Dear NaNo: Please Stop

Okay NaNo, here’s the thing.

You’re great, you really are. Your challenging and encouraging and friendly and whimsical.

I was a little nervous when Anita introduced us a few years ago. You were so daring! So fun! I wasn’t sure you’d want me hanging out with you.

But you did! And it was so much fun! You introduced me to all your other friends and pushed me to challenge myself.

It was awesome.

NaNo, you’ve changed.

And you’re still challenging and encouraging and friendly and whimsical.

You are also frenetic and loud and pretty clingy. What happened?

Even our Big Date Night is too much . . . it used to be a fun write-in, but now I can’t think because you’re always giving speeches and ringing bells and announcing things. It’s like you can’t be alone without going crazy.

You’re always talking.

You’re an extrovert, I get it. That’s great! I love hanging out with extroverts.

I’m an introvert. And that means I need quiet time. I need time to focus. I need a few words of stalwart encouragement here and there. I don’t need you sending me tweets and emails 24/7 telling me how awesome you are, and how awesome I am for being friends with you. I know you’re awesome, but not everyone can maintain your level of energy in a relationship. Especially for a straight month . . . and then you don’t stop! You’re an engine of enthusiasm run on caffeine and sugar!

And for me, caffeine and sugar aren’t the energy-boosters they seem to be for you. My body can’t maintain your lifestyle. I know you like me anyway, but I still feel left out.

I know you were like this when I agreed to go out with you, but you’ve become more intense. Wombats and unicorns don’t reassure me the way you seem to think they do. Neither do exclamation points.

I almost wish you had a quiet twin, maybe a @NaNoQuiet, that would chirp up every once in a while with a stalwart go-get-’em tweet. No word wars, no sprints, no constant announcements that you’re around to help like Clippy the ill-fated mascot. I know where you are, and I’ll ask for help if I need it. And no wombats. (Well, all right, a wombat every now and again would be okay. I’m not anti-wombat, or anti-whimsy. I’m anti-inundation.)

I guess I’m saying some of us, NaNo, are feeling pushed away. Maybe we’re going in different directions now, and that’s okay. But I’d like to think we can still hang out.

I’m going to try it again once more, but I thought that in all fairness, NaNo, I ought to tell you why this may be the last time.

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On Commas

Let’s talk a little bit about commas.

Commas are the litmus test of production editing. In fact, you could develop a whole flow chart of suitable careers in the editorial field based purely on commas.*

There’s a lot of functionality and style about commas. They say a lot. They say whether what you’re reading is a book or an article. They say whether you hired a proofreader or you didn’t. They say pause, breathe, read this together, read this apart, hold me, remember me, you’re almost at the good part, and phew, here’s the denouement. They’re the ants of the written world: absolutely essential little critters that cause chaos when they’re not around and provide disgust and distaste when they swarm. I love commas!

They’re tricky things, and in the Treasure Hunt of Superiority that is copyediting, commas are the X. (If you think commas are “nitpicky,” as someone at work mentioned, you are in the wrong field.)

Yesterday’s Adventures with Commas

Now, I’d like you to take a look at an average, run-of-the-mill page of manuscript I was reviewing. Go ahead, enjoy.

In Bookstores September 24

Page 13 of “In the Heart of Life,” going to the printer July 15.

Commas are supposed to take the same formatting as the word they’re attached to. For example, if the word is italic, the comma is italic. If the word is in boldface, the comma is in boldface. N’est-ce pas? Bon.

I was so pleased with myself when I spied that comma after just such a little italic introduction after the text break above, only on page 78. “Oh ho!” I said, “the copyeditor missed one!”

But of course, I then started paying close attention. I flipped back to page 1 and started looking again.

“GOSH!” I said after thirty pages. “I need to mention this issue to the copyeditor!” Scritch scritch scritch went my pencil.

I got to about page 130 when I said, out loud, “This is ridiculous.” I then looked back and looked very closely at the commas. I put my water glass on top of the page to try and magnify it. I borrowed someone’s reading glasses. I finally brought up the PDF on the screen and blew it up to 150, 200, 400 percent.

At 800%, I saw this:

Exhibit A

Exhibit A

These are both commas from the same typeface, taken from the above-pictured page. The top is the italic comma, the bottom is the normal (referred to as Roman) comma. Most of the time, the tail of italic commas swing under the head on a lovely italic incline. But sometimes, evidently, the italic comma remains as vertical as its Roman counterpart like a bobbing typographic sea horse.

“Darn it!” I said, not least because this meant my sharp eyes had not been so triumphant in the game of Proofreading Powerball as tricked in the game of Proofreading Punk’d.

