the perfect words

sometimes, the perfect words come along at the perfect time. Here’s a snippet of the pep talk that was posted yesterday by N.K. Jemisin to writers participating in NaNoWrimo (emphasis added below by me).

You can find the full text here.

“…at some point around the midpoint of the novel you’re invariably going to stop, look at what you’ve written—which will be a mess because in-progress novels are always a mess, that’s what creativity looks like and that’s what revision is for—and you’re going to recoil in horror. This is the nadir of the excitement you had felt when you started the novel, the opposite of the moment of amazing that spurred you to begin NaNoWriMo. This is the Chasm of Doubt.

If you’ve reached this point, you now have a choice: you can jump into that chasm, quit your novel, and wallow in how awful you are. Or you can veer away from the cliff. Doing so will be hard, because you’ve already built up the wrong kind of momentum. You’ll have to reverse engines and burn some extra fuel to break the inertia. You’ll have to climb back toward the peak, or at least reach a safe height. You might get back there a little late, but that’s okay. Better late than never.

And if it helps, remember: this is what makes you a writer. Yes, this. The sick feeling in your stomach, the weariness you feel, the utter conviction that you are the Worst and your novel is the Worst and everything is awful. This is how writers feel sometimes. (This is how everyone feels sometimes.) But writers do not let this feeling overwhelm them…”

going home

In October, I had the opportunity to head to Orlando and spend five weeks living there with my mom.

the land of Disney World and tourists is where I grew up, partly. I left when I was 13, my mom, dad and I (my sister was in college) packing up and moving to oil-rich Houston, Texas, where I attended high school, and finished the whole growing up thing.

When I had the chance, I jetted out of the interminable heat — Florida and Texas — opting instead to attend college in Colorado. After college I headed to Boston and then to Rhode Island. The seasons, the cold, the snow — I loved it and wanted to stay with it. I’d rather mountains and seasons and snow than beach and heat and sun, any day.

Since moving out of Orlando and discovering the wide world of winter, I’ve been pretty down on the place. i’ve viewed it as just a massive city full of pavement, a place that values roads and cars over outdoor space or people, installs strips malls instead of independent shops, a place where the heat is oppressive and never ending and the AC is always yanked up to the highest level.

But over the course of October,  I found that i’d given orlando pretty short shrift. Sure, there were areas overrun by those strip malls, but there were also whole communities full of independent shops that were walkable, there were loads of vegetarian and vegan restaurants, trivia nights at bars with local brews. there were slacklining communities (though definitely more sparse than the NE and out west), and the movie theatres in orlando have no equal –they’re why i fell in love with movie nights. and while there were many days it I found it too hot to run outside, there were other days where the heat was just right for a dip in a local spring. there were days when the rain fell from the sky in incredibly powerful displays of mother nature. orlando might not have snow or mountains or hiking, but  it had a lot of very cool features that I’d been almost purposely blind to for over a decade.

alongside rediscovering orlando, I also rediscovered my family over those five weeks. instead of the usual trip down to florida, where my family and I spend 48 hours rushing through a tightly schedule set of dinners and hangouts, trying to fit in enough time with each other to last until the next time i come down, this time, we got to take things as they came. every second didn’t need to be scheduled because I wasn’t going anywhere. and every time we hung out wasn’t the last time we’d be able to see each other. we could breathe a little.

Over the five weeks, I was able to spend more time with my sister, playing games like catan, sharing stories and laughter, visiting her classroom and experiencing her day to day schedule while spending a good deal of time with her husband and their fur baby, charlie. instead of just a quick afternoon with my dad, i got to spend several days and nights spending time going to fairs and movies and dinners and his neighborhood watering hole. With my mom we were able to spend time laughing and joking, bonding over driving together and The Voice and food, sharing stories about the guys we love, and the jobs we work.

with each family member, the gift of more time gave me the chance to find better ways to communicate with them, gave me more understanding of who they are. there were deeper conversations, more laughs. we shared more and got closer.

At the end of the five weeks, when i boarded the plane back home to Providence, i found myself feeling very differently than i had when leaving Orlando in the past. Instead of breathing a sigh of relaxation after a crazy jam-packed weekend, I found that I felt sad. I was going to miss Orlando, i was going to miss my family.

As we took off, i found myself thinking of orlando, for the first time in 15 years, as home. Maybe not a home ill move back to, or a home that i get to visit as often as I’d like, but a home i love and care for, full of people that mean the world to me.

a novel in progress

sixteen days into NaNoWriMo, i have a word document that’s 92 pages and 36,000 words long. 92 PAGES! WHAAAAT?!

When i decided to participate in NaNoWriMo, I knew I intended to complete the process (because, let’s face it, what else am I doing these days?). I knew I’d get the 50,000 words, one way or another.

But at the same time, I kinda didn’t. I kinda thought that maybe it’d be too hard. or my idea would suck too hard. Mostly i thought I’d run out of things to say, that there isn’t enough stuff in my head to write a book about.

but so far, amazingly, incredibly, there is.

