Ten Tips to Surviving #NaNoWriMo

It is the beginning of November, which means a few things. The Pumpkin Spice Everything is transitioning to Peppermint Everything. The seasonal aisle at your local mega-mart is switching from costumes and cobwebs to tinsel and candy canes. Daylight has been saved, which somehow means that it gets…dark…earlier?

And, if you’re a writer, you may be considering — or already be in the throes of — NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.

What is NaNo? Simply put, it’s a challenge for writers to churn out 50,000 words of their own original work of fiction in 30 days. Thousands of writers take the challenge every year, to varying levels of success. And though you may never have heard of it before, some of the bestselling novels of the past few years have gotten their starts as NaNo projects, such as The Night Circus, Water For Elephants, The Scorpio Racesand Fangirl. (It’s worth pointing out that none of these projects were finished — not even a complete draft — in a single month, which we’ll be circling back to in a bit, but NaNo was absolutely part of their origin stories.)

Confession time: I’ve never officially done NaNo. As in I have not signed up on the website, picked a username, and filled up my progress bar until I “won.” (Really, the main reason I’ve never participated in NaNo is because I know me, and I’m pretty sure I’d get way too distracted by the social aspect of Officially NaNo-ing to…you know…actually write a book. But if you are not as distractable as me, you probably won’t have this problem.)

However, I have written over 50,000 words in a month of my own original work of fiction, so I’m not coming from a totally ignorant place here.

If you’re braving the NaNo waters this year, congrats! Bonus congrats if you’ve never attempted to write a novel before, or have but have never completed one. Novel writing, much like training for a marathon, requires determination, perseverance, and the willpower to press ahead even when your mind and body want to quit. It’s a trudge, not a sprint, and you have to put in a lot of time and effort before you feel yourself making significant progress toward your goal. NaNo helps speed the process along by forcing you to slap a whole bunch of words onto paper in a relatively short period of time, but when you’re pushing yourself, even a month of consistency can be a huge challenge.

So if this is your first NaNo, it’s understandable if you’re daunted. But you can do this. I believe in you.

To help you out, both with the process and with your expectations, here are ten tips to get you through the month. As with all writing advice, YMMV, but hopefully some of this will help.

1. Prioritize your writing time.

Here’s a secret. No one ever “has time” to write a book. There are always day jobs, families, schoolwork, housework, extracurriculars, kids, travel, on and on and on. Anyone who thinks “I would love to write a book one day when I have time” will probably never write a book. Most first novels are written in the cracks of life — during teacher planning sessions, after the kids go to bed, on the on the subway, in the car rider line after school, in the mornings before work.

The trick, like with anything else you value, is to make your writing time sacred. Don’t think you’ll just squeeze it in around all the other, more important stuff in your day. Block off time each day to write, and hold yourself to it. Even when you don’t feel like it. Get off social media, turn off the TV, put on a pair of headphones, and buckle down. You don’t have to get all your words in at once — if the only way for you to fit writing into your schedule is 15 minutes here and 30 minutes there, then by all means, write in chunks. But during those chunks, make writing the priority. All the other pulls of life will still be there when you come up for air.

2. Be realistic about your capabilities.

50,000 words over 30 days comes out to about 1,667 words a day. I consider myself a fairly quick writer (although there are those who put me to shame), but even when the words are pouring out, I can only hit about 800-1,000 words in an hour. So for me to hit a 1,667-words-a-day goal would involve blocking off around two hours of devoted writing time. But there are many who write slower than that — maybe only 300-500 words in an hour. And that’s okay. Speed has nothing to do with the quality of the end product. But if you are a slower writer and want to hit that daily goal, know that you’re either going to need to block out bigger chunks of your day, or make up the deficit somewhere else (like only working an hour on weekdays but full days on weekends).

The other thing to keep in mind is that even if you have eight hours of free time a day, it’s really hard to be productive for eight hours in a row. I don’t know any writers — not even multi-published authors — who can crank out 1,000 words an hour for eight consecutive hours, every day of the week. (Maybe on a tight deadline, or at a writing retreat, but that kind of burst of productivity isn’t sustainable over the course of a month.) Me, I am at my most productive when I write in 30-60 minute sprints, then take a break. It doesn’t have to be a long break, but I need to step away. And once I hit about 2,000 words in a day, my productivity tanks. It’s really hard for me to push past that. The words dry up in my brain like old toothpaste.

So for me, saying “I will block off three consecutive hours every day to write, and will set a goal of 3,000 words each day” would be highly unrealistic. If I have three hours available to me, maybe I block off two of them to write, and set myself a 1,500 word-a-day goal. Which is a little shy of the 1,667 needed to win NaNo, but close enough that I can make up the deficit on the weekends, when I have more free time, and can also take more breaks.

