Tag Archives: writing

What I Learned From NaNoWriMo

In November 2004 I attempted my first writing marathon … National Novel Writing Month. Every year between November 1st and 30th, crazy writers accept the challenge to write 50,000 words of a new novel.

Chris Baty hatched NaNoWriMo in 1999 with 21 aspiring novelists accepting the challenge. Six of them crossed the finish line.

In 2007, 101,510 writers took the challenge and 15,333 finished. A total of—and this is a REALLY big number—1,187,931,929 words were logged.

In 2017, 306,230 writers participated. Crikey!

There have been at least 25 published NaNoWriMo authors, including Erin Morgenstern’s THE NIGHT CIRCUS, one of my very favorite books of all time! Here are some more. Maybe you’ll be on that list in a few years.

But only if you accept the challenge, Grasshopper.

Why, you ask, would I subject myself not once, not twice, but three times to this type of chained-to-your-desk-butt-numbing-highly-caffeinated torture? Simple. To write. To get it done. To learn. To create a habit.

Having survived, I highly recommend this peculiar approach to kick-start a stalled project or to silence your inner-editor or to give yourself a shove right over the Niagara Falls of your creativity.

I learned to plant my hindquarters in my chair for extended periods of time. It seems obvious, but the obvious truths are often the very ones we overlook. If I’m not in front of my keyboard, it’s guaranteed that no writing will take place. But if I’m sitting, fingers poised, I will write.

I learned the importance of an organized plan of attack. I knew how many days, hours, and minutes I had available to write. I knew how many words I needed. I had access to a calculator, a 40-cup coffee hypodermic, and the pizza delivery guy. My plan was born.

I learned how to write faster and better. When quantity matters more than quality, I learned to stop editing myself along the way. Something magical happened when I ignored my dictionary, thesaurus, and style manual. I was free to write creatively instead of correctly. My word choices broadened in direct proportion to how far behind I was on my word count that day. Instead of using a boring placeholder word like quickly, I found myself using a more colorful phrase like in a jiffy or as fast as a pig going downhill on roller skates. What a bonus to count all the extra words!

I also learned it doesn’t matter whether I’m cranky, sad, angry, tired or hungry. Nobody can tell my state of mind based on my writing. Now I know I never have to put off writing until I’m in a better mood. As a bonus, I learned that writing always puts me in a better mood.

I learned the importance of good health. Sitting and writing is a physical ordeal, despite all outward appearances. I had to take time to exercise and stretch every day. I had to protect my fingers, forearms, neck and eyeballs constantly. I also flossed more often than normal, but in retrospect that probably had more to do with stalling.

I learned my household would not fall apart if I focus on an all-consuming project. Thanksgiving dinner is just as enjoyable with Stove Top as it is with homemade chestnut-blue cheese stuffing. My kids, in fact, say it’s more enjoyable. Go figure. Laundry will not topple over and suffocate us while we sleep, field trip forms will get signed in a timely manner, and the Health Department will not need to visit.

So, if you’ve been considering writing a novel, or you just need your butt kicked, dive into National Novel Writing Month in November. Take a couple of days, make some notes, research a location for your setting, sketch your characters, and maybe rent an industrial-sized coffee pot.

Let me know how it turns out. Never mind. I know how it’ll turn out. It’ll be crappy. Oh, so joyfully crappy. Mold it, bend it, curse at it, delight in it.

You’ve won!

Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo? Why or why not?

My First Paid Gig

This was the very first piece of writing I ever got paid for. It was the first thing I ever submitted.  Fifty bucks that might as well have been fifty thousand. That’s how good it felt. The editor told me she bought it because I made her laugh and I made her think. High praise, indeed.

Since I’m guessing you didn’t subscribe to The Prairie Times at the turn of the century, here it is in all its glory.

Controlling an Uncontrollable World

I have control issues.

I have some weight issues too, but I’ll get to them in a minute.

You know how the jelly sometimes drips on the outside of the jar which makes your hand all sticky when, yet again, you have to put it away after the kids eat lunch? I hate that.

