thoughts on this NaNoWriMo eve

It’s almost November, one of my favorite months of the year. If you’ve yet to hear the good news of NaNoWriMo

I’ve been participating in National Novel Writing Month since 2010, when my friend Karen mentioned it to me and suggested I might enjoy it. Well, she was right. I’ve been hooked.

Although there are rebels and the “rules” have relaxed a bit since those old days, the main goal of NaNoWriMo is to quickly write the first draft of a novel during a single month. To “win,” you write 50,000 words over the 30 days of November, which averages out to 1,667 words a day. (Although there aren’t any NaNo police. There’s no penalty for signing up, trying, and not hitting 50k. No police, but plenty of cheerleaders if you want to sign up.)

I had no idea what to expect of myself that first November.

I’d written stories before, sure, and long ones, but I’d never tried to hit a certain word count goal with a specific timeline. I signed up for NaNo on October 6, 2010 (coincidentally that’s my dad’s birthday – you know, my biggest cheerleader?) and then spent the rest of October working my way through not only three different plots, but working out an entire village of characters. (I’ve still got that notebook. I worked out the hours of each shop on the village main street, for crying out loud.)

And then, come November, I ignored every last bit of my outlines and just … went for it. I wrote at a speed that felt good for me and ended up writing 120,039 words, so that means averaging 4k/day while being excited and pushing myself, but not too hard.

My second year, in 2011, I pushed harder and ended up with 180,508 words. The site keeps track of such things for you. Sadly my first year’s data got lost, but I still have the file for my final word count. From 2011 on I can go back and look at graphs like this one:

The gray line shows the proposed steady progress of the magical 1,667 words per day. My blue line shows how I sped up and over 180k. (And the story still wasn’t done – I’d written myself into a bit of a corner with this epic, but in April 2018, for a Camp NaNoWriMo session, I ended up finishing it. Whatever little idea I’d had at the start of November 2011 turned into five books of an epic that became a whopping 249,152 words.)

By 2011, I’d already started seeing a pattern in my NaNo that has more or less continued to this day:

I go into it knowing more or less the first half of the story.

Usually less. When I prep, I build up locations (that’s become easier since I’ve moved from fantasy to real-life places and I pick the ones I know well) and character’s bios up until the moment we meet them on the first page. I do a lot of work fleshing out who they all are, so I have a good idea of how they’ll react when I throw different things their way. Then, in the words of Mr. Noller, my twelfth-grade mythology teacher (who, I believe, was passing on something one of his college professors told him), “Kick your characters in the butt and follow them.”

For me, NaNo is a lot of following. I know (more or less … sometimes a lot less) where they’re going for the first half of the novel, and then …

Then. The muddy middle.

Every. Single. Time.

And look, I’m not alone. In Neil Gaiman’s NaNo pep talk from 2007, which I have found and cherished and passed on to so many other writers, Neil himself explains:

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.

I don’t know how many times I’ve gone back and read this pep talk because I really, really need it.

(The solution, in case you’re wondering, isn’t giving up and becoming a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook, or marine biologist. It’s to keep writing.)

So the rest has to come one word at a time.

Which, to be fair, is how the fun first part gets written, too. It just happens a lot faster when the idea is new and shiny and I’m closest to the bit I already know: the opening scene. The further I get from there, the more things veer off.

What I’ve learned about myself and my writing, though, is that I need to be consistent. Like seriously consistent. Some of my more recent graphs clock in at almost exactly 5,000 words a day for every. Single. Day.

Remember how my original 2010 speed of 4k.day was pushing myself, but not too hard? Let’s have a peek at my graph from 2020 for comparison.

Yeah we don’t even need the whole month on this one. In case you’re wondering, my word count for November 1 was 31,423. I hit my 50k before 8pm on November 2. Why? Because in 2019 I’d hit 50k on November 3, so I wanted to push it. This was my Everest: why climb it? Because it’s there.

Look sometimes we have to go too far and then spend a long time afterward babying our hands and getting Dragon to dictate things instead of type them before we’re willing to try something like moderation.

My 2020 novel is still unfinished. It was a rush to hit 50k that quickly, but it sucked a lot of the fun out of the process. Maybe even all of the fun, in the end. I barely slept on the first, and man, November 2 was pretty darn awful, because I had to force myself through the muddy middle at record speed. Not recommended.

Since then, I’ve stuck with my own personal Goldilocks number. On the fast days, I hit my 5k pretty early … and then push back from the keyboard and go do something else. (Put some words back in, you might say.) Then, on the muddy middle days, I push through … up to 5k. I don’t let myself stop, but I don’t force it like I did in 2020, either. I have goals, but I am allowed breaks.

So I imagine this November will be about the same.

I’ll sit down tomorrow to write the scene where I’m 99% sure I know what’s going to happen. The first week, maybe more, will be coasting on that energy and my general idea of where my characters are headed. I don’t know for sure if I’ll be able to do the 5k/day thing with everything else going on in my life, but, aside from my local region’s writing marathon scheduled for the 5th, I won’t be aiming for more than 5k.

I do want to write every day, no matter what the word count, to help push my way through that muddy middle. That, at least, should be doable – if nothing else, I can steal 20 minutes here and there between grading and prep, and chant to myself “A change is as good as a rest.” Like I said, November is busy. But I’ve got goals, and I’ve got experience on my side. Writer, know thyself.


Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Have you done it before? What tips and tricks do you have for other Wrimos out there staring down the next 30 days?