3. Don’t look back.

I fully understand the impulse to go back over what you wrote yesterday and clean it up. Maybe it felt clunky as you were writing it, maybe you learned something about your character that would affect their earlier actions, maybe you’ve realized you don’t want your character to go through the forest, but across the river instead. So you need to rewrite those earlier scenes, right? Wrong.

Remember your goal: 50,000 words in a month. It’ll be a lot harder to hit that goal if you begin each writing session by deleting words or messing with what you already have. Make yourself a note of what you want to change, then keep pressing forward. I promise, no matter how much tweaking you do along the way, your novel will still need to be revised once it’s done. So why spend time on that work now? Save it for later. Write the next chapter like your character chose the river, and once you have a complete draft, you can go back and polish it up.

4. Embrace your crappy first draft.

I know it doesn’t seem like this when you read your favorite authors’ published works — or maybe even when you beta read works-in-progress for friends — but no one is happy with their first draft. No. One. But you can’t edit a blank page, so it’s important to get those ideas out of your head and onto paper so that you can then revise them into something you’re happy with. Think of your first draft like slapping down a wet blob of clay on a potter’s wheel. It may be ugly and malformed, but without that raw material, the true art can never be created.

5. Eyes on your own paper.

I am blessed to have a lot of extremely talented writer friends. I am also cursed to have a lot of extremely talented writer friends. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of reading their books — especially when they’re published books — compare them to my crappy first draft, and think, I am such a hack. 

The funny thing? They feel the same way. Maybe not about me, but about someone. If everyone gave up who looked at someone else’s work and thought, I can never create something as good as this, we would have no art. Nada. None. Zero. Zilch.

Similarly, everyone’s process is different. Just because your buddy John vomited 10,000 words into his computer during the first day of NaNo and you wrote 300 doesn’t mean anything. Maybe John now has a word hangover and needs to take a week off to recharge. Maybe he’ll write 100,000 words this month. It doesn’t matter. It has nothing to do with you, your project, your abilities. Keep your attention on what you are doing, not what everyone else is.

6. Understand that 50,000 words may not be a complete novel, and that’s okay.

Unless you’re writing Middle Grade, 50,000 words is probably not going to be a complete book (and even with Middle Grade, maybe not). Most YA and Adult books have a higher — sometimes significantly higher — word count than this. So if you find yourself panicking in the last week of November because you’re only halfway through your novel, that’s okay. There’s no rule that if you don’t finish in November, you won’t finish at all. Give your book the time (and words) it needs to be its best self.

For comparative purposes, here are the word counts for some popular books across several genres. (If you’re writing Adult Fantasy…buckle up for a long ride.)

Charlotte’s Web – 31,938

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – 36,363

Matilda – 40,009

The Phantom Tollbooth – 42,156

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – 77,508

Shadow and Bone – 81,215

The Lightning Thief – 87,223

The Hunger Games – 99,750

Ender’s Game – 100,609

Divergent – 105,143

Twilight – 118,975

Gone Girl – 145,719

The Fellowship of the Ring – 177,227

Mistborn – 212,417

Game of Thrones – 292,727

7. Get yourself an accountabilibuddy (or several). 

Whether or not you participate in the social aspect of NaNo (forums, hashtag chats, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), I highly recommend finding one or two people to hold you accountable, and vice versa. While the “we’re all at the same party” aspect of NaNo can be great and highly motivating, it’s good to have a couple people who are specifically looking at you. These are the people you can confide in when you totally blow your goal for a day, who will cheer you on when you aren’t sure you can keep going, who give you virtual high fives across the internet when you hit a milestone. While I’m not NaNo-ing this month, I do have an accountabilibuddy of my own that I’m checking in with as I work to finish my current manuscript, and I guarantee I am more productive knowing I have to check in with her at the end of every day.

8. Allow yourself to adjust your goals.

Maybe you realize a week in that you actually can’t churn out 2,000 words after working a full day at work. Maybe it just occurred to you that you probably won’t write while hosting your entire family for Thanksgiving. Maybe you get sick, maybe you get called in for overtime at your job, maybe your kid breaks her arm. Whatever the reason, life happens, and sometimes the goals we set at the beginning of the month aren’t realistic two or three weeks in. It’s okay to change them, adjust to whatever your new circumstances are. It’s also okay to realize maybe you were just too ambitious, and downshift. Every person is different. And you know what? Not winning NaNo is not the end of the world. Not one of those books I mentioned above that started as a NaNo book was completed during NaNo. Some of the authors didn’t even finish NaNo. But their books still got finished and still got published.  NaNo is a tool in your author belt, nothing more. If it doesn’t work for you, throw it out and get a new tool.

