NaNoWriMo: when failure is success

A few years ago, my writer friend, I’ll call her Pav, asked if I was participating in NaNoWriMo. I grew up in the 70s, so I thought she was saying Na-Nu Na-Nu, and if you have to look that up, you’re too young to read my blog.

NaNoWriMo —short for National Novel Writing Month— always falls in November. Because absolutely nothing big happens in November, us creative types have gobs of extra time to commit to the challenge of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. (For those who don’t speak word count, that’s about 200 pages of a book.) The “rules”state that a writer starts with a fresh page and a great idea and lets the goal spur along the creative process, with the comfort of knowing lots of other neurotic writers are struggling right along with you.

In late summer, I started work on a new novel. Then my efforts stalled, not for lack of a storyline, but because I wasn’t dedicating time to write. I decided I needed NaNoWriMo to return my focus to the work and develop the habit of scheduling writing time into my day. (Also to fire up my competitive spirit even though I broke the start with a blank page rule.)

I set a daily goal of 1700 words, but in the first week, tried to outdo that pace to account for visitors at Thanksgiving and other distractions. I ended up with two zero-word days (Thursday after the election and Monday before Thanksgiving). I had one 3062-word day, which was exhausting (especially since I also baked two pies the same day). In the end, on my last day, I wrote 3,058 words, ending the challenge 362 words short of the goal.

At first I was disappointed. I failed. (You can imagine the hysterics. “I’m never going to be a published author.”) But I took a step back and viewed my accomplishment from a different angle. I started off NaNoWriMo with a hodgepodge of words and scenes with the ultimate goal of ending the challenge with the first draft of a novel. I achieved that goal. Now I get to cut. And edit. And pare down the times I added a bunch of “that” phrases to boost my word count. Kidding on the last point. Sort of.

Hey, we are motivated by what we are motivated by, and word count goals work for me. The days I found hard to make my 1700, I cut huge passages or left placeholders because the scene hadn’t come to me. I had the ending written when I started this process, but my story went in a different direction. Now I need to fix it.

The challenge over, I feel a little rutterless today, but my novel deserves a night away from me. Goal number one for tomorrow: begin to rewrite the end.

 

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when words count

 

A year ago, the boyfriend of a dear friend asked me to draft his bio for the website of the company where he’d started working. The write up couldn’t read like a narrative version of his resume; it was supposed to be quirky and convey his sense of humor and interests as well as get his qualifications across.

I spent about 45 minutes preparing the piece, which he (and his boss) loved.

“Hey,” he said. “I know a lot of guys who could use your help writing their online dating profiles. You should really look into doing this as a job.”

I dismissed his suggestion. Surely he exaggerated. How hard could it be to write an online dating profile?

Apparently I overestimated mankind’s writing ability.

Now that I swim in the online dating pool, I’m constantly struck by the poor writing I encounter. Online daters, you have one chance to make an impression. And maybe you hit it out of the ballpark with your photo; a picture does say a thousand words. But you must follow up your photo with at least a few sentences to attract the attention of potential suitors. Make their click on your profile count.

I don’t care how attractive your picture, if you spell a word wrong, I’m done. Double check your/you’re, its/it’s and their/they’re/there. Don’t randomly capitalize Words. In other words, don’t say you’re (not your) looking for a great Lady. Strike a playful, witty or friendly tone; your (not you’re) online profile is not the forum to bash your previous bad dating experience and shouldn’t read like a LinkedIn summary. Please refrain from writing words as if they end in in’ – for example, chillin’, hangin’, relaxin’ or my biggest pet peeve, chillaxin’. If you decide to go dirty, at least get lie vs. lay correct.

Readers, if you know a poor soul in desperate need of a modern day Cyrano de Bergerac, inquire within. The Internet may not have secured me a ton of dates, but I don’t fault my way with words.

lay-lie

on signing an agent

The publishing odds are stacked against an aspiring debut author. In the cutthroat industry that converts stories to books, even having an established name (not to mention talent) doesn’t guarantee your work is going to make it to e-readers and bedside table stacks across America and beyond. But I couldn’t let myself dwell on the negative while writing my first novel. In the world of fiction writing (which differs from non-fiction) you write the book first, pitch second. So as I poured my heart and soul into completing my work, the farthest thing from my mind was failure.