Put some words back in

I’ve talked a bit about my writing schedule, and mused about writing on both good days and bad, and compared writing to going to the faucet, but lately I’ve been thinking about the part of the process my friend Angela likes to stress: the breaks. Angela’s really big on telling me I need to take breaks. (I’m not really so big on listening to her.)

I’ve got what’s become a stock phrase for me, but when I dropped it in a Discord writing conversation, I realized that this thing so familiar to me is new and different to other people. When someone mentioned how draining it is to be working on a long-term writing project, I said oh, yeah – when you’re doing that, you need to pause now and then to put some words back in.

I don’t know if they actually blinked, but the “is typing” notification was up for quite a while before they came back with “Tell me more.”

I guess sometimes I picture my brain to be the Kool-Aid man.

Not because I’m made of glass or because I like to bust through walls, but because my words are the Kool-Aid. When I write, I pour them out. Now, I’m not entirely sure what would happen to the Kool-Aid Man if you emptied his pitcher, but I know how I feel after a long writing session: drained. (Ba dum tss.)

Aside from things like breathing and blinking, I’m not sure we’re built for sustained anything as a constant. Marathon runners train themselves to be able to keep it up for that long (or, if you’re Eddie Izzard, you run 32 marathons in 31 days.) I’d say “HOW?” but the answer is “training.”

National Novel Writing Month is a marathon. They have word sprints (because apparently running is a very apt metaphor for writing a novel) where participants see how many words they can write in a short amount of time, from 5 minutes to attempting a #1k30 challenge and writing one thousand words in thirty minutes, but NaNoWriMo itself is a marathon. For 30 days, the goal is to write 1,667 words and end up with 50,000 words of a first draft by the time November’s over.

At the average typing speed of 40 words per minute, that means writing for 42 minutes a day and 20 hours, 50 minutes over the course of the month to finish the novel. (One of my past NaNoWriMo notebooks has a nifty little writing time conversion chart in the back cover.) And maybe you think hey, 42 minutes a day? Totally doable. But that 42 minutes assumes that you know each and every one of those 1,667 words and don’t have to sit there and grasp for the next one.

Let’s say you have a good day and 42 minutes is all it takes. You’ve still pulled 1,667 words out of your head. So … now what?

Time to refill.

I personally don’t stop at 1,667 because I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo since 2010, so I know my own personal Goldilocks zone as far as word counts go. (Yeah, I know that’s for planets that can sustain life, but really it’s my wordcount that sustains both my life and my novel’s.) But the most important thing, especially as far as my friend Angela is concerned, is knowing when to stop.

Yes, you can absolutely write more than 1,667 words. Some people front-load their wordcounts and do what’s been termed a Reverse NaNo, getting ahead early in the month and only needing a single word on a final day. Others try a 50K Weekend to get all those words down in … well, that one might be self-explanatory. And if that’s what you’re looking for, then go for it.

I did 50k in two days in November 2020, hitting the goal before 8pm on November 2. There was more story to tell, but I was burned out at that point. I think I wrote another thousand or so words over the other 28 days of the month, but that rough draft is still unfinished. While a 50K weekend is possible for me, it’s not my Goldilocks zone.

Through decades and millions of words of practice, I’ve found my Goldilocks word count: on good days, I zoom through it before noon. On slower days, I can still make the goal, but it’s much more of a push. But the most important part of the process is this:

When I hit my word count goal, I’m done writing for the day.

It becomes time to put words back in my brain and fill that Kool-Aid pitcher back up.

What that actually looks like depends on the day. Sometimes it’s exercise. Sometimes it’s reading something, new or a re-read. It could be watching something. Basically my brain needs to do something other than shove words out through my fingertips, and it’s happiest when I put something back in it.

In case this wasn’t obvious with Angela having to remind me about breaks, I wasn’t always like this. I used to treat writing as write-write-write and nothing else. If I was awake, I should be writing … and nothing else. I didn’t have a broader definition of all the different steps writing requires, including (yes, Angela) breaks.


Has your approach to writing changed over time? Do you prefer to write as much as possible every single day, take it slow and steady, or something in between?

Not Your Mary Sue: the original ending

So there are totally spoilers for Not Your Mary Sue in this post. If you haven’t read it and want to experience it all without knowing what’s coming, this is your cue to stop reading.

Okay?

Okay.

This post isn’t exactly one of those killed darlings, because this is the first time I’ve actually written it. I didn’t have to delete it from my first draft because, once I got to the end of what ended up being Part One, I didn’t want to write it anymore. It just didn’t fit.

But, once upon a time, leading up to about mid-November of 2017, this was how Marcy’s story was going to end. We see the others come to the island and eventually make their way into the bedroom, finding Marcy curled up in the corner of the bedroom, and she starts crying. There’s a break, and then this brief epilogue from some months later:


Marcy steps out into the sunlight and sighs, arming sweat off her forehead. It’s not entirely clear where she is – she’s just outside, and sweaty. She moves out of the way of the door, but you don’t know how big the door is. She just steps sideways enough to lean against the outside of the building but, before she does, she pulls something out of her back pocket: the first sign that she’s wearing jeans.

She unfolds the paper and it becomes clear that it’s getting thin along the creases. We can’t read all the words, anyway, but they’re written in a familiar, spiky-yet-cramped hand. And what we can read is the last sentence: Remember, Marcy: when you save a life, you’re responsible for it.

“Marce?” someone calls from inside the building, and he comes out – not through a person-sized door, but through an open garage door. He’s a stranger, and he’s wearing a leather apron. “You all right?”

