Fun With Numbers, or, One Year Writing

I’ve tracked my writing in various ways for years and years – but generally only in sheer number of words drafted, which (I’ve mentioned before) has always led to me feeling as if I’m not making progress when I do anything but draft, and that is no good! So in late January 2015, I decided to track a lot more: dates, times, lengths, and locations of writing sessions, what project I worked on (BBB&S or its sequel, which I’m like 85% sure I know the title of but it hasn’t been made official yet), what kind of work I was doing (drafting, revising, etc), word count (when relevant), and other notes (what chapters I worked on, any issues I encountered, etc).

So now I have a full year I can look back on and say… wow. I’m sharing this for two reasons: first, because I’m always fascinated when I read posts from other authors, pulling back the curtain; second, because in any given week I always feel like I’m not doing enough – not drafting fast enough, not revising enough chapters, not…whatever. I always feel behind. Looking at actual data, though, I probably shouldn’t.

So here we go, information gleaned on how one particular writer works.

'Nother writing pic. After three years, this notebook is almost spent.

A photo posted by Becky (@allreb) on

Writing sessions: I don’t write every day. I have a full time job and a few other commitments, so my schedule just doesn’t allow for it. I do aim for at least three writing sessions a week, though – generally one evening after work at some point during the week, and both Saturday and Sunday. But hey, life happens; that isn’t always feasible for a bunch of reasons. On the other hand, life happens the other way, too, and some weeks I find myself with startling amounts of free time that I can fill up with writing.

So, how did I do with that 3x/week goal? I came pretty darned close. I had 150 writing sessions recorded (though there are a couple of gaps, alas), which averages out to writing every 2.4 days.

Next, let’s look at session lengths. This is not entirely accurate either – when I was drafting, I only recorded the time spent making words, not the time prewriting beforehand (usually ten minutes). I break my writing into 30 minute stretches (and literally stretch between them), a habit I picked up from BFF Jess (who is also frequently my writing date buddy). I also didn’t count time spent sitting around checking twitter and whatnot before getting started or between writing chunks, etc. So a 60 minute session is usually closer to two hours spent sitting Starbucks or wherever. (Okay, look, I need to check twitter a lot before I get into it. But once I turn on my timer I really don’t let myself get distracted until it goes off.)

With all that said, I spent 159 hours writing. My average session was just over an hour (66 minutes), with my longest at three hours (while doing a massive chunk of copyedits) and my shortest at 20 minutes (‘cause some days you try and just aren’t feeling it).

Word Count: This sometimes feels like the be-all, end-all, of writing, even though it isn’t. Everyone seems to want to write more and write faster. So the bottom line here is: I wrote 122,000 words last year…and then some. As I was delving into BBB&S revisions, it became harder to track new words written, so a lot of that stuff I just didn’t count. But between the new scenes and chapters I wrote in the revision process, plus drafting book two (false starts and all), 122k was what got recorded on the sheet.

Surprisingly (to me, anyway), only 66 of my 150 sessions have a word count associated with them, which means that I averaged about 1,848 words per session when I was actually writing new words. If I look at just those sessions, it was about 54 hours, which means I write at about 2,259 words per hour. Which is just about what I expected on both counts. (I’m not strict about targets when it comes to drafting, but I generally assume I’ll write about 2,000 words/hour.)

What strikes me here is that I don’t consider myself a fast drafter – but I am a quick writer. By which I mean, I don’t draft an entire book in a matter of weeks or a bit over a month, but I do write at a pretty consistent pace on a regular basis. I started the full draft book two on August 15, and finished it on November 28 – about three and a half months. (It was about 73,000 words.) That, for me, is a non-frantic, reasonable, sustainable pace.

(But that’s just me. I tend to think of fast drafting as 3-6 weeks, which I can’t do. But then again, for other people, three and a half months might seem like a super short time period to write a draft. Everyone differs here.)


