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Surviving NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo is a marathon for writers. With a super-stretch goal of 50,000 words, what can you do to get in shape now? These are the things that helped me win last year.

  • Prewriting: If you do any prewriting (e.g. Character sketches, exploratory scene writing, outlining), get it done before November 1st.
    • Even if you’re a total pantser, determining GMC and external conflicts now will go a long way toward ensuring you have a story idea that will sustain a novel-length work.
    • If you can outline, do it. I had a very sketchy outline last year, but it saved me when I got stuck and wasn’t sure what to start writing next.
  • Keep moving forward: Don’t go back to edit. Not only will this destroy your forward momentum, you end up wasting time fiddling with scenes that may just end up on the cutting room floor later. This more than anything is how I finished last year.
  • Create a change log: Should the first scene happen at the morgue instead of a bar? Jot down a note in the change log and keep writing as if you made the changes. (I keep such a file right in my Scrivener project for easy access).
  • Get comfortable: Are you planning to try Scrivener—or another writing program—during NaNo? Go for it! But download your free trial now and get used to it. You only need the basics to get started. You can play with all the cool features later.
    • The Scrivener trial is for 30 uses, not 30 days, so don’t close the program every day and it’ll get you through NaNo.
    • NaNo winners get a Scrivener discount coupon, so wait until you win to buy!
  • Time yourself: Use a timer to motivate you to sit in your chair (or stand at your desk) for manageable chunks of time. When it goes off you can decide if you want to keep writing or take a break. Writing is good, but breaks are important too.
  • Track your progress: I keep a log of my daily word count in Scrivener, and use the project targets to make sure I’m on track.
  • Alert friends and family: Get your family on board now. If you still have to make dinner, pick easy, quick meals for this month. Figure out what you need and ask for it now (designated quiet time, someone else to wash dishes, whatever). Make sure non-writing friends and family understand that you won't be answering the phone or checking email constantly.
  • Be antisocial: Being part of the NaNoWriMo, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ community is great, and can provide support during the long haul, but if it gets in the way of writing, turn it off. Need willpower help? Try MacFreedom or a similar program, unplug your wifi, or go somewhere that doesn’t have Internet access.
  • Reward yourself: Give yourself little rewards when you meet your goals. A bubble bath, a few pieces of chocolate, a chapter of a good book, a movie, time with your family. Pick something that works for you.

Most important of all, just try your best. Why do we torture ourselves? Because even if you don’t win, you’ll learn something about yourself. You’ll likely be amazed at what you accomplished, both in terms of total output and some of your daily totals.

I learned that my writing is better when I don't stop to censor or analyze it. I kept little sticky notes on my laptop with reminders like “write messy”, “write fast”, and “just write”.

It’s not about winning, it’s about going for it. No matter how many words you have at the end, it’ll be more than you have now.

That’s a win.

Are you a NaNoWriMo veteran? I'd love to see your tips for getting through it.

Kung Fu writer

My yellow sash graduation, October 2010 (yes, last year)

There really are people who can take you down with the flick of a wrist or the twist of a foot. I met a few of them in person over the weekend when I attended the Chi Lin Kung Fu reunion.

My instructor and a dozen or so Kung Fu masters were there. What an impressive bunch! (And a bit intimidating, especially when I had to perform for my purple sash test in front of them!)

With only two years of Tae Kwon Do and a year of Kung Fu under my, uh, sash, it’s humbling to be around men who’ve been studying the martial arts for thirty years or more. Their level of skill is astounding.

It’s a testament to the dedication, training, and practice they’ve put in.

And, like most experiences where I’m surrounded by experts, I got to thinking about the parallels to learning to write.

It’s incredibly easy to look at Nora Roberts or David Baldacci and think you’ll never be that good. And maybe you won’t. But it’s easy to miss the fact that those authors were new once too. They had to write several books—or maybe revise the same one repeatedly—before they got the call.

They spent years honing their craft, and have spent the subsequent years improving it.

If they did it, so can you.

So can I.

We all have things we’re good at. Some of us are athletic, some are musical, some are technical, and some are writers. Or all of those things. But even a natural talent requires focused effort, practice, and training.

Whatever your goal is, writing or otherwise, you can’t jump from beginner to master overnight. Even earning your black belt/sash (getting published) only means you’ve mastered the basics. There’s always more work to do, more to learn.

I may never be as prolific as Nora Roberts, but I'm sure going to try.

