National Novel Writing Month Is Now Over…

My novel ended up being 56,244 words, much less than I had originally hoped for, but I succeeded at meeting the required 50,000 words with about two days to spare. My goal for these writing month marathons is always to finish the complete first draft of my novels in addition to the word count goal.

The novel I worked on in November, “Before I go” turned out to be 41 chapters (I took one out towards the end that seemed to be a pointless chapter once I got to it) and was inspired by a photo I spotted on Facebook that looked like a family member that died many years ago…coupled with a handful of old family folklore stories I have heard repeated many, many times.

This novel, not unlike my other first drafts, is in line with being just as awful. I saw some glimmers of hope peppered throughout but I am now ready to bench the manuscript for a little while and pick back up where I left off with my queries and (older) novel rewrites.

This is also the first December that I am still plugging forward. Normally I am exhausted (you can’t see me but I am putting the back of my hand up to my forehead and am ready to faint) after writing a complete first draft during November plus being knee deep in the holiday season – my writing has always taken a backseat during December. The problem with that, I have discovered over the years, is that by the time I get myself into full swing come January it is the end of February. So I’ve lost a good three months “recovering” from the oh-so-difficult writing of a first draft. Oh, the horrors. Poor me.

I have decided this year I don’t have the luxury of not writing for several months (not to mention how cold and out of shape it makes me) and while the first couple of days of December is hopefully not an indication of what is to come…especially with the goals I have set for an exciting and hopefully VERY productive 2015.

Here is my opening line from “Before I Go”:

The casket was sealed without embalming the man that died suddenly on his anniversary.

And there are 56,230 words left that are equally horrible…(for now.)

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Making Time to Write

I have to make time because this is what I do. Or at least what I tell my husband I do all day. But let’s just say the laundry doesn’t fold themselves.

Right now I am knee deep in National Novel Writing Month (NANO) – writing about three thousand words a day, on average (I did have one stellar day when I wrote six chapters and over 7k words before breakfast). So far, I’m just over 40k words with less than 10k to go before November 30th. I’m confident I’ll succeed at the NANO challenge – the first draft, on the other hand, is a special sauce kind of awful. But that’s okay too. I am actually beginning to love rewriting because then I get to see rainbows and an occasional unicorn flying overhead instead of choppy, awkward dialogue and cheesy narrative so common with a first draft.

But my novel for NANO isn’t the only thing I’m working on. I have two rewrites/edits happening on two novels, one contemporary and one historical. I have my weekly goal of sending out at least five queries so that means there are articles to write as well when I get a green light. Then I have a handful of other projects. Like, a children’s book. And a cookbook. And a couple of non-fiction books (but to be fair, I am just gathering research and information and shoving it all in the file folders until I have enough information to actually form a substantial book). I have many books in line to be rewritten/edited. I have short little pieces with pesky little deadlines that require my time. And of course there is all the research and reading that piles up fast.

A friend asked me, “Why do you have so much on your plate? Wouldn’t it better to just work on one thing?”

I think the answer to that is, “Because I’m crazy and definitely!” it would definitely be easier if I had only one thing on my plate. But here’s the thing. I thrive on the variety of projects. I look forward to touching different projects each week or day or month. I tried, believe me, to do the one project at a time technique and I struggled. After awhile I stopped working on the project altogether because it began to bore me. I just need the variety. It’s all about the spice of life, folks.

But I’m not gonna lie. There are plenty of distractions in my day. Like when my son calls me to tell me he left his ID at home and he won’t be able to get to his off campus class without it. Or when I walk by the laundry room and the laundry shoot door is so full it won’t close. Then there is morning television, or as I call it, The Kiss Of Death. Luckily, I TiVo whatever I want to watch but occasionally I’ll flip on the news to catch the weather or something and then I’m stuck listening to clever gift ideas for your friends for Christmas and a hundred ways to cook a turkey. And before I realize it, I’ve sat engrossed for forty minutes. I also have a crazy Beagle who occasionally needs to go out so much I think she is hooking up with a cute Golden Retriever near the fence and sharing a stolen bag of treats.

Sometimes I’m surprised at how much I can get done in a day despite the distractions.

Here’s what works for me.

I have a list of all my ongoing projects with detailed steps of what needs to be done before it is ready to be sent to an agent or publisher. Some projects have thirteen or more steps – anything from writing an outline, conducting interviews, editing, researching, and filing. I just break down every little step so the chance of getting overwhelmed by the enormity of a project is reduced.

