With a little help from my friends – NaNoWriMo 2015

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) sent hundreds of thousands of writers to their keyboards in November to write the novels they know they have in them. Historically, 17% of those who start succeed.Dream Big Dreams I was one of those writers.

Writing 50,000 words in a month is no easy task, especially for someone with my perfectionist tendencies. The Nano concept is that I must securely lock my perfectionist self in the closet at the beginning of the month and not let her out until I’ve written those words. No re-reading, no re-writing, no editing. Only more words. Everyday, more words.

It makes me anxious just to think about it.

Yet, I did succeed, writing 50,406 words by November 24. (Sound the trumpets!). I was helped along by the wisdom of writers I admire. With a tip of the hat to John Lennon for the blog title, I offer the following:

“Every morning I tell myself: Write recklessly. You can play it safe tomorrow.” – Sue Monk Kidd

Kidd’s prose is beautiful, thoughtful, every word perfectly chosen. Yet she gets there by first writing recklessly. The crafting of each perfect word comes later. November was for reckless.

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.” – Peter DeVries

I have always taken DeVries’ workman-like words to heart. Some mornings, I had a scene in mind to write; on other days, my mind was a blank. Yet, I committed to write. And I did. My mind always sent something to my fingers.

“I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I’m capable of writing.” – Ann Patchett

The whispers of doubt grew loud throughout the month. What right do I have to write this story? How can it be any good? Will anyone care to read it? Patchett reminded me of the mantra I’ve repeated with my previous books: Write the best story I can, as well as I can. It’s all I can do. That will be enough.

“Shitty first drafts … All good writers write them.” – Anne Lamott

Lamott is never far away during NaNoWriMo. Many of the words I wrote (while individually perfectly good words) came together as such cliched-ridden drivel that I was too embarrassed to let them go. So I highlighted them in yellow or wrote CLICHE!!! after them just so I could move on. Wow, that was some really bad writing. But every word, no matter how bad, moved me toward the goal. I trust Lamott and will fix it in the second and third and fourth drafts.

These writers were my spirit guides. They encouraged me to keep writing no matter what. I arrived at the end of November with characters I understand better, scenes I had not previously envisioned, new plot lines I may (or may not) keep, and holes yet to be filled. I discovered things about myself and the story.

And there was one more spirit guide.

“It’s not our abilities that show what we really are. It’s our choices.” – Albus Dumbledore

Albus Dumbledore wasn’t a writer, but his advice to Harry Potter applies just as well. Writing is a choice, and success requires that I show up. In November, thanks to NaNoWriMo, I showed up.

Whether you’re a writer or not, whose words of wisdom inspire you?

*Photo courtesy of morguefile.com

Writing reckessly – NaNoWriMo 2015

“Every morning I tell myself: Write recklessly today.

You can play it safe tomorrow.” – Sue Monk Kidd

NANOWRIMO CRESTAs I join tens of thousands of other writers to tackle the National Novel Writing Month challenge to write 50,000 words in November, Kidd’s comment is particularly appropriate.

Writing 50,000 words in a month – 1,666 words every single day – is no easy task. Life gets in the way. The muse takes a vacation. I convince myself I deserve a break. However you slice it, 50,000 words in one month is tough. But Kidd has offered me words to live by.

To write 50,000 words or more, I promise to write recklessly:

  • I won’t look back. If I look back, I’ll get mired in re-writing and re-thinking. I will look ahead and just keep writing.
  • I will lock my internal critic in the closet. I won’t listen to any naysayers. Even if what I write is dreck (and I expect much of it will be), I will keep writing.
  • I will let the muse take me where she will. I’ve lived with these characters for a good long while; they know what they want to do. I will get out of their way and keep writing.
  • I will not let the outline I’ve prepared for the month get in my way. It’s a starting point to keep writing, not the designation.
  • I won’t let road trips or remodeling projects or family visits or holiday dinners – all of which are scheduled in November – deter me from the goal. I’ll write no matter what.
  • Finally, I will follow Sue Monk Kidd’s example. Every day in November, I will write recklessly.

NaNoWriMo was the genesis of my novel Go Away Home. I’m hoping for the same inspiration, encouragement, and push for my current novel.

Wish me luck. I will see you again in December.

Shameless Self Promotion Note: While I’m writing, you may want to be reading. A reminder that the paperback version of Go Away Home is 40% off – best price this year – until November 20. Possible gift idea?

Journey to publication began with NANOWRIMO

Writer at work

Writer at work

Writers worldwide recently passed the half-way mark of National Novel Writing Month. By today, a writer who is on the NANOWRIMO track will have logged at least 30,000 words on their work in progress. Each year when NANOWRIMO rolls around, I itch to join in. There’s something about the sweet smell of a challenge and a deadline that calls me.

In 2006, I was there. With the finish line for my memoir in sight, I joined the tens of thousands of writers worldwide who signed up for NANOWRIMO to try my hand at fiction. At the end of the month, I had 55,000 words, a few characters I liked, and some scenes I thought I could use.

Though it took a couple of years before I returned to that first draft, this year I published Go Away Home, my novel that got its start in 2006.

In celebration of novel-writing month, Webucator asked authors to answer a few questions about their writing careers. I am participating because of the good fortune that led me to NANOWRIMO eight years ago. Here are my answers:

What were your goals when you started writing?

My first goal was to write about my parents’ lives. In the course of interviewing them – about life during The Great Depression, jobs they held, military service, and life on the farm – stories of my own childhood kept coming to my mind. Eventually those stories took center stage and became my memoir Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl.

What are your goals now?

Regardless of what I write, my goal is always the same: to tell the stories as well as I am able. To that end, I regularly take classes that add to my writing tool kit. I hope the result is that each subsequent work is better than the one before. Now that I’ve written both memoir and fiction, I feel I could go in either direction for my next book. The idea that’s got the most traction at the moment is a contemporary novel. Though a sequel to Go Away Home is getting legs, too.

