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.

 

A Minor Miscalculation

I can’t believe we’re past the halfway point of November, and I’m just now blogging about NaNoWriMo. Some years, I’ve blogged about it on a weekly basis. This year, however, I’ve had even more obstacles than usual. (Seems like I always say that—but it’s true!)

November is a crazy-busy month in the Full-Time Writer Mom’s house. We have all the usual Thanksgiving stuff, plus my elder son’s birthday falls in this month. My husband was out of town all last week, and up until last night, my now-nine-year-old spent up to three nights a week and most Saturday mornings at the baseball field. Add to that the community chorus of which my husband and I are members and the children’s choir that my kids joined this fall, and my “life” has become something lived in five-minute spurts. By the time the kids are in bed at night, I’m wrung out and useless. Clean my house? What’s that? Write in my journal? It’s collecting dust. Oh, there’s one thing I have done: I’ve spent the last six weeks cramming for the final test I needed to complete my professional teacher certification. I took that test today, and—hallelujah!—I passed. So now, with fall ball over and the test behind me, I can finally devote more of my very divided attention to my novel—and even take a few minutes to blog about it. (Note that my house still isn’t clean, and we’re going to have a to cram a Christmas tree in here sometime soon.)

As for this year’s novel, I’m doing something I’ve never done before—I’m writing with multiple first person points of view. I assumed that I would write third person omniscient, but I kept reverting to first person present. The only way I could still tell the story I wanted was to expand beyond my usual one-narrator perspective. This is a challenge on a couple levels, the first of which is differentiating the character’s voices. Fortunately, this is something I should be able to address (for the most part) in the editing stage. The second challenge is simply remembering who the narrator is. Although I title each section with the narrator’s name, sometimes I get a few paragraphs in and forget—thus turning my poor character into a split personality (often turning into the very character he or she is talking about).

Add to this a new obstacle that I created out of thin air this year—a totally (unintentionally) fabricated word count. Let me first explain with this graphic:

english-major-shirt

Okay, actually, I’m not bad at math. (Mind you, we’re not talking about calculus.) I’m a treasurer for a non-profit as well as a part-time bookkeeper for my family’s small business, so it’s very important that I’m competent in the basics and then some.

I’ve always prided myself in equal use of both sides of my brain: I’m creative and OCD; I can have conversations with my characters and format Excel spreadsheets; I’m a writer with a fairly good head for arithmetic. I’m generally a walking, talking contradiction, but, boy, did I live up to the assumption that writers can’t add earlier this month.

I’m going to chalk this one up to all that busyness that I wrote about at the beginning of this post. Why tack NaNoWriMo onto a schedule that already keeps me out late every weeknight? Well, because I can’t imagine not participating in NaNoWriMo. Believe me, I once thought it was crazy. (See my first NaNoWriMo post from 2012.) As I pointed out to my husband at the beginning of the month, I get a week-long break at Thanksgiving, so even if I’m abysmally behind, that’s a great time to catch up.

On the evening of November 1st, I got to around 1180 words, and I felt pretty good about myself—I’d just typed 1100 words more than I thought I would. I then told Thomas that I would need to type about 2700 words a day in order to finish by the November 30th deadline. If I’d paused to think for even half a second, I would have realized that 2700 words per day for 30 days was even more insane than the idea of starting and finishing a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. Something did strike me as kind of funny—2700 didn’t seem to be the right number—but I just figured I was rounding up from 2667, and that’s why it seemed off.

It wasn’t until day two that I remembered that if I type my word count into NaNoWriMo.org, it’ll give me all kinds of cool stats, like how far behind I am, how many words a day I need to finish, etc. So I plugged in my word count for the first two days and then looked at their cool little chart. Imagine my surprise when I saw that I was actually ahead. I was only off by…oh… a thousand when it comes to the word count. Can you imagine making a similar mistake on something actually important—like a mortgage? Sheesh. Thank goodness the mistake was in my favor.

The good news is that I now know I only have to type around 1700 words per day, and 18 days in, I’m averaging about 1800. While it’s less per day than the last three years, I’m still sticking to the hope that the week ahead will prove productive. Even with all the new challenges of NaNoWriMo 2016, I already feel like a winner.

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.

