So I've been on a bit of a young adult romance/middle grade humor kick when it comes to reading lately. Some people might think this is a strange combination. Those people have obviously never met me. In case you need a good read, here are some book recommendations from the @rileyandjohannareadstuff Instagram account. It turns out I'm way behind on updating this blog with book recs, so more will likely be coming very soon. Let me know if you've read anything lately that I should be adding to my TBR list.
It's official. I can confirm that I will not be winning National Novel Writing Month this year. It’s cool, though. I’m not super bitter. I only made four dozen of sugar cookies the other night and ate six of them in fifteen minutes.
Actually, in all seriousness, I’ve decided not to self-shame my NaNo miss this year. Mostly I just ate those cookies because hi, that much butter and sugar mixed together really can’t be unenjoyable. Here’s a list of reasons why I’m holding my head up high despite the fact that I did not reach my NaNo writing goal this month.
The writing I did do? I’m really proud of it.
I’m said it before and I’ll say it again: NaNo is fantastic at forcing me to get my writing life in gear. I’ve been sort of moping between projects since I finished my last big piece of writing, and this challenge forced me to find something I wanted to write and invest some serious time into it. Yeah, I haven’t finished writing this new novel yet, but it’s looking like I will. I’m not sure I would have even tackled this project at all without NaNo pushing me to try, so I’m grateful I had that push. I currently have the beginnings of a new writing project I’m very excited about, and that matters.
Sometimes writing can’t be the top priority.
I had the opportunity to visit my family—who live two thousand miles away from me—during Thanksgiving vacation this year. I can’t even remember the last time I spent a holiday with them, and I made the executive decision a few weeks ago that I would not write while I was visiting them…even if that meant I missed hitting my NaNo goals. I stuck to that decision and I stand by it. That novel isn’t moving off my hard drive anytime soon, but who knows how many more holidays I’ll get to spend with the people I love?
Sometimes November just isn’t your NaNo month.
It’s interesting to note that I’ve only successfully ever pulled off NaNo once…but I have written 50k within a month several other times. Just not within the month of November. November, it turns out, isn’t always the best month for me to take on this type of challenge. It’s a busy month in my teaching life, it often includes commitments with friends and family, blah blah blah. There’s no shame in declaring that November isn’t a great month for you to write fifty thousand words and taking on that challenge in July instead. I wasn’t any less proud when I once completed this challenge in August. So if things didn’t work out for you this month, don’t be afraid to try again in December or January. Just because the whole rest of the country won’t be talking about NaNo anymore doesn’t mean you can’t.
Self-shaming is kind of the worst anyway.
I am a terrible shelf-shamer. After I ate those cookies I berated myself for like an hour…and that’s not healthy. I’m trying to cut down on all my self-shaming these days, and that has to include writing. So instead of shaming myself for not meeting my NaNo goal this year, I’m choosing to be proud of the work I did accomplish. I may not have won at NaNo, but I like to like to think I won at Novembering in 2018.
Not all challenges end with blue ribbons and success speeches. Such is life. I’m moving on and looking forward, and I’m not leaving this November behind with any regrets.
For me, one of the best parts about National Novel Writing Month is that it forces me to write. When I don’t feel like it, when the muses aren’t singing, when my story ideas are terrible, when the words aren’t coming out. It forces me to set goals and hold myself accountable to them no matter what.
And sometimes, even when the resulting writing is terrible, it turns into something not-terrible.
On November 1st of this month I started writing a novel that I’ve been plotting for a while. I felt only mildly excited about the story concept, but whatever. It seemed like I had possibly exhausted my creative juices on The Novel Just Before This, so I figured I’d give this idea a go and see what happened.
Five thousand words in, it was not good.
Eight thousand words in, it was terrible.
But I was writing. Regularly—which is something I have struggled to do since I finished my last manuscript. So whatever; I kept writing it. And around ten thousand words in, something excellent happened: the whole book went off the rails.
Around midnight on day six of NaNo I had an epiphany: the concept for the book was terrible and trite and had already been done twelve thousand times. I was utterly unoriginal. But wait! If I just changed this…and this…and this….