She folds the letter from Jay quickly but carefully and slips it into her back pocket. She’s wearing an apron, too, and her hair’s pulled back into a tight bun. “Yeah, just … needed some air.”


He smiles and somehow it becomes clear that she’s his student. Maybe he says something about how he can’t have his best student collapsing from heat exhaustion, or maybe it’s less obvious. When he reaches out toward her, she pushes away from the wall and lets him lead her back into the building where the sword forge, and her blade in progress, are waiting.


Yeah I always imagine my scenes as movie shots, I guess. It’s a lot of telling and a complete lack of interiority because I never actually turned it from the idea into a scene for the book. I wrote the first draft in third person but, aside from one scene – the very second in the book – from Jay’s point of view, I stuck close to Marcy the whole time. When I rewrote it for the second draft, about the only thing I changed was the point of view from third to first, and the tense from past to present. Nearly everything else from the first part of the final book is what I wrote in November 2017. How amazing is that?

The thing was, though, once I got to the end of part one – once Marcy put her head down on her knees and cried because they’d found her – I didn’t want to let her go. Sending her into the forge was no longer the proper slightly ominous ending for her as a character. She’d spent the entire story so far reacting instead of acting, and I wanted to give her some agency.

Reality check, though: originally Part Two started with the words Edison Crane had a girlfriend. The original Part Two was told largely from his point of view, because I hadn’t really figured her out yet. Marcy on the island, yes, that had been swirling around in my head for months. Marcy off the island? Big shrug.

I had to figure out what all was going to happen to Marcy before I could figure out how she was going to handle it. And, as a nod to my original ending, in that first draft Edison was a master bladesmith. (Remember Jay only reached journeyman.) His house had a forge in the backyard, and Marcy asked him if he could teach her. Except, once she learned the techniques, she used the skills to make some elaborate sculptures, like a metal nod to Chihuly’s sea life tower or an interpretation of a whale fall, which ended up being the centerpiece of a show she eventually put on (with all proceeds to go to charity, of course).

But, once I’d rewritten the first half again, years after the original draft, I knew I couldn’t let Marcy go like that for the middle. Part Three’s back to her, fine, but even though sudden changes often happen in thrillers at a new part, it didn’t make sense to start with Edison. Mostly because her life After Jay didn’t start with Edison.

I had to follow Marcy, in her fog, to Iowa before I could follow her to Illinois. Make those transitions with her. See her resisting Edison at a few opportunities before allowing herself to be drawn in because of Stephen King, and then because he reacted to her distress. A lot of those scenes were there in my first draft – and a lot of them got cut in the second and restored in the third, but now from Marcy’s point of view – but the changes seemed far more significant.

If “Edison Crane had a girlfriend,” you don’t get to see so much inside Marcy’s head.

And really, you didn’t. That first draft de-centers her from her own story until Jay’s escape. At the time I was just trying any angle to get the events on the page and figure out where the heck things were going, since now I was pantsing instead of following a mental outline. I had no idea what was happening next, or even who the heck Edison Crane was. I can’t even remember how I came up with the name. The goal was to just keep writing, and to know that I could always come back, and edit, and make it look like I’d known what I was doing all along.


Do you think Marcy’s still the sort of person who’d reclaim the skills Jay had and use them for creation instead of destruction? Or does it make a lot more sense that the original ending didn’t happen?

Have you ever made a change like this partway through a first draft of your own?

okay, next?

I recently completed the first first draft since Not Your Mary Sue came out, and … it’s been weird. Let’s face it, I didn’t think I was going to have any sort of sophomore novel jitters because a) I’ve written so many novels before and after that first draft of NYMS, and b) I know what novel’s being published next and it was already written before NYMS came out, but … still, it’s been weird.

I’m not a new writer. I’ve been writing novels since 2000, when I had a story I wanted to tell that didn’t fit into fanfiction. And yeah, okay, that one’s probably not long enough to classify as a novel based on word count, but come on. I was 15. I’m counting it.

I’ve written about how no, I don’t finish every manuscript I start. Yes, I’ve written novels into the double digits, but that’s nothing compared to the false starts. Which I did write about. And marvel over, because hey, Teenage Rebecca kept at it even when the starts-to-completion ratio was 20:1.

Let’s just say false starts feel a bit scarier now.

My academic writing has always felt different from my “fun” writing, and I don’t remember feeling this way after Ripper’s Victims came out. I don’t think it’s just the difference in process between proposing, and then writing, an academic book, or drafting a whole novel, but maybe. It is a different approach, after all.

I think it’s easier somehow for me to see academic writing as an honest draft, to be revised by me before anyone else sees it, and then revised again based on peer review or editorial comments. It’s easier, maybe, to think of academic writing as an actual process. There are multiple steps, and turning a blank document into a bunch of words is only the first one.

I didn’t really want to tell anyone I’d started a new novel. When I set my goals for the week, it was a bit superstitious: well I’d like to keep up my progress, but no worries, universe, if I can’t. It’s not that important. It’s fine.

(It was totally that important.)

The thing is, with all those partial files and all the work I’ve done in the past, I know what it feels like when a book isn’t working. Except “when a book isn’t working” can also be “not a great day on a book that is working.” So you have to push through the one not-so-great day and hope it doesn’t pile up into two, and then three, and then fizzle.

Plus you’re alone in the room, staring at the screen, and at the same time you know you’re the only one putting this pressure on yourself, it’s still valid pressure. “C’mon, you’ve done this how many times before? You know you can do it.”

While your recently-published book just sits there and stares at you.

The demonstrated ability to write a novel just doesn’t feel like a guarantee.

