What do you think of NaNoWriMo? Is it worth it? 

I was looking through 101 Author Interview Questions for some inspiration (and a distraction from my current writing to-do list), and came across this one. If you’ve been following me for a while, you probably already know how I feel about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but just in case …

First, what is NaNoWrimo?

At its strictest, NaNoWriMo asks you to write 50,000 words during the month of November. That averages out to 1,667 words a day. You can’t start your novel until it’s officially November 1 in your time zone, and if you have to submit your final word count before the calendar ticks over to December. NaNoWriMo is also traditionally for new projects, partly so you’re not bogged down on trying to get it all “right.” The point is to get your first draft down. You can fix it later.

Traditionally it’s for fiction – single long works, since “Novel” is part of the name – but I’ve also used it for my nonfiction: drafting, revisions, editing, and proofreading. There are two “Camp” sessions in April and July that let you pick your own goal, but November (and 50k) is the main event.

What’s it cost you?

Nothing. You sign up for free and pick your screenname. Create a project – you can choose whatever filler title you want, or go all out and pick not just a title, but make a cover – and update your word count during November. Nothing happens if you don’t hit 50k. If you make it, you get sponsor prizes … and a first draft of a novel. Your own.

What are the negatives?

Well, November can be a busy month. You might get bogged down. Americans have Thanksgiving thrown in there, which usually comes with family commitments. And if you’re like me, you don’t pay attention to how many words per minute you write. Until I did NaNo, I had no idea where I fell along the fast vs. slow continuum. So you might not know how long it’ll actually take you to write 1,667 words.

There are lots of tips for time management floating around out there, specifically related to NaNoWriMo. Food prep, for example. Setting your schedule and taking advantage of even 10 minutes of down time. Following @NaNoWordSprints on Twitter for the prompts and the feeling that you’re writing along with other people. I’ve seen people talk about how they wear a special hat while writing to cue other household members into the fact that this is a Do Not Disturb time, especially when they don’t have a room with a door that can be closed.

I’ve also seen a lot of “Pfft anything written that fast can’t be any good.” Generally by people who wouldn’t dream of participating. And the thing is … you’re not going to turn around December 1 and query what you’ve written. What you’re doing is drafting, which is one very had and amazing step, but not the last one prior to querying. But think about it: you’ll have this draft by the end of the month, and you can’t edit a blank page. (Thanks, Jodi Picoult.)

What do you stand to gain?

Community. There are events during NaNoWriMo for everyone who’s made this commitment. You’re not alone. Other people are out there doing this too, struggling and succeeding and asking for advice. All 2021 events are going to be virtual, so check out the region closest to you to see how many writers there are and what platform events will be on. (I’ve been one of the co-leaders of the Michigan :: Upper Peninsula Region since 2012, and we’re on Discord. You don’t have to be a Yooper to chat – visitors are welcome.)

Accomplishment. Starting out is scary. Trying to write one word, knowing you have to somehow pull out 49,999 more to follow it. That you’re supposed to craft some sort of story, with a through-line and a beginning, middle, and end. But every single word you write is one that wasn’t there before. Whatever you’ve got at the end of the month, you made all that.

Writer, know thyself. It’s not just a learning experience about getting the words on the page, but getting to know yourself as a writer. Do you like to frontload the month and get a ton of words down as padding? Are you a steady 1,667-words-a-day sort of writer? Does the panic of the final week make your word count jump? There’s also the chance to talk to so many other writers to figure out what they did, and whether it might work for you. How much prep work do you need? Do you do character sheets and maps? Or do you just wing it?

The thing is, I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo – Novembers and Camps – since 2010. The first half of Not Your Mary Sue is barely changed from my original draft in 2017 (so take that, “Pfft anything written that fast can’t be any good.” You’ll never know unless you try). I love writing, especially writing fiction, and the level of energy that happens during NaNoWriMo is just amazing. I get all antsy throughout September and October, wanting to start my novel but putting it off until my laptop clock tells me it’s officially November, and it just all builds up and floods out. I absolutely love NaNoWrimo, and if you’re looking for that nudge to finally write a novel, it’s totally worth it.

Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo? Will you be joining me this year?

Do you think about writing rules or advice while you’re writing?

There are a lot of rules that go into writing, and a lot of advice books out there. Mind your grammar, to start with, and remember the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. Use complete sentences, always finish everything you start, hit this plot beat by this manuscript percentage … if you’re not sure about something, Google it and I’m sure someone, somewhere, has a rule. How do you keep them all straight?

I … don’t. At least, not while I’m writing.

