Why I Love NaNoWriMo — and Why I Don’t Do It Anymore

Oh, October. As we head towards the end of the month, writers all over the internet are gearing up: November is National Novel Writing Month, AKA NaNoWriMo, and that means the time for planning is now. And as I do every year when my twitter list starts buzzing with Nano tweets, I spend a few minutes debating if I want to do it, sigh dramatically, and remind myself that no, much as I enjoy Nano, it is not really for me at this point.

And that’s the thing: I’ve done Nano successfully in the past (four times! 2001, 2002, 2004, and 2007), and I really genuinely enjoyed it, and got a lot out of it. But, well, I don’t do it anymore. So here’s my personal rundown on the good, the bad, and the ugly painful.

NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo coat of arms

The first time I did Nano was 2001 — only its third year in existence. There were no forums yet, no non-profit org, not even a word count validator. But even so, people had banded together to create mailing lists (the one I was on was a yahoo!group for people who did Nano and also blogged – there were only a couple dozen people on it), and even tiny little meetups in major cities. So it wasn’t much, but there was a very small, burgeoning community. Plus I was a freshman in college, and I convinced my roommate to do it, too, and we told our whole hall and kept our wordcounts posted on the whiteboard on our door, and other hallmates left us encouraging messages every day.

So what I’m saying is, even in its infancy, Nano provided a built-in community, something writing often doesn’t have. That kind of support system is something I have learned is really key for me in getting things written — these days I have it in the form of my super rad writing group and a few other crit partners, but if I were just sitting in my living room with my laptop and no one to cheer me on, bounce ideas off, and hold me accountable, well… I might still be writing, but I’d also probably still be starting and abandoning tons of ideas and not really getting anywhere. Community makes a huge difference.

But the biggest thing I got out of Nano was making a real, serious habit of Butt In Chair, Project Open. Back in 2001, I had a giant fantasy project that I’d been working on sproadically for a few years. Writing was always a fun hobby for me, so it wasn’t like I never worked on it, but it came after classes, work, friends, activities, meals, sleeping, etc. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. But Nano got me in gear. Writing was a non-optional, daily activity. I set my computer to open my WIP when I turned it on, and basically never closed it. If there was nothing else I had to be doing, I was writing. And by November 30th, I was done.

And come December 1, my computer started up, Word opened, and … well, my Nano novel was done, so I opened up an old, unfinished project and got to work. Because 30 days of Butt In Chair, Project Open, had made it a habit — one that I essentially kept up with, writing almost daily for years, and it carried me through three more Nanos and three full trunk novels, right up to my current project.

And yet, I’m not doing Nano this year and doubt I’ll do it again, because the truth is that for all the good habits it helped me build, Nano just no longer serves a purpose for me.

Nano is a very good way to learn how to write a messy draft, to shut off your inner editor and get words on the page. But it’s not a great way to learn how to write good prose or a coherent story. The advantage of Nano is that it doesn’t give you time to stop and think; the disadvantage is that a novel written without any pause for thought is going to be … well, not good. And at a certain point I realized that I am actually quite good at writing those messy first drafts — in fact, that’s my favorite part of the writing process — but it’s all that other stuff, the stuff that makes a novel actually good, that I have trouble with. And Nano doesn’t help with that.

There are a few groups that try to do editing months to match Nano, but in my experience, editing doesn’t work like that. One reason Nano works is because it’s such a clear, concrete goal. Editing is a lot trickier than that. It’s everything from fixing awkward, flat prose to fixing giant plot problems. It’s a lot of staring into space while your subconscious figures out what isn’t working and how to make it work better. It’s moving things around, strengthening conflicts, giving characters better motivations, playing up what’s at stake. And it’s different for everyone, and every project.

It’s really hard to turn that into a themed month.

WIP

My current work in progress.

