Since setting up my blog subscription list, emails to the “Thoughts” category subscribers have not been working. Each time I tinker with that email campaign, trying to fix it, I want to test it. So, this post is a test, but to avoid sending subscribers an empty post (assuming my tinkering worked), I thought I’d share some thoughts about NanoWriMo last month.
What Is NaNoWriMo?
NaNoWriMo is the nickname of National Novel Writing Month, which occurs in November. At the website https://nanowrimo.org, writers can register (for free) and commit to writing 50,000 words in November. There’s a handy tracking tool that displays your word count and shows if you’re on track. There are also “write-ins” around the world where writers gather to work, an online forum and pep talks emailed out from successful writers, and a Twitter community where writers share their experience (using #NaNoWriMo, #NaNoCoach, and more) and support each other.
I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo three times now: In 2014 I wrote my science fiction thriller, The Knowledge Game. In 2016 I wrote a fairytale romance called Rose Fair. And this year I wrote a light-hearted contemporary romance called Kensington.
My NaNoWriMo Experience
This year, for the first time, I outlined the plot and character arcs of my novel in advance. Having an outline made the writing process easier. But I still went through some stages as the weeks passed. From what I’ve read online, these stages are universal among writers. In fact, Week 2 has earned the nickname “the muddy middle.”
Here is a representation of my NaNoWriMo experience using cat GIFs:
October: I outlined my plot and could not wait to get started.
November Week #1: I jumped right in and had no trouble writing. The opening scene seemed fabulous, and then one fabulous scene after another came tumbling out.
November Week #2: After a week, it became hard to write. I had to make myself keep typing, and everything that came out felt boring and terrible. I fell behind.
November Week #3: I’d wake up in the morning thinking, Oh God, I have to write AGAIN? I felt like the time-to-make-the-donuts man from TV when I was a kid. I managed to catch up in my word count, only to fall behind again.
November Week #4: In the home stretch, things eased up. I could see my word count getting closer to 50,000, word by word.
And suddenly I was there!
November 30: Theoretically, I wanted to keep writing. But I was so happy not to have it hanging over me! It was hard to be motivated to do much of anything for a few days.
Writing and Revising
I should add that the point of NaNoWriMo is to get a first draft out—not necessarily a GOOD first draft. It’s okay to leave a note-to-self in the manuscript, like “verify this” or “insert correct furniture style here.” I use an “xx” each place I need to fix, so that I can find them easily using the word processor’s search function.
Many rounds of revision will follow. A first step might be finding places where you “tell” something instead of showing it (e.g., “Jack looked sad” might change to “Jack stared after Aurora, his eyes misty, his smile fading”). You might read your dialogue out loud and make it sound more natural, or remove adjectives and adverbs in favor of better nouns and verbs (e.g., “He walked slowly” might become “He trudged”).
This year, I found myself writing more carefully, trying to avoid some of the mistakes I’d made in the past that led to heavy revisions. The outline helped a lot—while I did incorporate new ideas during November, I didn’t get wildly off track, writing scenes that I’ll just have to cut. I also avoided writing “knowledge dumps” that would take the reader out of the story. Still, I have lots of work to do now, turning the draft into a book.
Last weekend I participated in a Local Author Book Fair at the Orange County Library. The organizer signed me up for a ten-minute slot reading from my work. I picked what I call the “Go Cow” scene of my bicycle journey memoir, Somewhere and Nowhere.
Why I Picked “Go Cow”
Stampede Park in Cody, Wyoming
I set the scene before beginning to read: Mary and I were two-thirds of the way through our cross-country bicycle trip and had stopped in Cody, Wyoming, the “Rodeo Capital of the World.” Of course we had to go to the rodeo. But I had never been to one, and I had some incorrect ideas about what it would be like. I pictured lassos flying and cowboys thundering around the arena, but not the tiny calves skittering across the dirt in terror.
So at first, we were disappointed by the violence and harsh treatment, and there were several rounds of “calf roping” to go before events like racing and bronco riding. But then, a child behind us started calling “Go cow!” We joined her, and cheered when a calf escaped the arena without being roped.
Calf roping at the Cody Nite Rodeo
I usually read this scene because (1) it is free-standing, not entwined with events that happened previously, (2) it doesn’t include too much internal drama, and (3) it’s somewhat funny, and I can use voices. But I also feel a little uncomfortable, thinking the scene doesn’t represent the book accurately, because much of the books *is* about the internal drama, that is, how being on the road helped me see the thought patterns that were keeping me down, so I could start to overcome them.
