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! 

A is for Advice

I’m a little too late to formally participate in the Blog A-Z  event, but after reading some of my friends post I decided I really liked the idea! There’s no way I’ll finish these out by the end of April, but I think I’ll do them at my own pace all the same. 


I see them all the time. You see them, too, I’m sure. They’re everywhere, these lists of advice handed down from invisible so-called experts with no room for nuance. You must not marry young, you must only breastfeed your babies, you must only make these moves in your career . . . and here are the reasons why.

I’ve made plenty a numbered list during my time as a blogger, and I don’t think the format is a bad idea, but I cringe when a piece like this moves from suggestion to decree. The writers of such lists seems to assume that everyone in the world has the same ambitions, desires, dreams, goals, and situations.

Perhaps this evolves from  our desire to have one size fits all solutions to our most common problems. I can understand that. It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? But unfortunately, this approach often ends up working just as well as those “one size fits all” shirts no one ever buys, because when it comes to most things, it just isn’t possible.

So here is my advice to you, dear readers:

Marry young. Marry later in life. Don’t marry at all.

Have lots of children. Have only one or two. Don’t have any.

Breastfeed. Bottle feed. Use formula.

Focus on your career. Be a full-time parent. Find a way to do both. 

Travel the world. Travel domestically. Never travel at all.

Send your kids to public school. Private school. Homeschool. 

Etcetera, etcetera.

I  can’t make your decisions for you, and neither can anyone else. Listen to the experiences of others, evaluate your own situation, and figure out what works for you. Ignore the rest. Life is too short to let other people try to control your major life decisions.

How Your High Expectations Are Holding You Back

Usually when we think about expectations holding us back, our minds immediately go to low expectations, don’t we? A fish will only grow as large as its tank allows it, and all that. And the sentiment is completely true–if our goals are small, our accomplishments will be small. It’s only math.

But today, I want to talk about the other side of that problem. I want to talk about how your high expectations could very well be holding you back from something even greater.

If comparison is the thief of joy, expectations are the murderer.

Just over five years ago, I started dating the man who became my husband. Right out of the gate, he established himself as a thoughtful gift giver. Valentine’s Day fell just three weeks after we made our relationship official, and in that small amount of time he’d somehow managed to secure a first American edition of my favorite book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which he presented to me wrapped in brown paper and strings, just like the parcels Mr. Tumnus was carrying when he first met Lucy in the Wood. To top it off, he arranged for us to view one of my favorite films, Casablanca, at a historic theater.

My little geeky heart was in Heaven.

As time went on, though, the reality of this man’s thoughtfulness when it came to selecting gifts faded under the weight of my skewered expectations. Because you see, when it comes to the “traditional” boyfriend/fiancé/husband gifts, he isn’t so inclined. I can count on one hand the times he’s brought me flowers, and on one finger the times he’s brought me flowers without being nagged into it.

This used to bother me, especially when I worked in an office with women whose husbands sent dozens of long-stemmed red roses for everyone to see. My husband was a kind, intelligent, thoughtful man–why couldn’t he just have a natural inclination to send roses, too? That I didn’t even really care for roses seemed besides the point. It was just what was done.

This seed of irritation blossomed into a full-blown bitterness, culminating in a gift of a lovely, yet I’m sure overpriced, mixed bouquet on our first wedding anniversary. While I adored them and thought they were beautiful, the truth worried at my soul just below the surface. This wasn’t a token of affection. It was the white flag of surrender, offered by my husband as a last resort in the hopes that I would finally approve of what he had to offer me.

After that instance, I stopped nagging my husband to buy me flowers and decided to be grateful for the things he chose to give me out of love instead.

After letting those expectations go, I realized I didn’t even really like flowers that much. Sure, they’re nice, but they don’t do anything. They sit there, a momentary but very mortal decoration, and before long they’ve shriveled up and died. But the things my husband chose to give me on his own? Those were things I could actively use and enjoy for a long time. And the fact that he’s specially ordered 99% of the gifts he’s ever given me, or made special trips to multiple stores that are out of his way, mean so much more to me than the times he’s caved and half-heartedly purchased something that neither of us really wanted to begin with.

