sometimes I even follow my own advice

Most times it feels like there’s a disconnect between Rebecca the Writer (outside of the high school classroom) and Rebecca the English Teacher (inside the classroom). There’s a shift between teaching writing and engaging in writing, but every so often I’ll mention to my students that, over the weekend, I did something I’ve made them do during their drafting … and they’re still shocked. Wait, these graded steps are things I actually do … when there’s not a grade?

The one I took most recently isn’t really something that could be graded, but I’ve been doing it since grad school, and it still works.

Sometimes I have to bribe myself.

Not every day is a “Golly gee wilikers, I can’t wait to write!” kind of day. I mean, do you wake up every morning absolutely thrilled to go do your job? Even if it’s true more often than it isn’t, there are still … those days. And sometimes terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days, but deadlines are real. You still need to get a draft or the edits into someone else’s hands.

I had chapter revisions due by April 30, and the thing is, they weren’t even all that bad. Comments came from a pair of editors, but neither of them was Reviewer 2. I had to clarify a couple things, but mostly … I had to change my citation style. (Oops.)

And I didn’t want to do it, of course. Citation is awful. I always leave it to the end. I’ll put the proper info after each quote, but I’ll put off formatting it as long as possible. Part of me argues that, this way, I’m totally focused on order and capitalization and punctuation, so it’ll all match, but really … I just don’t like doing it.

So, a week ago Saturday, I bribed myself into doing those edits.

I went up to Keweenaw Coffee Works to get brunch and a fancy coffee and told myself that, since I got all that and came all this way, I wasn’t allowed to leave until my edits were done.

Like I said, I’ve been doing this since grad school. I can go to 5th and Elm for lunch and a coffee, but only if I get through this reading. I can grab a cinnamon roll (sadly no longer available) from Cyberia, but only if I finish writing this paper for grad school. (Where’s that “food motivated” meme when I need it?)

Now, clearly, I know I’m bribing myself. And I know that there aren’t really any immediate consequences to going out, sitting there with my coffee and snack, and not doing the work. I’ll be in trouble if I don’t submit the thing I’ve promised, but it’s not like I’m going to send myself to bed without supper. So it doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me. And I’ve told so many people it works for me.

And they’re still surprised to see me out at a coffee shop, working on something.

I get that some people can’t work in coffee shops, but it’s like with my students: when I break down the writing process into steps, it’s because that’s how I, personally, do those steps. My seniors had to write scripts for their presentations, and I started them off with dictating their scripts while running through their draft slides … and then did the same thing for my own PCA presentation.

The thing is, it’s not like a presentation (or a chapter, or a book, or a blog post) just springs fully formed from my head. There are so many steps that go into them, and I don’t always want to do all of those steps. Knowing those steps is a good thing, because at least I can plan out what I need to do in order to produce the thing, but doing those steps is the next hurdle.

And that’s why I bribe myself with a Brekkie Gallette and a fancy latte from KCW so I can edit my citations.

Have you ever bribed yourself to finish your writing? What’s your favorite bribe?

thinking about reading about writing

Stephen King says “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” and I’m in agreement with him on that one, but I think I want to add a little wrinkle: if you want to be a writer, you must read a lot about writing.

I’ve already talked a bit how there are so many books about writing because we all write differently. Our brains aren’t the same. Our backgrounds aren’t the same. We haven’t read the same books or stayed up too late for the same tropes or drooled over the same authors. So of course we’re not all the same writers, and writing advice isn’t one size fits all. Different strokes (advice) for different folks (authors).

Except I’ve got another wrinkle for you.

I’m not the same author I was a year ago, and definitely not the same author I was when I started writing. Remember how you only learn to write the book you’ve just written and you have to keep learning if you want to keep writing? Writing is all about growth and learning what works for you, but … you change. You grow.

If a man looks at the world when he is 50 the same way he looked at it when he was 20 and it hasn’t changed, then he has wasted 30 years of his life.

Muhammad Ali

So the fun (?) part is that it doesn’t take a whole 30 years to see that you’ve changed as a writer. The question mark comes because this frequently means reading something you wrote a bit ago – something you thought was amazing at the time – and grimacing and wanting to throw the whole thing into an incinerator.

Cringing at your past self is a sign of growth.