What Was Different This Time
I pictured this… (photo by Melissa Newkirk on Unsplash)
I describe the theme of the books as, “It is better to live in the present moment.” This theme manifests in many ways: not being stuck in the past, not worrying about the future, not being lost in daydreams. I realized that the Go Cow scene actually has a deeper point, related to this theme. It was my daydream about rodeos that led me to have expectations, and to form misconceptions about what the rodeo would be like, which led to disappointment when the reality didn’t match. I might have still disliked the rodeo, but I wouldn’t have been as disappointed if I had gone in with no expectations, just waiting to see what it was all about
…not this (photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)
This time when I introduced my memoir, I spent a little longer describing how I wrote it, before setting the scene for my reading. I described how a theme emerged that I wanted to share—the benefit of living in the present moment—and what this theme meant in my life. As I spoke about the theme, I saw audience members nodding along. Seeing that recognition on their faces gave me such a boost. I wanted to connect with people who might benefit from seeing my thought patterns exposed, by recognizing similar patterns in themselves. I felt happy that I had reached someone.
Rethinking My Audience
When Somewhere and Nowhere first came out, I tried to brainstorm as many audiences as I could: people who’d benefit from the theme was on top, but also bicyclists, people interested in traveling cross-country, maybe fans of other introspective travel books like Becoming Odyssa or Wild, or readers of books about outdoor adventure. But I never felt comfortable with all those audiences.
After the talk at the library, though, I thought, the one audience I do feel comfortable trying to reach is the original one: people who might benefit from reading my book, because they struggle with over-thinking and avoiding the present.
Then I started reading This Is Marketing by Seth Godin (Portfolio, 2018). It’s a modern take on marketing, which is no longer about advertising but about solving a problem for your audience. Godin describes finding your audience not as a demographic but as a “psychographic” (p. 28–29), and about the value of marketing to the “smallest viable market” (p. 31), which will ironically lead to growth.
The affirmation from an expert is just what I needed. I want to help solve a problem: people who’d like to be present and happier but struggle to change their mental patterns.
Those people are whom I wrote the book for. I’d be confident marketing it if I described it with that audience in mind. So I have some work to do rewriting my marketing materials!
I’ve been busy the last two months, and I’m glad to report I’ve been doing a lot of writing!
I’m super excited for the first ever Hillsborough Local Author Book Fair, sponsored by the Friends of the Orange County Public Library. As you may know, Hillsborough boasts a disproportionately large number of famous authors, and many of them will be signing books and giving readings: Jaki Shelton Green, Lee Smith, Allan Gurganus, and more. The lesser-known authors (ah-hem) will have our own tables to talk to readers and sell books. The event is 10 to 5 on November 24, with book sales from 11 to 4. There’s an event page here: bit.ly/OCFriendsBookFair
As of posting, there is one spot left in my Science of Bread class at the Folk School, January 6 to 12. (Register here.)
Last weekend I attended the NC Writer’s Network fall conference in Charlotte. I had some excellent sessions about the craft of writing: scene sequencing, writing authentic characters who are different than you, and detailed world-building. I also learned about pitching a novel to an agent or editor.
On November 1, I started writing Kensington, a contemporary romance, as part of NaNoWriMo. Earlier in the fall, I actually created an plot outline for the novel, which has made it easier and more fun to write. I blogged about the plotting process in two posts:
I’m really excited for the new novel, but after NaNoWriMo and finishing a first draft, I plan to return to my previous manuscripts, The Knowledge Game and Rose Fair, both of which are mid-revision.
As part of being more “out there” as a fiction writer, I added a “Thoughts” category to my blog. The idea was to write about topics that might interest readers of my fiction. I’ve been nervous about getting started (does anyone really want to read my thoughts?) but I’ve had these posts so far:
The past six months, I participated in a health coaching program. I’m excited by the effects I’ve seen and wanted to do a post to share the process.
Panic Attacks Are Real!
Our bikes on the open road in South Dakota
Understanding my moods and working to make them more positive is something I’ve worked at a long time. In particular, at the end of my cross-country bicycle trip, when I returned to “normal life” after living outside, on the road, for several months, I started having anxiety attacks: my heart would skip, I’d think I was dying, and a tight feeling would settle in my chest. One time, my limbs went numb. It would take about two hours for the feelings to pass.
When the first doctor (in an ER in Colorado) told me I’d probably had a panic attack, I didn’t realize he was serious. As far as I knew, “panic attack” was a made-up term kids used on the playground when someone got over-excited, as in “don’t have a panic attack.” Finally, after I’d returned home and had a second trip to an ER, I thought to look up “panic attack” on the fledgling Internet. Turned out it was a real thing.
