writing

NaNoWriMo Update: Everything Sucks

Novel-Cover

Well, it’s finally here. Yes, it’s everyone’s favorite season of NaNoWriMo: the week when you doubt everything and fantasize about quitting to go work on a tall ship. The week you realize that everything you’ve ever written is complete and utter trash. You begin to see yourself as the worst, angry internet critics would see you. Your plot is stale, your characters are unbelievable, your style is lacking, your entire story has been told forty times over. That’s right friends, we’re in the NaNo slump.

In years past the NaNo slump has been my great enemy. In fact, it has actually defeated me before (which always feel terrible, and leaves you with a novel you definitely don’t want to touch again). Yes, the NaNo slump has defeated even the most qualified writer (check out Neil Gaiman’s pep talk). It’s a beast, the thing you know is lurking in the wilds when you set out, but you pray you’ll never meet. It’s everything you hate about your book, your writing, your talents.

Take some comfort in knowing that we’re pretty much all feeling this. (Despite my shouting two weeks ago that I couldn’t fall into the slump because I’m writing a “romance” novel.) Most writers have this crisis around the 3/4 mark. You’ve written just enough to feel qualified, but you have enough left that you wonder if it’s even worth finishing. I’m here to tell you: finish it. The trouble with being a writer is that the book in your head and the book you write will never compare. The book in your head will always be exponentially better than the one you’re writing. In your head the book is perfectly possible, it’s just… wonderful. I’m sorry to tell you this, but the book in your head will never be real. The book in your head won’t magically appear on the paper if you start reading books on writing, improve your writing, start again, plan more, etc etc etc. There is always a reason to quit writing—to convince yourself that the next round will be better. Well guess what, friends? You’re already in this mess. You’ve already committed, you’ve got somewhere past 20,000 words to prove it. Do not let those words die–I promise they’re important. Maybe they don’t feel right, maybe they won’t make it to the final cut, but they are part of your story. They are helping you the take the book in your head to the page. Trust them, trust yourself. Your words are worthwhile. Hunt for the hidden gems in your work—the sentences that make you ask “wait, I wrote that?” Hold onto them. Reread them, remind yourself of them. You can do this. You can find the words, the story, the characters. You are a writer. No one can stop you. Critics are far away, made up ghosts. Right now, it is just you and your novel. No one else needs to know that you wrote the sentence “It’s like kissing a fantasy” (yes, that is an actual line from my piece of trash). Don’t get bogged down in the failure. You are doing something wonderful for yourself, for your goals, for the part of you that always nagged about being a writer. Being a writer means pushing through the terrible drivel. You are a writer.

Start acting like one.

Here’s an excerpt from the dark days of my NaNo novel:

“What do you read?” I ask, sitting down on the floor. I lean against the bookshelf, and pat the carpet next to me. Hamid sits.

“Promise not to laugh?”

“Hamid, you just caught me reading Sinners in the Bedroom: Preying Bodies. I think we’re well-past judgments.” I take the book down again. I’ll probably end up buying this, who am I kidding?

“I like to read… vampire novels.”

It takes too much effort to keep a straight face.

“Vampire novels?” I ask, my voice too high.

“See—I knew you would laugh,” Hamid elbows me. “It’s stupid, I know.”

“It’s not… stupid. It’s… different,” I offer. “Anyway, I’m sure they’re good.”

“No they’re not. They’re all pretty terrible. Most are just awful stories about girls falling in love with overly possessive guys. It’s hard to stomach.”

God, I’ve forgotten how much I love Hamid.

“For the most part I stick to this author, G. L. Breskin. She’s super into the scientific aspect of the disease, so she fleshes out the biology. She’s got a thirteen book series out right now, called Holding Back Sunrise…. wow, that sounds dumb when you say it out loud.”

I smile, and imagine Hamid reading his nerdy book in my living room. CRAP.

“It sounds pretty interesting, actually.”

“What about you? Do you read erotica?”

I laugh. “God, no. Not often, anyway. Just when I…” Wow, good corner you’ve painted yourself into, Cassandra. Just when I’m feeling particularly horny? “Just on occasion. I mostly read…” What the hell do I read? If I say I read classics I sound like a pretentious jerk. If I say I read young adult supernatural lit, I sound like an immature weirdo. “… contemporary novels.”

