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.


The setup for NaNoWriMo at home, if I need to ...

Ready to Write (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever had a goal that seems to hover just out of reach? I’m talking about those last five pounds that you can’t shed, that last $1000 of debt that hangs over your head, that last month of pregnancy when everyone assumes you should’ve had the baby, yet you feel like it’s never going to happen.

I’ve been through all of those and more, but that’s not what I’m talking about this time. Nope, I’m talking about a writing goal.

That’s right, it’s the end of NaNoWriMo for Sarah!

If you happen to know what NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is, you’re likely thinking, Aren’t you a couple months late, Sarah?

Yeah, yeah. I know that NaNoWriMo was officially over when the clock struck midnight, marking the end of November and the beginning of December. And I’d already “won,” which means that I wrote a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. (Actually, I wrote just over 61K.) But that didn’t mean I was done telling the story.

Last year, I also didn’t “finish” in November. I was certainly on a roll, writing 80,000 words in 30 days, but it took me 10 days into February to finish the first draft. I never slowed down the whole time; there was just so much story to tell.

This year’s NaNo was the sequel to last year’s. For months, I looked forward to continuing the story, but when it came to November, I struggled. I had the initial outpouring, which lasted for several thousand words, but after that, it was as if my muse had gone on vacation and at precisely the worst time.

So I “won” because I won’t sign up for something and then give up. But it was hard. I felt like the majority of what I wrote was just crap that would end up on the cutting room floor. I knew that if this were just any old novel, I would let it sit on the back burner and wait for my inspiration to return. I’m the queen of unfinished novels; I have more half-done manuscripts than I care to think about, and although I hate to admit it, I know that many of them will remain incomplete.

The difference with NaNoWriMo is that, after working so hard to get 50,000 words out, it seems like such a waste to just let the manuscript sit, unfinished. Even though it took two-plus extra months last year, I finished, and I think it’s the best novel I’ve ever written. And since this year’s novel was the sequel, I had to keep going.

Since it was such a tough book to write, I figured it would wrap up quickly and likely well under 100,000 words. Then I could sit back for a month, let it percolate a little, then return and make it worth reading after a hefty revision. To my surprise, a number of brainwaves hijacked my story when I thought I should be long done. The muse was back, although a month late. I continued writing and could see the end, but I couldn’t seem to reach it.

This past week, I had a couple 3000-word nights. My word count raced past 100,000 and didn’t look back. But still, I wasn’t done. I’d already told myself that I would absolutely finish this week. January is the month I had set aside to finish editing 2013’s novel and start querying agents, and here it is the 24th. I couldn’t let the 2014 novel hang over my head any longer. (Plus, I needed something to blog about.)

So last night, after the kids got to bed, I sat down and did some serious writing – 7000 words, to be exact. I’d joked with my husband that it would likely be a 2:00 A.M. bedtime. In reality, it was after 3:30. But I finished! I am worn out but feel so accomplished. I finally caught up to my goal, and I haven’t quite wrapped my head around it yet.

Now I get a month off from that book. And at the end of that month, I’ll go back and do a lot of cringing and cutting, and hopefully I’ll end up with a manuscript that’s at least 20,000 words shorter and worth sharing.

And in the meantime… I need a nap.

The Challenges of Parenting the Second Novel

When I had my second son, people warned me not to compare my children to each other – something that’s nearly impossible to do. And the same is true, I’ve found, with novels.

And so I come to NaNoWriMo again. (It’s November; get used to it.) The first two weeks have been rough this year, which blindsided me (and I can say the same of the early days of being a mom of two). If you followed me last year, you know that I “won” (which means that I reached the 50,000 word minimum) by the 14th of the month. (And if you didn’t follow me then, you can read about it here.) I had inspiration on my side with a brand new story that wouldn’t quit. I wrote well over 4700 words on the first day, and I didn’t slow down much from there. By the end of November, I was at 80,000 words and continued writing until February, when my first draft clocked in at 148K. From there, the challenge was to trim it down to under 100,000 (which I did two weeks ago, thank goodness).