My mentor later warned me: “You’ll probably get over 100 rejections. But don’t let it get you down. The right literary agent will love your story enough to take a chance on you.” Her words didn’t lessen the impact of the first rejection or even the tenth. I’ll spare you the final number of agents who sent their regrets. I’m sorry, I’m not the agent for this work. Most wish you luck. Some don’t respond at all. One stapled a mimeographed slip of paper to my original query letter. Suffice it to say, I began writing a second novel as a form of therapy.

Then I got a nibble. A request for the first three chapters. A few days later, the same agent asked for the full manuscript. It had been months since anyone had asked for the full. A flicker of hope fluttered in my stomach for three weeks. She ultimately rejected the story, though it wasn’t despair she left me with, but hope. She complimented my storytelling ability and even my novel. She had read in my blog (yes, agents read the blogs of prospective authors) that I was writing a second novel and offered to read it when I was done if I didn’t yet have representation. I nicknamed her Nice Agent, short for the nice agent who thoughtfully rejected me. Then in late January, I took her up on her kind offer.

Fast forwarding through the details, I’m thrilled to announce that the last agent to reject my first book, the first agent I pitched on book two, offered me representation on that second book. Barbara Collins Rosenberg of The Rosenberg Group is officially my literary agent. (Cue applause and champagne.)

There’s nothing more validating than a professional who believes in your work. I recognize we have an uphill battle ahead of us; having an agent doesn’t guarantee publication, but I trust in Barbara, her instincts and connections. I know she’ll be thoughtful about which publishers she takes my story to, and she already has a great hook in mind. I’m fueled by her enthusiasm for my career as a novelist. Here’s how she laid it out: the second book gets published first, the sequel gets published second, and the first book I wrote (with a tiny facelift) gets published third, while I work on my seminal fourth novel.

I’m a jumble of feelings right now: overwhelmed, giddy, relieved, scared. But mostly, I feel gratitude for Barbara. My agent. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of saying those two words.

a year in good reads

You can’t be a good writer without being a voracious reader, and I take the book stack on my bedside table seriously. I find there’s practically no better way to overcome writer’s block than to pick up a book and lose yourself in its pages. Love the book or hate it, there is inspiration to be found in other people’s words. In fact, I so disliked one recently read book (which I will not mention because I do not want to author-bash) that I just had to get back to the computer and write because if that book got published, surely mine stands a chance.

Anyway, 2014 was undeniably a good year for reading enthusiasts. My absolute favorite book of the year was ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr. This book is an achingly beautiful interwoven tale of a blind French girl and young Nazi boy during World War II. I can’t even begin to do it justice with a plot description so just take my word for it and put it on your Christmas list now. And I mean, now now.

A close second was STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel. I picked a good time (shortly after the Ebola panic subsided) to read this novel about the end of most of humanity due to a highly contagious flu. Contrary to what you might think, there is nothing about this book that is hysteria-inducing. In fact, the death of ninety-nine percent of humans is very matter of fact; it’s how the remaining one percent connect to each other as they move on with life, love, religion and the arts that sucks you in and leaves you turning page after page, well past a reasonable bedtime hour.

EUPHORIA by Lily King and A LIFE IN MEN by Gina Frangello (both profiled in my summer reading list) rank in my top five, and rounding out the top is REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS by debut novelist Bret Anthony Johnson. This heart wrenching account of the upheaval a family endures after their kidnapped son is found and returned to them left me sleepless and teary. Okay, maybe that doesn’t make you want to run out and grab a copy, but you should.

As the last days of December tick down, I’m sad there are still so many books on my TBR list that I won’t get to before 2015 and its slate of offerings. EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng, THE CHILDREN ACT by Ian McEwan, and THE PAYING GUESTS by Sarah Waters would all be great finds under my Christmas tree and would quickly jump to the top of the pile of books currently awaiting my eyes.