So what exactly did I work on? Wellp. I mentioned it in super short form: revising BBB&S, drafting Book2. But in a bit more detail…

  • Only about 80 of my sessions (plus the lost time) were spent on BBB&S. Over the course of the year, I did two major rounds of revision with my editor. The first started in late January and completed in early May and the second started in mid-June and ended in early August. Then about two-thirds of October were spent on copyedits.
  • The rest of the year was spent on Book2, which has gone like this: outlining (early January, before I was tracking) and then pausing for BBB&S revisions; drafting in May and June and then pausing for BBB&S revisions; realizing the draft was not working, re-outlining, and starting a fresh draft. I continued that through the end of November (breaking for a few weeks to do the BBB&S copyedits), and then, based on discussions with my agent and editor, and after rereading the draft and seeing some pretty major weakness, decided to start again. Re-re-outlining began in early December. I began writing the current draft on 12/20 and obviously it is still in progress.

Now, there’s a whole heck of a lot that I could say here about drafting under deadline for the first time (terrifying!), second book syndrome (real), zero drafts and writing tens of thousands of words that never see the light of day (ha … ha … ha), and so on. But I feel like that’s a different blog entry. Which I will probably never write, because, you know, I’m a terrible blogger. But here are some things I have discovered through all this.

  • It takes me two to three weeks to outline a novel (not starting from the very first seed of an idea, but starting from knowing at least a couple of plot points, who the key characters are, and some of the worldbuilding — the process of getting THAT far takes much longer). A lot of this time is spent writing incoherent notes, with lots of MAYBE and THIS COULD WORK?? messages scribbled in the margins. Spoiler: things labeled “this could work” rarely work. “Maybe” means “probably not.” I also draw charts and pointy-line graphs of what the story structure is. These also mean nothing and go nowhere. But after a couple of weeks of this nonsense, I tend to go “…OH” and then spend a few super-intense hours writing an actual, coherent outline.
  • Similarly, I have a few writing sessions that were just labeled “revision planning.” These were spent copying and pasting my editor’s notes into various different text files, color coding them, rewriting them into my own words, crying into my coffee, moving them around again, pulling out my hair, labeling every chapter with keywords and characters, moving the notes around again, and then finally sitting down one day and writing a list of the major stuff I’m going to cut, change, move, or write anew.

Basically, it takes me between a couple of days and a couple of weeks of doing stuff that looks a lot like procrastination to get ready to tackle drafting or revising. But what those sessions actually do is get me thinking critically, trying and discarding ideas, and working past all of the “but I don’t WANNA kill my darlings” / “but I don’t WANNA write this again” type whining. I come out of it charged up and ready to go. So it’s worth the time it takes.

So that was 2015. I suspect that in 2016 I will get to add a fun new category of marketing type stuff to this list, and doubtlessly other aspects of debuting that I don’t know about yet. And hopefully next fall, once BBB&S is out there and Book2 is between revisions, there will be some drafting of a shiny new project – we’ll see. I am counting no chickens before they hatch.

But honestly, overall, before I looked at this data I had no idea what I’d actually done in 2015 – or how productive I was. (Very. TAKE THAT, BRAIN.) If I can keep this same pace in 2016, I think it will be a good year. (Fingers crossed.)

2015, Treading Water, and Selfies

So another year in which I didn’t really blog. I do, however, tumbl, if for some reason you need more gif sets of Hamilton in your life. But here we go. Another year, another round up.

In a lot of ways, 2015 was a pretty good year for me. But it was also a fairly quiet year. I made progress on a lot of fronts, I worked hard at a lot of things, but there were relatively few massive accomplishments to trumpet or set backs to bemoan. But you know, I’ll take an overall positive, if pretty quiet, year, since I suspect 2016 is going to be a little bananas.

Flower Crown

Vacationing in New Orleans with my bestie.

+ Work stuff: For various reasons that would require a lot of backstory to explain, 2015 was a tough year at work, and a transitory one. I spent a lot more time working together with other areas of the company, and I helped tackle a couple of pretty massive projects. Various processes that run the site are changing, which I’ve been involved with figuring out and setting up; and there’s going to be a lot more of that to come next year.

Oh, and also — there was a massive event in the HIV world this year when Charlie Sheen disclosed his status. I wrote what was a pretty quick one-off piece about it for the site, and it turned out to be one of the top articles for the year. Wow! Check it: –> Charlie Sheen Deserves Your Scorn, but Not Because He Has HIV.

Post-haircut.

Seriously, how rad is this?

