How to “Win” NaNoWriMo

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Last month, I explained National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and now it’s here! As I write this, I have written 11,000 words into my second novel, The Devil Before Me since November 1.

Crazy?

Yes.

And that’s why I do it.

I’m a procrastinator extraordinaire, and I often feel like I have to get everything done on my to-do list before I can sit down to write. (Otherwise, my mind will be distracted by the other things I have to do.) Now, I am not a competitive person by nature. I didn’t like team sports when I was a kid: I preferred ballet and piano lessons. But when it comes to writing and brain sports, well, that’s a different story.

The drive to “win” NaNoWriMo–writing 50,000 words in November–is strong for me. That’s my idea of competition. However, the last time I attempted it, I petered out about six days in. I just could not find a way to write that many words every. single. day.

I learned a few lessons that I applied to this attempt, and so far so good. Here they are:

1. For this month, prioritize your writing.

  • The laundry goes for a couple extra days.
  • The hubby is put on dishwashing duty.
  • I make crock pot meals.
  • I say “no” a lot when it comes to after-work things.

 

2. For the love of all that is holy in writing-land, have an outline.

  • But I’m a pantser, you say? No problem.
  • It doesn’t have to be a formal, rigid, locked-in outline your high school English teacher made you write.
  • Let it be fluid so that as your ideas come to you, you can follow them instead of an in-stone outline.
  • Just have your basic plot points. From there, jot down some of the scenes you’ll need. This has been my biggest help: knowing where I’m going next without having to think about it.

 

3. Join your regional NaNoWriMo group.

  • Mine has physical meet-ups to write as well as virtual ones.
  • Being with other people chasing the same dreams is AMAZING for your motivation and inspiration.
  • Seeing others struggle with the same writerly things you are helps you to know you are not alone.

 

4. It’s not going to perfect.

  • It’s a rough draft. Get your story out first. Then polish.
  • Resist the urge to edit too much. (I’m an English teacher. Trust me, I know how difficult that can be!) Your goal here is to get the story, your ideas, out of your head and into some semblance of a form.

 

5. Don’t be afraid to fail.

  • Life happens. Sick kids happen. Job changes happen. Just do what you can do. If you don’t write 50,000 words, you’ll at least have more words than if you didn’t try at all.
  • Failing can be the best teacher. My challenges with my last attempt drove me to do better this time by learning from my shortcomings. You can too!

Take a Break!

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Last week I encouraged writers to submit their writing, but this week I’m going to tell you the opposite: sometimes you just need a break. When I first began learning about this industry, a recommendation was to write daily. Then I signed up for NaNoWriMo (insert link), and I struggled with burnout at that word count level. I do try to write daily, but sometimes life gets in the way. Writing is a priority to me, but not over my family, teaching job, and extracurricular responsibilities for the day job (I’m writing this on the way home from a student council conference, for example).

There is no crime in taking a break, and no need to feel guilty–as long as you get back on that horse. Sometimes a break can provide clarity for where you want to take a scene or a character. If you’re at the editing stage, take a break to ensure you have fresh eyes for that manuscript. Even writers who write for a living need to take a break occasionally, as Kristen Kieffer points out on her (massively helpful for writers) website, Well-Storied: I had fallen out of love with my writing  She then shares her “epic mission” to fall back in love with it–definitely worth a read for any writer! Kristen, who also hosts Your Write Dream on Facebook and #StorySocial on Twitter, wrote one of the best articles I read when I started on my journey, “10 Ways to Practice Self-Care as a Writer, that suggests taking breaks as needed.  Head on over to her Well-Storied website and check out her resources!

How Many Rejections Can You Take?

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Comparison is the thief of joy. I’m positive Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t talking about writers when he said that, but for those of us still in the aspiring-to-be-published category, it most definitely rings true.

When you’re the person still wondering if you can ever complete your first draft, or considering stabbing your eyes out during your first round of edits, or questioning if it’s your query letter or manuscript that is the cause of multiple rejections, seeing others’ success stories can make you doubt yourself. Why haven’t you gotten that far? Why aren’t you published? Scratch that–why is it taking so long to finish the first draft?

These doubts can quickly shift to negative thoughts. You know, the I’m-not-really-a-writer thoughts. The I’m-not-good-enough thoughts. The why-is-it-so-easy-for-everyone-else thoughts. It’s like a disease that spreads in your brain, doubt. But fear not! There is an antidote.

