November is National Novel
Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. If you’ve never heard of NaNo, as it’s commonly
referred to, check it out here. The goal
is to get 50,000 words down on paper in the month of November. It’s November 20th
as I write this, and, well, let’s just say I’m not on track to hit that number.
At the rate I’m going, I’ll hit my NaNo word count maybe 12 days this month. Are you in the same sinking boat? Take heart! I’ve written a little parody to cheer up all of us NaNo-not-quites. I combined my NaNo failure with the excitement of the upcoming holidays. I present to you…
The 12 Days of NaNo (Note: In writer world, MS = manuscript.)
Welcome to November! Just as Julie returns to sporting themes periodically, I seem destined to return to NaNoWriMo around this time every year (see Ready, Steady, NaNo or Eeking out time to write). If you’re not participating in NaNo 2019, don’t x this article out! While NaNo was what got my gears turning, this article is aimed at anyone who’s been wanting to do something creative and new, but hasn’t…yet. To those of you who find yourself thinking, “I’d love to try, but…”, keep reading.
First, a brief aside; I promise it will all come together by the end. I LOVE NaNoWriMo (in case you hadn’t already figured that out). This is my 7th year participating, though, if I’m being honest, two of those years were total flops. Maybe this year will be a flop too – it’s too early to tell. So, the question is why do I love NaNo so much, especially if I can never be certain if I’m going to be a “winner”?
It’s because NaNoWriMo is one of those opportunities in life that is ALL win.
Let me explain.
Outcome A: You work really hard and you find out that your story only has 40,000 words to it (not the 50K required to ‘win’). YOU WROTE A STORY! A WHOLE STORY! (Ok, at least two-thirds of a story.) That’s amazing! You’ve just birthed art into the world and you’ve exposed a part of your deep dark consciousness to the light. How can that be anything but a win?
Outcome B: You have the best of intentions, but life is overwhelming and you only manage to write 5,000 words of a story that you know is going to be a blockbuster one day, if only you had the time to write it. FANTASTIC! You’ve tapped into that inner muse, the genius of the universe, and as a result you WILL come back to this addictive idea another time. November is a weird month, sandwiched between back to school frenzy and holiday insanity. My kid doesn’t have a single full week of school this entire month. It is NOT the ideal writing month, from my perspective. So give yourself credit for unearthing an award winning idea and allow yourself to be excited about getting back to it in January, February, July, or whenever it is that YOU can make time for it.
Outcome C: You write 10,000 words of something that feels totally frivolous. You’re writing in a genre you never thought you’d write in, that maybe you don’t even read in, and you have no idea what you’re doing or where you’re going with it. It has no place to occupy on your short-list of professional goals. WHAT A GIFT!! You just learned something new about yourself. Or maybe you knew, but you’d forgotten and allowing this part to have a little time in the sun feels like a reconnection with yourself. Maybe your brain needed to do something different in order to be able to knuckle back down to the hard tasks you demand of it all the other hours in the day. Whatever the reason, take a moment to honor how it felt, and to reflect that perhaps not every minute of your day needs to be task oriented.
“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” – Henry Ford
I’ve got a note on the wall in the shower (if you haven’t discovered Aqua Notes, you’re missing out – they will change your life) that reads:
If you’ve been reading our blog for a while, you’ll know that September was not my month for writerly achievements. It was, in fact, the month I wanted to take a sledgehammer to my laptop, delete all my files from the cloud, and otherwise burn it all down. Which isn’t really my style, generally speaking. Luckily, the phase passed after a few days of self-pity. Then it was time to begin again. To start over. To redefine the way I approached the things that were draining me.
But where? What should I do differently to ensure I didn’t end up back at the nuclear option?
The act of writing the note was my start.
It was an exhortation to myself to get moving. It was a new set of goals, and maybe most importantly, it was a reminder to break my goals down into small, achievable pieces.
The idea of setting achievable goals in order to create a cycle of successes isn’t a new one. In fact, it might be THE lesson life has been attempting to teach me in 2019. As usual, though, I’m a slow learner. Despite having encountered this notion in several formats this year, I keep setting goals that lead to frustration. I couldn’t figure out how to reconceptualize the goal-setting process.