I sit down each day, usually and preferably in the morning. I turn the wifi off on my computer and if I can I turn my phone on airplane (or silent). I put in my headphones and I put on Dom La Nena. I settle in with my ergo keyboard in my lap, and my computer sitting eye-level in front of me, balanced on a stack of books.

Often, i’ll log into twitter and see if anyone is running a “word sprint.” The NaNoWriMo peeps have a whole twitter account, manned by someone almost 24/7, devoted to running these “sprints”. Basically, someone decides that for the next 5, 10, 15, 30, whatever minutes, everyone who wants to participate will write like the wind! No stopping. No second guessing. just GO GO GO. It’s incredibly motivational to know that there are a bunch of people out there grinding out the words at that same time. That we’re all in this crazy novel-writing game together.

And when the account isn’t active and I need a little boost, I’ve reached out via twitter using the #nanowordsprints hashtag, and within seconds (!) people have responded to “sprint” with me! It’s awesome.

I’m pretty sure the most specific I’ve been about what I’m writing is that it’s about three seniors at the beginning of their high school year. Now that I feel the story is a bit more developed and stable, here’s some more info, in the form of a rough back-of-book synopsis.

Sarah & Scott were once the best of friends. Until he ditched her and marching band crowd for entrance into the “in crowd” at the start of high school.

Three years later, Scott is the star player on the soccer team, planning to go away to college with his beautiful cheerleader girlfriend, Breanne in the fall.

But then it all falls apart. Breanne betrays Scott, and he finds himself  seeking out  the company of the girl he left behind. Meanwhile, without Scott there to hold her together, Breanne starts to drown — at school, at home, in love.

A story of heartbreak and forgiveness, Threads is a novel about forgiveness and redemption, about how easy it is to fall apart and come together, about how far we go for love, and how lost we feel without it.

I named the working version of the novel Threads because of the way I feel we’re all connected to each other. Everything we do has ripples, especially in the people around us, especially people who mean something to us — good or bad.The characters in this book are so invested in each other, their threads are so strong, everything they do reverberates.

The most interesting/challenging/stressful character so far is turning out to be Breanne, which should probably be expected, since she’s modeled after me and it’s both easier to layer detail on someone I ‘know so well’ and hard to know whether I’m just putting myself on her or letting her speak for herself. In most of Threads, Breanne is in a major self-hate spiral, similar to one i went through in high school. without anyone around her to catch her, the question i wonder about is: what’s going to happen to her?

when i say stuff like this to joe, he’s like…”you’re writing it, so you can decide what happens to her, silly!” And he’s kind of right. somewhere in me, the words form, the thoughts come and i type out what happens to my characters.

But when I’m writing, when I’m in the zone, it doesn’t feel like i’m deciding what they should do. it feels like they’re deciding for themselves. My favorite author, Rainbow Rowell, put it well when talking about her two characters from Eleanor & Park. At the end of the book (SPOILER ALERT: skip past the quote below if you don’t want to know details aout the ending of ELEANOR AND PARK!), there’s a note that arrives for one of the characters, but she doesn’t tell the reader what it says, just that it says three words, and how the character receiving it reacts. This infuriated people! WHAT DOES IT SAY?! they wanted to know. Her answer hints at the way she (and me and lots of other authors) view their characters: as real people.

Okay, look. I haven’t even told my mom the three words. But let’s talk about this for a few minutes . . .

I always knew, when I started Eleanor & Park, what the last line would be. I knew Eleanor was going to send Park a postcard, and that it would be “just three words long.”

And I knew that readers would assume those three words were “I love you.” I want readers to assume that. It’s the obvious answer – and it’s a happy answer. Wouldn’t it be lovely if Eleanor finally said, “I love you”?

But I can’t bring myself to confirm that interpretation. Or to say anything conclusive about the postcard – beyond that I think Eleanor wrote something hopeful. Park responds hopefully. He sits up, he smiles, he feels like something with wings take off from his chest. That sounds like hope to me.

It drives people crazy when I talk like this: as if the characters have minds of their own, and I’m just interpreting their actions based on what I’ve read. I created Eleanor and Park! I should be able to tell you, concretely, what it is says on the postcard.

But there’s something about that moment between them . . .

It’s the end of the book, and we’re getting ready to leave the characters. Their story is about to become their own again. (If you imagine that characters keep on living after you close a book; I do.) So we’re backing away from them, and they’re having an intimate moment. And it just feels wrong to read their mail.

I know! It’s crazy for me to say that! We’ve been in their heads for 300 pages, and it’s a postcard – everyone at the post office probably read it. But in that moment, as the author, it didn’t feel right to read it, or to share it…

–Rainbow Rowell, from her website.

(There’s another beautiful idea in there: the idea that characters keep on living after you close a book. I can’t count the number of times I’ve finished a book only to feel an actual heartache that it was over, that the people I’d felt so close to were gone. Thinking that their story continues on without me. That they live on, maybe in happiness, maybe in sadness, maybe just onward, it feels better.)