That’s a far cry from the truth. I’ve read one contemporary novel since graduating college. And I didn’t finish it.

“Oh really? I’ve always wanted to read good books. What was the last book you read?”

Witches Academy Book 14.

“Um, something by Ross G… Schroder.” Totally made up name. No way this can backfire. “He’s written several books that have won awards in the UK.”

I think I’m out of the woods, but Hamid pulls out his phone.

“Nice. Do you have any recommendations?”

Come on, stop being so likeable. I’m lying, you idiot.

I look around the bookstore.

“Uh yeah, you should read… The Blue Chair… at Midnight.” Don’t turn around Hamid, please don’t turn around and witness the blue chair right behind you.

Hamid frowns.

“Huh, I can’t seem to find it anywhere online.”

“Strange. Well, he’s really unknown at this point, I think he self-published most of his works. Most companies don’t sell his stuff.”

“Didn’t you say he won an award?”

“Did I?” Ugh. “Well, not everyone is as well-educated as the British. Anyway, were you doing anything the rest of the day?”

Was that worse? It sounds like I’m trying to ask him out. Am I asking him out? Damn you, subconscious.

Have anything you’re particularly proud of? Share your gems in the comments! We’re not past bragging here. Talk yourself up!

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You Should Write That Novel – NaNoWriMo

Who's with me?

Who’s with me?

I don’t quite remember how I first stumbled upon the magic of National Novel Writing Month. I was in high school, so I am apt to assume it was my wonderful cousin, Jodie, who let me in on the secret. Whoever opened the door, they welcomed me into a world of excitement and achievement.

For those of you won’t don’t know, NaNoWriMo (pronounced nah-no-rye-mo) is a novel writing competition that takes place during the month of November. You compete with yourself, the terrible parts of yourself that scream “this is utter crap” and “you’re not really a writer,” for one month, 30 days, to win the ultimate prize—a finished 50,000 word manuscript of your novel. It is for those of us who daydream about having written that one book we’ve thought we should always write, if only we had the time. It is the memoir you haven’t started, the Harry Potter fanfiction you dream about, the dystopian young adult novel to compete with The Hunger Games. You know your book. You just haven’t written it yet.

Well I’m here to tell you, it’s time to stop procrastinating it. That book isn’t going to write itself.

It is time to start plot mapping, character developing. Buy yourself a legal pad, a binder, a moleskine, a stack of printer paper. It’s time to start fleshing out backstories, building your world. Go out for a walk, notepad tucked under your arm and pen in your pocket, and just let your imagination run wild. Build people you hate and love, people you see every day, people you’d make out with if only they were real. This is your novel, this is your proof that you are a novelist. This isn’t for the world yet, this is for you. This is a giant “HELL YES” to the question “am I, can I be a writer?”

It is a ridiculous month, filled with days of clarity, and days of utter disappointment. You start off running, 1667 words every day. The plot pours from you, the characters are fresh and snappy and witty. Within three days you’ve got three chapters. Three more chapters than you’ve ever had. You’ve got stumbling plots, action and adventure. You’ve got people you love to come back to. It’s wonderful and brilliant and the road stretches out smooth and welcoming.

It will likely feel like a disaster somewhere in the middle. You’ll spend a week or two of November holed up, staring at a document you couldn’t imagine to be worse. You’ll have ice cream at 2AM, scraping sentences together to get to that 1667-word-a-day goal. You will feel like a failure.

If this worries you, I have some words of encouragement. Here’s the secret to being a writer. We all feel this. In every book, no matter how many we’ve published, there is always a moment of crippling self-doubt. Of wanting to move the entire document into the trash. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from a Neil Gaiman NaNoWriMo pep talk:

The last novel I wrote (it was ANANSI BOYS, in case you were wondering) when I got three-quarters of the way through I called my agent. I told her how stupid I felt writing something no-one would ever want to read, how thin the characters were, how pointless the plot. I strongly suggested that I was ready to abandon this book and write something else instead, or perhaps I could abandon the book and take up a new life as a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook or marine biologist. And instead of sympathising or agreeing with me, or blasting me forward with a wave of enthusiasm—or even arguing with me—she simply said, suspiciously cheerfully, “Oh, you’re at that part of the book, are you?”

