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.
This tweet is my life, everyone.
I cannot tell you how many 10k manuscripts live in the graveyard that is the Documents file of my computer. There they sit, abandoned, crying out for attention. Will I ever get a second act? Whatever happened after that third major plot point? But is the MC’s brother’s cousin actually the villain after all?
Poor abandoned manuscripts. It was a bit of a rough writing year for me. I did a lot of editing projects and worked on some things with other writers, but my own work just kept falling flat. Every time I started something and got excited about it, that excitement died somewhere around the 8-10k mark and the poor book ended up in the graveyard of lost and loosely plotted souls on my computer.
This went on for about seven months. And any writer will tell you that seven months of feeling unproductive and creatively stifled makes you second-guess a lot of things. Like whether you’re cut out to write this long-term. Whether you’re good enough. Whether you’ll ever produce anything worthy of being read again.
Clearly I’ve had A Lot of Feelings for a while.
I took some time at the end of this summer and stopped trying to write anything new for a few weeks. I kept working on editing projects, but I actively stopped trying to create anything. I was worried my brain, and maybe my heart, needed a break. Some space from feeling like all I was going to do every time I sat down at the computer was create another new character who would be lost to my Google drive before they even became three-dimensional.
I struggled some more as I threw myself back into writing this fall, but recently things have been coming together again. I just hit 20K on a manuscript that I actively am really enjoying. I’m in that delightful stage of writing a new novel where I relish waking up every morning to write my next scene. What brought on this sudden bought of renewed creativity? I’m not sure. Maybe it was the time off. Maybe my muse and I were finally in the same room at the same time again. Maybe maybe maybe.
I wish writing felt more linear sometimes. I wish I could follow the trains and lines of my creative process with a better idea of where it’s going. But I can’t, and in a publishing world that’s as much of a roller coaster as the creative process, I know better than to hope for a linear existence in writing. It would be nice. But it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.
I teach college writing to freshman, and we talk a lot about embracing moments of struggle in the writing process. Working with them, not against them. Trusting that growth and improvement will come if you put in the work, even if it doesn’t come at the same rate as it does for the person sitting next to you.
So as I’m staring down the graveyard of manuscripts in my documents folder today, I’m trying to remember that each of these books were meant to die in the ashes of that folder. They have been part of my journey to improvement. They are not lost weeks and months of writing, as they sometimes seem to be. They are part of everything I will ever write in the future, every word I will produce on this computer, even if they never got their own second act.
To all the manuscripts I’ve loved before: thank you. Forget everything I said when I was swearing about how your secondary characters were flat and your plot had no focus.
You’re wonderful, even though you’re terrible.
I definitely have the right friends in my life because no fewer than four of them shared the Cards Against Humanity call for contributing writers on their social media feeds this week. That’s right: if you’re witty enough, Cards Against Humanity wants YOU to create funny-and-potentially-inappropriate cards for their collection. They’ll even pay you to do it.
Obviously I was tempted to apply. Who wouldn’t want to get paid forty dollars an hour to make jokes about Greek yoghurt? Sounds like The Life.
There’s just one problem: I’m not actually all that funny.
This has become abundantly clear as I’ve been working on edits for my latest novel. The last three or so rounds of revision notes have all come back with the same notes over and over again in the comments—all from different people, I might add. Make this funnier! Add humor here! This line needs to be funny!
Gee, I keep thinking. I thought it was.
I’m fairly certain my husband is the only person on the planet who consistently appreciates my sense of humor and laughs at most of my jokes. It should be noted here that his sense of humor is just as bizarre and misunderstood as mine, and sometimes he tries to tally how many of his students actually understand the jokes he makes while he’s teaching. I do the same thing…and neither of our numbers are ever all that high. Basically, we spend a whole lot of time laughing at each other’s jokes to make up for the fact that other people aren’t.
Normally I’m not bothered by the fact that my sense of humor is about five steps away from everyone else’s. Editing this manuscript is the first time where I’ve actively worried that my inability to make jokes others find amusing may hurt my writing career. I can’t write angsty novels about people in deep dark pain for my entire life, after all. I’m not George R.R. Martin.