After I learned about panic (or anxiety) attacks, I was able to stop them from happening. I started telling people I’d had them. I often got a response like, “Oh, that happens to me.” I realized that attacks were common, but no one talked about them. But talking about them could only help other people, so I included them in the epilogue of my memoir of the bicycle trip, Somewhere and Nowhere.
Last weekend, at the NC Writer’s Conference, I discovered a new symptom: I was scheduled to meet with an agent to learn about pitching and get feedback on my novel. About an hour before the meeting, I started getting dizzy; I left my conference session early and found a place to stand in the hallway, taking deep breaths. I didn’t recognize the symptom, but it seemed likely to be anxiety. My conference friend Fran said I should write about it, which inspired this post.
Strategies Developed via Health Coaching
Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of strategies to manage anxiety, which can get worse during stressful times. A main strategy is getting enough sleep. Everything looks worse when I am tired. I’ve become an early morning person, shifting my schedule to have more good hours before work, and less hours in the evening, when everything seems bad. I’ve never succeeded at officially meditating, but have had a regular practice of forced sitting still and doing nothing for several months at a time.
But I’ve never managed to practice all my strategies at once, or to do them in the long term.
This year, my health insurance included health coaching, so I signed up, with the goal of managing stress and enjoying every day more. I shared the ideas I’d tried through the years with the health coach. She helped me implement a few new ideas each month, and to get back on track when I got off. By the end of six months, I was regularly practicing all my strategies. Here they are:
Step outside or walk at lunchtime (4x per week); as winter darkness comes, do 15 minutes to get some sunshine
Sit still after work for 15 minutes (5x per week); try to do a longer period of 30 minutes 2x per week
Do something nice for myself (2x per week)
Spend some time outside (2x per week)
When something upsets me, try to recognize it as soon as possible and turn the situation around, letting go of whatever happened and not continuing to think about it
Stop checking email at 3 PM (every day); since everything seems worse later in the day, looking at email can easily result in becoming upset or worried
Stop working at 5 PM (Friday)
When I’m tempted to skip an activity—like I get home from work and it seems like there is no time to spend sitting for 15 minutes—I remind myself of how much better I feel in the long term when I maintain my practice. Also, sitting still seems to slow time, and the whole evening will be more productive if I do it.
The health coach helped me understand that it’s not the end of the world if I “mess up” and miss a few days of taking care of myself. There’s no reason why I cannot immediately start up again.
I use a calendar to keep track of how I do each day. I created one I can easily print that has icons for each of my activities across the top. At one point, my calendar ran out and I had not printed a new one. Not having the calendar made me realize how much it helps me stay on track. (A PDF of my calendar is here.)
I had a full schedule at the fall writer’s conference November 2 to 4. The keynote address by Randall Kenan and panel discussions over breakfast were filled with inspirational quotes and points I connected with, like “Writing is a path to discovery,” “A book is never finished; it’s abandoned,” and “I carry the landscape [of home] in my subconscious.” It only got better from there!
I had signed up for the Manuscript Mart, where I’d sit with an agent to receive feedback on how she reacted to the first 15 pages of my novel. I had been practicing a pitch, just in case I was expected to give it. And, my first session was “The Perfect Pitch” with Kim Boykin, Erika Marks, and Kim Wright.
The teachers explained that I should have a two-sentence pitch to use when I meet an agent on the fly and only have ten seconds to catch their attention. Then there is an expanded pitch for when the agent asks to hear more. The expanded pitch is similar to the back cover copy—trying to intrigue the agent to want more. You might include basic information at the end (word count, genre, a very brief bio).
They described the reactions I might get: “I’m interested,” “It’s not for me,” or a referral to another agent. At a pitching event, where you’ve paid to have time with agents, you can fill extra time after a pitch with questions: “What are editors looking for?” “Is my idea marketable?” “What turned you off?” “What did you find most compelling?”
Then everyone in the room practiced our pitches and received feedback: don’t begin with “My book is about…,” be clear and use short sentences, put the hook first, indicate the book’s genre with the language you use, and more.
A panel of agents provided more tips on pitching:
Follow all guidelines and be sure the agent is looking for the book you are pitching
Be a person, but also be professional
Make it clear that you read in the genre you are pitching by providing good comp titles (not outliers, movie books, or classics)
Include what makes your story unique
Don’t talk more about yourself than about your project
An author should have a website; otherwise, as far as author platform, an author should go where they are comfortable; some agents will help an author develop their platform
Talking to an Agent
It turned out, I didn’t have to pitch the agent. She’d marked up my manuscript (The Knowledge Game) and went through it with me, giving her reactions. It was enlightening, and I have six pages of notes to sort through. So on the plus side, I know what I need to work on. On the down side, I really thought I was almost done! Each time there is a new stage of revisions, I see more of how much work goes into a novel, how it doesn’t just flow out ready-to-go, at least not for a beginner. I decided I would finish NaNoWriMo and revising Rose Fair with the end of 2018, and then turn back to The Knowledge Game in 2019.
