The Gifts of NaNoWriMo: Part II (The BEST Part)

I know. I posted twice in a week. How’s that for erratic and unpredictable behavior? I’m not sure I know myself anymore. But last time I left with a cliffhanger, and I couldn’t leave you hanging. Nah, truthfully, I couldn’t wait to share.

Lots of people know that I am a zookeeper. Not as many know that in my second job, I am a computer teacher. I teach grades K-8, and I love it. I want my students to be prepared for the tech-driven world they live in, so we do all kinds of things. Tomorrow we’re jumping in on the Hour of Code event. We also look at digital citizenship and current tech events. This year we took our second foray into National Novel Writing Month. We go through the affiliated Young Writers Program because YWP allows the kids to set their own word goal. My class only meets once per week, so 50,000 words is way more than I would ever expect of them.

Dottie the Therapy Dog is so ready to write her book. It's a tail-wagging saga of a chicken biscuit.

Dottie the Therapy Dog is so ready to write her book. It’s a tail-wagging saga of a chicken biscuit.

The kids love writing as much as I do. We do lots of prep work with writing prompts, and most of them had their ideas in place before November began, but there are a few who are dyed-in-the-wool pantsers, and more power to them. Every kid in grades 2-8 participates. Their word goals are their own, based on their typing speed (that’s how I justify doing NaNo in computer class. They are learning Google docs and typing) and how many words they typically write following a word prompt. I give prizes for everyone who meets their word goal. Can I tell you a secret? EVERYBODY meets their goal. All of them. They also get an additional prize if the group as a whole writes more than I do in the class period. They always win. We have so much fun.

This year, I had six finishers. Six students who met the big word goal that I set for any student who wanted to get published. That meant a LOT of writing outside of class. They want to be writers, and they did what they had to do to make it happen. You can follow all of those adventures on the school’s Facebook page if you like. If you like a picture, you can even “like” that picture. It helps our algorithms. Those are some happy kids. But there’s more to NaNo than finishing. Finishing is incredible, don’t get me wrong. It’s great, but all of the wonder if it is not tied up in a mandatory word goal. Let me share some of the magic.

A child whose goal last year was to write 20 words per class period had to have the word goal changed this year. How many words? 200. This student set the goal for ten times higher than last year.  And blew past it every, single week. And not only that, this child who has avoided reading because large blocks of text are hard to decipher spent hours a week reading to parents, teachers, anyone who would listen. In the car on the way home, after dinner, whenever. Why? Because who doesn’t want to share something they wrote themselves? And now this child reads other things, too. Because a writer has to read, you know.

Another child who often every, single thing they write, be it spelling test, math assignment, or creative writing, because of fear of making a mistake? The first two weeks, the backspace button and delete keys were covered. Once this student figured out that there was no judgement,  I received pages of written work. It’s easy to write when you don’t have to wonder if you are good enough.

A student who despised writing assignments now loves writing SO much that it’s a bargaining chip that parents can use. “Want computer time to work on your blog? Do your homework without arguing.”

We’re seeing changes in so many students. Class journals used to be a chore for some of the kids. After NaNoing, they BEG their teacher for just a little more time to write. “Just a few more sentences, please? PLEASE?!” Because they love expressing themselves. They are excited to write. They cannot wait to sit down and create worlds of their own. And they’re good at it. Because they are writing for themselves, the kids have freedom to show who they are and what they love, and that always makes for a good story.

So this Spring Break, I’ll be spending my work time editing and formatting and getting some incredible students ready for publication. If anyone is interested in purchasing student writing, I’ll be happy to share the links. One of last year’s winners is still in awe of the $25 they made through NaNo novel sales. It’s heady stuff when you can publish your first book before high school.

So this is why I NaNo. Why do you NaNo?