I may never be able to kill a man with my pinkie finger either, but someday I might just be able to take him down with my foot. 😉

A meaningful life

“I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today

were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do

today?' And whenever the answer has been ‘No' for too many days in a

row, I know I need to change something…almost everything – all

external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure

– these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what

is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best

way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”

–Steve Jobs

Like much of the world, I am mourning the loss of Steve Jobs and his creative genius. But while he left us a lasting legacy of wonderful gadgets that have transformed our world, perhaps his most important legacy is his outlook on life.

I have taken his challenge several times, spurred on by the likes of Brian Tracy and Franklin Covey, to determine if I was living according to my priorities. Had I not, I would never have become a teacher, I would never have gone to grad school, and I would not be home with my kids now, or living my dream as a writer.

The way I see it, we only get one shot, so I'd like to live with no regrets. I don't always succeed. I still let pride, fear of embarrassment or failure, and the expectations of others get in my way. But I'm working on it.

So in honor of Steve Jobs, my challenge to you is to look at your life, ask yourself if there's anything you need to change, and then sit down and brainstorm what that change might look like. It doesn't always have to mean a loss of income, or a massive change to your lifestyle.

Maybe it's as simple as saying “no” next time someone asks you to volunteer. Or “yes”, for that matter.

I've learned the hard way that life is too short to settle for an average existence doing what everyone else thinks you should do. What do you want to do?

Go find a way.

Photo credit: STONE STACK © Aje |


How do you muzzle your inner critic? You know, the big sister of the internal editor that sits on your shoulder when you write?

The one who tells you you’re not good enough, smart enough, deserving enough to achieve your dream. She tells you what you write is worthless, wonders why you’re wasting your time, prods you to eat cookie dough instead.

My Tuesday post about jettisoning negative people in your life brought about a discussion of our own negative internal voice and how to overcome it.

According to time-management guru Brian Tracy in his book Eat that Frog!, “Fully 95 percent of your emotions, positive or negative, are determined by how you talk to yourself on a minute-to-minute basis.”

So, maybe we should figure out how to talk to ourselves in a way that is supportive, huh?

It’s harder than it sounds. Thoughts enter our heads constantly, and half of the time we’re hardly aware of them. But we feel the results. We can be our self-esteem’s worst enemy, far tougher than anyone around us would be.

One of my blog readers named her internal critic Myrtle. I like that because once you’ve separated her from yourself, you can kick her ass.

For me, the first step is to pay attention to what I think. The second step is to rephrase harmful thoughts. Instead of, “this sucks,” I might say, “I’m sure this could be better, but I can fix it later.”

Then I keep writing.

Another method I like is based on neurolinguistic programming (NLP), something Tony Robbins is fond of in his seminars. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott recommends you take all the voices that scream at you and shove those “people” into a jar. Close the lid.

Add a volume control to the jar. Turn it up so you can hear the yells and mockery, then turn it all the way down. Get back to writing.

When distracting thoughts or images—say my latest agent rejection, or worry over my latest plotline—won’t leave me alone, I imagine them on a chalkboard in my mind, then I visualize wiping the board clean.

Other variations on this are giving the voice a funny pitch so it can no longer be taken seriously, balling up the thought and tossing it away, or dimming the image’s color and shrinking it before moving it to a far away corner of our mind.

I think part of the success of these strategies is that they give us a sense of control over the voice of doubt.

David Morrell, in his book The Successful Novelist, talks about asking his students why they want to write, and digging deeper and deeper until they get beyond the superficial reasons like money, fame, and the “writer’s lifestyle”.

When your inner critic is certain you should quit wasting your time on the worthless trash you call a manuscript, ask yourself how you would feel if you quit writing.

Would you be okay with it?

Would you be devastated?

Think about why you started writing, and why you still torture yourself with it. If you can’t imagine your life without writing, tell that hateful beeyotch to sit back and shut up.

And finally, know that no matter how much you think your writing sucks now, it doesn’t matter. Anne Lamott proposes “shitty first drafts”. If you know the first attempt is going to be bad, then you can just go with it and let the words flow without fear, because, hey, it’s supposed to be crap, right?

Instead of focusing on quality, which you have limited control over, focus on quantity. Set word count and time goals. The more goals you complete, the higher your self-esteem, and the better you’ll feel about your writing. The beauty will happen in the revisions.

Like Nora Roberts once said, “You can fix a bad page; you can’t fix a blank one.”

Take that, Myrtle!

How do you silence your inner critic?

Photo credit: SURPRISED © Yanik Chauvin |

Leave me alone

“Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the people doing it.” Chinese Proverb

As writers, we face naysayers from all sides. Friends, family, acquaintances, and coworkers often don’t understand what we do, how we can spend so much time doing it, or why we’re bothering to work toward such an impossible dream. They shy away from what they don’t understand.