If there’s any single piece of advice I’ve adhered to, even before I read it, it’s Stephen King’s “Read a lot and write a lot.” I just found this CD I’d burned in January 2007 with fanfiction and original fiction dating back to 2000, and there were over 70 individual documents on it. A lot of them were various starts instead of complete plot arcs, but there were still a good number of “complete books.” (Hey, I was 15 in 2000. I wasn’t writing 80k, but I was completing plot arcs in things longer than short stories.)

Mostly because of the “read a lot” part, my grammar and punctuation is good, even back then. When you’re exposed to it on a regular basis – especially when it’s a regular, fun basis – you see how it’s done, so it’s easy to imitate. I don’t remember anyone explaining how to write dialogue because, by the time someone probably did, I would’ve just tuned it out. (My parents let me read anything and everything I wanted from a very young age, with one exception: they said Pet Sematary was too scary for a second-grader, even though it had a kitty on the cover.)

Now, is my grammar perfect? Nope. Have I taught multiple college-level grammar courses at this point? Yep? And still …? Nope. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be. People hardly ever speak with perfect grammar. Plus, if you really need it to be polished and shined for a specific, that’s what revision is for.

And this isn’t just about my fiction. When I’m writing my nonfiction, I might try to shift the voice in my head to Full Academic, but … I don’t bog myself down by worrying about it too much on the first pass. The main goal of writing is, for me, to get the darn words on the page, however they’ll come. Jump around, sketch some notes there, plop something in the middle and figure out how to connect it later … whatever. Just get the ideas down.

The “rules” are for revisions.

The first draft of something for me is play. We’ll turn to Shannon Hale here:

I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.

Shannon Hale

And, for the record, my approach to that first draft is “shovel allllllll the sand!” Things can always be deleted later – plot beats, random characters, that one cool point I really want to make but probably doesn’t fit … shovel it all in. Get it all down. The hardest step is putting something on the page, so don’t worry about all the things that’ll just make me freeze and leave it blank. Shovel that sand.

Now, like all writing advice, this doesn’t work for everyone. I have friends who, somehow, meticulously plot out books – or even series – before they start shoveling sand. My revision process is a lot more intense than theirs because I’m still organizing my sand and they’ve already got it placed in neat little blocks with turrets and gables and other architectural flourishes from the start. Some of them started out working that way, and others started more like me and got bogged down in the revisions, so they backed up and changed their approach.

I think the number one rule about writing advice is that not all writing advice will work for you.

My biggest struggle is drafting, not revising or editing, so I’ve formed my approach to make that hardest part the easiest it can be for me. When I sit down to write, I throw the rules out the window. Just get the words on the page – form the sense of it so it can be massaged and perfectly shaped later on. Some days are easier and I can pay more attention to the rules, but others … they get thrown out the window.

The first draft is playing. I’m just shoveling sand. Then, once I’m done shoveling, I’ll switch tools and start shaping, matching tenses, paying attention to singular and plural, messing with punctuation, and knowing that, no matter how much I try, by the time my mom reads my proofs, there’ll still be plenty for her to catch. (I get emails like “On page 6, I know you meant x instead of y” and “On page 10, that’s a gerund, so you really need to …”)

So the short answer to whether I consciously think about rules and advice while writing is no, and the longer answer is “Because I come back to that later.” Plus I’m not the only one who considers it. Editors, proofreaders, peer reviewers … lots of people have the chance to catch the rules I’ve missed. It never has to be just you, trying to remember all the rules.

What about you? Do you think of specific grammar or writing rules when you’re tackling your first draft? Are there specific things you know you need to focus on?

“Do you actually write every day?”

I’ve got a writing buddy who’s working on his dissertation, and his coach just told him that writing every other day isn’t enough – he’s never going to finish it. She wants him to write every day. Well, every weekday, at least. We’ve been meeting two hours a day, three days a week, so we’re going to start meeting every weekday morning. Which is fine, because whether or not we’re zooming, I set my mornings aside for my own work, but my dad asked “Wait, do you actually write every day?”

The snarky answer is “Define ‘writing.'”

As a process, writing isn’t solely “putting words on the page.” It’s a necessary step, but not the only one, and usually not the first one for me. There’s reading, both nonfiction research and fiction in various genres; outlining; planning; editing (and deleting); and so on. Do I try to do at least one of those steps each weekday? Yes. Does that mean I actually do them? Not always.

But I do set aside the time for it. I’ve got a two hour block open for it. Some days I know it’s not going to happen, and I ignore it. Sometimes I work on the weekends. And sometimes I put in more than one writing session in a day. For me, two hours is the optimal amount of time: long enough for me to get into it, but not so long that my concentration wanes.

