What I’ve learned from National Novel Writing Month


Happy NaNoWriMo everyone!

For anyone who doesn’t know, November is National Novel Writing Month. A month when writers across the world sit down at their computers and challenge themselves to write a novel (minimum 50,000) in 30 days. You are allowed to bring notes and outlines to the table, but all of your actual writing starts on November 1st.

To some people, this might sound like a horrible idea. But to me, it’s one of the best motivational months of the year. As a writer, I am great at editing and rewriting, but first drafts are like pulling teeth. It’s so hard to fill those endless blank pages without fretting and going back to fix all of my (real and imagined) mistakes. NaNoWriMo gives me permission (or rather, it forces me) to ignore my inner critic, get my butt in my chair, fingers on the keyboard and write.

After participating for many years (sometimes officially, sometimes playing along by myself at home), here are four of the things I’ve learned doing NaNo that I use the rest of my writing year as well.

  1. Make time for your writing. This may seem obvious, but it’s so important. You’re never going to write anything if you keep waiting until all of your other chores are done. Make writing a priority. Set a timer, kick everyone else out of your room, leave the dishes in the sink, turn off the internet (I’m looking at you twitter) and write.
  2. Set mini goals. 50,000 words in 30 days is daunting. Break it down to achievable chunks. You need to write about 1,667 words a day (or 2334 if you want to take the weekends off). That sounds like a lot, and on the first few days it feels like a lot. But by week 2, 1667 words a day is a breeze. The rest of the year, I do my best to write 500-1000 words a day. It adds up fast and, even if the word are awful, I know I’m making progress. Writing is a muscle, exercise it!
  3. Disable your delete key. Stop judging yourself. First drafts are awful. Sure there may be moments of brilliance, but for the most part they are like trudging uphill through a stinking bog of clunky dialogue, typos, wrong plot turns and characters who flipflop all over the place. The most important thing about a first draft is getting it out of your head and onto the page, and if you keep hitting delete every time you make a mistake you’ll be stuck in that swamp for years.
  4. Put it away. Just because you gave yourself permission to write an awful first draft DOES NOT mean you should send it out into the world as soon as you type The End. Take a break, write something else and then come back to edit and rewrite with fresh eyes.

If you are interested in joining NaNoWriMo check out their website! It’s a lot of fun, with a great community of fellow writers to give you support and encouragement. Maybe I’ll see you there!


Different authors have different ways of tackling voice. Me? I come from a theater background, so a lot my writing techniques come from improv classes. I like to interview my characters by asking them a lot of questions and seeing what answers come up, sometimes I just ask them to write me a letter. The first rule of improv is ‘never say no’ you’ve got to take whatever comes out and run with it (anything that’s awful gets fixed later on when I edit-thank goodness for edits).

Here’s a letter my character Casey Quinn* wrote to me before I started writing Dreamer Ballerina. It was the first time her voice popped off the page, and that’s how I knew I’d finally found her voice.

Dear Sarah,

My name is Casey Quinn, and this may be the last thing I ever write, because Mrs. Hoover is starting to look like she might cut my head off if I make her stay after school one more day.

I am stuck here until I write a letter of apology to one Miss Priss-Ann Lee. I’m supposed to say I’m-ever-so-sorry I pushed you down and got your precious pink ballet slippers dirty. But I’m not, so any apology I wrote would be one-hundred-percent hooey—a big old lie, fatter than Uncle Albert.

And I ain’t gonna lie. That’s not my style.

You can’t make grown-ups understand, no matter what you do. And no matter what a teacher says about liking all her students the same, you can be well sure that she has a favorite. And you can be well sure that that favorite ain’t me.

That favorite is Miss Ann Lee. Pretty pink and pirouetting, with ribbons and bows, but certainly not sugar or spice or anything nice. Miss Ann Lee is nothing but nasty. But I’m the only one who knows that.

I am not her favorite, because I have a skinned knee, runny nose and shoes a size and a half too big. They used to be two sizes too big, but I’m growing. So my feet go slap slap slap when I walk across the room and slap slap slap when I walk back, and no one but me hears the rhythm.

Because no one but me is a true blue, natural born sky dancer.

I dance everywhere and everything. My feet twitch-twitch me awake in the morning and shuffle-toe-step their way through my day. I dance when I’m happy, and I dance when I’m bluer than huckleberries. My feet can even dance a smile out of my old mama’s tired face. And one day my feet are gonna dance me right out of no-good, nothing-ever-happens Raleigh.