 

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)

Prescribed Staycation

Staycation

If you read my blog last week, you know that I’m still working on my NaNoWriMo 2015 novel, and I was hoping to use this week to finish it because it’s our spring break. Yes, we’ve had other spring breaks in which we traveled – my kids’ first plane ride was over spring break – but this year, we’re having a well-deserved staycation. Since November, we’ve taken two big road trips and two trips to Disney. With another big road trip looming this summer, the idea of leaving home for a fifth month in a row didn’t appeal to me (or our budget).

So far, the kids and I have been to the dentist and the doctor; my elder son had a baseball game and piano lesson; we went to story time at our favorite indie book store and had lunch out with my husband; we visited my grandmother for an afternoon; we even saw a movie in the middle of the week – all the normal stuff that I did before I started working full-time again (except for the movie in the middle of the week part – I had to do something a little spring break-y). I’ve even gotten eight hours of sleep every night – doesn’t that sound like heaven? My main goal was just to be a homebody. My kids have ridden their bikes a lot and made pillow forts on the couch – things that we don’t always have time to do when school’s in session. They’ve had the chance to be boys (and I’ve had the chance to write).

Unfortunately, kids these days just don’t get the chance to be kids as much as they should. They’re overscheduled either because their parents both work full-time, and so they assume the children should also be occupied 40 hours of every week, or the stay-at-home moms want to have “freedom” when the kids are out of school – in other words, a kid-free house. While I am a huge proponent of structure for children, that doesn’t mean that they need to be up at 6:30, out the door by 7:30, and spending until 5:00 that night in day camps and kids’ gyms and sports and play groups and you-name-it.

One mom of now-adult children told me that she always felt like a cruise director when it came to her kids’ vacations, and while some of us may admire the Pinterest moms who have cool crafts and activities planned for every play date, what’s wrong with sending the kids out the door and just letting them play? If you’re at home with the kids, that doesn’t mean you have to helicopter 24/7. On the other hand, if you work full-time, you need to remember that your precious time off needs to be split between “me” time and kid time. A teacher I know once told a full-time working mom that, instead of signing her daughter up for a week of camp, the mom needed to take that week off to spend at home with her daughter. What a novel idea!

I know that many people don’t have the choice but to work full-time, but there’s something wrong if both of you are so busy that you can’t find the time to read to your child for five minutes before bedtime. Or go out for ice cream on the weekends. I know of a mom who gave up a great career when she had a harsh wake up call; after losing two family members, she realized that if something were to happen to her, her kids wouldn’t miss out on much more than a kiss right before bedtime. The money took a backseat to being able to be the one to pick her kids up from school.

Remember the 1989 movie Parenthood with Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen? Remember how Steve Martin’s character is the overworked, underpaid, baseball coach dad of three with another on the way? Remember how, when complaining about not getting a promotion, his wife is more worried about him missing their kids’ upbringings, not the money? Yeah, she got it.

In his book The Christian Moral Life, Timothy F. Sedgwick writes that, while many take issue with the idea of sacrifice (such as losing one’s self in giving everything up for some other), “[t]he broader meanings associated with sacrifice arise from the original Latin meaning of sacrifice, which was to make something sacred or to perform a sacred act.”

Keep it sacred by keeping your children at the forefront. That sometimes means having a date night or a mini vacation away from them. But it also means coming back. It means letting them be kids – and being there to experience their childhood with them. Sometimes the only medicine needed is a vacation day with your child, snuggling on the couch and reading every picture book in the house.

Sound anticlimactic? If you’re thinking, But this isn’t what I thought I was signing up for when I became a parent, you’re right. It never is. It’s a whole lifetime of sharing amazing/frustrating/sleep-deprived/joyful moments with a unique human being that wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you.

NaNoWriMo 2015: The Saga Continues

Keep Calm and Write On

Yeah, I’m still writing my 2015 NaNoWriMo book. Will I ever finish?  I had high hopes that I would be done this month, so I could focus on something different for Camp NaNoWriMo in April. But I don’t want to put a lot of pressure on myself (the pressure to write 50,000 words in November was enough), so I’m not going to go so far as to call this an actual goal.

My writing over the past week had started picking up, and I thought I was seeing light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. But as Metallica says, it’s just a freight train coming my way. Maybe the light is right behind the freight train, but I just don’t know yet.

See, here’s what happened: my novel is the third of a trilogy, and I realized that I’d made some discoveries about at least one of characters that would necessitate going back and making changes to the first two books. No big deal. The point right now is just to finish the first draft of this book. I can edit the earlier manuscripts to my heart’s content later. Like after I take a month-long breather.