Yes, I’ve done it. I’ve been doing it for years. And now you can see that I’ve done it. This isn’t just something between me and a small group of people I can name and call up if I want to. Complete strangers can buy my book (and read it and judge me).

Because yeah, that’s part of it. This time when I sat down to draft, I thought “Oh crap, people are going to read this.” I’ve spent a couple decades doing these fun stories and sharing them with people who know me and who will be kind about their critique. People I know. And when the drafting’s going well, I don’t even think about them – how they’d react to reading a certain scene or anything. When the drafting’s going well, it just flows.

And this one (which I’m only writing about because the first draft is complete) did flow. I’ve got my Goldilocks zone for a first draft, based on word count: if I write this many words a day, then it means the story’s hot because I can write that many words. Some days are hot and fast and I’m done well before noon, and others are slower and harder (and make me worry that this thing’s going to go into the half-finished file and get lost), but I’ve found the word count that works for me.

Even on the days when it’s fast, I stop at that word count and then … do other things. Regular life things. Let the story sit until the next day and percolate in the background.

But, even then, even when I was like “Oh yeah tomorrow will be enough to finish this,” I didn’t want to trust it.

Trusting it feels like jinxing it.

Like yeah, maybe the writing ability – or just the joy – is a gift from some temperamental fairies who’ll take it back the moment they see me taking it for granted. (I’m pretty sure academic writing doesn’t come from fairies, temperamental or otherwise. That’s always more of a grind and feels more like honest work.)

I also feel like this draft was more of a first draft than I usually write. There are a lot of placeholders, mostly for names – a couple characters are X and Y LastName (no relation), because stopping to try to figure one out felt like it might derail the whole thing.

But it also feels like more of a first draft because I’ve spent so much time with a published book. It’s easy to forget everything that happened between the end of November 2017 and June 7, 2022, when it got published. All of the steps and revisions and feedback and more revisions that happened between the thing I wrote, having fun, and the thing other people get to buy.

I’ve also been a bit tired out from all that writing and the whole balancing act, which is why I haven’t written a post lately. Because writing is work, even when it’s fun.


How do you feel when you’re shifting between projects? Do you have any tips for starting The Next Thing?

About all those writing rules that everyone should follow …

So a couple weeks ago now a friend of mine made an observation on Twitter:

And that, combined with some other recent twitter discourse, makes me want to repeat my response to Danielle a bit louder, and a bit longer.

The thing is, writing advice isn’t one size fits all.

Except it’s like math: they start of telling you that you can’t subtract a bigger number from a smaller number. You just can’t. If you’re kid who pipes up about negative numbers, they shush you until the curriculum says that it’s information you’re allowed to receive. “Don’t confuse the other kids!” (That may have been the last time in my life I was actually ahead of the other kids concerning mathematical knowledge.)

Here’s another elementary school memory that resonates: in second grade we had to write storybooks with a partner. Stephanie and I wrote about a bunny who went on an adventure to a strange land and then came home and … I don’t remember exactly what, but it was very Hero’s Journey of the little rabbit. We even included dialogue to prove we’d learned all the punctuation rules.

But I remember Mrs. Knitz reading it and telling us that we couldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction. (In this case it was “and.”) So we had to erase our carefully-penciled text and cover up the weird gap it left.

It goes beyond learning the rules so you can break them.

More recently – I guess this post is a bunch of anecdotes – I had someone tell me that you have to learn the rules before you can break them because I said I don’t know the beats of Save the Cat. The internet’s a weird place, and you don’t always know who you’re talking to. I’m sure they meant it for the best. But I had to point out that some of us learned the rules before the original Save the Cat was published in 2005.

And yes, it’s important to know the expectations of the genre you’re writing. That’s really the whole point of a genre: it tells audiences what they can expect. It helps us pick the thing we want to engage with next. Some days you’re in the mood for horror, and others you just want a romantic comedy. The third-act misunderstanding (and maybe a breakup) is absolutely expected and necessary, but so is that happily ever after (or at least a happily-for-now).

Can you mess with generic formats? Yes, but. That’s getting complicated beyond what I’m trying to say here. Hold on to your knowledge of negative numbers until the rest of the class is ready to learn.

The point I’m trying to make is that there are all sorts of rules about how to write.

You get grammar and punctuation and formatting rules. You get genre- and format-specific rules. If you take a class, you get instructor-specific rules. (I had one in college who was obsessed with food. Your characters had to eat something, and it was always meaningful.) Pick up a book on writing and get a few more rules.

So now we’re circling back to Danielle’s lament that a very common writing rule doesn’t work for her. And my response:

I think I’ve generally seen it as “Don’t edit while you write … if it’s going to bog you down and stop you from making progress.” Or maybe I’ve just always added the second bit in myself?

Danielle agreed that yes, that’s the context, but it’s also the quiet bit. That’s the kid trying to tell the teacher that yes, you can subtract a bigger number from a smaller number, because negative numbers are a thing! They exist!

Writing advice is some big blanket statement that someone (presumably with authority) makes to some sort of audience. If you’re in a classroom, the speaker has a better chance of knowing that audience, but even then you don’t know everything about everyone. You don’t know where someone is in their writing journey or how many years they’ve spent honing their craft, or how, with which books or which trends, so really it’s just easier to make big proclamations.

And miss the nuance of the quiet part.

Writer, know thyself.

Yes, you should know the rules and expectations. You’re entering into a conversation as a writer and not just existing in some sort of void. (That might be my They Say, I Say college composition syllabus coming through, considering I taught it for years.) You do need to know how you fit and what various people are going to expect.

