Writing in the Margins #2: Choices

Last July I wrote a post called In the Margins, which was intended to be a series on being a writer with a day job. So where am I at now, a few months later?

I’m okay. I haven’t written anything I’ve liked in a long time. I lost NaNoWriMo, but this past week I’ve started re-writing the story I started with it. My goal is to write a series of short stories this year, hopefully some I like enough to submit for publication, but since I haven’t written anything I think is good enough in so long, I sort of feel pessimistic about it.

I took part in a Coursera class offered by the creative writing faculty of Wesleyan University focused on writing for NaNoWriMo, and I enjoyed it. The best things I wrote last year were a few hundred word prompt exercises I wrote for those classes. I guess the lesson there is that I should be doing more writing for writing’s sake, i.e. practice writing, rather than stressing out about not particularly having any stories I like. Eventually, a prompt could turn into something more.

And how is the work-life-writing balancing act going? Better. I spend less time stressing out about time than I did. This time last year, I was so drained and overextended and stressed out. My commute is shorter now and work doesn’t sap my energy as much and I’ve learned how to rest better. Do I sit down and write for an hour every morning? Well, no. Am I happier person? Yes.

In mid December of 2017 I decided I wanted to do a 100 day streak of meditation. I’m on day 26 now and I’m enjoying it a lot. Throughout the past year or so I’ve been hoping to get back into meditation, but I couldn’t make it a daily habit; I just couldn’t force myself to sit down and do it. But when I told myself I was going to do 100 days straight, no excuses, I knew I could do it. No day is too busy that I can’t take 10 minutes to sit down and make sure I didn’t break my streak. The lesson in that – and, luckily, the meditation itself is making me realize this as well – is that the difference between doing something and not doing something is the choice to do it, and we’re the ones who are in control of our choices. I need to choose to spend more time on my writing if I’m ever going to be any good.

Let’s make this a monthly check in post. I’ll be back next month to let you know if I’ve written anything good.

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I Quit NaNoWriMo and You Can Too!

It’s November 24, 2017, I have written 20,081 words of fiction this month, and last night I made the decision to throw in the towel on NaNoWriMo 2017.

I’ve done NaNoWriMo every year since 2005, and I’ve lost more years than I’ve won, but usually when I get this far in the month without quitting, I keep going. I won last year. Every time I win, I think, “This is it – I’m going to win every year from now on! I’ve got it figured out!”

But this year is different. I can’t catch up. More importantly – I don’t really want to. I don’t have any 7,000 word days in me at the moment. I have work, I have school, and you know what? I like my story too much to do that to it. Binge writing days are sort of fun, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that binge writing days in NaNo are the same as shooting a nerf gun at the paper tower that is your story. You might get words, but come December, you won’t be able to stomach looking at them.

So I’m going to keep working on this story, and I’m going to spend the last week of NaNo  focusing on finishing the semester strong. I might even add a few words to my NaNo count, but I’m not going to push for 50,000. I’m happy with 20,000; 25,000 would be amazing. Not just because I’m being gentle with myself – it really is a good amount to write in a month, as a graduate student with a full time job.

NaNoWriMo: I will see you in 2018. And now that it’s officially Christmas time, and the semester is coming to an end, I’m turning my attention to 2018 and what I want from it. What I want most of all is to work hard without being too hard on myself. I want to remember that good things are possible, but they take time – and they might take a little bit of failure. But if you can take failure, and find the tiny successes hidden underneath them, eventually – well, eventually you’ll probably end up writing a novel one day. Maybe. I don’t know. I haven’t really figured it out just yet. And I’m okay with that.

So, NaNo writers: how are you doing? Have you won already? Are you a quitter like me? What are you going to write in December?

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.

All I Do Is Win: NaNoWriMo 2015

I didn’t win. I had been planning that title for a while and I don’t know what else to call this post.

I finished November with 23,163 words of a “novel” or, let’s just say, a Piece.

In my creative writing classes in high school and college, we would always call every thing Pieces. Poetry, short stories, essays about your dad – all of it can be called a Piece. Now that I am out in the real world, stranded and alone, I prefer to call my writing the thing that it is: if it’s a poem, it’s a poem, if it’s a story, it’s a story. This here is a blog post. During my years of schooling the word Piece had taken on a sacred tint in my eyes. “Piece” meant something. A piece of your writing, like a piece of pie, was a gift you brought to your fellow writers, even if they all secretly hated you. Writing lately is more of a lonesome endeavor, but I will call this thing I wrote in November a Piece. Simply because I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a story.