I also learned that the new-adult genre is no longer a thing—no longer used in the industry. It was absorbed into romance. I had been struggling to figure out what qualified as new-adult (see blog post here) and where my books fit in, so the agent’s disclosure made sense to me. The Knowledge Game is simply an [adult] science fiction thriller.
The whole experience got me thinking about the dilemma of how much to change to fit in with what sells, versus writing the novel you want to write. I wrote a whole post about this (here), but then kept thinking on it. James, a sci-fi writer who leads my book club, used to have a publisher but moved to self-publishing when the publisher refused his new ideas. He’s successful, but had already built a fan base when he made the switch. It seems to me that whichever route I take, I should work on finding my readers.
The Writing Craft
I participated in three sessions about the craft of writing. Here are some takeaways.
Scene Sequencing in Novel Structure, with Kim Wright: I’ve read a few books on the structure of novels and have conflicted feelings about the concept. On one hand, I don’t believe that a novel must follow of specific structure to be good. On the other hand, if a structure works for readers, it will help them like the book (and make it commercially successful). And, as a beginner, following a proven structure might help my novel. Here were some other ideas:
If you’re a pantser, you can spew out a first draft and THEN apply a structure to it
The opening is about 15% of the novel and creates the world, introduces the characters, and hints at the theme
A catalyst propels the protagonist into the main body of the novel
Pivot points (like the catalyst) should be well-spaced, like ornaments on a Christmas tree
The opening and finale are the easy parts to write; the middle is where it is easy to mess up
The middle has three aspects: (1) the plot, a sequence of scenes that builds to a climax, (2) the character arc, the growth of the protagonist, and (3) the story arcs of other characters, woven in.
There is a mix of quiet scenes and climatic ones, and of summary versus detailed scenes; new writers often have too many scenes
Fewer characters is usually better; all named characters should be developed
World-Building, with Gail Z. Martin: I expected a list of the parts of world-building (religion, politics, economy, etc.), but Gail went beyond the list. Here are some examples:
Geology affects where people settle—along a river, for example; think about how this happens in the real world
Be realistic: for example, horses are expensive to own, so in a town of poor farmers, not everyone would own a horse
History matters—even in a time of peace, a history of war affects your characters’ views
If you make up a world, make up the religion of the world; don’t use “Presbyterians in space”
Cultural references will date your book if they are obscure; some (like Batman or Star Wars) are established enough to last over time
Gail pointed out that in the research to find correct information, you often find interesting nuggets you can use in your story. With museum collections now digitized, it’s possible to find anything online.
This session made me realize how much I’m aided by the experiences I’ve had: I have friends who are farmers. I eat what’s in season, and my mom preserved food. I’ve learned bits about traditional crafts like weaving and blacksmithing in my time at the Folk School. I read nonfiction. World-building involves understanding the bottom layers, the things we often overlook in our real lives.
Creating Diverse Characters, with Paula Martinac: I’ve been reading Writing the Other, but Paula’s session brought a new perspective on writing characters with different traits than my own. (She also recommended Writing the Other, however.) She pointed out that writing diverse characters is part of the basic process of characterization (i.e., writing good characters). She also talked about the “own voices” concept and writers’ intent when including diverse characters: Is it because you think you should? Does the character have a role in the plot? Is the character a prop for your main character? Or do you simply want to portray the world accurately?
True diversity is inclusive and authentic. Research does not mean following one person (with a certain trait) on Instagram and using them as your character. Paula described the efforts made by writers who have successfully written books with a main character with traits different from their own: interviews, reading memoirs, finding news articles written by members of the relevant community. Paula also talked about the line between being an ally and appropriating.
Paula listed eight methods of characterization in general, which helped me as someone who’s never thought much about characterization at all: appearance, accessories, dialogue, thoughts, actions, personal history, what others say about the character, and what the narrator says about the character. Writers often focus on appearance and accessories; we can get to know characters by pretending to interview them, for example by using the “Proust questionnaire.” Remember that diverse characters should be real and complex, with flaws.
