okay, yes, sometimes the teens in these books are being chased by dragons, but they’re still coming of age and having all the issues that that entails.

Parents may find some YA issues uncomfortable, such as substance abuse, suicide, sexuality, and mental illness. Guess what? These are tough issues, but we can’t just put our heads in the sand and pretend they’re not there. When I read about a girl who hung with the cool crowd at school while keeping her OCD hidden from her best friends, I was glad that such a book was out there. It’s normal to read about the underdog succeeding – and I love those books, too – but to read about a cool girl with issues? Well, isn’t that life?

Today’s teenagers can only be sheltered so much. As a parent, I understand being protective, but I also would rather supervise my child’s exposure to these issues by handing him a book and then talking about it than praying that that kind of thing never happens. Who knows? My kids may have friends who face these issues one day – and many of these books list resources that provide support and help. Even within a fictional (and sometimes fantastical) setting, teens are capable of applying what they read to real life.

Read these books! Then share them with a teenager you care about.

Camp NaNoWriMo April 2016 Recap

Camp NaNoWriMo Apr 2016 Winner

I will have to say, compared to NaNoWriMo 2015, Camp NaNoWriMo in April was a cakewalk. Of course, part of that might be that you get to choose your word count goal. The minimum is 10,000, and although I was tempted to let that be it, I decided to do double. Twenty thousand words is nothing compared to the 50,000 in November, but after the struggle to finish the first draft of my 2015 novel, I wanted to take it easy (comparatively).

What I love about both NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo is that you can update your word count every day, and then they create a graph to show how well (or poorly) you’re doing. This can be depressing if you’re coming in under. Considering that I didn’t even sign up for Camp NaNoWriMo until April 4th, my graph looked pretty pathetic at first. A bunch of nothing until day four, and then it was just a tiny little line. My total word count on the first day? Thirty-three words. But I’m happy to say that the line started to creep up, day by day. Being able to view my progress on that graph was encouraging.

The project I picked for Camp NaNoWriMo was a novel that I started in December (unexpectedly inspired to write by some good teen fiction). While concentrating on finishing the NaNoWriMo novel, I put this other one on the back burner, and when I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo, I had to read through all 20,000 words of what I’d written so far to figure out what to write next. During that read-through, I ended up cutting some (yes, a big NaNoWriMo no-no) and adding more, for a net gain of 33.

Another fun thing about both of these websites is that they calculate, based on your current rate of words per day, how long it will take to finish. I was supposed to write 20,000 words by the end of April, but for the first week or so, the calculation had me finishing in September. Yeesh. But as the days passed and the number of words I wrote per day went up, the gap closed. I would hit 20,000 by August, then July. Finally, I was on target to finish during the month of April. Typing like crazy, I hit my goal on the 20th.

As of April 30th, I had typed almost 31,000 words during Camp NaNoWriMo. The story still isn’t complete (it never is after just one month), but it’s a lot closer than it was a few weeks ago. Rather than interrupting it to edit my NaNoWriMo 2013, 2014, and 2015 books (because they’re a trilogy and need a lot of work), I’m going to keep going until I finish this one. It might be a long summer (with one more Camp NaNoWriMo opportunity in July), but I’m going to enjoy the process.

And if you’re a regular reader, you know that a big part of that process is reading. Right now I am devouring and being inspired by a lot of great teen fiction. But that’s a topic for another post.

Borrowed Books 2016

Stack of incredible teen books (and The Martian – also incredible)