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!

Chicago Writing Workshop

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It’s not too late! There are still open spots for you to sign up and attend the Chicago Writing Workshop that’s happening on Saturday, June 23. If you’re looking for a conference that won’t break the bank (especially if you’re near Chi-town and don’t need a hotel), check this one out. Likewise, if the thought of spending two or more days with a bunch of strangers is terrifying, this is a one-day 9-5 workshop. You can do lunch all by yourself if you so desire.

Bonus: It’s held at the architecturally beautiful Congress Plaza hotel, which also happens to feature prominently (read: murder scene!) in my novel, The Devil Inside Me.

Registration is just $169. I thought that a fair price for what’s offered. Literary agents, editors, and authors deliver most of the workshop sessions. And for each of the five breakout blocks, there are three sessions to choose from. Some are applicable to everyone, such as “Pursuing a Small Press Publisher,” and some are geared to specific genres: “How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal,” “How to Write and Pitch Awesome Science Fiction and Fantasy,” “How to Get Your Young Adult and Middle Grade Novels Published,” “Tell Me True: Tips on Writing Memoir and Essay.”

I’m particularly looking forward to the “Query Letter Comprehensive” session since that is the next step on my list after these edits that seemingly never end.

For reasonable add-on fees, you can also pitch agents and editors of all genres ($29 per). Several are sold out of time slots, but to give you an idea of the caliber we’re talking about, here’s just a few on the list: Emily Clark Victorson, Marcy Posner, Tracy Brennan, Abby Saul…

Sound like a decent deal? I thought so. I’ll let you know how it went afterward–and if you’re attending, I’d love to meet!

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. 

Excerpt #2 from The Devil Inside Me

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Another excerpt from The Devil Inside Me! Meet Detective Davis Dunleavy, our protagonist, as he encounters the first crime scene. I’d love to hear your feedback via comments, and if you’d like to read more, sign up for my emailing list here!


Detective Davis Dunleavy slammed his car door shut and promptly pulled his coat collar up around his neck. Crime tape stretched across the revolving entry doors, where the Museum of Science and Industry placed a sign apologizing for the temporary closure. He flashed his badge at the rookie positioned at the door.

The cavernous lobby was eerily quiet. He saw a few patrons, witnesses detained by the museum’s security guard, sitting just outside of the gift shop, and a dozen or so museum employees hanging around the ticketing registers. A giant steam locomotive looked as if it were coming directly at him. He headed for the escalator.

“Supposed to be your day off, Davis?” The voice came from behind him. He turned to smile at Adele Murphy.

“How’d you know?”

“Wrinkled shirt.” She winked and jabbed him in the arm. “Just like college.”

He jabbed her back, careful to avoid her massive camera bag.

“I’m just a stand-in. Armstrong and Bucalo from Organized Crime are knee-deep investigating that bid-rigging business. The FBI has set up shop on the 7th floor. And, since my stalwart partner is out in Montana for bereavement leave, Bowers sent me.”

“That’s too bad about Jon’s mother,” Adele said. “Wait–you’re back-up for Organized Crime now?”

“I guess I am today. Any clue what this is about?”

“They didn’t tell you?” she said, incredulous.

Davis shook his head as he stepped off the escalator. They flashed their badges to another rookie and were waved to a corner of the first floor.

“Murder.”

A marvelous yet grotesque sight greeted them. This museum didn’t play: from three-story tornadoes to a full-size German u-boat, it was a place of learning and discovery for both children and adults, and it was enormous–one of the biggest in the world. The DNA and the Devil in the White City display alone was 3700 square feet in an octagonal space. Intended to be a supplement to the genetics exhibit (famous for its chicken hatchery), ten foot tall DNA helices stood on either side of the exhibit’s entrance, but the first thing visitors saw was H.H. Holmes’ now-familiar face gazing out from the wall furthest from the entrance–a full two-stories tall, eyes leering with the effect of watching a patron no matter where they stood. Along the bright white walls were explanations and hands-on activities relating to the collecting and extracting of DNA, and what genetic markers were and how they helped identify bodies and clear suspects. An infographic proclaimed, “Your genome is an instruction manual for how you grow throughout life. You get half your DNA from your father, and half from your mother. Did H.H. Holmes pass on a serial killing genome?” A replica of Holmes’ concrete-encased double-grave was at the center of it all.