The Gifts of NaNoWriMo, Part I

It hurt a little when I fell off the face of the earth, I’m not gonna lie. I face-planted somewhere around Jupiter. Or was it Venus?  All I know is it was cold, and I got rocks in my teeth. Come to think of it, it might have been the playground.

It happens every November without fail. I get sucked into National Novel Writing Month, and the rest of my life gets to go hang for a little while. I’m not apologizing, mostly because I’ve been around the blogging block long enough to realize I’m the only one who suffers if I don’t blog. But also because this November was made of magic. Magic. I can’t apologize for magic.

I sign up for NaNo every year. My first year, I stumbled upon it the day before, and I jumped in with both feet. I love it. I get caught up in the madness, the late nights, the caffeine-addled reckless abandon that helps me pound out a delightfully awful first draft. This year, I met some milestones.

NaNo is a program that offers several opportunities a year to produce a novel in a month. In November, the *official* month, the goal is 50,000 words. I hit that goal in 8 days, a personal best. I ended the month at 106K, another personal best for a work of straight fiction. I didn’t find “The End” for another few days after NaNo ended, but I found it last night. I typed those words in giant, bold letters, 30 point type.  A third personal best. Usually I’m hiking the Cliffs of Insanity in February in a desperate hunt for the elusive “The End,” but I nailed it down before Squish’s birthday.

I would say "Winner, winner, chicken dinner," but I keep getting mixed up and trying to say "Neener-neener, chicken wiener," and that embarrasses my children.

I would say “Winner, winner, chicken dinner,” but I keep getting mixed up and trying to say “Neener-neener, chicken wiener,” and that embarrasses my children.

This November was a gift, wrapped up in scratch-and-sniff Strawberry Shortcake paper and tied up with a bow. Here are some of my favorite things about it.

  • I learned that I can push my limits. I learned that I have the ability to dig deep when I really need to, when I decide to. November is busy, and I knew I had to get the majority of my 100K goal written before the week of Thanksgiving. Sometimes that meant getting out 5,000 words between Squish’s bed time and mine. And I did it. I could sit down at 9pm, ready to give up and just crash, and end up with my five big ones before 11. Because I decided I wanted to do something big rather than watch another episode of Frasier.
  • I learned that rewrites won’t kill me. And maybe they’re something to look forward to. I started a story I loved, but the idea shifted within about the first ten thousand words and became something even more fascinating. And complex. Turns out, I couldn’t finish THAT draft in 30 days. I wrote 50K on that piece, and then I switched over to a project I’ve had cooking for a year to finish the 100K. But the idea I left behind isn’t abandoned. It’s stewing. Because all of a sudden, I see what I need to do to make that first story line great, and I can’t wait to do it!
  • I learned that I suck at titles. No, wait. I already knew that.
  • The super coolest part about NaNo? When I was a kid, I had a best friend. We were inseparable. Every, single weekend, she was at my house, or I was at her house. What did we do? We wrote. On her frankensteined home computer that her dad build (in the 80s! Anyone remember C-prompts?), on pads of paper, any time, anywhere. We wrote together. This year? She’s in grad school. Where I live. And we got together for some write-ins. Once, we even ended up at her dad’s, the house where she grew up, and the site of about a million sleepovers. I was ready to bake cookies and make suicides out of Coca Cola and lemon juice (no, it didn’t taste good then, either) and stay up late to watch Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live. She has published a lot of stuff. Maybe you’ve heard of her, or maybe you’re just now hearing of your new favorite author. She’s nagging me about query letters. She’s pushing me on to my next big adventure: publishing.

These are all great things, of course. But I’m holding out on you. There’s no way a single blog post can contain all of this November’s allotment of awesome. I have more things to share, and one of them is even better than winning NaNo. Way better. Immeasurably better.

Until next time.


Did you participate in NaNoWrimo this year? How did it go?


Send Help!

No, I’m not dead. I’ve just been busy. And right now I have to type really fast because I’m writing from my mom’s hospital room, and their internet policy is no personal websites. Although Facebook and Twitter are okay? I don’t know. Medicine doesn’t make much sense to me in general.

