The Moral of the Story: What I Learned from NaNoWriMo

Even though there was a rehearsal dinner, a wedding, a weekend spent upstate visiting my beloved roommate, Thanksgiving, and, at the very end, a very nasty head cold, I survived and WON NaNoWriMo this year!  Hurray!

I now have a very crappy, embarrassingly awful, but decently plotted 56,000+ word novel (I only wrote 50,000 words this month, but I had 6,000 words previously written for this story).

No Plot?  No Problem!, which I actually found to be quite good company throughout the month of literary abandon, recommended that I celebrate with champagne.  Being that I looked (according to my mother) and felt a bit like death warmed over, I settled for some very delicious and throat-soothing chocolate ice cream instead.  And then I rewarded myself again and had some for breakfast this morning.

NaNoWriMo was quite the experience and I learned a lot about myself and my abilities as a writer.  I went to regional library write-ins and met some great people; some of whom have done NaNo before and actually self-published their previous manuscripts and were working on the sequels this month.  I feel successful and accomplished on one hand, and completely terrified about how much I might hate the whole book when I go to edit it in a few weeks on the other.  But nevertheless, even if I have to rewrite the whole book and realize that my writing skill itself hasn’t improved, I think I’m a better writer and now have better writing habits because of NaNo.

Most Important Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo 2011:

  1. Writing out of order is perfectly acceptable.  I got really stuck half-way through Week Two because I was writing under the unconscious assumption that I needed to write each scene, as much as I dreaded it or could not think of what exactly happened next, as they occurred in chronological order.  So when one of the pep talks encouraged us to write out of order, it was completely liberating.  Being allowed to hop around my manuscript and dump a scene or one thousand words wherever the mood struck me was much more effective and fun.
  2. It’s not that hard to write a whole novel in a month.  Yes, I had to give up blogging, tweeting (for the most part), exercising (which was not ideal considering the fact that it was Thanksgiving), and generally reduce the amount of television I watched.  But I was shocked by how much extra time I had after finishing my daily quota.  I had plenty of time to bake, see my family, read (though, admittedly, most of my reading was reduced to audiobooks during my never-ending commute and while waiting in doctors’ offices), and sleep.  Now that I know I can do it, pushing myself to write a book in two months seems completely reasonable.
  3. Accept that the first draft will be awful and write the whole crappy thing so that there’s a beginning, middle, and end before editing.  I normally do this with short stories, but with past book attempts I kept editing individual chapters before moving onto writing the next chapter.  With my NaNoWriMo manuscript, I figured out that you don’t really know where the plot will end up going; with all the twists and turns, you’re going to have to end up rewriting and reorganizing the first chapters anyway—something that was originally a red herring is not critical, and needs to be fleshed out, for example—so don’t waste your time or use those first three chapters as an excuse of why you haven’t written the rest of the book.\

How was everyone else’s November?  Did you do NaNoWriMo?  Did you write something less lengthy, less messy, but equally fabulous?  Did you get any awesome writing accepted for publication somewhere?

The Cure to Writer’s Block: Tell the Story Behind PostSecrets

Two weeks ago I attended the PostSecret event at Rutgers University, Camden campus with my younger sister.  For those of you who don’t know, PostSecret is a community art project started by Frank Warren a handful of years ago where people send in anonymous postcards inscribed with a secret they’ve never shared before and Frank posts a collection of them on the Postsecret blog every Sunday; some of you might remember its initial launch to fame with the All American Reject’s popular music video.

 

Since then, Frank has compiled five PostSecret books–the newest one being Confessions on Life, Death, and God

and has done hundreds of presentations on the lecture circuit.  Two weeks ago, people revealed secrets varying from embarrassing public peeing experiences, to admitting considering suicide, to getting down on one knee and proposing to a girlfriend left completely out of the loop until that moment (this kind of made my sister and mine’s lives).

Wedding Proposal Rutgers University, Camden 2011

Wedding Proposal at PostSecret Event

All it took was a single sentence; a single honest, trembling-voice sentence and the entire room felt like they knew the speaker.  Secrets are like an introduction to a person; their hopes, fears, and driving motivations.   As I sat there listening to people’s secrets, I felt like I was surrounded by characters.  When writing fiction, sometimes I have a hard time identifying what the main character’s driving motivations are; I have a hard time rationalizing what they should/would say or do because I don’t know what makes them tick.