But.

The point of writing is the writing. And the reason so many of us talk about writing is because we’re not going to be relevant to everyone. And even then we’re not going to be relevant to someone on every project. Writing, and writers, continually evolve as they read and write and engage and revise and daydream and scrap and edit and polish.

So: you don’t have to take every piece of writing advice someone hands you. If you think it’s going to work (for you), then absolutely put it in your pocket. If you’re skeptical, you might stick it in a drawer of your desk to pull out when everything else seems to have stalled.

Or you can chuck it in the circular file if, instead of helping you get words on the page, it’s going to stop you completely.


In the interest of those of you who already know about negative numbers: yes, this changes when you’re working with an editor or an agent who suggests changes or a publishing house that has its own style rules. There are always exceptions. But, like my math teachers, you have to start somewhere.


What “writing rule” can you never seem to follow? Do you even try anymore, or is it something you’ve decided you don’t actually need?

First Draft Rebecca

I’ve been working on revising a novel I drafted during NaNoWriMo in 2019. I picked it up again recently, read it, and thought “Hey, I still really like this. I could probably do something with it.” So here I am, working through it.

I’ve talked a bit about rough drafts before (see Do your rough drafts ever get less rough? or “Don’t compare your rough draft to someone else’s final product” or Remember to look back) but I think it’s a good topic to revisit. You learn different things about yourself with each project, and you learn new things about yourself with each revision. And I think it’s helpful for writers at all levels to talk about their current process and just … share a bit about what goes on behind the scenes.

First Draft Rebecca can’t be bothered with limiting POVs

The first draft is in third person and I didn’t limit myself to using only certain characters. I was just trying to get the story down and follow it through to the end, so if I wanted to know what was happening over there more than halfway through the story, even though I’d never used one of those characters as a POV character yet … it didn’t matter. I hopped into their head and figured things out from there.

My first step was transferring the manuscript scene by scene from Word to Scrivener, which I wasn’t using at all back then. (2019 seems like eons ago.) While I was doing that, I labeled the scene’s POV – or double labeled it, if it was written from Z’s point of view, but X or Y was there. In the rewrite I’m limiting things to two POVs.

This means losing a lot. First off, the new, cut document was about 25,000 words shorter than my initial draft. But what about those scenes? The tension I created by jumping back and forth at crucial points, leaving things hanging?

Well. A lot of those darlings are dead. Or, at least, left behind in the first draft. I’ll figure out how to work around them, and then I’ll be one of only a handful of people who could tell you there’s something missing.

First Draft Rebecca likes to repeat herself

So first, remember that NaNoWriMo means writing your first draft at top speed, aiming for 50,000 words in 30 days. I … didn’t. 2019 was the year I hit 50k on November 3, which is why I went on to push myself to hit 50k in two days in 2020. (Spoiler alert: I did, but it also hurt my hands, and I’m never doing it that quickly again. A fact my writing group reminds me of every late October.)

When you’re drafting quickly, just trying to get the story down, you’re bound to repeat yourself. Overemphasize the things you’re pretty sure are going to be important. Reuse cool lines because honestly you can’t remember if you already wrote it, or just thought of writing it.

The first draft is basically a mess.

The second draft is where you go and gather together the fragments of the explosion and figure out what it is you did, and make it look like that was what you always meant to do.

Neil Gaiman

I think I’ve said before that I have friends who plot things out completely before writing them, but I am not one of these people. I’m definitely the explosion first draft type, and this second round helps me get rid of a lot of things – extraneous POVs, unnecessary repetition – but also add some things in: foreshadowing, since now I know how it’s going. The sort of repetition I want, because it matters for the characters and the story.

First Draft Rebecca is just excited to find out what happens in the end

One of the things I really like about NaNo is that speed: just keep writing. Don’t go back and edit. Keep pushing forward and see what happens.

Even when I try to plot something, I come to the end of what I’ve plotted and discover there’s still more story left over. I did that with Not Your Mary Sue – I’d plotted what happened in Part I and then a short epilogue. The book would’ve been about half the length it is now. But, once I got to the end of Part I, I felt like I couldn’t just leave Marcy there. I had to keep going.

My current revision is a Beauty and the Beast retelling. I love reading them (Robin McKinley‘s even written more than one) and I had more than one idea myself. I started with one and figured that would be the book, but then … the other idea rose up again, and the book kept going. It turned into two different Beauty and the Beast stories, swapping out roles somewhere around the middle.

I’d planned that first one, but the second was just me hanging on for the ride and seeing where things go.

… which doesn’t save First Draft Rebecca from the murky middle

It’s also called the muddy middle, or the saggy middle, but it doesn’t matter who you ask – the middle is a sticking point. It’s that transition between “what Rebecca thought the story was going to be about” and “what the story told Rebecca it wanted to be about.” It’s the part I’m editing right now, and yes, it’s murky. And muddy. And it sags. So there’s more cutting in the future as I put my characters on a much more direct path to their endings, but …

It’s fixable. That’s the good news. The best news, maybe.

And I’m excited about it, because this time I know how it ends, so I have a much better idea of how to get there. First Draft Rebecca has her issues, but she managed to get all of this down and figure out the plot.


All that being said, this book may never see the light of day. But the process of writing and revising is good practice, even if it doesn’t. Hey, at this point only one of my novels has been read beyond my little circle, so this is the same sort of thing I’ve been doing for a couple decades now: writing and revising because it’s actually rather fun, and because I like seeing how everything comes out, for the characters and for me.

