So, it’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) time again. NaNoWriMo is celebrated during the month of November. The concept is simple. Write 50k in a single month, on a single novel. Write the words? You won!
Over the years, I’ve done Nano on and off. I think I tried seven times and won twice. The Lost Art of Second Chances started out as my 2011 NaNoWriMo novel and I’d still like to revive my 2013 one someday.
I’m not participating this year, for the second year in a row. I’m still recovering from surgery for a start and can only sit at my desk for about two hours before needing to lay down with a heating pad. Also, right now, I’m writing the Cupid’s Coffeeshop series. They are novellas, each about 15k (I think). Also, now that I’ve established a writing habit and writing routine, 50k in a month isn’t really a challenge for me any more. It’s more like an average month.
I do love Nano though. I love the energy, enthusiasm, and optimism inherent in such a crazy, windmill-tilting goal. Developing a writing habit takes time and practice and Nano helped me with that.
For writers still struggling to set a writing habit or newbies who want to see what this writing lark is all about, National Novel Writing Month is a fantastic and fun thing to do. I believe everyone should try it at least once.
I’m just going to sit this year out. But, until then kids, have fun storming the castle!
Today’s post is the first in a series about how to become a writer. Following the old medical school adage of learn, do, teach, I thought I’d set down my experience, just as my first novel is coming out next month.
“Fox says you’re a writer.” My son’s camp counselor waylaid me at summer camp drop-off this morning. “What kind of writing do you do?”
As I struggled to put his two hundred pounds of gear away in his cubby (seriously—these kids pack for summer day camp like a trek to the Himalayas! Mommy gets to play the role of sherpa and pack mule.), I said, “I’m a novelist.”
The first time I’d ever said it aloud to anyone not a family member or life-long friend. She stared at me. I shuffled my feet, eager to get home to my keyboard and my newest hero and heroine, and not very comfortable in my new identity. As I spend most of my time hanging around with writers and imaginary characters, I tend to forget that most people have never met a novelist. Many people long to be one, intending to write their book on some far-off someday, but fewer still ever put words on a page.
She didn’t say, “No, you can’t be, you ridiculous poser.” Or “I read a lot and have never heard of you.” Or “Who says?”
Instead, she said, “I’ve always wanted to write. I had so many wonderful experiences in my homeland…” She went on some length about her life story, as I stood, trapped against the cubbies, ending with, “How did you learn to write?”
Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? I thought I’d spent the next few weeks on the blog trying to answer it.
The first step to becoming a writer is to be a reader. I don’t actually remember a time before I could read. Though both my parents read me bedtime stories, my mother is the reader and passed her love of reading to her children. Growing up, she gave me and my younger sister a book rich environment, including weekly library trips and books as presents for every major occasion. She also modeled the behavior by being a reader herself. All my aunts and cousins were readers, just something we all did, as we swapped books amongst us. By far, my favorite activity as a child, and still today, is to read. One of my favorite parts of parenthood is getting to read favorite childhood books aloud to Fox.
From being an avid reader, it’s usually a short jump to scribbling one’s own ideas down. I was no different. Fox’s Kindergarten program placed a great emphasis on being both an author and an illustrator, as did my elementary school. I wrote stories on and off until middle school or even later. Thankfully, these early tries were lost in a basement flood some years ago as they were as abysmal as one might expect such junior scribblings to be.
In high school, I funneled my writing talents into the school newspaper and other assignments. Creative or fiction writing mostly ended up pushed off to the side until I was out of law school, aside from a short story here and there. In between taking the bar exam and waiting three long months for my results, my best friend and I collaborated on a novel together. And that’s when the writing bug bit me hard.
I joined Romance Writers of America and my local chapter, Washington Romance Writers, in 1998. Back then, traditional publishing was the only viable path to publishing. For several years, I attempted the contest and query letter route with minimal success. The whole industry also seemed a fool’s game to me. I didn’t want to invest all my time into writing a novel that might never sell. Acting on some unfortunate advice, I sent queries before my novel was finished and then couldn’t send it back to the requesting editor in a timely manner. Discouraged, I pretty much stopped seeking to write for publication and turned to other hobbies to get my creative outlet.