I remember the first time I went back to a novel I’d written and didn’t cringe every other page or so. Granted, I find a lot in that manuscript to cringe about now, but we’re talking at a distance of about a year. Prior to that, I’d pick up something I’d written and see already how much I’d grown, both as a person and as a writer. (The perks of writing when you’re a teenager, I guess.) This was one I’d written during my freshman year of college and, when I looked back on it as a slightly older college student, I remember thinking “Hey, I’ve actually got something here.”

I don’t have an accurate count of how many complete or abandoned projects I’d written before getting to that one – the story of how being Robin Hood’s son wouldn’t really be any better than being his daughter, if you must know, and yes I’d seen the Keira Knightley movie shortly before coming up with the idea – but I’d written a lot by then. There’d been a lot to improve since my first attempts, and I’d made enough strides that my learning curve stopped being quite so exponential by then.

But I’m still growing and changing.

And it’s not just about how the stories I want to tell now are different from the stories I wanted to tell a couple decades ago. (Look it really helped that I was in a mediaeval history class with a professor totally willing and able to answer my obscure questions while I was writing the Robin Hood thing. Shoutout to Dr. Wickstrom from Kalamazoo College.) It’s also how I don’t go about writing the same way now as I did then.

Some of the writing “rules” I read about and dismissed because they didn’t apply to me … now apply to me.

Okay, some of that might’ve been the “I’m a special snowflake” thinking – you can’t tell me how to write because you don’t understand me – but not all of it was. I collected various pieces of writing advice and sorted through them, but even the ones that made me roll my eyes haven’t entirely been forgotten.

You have to read widely about writing not just to see how other people think, but because you won’t always think the way you do right now. The trick that never fails to work for you today might not be such a failsafe a decade from now. And, if you decide to engage in writing on a professional basis, there will be days when you really need to force yourself to get words down because deadlines are deadlines, and you don’t have the luxury of time to take a break and do your usual approaches.

For example, let’s take Hemmingway:

I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

Ernest Hemmingway

Past Rebecca definitely thought “Hah okay, Papa, maybe that works for you, but that’s not how I roll.” And Past Rebecca didn’t roll that way. She liked her ridiculous NaNoWriMo word count graphs. (And this Past Rebecca wasn’t actually too long ago, either …)

But today – literally today; I started a new draft for April Camp NaNoWriMo – I hit a word count … and stop, even if I think there’s still some water left in the well. Lately that’s what’s been working for me: hitting a goal that’s a challenge but not too high, and then … doing something else. Letting the ideas percolate in the background instead of trying to force more words and hit the next word count goal.

I’m sure there are many other changes to my process, and many other pieces of writing advice that I used to scorn but now (maybe begrudgingly) agree have their merits, but that’s the obvious one to me today. The biggest sign that I, personally, can see as to how I’ve grown and changed.

Read widely about writing advice, because you never know when you’re going to need it.

What’s your least favorite piece of writing advice? Has it changed over the years? Is there any “popular” advice you used to reject that you’ve now come to embrace?

on the idea of fearlessness

There are lots of cool things about having knitting as a hobby. For one, if you happen to knit a sweater that turns out to be too small, you can just frog it and reuse the yarn – there’s no materials waste. And, if you have leftovers from a project, you can make something out of those scraps, the same way you can make a quilt out of fabric scraps. But the scary thing about knitting is dropping a stitch: all it takes is one of them sliding off your needle and laddering down, and there goes your project.

Example of a dropped stitch from The Knitting Network. The horror!

Well. It feels like that when you start, at any rate.

When you’re struggling through your very first dishcloth or scarf or other general rectangle of a project, you’re terrified of dropped stitches, or adding a stitch, or just messing up in general. You count your stitches after every row, sometimes twice, because the idea of making a mistake is terrifying. And yeah, maybe you tell yourself that you have to be bad at something before you can be good, but you still want it to be right even if it’s not quite perfect.

That hasn’t been me for quite a while now. My grandmother first taught me to knit when I was about 8 years old, and that was definitely me back then. Part of it was how much of a struggle it was to simply create every stitch. It didn’t feel natural, or confident, and I definitely didn’t want to rip back to fix something because that meant tearing out hours of highly concentrated effort.

After more than a couple decades, I even braved the shock and furor of internet strangers to document the frogging process on Twitter about a year ago.

A twitter thread where I document frogging (ripping out) a shrug that I only wore once because it just didn’t fit.

Part of it has to be a state of mind.

I took a lot of time knitting that shrug and making sure it would be the size the pattern said it should be, and it was a struggle, because I had to rewrite some of the charts that came with the pattern. (Knitters generally have a strong preference for charts, which are visual, or written instructions, and patterns tend to tell you which one they are … unless they’re mislabeled or misrepresent themselves.) So yes, I know full well how much time and effort I’d put into it, thank you.