Fast forward to this year: last week I wrote about middle-of-a-trilogy blues. I get stuck constantly. I carry my MacBook with me everywhere (just like last year), and any time I have a spare minute, it’s open to my novel. Whereas last year, scenes competed for my attention and I couldn’t get them down fast enough – bombarding me when I was in the shower or chauffeuring the kids or researching an article – this year, the computer sits open, the cursor flashing, waiting for me to type. Mind you, I am extremely busy, but still, the story isn’t constantly running in the background like last year. There’s no backlog of scenes waiting to be written at my earliest convenience.

Today is the 15th of the month, the halfway point. If you’re serious about finishing, you should have 25,000 words down, and I do, thank goodness. My goal is to type 2000 a day, just to give me a little cushion in case I have a rough day. November 1st I did pretty well with 4000 words. Not as much as last year, but it got me a day ahead of my goal. And I used up that 2000-word credit five days later when I only managed to get 200 words down. Determined to catch up, I pulled my average back up to 2000 words per day, but it’s been tight. I’m an over-achiever, and surpassing my goals is kind of my thing. I still have over 1000 words to type today to make it to 30,000, so forget last year’s astronomical word count.

It’s not the word count itself that bothers me as much as my difficulty in getting the words down. Again, I can see a parallel with my kids. The first baby was a breeze. Yes, we had some challenges early on, but looking back I realize what an easy kid he was and still is. Contrast him (I know, a no-no) with his little brother, and the story changes. That little dude was a challenge while still in the womb, and the challenges only escalated after he was born. Even the nurses at the hospital were perplexed by his inability to be consoled – and those maternity ward nurses have some sort of baby voo-doo that almost always works. We’ve tried to parent both kids the same way, so why are they so different?

The difficulties, the challenges, the things that make me want to scream and rip my hair out at times are also the beauties of these two very different people – if only I can take a deep breath and remind myself that no two people are exactly alike. It’s amazing to watch them grow into their personalities. Sometimes they’re predictable, and other times they take us by surprise. It’s the times that I try to force Ian (the younger one) to be more like Peter (big brother) that I frustrate him and unnecessarily disappoint myself.

So it is with my stories. I guess you could say that last year’s was the big brother: sometimes challenging but always a joy. There were so many new discoveries, each one a kind of adventure.

My NaNoWriMo 2014 novel is the second child. I’ve been there and done that – wait, wait, wait. It still has surprises, if only I can allow it to follow its own path. But in order to do that, I have to give it the freedom to do so.

One day last week, in the effort to plow through another 2000 words, I realized that I was going through the motions yet again.  I had allowed my so-called experience to make me complacent and fall into a predictable and not very fun routine. My novel has certain plot points, not unlike milestones for children. My characters have to travel in my story, and since I’m averse to writing outlines, I don’t know much of what happens on the journey from Point A to Point B. I just know that I somehow have to get them there. And that “getting there” part can be a real slog.

Last year, I had even less of an idea how I would move the story along, but I didn’t let that bother me. Scenes kept popping up in no particular order; I typed them, and when I had time to breathe, I tried to connect them. It was these bursts of inspiration that kept me on the edge of my seat, that made me excited to get up every day and write.

I was thrilled that my word count exceeded my expectations. It was great to not have to worry about it. This year, sometimes it seems that the word count is the end goal, but it shouldn’t be at all. The point is to write, to finish something that I otherwise might give up on halfway through. That’s what’s beautiful about NaNoWriMo to me.

I mentioned in a previous blog that I already know how my current novel will end (even if I don’t know all the in between stuff). Hard-pressed to finish a scene, I realized that I could give myself a break and jump ahead to the ending. Why not? Words count, after all, no matter where they fall sequentially.

While I was thinking through that scene, my fickle little muse stopped by for a visit. It was one of those moments when I realized that something I was already planning to write would make so much more sense if… well, I can’t tell you, but it was one of those brainwave-y moments that authors live for (or at least this author does).

It’s the kind of thing that happened all the time last November, when I was new at the whole writing a novel in a month thing, when it was exciting and much like embarking on a voyage into unknown waters. It was with a kind of joy that I realized new and surprising things can still happen with the second novel of a trilogy. Instead of coaxing it along and expecting it to be a good little novel that writes itself –surprise! – I need to be open to all the scenes that want to be written, even if they’re out of order or don’t seem to belong. After all, this is a different novel, and it deserves the same chance, the same attention, I gave its big brother.

Much like parenting my second child.

Here’s to second children, and here’s to second novels.

Here’s to writing first and counting my words second.