For the next decade, I wrote on and off, taking a lot of time out for major events like planning my wedding to the Pilot, buying my first home, and enduring infertility treatments. I did publish a non-fiction book but couldn’t seem to crack fiction. I’d start many stories, never outlining, and get about 50 to 75 pages in before giving up. I also had a day job I enjoyed, which, in retrospect, I think made me fairly complacent about my pie-in-the-sky writing dream.
By the time my son arrived in 2008, I’d mostly given up the idea of writing fiction. I still wrote now and then but had no sustained practice. And then the e-reader revolution arrived. E-readers existed before then, of course, but they remained a niche until then. By 2010, e-publishing really took off.
I started once again pursuing fiction writing in 2011 but still struggled with finishing my work and learning the basics of craft. I didn’t have anything that I felt was publishable and, with a young child and a hectic, stressful job, I didn’t have much time to devote to it either.
And then, in October 2013, the federal government furloughed. Suddenly, I had three weeks where I got to experience what my life could actually be like as a full-time writer. Fox was in school, the Pilot was at work, and I wrote like a crazy woman. I wrote 54,000 words in 17 days, all of it fanfiction which I put up on a popular fanfic site. And once the comments and praise started pouring in, I was hooked.
Several fellow fanfic writers and I formed a sort of merry band of writers. In less than a year, I wrote over 300,000 words. Once again, I wanted to create my own stories, characters, and worlds. I finally, finally, finally managed to start a daily writing practice by following the amazing Chuck Wendig’s advice to write 350 words a day. (Be warned of some swear words at the link). I am not exaggerating when I say that that blog post changed my life.
That fall, Fox was due to enter Kindergarten and The Pilot and I wanted one of us to work from home during the “meet-the-bus” years. So, in August of 2014, I quit my job to be a work-at-home mom. And this August, my first book is coming out, just in time for my 44th birthday. I’m thrilled to bits to realize my dream of being a published novelist.
Happy Summer! Fox is out of school for the summer. Hard to believe he’s not a kindergartener anymore. I borrowed this meme about summer from my friend Mary’s blog,Passionate Perseverance. She started the blog to document her life with her severely disabled daughter, also named Courtney. Her story is amazing (have Kleenex ready if you read it!) and she’s always an inspiration to me.
Here are my Answer Me This answers for Summertime…
#1 – Any big plans for the summer?
Mostly, I’m going to be spending summer with my favorite guy, Fox. He is going to camp on and off all summer. In between, we’re going to do crafts, go to the pool, and participate in the local library’s summer reading challenge. To that end, if anyone has any suggestions for keeping an almost 7 year old amused, let me know in the comments. I need all the help I can get.
I’m also in the final stages of two books, Forever a Bridesmaid, and The Lost Art of Second Chances while starting to draft Once a Bridesmaid. I need a time turner.
And we’re planning to go to the Outer Banks in July and Myrtle Beach in August. Should be a fun, full summer.
#2 – What is the strangest thing you believed as a child?
I went to 13 years of Catholic school. I totally bought into the Jesus and the saints are watching your every move deal. #3 – What is you favorite amusement park ride?
Any roller coaster. Anytime, baby! My favorite coaster ever is the Alpengeist in Busch Gardens in Williamsburg.
No, not since I was three and fell asleep in my stroller at Disney World.
#6 – What is your favorite smell?
All the lavender. LOVE that one. But I’m a lotions and potions kinda girl so I love lots of different ones. My all time favorite lotion is satsuma from the Body Shop. So bright and clean and happy. And I also love their new green tea line.
That’s it for this week. Tag, you’re it! Your turn to answer the questions….
As I discussed in last week’s post, in The Lost Art of Second Chances, Bella leaves Italy and ends up in Boston, Massachusetts to raise her family. Partly, this was to mesh with Lucy’s story, which I’d already set in upstate Massachusetts.