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The last time he brought me flowers was this past Valentine’s Day. They were free leftover flowers at his work, and he had to bring them home by shoving them in a box so he could get them on his motorcycle so they were falling apart a little, but they were my favorite bouquet by far.

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There are times when sticking to your guns as far as expectations go are a good thing. There are also times to re-evaluate what’s really important. Don’t let your high expectations prevent you from experiencing an even greater joy. There are things you don’t even know you want just on the horizon.

Five Favorites: Early Modern Poems

Some of you might know that I’ve started working on a Master of Arts in English. This semester, in addition to the creative writing workshop I talked about last week, I’m working on another prerequisite before I can dive into the graduate level courses.

I was a little upset about this at first, I won’t lie. The thought of taking three 300 level courses seemed so unnecessary. But already, I have seen the error of my ways. These survey courses are a great way to get me back in a lit state of mind after six (SIX?!) years and have started me on a noble quest I’ve often dreamed about: becoming acquainted with the Western literary canon.

Currently, I’m studying Medieval and Early Modern British literature, and I’ve found that I absolutely adore the early modern poets. Here are, as you might be able to guess from the title, my five favorite poems (or collections thereof).

1. Paradise Lost, John Milton

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When it comes to Milton’s magnum opus, I’ve only read three books out of the twelve, and it took some major mental wrestling and guidance for me to understand even a sliver of what was there, but I still can’t help but love it. The fact that he wrote this piece after he was blind is absolutely astounding. Worrisome theological implications aside, this piece is flawless. Everyone should read at least part of it.

2. The Holy Sonnets, John Donne

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Despite Donne’s insistence on mixing his pet themes of God, the soul, and erotic love in sometimes highly upsetting ways (“Batter my heart, three-person’d God” much?), I really do enjoy his Holy Sonnets. His verse flows well and carries so many layers of meaning. Metaphysical poetry is where it’s at.

3. Astrophil and Stella, Sir Philip Sidney

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Even though this sonnet cycle is not really so much about love as obsession, these poems are definitely worth your time and energy. I think Sidney being such a sly dog is what makes me love these sonnets so much. His sonnets are filled with paradoxes and contradictions. He describes how his writer’s block precludes him from writing a love poem–in a love poem. He declares that he cannot describe his lady’s looks–in a poem describing her looks. He’s such a tricky jerk. I love that.

4. Hero and Leander, Christopher Marlowe

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Scholars have said that had Christopher Marlowe lived longer, his work would have rivaled and perhaps even eclipsed that of Shakespeare’s. Reading Hero and Leander, I understand those claims. Exploring the mythical tragic love story between Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, and Leander, a young man from Abydos, this unfinished mini-epic explores complex themes such as nature, artifice, desire, gender, and sexuality.

5. Sonnets, William Shakespeare

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I’ve been a fan of Shakespeare ever since my father took me to see a production of Macbeth for my eleventh birthday. While the other high schoolers were groaning about having to read his plays, I soaked them in, even when I didn’t always understand them. I never would have imagined his sonnets being about to top his barding skills. I was wrong. After reading only a sampling of his poetry, I finally started to understand the true level of his talent and genius. Warning: if you, like me, are prone to literary-induced tears, don’t read too many of these in one sitting. You will indeed grow weepy.

How I Do It: 1 Not-So-Easy Step to Make Your Dreams Come True

I hear it all the time. “How do you do it?”

It’s not an unwarranted question. Sometimes, I even ask it of myself. How do I do it?

How do I put in forty hours Monday through Friday, while still squeezing in six hours of classes, and then turn around and work another eight hours on Saturday, and then spend Sunday mornings at church, and then spend Sunday afternoons grocery shopping and doing chores? How do I manage to do all of that, and still manage to be a homeowner and a wife, and hopefully a potential mother, and put in enough writing to churn out roughly one book per year?

People also ask this question of my husband and myself as a married unit. How do we work fifty plus hours a week each, and still find time for romance and companionship? How do we manage to put money in savings almost every month on such a low combined income? How did we manage to go from limping along from paycheck to paycheck to paying off component student loans and purchasing a house in less than three years?