I also knew that I couldn’t easily get that very lovely yarn anymore. And that not many people are actually knitworthy, and come on, I really want a nice cabled shrug for me, that I can wear. Forget sunk costs. I wanted to have something I could use out of that precious yarn, so I reclaimed it.

Frogging might look more foolish than fearless, but bear with me.

I am more willing to try new (and possibly questionable) techniques because frogging is one of the tools I have in my toolbox. The thing is, if you Google “dropped stitches,” the top results are about fixing them, not defining them. A dropped stitch isn’t the end of the world (or your project) if you have the skills and techniques to fix it.

And knitting is full of all kinds of skills and techniques to help you fix mistakes in your projects. There’s more than one way to do every single technique in knitting – and yes, even knitting itself. (Continental? English? Portuguese? Combination? And those are just the major styles.) If one way doesn’t work well for you, try another. The longer you knit, the more techniques you come across, try out, and relegate to one of your major columns: use it more often, keep it around in case you need it, or heck no – always find an alterative to this one.

And the more knitting tips and tricks you amass, the more fearless you can be about knitting a new pattern or trying a new technique, because you have so many ways to “fix” it if things go wrong.

Hang on, isn’t this usually a writing blog?

I’m so glad you asked.

The more tips, tricks, tools, and techniques you know, the more fearless you can be in your first draft … whether it’s knitting or writing. It doesn’t matter as much if things go wrong, because you know you can deal with them. It’s neither a mystery nor a tangled mess.

When you start writing, you might think it has to be perfect straight off. I know when I started, I thought of them as “stories” instead of “drafts” – and certainly not “a first draft.” A first draft implies there will be other drafts that follow.

It might even imply imperfection.

I’ve already talked a bit about how I don’t think of writing rules while I’m writing, and that plays into the apparent fearlessness of a first draft. When I’m drafting, and it’s going well, there’s a lot I don’t worry about. I just … write, and know that any issues can be fixed later.

You still have to know all those expectations, and you still need to end up with a book (or a shrug) that fits the intended recipient, but the start can look like a big tangled mess if that’s what it takes to get started … or to get a draft finished.

What do your first drafts look like? Would you ever show them to someone else?

announcing my next novel: Blood Sisters, out in August!

I am so excited that I can finally talk about my next novel!

BLOOD SISTERS is an adult thriller about twin sisters with a deadly secret and a serial killer framed for murder…or was he?

I can’t spill all the details, but I can say Blood Sisters will be out August 22, 2023 from Aesthetic Press, and give you this blurb:

A college girl notices that a serial killer’s victims look an awful lot like her, so she figures out a way to frame him and fake her death. At least that is the story her twin sister desperately clings to even as her intrusive thoughts about her sister’s supposed murder haunts her 10 years later.

Cue the dramatic music!

Yes, I’ll give more teasers as we get closer.

And yes, there’ll be a knitting pattern to go with the preorders – Marcy got a shawl, and Nessa’s getting a shrug. My sample’s been done since last May, and I’ve been sitting on it except for this shot of secret kitten posing with it on my mannequin:

… because publishing timelines are long and involve a lot of sitting on things you really, really want to talk about.

There’s still a lot I can’t tell you just yet, so today I’d like to pull the curtain aside a bit and get into those timelines.

The thing is, I told people I had a book announcement coming and got a lot of “I can’t believe you wrote a book while teaching high school!” But the thing is … I didn’t.

Let’s take a look back on everything you haven’t seen, shall we?

Early 2016: James Patterson’s MasterClass has a competition to be his coauthor on a book. I get an idea, incredibly vague, about identical twins. One of them goes missing and the other is … accused of her murder? I wasn’t sure. That wasn’t the idea I ended up submitting for the competition, but that’s the first seed of the idea for the book that eventually became Blood Sisters. Note that this even predates Not Your Mary Sue by over a year. I hadn’t thought of Jay and Marcy yet, but Sunni and Skye were there, and those have always been their names.

April 2021: I finally came back to the twins for Camp NaNoWriMo and made two lengthy attempts to figure out their story. How lengthy? According to my stats, that month I wrote 106,622 words, so it was around 50k per attempt. That shows you how badly I wanted to tell their story, but neither of those really worked. I’d done a bunch of research into Jaycee Dugard and other children who’d been kidnapped for long periods of time, thinking that that was the twins’ story, but … it didn’t pan out.

