NaNoWriMo and Newborns: They’re Exactly the Same

Okay, not exactly. Alright, not even remotely. Having a newborn is way harder. But I’m writing this at 4:30 a.m., it’s midway through Week 2, and so I’ll milk this tortured analogy if you please.

It’s November 1, and you’ve given birth. You said you were gonna make this thing, and you did, and you can hardly believe it, and you’d rather go back to sleep, and no, no, don’t leave me alone with this thing! This tiny, needy, utterly dependent thing that is hardly more than a name right now. Did you give it the right name? It’s it too weird? Or worse, did everyone else just give theirs the same name? You will google this.

It will start out an unscheduled mess. No matter how much you planned for it. No matter how many books you read to prepare yourself. No matter even how many times you’ve done this before. You will be knocked to your knees with fatigue and shock at how relentless this thing is. It won’t matter if you’re a morning person or a night owl, it will demand you become both.

Your standards on everything will slip. Perfectionist much? Hah! Home-made sit down meals? Just don’t. Step away from the cutting board. Take-out is your friend this month. You will learn to type and eat one-handed as you negotiate the unending, mixed-up demands of your unscheduled infant novel and life. Clean is a relative concept, man.

No matter how much you nurse your greedy little bloodsucker newborn/wordcount, it will demand more. It will eat and burp and fall asleep in your arms and then wake up immediately after midnight, screaming as if you’ve been deliberately starving it. You will drain yourself dry, write yourself out, but somehow just by the very act of feeding this thing, you will create more food.

You will feel all the feels. Terror, elation, anger, depression, regret. Sometimes you will want to throw it out the window. But you won’t because that would be illegal you kind of sort of like it even if it has made you so sleep deprived you should be dead or at least have your driver’s license temporarily revoked. That tiny perfect curve of eyelash.That perfect little metaphor (that, ssh, I won’t tell you now, but you will kill dead in a later draft).

There will be poo. Shocking and appalling quantities of poo. But that’s a good thing. Poo equals growth.

You will have to take it with you everywhere. You will feed and change this little demon in every imaginable location: Airports, restaurants, grocery stores, bus stops, and park benches. The amount of equipment required to haul your infant idea along with you will stun you. And that one thing you didn’t bring (a fourth diaper/the entire box of wipes/your elementary school yearbook) will be the thing you need. So that dentist appointment you scheduled for November 20 back in September when you didn’t have a clue? Do yourself a favor: Reschedule it for February.

Google is your friend. No matter what time you’re up with this squalling, shitting little idea, no matter how strung out you are, someone else somewhere is living the same nightmare. Misery loves company. Except when that company becomes misery. You might find yourself on a thread filled with self-satisfied smuggles. You know the type. Them with their hyper-inflated word counts, placid babies born sleeping through the night. They’re only up this late/early to make you feel bad as they knit Christmas ornaments as thank-yous for their shower gifts while simultaneously handcrafting place cards for everyone on their Thanksgiving guest list. They’re already in talks with some Hollywood bigwig, and they just signed a baby modeling contract. Just block those smug buggers. They’re lying, okay? They’re just as strung-out as you are, and they have some sick need to pretend otherwise. But even if they’re not, fight the comparison monster. It wants to eat your baby.

It’s November 30. You’ve reached 50K words. You’re overjoyed. And then it shits right through its diaper all up its back, down its leg and onto your lap you start to read. And you realize something horrible. You’re not done. This is only the beginning. In fact, you will never be done (insert evil laugh here). You need to write more words, better words, and then you have to revise and revise some more and more and more and more and more, and oh my God, if you think it’s a bloodsucker now, just wait ’til it starts writing Christmas lists (Dear Santa, bring me all the Lego). You may never sleep again.

This thing you started will grow and take shape in ways that surprise even you, its creator, its first love. It will become something separate from you, something you can look at with a bemused, wondering pride. Did I really make that? Yeah, you did. But at some point it took off and kind of made itself, too.