Do you have any first draft quirks you leave for Second Draft You to deal with? Are any of them the same as mine?

this one’s for the writers

Since Not Your Mary Sue has been out for three weeks now (ahhhh!) there have been reviews being posted in various places that clearly mark it as a “debut novel” or “first book.” Which it totally is. All my other published books have been nonfiction, and this is where a bunch of people are encountering me for the first time. So this has nothing to do with the word choice of anyone kind enough to read my book and post about it – you’re factually correct. Not Your Mary Sue is my first published novel. But I want to offer a clarification for the writers out there.

It’s not actually my first novel.

I didn’t start off writing like this.

I started, the way many people do, with fanfiction. Some of that probably still even exists out there somewhere, under one of my old screennames, but I never had more than a handful of readers. Which was fine – I wrote because I had fun writing, not because of the praise. That was in junior high, which was … yeesh … over two decades ago.

Then, when I was 15, I wrote my first “novel,” which I talk about a bit in this post. I printed off a couple copies and one of them actually made the rounds of my classmates a couple years later – I let one person borrow it and it got passed around and people I barely knew mentioned it to me in the hall. Which was weird and kind of scary, but obviously didn’t scare me off writing completely.

In my post about failure I go into how many novels I haven’t finished – how many ideas I started but never quite figured out a full plot arc for. That’s where I get my 10:1 ratio of “started documents to completed novels.” And at 87 partial efforts, I’ve clearly written more than one novel.

Some people end up publishing the first novel they ever wrote.

It can be their first published novel or, as in the case of Stephen King, their novels can be published “out of order.” Carrie was his first published novel in 1974, but he wrote The Long Walk when he was only 18. (Granted, he wasn’t ancient or anything when Carrie came out, but still.) The point is that King had completed other novels, tried to find interested publishers, and then laid them aside as he wrote new ones and tried again.

And that’s the situation with me: Not Your Mary Sue isn’t the first novel I ever wrote. By a long shot. I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo – that challenge to draft a 50,000-word novel in a single month – since 2010, including the two extra “camp” months since 2011, and that’s added a lot of “novels” to my list. But I didn’t write Not Your Mary Sue until 2017, and it was around that time that NaNo reported I’d logged a million words on their site.

You have to write a million words before you find your voice as a writer.

Henry Miller

I doubt Miller meant a hard-and-fast million, and my NaNo stats are missing more than a decade of what I’d written prior to joining up my first November, but that’s where things stood for me: I’d written over a million words by the time I sat down to start Not Your Mary Sue (and I’ve written who knows how many since then). My current NaNo lifetime stats stand at 3,011,716 words.

It’s not about the word count – it’s about perseverence.

Writing a little bit each day adds up. Tossing an idea aside when it’s not working, but then picking up a different idea, adds up. Going back to one of those previous ideas (tossed aside but not into the garbage) adds up.

Not Your Mary Sue both is and isn’t my first novel. It’s only my first published novel because I kept going – I kept reading, kept revising, and kept writing. What you hold in your hands isn’t anywhere near a first draft, and it shows all the decades of experience behind it. All those words add up.


Do you have any tips for authors looking to push through that “first million”? How do you keep writing when it all feels like an uphill struggle?

going to the faucet

So we already know that I don’t actually write every day, as in putting pen to paper or my fingers on the keyboard 365 days a year, and I’ve written a bit about my writing schedule previously, but I wanted to add a sort of real-time musing update on this.

Yesterday the thought of writing made me groan. All of my emotions on the subject were “Nope.” Even though – or maybe even “because” – I’d written a bunch the day before that. I’m working on revising a project, which in this case basically means starting over from zero, and that’s not always something you want to do. Really it’s just one more reason to dig in your heels, pout, and say you’re not writing today.

But, since I’ve started actively working on this project, I figured I’d do it. Pout and all. I made some coffee and told myself I’d stare at the cursor for half an hour and then get breakfast.

I didn’t end up eating breakfast yesterday. I got working and didn’t look up for a couple hours.

So the moral to the story …

Here’s the thing: I’ve been writing for over two decades at this point, and I still can’t guess at which days hold the words and which days don’t. The wordful days are sometimes obvious (is that in the Newspeak dictionary?) but the unwordful days are frequently liars. Surprisingly frequently.

This sort of thing even pops up in my Facebook memories from time to time. “Yesterday I wrote a ton of words. Today I sat down thinking I just need a dozen, okay, please? And ended up writing two tons.”

It’s unpredictable.

So really, you do just have to turn the faucet on and see what comes out. I don’t particularly want to get all It in this post, but you don’t actually know what’s waiting (blood or water?) or what else might be down there in the sewers. Georgie Denbrough might tell you not to look, but we’re writers. We’re curious. And that second, oft-unspoken part of the famous cat phrase is “but satisfaction brought it back.

And okay, we’re talking about the magical wordful faucet and not the thing on your bathroom sink. Some days the faucet is rusty and refuses to turn, or somehow it’s grown tall and is nearly out of reach. Maybe it feels like it’s hot enough to burn if we touch it, or it’s shrunk down to Borrowers size and we’re more likely to step on it and break it.

It’s one sneaky, changeable faucet, but we still need to turn that sucker on.

And the thing is, I don’t think I’m being entirely negative here. There are some days when the faucet is shiny and bright and I can’t even conceive of a spider hiding in the sink, but … those are rare. Off the top of my head, I can think of two (fiction) pieces that demanded to be written and wouldn’t let me go. I couldn’t turn the sucker off if I wanted to. Two, in two decades.

That’s a lot of forcing myself to the faucet.