+ I chopped off my hair. Actually, that feels more like the culmination of a long process — I started it by inches years ago but never managed to make the leap from short-ish to actually short. Except this year, I wanted to do something really different. Over the last couple of years I’ve found myself sort of staring at rad short haircuts, wistfully wondering if I could pull that off, to finally deciding… screw it. I thought it looked cool on other people, there was no reason it wouldn’t look awesome on me, so I found a ridiculous hipster salon and went for it. And holy crap, you guys, I love it. Right after I chopped it I tried to explain to people: I look more like myself like this. Which is pretty freaking cool.

+ Ten years and $30k after graduation, I have paid off my student loans!

Working vacation

Revising while on vacation, “camping” with my family in an air-conditioned cabin in Virginia.

+ Book stuff! I think part of the reason the year felt quiet to me was because last year I announced signing with my agent and my book sale; next year, my first book will actually be on the shelves. So what happened in the meantime? Two biggies: revising the first book, and drafting the second.

The revision process started in January and was more or less finalized in August. There were two rounds, both of which were substantial. Writing new material while cutting other pieces, changing the way key scenes play out, cleaning up the language, completely rewriting the climax. It was a long, intense, kind of awesome process. I learned tons from it, and was super psyched to dive into writing my second book. (Which, for those who don’t know, is a direct sequel to BOUND BY BLOOD AND SAND — it’s a duology, so book two will finish the story.) But I was also still intimidated as I got started. I’ve never written a book under deadline before and, well, it took me several years and three versions to get the first book in good enough shape to query. Instead of several years, this was six months.

The good news: I did it! A complete draft, by deadline. It was actually a huge relief to find out that yes, I can work steadily, get the words out, and write a messy draft of a complete book in about half a year. And it’s a good thing I can because, having done that… I now get to do it again. It turns out, in as much as I have a consistent writing process, it involves a zero draft. Some throat clearing, world building, character defining stuff that shows me what the book is going to be… nearly none of which is usable. Someday, perhaps, I will write a whole post about this, but in the mean time suffice to say I’m doing some more drafting.

The rest of my year was taken up by slowly dipping my toes into bookish twitter, meeting other writers and reviewers; by watching all 11 seasons of Cheers because what else is Netflix for?1; by having brunch with friends. It was a year that brought me Hamilton, the hip-hop founding fathers musical I had no idea I wanted; and ended with The Force Awakens, featuring the butt-kicking lady Jedi I always knew I wanted. It was a quietly good year, but not a dramatic one.

Here’s to 2016.

  1. It’s for Jessica Jones, it turns out, holy crap what a good show.

Hamilton, Cool, and YA fiction

I went to see Hamilton a few weeks ago, and, like all right thinking people, immediately became obsessed with it and began scheming to see it again. And then today I went on a bit of a Twitter tear – about Hamilton, and what it means to be cool, and my love of YA.

….remarkable how that eventually came all the way back around. Anyway, if you’re able to, go see Hamilton, it is the BEST.

Scrivener’s Three Modes

A couple days ago, I was complaining on Twitter that I am, for various reasons, working on a revision in Word instead of Scrivener – and how much that makes me appreciate stuff I’ve started taking for granted in Scrivener, since I’ve been using it for at least seven years now. A couple of people asked me about those functions, so here is a very brief overview.

This is a short look at Scrivener’s three different modes (scrivenings, corkboard, and outliner), and what I use them for. A lot of it is basic stuff, and a lot of it is really just part of my own process, so how useful you find this may vary.

The basic Scrivener view.

The basic Scrivener view.

This is the basic set up with Scrivener. The binder on the left is essentially a list of the text files that make up your manuscript (or folders with files in them, organized however you please). Any files you select over there will show up in the main window (in this case, it’s showing scrivenings – the text of the files). Over at the right is the inspector, which lets you add data (like a summary, keywords, etc) to each scrivening. And what I noted up top is the mode toggle I’m going to be talking about. The left is scrivening view (what that screencap shows), center is corkboard mode, and right (covered by the g’s in “toggle”) is outliner mode.

SCRIVENING MODE

Select a scrivening in the binder. You now see the text that it contains (as well as its meta-data, if you have the inspector open). Select multiple scrivenings, and you can see all of their text, one after the other – even if you didn’t select consecutive scrivenings. This is useful if you want to view a whole chapter (instead of scenes) or every scene with a certain character, or all of your second act, or even the entire manuscript. This is the mode in which you do your writing. Basically, Scrivening Mode is your text editor, with the benefit of letting you view as much or little text as you want at a time, and being able to easily move from one text file to another.