Here’s to another 15 days of creativity and exploration, and best of luck to all my fellow WriMos!

Adding to My Personal Soundtrack

Quarta gregoriano

Quarta gregoriano (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t talk enough about the musical influences in my life. I know it’s all books-this and writing-that, but I really wouldn’t be the well-rounded individual that I am (ha) without the music in my life.

There are times when music surprises me; a song that I’ve heard many times will suddenly awaken a creative something within me. Since I’m a writer, that “something” is usually a scene in a book I’m writing. Sometimes it’s the “aha!” moment I’ve been waiting for. Other times (like what I posted about most recently), a novel almost gets derailed by a new scene that I never would have imagined, were it not for hearing the right song at the right time.

Then there are other times that music doesn’t necessarily evoke a specific image or scene, yet it fulfills some emotional (and I would go as far as to say spiritual) hole and leaves me pleasantly full and happy, even energized.

What brings all this up? Well, I’m kind of riding a high from attending an evening of uplifting, choral music. A boring way to spend a Friday night, right? Well, not if I got chills during the first song (I did) and can’t stop thinking about the sound and the joy on the faces of the singers (I can’t).

You see, that’s how it is in this relationship I have with music. Many songs or musical events become a part of what I think of as the soundtrack of my life. (Don’t worry, as a writer, I sometimes narrate my life, too, but today it’s all about the music.)

Alanis Morissette

Cover of Alanis Morissette

For instance, any time I hear “The Sign” (Ace of Base), I’m overcome with nostalgia – it’s the title song of my first CD. The same goes for Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill; I bought that CD in the seventh grade, and so did my husband. It’s part of our middle school soundtrack.

And so it continues: musicals I participated in as a teenager, such as Annie and Fiddler on the Roof; Metallica’s S&M CD (one of the best Christmas presents Thomas ever bought); our first System of a Down CD, which we bought and listened to when we drove to a Gator football game; the mix CD Thomas’s brother burned for us a couple days before we got married, so we listened to it everywhere we drove on our honeymoon. And our wedding itself contained a mini-concert. Some people told me it was a long ceremony because of all the music. But we’re musical people. Thomas’s grandfather was in a band. My mom’s mom and dad’s dad were both organists. It’s in our DNA.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I’m raising my kids right, making them listen to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Thriller” wherever we go. (Hey, I also downloaded “Let It Go” – don’t worry.) I’m helping them create their own soundtracks.

Most recently, I’ve discovered Rachael Sage; her single “Happiness (Maddie’s Song)” just came out on iTunes. I heard it once and couldn’t stop humming it for a couple days. And then there’s Pentatonix. I love it when someone posts one of their new songs on Facebook – which I’ll watch over and over, to my children’s chagrin. And Bastille – who doesn’t dig a rocker with a cool British accent?

Rachael Sage

Cover of Rachael Sage

Every new song, every concert, is a possible source for inspiration, but it goes deeper than potential best-selling novel ideas (as nice as they are). Songs are little triggers. I can hear one in the grocery store and be transported back to the fourth grade. Or remember the last concert I attended with a friend before she passed away. They’re pieces that may not always seem to go together – discordant, you might say – yet they make up the puzzle of me. And as strange as it may seem to hum classic rock in the store, listen to folk songs in the car, and spend an evening listening to choral music, I totally dig the big picture.

And it just keeps getting bigger. But I wouldn’t call that a bad thing.

The NaNoWriMo Loophole that Could Solve Your Early Inspiration Problem

Gearing up for NaNoWriMo.

Gearing up for NaNoWriMo (Photo credit: This Year’s Love)

Okay, I know I said “loophole,” but the solution I’m about to address isn’t really in the fine print. Anyone who cares to know what it is can just go to and read their FAQ. (Thank goodness for an organization that gives clear and concise answers.)

So what is this “loophole” that I’ve discovered, and what does it address? Well, excuse me if I digress by way of explaining…

Readers who have stuck with me since the beginning know that in 2012, I thought people were crazy to participate in NaNoWriMo (writing a 50,000-word novel from scratch, all in the month of November). Then in 2013, I had a change of heart. Or, that is, mere days (like two) before November, a story idea popped into my head, and I realized that I could wait a couple days to write and hope that magic would follow.