The answer to both questions is really one and the same.

This answer is simple, although it might not be what you want to hear. It is not a simple solution, one tiny step needed to right the balance in an already stress-filled life.

Here it is:

I do what I do because I have to.

We do what we do because we have to.

Plan everything.

Skip lunch breaks.

Save receipts.

Stay home and cook, even when it would be easier just to go out.

Budget everything. Money, time, calories. Everything.

Brainstorm while driving.

Stay up half the night working on homework and reading assignments, and then stay up even later to put in work on my books.

Don’t watch near as much Netflix as my lazy butt would like.

Know when it’s time to take a night “off” to spend time with my husband, and I don’t mind working twice as hard the next day to make that happen.

I don’t have a ton of free time–in fact, I’m not even sure I understand what free time is anymore–but you know what? I am completely, totally satisfied. I might be sleep deprived and busy to the point of nervous breakdown on some days, but for the first time in my life, I am passionate about what I do.

My office job? Love it.

My fast-food job? It’s only temporary, I don’t hate it, and it allows me to spend time with friends.

School? LOVE IT.

Writing? LOVE IT.

Achieving dreams, no matter what they are, will always require work. It will always require discipline. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ll pursue them later, when it will be easier, when it will be more manageable. Such a time will never come. You don’t have to do everything all at once, but you have to start somewhere.

Make a list of everything you need to accomplish in order to fulfill your dreams and start doing them as you can, baby steps, one by one. It will be frustrating and draining, and some days you will just want to give up because you feel like you’re standing still, but you’re not. You’re still light years ahead of the people who are not even trying.

Stop waiting for your fully-formed dream to drop painlessly into your lap. It’s not going to happen. It never happens like that. If you want something to happenstart that process now. You’ll be busy, and you’ll be tired, but you will be doing something you love.

If you need further inspiration, check out Zen Pencils’ wonderful illustration of a speech given by James Rhodes, “Is That Not Worth Exploring?” It makes me tear up every time I read it, because it is so true. Your dreams are worth exploring, no matter the sacrifice. No matter what you have to do. So get out there, and do it!

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Do As I Say, Not As I Did: Self-Publishing Edition

Just over a year ago, I began my journey as a self-published author. I hit that “publish” button on CreateSpace, uploaded an e-formatted manuscript to Kindle Direct Publishing, and sat back and waited. I had no idea what to expect. A lot of things happened after The Partition of Africa was pushed out, both good and bad. I was prepared for neither.

The weeks following my unexpected release date were hectic and stressful. I spent several days in dread, awaiting the opinions of people who’d bought my very first novel. What if they didn’t like it? What if they did? I felt inadequately prepared to face either scenario.

Did you catch that my release date was unexpected? If you didn’t, I’ll clue you in: I didn’t mean to release The Partition of Africa when I did. I finally feel brave enough to admit that to the cyber universe. I released my book early, months earlier than I meant to, and I paid dearly for that mistake.

How does that happen? That’s a very good question. The answer is simple: I had no clue what I was doing.

When I sent the manuscript out to my beta readers, I decided to upload it to CreateSpace as well, just to see what would happen. I decided I would order a paperback proof as a keepsake. But that isn’t what happened. I was confused when I started clicking through the publishing interface, and before I knew it, my book was available on the CreateSpace eStore, and it would soon be on Amazon as well.

I could have very easily undone this mistake. I could have said, “Oh, shoot!” and made the book temporarily unavailable until I received final feedback from my beta readers, made suggested changes, and fixed typing and formatting errors. Honestly, since I was virtually unknown and this was my first book, I probably could have just not told anyone it was available, and no one would have even noticed the online listings.

I didn’t realize any of this, however. I thought pushing the book out to the marketplace was it. I thought that while I could update the interior files, I couldn’t take the listing down. So what did I do? I ran with it, and uploaded it to Kindle, too.

The ensuing days, weeks, and even months, were horrifying.

Almost immediately, I realized that the manuscript file I’d uploaded was rife with typing errors that my spell checker hadn’t caught. I stayed glued to my computer for nearly forty-eight hours, trying to fix all the ones I could find and upload them quickly enough that readers would get the updated version. To this day, the people who downloaded the Kindle version on opening day have the crappy copy. I still blush a year later just thinking about it.

