November, 2016

I’m happy to the report that for this first time since 2012, I won National Novel Writing Month. My total word count was 50,114.

The stats:

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I wrote literally every day. I don’t think I’ve written every single day for 30 days…ever. Some days I could only manage about 150 words, out of exhaustion or busyness, but 150 words are better than nothing and I’m really proud I was able to keep that streak. As you can see from my stats bar, I was around 5,000-15,000 words behind the target word count for almost all of the month. I think the momentum of forcing myself to write every day made me realize that I could and was going to win this no matter how behind I was.

As for my story: it’s sort of finished as a draft, but it’s also a hot mess that I think will need a complete rewrite. I’m considering rewriting it as a series of short stories, focusing on different characters, but I took the rest of last week off and plan to give it a reread this week. I woke up on December 1st still wanting to write and I can’t wait to get back to my story.

I’m proud that I was able to put my writing first this month, but between studying for the GRE in September and October and writing my story in November, I haven’t been reading as much. I’m doing a lot more non-fiction and article reading than usual, and now I’m craving a really good novel. I’m giving myself permission to relax and read as much as I please in December.

Now that I’ve caught you up with that…should we talk about the election? I know this isn’t a political blog, but I think it’s naive to see politics as something impolite to talk about when it has such a big impact on the world. My country elected a man who is arguably insane, unstable, and wildly ignorant. He’s a racist, misogynist, hateful little man and I will not call him my president. I’ve spent the month thinking about what I could do. I’m trying to have productive conversations with the people I love about how this is not normal, so that we won’t forget. Otherwise, I’m sort of at a loss. I feel powerless, because my country has elected a man who treats women like dogs, and women voted for him. We elected a man that has neo-nazis feeling victorious. I have trouble stomaching these things, but I know now is not the time to lie down in defeat.

I’m finishing up the application process for grad school to become a librarian. Going forward, we will need librarians, teachers, and writers that will promote information literacy, education, and free speech, and I plan to be one. I will continue with my life as previously scheduled, with a renewed fire beneath my feet. I will use this blog to promote reading, because books are the most valuable resource we have in fighting ignorance. The election was a wake up call that I can no longer be complacent or silent in my feminism or my belief in justice. I will encourage the women, girls, and other marginalized people in my life to never shut up, even when the backlash against our voices is strong. I hope you’ll join me.

My Top 5 Tips for Winning (and enjoying) National Novel Writing Month

I still feel like a rookie as I embark on my 11th NaNoWriMo project, but I think I have a little bit of wisdom to share. Big projects like this are all about finding what works for you and leaving the rest. The catch is that in order to find what works for you, you need to try the things that don’t work first.

Tip #1: Think About Your Story Before You Write It

I can’t tell you whether you should be a planner or a pantser – that’s a very personal choice. Do you write better with an outline or a plot summary, or do you find that hinders your creativity? You won’t know until you’ve tried – so I recommend trying a brief outline first, which will at least prevent you from being one of those people who signs up for NaNoWriMo but never writes a word because they have no idea what their story is.

I naturally lean towards pantsing in my writing, because no matter how hard I try I can never stick to an outline. For years I just started November with just a one-sentence story idea. After years of losing more years than I’ve won, I’ve decided that doesn’t really work. I need to grapple with my story at least a little bit if I want to write 50,000 decent words of it.

Tip #2: Try to Write Something Good (to an extent)

Many people advise that you shouldn’t worry about the quality of your writing during NaNo, and I think that’s mostly true for people who haven’t written stories before. The number one problem I see brand new writers face is this idea that writing is something other people can do, but not them. You have to show yourself that writing is actually all about making it up as you go along.

Those of us who want our NaNoWriMo drafts to succeed as partial first drafts that we can keep working on in the months to come may need to take a different approach. To keep your story cohesive, I recommend setting aside time before or after each writing day to reflect on what you’ve written, re-read and do basic edits. November is not the time for deleting or rewriting, but line edits are helpful. I also think re-reading what you’ve written after each day helps to maintain flow and continuity in your writing. In a past November I’ve accidentally switched from first to third person without realizing, mostly because I was forcing myself not to reread my work. This is a mistake that completely fucks up a manuscript and is pretty disheartening, BTW.

Revision also gives you a chance to catch plot holes before they turn into novel-destroying black holes. If you plan to continue your draft post-NaNo, you should try to fill them in before they get out of control or else you’ll end up trashing it all.