Summer 2021: I did it! I got a full draft of the book! It turns out that Sunni and Skye are important, but there are other people at the center of the novel. The first draft had a first person POV for one of those other people.

December 2021: I completed my revisions – the ones I felt I needed to do to polish it up before submitting it – and rewrote it to be in third person with two points of view (neither of which was Sunni or Skye).

Spring 2022: I signed the contract with Aesthetic Press. The shrug design and cover design quickly followed … giving me more to sit on as I waited.

So, even though the process of writing this book took about six years …

None of it was written while I was teaching. If you don’t know how I do it all, it’s because … I don’t.

So I’m looking forward to telling you more about Sunni and Skye, and Nessa and all the others, and to introducing you to the plot and setting of Blood Sisters. I’ve been thinking about all of this for a long, long time, so you know I’ve got plenty to say.

the scariest part of publishing a book

I was giving a talk this weekend about … myself, really. How I’ve come to know what I know, research what I research, and write what I write. I talked about all of my books, and read from the first few pages of Not Your Mary Sue, and gave a teaser about what happens in the rest of the book. And then one of the audience members raised a hand and asked if Marcy falls in love with Jay.

And I didn’t answer.

It seems like a simple question, right? Either she does or she doesn’t, so yes or no.

You might even think that you’d be able to ask the character herself. Maybe she says it somewhere I could quote and cite and all the rest, except … it’s also possible that characters don’t always want to admit the truth. (If you were the daughter of a famous televangelist who’d been stuck on an island with a confessed serial killer for weeks as he told you his life story and was rescued in such a condition where you were taken straight to the hospital, would you ever conceive of a situation where you’d say “Yes”?)

Except … I know how I wrote it.

But I also know not everyone reads it that way.

And I know that, once it’s published, the book isn’t yours anymore.

Look, I engage in literary criticism myself. I’ve analyzed books about Jack the Ripper and I’ve analyzed books by Stephen King. I’ve heard how Tony Magistrale gave a presentation about one of King’s short stories and King himself was in the audience, stood up at the end, and told him he was wrong … and how Tony told him that, whatever King thought, Tony was able to find evidence to support his point. (This was of course back when Stephen King attended conferences where people talked about him and his work, but I’m not sure how close it was to when he stopped this practice.)

Once you publish a book, it’s no longer your own … and maybe it’s only when other people read it that you realize exactly how much of yourself you put between the pages, and how many things you said without fully intending to say them.

On the one hand it’s great fun to see how other people read your work.

I had people I knew from high school catching teachers’ names or telling me they couldn’t stop picturing our high school choir director. (Who looks nothing like Jay. If you need to remember, this is the portrait of Jay I commissioned. That particular reader sighed with relief, stopped picturing our old choir director, and was able to move ahead.)

My own mother-in-law told me she cracked up on the very first page when Marcy starts to realize something’s weird not just because of the manacle around her ankle, but because her toothbrush is on the wrong side of the sink.

My high school kids were reading selections from Bird by Bird and asked how, exactly, authors can tell the truth if they’re writing fiction, so I read them those same first pages and asked them to call out how much of that was me.

There are things that I meant, and things that I’ve realized since publication, and – I’m sure – things I still have no idea about.

But I told them that I can’t actually tell them whether Marcy falls in love with Jay.

I do have an idea about that one. I know what I believe and I know how I meant it, but that doesn’t mean that’s how you read it.

This is actually something I have very strong feelings about, but I also don’t think it’s really my right to tell you, outside of the book, what the right answer is.

If you read the book, and find evidence for a different answer than the one I feel, then I can’t really tell you that you’re wrong. I might want to point out all this other evidence that argues my side, but that doesn’t mean the evidence you found isn’t there.

It’s complex. And it’s not just mine anymore.

And that, for me, is the scariest thing.

What do you think: was Marcy in love with Jay? (Was Jay in love with Marcy?) And do you, personally, feel like your readers might indeed sometimes be wrong?

why hello, December

I’d ask where the time went, except I know the answer to that one: NaNoWriMo. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, especially since it’s my 13th November, but no. Apparently I just have to keep learning this over and over:

You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.

Gene Wolfe

For NaNoWriMo, I decided to write a thriller set in the UP. I’ve done that before, so that should make things easier, right? Well.

