NaNoWriMo Saved Me

Vomiting up a novel in a month sounds like a terrible idea. But I’d have to say it might have singlehandedly saved me. I’d been struggling with writing, dancing around the subject, and editing my heart out, but it hadn’t led me anywhere. Instead of guiding me and giving me a purpose, I’d been stuck in neutral, spinning my tires, and peeling off the rubber at a rather rapid pace. I’d edited a couple of manuscripts before setting them aside, incomplete. It had been a battle, a constant struggle, and writing felt more like a chore than a pleasure.

To promote my debut novel, I’d been on blog tours, book signings, conducted giveaways, sought out top reviewers, had a book trailer produced on my behalf, built up a Facebook following, placed ads with AdWords, attended mystery conferences, and had a website built. But it all seemed for naught. For nearly a year, I went through one of the unhappiest periods of my life, not even knowing if I would have my second manuscript published, or my third, let alone have a career in writing. Editing fueled my disdain and frustration, and the battle waged on.

But rather than throw in the towel, walk away, and move on with my life, I decided to peel back the layers and rediscover why I truly loved writing. Rather than let the ashes suffocate me and bury me six feet under, I made a conscious effort to rise above all the heartache and pain and to break through the surface. And I found that purpose through NaNoWriMo.

Having what amounted to a complete and utter failure gave me the power to truly let go and not worry about what happened, and I rediscovered that no one had power over me unless I gave it to them. Instead of writing for an audience filled with expectations, I realized I didn’t need to worry about readers (since those were few and far between), and I didn’t have to worry about failure at all, because I’d already reached a failure of epic proportions. Anonymity gave me power.

And so I wrote and wrote, pounding away on the keyboard, as the pages filled out before my eyes. Emotion poured out of me, along with hopes and dreams. Instead of keeping all those pent-up emotions on the inside, I let them guide the pages in front of me, and the experience proved rather cathartic. Forcing myself to write 50,000 words in a month when I already had a serious amount of stress on my plate was probably one of the best decisions I’d ever made. Because now I had purpose and meaning in my writing life, both of which had been missing for some time. And getting up at 4:40 in the morning probably sounds insane, but days that begin with writing are better than days that do not. So now that it’s November, I couldn’t be happier, because once again I’ll test my creative limits and heave up another novel. Those 4:40 mornings sound nearly blissful, and the challenge of 50,000 words will guide me once again.

Losing An Editor

As you can probably imagine, the entire publishing process was a series of firsts for me: tossing all the candy bars and my manuscript aside and believing Casey probably never would find a home, before finding a potential diamond in the massive sifting process otherwise known as querying; having a professional believe in my work almost as much as I do; conducting that first phone conversation which I still remember pieces of, even though it was over four years ago; collaborating on the editing, marketing, cover design, and layout, before the box arrived with my first stack of bright red paperbacks just in time for my first Left Coast Crime Conference; and ultimately having a published novel. Not my greatest and best work, mind you, but I’ve always been a sponge and believed in the art of continuous improvement.

But losing an editor, and in many ways a friend, the one who believed in me and my work when no one else did, the one who decided to take a chance on me when no one else would, and who helped me reinvent myself for my second novel, with additional advice and support and back-and-forth editing sessions…well, that red pill is a bit harder to swallow. Betty Wright and Rainbow Books Inc. had been going strong for 34 years long, until she passed away recently, with plenty of non-fiction books and the occasional cozy mystery.

But you don’t write cozy mysteries, Downs. Exactly. And now I can never ask Ms. Wright why she decided to take a chance on me. But from what I remember about our first phone conversation, she fell in love with my protagonist, telling me I had more talent than Mickey Spillane (the jury’s still out on that one) and saw some spark in my writing amidst the sea of manuscripts that happened to come across her desk. If that were the end of the story, it might make for an amusing antidote. But this is a publishing house run by women, and I have (if you take a gander at my reviews) a rather unlikeable male protagonist with plenty of ego and chauvinism to boot. And my manuscript didn’t just go through Ms. Wright, it went through her daughter, and possibly two others at the publishing house (I was never clear on the exact figure) before it reached her desk. Six months after I sent Rainbow Books Inc. my full manuscript—I still remember thinking that they couldn’t even be bothered to use my own SASE for my rejection letter—I received the envelope, with a one-page letter tucked inside, that every writer hopes against hope to receive, the letter that says you are worthy and good and we want to publish your shit.