It’s not that I don’t hit an occasionally good punchline in real life or in my writing. It’s just that funny doesn’t really come naturally to me, and the things I do find amusing tend to hinge more on the sarcastic or punny. Sometimes this works. It’s just not working in my current manuscript, apparently.
(Sidenote: any other 80s children remember when Paula Danziger used to write entire novels in puns? I blame her entirely for my humor problems. Apparently if you binge-read too many puns in your tween years it permanently affects your sense of humor.)
So! I’m on an active quest to become as funny as I think I am. I’m planning an intensive study regarding which of my jokes do get laughs and which do not during the upcoming school year. (I’d apologize in advance to all my students, but the bad jokes were going to happen either way, so this really won’t change anything.) I’m going to pause my recent Dr. Who obsession for a moment—because I don’t think British humor is going to help me curb my sarcasm—and cue up more Melissa McCarthy on Netflix. And I’m going to apply for the CAH job. Not because I think I’ll get it, but because more practice can’t possibly hurt at this point.
And, naturally, I’ll keep writing blog posts that I think are hilarious. If my history is any indication, you won’t think they’re nearly as funny as I do. But you’re still reading this one at 583 words in, so maybe there is some hope after all.
Warning: this post has some very general spoilers for both my books and for Bill Konigsberg’s books Honestly Ben and Openly Straight. VERY general. You’re not going to find out who killed JFK or anything. But if you’re the type of person who hoped for Titanic to have a surprise ending, maybe stop reading here.
Warning #2: I’m in a rambly mood, and this blog post definitely shows it. I suspect Rafe’s writing teacher in Openly Straight would leave me some very critical feedback.
I’m having one of those writing weeks where I’m thinking a lot about endings. About when endings should be specific and when they should be vague. When they should be happy or sad or thrilling or cause great anger on the part of the reader. Endings are hard—in so many ways they define the message and purpose of a novel. What makes them even more complicated is that most our stories don’t have nice clean endings, no matter how unhappy or happy they are. So I spend a lot of time considering how I can be true to the reality of my characters’ lives and still tell the story I want to tell.
My solution? I spend a lot of time writing what I half-jokingly call happy-but-ambiguous endings. The happy-but-ambiguous ending is any story ending which leaves the character in a generally good place emotionally and physically but without definitive clarity that everything has “worked out” for them. It’s the kind of ending that leaves you, the reader, to write the details in your mind of what likely happens next, even though the story itself left you with no question that the character is going to be a-okay.
As a writer I have more than a small affection for the happy-but-ambiguous ending, and I’ve written several YA novels with endings that play in this ballpark. For me, these types of endings just feel more authentic. I’m writing about people’s lives, and the ends of the chapters in our lives rarely come with every problem wrapped up nicely or all questions answered. But I also tend to write more hopeful stories, so my novels also usually end on more optimistic notes—hence the happy-but-ambiguous tagline.
While I may love writing a good happy-but-ambiguous ending, more than one reviewer has expressed some dislike after hitting the last page in one of my novels. If you’ve read Thanks a Lot, John LeClair, you know that there’s a key detail I left very obviously unsaid at the end of the book…and not every reader on the planet was thrilled. That’s okay. I get it. Sometimes we read for escape, right? Sometimes we read because we’re looking to find one the happy little bows that isn’t tying things up nicely in our own lives. We want our characters to find the closure and clarity we’re desperately searching for.
Case in point: this past Sunday I was thinking about endings and reading Honestly Ben, Bill Konigsberg’s new companion to Openly Straight. First of all, if you haven’t read Honestly Ben or Openly Straight, I highly recommend both books. Konigsberg tackles so many important themes and questions in both, and the characters he creates are incredibly likeable. (Even the ones who are not always so likeable are quite likeable, if that makes sense.)
So there I was, moseying through Honestly Ben, and my Kindle was indicating I was near the end of the book. Already I could sense what was coming: the happy-but-ambiguous ending. All signs were pointing toward it. For one thing, I was too far into the book for all the various plots and subplots to be wrapped up perfectly. For another, Openly Straight also features a happy-but-ambiguous ending.
And yes, I am a lover of the happy-but-ambiguous ending. When I am writing them. But what happens when I read them? Let me tell you: I hit the last page of Honestly Ben, and it took all my strength not to either a) throw my poor Kindle at the wall or b) write Bill Konigsberg asking for a third book to be released immediately. I was left with a hundred question. What about the_____? How will Ben _____? Will Ben ____ now?