Then, all projects get what I like to call a “soft deadline”. I don’t know about you but deadlines, even soft ones, seem to work for motivating me and keeping me on track and slightly less scattered. I need to see that there is something pressing. The only projects I don’t use a deadline for would be my article work. I query and if I get the green light, then I add an actual deadline (no longer soft) to my calendar.

By now all projects have a home. A nice, comfortable, warm place to put their heads at night. Be it a file folder, color coded, or a three-ring binder – or both. Sometimes I keep first drafts and my outline notes in a file folder and the research in the three-ring binder. All the projects deserve to have a home to live in – and it makes for a neater desk, easier organizing, better filing, and an overall feeling of joy and peace and goodwill towards all.

It’s important to know how many hours in a day you have to work. I’d love to say I have somewhere close to ten. I’d love to even have eight but that isn’t always the case. So, I fit in the projects in the time frame I have during the day – and use a timer when I feel pressured to finish a lot in a short amount of time. There is something about a timer that helps me stay focused.

Then, I set about working on those projects that have deadlines within this calendar year and the next. I use a weekly goal plan that I fill out every Sunday night and it helps to keep me reined in and not flopping all over my office opening one file folder after another and lost in the land of color-coded labels. It can happen, believe me.

Some days I just sit here. I am distracted by social media and finding a bread pudding recipe to use up a huge panettone I have sitting in my pantry. Sometimes I have errands to run or the car needs to go in for an oil change. Sometimes the only thoughts coming out of my head are a hodge-podge of words that form absolutely zero sentences. I get scattered more days than I prefer to admit, thankyouverymuch.

But I cannot imagine doing anything else. I miss being in the vortex of words when I’m not writing. I love being creative. I love the business part of writing too. I love it all.

There is a First Time for Everything

I thought it might be interesting to share with you the first chapter of the first book I ever wrote. It was a young adult book that takes place in the White House about the daughter of a president – a girl named Summer. The title: “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

I wrote this book for a class assignment way back in 1992 (and the dot-matrix printing is still attached, accordion style).

I am not editing it at all (although it pains me not to) and I’m typing it from the actual document. I realized something today…besides the one-dimensional detail and grammar issues…I don’t think I have read through this manuscript since I turned it in over twenty years ago.

Here goes. Chapter one:

             Summer knew that in five days her life would change forever.
            “Carrot and beet juice? For breakfast?” Summer’s mother said with disgust knowing that her only daughter hated both carrots and beets.
            “Yes mom,” Summer said as she sat down in the lavish dining room of their new home. It was going to take Summer a long time to get used to living in such an old and historical house.
            The maid walked slowly into the kitchen to retrieve the requested juice brining the concoction to Summer in a cut-crystal goblet.
            “Isn’t dad going to have breakfast with us anymore?” Summer asked as she got up from the table pushing her straight auburn hair away from her eyes.
            “Probably not. He’s already in the oval office.”
            That afternoon Summer and Ben returned home from school in a white stretch Cadillac limousine followed by two secret service men, Tony Harrison and Peter Montgomery.
            Summer sat down at her white wicker desk in her newly decorated purple room which overlooks the rose garden and pulled out her new book on angels. The book was a gift from Summer’s best friend Amanda on the day before Summer left California for Washington, DC a few months ago.
            “This just has to work.” Summer thought to herself as she flipped through the book until she landed on chapter thirteen, “how to summon your very own angel.”
            Summer is certain that an angel can help her get good grades like her older brother, Ben. She wants her parents to be proud of her like they are proud of Ben.
            “Yuk! Only four more mornings of drinking carrot and beet juice by 8am. That night, at exactly midnight, Summer needs to stand in the light of the moon for five minutes for five evenings.
            Summer stared at her bulletin board which contained tacked pictures of Amanda and her at the carnival last summer, a picture of them in Amanda’s backyard in the swimming pool, a postcard of a beautiful angel and a signed autograph of Michael Bolton that her father just recently got for her when he sang in the White House.
            At 11:50pm Summer got out of bed and walked out of her bedroom, quietly shutting the door behind her. Under her foot a floor board creaked and Summer stopped and stood still for a few seconds. She couldn’t risk anyone waking up and wondering what she was doing at this hour.
            She walked slowly to her brother’s bedroom down the hall passing portraits of past presidents, McKenna, Washington, and Adams.
            Summer turned the knob of her brother’s bedroom and walked into the large bedroom with the adjacent balcony.
            She passed his queen sized bed with a dark blue bedspread thrown on the floor and a chair that had a stack of folded clothes on it.
            The French doors linking his room to the balcony were slightly ajar. Ben liked to be cold, Summer thought. She passed his pine dresser and a glass-top executive desk they had shipped from California and tripped over a trigonometry book lying on the tan carpet.
            Ben rolled over with his face facing Summer as she stood still waiting for him to settle back to sleep before proceeding through the French doors. Once outside, she glanced at her watch which showed both hands straight up. Midnight.
           After five minutes she went back to her bedroom to wait. 