Then I had one of those fortuitous visits with a couple I love dearly who have recently achieved dramatic, healthy weight loss. I’m not exaggerating when I say that they’ve, together, lost as much as I weigh. It’s amazing. And so inspiring. Especially for someone who has stubbornly hung on to the last 10 pounds of baby weight accumulated over six years ago. I asked my friends how they did it, expecting guidance on apps used, food systems implemented, etc. My mind was blown by the simplicity of my friend’s response. She said that she had never had much success trying to lose 10 pounds or 20 pounds, so she decided to lose ONE pound. And then she did it again. And again. And again. It was a success she repeated so often that it became habit.
THIS is the lesson the universe has been trying to teach me! One pound. I can lose one pound. Even if it is one pound of die-hard, stick to your hips baby weight. I can totally do one.
If you love to write, it’s natural that you want (and maybe
expect) your kids to love writing. Totally misguided, but natural. I think I’ve
raised all three of my boys the same way when it comes to reading and writing,
but there have been drastically different results. Because they are their own
persons with their own interests and gifts. The nerve, right? Anyway, I still
stand by some of the techniques below because they’ve helped each of the boys,
albeit in different ways. So, if you’re looking for some help with your
reluctant writer or you want to encourage your budding Stephen King, check
Yes, the same advice that was given to you
when you first expressed an interest in becoming a writer. Read. Everything. For
kids, that translates into reading aloud often and exploring different genres
with them. One of my kiddos didn’t read independently until age seven. As we
encouraged him to learn his stinking sight words, we continued reading aloud
every night. We took books on CD in the car and made sure he had a little CD
player so he could listen to them on his own, too. By fostering the love of
story, you can expose them to the parts of a story, dialogue, and characters.
All things that are good foundation for when they are writing themselves.
We recently started picking up PlayAways at our library and they love them! Check to see if your library carries them!
2. Take Dictation
I let all three kids dictate stories to me when they were too young to write. You can fold some paper in half and – to everyone’s delight – get out the stapler. The most exotic of all office supplies. Or you can buy some of these. Whatever works. As they told me their story, I would stop them now and then to ask a question with great interest. What happened next? Was anyone with the mechanical robot bunny? How did that make the monster feel? It becomes a bit of a conversation. You’re getting more details and helping to build their story. In our case, it helped if I didn’t censor much. They felt free to be as imaginative as they wanted. So, there were lots of farting, mechanical robot bunny defeating the three-headed monster stories.
No, not that wall. The Wall. The one you eventually hit when you’re a creator. Or a parent. Or just adulting.
Sometimes you hit it in one part of your life and then it spreads to the others. Then it’s The WALL.
Maybe it’s the phase of the moon, or the season, or one of those seven-year cycles, but recently it feels like I know too many people up against The Wall. Family members who have lost jobs. Friends who have been betrayed by those they love. Creators who haven’t met with the success on which they pegged so many dreams. And at the start of the new school year, so many lovely people who are starting new phases of their lives and are just overwhelmed by the changes, even when many of those changes are good.
I’ll admit it: I’m one of those people.
Last week, I hit my writing Wall.[i] Rejection played a big part: I did okay with the first 20 rejections for my Middle Grade manuscript, but numbers 21 & 22 did me in. I stared at my query letter, unable to tell any longer if it needs more tweaking or just to be set aflame. I thought about whether I needed to rewrite the first chapter, or scrap it entirely. I considered whether I should turn my attention to something else for a while, and realized I didn’t even have the wherewithal to figure out a way forward on the half-dozen or so works-in-progress that linger as perpetually open tabs on my desktop and that physically clutter my office. I tried to go back to my writing goals for the year, to find a way to progress out of my funk only to realize with a distant horror I didn’t want to do any of the things necessary to move forward with any of my goals.
I felt totally, utterly defeated in a way I haven’t since I last took a microeconomics exam.
Anyone else been there? Lately? Then you know how easily it can become cyclical. You feel drained. You want to do nothing. So nothing is what you do. But, as it turns out, nothing doesn’t help.