I was shocked. “You mean I’ve done this before?”

“You don’t remember?”

“Not really.”

“Oh yes,” she said. “You do this every time you write a novel. But so do all my other clients.”

I didn’t even get to feel unique in my despair.

So I put down the phone and drove down to the coffee house in which I was writing the book, filled my pen and carried on writing.

One word after another.

That’s the only way that novels get written and, short of elves coming in the night and turning your jumbled notes into Chapter Nine, it’s the only way to do it.

So keep on keeping on. Write another word and then another.

You can do this. This is your year. This is the year that you write that stupid novel, that brilliant beast that keeps you up at night. If you were looking for a sign, consider this it. You should write your book. I promise, it will be messy and ridiculous and awful at times. But within that madness will be sentences that you can’t believe you wrote, characters that feel so real they haunt you. There is something amazing about looking at your draft, of seeing the words you wrote, finally real. When you cross that finish line, few things feel sweeter. You wrote a novel—a NOVEL.

So go create an account. Find your friends (I’ll be your first!), explore the forums and find your genres. Go buy yourself all of your favorite snacks, and copious amounts of coffee and tea. Start putting together your noveling playlist. Maybe even invest in a mug to show your commitment. We’ve got just over four weeks, 25 more days to prepare. Don’t procrastinate this. You’ve got this. We’ll all be rooting for you. It’s time to write that book.

Need a noveling buddy? Connect with me in the comments, and we’ll cheer each other on!

I’ll see you at the start line.

Mistaken Identity

Do you have one of those absolutes in your life about your identity? Like, one of mine is that I don’t enjoy winter sports. In the winters in New York we’d sometimes head north to Lake Placid, spend a day or two on Whiteface Mountain, skiing or snowboarding. And after several years of attempting—the ludicrous rental of snowblades, dozens of falls on the bunny hill, excessive frustration at ski pulls, and even the purchase of a snowboard (I wanted to be a snowboarder so badly, but I hated every minute of it), I finally came to the official conclusion: I don’t like winter sports. I have crossed it off on my to-do list, politely decline when people invite me to go skiing, ignore their suggestions that I “try it just one more time.” Nope. I’m done. I am 25 years old, and I have decided that not liking winter sports is a permanent part of my identity.

One of the things I’ve learned about being an adult is that locking into these identities feels like an accomplishment. As though stamping this activity or that dietary choice with approval somehow settles the ground beneath you. I am a vegetarian feminist who hates winter sports therefore… what, exactly? I’m more convinced of my identity? This extensive list of qualifiers (tattooed, writer, short-haired, procrastinator) gives me a sense of self. I suck at ceramics, therefore I am.

I’m not knocking these absolutes—I do think they are extremely valuable to establishing identity, confidence and self. But occasionally, they also prevent us from growing. Just because I’m becoming an adult doesn’t mean I’m becoming permanent. These absolutes, these pieces of my identity I’m writing in stone, lull me into a false sense of security. I am no more settled by saying “I hate green olives.” I am simply deciding to avoid something in my life.

There is nothing inherently wrong with making these decisions. Being the girl in the office who always says no to happy hour because she’s conscious of her budget isn’t really a bad thing. But sometimes, it’s difficult to see the trade-off. Making a decision always limits your options, making choices about who you want to be ultimately means that you aren’t something else. Sometimes I need to be reminded of what I’m giving up.

I will likely never go on a ski trip with friends. I won’t drink peppermint hot chocolate in the lodge, watch the frost crowd the corners of the giant windows, rub my sore hips through my snow pants. I won’t feel the biting chill of the wind against my cheeks, find clumps of snow in my boots when I pry them off, laugh up at the sky with my skis pointing in opposite directions, my tailbone throbbing.

