Last Year, I Lost Faith in NaNoWriMo. This Year, I’m Getting it Back

2013-Participant-Facebook-ProfileLast year was my seventh time participating in National Novel Writing Month, the mad, worldwide dash to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Last year was also my second time not completing NaNoWriMo.

When mentioning that I was doing NaNo for the seventh time, I kept getting similar questions and comments that all boiled down to: In six years, how many novels have you completed?

The answer was one. One draft, which has been entirely trashed and restarted half a dozen times. It certainly never made it to anything like a final draft or publication. I had never been ashamed of that before, but suddenly I was. I looked back on six years of half-finished (if that) drafts of novels, ones I’d never gone back to, that were just sitting on my computer. I started to wonder if I had been wasting my time and if this was some sign of being an amateur.

I made the choice not to finish NaNo last year, in part because I was busy with school, but in even larger part because, after years of loving the pursuit of those 50,000 words, my excitement had given way to fear and shame.

I wasn’t going to do NaNo this year. As November approached and the NaNo tweets and Facebook statuses started appearing, I scrolled on past and thought, “No. Not this year. Maybe next.” I was still scared. I was still wondering if it was worth it.

But I was also feeling the desire to jump back in. There’s this buzz that comes with NaNo, this joy and excitement. One of my favorite parts of NaNo is knowing that I’m making this attempt with tens of thousands of other people all around the world. I love competing with my friends, obsessively checking their word counts as I up mine, texting them late at night to say, “Hey, my word count is down. Wanna do a word war?” Everyone was gearing up for that without me.

With a few hours to go until the start of NaNo, I decided to take the plunge again. I remembered a novel that had barely gone anywhere yet – just some ideas, characters, a couple thousand words – and decided it would be the my NaNovel this year. I watched the seconds count down to midnight EST.

It’s day 6, I’m at 9202 words, and I could not be happier.

Because here’s the thing: It’s true that I’ve only produced one completed draft out of NaNoWriMo, and it wasn’t even viable. It’s true that I have written some truly shitty words in November.

But you know what else I’ve done? I’ve learned. I’ve learned what works for me and what doesn’t. I’ve learned that I can write 2000 words in 20 minutes if I use Write or Die on kamikaze mode. I’ve learned the kind of novelist I am. I know that I like having outlines, but I often hate writing them and I kind of love it when the story just comes to me. I’ve learned that novel writing does not come easily to me, not like short stories do, and I have to work three times as hard to make the plots and characters make sense. I’ve learned that I can write quality pieces quickly. I’ve learned that I can write shitty pieces quickly, too.

Maybe I won’t complete NaNoWriMo this year. Maybe I’ll hit week three and burn out. Maybe I’ll finish by week three! That would be cool, but I’d also kind of miss that frantic, last-minute “oh god let the NaNo site not crash so I can confirm my win” panic. It’s part of the fun.

Maybe I’ll really complete this draft and it will go to amazing places.

Maybe I won’t.

That’s not what matters. That’s not why I love National Novel Writing Month. I love it for the experience, for the writing, and for what it has taught me and will continue to teach me about myself.

I may not publish any of these novels, but I’m happy, I’m learning, and I’m writing.

What else do I need?

#mww13

All hail the interns. Photo courtesy of Cathy Day.

All hail the interns. Photo courtesy of Cathy Day.

It has taken me a week to figure out how to blog about the Midwest Writers Workshop. I just didn’t know where to start. Do I talk about my awesome fellow interns/ninjas/redshirts? Or a few of the really awesome people who put it together? Or the visiting literary agents and faculty, with a clear bias on the one I was assisting?

Real talk time: I still have no idea where to start or what to concentrate on.

Maybe there just isn’t a single bead of awesome for me to focus on. Because here’s the thing – there was just too much that was unbelievably beautiful. I met too many amazing people – faculty and guests alike – and was too immersed in too many freaking crazy opportunities.

I got to assist Victoria Marini, a kickass literary agent that made my potentially stressful job really fun. I met Roxane Gay, who I also interviewed before MWW and did a (fingerling) presentation on in my literary citizenship class. I convinced her to join OkCupid. She convinced me that I belong at the University of Alabama creative writing grad program. I got to hang out with a lot of really cool writers and agents. Yeah, the chairs were crazy uncomfortable for fat people but I took some advice from body positivity goddess Ragen Chastain and said, “Hey, maybe we should change that.”

