To NaNoWriMo, Getting Up After You Fall, and Writing the Book You Want to Read

I finished my first book in 2013 thanks to NaNoWriMo. It was an enormous accomplishment, one I was exceedingly proud of.

Then I floundered for longer than I’d like to admit. I wrote. I stopped. I researched a historical novel. I stopped. I tried to think, think, think. I feared what we all fear. That the ideas will never come again. That the first was a one-off.

This summer I found a seed of something I thought was worthwhile to explore and cultivate. I finished the second novel, but only through sheer determination. It wasn’t fun and I didn’t enjoy it. And although I was elated that I managed to complete it, I tried to read it the next day and couldn’t finish it. I loved the opening. I loved the character. But the rest of the story fell flat.

And so I fell into a deep depression. I stared at the walls and thought about how I really had nothing left in me, story-wise at least. And how if I didn’t have a book to work on, there didn’t seem to be too much of a point to life. This lasted about three hours.

And then I thought about how if that were true, then there must be another book in me.

I often hear writers say “Write the book you want to read.” I like that advice. But liking it and doing it are two different things. Still, I asked myself: “What is the book I want to read?”

The answer was:

I want it to have humor. I want it to be uplifting. I want it to be warm but not sweet. I want a little magic, a little mystery, a little of the mystical. I want an imperfect but happy ending. I want the main character to win, just not in the way they thought they would.

So about six hours after my great failure, I birthed the premise of my next novel. I’m excited. I can’t wait. This feels like the first time. This is what I’ve been turning every stone over for.

The second book still has its place. It’s still the second book. I took what I loved about it and I condensed it and honed it into a short story that I’m really proud of. I’m submitting it to Glimmer Literary Mag. Whatever happens, this was a story I needed to tell.

I’m so amped up for NaNoWriMo 2015 I can hardly contain myself! I’m working and jotting and daydreaming away. This is a book I can look forward to writing every day.

Isn’t that the point?

7 Things “The Good Wife” Taught Me About Storytelling

“The Good Wife” is one of the best dramas to make it to mainstream media in a long time, possibly the best drama ever. This is what I’ve learned about storytelling thanks to the writers of “The Good Wife.”

1. A strong woman who claims her power makes for a gripping character

We pull for Alicia Florrick because she’s a survivor. We love to watch her kick asses. We love to watch her struggle with doing the right thing, and then doing what she’s afraid of anyway because her moral barometer is stronger than her fear. She rises and we rise with her. That’s the kind of protagonist I want to create.

2. The anticipation of a love relationship is better than the reality

Part of my obsession with the show was the tantalizing on-again, off-again love between Kalinda and Cary. (They really do love each other. They really do!) I wish there could have been a bit more reward for loyal watchers (me), a brief moment of them really together. But that dangled carrot sure kept me watching. Same goes for Alicia and Will. We wanted it SO bad! And we never got more than a few episodes of redemption.

3. Yay feminism

Feminism is embracing and celebrating power. It is bargaining and negotiating and not apologizing. Kalinda is one of my favorite characters of all time. She’s complex, fiercely intelligent, and uses sex like a man, without any tired overly sexualized clichés. You’ve got other powerful feminists on the show, of course. Alicia and Diane, obvs. Elsbeth Tascioni—quirky firecracker of a lawyer who does things her own way. Nancy Crozier—the cunning “dumb blonde” who plays the jury like a fiddle. Viola Walsh—Rita Wilson’s sassy, hard-ball character. Strong women everywhere!

4. Characters having to try a lot and fail a lot creates great tension

A character has a goal. They try really hard. They succeed. BORING. Watching someone come at it from all different angles, fail each time, then try again—that’s interesting. That’s life.

5. Bad things happen to good people

I struggle at first with making bad things happen to characters I love. I prefer sunshine and roses. But bad things happen to good people. Will dies. Kalinda skips town. Alicia loses. Gut wrenching and fascinating.

6. Bad guys can be lovable

Or actually, there’s no such thing as a bad guy. There are complex people with complex needs that might not be aligned with the characters you’re rooting for. Colin Sweeney—macabre, glaringly guilty murderer, yet such a delight! Louis Canning-the weasel. David Lee-heartless, selfish, and hilarious. Lemond Bishop—gorgeous, intelligent, soft-spoken, Dad-of-the-year, drug kingpin. They’re the most endearing bad guys you’ve ever met. You kinda like them. They make you laugh. And if you put all judgment aside, you can see where they’re coming from.

7. The third way—always the third way.

This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from Writer’s Digest in the blog post 5 Moral Dilemmas That Make Characters (& Stories) Better. I fully enjoy spotting #5—Look for the third way—in storytelling everywhere these days. It’s what makes a story special, unique, surprising. We naturally fall for the either/or. And BAM. The third way out makes us gasp.

Will Alicia and Will get back together? Stay broken up forever? NEITHER! WILL DIES! Third way out.

Does Alicia win State’s Attorney? Does she lose? NEITHER! She wins—AND THEN IT GETS TAKEN AWAY! Third way out.

So what might be in store next season?