For me, buckling down on revisions was made harder by the attitude I’d picked up in Nano, too. This is by no means a universal thing, I found the mentality of getting so many words out a day was addictive. It was a great habit to get into, but when I was measuring success by a word count, that made forcing myself to stop, to rewrite and revise, to make my novel actually good, a lot more difficult. I find revising much harder than drafting, and not being able to point to look at a word count and say “this is what I’ve accomplished this week!” made me feel like I was, at best, flailing around — and when revisions weren’t going well, and I wasn’t producing any new words because I was focused on making existing words better, I felt like a failure.

Now, admittedly, a lot of that is my own issues coming out to play. But the fact of the matter is, as helpful and fun as Nano was back in the day, it’s not something that serves me anymore. Especially now that I’ve got a pretty rigid schedule — my writing time is a lot more limited, and I don’t want to spend it getting out mediocre words just for the sake of getting out words.

And then there’s this: I physically can’t do Nano anymore. In the nearly nine years since I moved to New York, I’ve had two bouts of debilitating wrist pain from RSI, muscle strain, and tendonitis. I did several months of physical therapy for the first bout, and massive pills that made me nauseated for the second. My wrists still ache sometimes, when I overuse them at the computer. Since the eight hours a day at my job are non-negotiable, that means I have to be very careful about my writing, and crunching out nearly 2,000 words a day would leave me in serious pain.

Instead of writing daily these days, I set aside a couple of hours, a couple of days a week. I usually pace at about 5,000 words a week — well below the pace you need for Nano, but I’d rather take four months to write a decent draft without being in pain than one month to write a messy draft and hurt. I mean, spelling it out like that … duh.

So overall, I would never say that Nano is bad, and I would encourage anyone on the fence to give it a try. It really can be a ton of fun, and a great way to get started. It doesn’t serve me where I am in my writing journey anymore — but even though none of my four Nano novels were salvageable (though the 2007 one came pretty close! it was my last trunk novel before the project that landed me my agent), I don’t regret writing them at all.

The Big, Exciting News

The Big, Exciting News

So I have some news. Some pretty big news. Some pretty rad news. Some pretty big and rad news. Which is this: I’ve recently signed on as a client of literary agent Hannah Bowman, of Liza Dawson Associates Literary Agency.

Holy crap, wow.

This is something I have been working towards for a long, long time. As a kid, I scrawled stories in my school notes. I filled up floppy disk after floppy disk with stories.1 I read constantly and knew I wanted to someday be a writer and publish a book. Not that I knew how to do that. But a few years and a couple of trunked, mediocre manuscripts later, I did some research on what getting published actually entails, and finding an agent to work with — and who wants to work with you — is a huge step.

For friends and family who aren’t familiar with publishing, no, this news does not mean I have a book coming out, but it means I’ve written one and am hoping to see it published eventually. If you want to know more about what agents do and why they’re so vital for people who want to be traditionally published, check out What Do Literary Agents Do? by former agent Nathan Bransford. But the short version is: Hannah read my novel and loved it, she got everything I was trying to do with it, and I’m at least 93% more likely to eventually see it in print with her help than I would be without it.2

As for how it all happened, it was via the query process. For non-writers, that means sending a letter introducing myself, along with a three-paragraph-or-less synopsis of my novel, and hoping it would catch an agent’s interest.3 This process is one of the most frustrating things writers go through (boiling a novel down into a 250-word hook is not easy, figuring out who to contact involves a metric ton of research, the process is usually very slow, and many writers never find agents at all). It’s also something I’d been simultaneously looking forward to and dreading for years. It feels a lot like a right of passage, which for me marked the change from writing as a hobby (albeit one I’ve always taken very seriously) towards writing professionally, which, like I said above, is what I’ve always wanted to do.

Finishing a novel is a big step. Revising it, feeling confident that it’s actually pretty good, is another.4 Sending out queries is a huge one. And signing with an agent? That’s major. And I really, truly could not be more excited to work with Hannah.

