Why I’ll Never Participate in NaNoWriMo Again

I have dreamed of successfully completing at least one NaNoWriMo competition since 2011, and this past year I finally realized that dream. I wrote 50,014 words of This Dread Road, Book Three of The Bennett Series, in November 2015.

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I was so proud of myself. Not only had I finally managed to complete a challenge, I did it in the same month my husband and I purchased a home and moved.

For several months after I finished, I was convinced that participating in NaNo was a great thing that everyone should do. After all, I’d never managed to write so much so quickly in my life. But now that I’m finished with revisions, I can look back and say with all manner of certainty that NaNoWrioMo, while well-intentioned, did me far more harm than good.

 

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For one thing, it ushered in a horrific period of burnout. I never stopped working on This Dread Road, but it took nearly six months for me to finish the second half of the book. I went through several weeks of just not caring about the story anymore. Working on it was painful and torturous. For a while, I worried I wouldn’t finish it in time. Or at all.

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Our trip to South Carolina in March forced me to rest and rejuvenate. I came home more excited about the story than ever, having seen places like Stella Maris Church (pictured above) that were connected to the story of This Dread Road. It took another month after our return, but I finally finished the draft. I was so happy to finish, and still eternally gratefully for NaNoWriMo. If I hadn’t written that 50,014 words last November, how much further behind schedule would I be?

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But when I started revisions a few weeks ago, I realized that those first 50,000 words were essentially useless. That section of the book was packed with filler words, unnecessary characters, and subplots I hadn’t taken the time to flesh out. I could almost map my exhaustion during the month of November just looking at that first half.

I had to rewrite the first twenty-seven chapters.

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I don’t wish that I hadn’t participated in NaNo last year–it was a fun experience, and I enjoyed the camaraderie and solidarity that I experienced all across the Internet. It was finals week, but without the stress of grades hanging over my head. I got a lot done. Had I not participated, I most likely wouldn’t have taken a break to redesign all three of the covers for The Bennett Series. I wouldn’t have been able to let my experience in Charleston influence my descriptions nearly as much.

Most importantly, I wouldn’t have learned a valuable lesson: what works for others does not necessarily work for me.


This Dread Road is currently in the editing stage and is tentatively scheduled for a December 2016 release. I will hopefully have a firm date for you soon! 

Why I Write Mentally Ill Characters

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She grabbed her purse and fumbled around it desperately. Her hands were shaking so much she could barely control them, but her fingers finally closed over what she’d been looking for. She withdrew the small plastic bottle, removed the lid with a quick twist, and popped a tiny yellow circular pill into her mouth. She let it rest on her tongue for just a second before she swallowed and closed her eyes in gratitude, like a penitent receiving a communion wafer. The pill left a bitter taste on her tongue, but she didn’t care because she knew the unpleasant flavor heralded the arrival of chemical bliss. Her heart rate slowly but steadily lowered, and she found it easier to breathe.

When she opened her eyes, she found Cameron staring at her, the stubby piece of chalk dangling from his fingers and leaving smudges of powdery residue on his blue jeans. He didn’t look smug anymore. “You’re still dealing with that, then, huh?” he asked. His voice was soft and inviting, drawing her mind back to better times: a finger twirling through her shower-dampened hair, a copy of Herodotus’ Histories spread open across both their laps.

She shook her head. Now was not the time. “Sure am,” she said shortly. What else was there to say? She stuffed her midterm—the midterm she had failed—into her backpack and slung it over her shoulder, not bothering to zip it completely closed.

“Hattie.”

She looked up, and as their eyes met, she heard the question he hadn’t asked out loud. Who helps you with that now? She set her jaw in a firm line as she shot him a look. No one.

—The Partition of Africa 

 

A question I usually field at author events, signings, speaking engagements, and online communication is a simple one: “Why does Hattie have generalized anxiety disorder?”

This is not a bad question, especially considering that disorders like GAD don’t get much screen time, as it were, when it comes to contemporary YA and NA literature. If mental health is addressed, the author usually follows the somewhat familiar paths of depression, addiction, suicide, and self-harm. These are all important facets of mental illness that should we should all read about and try to understand.

But mental illness is more than those more extreme manifestations. It is more than someone being a danger to himself or others. Between the scope of “normal” and “dangerous” lies a whole host of problems that don’t seem to fit neatly into either category. The people who struggle here in this no man’s land often feel confused and alone, strung somewhere between just fine and falling apart.

People like me.


I’ve always been a worrier. Racing thoughts and infinite loops of “what ifs” have been my constant, unwelcome companion since childhood, riding my shoulder like a cartoon devil and whispering imagined calamitous possibilities into my soul. As a young child and teen, and even now sometimes as an adult, I find that the simplest hypotheticals can terrify me into a stupor.

