1-Week NaNoWriMo Check-Up

We’re one week into National Novel Writing Month and I hope that any of you who are participating are finding success. I’ve been happy with my progress thus far — 15,535 words — and I have to admit it is due to two things: lots of pre-thought and a little pre-writing.

On the pre-thought tip, I’ve been ruminating on this story for at least a couple years, and in the past couple months my disparate ideas codified into something with enough layers and complexity to work for a novel.

As for the pre-writing, in the week or so before November started, I forced myself to write chapter summaries for where I saw the beginning chapters going and managed to get up through chapter 17.

What has that meant for the writing? Well, in this first week I’ve managed just shy of a chapter a day because I already knew the main plot and character points I was going to cover in each. I doubt very much that I can keep up that pace all month with a heavy workload of writing copy for the next catalog and Thanksgiving coming up. But a solid start does wonders for my motivation to push forward, and all those chapter summaries make it easier for me to write in short bursts that I can fit in here and there throughout the day as time presents itself rather than waiting for perfect conditions of a long block of alone time that will not be interrupted.

So what happens when I reach chapter 18 and the summaries are no more? Well, at that point I should be over the halfway point of the novel and the forward momentum of all that story should make the going easier. Plus, I do know the ending already. I may take an hour or so and write out the next five or ten chapter summaries before I go on writing the novel. Or I may find that that would just slow me down.

One thing’s for sure, though. NaNoWriMo came at just the right time for me this year and the progress I’m making on a new story after so much time fiddling with old ones or making false starts on new ones has me feeling much less anxious than I have been in a long time.

National Novel Writing Month Is Coming

Back in 2014, I won National Novel Writing Month. If you’re not familiar with it, NaNoWriMo is “won” by hitting 50,000 words written in a new novel in the month of November. It means you’ve written at least an average of 1,667 words a day for 30 days. And if you’ve never tried it, it is not easy.

Prior to 2014, I didn’t think I could write that fast or write under pressure. But the novel I started drafting back then became what will be my second published novel (in November 2019).

After that success, I tried to attempt NaNoWriMo again, but I was never quite ready at that moment to start something new. But this year, after sending a revision of my current WIP to my agent for her comments, and after thinking and planning and gathering notes on what I want to write next, I think I’m finally ready to tackle it again.

Or I’d better be, because I already signed up to compete.

For me, this may mean getting up early each morning to write before the day gets going. It may mean writing in the evenings instead of reading or watching a show. It may mean spending most of a Saturday at the keyboard. And it may mean all of those things at once!

Why try to write 50,000 words in one month? For me, it’s about momentum. Momentum that will carry me through a crappy first draft that I can then spend a lot more time revising and honing, which is my favorite part of the writing process. After all, you can’t revise what hasn’t yet been written. Plus, I haven’t drafted something totally new in at least two years as I have been focused on revising earlier works and letting my creative well re-fill. It’s time to get moving on a new story with a new cast of characters.

One of the things you do when you officially sign up for NaNoWriMo (at nanowrimo.org) is choose a working title, write a short synopsis, and upload a provisional cover in order to make it all feel more concrete. Here’s mine:

Mel and Ollie Go for a Walk

Sisters Olivia and Melanie Greene were college students on a remote wilderness hiking trip when their parents died in a terrible car crash. They emerged from the isolation of the woods that day only to discover that, except for each other, they were utterly alone in the world.

Ten years later, Melanie insists they mark the occasion by hiking the same trail. Olivia doesn’t see the point. They’ve gone their separate ways in life and now have little in common besides their grief–and their uncanny ability to get on one another’s nerves.

Olivia, a young, hungry lawyer, has retreated into a strictly materialist view of the world–what you see is what you get, and that’s all you get. Melanie, a self-proclaimed life coach and YouTube guru, affirms all spiritual belief systems, just to cover her bases. Neither of them is prepared for what the wilderness is about to throw at them.

As things go from bad to worse on the trail, Mel and Ollie will have to learn to lean on each other and find the right path in order to get back to civilization. Along the way, they will discover just how deep the bond between sisters goes.