  1. Okay, it wasn’t that hard to do that; we’re talking the five inch, ancient disks here.
  2. I arrived at that number by scientific calculation and did not pull it out of a hat.
  3. It isn’t a full synopsis, but it has to introduce the plot and characters, and because I write fantasy, also the world. Which is still quite a bit for three paragraphs — and three paragraphs is on the long side for a query.
  4. Also I have an awesome writing group who helped with this SO MUCH.

Sailor Moon, Ninja Turtles, and Learning to Save the World

Sailor Moon

Sailor Moon

So you may have heard about this, especially if you’re a woman between the ages of, let’s say, 25 and 35, but Sailor Moon has been re-subtitled and is now available on Hulu, with two episodes being released a week. And this will go all the way through the end of the series, which means lots of stuff that never aired, dubbed, in the U.S., and it will be a lot more faithful to the original.1 I adored the show when it originally aired in the U.S., so of course I have been watching it, and the thing is, even though it’s not as spellbinding to me at 30 as it was at 13, I still maintain that Sailor Moon is one of the most important TV shows I ever watched. But to explain why, I need to go back a little further and talk about a different show first: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

You may or may not be familiar with Sailor Moon, but you definitely know TMNT in some form or another. It’s one of the all-time mega franchises; if you were a kid in the 80s or 90s, or you knew a kid in the 80s or 90s, or lived in the United States in the 80s or 90s, you know it. Though it was originally a comic, it premiered as a cartoon in ’87 (which ran for years), and then became a movie franchise in 1990, and has been rebooted several times since then. And me, I was just the right age to get hit with Turtlemania. (Sorry-not-sorry, family.)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Heroes on a half shell.

Alright, so. When I was a young’un obsessed with the turtles, I also happened to have a gaggle of nephews who ranged from about my age down to toddlerdom, and we were all pretty close. I was the oldest of this crew, discounting my sister (who was too cool to play with us), so when it came time for epic games of pretend, I was the one in charge, like a particularly adorable dictator. So of course we pretended to be the turtles, which left me with a bit of a conundrum. The only major female character in the series was April O’Neil, intrepid reporter and turtle ally. The thing is, though, that while April is a great character and I will fight anyone who says otherwise,2 I didn’t want to be April. This was a universe where there were anthropomorphic, crime fighting, pizza eating turtles, and what was the point of pretending to be anything else?

(I was Donatello. Of course I was.)

So when I was seven, as the movie came out, I was already totally able to empathize with male characters. To look at a lineup that was almost entirely boys, and to say, “That one’s the most like me,” to literally put myself in that character’s shoes3 and inhabit him.

I, uh, don’t think I’ve ever seen boys do that with female characters, except maybe super recently with My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. I suspect there are a lot of reasons for that, chief among them that we live in a disdainful, girls-have-cooties culture that discourages boys from enjoying anything deemed girly. Girls have to learn to see themselves in male characters, while boys almost never have to do that with female characters — and it’s just so rare to find an all-female ensemble that they’re never asked to. Especially if you’re looking for an ensemble that’s all about saving the world.

Enter Sailor Moon.

Sailor Moon manga

The Sailor Moon, original manga style. Look how many awesome girls there are!

If you’re not familiar with it, Sailor Moon is the story of a 14-year-old girl who’s a bit of a crybaby and a klutz, and also turns out to be a superhero who stands for love and beauty. She fights evil with the help of her best friends, the other Sailor Scouts. They’re a rocking all-girl ensemble. You have your everygirl, your smart girl, your pretty girl, your angry girl, your tomboy, and so on. They fight badguys while wearing mini-skirts and looking amazing. And they love each other.

Lemme re-emphasize: an all-girl, butt-kicking, world-saving ensemble. I was thirteen years old, and I’d never seen anything like that. I fell for it, hard.

I recorded episodes to VHS. I dragged my parents to a toy store over an hour away so I could buy ugly plastic tie-in toys. I begged my older sister, in college in Boston, to see if she could find any of the manga. (I didn’t even have easy access to a bookstore, let alone one with that kind of specialization.)4 I was just hitting the age of awkwardly too old to play pretend (I hit that age rather later than most, I think), so instead I wrote reams and reams of fanfiction, Mary Sue self inserts and all.