A Performance of Native
At the banquet Saturday night, we had the good fortune to watch an abridged version of a play called Native, by Ian Finley. The Paul Green Foundation commissioned the play, which explores the relationship between Paul Green and Richard Wright as they work together on a stage adaptation of Wright’s book Native Son. Most of the dialogue was taken from historical documents and was the men’s own words. (Documents from Green were plentiful, but for Wright, Finley’s main lead was that Wright had written an unpublished New York Times piece on the partnership. Finley mentioned the piece to his mother, and two weeks later she had tracked it down.)
Green and Wright disagreed on the ending of the play. Wright wanted it to match the book: he wanted to show Bigger Thomas as a violent monster, the result of a racist American society. Green didn’t think the (white) American public would take away this message; he wanted to humanize Bigger Thomas. Green gave in, but the disagreement ultimately ended the men’s friendship, which Green came to regret.
In the panel discussion after the play, poet Jaki Shelton Green made an insightful comment: Green is depicted as a hero for risking his life to stop a lynch mob from attacking Wright when Wright visited Chapel Hill, NC, but in truth, Green never should have brought Wright to Chapel Hill, where his life would be in danger. Green’s pride (at being a white man associating with a black man) drove him to invite Wright, without considering what was best for Wright. I was glad to gain this perspective, which had not occurred to me.
One comment at the conference meant a great deal to me. When I self-published Somewhere and Nowhere, my memoir of my bicycle trip across America, I knew it probably wouldn’t sell well. But I already felt like it had succeeded, because I learned so much writing it. Since it came out, however, I’ve struggled not to feel like it is failing because of slow sales, and wished I’d done some things differently. It’s been hard to feel confident.
At the agent panel, Lynn York, publisher at Blair, commented on memoir. Memoirs are the toughest books to sell, because there is so much competition from celebrity authors. Lynn said that the process of writing the memoir and sharing it with your community is valuable, whether the memoir is a commercial success or not. A memoir is a record of a time, a place, and people. Hearing this made me feel better.
On the train ride home, I sat with two new friends and wrote another chapter of my NaNoWriMo novel. (Hotels and trains, it turns out, are both great places to get writing done.) I’m inspired for more writing through December and into 2019!
At the NC Writer’s Network fall conference, my new friend Fran asked me how I felt about the need to tailor my writing to match what sells, in order to interest an agent and sell to a publisher. I know I’m supposed to hate the idea: selling out, diminishing a literary work to make it marketable. But I didn’t really hate it.
I’m Not Aiming To Win a Pulitzer
I’m relatively new as a fiction writer, so I see my writing as somewhat simple. I hope that as I learn more about the craft, my writing will evolve: deeper characters, better world-building, more intricate plots. But that’s not where I’m at, and I’m okay with that. I’m happy to write a simple love story.
Fran’s question made me think about my goals for my writing. I’d like to make part of my living as a writer, so that I can spend time writing more books. I’d like to write books that are fun to read—the kind where the reader can’t put it down and breezes right through it. At lunch during the conference, the organizers announced the winner of an annual essay contest. The winner got up to read part of her essay. I could see that it was probably very good, with lots of description, a wide vocabulary, and deep themes. But I couldn’t follow it; it didn’t resonate with me. I found myself thinking, that’s not me. I’m never going to be the one who wins the award. But I might be okay with that.
Kim Wright, the teacher of my Scene Sequencing session at the conference, stated that you never hear people say “It took me a while to get into it” with new books, because those books no longer get published. This comment really brought home to me how much a new writer has to fit in to get anywhere in traditional publishing.
The Value of Marketable Work
When I was a kid, my grandpa had the TV channels you paid extra for: HBO and Showtime. Each week I’d scan TV Guide, looking at the movies listed beside HBO and SHO. (This was before the days when everything was available online.) When I’d see a movie that I wanted to watch, I’d call Grandpa and he’d record it for me on his VCR.
One time I had him record Sabrina, with Audrey Hepburn. After, he left the tape recording and I got a movie called Sullivan’s Travels. It was about a commercially successful comedy film-maker who wants to learn about the plight of poor people so that he can make a deeper film. He disguises himself and sets out, only to be (eventually) attacked, robbed, and arrested. Without his identification or money, and dressed like a vagrant, he cannot convince anyone that he’s a famous film-maker, and he gets the experience he set out to have: he’s treated like a poor person. While in prison, he sees how much joy the inmates get from a comedy movie, and realizes the importance of those movies and his place in creating them.
Even though I like “deep” movies, the theme of Sullivan’s Travels always stuck with me. Maybe my role as a writer is simply to write entertaining books.