Sometimes parenthood seems the longest exercise in learning how to do 180-degree turns, doesn’t it?
It started with the shift from summer travel mode to summer camp mode last week. The preparation was mostly mental: getting our son excited to go to camp after a summer free of morning drop offs. For me, it was about switching my brain from full-time mom/activity director to writer. I spent at least a week pirouetting through mental checklists of all the writerly activities I wanted to get done in that blessed summer camp week. My brain churned with neglected projects that represented well more than a week’s worth of work. So on Monday morning, we accomplished the logistical maneuvers to get us out of the house with all the summer camp necessities…only to hit a heart-wrenching plot twist.
Someone (and by ‘someone’, I mean me) hadn’t actually submitted the camp registration. The roster was full and my son’s name was not on the list. After an awkward conversation with two separate (and incredibly nice) members of the camp staff, we were back in the car headed home.
After a week of up-selling camp, I had to execute a hard right turn to keep my kid from feeling the sting of rejection. The reminder of what he was missing as fresh and uncomfortable as the shoes, wet with dew from the summer camp fields, we were both wearingMy brain went into overdrive trying to figure out how to keep the week from being a total disaster. The problem was, all the items on my writing to-do list were screaming like passengers going down in a plane crash, and it was hard to think (or breathe normally) for all their small tragedies.
I’m only a little embarrassed to admit that I held it together for approximately 30 seconds after my husband took our son to walk the dogs, giving me a few moments to “look at the calendar.” The words “summer camp,” scrawled across the week some months before, reduced me to a sniffling mess. It was partially embarrassment that I’d somehow managed to fail at a fairly basic parent task. It was partially concern that my failure would cause our son to feel sad and/or disappointed all week. And it was at least 50 percent despair at the sudden loss of precious writing time, sandwiched as it was between six weeks of travel and the start of a new part-time job.
I’m excited to share an interview with author Sarah Kapit. Her debut middle grade novel, GET A GRIP, VIVY COHEN!, releases February 25, 2020. From Sarah’s website:
Vivy Cohen yearns to throw her knuckleball in a real game. But her mother is convinced that an autistic girl won’t be able to handle the pressures of a full baseball season. When a Little League Coach spots Vivy practicing with her brother in the park, she gets her chance. She makes a deal with Mom: Vivy can give baseball a try.
But pitching for a real team isn’t exactly easy. During her first season, Vivy must deal with nerves and bullies. And after a line drive smacks Vivy straight in the forehead, keeping Mom on board with Vivy’s baseball dreams proves just as tough as keeping the ball in the strike zone.
Through all of her travails, Vivy writes letters to the one person she can be honest with: MLB pitcher VJ Capello. Then, VJ writes back.
Sounds amazing right?! (You can pre-order it here!) Read on to learn about her inspiration for the book and some of her thoughts on the craft of writing.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Sarah! Congratulations on your upcoming debut middle grade novel! Can you tell us where or how you got the idea for GET A GRIP, VIVY COHEN! ?
As a baseball fan, the idea of a woman pitcher in MLB is so exciting to me. When I first saw the previews for PITCH–an absolutely wonderful show that was tragically cancelled after one season–that was really the genesis of the story. I just had an intense emotional reaction to seeing a woman taking the pitcher’s mound.
So all of that was percolating around my brain. Plus, I’ve long believed it’s likely that the first woman to play in MLB will be a knuckleball pitcher because the pitch relies on finger movement. Knuckleballers don’t have to be capable of throwing the ball 95+ miles an hour. Since I write middle grade, a girl knuckleball pitcher with big dreams came to my mind. I’ve also long wanted to write an explicitly autistic character, in a book that explores themes of neurodiversity. When I realized that all of this could fit together, the book’s concept just fell into place.
You recently received a box of ARCs of your book. How did you feel finally seeing it in print?
Completely amazing! I keep one copy by my nightstand and it’s hard to stop liking it. Vivienne To did a great job with the cover art, and it looks even better in print. I also love the way the interior design team laid out the pages.
And here’s the awesome cover!