I loved Sailor Moon so much I got up an hour early to watch it as it aired before school. These days, as an adult, I can’t even bring myself to get up 10 minutes before I absolutely have to so I can make breakfast.

The thing is, at 13, I didn’t realize just what it was that hit me so hard. All I knew was that I was an Ami, but I wanted to be Rei.5 But looking back, I see it. There was no leap there, no hesitation. Girls were having adventures. Girls were saving the world. I wanted to be one of them, and I felt like I was allowed. I’d never realized I wasn’t supposed do that with the Ninja Turtles, until suddenly it was an option I was really being offered.

Sailor Moon and Friends

No but really, LOOK HOW MANY AWESOME GIRLS.

Realizing this has also led me to some more revelations, like, for example, if a white, straight, girl — that is to say, someone who’s still very privileged — can be hit so hard just by seeing herself as a story’s hero, how important is that for people who are less privileged and see themselves even more rarely? It only takes a hop, skip, and a jump of empathy to see why something like #WeNeedDiverseBooks is so important, as if that wasn’t already totally obvious.6

Between its availability on Hulu and the soon-to-launch reboot series, Sailor Moon Crystal, Sailor Moon and friends have been all over my tumblr and twitter of late, and I hope they are reaching today’s little girls, too. The way I ate up the show led to my delving into all kinds of other stories where girls or women got to be the heroes; that, in turn, has informed literally everything I’ve written.

So thanks, Sailor Moon. To borrow a phrase from another superhero franchise, you were the hero I needed, and the hero I deserved, when I didn’t know I needed or deserved you.

  1. By which I mean the LGBT characters will actually have their original relationships in tact, and will not be awkwardly translated as “cousins.”
  2. Come at me, bro.
  3. Well, bandana and knee/elbow pads, I guess.
  4. By that point it was 1997, which was still ages before manga would really hit the U.S. It was really only available in specialty shops.
  5. Which is to say, I was “the smart one” but wanted to be “the angry one.”
  6. Naturally, this is my favorite #WeNeedDiverseBooks submission.

More Links

I have been thinking a lot about this blog and why I never, ever use it, and there are a lot of reasons, most of them silly and personal (or personal because they’re too silly to share, to be more accurate). But I did semi-recently break down and start a tumblr, where I post a lot more. Most of it is reading/writing/publishing related, and it’s pretty rad because I can share the very smart (and/or clever) things other people are saying, as well as toss up my own thoughts when I have ‘em.

So that’s here: beckytext. (Why not allreb? I dunno! Felt like a change! Now I need to find a way to link it in the sidebar here, since it updates much more often.)

Jasmine's getting pretty tired of your shit, Aladdin.

Jasmine’s getting pretty tired of your shit, Aladdin.

But all that said, I did write an actual blog entry recently! Just, uh. Not at this blog. I know, I know, you’re going to have a heart attack and die of that surprise. Which is actually an excellent quote to use in this scenario, because it’s National Princess Week, and what I wrote is a guest blog over at Fantastic Fangirls about why Princess Jasmine of Disney’s Aladdin is so great.

And, I guess, if you’re looking for yet more of me online, I recently participated in a roundtable about reading slush during Apex Magazine‘s Operation Fourth Story. The operation has ended, but you should still subscribe, because Apex is great. (And Hugo nominated! Technically that was for the crew before I joined on, but still, super rad.)

Things Both New and Useful

Things Both New and Useful

First thing’s first, here is a cool new thing in my life: I have been recruited as a submissions editor for Apex Magazine! Which sounds quite fancy and exciting, but all it actually means is that I’m a slush reader. Which, for friends and family who don’t know publishing terms, means that I’m one of the first readers whenever someone submits a story for the magazine. (I screen to see if submitted stories meet the quality and content needs of the magazine, send a no-thanks letter for anything that doesn’t fit, and pass up the chain anything that does.) The current editor-in-chief Sigrid is actually a former slush reader, and a couple of years ago she wrote about reading submissions, if you’re curious about what it’s like.