So, these first 16 days, I’ve been learning about my characters. They’ve been teaching me the kinds of things they say, the kinds of things they do and don’t do, what bugs them and what they love. When I first started writing, Sarah was my strongest characters. Then Scott piped up. Now Breanne has full on taken over. But I’m sure they’ll all have their say.

I’m sure they’ll let me know what happens to them in the end. And I’m sure I can edit them all to pieces later. ;)

Through this whole process, I’m working on just going with the flow. It’s hard and scary, but it’s also incredibly fun to sit down at the computer with a general (or, more often, absolutely no) idea of where things might go for the next paragraph and end up with 4 pages of words and thoughts and feelings and actions that I never planned on. Maybe they’re four bad pages, but there’s four of ’em, and that’s the point.


I have to imagine at some point, I’ll sit down and be absolutely blank. None of my characters want to talk to me anymore. I’ll have no words and no idea where to take them.

When that happens, I hope I remember I’m just shoveling sand — the sandcastles can wait. I hope I remember that the first draft can suck so hard and the last draft can still be a masterpiece. I hope I remember that the words will come, eventually. And that if I just start typing something anyway, magic might happen.

And if I forget any of these things, I hope you’ll remind me. Thanks in advance.


NaNoWriMo has begun!

NaNoWrimo, short for National Novel Writing Month, runs for the month of November, all around the world. The goal for anyone participating is simple: write 50,000 words in the month of November. If you write everyday, that’s 1,667 words each day.

Why 50,000 words? Because that’s the length of a short novel. 50,000 words would generally amount to about 200 book pages. To give an idea of how much that is, a lot of the older classics are 200 pages or less: The Great Gatsby, The Crucible, Charlotte’s Web, Animal Farm, Heart of Darkness, The Outsiders, Night. And lots and lots of books are more (sometimes WAAAY MOOOREE) than 200 pages: think any Harry Potter book (700+ pages!), Eleanor and Park (329), The Help (464), and so on.

The point of NaNoWriMo is not particularly to finish a complete book. The point isn’t even to have a piece at the end of it that you can send off to a publisher read to ship. No…the point is to write. To carve out time each day, sit down at the keyboard or the notepad, and put words on the page.

I’ve been looking forward to NaNoWriMo for months. It was one of my “adventures” (#5 me thinks?) for what I would do when I quit my job. It’s almost kind of what I quit my job for. I wanted time to put to my writing, where I could work out some of my kinks, put the hours in, learn a few things about how to stick with a story and a set of characters for the long haul.

I want writing to be a part of my future, and NaNoWriMo not only provides a cool challenge with a structure I can work with — it also has provided a community. And that has been awesome.

I’ve been very lucky to be surrounded by family and friends who support me, emotionally and financially. I could. not. do it without you all.

But NaNoWriMo adds an additional layer of support: when I sit down to write, I know that there are thousands of writers out there in the world who are doing the same thing. They’re struggling with their characters. Questioning plot lines. Questioning their ability to create anything new or original or good.

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And it’s not an amorphous group of people either. On the NaNoWriMo website, I’ve connected to the Providence NaNoWriMo writing group, and on Thursdays and Saturdays, there’s physical meet ups where us writers are going to come together and make magic happen on the page, in the same room.

Also (as you can see above) I’ve connected with writers via Twitter, people from around the country who are all sharing their own NaNoWriMo successes and stresses. With both groups, i’ve found support and inspiration, a feeling of togetherness and meaning.

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And within that protective bubble of support, I’ve been writing.

The last five days, I’ve been working on a novel (how exciting is it to say that?!) about three teens dealing with betrayal, self harm, love and friendship. Over those five days, I’ve been shocked by how much my characters and some of my main plot points have shifted.

Ideas that seemed rock solid when i started no longer made sense and had to shift. Character traits that I’d given my characters in the first few scenes? — they’ve thrown them off for ones that fit them better. As I write, I’m getting to know my characters better, giving them voices, tics, vocabularies that match them. I’ve grown comfortable with the idea that this is a draft — I can come back later and add in details, describes things better, add suplots, change dialogue, rewrite scenes.

I’m getting better at not stressing about the things I got wrong five pages ago – was it confusing? too internal? not enough dialogue? I’m also getting better about not worrying about what I’m writing now — is it too racy? intense? emotional?

The only task I’ve given myself, the only goal I have to meet, is sit down at my computer every day and I just write.

And sure, sometimes it feels weird to think that come the end of November, I may have created something that actually does truly and utterly never deserve to be on a bookshelf.

But, even if that happens (and there is such a high likelihood that it will, as it is my first ever attempt at a novel-length work) I still know that this month is not in vain, no matter what. I’m learning a TON, i’m meeting and interacting with writers, and at the end of it I’ll have a freaking first draft of a novel. Or part of one!

Most importantly, I’m giving myself the time and space to do what matters to me every day. And even when I’m stressed and anxious, that feels awesome.