The piece I wrote for NaNoWriMo was about a woman, her husband, their five year old son, and a dead body. I planned ahead of time this year, which normally I don’t bother with. I chose the Snowflake Method and worked on it all October. I had big dreams for this story. I was thinking Olive Kitteridge meets Gone Girl. It was going to be the creepy yet heartwarming tale of a small, scenic town and the dead bodies and unstable wives who reside there.

Once I started writing, I really hated my story. I hated my characters, and most of all, I hated writing so fast, because I was getting my own imagined facts mixed up. I kept forgetting what the town was called, what my main character’s mother was like, etc., and I could never go back and check because that would be against the rules of NaNoWriMo, namely the rule Write and Don’t Look Back. I kept running off the rails I had laid for myself the month before, so all my planning was for nothing.Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 10.36.56 PM

The triumphant part is that I both started and finished the month writing – I didn’t give up once it became obvious I would have trouble winning (See above: Picture me hanging my head around Day 16) . They are some days I skipped, but this year I successfully beat the syndrome that usually ruins November for me. Usually, I write all the way up until the middle of the month, have an off day, and then stop writing for the rest of the month.

I have been participating in NaNoWriMo since November 2006. I have done 10 whole NaNoWriMo projects. I spent some time yesterday reflecting on this…and realized, to my horror, that I almost always lose. It’s not something I really own up to, because every year I am so newly excited to start. But, yeah. Out of the 10 Novembers I have participated, I have only won three times. And one of those was Glee fan fiction.

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Most of 2011 was a blur.

So, why do I like participating every year? Rush writing doesn’t seem to result in any brilliance or enthusiasm from me. I guess I like the idea of working on a project in a month with a bunch of other people trying to do the same thing.

I wrote at least 20,000 more words than I wrote in October, and I feel excited to keep writing this month. That’s the most valuable part of participating – it helps me remember to make writing a daily practice. It’s not about winning or losing, or even making a specific word count. It’s simply about doing the work, and making it a priority.

Now, onwards. Let’s talk December Write Lots Please. DeWriLoPl. I made a spreadsheet to keep track of words, and my goal for this month is 5,000 words a week. The first thing I’d like to work on is rewriting my NaNoWriMo piece as a short story, because as a fiction writer I love redemptive arcs.


 

Here is what I read in November: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont (re-read), Revival by Stephen King, Little Girls by Ronald Malfi on audiobook, and The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. I’m currently in the middle of re-reading Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, and the Welcome to Night Vale novel.

Expect reviews soon on two of those. It’s a surprise which.

How was your November? Did you write anything? DID YOU WIN? Or did you just read something really good? Let me know, because I could use some inspiration.

Why I Still Write

I went to a tarot card reader last week. After she spent some time on my love life, she asked me if I had two jobs at the moment. I shouldn’t have, but I threw her a bone to chew on. I told her I had one job, but I was also a writer. I said it sheepishly, because I am embarrassed about being a writer these days. When I tell people I’m a writer it’s sort of like telling them I have a mole on my thigh that I’m going to get checked out soon. They make a pretty sad face.

My reader made me flip up some cards for her about my writing. She told me all was not lost, but something something, I don’t know. She was kind of full of shit. She said she saw an older woman in my future who would be my agent. She told me writing would be a thorn in my side for my entire life, but I would publish. She said I’m an impatient person and I need to be better at revising. Then she went back to talking about my love life.

So I’ve been thinking about this lately–what my writing is in the grand scheme of things. Is it a job? A hobby? A waste of time? Pretentious to even spend so much time thinking about it?

I don’t make any money from my writing, because I haven’t been published. I have yet to write anything worthy of being published–I am not one of those people bitterly wondering why magazines won’t publish me. I know why. So, it makes sense to call writing a hobby, as it is something I will gladly put my time and money into without any promise of benefit.