Remember when I went hiking a few weeks ago? It was an eleven mile adventure, and it was fabulous. Unfortunately, I slipped a couple of times and did a little damage to my knee. One slip sent me tumbling onto my back, holding onto the cable embedded in the rock for dear life. Actually, probably literally for dear life, or at the very least dear not-broken-into-a-thousand-pieces. I hurt my knee, but it was cool.

I had my hiking poles, so I managed to drag my sad, sorry carcass off the mountain complete the hike. I was a little sore the next day, but nothing unexpected. The muscles were tight, but I stretched them out. No biggie.

Of course, a couple of days later, I noticed that I could no longer go down hills without my knee locking up. Or stairs. Or get out of bed. It hurt a little. I just kept a little heat on it via my rice sock, and I stayed limber enough to keep from screaming every time I stood up get around okay.

Turns out, my threshold of stubborn is about two weeks. On day thirteen of the countdown, I was sitting on a high stool in a local restaurant getting a little wi-fi and breakfast. When I tried to get down, I nearly dropped the “f” bomb in the middle of Chic-Fil-A had a little more trouble than expected. I decided at that moment that if I could ever bend my leg again, I would head to the doctor’s office immediately. Considering that my only other option was to stay on that stool for the rest of my natural life, I limped my way to my car to get it checked out.

It turns out there’s nothing too serious. I strained my lateral/collateral ligament. A few weeks of rest should get me on the road to recovery. Rest. Wait. I think I know that word. It involves walking my son to school every day and standing up in front of a class and teaching, doesn’t it? No, wait. It doesn’t.

My activities have been sharply curtailed, so I’ve thrown myself headlong into my NaNoWriMo project, and I’m having the time of my life. My book this go-round can best be summed up as a splash of personal narrative that has spent time in a hyperbolic chamber. It’s not a memoir. I’m not sure there’s a verifiable fact in the whole thing, but it has been great fun putting a creative spin on some memories. Wait. There is one fact. I did use my real name, and my sister’s. I’ll post a little excerpt here sometime, maybe.

I knew I had more words to say than just 50K this time, so I set my goal for 80K for the month. I turned out a 50K project last year in only 12 days, so I thought I could make it to 80 in a month. Leg propped up in bed, I made it to 80K this afternoon.

Hello, my name is Heather, and I’m a bar graph addict. On my page, it shows me a little graph with a bar that indicates how close I’m getting to my next goal. The goals are set in increments of 20K, and I am completely addicted to seeing my little word count bar climbing. Someone needs to stage an intervention. I’m not sure my kids have seen me for three days, and the only one who still loves me is my cat. Because I’m her heat source.

Someone send help.

Anyone else doing NaNo this month? How’s it going? It’s the most fun I have all year, and I think I’m going to do it again in January!

The Best Present Is My Past

My bags are packed. I’m ready to go. Insert Peter, Paul and Mary here because I am, in fact, leaving on a jet plane, and I don’t know when I’ll be back again. I have a general idea because a return date is printed on my ticket, but it snows in Wisconsin. If it snows, I’ll be delayed.

I like to travel, especially when I don’t have to drive. The possibilities are endless. I’m bringing about 150 books (e-readers are the best!), music, snacks. The kid in me is wired up and fired up. Not because of the books, though, or the secret stash of Cliff bars, or the Lunchable my husband bought me for the flight (Shut up. I’m really eight.). That kid is tickled pink over the brand new legal pad stashed in my backpack.

Back in the days before laptops and desktops and the little electronic typewriter and the gigantic IBM typewriter circa 1944 that shook the walls every time I hit “return,” there were legal pads, bought with my own money. They were impractical and unconventional, so no legal pad ever appeared on my school supply list. When I ventured to the store to buy them, they had a purpose all their own. No mundane notebook filler, legal pads were intended for greatness. As a seventh grader,  I wrote my first novel on a series of them. Those battered yellow tablets are stashed in the garage somewhere. Not somewhere. I know exactly where they are. I leave them there. It’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.

