books

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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NaNoWriMo Recap – Three Days 9,000 Word?

Novel-Cover

It’s that lovely season—the terribly ridiculous time of the year when most of your writer friends buckle down, ignore your texts, and begin writing novels in rapid succession. It’s NaNoWriMo, the only time of year where you’ll find other people up at 4AM, chowing on Nilla Wafers, screaming about word count. This year has already consisted of dozens of sprints (I don’t think I’ve written more than 100 words that wasn’t built in a sprint—10-15 minute sessions of straight writing), lots of junk food, and many late nights. I’ve done NaNoWriMo for eight years now, winning just three of them. And every year it is a different beast. My first few years were disasters—never even making the first day’s word count. By the time I got to college, I used my fanfiction skills (yes, I do put that on my resume, thanks for asking) to create a totally indulgent fantasy novel. I made everyone “stare daggers,” and used far too many adverbs. Sure, I’ll never touch that piece of ridiculousness again, but it taught me a valuable lesson—I can write 50,000 words in 30 days.

Over the past eight years, I’ve attempted lots of novels I never expected. I wrote about a serial killer’s mother (that was a rough month), the exploits of a group of teenagers without chaperones in Alaska (that was a weird month), and the downfall of television, the rise of the internet, and the postmodern drivel that resembled what I believed to be the Next Great American Novel (that was a fun month). NaNoWriMo is always a different beast, and I’ve definitely struggled with each piece in new ways.

This year, I’ve decided to no longer care. I’ve never been able to take my NaNo novel to workshop—it just feels like a mountain of trash by the end of the month, and while I enjoy the craziness of the journey, I’ve never felt particularly rewarded by it. I’m eternally grateful for the feeling of achievement—of being able to say “hey, I can actually write a novel.” As a serial novel starter (I’ve got dozens of manuscripts no longer than ten pages), NaNo taught me a lot about just how much I can accomplish. But I still haven’t learned as much as I’d like.

So this year, I’ve decided to write a romance novel. And as it forms, I’m realizing more and more that it is a reactionary feminist romance novel, which I’m really enjoying. I’m not caring about style, poetry, or plot. I honestly am just talking, letting the characters do whatever they’d like, and it is wonderful. 9,000 words in the first three days wonderful.

Enough talking about the work. Here’s some of the ridiculousness:

I’m beginning to regret turning on the 80s Pandora station, but the wine is telling me that something like destiny is forcing this moment.

I open a new tab, and hit “COMPOSE” to create a new email. I stare at the cursor for a good two minutes, before I return to his Instagram feed.

I’m hyper aware of my fingers, sliding through the edited photos, careful to keep the tiny devil arrow off anything that would prove that I’ve been here. Oh, don’t let me hit the like button. For goodness sake, don’t let me hit the like button.

He has a dog—a hideous Chihuahua with almost no fur, cross-eyed, tongue unable to stay in its mouth. Is he a saint, or a weirdo?

“Delilah is a rescue dog,” he told me once as we chatted during his break. He showed me a picture, and it took more composure than I’m willing to admit to continue smiling. “Isn’t she so adorable?”

I mean, could I date a man with a Chihuahua? Delilah looks back at me, her stupid pink tongue a conceited, victory mock. I’m a tiny dog who poops in a diaper, but somehow I am a better person than you.

Yep. This is already a disaster.

How’s your novel going? I’m sure it’s better than you think it is. Let’s talk about! Show off your favorite lines!

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.

My 10 Most Influential Books

All my books are in boxes on the other side of the country.

I don’t know if this has infested your Facebook newsfeed yet, but there is a post going around asking people to list their top ten books. And as an English major/writer/blogger, I thought I should at least attempt this. I apologize in advance for the pretentious choices. It comes with the degree.

1. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers

This is my absolute favorite book. I’ve never felt a stronger connection to a writer than I do with Dave Eggers. The book is a fictionalized memoir, chronicling the difficulties of losing one’s parents suddenly and at a young age. Eggers brilliantly expresses the breadth of emotions one feels while trying to make sense of mortality, and attempting to use heartache to create art.