Secrets are what make people tick.  I’ve talked about this recently concerning  family ancestors and the need to dig up those secrets to write good memoir.  When writing fiction, as the author, you need to know your characters secrets; if you know their inner-most secret, then you’ll know how they’ll react to every scene you put them in.  The audience doesn’t have to know that secret until the end of the book.  Theory: this is a good writer’s dirty little secret.

Here’s my favorite writing prompt: go to the PostSecret blog, or pick up one of the books and read until you connect with a particular secret.  Use it as the first sentence to a new story; it can be your story–one thing Frank mentioned during the event was that a lot of people have the same secret–or a fictional character’s story.  It can be a story about what lead them to admit that secret; the emotional struggle that led them to physically mail it in.

What’s your character’s secret?

Submission Fee: $100; Getting Published: Priceless?

Perhaps I’ve ignored this for a while because I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but writing is an expensive profession.  The physical materials–paper, pens, ink cartridges–are reasonable, but the money you have to shell out to get your work published makes a pretty significant dent in the bank account.  I’ve started keeping track of my expenses for tax purposes and it’s staggering to add up how much I’m actually spending on my writing.  In the last month alone:

New South submission fee: $2.50

The Madison Review submission fee: $2.00

Tiny Texas House Writing Contest fee: $50.00

Press 53 Annual Writing Contest: $17.00

Writer’s Digest YA Short Fiction Contest: 2 submissions at $20 each; $40

The Potential Chance of Getting Published: Priceless?

Everyone keeps arguing that “vanity publishing” and “self-publishing” is so expensive that it makes the practice ludicrous.  But, at this point, I feel that traditional publishing is just as expensive (except it’s sneaky so nobody realizes it) for the author and with less chance of it actually paying off.  With self-publishing, you’re published.  The End.  You paid the money and it happened.  But, with submissions and writing contests, you’re submitting money for no guarantee (not that author’s should have the right to pay publications money and expect to see their work in print; I totally believe in editorial review boards being selective).  From a personal financial point of view, is it worth it?  Will it ever pay off?

Television Rots Your Writer’s Brain

The other night my boyfriend and I set up on the couch in the family room; he to work on some accounting homework, and me to work on a short story.  Then my mom and sister came in and turned on the television.  I felt like I was in a psychology experiment.  For some reason my boyfriend was able to function perfectly fine with the television on in front of him–he actually got work done–but me?  Not so much.  With all the interesting dialogue and movement on the screen I was just too distracted to write more than two sentences.  And the two sentences I did write?  Let’s just say I crossed them out later because they were lousy.

When I want to write I need to burrow in a quiet place.  My brain simply cannot be expected to manage over-stimulation of the senses via T.V. and develop original plots, enduring characters, and charming turns of phrases at the same time.  But maybe that’s just me.  Where do you write?  Where can you manage to write?

Preferably, I like to write in my bedroom.  I sit at an antique wooden writing desk my dad gave me for my 18th birthday.  It has old-fashioned nooks and crannies for mail, clawed feet like antique bathtubs, and secret drawers for love letters.  My dogs, Cricket the Welsh Terrier and Beans the Hot Dog, like to keep me company by jumping up onto my bed within easy reach should I decide to thoughtfully stare off into space and pet them for awhile.  I considered taking a picture of the space to show you all but, honestly, it’s a bit of a mess right now with papers everywhere and it’s too embarrassing to post on the internet.

According to one study, television is actually bad for creative writers.  It clogs up their creative juices. Personally, I think watching television is good research–similar to reading a book–when your brain needs a reboot.  I just can’t research and write at the same time.  How does the television affect you when you write?

And the Versatile Blogger Award Goes To…

Me!  And many other lovely people.  First is was bestowed upon Katy and her blog The Storytelling Nomad and now she has shared it with twelve other bloggers,, myself included.  Thanks Katy!  My impression is that it’s like those chain letters we use to tape to our friends doors when we were in elementary school with threats of never-ending bad luck and potential fatality if we did not photocopy and distribute copies to a handful of other friends. Do you remember doing this?  I used to LOVE playing that game.  Anyway, I digress.