9. Don’t let the creative well run dry.

It may seem like common sense to forego all other forms of entertainment while trying to churn out a book in a month, but it actually may hurt more than it helps. Sure, you probably shouldn’t binge all of Breaking Bad in a week instead of writing, but don’t go cold turkey either. Much as you may think you can create in a vacuum, this is rarely a good idea. Allow yourself to keep consuming art, whether that be books, TV, movies, music — whatever it is for you that stimulates your creative juices, keep it coming. Maybe dial it back a bit, if that’s what typically takes up all your free time — you do need some of that to write, obviously — but don’t feel like a failure if one day, the words just aren’t coming, so you decide to watch an episode of Daredevil or read a few chapters of whatever’s on your nightstand instead. Art begets art. Sometimes, all it takes to get the words flowing again is a solid infusion of someone else’s fiction.

10. Acknowledge the hard work that comes next.

Once you’ve hit your 50,000 words or completed your book, it’s easy to throw up your hands and think, Huzzah, I’m done! Alas, this is never the case. Never. Remember how we were embracing the crappy first draft? Well, now begins the hard work of polishing that sucker into something worth showing people. Read through your work. Take notes on what doesn’t make sense, what needs more fleshing out, what plot threads you abandoned mid-draft. Then go back and revise, revise, revise. Get some beta readers. Listen to their notes. Revise again. This part takes time — maybe even more time than drafting the book itself — but it’s what turns a crappy first draft into a book.

Once you have revised the heck out of your book and honestly feel it is your Very Best Work, then, and only then, are you ready to take the next steps. That may be self-publishing, it may be querying agents and pursuing a traditional publishing deal, it may be printing up a handful of print-on-demand paperbacks to pass out on street corners, I don’t know.  I can’t tell you which path is right for you. All I can tell you is that the road from Crappy First Draft to Book Worth Reading is long and filled with tears and red ink.

BONUS 11: Don’t sell yourself short.

It’s easy to become daunted. To think that this is beyond you. That other people can write a book, but you can’t. Your ideas are too small. Your talent isn’t enough. You never finish things, and this is no different.

Don’t do that to yourself. Yes, writing a book is a big challenge, whether you do it in a month or a year. But just like climbing a mountain or running a race, it’s possible. All it takes is putting one foot in front of the other, one word after another, bit by bit, over and over. Don’t look back. Don’t look down. Don’t stop. And when you reach the top, the finish line, The End, you’ll be so proud to look back and see how far you’ve come.

Film Review: THE MARTIAN

You may remember how much I loved THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, the novel about an astronaut accidentally stranded alone on Mars, forced to become a sort of Science MacGyver in his efforts to survive, while his crewmates and NASA and basically all of humanity band together in a heroic and desperate attempt to rescue him. This book was amazing. Absolutely my favorite book of the year, and probably one of my favorite books of all time.

You may also remember that the reason I read the book was because I’d seen the trailer for the movie, which also looked amazing. And after reading the book, I was even more excited for the film. It looked like it would be a faithful adaptation that really captured the spirit of the novel — but of course, trailers often lie. So. Did it hold up?

This is going to be part film review, part compare and contrast with the book, because although the movie totally stands on its own, I find it really difficult to talk about it without referencing the source material. I’ll hide all spoilers, so don’t worry if you haven’t read or watched yet.

Let’s just get this out of the way up front: I loved the movie. Loved. I thought it was one of the most faithful book adaptations I’ve seen in years, the visuals were stunning, the casting was terrific, the writing was tight, the pacing was solid, and the humor, optimism and collaborative, heroic spirit of the book were all wonderfully represented. So. Even though I’m going to get critical in a minute, keep in mind that it’s the criticism of a true fan who enjoyed this movie and wants to watch it a dozen more times.

First, let’s talk about things I think the movie did better than the book. The big one is character. Watney aside (Matt Damon/Mark Watney is a category all his own), I cared about the characters in the movie — the Hermes crew in particular, but all of them to varying degrees — far more than I did in the book. One advantage to seeing the movie trailer before reading the book was that I was able to picture the movie cast as all the characters as I read. So although I’ve heard a few people here and there say Matt Damon was not “their” Mark Watney, for me, he was Mark from page 1.

It also helps (or maybe hinders, if you read the book first and pictured a character totally differently) that there is almost no physical description in the book for any of the characters. We are given names and genders and personalities, occasionally ages, but that’s it. No skin or hair color, no ethnicity beyond what’s implied by their names, no body types or backstory. So when it came to casting, there was a lot of leeway to cast the person who best embodied the character, and personally, I thought that worked out in the movie’s favor.

The vast majority of the cast was tasked with the daunting challenge of fully fleshing out their characters with relatively little screen time, and they managed it admirably, giving the non-Watney scenes an even greater depth and humanity than they had in the book. Whereas in the book, my heart was on Mars with Watney, making me anxious to return to him anytime the point-of-view would switch to another character, in the movie, I was fully invested in every scene, not just those on Mars with Watney, but on earth with the NASA team and in space with the Hermes crew. With an ensemble cast like this, it’s hard to call out individual players without it turning into a laundry list, so suffice it to say, everyone brought their A-game to this production.