The more you write, the more you’ll figure out what block of time works best for you – and whether you can trust yourself to give yourself “days off” or if you need to be sterner and make sure you sit down and do it. (I set my own writing deadlines for my dissertation and could make myself stick to them, but my office mate told her advisor that she needed someone to take a firm stand and not budge. If you know which one of us you are, you can negotiate the tools that you, personally, need so you can finish a project.)

One of the things it’s taken me a long time to accept is that there are some days when even sitting here in front of the laptop isn’t going to get me more words. Days when I need to take a break and do something else. Days when that means recharging instead of avoiding. Sometimes it’s a shorter break, and sometimes it’s an “until tomorrow” break, but the important thing is that it’s only ever a break, not quitting. I set the next writing time in my mind and let myself ignore all writing things until then.

I also do my best to write down ideas as soon as they hit, whether it’s in my little writers’ notebook or on my phone. “I’ll remember it later” doesn’t always work, no matter how big the idea seems – write it down. Make a note. On your break times, this helps you get back to whatever else you’re doing. If you’re working on one project and a lightbulb shows up for another project, you can write it down and then get back to what you were doing.

Does “getting one good idea and writing it down” count as writing for the day? I don’t know, but that’s just one place where “Do you write every day?” gets tricky.

The thing is, when I’m working on a project, or even when I’m between projects, I’m frequently thinking about it. Letting it churn over in the back of my mind. Coming up with these ideas and scrambling to write them down before I forget. Piecing things together or figuring out a way through the latest plot snarl. Sometimes this happens years later – I only finished my 2011 NaNoWriMo epic fantasy in 2018 after finally figuring out how to wrap everything up – but hopefully it’s faster when I’m on a deadline. I’ll think about characters and plot bunnies from ages ago, either to work them into a current project or to see if I can actually do something with them.

But that’s not as easy to track. It doesn’t fit neatly into my two-hour block of time, and I don’t have a word count increase to show for it. Some people might label it “useless daydreaming.” But it’s still a necessary part of the process.

If I’m going to wrap it up and try a concise answer, I guess I’d say “Yes, I write every day, but it doesn’t look the same every day.” That’s not my process. It’s changed over the years as I develop and grow as a writer, but that’s who I am now: writing every day, even if “writing” doesn’t always look like writing.

What about you? Do you have a writing schedule? What works best for you?

“How much do you talk about a project while you’re working on it?”

This question can be approached from a few angles and is kind of hard to tackle, which is why this is the fourth first sentence I’ve written for this blog post. So let’s just dive right in.

Angle #1: I don’t talk about my WIPs (works in progress) because I don’t want someone stealing my ideas.

That’s the fear, isn’t it? If we share our work in writing groups or online, it’s not just the emotional vulnerability of putting ourselves out there. Plagiarism is real, and nobody wants to lose years of work to someone who swoops in and scoops our best ideas. So … do we just never talk about our work at all?

Angle #2: If I talk about my WIP, then I lose all the joy and momentum. Writing it feels like chewing my food twice.

If this isn’t you, then you probably know someone like this: they’ve got the backstories and world building and character design all planned out. They talk about it all the time. But as far as actually getting words down on the page and writing it … it’s not happening. Talking is joy. Maybe talking is less work. And once you’ve said it and gotten an audience reaction, what’s the point of writing it down for an audience you won’t actually see?

Angle #3: I don’t talk about my writing because nobody’s interested.

Maybe your topic’s too niche, or maybe you don’t have writing friends. You don’t want to talk about your WIP because it’s not a conversation – it’s just the other person waiting for you to run down so they can have their turn.

… or maybe a bit of all three?

I’ll say straight off that the people I talk to in real life get a lot more details about my projects than anyone online, possibly because of all three of these reasons. If all I tell you about my novel is “a serial killer kidnaps the woman he wants to write his bestselling biography,” we’re never going to write the same story. Even if you somehow stumbled across my summary on the NaNoWriMo website years ago and spent all this time working up your own version, it’s not my book. (And even that summary is pretty darn vague.)

But do I keep my WIP talk vague solely so nobody steals the idea? No. That’s not the only reason.

Part of it is Angle #2: if I already tell people all the interesting bits, what else is there? You’d know the climax (which should be, of course, the most interesting bit). You’d know who lives and who dies and how it all comes out. So … why read it if you’ve already been given the CliffsNotes version? Don’t people get those so they don’t have to read it?

