Survival of The Writer: And What National Novel Writing Month Teaches Us

I’m going to keep it brief and give you a little excerpt at the end of this blog to tie up another great year of NANOWRIMO. I hope that your month was successful and that it taught you something about your ability to persevere, in the face of ominous word counts, writer’s block doldrums, and persnickety characters that don’t do as they’re told.

I for one am proud of you. The winner of the goodie bag will be chosen this week and I’ll announce the name on the blog this week. Think of it as an early Christmas. I’m still curious to know how it went for all of you and if you have any pitfalls or successes you’d like to share, please send them my way. If this was your first or your 25th, I know that you got something out of the process.

If anything, it teaches us how to manage our time better, how to flow with the writing even when its not going how we think it should, and how to keep going even when its hard. I hope the very best for your project. My final piece of advice is this:

Being the first day of December, I ask that you take that hard-earned manuscript you slaved over for a month, save it (Twice) and put it away. For a whole month. Don’t look at it, don’t tweak it. Don’t edit it. (the only exception is that if you’re really close to finishing something or the whole thing, keep extending your daily word count goal until you’re at a good stopping place). Don’t open it again until January 1st at the earliest. Give your brain and your thoughts time to settle and reflect, so you can come at it with fresh eyes and a begin the process of turning that beautiful raw material into a wondrous book.

Here’s a little (unedited) piece of my third novel in my new series. I was particularly excited to work on this one as it brings us back to a favorite family from the coast of Maine. Enjoy! (and Congratulations)

“Faith Harrison set up her camp with little effort and a practiced efficiency that showed she’d done it several times before. Setting up the tent and small awning from it in the protected berm of a small hill, she set out a small ring of rocks. She didn’t even think she could get a fire started. Everything was so damn wet here. She put what little fuel she had beneath the awning in hopes it would keep some of it dry for a fire tonight. A shiver ran through her body as a drip of rain fell from her piled up curls and down her neck, tracing between her shoulder blades, two fine and pale angel’s wings. Her brother Jackson called her scrawny, her mother called her scrappy. Her dad said she was lithe and strong, like her mother, but Faith never felt nearly as strong as her mother Destiny. She was bookish and quiet. The kind of girl that would disappear into the corner of a library or pub. If it weren’t for the striking red hair.

Iagan hated that he couldn’t reach out and see her like he could with his magic. He was decidedly a plain, human male with nothing special about him. Except his unfailing curiosity and strange stirrings of desire for the young woman who was trespassing on his land. Owen had laughed at him. Danika had gently slapped his cheek, said it was good for him to share his space. And that she liked the girl. There was something earthy and grounded about her. And she wasn’t afraid of a little dirt. Iagan wanted her gone as soon as possible. He grumbled as he searched for the binoculars, he’d purchased in a vain attempt to become a bird watcher fifty years ago. No birds lived here, nothing lived here. Except magical things. He climbed to the top most tower and peered out to the south ruins. She’d set up her small orange tent beneath a hillside for protection and had created a fire ring. She’d not get anything started in the rain. She’d be cold and miserable by the end of the week. Hadn’t she’d said she was a graduate student? The poorest, scruffiest excuses for humans of all. He watched her move, a small speck on the green hill, setting up her camp and moving with a grace that was calming.

What would that body look like moving through his house, quiet, calm, long limbed and warm. He felt his hand in hers, the warm brown eyes…the upturned nose and freckles. Faith Harrison. He wanted her. But he wanted her gone even more. He wasn’t in the business of ruining young women anymore, and she was too clever and disinterested to fall for his charms anyway. He’d simply have to suffer the summer until her research was done and then he’d be rid of her.”

The Moment of Pay Off

Every year I learn something new from participating in National Novel Writing Month. This year was no different. This year, I learned that sometimes, the project you think is a total loss, is reborn into something amazing with a little time and added experience.

The story idea that I began the month with was an old short story I wrote before my children were born. That’s probably 14 years ago people. Nearly a generation. I don’t know what drove me to pick it up again. I actually don’t know what drove me to keep it. But there it was on my computer—converted from an older version of Word, ratty and thin, barely holding ink on a page.

I’d seen the file, hanging on the end of my groupings of files like an unwanted 41st wheel, always in my peripheral. There’s that really odd one. Yeah, the one I wrote when I was in massage school? All about the herbalist turned witch. The one where I was still clinging to my Anthropology degree and geeking out over the prehistory of Scotland and Norse invasions? The one with the Mary Sue characters that fell flat on the page and fit too perfectly into every stereotype a 20-something inexperienced writer would believe?

Some of you may be asking why I didn’t just start a new project. Some of you are probably wishing I’d just get to the point, since you’re reading this out of a strange sense of obligation.

Well, when I went into a blank document for this year’s challenge, with 2020 hanging like a wet and heavy blanket over my body, squelching (yeah, I used the word squelching—don’t judge me—that’s the kind of word that needs to be brought back into the vernacular) any creative fire that might ignite, I just didn’t feel like I could accomplish the goal. I needed a buffer. A little boost. Something I wasn’t tired of working on, something not always shouting in my face to finish it…

Something in my peripheral.

And there it was—over there in that file innocuously labeled “Scot1”.

On to my point—

Knowing it was a shitty short story didn’t dissuade me. Because, somewhere in my brain, I knew there was potential. And the only reason I knew that, was because (and here’s the point) in 14 years of writing I’ve learned stuff.

Ah, here reposes the introverted house slave–bereft of even her rodent companions.

Since I wrote the story, I’ve taken numerous classes, conferences, and workshops, on everything from plotting and character development, to crossing genres and writing fight scenes. I’ve taken classes on editing and how not to write. I’ve written some novels. I’ve done a lot of hard cutting. I’ve explored different genres and played around with suspense techniques and “aha” moments. So when I saw this shabby little house-maid in the cinders of the proverbial fireplace, I looked past the soot and rags and saw the potential beneath, not because I’m all-knowing about what would work, but because I had learned, through investing in my craft, what didn’t work about it.

And maybe more importantly, that it could be changed.

So, what was lesson number one? Trust in the process of investing in yourself as a writer. Admit you don’t know it all, and that others have good advice to give. Soak all the information in, approaching each class or workshop as a beginner, no matter how many years you’ve been writing.

With knowledge, even the worst story can be made better. Knowledge also loosens the hold of fear that sometimes keeps us from progressing. Knowing how to cut and change becomes less heart-wrenching with the perspective of a better finished product. Knowing what makes a more interesting character, learning to take some of the polish off the Mary Sue, and turn her into more of a Jess Jones.

You can take a Snidely Whiplash and turn him more into…well…

When you give yourself the gift of knowledge, the list of what you can do breaks the boundaries of what you can’t.

Sometimes…you may even discover doorways that will bring over characters from other beloved series you’ve written…

Ladies and Gents–have a little Faith.

So there you go—look forward to a future magical realism/Norse mythology mix up with a delicious little love triangle, and the potential for a new generation of crooked smiles and bouncy red curls.