As a child, I had no reason to question whether my mind behaved differently from those around me. Just as I took my nearsightedness in stride until about ten, when I casually asked my mother, “Why do we only see good out of our right eyes? Why are our left eyes so blurry?” I had no idea the way I felt and thought was not normal. So when the people I trusted told me not to worry so much, I tried my best to follow their directives. The guilt and stress of not being able to stop my reckless whirlwind of anxiety through sheer force of will nearly broke me.

My entire life was laced with anxiety. It was woven into the fibers of my spirit, soaked into the essence of my thoughts. I could not sleep. I could not connect with anyone. I could not withstand any measure of conflict without an almost physical pain. I could not stop eating. I could not stop crying. And still, I tried to stop worrying.


On a hot mid-September day in 2013, at the age of 23, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I received the news with mixed emotions.

On the one hand, knowing that doctors had a name for what I’d been experiencing my entire life was rather comforting. My failures in the “just stop worrying” department weren’t an expression of my inadequacy, just proof that I was different from the people around me.

On the other hand, I was mentally ill. This is not information anyone wants to receive, especially not a self-proclaimed control freak like myself. The medical confirmation that no, I could not exert control over my body, was a tough pill to swallow.

Had I been managing better on my own, I probably would have ignored the doctor’s diagnosis and walked away, but my anxiety had grown and developed during my years of attempted suppression. On top of the usual undercurrent of worry which ran constantly in the background of my thoughts, I was now experiencing panic attacks that were completely disrupting my life, which was why I was sitting in a doctor’s office in the first place.

After a near-sleepless night filled with lucid nightmares and an irrational fear of dying, I’d hyperventilated and nearly blacked out on my morning commute a few days prior. Parking on a narrow, litter-covered stretch of grass, surrounded by flashing lights and being hooked up to a portable EKG monitor is an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

It was time to stop trying not to worry, and start trying to understand myself.

Learning the medical side of the monster that controlled my life for years was a long, strange process. It’s strange to know that things like nutrient levels, water intake, exercise levels, and amount of sleep can adjust the way your thoughts tumble around in your mind. It’s strange to know that your body can go through a cycle of anxiety when you’re not even really worried about anything at all.


When I wrote The Partition of Africa, I was struggling to wean myself off my anxiety medication. While I knew there was no shame in treating anxiety with medication, the pills I’d been prescribed just weren’t working for me anymore. They neutralized my panic attacks and helped me sleep, but they were also warping my hormones and messing up my natural rhythms. At times, they caused more anxiety than they cured. I worried about withdrawals, dependency, and possible birth complications if I became pregnant while taking them. It was time to begin the quitting process.

I was desperate for someone to relate to during all this, someone fictional who would understand everything that I was going through. I’d already given Hattie my bookish tendencies, my control freakishness, and my shyness. I decided to give her my illness, as well.

I didn’t stop there. Gavin Reue has anxiety as well, although I don’t explicitly name it. Cameron Wolcott and Molly Marshall both have problems managing their anger. Claire James is a recovering alcoholic, former drug user, and suffers from depression.

At times, I wonder if giving my characters mental health problems was a wise idea. Not everyone struggles with issues like these, and I’m not exactly basing my plots around these illnesses. The stories would function without them, with a bit of tweaking.

But at the end of the day, I’m glad for siphoning this bit of myself into my characters, and for the opportunity to show what it’s like to experience mental illness. I want to show characters who suffer from mental illness and don’t try to harm others or themselves. I want to show that mental illness doesn’t necessarily mean “crazy” or “dangerous.” I want to give hope.

 

This blog post is not meant to be taken as medical advice. I am not a doctor. If you are exhibiting symptoms of mental illness, please contact your primary care physician or search for a mental health care provider in your area here.

 

Top 10 Ways to Use Instagram as an Author

Top Ten.jpgI’ll admit, for a long time I didn’t really see the point of Instagram as an app unto itself. I basically just used it as a photo editing app for everything I wanted to post to Facebook. I never only posted a photo on Instagram. I rarely added captions, and never utilized hashtags. I let people follow me and I followed them back, but I never checked the feed or interacted with others.

I realized a few short months ago that this was a mistake. To help out one of my favorite indie authors, I joined forces with a couple of other fans and helped start a grassroots Instagram campaign. I was amazed at the book culture that is alive and well on a social network I’d largely considered pointless. Instagram has a thriving booklover community, and it is dying for more author-reader interaction.