For over a year I carried those tablets everywhere, writing anywhere I could, squeezing in a few sentences here, a paragraph there. They were my best teachers. Through my work on yellow legal pads, I learned about hyperbole (mostly how to do it badly), and that sleep can be lost over sticky plot points. I learned that no one ever died over torn pages, although they might feel like it at the time. I learned that there are critics everywhere and that sometimes when kids see you spending more time with a pad of paper than with actual humans, they think you’re a little weird. And that weird can be good.

I let an adult read my book once. At the time, I was cocky and full of my own self-importance. I was thirteen and had written a book. I was golden. I had not learned that first drafts are word-vomit or that every writer needs an editor. I now try to imagine that teacher’s impression of my work. And I cringe. My writing then was so raw, the very essence of my burgeoning teenage self. I didn’t wear a mask back then. My hopes, my dreams, my insecurities are contained in those pages, bared to the world. Now I could no more let someone else read that early work than I could walk naked across the town square. They are essentially the same, you know. I can’t even bear to reread them myself. I’m not ready for that level of exposure

My husband bought me a new tablet tonight. I added it to the shopping list, and when I came home it was there on the counter. It’s yellow, and it’s new, and it’s waiting for me. I have plans for this pad, oh yes, I do. First and foremost, NaNoWriMo is coming. I signed up again this year, and I’m getting ready. On the pages of this legal pad, I will meet my characters for the first time. I will learn their names and their history. We will plan their story; what was, and what I hope will be. It’s the best present.

If you are signing up for NaNo, too, and leave your user name, I’ll add you as a buddy. I’ll meet you at the corner store to buy a box of Runts, and we can stay up all night plotting and planning whole new worlds. I can’t wait.

What If Baby WANTED to Be Put In A Corner?

She might have, if it was anything like my corner. I have one, you know. Fifteen square feet in this world that is all my own. I don’t have to share it with anyone. My husband fixed it up for me, and I love him for it. Want to see?

It's the best, isn't it?

It’s the best, isn’t it?

It has everything I need, and most of the pieces have a story of their own. The bistro table is from our favorite coffee shop. When they closed their doors, my husband bought me “our” table. There are two chairs. If you’d like to sit and talk books or writing for a bit, have a seat. You would be most welcome!

The blanket hanging on the back of the chair was a “dirty Santa” gift from a work party. It’s huge and warm and, hello? LIZARDS! It’s like it was made for me. I may or may not have peed on it to keep anyone else at the party from trying to steal it. I’m not saying. One trip through the wash and good as new, right?

One of the little cases on the table contains my MP3 player. I have writing playlists. There is no better music to listen to when trying to write intense, dramatic scenes than this. For real. Buy it now, thank me later. The other case contains my glasses. We won’t go into that right now.

The cork board was a gift from my husband, and it literally has a story. My story. Pinned to it is the layout for my newest project. The work is not exactly new. I started it for NaNoWriMo this year, but I got stuck and continued on with something else. Now it’s time to revisit. This tale gets my blood pumping. My goal is to finish the first draft by Mothers’ Day. Though it is half-finished this timeline may be a bit ambitious since this will be my most technical work to date, and there are some fiddly bits that I haven’t finished working out yet. By tomorrow, the note cards will be color-coded by story line, character notes, plot twists, and questions I am trying to answer. And then the real work begins.

This space mine, and I love it. I spend hours here each night after kids are in bed. I don’t have have to share with anyone. Except my old cat. She’s the most demanding editor, fussing at me to sit down and write so she has a cozy place to perch. It’s good for both of us, really. She’s my muse.

