NaNoWriMo Made Easy

In honor of National Novel Writing Month I’m posting an article I wrote about my experience last year. An edited version of this article appeared in Sprouts, the magazine of the New Jersey chapter of SCBWI.

Take Five for NaNoWriMo

In November, most folks are thinking of Thanksgiving. I wasn’t thinking of anything as I started scribbling madly for National Novel Writing Month, known to crazy writers who participate as NaNoWriMo.

Write 50,000 words in 30 days? How? This puzzle has five easy pieces.

1. A Carrot. If I wanted to go to the winter SCBWI conference in New York City, I would have to go through NaNoWriMo. I’m a songwriter whose muse has been commanding me to write children’s stories — weird enough — but now this? I love novels, don’t get me wrong, to read.

2. A Website. I told myself I didn’t need to spend time I didn’t have on the NaNoWriMo site, as refreshingly irreverent and hilarious as it is. Then, I saw the template for my own personal page. If there’s anything I respond to better than writing deadlines — give me any parameter please — it’s the opportunity to organize. After a few days of writing I uploaded my title and text. I got a word count. I was right on!  I uploaded my excerpt that any NaNoWriMo participant would be able to read. Wait! Are you kidding? I’m not telling ANYONE about this! Hmm.

3. A Secret. Enter my pseudonym. The name my son calls me. He’s three. (I didn’t ask for a new name, I guess he just figured I needed one. Psychic.) Having a name that felt lucky for me was freeing and — anonymous.

After two weeks, when I realized I would succeed, (there’s not enough space here to chronicle my doubts, I’ll simply say the NaNo community is awesome! See my blog for advice I gave a blocked writer who supported me in my darkest hour. Wacky, but it works!) I uploaded my picture and confessed my true identity. I added my website link. My page read, “Mimi Cross The author of I Woke Up One Morning in November and I Realized I Love You the story of two young musicians who become confused during their creative journey, mistaking the highs and lows of their musical efforts for the ups and downs of life itself.” I was writing a novel.

4. A Circle. At some point I told several accomplished writers what I was doing. Why? I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t complete my goal. Wisely, I chose creative, generous people. All month long, behind the music of Philip Glass, Phish and Böjrk, (the artists my characters listened to at high volumes) I could hear the voices of my mentors cheering.

5. A Rock star. Don’t Look Back. That’s right, D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary film covering Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of the UK. If you’re weak like Orpheus, if you turn back and read what you have written, your novel may vanish forever like Eurydice. Write like a runner. Sprint. Outrun your inner critic. Fly. Flow. Let go. Remember Franny and Zooey. A writer writes. NaNoWriMo is about writing. Save the reading — and editing — for later.

Although I haven’t edited my NaNo novel yet, magically enough — and there were many magical moments during my NaNo adventure, I’m convinced there are unseen universal energies at work when it comes to writing — my story developed a beginning, middle and end. One day it will be ready to share.

What if I Woke Up One Morning in November and I Realized I Love You becomes my desk drawer novel and never sees the light of day? That’s okay. I’ve started a second novel while the first rests. Working on the new book is as exhilarating as working on my NaNoWriMo project. I’m thrilled NaNoWriMo cleared the pipes in a way that allows my new story to run right out of me.

Of course it’s possible that I may be avoiding editing . . . or worse, query letters. All my children’s stories are waiting here, in line. Query letters. Ugh.

NaQuLeMo anyone?

Good luck everyone, and PS, although I never made it to the winter SCBWI conference last year, I’m already signed up to go in January.

I’ve also started two more books :)

Who knew noveling was so addicting?

I Woke Up One Morning in November and I Realized I Love You

Just for fun (and isn’t it all?) word cloud for last year’s NaNo novel,

I Woke Up One Morning in November and I Realized I Love You

Breast Backlash

Could a beautifully written, humorously illustrated, moving, middle grade book like The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister possibly offend anyone? Should it?