I’ve been wanting to write a sister story for a while. And I’ve been wanting to write a hiking story for a while. (No big surprise, considering the fact that I hike with my sister regularly.) The kind of silly working title popped into my head one day and wouldn’t be dislodged, though once the book is written I am sure a better one will emerge. And obviously the very simple cover is just for my benefit (it doesn’t even have my name on it because there’s no good place to put it). But sometimes you have to visualize the finished product in order to make it more real, to make it something you’re willing to put in the work on.

The fun part about this story as I envision it? Taking all of those concerns one has when embarking on a backcountry hiking trip where there is no cell service–the possibility of bear attacks, sudden injury, getting lost, getting caught in the elements, running out of food or water, wildfire, being tracked by a person with ill intent–and throwing some of them at my characters to see how they react and what they learn about life and themselves along the way.

Embarking on NaNoWriMo is a little like taking a hiking trip. You plan as best you can, but you also have to make decisions in the moment. Because you never know what’s around the next bend…

 

Hear Me Bloviate on Publishing!

You may or may not know that my husband, also a writer, is a podcast fiend, both as a listener and as a podcaster himself. He is currently hosting three podcasts (The Gut Check Podcast, Clinch: A Podcast of Fiction and Not-Fiction, and These Go to Eleven) and his sermons are available online as well.

I’ve appeared here and there on the Gut Check Podcast, mostly as a bystander or an interrupter-of-proceedings, though occasionally I am asked direct questions or serve as a reader for Gut Check Literacy Month (which has lasted, oh, I’d say maybe two years). And I bet you can hear my laugh in some of those sermon recordings. But this week Zach actually interviewed me for the not-fiction portion of Clinch.

If you’re curious about what I do in publishing, how annoying I think I will be as an author to the people on my publishing team, or you just want to listen to us talk about Zach getting lost in the woods outside of Owosso, actor Kevin Sorbo, and whether or not we should have closed the drapes to keep our dog from barking during the recording, you should definitely give it a listen.

Also, you should go back to episode one and binge it, both for the fiction portion, where Zach reads his current work in serial fashion, and the not-fiction portion, which gives you an inside look into the highs and lows of publishing, both traditionally and independently, from Zach’s own rollercoaster experience and interviews with other authors. It’s one of the most honest assessments you’ll get of what it’s like to be a writer trying to make a mark in the book world today.

Anticipating the 2018 Festival of Faith & Writing

In just over two weeks, I’ll be leading a workshop at Calvin College’s esteemed Festival of Faith & Writing. I’ll also be attending a number of sessions and panels that promise to be stimulating (and some of them possibly controversial).

If you are attending FFW2018 and want to connect in person, here are some likely places to find me!

 

THURSDAY

9:30 am – Self-Editing to Take Your Writing to the Next Level
I am leading this 2-hour workshop about revision and editing. Participants learn: how to do an effective, targeted revision; how to edit on sentence, paragraph, and chapter level; how rewriting can shape your voice; how planning on rewriting frees you to finish a first draft; and more.

1:45 pm – Navigating Faith and Religion in Writing
Explores how a writer can approach personal religious beliefs or those of others while writing for general audiences. How to show spiritual feeling rather than just telling the reader about it, how to use detail to evoke spiritual spaces, and how to demonstrate what religion means to a character without including the entire history of the religion. Also considers whether faith or lack of faith affects the stories writers choose to tell and how to navigate real or imagined religious restrictions on creative writing.

4:30 pm – The Risks of Writing on Race—and the Obligation to Continue
Do white writers have an obligation to use their influence and privilege to serve as allies to people of color? These writers argue yes, despite the fact that painful mistakes are inevitable. They discuss the personal cost, what it means to serve with an open and humble heart, and how to respond when things get ugly.

 

FRIDAY

8:30 am – On Finding and Growing Ideas for Fiction
Christian publishing needs new and exciting voices who are able to write outside the currently marketed boundaries. But fresh ideas for novels or short stories sometimes seem hard to come by. In this workshop each attendee cultivates their own ideas for fiction writing by beginning with character creation and then working through setting, conflict, and the formation of a plot.