I finished my book this weekend. At 51K, It’s not a huge tome. It was never meant to be. It was just a story that was begging to be written. It made me happy to write it. It was exhilarating to watch it grow with such speed, uncovering one surprise after another. Is it good? Probably not. Yet. There are still rewrites and such. But it doesn’t matter because it’s just for me, anyway.

So what is your writing space like? Are there notes from a current project you’d like to share? And what’s on your playlist? I’m always looking for new musical inspiration! So many questions! The wheels in my brain are run by a hamster strung out on MoonPies.


***If you’re under the age of 30, the title may be meaningless to you. If so, run, do not walk, to the video store, or stream it, or whatever you crazy kids are doing these days, and get this movie. It is key to understanding my generation. No, you darned kids, get off my lawn!

Charting New Territory

I’ve never done this before. I’ve been a writer for a lot of years, and even in my heyday when I was churning out short stories and novellas at a rate that stuns me now, I never tried this. But I’m doing it now, and I’m kind of liking it.

I finished my first novel in 25 years last week, a novel that I started back sometime last summer, before I saw Avengers in the theatre. That landmark is significant to me, so I remember. It was a fun ride, sometimes frustrating. Typing “The End” was the most exhilarating experience I’ve had for a long time. I remembered what it means to be a writer.

How I have missed the writing process; the characters, like badly behaved children, never doing quite what was expected of them. It took 2 days and ten thousand words to work around a surprise thrown into the works by one of my characters. But she was right, I think. In the end, her actions made the story stronger, tied things all together in a way I had never imagined.

I love the magic that is writing. Starting a new work is like footprints in fresh snow, creating something there that never was before. A few days ago, I started a new project. Its beginning was a little less romantic, more like doing a face plant in a snow bank. It’s a story that was demanding to be told. But here’s the kicker. I will never show it to anyone. Ever. This time, it’s all for me.

The story has grown to over twenty five thousand words in six days, the words pouring like water. It’s easy right now. I know this story. I don’t know how I know it, but I do. It’s there, and it wants to be created, demands it. And because it is for my eyes only, I worry less over the turn of a particular phrase, or whether I’ve used “said” once too often in this chapter. It’s liberating and exciting.

I have never done this before. Previously, I created for an audience. I thought about what might interest others. This time around, I don’t care. I am more than willing to admit that no one cares about this particular story except for me. And I care a lot. Suddenly, my previous goal of a thousand words a day is laughable. The words don’t stop. Two, three, four thousand words seems inadequate. The story simply must be told. It’s telling itself.

The hard part is coming. I know that. I suspect that I am heading at breakneck speed to the place when the story dries up. A few thousand more words, and I may be hanging over the edge of the cliff. With my previous novel, the last sentence was written in my head before I ever typed the first one. This time around, the ending is out there in the ether. I can’t see it.

I may get stuck, may leave this story behind for a while at that point, may let it stew in its juice and work on something else. I have ideas, lots and lots of ideas. But I’ll come back to this one eventually. I want to see how it ends.

And Now The Moment You’ve All Been Waiting For

And by “you all,” I mean my husband and children, who are hoping to one day have a decent meal and clean laundry.

Here it is. The big announcement that isn’t an advertisement for deodorant. Last night, after four months of work, I finished my first novel in 25 years. I’ll pause here and let that sink in a minute. For me, not you. I am floored. 25 years.

It has been:

309 full moons

175 dog years

a quarter century

6 terms of presidential office

6 Aerosmith albums

The shelf life of a package of Twinkies

I knew early in the day that I was set to finish. I was giddy and gleeful all day, until I typed those magic words; “The End.”  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’ll go for both.

Anyway, this is just the beginning of a long and painful process. I’ve put it away for now, letting it age like a fine wine while I work on some other things. I say wine and not cheese because I’m really hoping I don’t open it back up and find out it really stinks. And then come the rewrites. I’m not fooling myself. I have a lot of rewriting to do.  And then I find beta readers. And decide if I’m going to pursue this one as my debut novel. I thought no at first, but now I’m not so sure. This may be the first one I put in an agent’s hands. It’s hard to imagine, like thinking about sending your kid to college when they’re still small enough to sleep in a crib.