Your main character, Vivy, has autism and her mother is reluctant to let her pitch for the baseball team. Do you think this book will open up dialogue between kids who have autism and their parents?
I hope so! Mostly, I hope that autistic kids who read this book realize that their way of advocating for themselves is valid, and that what they say matters.
Publishing and the writing industry can wear you down. Make you want to rock in the fetal position. It’s a constant test of patience and perseverance. So, whenever I can find a source of encouragement – anything that keeps me from setting my current manuscript on fire – I know I have to share it!
I stumbled upon Brené Brown’s Netflix special while folding some
never-ending piles of laundry and I loved it! (The special, not the laundry folding.) The
special is titled Brené Brown: The Call
to Courage and you can see some of the trailer here. A bit from her online bio…
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of
Houston where she holds the Huffington –Brown Endowed Chair. She’s spent the
past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She is
the author of five #1 New York Timesbestsellers:
The Gifts of
Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness, and Dare to Lead.
If you have not seen her
Netflix special or her TedTalk, please go
watch them now. We’ll wait…
Okay, maybe you don’t have time to watch now. I’ll fill you in a little. In her Netflix special, Brené explains where she got the inspiration and title for her book Daring Greatly. To her horror, her 2010 TedTalk had gone viral and, against her better judgement, she read the comments online, which, of course, were a dumpster fire of cruelty and criticism. She tells the story – and she’s hilarious – of how she was numbing her feelings with screen time and peanut butter when she stumbled upon this quote from a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910:T
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” -Theodore Roosevelt, 1910
Brené Brown goes on to
encourage us to choose courage over comfort, knowing that criticism and failure
are inevitable. I thought about how that idea and this quote could be applied
to our creative pursuits, specifically writing.
For those of you who know me, or who have been following this blog for a while, you know I tend toward Type A-ness. I’m generally upbeat, high-energy (obnoxiously so when over-sugared/caffeinated), and goal-oriented. I don’t suffer from low esteem, nor do I tend toward mood swings (hold on, had to check with my hubby on that…he confirms that I’m generally low volatility). So why, in the wake of finally finishing 18 months’ worth of work (that I thought would take 12), having achieved my goal of wrestling my latest manuscript into sufficient shape to begin the submissions process, do I feel so…adrift?
Believe it or not, I’m 100% sure this malaise has nothing to do with fear of the impending rejections. In fact, the receipt of my first rejection this week actually sort of made me feel better. It was the crossing of a threshold that at least indicates progress, like passing a mile marker on the highway. Only I still feel like I cruised past it doing 30 mph on the highway I normally zoom down. After two weeks of what can best be described as achievement apathy (goals are still being set and met, but without any of the zing), I hit the internet to find out if this experience is a thing or if it’s just me.
Good news! It’s not just me! Or even just my generation. A 1987 article from the New York Times on “post-writum depression” describes all my symptoms and let me know I’m in good company with the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Judith Krantz, and Danielle Steele. Psychology Today calls it the post-adrenaline blues and posits my present low could be chemically-based – a drop in the adrenaline that fueled me through those final revisions and frantic synopsis drafts. My body could actually be in withdrawal, like an addict, but craving the stuff I was creating through my own internal pressure – which means that given enough time, I will naturally rebalance.
I suspect a part of what is going on is good old-fashioned grief. Huffpost calls it the post-book blues – that horrible aching loneliness when you hit the end of the book where you fell in love with a character, or characters, or sometimes even a whole world (here’s looking at you, Hogwarts). Popular Science published a great article validating the mourning of the loss of a fictional character just last month. Which I have to admit, made me feel better about my tendency to take a day or two off from reading anything more than a magazine article in the wake of a powerful book. It stands to reason that grief is stronger for characters you’ve created and gotten to know on a very personal level. If I needed a few days to get over “A Gentleman in Moscow,” I’m going to need to cut myself some slack on getting past thinking about what my main characters would be doing right now, if I hadn’t just closed the book on them.