10:00 am – Religious Readers and Sexually Transgressive Fiction: “What Does Your Husband Think?”
“What does your husband think about your work?” What inherently sexist assumptions are buried in this question? Why is art that depicts illicit sexual desire offensive, specifically, to the church? Does Matthew 5’s “thinking = doing” apply to the reading and writing of fiction? Explores these questions in the context of the current socio-political polarization in America, in which secular readers find serious treatment of Christian themes ludicrous, while readers on the “evangelical” right find explicit sexual content related to spirituality obscene, even blasphemous.

11:30 am – Truth Has Stumbled in the Streets: Writing Faithfully about Social Issues 
The prophet Jeremiah said that when truth stumbles in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Writing from Mississippi during the Civil Rights era, Eudora Welty pondered a question, “Must the novelist crusade?” When writers take up social and political issues, how do we aim to create art rather than propaganda? A narrative journalist, a novelist, and a poet grapple with the tension between conviction and proselytizing, frankly discussing times when they felt they succeeded as well as times when fear of stumbling made the work more difficult—and crucial.

2:00 pm – Why Don’t Men Read Women Writers? Closing the Gender Gap in Christian Publishing
Women read relatively equally between male and female authors (54%/46%), whereas men are much more likely to read male authors than female authors (90%/10%). This panel explores reasons for this gender gap as well as practical ways in which women writers might gain a broader readership among men.

3:30 pm – In Others’ Words, 
The co-writer is tasked with a particularly difficult form of writing: that of getting down some other person’s words, some other person’s story. How does one go about doing such a thing, practically speaking? Artistically speaking? This panel explores these questions plus the economics of co-writing and the ethics of ghostwriting.

 

SATURDAY

8:30 am – Do I Have to Be a “Christian Writer?”
If we believe in the exclusive claims of Christianity, are we obligated then to be “Christian writers”? How do we reconcile the command of Jesus to “go and make disciples ” with the aesthetic demands of good Art? Leslie shares her own wobbling path through the limits and the possibilities of writing from faith, offering a third path that honors and embodies both Art and Gospel.

11:30 am – Writing the Wrinkles in Time
Sarah Arthur, author of the forthcoming A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, explores what Madeleine’s life and books have taught her about writing from the stuff of your life when life doesn’t go as planned—whether it’s surprises about your topic, plot twists in your personal circumstances, or feedback that requires rebuilding a project from the ground up. Special guests include Madeleine L’Engle’s granddaughters, Léna Roy and Charlotte Jones Voiklis, coauthors of Becoming Madeleine: A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Her Granddaughters.

2:00 pm – Sentiment without Sentimentality: Women Writers Who Won’t Stay in Their (Inspirational) Lane
For those who don’t fit the standard definition of what it means to be a religious writer in this day and age, this panel explores how to get published when you are religious but not inspirational, how to be sad in a publishing world that rewards tidy solutions, and transcending the traditional boundaries of genre, religion, class, and gender.

A Tinseltown Twist on NaNoWriMo

It’s that time of year. Emails from National Novel Writing Month are popping up in my inbox. Writer friends are talking about prepping for NaNoWriMo on Facebook. Writerly blogs are starting to post content about it.

And here I am looking ahead to a leisurely, wide-open November and several projects I could choose from. So what am I going to do with those thirty days?

I think I might write my first screenplay.

Screenplays are a LOT shorter than novels, so I wouldn’t be trying for 1,667 words per day to hit 50,000 by the end of the month. A 120-page screenplay (with the average of one minute screen time per page) written in 30 days means averaging four pages a day.

I’ll be taking pre-writing work and tentative outlining I’ve done for a novel and turning toward a more visual medium, for a few reasons. First, I’ve never written a screenplay and I enjoy continually expanding my experience and repertoire. Second, the idea had first started in my head as a great idea for a movie. Third, if the screenplay goes nowhere, which, let’s face it, it probably will (won’t?), it can still function as an extended outline for a novel.

To that end I have been watching a ton of interviews with screenwriters and gleaning lots of advice. I’m searching out well-respected and successful screenplays to read. I’m contemplating taking a screenwriting class in the future. And I’m happy to have an excuse to re-watch a bunch of films that feel like they are in the vein of what I intend to write so that I can take notes on scenes, sequences, and structure.

A screenplay seems just the speed of something I’d like to fiddle with over the cold months while I continue to freefall down the research hole for my WWI novel.