I’d love to know what you think. Please help me celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month by clicking on the adorable picture of India and reading the 3 paragraph length excerpts Almost Jello, Like a Greek Myth, and Sculpture from Charlotte Agell’s wonderful story The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister then leave a comment.

Do librarians need to be afraid of this kind of writing? Is this the kind of writing tweens need to have access to? How does the writing hit you? Let me know, thanks!

To read the author’s essay about the reaction to her book, click on—that’s right—the breast.

Breasts. There. Was that really so hard to say?

I’m posting this essay by Charlotte Agell in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and because I love her book The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister as well as many of her other books. I hope you enjoy the piece as much as I did!

October: Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We are awash in a sea of pink solidarity, of ribbons showing our support, of fund-raising efforts. We worry, we pray, we drive our friends to chemo, we bake them pies – and not just in October. So why, oh why, is it so hard to talk about … breasts?

A review of my latest book for children states, “the sketch of the plaster breast that hangs on the family’s living-room wall may provoke more than giggles.” Apparently, the reviewer was right. The breast has elsewhere in library circles been called offensive, which I in turn find shocking. The sculpture is a tribute to bravery equal to a belly cast of a pregnant woman. In the book, it’s there on the wall to honor the one India’s artist mom lost to cancer. It’s based, in fact, on a friend’s true story.  Even India’s fourth grade buddy Colby understands. It’s art. It’s supposed to make you think! India knows that some people stare a bit too long at it. The plumber for example. And India wonders why breasts make people act funny. What if mom put a plaster cast of her nose or her foot on the wall? Would it be different?

The answer, it seems, is yes. We are uncomfortable, as a society, talking about a part of our body that everyone has – men, women, and children.  (Well, almost everyone has breasts – some have suffered their surgical removal, and elect to remain without.) Like noses and most other things, breasts come in all different shapes and sizes. As another survivor friend points out, pretty much the first thing any of us sees is our mother’s breast. But after that, where do breasts go? Undercover, under wraps? Plastically jutting out of Barbies, displayed on primetime TV, revealed cartoonishly at halftime during the Super Bowl? The mixed message unsettles.

For an early picture book of mine, the publisher asked that I change the (very discrete) nursing picture to one of a bottle-fed baby. This astonished me, a Swede by birth. Nursing is risqué? Well, the editor explained, they’d otherwise not be able to sell the book in the South. I grumbled but redrew the picture. I’m not categorically against bottles – one of my children had one, one didn’t. And it turns out, this was savvy thinking – at least financially. That book went on to be featured in the kindergarten curriculum in Alabama and Georgia, places not ready, perhaps, to encounter breasts in children’s literature … even breasts only hinted at behind a paisley shawl.

Here in Maine, it didn’t seem to be much of an issue. I published a series of small books about the seasons. The spring one featured a new baby brother, nursing, laundry, mud. Nobody said anything. It wasn’t that I was crusading for the La Leche League, but it was my reality, and that of most toddlers I knew. Moms nursed babies. Big sisters played and sulked in the quince bush pretending to be princesses. Breasts were not an issue.

I suppose I should have understood that I really wasn’t in Sweden anymore when strangers passing by the hedge in a small Maine town, saw my toddler daughter frolicking naked in her tiny pool, and loudly proclaimed, “Gross.” Anna didn’t hear them (she was too busy being a dinosaur), but I did, and my heart sank. Poor teenagers … to think a two-year- old’s naked dancing was disgusting. What did they think of their own bodies, I wondered.