At the end of April, Caitlin LaRue started a #authorstats Twitter thread asking published authors to share their stats: how long it took to get an agent or deal, how many rounds of revisions, how many manuscripts, etc. The responses were eye-opening and ranged from a year to a lifetime. In other words, there is no timeline. The path is sometimes circuitous. No two journeys are the same. And for the love of all that is holy in Writing Land, don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. Don’t let all that comparing take your joy.

What if you need a boost? Something to give you some confidence?

Submit something–just don’t forget that your timeline is your own.

When I first sat down and seriously decided I was going to write The Devil Inside Me, I learned as much as I could about the industry. One recommendation suggested writing and submitting short stories (or articles for you non-fiction writers) to build your publishing resume. My initial response was why? I didn’t want to be a short story writer; I wanted to be a novelist. And then, as I mentioned in “Just Submit the Story Already,” @HollyWrites13 and @AvrinKelly tweeted about #52weeks52stories, and I relented–mostly because I thought it would be fun to write a few exploring the backgrounds of my novel’s characters. I had no real plan to submit them–I wanted them to be exploratory and add some back story.

So I wrote a few, and, to my surprise, I genuinely loved one of them. “What have you got to lose?” became my mantra, and I submitted it. Repeatedly. And the rejections came, and they did indeed sting, but I remembered Stephen King. As a kid, long before he was published (in anything, not just his novels), he put all of his rejection letters on a nail in the wall. In his book On Writing, he said, “the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” If repeated rejections were good enough for Stephen King, they’re good enough for me.

So, my #authorstats? In April, my short story “Downright Devilish” was published in Fourth & Sycamore’s online literary journal. I wrote it in a couple of days but revised it over a couple of weeks. I submitted it to nine different places via Submittable and received four rejections and four non-responses (typically equated with rejections in the publishing world).

I was so excited that someone liked it that I submitted another. My short story “Fiendish” will be published in a traditional print anthology (I can announce where later in May!). I wrote it in a couple of days and revised over a couple of weeks. I submitted that short story to twenty-three different places and contests via Submittable. This garnered ten rejections and four non-response/rejections. (The remainder are still in-process.)

I am far from what I would consider a published author. For me, that will be a published full-length novel with some respectable sales. And I haven’t won a Glimmer Train contest nor am I published in Strand. (Yet.) BUT, my writerly friends, I can not tell you how indescribable it is to see a YES! We love your work! email.

And now I get it. Those emails, those glorious people who read your work and say hey, I like what you’ve done here–they don’t just add to your publishing bio. They bolster your esteem. They’re a reminder that it’s not a race, that it’s ok to be on your own path. And that, writers, makes you want to write more. The more you write, the better you’ll get. 

A Writer’s Retreat

books-shelves-architecture-wood-442420.jpegSomewhere in this world is a perfect study. Rich mahogany bookshelves stretch from wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling, replete with a little rolling ladder to reach tomes on the uppermost shelves. An enormous window looks out onto a slightly overcast and rainy day, which we all know fosters the feeling of needing to read and write. An oversized chair upholstered in a chocolate-y brown velvet invites a reader to curl up in it, to enjoy the massive fireplace that’s roaring, taking the chill out of the rainy day. The piece-de-resistance of this study is the massive desk that is in the center of the room, its surface large enough to stretch out and take a nap on. The surface is devoid of anything, save maybe a cup of InkJoy and Frixion pens in every possible color. If you’re envisioning a combination of the mansion in Clue and the Gryffindor common room in Harry Potter, you’re in my head. Let’s face it, this is exactly where I picture JK Rowling sitting down to write another world in which she can send me.

I don’t have that study. Send me pictures if you do.

I must admit that there is part of me that thinks if only I had that kind of environment in which to write, surely the words would flow like honey. However, for most of us, our reality of where we write may be nothing more than where we get an opportunity to write.

I typically write at home, but I long to have a local writers’ group. Alas, country life has its cons, and this is one of them. I long to go to workshops and retreats, which are inevitably in “the” city of some sort (for me that would be Chicago–2-3 hours away, depending upon where you’re heading). I, like Chaucer’s tale-tellers, long to go on a pilgrimage, except my pilgrimage would be to the Story Studio in Chicago for write-ins, where the entire vibe is centered around writing and writers and stories and absolutely nothing else.

So, on those days when I start feeling like I haven’t had a good, solid chunk of writing time and I just need one, I plan my own writing retreat. Yes, I’m flying solo, but providing myself dedicated time and space to do nothing but writing has a way of reviving my spirit and my zest for the current WIP. The characters come back to life as I reconnect to the story–a win-win for everyone (except whoever may be the next fictional murder victim).