The Hermes crew, ltr: Matt Damon, Sebastian Stan, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie, Michael Peña

The movie was also able to drive home the physical deterioration of Mark Watney in a way I never fully felt with the book. It was one thing to read about how he had to severely cut his rations in order to stretch them, but another to see him go from a clean-shaven, muscular guy at the beginning of the movie to a bushy-faced, skeletal figure covered in malnutrition bruises by the end. His transformation really underscored the brutality of passing time in a far more tangible way than reading about it could.

Also, while I loved the [highlight for spoiler: final rescue scene by the Hermes crew] in the book, in the movie it was extended, and thus felt both more harrowing and heroic to me. I also really enjoyed that the movie ended the equivalent of a few pages past where the book ends. It gave the story and the characters a better sense of closure, and viewers a greater sense of satisfaction.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Matt Damon’s fantastic performance as Mark Watney. I don’t think he was better than the book, per se, but he totally embodied the Watney in my brain, from his grim optimism, to his nerdy, irreverent, and sometimes fatalistic sense of humor, to his conversational and accessible way of talking about sciencing his way out of certain death. While I’m sure there are other great actors who could have played Watney and done the character justice, I can’t imagine anyone portraying him better or more true to the book than Damon. He was my Watney, from the first minute to the last.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney

However, there were some aspects in which I think the movie didn’t fare quite so well. Even though the movie runs long for Hollywood, at 141 minutes, it never felt like it had enough time to fully convey just how perilous Mark’s situation was. Like in the book, the movie sticks solely with Mark on Mars for his first couple weeks of isolation, but it never really has time to build up that sense of profound loneliness and desperation before cutting to NASA. And from then on out, by constantly cutting between Mark and NASA, the movie is never fully able to make us feel that every minute of Mark’s life is teetering on the edge of complete and utter failure, because we can see NASA working the problems and coming up with solutions — seemingly, almost instantly.

I don’t want to say the film felt rushed, because it didn’t. The pacing was, as I said before, solid. But in adapting the story from the book, it had to lose a lot of small scenes that, while not integral to the plot, may have been helpful for the tone. [Minor spoilers follow, but nothing that’s not in the trailer.]

We see Mark having to make soil to grow potatoes, but we never understand just how hard or unlikely that process is, or how long it takes. We never become emotionally invested in those potatoes, like I did reading the book. When [spoiler: the HAB airlock explodes and Mark loses all his crops, it doesn’t have nearly the impact of that scene in the book, where it felt almost like the death of a beloved character.]

Mark faces many of the same problems he does in the book — lack of water, lack of communication, extreme cold, limited battery life for his equipment — but instead of getting stuck, instead of feeling like he’s run up against an insurmountable obstacle, instead of being struck over and over with that sense of imminent failure, his problems are often solved in the very next scene. Sure, the timestamps may tell us that a few days (or Sols, as time is measured on Mars) have passed, but for the movie-going audience, it was only a minute or two. While in the book, he spends multiple chapters prepping [spoiler: for his 2-month drive to the MAV], building up a huge sense of anticipation in the reader as he details everything that could go wrong, in the movie, he conceives his plan and then — time jump! — executes it.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney

At that point, a friend leaned over to me in the theater and whispered, “I doubt it felt that quick and easy for him.” And that, I felt, was an unfortunate theme throughout this movie. While the actors did an amazing job of showing us how worried and conflicted they were, and while we could see Mark putting up a wall of humor to push away the hopelessness in every one of his scenes, without the time to really linger on each setback Mark and NASA faced or to mourn their failures, their problems never felt impossible. The solution was never more than a scene or two away.

So while the movie didn’t need [spoiler: Mark hiding in the Rover with no idea what to do when he realized he’d accidentally turned the HAB into a bomb, or shorting out Pathfinder and losing his only means of communication, or rolling the Rover on his way to the MAV], by losing all those moments where Mark had to pause and really face the question, is this what kills me?, I felt like the movie never quite managed the overwhelming part of “overwhelming odds.” There were odds, sure, and I believed them. But overwhelming? I never thought it got there.

Also, this is not really relevant to anything, but I was pretty bummed that we never got Watney measuring things in units of pirate-ninjas. Just needed to state that for the record.

All that said, I still think this was an excellent film, and a wonderful adaptation of the book. Plus, in a story landscape littered with supervillains and antiheroes, this is one of those rare stories with no bad guy. I love me a good villain, but this is a tale of Man + Science (+ Duct Tape, really) vs. Nature, and really, that is fully enough. It is hopeful and optimistic, both in its vision of what humanity might someday be able to accomplish, and in its characters, who push themselves beyond their limits to help one another. So while it may have a few shortcomings, as all movies do, I can still fully endorse it for what it is — a beautifully told, riveting, inspirational tale of survival, cooperation, and loyalty, peppered with humor and science, IN SPACE.