And how the refrigerator ends up being home to a gazillion little plastic containers of leftovers in various states of decay? I hate that too.

And how you go to the grocery store and some prepubescent man-cub (who, I’ll wager, has never bought groceries for a family of five) carefully arranges your bread at the bottom of the bag and then proceeds to load it up with four jars of spaghetti sauce, a two-pound bag of carrots, and a half-gallon of ice cream? Again, hate that.

And loud, obnoxious cell phone users talking about their latest run-in with their child’s soccer coach/teacher/pediatrician while shopping for cereal . . . don’t get me started.

So, you see it’s true. I have serious control issues and an obvious preoccupation with groceries, which leads me to tell you that I am trying to lose ten pounds.

In the greater scheme of cosmic events, it isn’t much of a crisis; the world certainly has bigger problems to attend to. But I turned forty recently and without any warning ”” POOF ”” gray hair, a map of the canals of Venice in blue veins on my legs, and an extra ten pounds.

I can’t control much of that, but I can control what I eat and how much I exercise. Theoretically anyway.

Therefore, of the three, the ten measly pounds seems like the problem to tackle. What’s the big deal, anyway? It’s only the size of a bag of flour. A really big bag of flour, but still.

I’ll count calories. I’ll exercise. Piece of cake. (Even my cliches are food-related. Do you see my cross to bear?)

In a perfect world, broccoli would taste as good as cheesecake and watching television would create negative calories.

But I live in an imperfect world.

Broccoli, while having many good qualities, does not taste as good as cheesecake. Watching TV with reckless abandon for so many years has helped to create this innertube around my mid-section. On the plus side, however, I can sing the theme songs in their entirety to both “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Addams Family,” including finger snaps.

And I could go on. And on and on. Ask my husband.

You’re probably thinking, assuming you haven’t already fallen from your chair from in extremis ennui, that I seem to have a healthy grasp on the situation and that I’m really no different from you. After all, we all have things in our lives we want to control.

But I’m guessing you’ve never demanded ice tea in your special Batman glass with a pre-determined number of ice cubes. Nor have you painstakingly demonstrated to your indifferent children the exact right way to vacuum the floor. And I’ll wager that you haven’t alphabetized your spice rack, your book shelves, AND your coupons.

Knowing this about me, you can now imagine what it’s like in the morning at my kitchen table while I read the newspaper.
Fires!
Drought!
Dirty politicians!
Teenagers rampaging through schools with guns!
Religious zealots!
Pedophile monsters plucking children from their homes!

I can’t control any of this.

Some mornings I give new meaning to the term ”˜apoplectic.’ I have an opinion about all of it, and I’m always willing to share.

I want to control these things I read about. It would be so simple if everyone would just ask me first. I’d be happy to tell them how to solve each and every problem they encounter. I really don’t think it would take too much effort; after all, I don’t want much.

I want people to be smart and kind to one another. I want people to be honest. I want children, elders and pets to be loved and cherished simply because they exist. I want there to be fewer people using drugs and more people using deodorant. I want fewer people in jail and more people in school.

I want drivers to enter an intersection only when they can complete their turn. I want medicine to be affordable for everyone. I want scientists to figure out how to make cheeseburgers and brownies health food ”” after they cure cancer and the common cold, that is. I want medical providers to know everything and never make mistakes.

I want weather forecasters to be impeccably accurate at all times. I want underwear models to look like me and the rest of the women who inhabit the real world. I want teachers paid more and athletes paid less.

I want schools to be places where young people challenge themselves and learn from their mistakes. I want everyone to learn to read when they’re five and continue to do so voraciously for the rest of their lives.

I want teenagers to smooch and hold hands at the movies and let that tide ”˜em over for awhile. I want everyone to have a mind-altering college experience without drugs. I want an end to babies being born to alcoholic and drug-addicted women. I want boys to know there is a difference between being macho and being a man.