It’s just a little baby novel yet. I’m going to give it a kiss and stick it in a drawer for a few weeks. Just like the baby books tell you to do.

I Haven’t Changed.

I’ve been MIA for a couple of days because I’m pounding out words like a psychotic trained monkey. I know this is supposed to be a Thanksgiving post and all, but what I am most thankful for is currently a state away from me. No, you romantic thinkers, not my 2001 minivan. Although I am infinitely grateful that she hasn’t dumped me on the side of the interstate in at least a year. It’s what’s in the minivan that I’m grateful for. And kind of missing.

But don’t cry for me, Argentina. They’ll be back later tonight, and I’ll be doing my Snoopy happy-dance. In the meantime, I have for you a Black Friday post. Read it here.

Click the link and the zombie in the middle lives again.

I haven’t changed a bit, and I doubt I’ll be invited back. I’ll let you know.

You Knew I Was Crazy, Right?

I can’t believe I’m doing this. I have a thousand compelling reasons not to do it. My husband and kids may pack up and head for the hills when they find out. I shake my head in disbelief that I would even consider it. But I’m going to do it, so there.

I am, of course, talking about NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month 30 days of novel writing madness. It kicks off in 22 days. EEK!

I must be crazy. I should not do NaNoWriMo because…

I’m already at work on one novel. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write a novel from start to finish during the month of November. No fair bringing work to the table that we’ve already started. So I’ll either need to put this baby to bed for a month while I work on something new, or I will have to work on them concurrently. We have already established that I am nuts, so guess which one I’m going to have to do.

I scrapbook in November. I do the family scrapbook every, single November. The last one I did contained 600 photos and took me three weeks. I can do it in December, I suppose, but that means that I can’t give it to Nonni as a Christmas present. Maybe I should just stop taking photos of the kids.

Squish has grown weary of the “Play quietly while Mommy writes” routine. If I’m going to get this done, I’m going to have to carve out time in new places. I don’t need to eat, right? Or go to the bathroom? Think of all the time I will save if I make the switch to diapers!

I am an early bird. As in, I make my nest as soon as the sun goes down and don’t stir forth until daylight. No night owl here. I’m not so good at stretching my evening into hours of productivity. I do my best writing (and everything else) early in the day, and then my brain is toast. Hmm. Two novels and a scrapbook. I can swing it, right?

Oh, yeah. I have a little blog. I love my blog. I have used it as a daily exercise in self-discipline for the last year or so.  I can’t completely abandon it. So two novels, a scrapbook, and a blog. I can do it!

I’ve got all these really great reasons not to do this thing. So why am I doing it? I’ll blame Jennifer and her post this morning for getting this wrecking ball swinging, but really, there’s only one reason.

BECAUSE IT’S FUN!!! Though last year was my first year participating, I can’t imagine skipping it ever again! Those sleep-deprived, coffee-addled days, nerves jangled as I try to hammer out 1666 words in a single sitting. The hours of watching my Twitter feed, giggling at the prompts, spirits lifted by the encouragement.

I started running a few weeks ago, but I am no runner. There are no road races where I would not humiliate myself and everyone related to me. NaNoWriMo is my marathon, it is my opportunity to be a part of something much larger than myself, to engage with other writers, sharing struggles, celebrating victories. My rough as sandpaper draft at the end is my medal.

I’ll do it a little differently this year. Because I have so much on my plate, my goal is to just have fun. I am going to follow as many of the writing prompts as I can. No plan, no expectations beyond 50,000 words. I’m also going  to attend at least one local write-in so I can make connections with actual, living people, even if it means I have to listen to jazz (curse you, Panera Bread!) to do it.

Coffee’s on. Who’s with me?