There’s More than One Way To Do Good
But I also think that so-called commercial, entertaining books CAN do good, particularly if they reach large audiences. I’ve read young adult books for a long time because reading about the characters’ experiences helps me navigate my own. Books can show people experiences other than their own, to help them see a different perspective. Political issues can be woven into an entertaining book, to get readers thinking. This is a way to help the world, one reader at a time. Maybe this is what I’m being called to do.
I’ve always thought I hate learning new things. I know it’s important to do it, and it feels really good when I DO learn something new. But I avoid it until it’s necessary. Why does it feel so hard?
Learning Can Be Hard
When I learned calculus in school, I also learned a lesson about learning. I would listen to the teacher’s lecture and feel completely lost. The words made no sense. Then I’d go home and read the matching text, and it wouldn’t be so hopeless. By the time I did the homework, the material would make sense. Learning calculus made me feel like my brain was a very tough balloon that I was forcing to stretch with my weak little lungs.
So I learned that discomfort is part of the process, as it is in so many other situations. Later, I often remembered learning calculus when I was struggling to understand something. You don’t always get it on the first try. When I have to read an academic paper, for example, it’s often incomprehensible on the first read, and then it starts to make sense on subsequent readings.
Another secret I’ve found is that I can use my love of sharing material I’ve learned. That’s why I started blogging for writers, editors, and self-publishers: once I learned something new, I wanted to share it, possibly in an easier to understand format. I use the “carrot” of getting to write a blog post as motivation to learn the material. Sometimes I even draft a post as I learn.
Don’t Make It Worse
Recently, I’ve been trying to learn more about e-books. I want to improve my own e-books, for example by adding alt text to the images, and formatting the bold words so they carry over into the e-book. Also I suspect that cleaning up my files (so there are less fonts and styles) will make my e-book files smaller.
Learning tech stuff is one of the hardest things for me. After one e-book webinar, I felt completely discouraged. I went outside to mow the lawn, and continued thinking about how frustrated I felt. I’ve been trying to actively “turn over” unhappy situations, so I dragged myself up from the frustration and tried to think something positive. I told myself, “I will learn how e-books work eventually. This is just the frustration of having made a first attempt.”
The attempt to be positive worked far better than I had expected—I felt not just less frustrated but actually hopeful. And I think I figured out why: I didn’t just add positive thoughts; maybe I displaced negative ones.
I had not recognized that I was perpetuating my own frustration. But knowing my propensity to become bogged down in a negative thought, I wondered: Had I been telling myself something negative? Like maybe, “I’m too stupid to learn about e-books” or “I’ll never get the hang of this”? Maybe the negative feeling I get when trying to learn something new isn’t just about the inherent frustration of learning, but about the story I tell myself, making it worse.
Update: At the NC Writer’s Network’s fall conference, I learned that new-adult is no longer a thing! Learn more here.
I used to read a lot of young adult fiction (YA) books. I liked how the characters were learning about themselves, forming relationships, and discovering the truth about the world. But I got tired of reading about teenagers; I hadn’t learned and discovered all this stuff until I was 30 or even 40!
When I first tried writing fiction, I decided to write the book I wanted to read: a YA-like book with older characters. Then I discovered that new-adult fiction (NA) was actually a thing. Since then, I’ve been trying to read NA books, but they’ve been hard to find. What exactly counts as NA?
What Makes a Book “New Adult”?
This image is what results when I search “new adult” on Pixabay
Wikipedia (as of October 2018) describes NA as having “protagonists in the 18–30 age bracket” with a “focus on issues such as leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices.”* This sounds hopeful.
I’ve ordered some of the new-adult books I’ve read about online, and so far they all have characters aged around 20. This disappoints me a little, because I wanted books written for my age group. But 20ish is the age of the former YA audience who are now new adults, whom publishers may see as the biggest market. When I wrote The Knowledge Game, the characters were 30, but the editor I worked with suggested I make them 25 to help the book sell to a publisher. I guess I can look forward to ten years on, when the original YA readers age into their thirties, along with our characters.
NA is about more than the protagonist’s age. Like YA, it seems to include the characters’ emotions and thoughts, with the reader following along as the character changes. When I started a NA shelf in my library, I considered the books in my adult fiction section. Some of the books written before NA became a thing seem to embody the NA ethos. I decided that Sophie Kinsella and Emily Giffin both count as NA, because their 20-something characters are struggling with relationships, careers, and making it in the world, and changing internally as their stories progress. I decided NOT to shelve Jasper Fforde’s Tuesday Next books in NA, however. Even though Tuesday is the right age, those books focus on Tuesday’s world and the action she’s involved in, not on her inner changes.