I want people to cry when they’re sad and laugh when they’re happy. I want people to slow down ”” in their cars and in their lives. I want people to quit saying “I forgot” as an absolute defense, whether it relates to the toilet seat or their infant left in a sweltering car.

It may sound contradictory to tell you that I want people to accept different points of view since it must seem like I’m one of those dames who thinks she’s always right. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m probably not always perfectly, in every instance, exactly right every single time.

I am, however, a dogmatic and opinionated dame, and you won’t believe this either, but I really don’t care when people disagree with me. Quite the contrary. I want people to be as passionate about their opinions as I am. I want people to be able to articulate why they believe something. I want people to tell me I’m wrong and to show me the proof. But if they won’t or can’t, then I don’t care what they think.

I come by this character trait quite honestly. I grew up in a large family and we ate dinner together every night. On the rare occasion that anything interesting ever happened to one of us, we would begin to chat about that. But then, when the conversation lulled, usually after about thirty seconds, my father would make some sort of proclamation.

It might be simple like, “Women should never be allowed to drive.”
Or “When a child gets to age thirteen, he should be sent away until he’s thirty.”
Or “Two-years-olds paint better than Jackson Pollock.”
Or “Mighty Mouse could never beat Superman in a fair fight.”

Straightforward, direct statements.

Or they might be more complicated like, “If it weren’t for those Bleeding Heart Liberals, the family farm would have survived.”
Or “As a direct result of Daylight Savings Time, crime has increased 68%.”
Or “Gideon v. Wainwright is a much more important court decision than Miranda v. Arizona.”

Huh?

You had to have a certain amount of basic knowledge of current events to jump into the fray. But that’s exactly what we were expected to do.

The point of the exercise, unknown to me at the time, was to get us to form and articulate an opinion about the topic du jour, regardless of how absurd or whimsical. I was an adult before I realized my dad never believed any of the weird statements he made. Well, except the one about women drivers.

While people tend to adore my father, I’ve come to the unfortunate realization that they seem a bit leery of me. Imagine. I’ve learned to form opinions, I can certainly argue my point of view, and now I just want everything the way I want it. I want to be able to control as many things as possible, yet know which can’t be controlled. Is that so unreasonable?

For instance, I can’t control wildfires, but I don’t have to cook my hot dogs over an open grill.

I can’t end the drought, but I can xeriscape my yard.

I can’t force politicians to be honest, but I can investigate as thoroughly as possible the candidate I vote for.

I can’t identify teenagers who are going to go shoot up a school, but I can make sure my own kids have a bucketful of self-control.

I can’t keep terrorists from exacting their brand of retribution, but I can live and preach tolerance.

I can’t brand every pedophile with a scarlet letter, but I can keep a watchful eye on my neighborhood.

Maybe it’s like that old adage “think globally, act locally.” If I can keep a firm grasp on the issues in my little world, maybe that’s enough. After all, you have to eat your elephant one bite at a time, right? (Again with the food!)

So ten pounds . . . big whoop, as the kids say.

Who knows? After I control these ten pounds, maybe I’ll try to tackle bigger issues in my life. Crooked politicians? Crime? Low SAT scores? The lack of a really good delicatessen in my neighborhood?

Maybe this will be harder than it seems.

What was the sweetest money you ever earned?

A Promise For Sidekicks

The literary world is full of sidekicks ”” Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, Stephanie Plum and Lula, Linus and his blanket.

So are movies ”” Thelma and Louise, R2D2 and C3PO, the Karate Kid and his actual side kick.

So are meals. After all, what’s the point of mashed potatoes without gravy? Bagels without cream cheese? Cheesecake without strawberries? Orange jello without grated carrots?

I never said all sidekicks were good.

We have sidekicks in our real lives, too. Spouses, significant others, kids, siblings, BFFs, business partners, cubicle mates, roommates, critique partners, beta readers, pets.

Nala for Marshmallow Mayhem

Nala’s sidekick is this red pillow.