And yeah, part of it is Angle #3: I know not everybody cares about my work at all, much less half as much as I do. I don’t want to bore people with long info-dumps. That’s not a conversation – that’s a monologue. So I’m careful even in person, when I’ve got body language and such to judge when someone’s attention wanders. (Here on my own blog I get to ramble as much as I want, I guess. You can always click away.)

There’s also another aspect to it. Maybe not a full angle, but at least a partial one: I don’t want to jinx it. I don’t want to get all publicly hyped about an idea only to have the project fizzle out at a later step and never actually appear. I’m talking one of the later steps in the publishing process nobody wants to think about: contract signed, manuscript delivered, and still something falls through. Complete superstition, I know, but it’s still totally there for me.

So online I’m incredibly vague. In person, if we don’t really know each other, I’m the same level of vague: unless it’s been officially announced, I deflect. But, if you’re in my writing group, or if you’re my husband …

Yeah. They get the CliffsNotes. The questions. The rambling “I don’t know if x or y should happen” and “I’m thinking of killing Z.” The people who are there for the process get to see the entire thing – the excitement, the frustration, the internal debates. My writing group gets weekly updates because everyone gives weekly updates. They want to know about the comments I get back and how I’m either going to address them or argue against them. They’ve heard about so many manuscripts I’ve completed that will never, ever see print.

(They’ve argued that, someday, a library will want to collect all of my unpublished manuscripts and people will actually read them.)

So I guess the short answer is that, for most of you, I’ll talk very little about my WIPs. I’ll wait for official announcements and share exactly that much information. Which is all a personal decision about what feels right for me – you don’t have to do that part.

What I would encourage all writers to do, though, is to find community. In person, online, however it comes. Find the people who’ll celebrate each step of the process with you and who understand it – the ones who make you feel safe to share without prefacing something with “Okay nobody steal my idea seriously I mean it.” The people who’ll remember your characters’ names and ask if you’ve decided their fate yet.

I like talking about my writing, but mostly I just like writing it.

How about you? How often do you talk about your projects?

“Do you do more research for your fiction or your nonfiction?”

An academic friend of mine asked me this after my novel was announced. She’s familiar with how much work (a lot) goes into academic writing, and she wanted to know how fiction compares. It’s a good question, but I don’t really have a short answer.

My upcoming novel deals with a serial killer. Generally writing about characters who are nothing like you takes a lot of research. However … that is my research area. I’ve read true crime documents in the hundreds, from the cheap paperback, read-it-on-the-beach variety to textbooks used in training courses. That includes execution sermons from the 1700s, newspaper articles from the 1800s, the best-selling books from the 1900s, and Netflix documentaries from this century.

And that’s just the nonfiction. I also read widely when it comes to books generally shelved under thriller or mystery. True, there are some I put down before I finish them, but I still make it through most of them. (Usually I google the plot of something I’m not sure is worth my time, just to see if it’s worth finishing. Sometimes the twist or reveal makes me keep going just to see how the author pulls it off. Other times I put the book down because it’s the author playing with the reader instead of the characters doing the concealing – it’s a small difference, but a deal breaker for me.)

I picked up a lot of the true crime specifically for my academic side, but I generally want to just be able to enjoy my thrillers when it comes to fiction. I want a book I’m going to enjoy and want to finish because I care enough about how it’s all going to come out, whether it’s written “well” (whatever that means) or not. I want a story that’s going to pull me through to the end and then, only after I’m done, will I sit back and start to pick it apart.

(Side note: it kind of sucks making your passions into your research. You can’t just read things for fun anymore.)

So when I think about research for my fiction, I’m including not just the shelves upon shelves of true crime, but also all of those novels on my “have read” list. The novels don’t really feel like research, and the research is usually directed toward my nonfiction writing … but it all plays together when it comes to writing fiction about serial killers.

I tend to set my fiction in places I’ve lived so I don’t have to spend too much time figuring out the literal lay of the land or the sort of people who live there. I don’t need to look up “common Midwestern sayings” because it’s the sort of stuff that just comes out of my mouth, or to wonder about what sorts of restaurants are available to my characters. I’ll bring up the website and double-check the menu, but I already know where they’re eating.

I don’t usually stop in the middle of writing to look something up, but then, I also put off actually starting the writing for months at a time, letting things swirl around in my head. Not Your Mary Sue was initially drafted during NaNoWriMo 2017, in November, but I had the idea going since February that year. Instead of drafting on paper, I was putting things together in the back of my mind, examining them, and taking them apart, all the while reading things and adding to my general store of knowledge. I had a very solid idea of who my serial killer was – his motivations and his personality – before I sat down to write him.