Really, if that doesn’t get you to the theater, I don’t know what will.

Review: WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER by Rae Carson

It’s no secret that I loved Rae Carson’s GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS trilogy, so when I heard she was beginning a new fantasy trilogy — a historical fantasy, set during the California gold rush — my fingers immediately began itching for a copy. Fortunately, I had a friend who generously offered to loan me her ARC (once she was finished reading, of course — there is generous, and then there’s just plain ridiculous), so I was able to read WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER a few months early.

And guys, I didn’t even think it was possible, but if the first book is anything to go by, I think the Gold Seer Trilogy may be even better than GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS.

I know. Take a moment.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Lee Westfall has a secret. She can sense the presence of gold in the world around her. Veins deep beneath the earth, pebbles in the river, nuggets dug up from the forest floor. The buzz of gold means warmth and life and home—until everything is ripped away by a man who wants to control her. Left with nothing, Lee disguises herself as a boy and takes to the trail across the country. Gold was discovered in California, and where else could such a magical girl find herself, find safety?

Walk on Earth a Stranger, the first book in this new trilogy, introduces—as only Rae Carson can—a strong heroine, a perilous road, a fantastical twist, and a slow-burning romance. Includes a map and author’s note on historical research.

My Thoughts:

Before I dig into my thoughts on the first book in Rae Carson’s new Gold Seer Trilogy, let’s discuss genre for a minute. While WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER is being marketed as a fantasy, and while the opening chapter firmly establishes Leah Westfall’s ability to magically sense the presence of gold, once you move past the events that set Leah off on her cross-country journey, I was surprised to find that the majority of the book reads like a straight historical. Who knows, maybe future installments in the series will play up the magic more, but going off of just this first book, it feels a bit more accurate to call WOEAS historical fiction with some magical realism elements, rather than a fantasy

That said, even though I’d been prepared for a fantasy, I was not disappointed in the slightest to find magic missing from the majority of WOEAS. Leah — who starts going by “Lee” early in the book, when she disguises herself as a boy — is an utterly compelling narrator, and Carson’s prose is simultaneously lush and gritty, masterfully evoking the visuals and sounds and smells of a late-1800s America. The staggering amount of research that must have gone into this novel is evident on every page, immersing the reader in the endlessly beautiful — yet unforgivingly harsh — American frontier.

Though the ensemble cast seems kind of sprawling at first, Carson skillfully manages to develop her characters into fully three-dimensional people after surprisingly little page time. It didn’t take long before I was rooting not just for Leah, but for the families and individuals traveling alongside her. I won’t name names, because some characters have pretty impressive arcs (and some, um, die), but suffice it to say, Leah isn’t the only one who ends the book loving these people like family.

For those of us who grew up playing the video game Oregon Trail, Leah’s journey will come with a distinct sense of nostalgia. While (spoiler alert) Leah never hunkers down for days on end to shoot squirrels, she, along with her fellow travelers, must ford rivers, maneuver covered wagons, manage sick oxen, and battle disease (although not quite as much dysentery as I remember from my Oregon Trail days). Though the wagon train’s trek to California moves agonizingly slowly, the plot never does. Carson is a master of infusing her story with moment-to-moment tension, and even when the characters were sitting still, I found myself flying through the pages.

As with Carson’s first series, [what I suspect will be] the main romantic subplot doesn’t get much exploration in this first book. While there are hints, this is a story of survival and endurance, not romance. However, as a fan of the slow burn, I thoroughly enjoyed the foundations that were so thoughtfully laid in this book, and I think that even readers who prefer a lot of swoon in their fiction will find that, while sparse, there are enough tidbits in this book to carry them through to the next one.

Overall, I found WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER to be a beautiful, vivid, and compulsively readable portrayal of life in Gold Rush-era America, with just a dash of magic. I unequivocally loved it. Whether you are a lover of fantasy or historicals or simply a good story well told, I think you’ll love it, too.

Get thee a community

Photo taken by Carla Schooler at the 2015 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference

I just returned home from the 2015 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference, and whew. I am tired. Not only physically tired from days jam-packed with amazing panels and breakout sessions, followed by nights spent laughing with friends until we couldn’t hold our heads up or our eyes open. But also mentally tired from all the wisdom that was shared, and creatively tired from untangling the knots that had been littering my latest WIP.

I could sleep for a solid day, no problem.

But first, if you’re a writer, I’m going to tell you something important. Something that I’ve known for a while, but that attending this conference reinforced in an undeniable way. Are you listening? Good.

Whether you are a NYT Bestselling Author or a dreamer still plugging away at your first novel, community is vitally important. Maybe it doesn’t seem like that should be true — writing is most often a solitary pursuit, after all — but trust me on this. Without community, most of the authors I know would not be authors. Yes, even the naturally talented ones. Yes, even the ridiculously successful ones.