Most of the police concentrated their attention along one of the side walls, titled “Identifying Murder Victims…and Their Murderers.” Davis nudged Adele and pointed.

“Fitting,” he said.

As they moved forward, a large, antique-looking steamer trunk at the foot of the display came into view, and in it was a body. At first glance, considering the macabre nature of the rest of the exhibit, it almost looked like it belonged–except it was freshly dead.

“Hey, Chapman.” Davis nodded in the direction of the officers standing guard. “Avery. You guys have been promoted from front door duty, I see?”

Avery grinned. “Yep. Only took six months.”

“How’s life, Dunleavy?” Chapman asked.

“Better than this poor soul’s.” Davis craned his neck at the crime scene as he pulled on latex gloves. Another infographic explained that DNA could have been collected from one of Holmes’ trunks to help identify both the victim and the killer if only the technology had been available–or if they still had one of the trunks because of trace DNA.

“Yeah, crazy, isn’t it? Never thought we’d get a call for a murder up here. Figured it’d be someone trying to steal something.”

“No kidding. What have you found so far? Fill me in.”

“Whatcha see is whatcha get,” Chapman said. “No one seems to know how this girl got here. And in the trunk no less.”

“M.E. on the way?” Davis asked.

“Yep.”

“Any guesses on the time of death?”

“Not ’til the M.E. gets here, but we know there was no body in the trunk as of 6am this morning,” Avery pointed out.

“Oh?” Davis replied, walking around the trunk. “How do you know that?”

Avery tossed his head across the room.

“The tall brunette over there. Says she was the last one in here–at least before the body arrived. That guy–” Avery nodded in the opposite direction. “He checked in on things at 8am and 8:45am, but only to make sure the lights were on. He couldn’t say if there was a body there or not.”

Davis raised an eyebrow. Avery spread his hands wide.

“I know. Said he was checking the lights.”

“Do they have security tapes?”

“Working on it.”

“Thanks, Ave.” A bright flash lit up the already very white display as Adele began to photograph the scene. Chapman shielded his eyes.

“Man. Whoever created this show really went for the White City theme,” Chapman said.

“Like Burnham did,” Avery replied.

“Burnham?” Davis asked.

“He had all of the Exposition buildings whitewashed so they looked like they were glowing.” Chapman stepped aside to make room for Adele. “Plus they used streetlights on the Midway.”

“Exposition?” Davis asked again.

“The Columbian Exposition of 1893? The World’s Fair?” Surprise was in Avery’s tone.

“Ah. The World’s Fair,” Davis replied.

“You didn’t know that?” Chapman asked, eyes wide with doubt.

“Sounds vaguely familiar. Don’t know much about this–” Davis waved his hand around the exhibit.

“You live under a rock, Dunleavy? You almost can’t miss this stuff these days,” Chapman said. “I mean, no offense, but it’s everywhere.”

“No offense taken.”

“This sounds like one for you. Like the Petoskey case,” Avery said. “Who the hell would do this?”

“Not for me, boys. The Chief called up Organized Crime, but they’re busy with the Feds.”

“Organized Crime? Geez.” Chapman screwed up his face and hesitated. “Say, Ave, this doesn’t seem like Organized Crime to me. You?”

Avery was shaking his head. He turned to Davis. “I know we’re rookies and all, Dunleavy, but when’s the last time you saw any type of gangster put a body all nice and neat like in a trunk–and then put it in a museum for everyone to see?”

“Can’t say as I have, Avery.” He snapped off his gloves.

What Makes a Serial Killer?

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On April 4th, Fourth and Sycamore published my short story, “Downright Devilish,” which is the first in a series of shorts to re-imagine the childhood of Dr. H. H. Holmes, Chicago’s (allegedly) first serial killer. Holmes, whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett, grew up in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, in the 1800s. (You can read more about him on this blog post.)