And then it’s next year, and somehow you’ve forgotten just how hard it was, and you begin all over again.

It’s the Process

A while ago, I mentioned this broad, low balance beam I’m walking? Well, life circumstances have narrowed and raised my beam again. I’m busy, over-extended, and stressed out all the time. So, in August after finishing my last manuscript revision, I decided to take a holiday from writing. Two weeks. I’d pick up when the kids went back to school. Well, the kids went back to school, but my ever-present, ever-growing to-do list went nowhere, so that two weeks extended into four. And then five.

Some holidays are good for the soul. You come back with fresh perspective, restored energy, a renewed sense of purpose. And then there’s the other kind. It goes on too long, like that of a leather-skinned backpacker who can’t quit Koh Phangan. It has the opposite effect on the soul, turning it world-weary and cynical.

Self-doubt has plagued me my whole life, but in the last few years, as I’ve finally found the discipline to make writing and revision into daily habits, I’ve realized the power of working toward my dreams. It heals me.

The daily act of sitting down and putting the words on the page, has taught me bravery. I’ve never thought of myself as a brave person, but doing the work you love, divorced from any guarantee of reward, is a brave thing. Knowing I’m doing something that requires courage, weirdly enough, calms a whole lot of my fears. I like myself when I write. I’m nicer to my kids and everyone else when I write. I have more energy when I write. And it saves me all the time and money I’d otherwise need to spend on prescriptions meds and therapy.

I’m not saying success wouldn’t be lovely. It would. And outside positive reinforcement – a kind word from a critique partner, a chuckle when you read your work aloud – feeds me too. But the work itself, that matters most.

Holiday, such as it was, is over. I’m back from Koh Phangan, and here to tell you it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Do the work you love. There’s nothing better.

Finding My Balance

I’ve made it through to the second round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA for short). Of course I’m thrilled. Look for my entry, Rock Solid, in the Young Adult category.

I’m also knocked off-balance.

This small step forward makes me happy. But it also means that, instead of writing my thousand words this morning, I’ve spent a chunk of it obsessively following the ABNA discussion boards, emailing with my writing group (Four of them also made it through. Yay!), and rereading the pitch that got me through.

Which means this afternoon I’ll have to choose between writing and fulfilling my other responsibilities. We just got our dental insurance; I need to find a good dentist and make appointments. There’s shopping to be done. Meals to be made. Prescriptions to pick up. Grades to check. And always, always the laundry.

Every time something either good or bad occurs in my pursuit of published authorship, I let it knock me off the beam. I end up wasting precious writing time, and worse, ruining precious family time. Two years ago when I made the quarterfinalist round in this contest, I got so wrapped up in it that I forgot to attend my daughter’s new school’s open house. (And that’s just the lapse I’m willing to record here in my blog. There have been others.)

When I signed with my agent last spring, thrilling as it was, for weeks I staggered around like a drunk, completely off-balance. Missing this, forgetting that, not even hearing my kids talk because the voices in my head were so much more interesting.

This has prompted some soul-searching.

Writing has always been my dream, but I spent a lot of years NOT writing. For a long time, I didn’t have the discipline to sit and write. Then I was busy with very young kids, moving from place to place and immersed in being mommy. With a husband who was away A LOT, I struggled to find some balance between pursuing my dreams and caring for my family.

During his third deployment and facing another move, I made an active decision to put my personal goals away. Something had to give, and it was that. Just getting through all the days on my own – dealing with sick kids, fixing the broken dishwasher/car/roof, preparing for yet another move, staying sane – often felt like trying to walk a high-wire with a kid in each arm and no safety net. It was them or me. I chose them. As you do.

My favourite saying during that time was “This too shall pass.” It did. Things eased off. I’ve been walking a wide and sturdy low beam for a few years now. Once my kids were all in school, a beautiful chunk of time opened up for me. I’m so happy to have reached a point where I have the time AND the discipline to (mostly) use it well.

I’m living my dream. Day by day, I’m putting words on the page and making stories come together. Published or not, paid or not, I get to do something I love. How lucky is that??