It did, and I am glad to say that it’s been the most fun I’ve ever had writing. Not only did I finish my novel, but I’ve edited it once and am currently putting the finishing touches on it, so I can send off to CreateSpace for my two free print versions, which I will then distribute to beta readers.

After participating once, I sometimes wonder what this November will bring. Will another idea come out of nowhere in the nick of time and make it possible for me to enjoy the same success as last year? Or could I possibly write a sequel to one of the other novels I’ve written, waiting until November to start? (This is what I consider a fallback option – but at least I do have a sequel that I’ve considered writing.)

I received an unexpected answer to these ponderings this past week. It hit me as inspiration almost always does – unexpected, uninvited. It’s not that I don’t like inspiration, but why can’t I be inspired at times when it’s a little more convenient?

I was driving across town when an image popped into my head. Two characters. And then a scene began to form. From there, it was a novel-size idea. And I was on my way to teach four- and five-year-olds in Sunday school, with no time to even jot down my idea.

I realized that this could be the idea I’d hoped for, except that it had arrived six months too early. I didn’t dare write anything except notes – character’s names and ages and little bits of backstory. If I wrote an actual scene or dialogue, that was it; I could forget using it for NaNo and would have to hope that either I could make the sequel idea work or that another novel-size idea would be born in the intervening months.

As it happens, I have several big projects in the works, and a new novel does not fit into my busy schedule. I barely had time to capture the scope of my idea in writing, much less sit down and let the prose flow. I figured that if I could stall long enough to finish these projects, maybe I could endure until November.

Being extremely busy, however, does not mean that I’ve quit thinking about this new, unwritten story. I’ve been walking around in a daze of possible scenes, sometimes whispering lines – maybe if I do this, I can make them stick. I’m sure anyone who catches me at it will think I’m nuts.

And in stolen moments, I’ve written loose descriptions of these scenes, where and when they happen in the flow of the story, creating – ugh – a sort of outline. Despite being a planner, I like to outline as little as possible when writing fiction. Yes, it’s great to know where a story is going and even some destinations along the way, but during the writing, the adventure is letting the story and characters dictate, day by day and scene by scene, what happens next. So waiting until November to write, allowing myself to put down bullet points and thus possibly boxing my story into a particular shape, isn’t sitting too well.

It’s gotten to the point that I’ve realized I can’t let this go on much longer. Once these projects are no longer occupying my time, and especially once school is out and the kids and I are spending a lot less time commuting and a lot more time at home, it’s going to be hard not to write.

I decided to check out the NaNoWriMo FAQ again, thinking that I would have to use the sequel idea if I wanted to be able to participate this year. I was sure that was one of the questions I saw listed before, but I wasn’t worried about it at the time and didn’t read the answer. Upon checking the site, I didn’t see the sequel question after all, but I did find something else. From their website:

We think NaNoWriMo works best when you start a brand-new project. However, what’s most important is being excited about what you’re writing. If you want to work on a pre-existing project, you have our full support!

Outlines, character sketches, and other planning steps are encouraged. Just be sure to only count words written during the month.

Here’s the loophole, people! Not only are sequels okay, but I could pull out something I started five years ago and pick up where I left off. The only words that count, however, are the ones I write in November, of which there must be a minimum of 50,000.

Hmm… This is very tempting. I can go ahead and write the scene that keeps popping in my head and won’t leave me alone – that way I don’t have to continue whispering it to myself like a crazy person. What I’m afraid of, though, is that once a little fissure opens in the dam, I’m going to invite the whole flood, and I won’t have 50,000 words left to write, come November.

It’s a risk I’m willing to take. After all, I have that sequel that could still work if this new idea takes off. And I think the NaNo people would agree that it’s wonderful that new ideas are still occurring to me and begging to be written. So I’ll hold off as long as I can, but when I can’t keep the creativity in any longer, watch out.

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The Surprise Lurking in My Playlist

IPod Nano

IPod Nano (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve talked about the different forms of inspiration before (and it applies to me specifically as a writer, but I’m sure it applies to other forms of art as well), and today I especially want to focus on music.

I’m a musical person from a musical family (read more about that here and here), but it wasn’t until this past week that I was reminded again of how much it can influence my writing.