I don’t have a strong desire to experience these things. For me, the trade-off has been evaluated, and I’m ok with what I’m missing out on. But I can’t deny that these missed opportunities, these hypothetical trips through fresh snow, prevent me from learning more about myself and others. I am deciding not to grow in this area. Is it the right decision?

I’ll tell you at the end.

The Love Affair I Can’t Give Up

I don’t know how it happened. I used to be responsible, put together, smart about these things. I used to know where the line was, used to know my limits. But now? Now I’ve crossed over. Now I can snooze for two hours before realizing how detrimental it is to my day. That’s right, I’m obsessed with my snooze button.

Back when I had a job I would set my alarm not for the time I needed to get out of bed, but for the time I thought I should get out of bed. It’s innocent enough–having lofty goals for the morning. I’ll wake up, have breakfast, shower, maybe even get some writing done, get to work early, have a coffee. It was worse when I worked evenings. I’d set my alarm for the morning, hoping that I would get a few things done before catching the bus around 1, but the inevitable would always descend. My alarm would go off around 8 in the morning, I’d reset it a few times, maybe even for an hour, before I just reset the whole alarm for two hours later, and then snooze for another hour before getting out of bed.

How terrible, right? Everyone knows that snoozing only makes you more tired. That the sleep you get in those 9 minute increments is mostly useless. That you aren’t really sleeping. Why not just reset the entire alarm for an hour later rather than snoozing for an hour? Because that’s the smart thing to do. Haven’t you learned by now that we don’t identify me as “smart?”

It feels like I’ve tried everything. I set the alarm across the room, only to get out of bed, turn it off, and crawl back into bed. For a while I had the app that would sense your REM cycles and wake you up when you were least asleep. You could knock on the back of your iPhone for the snooze, and I’d do that until the last possible minute. Or, more likely, I’d turn it off, with a backup alarm set for the “GET YOUR BUTT OUT OF BED OR YOU WILL LOSE YOU JOB BECAUSE YOU’RE GOING TO BE LATE” alarm. I’ve tried certain music (giant power chords intros), the radio, the obnoxious alarm noises. All of these things only make me want to shut the stupid thing up faster.

I don’t particularly like the snooze button. I don’t feel good after hitting it for a while, and I certainly feel a bit like a failure every time I get out of bed at 11AM instead of 8AM. But like a bad friend, I can’t let the snooze button go. Sure it makes me tired, ornery, and cranky, it makes me feel like a failure every time it speaks, makes me wonder just how useless I really am. But it’s so nice to have around. It’s so nice to hit that button, curl back up into the comforter, and know that for, almost 10 more minutes, I don’t have to face the world. I can stay in bed, and maybe keep sleeping. What a lovely present the snooze button has given me–procrastination.

I’m working on quitting my love affair with this beast, but I’m finding it difficult. How do you get out of bed in the morning? Are you just smarter than me, does it come easier to some people? You think you’re so successful because you can get out of bed in the morning, and go to your awesome job and–

Sorry.

I’m a little cranky. I didn’t get much sleep this morning.

Late Night

Being a morning person is a really positive thing. You get up early, you start the day fresh, you tackle the challenges ahead of you, you wake with the sun. There are few delirious “I slept half the day away by accident” moments when you’re a morning person. You fall asleep at a reasonable hour, relish in the silence of getting up before the rest of the world.

I’ve always associated being a morning person with being an adult. That to be successful, I had to have the nine to five lifestyle. That I had to be in bed by ten, up by seven, and I’d have coffee, maybe even read the paper. Perhaps the maturest, most organized version of myself will do these things someday. But I don’t quite want to be there yet.

I work best at night, when the world is asleep, and I can convince myself I am the last soul awake. Everything is quiet, still. The stillness is freeing, it’s the inhale, a swell before slumber. When I can’t sleep, I crack my laptop open, plow through an old piece or form something new. I’m sure it’s not better than something written in the day, but in the silence–when the crickets and locusts are the only ones making noise–I find work just flows easier. There is more drama, more resonance.

So here’s to the night owls. Here’s to sleeping in late, staying up until the sunrise. Here’s to the romance of the silence, of the inhale. Here’s to a glass of red wine, the drama of the moonlight shadows.

We are working in the swell before the storm.