Those are my November plans. How about you?

The Worst Writing Advice I Ever Received…and More

I’m over on the Capital City Writers blog today talking about what I’m working on right now, the worst writing advice I ever received, and more. Here’s a taste…

1. What is your favorite part about writing? The most challenging part?

 

It’s hard to say what I enjoy most because I do enjoy all the different parts of the process for different reasons. I love the idea phase when anything is possible, the drafting phase when I am speaking worlds into existence, the revising phase when I am making this lump of words more closely resemble the perfect vision in my head. There are two contexts in which I feel more elementally me than any other: when I am silently and deliberately exploring the natural world and when I am writing.

 

The most challenging part is …

 

Click here to read the rest of the interview.

And tomorrow night I’ll be at Schuler Books & Music in the Eastwood Towne Center leading a free workshop called Empathy over Experience: Writing Convincingly from Someone Else’s Shoes.

The fun starts at 7pm. If you’re a relatively local writer, I hope to see you there!

Big News on the Publishing Front!

For those of you who have been around this blog for a while, watching my slow journey toward publication, I am so pleased to share that the following announcement in Publisher’s Marketplace hit subscribers’ inboxes this morning:

I started my research and development for this novel in 2013. I wrote the first draft in early 2014. I finally found my lovely agent in 2015. It went out on submission in 2016. And now, finally, it is being contracted in 2017. And it is currently slated to hit shelves in a bookstore near you in January 2019.

You can be sure to hear much more about it as the next seventeen months progress. In the meantime, enjoy this series of GIFs that encapsulate how I feel right now.

Writing a Novel Longhand

Quentin Tarantino. Joyce Carol Oates. Neil Gaiman. Amy Tan. Jhumpa Lahiri. J. K. Rowling. Truman Capote. Vladimir Nabakov.

What do all of these people have in common? They write/wrote their works longhand, with paper and pen or pencil, before typing them up on either typewriter or computer.

There are several reasons to eschew the computer when writing a novel. There are no online distractions or rabbit trails. It is easier to write forward rather than getting stuck in an endless and premature editing cycle. You don’t have to make sure you’re seated by an outlet. Paper and pen are more portable and are not a pain in the TSA screening line. It’s far easier to write outside where the sun might completely obscure a laptop screen. And we know that looking at a screen all day is not good for our eyesight or our sleep cycles.

Recently I read an article about how taking notes longhand improves recall in students (this despite the push to get laptops in schools). I had a laptop in college and I never brought it to class. I didn’t need a study to tell me that physically writing notes on paper helped me remember what I was learning. If I don’t write it down, it’s gone, baby.

I enjoy writing on paper. I have been journaling for about a year and a half in an unlined notebook. I always write my poetry longhand, scratching out verses and changing words and drawing lines on the page before typing them up. But when it comes to fiction, I really haven’t tried it.

Some people can’t imagine writing a novel that way because they write scenes out of order and it is easier to manipulate the document on the screen than it would be on paper. I always write chronologically, starting at the beginning and writing straight through to the end, though I do sometimes go back while drafting and edit what I’ve already written. In revision, I often add entire new scenes earlier in the story, but that could easily be done in the first typewritten draft.

Anyway, this past weekend I got it in my head to try it with whatever I’m writing next. It will mean I won’t be watching word counts rack up (at least, not until I type the second draft) but I have to wonder if I might benefit from it.

Sunday evening I bought a pack of four .8 mm black uni-ball pens and a pack of three narrow-ruled moleskin journals, 120 pages each, for a total of 360 pages, pre-divided into a three act structure. The pens are pink on the outside, distinguishing them from all my other many pens, and will be used solely for writing in these notebooks.

Now, I do have terrible handwriting, especially when my mind is on a roll. And there may be times when my handwriting cannot keep up with my thoughts like my typing fingers would. But I imagine there will be fewer typos (fast typing means fumble fingers sometimes for me) and I won’t feel the need to go back and correct the ones that do occur because I know I will get them in the second, typed draft.

One benefit I can count on is this — because I won’t want to “mess up” these notebooks, I won’t actually start writing the next story until I’ve done a lot of preliminary work with character arcs and plotting and feel fairly confident that I know the story I’m telling before I put pen to paper.