Without community, the voices of doubt can be deafening. Without community, rejection can be crippling. Without community, giving up may seem like not only the easy choice, but the obvious choice. The smart choice.

I’m lucky. I know this. I live in a city that has one of the most vibrant and supportive writing communities in the country. Most of my best friends are writers, and several of them are successfully published and willing to double as mentors.

These are the people who have slogged through all my various manuscripts when they were rougher than sandpaper, and helped me hone and revise them into something worth reading. They’re the ones who helped me craft a query letter and put together a list of agents. They’re the ones who clinked glasses with me when I signed with my agent. They’re the numbers I text when I get good news, and the ones who respond with a flurry of raging emojis when I get a pass.

They’re also the people who cried with me when I got my diagnosis, who have made me dinner and taken my children to gymnastics. We have celebrated birthdays and marriages and holidays together, road tripped together, run races together, and moved more boxes from Old House to New House than I can count. We have had the same conversations so many times we can rant each other’s rants.


The Nashville writing community, New Years 2014

This is my writing community. This is my family.

Right now, you’re probably doing one of two things. You’re nodding along knowingly, because you have a community, too, and you relate to everything I’ve just said.

Or you’re despairing, because you feel like an island, and have no idea how to change that.

To that I have two things to say. One, you’re not an island. I promise, there are those out there in the same stage you’re in, suffering from the same doubts and insecurities, working toward the same goals. Somewhere out there is a friend you can lean on, confide in, celebrate with. You just haven’t met them yet.

Two, you are capable of finding them. No matter how shy, how insecure, how introverted, how geographically isolated, how young or old, how experienced or raw. You can do this. It will involve stepping outside your comfort zone, doing something that scares you. But you can do this. I believe it with my whole heart.

Maybe you can muster enough strength for a Big Action, by joining an organization or going to a conference or a retreat or book launch and introducing yourself to strangers. I’ve done this, and trust me, I know it is terrifying. I’ve gone to book launches and hovered in the back, pretending to read the spines of the books on the shelves just so I wouldn’t look out of place. I’ve signed up for a retreat where I only knew one person, and felt the urge to run and hide in a corner with my laptop instead of talking to people. The fear can be paralyzing. But if you can push through it — even if it’s just to introduce yourself to one person, the least-scary-looking person at the event — maybe that’s all you need to do. Sometimes one person is all it takes.

And if that person doesn’t end up being Your Kind of People? Try again. And again and again. It’s daunting, but remember, a person is only a stranger once.

Maybe that’s just too much, and no amount of pep talks will make you physically walk into a place where you don’t know anyone. That’s totally fine. Maybe, for you, stepping outside your comfort zone involves becoming active in an online forum like Absolute Write, or following the #amwriting tag on Twitter and engaging in those conversations, or emailing another writer you know vaguely through social media and asking if they’d be interested in exchanging work.

That’s what I did. Three years ago, when I was considering writing a book and didn’t know any other writers, I emailed another blogger I’d interacted with on Twitter and asked if she’d ever considered writing, and if she’d be interested in having a critique partner. I have no idea what possessed me to do this — I am Introverted with a Capital I, and do not voluntarily reach out to strangers — but that tiny step turned out to be life-changing. Today, that blogger is not only still my primary critique partner, but also one of my best friends. Because of that email, I wrote a book, and then another and another. I found my local writing community. I discovered a sense of belonging I’d never felt before.

Photo taken by Carla Schooler

Photo taken by Carla Schooler at the 2015 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference

And before you say, well, you’re an anomaly, let me tell you, it happens more often than you think. At the SCBWI conference I attended this weekend, one of our keynotes was given by the writing team of Gail Nall and Jen Malone, who met online when they entered the same writing contest. Now they’ve published multiple books together. Since they live halfway across the country from each other, they’ve only met in person a few times, but that doesn’t make their friendship or their writing camaraderie any less true.

During their keynote, Jen asked all the published writers in the room to stand, then told them to sit if they thought they could’ve gotten to where they are without the support of other writers. Want to take a guess at how many sat down?

No one is surprised when I say zero, right?

At the same conference, a pair of men — obviously good friends — was introduced to me, and then the mutual friend doing the introduction said, “Guess how they met,” in a voice that told me I’d be surprised by the answer.

Yup, you guessed it. Twitter. It was only their first or second time meeting in person. Not that you’d ever know it to see them interact.

I hear stories like this all the time. Even in my own life, I have multiple good friends where our first interaction was online. Forget what Buzzfeed or HuffPo tells you — you can make friends and find community anywhere. It just takes some effort.

Murfreesboro Half Marathon, 2013 Betcha can't tell which two friends I met on Twitter first.

Murfreesboro Half Marathon, 2013
Betcha can’t tell which two friends I met on Twitter first.