Even worse than that, though, by pushing the book out early, I disrespected the people who had so kindly agreed to read my manuscript, help me find errors, and offer suggestions for story development. The worst part was that I’d already written my acknowledgements page based on what I was planning to happen, so their names were attached to a book that they hadn’t even read yet. They may have hated it, they may have wanted me to change something about it, and now they couldn’t, because it was already out there. What was the point in their reading it now? There wasn’t one.

This entire debacle, on top of some other work-related issues that happened around the same time, pushed me into a deep pit of anxiety and depression. I felt sick to my stomach all the time. Multiple panic attacks per day left me feeling drained and exhausted but kept me from getting the sleep I desperately needed. I was overwhelmed by my own ignorance, and I even worried that what I had done had damaged my future in writing altogether.

But here’s the thing. Even with all that mess, despite my carelessness and lack of knowledge when it came to the nitty-gritty reality of publishing, people loved my book.

That still blows me away. There I was, worried that every person who picked up a copy of the book would be as judgmental and uptight as I used to be when it came to reading, only to find out that most people just cared about the story. There were a few folks who pointed out the issues, of course, some with grace and some without, but overall, people said things like, “Great story!” or “I so love these characters!” The number of times I heard “So, when is the next book coming out?” was overwhelming.

So instead of packing up my laptop and never writing again, I started working on book number two.

A year later, most of the mess has been cleaned up. I’m even working on a second edition, which has benefitted from a little light line editing and the help of some awesome volunteer proofreaders from my online writing community.

So why do I choose to share the intimate details of this snafu, some of which were unknown to the public until now? And on the Internet, of all places, which we all know loves to make or break people based on one tiny incident.

It’s simple, really. I’m glad I experienced everything I experienced with that first awful, wonderful book release. Even the embarrassment, even the sleepless nights, even the depression.

First, it taught me humility, respect, and the importance of planning and organization. And it also spurred me into learning about the right way to do things, moreso than a mediocre release would have.

If you’re a writer planning to self-publish a novel (or book of any kind) in the near future, learn from my mistakes! If you’re the kind of person who likes lists (and if the Internet has taught me anything, it’s that most people do), check this one out.


 

1. Check your ego at the door.

So you’re writing a book. Congratulations. So are hundreds of millions of other people. This doesn’t make you special. Get rid of the chip on your shoulder and turn into a sponge. Read books about writing. Join writing groups online or in person. Soak all the collective knowledge and experience in.

Put your work out there and ask for honest feedback. Don’t get upset if it isn’t glowing. If the criticism is constructive, use it to improve your writing. If the criticism is just mean without the intention of being helpful, pick what helpful bits you can from it and ignore the rest. You can’t please everyone. You’ll save yourself lots of sleepless nights as soon as you learn to accept this.

2. Plagiarism isn’t as rampant as you think.

Okay, it is. After all, who hasn’t accidentally landed on those eBook pirating sites, or seen clearly plaigiarized stories on Wattpad? But that’s not what I’m talking about.

When I first started writing, I was terrified to share even a paragraph of a story with an online writer’s group. Publishers requesting the entire manuscript after reading the first few chapters, or bloggers agreeing to review the book in exchange for a free copy, froze me up completely. It felt wrong, even dangerous, to even think about sending out an entire manuscript to a stranger.

And you know what? It is risky to send out an entire manuscript to a stranger. But it is very, very unlikely that someone in the industry–be they book blogger, editor, beta reader, proofreader, writer, or publisher–will steal your work and try to pass it off as their own.

For one thing, legally they would have no leg to stand on, especially in this digital age. If you wrote your book in a word processor registered in your name, you have the timestamps and author information to prove it’s your work. Any professional or company would not risk the huge financial cost or loss of credibility to steal your story.

For another, what’s so special about your story that industry professionals would be clamoring to steal it? If someone likes it that much, they’ll probably just offer to publish it for you.  If you are worried about bloggers and reviewers, there are precautions you can take.