I’ll be sure to let you know how the experiment pans out.

Writing Romance as Wish Fulfillment?

My most consistently popular post on this blog is 7 Favorite Movies about Writers and Writing (and Reading). Last night I finally watched Becoming Jane (2007) starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy and now I find I must add it to my list.


To me, a movie makes the cut in the same way a book does — if when it ends there’s a little ache in my heart, a little place inside that now feels empty and full at the same time. This was such a film. When I turned off the TV at midnight last night, I found that I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even close my eyes even though the room was dark, I was in bed, and it was certainly time to retire for the night.

If you’re a fan of Jane Austen’s novels or of their film adaptations, you should pop over to Netflix and watch Becoming Jane, either alone or with a sympathetic companion.

I don’t read genre romance and I don’t write genre romance, nor do I aspire to. But I do like romantic elements in book or a film. I have, in the past, viewed the writing of romantic plots or characters as perhaps too common, not quite literary enough. I don’t know why — perhaps simply because the books one reads as an English major (other than Austen and Shakespeare) don’t tend to be terribly romantic.

Perhaps it is also because a lot of category romance in our day is overtly sexual. I’m not interested in stories like that. I am of the mind that sexual tension is far more interesting to read about than sex, and once characters get together, whether by marrying or sleeping with each other, the story is done in my mind. Think about it. Wasn’t The Office far more fun to watch before Jim and Pam got together?

There’s also a stereotype that women who write romantic stories are trying to fill some void in their own lives. But why should that have to be so? Doesn’t everyone want romance? Doesn’t everyone enjoy that lovely, terrible, desperate feeling of being utterly at the mercy of another person’s glances and smiles? Why do otherwise sensible people jump out of perfectly good airplanes? Because we like the feeling of falling. And that’s why we like romantic stories — we get to fall along with the characters.

There is some truth to the notion that writing romance can be wish fulfillment for an author. It was for Jane. And that’s what makes her story so beautifully sad. But it isn’t in every case.

When my husband first read the manuscript for I Hold the Wind he commented that it was a far more romantic story than I’d written before. I hadn’t thought about it, but I had to admit he was right. My initial reaction to this comment was to be a bit defensive. I didn’t write a romance! And then it was to worry that he might be a bit offended, that he might think I’d written something romantic because I was lacking romance. After all, we had been married for more than fifteen years at that point.

Of course both reactions were wrong. I didn’t need to be defensive. I should rather be glad that he thought it was romantic. That means it made the reader have a bit of that feeling, that feeling of falling. Zach likes romantic stories, especially when people get back together after a falling out.

And I didn’t need to worry about the writing being some unconscious wish fulfillment. I was simply following the story and the characters as they developed. I didn’t set out to write a romance — I set out to write a story about the books that stick with us. It became a romantic story naturally, because a guy and a girl were sharing and discussing books, which can be an intimate exercise.

It also became a romantic story because our relationship to the books we love can be like a romance. We fall for books like we fall for people. There are books we will never fully get off our minds, just as there are crushes in our youth (whether on a person we actually knew or a popular musician or actor whose poster we had on our wall) that we’ll always remember, no matter how many years we’ve been happily married. I know I have nothing to fear over Rebecca St. James and Zach knows he has nothing to fear over Donny Wahlberg (Mark Wahlberg, maybe). We don’t love those old crushes, forsaking all others. But we’ll never completely shake them. They are part of what makes us us.

Same thing happens with movies and actors. Zach and I have discovered recently that we have some mutual celebrity crushes (Jake Johnson, Chris Pratt, Zooey Deschanel). And because we’ve been watching movies with each other for 22 years, we love many of the same films and TV shows. Sure, we have our own separate flings — I will never understand his attraction to Burn Notice and he will never understand my attraction to Under the Tuscan Sun or The Last Unicorn — but by and large, we fall for the same shows: Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey, Gosford Park and The Boondock Saints.

I doubt he would fall for Becoming Jane, though I won’t tell you why. Maybe that film is just my little affair. But I do know this: I shan’t shy away from the romantic in my writing if that is where a story wants to go. Because we all like the feeling of falling, our characters included.