Everyone brings their unique angle to the relationship. And don’t forget that nobody thinks they are the sidekick ”” everyone is the hero of their own story. Some are equal relationships, others might tilt weekly or even hourly in favor of one or the other depending on a million different negotiations, verbalized or not. (But in the case of pets, the sidekick is always the one without opposable thumbs.)

As a writer, I depend on all these types of sidekicks, real and imaginary. The real people keep me moving forward, helping with my manuscripts or my psyche, calming, cajoling or kicking me, whichever I might need at that moment.

The imaginary people help creatively. They populate and drive my stories, often doing things that surprise and delight me … and sometimes confound me, spinning me off in a scary new direction.

But then there’s a group of sidekicks in that nebulous world between real and imaginary. I call them My Readers. I feel their presence almost more than I do my real-life sidekicks because they’re always hovering on my periphery. They never go to school or work, they don’t sleep, they don’t disappear while on a ski trip or a Netflix eight-season binge. I spend an inordinate amount of time wondering how to get My Readers to fall in love with my characters. How can I pull them into this plot with me? How can I get them to laugh, or gasp, or cry, or keep turning pages?

My Reader sidekicks are always in my head. I’m compelled to be a better writer for them, to be a better storyteller, to give them more than they give me.

I doubt I’ll ever be able to give them that much, but I can promise all my sidekicks one thing. I will never put carrots in their jello.

 

 

 

Is The Fault Really In Our Stars?

There’s been a conversation in one of my book marketing groups that I’ve been finding interesting. Authors have been discussing their Amazon reviews.

They’ve told some ridiculous, hilarious, and infuriating stories about getting 1-star reviews. Things like, “I bought this book by mistake so I’m giving it 1 star.” Or “I don’t like thrillers” even though the description clearly said it was a thriller. I even heard of one outrageously negative review because the author’s name was similar to her ex-husband’s. Not the same, just similar. The entire review was an ex-husband rant.

My favorite ballsy review starts, “I didn’t read this book, but …”

I wouldn’t be surprised if some poor schlub got a 1-star review on his masterpiece because a cranky reader “missed the bus today.”

Scuttlebutt is that Amazon is clamping down on egregious reviews like these. Hope so. But that’s a topic for another day.

The conversation the last few days swirled around 3-star reviews. Some authors hated getting 3-star reviews, others didn’t much mind. And it led to the question of how authors rated books. Some are brutally honest and will give 1 star to a BFF. Others never review books at all. Ever.

But most of us fall into that hand-wringing middle ground. Much of what we read is written by people we know and we want to love everything with the white-hot intensity of ten thousand suns. But sometimes we don’t. Then what do we do? Many of us, myself included, fall into the ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’ category. Plus, just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean that you won’t. It doesn’t even mean there’s anything wrong with it.

Personally, I don’t think a 3-star review means it’s a bad book. It entertained me for most of the allotted time, didn’t require heaving it against the wall, perfectly solid. Fine. Okay. Average.

But I never give 3-star reviews to people I know.

First, because it will probably bring down their average. No way, no how do I want that on my conscience. It’s hard enough to be a writer without your friends sticking their foot out when you’re lugging packages up a steep hill. Or some writing metaphor.

And second, I don’t know how they view a 3-star review. Everyone knows that five stars means spectacular and one star means craptacular, but what about those pesky middle numbers?

I read the restaurant reviews in the newspaper and am flummuxed. They only have a 4 star system and much of the time the restaurants only earn a one or a two, so I don’t think the food is very good. But when I look closer, one star means it’s good. Two = very good, three = great, four = exceptional.

The nuance is as subtle as their house Chardonnay.

But the book review discussion roused my curiosity. My world revolves around books, authors, reviews, and Amazon in a million different ways. Yours probably doesn’t. So, I want to know …

What are YOUR definitions of the five stars in an Amazon book review? Do you even read book reviews? Do you assume all 5-star reviews are written by the author’s besties and family members? If you were contemplating buying or reading a book and you saw it had a 3-star average, what would you think? Would it be different if it had a lot of reviews and a 3-star average, or just a few reviews and a 3-star average?