This is very cool. I’ve just begun in the last week, so I don’t have much to say about it yet, but I’m really excited to get started. I love Apex’s mission, and I’m super psyched to get more involved with the SFF community.

And with the fun news out of the way, a housekeeping thing: I installed a new theme, so the blog has a new layout. I really liked the old one, but this one is a little bit cleaner and looks a lot nicer on mobile browsers.1 And of course, I’ve done my usual nerdy tweaking of the CSS to make the place look exactly how I want.

Moving right along, as I was cleaning up the template this morning and updating the about/contact pages, I started thinking about blogrolls. I don’t have one anymore and haven’t in years — I don’t really keep a list of links anywhere anymore. The list I used to have was of websites I visited the most often, but after years of reading on RSS, I don’t really actually go to individual sites very often at this point. So this is in no way an actual blog roll, but I was thinking about the websites I still visit frequently, and figured I’d list ‘em. I find them useful, so who knows? You might, too. Here are my top three:

Captain Awkward
This is an advice column for awkward people, so, you know… perfect for me. If I had to sum the site up, I’d say it specializes in boundaries: figuring out what yours are, how to set and enforce them, how to respect other people’s. Plus how to take care of yourself and ask for what you need. (Oh, and online dating.) I don’t agree with the advice given 100% of the time, but overall it’s extremely useful, interesting stuff, that has helped shape how I try to interact with the world over the last year or so.

Ask A Manager
Speaking of advice blogs, this one is not to be missed. Its focus is on work: how to be a better manager, how to be a better employee, how to communicate. Plus, for those you who are looking for it, there’s a ton on how to write resumes and cover letters and prepare for job interviews. I’m not at all exaggerating when I say this site has made me a more productive, awesome employee.

The Billfold
I stumbled across The Billfold near its debut and have been a loyal reader since. It isn’t really a money advice site, though there are a few how-tos; mostly it’s just people talking about their money — how they make it, how they spend it, how they save it. Or why they don’t save it. Or how they’re trying to get out of debt, and how much debt that is. Thanks to reading it, I have started thinking a lot more actively about my finances and where my money goes.2 It’s also the site that’s responsible for me paying my student loans down almost twice as fast as I would otherwise, for knowing how much I’m contributing to my 401(k), and for opening a Roth IRA.3 So basically: very useful!

Bonus: I mentioned it in my year-end wrap up last week but Unfuck Your Habitat is great for getting on top of housekeeping if you’re busy and not sure where to begin.

So now you tell me: what are your go-to sites that I should check out?

  1. A side effect of having a web-centric job is that I spend a lot of time thinking about things like how websites work on mobile browsers. For example, the NYTimes.com redesign a few days ago. It’s possible that I cared about that more than anyone else who doesn’t actually have an NYTimes online subscription.
  2. Rent. It goes to rent. I love New York but man rent is expensive.
  3. Or… you know, deciding to open a Roth IRA. I’m gonna actually do it any day now. Just you wait.

Looking Like Mom

It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and it’s Chanukah, and I’m writing this from my uncle’s house and thinking about family, which is difficult. My mother died a couple of months ago. She’d been sick for the better part of a year. Thanksgiving last year was the last time I saw her when she was healthy.

Mom, one year ago.

Mom, one year ago.

I resemble both of my parents quite a bit, but how I look like Mom is more obvious at first glance: pale, dark curly hair, smiling at strangers.

I grew up in a small town. Smaller than you’re thinking. No, still smaller than you’re thinking now. That small. I have a complicated relationship with my hometown, but as a kid, all I wanted was to leave, to go somewhere no one knew me. Because it was a tiny community, and everyone knew me. Every teacher I had had already taught my sister, four years earlier, and everywhere I went, people knew my mother. Strangers would stop me to ask if I was Ruthie’s daughter at the post office, the library, the pharmacy.1 So, as you can probably imagine, looking like Mom was not my favorite thing the world while I was still desperate to forge my own identity.

