NaNoWriMo: Why do I it. How I prepare. How I stay sane.

Why I do it.

I’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)  since 2011.

There have been a few gaps, particularly the last two years while Geeklet went from being what my husband I affectionately dubbed the larvae stage to something a little more self supporting. Each time I came to NaNoWriMo with a different commitment.  The first year, was just seeing if I could get the thing done. 50,000 words of a novel in a month. I called that year the good the bad and the ugly. And the result was successful, if mostly ugly.

Subsequent years were a repeat on the theme with minor changes. I had no problem hitting the word count, but the results lacked structure (where is this going?) and cohesion (what is this all about?), and all invariably wound up confined to a “trunk,” a folder on my hard drive that my husband has strict instructions to delete on my death 🙂

I kept active in my local short story writing and critique group, refining my process. I learned to prep, which mostly included reading books on writing in the month before to start priming my subconscious writer with technique.

In 2013, when I wrote Death’s Dancer during NaNoWriMo, I did something entirely new. I plotted the novel start to finish, with scenes and character backgrounds and arcs. When I was successful, I still had a lot of ugly to clean up, but I also had a complete novel.

This year, my goal is to consciously use the technique tricks I’ve learned (and am learning) to shape the writing as I go. I’m working with a full plot again, and writing slower. As my teachers would say “moving with intention.” We’ll see how it goes.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Be my writing buddy!

How do I prep?


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For my first NaNoWriMo, prep consisted of making sure I had lots of coffee, and somewhere to charge my laptop. There are tons of fantastic books on the theory, practice, and politics of writing (Stephen King’s On Writing to Joanna Russ How to Write Like a Woman) in addition to classes and workshop on writing, but my theory is I have the rest of the year to sort through that. I tend to keep books with short, digestible sections that I can pick up when I get stuck to help jog my writer brain through humor, ass-kicking, or lightbulb moments.  Through choice, recommendation or accident, here’s what’s in my pile of prep:

  • bird by bird –  Anne Lamott – I’ve owned a copy of this from my first creative writing class in college. Lamott is one of my favorite essayists. She’s honest, self-effacing, no-nonsense and compassionate. Though the book had practical technique tips I read it for the humor, and the perspective and the loving ass kicking. (Recommended essays: Polaroids, The Moral Point of View, and Publication)
  • Writing the Breakout Novel – Donald Maas – The king of tough love for aspiring authors, but it’s hard to argue with his experience as an agent. While a bit formulaic, there’s no lack of practical examples and advice. (Recommended: Characters and Subplots)
  • You Are Doing a Freaking Great Job – a little book of quotes for motivation and the occasional cheer up. (“The best way out is always through.” Hellen Keller)
  • The Morgan Greer Tarot deck – I’m terrible at reading spreads, but I love drawing a card at the start of my writing session and considering how it might fit in with a scene or character. It’s also a nifty screen break to rest my eyes on when I need a break, or get stuck in a scene. The images are simple, evocative and packed full of symbolism that tickles my brain.

This year I also have a new addition to the pile:

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  • Write Away by Elizabeth George is also new to the pile this year, and one of those books I wish I had read years ago. It’s full of practical advice (George’s research process alone is humbling) and one of my favorite thing: examples. George has an example to illustrate every point, from popular fiction to literature. She’s encouraging and compassionate but does not give a shit about your excuses. (Recommended: Baby Steps First, The Value of Bum Glue)

Full disclosure, I’m glad I didn’t read the more technical/commercial books in the pile when I was a baby writer. There is something valuable to knowing my own voice before I started having a lot of input. Each one of these books, included my beloved Lamott, has a moment which I realize I’ve chanced on some bit of advice or perspective that I just don’t agree with. There is no magical formula to writing, everyone has to find their way, and while it’s helpful to look for guidance and examples, it’s also ok to disregard the stuff that just doesn’t ring for you.

Tl;dr – Everyone’s process is different, and mine says it’s ok to cherry pick the stuff that works for me and disregard the rest.

(It’s also why I reread my favorites, or parts of them, many times: sometimes a tip or trick that doesn’t resonate the first or second time, may be exactly what I need the fifth or 12th time)

The rest of my pile is odd bits and knickknacks: a pencil bag with assorted pens and highlighters, post-its – and a killer recipe for cookies from the launch party for my friend Eva Moore’s Girl’s Night Out series. Because, I guaranteed you there will be emergency motivational cookies needed at some point this month.

If you prep for NaNo, what’s in your pile?

How I Stay Sane

My family moved twice this year. We bought a house this summer. A beautiful, old house that needs love (read: contractors). We also have a 3-year-old. The sequel to Death’s Dancer, Dancer’s Flame, is winding it way through edits after an extraordinary delay (see: moving woes). Book three is drafted and needs a revision so badly it hurts. And WINTER IS COMING…or at least the holiday season. The days of my sitting down at the computer for long hours with nothing to do but get words done are (at least temporarily) a memory. I am, not so eloquently, fucking tired most days.

Still, the irony is I need NaNoWriMo to prove to myself I can still make the word count, even with life turned up to 11. A couple of things are saving my mental health right now:

  • Write first: Once the Geeklet is off to school, I beeline back to write. If there are things at home that I know will distract me I stop at a coffee shop and write for and hour or two after. Otherwise I go home, crank the heat in my office, turn on the music and get to work. Even if I don’t meet my word count, I feel better sitting down at night when my brain is less on knowing I made a good start.
  • Drink lots of water: No joke. For a coffee and red wine fiend this is admittedly a challenge. When I was a river guide, one of the first clues that someone was dehydrated was that they were cranky AF and pretty much useless for decision making. It’s true on land also.
  • Get appropriate and interesting exercise: I hate the gym. I don’t run (unless I’m being chased). It’s too cold and wet to rollerblade. But I started taking an adult beginner ballet class in October. Once a week, for 1.5 hours I put on tights, a leotard and ballet slippers and move my body. It is often awkward and I usually feel ridiculous at least once. But I always feel better after class. On days that it’s clear/warm/dry enough I bike the Geeklet to school. There and back is 30 minutes of cardio. I also have a small trampoline – which we bought for the Geeklet, but somehow wound up in my office- and I occasionally bounce around on before and after taking a break.
  • Eat: And don’t wait so long that I make stupid food choices. Low carb, protein rich is my preference for lack of brain fog in general, so I do my best to  keep it up all month. YMMV.
  • Treat yo-self: To celebrate my word count for the week, I took myself to a movie (yes, Thor). I did not regret the loss of writing time.
  • Set achievable goals and rewards: I’ve heard of things like a piece of chocolate, a handbag, a cocktail, carbohydrates. Next week Ibeyi tickets are dangling over my word count for the halfway-ish point. You do you.
  • Make friends: Buddy up online or IRL. This writing business can be lonely. Make sure you have human interactions on a daily basis. I fully intend to make the local meet up this Sunday…I hope.
  • Most importantly: Stay flexible. Shit happens. Words don’t come. Life intrudes.

How do you self care during NaNoWriMo?