How to Survive NaNoWriMo Craziness

November is National Novel Writing Month, and if you signed up to do the NaNoWriMo competition, which starts on November 1, I bow to you. I’ve done it four times. Each time I learned something new about myself, my writing, and the patience of my loved ones.

November is probably the worst month of the year to write a novel. Sure, 50,000 words is a rather short novel (most of mine hover around 100,000 words), but it’s still a lot of writing and a lot of time away from November–oriented activities, like visiting family and food preparation for Thanksgiving. Guarantee that if Chris Baty, the outgoing founder of NaNoWriMo, were a woman, he’d have picked a different month. Like March. March is a good month to write a novel. It’s blustery and cold outside. There aren’t any major holidays. And bonus, it’s got 31 days! Twenty-four extra hours to get in that word count and let the dishes pile up in the sink.

The first time I did NaNo, in 2004, I think I was out of my mind to even sign up. I had no business writing a novel. I was already writing a novel. I was also working 50-hour weeks on a major project at work. And just for kicks, I had family coming to visit during Thanksgiving. I would wake up at 5:30 every morning, snort some coffee, write for about an hour and a half, go to work, come home and collapse. On weekends, I wrote as much as possible, banking away word count to spot me on those days I would need to cook and be a good hostess and go to the hospital to visit my mother-in-law, who was ill at the time. But I finished. Despite everything. Despite unexpected demands on my time, despite loved ones who needed my attention. Despite even working on someone else’s computer when I had to be away from home for a couple of days.

I was so proud of myself. I loved watching my word count rise, I loved sitting down to my computer every morning, wondering where these characters would take me. It seemed that story was just flowing out of me, and I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to. Even now (mainly because this is the manuscript I’m currently editing for a shot at publication), I remember where I was when I wrote which part. I remember the part I wrote when I woke up the morning after Election Day and my husband told me that once again there was no clear winner. I remember the first morning, when I closed my eyes in front of the keyboard and just started typing. (It’s a trick I use to defeat the blank page.)

You’ll be proud of yourself, too. Just a few tips for planning ahead:

1. Set a daily quota. This is the Mother of All NaNo Rules, or at least it is for me. Take that 50,000 words and divide it by the number of days you will realistically be able to work on it during the 30 days of November. (Could be worse. Baty could have picked February.) Put that quota on a sticky note in a prominent place. If you can write more, great. Maybe you’ll even be able to take Black Friday off to go shopping.

2. Get some healthy food in the house. This is not the time to live off Doritos and Red Bull. Make some meals in advance and freeze them. When you do cook, think leftovers. I make triple batches of stuff. And have healthy but substantial snacks around, like almonds and dried fruit. The last thing you want to do is eat crap all month long and wake up sick on December 1. That’s a lousy time to be sick.

3. Lower your standards for household cleanliness. A little dust and a few spiderwebs never killed anybody. The dishes in the sink aren’t going anywhere. You are not a failure because you don’t have clean underwear or you’re slurping coffee out of a soup bowl. If your family members are so indignant, let them take up a sponge and have at it.

4. Don’t skimp on sleep. It’s tempting to cheat a bit out of those eight hours to up your word count. But a tired writer is an unfocused writer. It’s also bad for your health, especially if you are ignoring point #2 and living on Doritos and Red Bull.

Good luck, back up your work, and have fun!

Public Speaking for the Terminally Introverted Author

I was recently a guest on a “Meet the Authors” panel in New York with ten other women who had been published in the last few months. We spoke about how our books came to be: the initial idea for the story, the publication process, and our marketing efforts.

As each woman took the microphone, the passion for her work came out clear-eyed and full-hearted. How she navigated the publication process clearly struck a chord with the fifty-odd women in the audience, each hoping to see her own work in print or pixels one day.

But as for marketing and promotion, they were less enthusiastic. I heard a distinct note from several of the authors. Marketing and promotion sounded like a distasteful but necessary chore, like emptying the litter box.

Then one panelist stood up and voiced what many of us had been thinking. “Face it,” she said. “We are writers. Most of us would rather hide in our rooms behind our computers.”