When I began learning about Holmes, what fascinated me the most was the eternal question of what makes a serial killer? Is it nature or nurture? Was his overbearing father enough to turn him into a quiet killer, or was he simply born without compassion and conscience? I found plenty of ideas in my research notes and the death records for Gilmanton which led to this short story series. After you read “Downright Devilish,” read “Diabolical” here!

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Plotting vs. Pantsing

nanowrimo.jpgIt’s April, and that can only mean one thing: Camp NaNoWriMo! National Novel Writing Month is technically November, when crazy ambitious writers all around the world strive to “win” NaNoWriMo by writing 50,000 words in that one month. April’s Camp NaNoWriMo is similar, but each writer sets an individual goal. Some may stick with 50,000 words; some may be trying for writing ten minutes a day. The camaraderie is beyond inspirational!

One of the quintessential questions of NaNoWriMo is this: Are you a plotter or a pantser–or the combination of plantser? When I did NaNoWriMo the first time, I was a *pantser: a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer. 

In my defense, I had already started that novel prior to NaNoWriMo. I knew where it began, I thought I knew where it was going, and I had a rough idea of how it would get there, so writing out a plot line seemed overkill. I mean, it was all in my brain. And writing is a creative endeavor, not one to plot out, right?

Sort of. Depends. Kinda.

The problem: I hadn’t thought through how some of my plot points would connect (or not). I had a couple of endings in mind, but they seemed impossible to get to, even once I was 50,000+ words in. I didn’t give up right away. I went back and re-worked scenes, moved scenes around (shout out to Novelize), edited, edited, edited. I just couldn’t get it right. So I shelved it. (You can read more about that here.) I do think it’s salvageable, but I think it will need to sit for awhile–and likely, I’ll start pretty much all over. Except this time I’ll plot before I start. This was a lesson I took with me into my current WIP.

I was about 4,000 words in The Devil Inside Me before I did any major plot sketching. I had my idea–then the idea for making it a trilogy–but thanks to my previous experience, I wanted to know where I was going with it before I was 50,000 words in. 

I did some research and came across the “snowflake” method for planning. I loved the idea of taking a one sentence summary of my story and expanding from there. I came up with my suspects and how they’d fit. I decided upon the locations of the murders–and the order in which they’d occur. I gave my poor protagonist a fatal flaw from hell. And I determined which Chicagoans were going to bite the proverbial bullet.

Magically, plot holes appeared. Shouldn’t I have this murder occur at that location? Shouldn’t I have this person die instead of that one? This non-linear method worked so well for me that before long, I was ready for the linear. I created a spreadsheet of scenes. More plot holes. I could see where the story became protagonist-heavy and antagonist-heavy, where I’d need to do some more research. Other obvious issues made themselves known, including my favorite: person A could not have been 18 during a crime committed ten years ago if they are only 21 today. (Did I mention I teach English and not math?)

Knowing these gaps in the beginning made writing that much easier. I still don’t want to try to control every detail because not doing so will allow some spontaneity and creativity to live in the process.  Has it been perfect? Not on your life. But has it given me direction and the freedom to sit down and pound out some good word counts? You bet, especially when you’re working full-time and trying to cram in 2000 words a day. If you’ve tried plotting and failed miserably, give the snowflake method a try. There is no one-size-fits-all writing handbook, after all.

Writers, who has NaNoWriMo’d? Did you love it? Hate it? Win? Fail miserably? Are you a plotter, pantser, or plantser? Share your strategies!

Readers, what are some stories you’ve read that have an impeccable plot that seems perfectly planned? Writers would love to read your well-loved examples!

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*Confession: Not having a plan is completely and utterly counterintuitive to who I am as a person, but for some reason, writing does not fit into that order for me. As a teacher, my lesson plan units for every class are all tabbed, labeled, divided, and in the same size, color, and brand of binders.  My clothes hang in rainbow (and sleeve-length) order in my closet. I once had a co-worker move everything on my desk to see if I could work without changing everything back first. I couldn’t. I’m that person.