(Quick tip, if you’re importing a whole manuscript from Word, or otherwise want to break down a large chunk of text into smaller scrivenings. Highlight the first line where you want to split, and go to Documents -> Split -> At Selection, or highlight and use command+K. For me personally, I generally have one scrivening per chapter as I draft, and then when I finish up and am going to revise, I split each chapter down into scenes. That’s just me, though – I don’t plot out scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter ahead of time, so I have to break things down later.)

Now, note the inspector off at the right side. As I said, that lets you attach a lot of metadata to each scrivening (and folder) you have in the binder. I’d recommend giving each one at least a title and summary. My chapter titles are super creative things like “One” and “Two,” but adding a summary helps keep things clear. I’ll get to more meta-data later on, but for now, that’s the minimum that you’ll need to be helpful in the next section…

Scrivener's corkboard mode.

Scrivener’s corkboard mode.

CORKBOARD MODE

I think the index cards might be what Scrivener is best known for. Select at least one scrivening or folder from the binder, hit the toggle, and now boom: instead of look at your text, you’re looking at a cork board with index cards. Each scrivening/folder is a card. The same title and summary you created in the inspector are what appear on them. You can also add color coded thumbtacks and stamps for more information about your document (that same metadata).

But the real draw of this mode is that you can see all the different pieces of your novel laid out visually – and move them around. Swapping the placement of two index cards will swap the order of those scrivenings in your manuscript. Not sure where that flashback needs to go? Move it from the fourth position to the seventh, or whatever. It is literally as easy as clicking and dragging, because that’s all it is.

Rad.

But I will be honest: this is the mode I use the least. I don’t do visual information very well – I prefer to have it spelled out – and since I write and revise mostly in chronological order, I rarely find myself reshuffling pieces. So I’d say, play with it and see how it works for you. But as for me, I prefer…

Scrivener's outliner mode.

Scrivener’s outliner mode.

OUTLINER MODE

Select some scrivenings again, toggle, and behold: an instant outline! Once again, you can see the title and summary of each Scrivening. At the bottom is an option to show/hide synopses – I like to show ‘em so I literally have an outline. By looking at the summaries stacked like this it’s a clear breakdown of everything that happens in the manuscript.

That’s the first column there. Now we get into that meta-data I’ve been talking about.

My next column is “POV” – which is not a Scrivener default. Scrivener actually assumes you’ll want something called “label” but I didn’t find its default labels useful. Click on the little up-and-down triangle-y symbol next to any label to pull it down, and choose “Edit.” That lets you add or remove labels, change their colors from the default, and up at the top, set a custom title. So I changed the title to “POV,” deleted the default options, and dropped in my character’s names (plus “split” for when multiple POVs are in a chapter).

For me, this turned out to be super useful. I’ve got two POV characters, but Jae is the primary protagonist. This let me tell at a glance if I’d gone too long without delving into Elan’s POV – I could see huge chunks where he wasn’t represented, so when revision time came, I gave that a lot of consideration.

The next column is “Status.” I don’t find that one super useful, but haven’t found anything more useful to use instead. If you’re someone who revises by theme or character or whatever (as opposed to chronologically through the novel), this might be more helpful for you!

Then you’ve got word count. This is another that I found VERY helpful, because stacked like this and able to scroll down through the whole thing, I could see if chapter were too short or too long. Mine tend to hover between 3,000 and 4,000 words, so if I found any that were really short or long I’d take a look where they were breaking to see if any alternatives made sense.

Finally, keywords! Again, these were very helpful for me as I was going into revisions, especially my first round. If you look up at the top bar in Scrivener, there’s a button that’s got a key on it. Press it to bring up your full keyword list. You can add new keywords down at the bottom (or highlight a keyword and press delete to, well, delete). You can also highlight a keyword and doubleclick it to edit, or doubleclick the little square to change its swatch color.