There are four simple rules for The Versatile Blogger Award:

  • Post a link to the person who gave you the award.
  • Tell your readers seven random things about yourself.
  • Award 15 newly discovered blogs.
  • Send them a note letting them know you nominated them.

Seven Random Things About Myself:

  1. I’m obsessed with the pattern plaid.  Seriously.  Even if it’s the ugliest object ever, if it’s covered in plaid I will mostly likely buy it unless reasoned with.  I was even given a roll of plaid duck tape for Christmas one year.
  2. On the topic of Christmas, I still write a letter to Santa with my younger sister every year.  We include a postscript to the reindeer, a plate of cookies, and carrots.  I don’t have much excuse–my younger sister is fifteen.
  3. Instead of “crap” I shout out “crumbs” when I am frustrated and am in need of a satisfying exploitative.
  4. I think 6-inch-heels are comfortable.  And I’ve never twisted my ankle wearing them.
  5. My favorite place in the world to visit is Sunset Beach in Cape May, NJ.  It’s the only place in the world where you can hunt for Cape May Diamonds.
  6. I can crack my hip joints on command.  Yeah, kinda gross to hear.
  7. I’m obsessed with family history and I make family members repeat stories and spell-out people’s names in old photographs in albums until they’re sick of me.  Ancestry.com is my new best friend and I spend way too much time on the website trying to find clues in the census records.

Nine Newly Discovered Blogs:

  1. After I Quit My Day Job is the blog of a funny Philadelphia-based writer, which makes me happy.  I feel like Philadelphia is a forgotten, empty, an non-creative city sometimes.  The blog was listed on the writing tag page earlier this week and it’s where I learned about skirt.com. Read Kat’s essay, Adventures in (M)anthropology, there.
  2. Publishing Lane is all about Samantha, who just graduated from college, got up and moved to New York City with the expressed intention of breaking into publishing.  Read to find out if she was successful!
  3. Switzy Thoughts is a really lovely writing blog I recently fell in love with.  I’m so happy every time she posts.
  4. Most of the blogs I follow are Tumblrs, so I’m just going to provide the link to the one that is most like a blog in that it is text-heavy rather than picture heavy.  Louisa May Today started in NYC, traveled to Seattle, and is now back home in Sydney, Australia.  Definitely worth backtracking and reading the archives.  If you don’t think it’s funny then you don’t have a soul.
  5. The Book Nook is a book review blog, covering mostly (and awesomely!) chick lit.  I just discovered this friend and this blog and love both :]
  6. Mr. Micawber Enters the Internet is the experiment of an independent bookstore owner who is posting lists of other indie bookstore owner’s favorite books of all time.  There is a new list every few days and it’s a great way to get some recommended reading from the best readers there are.
  7. Wish You Were Here is the beautiful personal blog of a writer talking about writing, mothering, running, cooking, and managing bouts of anxiety/depression.
  8. In their own words, Let the Words Flow “want[s] to get the word out about FictionPress authors who are breaking into the Real World of Publishing, and we want to be a source for new and young writers who don’t know anything about Publishing and need a friend to guide them through it.”
  9. Lily White LeFevre is another writing blog (noticing a theme here?) which I am very fond of.  Mostly writes about the composition process surrounding novels and full-length manuscripts

I know I’m breaking the original rules but I haven’t discovered any other new blogs as of late.  As soon as I fall in love with six more blogs at first sight, you’ll be the first to know.  Promise.  But while you’re waiting, how about you check out the blogs above?

My Burning House Moment: Going Back for the Memories and the Memoir

All 26 notebooks (I'm fond of marble composition books...and plaid ducktape)

I live on the coast of Pennsylvania.  This means that if New Jersey someday sinks into the abyss of the Atlantic Ocean, I would have beach front real estate (not that I wanted them to get washed away in the hurricane!  I’m not heartless!).  So for all of you hearing about New Jersey being a disaster zone, don’t forget about the little corner of the keystone state that was hit pretty hard too.  There are a lot of people who still haven’t gotten their power back and had to dump the rotten contents of their refrigerator.  My house was lucky in that we only got flooded and lost our phone/cable/internet for the past 3.5 days (hence why I did not update the blog properly, I’m sure you understand).