How do you like them odds? Yeah, you might just have an easier time winning the lottery.

Betty, you will be missed, my friend.

Get Yourself A Good Editor

If you think you can do all the editing yourself, you’re probably mistaken. Sure, it seems like an easy cost to skip over on your way to the pearly gates filled with riches and strippers and all-night parties. While you probably are your own worst enemy when it comes to your writing, you may not necessarily be your editor’s best friend. When you get too close to your work, you see the forest, instead of the trees, and all of your little darlings and witticisms become your new compadres. But if you love your writing, you’re not nearly as removed from it as you need to be to edit it. So you need to toss it in a drawer for a couple of months, and then yank it out by the shirttails and take a chainsaw and chisel to the carcass. Although this may sound easy, it isn’t.

And once you’ve done all you can do, you need to pass it off to someone else—preferably a professional—to catch all the mistakes you missed. And believe me, there will be mistakes and miswording and wrong tenses and dangling modifiers and misplaced prepositions. You and your editor will go over your work multiple times before it goes to press, and even then, you’ll probably have missed a mistake or two, at which point said error will have to be corrected with the next printing. Then, you’ll look at your writing years later, and you’ll say, “Well, I could have made that sentence better or improved that paragraph or made a change or tweak there.”

If you’re a perfectionist, you have to somehow accept that your writing will never be perfect, and neither will your editor, but you have to make the relationship work for both of you. As for your writing, you have to make it the best it can possibly be at a particular moment in time, and at some point, you have to give it up for adoption. Either the world will love it, or hate it, embrace it, or shrug its wide shoulders. When that happens, it’s no longer in your control. And letting go can be the hardest thing to do.

Writing Is A Faith-Based Craft

Writing requires hours upon hours of your time with absolutely no guarantees that readers will enjoy your story as much as you have enjoyed writing it. It requires hope and belief in an imperfect system, where the odds are stacked against you, those in authority have no idea what will be the next bestseller until after it’s already hit the shelves, and if you’re doing it properly, you’ll be completely drained at the end of the day. It’ll wake you up in the middle of the night; it’ll confirm you’ve started hearing voices, and requires constant attention to grammar and punctuation and dialogue tags and dangling modifiers and plunging participles; it starts with a blinking cursor flashing at you in a mocking manner, and ends with you sitting in a corner rocking yourself to sleep and sucking on your thumb; it bleeds you dry emotionally, and physically it probably knocks a couple years off your life; it’s like getting your teeth cleaned with a chainsaw and soldering iron…and yet there’s no high like a writing euphoria, where similes and metaphors and plotlines pop off the printed page; characters develop a second and third dimension; and you’ve managed to somehow convince yourself for just the briefest moment in time that you’re one brilliant sonofabitch.

It’s probably singlehandedly the hardest mission I’ve ever undertaken, and yet I couldn’t stop writing even if I wanted to. It’s worse than the most addictive drug on the black market, surging through my veins like some creative tidal wave, and popping onto the page longer and louder than a Times Square fireworks display. Yet, only faith and drive hold me accountable each and every day. Nobody dangles a stopwatch over my head; no supervisor thrusts a deadline in front of my face; and no predetermined word count lingers on my computer monitor.

What drives me is the will to succeed and improve, and the therapeutic and cathartic nature of the task itself. It has its own self-sustaining life-force and enough energy to power the sun. And it’s as much a part of me as my head, arms, or heart, and when I don’t write I feel incomplete and unfulfilled and moody and exhausted for unexplained reasons.

But if I can’t please myself and stare in the mirror with a smile on my face and a surge of adrenaline coursing through my veins, I’m fairly certain the reader won’t be pleased. Instead of cheering by my side, he’ll mock me, frown, and then proceed to laugh in my face, spittle flying from his lips, his finger thrust out toward my chest. And in all honesty he’d have every right to do so.

But I can’t make it about him, at least not initially, otherwise I’ll stall out in the middle of the interstate before getting pummeled by an F-150 cruising along at 70 mph. No, instead, I have to write because I believe in the craft and the characters and the story, as I breathe life into it with a restrained and shaky breath. But I must have faith, even though I can’t touch or see or sometimes even understand what has taken me from this point to the next and the one after that, trudging through the rain and the snow until I reach some creatively comforting state, and in the process make myself just a little bit happier than I was before.