When Mom went to the hospital for the last time, right before entering hospice services, I was overwhelmed by the weirdest feeling. The hospital staff was doing a great job taking care of her, but they didn’t understand. The woman in that bed wasn’t Mom. They didn’t know Mom. Mom was vivacious and kind and energetic. She was a caretaker, not someone who needed to be taken care of. And it was the weirdest thing, thinking, These people don’t know how much I look like Mom.

Haircut selfie.

Me, haircut selfie style.

There was a snag with the paperwork we needed to get Mom into hospice services — we were missing a referral from her oncologist. I’d been losing my mind, sitting in her hospital room and trying not to cry, so I jumped at the chance to run over to another hospital wing and do something. I got to the right desk to ask, and all I’d managed to say was, “My mother needs –” before the woman behind the desk interrupted me. “Are you Ruthie’s daughter? Your mother is such a sweetheart. How can we help?”

It was such a relief to be recognized by a stranger.

Last night, my uncle commented, “From this angle, you look just like Ruthie.”

That’s a relief, too.

I miss you, Mom.

  1. And, on one occasion that is only hilarious in retrospect, I was pinned as Mom’s daughter by the cop who knocked on the car window while I was in the backseat with a dude. Just imagine the mortification of pulling on a hoodie and squirming in place while the officer squints at you through a flashlight beam and then asks: “Is your mom Ruth who used to work at the hospital? How’s she doing?”

Autumn Cleaning

Or something like that, anyway.

I’m on a kick where I want to start blogging somewhat more regularly again! However, I know myself well enough to know that I probably, uh, won’t. But I did do some general upkeep around here, by which I mean, I went through and made about half of the posts private. I’d already done a few on my last kick (last year? lol), but the more I thought about these archives, the more I itched to nuke the whole thing. That’s the thing about having had this blog, in one location or another, since 2006: so much of the well meaning stuff I wrote in those first years makes me cringe now. But I don’t want to lose all of those earnest, well meaning, poorly written posts, so instead of deleting, I set them to private. (Um. Also some more recent posts, because I don’t like them anymore.) I also redid all of the categories and tags around here, since most of them were no longer needed.

So: will I update at all after having said this? Probably not! But maybe! The future is mysterious, so who can say?

Things That I Wrote, Uh, Elsewhere

Things That I Wrote, Uh, Elsewhere

Hmm, so, this place still exists, does it? That’s nice. It turns out, I much prefer running websites to actually updating them. Good thing that’s what I do for a living. And speaking of the website I work for, (didja see how I transitioned there? I’ve still got it!), I actually wrote a piece there recently:

On Grief, and Connecting to a Community
I was raised by parents who didn’t just tell me that it was important to do good things and help my community, they demonstrated it in the way they lived their lives. Dad was a volunteer firefighter. Mom was a nurse. Together, they helped cofound our tiny town’s emergency rescue squad in upstate New York. They were often first responders — the kind of people who don’t rubberneck at accidents, they pull over and help.

The above comes with a big ol’ content warning for cancer and parental illness. Also, it’s pretty incredibly depressing. Uh, enjoy?

But I also wrote a thing, for a different website, that is much less depressing! (See, again, transitioning between subjects with ease!)

Do You Have a Minute for the Children?
“Hey, do you have a minute for the children?”
Wince. Apologetic smile and shrug. Slink away. That’s pretty standard. Canvassers are really common in New York, so I’ve been asked endlessly if I have a moment for the children, or gay marriage, or the environment. (Or where I get my hair cut, and if I’m interested in a spa treatment at a fancy salon. Yes, I am, but I’m not giving you $200 in cash.) So the answer is usually that awkward shrug and me moving on without taking off my headphones, but two weeks ago I was in a weird mood.

So there you have it! Things that I wrote! I would say there will be more soon, but we all know that would be a big ol’ lie.

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