A natural introvert, I could really relate to that. But in today’s literary marketplace, even with social media allowing us to stay at our computers, we can no longer completely hide—not if we want to be treated as professionals. We can’t equate marketing, especially face-to-face marketing, with taking out the trash, either. It’s a vital part of being an author, making sales, and generating interest for your next book. So, what do you do if even thinking about speaking in front of a group makes you want to upchuck?

1. Forget the clichés about imagining the audience in their underwear. Frankly, depending upon the audience, that would horrify me even more than speaking in public.

2. Remember why you are there. You arranged this event, or agreed to speak at it. You invited these people and they chose to show up. Now, what are you going to do for them? Reframe your presentation and your attitude toward helping your audience. Do you have important information to relate to them? In my case, I wanted to help aspiring authors by letting them know what to expect during and after publication. This took the focus off me and put it on what I could do for them. Therefore, since it wasn’t really about me, I didn’t have to worry as much about what people would think of me.

3. Preparation really is the foundation. Yes, you’ve been living, breathing, and sleeping your latest project for years. You’ve memorized your hundred-word pitch. You know everything about your protagonist down to her choice of toothpaste. But don’t, do not, if you’re nervous about talking in front of a group, try to wing it. Write out your entire speech if you need to. Keep within the time constraints you are given, if any. Practice. Practice. Practice again. Ask a trusted friend to listen to your speech and give you feedback. Or practice in front of a mirror. You might not notice a nervous tic that needs taming or a habit of saying “um” between every other phrase. When I rehearsed with my husband, I learned that I needed to slow down and pause between sentences. Revise your script as needed, and practice until you are comfortable looking away from it (audiences like eye contact) or even not needing it, except for a few key bullet points.

4. Get comfortable in your venue. Arrive early, to get a sense of the space and settle into it. Bring your notes. Bring those little items that make you more comfortable. My mouth gets dry when I speak, so I always have a bottle of water and my favorite lip balm. I fidget less if I’m holding onto a pen, so I bring one. Whatever you need to keep you settled and to reduce your fears.

And, finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help if public speaking truly terrifies you. Check in your local community for a branch of Toastmasters, so you can practice speaking in a safe environment and getting constructive feedback. Once you get comfortable and know your material cold, there’s no limit to where you can take it!

Are you confident in front of a crowd? What helps you the most? Any public speaking nightmares you’d like to share? (Don’t worry; we’re all friends here!)

Invisible TV Characters

Okay, this I know is a departure from my usual writing- and book-related posts, but I needed to have some fun today. Plus, I’ve been studying up on the craft (yes, you cynics out there, it is a craft) of writing for television. What especially amused me was the device of leaving a much-referenced character off-screen. Here are a few of my favorites. I’m sure you can come up with more. Aren’t you glad I do this so you won’t have to?

All in the Family:

• Norm’s wife, Vera “appears” but once in the whole run of Cheers…just to get a pie in the face before we can catch a glimpse of it. (Although at various times, we see her legs or a hand waving.)

• Niles Crane’s anorexic wife is the butt of many jokes in Frasier, yet we never see or hear her. My favorite line: “Maris, Lycra is supposed to blouse.”

• Mary Tyler Moore’s landlady, Phyllis Lindstrom, had a Scandinavian dermatologist husband, Lars, who lived (and died) completely off camera. Upon his death, Phyllis and daughter Bess moved out of Minneapolis and got their own spinoff.

• Megan Mullally’s bitchy, substance-abusing Karen in Will and Grace had a long-suffering husband who never appeared.

• Howard Wolowitz’s foghorn-voiced mother is just that: a voice screaming at her son from offstage in The Big Bang Theory. Contrary to popular rumor, the voice is not that of the actress who plays Howard’s girlfriend, Bernadette. Good impression, though.

• Remember Peter Falk’s Columbo? He’d often refer to “Mrs. Columbo,” who was never seen.

Who’s the Boss:

• John Forsythe, who died in 2010, played Charlie, the voice on the speakerphone that summoned the Angels to do his bidding.

• “Mork, calling Orson. Come in, Orson…” We never meet the disembodied voice to which Robin Williams’ Mork (in Mork and Mindy) reported at the end of each episode.

