Welcome to NaNoWriMo!

November celebrates the best of autumn things: warm drinks, sweater weather, the changing of the seasons. It’s also the perfect opportunity to put your writing to the test. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is the time of the year when writers can come together and encourage each other to write. Whether you have decided to embark on the adventure of writing your first novel or you are a proud veteran of the craft, NaNoWriMo is wonderful for anyone who wants a community with whom they can imagine and create. For those who want an official place to participate, NaNoWriMo’s website allows writers to create a login that helps them track their progress and have discussions with other online community members. Of course, if you prefer to work offline and on your own, NaNoWriMo is also perfectly suited for the solo writer.
As someone who will be participating for the first time this year, I highly encourage everyone who is interested in writing a novel to participate as well. Fifty thousand words can be quite daunting, especially if you have never written anything that long before. However, it is certainly possible, and there is a whole community of writers out there to cheer you on. I definitely recommend taking it one day at a time—and remember to have fun! There are no rules or guidelines telling you what you have to write about. Your novel is your opportunity to express yourself and allow others into your creative world.
If you do not have an idea for your story in mind, that is totally okay. There are several online resources that can help with story and world building if you need inspiration. For example, Plot Generator allows you to choose what kind of piece you are working on and gives you a form to fill out. This form can be useful in helping you consolidate ideas about your characters and plot. Plot Generator also allows you to go completely random and will populate all the fields for you. You can also search online for character sheets that allow you to come up with well-rounded characters by asking questions about their personalities.
Whatever you decide to write about, just keep in mind that it is the process that counts. Do not get hung up on editing while you write, wondering if something sounds silly, or second guessing if your plot has too many holes. Just have fun and enjoy the experience; you can always go back and edit later. Find a space that you feel comfortable in, but be careful—you do not want to be taking naps or getting too distracted while you write. Perhaps you have a favorite soundtrack that will help keep you motivated while you listen, or maybe you prefer complete silence. Do you have friends who also like to write? Consider forming a NaNoWriMo buddy group! No matter what your ideal writing environment is, do what works best for you.
I hope that you join me in this writing adventure. Best wishes and happy writing, friends!

Two Deep Breaths and Then Speak

The launch party for Eliot Treichel’s A Series of Small Maneuvers, released on November 1, 2015, was held at Another Read Through on November 17. Treichel spoke about his process and read an excerpt before answering questions and signing books.

Walking into Another Read Through for the first time for the launch of A Series of Small Maneuvers, Ooligan’s fall title, I am immediately struck by the venue. With tall bookshelves brimming with books, entering the store feels like coming home. Heading up to the second floor, where the reading will take place, I get a surprise. Two rows of chairs are already full, with a third quickly filling up. By the time Treichel steps up to the podium, it’s standing room only in the back.

Eliot Treichel is the author of the young adult novel Small Maneuvers and the short story collection Close Is Fine, published back in 2012. Now, at the launch party of his first novel, he describes the events in his life that gave him the inspiration to write the book, from his childhood learning to kayak to his attempts to bang out the novel during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). With that context, he gives a short reading from the text. The section he selects is the one that introduces the ongoing mantra “two deep breaths and go.”

He then accepts questions, telling us a bit about his thought process while writing the book. Most interesting to me is the explanation he gives about the changes made to the protagonist’s father, Parker. Emma, with her teenage angst and impressive survival skills, is a good protagonist, but I find Parker to be a much more complex and engaging character.

Parker as originally written, we learn, was seen by test readers as “too nice.” For the next draft, Eliot gave him more flaws. It was important to Eliot that the parents in his book are fleshed out, rather than the caricatures in books aimed at children and teens. He certainly succeeded: Parker as he appears in the finished novel is a hypocrite, highly judgmental, and not always a nice person, but he is nevertheless skilled, caring, and deeply loyal to his family.

Like Parker, Eliot is a passionate kayaker and river guide. And like Parker, Eliot has (or had at the time he was writing Small Maneuvers) a teenage daughter. Eliot talks about learning to better relate to his daughter through writing the book. When she read it, upon its completion, her reaction was gratifying to Eliot. She told him that reading his depiction of Emma made her realize that Eliot understood her better than she had thought.

As the reading comes to a close, Eliot is mobbed by people asking him to sign their books. The rest of the room forms into clumps of people, many of them Ooligan Press students, chatting away as they enjoy being surrounded by books for a few minutes longer. Slowly people begin to head downstairs, browsing for a few minutes more before they finally head out into the night.

Putting Her on the River (Part Three)

I didn’t make the NaNoWriMo goal, not even close. I think I accumulated just over ten thousand words. There were all those assignments to grade, more trips to lead, and a Thanksgiving break with the in-laws. I also had no idea how to write a young adult novel, or any kind of novel really. My characters felt flat and simplistic, and I had no idea who I was writing for. When my contract ended at the end of the semester, I put the manuscript away and headed back to Oregon.

My wife was right, as usual. Nothing catastrophic happened. I got home just before Christmas, which was rainy and perfect.

Three years later, my daughter just entering high school, I pulled the manuscript back out. The image of those sisters and that stuffed animal still haunted me, but time had altered the emotional weight. The moment had been remembered enough times that it had become something new in the remembering, something mixed together with other images and experiences. I made the main character older and gave her a new name: Emma. I decided to put her on a river. Putting her on the river was everything.

I’ve been a white-water kayaker for over twenty years. Setting the book on a river trip gave me a way to understand Emma that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. Because the river was a world I knew and a language I spoke, I felt more confident trying to guide Emma back home. And with that confidence, I think I actually started to let Emma talk in her own voice, and then after that it just became a matter of listening to her. One afternoon I even realized that on days I didn’t write, I actually felt sad about not getting to spend time with her.

I finished the final draft alone in a cottage on the Oregon coast during a week of gray and windy weather, my wife and daughter back home. After writing in the morning, I’d walk along an empty beach to where Beaver Creek flowed into the Pacific. With the tide out, the creek was only a few inches deep as it braided its way toward the crashing shore break. When I began the book, my daughter was just starting high school. As I finished, she was leaving for college. I wondered where life had taken those two sisters—wondered which trails they were on, which switchbacks they were negotiating. Did they take their kids to the Grand Canyon? I wondered who held the stuffed animal now.

The same loneliness and fear I’d felt on my way to Arizona still sweeps over me from time to time, but it is a loneliness and fear that Emma has helped me learn to deal with. In Emma’s case, all she could do was to keep heading down the river, hoping to find help, which she does. In my case, all I could do was to keep writing and keep paddling through it. Out on the coast, I stood facing the wind, watching everything flow together. I took a few deep breaths and turned around for the hike back. Somehow in writing Emma’s story, I’d discovered the strength to survive my own.

Putting Her on the River (Part Two)

We hiked out of the canyon the next day, the last of the water from Page Springs sloshing around in water bottles and CamelBaks. Even in November, even before it was too late in the day, the heat felt punishing. Again, the hike kicked everyone’s butt, but it kicked a few students extra hard, and at least one person puked. There were blisters and cramps and sprained ankles. The agony wasn’t just physical, though. The strain was also mental. You’d plod and plod and plod uphill, breathing hard, sweat pouring off, and then you’d stop and rest and look up to see how far you still had to climb, and the canyon rim would never seem any closer than it did the last time. In fact, maybe it even seemed a little farther away.

When we finally reached the top, one of the first students up there raised his arms above his head Rocky style and let out a joyous f-bomb, startling some of the tourists in the parking lot. There was something to savor in the looks the tourists gave him, looks that seemed both pitying and full of admiration. For most of them it was drive in, take some photos, and then drive out. They never actually bothered to find out what was really down there. They thought we were crazy while we thought they were.

A few nights after getting home from the trip, I sat on my futon mattress and started writing. I was renting a renovated garage from one of the college’s full-time faculty members. It came with access to the house’s kitchen and bathroom, but the garage was really more studio space than living quarters. It had no plumbing, a concrete floor, and an ancient wood stove but no wood. I had a TV that only picked up one channel. No smart phone. The only internet access was at the school.

Those big, innocent eyes. Those tear streaks. That dirty stuffed animal.

I still can’t reconcile the question. On the one hand, I thought it was immeasurably awesome for those parents to take their kids backpacking in the Grand Canyon like that—and to take them backpacking in that part of the Grand Canyon. I’m of the firm belief that spending time in nature is the best tonic to the otherwise insane world we live in, a tonic that’s especially important for kids. On the other hand, I wondered if there wasn’t also something a bit bullying in making those kids take on such a challenging trail. Even at a young age, kids can carry some of their stuff, but at what age do we make them start carrying all of it? A walk is not the same as a hike, and a hike is not the same as an overnight trip, and an overnight trip in the Grand Canyon backcountry is not the same as an overnight trip anywhere else.

I kept trying to imagine things from those two girls’ perspectives. Had their small legs burned and ached in the same way as mine? What did the drop offs that induced vertigo in me cause in them? What about the parts of the canyon that made me feel sublime? How much choice did they have in even coming?

What would they do if they were suddenly thrust into the situation where they were totally on their own, where there were no parents and no stuffed animal buddy to hold onto?

November is National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo, where the goal is to produce a fifty-thousand-word novel before the month ends, quality be damned. At the time, I’d been struggling to finish a collection of short stories I’d been working on for years, so starting a young adult novel while also teaching three classes made a strange kind of sense.

I decided I was going to put a young girl in the wilderness, and I was going to kill her father.

The first draft began, “When the sheriff asked me to tell him what had happened . . .”

“Putting Her on the River” continues in part three on Friday. Read the first part here.

An Interview with Karelia Stetz-Waters

Notecards on the wall

Organizing information

In a letter to Orion Clemens, in March of 1878, Mark Twain once wrote:

You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God’s adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.

On the heels of the fifteenth annual NaNoWriMo, the world’s largest writing event, nearly 500,000 writers across the country are now starting at a brand-new manuscript after pumping out 50,000 words in just thirty days. Almost certainly, many of them are now asking themselves: Now what? And for every 500,000 writers, there are, no doubt, an equal number of answers to the question.
Every writer has their own writing process. Whether that means busting out the notecards to lay out the plotlines or making sure there are fourteen bags of M&M’s on hand at all time, there are just some things that a writer relies on to make it through a manuscript.
Upcoming Ooligan author Karelia Stetz-Waters is no exception. Recently, I got the opportunity to ask Karelia all about her writing process and how she brings her stories to life.
What does your writing process look like?
I start with a rough idea for a story. Then I outline the story using index cards, one card per scene. This allows me to move the scenes around as needed.  Once I have a fairly good idea of how the story will progress, I will tape the index cards to the walls of my office so I can see the whole story at one glance. Then I write one draft by hand in composition notebooks. I then type it and revise it. After that, I let it sit for three to four months. Then I come back to it and revise it again.

Some of Karelia Stetz-Waters' notebooks

Some of Karelia Stetz-Waters’ notebooks

Where do you get your ideas for your other books?
When I am writing a thriller (I have one published and two in the works), I look for something that pushes the boundaries of what we expect in the genre.  The thriller genre is full of violence, drugs, murder, shootings, even perversion, so in The Admirer I created a character who willingly volunteers to let the serial killer amputate her legs. She suffers from a disorder called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (it really exists!) that causes the individual to desire the amputation of their own limbs.   I started with this unlikely victim and built the story around her.  The sequel deals with conjoined twins.  The next thriller (very much a work in progress) deals with the infestation of pythons in the Everglades. My friends say I have a dark side. I guess that’s true. I’m always looking for the next creepy or unusual theme.
However, my writing is not exclusively dark. I have also written a romance novel which is currently represented by Dystel and Goderich Literary Management. That story is very sweet and charming. The inspiration for that story was born of my love for Portland, Oregon because the romance between the two protagonists is intrinsically tied to the city where they meet.
Do you talk about what you’re working on with anyone throughout the process or do you keep it a secret?
I talk to my wife and to my friends at work.  I am lucky to know a lot of writers, so I always have someone to bounce ideas off of.
How did the idea for Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before originate?
I lived through Ballot Measure 9 and I wanted to write a story about Ballot Measure 9 (an anti-gay ballot measure launched by the Oregon Citizens Alliance in the early ’90s).  I wanted to show how these kinds of discriminatory ballot measures affect young LBGTQ adults. I wanted to focus on the human experience as it coincides with the political experience.  I also wanted to celebrate all the things that were good about that time.  While the politics were difficult, it was still a magical time to grow up.
How long have you been working on this novel?
I started working on Forgive Me in 1996 when I was 20.  It’s gone through a lot of permutations and none of that original draft remains in the finished work, but it has been a long time in the making.
What type of research did you do for your book?
Having come out (by attending the junior prom in drag) during the violent political debate surrounding Oregon’s famous anti-gay Ballot Measure 9, I figured I was well qualified to talk about growing up gay in Oregon.  At the time, I even knew a prominent figure in the Oregon Citizens Alliance, the political powerhouse behind Ballot Measure 9 and other anti-gay legislation.  Later I spoke to other people who lived through Ballot Measure 9 and watched the excellent documentary on the subject.
How do you deal with writers’ block?
I believe it was Mary Oliver who said that “writing is like a date: nothing happens if you don’t show up.” I believe the best way to overcome writers’ block is simply to keep working.  Having a tried-and-true process helps with this. I may not know what I want to write, but I always know how I write.
Have you ever felt, midway through a book, that you didn’t have any more ideas and you wouldn’t be able to finish writing it? How do you cope with that?
Outlining has helped me avoid this situation. I know, before I start, exactly where the book is going.  The plot certainly develops and changes as I work, but the skeleton is set in place at the very beginning.
How do you feel about your books after you’re done writing them? What’s it like to see them published?
I dreamed of being published my whole life, so the first time I saw one of my books in print it was a real thrill. My wife threw a party for the launch of my first book, and I will remember that day for the rest of my life.  The party was in a beautiful event space in a building overlooking my home town. My parents were there. My friends were there. I felt incredibly blessed to have so many wonderful people in my life.
With that said, once I finish a book, I almost immediately forget about the plot and the characters, and I start working on the next one.  I remember thinking, “If I can just publish one book, I’ll never want anything else ever again,” but as soon as it was published, I started thinking, “I’ve got to write the sequel.”
Do you have any advice about the writing process for aspiring authors?
I love to talk to aspiring writers, and I’m full of advice—probably too full!  However, I think the best piece of advice I could offer new writers is to start with an audience and genre in mind.  Find a journal and write a short story for that journal. Pick a small press and write a novel for their target audience. Choose a genre, study it, and write a novel just like the top ten favorites in that genre.  This is really good practice, and it makes publication easier.