This advise goes against the general spirit of NaNoWriMo, which is to keep writing, don’t edit, and never look back. I’ve realized that that advice isn’t helpful to me, so I don’t plan to follow it, and you may find yourself feeling the same way.

Tip #3 – Write Something You Will Have Fun With

I am a bit loose about my outline this year, because, well, I never seem to be able to follow an outline. For this year’s project, I’ve prepared a sentence or two per chapter, with the chapters divided into parts. I have left a blank page for Part III, because I don’t have the ending clear yet, and I think I will have to write the first part before I do. How detailed your outline will be is up to you. I choose to give myself a little room to have fun with it. I want to be able to go off into tangents and spontaneous story lines if I want to.

Last year I was much more detailed, with scene spreadsheets and character bios (I used the Snowflake method). When it came time to write, I drew a blank and realized I had absolutely no connection to my story at all. I didn’t win last year, and I didn’t enjoy any of the 20,000 words I did write. In this way I realized strict outlining before I get a chance to write anything kind of kills my excitement. I much prefer to write the first few chapters in order to figure my story out.

This is maybe the most important tip I have about winning NaNoWriMo: make sure you enjoy your story. If that means you’re writing fanfiction, erotica or a memoir about all the people you hate – do it. You’re spending your free time on this because it’s something you want to eventually be proud of, but that doesn’t mean you need to write the next great American novel. Don’t be Jonathan Franzen – be you. Write something you will want to come back to day after day, and don’t be afraid to deviate from your outline and do something different if you notice you’re not in love with your story.

Tip #4 – Figure Out Your Tools Now

This year I will be using a combination of a paper notebook and Scrivener. I will use the notebook for my base outline, list of characters, and writing log. Scrivener will be used for my actual manuscript. I will also use the notebook for writing in during the day when I may not have my laptop.

I used to use Word and that worked fine, too. Scrivener is nice but not necessary. I like it mostly because it enables me to easily make my chapters separate documents and one big document at the same time. If you want to try it, they have a special NaNoWriMo free trial. I suggest you spend a little time fiddling around with the software and watching tutorials before you start writing, because it can be a little overwhelming.

You may end up writing with just a pen and paper. No method is better than any other, and what works for you is probably completely different. Take the time now to consider what will help you work efficiently in November, so when it’s time to write, you won’t have to think about it.

Tip #5 – Inspire Yourself

Finding inspiration helps make things fun. Some people like to make novel playlists for inspiration. These can be full of songs that remind you of your characters and follow the emotional arc of your story, or just music you enjoy writing to. Mostly I plan to have my favorite public radio station on as background noise, so I don’t have to distract myself by being picky about which Bon Iver song I want to hear at the moment. But, also, Bon Iver is really great writing music.

This year I made a Goodreads tag of books that I think relate to my plot or general themes. You can see mine here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/778055?shelf=novel-research. I obviously don’t plan on reading them all this month, but if this project turns out to be something I want to seriously pursue, this list of books can help me with ideas.

I also made sure I have copies of all my favorite writing books on hand, just in case I need prodding. My favorites On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and The Writer’s Notebook series by Tin House.

If you find yourself completely uninspired, my best advice is to go for a walk outside. This may or may not help you come up with fresh ideas, but at least you’ll get some exercise.


Let me know if you have any other tips. Add me as a buddy on NaNoWriMo if you plan on participating this year, and we can check in with each other about what’s working and what’s not. Good luck and happy writing!

On Failing, and A Review of Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Next month is NaNoWriMo month, as always, which reminds me that I’ve participated every year since 2006 – I was 15 and thought for sure I was some sort of wunderkind who would be published before I graduated college. These are the sorts of goals failures regularly have.I lost my first NaNoWriMo, and I never stopped trying again after that.

After I made it through college without publishing anything (I was notably rejected from my own school’s literary magazine, of which I was an editor my senior year), I had a new goal: be published by 25. I had been humbled by my failure to succeed right out of the gate, but I was still sure of my talent in the way only the young and/or truly untalented can be.

I’ve been thinking about failure a lot lately, along with a lot of other people – there’s a whole section on the TED website about the matter, and one TED talk on persevering through failure is now a popular pop psych book.

I’m 25 now and I’m rethinking what my success will look like. It’s no longer a matter of time but of shape. How will I fit writing in at the corners of my real life? How will I create work I find satisfying? How will I use writing to communicate with strangers, and tell the stories of the people I love with compassion? How will art change me? Everything else seems small in comparison.

I don’t plan on being published anytime soon. I’m just not there yet. My 15 year old self would be devastated – if being a writer is so important to me, and I’m not producing work good enough to be published, what does that say about me? I think, after all, it doesn’t say much. I could miss every deadline, and fall short of every expectation I have for myself, and no matter what the drive to write is still there. That’s the kind of passion they make TED talks about. I’m really excited for this November – I always am.


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I recently finished Margaret Atwood’s new novel Hag-Seed, which is a retelling of the The Tempest by Shakespeare. It got me thinking a lot about failure, too, because the main character, Felix, is a failed director who ultimately triumphs in a wacky but heartening way.

Felix is fired from his job as the artistic director of a theatre company right in the middle of a production of The Tempest, which is cancelled shortly after. Felix is upset at losing his job, but what especially pains him is that he had been planning The Tempest to be a sort of tribute to his three year old daughter, Miranda, who passed away. After he is fired, he moves away from civilization and isolates himself. He lives with the memory of his daughter in a literal sense; she is like a friendly ghost that he lives with like a real daughter. After a few years he decides to take a job teaching literacy at a local prison. He does this, of course, by teaching the inmates how to put on Shakespeare plays.

When he gets a chance to seek revenge against the people who had him fired all those years ago, he does it by finally putting on his Tempest. Even in a prison, with inmates for actors, with a heart desiring nothing but revenge – Felix puts everything into his work. He’s a somewhat strange and flawed character, but I fell in love with him nonetheless.

Truthfully, I know nothing about The Tempest, except a vague recollection of reading it in 8th grade English class. Luckily, this novel doesn’t require any knowledge of the play or Shakespeare, and it does a good job of not carrying on as if everyone reading the novel is familiar with the play.

In conclusion, Margaret Atwood remains a patron saint of this blog.

Loner by Teddy Wayne

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David Federman is a new freshman at Harvard and Loner is the story of his first semester. Despite David overdoing his SAT vocab words, Wayne’s writing is readable enough to convey the wide-eyed hopefulness of the first few days of college with scenes of dorm ice breakers and syllabus hand-outs. It seems like a standard autumnal coming-of-age story, but the story turns upside down as we get to know David a little better.

David is an awkward, mumbly, obnoxiously bright teenager who hopes to leave his lonely high school days behind him. He begins his college experience with dreams of admiration and success, and he becomes infatuated with Veronica Wells, a fellow freshman who lives in his building. She’s from a wealthy Manhattan background, the daughter of a father who works in finance and a socialite mother. She is effortless and cool and David considers her the key to his college glory.

The novel continues with David telling the story of his first semester like a letter to Veronica, referring to her as “you.” I thought this was a little too similar to Caroline Kepnes’s recent novel You, but Loner is a bit more realistic. (It is worth noting that David is just as much of a creepy, entitled dweeb as the narrator of You.)

David dates Veronica’s roommate, the adorable and sweet Sara, to get closer to the object of his obsession. There are a few scenes where David takes advantage of Sara to get sexual experience; his reasoning is that he wants to know what he is doing once he wins over Veronica, and it’s not only creepy but chilling how David sees nothing wrong with his behavior. This novel is not for people who need to like a main character, because David Federman is one of the most despicable characters I’ve read. At first he seems like a slightly arrogant nerd whose insecurity makes him a little bit of a jerk, but as the story progresses it’s clear that he completely lacks empathy for others.

Wayne created an entertaining and deeply upsetting character with David Federman and Loner is a page-turning story. It’s equally funny and disturbing, nostalgically collegiate and contemporary in its reflection of current issues. I highly recommend it for people who like unreliable narrators.

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Hello! I always find it so awkward to begin a post when I haven’t posted anything for a while. I’m not going to apologize, because I’m trying not to apologize for things that don’t actually bother anyone. For instance, I have this habit of apologizing when I almost bump into someone on the train. When I do bump into someone on the train, I apologize twice. When someone else bumps into me on the train I also apologize. Last year I was on an Amtrak to Boston and the girl next to me dropped her notebook, which I had nothing to do with. The exchange went like this.

Girl on the Amtrak shifts a little bit, and the notebook on her lap falls on the ground.

Me: Sorry.

Girl on the Amtrak: That’s okay, you didn’t do anything.

She picks up her notebook.

Me: That’s true. Sorry.

Doing this isn’t endearing, it’s wishy-washy and annoying. So, ladies: let’s not apologize unless we actually do something wrong. If you’re anything like me you probably have enough to apologize for without apologizing for all the stuff you can’t help.


I turned 25 in July and I have since been in an everyday panic where I wake up clutching my to-do list and groaning. I am planning on applying to grad school this winter. I am studying for the GRE, which is hard because I essentially forgot how to math. I am worrying that the people who I will ask for recommendations are going to be all, “Who dis?” I’m worried that I will study and apply and be recommended and still not get in anywhere. I’m worried I will get in, do well, and graduate only to never find a job in my field. I am worried as I always am that on top of all of this people will also laugh at me! It’s a lot to be worried about all at once.

Right now I have a job as a paralegal. I am good at it and it’s not horrible. These facts plus health insurance somehow aren’t enough for me, because I’m greedy and I want a job that stimulates me. Sometimes when I’m frustrated with my day job I remind myself that both Lorrie Moore and Gary Shteyngart and probably a lot of other writers started out as paralegals. Cheryl Strayed was a waitress and Kurt Vonnegut sold cars. Writers can be found in basically every profession. I don’t mind writing on the outskirts of a day job, but I want a day job that will make me happy, too. It is pure and disgusting greed.


In January I signed up for Net Galley with aspirations to post a new book review every week. The problem is that I hate everything I write for this blog and I miss when writing felt like rolling on a skateboard downhill – fast and triumphant and you wind up with bugs in your teeth. In comparison it often feels clunky and strange to write book reviews.

I took an online class in February with GrubStreet and I remembered what it felt like to write with exhilaration again. I am never more productive than when I have an audience. I wanted to write about my experience with GrubStreet for a post but I never found the time and now it’s one of those things in the back of my memory, all foggy. Did I really write those stories? I never turned them into anything more than flash fiction for a class. But I did it, on top of my day job and my real life and everything. I made time to write. I could do it again. I could keep going.

I have trouble seeing my accomplishments as accomplishments. I forget them as soon as I do them, because I’m too busy thinking about what I have put off, what I was hoping I’d have accomplished by 25 vs where I actually am, and everything that is ahead. I dwell on all the ways I’ve screwed up. And I start to feel worthless, like no matter how hard I try I’m not good enough. But when I have time to screw my head back on I realize that I’m on my way, and I’m right on time. Those bad feelings and experiences and mistakes are supposed to happen to help me get where I’m going. 

I’m trying to ease up on myself and at the same time be better. It’s a balance beam sort of thing. I don’t want to force myself to keep up with a post schedule, but I want to keep going with this blog, and I want to write things I’m proud of. I want to keep reading and engaging with what I read which is why I’m here in the first place.


P.S. – Let me tell you about two books I’ve read recently.

FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff – I read this because I heard somewhere that Barack Obama liked it. It was released last year and as far as hyped up books of 2015 go, I think I like this one more than A Little Life, although the reading experience of A Little Life was more immersive throughout. Fates and Furies won me over only in the second half. The book is about a married couple, and the first half is the husband’s story, leaving the wife’s perspective somewhat mysterious. In the second half, for reasons, her perspective takes over. I loved the wife’s character; she reminded me of a Gillian Flynn narrator.

WE EAT OUR OWN by Kea Wilson – I received this as an ARC from Net Galley. This is a strange first novel from an MFA graduate, so naturally it was somehow both overwritten and vague. I can’t blame Wilson though; she’s definitely talented enough that it mostly worked. It’s based loosely on Cannibal Holocaust, an exploitation horror film from the 80s that caused a huge stir because of it’s horrific realism. This is a narrator-jumper, but the main character is an unnamed American actor who is told to fly to Columbia to star in a film which he discovers has no script and a crazy, moody director. The story is sliced up in bits divided with court transcripts of the trial that follows the release of the movie, when the director is accused of leading his cast and crew to violent ends. A lot of crazy stuff goes down and it’s pretty fascinating, although I felt it hard to follow because of some of Wilson’s techniques. For every character there seems to be a chapter in their point of view. Also, the chapters where we follow the actor are told in second person perspective (“you feel like this”, etc) which is my biggest pet peeve. Wilson explores the dissociative aspect of acting with this character and uses the technique to highlight it, but I still rarely like second person POV – it feels like a cheap trick in a desperate attempt to make a story more interesting.