Normally I write my novels chronologically. I’m more of a discovery writer than an outliner. In NaNo parlance I’m a plantser. Before I start writing a novel, I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about things like setting and my characters’ backstories. I tend to go into things knowing the opening scene and the first big thing I’m going to throw at them, and I’ve done enough prep that I can be fairly certain how these characters are going to react. Then, in the words of my high school mythology teacher Mr. Noller, I kick the characters in the butt and follow them.

For this November, I was dealing with a cold case. Here’s the basic setup – what I knew before going into November 1.

Ten years ago, Ollie's mom and sister were killed while she and her dad were out at the family cabin. Her high school boyfriend was put on trial for the murders and found legally not guilty, but the community decided otherwise. Recently a serial killer took responsibility for the murders, and a true crime reporter has been contracted to write a book about the case. He's on his way to Ollie so he can visit her hometown and collect interviews when she gets a call that the serial killer actually has an alibi for that night, so the case is far from solved.

So right away I started with a bang: the reporter’s about to show up, but Ollie gets this phone call, and where do you go from there? I knew it was going to be a lot about relationships: Ollie and her dad, Ollie and her mom, Ollie and her sister, Ollie and the high school boyfriend … Ollie and the reporter … so Ollie was going to be at the center of a lot of it, but there was also a lot she didn’t, or couldn’t, know. She wasn’t there that night. She didn’t actually know what her mom and her sister were thinking. So. How could I deal with it?

This is where I tried something new.

Part of the novel – every other scene – follows Ollie Today as she gets the news and things unfold in reaction to it. The other parts aren’t in chronological order and are made up of false documents that largely rely on my reporter’s interviews with other people about Ollie’s mom and sister and what they think happened. Which is confusing on its own, because they’re all recalling something that happened a decade ago, when they’ve had all this time to mold and shape their memories to fit the dominant narrative (in this case, of the former boyfriend’s guilt).

Because I’m not an outliner, I wasn’t sure how it would work. If I’d have enough interview transcripts or newspaper clippings or what have you to continue alternating between the “Now” and these other elements.

I also made things more complicated for myself because that meant figuring out a lot of the old friends and neighbors, or parents of the old friends, and what their points of view would add to the narrative … or, of course, complicate about it. There’s an incident involving the sister, for example, that we see from the dad’s, a friend’s, a friend’s mom’s and a former babysitter’s points of view. Who heard which variation, and what details do they want to pass on? All of this jumping back and forth where you first think you’ve got a handle on it, and then realize hey, actually, we all do this, don’t we? Pick which parts of ourselves to share with which other people, and why.

So I continued doing these jumps, back and forth between the plot I was discovering and the past I was pretty sure I had a handle on, fleshing things out and working toward the climax.

… and I think it worked?

I’m not going to be more certain about it for a while yet, since I’m still too close to the story, but the writing part worked. I was able to sit down and keep up with my intended word count each day while at the same time moving back and forth between Now and Supplementary Documents. It forced me to think about things in new days, with new depths that I don’t usually find until it’s time for the second draft.

It does need time to sit, though, and get out of my immediate consciousness so I can come back to it in a couple months with a less-biased eye. It’s impossible to be completely unbiased about your own work, but the pause can certainly help. Plus by then my usual immediate readers might’ve had the chance to go through it and tell me their initial thoughts.

Because that, of course, is the next scary but necessary step: finding out if other people think it worked. If maybe I overdid it. If it’s too confusing even for a thriller with false documents and unreliable narration. It’s not just about a search for the truth of that one night, but one of my favorite topics: personal identity. Who really knows who we are? Do we even know that about ourselves?

All in all, I think it was a productive November and not just a busy one. I’ve got a complete draft, at any rate, and even if nothing comes of it, I’ve got these new experiences from writing it. I kind of doubt the rest of the year will slow down at all, but at least I know where November went – I’ve got the document to prove it.

Did you participate in NaNoWriMo this year? How did that go? Did you learn anything new about yourself and your writing?

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 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?

Not Your Mary Sue: the stitch markers

About a year ago, I contacted Heather of winemakerssister on Etsy to ask if she’d be interested in making a knitter’s chatelaine based on Not Your Mary Sue. I didn’t come up with the idea on my own – I’ve been known to refer to Heather as “my stitch marker dealer” and she has plenty of literary-themed sets already on there.

I looked through the various charms Heather already had online and chose from those. She suggested red for the beads, because … well, murder. And that’s the most she knew about the plot: there was murder, and these charms meant something. Which was maybe a bit mean, since she had to wait so long to find out what they all meant, but …

Well. Spoilers ahead, because I’m going to explain them.