Back when I used to have a fantastical picture of what a full-time writing life would look like, I figured that my house would come equipped with a separate office just for me and all my journals and manuscripts, a computer dedicated to my writing, and of course a custom sound system, through which I could pipe Metallica while I wrote. Yes, Metallica.

I was thrilled one day when I read that Stephen King, my favorite American author at that time, listened to Metallica (among other groups) while he wrote. Of course, I thought that this was prophetic and pointed to the life that I would surely lead.

Fast forward twelve or thirteen years, and there’s no separate office. I type with my MacBook in my lap while my kids watch Disney and vie for my attention. So this certainly doesn’t allow me the seclusion necessary to listen to whatever I want at any volume.

I still do like Metallica, though, so that’s something.

Still, when I write, it’s not in the environment that I figured was conducive to creating brilliance. I’ve learned to adapt, and I actually embrace writing in the midst of chaos, but there are those times that I realize there’s something to at least a part of that idealistic setting – the music.

Years ago, while I was in the thick of writing one of the books in my middle grade series, I was driving along, listening to just another song on the latest CD my husband and I had bought. I did not at all expect the scene that suddenly popped into my head, evoked by that particular song.

Part of it had to do with the lyrics, which described what happened in the scene, but there’s also something about the tune. That combination brought this scene fully-formed into my mind. I saw one of my characters going through something that wrenched my heart. I didn’t want it to happen to him. I fought it with all my might, but every time I heard the song, the scene returned. My conclusion: it belonged in my book.

Now, there are other songs that I like because they energize me or put me in a calm mood for a scene that needs a little more finesse. But I can never predict when a song will give me a missing piece of my story puzzle.

It happened again this week. I was driving along, listening to the playlist that my husband put together for me, so it has a quite a few songs that I never would have thought to pick for myself. I suppose that’s why it was so unexpected.

Instead of the music just washing over me, as it had with the last few songs I’d listened to, I suddenly started listening to the lyrics, and the words immediately created a new scene, one I certainly never considered when I formed the loose plot of my series.

This is why I think it’s so important to allow myself freedom within my plot. Sure, I have a rough outline, since I do need to make sure that I introduce important clues at the right time and have a general idea of where the story is going. But I was surprised that, yet again, a key character was facing something unexpected, something I don’t think I ever would have come up with on my own.

Thank you, song, for both disturbing me and enriching my story. It actually kept me up for about an hour-and-a-half that night, as I tried to figure out where my story was going. And I realized that it made perfect sense; it allowed another of my characters to realize her full potential in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if I’d gone according to plan.

Have you experienced any storyline surprises, inspired by something that you thought was completely unrelated? You just never know when it will happen or what will bring it on, but I think that writers live for those moments.

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How to Write 50,000 Words in 14 Days


Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

Wait a minute – you thought that the goal of NaNoWriMo was to write 50,000 words in the month of November, which last you checked still has 30 days, not 14. And if you thought that, you’re absolutely right. When I decided, on a whim, to participate in NaNo this year, I thought that there was no way I would be able to write so much. To stay ahead of the game, it’s smart to write 2000 words a day. That’s a lot. Sometimes, in the throes of a brainwave, I’ve written that much, but could I keep it up for an entire month? And I know me: if I say I’m going to do something, I will pretty much kill myself to get it done.

NaNoWriMo must have been created for the writers with too much time on their hands, and they just needed a project like this to challenge them and add some spice to their lives. Writing a 50,000-word novel in a month should be a cinch for them, right? Except that I don’t believe these mythical writers actually exist. For argument’s sake, however, wouldn’t it be easier for this kind of writer than it is for me – a busy, semi-working mom of two – to write a novel in the space of a month?

In fact, I believe that simply having the skills and the time are not enough to get the job done here. I scoffed when I heard people talk about NaNoWriMo last year. I thought they were crazy, and I never saw myself participating in anything like this. It just spelled failure, something that I didn’t want to sign up for. Of course, I was the tired mom of an infant and a preschooler, and my creative side was just plain drained. I did muster my energy for some editing, but that’s much more a perfecting process with a little creativity on the side.

And that was the problem: I did not have the enthusiasm or the motivation to do it. I was not inspired.

Above everything else I did in the first 14 days of the month that allowed me to reach my goal early – even above carrying my laptop with me everywhere and typing every spare second – inspiration is what has carried me through, what has made it possible for me to write ridiculous amounts every day. And the inspiration didn’t hit me until October.