Here’s how I used keywords: every character got two, one to slap in any scene where they appeared, and one to slap in any scene where they were mentioned. (So for example, “Character: Elan” and “Character: Elan (mentioned)”.)** I color coded these with a dark pink for appearances and a bright pink for mentions for at-a-glance ease. I also added locations where scenes take place, and important concepts and themes (like various kinds of magic). This let me track who was doing what where, and whether key story elements were being introduced when they should and if they were present enough in the story to work they way they were supposed to.

** I’m not sure if it’s new or I just never noticed it, but it looks like there is a sibling/child option for new keywords. So instead of doing it like this I could have created one keyword for Character Appears with sub-keywords for every character, and one keyword for Character Mentioned and sub-keywords for every character.

Tip: Select a keyword, and then down at the bottom choose “search.” Any scrivenings where that keyword has been added will appear in the binder, so you can easily see them and select them for viewing. (There’s a little X in the lower-right corner of the binder to dismiss this – it took me a hilariously long time to find that, for some reason.)

That’s all the meta-data that I use – but it’s not all that Scrivener offers. There’s a little double carrat at the very right side of the view. Click on that to see other options, and to select/deselect them to customize your outliner mode. (This is where you can add targets and progress, if those are helpful to you!)
So again – this is all very helpful for me, particularly going into revisions. It let me see where I was dropping the ball on plot threads (if a tagged keyword didn’t appear often enough) or losting track of a POV, check consistency on location details between chapters, etc. If any of that sounds useful, I’d definitely recommend playing around with the mode and the options for what you do with it. You can set up other custom meta-data if you have other things you’d like to track and be aware of, and you can get rid of any pieces of the view that aren’t useful for you.

I suspect that like index card mode, it isn’t useful for everyone, but the great thing is that Scrivener is so flexible you can probably find a way to make it work for your process, whatever your process is. As for me… now I’m back to revising in outline-view-less Word. SIGH.

My Much Belated WisCon 39 Write Up

WisConWisCon happened! …last month. This is the fifth year I attend, and every year I say that I’m going to take detailed notes and write up panels afterwards, and that has never actually happened. So this year I gave up entirely, but after the fact decided to take a page from BFF Jess’s book and do shorter reactions instead. So here we go, everything I did at WisCon 39.

Friday

Join the Mod Squad
I actually went to this panel last year, too, since last year was my first time moderating. I felt like the refresher couldn’t hurt, and I’m glad I went, since I modded two panels. (Obviously this wouldn’t be a huge draw otherwise.) It did what it said on the tin – provided tips, tricks, and anecdotes about how to moderate a panel, what to do with tricky audience member (and panelists), etc. Very practical, useful stuff.

Saturday

Why All the YA Hate?
This was the first one I moderated! I obviously have a reason to be interested in this one, and had tons to say…but hopefully I didn’t talk too much, seeing as how I was there to moderate the actual panelists’ discussions. To prep for the panel, all of us involved read a bunch of the think pieces that go around about why adults should be ashamed to read YA, and of course I was filled, once again, with an almost incandescent rage. So it was good to be part of a take down of all of those arguments.

Some of the arguments we discussed and dismantled: sexism (YA is considered to be by and for girls, therefore it’s bad); immaturity (it isn’t Great Literature and therefore it’s bad); artistic failure (YA is poorly written and therefore it’s bad); and we talked about why we do love it (because YA is awesome; because it is experimental, spans all kinds of genres (and crosses over between them); because it is emotional, exciting, and fast-paced, among many other reasons).

Bridging the Generation Gap at WisCon
I actually was the one who submitted this panel to the programming committee, though I wasn’t on it or officially involved. I suggested it because of what I perceived as something that felt generational – a split between people who have been going to the con forever and people who are newer – that was reframed by one of the audience members as being more about existing (or non-existent) networks than about generations.

However, most of this panel turned out to be a preview of “What Happened With WisCon Last Summer?” – discussion into the cultural split between groups that led to a large amount of turnover in the leadership of WisCon. It was very intense and helped me refine my thoughts on both aspects of the panel.

Cultural Literacy or Cultural Appropriation?
I think I go to a similar panel every year. They always leave me a more thoughtful person than I was, both about the real world around me and about the fantasy worlds that I write. I think in the end, this one could be summed up as “Be the Beastie Boys, not Iggy Azalea.”

