October Always Sneaks Up On Me

As this is my tenth NaNoWriMo, and my fourth year as ML of the fabulous Pittsburgh region, I always remember how crazy November is. I even schedule vacation time during November to make sure that I am available for my word count and my WriMos (that’s what we writers call ourselves during NaNoWriMo).

What I always forget is how crazy and complicated things get during October. Being an ML is a rewarding, super fun job, but it’s also a lot of work. Here are some of the things I have to manage before the month even gets under way:

~ Kick-Off Party arrangements. Before the start of each November, we have an official Kick-Off Party, which is a laptop-free event held at a restaurant in October. We get together, have lunch, meet our fellow writers, and have a chance to chat about our novels and the month in general without the threat of a word count looming over us. (If you’ve never done NaNoWriMo, that’s one of the challenges of the month: like a pile of fresh laundry that you *know* you should be folding and putting away, your word count nags at the back of your mind while you are socializing / working / seeing movies / making Thanksgiving dinner / etc. Having a chance to chat and hang out before we’re all worrying about that is really important to building the November support group.)

2011 Kick-Off Party
The past three years, we have had our Kick-Off Party at the incredible Church Brew Works, which is one of those classic Pittsburgh church-turned-bar restaurants with some of the best food in the city. They are also gigantic (because they used to be a church), and their service is top-notch. As we seem to keep growing each year, a big location with really attentive servers is a real necessity. At the start of each October, I call to reserve our date (usually for the last Sunday of October), and then about a week before our actual party, I call to give them the final number of RSVPs. We have gotten so big that we really do need to have RSVPs, so we make sure there is enough table space for us.

~ Forum Setup and Event Planning. At the start of each October, the forums reset, and we MLs have the task of getting our regions set up. Typically, this happens on our around October 1, but this year, the OLL (that’s Office of Letters and Light, the nonprofit who runs NaNoWriMo) switched to much higher-capacity servers (because this thing has gotten so massive that we tend to crash the site repeatedly the first few days of November), and the switch happened closer to the second week of the month. This, naturally, resulted in a massive time crunch!

So, I always do a “Who Am I and Where Do I Live” post. Pittsburgh is rather spread out: we have a lot of suburbs that all report to the same region, plus those of us who live in the city limits. What I have found over the years is that having four or five local events per week seems to get people together with minimal traffic disasters and commute times. I keep the major events (the Kick-Off and the TGIO Party, which will be discussed in a later post) to the city limits, as it’s the most central, and the largest portion of writers come from here (lots of college students and people coming to events right after work account for that, I think).

Then there’s the introductory post, explaining how our events run, mostly for the Newbies who are unfamiliar with our region or NaNoWriMo in general. That’s the beautiful thing about the ML community in NaNoWriMo: we all have our own methods, and since all of our regions are so different, there are an endless number of ways to handle things. I like to use the introductory post to cover our ‘business as usual’ events, which include the Kick-Off Party, the Write-Ins (getting to those in a moment), including the Midnight Kick-Off Write-in, and the TGIO Party, and also how to contact me with any questions.

As it stands, we generally have four Write-Ins per week in Pittsburgh. Write-Ins are the laptop-inclusive get-togethers where we writers meet at coffeeshops to encourage each other in our word count endeavors, and also to chat and distract each other from writing. We are really, really good at the latter, it turns out. :)

Our Write-In locations are broken up geographically: one in the City (which rotates in location to different city areas and coffeeshops), one in the North suburbs, one in the South Hills suburb, and one in Monroeville, which is the eastern suburb of Pittsburgh. These run from roughly 6-9pm on weeknights.

Then, we also have random other Write-Ins throughout the month to cover locations that may not have enough people for a weekly Write-In, but for a one-time event will bring out people who might not otherwise attend events.

I usually make the decisions about these events by using the name and location post. I’m a big fan of spreadsheets (because otherwise I would probably lose my mind!), so I make a list of everyone’s username, real first name (if they feel comfortable giving it), location, and availability. I use this info to pick dates and locations for events, and I also try to coordinate around the schedules of veteran WriMos who I can count on to be at the events I can’t attend.