So now, I’m choosing me. This year I’ve been letting myself say no a lot. No to the PTA. No to volunteering in my daughter’s classroom. No to playing Scrabble Junior when I don’t want to. I bid a fond fuck-off to the laundry pile.

I’m getting all too good at saying no.

But they still need me. It’s a struggle to put away the writing and give my family my full attention.To remember the damned open houses. To chaperone a field trip or two. To pick family game night over editing time. Showing up and being there are harder than they sound.

I may be on the low beam now, but all too frequently I still lose my balance.

A Likeable Character

Recently I submitted a manuscript to my critique group. I loved my story and I loved the main character, and I was anxious to get their feedback.

Let’s just say they didn’t feel the love. After sinking into despair for a few days and then revisiting the manuscript I saw why. I’d submitted way too early a draft to them. My story needed work, work, work!

And so to work I went. It’s a much better story now, and I credit my critique group for that.

But one thing has niggled at me. Some commented that my main character isn’t always likeable. And so I changed her. I made her spunkier. Less introspective and more active. And I’m worried that I’ve changed her in a fundamental way that makes her less the girl I want to write to.

As readers we have to feel that a main character is worth our time. We have to root for him or her enough to want to read their story to the final page. An easy way to show a character’s worth is to make them likeable.

When I was a little girl, I devoured the Anne of Green Gables books. I loved Anne Shirley as if she were my best friend. But I was no Anne Shirley. I wasn’t spunky and effervescent and unself-conscious. I was shy and withdrawn and watchful. I was not a particularly likeable child, and so I didn’t see myself in many stories, except as a side character. 

I’m not saying the quiet kids can’t learn a thing or two from all those fearless, charming heroines. Imagining ourselves into a different way of being is a powerful tool for change and growth.

But don’t we all deserve to be the main character once in a while? I’m not writing my stories for the feisty, fearless girls. I’m not writing to the popular girl or to the class president or the class athlete or the smartest girl in the room. 

I’m writing to the quiet girl sitting midway down the side row. She has a couple of friends or maybe none. She walks quickly from class to class, head down, holding her books like a shield across her chest. She gets good enough grades to escape notice but not so good as to gain any. She’s not anything extraordinary to look at, and she doesn’t offer anything willingly in class. She’s no talkative, redhaired firebrand. When you look her way, you might not even see her.

But this quiet, unobtrusive girl is fighting battles on the inside. With nobody telling her otherwise, she’s starting to think she’s not worth the space she takes up. And so, without any fuss at all, she is giving up hope. She is falling through the cracks.

When I was fourteen years old, I would go to school and slink through my days, trying desperately to escape notice. Then I went home and tried desperately to escape notice. Mostly I managed to stay under the radar, but when I didn’t it was bad.

One night everything hurt enough that I took a whole bunch of pills and went to sleep hoping I wouldn’t wake up in the morning.

I did wake up. I went to school, and there I got very sick, so they sent me home. That was all. No one noticed. No one helped me. No one knew.

I hope and believe that today those kids have more resources than I did. I hope people are noticing the quietly desperate kids and giving them the help they deserve. And I hope those kids are learning to speak up, not be ashamed of their pain. But in 2013, suicide was the third leading cause of teen deaths. That’s thousands of kids. Even more try and fail. Kids are still falling through the cracks. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

I made it though, and I do believe I’m a stronger and more compassionate person for it. However, I’m still quiet and more inclined to think than to act. Am I likeable? Only to a few people, but I know I’m worth the world to those few.

So when I write my characters, I guess I’m just not thinking of likeability.

I’m thinking of quiet, desperate girls who are worth a story too.

Mslexia

So I should probably mention on here that in September Mslexia published a teensy excerpt on my YA novel Stealing Happy!!!

I’m reminded now because Mslexia tweeted about it. In September.

Yeah. Um. September. It’s November now. Middle of. I know.

I moved across an ocean last summer, okay? I’m….

That is all.