In the book, Jack references a family tradition of Bella taking Lucy to buy a special dress and to lunch at Filene’s. Though the store doesn’t exist any longer, Filene’s was a department store in Boston’s Downtown Crossing area.
Because Filene’s placed their markdowns on the bottom floor, they helped coin the term “bargain basement.” Perhaps the most famous of their bargains was the semiannual “running of the brides” when wedding gowns went on sale.
Filenes also had a famous clock that became a common meeting place for shoppers, hence the phrase “Meet me at the clock.” My mother often reminisces about the lunches she’d enjoy after meeting her girlfriends under the clock and working up an appetite hunting for bargains in the basement.
Sadly, the store filed for bankruptcy and shuttered for good several years ago. The Downtown Crossing store was leveled soon after. So, no more meetings under the clock or running of the brides, except in my novel, The Lost Art of Second Chances.
Time again to visit some research for The Lost Art of Second Chances. Once Bella leaves Italy, she establishes herself in America. Specifically, she lives in a suburb outside of Boston. In one key scene in the book, Bella and her family enjoy an outing to Revere Beach.
Revere Beach is about four miles north of Boston. Established in 1895, the beach quickly became popular, especially with immigrants to the area. After a thirty year decline, revitalization efforts in the mid-1990s, along with a sand sculpting competition and festival provided a resurgence to the area.
My mother is from Massachusetts and we still have family there so we often visit. I’ve been to Revere Beach many times. But I’ve heard my mother’s stories about it even more often. Riding the roller coasters (the Cyclone is still famed–my mother still won’t ride a roller coaster after riding that one in her youth) and eating Kelly’s roast beef sandwiches. So, when I needed a beach setting for my scene, I thought of Revere.
Bella’s scene there is set in the mid-1950s. So, obviously, it was a bit different than it is today. An excellent article about the historical sites on the beach can be found here.
Back again with more background information on The Lost Art of Second Chances. So, this story is a braided or dual narrative. We have Lucy and Jack’s story that takes place more or less in the present day. And we also follow Belladonna’s story starting from her childhood in pre-World War II Italy and coming forward to the present time.
As I’ve mentioned before, Jack and Lucy were my initial plan for this book as a second chance at love story. Instead, Belladonna just up and stole the show. I realized I needed to tell her story too and began researching Italy in the second World War. In school, I’d learned that Italy sided with Germany and Japan in the war but I never realized that Italy actually withdrew from the war in mid-1943. From that point forward, the Allies (mostly the British and the Americans) marched up the Italian mainland, fighting the Germans the entire way.
As the Germans retreated, through the remainder of 1943 and 1944, they occasionally attacked various towns. As I was developing Bella’s story, I heard CNN report on the story of San Pancrazio. On 29 June 1944, German soldiers attacked the tiny mountaintop village, killing 73 men and destroying the village. The horror of San Pancrazio became the basis for Belladonna’s fictional hometown, Angelo Ali, and Paolo’s story. Angelo Ali translates to Angel’s Wings, an appropriate name for a tiny hamlet in the clouds. Here is the CNN story.
Art and other priceless cultural treasures are often victims of war too. The Monuments Men, made famous by the recent George Clooney movie for their more well-known work in France, were also quite busy in Italy. Bella’s love interest, Paolo LaRosa, works with the Monuments Men. They meet when Paolo and the Monuments Men want to secrete art treasures in her hometown. Paolo himself did not exist, except in my imagination. But the Monuments Men did. The books I relied on to learn about their mission were (note that all links are Amazon Affiliate links):
Last week, I talked a bit about the backstory of Lucy’s cat, Frank, from The Lost Art of Second Chances. This week, I thought I’d talk about Lucy and Jack’s (the heroine and hero of the present day story) hometown of Applebury, Massachusetts. After a quick consultation with my handy dandy Google maps, there, in fact, is no such place as Applebury, Massachusetts. It’s a fictionalized version of a place called Amesbury, a small town about an hour north of Boston.
As I have family and friends that live there, I’ve been many times, most recently in October 2011. Probably because I’d just been there, I chose to set my novel there, in the fall, when I started Nanowrimo 2011.