Now THAT was a book I looked forward to writing.
I awoke the next morning with renewed vigor. Some vim, even. I did a Thing I Never Do and wrote a few scenes from this newly conceived book completely out of order, something author Holly Schindler suggested a while ago that I’ve been wanting to try. And guess what: magic happened. The characters made sense. They were not longer the cardboard stereotypes I’d been slowly writing them into. The plot had actual things happen now.
Of course, I am now four thousand words behind schedule because I had to go back and completely rewrite the entire beginning of the book. That's cool, though, because now those ten thousand words aren't absolutely the worst things I have ever written. I could not be more excited to have a book I am writing change its mind and decide it wants to go in a completely different direction. I’m so happy I kept writing this stupid thing even when I knew it was terrible. I’m so happy I gave myself a chance to let it un-terrible itself.
I mean, I could still screw this up. Who knows what I can do to the theme and setting and characters arcs in this baby as time goes on. But for the moment, I have faith in this manuscript again. I am going to apply myself to it with the same level of excitement that I apply to drinking a peanut butter milkshake (highly underrated flavor, fight me if you disagree) and see what comes of all this.
Good job, NaNo. Way to make me hate and then love writing again, and all in the first week. I can’t wait to see where we are on day 30.
It’s officially day two of National Novel Writing Month. Things that have so far occurred to me since NaNo 2018 began:
Happy NaNo, everyone! Hope your characters are cooperating and your settings are as beautiful on paper as they are in your head.
It’s that time of the year again…time to talk all things National Novel Writing Month. It feels strange to be writing a blog about NaNoWriMo while the world continues to fall apart around us. But as many wiser authors have said before me, one of the best ways to get ideas, conversations, and solutions out into the world is by writing books. So with that said: who’s in for NaNoWriMo this year?
In case you don't live on Twitter, National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) is this strange time when a whole bunch of writers across the country all try to write a novel in a month. It happens in November. I imagine a good portion of the country stops sleeping. I’ve done NaNo before, and it’s an amazing experience. While it intermittently makes me want to stick needles in my eyes, it definitely pushes you to build your writing discipline and hold yourself to deadlines. I wasn’t going to do NaNo this year because I accidentally sort of just did my own NaNo in September…a muse attacked, which is basically the best thing that can happen to a writer, and I churned out more writing than I had in months. BUT THEN. This idea for the sequel came to me.
So I think I’m going to try writing that sequel in November.
Right now I’m in what I call “NaNo prep mode,” which is basically where I spend a few weeks obsessing about all the ways I can pre-plan my NaNo project in order to make the experience better. You know, so I can throw the whole plan out in the first week of November when I decide it isn’t working. Super productive, right?
Anyway, in case you too are a writing masochist and are considering taking on NaNo this year, here are some things I like to have planned ahead of time.
1. Character sketches
When one is trying to write 50,000 words in a month, one hardly wants to waste time figuring out what color hair their MC has. One’s time would be better spent figuring out why one is referring to oneself with such a ridiculous pronoun.
2. General plot outlines
I’m not talking a detailed chapter-by-chapter summary here, unless that’s how your brain rolls. My brain works well in acts, so right now I’m just sketching out the general arc for the three acts of my novel. Obviously things will change as I go, but at least I’ll have some general directions to steer my characters in while I’m sobbing over my computer every morning.
3. A writing schedule and goals
Writing 50k in a month can feel overwhelming if you haven’t broken down how you’re going to tackle that on a daily or weekly basis. Are you going to shoot for 2k a day every day? 13k every weekend? 5k three times a week? It helps me to plan what my smaller writing goals are and then block the days and times on the calendar when I will be doing nothing but frantically typing. Obviously I can’t stick to the same schedule every single week—Thanksgiving is the great interrupter of NaNo schedules everywhere—but if I know my word deadlines for each week, I know I can always adjust my writing times and days accordingly.
4. Ice cream deliveries
I love NaNo, but it can be a rough go if the muses aren’t working in your favor. It definitely forces you to put your characters on paper when they just don’t want to be there. So stock up on whatever gets you through the rough times, and don't be afraid to up your calorie intake where necessary.