That reminds me … must go see if I have new reviews!

Write 10,000 Words* A Day

(*not to be confused with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory) because I bet anyone can write 10,000 words in 10,000 days.)

Have you read Rachel Aaron’s blog about how she writes 10,000 words a day?

I was reminded of side one of her ‘triangle process’ the other day when I felt overwhelmed by the chapter I was revising. I knew where I eventually needed to end up with the chapter but I had SO MANY WAYS I could get there.

I was stumped. Stymied into inaction. Paralyzed.

But then I thought about what Rachel had tried to teach me. I got out a piece of school paper and started scribbling a truncated version of the scene. I crossed stuff out, added other stuff, drew a lot of arrows. But after about four minutes (yes, I checked), I had it figured out.

Side one of her triangle is Knowledge … knowing what you’re writing before you write it. Even though I knew what I was writing  ”” I mean, c’mon, it’s my fourth revision! ”” I still needed … something.

I don’t know if it is a matter of writing by hand, or free-writing, or simply dumping out the contents of your brain on a simple sheet of paper, but it absolutely worked for me.

The other two sides of her triangle are Time and Enthusiasm, fyi. But if you haven’t read the article, do it now. Anything that helps you write faster should be seriously considered, eh?

How many words can you average in a day? What’s your personal best?

It Never Gets Old

My new book is finally in print. It seems like it took forever ”” I guess because it freakin’ DID ”” but I can take a breath and reflect on the journey, now that it’s over.

First, if you have a hankering to publish a book, do it. Do it, do it, DO IT! There’s nothing quite like the joy of seeing something you created right there in your hand.

I know what you’re thinking. “But Becky, what about kids? You can hold newborn babies in your hands too.”

True. But you can’t hold ’em forever, you can’t give them away, and you certainly can’t sell them. At least nobody ever wanted to buy mine, no matter how much I lowered the price.

I joke, of course, but honestly? It’s a similar feeling. And frankly, a book is more of an achievement. I mean, any dope can birth a baby, but not everyone can write a book. Getting pregnant takes ten merry minutes ”” twenty if you’re lucky ”” but a book takes real effort!

Over the last 20 years or so, I’ve published lots of articles, six digital non-fiction books, three or four large-format ‘How To’ manuals, and a fiction paperback for kids. You’d think it would be less exciting to get this paperback in my hand. But it’s not.

that new book smell

It never gets old.

It’s a wild and giddy thrill to see tangible proof of all your hard work. You hold in your hands not just your words and ideas, but the white-hot optimism that complete strangers will appreciate what you’ve done, and the absolute conviction they won’t.

Pretty powerful stuff for 247 pages and a glossy cover.

I guess that’s what publishing a book gives you … power. Not brawn, not skill or mastery, but energy. Courage. A way to steam ahead, full of peppy faith in yourself.

I mean, if you can publish a book, who knows what else you can do? But you’ll never know until you try. So get busy … quit playing in BeckyLand. Get outta here and seize some power for yourself!

A Writer Was Born

When my kids were little I stayed home with them, often with other daycare kids in the house. I always had the videocamera ”” the huge behemoth that rested on your shoulder ”” locked and loaded.

I also had index cards and pens placed strategically around the house. On them, I wrote the funny things the kids said and did. At the end of the day, the index cards would get shoved into the appropriate diaper bags of my daycare charges or thrown into my kids’ “Memory Boxes.”

Some mothers lovingly craft scrapbooks for their children. I lovingly crafted piles of index cards.

I’ve recently undertaken the task of typing them up. Surely there’s a book just waiting to be written. Here are two samples.

12-5-90 ”” Jessie [age 3] made the astute observation that you can’t hum with your mouth open.

12-12-90 ”” Jessie said something was “a propersation.”  When Wes asked her what that was, she said, “It’s Batman or grass or tea or soup.”