 

 

whoops, I wrote a second novel

So this funny thing happened as I was pitching my first novel to literary agents… One day over the summer, exhausted yet unfulfilled after sending out a round of queries, all of which take time to research and must be personalized to suit the requirements of the agent being pursued, I thought to myself, “I need to write something more creative than a letter.”

Two days later, the idea for a second novel was born.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, I fired off a quick 25,000 words. But then I stalled. I was away for much of August, and while I wrote a little while I was gone, I was not as prolific as I hoped to be.

In September, I began working with the Virtual Writer Workshop, a small online community of writers who embraced me into their fold. Every two weeks, my group shared up to 7,000 words which the other members of the group critiqued. I don’t know about you, but I find my writing improves when I’m critiquing others. It’s easier to see your own weaknesses through the lens of another writer’s good prose. Under the pressure of deadlines and encouragement from my group members, I wrote above and beyond the workshop goals. Through this process, I figured out how I wanted to end the novel, and then I wrote the heart of the story with that ending in mind.

Two weeks ago, I sent the completed first draft of novel #2 out to a small group of beta readers, kind volunteers who will provide feedback on everything from misplaced commas to structural flaws with the plot. One of those beta readers is a writer I met through the workshop. She got “hooked” (her words) on my story, and I can’t wait to hear what she thinks after reading it beginning to end.

In the meantime, waiting for feedback is hard (I’m impatient) so I’ve taken a break from the story to work on other projects. I plan to pick it back up with fresh eyes and new perspective once the critiques are in. My ultimate goal is to have an agent-ready manuscript by the end of January. Ambitious, but doable.

“Has she given up on novel #1?” I can feeling you asking. Never. But I’ve heard from more than one author that often the first book you write isn’t the first published. In my humble opinion, the super secret plot structure of novel #2 is more unique than the love triangle at the core of novel #1. So I’ll shift my focus to the second book, and if an agent nibbles, guess what? I have a second manuscript (novel #1) waiting in the wings. The second book also lends itself to a sequel. Hey, writing novel #3  may well be to pitching novel #2 what writing novel #2 was to pitching novel #1.

What am I waiting for? Maybe I’ll just start writing now.

 

the midlife crisis

Shifting gears, I have a story. Maybe more of a mission. But first the story.

The other day, I was catching up with a friend. He asked what I’d been up to lately, and I started to tick off my list of ventures: I started my own one-woman consulting firm, wrote two novels, and am in the middle of a yoga teacher training program.

“Oh, right,” he said. “Yoga teacher training. That’s like a respectable midlife crisis for professional women these days.”

I laughed, but then I started to think about his words. I guess when you look at it on paper, my life the last year does contain the classic symptoms of a midlife crisis. But I’ve been so happy, fulfilled and mostly grounded; I haven’t for one minute felt any sense of crisis. (Except the fives days between finding out my COBRA coverage had been terminated and when it was reinstated. But that was more emergency than crisis.)

I digress.

Hours after this coffee-yoga-midlife conversation, I started to wonder: why do we call a change in the direction of one’s life a crisis? I made a mental list of the actions I have been guilty of attributing to midlife angst and honestly, I think we have it all wrong. The man who buys a high performance sports car? Maybe he’s been driving a grocery getter for twenty years, a vehicle that fit his three kids plus all their requisite accoutrements. And now he has not only the freedom to buy a smaller car, but the income. Changing jobs? Why not explore a profession that ignites your passion instead of sticking doggedly to the one you chose in your (perhaps) misguided youth? Getting in shape? Seems like a pragmatic thing to do as one ages and the body needs more attention. Divorce? Okay, it’s sad when a couple breaks up, but maybe the marriage had been eroding for years. Maybe the couple was waiting for their children to finish college. Maybe they fell out of love.

