nanowrimo day 25: why nano?

NaNoWriMo poster03

Confession: it’s day 25 of National Novel Writing month, and I’ve only written 10,500 words–just a fifth of what I’m supposed to have done when it all ends early next week. If you’re judging by word count alone, then I’m not doing so hot. Am I fussed? Not a bit. And here’s why: I’m all about lowered expectations.

The first time I heard of NaNoWriMo was eight years ago on my friend Kim’s blog. Kim is legit; I’ve known her since 7th grade and even then, she could write. I mean write. (Seriously, check out her most recent post on Syrian refugees. And grab a hankie.)

So when she talked about penning a 50k-word novel in a single month, I thought, “Well, of course Kim could do that.” At the time, I was writing strictly poetry and the notion of cranking out an entire a novel in 30 days seemed beyond anything I could ever do.

Flash forward six years to 2013. I now had several years of NaPoWriMo under my belt–30 poems in 30 days, in case you were wondering–and the thought of doing insane amounts of creative writing in a compressed time frame seemed more attainable than before. I wanted a break from poetry and the juices of a story had been percolating in my sleep deprived brain. In a fit of insomnia, I’d written a prologue and a handful of chapters. I had a great idea, but after several months of being blocked, I was struggling to summon the momentum to move forward.

Then NaNoWriMo popped up on my radar again, and it was just what I needed to recommit. I’d already started the story, but I thought, “Why not? I don’t have to worry about writing a whole new book; I can just pick up where I left off.” Which is just what I did. By the end of November 2013, I’d pounded out an additional 19,000 words and was more than 2/3 of the way through my story. With that momentum, I pushed through and finally finished my first draft in mid-April of 2014–more than a year after I started–but still, I finished.

During last year’s NaNoWriMo, I started on the sequel to my first book and clocked in at just under 15K words. Then in June, I scrapped everything I’d written during the previous eight months and started over with a different idea for the sequel. All told, 2015 has been a challenging year for me and my kids with homeschool, and that’s cut into my writing time. Before November, I wrote the first seven chapters, and during the course of this month, I’ve written another six.

For NaNoWriMo 2015, I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and gotten more active in my local WriMo community. I went to a local write-in at a coffee shop a couple weeks ago and was surprised by the boost I got from spending time with other WriMos–talking plot, research, and revisions–even though I got no writing done at all. Solidarity. It was exhilarating to come home feeling like I was part of something bigger than myself, since writing is usually such a solitary pursuit for me.

Between teaching and raising my kids (aged 12, 8, and 4), housekeeping, and some volunteer work I do in our church and community, I don’t have a lot of spare time. I do most of my writing at one end of the day or the other, when my kids are in bed, and it’s dark and quiet enough to think. I don’t have the luxury of hitting a 1,500 word par most days, and I’m okay with that. I make NaNoWriMo work for me because if I write 50K or 19K or even just 15K words during the month of November, it’s that many more than I had in October.

I just keep putting one word in front of the other until I have a page, a chapter, a first draft.

That’s why I NaNo.

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writing roots, part 3: reconnecting

photo credit: jdurham, MorgueFile Free Photos

photo credit: jdurham, MorgueFile Free Photos

During the ten years I worked my way through college–holding down a full-time day job while taking mostly evening and weekend classes–I took a long hiatus from poetry and the other creative writing that fed my soul. I kept telling myself, with all the studying and research papers, I just didn’t have time. In truth, a more sinister notion worked at me beneath the surface: I had lost faith in my creativity. Somewhere along the way, I started to believe what I wrote for pleasure wasn’t good enough.

Recently, I heard an excerpt of Ira Glass talking about creativity in which he explained how many creative people experience a gap between ability and taste level. He said that disparity is the reason so many talented individuals give up and stop realizing their ideas. It’s a brilliant interview; you can read the transcript of the section I’m talking about here. That disconnect is exactly what happened to me.

Around the time my oldest son was three, I realized my own detachment from creativity was sucking the life out of me. I had lost touch with myself, with who I had always thought of myself as being. And so I began writing again one or two days a week, early in the morning while my little ones slept, because that was when my mind was clearest and I had uninterrupted time to myself. Slowly, the volume of work Ira Glass talked about  started to accumulate.

Several years ago I also launched a poetry group with four other poets. They taught me a great deal about revising and being willing to listen to other perspectives on what I’d written. That’s when I discovered how good writing takes time, going over and over the words until they are just right. I also learned if I was writing for an audience–which I am–I had to be willing to check my ego, get feedback from them about what worked and what didn’t, and then revise with that in mind. My fellow poets asked questions which forced me to approach my work in ways I’d never have thought of on my own, and which in turn led to even better end results.