So how much time do you give yourself when you’re grieving the end of the intense relationship you’ve had with the characters you created? Stephen Pressfield advocates jumping straight into the next project to keep your momentum going. I’m sure there’s good sense in that, and clearly it works for him. For me, though, to move from the relationship I’ve developed with these characters over the last year and a half into the next relationship feels like serial dating, and I’m not yet ready for the rebound.
The research shows I’m not alone in this either. I was thrilled to find this article by writer / writing coach Lauren Sapala, and this one on Writer Unboxed by Jeane Kisacky. Still, I was left wondering what to do about it. Not writing feels wasteful. But I can’t seem to bend my will to starting another project yet. Even doing the small projects, the ones that I’ve been saying I’d get to for a while (as Kisacky mentions doing) doesn’t seem to help me feel much better. So I took to social media to see what others writers do. Some of you likely saw my questions there, and if you took the time to answer, then thank you! It means a lot to have community I can reach out to at times like this.
According to my highly unofficial poll, very few other women writers jump straight into the next project (sorry guys, I polled an all female writers’ group). Most respondents said they take Kisacky’s route and work on some smaller projects for a while. A few indicated they take a week or so to catch up on the life they missed while they were writing, a la author Amy Wallace. All of which is good news for me, since I’m combining a bit of both approaches: trying to reacquaint myself with regular exercise while also trying my hand at some shorter stories and article submissions I kept saying I’d get to once the pressure of the novel was off my shoulders.
Discovering that this experience is so common that it has names has helped me feel at peace with where I’m at. But the amazing part of this has been the re-discovery that I’m not alone. Even though I sit here by myself on this side of the screen, so many of you out there are with me. And knowing that we’re here for each other has helped more than anything else. Thank you, All!
Thank you, Thea, for all of your awesome research – as usual. I now have a bunch more articles to go read! I think it makes sense that we need some time before jumping into an entirely new world, especially after the blood, sweat, and tears we poured into the previous world! I remember being very impatient when I finished my first manuscript. I was tapping my toes waiting for the next story to show up. (Preferably outlined and with fully-developed characters.) I remember writing snippets of inner dialogue for different characters in a spiral notebook, waiting for one of them to hand me a story! In the meantime, I guess I did many of the things Thea mentioned above, like catching up on life stuff and working on smaller projects that had been set aside. I imagine a lot of writers are nodding their heads while reading this and saying “Yes!” Thanks, Thea, for reminding us we are all in this together and experiencing so many of the same reactions!
When Thea suggested I write a piece on planning for summer, similar to this one from last year, I was all for it until I sat down to write it and realized I had no idea what I was going to do with the kids this summer…
I want to write, I want them to have fun, and I still don’t
want them to experience “summer slump”: the backward slide in academic gains
from the previous school year. It’s important to me that they spend enough time
using their brains over the summer so August back-to-school isn’t too painful.
Things have changed, though. When they were younger, I had weekly themes and
math manipulatives and stacks of picture books…I was in my element! Now that
they are older, what does avoiding the summer slide look like? Here’s my first
attempt at figuring that out.
Yes, our library has an awesome summer reading program, but my youngest was the only one “into” it last year. The other guys read a lot, they just weren’t eager to sticker-chart their reading. I need a fresh take on reading this summer. I’m thinking I’ll have them give reviews for the books they read on video and then send the videos to their cousins or friends (just over my phone). They love making videos and it will be a way to .incorporate technology that doesn’t involve a game controller…because they can’t have screens until 4pm in the summer. Yes, there’s always initial resistance to this rule, but after a few days they get on board with it and they find other things to do during the day. We’ll probably have a weekly trip to the library to keep a fresh selection of books, too.
For previous summers they all had a spiral notebook “journal” that they had to write in before they were allowed to go cause trouble in the neighborhood. Just like with the technology rule, there was always an initial protest, but after a few days, it became part of the routine. I have to make a change this summer, though. Camps start at 8am or 9am and we’re busy grabbing sports equipment and yelling at each other…there’s not really time for journaling before we have to be on the road. I think I’m going to move writing time to right before they’re allowed to do tech. Yes, one last hurdle before brain rot! I’m sure there will be protests, and perhaps rioting, but I bet they’ll write in order to play their favorite video games.