And then I broke down and had a panic attack but even that led me to meeting a beautiful and amazing woman who worked me through it and then ranted with me about how much Moffat sucks.

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Also, I touched Brooks Sherman’s hair.

Like you don't want to touch it. This photo also courtesy of Cathy Day.

Like you don’t want to touch it. This photo also courtesy of Cathy Day.

There was a lot about #mww13 that was the coolest ever. I believe the faculty and agents who say that it’s one of the best writing conferences in the country. If you ever get a chance to register and come, DO IT.

In the meantime, there have been many blog posts about the conference, some of which are linked in this sentence. The super cool Cathy Day also made a Storify for each day of the conference, featuring tweets that exemplified each day. If you want even more, you can still check out the #mww13 hashtag on Twitter. A lot of people were way more informative and less gushy than I was in this post. Go check them out. If you were there, share your experiences!

Because here’s what I took away from #mww13: I am meant to be in this community. I’m working to be a writer and maybe that’s what I’ll be or maybe I’ll be an agent or editor or just an eternal conference attendee. I can’t tell the future. What I can tell you is that last weekend left me feeling the way Alpha always left me feeling – so exhausted and energized and at peace.

It felt like home.

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Yeah, That’s Not How You Do Literary Citizenship

getting real tired of your shit“I’m a professional writer of forty years! Can any of you stand up and say the same?”

The microphone hijacker is drunk. His shouts crash out of the speakers and drown the awkward silence.

A group of (really quite talented) writers in their twenties had gathered at the bar to read poetry and prose, to listen, appreciate, and celebrate each other. I came thinking, “Maybe I’ll read next time.”

The drunk does not approve. He repeats: “I’ve been a professional writer for forty years!” He reads clumsily from his partner’s book of poetry. He commands us to purchase it when it goes on sale next month on Amazon. To the relief of the crowd, he only reads one poem before retreating to his table.

I’ve been, for the most part, quite lucky in my meetings with other writers, so this man’s rude interruption last night came as a nasty surprise. I’ve had writers judge me for writing and enjoying genre fiction and young adult, but I’ve never personally come up against someone so bitter. It’s a part of the writing world that I’ve been vaguely aware existed, but have not encountered.

What causes an older, more experienced writer to shame someone for their youth and relative inexperience? These writers came wanting to build a sense of community, wanting to support each other and perhaps attract more to the fold, and they were shouted down by a bitter old man.

You could hypothesize that it has to do with age. The landscape of writing is changing. More people than ever before can be published writers. Is he resentful? Is that why he reminded us multiple times that he’s a “professional” writer, despite acting just the opposite? But my experience with older writers has always, on the whole, been incredibly positive. They’re often willing and eager to share their experience and help younger writers through the many stumbling blocks of the profession. Or, when they’re older but new to writing, I’ve been treated as a fellow student of the craft, someone else who’s still really learning.

Perhaps this comes back to luck. I hope not. I want writers like last night’s drunk to be a minority. I want the kind, encouraging writers like Cathy Day and Linda Taylor to outnumber him.

The readings continued despite him. Writers and those who had come to listen fought back against him. I imagine he was too drunk and angry to care about our words the time, but I hope he woke up this morning regretting his actions. I hope he thought over what he’d said and done and realized how toxic such behavior is to the writing community.

I have never done a reading in nearly so public a place as a bar. I’ve read in classrooms and at a bookstore surrounded by my fellow Alphans, who outnumbered the unknowns. Those were safe spaces. A bar has the potential for, well, people like that drunk. Even when he wasn’t interrupting us to give the worst possible publicity for his partner’s poetry, his table was rude and loud. Readers at a microphone surrounded by several speakers could hear that table over their own voices. That wouldn’t happen in the kind of secure environment I’m used to. That honestly scares me. I don’t know how I’d react in that situation, and I hate that I’m so intimidated.

The thing that really sucks is that I’m probably not the only one. What if one of the readers last night had that experience and is frightened off from doing it again? What if someone came, like me, thinking that they might join in and now, like me, are kind of freaked out by the idea, all because some drunk writer decided to take his frustrations out on us?

I am incredibly proud of anyone who puts themselves out there and does a reading like that, even moreso if you can survive an experience like that and do it again. We need more of those people spreading confidence and support, getting the bitter poison out of our collective systems. Maybe those of us who have a little less courage can take strength from them. I hope I can.

What about you? What’s the worst (or best!) experience you’ve ever had with a reading? Can you empathize with this dude more than I can? Have you seen more of this dark side? Hit up the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Short Story Month

A short story is like a short sloth: Fucking awesome.