I’ve read interviews of famous authors, in which they talk about what kind of music (if any) helps them write. I’ve read them try to explain where they get the impetus to write, which is nearly impossible to explain.  I’ve read acknowledgements in novels that thank a particular rock band or attribute the desire to write to a favorite author. And it’s a combination of these and other artistic expressions that I believe form my own creative sustenance, as well as theirs.

One night years ago, Thomas and I left the theatre after a movie, and a new scene for my novel du jour popped into my head. Vivid enough that I can still remember it today, I could not wait to get home and get it on paper. At that moment, jotting down the teenaged boy climbing a tree outside his friend’s window and throwing rocks until she appeared was my top priority. And you know what movie it was that inspired this? X-Men. Yes, X-Men. Were my characters mutants? No, although there were sci-fi elements to my story because that’s just how I roll.

All that to say that the things that inspire me, as well as other writers, don’t have to have anything to do with the plot or the characters. They don’t have to make sense to anyone else, after all. There are songs that have done this for me, too, songs that I’ve listened to again and again because they evoked a particular scene every time I heard them. When I was a kid, I had a couple books filled with famous angel art that I flipped through when I needed an idea.

These other artists’ modes of expression become my mantra when I need them. It drives my husband crazy because that often means seeing the same movie or hearing the same song again and again, but it’s the method to my writing madness.

So in October I decided to go out on a limb and watch a movie that I had little hope for. It was based on a book I’d read and loved – the kind that kept me up until one or two in the morning a couple nights in a row. Not only was I pleasantly surprised with the movie version, but it reawakened that spark within me. Part of it, I think, was nostalgia, considering I’d enjoyed the book so much. But another part of it was a yearning from my creative side, which hadn’t been very active in a while. The problem I faced was that while I wanted to write, I wanted to write something new. I did nothing about it, though, just a whole lot of wanting.

And then two days before NaNo, I got a tiny glimpse into a new character that made me think I could actually do this thing. It snowballed from there. I’m glad I didn’t have to wait longer than two days because the scenes building in my head all but overflowed onto the page on November first. I wrote over 4700 words, and although I didn’t keep up that kind of pace, I stayed inspired. I kept watching the movie that gave me that initial excitement about writing again, and my new story kept playing itself out in my head.

One of the first bits of advice I received about conquering the 50,000-word requirement was to write a thorough chapter-by-chapter outline. I suppose this helps people add flesh to the skeletons of their stories, but to me, instead of being natural, it’s more of a Frankenstein’s monster kind of thing. In my experience, detailed outlines are the best way to kill creativity. They’re also very presumptuous. Authors who are scared or new to the craft use them because they want to control their novels. And believe me, I am a control freak. Having a guide is important. I write notes about what I would like to have in my story and where it’s important to introduce new characters and plot twists. But formal outlines that bind the story and leave it no room to grow are the best way to kill your creativity.

This time, I’ve let myself get quite carried away on wave after wave of inspiration. Completely open to whatever may happen next, I write scenes as they come to me. Sure, there are many places where the narrative jumps around with absolutely no transition, but at this point, I’m not worried about making it pretty so much as just making it.

The wonderful thing about allowing myself this kind of freedom with my writing is that it’s taken me unexpected places. Last Sunday night, a new scene barged in on me when I thought I was going to have a nice, relaxing 2000-word kind of night. This scene included new characters I’d never met and a circumstance that I certainly didn’t expect. It turned into a 9300-word writing fever – all in one sitting. I finally forced myself to go to bed. And I was amazed that it wasn’t nearly as late as I feared it would be. In the midst of that kind of outpouring, it doesn’t take as long to be productive as when you’re stuck trying to breathe life into a pre-determined plot point.

I’ve heard from other NaNo-ers that week two is when you need pep talks because there’s apparently a slump. There actually was one night this past week when I didn’t even type 1500 words. I am slowing down a little and having to fill in those transitional scenes that have put so many of my stories into comas. Still, I managed to pass the 50,000-word threshold at the end of the dreaded second week. I have the feeling this novel will be well over 100,000 words (at least before I take out the ax, that is), and now is not the time to sit back and think, Well, I reached the official goal, so now I can relax. I will finish my book. I will write through the dead spots. I will keep enjoying my inspirational cues, however they happen, until I get the job done.