I am basically a non-functioning human if someone isn’t holding me accountable for my goals, so I know I need wider accountability when I launch projects like this. With some projects, I’ve sent my weekly writing to a friend on certain days. Some people join NaNo groups where everyone posts and shares their word counts on a regular basis. Between Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Insta, there is no shortage of places where you can publicly or privately share your writing goals with others and give yourself some accountability.
This time, I’m trying out a different type of accountability: I’m holding myself accountable through this blog. A few times a week I’ll update here with my progress (or lack thereof). Because for some reason right now it seems like a great idea to add more writing on top of my NaNo goals themselves. We’ll see how long that feeling lasts.
So, who’s in? Join the masochism and finally write that novel you've been talking about writing for months. Come NaNo with us, and in December we can all whine together about what a terrible idea it was.
Fall is kind of the worst.
I admire people who love fall. I don’t understand them, but I admire them. I wish I was one of those people who loved fall. I wish I loved sweaters and boots and scarves and cinnamon and pumpkin and yellow leaves as much as the average American seems to. I’m from Vermont, for goodness’ sake. Early on in life the Vermont Tourism Board drips into our blood, via pints of maple syrup, the assertion that we must love fall.
Didn’t work on me, though.
I remember, as a young child, dreading the first change of leaves on the trees near my house. Yellow leaves meant one thing: summer was coming to an end. Soon there would be no more swimming, no more hot sunny days, no more long hours of reading and running to my heart’s content. Changing leaves meant that soon I’d be waiting for the school bus in the dark while wrapped up in at least three layers of sweaters and coats. Soon I’d be milking cows in below-freezing temperatures (it’s about as fun as it sounds). Soon I’d be walking through three-foot snow drifts on a fairly regular basis, trying desperately—and always unsuccessfully—to keep my socks dry.
I live in Colorado now, where winter isn’t quite as ominous as it was in Vermont. Sun actually makes some appearances between the months of October and April, and snow doesn’t stubbornly refuse to ever leave again once it appears on the ground. Still, I think I will forever associate fall with what the season actually symbolizes: death. Death of long, bright days and beautiful gardens. Death of shimmering lakes and days spent reading in front of them. Death of paddleboarding and camping. Death death death death death.
I know--I'm not exactly rolling in cheer today. But in my defense, I tried to turn our heat on this morning and nothing happened. So now I've got a space heater trained on me while I type and I'm crossing my fingers that the HVAC people can squeeze us in somewhere between all the other people who were dropped into this needlessly frigid season with a furnace that decided to take a very unfortunately-timed vacation.
This year I decided to try and embrace fall. I learned to make homemade applesauce with the apples that have been falling incessantly off the tree in our backyard. I made my own butternut squash soup with the squash from my husband’s garden. I’ve been trying to enjoy pulling sweaters out of the back of my closet again and wearing them for the first time in months. I have tickets to see a hockey game this week. See? I keep subconsciously trying to remind myself. You like fall things! Fall WILL be fun this year!
So far? No dice. I still don’t like this season. I'm cold, it's already getting dark and it's not even six o'clock, soup is great but I can eat soup in the summer if I want, and hockey is always exciting, but why do I have to drive through the early fall snowstorm that’s predicted for this weekend just to get home from the game?
Please tell me, fall fans, because I just don’t get it: how is pumpkin spice worth any of this trouble?
Have you seen this poll? The one referenced in the picture above? The one that says only 55% of people between the ages of 30 and 49 will vote this November?
Every fall there's a lot of talk about whether or not people in the 18-29 age bracket are going to vote in the upcoming election. Will the millennials show up? Are the young people finally going to bring their avocado toast with them to the polls?* It’s an important conversation. And if you’re between the ages of 18 and 29, you should definitely vote this year. But I’d like to shift the conversation for just a minute and talk about my age bracket: hello, everyone between the ages of 30 and 49.