A short story is like a short sloth: Fucking awesome.c

Now that school is over and I’m getting used to my new job, I can dive back into blogging and writing. Maybe you’ve been in a bit of a rut, too. What better to get us all back on the writing wagon than a month-long writing challenge?

You know about NaNoWriMo, right? 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s difficult and exhilarating and if you even think it might be your type of thing, you should try it. But that’s not until November (barring Camp NaNoWriMo), so what do you do if you just have a lot of trouble writing without those pre-set goals? Or maybe you just aren’t so great in the novel format.

I have some pretty cool news for you. Turns out, May is Short Story Month, sponsored by Story A Day. The idea is to write a short story every day in May. Honestly, that kind of makes me squeak in terror – oh god EVERY DAY? – but it also sounds amazing. It’s not about writing and polishing and editing a story every day, it’s about just writing it. Get that story out there. As someone who sometimes thinks way, way too much during first drafts, this is the kind of kick I enjoy.

I know it’s already May 10th, but that’s no reason not to get in there! Go check out their daily writing prompts to get yourself going. Or if you’re more of a short story reader, go check out their recommendations. Get to know the short story a little better.

What do you guys think? Are you gonna give it a go? I think I am.

The Rejection Binder

oh my god it's a sloth on a binder

oh my god it’s a sloth on a binder

Last week in my trusty old literary citizenship class, our topic was submitting stories to magazines. We read and talked about the pitfalls and ways to better your chances of success.

We also read and talked about rejection.

Because we have to. As writers, rejection is a part of life. Selling a few stories or a book doesn’t guarantee a “NO REJECTION” stamp on your cover letter. There will always be editors that don’t like your writing, slush pile readers having a bad day, and magazines that just aren’t the right fit for you. If you want to be a writer, get used to rejection.

I’m a young writer. I have a pretty small number of rejection letters at this point, because I haven’t sent out that many stories. To date, I have eight short story rejections and four rejected query letters (I sent them out in high school, and thankfully no one took me on. The book was shit, as first attempts at books often are, particularly when written by 16-year-olds). Hopefully, in the coming years, I’ll obtain many more rejection letters.

Wait, what?

Yeah. I’m hoping for more rejection letters. How else am I going to fill up my lovely rejection binder?

My majestic be-weaseled rejection binder.

My majestic be-weaseled rejection binder.

The idea of the rejection binder – that is, a binder that holds hard copies of all of my rejection letters – was introduced to me by David Barr Kirtley, an amazing writer, podcaster, and staffer at Alpha. When I started thinking about having my own, I messaged him and asked what his reasoning was for having a rejection binder. A few were practical:

You can use them to double-check where you’ve already submitted a particular story. You can also go back and look for patterns in the rejections that only become apparent over time.

A rejection binder can also keep your own writer angst in check:

Often I’ll have a story that I think everyone hated, but when I go back and look at the rejection letters, they’re not as bad as I remembered, which sometimes motivates me to go back and revise the story and send it out again.

But this is the reason that really stuck with me:

When you’re first starting out, it’s helpful to think of rejections as milestones. So it’s an accomplishment getting to 25, to 50, to 100, etc. That’s a lot more productive than looking at acceptances as an accomplishment, because you’re probably not going to have many/any of those. So the rejection letters are sort of like mementos of your progress.

I don’t want rejections to be so powerfully dreaded that they bury me. I’m going to get dozens of rejection letters, and I’d much rather celebrate them.

Thanks to my binder, you know what a rejection letter means to me? It means that I tried. I put this piece of my soul out there. I gave it to a stranger and asked them to consider showing it to other strangers. That’s hard! I cringe every time I hit “send” on a submission. Every time I get a rejection back, I can print it out, put it in my binder, and say, “Okay. Next market.”

no no no noThe rejection binder might not be for you. You might hate having a physical reminder of rejection hanging around. Maybe right now you’re shaking your head thinking, “Nope nope nope nope nope.” That’s totally okay!

But I hope that you’re intrigued. I hope you’re curious. I hope you go out, get a binder, customize a cover page, and start printing out rejection letters. If you do, you should totally send me some pictures. Let’s celebrate our rejections.

Oh, DBK did give me another reason, and this is obviously the most important:

You can use them to impress your writing students with how hardcore you are.

So hardcore.

What about you guys? How do you deal with rejection? Hit up the comments below.