What pays the bills now?

Years of saving accumulated a nest egg that allows me to indulge my interest in writing. That nest egg is augmented by freelance writing and consulting projects and royalties from my books.

Assuming writing doesn’t pay the bills, what motivates you to keep writing?

I enjoy the process of writing, and when I have an idea, I’m inspired to puzzle out the story arc, the characters, the place and time, and see how well I can tell it. Writing is hard work, so I’m inspired to complete projects by deadlines and my writing group partners. Also, I buy butt glue by the gallon to keep me in my writing chair.

What advice would you give young authors hoping to make a career out of writing?

Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep learning. Don’t give up.

So there you have it, friends. It is with delight and gratitude that I lift a glass to NANOWRIMO, encouraging others to realize their writing dreams.

Write On!

One month & eight years

In 2004, I’d never written a novel. But I thought I’d like to try, so I signed up for NANOWRIMO, the worldwide initiative that kicks off every November 1 with the goal of getting everyone who says they have a novel in them to actually sit down and write it — 50,000 words in 30 days.

In 2004, I wrote 55,000+ words on the novel idea that had been in the back of my mind pretty much my whole life. At the end of the month I was declared a NANOWRIMO winner. They even awarded me a certificate! I felt good.

I knew some of the writing was pure dreck, but there were some characters I was beginning to like, some scenes I was pretty sure I could do something with, and the beginning of a story arc. To work on someday. The certificate and the manuscript went in a drawer and life got busy going in other directions.

Here it is November 2012, and the air is buzzing with budding novelists stockpiling coffee and chocolate by their keyboards ready to bang out 50,000 words in 30 days. Here I am still working on the same novel.

It astounds me that it has been eight years since I took those first steps. Eight years spent on other writing projects, including writing and publishing my memoir. But all the while, that manuscript stuck in the drawer was never far from my mind. So a couple of years ago, I pulled out the file, dusted it off, and went back at the keyboard to finish it.

I’m making progress. My novel — working title “All She Ever Wanted” — is set in pre WWI, at a time when women didn’t yet have the vote. All She Ever Wanted is a coming of age novel about a young girl who struggles to have a career, to make her own decisions, to break free of the expectations society had for women at that time.

I’m knee deep in the second major re-write. Since attending an advanced novel writing workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival this past summer, I’ve launched a major rewrite of the first third of the novel, discarding a good share of the original drafts, maximizing (I hope) the conflict, getting my characters to act their age. But I need a framework, a structure, to keep myself focused. When NANOWRIMO rolled around, I realized this could be it.

I’m not starting a new novel this year, so technically I can’t be an official participant in NANOWRIMO 2012. Still, I’m using the concept to keep me on track. I started again at the beginning of novel and am moving through it page by page, discarding what doesn’t work, writing new scenes when I need to, gaining internal cohesiveness.

At the end of November, I won’t get a certificate from the NANOWRIMO Office of Letters & Light, but I hope to award myself one for sticking to it and working through my manuscript in such a purposeful manner, from start, hopefully almost to finish. One month plus eight years. It’s a long time, but the symmetry of  using NANOWRIMO to help me take the next steps in what I started so long ago feels right.

The best writing advice ever

When people ask me about writing – what they should do and how – I often find myself sharing the advice others have given me.

I’ve been fortunate to attend writing workshops led by amazing writers and writing mentors. In the ways of the universe, each of these leaders has given me the perfect bit of guidance I needed at just the moment I needed it. I received most of this advice as I was writing memoirs, so their advice was given in the memoir context, but I find that it applies equally well now that I’m writing fiction.

In homage to all of these amazing writing spirit guides, here’s their advice.

  1. Give yourself permission to write. New to the memoir writing experience, I found myself agonizing about what shape my final manuscript would take. The sequence of chapters. The number of chapters. Marc Niesen, told me there was a time to worry about that but not while I wrote my first draft. He said, “Put your editor hat in the closet and put on your writer hat. For six months, just give yourself permission to write.”  I did. I even put a sticky note with this directive on my computer, “Today I’m writing about growing up on the farm.” Six months later I had my book.
  2. Tell the truth. If you don’t, the reader will know. Mary Kay Shanley explained that memoir writers may be afraid to go deep into the facts, situations, emotions of what happened to them. When the writer skims over the truth, readers can sense it and the writer loses credibility. It was amazing to me that time and again as my writing buddies read my drafts, they invariably zeroed in the places where I’d hoped not to have to go. Mary Kay also said that a writer may not be ready to go deep and that’s okay, but that means it may not be time to write that book.
  3. When something needs to be written, it will be. Just keep writing. I’ve heard this from many of my guides, but I’ll credit it to Mary Nilsen who led a personal essay workshop. I’d come to her workshop with ideas in mind about what I wanted to write. I wound up writing about something far different, something I’d kept to myself for more than 30 years. Obviously this needed to be written. That’s the only way I can explain writing a 14-page essay overnight.
  4. Write the shitty first draft. One of the biggest barriers to writing is perfection. So in one way or another every workshop leader advises giving yourself permission to write the bad first draft. Get it all down and then worry later about adding polish. NANOWRIMO is one of the best experiences for pushing on. Write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days? Sure! Just write 1,666 new words a day, every day, and never look back.
  5. Apply butt glue. I don’t remember the writer who shared this bit of advice at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, but I remembered it because it was funny and I use it because it works. American editor and novelist Peter DeVries spoke to the same concept when he said, “I only write when I’m inspired and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.” If I sit down to write, and commit to staying there until I do, I will write. No writer’s block allowed.

These are bits of wisdom I live my writing life by. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?