That’s the thing about human beings, I guess. We all know our stories are complex and dynamic and that happily ever afters only happen in fairy tales. But that doesn’t mean we ever stop wishing for those happily ever afters to appear.
I’m sure I’ll go on to write more happy-but-ambiguous endings, and I’ll always appreciate when great authors like Konigsberg do the same. I suppose the moral of the story is this: be grateful when the writers you love are realistic and honest, and never throw your Kindle at the wall.
Well, it’s happened again. I attempted another crafting project and failed miserably.
It’s cool. Sometimes the Mod Podge eats you, know what I mean?
So here I am, hands still covered in the dried stuff, trying to come up with a new craft project. I’m sure this next one will also involve Mod Podge. Because gosh golly, I may not be a success with the Mod Podge yet, but I sure am learning a whole lot of ways not to use Mod Podge.
It makes sense that I would be thinking about success and failure the week that my third novel, Thanks a Lot, John LeClair is published. Book releases are strange things for me. I realize a book release should be an incredibly happy and joyous occasion. But I’m an anxious person when I’m not putting giant pieces of myself out in the world, so for me they result in more deep breathing and therapeutic self-talk than dancing and singing. (Are there authors who dance and sing on their release days? Do tell, please.)
Like Mod Podge, book release days are often a reminder for me of what a fickle word “success” is. When you first start writing, you spend a lot of time waiting for success to appear. I remember thinking that the moment I signed my first book contract everything would be fine—I’d be published! My books would be out in the world! I’d be successful!
Only for most of us writers, I don’t think that’s how it goes. Probably Stephen King, but not so much everyone else. We get that first contract, and we go out and celebrate. Maybe the book sells, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it gets good reviews and wins awards, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it sells but doesn’t win any awards. Maybe it wins awards but doesn’t sell more than a hundred copies.
And if you’re small-pubbed like I am, you can spend a lot of time comparing yourself to other, big-pubbed authors and feeling like you’ll never be successful. Like you’ll never get the publicity or the book tours or the sales or the sheer number of reviews they do. And no matter what your publication platform, I imagine that most of us authors also spend a lot of time worrying we’re not doing enough. Not doing enough online promotion, enough events, enough anything. Enough writing the next book.
In other words, I thought I’d get to call myself a success the day I finally signed a publishing contract. But I still spend a great deal of time feeling like an utter failure. And I think that might be the case even for the Laurie Halse Andersons of the world—those authors I would never consider anything other than “successful,” because hey, I somehow ended up owning three copies of one of her books. (Absolutely true. Strange discovery I made while cleaning out my storage unit.)
That’s the weird thing about the definition of success: it’s fluid and means very different things to very different people at different times.
So here I am, having just crumpled up a large pile of failed Mod Podge, paper, paintbrushes, and Christmas ornaments—it’s probably best if you don’t ask—and thinking about the definition of success. There is no way you could call tonight’s project anything but an abject failure. And yet I actually had a lot of fun crashing miserably through that giant glue mess. I’m sure I’ll have a lot of fun when I take out the Mod Podge again. And though my highly anxious brain tries to tell me otherwise, I have a lot of fun putting words on paper.
Normally I’d end here with some very hopeful and meaningful comment about how in the future I’m going to try to remember that success is relative and it’s the journey that matters and comparisons don’t get us anywhere in life, but that sort of sentiment feels hard this week. So instead I’m going to quote something one of my characters says in the book Thanks a Lot, John LeClair. I wrote this quote a long time ago, because my characters and I needed to hear it back then—and now I’m going to quote it here in this blog, because I need to hear it again.
“Emmitt.” Coach smiles. “You think success is some trophy you put on your shelf? Some number you graduate high school with? Success isn’t something you hold up for other people to look at. It’s a life that’s filled with happiness. Hope. Meaning. Things like that. That’s what the goal is. You end up with any of those things, and it won’t matter how many trophies and numbers you had to show off.”
Coach is a smart guy. I’m going to try and listen to him more in the coming weeks. And yeah, that was shameless self-promo I don’t regret in the slightest. Here’s more.