First of all, if you’re in my bracket, congratulations on surviving the switch-over from AOL to SnapChat. These last twenty years have been nuts, am I right? Also, hi, weren’t we all just watching a Supreme Court nominee defend themselves against sexual misconduct allegations like five minutes ago? Never mind, I was actually a little kid. But there are definitely a lot of oddities that come with being part of this generation, whatever the heck people are calling us these days. And here’s one more oddity for us all to consider: only 55% of us are predicted to vote in the midterms this year.
When I see statistics like this, I feel the urge to parse why only a little more than half of people in my age bracket are voting. Shouldn’t we be the voters? The ones every politician wants in their back pocket? Shouldn’t we be showing up in droves? We’re the ones who are raising kids and Border Collies and trying to make house payments. We’ve got a lot to lose and a lot to gain from every election. So why are only 55% of us bothering with the process?
I have theories. I am curious if any of them could be right.
Theory #1: Middle child syndrome
The over-fifties get all the credit for showing up to vote (Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!) and the millennials are all over every news broadcast while people try to figure out how to get them to register. (Cindy, your pigtails are ugly.) But no one ever pays any attention to us. Do we not vote because no one ever reminds us to? Because no one ever seems to notice if we do or not?
Poor, poor Jans.
Theory #2: We’re still trying to figure out where we fit into America
This theory might get a little bit on the existential side, so bear with me. We, thirty to forty-niners, are the generation that had to make the inevitable transition from Oregon Trail to iPads. We’re the ones with feet in several different worlds. None of us know what it’s like to grow up without technology, and none of us know what it’s like to grow up completely immersed it in. In a way, we have always lived in a strange go-between of the two places.
In a world where politics has been entirely rewritten by the changing face of technology, we’ve always just been sort of along for the ride. I wonder if that’s left some of us unsure how to navigate things like political conversations and opinions. I’m still trying to figure out what my Facebook ratio of cats to recipes to politics is supposed be, and I didn’t even get a chance to figure it out with MySpace before that poor thing bit the dust. Is it possible that many of us stay out of politics because it’s just one more thing that’s hard to navigate across a scope of societal changes we had to lead the charge on?
Theory #3: We started complacent, so we stay complacent
I sometimes wonder if our voting apathy has something to do with the time period we all grew up in. 9/11 changed the political face of the country, and before that, the politics of the 80s and 90s had a different tone and different implications. Student loans didn’t look the way they do now, and neither did mortgages. That was also the golden age of “we’re post-racial,” so issues like racism and classism were often ignored despite the insane amounts of institutional racism and classism which permeated both decades. I wonder: is it possible that a lot of us--especially those of us who are white and were either working, middle, or upper class at the time--weren’t incentivized to care about politics when we were younger, and we’ve never been able to pick up the habit of caring? Or am I completely off here? Did all of us care more than I think we did back then, and now we’ve just given up?
In the end, I do not know why only 55% of people around my age will probably vote this coming November. Maybe every single one of these theories is off. But I wish I understood why, as the country begs and pleads my college students to vote, more of my own peers don’t show up at the polls.**
*For the record, I absolutely love avocado toast.
**If you’ve got ideas, share ‘em. Then we can all sit around and play Oregon Trail afterward, right before we update our voter registration together.
I bring you: some Friday book recs from the @rileyandjohannareadstuff Instagram account.Today's list includes marathon runners, hockey players who make a lot of pie, and eighteenth century rakes. What's everyone else reading right now? I have a library trip coming up, and suggestions are always appreciated. :)
We all knew that guy in high school.
The one with the upstanding pedigree from the great family. The one who everyone expected to run for public office or take over a major company. The one who did well in classes but also used a significant amount of charisma on his way to the top of academic standings. The one who earned the A and greased enough smiles out of people that it became an A+.
He was the guy who was at the right party every weekend. He was the slightly more respectable version of his best friend, who was the louder and more intimidating character of the two. The best friend was the one who would openly mock anyone not pretty or athletic enough to be part of their crowd.
The friend was the one who often seemed more threatening. More open about his disdain for others. That guy you knew, on the other hand, he was quieter in his disdain. Kept it couched, hidden in layers of smug laughter and jokes that would only happen behind people’s backs.