Bottom line is, wherever you are in your writing and your friendships, don’t discount the importance of finding other writers to commiserate with, to cheer on, to ask for feedback and wisdom, to celebrate in times of accomplishment and grieve with in times of disappointment (and not just yours — one of my favorite things about having talented writer friends is being able to celebrate their successes, even if I’ve just suffered a failure. It’s a much better mental place to be in when you can always find something to be happy about).

Not every writer I know has a critique group, or lots of local events to attend, or a love of social media. That’s fine. But every writer I know, published or pre-published, without exception, will tell you that they would not be able to keep making books without their writing community, whether it is vast or intimate, local or online, public or private.

Community comes in all shapes and sizes and locations. Yours doesn’t have to look like mine, or anyone else’s. It can be entirely unique to you and Your People. But please, don’t try to do this alone. Don’t let fear or pride make you an island. Find the people that give you the fortitude to keep walking this road. Putting words onto paper may be a solitary activity, but Writing — as a career, as a dream, as a life — is better with a team.


Review: FOOL’S QUEST by Robin Hobb

Oh, FitzChivalry Farseer and my Beloved Fool, how do I love thee, let me count the ways.

*looks at bookshelves*


Apparently at least eleven books’ worth.

Wait, don’t run away! This is my favorite fantasy series — and one of my favorite series, period — of all time. Of all time. Yes, it’s hefty, but don’t worry, I’ll help you through it. And if you love richly built fantasy worlds, complex characters, strong friendships, magic, and dragons, I promise you, it’s worth the time commitment.

First, some basic orientation. Robin Hobb’s FOOL’S QUEST is clearly not a standalone, but the second installment in a new trilogy (beginning with FOOL’S ASSASSIN) that follows two other trilogies, starting with ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, where we meet main protagonist Fitz as a young child, and ending with FOOL’S FATE, where we leave him as a grown man. Plus there are two other companion series set in the same world — the brilliant Liveship Traders trilogy (starting with SHIP OF MAGIC), and then the Rain Wilds Chronicles (which I have to admit I haven’t finished yet — I’m working on it!). The companion series are not necessary to read and understand the Fitz books, but they very much enhance the experience.

That’s fifteen books thus far set in this world. And counting.

If you’ve never read any of the books set in Robin Hobb’s Six Duchies and its surrounding lands, fifteen books is a pretty daunting number. As this is my favorite fantasy series of all time (I may have mentioned this), I personally think it’s worth the effort to read all of them (Rain Wilds Chronicles, I will conquer you), but if that’s just way too big an undertaking for you, then you *only* (heh) need to read seven books to understand the events in FOOL’S QUEST. They are:



And then the first book in the new Fitz and the Fool trilogy: FOOL’S ASSASSIN.

These books all share a protagonist — FitzChivalry Farseer — and proceed chronologically throughout his life, each book building off the events of the last. There’s really no skipping around if you want to read about Fitz — sorry — but at the same time, I cannot overemphasize how much I enjoy reading about Fitz. Like many high fantasy series-starters, the first book in each series takes a little while to really get going, but once it does, hoo boy.

(If you wanted to read the two companion series, they each stand alone, but Liveship Traders falls between the Assassin and Tawny Man trilogies, and Rain Wilds falls between Tawny Man and Fitz and the Fool.)

Try as I might, there’s really no way for me to review the fifteenth book in an ongoing series without spoilers for the preceding books, so if you haven’t read them, proceed with caution. I’ll try my best not to be too spoilery, but even the broad strokes give away some major developments of the other books in the series. So. Continue at your own risk.

With all that out of the way, let’s get to my thoughts on Fitz’s latest adventures in FOOL’S QUEST (Fitz and the Fool #2).

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Acclaimed and bestselling author Robin Hobb continues her Fitz and the Fool trilogy with this second entry, following Fool’s Assassin, ramping up the tension and the intrigue as disaster continues to strike at Fitz’s life and heart.

After nearly killing his oldest friend, the Fool, and finding his daughter stolen away by those who were once targeting the Fool, FitzChivarly Farseer is out for blood. And who better to wreak havoc than a highly trained and deadly former royal assassin? Fitz might have let his skills go fallow over his years of peace, but such things, once learned, are not so easily forgotten. And nothing is more dangerous than a man who has nothing left to lose…

My Thoughts:

I can’t tell you how excited I was when I found out Robin Hobb was writing a new series about Fitz and the Fool. While we left both characters in a pretty satisfying place at the end of FOOL’S FATE, I’d come to love these characters like family. I missed not being able to journey alongside them on their adventures. So although I had no idea what to expect as far as a conflict for a new series — the main conflict in both the Assassin and Tawny Man series is pretty handily wrapped up at the end of FOOL’S FATE — I was eager to return to the world of the Six Duchies.