This fall, I'm excited to be participating in the YA Scavenger Hunt for the very first time! What's the YA Scavenger Hunt, you ask? Um, it's a chance to win BOOKS. Lots and lots of FREE BOOKS. You know you want in.
Head here to get some quick directions about how to join the fun. Basically: you visit a bunch of authors' websites looking for secret numbers. Find all the numbers for a chance to win. There are six different teams of authors, so there are a LOT of chances to win. I'm on the red team this year, and I'm excited to be hosting the wonderful Colleen Nelson, author of Finding Hope. Stop by next week for a bonus scene and other nifty schtuff from Colleen.
The hunt begins October 4th and ends October 9th. Good luck, everyone!
So, BookCon! BookCon was last weekend in Chicago. To be perfectly honest, I had very little idea what I was getting into when I signed up to go. But hey. Can’t go wrong attending any convention with the word “book” in the title, right?
As it turns out: RIGHT.
BookCon was amazing and intimidating and fun and terrifying and all the other important adjectives that should describe any great life experience. For me, this year’s BookCon will go down as….
1. The time I gave out about a bazillion rainbow-colored hockey pencils.
2. The time I signed lots and lots of books and met readers from all over the country, including the fantastic mother-daughter team who came wearing THESE SHIRTS.
This is apparently what my face looked like when I first caught a glimpse of the line "spread those pages, baby."
3. The time I shipped home a giant poster of my own face after the publisher gave it to me, because ego, and also what better souvenir is there than a giant awkward picture of yourself trying not to look awkward? (And has anyone figured out how not to look completely awkward in a head shot? If so, I'd appreciate a how-to guide.)
4. The time I met so many amazing authors, including…
Julia Ember, internet and book guru extraordinaire. Also brilliant author of UNICORN TRACKS, which I’ve been looking forward to reading for so long now.
Audrey Coulthurst, whose fantastic sense of humor makes me want to read every book she ever writes. First up: OF FIRE AND STARS, which comes out in November. Here’s a picture in which two –hursts hung out.
Mia Seigbert, who also writes books about gay hockey players! I cannot wait to read JERKBAIT. Naturally, we battled with hockey pencils. Then I think she tried to talk me into becoming a Devils fan? Didn't stick, but points for effort.
Leigh Bardugo, who is super kind and told me how excited she was that my teacher friends are getting students into SHADOW AND BONE. She even signed something for one of said teacher friends.
Sherman Alexie, who I quickly fangirled all over. As one does. It’s basically just a miracle I didn’t cry as he signed my copy of WAR DANCES.
Matt de la Pena, who I accidentally met at a different event the next day. After reviving my inner fangirl one more time (she was so up to the challenge), I got to listen to him read from his amazing picture book THE HOUSE ON MARKET STREET.
5. The time I realized that no matter how often I feel like a failure as a writer, I am incredibly lucky.
I’m lucky that Elizabeth North, Anne Regan, and all the rest of the fine folks Harmony Ink Press took a chance on publishing my books in the first place. I’m lucky to go to places like Book Con where people who love the written word as much as I do want to drool all over books with me. I’m lucky to meet readers who actually want to read anything that I put on a page.
Writing isn’t a perfect business, and it sure isn’t an easy business. Three days out of seven I wake up and wish I’d gone into accounting. But then I get working on a solid chapter and I think holy crap, I can’t imagine how this life could get any better.
And then I get to go to places like Book Con and hang out with other people who love writing and reading as much as I do, and somehow it does.
So maybe Book Con will mostly go down as the time I remembered to be grateful for everything I have. Especially on days when being grateful is hard.
And it will definitely go down as the day a FedEx worker and I had an intense conversation about the facial expressions teenagers make when they see West Side Story for the first time while she boxed up a three-foot tall picture of my face and prepared to ship it across the country. We agreed our favorite verbal reaction is this: “But they’re fighting…so why are they dancing?”
Then she packed my face into the box and Book Con was over.
I already can’t wait to go back.
So! In relatively recent news, I’m a hockey fan now.
