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.

nano

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.

 

12795440_1713235282252586_4572078628880560415_n

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.

12524143_1725178881058226_3323509042019757902_n

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?

1

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.

TBS beach read.jpg

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

The basics of (1).jpg

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 Review a Book as an Author

TOP 10

In this digital age, an author’s Internet presence can make or break their reputation, their success, or even their career. We’ve all seen the horror stories about authors reacting badly to reviews posted online. There’s the one where Kathleen Hale obsessed over and stalked a Goodreads reviewer online and in person, going so far as to physically visit the woman’s home, after she left a one star review. There’s the one where Richard Brittain took creepiness a step further when he tracked down an eighteen-year-old snarky Amazon reviewer and bludgeoned her with a wine bottle.

Simply put, the existence of the Internet has not always jived well with our kind. We are a sensitive breed, and without proper discipline and restraint, things can turn ugly.

Interestingly enough, though, I’ve noticed a growing trend of self-published and independent authors who struggle with having a good Internet presence on the opposite side of the spotlight. Instead of losing control with a reviewer of their own work, they lose control when they’re reviewing someone else’s work.

This should not be happening, guys. We authors should be the example when it comes to leaving stellar reviews, whether positive or negative. We know firsthand how hard the writing, revising, editing, promoting, publishing, and marketing processes can be. Whatever our opinion of a work, it can and should be handled with grace.

With that being said, here are a few basic guidelines I think we would all be smart to follow when reviewing books written by our brothers and sisters in this strange, wonderful world of writing. (And yes, I am maintaining eye contact with my own reflection as I deliver this edict, because I’m sure I’ve broken all of these at one point or another.)

1. Acknowledge upfront if you’ve been given a free review copy.

When you’re a member of online writing groups or have other contacts in the industry, receiving free copies of books in exchange for honest reviews happens a lot, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that . . . as long as you tell people that’s what happened.

Why? Well, you might be familiar with the concept of avoiding even the appearance of evil. If you give an honest five star review of a book but neglect to inform everyone up front that the author sent you a copy for free, that five star review isn’t looking so honest anymore. If word came out about your relationship with the author and how you came about the book, it suddenly doesn’t matter that you were honest in your review. It doesn’t even matter that you barely know the author and have only been acquainted with her online for two weeks. Because you didn’t add a disclaimer, now everything you’ve said about the book is suspect. People don’t feel like they can trust you anymore. And they certainly aren’t interested in learning more about what you write.

2. Use professional language.

We all know how fun it can be to employ the four S’s–sarcasm, snark, slang, and swearing–especially when we’re talking about a book we didn’t particularly enjoy. But when you’re writing a review, especially one intended for online display, you should handily avoid all of them. You’re not just a reader on Goodreads anymore, you’re criticizing or praising a colleague, and you need to do so with decorum and respect.

This goes double if you’re in any way acquainted with the author, and that includes ways as nebulous as “I think we were in an online writing group together once five years ago.” Don’t address the author in a familiar manner, i.e. “Suzie, this was such a good read! So much better than your last one. You should post more about this book in the group next Wednesday.” Instead, shoot for, “In The Great American Novel, Ms. Smith displays a marked improvement in her skills as a writer and a storyteller.”

3. Be honest, but also kind.

Sometimes, as much as you like an author’s online presence or the cute photos of their kids they post on Instagram or the great advice they give in your writing group, you just don’t like their work. That’s okay. If you choose to review their work, you need to be honest about your reactions to their books. But before you hit “send” on that two or three star review, check yourself and make sure that you wrote your thoughts in the best possible way.

Did you, in emotionally neutral words, explain the issues you had with their work, or did you just say “This book sucks, what a disappointment”? Did you come up with at least two things the author did well to sandwich the complaint? If both answers are no, you might want to reconsider posting your review just yet. There is always a way to express how we feel about a book without being downright mean, and that’s what you should do. It isn’t easy, but we’re writers, after all–if anyone is able to temper honesty with kindness, it should be us.

4. Put some time and effort into writing your review.

First impressions are rarely indicative of your true opinion. I’ve found that if I read a book in a day or two and immediately throw a review up online, a few days later I realize it’s not really how I felt. Sometimes I like the book more after a week or so; sometimes I like it less.