Then I coordinate all of this info and enter it into our Google calendar:

This calendar appears on our regional forum, so WriMos can keep up-to-date on events throughout the month. Also, during the month, people will request dates to be added for additional and/or ‘unofficial’ Write-Ins that they want to publicize, so I will add those as well. Those are often University-specific, or for small groups who want to meet on times or days different than their regularly-scheduled local events. Oh, and our Monroe-villains (as I like to call them teehee) love to meet several times a week, so there’s that :)

Coming up with actual sites is kind of tricky. It’s hard to gauge, even with all of the data that I collect, how many people will be at a Write-In. These are far more casual events than the Kick-Off, so I can’t really ask for an RSVP. Sometimes, we will have 20+ people show up at a City event, and then only 6 or 7 the following week. You can never really tell, but I spend most of the year keeping a running tally of coffeeshops that will probably work, and coffeeshops that will probably not, every time I visit one (being an ML is a year-round commitment!).

~ Answering questions. This is probably the thing that I forget about that takes the most time. Each year, usually early in October, I start getting all sorts of messages on my NaNoMail from new writers. This is great: I LOVE new writers. That means we are reaching more people who are hopefully going to find out that they have a passion for writing, and I love that! However, it also means answering a bunch of the same questions over and over. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind answering questions because I love talking about this event and our region in specific, but I ALWAYS forget just how long it takes to respond to all the questions in a timely manner. (I must keep this in mind every time I promise myself that I will personally respond to fan mail when I someday make it big as a writer!)

~ Assembling goodybags. Goodybags are one of those things that are not required of us MLs, but many of us choose to create them anyway. I just came around to the Goodybag thing last year (my first two years as ML were a little crazy, as we went from a small, not-terribly-involved region to a huge region with tons of people eager to participate IRL, instead of just online), but I’m now an addict.

Goodybag Creation Station
Here’s what Goodybag Creation Station looked like on my dining room table this year. (That’s my pup, Miss Lucy Red, trying to help.)

You can put whatever you want in your Goodybags, since there aren’t any rules. I like to put a few motivational things, and also what I call an ‘Emergency Plot Device Kit’. I pick stuff up from party stores and WalMart (I love Mike Feinberg’s down in the Strip District – they have awesome stuff, and it doesn’t break the bank) and try to get creative with it.

The Emergency Plot Device Kit is a little Ziploc baggy with different trinkets inside, the idea being that if you’re stuck, you can reach in and pull one out to motivate you. There are mini-chili peppers (so you can introduce a ‘hot topic’), Mardi Gras coins (to help settle tough dilemmas), slinkies (for when your character just can’t stop moving downhill toward a decision that’s going to get them in trouble later), and mini country flags (to signify that it’s time to change locations).

I also include some other little motivational trinkets like a noisemaker to celebrate hitting your daily word count, candies to keep your tummy happy, and drink umbrellas to spice up your bottomless cup of coffee.

But my favorite part of the kit are the Motivational Trading Cards. I pick a handful of Pittsburgh celebrities, and then I make little trading cards for WriMos to post by their writing station to help give them that little kick in the pants to get moving.

Daniel Striped Tiger Trading Card
My favorite one from this year was Daniel Striped Tiger from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I try to pick celebrities that most people will recognize, but of course, part of the fun is trading with the people at your table, so I encourage that as well.

This year, I handed out folders as well, containing some useful plot sketch sheets, a word count tracking sheet (I use an Excel spreadsheet for this, because I am a nerd), a ‘Novel 911’ card (a little business card that says “In case of plot emergency, contact the following person for tough love” and allows the writer to put in the name and phone number of a friend or family member who will hold them accountable), and a ‘Get Out of Event Free Card.’ It’s like a MadLib version of the Get Out of Jail Free cards from Monopoly. I was pretty pleased with those. :)

Get Out of Event Free Card

I love making the Goodybags, but they take sooooooo long to put together! And each year, I find myself thinking of things I could have added after the fact. Also, since I am a bit anal about all of this, I save and catalog all the files that I use on my harddrive, so that when someone decides to take over our region as ML someday when I step down, I can just hand them a CD with all of the stuff that I have, so that they will *hopefully* have an easier transition than I did!