So when I look back on it, the answer is “A lot. Seriously a lot.” That’s a ton of research I’ve been over and over, all sorts of words from both killers and authors, perspectives from killers to prosecutors to researchers to surviving family members of victims, all piled up and put into my writing. I mean, I wrote my dissertation on the history of written crime narratives in America and then came up with a situation where someone’s demanding his own written crime narrative. The two things can’t easily be separated.

So really, if you’re considering writing fiction, I’d suggest starting by taking a look at what you’re already reading and what you already know. The areas where yeah, maybe you need a little more exploration on some specific details, but you’ve already got the broad strokes handy. It’s not so much “write what you know” as “write what you’ve read,” especially when you’ve already done so much work to learn about your passions. Not every tiny tidbit of information is going to make it into a novel, but it can inform a lot, from plot to characterization to setting.

How about you? How much research do you do? Do you write fiction, nonfiction, or both?

What we leave out when we talk about writing

I’m working on knitting a sweater right now. It’s far enough along that I tried it on to check for the sleeve length and posted a mirror selfie, and one of my friends commented that the body is a perfect fit. Which meant I made a list of all the steps I’d gone through to make sure of it. And then got me musing on knitting patterns and writing books.

Bear with me.

When you buy a knitting pattern, you get instructions on how to make the exact object in the photo, sometimes in different sizes. Let’s focus on a sweater. You choose your sweater size off the bust measurement – how big around you want to make it – and go, right? Because all the information is right there. Nyoom! Sweater!

Well.

When you walk into a store and can try on clothes, they’re sized. You know what one to start with and what generally fits, but if it’s more expensive, you’ll take it back and try it on and see how the standard measurements actually look on you. So yes, you can make a sweater following a pattern exactly – and that’s the easiest way to do it the first time – but … it’s not just about customization. It’s about apparently commonly-known tricks and hurdles that patterns often leave out.

If you’re just knitting on your own, without a community, you might wonder why the heck your armholes always end up holier than they should be. Maybe it’s just you. It takes communication with other people – people willing to show the mistakes and oopsies, even – to learn that hey, actually, lots of people have that issue with armholes, and here’s an easy trick to fix it.

Or, until you knit more than one sweater or talk to other people, you might not consider all the ways you can customize a sweater. Neck, sleeves, shaping, length … top down or bottom up … seamed or in one piece … you can adapt the things you like about a pattern and swap out the things you don’t like.

Patterns also use shorthand like “take time to check gauge” for things that actually take a lot of work. The sweater I’m knitting right now, for example: I’m not knitting the size of my actual measurements. I’ve got another sweater using the same yarn and needles (which, for the record, is very important when you’re using it to do the math) and I measured that, plus a couple other shirts I own that are similar in construction to the pattern I’m knitting (and which I like to wear), and I did a lot of math. Like … a lot. That’s before I even started knitting. But a normal knitting problem doesn’t tell you all that. It assumes you either know about checking gauge and substituting yarn, or you’ll google it on your own.

Non-knitters, you still with me?

Thinking how much gets left out of knitting patterns – how much knowledge you’re assumed to already have at the ready – started me thinking about writing advice. What do writers leave out when we’re talking about writing because it just seems so essential to us, so much like habit, that we forget we once had to learn it? Is there advice out there like “take time to check gauge” that tells you plenty if you already know what it means, but is confusing and overlookable if you don’t?

So much of writing is invisible to the reader, if the writing’s good. All of the stuff that goes behind “take time to check gauge” – measuring the already knit and washed garment in multiple places to calculate stitches and rows per inch, and then measuring clothes of a similar style that give me a good fit, and doing the math to figure out circumference, and then making sure things like armhole depth aren’t going to be completely out of whack, and remembering that my own gauge changes when I knit flat versus knitting in the round …

Do we always share all the stuff that we, personally, had to learn the hard way? (Pro tip: make the sweater that looks like the sweaters you’ve already got in your closet. You know you’ll wear it. And you won’t put in 50+ hours of work on something that looks different and you won’t actually wear.) Or do we just internalize it and think everyone else already knows it, too?

I’ve had some good conversations lately with my writing buddy and a friend of mine who asked me things about my writing, both the nonfiction and the fiction, and I’m compiling a list of those questions to answer in blog posts moving forward. Things that other people want to know, and not just the things I think other people want to know.

If you have any questions about the writing process, or things you’d like to hear me muse about, please share them! I love talking about my research, and I love talking about writing, so if there’s something you’ve always wondered or wanted to ask … now’s the time. Let’s de-mystify the writing shorthand.

