This is the first year I’ve actually done NaNoWriMo “successfully.” No, I didn’t write a book, but I set myself two goals: 1) to write five days a week for the entire month, and 2) to write 10,000 words. What was the outcome? Out of 22 days, I wrote on 18 of them, and my final word count was 18,586. Here’s how I made it through the month.
1) Don’t be in the same room as your phone.
I’m putting this tip first because I’d say my success is 80 percent down to this tactic alone. So easily distracted! My aim was to write for one hour first thing in the morning with my cup of tea. My family lives eight time zones behind me so I get all the WhatsApp messages in the middle of the night. Of course the first thing I do every day is grab the phone. That starts the spiral. In November, I stopped picking it up and left it in the kitchen. Try it!
2) Find a time and space.
By getting up an hour earlier than usual (I was a bit of a zombie), I gifted myself quiet time to focus and write. The writer in me needs solitude and if I don’t create it, I never write (note: please see the last ten years of my life). Some days I challenged myself to write right after lunch, when I’m the most sleepy. It helped my brain learn that I can write at any time!
3) Tell people you’re writing, and then keep telling them.
I didn’t join a NaNoWriMo group, even though that was secretly one of my goals. Since that didn’t work out, every day I told people on Twitter my word count. People cheered me on and doing this helped me find people to cheer on.
4) Stop bowing to social pressure.
Modern-day social pressure makes me feel bad for not doing enough of everything at the speed that everyone else seems to be doing things. I didn’t write a book, but I did start writing every day, which is all that I really wanted, and people were excited for me. I set realistic goals so I wouldn’t burnout. And here I am, still writing every day.
5) Take a day (or two) off.
I only write on weekdays. My mind is most creative when I’m not trying to force words out. Many authors say they write every day, including holidays and Sundays. Great! That’s fantastic. That doesn’t work for me, so I’m not going to worry about that. Do I think I can get published even if I never write on Saturdays and Sundays? Yes, I do.
Bonus tip: Prep in a way that works for you.
I decided on Oct 31 to start NaNoWriMo on Nov 1. I had no plan, no plot, no program. But I did have a stack of books I wanted to write about. On day 1, I started by typing my notes about those books. That got my fingers moving and the ideas flowing. At the end of the first day, I grabbed the stack of books I wanted to write about and kept them in a pile on my desk. Suddenly, I had nearly two weeks’ worth of writing ideas. Having that meant that every morning, I had ideas at the ready, which jump started my writing and prevented writer’s block and dilly-dallying.
You’ve just finished NaNoWriMo! Congratulations! That's awesome! It's a lot harder to write a book than people think.
Take a break and pat yourself on the back. What you just did isn’t easy. Give yourself some credit!
Take an actual break and put the work away for at while. Forget about the story.
Re-read your manuscript. Most writers get stuck at this point, either due to anger or to overly critical self-judgement. Read the book in a format that you CAN’T edit it. Use a Kindle or e-reader, or read it on your phone. If you don’t have these options, you can always print it out.
Read and don’t judge. Take note of all the big-picture items you’d like to improve: character motivation, plot holes, missing clues or red herrings. Write down all of the things you want to focus on in the first round of revisions. Yes, first. Psyche yourself up for at least five rounds of revision.
Look at your notes. What are the three major issues that must be fixed for this story to work? Focus on those three things only. DON’T rewrite the first chapter of your book over and over. In fact, pretend your first chapter isn’t even there—you’re probably going to toss it eventually!
After you’ve revised, ask several people to read the manuscript. Don’t ask your Mom. Ask people who will a) actually read the book and b) can actually give you usable feedback. The last person you want to read this is someone who will say, “Nice job, well done.”
Once you have this feedback, revise. At this stage, consider a manuscript critique to get professional feedback.
Take another break! Then start at the top of this list again!
Exactly one year ago today at the Old Vic, I saw what would be my final plays before lockdown: “Endgame” and “Rough for Theatre II.” Could it have been more prophetic?
I had tickets for the matinee, and decided, for once, to treat myself to lunch. Walking down The Cut, I found two options, a cozy pub and a burger joint. I walked back and forth between the two places, unable to decide.
Right, I thought. I’m going to be an adult and choose the three-course lunch from the pub. No burgers for me. I’m not in university any more.
I will always regret my decision to be an adult.
The pub’s small, wood-paneled rooms felt crowded with large, empty tables awaiting sizeable parties. Faced with a solo diner, the waitress didn’t know where to put me, eventually seating me at the head of an empty banquet table, my back to the window, putting my single-diner status on display to the world.
Unthrilled with my location but needing to get on with it, I ordered three courses, which the waiter assured me could be brought out all at once.
Never believe that line.
The steaming, buttery bowl of poorly-cooked mussels arrived quickly. The other course was, apparently, forgettable, and dessert was a terrible lemon disaster. Ever the child taught not to waste food, I shoveled it down and left just as a large group was seated at my table, their glances a clear reprimand of my unconventional choices.
Learning to be an adult is learning not to care what other people think about you. Tell me how you’re getting on with that, will you?
The theater was steps away, so I arrived and settled in my stall seat. I don’t think I’d ever been so close to the stage before!
It was my first double bill. We were treated to a nice, funny short play called “Rough for Theatre II.” I loved being close enough to see the actors’ faces!
Sadly, my marvelous seat did not improve my understanding of “Endgame.” I’d read “Waiting for Godot” and enjoyed it. I didn’t understand it, but I remember laughing. I didn’t laugh much at “Endgame.”
But I don’t blame Beckett or the cast—the production was superbly done! The fault lay solely in my increasing physical discomfort. By the intermission, I had begun to worry I’d caught covid, and by the sweat on my flushed face, I’m sure the people seated next to me wondered the same.
Never have I been so happy for the curtain to fall. I ran out of the theater, caught my train home, and by 7 p.m. was fast asleep.
My story doesn’t end there. No, it ends hours later with my head in the toilet, regretting my decision to be an adult and have the mussels for lunch.
Like I said, who could have known that “Rough for Theatre II” and “Endgame” foretold my last few hours of freedom for 2020!?
Happy World Book Day! Happy National Grammar Day!
One year ago, on Valentine’s Day 2020, in the Oxfam bookshop near the British Museum in Bloomsbury, I found a copy of Alison Weir’s book Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen, which hurtled me down a rabbit hole about English queens. I then read Uncrowned Queen: The Fateful Life of Margaret Beaufort by Nicola Talis. There was so much I didn’t know!
A few months later, my favorite podcast, Rex Factor, shared a photo of Norton’s book on IG. My quest for information could continue! Thank goodness I picked it up, because my knowledge of English history pre-1066 is woefully inadequate. I only recently learned that the Normans were actually descended from Vikings.
I was fascinated to learn that “England in the early eleventh century was a stable and wealthy country,” and that Emma of Normandy, born in about 980 to Richard I, Duke of Normandy, and Gunnor, the daughter of “two noble Danes,” was making an excellent match with Ethelred II (Norton 2012, 35).
(Side note: as a student, I never understood why Shakespeare sent Hamlet to Denmark. I hadn’t realized just how close, geographically speaking, the countries are, and that they shared this long and ancient history. You never stop learning! Norton has reshaped my understanding of life in early medieval England, formerly known as the Dark Ages.)
Emma married King Ethelred II (the Unready) in 1002 but he died in 1016. The invading Vikings had taken over the country and she was forced to marry Cnut, who had defeated her stepson, Edmund, for the throne.
Apparently, Emma had more power under King Cnut than she had under Ethelred II—her name appears on many charters, which is unusual for the time.
Much of what we know about Emma comes from The Encomium Emmae Reginae, (Latin for Praise of Queen Emma) written around 1041 or 1042. It compliments Emma enough for modern readers to look at the text with a critical eye: how much of this was Emma’s own PR at work?
Cnut died in 1035, and after some fighting, Harold Godwinson was proclaimed king in 1037 and Emma fled to exile in Flanders. In 1040 Emma’s son Harthacnut sailed from Denmark, where he was king, to rescue Emma. In a too-good-to-be-true scenario, Harold died that year, so Harthacnut became king. But he died in 1042.
So Emma’s other son, whose father was Ethelred II, was declared king. That was Edward the Confessor. I’m sure you’ve heard of him.
My first question was: why doesn’t this woman have a Netflix show? Did you know any of this? I’m a hardcore English-history nerd, and I knew none of it!
In addition to Emma, I discovered the lives of Berengaria of Navarre, Henrietta Maria of France, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Their husbands (Richard I, Charles I and George III) have all the renown (or infamy, as it may be), and Norton has done an amazing job of bringing these women out of the shadows. With few exceptions, queens rarely get the same examination or scholarship that kings do. Norton reveals the hidden, forgotten, or disregarded lives of the queens.
Readers, this book is perfect if you want to get titbits of information on the queen of your choice. Though each queen’s entry is brief, they are thorough enough to give readers and researchers a well-informed starting point. This book is an excellent choice for readers interested in history and who want to know about more than just one queen or are looking for an overview of the lives of English queens.
Writers, read this book if you want a brief introduction to the queen, dynasty or era of your interest. If you’re researching a specific historical era, it gives a nice background for each period, and this book is especially good for information of the lives of the lesser-known queens.
Warning: it’s longer than it looks.
Norton, Elizabeth. 2012. England’s Queens: The Biography. Stroud: Amberley Publishing.
Most editors like to keep learning after we finish our initial training. Over time, standards change, technology upgrades, and minds forget. January is a good time to do some studying. And reviewing is better in a group, right?
Back in 2018, several students in my copyediting program started an accountability group, and I was invited to join. We're all in different stages of our careers. We've helped each other with tough question and editing conundrums, and we've supported each other through major life changes.
We decided to prioritize ourselves this year. We'll be refreshing our knowledge base by going through The Copyeditor’s Workbook together, starting today.
Every month we’ll tackle two or three exercises and discuss how we did, what the pitfalls were, what minor typo we caught, and what we learned. Believe me, the exercises are tricky!
Two members are in the UK, and the others are in North Carolina, Kentucky, California and Washington state. We’re spread far and wide but we are happy to be reconnecting and motivating one another through these trying times while we also work to keep our eyes sharp!
I read a lot and I hope to help authors with the craft of writing. I share good examples of difficult aspects of writing: point of view, narration, world building and more.
Occasionally I give editing tips and share insights from the world of publishing.
Posts on editing
Posts on publishing
Posts on books