While we were there, we enjoyed a trip to Cider Hill Farms. How gorgeous are these pumpkins? And if you ever go, do not miss the hot cider donuts. Cider Hill Farms didn’t make it into the book, except as the name of Jack Hamilton’s single apartment building.
We also visited nearby Newburyport several times during our visit and enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner there. Jack mentions that he has an office in Newburyport as well as in the city and is coming from court there that day in his first scene with Lucy. There is a district court there but I have never been there. I have been to their awesome fall festival and snapped these shots there.
Later, when Jack wants to escape his unhappy and ill-fitting career as a lawyer, he goes for a walk on Plum Island. We had a wonderful time walking there at sunset. I’d just gotten my DSLR camera and my uncle (a professional photographer) taught me the basics of how to use it that day. So, here’s what Plum Island looks like at dusk.
As you can see it’s a beautiful area of the country. In next week’s blog, we are off to Italy…
The Lost Art of Second Chances is now in beta and should be coming to an e-reader near you in the next month. So, I thought I’d talk a little bit about that book, how it came to be, and share some research I did over the coming weeks here on the blog.
I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) on and off for probably the past decade. Nanowrimo is a writing challenge conducted every November. Participants attempt to write fifty thousand words in a month. Now, that’s basically routine for me but before, when I worked in the salt mines of my old day job (kidding, my former co-workers, just kidding), it was a major challenge.
Back in those days, I never pre-outlined or brainstormed a book. I just opened a blank page and started typing…only to stop about twenty thousand words in when I had no idea what I was doing. Nanowrimo 2011 was no different. I wanted to write a second chance at love story because it’s one of my favorite tropes. My uncle (and godfather) recently taught me to make summer sauce and so, I opened the story with the main character, Lucy, chatting away to her white cat as she made the sauce.
That scene, in a much revised form, appears in chapter two of The Lost Art of Second Chances. As I was writing along, Lucy’s grandmother, Belladonna, appeared whole cloth and promptly took over the whole scene (and book too). I’ll talk about Bella’s story in another future post.
Today, I wanted to talk about Frank. Lucy’s cat, unlike Bella, was not a wholesale invention of my imagination. Frank was based on my own beloved white cat.
The Pilot and I found Frank, and his sister, Carolina, as tiny eight week old abandoned kittens on my father-in-law’s farm. They’d taken refuge in a dilapidated barn. Carolina found me first and crawled up my jean leg into my arms. Frank was the little white puffball that followed her around. I scooped them both up and turned to my husband and father-in-law, who were both astounded that I’d managed to catch not one feral cat, but two.
We brought them home and, after several courses of worm and flea treatments, and some remedial litter box training, they were both wonderful pets. When Frank was about two, our amazing vet found a heart murmur and recommended a cat cardiologist. Thinking it was nothing, we visited only to find out that Frank had a genetic heart condition called feline hypertropic cardiomyopathy. We began a five year round of daily heart pills (which he detested) and semi-annual visits to the cardiologist with the dreaded EKG gel.
We lost him the day before Fox’s first birthday, when Frank was just seven. Young for a cat. At midnight the night before, he did his sideways leap and ricochet routine off the front window and the living room furniture. At dawn, he had a stroke and was gone within an hour.
It’s been nearly six years and I still miss him. When I spent four months on bed rest during my pregnancy with Fox, Frank laid at my feet every day, watching over me like a little feline guardian angel. He was very loving and affectionate with everyone, nearly like a dog that way. And he had a funny way of trilling his meow, like he was rolling his Rs. He even had a little kiss spot on his forehead and would come sit on my lap until I gave him his kiss.
Though Frank’s time on earth was shorter than any of us would have hoped, the truth is that we usually outlive our furry companions. When they go to the rainbow bridge, they leave their little paw prints right across our hearts. Most animal lovers never forget their furry friends.
Many writers, myself included, love to immortalize their lost pets in print. So, all white cats will forever be Frank in my books, where they never have to leave for the rainbow bridge. And someday, I hope to get to see my little white fluff ball again. But not for a while yet…I’ve got more books to write.