(Oh, and the part about how you can change up a sweater pattern to add your favorite sleeves or preferred shaping? That also goes for writing advice. It’s not one size fits all. You pick what works for you, and maybe set some pieces aside to look at more later, and move on from the stuff that doesn’t. The more you read or talk about writing, the more options you’ll have.)

1 like = 1 fact about me as a writer

I did this last week on Twitter, and wanted to compile them and share them here. I got 17 likes, so here are 17 random facts about me as writer.

I did this last week on Twitter, and wanted to compile them and share them here. I got 17 likes, so here are 17 random facts about me as writer.

1. I wrote my first novel-length original fic at age 15 because I couldn’t get my plot to work as a fan fiction.

2. My favorite of my published books so far is Ripper’s Victims, because that’s the work closest to my heart. (My mom’s favorite is the one about H.H. Holmes.)

3. I keep track of how much I write each day, but not always in the same place. Sometimes it’s on the NaNoWriMo website, sometimes a sheet of graph paper, and sometimes in my daily planner. (I’ve written over 300k so far this year.)

4. My writing schedule varies wildly. Some days I write 0 words. Others I’m up and at the computer immediately and forget to take breaks for real-life things. It all balances out.

5. In 2020 I decided to complete NaNoWriMo (50k words) in two days, simply because I did it in three days in 2019. I hit 50k by 8pm November 2. And had to baby my wrist for months afterward because … people aren’t meant to type 50k in two days.

6. Because of 5, I taught myself how to dictate my writing, both academic and fiction. I didn’t think it was possible for me but really it’s just the learning curve I didn’t want to tackle.

7. I started lighting a candle when I write as a signal to my brain that it’s time for words, and somehow it’s grown up into this entire thing.


8. The proposal for an academic book is the hardest part for me. I love having swirling ideas and hate forcing myself to commit to a very specific outline. I’ll put off writing the outline as long as possible, even when I know what I want to propose next.

9. I got the contract for Ripper’s Victims because my editor saw my published dissertation and emailed to ask if I had anything she might be able to help me with. (Put yourself out there!)

10. When it’s time to edit, I prefer a hard copy to a screen. Considering the usual length of my manuscripts, this generally means going somewhere to have it printed, since our elderly printer isn’t up to the task.

11. Printing things off means I can use my custom stamps. I get tired of writing the same thing over and over on my first drafts so … I had these made. And of course they’re red.


12. When I’m writing fiction, I tend to “cast” actors as my characters. It especially helps when a character is very much not like me – say, when I have someone whose speech patterns are very calm in moments of stress. If I can picture the actor saying it, it helps.

13. I frequently right click to find synonyms for words I’ve used in my own writing that I’m pretty sure mean what they think they mean, just to be positive. Sometimes I realize I’ve used a word that doesn’t mean what I think it means …

14. I used to write all my “novels” by hand, in pencil, and super teeny – two lines of writing per ruled line on college-ruled paper. I did NaNoWriMo by hand in 2013, but otherwise I type the first draft these days.

15. I used to say all my dialogue out loud as I typed it. My brother laughed because he could hear me arguing with myself. I can write out in public now because I don’t have to do that anymore … but some days I still find myself muttering things as I type them, dialogue or not.

16. I don’t like doing book titles, chapter titles, or heading titles. They’re usually last-minute things I put in before I have to deliver something. It’s rare for me to have a title early on in a project.

17. When the words are flowing and the writing is good, I write fast. Really fast. Which makes the slow days feel agonizingly slow.

Share a random fact about yourself below!

“Don’t compare your rough draft to someone else’s final product.”

You’ve probably seen that before, maybe in Helvetica with some sort of soothing photo background, but maybe you’ve never really thought about what, exactly, it means. How many steps go between a rough draft and a final product?

Short answer: too many, thanks.

Longer answer: let me walk you through it.

First, I have some sort of nebulous idea. Sometimes it just comes from reading and thinking about a topic. Other times I see a CFP (Call for Papers/Proposals) that gets me thinking in a certain direction. Depending on the deadline, I can remain at this nebulous idea stage for weeks or months.

Sometimes I do a little more research here, too, with my idea in mind. This can help it become less nebulous. This means another few weeks (or months) before I actually start to draft it. I might take notes, scribbling ideas or phrases here and there, but a lot of my pre-planning takes place solely in my head.

Then comes the first written thing: the proposal. I have to have a good enough grasp on the idea to get it boiled down to fit the required word count. This can be around 300 words for a conference paper or a chapter, or longer for a book proposal (which also includes a couple chapters), but it’s me laying out what I’m going to do.