He was the guy who got black-out drunk at plenty of parties, just like everyone else in his circle of friends did. The guy who had plenty of girls interested in him.
He had enough respectable girlfriends and friends who were girls that you never thought he’d let his power, his high school success, lead him into forcing himself onto a girl at a party and holding his hand over her mouth. You didn’t think he’d do that—at least not right away.
But then you heard the rumors circling school the day after that big party. You couldn’t take them as cardinal truth—they were just rumors, after all—but enough of the details matched up that a fairly clear picture could be painted. The guy had a little too much to drink. His friend, the one who never had a problem mocking others or forcing his body into places it wasn’t wanted, was somehow involved. They disappeared into a room. A girl left the party crying, telling her friends the guy forced himself on her.
You watched the guy more closely in class that day. You saw the way he aggressively pushed to get what he wanted from his friend group, from teachers. He was a person used to having his way. A person used to being told he was right. Strong. Better than everyone else.
It was easy, then, to see how the power could become too much. How it could have taken over. You believed the rumors, unequivocally. But it didn’t matter. The girl never said anything, because who would have believed her? People would have interrogated her, not him. Her motives, her drinking habits, her promiscuity. She would have been slut-shamed and treated like an outcast for the rest of her high school career. No, it wasn’t worth it. Of course she doesn’t say anything. You didn’t blame her.
We all knew that guy in high school.
Today, you see him on TV. He is surrounded by a circle of other men who were also that guy in their own high schools. That circle will continue to put him and other men just like him in power over and over again. That circle that will forever excuse what happened that night at that party. It must be excused. If it is not, then every man in that circle is at risk. All of them are at risk to be seen for who they are when the lights are off and the doors are closed and the only witness is their best friend.
You realize that the majority of your country’s leaders are that guy you knew in high school.
Suddenly, you are more afraid than you have ever been.
I just hit forty-five thousand words on a manuscript I started less than a month ago. I was so excited I treated myself to half a pound of homemade applesauce and then immediately started writing about how good writing feels today. Here is why: because writing is STRANGE.
Just ninety days ago, I was moaning in front of my computer, wondering if I’d ever have a good idea again. I was throwing index cards full of plot ideas into the trash like good ideas would somehow emerge if I kept destroying all the bad ones. I was seriously considering ending my career as a writer and taking up something in cake decorating instead. Which is not a good idea at all because I actually hate decorating cakes. (I was probably watching too much Food Network. If there is such a thing.)
Then, one day, something switched. It actually felt like someone flipped a switch somewhere inside me. It happened while I was staying in a hotel with my husband, who was on a business trip. I was riding an exercise bike, and I had an idea for a book, as you do. I got off the bike, went upstairs, and sat in the bathtub with a notebook, as you do. I wrote page after page, stopping to wipe off the ones that were smearing as I splashed them with water—again, as you do.
I grabbed my laptop and started typing. And since then, I have been writing more words per week than I probably wrote the entire month before I climbed on that exercise bike.
Like I said before, writing is STRANGE.
I’m trying to ride this wave of creative glory as long as possible. But like any decent wave, I know it won’t last forever. It will hit the shore eventually, as I will with it. Thus will commence weeks or months of self-doubt and growling at keyboards and probably plenty of rejections of this very same manuscript I so desperately love right now. I suppose that’s all likely the metaphorical equivalent of paddling back out and waiting for the next wave. (I’ve never surfed, by the way. All I have to go on here is lots of observation I did while camping out of the back of a van in California, so hopefully this isn’t the worse metaphor ever written in recorded history.)
There are people who claim to have solved all the secrets of creative writing. Write every day. Write this exact number of words for this exact number of hours every day. Have a black cat circle your chair three times before turning on the computer every fifth Sunday. But we all know that no matter how many rules you follow, no matter how many writing practices you adopt—and we all have various practices that help us with our writing productivity, there is no doubt of that—muses come when they come and go when they go.
I’m going to ride this wave for as long as I can. And when I hit that metaphorical beach again and have to begin the task of paddling back out across difficult water, I want to remember how good this particular wave was. I want to remember how incredibly powerful and content I feel right now. How limitless the world can feel sometimes.