The Return of the Fox

First things first, can we just agree that any time I post in here, there is an assumed paragraph that’s basically like:

~ Sorry I’ve been away for so long!
~ Things have been busy!
~ I promise I’m going to write more often starting now!

so that I can stop *actually* starting with this?

That being said, of COURSE right now is the time I choose to resurrect the writing blog – it’s November! And what’s November, you might ask? Why, it’s National Novel Writing Month! And what’s NaNoWriMo? Why, it’s the month I’m supposed to be writing 50,000 words in 30 days!

So of COURSE I’m going to resurrect my writing blog instead of working on my word count!

(Pro-tip: those of us who participate in NaNoWriMo – WriMos, if you will – are expert procrastinators.)

This is my twelfth NaNoWriMo. I’ve written about it a little before, more so about my duties as ML, or Municipal Liaison, which is my role as Den Mother of the Pittsburgh region each November.

(Spoiler alert: I have two amazing Co-MLs this year who are making my life SO MUCH EASIER.)

But I haven’t written much about the writing part, itself. And the writing part is the most fun!

Don’t get me wrong: I love planning events and all that.

(Even when they’re enormous and give me panic attacks!)

But even more fun than being an ML is being a participant. I LOVE Write-Ins, I love nonsense Twitter threads that keep us up all night working on our word count. I love scrambling for plot ideas. I even kind of love that moment where I decide to throw caution to the wind and let my characters wander around the touristy sites of Boston just to up my word count by a few thousands.

And so, in a two-fold attempt to both make me commit to writing in here and start bringing interesting content to this blog, I’ll be talking a lot about NaNoWriMo this month.

Because let’s face it: I may not be full of information on how to get published or be a famous author (yet), but I *am* totally good at giving advice on how to write in pretty much any situation and get up to 50,000 words across a 30-day period under any life circumstances.

I’m the girl who writes during the setbreak at concerts. I mean, really.

So pop on by again tomorrow for my first official NaNoWriMo installment. Why not right now? Well, it *is* November, after all, and I’ve got my word count to attend to! :)

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!