It’s also the first time where my idea – and however much writing I’ve done so far – gets feedback. This is important: I’ve only really started writing the thing, but I’m already getting feedback. Someone else has already seen it and provided a nudge.

It’s also important to note that, at this point, I’ve got a complete outline. I know where things are going, and the people judging whether it’s an idea worth pursuing know it, too. If things get approved, I’m locked in.

Then, if I get the go-ahead, we get to the actual writing itself. Which usually looks like:

  • the first draft: just get the words on the page. Jump around that outline if I get stuck. Slowly narrow down the parts of the draft that still need to be written until I have to write the stuff I didn’t want to at first.
  • let it sit: put the draft aside after saving it in multiple formats, just in case, and don’t look at it for a while. Do more research if I found any gaps. Let it become as new and strange to myself as I can.
  • read it again: with multiple pens and my stamps at hand, I pick up a hard copy of my rough draft and go to town on it. I go directly for the weak spots. Sorry, Past Me, but this part sucks. So does this one. And this … well, it’s a mess. I color-code the issues and make a ton of notes to myself.
  • attempt to fix it: once the paper copy is covered, I’ll go back to the computer and start implementing the changes. I say “attempt to fix it” because yeah, sometimes new issues get introduced at this point, but … I try.
  • let it rest again: if I have time, I take another break. Try to make it strange and new and exciting again before I come back to it.
  • read through from the beginning, slowly: this is where I have Word read it out loud to me, and man, this part takes time. I’m looking for continuity, to see if the patches I put in totally stand out and need to be smoothed over, and also for any typos. Through, though, thorough … that kind of thing. I’m super nitpicky at this stage because it’s usually the last thing I do, mostly because the thing is due.

And now somebody else sees it. The whole thing and not just the proposal.

At this point the writing gets bounced back and forth multiple times between the editor, peer reviewer(s), and me. I get comments, make changes, and send it back. Get updated comments, make more changes, and send it back. I think the most times I’ve volleyed something is three, but I’m responding to multiple people at this point, in multiple roles. Trying to make them happy because, if they’re not happy, this isn’t going to get published.

Then there’s another break, on their end instead of mine this time. Time to twiddle my thumbs or get more ideas.

Some day, out of the blue, I’ll get proofs. Another chance to go over it line by line and look for typos or other issues that might have snuck in. If it’s a book, I’m also doing the index. And usually I’ve got a couple other people reading through it at this point in case I miss something.

And then – then – it gets published.

Phew.

I mean, I fall into the same trap sometimes – I want that first draft to be perfect. Polished. The absolute best writing I’m capable of producing. Even when I know all the steps that still have to come before it’s actually out there.

But your first draft is just … a draft. Something only you ever have to see. The thing you’re going to massage and tweak before handing it over to other people who will further massage and tweak.

Don’t compare your first draft to someone else’s final product, and don’t compare your first draft to your own previous final products, either.

Do you struggle with this, too? Do you have any advice on how to keep from thinking this way?

How do you encourage a writer?

This has come up a few times lately, in different settings. One was a discussion with a mother of young kids who wanted to know how, exactly, I got to like writing so much. One was a question in an online forum about whether or not they should tell their friend about all the errors in a story the friend and shared. And one was on Father’s Day. They all kind of mush together in my answer.

The experience I can really point to as being That Moment comes from when I was 15 and writing my first long original fiction. I’d been doing some fanfic, but I had this idea for a character and a plot that just didn’t fit within any of my fandoms. So, not really knowing what I was doing (which was probably helpful in and of itself), I started writing my own story.

I don’t entirely remember how this next part started, or who suggested it, but it turned into me reading that day’s output to my dad each night. And he just … listened. He didn’t gush over it, and he didn’t critique it. He was simply consistently available to listen to me read my story. And the next one. And the next one. To the point where, when I went off to college and couldn’t read to him every night, I recorded myself reading my new one. Somewhere he has 6 CDs of a Rebecca Frost original audiobook.

It evolved from there to printed “zero editions” in binders and now it’s emailed files. He got a kindle so I could email him my stories as soon as I was done with them (rough plots and typos have never been an issue for him) and now reads them on his iPhone. Come November and NaNoWriMo, he starts asking me mid-month if I’m done yet.

We’ll talk a little bit about them, but nothing at length. No real critique. I’ve made him cry with character deaths (sorry …) and we’ve got a running joke about how poorly I treated my first male main character before I let him get his happy ending. We’re talking two decades of Rebecca writing her little stories (some of them not so little – I maxed out one fantasy epic at over 250,000 words) and sharing them with her dad when they’re done.