Right now my main hobby is running, which took me a few tries to get into. I have pretty pathetic lungs. Let’s just say running isn’t always fun. But I found things I liked about it–I liked getting better, in small but noticeable ways. (My lungs don’t burn anymore! I can run a 5k in less than 30 minutes! I only fall sometimes!) I like the feeling of keeping myself accountable, and feeling like I accomplished something when I do improve. But I know I will never win any races. I just don’t have that natural talent. So it’s a hobby, and I don’t mean to disparage hobbies–there can be a lot to gain from hobbies. It’s just that the ambition isn’t always there. The only person I compete with is myself, at the end of the day.

I would be lying if I said I don’t feel my own ambition gnawing on me when I write. I want to be good, not just better.

I don’t have a natural talent for writing, but I spent most of my childhood reading rather than going outside, which means I have more of a flare for words than, say, beach volleyball. If I have any natural talent, it’s in my ability to observe myself and others and think about it enough until I can grind it down into some sort of thought that reflects the way I view the world. I think of my brain like a meat grinder, basically. And I need this because otherwise I just can’t handle being a human very much. It’s like, you get broken up with? Take those feelings, put them all in the meat grinder that is your brain, and spit out a poem, shape it however you want. You’ll feel a little bit better, I promise. This is also what books were to me growing up. If I felt sad or lonely, there were characters in books that felt the same, and I felt better.

When I’m not writing regularly, I don’t feel like myself. I feel like I am skirting my own responsibility. This is why I think of it like a job, even though there’s no money and no boss and let’s face it, I don’t really need to do it at all. But when I don’t make time for it, I am letting myself down. It’s really not about the passion or desire to write, at the end of the day. It is this feeling of responsibility to myself.


When I have a good writing session, it is a relief. It feels remarkably similar to getting up to stretch my legs after a long drive. The problem is that it isn’t always that way–somedays, everything I write feels stiff, clumsy, and boring. I’ve been feeling like this a lot lately.

Writing is fun when I have already trudged through the mud of a story to get to the part where it flows. After that, my mind suddenly feels organized, and everything has a point. It is like clearing a cluttered table. It is satisfying. When it’s good a story gets to the point where your brain is drunk on it all the time, and everything in your life is more interesting and useful because of it.

Ever since I read Tenth of December, this quote from George Saunders from the little special edition part of the book has obsessed me:

“What I think good writing does: It enlivens that part of us that actually believes we are in this world, right now, and that being here somehow matters. It reawakens the reader to the fact and the value of her own existence. How? Hmm. Well, maybe just by holding the things of the world up for examination in a semi-sacred way. Just the act of reading ‘The dog licked his ass, not even budging as the huge riding lawn mower powered past and the sky clouded ominously’ makes us suddenly think about dogs/asses/lawn mowers/clouds – and I’d say that this reminder (this momentary redirection of our attention) makes dogs/asses/et al. holy again, in a certain sense.”

Because: exactly. Reading and writing are sort of ‘soft’ interests. They’re easy to dismiss as unimportant. But I chose them, because writing is the best way I have found to connect with the world around me. To remind me that life is important. There are other ways, but this is the way that has been given to me. Not a gift like a talent but a gift like an offering. I have a responsibility as a human being to cherish and grow whatever it is that makes me feel closer to the world around me.

The problem is the pressure I feel to prove something, the feeling that being a “writer” means something other than just being a person who writes. If I were an actual writer, I would be published by now, or I would have at least written something I felt was good enough to publish. If I had actual talent the world would constantly sing my praises, obviously. If I were any good at all, it would take me less than six months to finish a story. I feel like this most when I am out of touch with why I do this in the first place. When it starts to feel like just a way to get people to notice me, I don’t feel like an actual writer at all. And then I am not entirely sure what I actually am.

I haven’t felt the relief much lately, that satisfied feeling when the words come out, simple and true and easy. The current status of my writing life is this: words come out and they are very slow and very bad. But I am still writing.

This is all part of it: the connection, the disconnection, the wading through mud. I’m learning how to trust the process. All is not lost.


This is all just to say I will be taking a hiatus from this blog in November, because I want to concentrate on NaNoWriMo, which I do every year but haven’t won in a few. I’m challenging myself this year to write 1) A lot and 2) Something Not Bad and 3) All of it fiction. So, sorry blog, see you in December.

If you are participating and want to connect, please add me as a buddy. I would love to see what sort of stories you are all writing!