• Remember Third Rock from the Sun? John Lithgow and company reported to Big Giant Head, a disembodied entity who transmitted messages through French Stewart’s character, Harry. BGH eventually came to Earth in human form played by an over-the-top William Shatner. (This technically does not count as a completely invisible character, but it’s fun.)

Friends and Neighbors:

• Ugly Naked Guy was a frequent object of fascination on Friends. Until Ross moved into his apartment, Monica and company could watch UNG light candles, make Thanksgiving, and generally enjoy his naked self from her window. But, we never saw him. Or his Ugly Naked Girlfriend, who made a cameo “appearance.”

• Technically, neighbor Wilson did appear in Home Improvement. The gag was that no matter what he was doing, we never got to see his entire face.

• Bob Sacamano, Kramer’s oddball friend, was a frequently referenced character on Seinfeld who never appeared. On one episode, when Jerry and Kramer switch apartments, Jerry begins taking on Kramer-like attributes and even begins telling Bob Sacamano stories.

Did I miss anyone?

So You Want To E-Pub Your Novel?

You’ve finished writing your novel, your baby, your joy, your passion, and you’re considering self-publishing as an e-book. Why not, with nearly everyone you know toting around a Kindle or Nook or planning to get one? It’s awfully tempting to tap into that market, get your book out faster to your eager readers, and maintain more creative and financial control than with traditional publishing. But before you send that document to the digital arena, here are a few things to consider:

1. Editing. You are a professional, right? If you were to submit your manuscript to a literary agent or a publisher, you would present the best possible version, yes? Why approach this concept any differently because you’re self-publishing? You can edit your own work, to some extent, although a second opinion may do a better job. Can’t afford a professional? Find another aspiring writer and offer to swap. You’d be surprised what an objective eye can find. Until I employed a professional for the first novel I tried to sell, I had no idea that I’d started my story in the wrong place, had left a few plot threads untied, and had a character or two who could have been easily cut.

2. Proofreading. Ditto points from #1. For your own credibility, try not to do this yourself. After three or four read-throughs, even the best of us start missing little and big mistakes. If you don’t have the budget for a professional proofreader (often NOT the same person who did the editing), find a fellow writer with an eye for detail and propose a swap, or offer to barter for other skills. Just because you can pull down your e-book, revise, and republish rather handily, don’t let that ease make you lazy. Unedited, typo-strewn copies could already be out there, damaging your reputation.

3. Formatting. This can be a HUGE pitfall for the aspiring e-novelist. If you opt for the traditional publishing route, even if that publisher puts your novel out as an e-book, they are responsible for formatting. That means, for instance, new chapters start on a new page, paragraphs are properly indented, time/space breaks are properly spaced, symbols and punctuation are represented accurately, and your table of contents (if you have one) gets linked up correctly. You may be accustomed to checking for typos and grammatical errors, but how many writers think about formatting? (Well, me, but a background in graphic design will do that to a person.) Over several hundred pages of manuscript, formatting can get complicated. And worse, different platforms have different rules. Mess this up, and your e-book can become an irritating read. Fortunately, most of the major platforms know this. Amazon has a decent tutorial. Smashwords will even let you download a free e-book on how to format your manuscript to be compatible with their word-cruncher-uploader-doohickie that spits out proper file formats for different devices. Again, you can go through the learning curve if you feel inspired, or if you’d rather focus your energy elsewhere, outsource it.

4. Cover design. A cover alone may not sell a book, but a good one definitely helps. A dull design can get you passed over, and an inappropriate design might make a reader feel deceived. Again, here’s a place where you’ll want a professional. You definitely get what you pay for in this department.

5. Title. Consider your working title. Because you know your traditional publisher will. Does it suit the work? Is it too commonly used? Ask your writing and reading friends what they think of your intended title. Also, try Googling it. You can’t copyright a title, but you can make sure it’s not already in use for a book in your genre.

6. Read the fine print. Know what you’re getting into before you publish. Some platforms reserve the right to yank your content if they don’t think it’s “fit” for public consumption. Some reserve the right to re-price it at their discretion, or even offer it for free during certain promotions.

Finally, be prepared to market your ass off. But that’s a topic for another blog.

Are you planning to e-book it? Already a pro? Let’s talk…

(Photo courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti)