Wednesday, October 31, 2012


As my writer friends know, "NaNoWriMo" isn't the faux-Indian name of a summer camp. Formally, it stands for "National Novel Writing Month," but for me, it means "Your Bluff Has Been Called."

NaNoWriMo is a challenge that encourages participants to write an entire 50,000-word novel, or 50,000 words of a novel to be completed later, in November (why, oh why did they choose a 30-day month, and the one with Thanksgiving in it)?

The point isn't to write deathless prose. The point is to get something on paper that you can then edit into deathless prose. Every day, you upload your work in progress to the site and your word count gets recorded. It's on the honor system; obviously, you could pre-write a novel and upload bits of it every day, or you could type Moby-Dick into the site (there's an option to encrypt your work) and no one would be the wiser. But since there's no prize aside from bragging rights and no way to police it, there's no real reason to cheat.

For years I've said, "Gee, sounds like fun, and I'd do it if the day job didn't take up so much of my time." Well, now I don't have the day job. As I said, my bluff has been called.

So I've signed up. And it starts tomorrow.

My goal: to write every day, excluding Tuesdays (my day off), and Wednesday and Thursday of Thanksgiving week. Hmm. That makes three days off in a rowguess I'll have to add the Tuesday before Thanksgiving back in. Okay, that's 25 days, so 2,000 words/day.

I have a rough idea of what I plan to write, including a one-page summary of the main plot points, characters' names, etc., and even 1,695 words written, which means that I have a bit of a leg up tomorrow.

I'm not very competitive with other people. Once during a marathon Hearts game my siblings refused to let me sit out any hands because they knew that if I was playing, neither of them would come in last; I just didn't care enough about winning to pay attention to what cards had been played. But I am competitive with myself. For instance, I always hesitate a long time before increasing the weights I use when I work out because I know I'll never allow myself to drop back down if they turn out to be too heavy. I'm also hesitant to start a double-crostic puzzle because I've finished every one I've ever started. I know that someday that streak will end, and that will kill me.

So with that attitude I'm pretty sure that I'll hit 50,000 words by the end of the month.

The question is: Will any of it be worth saving?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Benefit of *Having Had* a Day Job

For a long time I had to juggle a lot of things: a family, a day job, volunteering, and writing—first a doctoral dissertation, then books for young readers. In the process, I discovered something:

“Organized” is an adjective, and like many adjectives, it’s changeable. “To organize” is a verb, and like many verbs, it’s something you can choose to do.

It irritates me when people say, “Oh, I wish I were organized like you,” as though it were something you’re born with (maybe some people are—I certainly wasn’t!) like being tall or left-handed. Not true; I’m living proof. I realized that in order to be able to do all the things I wanted to do, I couldn’t afford not to organize my life. Choice: don’t organize and give up writing, or organize and have the time to write? Simple. I organized. This decision served me well in the dissertation years and then when I began my real writing career. It’s become a habit, and even though I have more time at my disposal now, it’s one I adhere to.

Even though I’ve ditched the day job, I still have a time-consuming volunteer position as SCBWI’s U.S. Regional Advisor Coordinator. It’s been more time-consuming than usual lately, as I’ve been taking in and processing RA grant requests. But I’m still finding time to write, because I formed the habit of organizing years ago, under day-job pressure.

My top tips for how to organize a writer’s life:

Everything I need is in reach

1. Have a dedicated writing space, whether it’s a tiny computer shelf or a luxurious studio (still pining for that one). Do all your writing, research, cogitating, communicating, etc. in that spot. In an earlier post I said that I never wrote my children’s books at my day job, and never brought day-job work home. (Well, rarely.) Set up your spot so that you don’t have to move from it to get your work done. That way you won’t wonder what you did with something—it’s right there!

2. Don’t write notes on easily lost post-its or little scraps of paper. I have a white board next to my desk so I can turn and scribble something down without interrupting the writing flow. During writing breaks I copy those notes into the appropriate file on my computer.

3. Have a backup system. Back up all your files, all the time.

4. Respond to emails immediately, or at least make a start on a reply. If I don’t, I forget them. But if it’s a sensitive topic or one that you need to think about, save your reply as a draft. I don’t put the recipient’s address in the draft so as not to send it prematurely. Seeing that I have a draft waiting to be sent is enough to remind me to finish it and send it.

I just swivel my chair to see this
5. Label things. You’ll forget what they are if you don’t, I promise. This set of office mailboxes that I rescued from the trash at the day job is one of my favorite things, and the slots where names used to be are perfect for labeling each cubby’s contents.

6. Get rid of dead wood. This is what my math teacher used to say when simplifying fractions, and it makes a great deal of sense. Why poke through a lot of stuff you’ll never need in order to find something? Both on-line and in real life, excess stuff just gets in your way. You can always keep it—just get it out of sight.

7. Lastly, remove “being organized” from your vocabulary, and add “to organize”!