~ Set up Adopt-a-Newbie. This is also something new that I started this year. We have a ton of first-timers in Pittsburgh, so I used some of the tools that the NaNoLanta MLs have made (that’s Atlanta NaNoWriMo) to set up a program for us old-timers to ‘mentor’ Newbies throughout the month.

NaNoWriMo is a serious undertaking, and back when I started in 2002, there were not nearly as many resources available to us. I had a really dear friend named Christine, who went to college about an hour and a half from me, and the two of us were the only support group around. There weren’t forums and Write-Ins and events like there are now, so we would use AOL Instant Messenger to check in on each other and ask things like, ‘WHERE IS YOUR WORD COUNT?!?’ at 3am.

But now, we want our Newbies to have the best experience possible, so that they keep coming back. So, with this in mind, I set up our Adopt-a-Newbie program. I had Newbies and Mentors fill out forms, and then used the information to try to match them up as best as possible. This is the first time I’ve tried this, so it will be interesting to see how it works. The idea is that the Mentors will check in with their Newbies, answer any questions (since I imagine it’s a little anxiety-producing to go straight to the ML for all your questions), and hopefully get to meet up in person at some point during the month. I know that some of my very dearest friends and I met through NaNoWriMo, so I like to try to foster that kind of connection.

~ Balance life! And this is where it gets tough. Once November starts, we kind of all settle into a groove, and HQ helps us keep our writers on track with posts and e-mails, and we MLs get a better chance to focus on our own lives and novels. But in October, it’s quite a balancing act to keep things in order. For me, October is particularly busy because it’s my birthday, and we always seem to be traveling somewhere during the month. Plus, of course, balancing work, and keeping up with Achievements for our blog, and this year, trying to work on my query and send it out.

But you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the craziness. I love feeling like ten thousand things are going on all at once (because, of course, they usually are), and I love my writers. I know I say it all the dang time on our forum, but Pittsburgh really is the best region around.

So, hopefully, this gives you a little insight into the crazy life of a Municipal Liaison in the weeks leading up to NaNoWriMo. And, if you’ve been on the fence about writing this year, I hope that you really consider it. One of these days, I’m going to write my ‘why you should do NaNoWriMo’ post in response to all of the people out there who feel it necessary to write anti-NaNoWriMo posts on their blogs, but the best way to see why it’s a great experience is to sign up and get involved. Even if you aren’t in Pittsburgh, feel free to subscribe to our region, because my writers are truly the best, and in true Yinzer style, we will take in anyone who needs and wants our help.

Now, if only I had any ideas about a plot, I would be feeling pretty damn good about November 1’s impending arrival!

The Most Terrifying Day Of My Life

Thursday, October 20, 2011, was the most terrifying day of my life. It was also, coincidentally, the day that I began this blog, so in the emotional rush of a(nother) blog being in my possession, I didn’t have time to adequately address the horrors that occurred that evening.

You see, on Thursday, October 20, 2011, I queried my first agent.

If you aren’t in the process of trying to make it as a writer, allow me to explain to you what goes into the writing of a query letter: your soul. I’m not talking about this, “You put your heart and soul into your work!” bullshit. I’m talking about your soul, as in participating in something so emotionally draining that you feel like you’ll never be able to lift yourself from your office chair and perform basic life functions, like showering, or making eggs, or speaking. As in, by the end of things, I would have gladly signed the rights to my soul over to anyone who promised to write a convincing, effective query letter for me.

For me, writing is the fun part. Writing is exciting, and I love the act of sitting in a coffeeshop with a cute outfit on (yes, I’m very Carrie Bradshaw about this, you must feel good about yourself to have a good writing session), listening to a mix tape that I made for my characters, typing away on my nerdy gaming laptop (even though I may be typing blog entries or reviews on Yelp), feeling like a writer. I like sitting over a few printed pages with my Editor Pen out and poised over the paper, like I’m really working hard at making each and every sentence absolutely the best.