If you’re worried about pirating, I hate to break it to you, but there’s pretty much nothing you can do about it. If you ever intend to release your book at all, there’s a good chance it will be pirated. I could sit here right now and pirate any of the several books on my physical bookshelves, if I had the time, patience, and drive to type them up. I could post them chapter by chapter on my blog right now, or send them in e-mails to my friends. I won’t, because I’m not a bad person, but there’s nothing stopping me.

Don’t let a few bad apples be excsues not to pursue publication, critique, or collaboration. All great things require taking risks.

3. Find a mentor.

Knowing someone who has already gone through the process of publishing is invaluable, no matter which publishing route you choose to take. Make friends with people who are several steps ahead of you and stick to them like glue. Their experience and expertise is priceless. Once you’re seasoned and experienced, don’t forget to return the favor! There is always a budding novelist in need of guidance.

4. You need an editor. Yes, you.

I don’t care what grades you made in English. I don’t care if you have a degree in English. Trust me, you need an editor.  It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, it doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a wonderful command of language. You’re human. It’s hard for us to judge our work objectively. A good editor sees things you’ve never even though about and works with, not against, you to create a better end result. They’re worth their weight in gold.

If you can’t afford to pay, you can usually find people who are willing to swap their services in exchange for something else, like proofreading or beta reading, or a good reference. Don’t skip this step. Just don’t.

5. Learn how to market.

As my lovely friend and fellow author Angel Leya says, “Just because you publish it, doesn’t mean people will buy it.”

This is so, so true. The fact that you wrote a book might be enough to convince your grandmother’s friends to buy a copy, but most people don’t care. They don’t know you and they’ve never heard of your hometown. It isn’t as big a deal to them. Simply making your work available isn’t enough. You have to know how to sell it.

Leave your modesty, false or otherwise, behind, or at least shove it under the bed when other people are around. When you’re asked about your book, push past the urge you might have to downplay it, smile, and talk. it. up.

Don’t be afraid to compare it to mass market books he or she might have heard of. Doing this doesn’t mean you’re bragging–you’re just helping your customer decide very quickly whether they’d be interested in your book or not.

Utilize social media and internet tools. Make friends with book bloggers. Create fun marketing graphics with Canva. Learn how to stragetically use Twitter.

6. Chill.

You will get negative reviews. Just accept it. You will, and you won’t explode into a million picees when it happens.

If you choose to read them, try to learn from them. What didn’t the person like about your book? Did they give any concrete reasons, like “The dialogue was too wooden” or “I couldn’t connect with the character at all”? If so, try to work on these elements with your next book. But if all they wrote is “this book sucks” or “I hate romance books, but I decided to try this one and I hated it because it was a romance book,” ignore it. It’s just a matter of taste.

You will never write a book that everyone will like. Jane Austen didn’t do it, Charles Dickens didn’t do it, C. S. Lewis didn’t do it, J. R. R. Tolkien didn’t do it, and J. K. Rowling didn’t do it. When you receive a negative star rating or review online, go to the Amazon or Goodreads listing for a classic or an international bestseller and scroll through the negative reviews. See how many there are. If the big guys get them, we will too. It’s okay.

7. Be prepared to work.

As I’m sure you can discern from the first six items on the list, doing this whole self-publishing thing right is hard. Sometimes, it feels like a second full-time job. Sometimes, you see someone publishing their fortieth werewolf zombie lesbian bondage shapeshifter stepbrother witchcraft erotic novella of the year when you’re still working on last year’s project, and you want to give up because they have more reviews or better sales.

Don’t.

Quality over quantity, my friends. Quality over quantity. Do your best on every single project and don’t cut corners. So what if someone else is making bank on sloppy, thrown-together crap? I can almost guarantee you they will regret it one day. If you do the best you can do, at least you will sleep at night.


This is by no means a comprehensive list. With each and every project, I learn more about every aspect of putting out a book. Five years from now, I’ll probably read over this list and scoff, saying something to the tune of, “Olivia from 2015 was so naive. She had no idea. NO IDEA.

But for now, it’s the best I have to offer. I hope someone finds it useful.


Are you a writer who self-publishes, or has in the past? Do you have tips, too? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.