Favorite quote:

“I stand up quickly and throw, this time some of the cremains sticking to my palm, which is now sweaty—fuck!
… how lame this is, how small, terrible. Or maybe it is beautiful. I can’t decide if what I’m doing is beautiful and noble and right, or small and disgusting. I want to be doing something beautiful, but am afraid that this is too small, too small, that this gesture, this end is too small…
but even if so, even if this is right and beautiful, and she is tearing up while watching, so proud… I knew I would do it, and I know this, I know what I am doing now, that I am doing something both beautiful but gruesome because I am destroying it’s beauty by knowing that it might be beautiful, know that if I know I am doing something beautiful, that it is no longer beautiful. I fear that even if it is beautiful in the abstract, that my doing it knowing that it’s beautiful and worse, knowing that I will very soon be documenting it, that in my pocket is a tape recorder brought for just that purpose—that all this makes this act of potential beauty something gruesome. I am a monster. My poor mother. She would do this without thinking, without the thinking about the thinking—
oh fuck. I throw more.”

2. Harry Potter Series – J.K. Rowling

Thank Merlin for the crush I had in fifth grade and Scholastic book order. I begged my mother to order this book about a boy wizard, and it isn’t ridiculous to say that this decision changed my life. Harry Potter taught me about struggle and choices, right and wrong. It opened the door to writing for me, gave me a community of peers. I will always be grateful for these books.

Favorite quote:

You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself plainly when you have need of him.” (Prisoner of Azkaban)

3. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

Oh man. This book taught me so much about race and gender and sexuality—perhaps more than any other book in the “literary” canon. Le Guin uses a platform (SciFi) that is easily dismissed as escapist to explore such remarkable emotional depths, and cultural struggles. I love Le Guin for her take-no-prisoners attitude, her eloquence and her storytelling. She gives us such an incredible love story.

Favorite Quote:

A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt.

4. Till We Have Faces – C.S. Lewis

This book made me fall in love with C.S. Lewis. I was surprised by this retelling of the Cupid/Psyche myth from the point of view of one of the jealous sisters, as I expected it to be mere entertainment. Yet Lewis uses these brilliant characters to give such profound insight into the struggle with a deity, the silence of the gods. This book changed many of my views in such remarkable ways.

Favorite quote:

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

5. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner

I did my senior thesis on this novel, and I still don’t think I understand it. I love coming back to this text, it is so rich. This book taught me a lot about literary study, and how enjoyable it can be. Even after studying it for a year, writing a 16-page paper, and watching the sunrise over my laptop the day it was due, I still love this book.

Favorite quote:

“…I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire… I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”

6. Underworld – Don DeLillo

This is definitely one of my pretentious English major books. But having conquered this ridiculous 832-page monstrosity, I feel like bragging. But I did love this novel. I loved that while I followed it, there was so much more I didn’t follow, that there is so much happening under the surface that I can return to it again and again and find a different book. I love the giant canvas it is written on, the ludicrous things it tries to say. I love everything about this book.

Favorite quote:

“Sometimes I see something so moving I know I’m not supposed to linger. See it and leave. If you stay too long, you wear out the wordless shock. Love it and trust it and leave.”

7. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer

I don’t know if I’ve ever cried as hard reading a book as I did reading this one. This book taught me so much about form and style, and how it can be used not only to make a literary point, but to make an emotional point. Foer builds such moving and real characters, and I never wanted it to end.

Favorite quote:

“You can’t love anything more than something you miss.”

8. New and Selected Poems – Mary Oliver

The importance of this woman in my life still surprises me. I never expected to fall in love with Mary Oliver, but the moment I read Dogfish I knew I’d found someone who understood struggle and knew how to put it into words. I am so grateful to have found her poetry.

Favorite quote:

“I wanted / the past to go away, I wanted / to leave it, like another country; I wanted / my life to close, and open / like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song where it falls / down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery; I wanted / to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know / whoever I was, I was / alive / for a little while.” (Dogfish)

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And nobody, of course, is kind, / or mean, / for a simple reason.

9. The Waste Land – T. S. Eliot

This might be the quintessential “pretentious English major” book, but it’s difficult for me not to love Eliot. His poetry is just so full—it continues to reveal itself again and again after every read. I still don’t think I understand this poem, but I love that every time I read it, I can find something new.

Favorite quote:

“In the mountains, there you feel free. / I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.”

10. Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

This man taught me a lot about subtlety. I have to admit, when I first experienced this story as the independent movie with Andrew Garfield, Kiera Knightly, and Carey Mulligan I hated it. I thought the plot twist was unmerited, and the entire piece made no sense. But the story haunted me, I couldn’t stop thinking about. So I picked up the book. And I loved every minute of it. The subtlety that felt surprising and off-putting in the movie just shone brightly in the book. Every minute decision of the characters had purpose, and it broke my heart to watch their pain. The book is breathtaking.

Favorite quote:

“We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.”

Now it’s your turn. What are your 10 most influential books?