New Adult Sub-genres
So far, the NA books I’ve read focus on contemporary romance. While I love contemporary romance, I was kind of hoping NA would include the range that YA does: dystopian futures, science fiction technologies, fantasy worlds, mythical creatures. Maybe I just haven’t found these books yet, or maybe they are coming. For some reason, I have this fear that NA will be stifled before it takes off—if publishers decide that all the money is in contemporary romance.
I also hope that NA will be allowed to include larger, deeper books. I want it to include two recent books I loved: (1) Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic(see my review) features a graduate student who stumbles through a portal into a world filled with magic. She has to escape evil fairies and train with a grouchy wizard before she’s able to find her way home… and by then she isn’t sure she wants to go home. (2) Holly Goddard Jones’s The Salt Line(see my review) is set in a future where disease-ridden ticks have forced humans to live in isolated cities, and a trip into the woods is considered an extreme adventure.
Here’s what my NA shelf looks like so far:
What About Historical NA?
Family struggles? Check. Difficult job situation? Check. Resident hottie? Check.
During this process, I wondered about some of the older books on my shelf. There’s a series I loved in the 1990s by Cindy Bonner that starts with Lily, featuring a teenager growing up and falling in love in 1800s Texas. This book should be YA, but I can’t bring myself to move it off the adult fiction shelf. Is it because it was written before YA became a thing? Or because its target audience was not teenagers?
And what about classics like books by Jane Austen or the Brontes? They feature teenagers and new adults, with many of the right themes: difficult family dynamics, evil bosses, the love interest who stops by for tea. The themes are universal, but somehow these books in historical settings don’t seem to gain access to the shelves of YA or NA. Maybe this again has to do with marketing—publishers don’t include them in the genre because there’s no money to be made.
I’m excited to see where the NA genre goes, and hopeful that it will thrive in various forms in the current publishing world, perhaps via the new models of publishing like hybrid and self-publishing. If you have a favorite NA book please share it in the comments!
* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_adult_fiction, accessed October 7, 2018
This is my first attempt at a post in the “Thoughts” category. I’m a little nervous about posting it but I have to start sometime!
I wanted to write about Halloween, in the hopes of figuring out where it went wrong. Last year I gave up on Halloween for the first time ever. I did go to my usual party, but only because it was less distressing than sitting at home in the dark, dreading the ring of the doorbell should any trick-or-treaters suspect I was home. I didn’t even try to come up with a costume. Maybe I’m just too busy, or maybe it was the failure of my 2016 costume, which I spent hours on and no one seemed to appreciate: Abraspam Lincoln.
I wore duct tape on my face, and no one cared! Maybe Abraspam Lincoln was just too bizarre.
Friends with kids seem to have a focus, but I’m adrift. Halloween was always the one day of the year I could wear whatever I wanted, I could make myself conspicuous and force myself to leave the house, knowing the self-consciousness would quickly fade. But now it seems like just another party to avoid.
Lola enacting the scene in the casino
Sure Halloween was great when I was a kid, even if we weren’t allowed to eat all the candy,* but it peaked when I reached graduate school in Chapel Hill. The town closes off Franklin Street and it becomes a giant Halloween party. In the old days, it was a parade of costumes. My best year, I dyed my hair red and dressed as the title character from the movie Run Lola Run, and I ran up and down the street all night. (I actually trained for a month, since I’d never been good at running.) I didn’t think anyone would know who I was, but people were calling, “Run Lola, run!” after me all night.
But Franklin Street Halloween degenerated into a drunken crowd (or maybe I outgrew it). The last year I attended, I dressed as an oven (there was a plan to go as appliances, and everyone backed out but me); I had a tray of cookies inside that I’d use to push open my door, offering them to people.
For some reason, everyone on the street wanted to take the lid off the little pot and ask, “You got Oodles of Noodles in there?” By the end of the night I was over it.
So I started attending a neighborhood party. It was fun, and over the years we had some good group costumes. There was the year we went as a s’more:
(We’d stand apart, and when people would ask what we were, our marshmallow would say, “I’m starting to feel warm,” and we’d squish ourselves together into a s’more.)
There was the Monopoly game: I was the Chance cards.
(The cards were Velcro-ed onto me in a stack, and you could peel one off.)
And there was the creepy historical portrait gallery:
(This blog post might just be an excuse to share Halloween pictures.)
So now, I keep going to the party, but then I wish I were home, and wonder how late I should stay out. And should I be out if I want to get up and write at 5 AM?
One of the main themes of my bicycling memoir (and of life since writing it) is staying present, and the idea that one can become “stuck” in life by trying to hang on to a moment. I wondered if this were happening: should I stop going to the Halloween party? Had its time passed? I considered alternatives:
I could visit my parents and pass out candy to the 800+ kids who trick-or-treat in their high density neighborhood.