How do you plan a writing retreat for one? There are a few options, but first, determine your circumstance:

  1. ALL OTHER COHABITANTS HAVE LEFT THE BUILDING–also known as “what every parent dreams of.” In this option, your partner/spouse and all children have vacated the premises and left you alone. Be it for two hours or two days, allow that laundry to sit there, let those dishes stay in the sink. Give yourself that time–and permission–for just you and your creative side.  Set up a writing station–the couch, the dining table, the bed.  Be sure you have drinks and snacks of your choice on hand.

Recently, I felt a hankering to go to Panera, but it was C-O-L-D. My husband was gone all day working, so I had the house to myself. I may not have a big slab of mahogany, but I do have a farm table in my dining room with a beautiful view of the countryside. I lit a few candles, sliced myself a piece of banana nut bread, made some Earl Grey (I had to at least simulate Panera), and settled in to write. It was the most productive I’d been in days, and I’d like to think that the change of scenery of a different room did that for me.

2. YOU CAN LEAVE THE BUILDING.  Escape! It’s underrated, really.  Panera and our local library are two of my favorite places to write because I can avoid seeing what needs to be done at home. Explore your town or city. Is there a nice quiet nook in the public library?  Are you a Starbucks fiend? Bonus in some places: free wi-fi.

3. YOU CAN LEAVE THE BUILDING FOR A GLORIOUS WEEKEND.  Ah, this is my dream. Financially, it’s not always feasible, but thanks to Groupon and a great downtown-hotel deal, I’m planning a Chicago-escape weekend for myself. A change of pace, a new vista–both of these can help shake up the writer inside of you. Bonus: Take a train if you can. Great for people-watching, a train provides not only character-fodder and often free wi-fi, but also uninterrupted writing time.

Need some more inspiration for where to write? Check out Kristin Pope’s 22 Places to Write blog post on The Write Life for plenty more.

Writers, what are some of your favorite places to write? Share with us–we are all looking for ideas!

Readers, I’ve rambled on about the best places to write, but writers and readers are often one in the same. What are your favorite places to read?

Sign up HERE to get my blog posts delivered to your mailbox. You can always read them here, but email subscribers will receive extras along the way! Sign up today and receive a snippet of my current project: The Devil Inside Me.

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Editing, aka Negative Word Count

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Editing. The bane of some writers’ existence. This week I’ve been editing my most recent chapter in The Devil Inside Me, and I’ve been having a hard time following my own advice. In some ways I enjoy editing because it means I get to tighten everything up from character descriptions to plot lines. But what I hate about it, I truly hate: the disappearance of words from my beautiful word counter on the screen.

Logically, I know that is nonsensical. If I’m to tighten up my text, words will have to go. That doesn’t mean that I enjoy the feeling of work escaping into the ether. It’s been especially hard the last two weeks for me to go into editor mode from the must-get-butt-in-seat-and-words-on-page mindset that I mentioned in my post, “Finding Time to Write (and Read!)”.

And then, as if the writing gods could read my mind, Lauren Sapala’s blog post arrived in my inbox. All I saw was the subject line, and my gut heaved a sigh of relief: “Writing Progress Does Not Always Equal Word Count.”

Like the writing gods could read my mind, I tell you.

Guest blogger Anna-Marie O’Brien is behind this nugget of truth. Progress is more than just a word count. Sometimes you have to just let the book take you where you need to go. She says, “I’ve come to find that there is a push and a pull to writing…You have to go with the flow. But then, you also have to steer the ship.” Amen. For those of us who struggle with getting a word count in every single day and feel guilty when we don’t, this is a beautiful reminder that sometimes that’s not what it’s about. Sometimes you might need to get lost in research for a couple of hours. Sometimes you might just need to noodle over a character’s situation for a few days. And if that’s your way, that’s your way. Much gratitude to Anna-Marie for penning this post and to Lauren for sharing it!

Writers, do any of you fall in this category? Do you struggle with not fitting in the write-X-number-of-words-every-day form? How do you deal?

Readers, last week I shared a snippet of The Devil Inside Me. If you’d like to read even more, please sign up for my emailing list here!

 

 

Finding the Time to Write (and Read)

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Finding time to write and read can be challenging if you have a full-time job or children to tend to–or both. I teach high school English, and the demands of planning and grading for a writing-focused curriculum (for three grade levels) often cuts into my personal time. This is a way of life for many teachers; it’s just part of the job.