I think I’ve said enough about process for now. It’s time to take a ride with my story.

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If Morning Is the Best Time to Write, Why Does Inspiration Strike at Night?

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I’m driving home, minding my own business, thoughts jumping all over the place, from the uplifting choral concert I just attended to all the necessary housekeeping things that I have to do when I get home. And for some reason, my novel decides to join the mix. I don’t know why. I’ve given it a rest while sending out queries to literary agents. It’s no good thinking about what I should have written because the letters are all sent. I know they’ll all be rejections, so why dwell on what’s going to turn into a bunch of nothing in the end?

I can’t help it, that’s why. I’ve invested an awful lot of time and effort over the past decade into this unpublished book and its sequels. I’ve written my soul into it. And is it even any good? I’ve had two other writers (neither one related to me) read its latest revision and praise it. The pacing is good, the plot is solid, the fantastical elements aren’t too out-there, and even the ending is satisfying without wrapping it up too neatly. Sure, they suggested a few tweaks, which I made. So why am I not happy? Well, because I can’t sell the damn thing, that’s why. And you know I’m frustrated if I start throwing the D-word around.

As I’m driving along, enjoying my little pity party and wondering what else I can possibly do to make my story a little clearer to someone who doesn’t know me from Eve, an analogy pops into my head. It’s pretty good, too, one that should make my fantasy kingdom understandable to people who live in this world. Not perfect, but it’s the start that I need. I can get it on paper, show it to my mother, ask her if I’m crazy, then do a lot of research to make sure I understand what I’m trying to say. . . And hope it works.

Yay for me. I only wish I wasn’t in the car at 9:45 P.M. with my children in the backseat, a million things to do between having access to paper and pen and the actual chance to use them – and my alarm is going to go off at 5:00 A.M. if I like it or not.

I call these kind of out-of-nowhere ideas brainwaves. And they usually come at completely inconvenient or inappropriate times. Sitting in the pew at church? Good time for a plot twist to finally gel. Washing my hair? What a great moment to have a story-changing revelation! In a meeting, in the classroom, in the middle of the night – that’s when these things happen. Not ever when I plan to sit down and write. Good stuff happens then, too, don’t get me wrong. But not life-changing. Not story-altering. Rarely revelatory. It’s why I carry a little memo pad in my purse, and I use the digital notepad in my iPhone all the time (and email my notes to myself afterward, just in case they accidentally get deleted).

A couple years ago, I read that early morning (we’re talking pre-dawn) is the best time to get those creative juices flowing. At the time, I was pregnant and exhausted all the time. I dreaded even thinking about getting up before six to get my son to school, especially with a second child on the way. Fast forward to now, when I get up at 4:30 during the school year and 5:00 during the summer. The problem is, I don’t do it to write: I do it to exercise. I can squeeze writing in during odd hours, but I can’t fit a workout into five minute increments during the day, not to mention that if I’m going to shower after exercising (and believe me, that’s a must), I have to do it while my kids are asleep. That doesn’t mean that the writer in me stays quiet and waits patiently, though. On a day when I really need to shed the extra pound or two that I packed on by overindulging the night before, a brainwave inevitably hits, and I end up chasing a wild hare down a winding path that doesn’t end until after the sun’s up.

So why not wake up half an hour earlier? What’s thirty minutes, anyway? I suppose I could. But inspiration doesn’t pay attention to alarms. It comes with its own alarm bells, especially when I’m already running late and don’t need another distraction.

Even so, I love those moments.

If I didn’t have them, I don’t think it would be worth it to keep on writing. Of course I write on days when I’m not inspired because I know I have to – and because, thank goodness, there is a happy medium between writer’s block and writer’s, um, diarrhea. But if I never had that spark of inspiration to begin with, I don’t know if I would have been motivated to write for the love of it in the first place. Maybe that explains why so many people who can string words together beautifully don’t have the passion for it that others of us do.

Brainwaves grab me, distract me from things that were important moments before. Granted, they kind of turn me into a monster if I get interrupted, but the jubilation that comes when I’m done makes it worth slogging through dirty dishes and loads of laundry and long car rides – and the bags under my eyes and frequent yawns the next day. Those epiphanies, few though they are, keep me excited about writing. And I hope they make what I’ve written worth reading.