With Kalinda gone (apparently for good), next season won’t have the same pull for me. But I’ll still watch. The story’s just too good.

The everyday hero’s journey

88H

“To evolve out of this position of psychological immaturity to the courage of self-responsibility and assurance requires a death and a resurrection. That’s the basic motif of the universal hero’s journey–leaving one condition and finding the source of life to bring you forth into a richer or mature condition.”–Joseph Campbell

I love this definition of the hero’s journey. Joseph Campbell said it best, just as he says everything best. When I read The Power of Myth, a transcribed discussion between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, about the powerful role myth plays in our society, everything changed for me, in a literary sense. I could never reconcile the big heroes, the Odysseus and the Jonas and the Jesus, with my own small heroes, the characters I’m creating, who aren’t journeying to defeat an army or escape a whale or aren’t sacrificing life for the greater good. Except that, metaphorically, that is exactly what my characters are doing. That’s how they see it anyway. And so should I. Recognizing the hero in my characters is like truly seeing them for the first time. So my Odysseus, in my current WIP, is a 14-year-old girl who feels completely unanchored in a falling apart ship in heavy seas. But the seas are the world around her and the boat is her disconnected family, and the girl’s journey never goes farther than along Route 22 on her bike.

I can’t choose the hero or the journey and then create it. I know some writers can. But I have to dive in, writing messy and unhappily, letting it marinate, skimming off the top, shaking and tossing and scrapping things along the way. And then I have to listen to it. I have to let it settle and see through to the bottom.

And it whispers to me, but I ignore it half of the time. Until I get a little more still. And finally I hear it.

It’s a long process with no guarantees. But it feels authentic and organic. So I’ve decided to trust it.

How do you figure out your hero? How do you know what journey he or she is going to take?

Vision Board: My Future Book Launch Party

How fun to create the perfect book launch event in your imagination. No budget restrictions. Only the things that give you joy.

Putting thought and energy toward my own (for now, imaginary) book launch party makes me feel as if I’m inviting success with open arms. Here’s mine. What would yours be like?

The place

I always envisioned my first book launch soiree at one of Pavement Coffee’s locations in Boston. Each one is uniquely hip and gorgeous.

The grub

Finger foods. Charcuterie. Bacon wrapped somethings. Pigs in a blanket.

The bar

Good beer. A bubbly signature cocktail. A virgin signature drink for teetotalers.

The guests

Friends and family. Local press. Local bookstore owners.

The feelings

Excitement, nerves, elation. Accomplished, proud, and a bit self conscious.

The ensemble

If it’s gray and soft and comes in the form of a dress that feels more like a t-shirt, I’ll probably be wearing that. With boots. Big earrings. Bangles.

The music

Something relaxed and chill. A live guitarist and singer duo would be cool. Or a simple, low-key, dreamy playlist.

Favorite word: Presumption

Presumption: a belief that something is true even though it has not been proved law : an act of accepting that something is true until it is proved not true: willingness to do something without the right or permission to do it (Merriam Webster)

Many of us could use a little more presumption in our lives. Some employ way too much. But most of us are waiting. Waiting for permission. Waiting to be told we’re okay, we’re enough. Waiting for proof.

Humble is a virtue. Compassion, too.

But there’s a place for presumption. It’s how great things happen.

How I became an author

I was always a writer. Always. But I ignored all of the telltale signs. For decades. Because it wasn’t practical. I wasn’t talented enough. And lots of other terrible reasons that I believed without awareness.

I turned 30 and realized that the only one who was keeping me from writing–was me.

Nearly two years ago, I participated in my first ever NaNoWriMo (November 2013). It was an exhilarating experience and I came away from it with my first draft of my novel. (I may have exclaimed to my husband that it was the single most personally satisfying and happy moment in my life. He said, “Besides me and the kids, right?” I said, pretty unconvincingly, “Uh huh.”)

Then the hard work started.

Nearly a third of what I wrote was pure disaster. Like, if I die before I finish this and someone reads it, I’ll be mortified.

I got to work on my second draft. And when I was done, I had a 50,000 word novel.

So the hard work started.

I added a new storyline by developing a few secondary characters. It was miraculous what happened when I did that. But then the plot holes became something I had to deal with.

I had several beta readers give me feedback. I made changes upon changes, a total of four drafts. I wrote my basic query letter and synopsis. And I started submitting my manuscript to agents.

And now I’m at the new hard part.

I’ve had some full manuscript requests. I’ve had some very glowing rejections (there is such a thing!). I’ve gone through phases, where I’ve taken breaks and then taken a deep breath and plunged under again.

I became an author when I decided I was an author. No book deal. No accolades. Just me writing books, honoring my place in the world.

I’ve finally started my second novel. I had a bunch of false starts. I spent two years trying to get around the messiness of writing the first book, to avoid the painstaking process. I tried to conceive ideas, create characters, plug in a plot, anything to avoid the discomfort of writing and rewriting.

And then I listened to what all of the masters have said in one way or another:

The only way to write–is to write.

So true. So simple. So hard.

But glorious. Sublime.

The only way to write–is to write.