But I go. I go because – as Stephen King apparently is the only one to remember Alfred Bester ever saying – “The book is the boss.” (Seriously, a Google search for the quote plus Bester’s name gets you a whole page of King quoting Bester, and who clicks onto the second page?)

The book wants to be told, and it’s not like anyone else is going to tell it. If it’s going to be written – if I want to find out what happens – I need to write it myself.

Go to the dang faucet. Turn it on. See what comes out.

And keep going, day after day, until you get enough.

If you’re lucky, I think, you won’t ever get enough.


Is your writing like turning on Louis L’Amour’s faucet, or do you see it differently? Does your faucet work better than mine? Have you ever had something entirely unexpected come out?

the overthinking of the author

The other day I was listening to someone talk about a book and they did something interesting. This was a public talk, timed and with an audience and everything, and it’s entirely possible that this was one of those mistakes you make on the fly and have to push through because hey, it’s a public talk, so I’m not being vague to be coy – it’s because I don’t know for sure that this was a conscious choice or an interesting verbal slip.

The speaker mentioned how an author said that the events in a specific book had been based in part on his own personal experience, as related in a past interview. In the book, though, it’s a woman that gets put in that position instead of a man, and with far worse consequences. The speaker said that the author put his wife in his place, and then continued to refer to the character as “author’s wife” instead of “character’s name.”

It’s possible the speaker blanked on the character’s name. I think we’ve all been there – we’re sure we know our stuff, but once the clock starts ticking and we’re confronted with all those faces (or black zoom windows), it all disappears. But, intentional or not, it got me thinking about the assumptions that particular naming practice implies. (And of course got me musing some more on the death of the author and who gets to argue which interpretation is true.)

First possible assumption: if a character isn’t the same gender as the author, then it’s totally not the author.

The speaker framed that part clearly: he experienced this thing in real life but then transferred that experience to the wife character instead of the husband character. The husband shared some characteristics with the author – all well and good – but the underlying assumption here was that the wife wasn’t the author, at all. She was The Wife, very much separate and other from him, and he put The Wife in his own real-life situation rather than putting himself in her shoes.

On the one hand, author surrogates are a recognized thing. But on the other, authors have stated that they put pieces of themselves in all of their characters. So do we have to limit the author-self within a piece of fiction to one single character that is him, and all of these other characters who aren’t? (Spoiler: I don’t think so.)

I’m not going to get into a full discussion here of whether authors can realistically write other genders, but I think part of humanizing our characters does mean giving pieces of ourselves to each of them. One of them might be the most me, but all of them are a little bit me.

Second possible assumption: characters who have real-life counterparts in the author’s life are automatically reflections of those counterparts.

In this case, it’s wife: the author had a wife, and one of the main characters was a wife. Therefore, the wife is the wife is the wife.

Back when my dad was reading the first draft of Not Your Mary Sue, there were certain points where I felt compelled to remind him that the dad in the story is not, in fact, him. (Not all of those scenes made it to the final draft, in case you’re curious – I’ll write more about that after the book comes out.) So clearly I’m aware that this is an assumption that can be made, and that a young woman writing a first-person point of view of a young woman can confuse the issue, but …

It becomes more problematic (to me) because the Book Wife had done some seriously morally questionable things. The book clearly positioned these as issues and then, like fiction can, punishes her for them. So are we supposed to assume that Author Wife did the same things Book Wife did? If we’re already calling one by the other’s name, where do we draw the comparison line? Are they the same as long as the reader doesn’t personally have proof that they’re not?

Third possible assumption: authors really suck at hiding the biographical.

We’re back to “the wife is a wife.” There’s nothing tricky there. It’s a very direct point. Say the author wanted to criticize – and then punish – his wife for her real-life actions, so he wrote a wife character who did those same things and then added his own plot with the bad ending for the wife character. Therapy he gets to sell, maybe, and then everyone reading it is privy to the deepest inner workings of his marriage.

Personally I think the majority of authors are capable of being a lot more subtle about the whole self-insertion thing. There’s a reason we mock Mary Sues: they’re wish fulfilment and therefore perfection. Author surrogates (presumably written “well enough” to be literary instead of Mary Sues) remain complicated and messy, like real people.

In my example, the author himself gave an interview explaining how an incident from his own past inspired the situation he wrote about, and the trouble he dropped his wife character into. That’s straight from the horse’s mouth, really: this happened to me, so I dropped it into my book. The complication apparently springs from the fact that he didn’t make the bad thing happen to the me-figure, but the wife-figure.

At this point I can’t tell if the author stayed too close to real life, and that’s the trouble, or if switching the figure in peril is what’s causing the issue. But I will say that it’s something I do all the time: drop in real-life events or snippets or tidbits into the plot, regardless of how much “me” the character is, as long as they fit. If my novels are grounded in real life, then why not use my own real life as inspiration?


Okay so if nothing else, at this point you’ve learned that I can overthink anything. A simple verbal slip has me pondering all the author/character/reader interpretations all this time later. Do fiction authors interpret fiction different from readers who don’t also write fiction? Was it just a nervous speaker making a mistake? Or does this person know something we don’t about this particular book and its representations?

Here’s my question to you, whether you’re an author or a reader: how much do you think we can read into those kinds of characters? What’s fair, and what’s completely over-the-top?

Musings on unsolved crimes, inspired by the Writing Community Chat Show

I was on The Writing Community Chat Show last week – here’s a link to the episode – as part of a panel of authors. Panel talks are cool but also challenging: you want to talk, but you don’t want to go on and on and make it all about you, or cut in if someone else has something to say, or veer back if the topic’s already moved on. So, for instance, when a really cool question comes up … you don’t always get to answer it.