When I decided to be serious about putting The Devil Inside Me out there, I knew I couldn’t just write when the muse showed up. I would need to carve time out of my schedule. I’m a believer of the mantra “we make time for what’s important to us,” and this writing endeavor was important to me.

So, I crafted a schedule of goals for the year. That schedule included research, development of a website, and this blog. Each of those in turn added more to the schedule: trips to Chicago to capture the essence of a building or a nasty winter day, learning how to use WordPress and plug-ins, educating myself on creating a blog that could be meaningful to others. I wasn’t dedicating my “writing time” solely to writing; rather, I was dedicating my writing time to learning about the craft and how to get my work out there. Part of that included setting aside time each week for reading.

We all have challenges that take up writing/reading time. I live in the country. That translates to a 20 minute trip to get just about anywhere; to go to the nearest “city” means 30-40 minutes. (And I don’t mean Chicago–that’s 2-3 hours!) When a fellow writer serendipitously posted on social media that dictation made her commute productive, a light bulb went off. Why hadn’t I thought of that, especially when I listen to audiobooks on long trips? 

My next 30 minute trip into “the city” produced 1400 words. Second trip? 1200.  Third? 1300. I started simply–I’m only using Google Docs and my cell phone’s microphone. Now, this means you’ll end up with text that reads as follows: “ I always had these go floating around in my head goes spooky.” But it’s worth it to attempt to translate myself for the sake of having WORDS ON THE PAGE. Another plus: My inner editor is hogtied because I can’t look at my phone–all I can do is talk. This results in higher word counts in less time.

If you find yourself in your car frequently, perhaps this can work for you too! There are other tools that do a better job than my set-up. Joe Warnimont’s post on The Write Life lists several, including the well-known Dragon Dictation.

Writers, do you currently use voice-to-text to help with your writing? If so, share your tips and tricks in the comments!

Readers, do you love audiobooks, or do you need that paper in your hand?

Sign up HERE to get your hands on a snippet of The Devil Inside Me. Subscribers receive additional extras along the way!  

Writing in 2018

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Expert’s Opinion

Now that January is over and we can forget about all of those goals we made…just kidding! If one of your goals is to further your own knowledge in an area of writing, check out Jane Friedman’s thoughts on what 2018 is going to look like for writers.

Her recent post, “What Does 2018 Hold for Writers?” covers trends in freelancing, including paid email newsletters and Medium; book manufacturing; what’s trending in kids’ books; a round-up of indie authors’ opinions; and a link for Joanna Penn’s round-up on self-publishing. 

Whether you’re starting out in the writing world or you are a seasoned freelancer, Jane Friedman–and her twenty years of experience in the publishing biz–is an endless source of timely information. (I used her blog post about author websites to create mine.) You can’t get a much better curated list than one from her. Enjoy!

My Writing Is a Mess–and So Am I

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We interrupt this regularly-scheduled blog post to share a must-read from Lauren Sapala: “Writing Is Messy. That’s Just the Way It Is.” Lauren is the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide for introverts, as well as an autobiography, Between the Shadow and Lo. She is also a writing coach whose About Me page says her “blog is meant to nourish, heal, spark, and empower your creative flame,” and she does just that with blog posts such as “Why It’s No Coincidence So Many INFJs (and INFPs) Are Also Writers” and “Coping With Feeling Like You’re Never Good Enough.” How many people–writers or not–need to read that last one?

I had something different planned for a post today, but Lauren’s blog, in conjunction with various writer complaints about motivation and rejection I watched pop up this week on social media, made me feel as if I needed to share this. Right. Now.

First, let me say that I do not know Lauren in any way, short of following her blog for the past couple of months. I also didn’t share with her in advance that I was going to write this post because, well, read on.

In my very first blog post, I shared that I shelved my last attempt at a novel. If I weren’t head-over-heels in love with the current WIP (work-in-progress), I probably would have done the same with it a couple of months ago. I had reached a sticky point–I needed to go back and re-read, find the holes, discover where I was missing some clues, and gasp in horror that I changed the name of a character’s dog three times without ever noticing. (He also went from being a German Shepherd to a black Labrador Retriever in the same space.)

I could go on, but you really don’t want to know. Just ask my critique partner.

The key for me is that I believe in this novel. I believe in the story. I believe in the stories that will come from it. But if I didn’t, I could very easily have said forget it. I know that the writing process is just that–a process, yet mine seemed so very, well, unprofessional. Like I was just piecing things together. Or, as Lauren points out in her blog post: “Finally, I stitched all the pieces together and what I was left with resembled Frankenstein’s monster.”