My biggest breakthrough in this process of reconnecting to my identity as a writer has been learning how to suspend perfectionism during the time I sit down and write a first draft. I lock the editor in my head away (kicking and screaming through a strip of duct tape) in my imaginary closet, so I can get down on paper what is in my heart. My head and my heart both have a place in my writing process, but they work best separately. During the first draft of anything, I write for me, without any pressure to have perfect words spring in fully-formed glory from my pen.

For me, this mental shift has made all the difference in being able to close the gap between my ability and taste level.

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Taking my own advice

photo credit: Ursula Graham, Dreamstime Stock Photos

photo credit: Ursula Graham, Dreamstime Stock Photos

Exactly a year ago, I wrote a post in which I told my friend that some of my best advice to start writing and stay writing was to “make an appointment with yourself and keep it.” The advice was and still is sound, but ah, the hubris.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, admitting I’ve failed to take my own advice. And yet, I’m okay with both failure and swallowing my pride because after an agonizingly dry summer, I’ve written 1100 words in the last week.

And that feels so, so good.

In Samuel Beckett’s immortal words, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” If you, too are struggling with writer’s block, just remember to keep on failing and trying again.

You are not alone.

Posted in writer's block, writing | 2 Comments

lessons learned from pitchapalooza

photo credit: fré sonneveld, via snapwire

photo credit: fré sonneveld, via snapwire

When I woke up this morning, Pitchapalooza had already ended, with winners announced. Participating has been a ride from the get-go. The euphoria of being selected as one of 25 contenders. The discomfort of stepping outside myself to ask friends, family, and total strangers for support. The up-and-down of watching my pitch pull into the lead, fall behind, then rally, a dozen times during the past two weeks. The disappointment of defeat, combined with relief that now I can return to life as it was before–no more fixating on how many votes do I have, will my pitch be chosen?

I decided early on that win or lose, I’d think of this as a learning experience. If you’re considering participating in NaNoWriMo’s Pitchapalooza, it’s a great opportunity to do just that: learn. Read up on the Book Doctors pitch advice ahead of time. Research what contestants in previous years have submitted. Fine-tune your pitch before you submit it, utilizing the suggestions the judges gave prior participants, because the principles remain the same. Keep your expectations realistic. You may not win the fan-fave category or be chosen by the Book Doctors, but the guidance and experience you get will help you learn to put failure into the proper perspective, and add some key gadgets to your writing toolbox.

Here are my take-aways:

Reach out. I’m an introvert who’d argue John Donne to the death that yes, I am an islandbut being unwilling to leave said island would ultimately lead to me remaining alone with my books. Since I want other people to read them I must, by necessity, journey to the mainland. I’m at such an early stage in the process of writing and getting published, that creating an author platform still seems nebulous. To get my feet wet, I entered a contest–which was pretty painless up front, because it required minimal human interaction. Entry was only the beginning; once I was a participant, I had to step up and beat the bushes. Facebook, Twitter, my blog, sending out emails–and lots of chatting people up in person. While I abhor small talk, I do love to talk about my book, so my first taste of networking turned out to be easier than I expected. And more fun. Now, I’m actually looking forward to marketing my book. Wait. Okay, I’m dreading it less. Yeah.

Be grateful. Every participant received a personalized critique of their pitch, and the counsel the Book Doctors gave me was tremendously useful. They showed me where I was already on the right track, while pointing out areas that needed to be beefed up if I hoped to get the attention of prospective literary agents. On another note, as the contest progressed, I was amazed at how many people were genuinely encouraging, asking where they could buy The Door to Yesterday. My friends, my family, folks in my community–everyone was so supportive. I tried to thank as many of them personally as possible, by responding to every post and re-post by name. Reminding myself of how grateful I felt for everything I’d already received, helped me keep it all in perspective whenever I started to worry about the possible results of the contest.

Be teachable. I’m a solid writer, but as an author, I’m a beginner. The only things I know about publishing, I’ve learned on the internet. Which means I know nothing. This process has taught me a lot about being willing to learn from the people judging the contest, my fellow writers, the process itself. Gloria Chao, the winner chosen by the Book Doctors, deserved to win: she had a well-written, engaging pitch. I admit, it made me want to read her book. She has the writing chops to back up her win and I’m studying what she did well–along with the pitches of all the other participants–so I can implement those principles as I rework my own pitch. This is just the beginning, and if I want a career with longevity, I’ve got to keep on learning, continuing to be humble.

Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. When a near competitor in the fan favorite race started following me on Twitter the second day into the contest, my gut told me not to be flattered. And I was right.

Let it go. No–not like Frozen, with angst and swirling snowflakes. Being a grown up means recognizing that control is an illusion, that I can’t force the outcome I wish while staying true to myself. I did what I could do: I wrote my best, put me and my book out there, and fought fair.

At the end of the day, I can live with that.

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GOTV

Only one more day of NaNoWriMo’s Pitchapalooza, so get out the vote: Katherine Parker Richmond and The Door to Yesterday.