That was my first inkling I was raising a writer.

When did you know what kind of kid you were raising?

Paying Bills vs Paying Dues

Occasionally, I’ll say something stupid out loud. (And, yes, I’m defining ‘occasionally’ quite liberally.)

Here are three recent examples:

1.  “Which one is the old timey guy, Henry Cabot Lodge or Adam Clayton Powell?”

2. “No, it’s that cheese with the Mexican words on the label.”

3. “I love paying bills.”

I will take my lumps for the first two, but I really do love paying bills. My friend mocked me, but I stood my ground, retorting, “It’s better than paying dues!”

I’m fairly certain I won that argument, but it was hard to tell, what with all the laughter and finger-pointing.

What I meant was, I’m no Pollyanna ”” wait. I am a little Pollyanna-ish, but I draw the line at saying, “I’m thankful thorns have roses!” In fact, now my keyboard feels sticky from all that syrup I just typed.

But I would always rather pay bills than pay dues.

I’m thankful I have money every month to pay my bills. I’m thankful for clean water, electricity, magazine subscriptions, blazing fast internet, and the ability to pick up the phone and talk to my kids scattered all over the world.

Bill paying feeds into a ”” I’ve come to realize ”” unique (some say ‘weird’ or ‘crazy’ but that’s probably because their vocabulary is limited) part of my personality. I love plastic storage bins, sharp crayons, lists, and balancing my checkbook, too.

Sometimes I even get the satisfaction of actually paying a bill off ”” owning a car outright, no more college loans, finally paying off the remodeling, burning the mortgage.

Dues, on the other hand, never get paid off. Well, not for me, anyway. Not my publishing dues.

I’ve spent many years now without much tangible to show for all the effort I’ve put into writing. The intangibles are many, however ”” lots of like-minded friends, better writing skills, the ability to dabble in many different genres.

But there are self-esteem issues and frustration ”” mostly low-grade, but also mostly constant. Another rejection?! Am I good enough? Why won’t they buy this? Why don’t I know how to plot better? Shouldn’t I know more words by now?

And then I remember what Sue Grafton says: “Writing is a craft that takes many years to develop. The publishing world is full of talented, hardworking writers who’ve struggled for years to learn the necessary skills. I counsel any writer to focus on the job at hand ”” learning to write well ”” trusting that when the time comes, the Universe will step in and make the rest possible. Writing isn’t about the destination ”” writing is the journey that transforms the soul and gives meaning to all else.”

Frankly, I love this journey so I guess I’ll keep paying my bills and paying my dues and trusting that the Universe knows what it’s doing. And, of course, I’ll continue to say stupid things out loud.

How ’bout you? Do you like paying bills? Have you “paid your dues” yet? Will you confess to saying stupid things out loud?

Your Write Stuff

I saw this in March 2009 The Writer Magazine.

Test your aptitude as a writer.

Grab a timer. For each genre listed below write for five minutes.

The topic is … dessert.

• News Article
• Magazine feature
• Promotional copy (press release or ad copy)
• Instructional copy (step-by-step instructions)
• Play/screenplay (two characters, one scene of dialogue)
• Fiction/poetry (short story or poem)

Obviously in five minutes you won’t get an entire magazine feature or short story, but the ease with which your writing flows and the quality of the piece might reveal your natural talent.

Tell me which genre was your best and feel free to post what you wrote. I’ll be thrilled to see your efforts!

Amusing Similes and Metaphors

Every year, English teachers from across the country submit their most amusing similes and metaphors gleaned from high school essays. I’m not sure if this is really true or simply an urban myth, but here are some of the “winners” from 2007. But even if some under-employed writer wearing only a tattered robe wrote them in an unheated basement, they’re still funny.

• He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

• She grew on him like she was a colony of E.Coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.

• She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

• Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

• John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

• Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

• The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

• It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

• He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

What’s your most amusing simile or metaphor? Or the one you’re desperate to find a place for in your writing? Or finish this sentence … “BeckyLand is like …”