But this blog is all about me, so I’m answering it here.

When considering True Crime, how important is it to the guests that the crime is solved? Are there any unsolved crimes that intrigue and have inspired the panel?

Darren Pengelly

First, thank you, Darren, because I love this question. I could go on for hours about it. So it’s probably good other people jumped in and we moved on.

The thing about true crime is that, as a genre, it loves crimes that have been solved. When Ann Rule signed the contract to write about “the Ted Murders,” she knew she wouldn’t be getting it published until after there’d been a trial and sentencing. The Stranger Beside Me was first published in 1980, after Bundy had been found guilty of two murders, three counts of attempted first-degree murder, and two counts of burglary. It came out quickly enough that an update needed to be added when he received his third death sentence for the murder of Kimberly Leach, but it still wasn’t sent to print until Bundy had been found guilty.

True crime likes stories that get wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow. It’s all about the solved cases and the plucky law enforcement agents who went toe-to-toe with the cunning criminals and came out on top. True crime doesn’t like unsolved cases or systemic problems that can’t be pinned on a single person in a catchy mug shot.

Okay, there are some exceptions.

Says the woman who’s written two books on Jack the Ripper. But, in that case, the Ripper isn’t still out there, ready to murder anyone reading a book about him. (Imagine the Golden State Killer reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark before he was finally caught. That’s the premise for Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Nothing Man. The Golden State Killer didn’t actually go on to murder because of the book, but in that case, it was a possibility. He hadn’t been caught. Not enough time had passed to be sure he was dead.) But the Ripper was in 1888, he only killed poor East End sex workers, and he’s dead by now – all layers of safety between the Ripper and the average true crime reader.

If someone writes about an ongoing crime that’s unfolding right now – say, a serial killer – then there’s not that barrier. Maybe, like the Green River killer, there’s a clear victim type and readers can assure themselves that they don’t fit it. If we don’t get into cars with strangers, and never go out after dark, and always take a buddy, and learn self-defense, and message our friends to tell them where we are, and check in with each other, then we won’t be the next victim.

That’s what true crime wants us to believe, and it’s so much harder when there’s an unsolved case out there. Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer, and the Monster of Florence are the exceptions that prove the rule. Two of them aren’t even American, and we all know America likes to think it’s the world leader in serial killers, both having them and catching them.

Considering Ripper’s Victims and Media and the Murderer (and the whole Jack the Ripper tag on my blog) I probably don’t have to go on too much about any unsolved cases that particularly influence me, but I’d like to mull on a related topic for a moment:

What about unsolved crimes in fiction?

This is where it gets tricky. We like fiction because it doesn’t have to follow real-life examples. We can add a full narrative structure, including a proper beginning and an end, the way we do when telling stories about our own lives, but we don’t actually live in a narrative structure. (Narrative theory was one of my three comprehensive exam areas. Can you tell?) We try to make real life into stories, but we’re often restricted by details like evidence and proof. If we’re making the story up, though …

I do think there’s a difference between a character solving the case and the audience knowing the answer. It could be that the main characters have to give up, for whatever reason, before finding the solution. Or, like was mentioned during the chat, there could be a Hitchcockian suspense scenario where the audience knows the killer early on but can only watch as the main character tries to figure it out. That dual cat-and-mouse layer features in true crime: the police hunt the killer hunts the victims. It’s like one of those math problems where two trains are moving at different speeds toward a destination and you have to calculate how long it’ll be before one overtakes the other.

I’m thinking of things like the Lincoln Rhyme series where you can have a character like The Watchmaker who gets identified as the criminal … but not truly identified. He’s the Moriarty or the Big Bad, Rhyme’s intellectual equal and therefore more than capable of keeping out of the clutches of the police. Even the “real” name they come up with for him might not be right, and he’s been behind some of the single-book bad guys who don’t get to come back for a curtain call. The case isn’t solved in a legal sense, since he’s never put on trial and sentenced, but Rhyme knows. And the readers know.

It’s not like The Colorado Kid, which might be the only completely unsolved fictional mystery that I’ve read. Stephen King wrote a book about how frustrating it is for a crime to be a true unsolved mystery, with an unsolved mystery at its center. The main characters even say multiple times that it’s not a story, not exactly, because there’s not a single mysterious element and a single “must-have-been.” A man from Colorado ended up dead on an island off the coast of Maine with a Russian coin in his pocket and a bite of steak caught in his throat. And … that’s about it.

You don’t even know for sure that it was a crime, or just a very weird accidental death. There’s enough to make you think that yes, you’re missing a lot of the pieces, but even the characters who have spent decades knowing the story haven’t been able to find them. It’s an incredibly frustrating story that isn’t really helped by the fact that the characters let you know from the start that it won’t be neatly tied up with a bow. You’re right there with Stephanie as she hears the story for the first time, asks questions, and keeps running up against the fact that there aren’t any answers.

And honestly, it’s probably something only a household name could get published on a grand scale, because that’s not what we want from our fiction, is it? It doesn’t matter if Stephanie and the two older reporters don’t know the full backstory for the Colorado Kid, but King doesn’t even relent and let Constant Reader in on it. We just get to the end and think “Wait did I just waste my time reading that or …?”


Have you read any fiction that deals with an unsolved crime that remains unsolved at the end of the book? Did it feel like a waste of time? Do you think all crime fiction needs to be solved in order to fit the genre? Share your thoughts!