That’s been such a big thing: somebody who wants to read the next one. And if you’ve got a writing friend or kid, take notice: all it takes is the time for you to read it and say that you did. That’s it. Maybe point out a cool line or particularly emotional scene as proof.

That’s where the “Do I tell my friend her story is illogical or lacks depth or …?” question comes in. If someone hands you their writing and sort of awkwardly says they want you to read it, then that’s your job. Read it. Let them know when you did. If you like the person at all, let them know you’d like to read the next one, too. (Seriously it’s scary sharing your writing with someone. If I get anything less than “Let me know when you’re done with the next one,” you’re not getting the next one. And I’ll be shutting up about my writing around you in the future.)

The only time you should give feedback on someone else’s writing is when feedback is specifically asked for. “Hey, can you tell me if this plot is off?” Respond to the plot. “Can you proofread this for me?” Clarify that they just want typos and such and then only look at typos and such. “I wrote a novel about dragons. Would you want to read it?” Read it and let them know you did it. Maybe tell them what you liked about the dragons.

I’ve been a writing instructor. I’ve taught my share of college composition. I know you want to argue with me and say grammar and punctuation matter – and yes, sometimes misuses make things a lot harder to read. But, unless this is taking place in a classroom or as an agreed-upon exchange and critique, it’s not your job to teach your friend about the genitive case or they really need to research x. If they go to publish and keep getting things kicked back and ask you why you think this might be, then you’re being invited to critique. Otherwise you’re being asked to encourage.

We learn to write by writing. If we get quashed when we’re young, we’re not going to learn. We’re just going to stop.

It doesn’t take much to encourage a writer. Just a little bit of your time to show that you don’t think their stories are frivolous and stupid. And then, once they’ve written more and have been able to grow (and look back on that first story and wince and thing “You let me read you that and you still came back for more?”) you can have good things to say about what they write.

How about you in your own writing journey? Who’s been your biggest source of encouragement and support?

The curse of “perfection”

The other day I read a comment (about a knitting pattern, but it still applies) where someone said “If I’m paying $X, I expect it to be perfect.”

It wasn’t even an exorbitant amount of money. Just a very normal price for a knitting pattern. Probably too low, even, but we don’t need to get sidetracked into discussions of fair pay for designers. The part that’s stuck with me is this idea of “If I’m paying for it, then it should be perfect.”

Putting your writing (of any kind) out there for other people to read is a scary thing, because it means random strangers can pick it apart. Insult it. Post that they can’t believe they paid $X for this. Sharing your writing means opening yourself up to critique, criticism, and insults of something you’ve worked hard on, and done all you could to “fix,” but …

Errors happen.

Especially when your document goes from person to person and each is focused on perfecting one aspect of it. Your editor fixes your commas, maybe, but then once it goes into layout, you end up with a weird line division of a multi-syllable word. It’s not because layout wanted to introduce an error. Layout did exactly what layout is supposed to do. And hopefully you catch it in the proofs stage, but in the proofs stage you’re looking for errors and trying to build your index, working under a hard deadline.

I think it’s time for Gaiman’s First Law again:

“Picking up your first copy of a book you wrote, if there’s one typo, it will be on the page that your new book falls open to the first time you pick it up.”

Neil Gaiman

We’re human. All of us, no matter what our title or CV or reputation. We’re all trying our best to contribute what the process – and it’s a long, long process – needs from us so we can end up putting something in your hands. We read our own words so many times, trying to approach them from so many mindsets, that a mistake isn’t a sign of neglect. Everyone involved is doing their best and laboring over the document and reading so closely that yes, sometimes we miss something that a casual reader will think is glaringly obvious.

There will always be errors, and there will always be people pointing out errors. I guess my fear is that someone will read “If I’m paying $X, I expect it to be perfect” and then … never try. Never write something in the first place. If a complete stranger has such high expectations, never having met you, imagine how high your own must be since you’re fully aware of your own capabilities.

Have you ever heard this one?

A good dissertation is a done dissertation. A great dissertation is a published dissertation. A perfect dissertation is neither.

old academic adage now apparently posted everywhere without an accompanying citation

Stop expecting perfection. Of other people. Of yourself. If perfection were a requirement, nothing would ever be published. We’d all be stuck in the pit of despair and red ink. Forever.

If your idea is going to get out there, you need to make peace with the fact that it won’t be perfect. (Whether you really want to make peace with the fact that strangers will communicate with you solely to point out errors is your own decision.)

There are some things you have no control over. There are some things you just have to let go. One of the first is others’ idea of perfection. And one of the second is your own.

What do you think? Can writing ever actually be “perfect”? (And do people send the same number of comments about something if it is?)