So then I had to go back to page 1 to check all the commas I had marked with a little line underneath them and a circled “ital” in the margin and double-check to make sure each one had that tiny bit of undercurve swoop that turned the comma from tadpole into a lady-frog’s tongue.

And then I had to white out all my little “ital”s in their circles, and my white out ran out.

And there was no more in the entire office.

Which meant (probably after about an hour and a half of straight-up marking commas) I had to go back through with another color and cross out each and every little bubble of triumph. Even then, I peered at every italic word and the punctuation that followed it.

I might have taken that moment to go make a mug of cocoa. With two packets. But I can’t remember clearly; it was a bit of a blur.

Thankfully a new order for correction tape was placed promptly, but for now I have to be very, very careful. Those little commas will stick like thorns in your flesh if you’re not careful.

On Choosing Defeat

Well friends, I did not Win.

I did not cross the finish line. I did not write 50,000 words in 30 days.

“BUT WAIT!” the hoard of supporters, eggers-on, and blind followers cry, “There are still over TWENTY-FOUR HOURS left!”

But, fair followers, I have chosen defeat. I have chosen to not pursue a valiant effort to its bitterest end, which, most likely, would mean anxiety, depression, bad nutrition, headaches, and eye strain. I could still win, but I can no longer succeed.

For if I insist on forcing my entire life into the obtuse and arbitrary timeline of an inherently good motivational event, then I will ruin the experience. I will not feel good about writing a (very, very drafty) novel, I will feel briefly exhilarated about throwing my good sense to the wind and getting a gold star from a computer program.

That brief exhilaration would then be overpowered by the repercussions of spending 24 hours practically killing myself not over a story worth writing but a word count. That 24 (or even 48) hour period would leave me (and not only me, but my family and employer as well) out of sorts and recovering for at least of week. All so I can say, “I did it!”?

But I did do it. I did not write 50,000 words in 30 days, but I wrote 39,303. And you know what? If I only count the days I actually wrote, I wrote 39,303 words in only *17* days. Ka-POW.

You know what else? I still feel like writing (well, writing more of) my novel. And I feel like I want to do this again next year. Had I been pushing to the finish line right now instead of writing this very post (current word count: 285), I guarantee you I wouldn’t want to look at this novel again for a year, and I definitely would be having second thoughts about next year.

Because I am choosing defeat, I will have the energy and sanity to pursue the discovery I made in my final push last Saturday (this being Monday, future readers), which is that if I wrote 2,000 words a day (which takes 2-3 hours), I would write 600,000 words in a year (assuming I skipped 65¼ of them). Do you know how many novels that is? 8-10. Eight to ten novels in one year.

Friends, if I finished this month in a flurry of agony, of pushing myself to the limit in order to not finish a novel but a quota, of putting my family through Really Bad Mood Noël and (perhaps) not even “winning,” do you think I could look at that discovery in December and say, “Why don’t I spend an hour and write!”?

In case any of you are wondering, I really do want to win. I want to have a bright green full word-count-progress bar that turns purple with WINNER! in big fat letters so all your friends can see it. Maybe that can be me next year.

But maybe next year I might also have full word-count-progress bars on one or two, or even five or six other novels! Think about it! The excitement is so titillating, it makes me want to start right now!

But for this year, this month, I choose defeat. Therefore, I will succeed.

I would also like to share with you my favorite pep talk of the month which I shall re-read year after year from Lemony Snicket. Please enjoy.

10 Things Every Author Can Learn from Watching “Throw Momma From the Train”

Another NaNoWriMo encouragement post!

It has been my happy lot in life to be fairly “well-connected.” Among my most prized connections is that my mother’s former college roommate is a very successful author and happens to be married to another very successful author. I had the privilege of visiting with them over a long weekend in high school and of the many things we did and talked about, one was watch the 1987 blockbuster smash Throw Momma From the Train.

This, I was told, is a must-see movie for every aspiring author. It has fundamental truths presented in both the positive imperative and the exemplary negative. I now pass on to you, from the notes I found from years ago, the top ten things every author should know after watching this film.

  1. A writer writes. Always.
  2. Write about what you know.
  3. If you don’t know, learn.
  4. You have to have a motive.
  5. Never, ever worry about finding “the perfect word.” You can use a thesaurus later. Just write.
  6. Never leave your car lights on if you’re drinking on a beach at night. (Actually, that’s a good rule for just about anyone.)
  7. Even if your (one) book is a bestseller, you’re not going to afford a beach house in Hawai’i and diamond earrings.
  8. The same situation told by different authors often turns into completely different stories.
  9. Never, ever read classic picture books as part of foreplay. Ever.
  10. A writer writes, always. Ergo, if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer. (Yes, I did use that one twice, but it’s the important message of the film.)