And frankly, they probably wouldn’t truly understand even if you talked about your passion, your dream, your need to be more than average. After all, they might be content with who and where they are in life and resent that you’re not. Or worse, they might be angry or jealous that you’re going after your big goal and they don’t feel like they can do the same.

Maybe they’re bitter about the time you’re spending on yourself. Maybe they’re too unhappy with their own lives to be supportive of your efforts. Or maybe they think they’re protecting you from your own delusions.

Unfortunately, none of these people are likely to leave you to your work in peace. It’s your job to guard your time and your self-confidence from those who would drag you down.

With certain people, that might mean cutting them from your life, especially if they sabotage your time or confidence. For others, maybe it means not talking about the important things. Sad, but sometimes necessary with someone you want to keep around.

Ultimately, the buck stops with you. Keeping others from dragging you down is your responsibility. You can’t handle how others feel about the path you’ve chosen, but you do have control over how much time you spend with those people, and how much space you give them in your office and in your head.

Photo credit: BUSINESSWOMAN DRIVES AWAY © Redbaron |

Drown proofing

Pararescueman Senior Airman Dan Warren rises from the waters of the Banana River in Florida.

I’m reading about Air Force Pararescuemen, a.k.a. PJs—part of the USAF’s special forces—who were stationed in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. A discussion of the training PJs go through got me thinking about what writers could learn from the special forces.

The number one lesson? It’s all mental.

When the PJs go through combat diver school—known as “drown proofing”—they’re tied up, blindfolded, and dropped to the bottom of the pool. They have to share their air supply with a buddy while instructors jostle them and block their air.

If they panic, they’ll gulp water or use all of their oxygen thrashing. If they panic, they’ll fail.

This and other various training exercises weed out the men who can’t handle extreme stress, fear, and pressure, because in the heat of a rescue mission, they can't afford to lose their cool.

As writers, we can’t afford to panic when things don’t go our way. Rejection? Bad contest score? Storyline not working? Cry, have some chocolate, stomp your feet, rant to a friend, take a day off, and then get back to writing.

Build a network of supporters, or whatever works to get you through it, because even after publication there will always be stress, pressure, and negative influences in your life. Don’t let them derail you. Figure out what gets you through it now.

Be drown proof.

Of the number who show up at indoctrination—the portion of PJ school designed to weed out those who won’t make it through—at least 90% of them won’t finish. The numbers are probably about the same—or worse—for writers hoping to make a living with their stories.

What separates the indoc survivors from those who quit? It’s not physical fitness. Some of the strongest, fittest men drop out. It’s not necessarily brains. None of these guys are dummies. What the survivors have is tenacity.

Ask any published author what separates her from the rest of us who are trying, and she’ll probably say that she didn’t give up. Through years of writing, submitting, and getting rejections, she kept at it. Finish the book, revise the book, query the book, and start the next book.

Never quit.

Like all members special forces, Air Force Pararescuemen are a special breed. So are successful writers. If you want to survive the trials of the writer’s life, don’t panic and don’t quit.

Be your own special force.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Bennie Davis III, via

The law of averages

Average people don’t go after their big dreams. Average people don’t accomplish extraordinary things. Average people don't become published authors.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I decided years ago that I don’t want to be average. I want to be fiscally secure, I want to be physically fit, and I want to be a published author. Which means that I can’t just do what the average person does.

It means I budget my money carefully, work out regularly, and do something writing related nearly every day.

The average person might dream about becoming a writer, but she doesn’t do anything about it. She doesn’t take a class, read a craft book, and most importantly, she doesn’t sit down—or stand up—and write.

(I used to be that person.)

And yet, often that same person is certain that someday her dreams could come true. If only she had more time, more money, no job, no kids at home. It never occurs to her that she has to create the time to make it happen.

(That was me.)

Even those who are actively pursuing their dreams can get off track, and before they know it, they’ve spent years writing without any progress.

(I've been there too.)

Supposedly, Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

If you’re not making progress toward your dream, stop and look at your results. Have you finished the book? Are you querying agents? If you’re getting nothing but form rejections have you tried revising your query letter? If you’re getting rejections with feedback have you made revisions, found a critique partner, or hired freelance editor?

Have you started another book?

Average people don’t pursue larger-than-life dreams, and if they do, they easily give them up when the road gets tough. After all, who wants to give up time with friends, time in front of the TV, maybe even time with family, in order to write?

Who wants to spend years of their life writing and revising books that might never be read?

It turns out I do.

And whatever your passion is, I hope that you’re willing to do what it takes to make it happen too.

Because really, how many of us aspire to be average?

ONE OF MANY © Monsteranimal |