I could find a friend with kids and tag along trick-or-treating as a chaperone.
I could find a new event, like Bynum’s annual jack o’lantern celebration on the old bridge.
Then I wrote this blog post, and looking at all the old photos made me remember how fun it is to dress up. And I still have an adult party to go to! How lucky is that? Another theme of life lately is turning things around instead of accepting it when I get down. Maybe that’s what I need to do here. Maybe I don’t want to give up on Halloween or to be so busy that I can’t participate.
I’ve got three weeks left to come up with a costume.
* We were allowed to collect candy, but then were required to play a trading game with Mom, who would swap our candy for non-sugary treats and other gifts, like crayons and trinkets. This was actually a lot of fun, and all of the chocolate candy became chocolate pudding, which we did get to eat. Where the plan fell apart was that the confiscated candy would go into a grocery bag for Dad to take to work, and the bag would sit on the counter until Dad remembered, so we’d have to see our former candy, just sitting there, day after day.
Last week I wrote about my initial attempts at plotting a novel, in preparation for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this November. (Read here.) I persevered and finished an outline, and also clarified a process that works for me. Maybe it will be useful to other writers; if so, there’s a template to print below.
When I last left my plot… I knew my next step would be actual writing: that is, brainstorming scenes. I also realized that plotting takes time; somehow it had seemed like an outline has so few words, I should be able to jot one down in five minutes. Not the case.
The romantic gardener’s cottage in the rose garden at Biltmore inspired me
I sat with small blank pages (index cards work great; I used the backs of old page-a-day calendars) and waited for the scenes to come. This was hard. I reminded myself of the main themes of my story: it was a love story at heart, with a crime/mystery keeping the characters apart. Once I focused on the love story, I was able to envision some scenes I’d like my characters to experience: they go on a research trip together, they go into town together and are besieged by the press, they escape a rainstorm to a cottage in the gardens—right before the evidence appears that makes her look guilty of the crime (spoiler: she’s not).
It also helped me to use what I know. When they take the trip, what city could they go to that I’m familiar with? What could she be studying in school that I know enough about to add detail to conversations? What topic has always interested me, that I’d like to research more, to get the detail I need? Maybe some writers can make this stuff up, but I can’t.
At times, a more complex issue would start confusing me, and I would stop brainstorming to write out the issue. For example, one character’s family history is entwined with the story, and I kept confusing his ancestors, and which one did what. I wrote out a family tree, labeling as needed (grandpa was the kind one who sent him to school, great grandma was the one in the painting, etc.) and noted the approximate birth dates of each to make sure my timeline worked and fit with history (they lost their fortune during the Great Depression, for example).
Splitting My Outline in Two
As I worked, I found that I kept diverging from writing what happened in a scene to writing about how the action affected the main characters (MCs): how they felt, what they learned, how they changed, what new challenges arose for them. This diversion kept getting me off track. So I got this picture in my head: running along the bottom was the timeline of the character arc—how each MC changes in the story—with the individual scenes tacked on top. I liked this picture because it paralleled the idea that each scene must have a purpose and must advance the plot, with the MC changing in the process.
I started making this picture, using the scenes I had brainstormed. Eventually, my picture evolved to have this structure:
Note that I had two MCs, so my picture actually had two left columns.
I kept working until I had used up most of my scenes. Had I plotted enough? I counted my scenes and compared with the number of chapters I expected for a 50,000-word novel, and the outline seemed reasonable. So I tied things up with a few final scenes. (Note: I’m using the word “scene” where others might use “chapter.” Sometimes the MCs might leave one location and go to another within one scene/chapter, but in my head, this was still one scene. Other writers might prefer a different definition of “scene,” or might have shorter chapters where each chapter only has one location or event in it.)
For Next Time: The Whole Plotting Process
My first attempt at plotting was a little messy, but I can now see what I would do next time. I’d start with some initial questions:
Who is(are) the main character(s)?
What misconception has the MC internalized?
What is the status quo when the story begins?
What are the main events that occur in the story?
What are some challenges the MC faces?
How does the MC change? What does the MC learn?
What are the subplots?
What are the climax and resolution?
Then, I’d make an outline:
Brainstorm scenes (stick to plot details and events)
Work out the details of any tricky parts (like the timeline or family tree)
Make the outline using the template
If you’d like to try this method, here is a PDF of the template to download. Page 1 is for a story with one MC, and page 2 is for a story with two. Print multiple copies of the page you need; the “status quo” box only needs to be filled out on the first page of your outline.