The Grand Tour by Adam O’Fallon Price

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The Grand Tour is a charming novel about the unlikely partnership of a washed up writer and a 19 year old college student on the verge of dropping out. The heart of the novel is Richard Lazar, an alcoholic twice-divorced Vietnam war veteran. He meets the young Vance at the start of his tour for the war memoir Without Leave. Vance is Lazar’s biggest fan, and volunteers to pick him up from the airport when he comes to do a reading at the university. It starts to go wrong when Richard gets drunk before his reading and trashes the manuscript Vance wrote and gave to Richard to review. Despite his new success from his memoir, Richard tells Vance he should do anything but be a writer.

Once he sobers up, Richard invites Vance along on his book tour to make it up to him. The rest of the novel details their travels as Vance drives the cranky, drunken Richard to his reading stops. Richard quits drinking and then starts up again. In between chapters, we get snippets of Without Leave, a memoir-within-the-novel that is supposed to give us a sense of why Richard is such a screw up – it’s a standard The Things They Carried-esque war cliché, full of senseless violence and youthful confusion. Along the road they meet up with Richard’s daughter, who has bitter memories of a childhood spent pining over the attentions of her father, who was usually too hungover to have anything to give.

By the end of the novel, it’s clear that it isn’t his history in the war that makes Richard Lazar the man he is. There’s a certain desperation for desperation’s sake about the characters in this novel. They create their own trouble, but they eventually find peace from the journey their desperation forces them on.

Price has written a strong first novel, fully realized and built with strong empathy for his characters. It’s not a coming-of-age story and it’s not a road trip story–it doesn’t have that easily wrapped up satisfaction, but I do feel that I went on a worthwhile journey with the two characters in his book.

Quick thoughts on some non-fiction

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Jessica Valenti came to my college when I was a senior, and I don’t remember her talk as much as I remember how excited I was to see her talk. I had just devoured The Purity Myth and it made me want to crush the patriarchy in ways only  women studies minors know how – attend Jessica Valenti talks in the student union, I guess?

Her writing at that time was easy stuff to digest: no means no, the world is full of double standards, women are allowed to enjoy sex, etc. I remember being a high schooler and deciding I was a feminist, pre-tumblr, and realizing that everyone, most of my teachers included, thought the term feminist was distasteful. Writers like Valenti gave us the words to use as we set out in the world as new feminists. The culture regarding feminism has changed so much that I find it crazy that just 7 years ago, when I was graduating high school, no one I knew wanted to call themselves a feminist. Jessica Valenti, with her easy to read, conversational essays, really helped turn internet-age feminism into the mainstream.

But in Sex Object, Valenti is no longer easy to digest. Here, she writes with a stark, ugly genuineness. She writes with anger at all the harassment, insecurity, and just plain bad sex she had to experience. She doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics like her abortions, sexual assault, and bad relationships with men. She talks about being a new mother and how awful and lonely it felt. All of these things, the bad sex included, are facts of life for women, but we are encouraged to sugar coat them – and Valenti, her middle finger in the air like Beyoncé, refuses to sugar coat anything.

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I don’t know how I feel about Elizabeth Gilbert. I never read Eat, Pray, Love, but I kind of hate all the criticism it gets from people/hipsters who haven’t even read it. I admire her more recent TED talks regarding creativity, but Big Magic didn’t really inspire me like I thought it would. She has some good wisdom in these pages – stuff about how making art is work, and you have to do the work to get to the sought-after flow state that makes art look easy…but then she also has a whole lot of poorly written mumbo jumbo that made me roll my eyes.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Sometimes I’ve had to watch as other people enjoyed successes and victories that I once desired for myself.

Them’s the breaks, though.

But them’s also the beautiful mysteries.”

If that garbage got past an editor, then I guess Gilbert is right – anyone can be a writer.

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My Year of Running Dangerously is not a book I’d recommend to anyone who isn’t a runner. It is basically one long training journal, detailing Tom Foreman’s training schedule as he ran a marathon, then as he immediately attempted the harrowing death-wish that is ultra marathoning. It isn’t written very well, and I found the dialogue to be especially annoying, because no one talks like that, least of all a teenaged daughter. I can’t stand memoirs where the dialogue feels like the author is writing bad fan fiction about their own life. But still, I liked it better than Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, if only for it’s refreshing lack of pretense.