I have an apparent liking to the adverb ‘slowly’ (sorry, Stephen King) because I use it a lot, still do, and have to change it all the time (I mean, really, how often can people do things ‘slowly’?). Also, I realize there is no president by the name of McKenna. I believe, if I remember correctly, I wanted to use McKinley but my instructor advised me against it stating that the family of President McKinley may not appreciate nor like me using him in my story. And since the story takes place in the fictional White House in present times you can only guess where the story goes…

The Historical Novel

So I have this big ole honkin’ novel that I wrote alongside another novel back in November/December 2012. I was overwhelmed and benched it for a long time. Well, I guess I benched it for a year. I just couldn’t bring myself to go over the many holes in the plot, the undeveloped characters, and the ending that was only a few paragraphs because I was so anxious to finish the thing.

Then at the beginning of this year I decided it was time to tackle it. I went painstakingly through each and every chapter…combining chapters, adding characters, tightening plot, fixing holes, adding character depth, correcting choppy or corny dialogue, adding a completely new subplot with another character to the mix, and using up an entire dark green ink pen in the process. It took me two full weeks of doing nothing else.

I basically just finished the rewriting of the novel that started out somewhere around sixty thousand words and ended up at 153,000 words and 44 chapters.

This has been the first book that has officially made it out of first draft status.

And as I continued to rewrite the last few chapters I have been sending the first chapters to a fellow writer for critique and edits and so now I will embark on (more) editing and tightening…and getting it published.

A part of me is sort of sad that I am *almost* finished with these characters, their story, their hometown. It has been a story inside me for as long as I can remember taking place in Los Angeles in the 1940s in a town that doesn’t exist anymore. A town that my mother grew up in and had wonderful memories that she shared with me.

My goal was to finish the rewrite by the end of the year and I made it by barely a month to spare. Whew. Now, my goal is to get some book proposals out in the world by the end of the year as I continue now to edit chapter by chapter. And while my instinct is to hold on forever correcting a missed comma or an adjective that could have been better I will remind myself of a quote I heard  a writer say recently on a podcast: “Perfection is the enemy of done.” Not to say I won’t do my due diligence in making sure it is as good as I can make it but I can’t hold onto this baby forever, keeping it a toddler when it should be going off to college.

I gotta let it go.

And hopefully by letting it go it will be published and transformed from plain ole white paper to a pretty book with thick covers and a binding.

Meanwhile, I am about twelve thousand words into my NANO novel I started a few days ago and starting on Monday I will attack another rewrite of another novel.

Are My Characters Real?

I gave a prologue recently to a friend to read. I normally NEVER do that. For starters, they never know what to say exactly so normally they will gush about it (or if you are a relative of mine you will point out every missed comma or random typo, gah). Also, their feedback – don’t get me wrong here – is hardly useful. They will say things like, “Oh this is great.” Or, “You have a typo on that last paragraph.” Or, “Shouldn’t there be a period after that sentence?” Or, “Wow, you really are a writer!” Or, “This was such a great read.”

Basically: useless.

Even my husband, in all his support and attempts at being helpful, is hardly any better. “Yeah, this is really good, honey”…“I like this a lot”…“Very good.” It all sounds the same between reading a chapter of mine and helping our daughter with algebra.

Also, if they are not normally readers of my books genre, their input will hardly be on point anyway. I have a friend who only reads romance so giving her a historical novel to read will bore her endlessly. I was in a writer’s group about a year ago that had mainly science fiction writers. It was a mess. They were clueless about historical fiction (and bored) and I was totally lost and confused in their outer space worlds and strange animals.

Anyway.

I gave a friend my prologue on one of my books. (For the record, she gushed and said, “Oh this is great” which was exactly the sort of thing I figured she would say.)

I should also point out that just because someone says, “Oh this is great!” doesn’t inflate my head or pump up my ego – I know it is them not knowing what else to say. I mean, are they really going to say something like, “Um, I found the characters to be one-dimensional and the plot appeared to be going nowhere. I almost fell asleep before I reached page three.” No. Are they going to say, “Sorry to tell you this but this SUCKED!” No. They are going to do everything to spare my feelings and so they will just be overly nice.