It all started a few years ago when I started writing the book that’s coming out with Harmony Ink Press this December. The book is a companion to Here’s to You, Zeb Pike, and NO, YOU CANNOT KNOW THE TITLE OR SEE THE COVER YET. But both are coming very soon—I absolutely promise. There are special announcement plans and possibly even fireworks involved. Get excited.
Anyway, this book is told from Emmitt’s point of view, and it takes place a few months after he and Dusty first meet. As you might have guessed, there is a LOT Of hockey in it. I’ve always liked hockey; I grew up in northern Vermont, where it’s practically illegal not to. Even so, I was certainly never an avid hockey fan. Like many Americans, I tended to give my best support to the sport in June. I was the quintessential Easter-and-Christmas person of hockey supporters.
Then this book came…and this book required that I watch hours and hours of hockey. Know the history of the sport, the culture of the sport, the rules of the sport. And because Emmitt is gay, this book also required that I research and fully understand the NHL’s relationship with the LGBTQ community.
For better or worse, two important things came out of me writing this book. One: I am now an Avs fan for life, even in sad years like this when we collapse tremendously in the last few games of the season. (It’s okay, Dutchy. I still love you.) Two: I understand why what Andrew Shaw said the other night mattered so much.
In case you missed it—or in case you’re also an Easter-and-Christmas hockey person—the other night the Chicago Blackhawks played the St. Louis Blues. It’s the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the Hawks have not always looked their best in this series. In this particular game, star player Andew Shaw—who up until this incident has always reminded me of a delightful puppy who happens to have tremendous stickhandling abilities—lost his cool. Not only did he flip off a ref, he also yelled a decidedly homophobic slur at the guy. I’m sure you can guess which slur.
And the cameras caught it.
Shaw’s apology later on was contrite and repentant. He said this wasn’t him, and he expressed regret multiple times to the entire gay and lesbian community. He said that after watching the video of himself he was horrified.
Either the guy’s an amazing actor, or he’s legitimately sorry. And I’m choosing to believe the latter.
I was proud of Shaw for apologizing. It’s never easy to stand up and admit when you’ve said something hurtful. He could have taken a path of denial or excuses, and he didn’t. That takes guts.
Because I was proud of Shaw, I read several articles covering his speech. Then I read the comments on the articles, and I sort of wanted to throw up.
This, people, is why you never read the comments.
Let’s set aside the Chicago fans who are clearly just upset one of their stars was suspended for a game. Multiple comments referenced how overly sensitive this world has become and how being politically correct is something horrible that we should all avoid. Free speech, several people shouted. He should be able to say whatever he wants! Sticks and stones and all that.
A common thread throughout several of the comments was this: They’re just words. Why does everyone care?
Writing a book about a gay teenager who desperately wants to play professional hockey had already answered that question for me.
Here’s the thing: despite things like the You Can Play project, which has its roots in the NHL and shares the important message that all people—regardless of sexual orientation—are welcome in pro leagues like the NHL, there are no current or former NHL players who have ever come out. Not one. Consider the math on that. Consider the hundreds of people who, statistically speaking, have likely spent years of their entire lives in the closet as they worked their way through the NHL and even after they retired.
I refuse to believe that’s some kind of accident. I do believe that the culture in the NHL is shifting to one of greater acceptance for all people…and that’s wonderful. That’s exactly what the NHL and this world needs.
You know what doesn’t breed acceptance? You know what doesn’t make teenage kids who play hockey or NHL players feel like they can come out to their teams? Professional athletes hurling homophobic slurs rooted in a deep history of vile hate and violence. Words matter. They send messages. They equally breed acceptance and discord.
What Andrew Shaw said on the ice the other night was another sad reminder that the NHL still has a long way to go before it can be the accepting place people like the fictional Emmitt LaPoint so desperately need it to be. But Andew Shaw’s apology was also a reminder that we as a society have come a long way, and so has the NHL.
Andrew Shaw, wherever you are, thanks for standing up and doing the right thing. And for those of you who don’t understand why it was the right thing, do some research. I’d highly recommend the site OutSports; that’s where I did much of my research. This world isn’t getting any smaller, and staying closed-minded toward others’ feelings because you don’t like “political correctness” isn’t going to get you very far in the global community we live in now.
And go Avs. Next year, of course. For now I’ll just have to cheer on whoever Minnesota’s playing