My knitter’s chatelaine from winemakerssister on Etsy.

The book

Jay wants Marcy to write his biography. That’s the main book at the center of, uh … the book. But there are other books, too. Marcy reads 1984 when she’s on the island (and some of my friends from junior high recognized Mrs. Crandall – she was my real 8th and 9th grade English teacher). And Marcy learns that her new neighbors Elena and Suzette, as well as handsome librarian Edison, are all Stephen King fans. Marcy’s a reader.

The dagger

This is the part that I really felt like I had to keep my mouth shut about, because I really, really wanted to share it. Jay’s a journeyman bladesmith who specially crafted a dagger to use during each of his murders. Even though he spent all this time combining his hobbies, he doesn’t tell Marcy about that part – she has to basically stumble on it.

Jay’s preferred weapon is the Fairbairn-Sykes dagger. (Yes, I know the link says “fighting knife.” We won’t get into the semantics of daggers and fighting knives – it’s like squares and rectangles – so I’ll stick with Jay’s preferred terminology.) My husband picked it. He’s an amateur bladesmith and I told him “Pick a weapon for my serial killer.” That’s what he picked.

The choice of the Fairbairn-Sykes dagger dictated Jay’s preferred style MO. It’s such a central element of Jay’s character at this point that I even asked Shegry to include it in the portrait of Jay. The proportions of blade to handle is pretty distinctive.

The measuring cup

After she gets off the island, and after she finishes the first draft of her memoir, Marcy casts around for some sort of creative outlet. It needs to be something new, not related to either her life before the island or connected to Jay. (In the original ending, you might recall, she learned some bladesmithing skills and then used them to make sculptures instead of weapons.)

In the final version, she turns to baking. It’s exact and precise and requires a lot of focus on the here and now, and then she can share the results of her labors with her new friends.

The typewriter

Heather warned me that the typewriter has typed “I love you” on it, and I laughed and said I’ll take it, anyway. There’s a division here between me and some of my first readers: I didn’t intend Marcy to be read as having a romantic relationship with Jay, but people are certainly interpreting it that way. Now, as a good Barthes scholar I’m down with the death of the author, so … if that’s how you read it, then fine. Marcy’s romantically interested in Jay.

(I will, however, add that sometimes the blue curtains are just … blue.)

The cabin

Okay this is another obvious one, I think. The entire first half of the book takes place on an island where Marcy’s stuck in a luxury cabin. It’s not exactly a gothic castle, but our maiden fair is certainly isolated.

The elephant

I giggled while picking this one because it’s just so out there. The on-the-page reason is because Edison and Marcy go to the zoo and they have a moment at the elephant enclosure. The “maybe the author isn’t dead, after all” answer is that my best friend and I have a history of going to zoos together, and she loves elephants. (When I go to a zoo without her, she gets texted pictures of elephants.)

This one was mostly an inside joke, but I also like what the scene shows about the budding relationship between Edison and Marcy. Marcy’s spent so much of the book feeling like she’s the only one who’s weak and has “issues,” but then she witnesses Edison going through it. And surprised him with her reaction.

The scissors

Heather told me she’s now dubbed this charm “the murder scissors,” even though that was shortly after she made me the set and she didn’t know how they were used in the story.

Marcy’s a knitter, but the scene where the scissors take the spotlight has nothing to do with knitting. It’s right after That Scene (I think it’s the part readers have mentioned to me more than any other) when Marcy manages to get her hands (er, hand) on them to cut through the duct tape. Now, they aren’t very big – these are the scissors you keep in your craft supplies for a single snip of the yarn or thread, and if you actually do use them on duct tape, they’d probably get all gummed up and ruined. But desperate times, etc etc.

(They probably wouldn’t make good murder weapons, anyway.)

The ball of yarn and knitting needles

Marcy’s a knitter. I’m a knitter. Heck, I designed a shawl for Marcy to wear. (Plus, you know … designed a whole set of stitch markers based on my book.) You know Marcy’s a knitter from the very beginning when she uses her knitting supplies unconventionally to pick a lock. (Seems like she’s always using her craft stuff to get free of whatever Jay’s got her stuck in this time.) So. Probably another obvious one.

Have you ever done something special like this for yourself to celebrate your upcoming book? Or have you ordered stitch markers from Heather? Share in the comments!

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.



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?