Anyway. I digress.

Again. (So shoot me.)

After reading the prologue my friend asked me, “Is the Sophia character your mom? Because I totally thought that as I was reading it.”

Hold me.

Okay, look.

Are characters somewhat derived and ever so loosely based on real people? The answer is yes. They are. I mean, it is hard to live a life and encounter hundreds of people in your lifetime so far and not have a few lingering…personality traits, body images, language quirks, bad habits, horrible spouses, interesting talents, or fascinating childhoods…of real people you know in real life.

However, that’s where it all basically ends.

My characters MAY have a personality trait or a little quirk or a bad habit of someone I know. I may even get inspiration based on real people (that happens A LOT) but the characters themselves take on a life of their own usually (hopefully) right from the beginning.

And for fear of sounding mentally unstable – the characters begin to come alive in front of me as I outline. They also start talking to me too.

No, really.

As I develop characters and give them voice, features, quirks, traits, habits, what they love to wear, what they hate to eat, where their favorite vacation was when they were ten, even what their name is…they seem to start standing in front of me as I write (hands on hips, staring me down if I get something wrong, those pesky pain-in-the-ass characters. And no, I’m not on any special meds.)

I can definitely start to see and hear them the more I write about their story. (If they can see me is a totally different thing. I’m kidding. You know that, right? I’m almost a hundred percent positive they can’t see me. But to be honest, I’ve never asked them.) As the story develops suddenly their voice gets louder – and when I type dialogue sometimes I feel as though I am only the fingers typing on the computer – they are the ones doing all the talking and telling me what to say and how to say it.

In one of my novels, a contemporary book set in San Diego and features a host of characters, I had outlined the chapter one way and my character completely said something different and totally off what I expected him to say…I typed it and decided to leave it – even though it changed the course of the story a bit.

The characters begin to transform from a one-dimensional name on a piece of paper into real, thinking, and breathing human beings.

In the case of this prologue my friend read: it is a story that features (more or less) my mom’s childhood home. And it is a story that features a small grocery business…which my uncle also ran. And there are kids that went to boarding school like my cousins did. Other than that, it is just a fictional story because the story is not about my mom or my uncle or my cousins.

In fact, my mom is eager to read the story (even though it isn’t totally edited to my liking yet) and I had to warn her: some of the details may sound familiar to you but this is NOT a story of YOU and YOUR FAMILY and your childhood living in Los Angeles in the 1940s. This is a totally fictional story with fictional people and events.

There is something that I remember reading about writers that I love. If you are around writers be careful what you say (or do) because it just might end up in their book.

Many phrases or scenes that have actually happened…I have turned them into sentences in the book. For instance, there is a scene about women at the church cooking in the kitchen for a big feast the following day. I can’t tell you how many of my afternoons as a child was spent with my mom and grandmother at the church watching these Italian women cook, laugh, and play cards with their 7up and biscotti after preparing for a feast. I have used these memories…and more…throughout the book. I also interviewed my brother (a baseball historian) a few times regarding facts and details that were unclear to me regarding the Los Angeles Dodgers and a few phrases and a few of his memories have become part of my characters voice and memory…like how my brother lost his collection of baseball cards, for example.

So, I told my friend: “No, Sophia is not my mom. She is not anyone but a character in my book.”

(Sophia is standing here in front of me with her floral apron on, hands on her hips, shaking her head at me. She hates when I refer to her as a character.)

ANOTHER NOVEL WRITING MONTH IS UPON US

There is something about entering into the month of November that now makes me a little nervous. No, it isn’t the fear of leftover turkey sandwiches or fighting the crowds on Black Friday (I hate shopping and never go out on that day). It’s that every late-October I have one thought: Will I Be Able to Write another Novel?

This November I will be embarking on writing my ninth novel.

When I wrote that very first (young adult) novel a couple of decades ago, I was in school, knee-deep in writing everything from speeches to marketing pitches to press releases (hello, communications degree, howyadoin’?) so I didn’t give this little young adult novel much room to allow fear to enter. It was technically just a school assignment.

However, the span of almost twenty years exists between that first novel and the second novel. I ended up writing a non-fiction book in between because I was now too afraid and uncertain of my abilities to write another novel…and felt the non-fiction piece was less threatening.

And while I count the first young adult book in my completed pieces of fiction – it is hardly much. I want to say it teeters around the 30k-word mark but to be honest, I am unsure. It is printed on a dot-matrix so that will tell you chances were good my 1990-something computer did not have the capability to offer a word count.