“Infodump,” “Mary Sue” and Other Words Authors Are Sick of Hearing
This was a great mix of useful and fun! It challenged the idea that these tired terms are even useful. For example, where’s the line between infodumping and exposition – and if a non-genre reader picks up a fantasy novel, are they likely to interpret exposition as an infodump because they don’t know the genre conventions?

Overall, overall the feeling was that aside from a few rare cases, the terms are probably not useful – especially not in workshops with new writers, who are more likely to hold themselves back out of fear of writing a Mary Sue, or give up in frustration because they’re told they’re head hopping rather than being given more concrete feedback. Feedback should focus on specifics instead of generals – “Your POV starts to wander here,” instead of “you headhop.”

(I was also entertained by the note that most writing groups develop their own lingo, since my writing group has definitely done that. I think my favorite of ours is, “I was trying to world build, but it just ended up being She’s Wearing Her Special Hat Now for a few pages.”)

Science-Compatible religions in Fiction: An Exploration of Spiritual Traditions Supportive of Intellectual Growth
Someday I should write about my not-so-positive feelings about religion in SF/F…but this is not that post. I was interested in this panel because, while religious themes are something I prefer to avoid, I’ve got a space opera brewing in the back of my mind and since I want it to be distinctly the future of this world, I am not sure what to do with that in terms of religion. So I figured I’d check this out. It was interesting, but late at night after a full day, and I wasn’t familiar with most of the referenced texts. So there was some food for thought, but most of my thoughts were lost to exhaustion, alas.

Sunday

How Fan Culture is Influencing Movies, TV, and Media
This panel was about the clash (or is it a clash?) between fan culture and corporate media, and how one may be influencing the other. But it was actually two panels in one: the description talked specifically about whether or not Disney was writing its own fanfiction with movies like Frozen, Enchanted, and Maleficent, as well as the idea of fan and corporate media clashes.

The Disney portion of the panel concluded that while modern Disney movies are often in conversation with earlier Disney movies, that’s probably not a spillover from fan culture. However, marketing for Disney and others certainly can be, as nerd culture becomes more mainstream. Fandom has become a force that marketers want to tap, and will market directly towards.

Fandom, Creators and the Space In-Between
Hey, what can I say, I’m a fangirl at heart, and I enjoy the fandom track at the con every year. This actually touched on a lot of the same issues as the previous panel, but was more directly about the interplay between creators and fans. The upshots were: there are creators/stars/etc who step across the fourth wall and do it very well, because they get fan culture and can engage on that level; there are creators/stars/etc who do it poorly because they expect those interactions to be on their terms; and there are fans who also do it poorly, because they expect creators/stars/etc to be in their world when they aren’t.

How Do You Recommend Problematic Things?
Oooh, this was a good one, because essentially everything is problematic on one level or another, so it can be hard to find that balance between squeefully recommending something, and realizing that what while it worked for you, the problematic aspects may be harmful for others. There were a lot of really thoughtful discussions in this, like, “Well, it wasn’t racist for its time…” in dealing with historical works and how that’s often not even accurate, let alone an excuse; and wanting to point out problematic aspects not because they necessarily bothered you, but because you want to signal to other people that you do indeed understand what’s problematic.

My Favorite Book When I Was 12
The second panel I moderated! This one was also my idea and I’m very proud and pleased with how it turned out. We actually ended up with a great generational spread of panelists (the youngest in her 20s and the oldest in his 60s) so we talked not only about the books we loved when we were pre-teens, but also about changes we’ve seen in the books that are popular (or available at all – like the major change that happened with the YA explosion).

Then we took some time to let audience members talk about their favorite books. As promised, I compiled the list of every book that was mentioned by panelists and audience members: check it out. (And per previous panel, let me know: some of these were disclaimed as being problematic at the time, but I wasn’t able to capture that while I was note-taking and moderating, alas.)

What Happened With WisCon Last Summer?
As mentioned previously, there was a huge change in WisCon leadership in th elast year, and a lot of it came from cultural shifts in general, as well as specific fallout from a few issues of harassment. This panel was emotionally draining, but I’m so glad I went. I love WisCon, and when it fails, I want it to recover and do better, and I think it is.