What I’m trying to say is that while in some cases, midlife can be scary and compel people to make bold moves, in a number of instances, the crisis is an exploration of one’s untapped talent or long-held dreams. The crisis is a realization you were meant for something else. The crisis is grounded in the wisdom of age and experience. Perhaps it’s a crisis because those on the outside are uncomfortable with change. Or they wish they had the guts to do the same.

Whatever the case, I propose the midlife crisis needs a rebrand. Maybe we call it a midlife awakening or midlife exploration. In fact, screw the “midlife” modifier all together. None of us knows how long we’ll live, thus it’s impossible to designate a midlife point accurately anyway.

Yes, I started a consulting firm, wrote two novels and am on a journey toward becoming a yoga teacher. These actions reflect who I am inside and out. If I add a convertible or a young boyfriend to the mix, don’t whisper about my crises but celebrate my ability to navigate life so that I’m on the right path for me in the present moment. And I will do the same for you, no matter the make and model of car you purchase.

the day my computer screen went black

It had happened before. My MacBook Air screen goes black and it takes many rounds of on and off button pushing to get it to wake up.

But it had never happened in conjunction with spilled water.

I didn’t panic at first. There wasn’t that much water. The blank screen was more annoying than anything. I had been struck by the inspiration bug, finally ready to revise the opening chapter of my work in progress after undergoing a workshop critique. I was itching to get my thoughts on paper, and my computer’s lack of cooperation was stymying that effort.

“Fine. I’ll show you. I’ll take you to Apple,” I said to my computer, convinced by the time I drove to Georgetown, found parking, and got to the Genius Bar, the screen would defiantly light back up at me with nothing worse than a crash version of my word doc. Doesn’t all technology behave in front of the experts? “Really, it wouldn’t turn on,” I heard myself explaining to the tech.

But that was not the situation at all. The computer wouldn’t cooperate with my 23-year old wiz kid helper either. He took it in the back so they could check out the guts. His report was grim.

“We found severe water damage.” I groaned and put my head into hands. He quoted the price to fix it, a figure high enough that I considered buying a new computer instead. Then Wiz Kid told me the real bad news. “Unless you pay for data retrieval, the chances are we won’t be able to save anything.”

Those words echoed through my head as tears sprang forth and the contents of my stomach threatened to make an appearance all over the shiny clean lines of the Apple store. It would cost at least $1000 on top of the repairs to potentially retrieve my word files.

I continued to cry. Okay, sob. I shook. I could feel the customers around me both trying to ignore me and to figure out what happened. I had recently started saving documents to Google Drive but I couldn’t remember what I had saved there. My novel? My agent queries? My entire work in progress or just the few chapters I had sent out for critique?

In a moment of clarity, I asked Wiz Kid to let me sign in to Google on one of their computers to check what documents I had access to. I could barely see through my tears though and was unable to focus on the file names.

“I don’t see what I need. I don’t see what I need,” I chanted, desperation spilling off me.

“I get it,” Wiz Kid sympathized. “If I, like, lost a paper for school or something I’d be really upset too.”

“I’m an aspiring novelist,” I snapped back. “I wrote an entire book and am three-quarters of the way through writing the second one.” He didn’t respond. Then my eyes honed in on the two file names I needed. Both books were safe in the Google Drive.
Everything else? Expendable.

But I cried all day nonetheless. I tried to find peace. Hey, I had the two most important documents. I didn’t lose my only hard copy of my novel to fire, wind or theft. But I couldn’t ground myself, and the more I thought about my first world loss, the more despondent I grew.

Today is better. A few people have commented “not having your computer is like not having a limb” but I refuse to buy into that sentiment. I have hands and pens and paper. I still have my imagination and the means to express it. Maybe these five to seven business days while Apple repairs my computer will be good for creativity. Maybe it will be good for me to not be constantly tethered to and reliant on a piece of technology.

So on this cold rainy day, I’m curled up on the couch instead of sitting at my desk. I have a blanket, cup of tea and two cats. I have four printed out chapters of my work in progress. And today, I will write like so many did before a power source and the right software were required to get the job done.