But one thing we did have that was rather unusual and terrifying was a Tornado Warning.  This is much more serious than a Tornado Watch.  Though some of you out in the middle states are probably laughing at me for getting so spooked because places like Kansas actually deal with real tornadoes (does Kansas get tornadoes?  Or is this a stereotype I picked up from Wizard of Oz?) my mom forced my sister and I into the basement to “wait it out.”

I admit it.  I was legitimately scared.  It was exactly like that time when I was a freshman in the dorms and there was a fire drill except I thought it was a real fire so I grabbed my teddy bear, my scrapbook, and my computer, shoved them in a gym bag and ran.  False alarm, but still.  It’s interesting to examine what’s important to you based on that panic-driven grab and flee process. On Saturday night, Mom said I had five minutes to drag all my blankets and pillows to the basement.  I spent most of those five minutes trying to decide, a la The Burning House, what I needed to save.  Well, actually, it only took me 30 seconds to decide what was the one thing I could not live the rest of my life without; the thing that I needed to protect from all forms of natural disaster: my memories.

I threw 30+ diaries (dating from 5th grade until present), my middle school and high school year books (these made the cut mostly because they were on the same shelf as all the diaries or else I wouldn’t have thought of them), and my external hard drive in a plastic packing case and, lifting the 50 pound crate with fear-inspired Herculean strength, managed to get it to the basement without pausing or setting it down once.  My scrapbook collection lives in the basement already, so those were already safe. [Edited and added:  forgot to mention that I was practical and also packed my glasses, so I wouldn’t be blind should my flimsy contacts fail me.  You’ve got to think ahead!]

The crate, my diaries and yearbooks, hiding in my tornado-free basement

Once, I misplaced one of my diaries.  It wasn’t even a diary that I had been writing in at the time, it was a few months old.  But I threw a fit, accusing my parents of stealing it to read (something they would never do), and I spiraled into a pit of despair.  I completely blacked out and couldn’t remember what had happened in my life during the few months that the missing diary chronicled. I felt like a huge chunk of me was missing and that I would never get it back.  I’m sure psychologists would have a few things to say about that, but I digress.

What I realized from my grab-and-go was that there is nothing more precious than our memories.  Sounds a little corny worded like that, but whatever.  I just want to encourage a little round of applause for writers who write memoirs, creative non-fiction, plain old non-fiction, autobiography, whatever you want to call it.  You’re preserving one of the most important treasures, in my opinion.

What would you grab-and-go with?

Organized Writer…Oxymoron?

Are you one of those people who get cold shivers of pleasure when you see the organized shelves ofttimes featured in Real Simple?  Or do you break out in a cold sweat?  As writers, we’re constantly being lectured about being organized: have a regular writing scheduled, have a regular submission scheduled, have an Excel spreadsheet that details the date, journal, and title of every submission you ever make.  Do any of you real writers actually do these things?  If you make efforts to stay organized, how do you stay that way?

I mentioned my writing calendar in a recent post and thought I should elaborate.  It’s not so much a calendar as a bunch of post-its and corners of notebook paper tacked up on the wall in chronological order.  Each card has a deadline date, the name of the writing contest or journal I plan to submit to, some basic bullet points for submissions (what they want, how long can it be), and information on how to submit.

As for keeping track of where I submit.  No, I don’t keep an Excel sheet even though I know I probably should.  But I do save

every submission in a new folder on my huge external hard drive, so I am never ever in danger of re-submitting the same story to the same journal twice.  (For the sake of self-preservation and your writing career, I believe in at least staying organized enough not to spam editors with stories they’ve expressed no desire for).  And I am truly in love with submishmash.com (marry me!) because it keeps records of everything for me in such a nice neat display.

What do you do to keep your stories organized?  Even if you’re not submitting them, how do you make sure you don’t lose all the short stories and various chapters to half-complete books?

And, while you wait to hear back from all those literary journals and agents…organize!