I’m by no means an expert, having only danced around the fringes of #bookstagram culture for a couple of months, but there are some valuable things I’ve learned that I think more authors can take advantage of.

1. Pay Attention to Hashtags

The hashtags that will be important to you vary depending on what genre and age group your books fall into, but some of the broad ones to use are #bookstagram, #booksofinstagram, #bookish, #booknerd, #bibliophile, #readinglist, and #amreading. Use these hashtags when you post about your books, but also search to see who else is using them and interact with people who look like they might enjoy reading your books.

2. Form Relationships

When you come across users who look like they might enjoy your books, don’t spam them with buy links or suggestions right away. Instead, take the time to look through their photos. Leave a few likes and comments. Ask questions that show you’re interested in getting to know them, not just making a sale.

3. Participate in Challenges

There will almost always be an ongoing photo challenge that centers on books, reading, or writing. In February, I participated (half-heartedly) in the #AuthorLifeMonth challenge. This month, I’ve been doing the #YABookADay challenge. Next month, I’m planning my own! This is a great way to connect with readers, book bloggers, and other authors, and it really helps get you in the habit of posting at least once a day.

4. Host Giveaways

Last month, I participated in an Instagram giveaway with several other indie authors. We all gave away a printed copy of one of our books. People entered to win by following me, liking the post, commenting with the hashtag #iLovePrinted Books, and tagging a friend who also loves printed books. Each of the participating authors linked to another author in our post, so theoretically an Instagram follower could click through the chain and enter each author’s giveaway. I had a blast participating in this–I received several new followers, met some great authors, and I gained a new reader in England thanks to the giveaway! It was a great experience and I hope to do it again soon.

5. Increase Blog Traffic

Create free graphics for your blog posts on sites like Canva and post them on Instagram with a sample of your blog for the day. Believe it or not, people will actually hop on over to your blog if you ask them to! I’ve seen increased traffic since I started doing this.

6. Promos, Sales, and New Releases

Continuously spamming buy links is no more successful on Instagram than it is on Twitter or Facebook. However, Instagram is a great place to share occasional promotional posts for your books, as well as eBook sales and new releases! Use hashtags like #ebooks, #kindle, #freebies, #FreeEbooks, and #newrelease in conjunction with the usual book-related hashtags I listed above to get the best coverage.

7. Provide Regular Updates

Did you just finish an amazing outline? Do you have impressive, serial-killer-like notes stuck all over your desk? Did you just print out your manuscript in all its several hundred page glory? Readers love seeing these kinds of visual progress reports. They’re fun to share, and you just might snag some future readers by keeping your followers informed about your WIP.

8. Help Boost Author Friends

Help your fellow authors out by taking a screenshot of their photos and reposting them with the hashtag #regram and tag them in the caption. It feels easier and more natural to promote others rather than ourselves, so it won’t be as obnoxious as us constantly reposting stuff about our own books, and it shows that authors are friends, not competitors.

9. Create Your Own Hashtag

Before doing this, make sure to search Instagram for it to ensure it’s not being used by another group already.

10. Post Non-Writing Related Photos

This probably seems counterintuitive, but think about it for a second. I’m sure you appreciate when the celebrities you follow on social media post about their movies, shows, albums, and books, since that’s probably why you’re following them to begin with. But don’t you really love it when they drop that persona and just get real with you? Aren’t we all dying to know what Stephen King is having for dinner, or what Nathan Fillion’s backyard looks like? Obviously, most of us self-published and indie authors aren’t celebrities by any stretch of the word, but people love to see what lies behind our writing persona. It makes us seem more like real people and encourages connection.

#AuthorLifeMonth – Challenge Overcome

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The biggest challenge I’ve overcome in my short time as a writer sounds pretty simple when I type it out here, but really it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

I stopped being afraid. I learned to trust myself. I wrote.

When I began writing seriously again in the summer of 2014, I was so hesitant to move forward. At the end of each chapter, I was paralyzed. I felt like I couldn’t move forward until I showed it to someone and they told me they liked it. I was completely dependent on others, with no confidence to push ahead on my own.

Some of that fear lingered on with the writing of The Marshall Plan, although it gradually began to retreat. With This Dread Road, it has diminished to the existence of a phantom, only preying on me in moments of weakness or exhaustion.

I doubt I’ll every truly be free of that plague of self-doubt. But I have finally found the strength and confidence to tell that fear to knock it off. I have found the inner resilience to repeat my mantra over and over again:

“It’s just a first draft. You’re not going to have this tattooed on your face. If there are mistakes, you can fix them. And you will.”

What is a challenge you have faced and overcome, whether in writing or another area of your life? How did you do it? I want to know!