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.

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

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.

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.

How’s Your Writing Going?

When I was 25, I met a friend for coffee on one of her infrequent visits home. After being inseparable as kids, we eventually drifted into our different lives. Hers seemed glamorous to me: she’s a debutante who attended an Ivy League school, then traveled abroad to pursue other degrees. She drives the most expensive sports cars and vacations all over the world. When she called and told me she was in town, I couldn’t turn down the chance to catch up with her.

I knew we wouldn’t be able to meet long because my 11-month-old son would be up from his nap soon. I was so happy to see her – and impressed with myself for losing all my baby weight and then some – that I never thought how plain I would look in my jeans and t-shirt next to her designer outfit. I never thought she’d care to know what I’d been up to. What was there to say? I’m a mom. After catching her up on baby news (which doesn’t take long when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t have kids), she asked about my writing.

Writing? What writing? Oh, wait, you mean how I thought getting a degree in English would set me on the path to bestseller-dom? While I kept up with my daily journal, my fiction had gone the way of the dinosaur. I wouldn’t call it a slump. It was just that I was busy and happy not writing. After I missed the “published author” mile marker on the highway of my life, I moved on to “starting a family” and didn’t look back. Yes, I still wrote, but it wasn’t the kind of writing that kept me up at night.

And that was so not how I had envisioned my life – to be unpublished and happy. By the time I was 13, I knew that I wanted to make a living writing novels. I had no inclination to get a regular job and write after hours. I wanted to provide for my family through my books. And I was naive enough to think that I could go to college and get an English degree, and somehow, I would be in that perfect position to fulfill my dream.

Here’s what I often imagined: a home office overlooking a fenced-in backyard, where my future, well-adjusted children would run around and play, allowing me to work in peace. And then we would go out for ice cream and a movie, and we would take vacations whenever we wanted, and if my husband decided to get a job, it would just be because he wanted to, not because we were dependent on his salary.

Obviously, I had no idea what being a parent or an adult is really like, much less how the publishing world works.

But by 25, I was well aware of the perils of the publishing world. I’d already received rejections from literary agents. I’d even gone through a period when I thought maybe I couldn’t write. Maybe I would just be an editor, but I got over that when I realized that I simply hadn’t found my voice yet. After I did, I found joy in writing again. But I still had nothing to show for it, other than the title of “Editor-in-Chief” for a fledgling literary journal.

My entire writing “career” has been full of these ups and downs. I do actually make money as a writer, but it’s certainly not enough to buy us the house with the big yard and to keep my husband from having to work. It’s my lack of steady employment that makes him have to work so hard to pick up my slack. Part of me wishes that I’d gone to work for a newspaper or local magazine or even a small publisher. I would be able to carry more of the financial load, although that’s not at all the kind of writing that feeds my soul.

Yet despite being married to a starving artist, my husband believes in me. That doesn’t mean he thinks I’ll make millions, but he’s always my first reader, and even though he protests that he never knows what to say, I can always trust him for an honest opinion. The book that I’m shopping around right now is the best thing I’ve ever written, but just because it’s the best thing I’ve produced to this point doesn’t mean it’s perfect – or anywhere close to the best thing out there.

Amidst editing and querying and doing a whole lot of work that could amount to a lot of nothing, I finally asked him if I should even bother. I’d been gearing myself up to ask for several days. He loves me, but he’s not afraid to give me the painful truth. He told me it’s a good story, and he wants me to get recognition for it (although that in no way guarantees anything about getting it published).

Then he asked me if I would quit writing, even if it wasn’t any good.

While I would certainly quit wasting both my and the literary agents’ time by querying, I would never quit writing because it’s my outlet.

I still have that dream of making a living as a novelist. I still want to have a positive answer when I meet with a friend for coffee. If she were to ask me this week how my writing is going, my answer is that it’s great. I’m editing a story I love and that I know has potential. It still needs work, but maybe someday…

Here’s a quote from Sylvia Plath that I found earlier this week:

And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.

I have the guts and the imagination, but I also have self-doubt. It’s what made me ask my husband if all this was worth the effort. It’s what makes me cringe when someone looks at me expectantly, like, “Well, you wrote a novel, why isn’t it in bookstores yet?” I think self-doubt is healthy because it makes us look honestly at ourselves. It’s only harmful when it turns into a loss of confidence; then it’s apparent in your writing and your outlook and can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. What self-doubt should do is help us re-evaluate our goals and adjust them to be realistic.

I think the enemy of creativity is really regret. Getting to a certain point and wishing you hadn’t done what you’d done. While I sometimes wish I’d done something to augment my position, I certainly have never regretted writing. If my stories never see the light of day, at least I was happy creating them.

***

Before you go away thinking that my sweet friend didn’t understand me at all and didn’t care about my life, let me tell you her response to my lack of stellar news. She said, “But you’re a mom.”

She said it with admiration and almost reverence. Yeah, I’m a mom. And quite often a writer mom. Like I said, no regrets.