I re-read, I made copious margin notes, and I started editing. I have finished the first third, which was my stopping point because of a big, gaping hole (and next on my list to write, right after this blog post).

So when Lauren’s glorious blog post arrived in my inbox this week, I read it with my jaw dropped the entire time. It was so incredibly spot on. It wasn’t just me. I wasn’t alone.

Writers–especially those of you who, like me, are unpublished, struggling, questioning yourselves–if you read only one thing today or even this week, please read Lauren’s blog post. She speaks the truth about just how messy writing can be, and how we don’t need to doubt ourselves: “…because I had never written a book before, the whole time I was going through this experience I assumed I was doing something seriously wrong…I chalked my struggles up to…being somehow vaguely ‘stupid’.” 

Isn’t it as if she were reading our minds?!?

Which leads me to why I didn’t contact her about this post: I believe that in this world of people trying to sell their services everywhere, it’s hard to ferret out a genuine compliment, a sincere nod of appreciation. I was so touched and empowered by her post that just sharing the link wasn’t enough–I had to share its impact in the hopes it would reach others as it did me. I’m positive that if you read it, it will do the same to you. Share your thoughts with me–and with Lauren!

Should I Edit While Writing?

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First, can I give a shout out to my first followers? Thank you so much for taking the time to read my thoughts and for your kind words. I’d love to hear your comments here on the blog! If you’d like to read snippets of my work-in-progress, The Devil Inside Me, please sign up for my mailing list here. It’s not the same as subscribing to the blog itself–and you’ll get extra freebies along the way in addition to pieces of my novel!

On my last post, I spoke of giving ourselves permission to write–to try, to fail, to shelve that 60,000 words of a novel you faltered on. I also discussed giving ourselves permission to write in the genre that gets our blood pumping. That’s mystery for me–I mean, when your favorite book as a fourth-grader was Harriet the Spy, why would you deviate?

There was something else I had to give myself permission for. As an English teacher, wanting to proof and polish after every 500 words or so is in my nature, but not always conducive to getting my story on paper (or computer screen). Sometimes you just need to get those words down and worry about the grammar perfection and beautiful turns-of-phrase later. In my shelved novel, I would bold the items that needed more detail, or even write research questions right into my text. This resulted in some strange re-reads: Elena and Robert waited for a table at what restaurants are on the San Antonio riverwalk?

Sometimes, though, I felt that this created more work in the long run AND left me with holes in my storyline. (That certainly was not because I wasn’t sure where my storyline was headed…right?) Blogger and podcaster Ryan Pelton acknowledges that others may call him a “heretic” but editing as he goes is his go-to form of writing. In one post, he explains that not editing until the end meant his “motivation to edit went out the window.”

Of course, it’s different for everyone, and, while we’re at it, who wants to define editing? For me, if, when typing out a sentence, one of the resident voices-in-head screamed, “No! Use ELUCIDATE!” I listened. Sometimes the voices-in-head were having a philosophical conversation that was one part Mark Twain saying, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent one will do” and one part high school English teacher asking “What would Strunk and White say?” In those cases, I tried to highlight or bold the problem area and return to it later. Grammarian Liz Bureman says, “If you’re on a four-day creative bender, stopping to edit will slow your momentum and may leave you struggling to pick up where you left off.” Excellent advice for those days we are bogged down by perfection.

When NaNoWriMo time arrived last year–where the goal is to get down 50,000 in one month–I revisited Ms. Bureman’s advice and realized that some days I was just going to need to write for writing’s sake. For some of us, we must force the grammarian in us to allow the creative self to just be. Allow for stream-of-consciousness writing. Allow for mistakes. Allow for imperfections. Allow our creative selves to go where they want to go. The grammar minutiae can wait. And on the days when it can’t, edit as you go. Find what works for you–and that may be different on the daily.

Writers, how do you deal with your inner grammarian whilst writing? Comment (and sign up for my mailing list here) and receive my newest editing helper: The Punctuation Primer in addition to a snippet of The Devil Inside Me.

Readers, what are some things you wish writers would edit out? What do you consider “too much” when you’re reading? Is it dialog? Description? Comment (and sign up for my mailing list here) and receive my newest editing helper: The Punctuation Primer. Even if you aren’t writing a novel, my Punctuation Primer will help you look like grammar nobility in your emails and posts! You’ll also receive a snippet of The Devil Inside Me!