Let stories rest on your mind for at least two or three days before you sit down to write a review. Don’t swallow the book whole in a few hours and belch out a review twenty minutes later. The author spent months, if not years, finishing up their novel. The most you can give them is a few days of introspection and consideration.

5. If you can’t find at least one positive thing to say about the book, consider not leaving a public review.

If, like me, you dislike confrontation, this is extremely difficult to do. How do you say to the nice author you met online, the one who has helped you out so much, “I know I promised I would read and review your book, but I doubt you would appreciate me posting my feedback for the world to see”?

It’s not fun. It stinks. And to be honest, I’m still trying to figure out the best way to do this myself. But in the interest of professionalism, you should definitely talk it out with the author before you post a review that has not a single positive note.

6. If you are unable to finish the book, say so.

Whether you just didn’t have time, you couldn’t get interested in the story, or the writing was really just that awful, if you didn’t finish reading a book, it’s important to say so. Not only that, you need to include details. At which page number/Kindle % did you stop reading? Did you just skip around for a bit before giving up? This helps other people struggling to finish decide whether they should push through or not.

It’s also a courtesy to the author. What if the problem you had with the book was resolved one chapter over from where you stopped reading? If that’s the case, you have misrepresented the work, and you might have even led potential readers astray.

7. Avoid falling into the “I would have written it this way instead” trap.

There’s almost nothing more insulting to an author than when another writer rolls up their sleeves and turns into an armchair quarterback. You might wish a character had handled a certain situation differently, and it’s fine to say so, but it’s rather tacky to start listing all the different ways you would have handled it as a writer. You’re leaving a review online; you’re not teaching a creative writing course. What you would have done is irrelevant, because the work in question is not yours. Not only will you potentially damage your relationship with the author, you might cause would-be readers to lose faith in the author’s credibility. It also makes you look like a snobby, pompous ass, and makes people less interested in your work.

8. Don’t give a star rating unless you mean it.

Do you really want to give this book a two star rating, or are you just trying to be extra tough on this author, because of that whole “avoid even the appearance of evil” thing? Make sure you are committed to the star rating you assign; otherwise, if posting on your blog or Goodreads, just leave that option blank and include a text-only review. Don’t saddle the author with a deceptively low or inflated rating because you’re not sure what to do.

9. Don’t participate in a publicized release event if you can’t give a positive review.

It’s happened to me before. I  signed up to be a part of a new release blog tour, I tried to read the book, and . . . bam. I couldn’t even finish it. It might be the worst book I’ve ever try to read. Luckily I’m not acquainted with the author and I had no qualms about leaving my review on Amazon, but I just couldn’t bring myself to post my review on my blog on a day I knew the author would be trying her best to sell the book. I could have opted out and just posted a promotional blurb, but I didn’t want my followers to think I recommended the book either, so I did the not-so-comfortable thing: I went to the publisher’s blog tour coordinator and told her I was unable to participate.

If this happens to you, the coordinator will probably tell you it’s fine if you have a negative review and they would still love for you to participate. It’ll be up to you at that point whether you decline or not. If you were just a book blogger, I’d say go for it, it’s your job to tell the truth. But as an author, I’d say bow out. You don’t need to showcase a negative review of another author on your blog, on a day when lots of traffic will be coming through. It just isn’t a good idea.

10. Write the review you would want to see left for your own book–positive or negative.

This is pretty much a culmination of the nine preceding points. If your review is positive, make it more interesting that, “Good book. I recommend it.” You’re an author! You know how much you crave those well-thought-out, elegantly written reviews–give that gift to someone who craves those, too. If your review is negative, make it more constructive and kind than, “This book sucks. Don’t read it.” Again, you’re an author! You know how much those hasty, vague one stars hurt. Write the kind of negative review that you would be okay with, one that after reading it, you find yourself nodding thoughtfully and murmuring, “I see where they’re coming from.”

Basically, in the words of Cinderella,

il_570xN.818160092_7i16.jpg

Isn’t this pretty? Click on the image to visit the artist’s Etsy page.