Then I discovered National Novel Writing Month a few years ago. I went back and forth wondering if I should participate. Could I write a novel in thirty days? What if I can’t? I took the leap and never looked back. That “second” novel came in around 52k words after thirty days and I stood back and thought, “Holy shit, maybe I CAN do this.”

Every October I begin to feel the same way again. Can I write ANOTHER book? Will I freeze up on page twenty and not know how to continue? What if I don’t finish? (I never worry, however, whether or not the manuscript will be a piece of shit because all the first drafts are horrible with a side of awful and a sprinkling of ‘you call yourself a writer?’ seasoning.)

This November I am tackling a contemporary book that spans a few decades but isn’t necessarily historical fiction. It was an idea that came to me one day and never left me – even though I have dozens of works in progress I could have pulled from. Sometimes with novel writing you have to work on the projects that seem to call your name and won’t leave you alone! This was that book.

I finished my chapter-by-chapter outline (42 chapters strong) about a week ago along with all the background and character information I could come up with at this stage of the process. My information is in a 3-ring binder which I will read over again next week before the first day rolls around – and the chapter-by-chapter outline is in another folder, all ready to go. (Can’t wait! Excited about this story!)

At 42 chapters it means I need to do more than one chapter every single day in order to finish by the end of November. I know the book will be more than fifty thousand words (the requirement to “win” the National Novel Writing Month challenge) and so I should have no problem reaching that by the end of November – but I like to have the novel completely finished by the end of the month as well.

Are you participating in National Novel Writing Month?

Works in Progress

I have a list of dozens of writing projects.

I mean – DOZENS especially when I add in article writing to the mix.

Sometimes I wonder why I do this to myself. Why do I put so many projects in the fire? Why must I have so many?

For me, the answer comes down to one thing: attention.

I don’t think I have any “real” attention issues but I bore quickly if all I was doing was one thing all the time. Believe me, over the years I have tried that approach and always wonder why I can’t seem to stay focused long enough without getting restless.

Then I discovered that I need to focus on more than one project at a time. Of course, I could easily achieve this with say, four projects. In my case I have over 20 projects pending. That being said, those twenty projects are all in various stages of completion. The cookbooks I have been slowly gathering and writing recipes and conducting research. A few of the fiction projects only have one scrap of an idea in them and still needs a full outline, etc. And then there are projects that are closer to completion like the “Chavez Ravine” novel.

As of today I have 9 chapters left to rewrite in “Chavez Ravine”. Meanwhile, I have a beta reader working the front chapters. So, I am rewriting the last chapters and also sending my BR the first chapters, which means I am looking those over too and editing before I send them to her. I am also beginning to write up book proposals for the project. This novel will be the first one I have moved out of “first draft” mode! I have another completed first draft waiting in the wings…which I’m excited to delve into and rewrite.

I am beginning to break up my days like this:

In the morning before I take my daughter to school I spend a few minutes reading some notes, checking out online freelance opportunities, making coffee, working out.

Once I take her to school I set the timer for 60 minutes and write and send out queries, pitches, proposals, and apply to whatever freelance job I can. (I also keep a dry erase board in front of me with a running tab of potential income, which keeps me motivated in a simple little way.)

Then, I dig out a chapter of my novel and set about rewriting. Sometimes I can complete the chapter in one morning, other times it can take me a few days to a week or more. I make check marks on the parts I need to research later.

By now it is late morning and I squeeze in some time to do some research reading, edit, critique – and update my blog. Okay, I check social media too, dammit…but only when I am eating lunch.

After lunch I try and go back over the novel chapter and research the parts I left blank and fill in the details. I try and set the timer again and pick up another project and try and do at least one task a day on a new project. Sometimes, I will spend a few minutes filing or sending out an email, or making a call or two. And depending on the time (everyone starts getting home from school/work around 3pm which is when I typically stop unless I am on a roll I will continue working for another hour or two) I will try and send out another query or pitch.

On my dry erase board I keep track of how many queries are in the pipeline, how many tasks I have completed overall, the number of words written today, and an ongoing total number of words written – a large several hundred thousand word count that keeps me inspired to keep going.

Today, I managed to send one pitch, start rewriting chapter 35 and chapter 5 (so I can send it off to my BR), write and send two book proposals for my children’s book, read a pile of research, critique a chapter sent to me, and work on a local pitch for a series of articles – and do some dreaded filing at the end of my work day.

In between the freelance writing work I am researching Gettysburg and the Civil War for a historian study – along with culinary history work too.