Bodies way up in sun-starved Scandinavia are not considered gross, or necessarily sexual. Even breasts! Children in particular are allowed the freedom to feel air on bare skin. A breast out in public isn’t cause for alarm. Skinny-dipping is considered normal (although probably done less flamboyantly than some would imagine – mostly in small family coves and after saunas). Later, I lived in Hong Kong where nudity was not casual at all. I understood: practices were different depending on where you were. Moving to Maine during the end of the hippie era, there was an open feeling. Nylons? Fine. Unshaved legs? Fine. Both at once? (Maybe not so much.) But still I was unprepared for what happened recently. The line drawing of the plaster cast of the breast on the wall elicited the word “offensive” – from a Maine librarian, no less. Librarians are my heroes – defenders of freedom of information, lenders of books, champions of liberties. I’m thinking that this was a ‘rogue’ librarian.

But her comment made me think: why is it okay for our kids to see endless violence, but not breasts? If the breast on the wall in the book were an entire body, would that have been okay with the annoyed librarian? Does the fact that the character’s father is gay play into the supposed offense? Maybe it’s time to rethink what our norms are. Families come in all forms, and, some hero mothers fight breast cancer. India’s mother triumphs, and celebrates. I wish this outcome for each and every woman facing a breast cancer diagnosis. Let’s hear it for breasts!

If you click on the picture, you’ll see the book trailer for Charlotte Agell’s latest book The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister. There’s a lot of arguments for an against book trailers in the publishing industry. This one is a work of art!


Frankenstein’s Monster

“The surest plan to make a Man is: Think him so.” James R. Lowell

Susan Heyboer O’Keefe uses rich and vivid language to paint pages of opposites as Frankenstein’s monster races through various European cities. He rushes towards and away from his intense emotions as well as a literal pursuer, but he himself is in constant pursuit of someone who will “Think him so”.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this is a monster who longs to be a man, or is he a man who’s been ‘thought’ to be a monster? Either way, it is his humanity that drew me to him and caused me to sit up far into the dark hours of the night reading his story, which he conveys with a tormented voice via the entries of a diary.

I won’t use the central character’s name, it would be a slight spoiler, but I will tell you that the protagonist’s hunter is a man. This man, this obsessed stalker, is more of a monster than the protagonist himself.  Lust and rage rule the protagonist, but he is also possessed of tenderness and yearning. These characteristics are at odds within him like the mismatched body parts stitched together without. Despite the flaws his personality is composed of, I found myself rooting for the protagonist to escape from his pursuer, and even destroy him.

As I read Frankenstein’s Monster, I learned that the monster is not only a lover of poetry, but also a poet evidenced by the journal he keeps which tells his side of the story. Does that say something about poets? About writers? If you’ve read other books by Susan Heyboer O’Keefe, you know she has a keen wit, so maybe, it says something about all of us. This reader is, like the ‘monster’ in this book, made up of a patchwork of parts: mother, spouse, sister, writer, musician and yes, when pushed, monster. I think we all have a bit of monster in us.

And the monster of the book’s title is pushed, and pulled, in many directions as he seeks to understand and embrace what he is. One of the things he is, at least by the timeline in the book, is an adolescent, and he is ruled by his newly awakened feelings of desire and by his anger. Like any adolescent he is very aware of what others ‘think’ of him, which throughout the book ‘makes him so’. He also struggles to come to terms with his parents, in this case his father, or fathers.

There are two fathers for Frankenstein’s monster; symbolic of the choices he faces when at this point in his life he realizes he must ‘create’ himself.  Then there are the questions about The Father, and to The Father. Ms. O’Keefe shows traces of brilliance in her writing when the monster of her creation ponders theology.

As there are two fathers in his life, there are two faces to our protagonist, man and monster, opposites. He considers tenuous love and burning hatred, the light of hope and the darkness of despair.

Frankenstein’s Monster is perfect reading not just for the month of October when spooks abound—I ran back to the bookstore and bought two more copies to give as gifts—but for any time of year.

Indeed, people will read and reread this book over the years I’m sure, for beware! Frankenstein’s Monster has been born again, and in his second life, as in his first, he is a classic.

To learn more about Susan Heyboer O’Keefe, click on the monster. Don’t worry, he won’t bite, but he may haunt you . . .