But talking about my book? Oh dear lord.

It’s kind of like when you try to talk to the boy you’ve had a crush on for ages and are finally forced into the same room with, and all you come up with is, “Hi, I like trains and the way that nature smells.”

So, believe it or not, it has taken me longer to write, and more importantly, feel reasonably comfortable with, a query letter, than it took to write the first draft of the book.

It had a lot to do with brevity. All the advice out there says to keep it simple, keep it short. But there has to be a balance: you have to get the agent hooked on your characters and plot without getting wordy. And let’s face it, that’s really tough.

And then there’s the other balance issue of how to make your book sound interesting, make yourself sound like a good writer, and manage to not sound like a stuck-up douchebag. Boy is that harder than anyone tells you it will be.

“Dear Agent,

You have no idea who I am, but I’ve written a really awesome story with compelling characters and a fascinating plot, and it’s the next best thing, but I promise you I’m not just saying that. I have no credentials, but I’d sure like for you to help me get some!”

All My Love,

PS – Feel free to take my soul, as I’d really like a break from being in the same room as it after writing you this letter.”

Finally, I had to figure out a way to explain my genre without sounding goofy. I like to use the term ‘teenage paranormal love story,’ as the phrase ‘paranormal romance’ seems to suggest a bodice-ripper and draw up images of Fabio, clad in little else but his BPRD gear.

Oh, and then there was that terrifying ten minutes when I sat with the completed query e-mail in front of me, my mouse cursor hovering over the send button, as my heart threatened to explode in my chest. (Eventually, my husband came in and stood next to me, staring and reminding me that I’d promised to send the letter, for ages and ages and ages until I finally caved and clicked.)

So now, the waiting game begins. The waiting game, in addition to the ‘searching for a billion more potential agents’ game. One of those other classic pieces of advice is to send as many queries as you possibly can, so that maybe, somewhere in that massive list, someone will love you.

And as writers, isn’t that all we really want, someone to love us?

Cross your fingers that someone loves me.

A Writing Blog

Hello world, my name is Fox. I’m thrilled to meet you all.

Although I’m no stranger to blogs (seriously, the list of blogs I work on is getting a little out of hand), it’s been a long, long time since I had a blog dedicated entirely to writing. Back when I was in undergrad and had the opportunity to take a handful of writing classes and write on an almost-nightly basis, I kept a writing LiveJournal to posts my latest works-in-progress. It’s long been sitting, dusty and locked to friends-only, and I decided that rather than try to resurrect this ancient part of my life, I would start fresh with a new writing blog, dedicated not to posting new writing (although that may happen as well), but to talking about the process of writing.

I got the idea from some of my writers over at the Pittsburgh NaNoWriMo forum, who were discussing writing blogs and their usefulness during a month like NaNoWriMo (that’s National Novel Writing Month, if you’re unfamiliar). I’m the Pittsburgh region ML (or Municipal Liaison), which means that I organize our events, run the forums, answer questions, and generally serve as the den mother for our group. Of course, I also write each year, and after nine years of doing this event, I can say that love using my blog as a brainstorming space, but also as a place to procrastinate and complain about my failing word count.

So, you can expect to hear about NaNoWriMo in the coming weeks, as it kicks off on November 1. I also thought it would be interesting for those who are involved to see what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ in the life of an ML, so there will be bits about that as well.

But more importantly, I’m entering that terrifying stage of a writer’s life when you have a finished manuscript, and you need to find someone – ANYONE – to represent you. I want to use this blog as a place to discuss my efforts (and, let’s face it, failures) along the way. Hopefully, I’ll be discussing some successes too! Keep your fingers crossed.

So, that’s me. I’m a writer, a blogger (you can read the blog I write in most regularly over at 101 Achievements), a schemer, a Yinzer, and a mix-tape obsessed Gypsy who can’t stay in the same place for too long. I love wine, trains, pit bulls, nerds, and sitting around in coffeeshops, staring wistfully. This is the chronicle of my writing adventure.