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pitchapalooza

One of the most perplexing vicissitudes of life–for me, at least–is that something exciting and affirming can also be a source of dread and self-doubt. I speak, in particular, of my participation in NaNoWriMo’s Pitchapalooza. After spending more than two years pouring myself into the pages of my book and then revising exhaustively, to be selected (even randomly) is a nod that signifies validation and hope. And yet, it’s difficult to shake the fear of rejection that’s been my companion ever since I started putting my writing out there for publication.

A part of me whispers it’s self-serving, pushy, and annoying to so obviously beat the bushes for support. I shared my fears with a trusted friend this morning and she reminded me this is a God-given talent and that He would want me to do something about it, to not be ashamed to ask for help and support. In my heart, I know I have to choose the voice I’m going to listen to, because if I succeed in getting this book published, in having a career as a children’s author, there will only ever be more voices. I can’t listen to them all. I can choose for my guide the voice that affirms the Universe, and all the powers for good in it, want to bless me. I can choose the voice that softly says my Maker and Creator wants me to create, too–because it is in the supernal act of creation that I come closest to what is divine in me.

I know, to play down that gift is to be ungrateful.

So, this morning, I’m grateful: to be a writer, to have finished a novel, to have the chance to get help preparing to be published. I’m thankful to my friends, family, community, and many strangers who have voted for me and The Door to Yesterday. I may win or lose the contest, but I’m going to keep doing what I do, and shouting it from the rooftops.

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writing roots part 2: dr. alden

I traveled a bumpy road through high school and college, largely because I didn’t learn how to study until well into my 20s. I spent much of my young adult life feeling like a failure when it came to academic pursuits. After 19 months as a missionary for my church, I finally learned the value of discipline and hard work in relation to delayed gratification, and was able to apply that to my higher education when I returned home. The skill set I gained on my mission was a game-changer, especially when it came to my study habits.

During this time, I did very little writing that wasn’t directly related to my classwork. I penned a half-dozen poems, and a couple of them were published in the literary magazine at the community college where I earned my AA. Other than that, I didn’t do any creative writing that was purely for myself; somewhere along the way, I lost my spark. And frankly, by the time I got to the University of Washington, where I worked toward a BS in both history and social sciences, I believed I was too busy for something as frivolous as creative writing. I worked full-time during the day, took evening classes, read innumerable books for research, and then typed research papers into the wee hours of the early morning. It was exhausting. If not for the affirmation of making excellent grades, it would have been soul-sucking, too.

My first quarter at the UW, I took a course on colonial Latin America from Professor Dauril Alden. Dr. Alden is a world-renowned scholar of colonial Latin America, particularly Brazilian history, and now emeritus on the UW’s history faculty. I went on to take several courses from him, including two about Mexico, and a couple independent study sections on Brazil and Argentina. That first night of class, though, I was hooked. Riveted. To the point where I forgot to take notes and had to borrow them from someone else in class. You see, Dr. Alden is a master story teller. He made history come alive for me in a way I hadn’t imagined possible. I realized that night I had a passion for history, and for the next three years, it swept me away.

Dr. Alden became a trusted mentor who tutored me through the ropes of research, analysis, and writing that are the lynchpins of a historian’s scholarship. I ate it up, followed his advice, and found a way to emulate his example of animating history by retelling it well. He taught me how to be precise in the way I expressed my ideas, to structure my sentences to be both expressive and economical. Looking back, this was the period in which I started to develop my technical toolbox as a writer. And I researched projects I was passionate about so that the fervor came through in what I wrote.

I consistently made the dean’s list and my senior year, I won a history department scholarship, largely because of Dr. Alden’s encouragement and recommendations. He was looking forward to seeing me continue on with my post-graduate studies, but I made the conscious decision to back away from academia and start a family–a choice which I’ve never regretted.

I’ve tried to stay in touch with him after I moved away from Seattle, emailing, writing letters, and occasionally driving over to have lunch with him and his gracious wife, Beata. They’ve even been good sports about entertaining my high-spirited children. I think Dr. Alden was somewhat baffled when I told him a couple years back that I was starting to write poetry again, and submitting it to various magazines for publication. I get the feeling he thought I was squandering my talents. I’m okay with that; I know differently.

A few weeks ago, I received a letter in the mail from him, chiding me (and justifiably so) for not writing in over a year. I sat down and typed up a reply to him promptly, catching him up on my news, including my work on The Door to Yesterday, and my plans for trying to get published. I’m driving over to Seattle tomorrow for lunch at our favorite Indian restaurant, and I’m interested to hear what he has to say, especially when I tell him he’s my storytelling inspiration, the one who taught me how to spin a tale that grips the attention and holds on.

Because that’s an opportunity I don’t want to squander.

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