Like the first books in most of Hobb’s preceding series, the initial installment in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, FOOL’S ASSASSIN, takes its time ramping up. I very much enjoyed it — by this point in the series, my overwhelming fondness for FitzChivalry Farseer means that I’m totally cool following him through a series of quiet and mundane tasks, whether it’s managing his estate or dealing with his children (mostly because Fitz has gone through so many dark times that I’m beyond pleased that he has an estate, or children) — and this sort of slow grounding process is necessary to re-establish the reader in Fitz’s world and remind us of the events that led here — but as far as action goes, it’s not until the final act of FOOL’S ASSASSIN that we really see things take off.

Not so with FOOL’S QUEST. Again, this is pretty well expected for each of Hobb’s series: Book 1 spends its time meticulously setting up an intricate pattern of dominoes, then Book 2 blazes in and knocks them all down, leaving the reader in a mess of perfectly executed chaos. FOOL’S QUEST was no exception to this. It hits the ground running, picking up right where FOOL’S ASSASSIN leaves off, and pushes the plot forward at a determined pace, never feeling rushed, but never letting up, either. High fantasy tends to run long in pages, but while reading FOOL’S QUEST, I found myself lamenting that there were *only* 500, 400, 300 pages left to go.

You know that feeling when watching the extended edition of The Two Towers, and it ends and you simultaneously realize, “wow, that movie was three and a half hours long,” but also wish it didn’t have to end? That’s the feeling I had reading this book. Though I was aware of its heft, when I turned the last page, I wasn’t anywhere near ready for it to be over.

Unlike FOOL’S ASSASSIN, which focuses almost entirely on Fitz and his life far away from Buckkeep Castle, FOOL’S QUEST returns him to his old stomping grounds, where we finally get to catch up with beloved (and Beloved) characters of the past. The Fool is there, of course (I was surprised at how little The Fool was in the first book, given its name), just as mysterious and tragic as ever, along with Chade, Kettricken, Dutiful, Elliania, Nettle, and a host of minor characters whose inclusion made it feel like a true homecoming not just for Fitz, but for the reader. There are even some cameos from characters from the Liveships and Rain Wilds books, whom I hope we see more of as the story progresses.

Although this series of series has always tied together beautifully, to me it’s always felt kind of like a quilt, with clearly distinct pieces coming together at the edges and making up a whole. The Fitz books overlapped with Liveships, which overlapped with Rain Wilds, but they were all still their own separate entities. But in FOOL’S QUEST, for the first time, it began to feel more like a tapestry, with the threads beginning to weave over and under and through one another. It’s possible this won’t come to fruition, and that this Fitz series, like the other (brilliant) books before it, will end up more or less self-contained. But I kind of doubt it, and look forward to seeing how Hobb continues to tie this massive world and cast together.

As with every one of Hobb’s preceding books, in FOOL’S QUEST you can expect a host of fully realized, complicated characters, lush worldbuilding, achingly gorgeous prose, vivid emotion, catastrophic stakes, and thrilling action. But for me, the relationships between the characters are what shine the brightest. Fitz’s friendship with The Fool is, of course, the Catalyst on which the whole story pivots, and always has been. Watching these two characters who have been through so much together interact and trust and plead and betray and forgive is a truly beautiful, frustrating, heartbreaking, uplifting experience.

Contrasting that is Fitz’s relationships with his daughters, where he is not a Catalyst, but simply a father, with all the expectation and disappointment and responsibility that brings. Watching Fitz try to navigate fatherhood, after watching him grow up and struggle and fail and triumph, is both rewarding and agonizing. I want nothing but the best for Fitz, but both fate and his own shortcomings are constantly getting in his way. I want to take him by the shoulders and shake him and hug him, maybe at the same time, which for my money is one of the hallmarks of a truly excellent protagonist.

I could go on for ages, but suffice it to say, all of Fitz’s other relationships are similarly complex and well-drawn. Each feels like fully realized person, and the way Fitz interacts with each person he encounters is wholly authentic and honest, whether he’s fighting to the death or gently caring for a traumatized stable hand. Though the sweeping plot of FOOL’S QUEST is every bit as intriguing and suspenseful as Fitz’s quest to aid King Verity against the Red Ships Raiders, or traveling to Aslevjal island to slay a dragon, it’s these relationships and interactions that are the true meat of this series.

Ultimately, this isn’t a recommendation for this one book — if you’ve already read the preceding 7-14 books, you probably already have a pretty good idea if you want to read this one — but for this series, and every series about FitzChivalry Farseer. If you’re not sure if fantasy is your thing, or you’re hesitant about picking up the first book in a series that is so sprawling, let this be your assurance that this is a series that only gets better as it continues. It’s worth the time, it’s worth the investment. Fitz and The Fool are two of the greatest characters I’ve ever read, and as long as Robin Hobb sees fit to keep writing books about them, I’ll be the first in line to read them.