But then I realized that I’d forgotten something crucial that affects the book I’m writing right now. Say, for instance, that there’s a character who loses a leg. This character can’t run a marathon the week after losing said leg. But I was so mired in the slow forward plod of my plot that I forgot this important detail (which isn’t a missing leg, by the way). Once I realized it, I had a brainwave about how to fix it – and how to use it to move the story forward in a new way – but I still have to go back over a bunch of scenes that I thought were (at least temporarily) behind me. For all of you hardcore WriMos, no, this is not editing but merely adding. If I were still worried about a word count, it would be great. But I’m not; I just want to finish.

What does this mean for finishing? Well, it means I’ll have to spend a lot of time reading over pages that I’ll desperately want to edit, just so I can figure out where to splice in the stuff I forgot. I’ll have to finesse it all later. It’s gonna be ugly, but it’s gotta happen.

So that’s where I am. It’s my spring break, so I’m going to try to dedicate my spare time to writing. And not forgetting about any more… ahem… absent body parts.

Wake Up Call

Last week, I bought a pile of used books at a school fundraiser and planned to blog/brag about them. After all, I love books, as do many of my followers.

But our weekend was busy, and blogging wasn’t on my mind at all. We were ending our night at Disney World on Sunday (Valentine’s Day) when I got a text from my dad that floored me. A young woman from my church – 20 years old, a senior in college – had died in a head-on collision that morning.

I was filled with the immediate guilt that I tend to feel when I’m happy and well, yet someone else has is facing a life-altering tragedy. This girl and her family’s grief have stuck with me all week. It seems that about half the people I work with are somehow connected to her, so I was constantly reminded of the terrible loss. I did not know her, but I know both of her parents and can only imagine the dread with which they face every day now without their younger daughter.

And, of course, this dredged up all the other tragedies that have touched me: my own grandmother, killed in a car accident when I was a child; my husband’s uncle, killed in a motorcycle accident that same year; a cousin who fell from the rooftop dog park of his apartment.

This tragedy has affected me more profoundly than those I see on the news every day, probably because I know the family. Not to mention that the victim was 20, had her whole life before her, and was innocent. Yet I think many of us have become desensitized to the number of innocents who die all the time; it’s a defense mechanism that allows us to continue to live, not bogged down under the weight of sadness and despair. Otherwise, we might spend all of our time worrying; after all, tragedies don’t care how old you are, how much you’re loved, or if your life holds infinite promise. An accident could take any of us at any time.

It’s when something like this happens that I always resolve to do better about enjoying each moment because it could be my last, to tell my loved ones how much they mean to me because I don’t know when the last time will be. But it goes even beyond that: life is too short to go through it like a zombie, taking the little things for granted.

While I can’t stop the frustrating, busy, bad days from happening, I can choose to pay better attention to the good things that fill in the gaps. Instead of dwelling on the traffic, which I can’t change, I can enjoy listening to my playlist. Instead of dreading the nights and weekends when my husband has to work, I’ll enjoy the time with my kids, remembering than one day they’ll be out of the house. I need to glean as much of the good as I can from every day, instead of allowing stress and worries to turn everything into a chore.

Earlier this week, I found myself somehow running 10 minutes late, only to discover that I hadn’t prepped my son’s lunch the night before – something that would cost me another 10 minutes. That’s something I would usually stress out over, which spirals to snapping at my children to hurry. But it wasn’t their fault that I was running late, and although it seemed farfetched, if our drive into school that morning happened to be our last, I didn’t want to spend it tense and angry. I made the choice to relax about it, and guess what? We somehow got out of the house early.

I know I’ve written before about balance being key and living for the current day, not some potential, future day that may or may not even happen – and I keep doing so because it’s a work in progress. Stated baldly, I know that one day, I will become a statistic. When and what kind of statistic I don’t know. But until then, I need to live like each day is special – even the weekdays when I have to get up at 4:15. Instead of looking forward to a different day, I need to recognize that, even though it may not be memorable beyond the present moment, it’s that moment I’m living that matters.

Fundraiser Books

Pile of Books

Circling back to those books – I will enjoy them, God willing, as well as all the little things and the big vacations and milestones, too. But if I were to die today, books unfinished, milestones unachieved, I don’t want anyone to mourn my unfinished to-do list. Rather, I want to leave people with no doubt that I enjoyed the small moments of my life; I want to leave my family and friends with memories of good times, fulfilling relationships, and no regrets.