Monday

Beyond Hogwarts: Magical Education in Fantasy Stories
By Monday, complete exhaustion had set in, so this was the only panel I managed to get to before heading out. Though this started with Hogwarts, and the idea of the British boarding school for magic, it looked at what school in general looks like in different cultures and how that might affect magic schools. Other ideas discussed were magic apprenticeship (which is reasonably common in fiction), magic public school or magic as part of a school carriculum but not the whole of it (seriously… what else do they learn at Hogwarts?), and even magic as community college (one of the panelists is writing that as a novel, which sounds rad — did anyone catch the name?).

Overall

I think I attended more panels this year than I ever have previously (or if not, then pretty close). And though I feel a teensy bit guilty about it, I also focused more on attending the panels I was most interested in instead of those my friends were on. But guilt aside, I’m glad I did, because most of these panels were great.

WisCon always reminds me, though, that one thing I’m not great at and wish I could do better at is making connections. I’m not good at introducing myself to people, or reconnecting with people I’ve met in previous years but don’t know well. I’m very glad I have a network of friends I attend with every year, because otherwise I’d feel completely out to sea.

Having moderated two panels this year plus one last year, I’ve realized I find modding panels very stressful but very rewarding, but this year I missed being a panelist, too. I’d like to find a balance between those two in the future, somehow, without taking on too much so I can also attend panels and not burn out totally. (And of course a lot of that also depends on how programming goes.)

Finally, as always, I feel like attending WisCon has left me a more thoughtful person and I love the diversity of perspectives I run into over the weekend. It has taken me awhile to write this up, but every year, I feel this way. I head home from the long weekend physically exhausted but creatively energized, and thrilled to be part of this community.

Looking Back, From Pit to Peak

Well, here we are at the beginning of a shiny new year. As I’ve said in previous years, I don’t really tend to make resolutions. I’ve found they don’t really work for me. When I’m ready to make a change or do something I need to, I just do it; trying to force myself to do that when I’m not ready just leads to feeling like a failure and no one wants that. Which isn’t to say I don’t have vague hopes and goals, but those have more to do with my usual sense of wanting to improve than with the new year. It’s important to me to feel like I’m moving forward.

Anyway. The last two years, I’ve taken a brief look back at the previous year to pick out pieces I’m proud of and the ways I have made some kind of progress — even if it’s just small stuff that only matters to me.1 So here we go.

For me, 2014 started out at the bottom of a pretty deep, dark hole. The year revolved around climbing out, and keeping on climbing up to new heights. In 2014, I…

Mom and the Mona Lisa

The Paris trip: we took Mom to see the Mona Lisa.

+ Got my brain in order, or at least made great strides. My mother died in late 2013, and my grief and depression bottomed out in December. It wasn’t that I felt sad all the time, it was that I didn’t feel anything. I was like a zombie, going through the motions of going to work, seeing my friends, moving through life. But I didn’t enjoy anything, and as an added bonus, had a couple of panic attacks. It was really not good.

So, with encouragement from friends and family, I started seeing a therapist.2 That’s certainly a heck of a way to start the year. I started to handle the grief, and to untangle my other issues. It’s an ongoing process, but hey, I’ve started having emotions again, so that’s something.

+ Traveled. Aside from my annual trip to WisCon in May, I took several trips. The big one was to Europe — my sister and I traveled together to London and then Paris. I’d never been to either before, and it was lovely. It was a tribute to our mother, who had wanted to go to Paris for years and never had the chance. We brought her picture and her spirit with us.

Whiteface Mountain Selfie

Selfie at the summit of Whiteface Mountain.

In July, we both went camping with our dad, visiting his hometown up on Lake Champlain. I have, as an adult, transitioned fully into being a city dweller. Nature is strange and disconcerting. But kind of pretty, I guess.

Finally, in September, I visited one of my besties in San Diego. It was something of a last minute whirlwind. We spent a long weekend on the beach, having fancy cocktails, and wandering through San Diego’s downtown. Everything is so pretty there. In the depths of cold, grey winter I day dream about moving there. Sigh.

+ I paid a lot more attention to my clothing this year. I feel silly writing about it — I’m not particularly into fashion as a whole, nor particularly good at it — but as I’ve moved into my 30s, I started wanting to dress less like I did as a teenager and more like a grown up, whatever the heck that means. This isn’t really one of my strengths, but Stitchfix helps. It’s a style-by-mail service that, aside from the actual clothes it sends, has helped me at least sort of figure out what kinds of things I actually like. It’s nothing special but it makes me feel happy in everything I wear.