I’ve been dancing to New York City since the day I was born, and my feet won’t quit til I get them there.

Mamma says I might as well dream of dancing on the stars, but you gotta have a dream. And you can’t let no one, not even no Miss Priss Ann Lee, step on it.

*Fun fact: Casey Quinn was originally named Spiney Babler after a Nepalese songbird.

How many drafts?

“Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl

A few years ago, I was giving a talk at my old elementary school. The students had so many great questions about the book and about being a writer. And it was fun to see Mrs. Tripp, my fourth grade teacher, trying not to cry when I talked about how much I loved writing choose your own adventure stories in her class. One student asked me how many drafts I wrote of Dreamer Ballerina. When I answered him, the entire auditorium gasped. Seriously, if there was a video, you’d see the collective intake of breath make my hair move.

Can you guess what the answer was?


From the first handwritten draft I scribbled down in a notebook, to the final published book, I wrote twenty drafts.

It sounds like a lot. The student’s looked horrified. But hey, writing is hard work, and it’s good to know that up front. I think it’s also good to know that first drafts are almost always rubbish. My first drafts are so full of mistakes, cliches, bad ideas, clunky dialogue and wrong-plot-turns, that it scares me to think about someone reading them.*  Thank goodness I get a chance to rewrite!

So, to the wonderful students at Mt. Desert Elementary School, don’t let the 20 drafts put you off. Don’t stop writing because your first draft doesn’t work, or your second, or your third, or your twentieth. If you love to write, keep on writing!

*Seriously, I have nightmares.


My own personal Waterloo.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of things I struggle with when I write. I could fill a book. The reason this one issue irks me so much is that I should know better. In fact, I do know better.

I know it’s is a contraction of it is and its is a possessive. But when I type at speed, my fingers refuse to leave out the apostrophe. I have resorted to using the Find All feature to check each one before I send out a draft.

I wish I’d figured that trick out in college. I had one professor who delighted in red-penning this particular mistake. He didn’t hate me. He thought it was funny. When I was a senior and he asked me to proofread his own book, I was ready for payback.

I poured over each page of his manuscript looking for a similar mistake. I bought my own red pen just for the occasion. Did I find one? Nope, not a single incorrect it’s or its in the whole 300 pages. Ten years later and I’m still disappointed.

The Story of My First Rejection…

Every author has to deal with rejection. And every author has at least one rejection story they like to share. This is mine.

When I was 12, I decided to be a writer. And not just any writer, but an honest-to-goodness published author. That meant no one could know I was still just a kid, at least, not until I showed up for my first book signing. (Oh I had big plans.)

My local library had an old beat-up copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook which I studied diligently, taking notes on how to format my manuscript and write a cover letter. I made a list of publishers that accepted picture books, put together my submission packs (refused to let my mother proofread anything) and mailed them off.

And then I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Eventually, I started to suspect my mom was hiding the mail. (She swears she wasn’t.)

Finally, months later, I got something back. Not the SASE I had painstakingly provided, but a big padded envelope. It looked like someone had mailed me a dictionary. My mom sat on the couch next to me, bracing herself to soften the blow when the inevitable rejection came.

Except it didn’t. Not exactly.

Inside the package was a letter stating that the publishing house I submitted to was closing down, and therefore could not accept my submission. But, the letter encouraged me to continue writing and seeking publication. To help me on my journey, someone had photocopied the ENTIRE Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and mailed it to me. Not only that, they’d highlighted the publishers who accepted unagented submissions of picture books.

Sadly, I lost that letter years ago, and I can’t remember the name of the publishing house that was so encouraging. BUT, if you were an editor or editorial assistant or some form of sainted intern and you photocopied an entire book to send to a kid (because you must have figured it out, who was I kidding with that handwriting, right?) who wanted to be a writer, Thank You! I didn’t give up. I kept on writing.

20 years later, I’ve had a lot more rejections. But I’ll always remember my first as being the sweetest.

Happy 2015!

My Writer’s New Year’s Resolutions


1. Write a little bit every day

I tend to go on massive writing binges, which is fun, but can leave me brain feeling like swiss cheese. This year I want to try writing little and often and see if I can be one of those organized people I’ve always admired.


2. Read more widely

I have a tower of books I’ve bought and been given that look amazing, but I have a bad habit of comfort-reading a few favorite standbys. Time to make a dent in that stack.


3. Stop thinking I’ll remember a good idea I have in the middle of the night and start keeping a pen and paper on my bedside table!