+ And finally, obviously, the BIG ONE. The book stuff. At the beginning of 2014, I was in the midst of my final revisions to my manuscript. I started querying at the end of April, and in mid-June I signed on with Hannah, my awesome agent. We worked together on revisions through the summer and went out on submission in early fall — and BOUND BY BLOOD AND SAND sold in mid-October.3

Laguna Beach, part of my exciting California adventure.

Laguna Beach, part of my exciting California adventure.

For the friends and family who aren’t in publishing, I don’t think I can emphasize enough just how lightning fast that is in book world time. There were enough highs and lows shoehorned into those months that I ended the year with a little whiplash, but to bring the whole thing full circle, there’s this. With every single one of those highs, there was the accompanying thought: I wish Mom were here for this.

But every time I thought that, there was also this: But I know how proud and excited she’d be, because she always supported and believed in me.

And that’s probably how all of my achievements will feel from now on.

So, what of next year? Well, like I said, I don’t do resolutions. But then again, I don’t think I have to: I have official book deadlines to reach now, including, oh yeah, writing the entire second book in my series this year. I suspect that 2015 is going to be a year of buckling down and working hard, as this pipedream/hobby becomes a real life obligation — but, I think optimistically, one I’m ready and excited to take on.

Let’s do this, 2015.

  1. For example, I’m on level 424 of Pet Rescue.
  2. A neurotic Jewish writer who lives in New York and is in therapy? NO WAY!
  3. And man was that quite a week: I got the call about my book Wednesday afternoon, before leaving work; that same evening, my grandfather passed away.

Introducing BOUND BY BLOOD AND SAND, aka, MY BOOK SOLD!!!

I’ve been trying to think of a fun or artful or eloquent way of putting it, but mostly I just keeping doing this to anyone who stands still long enough:

I'M SO HAPPY

Here’s the blurb from the Publisher’s Weekly Rights Report:

Kate Sullivan at Delacorte Press has acquired Becky Allen’s debut Bound by Blood and Sand and a sequel, in a new YA fantasy series in the vein of Tamora Pierce, which explores class and power. The novel follows a slave girl in a desert world where the magical Well is running dry; when she discovers a source of magic, she may have the power to save the water and her world, but returning the water means saving her slavers. Publication is planned for fall 2016; Hannah Bowman of Liza Dawson Associates brokered the deal for world rights.

SO THAT’S WHAT MY BOOK IS ABOUT.

I seriously, genuinely could not be happier. BOUND BY BLOOD AND SAND will be out in fall 2016. And on the one hand, that feels like a very long time from now. But on the other hand, fun fact, I started the very first draft of the book in January, 2010. What’s another two years after five?

(Wow, five years. It was a very, very, very different book in that first draft, by the way. And not a single word of that version remains: I rewrote it from the ground up in 2011. And I did that again in 2012. All BOUND BY BLOOD AND SAND has in common with that 2010 draft is the protagonists’ names and being set in a desert.)

ANYWAY. I wish I had something deep or profound to say here, but I guess one advantage to waiting a few days after posting on Facebook and Twitter is that I can also say OMG THANK YOU.

Thanks

No, wait, not that. Patrick Bateman thanks are probably not sincere. How about …

Thank you, one person. Thank you!

Except there are SO MANY people I want to thank: Hannah, my super rad agent, and Kate, who bought my book (ZOMG), plus my writing group (Jess, Maddy, Jen – YOU GUYS ARE THE BEST) and the other handful of people I harangued into reading various drafts of this thing (ahhhh Rachel, Margot, Nicole, Karen, Olivia, Carolyn, I HOPE I DIDN’T MISS ANYONE, you are all ALSO SUPER GREAT). Also HUGE THANKS to everyone who sent me well wishes when I initially posted last week, you are all lovely and wonderful and every single Facebook like made my day.

And not to be a person who spends to much time on tumblr, but like they say, I can’t even.

happy bouncing

Final thought.

Wait for it …

Wait for it …

kermit flail

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.

1 2 3 9