What time is it? It’s NaNoWriMo Time!

Every fall, I contemplate whether or not I should attempt NaNoWriMo. Writing 50,000 words in 30 days is a manageable challenge, though not an easy one.

For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, hundreds of thousands of people around the world attempt to write a novel—by NaNoWriMo’s definition, 50,000 words—within that 30-day timespan. That’s 1,667 words a day. Over the course of the month, participants are encouraged to track their progress on NaNoWriMo’s website, make friends at regional “write-ins,” and consume unhealthy amounts of caffeine. Published authors such as James Patterson, Malinda Lo, and Bella Andre often give pep talks to participants on the NaNoWriMo forums. In fact, more than 250 novels that began as NaNoWriMo projects have been traditionally published, such as Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder.

Although many companies offer incentives like product discounts or free ebooks to people who complete the challenge, there is no traditional prize to be won. NaNoWriMo is an exercise in creativity, self- discipline, and silencing one’s inner editor; the only true prize is self-satisfaction.

This year, there are several NaNoWriMo kickoff parties for Portland-area participants, and I attended one at the Central Library downtown. More than 60 people were present, introducing themselves and describing the plots of their novels in great detail. Last year, I had my novel thoroughly plotted out and completed the challenge with 10 days to spare. This year, I have yet to decide what my story will be, but thankfully I wasn’t the only one without an idea. Many attendees declared they will write by the seat of their pants this year, and these “pantsers” will learn the story of their hearts once November is upon them.

As a newly minted publishing student, NaNoWriMo invites a change in perspective I hadn’t expected. I recognize the value of self-publishing for authors whose stories don’t fit neatly into a market, but now that I work for Ooligan, I’m more curious as to why people forgo the traditional route, which a lot of NaNo-ers intend to do. A seasoned NaNoWriMo participant I spoke to believes traditional publishing requires time he simply does not have, that it “seems like an awful lot of networking and a lot of stuff that I really don’t want to get into.” A winner of ten NaNoWriMos (that’s approximately 500,000 words in 10 years), he will look into self-publishing this year, but ultimately he writes for the love of writing. “It’s okay to write and not publish,” he says, “. . .because I’m a writer, and that’s my creative outlet.”

I’m more curious still about participants who don’t wish to publish their stories at all. One high school student said she doesn’t plan to publish her story because she “will be the only one who understands it, and that’s okay.” As someone who’s dabbled in grandiose fantasies about landing on The New York Times Best Sellers list since high school, hers is a maturity and confidence I wish I’d possessed at that age.

As the kickoff party dispersed, I spoke with another participant who works for an online publishing company and runs an editing service for self publishers. She admits that publishing is very trend focused, and self-publishing allows writers to not “feel so bound by the market the way publishers do.” However, she advises Nano-ers seeking to publish their novels to edit their work first: “When books go through traditional publishing houses, even small ones, they get at least two, sometimes many more rounds of editing, and if you want to self-publish, and if you want to stand next to the books coming out of the houses, you need to be able to do the same thing, and you can’t do it yourself.”

NaNoWriMo begins at 12 a.m. on Nov. 1. I don’t know if I will want to publish whatever I write, nor do I know if I will even complete the challenge. It’s quite possible I may not get past 1,000 words. But I appreciate that such challenges exist. More than anything, NaNoWriMo motivates people to tell the stories burning inside them. Though not everyone will get published, anyone can be a writer.

Karen Finneyfrock Guest Poet Post

This is a special edition of the Alive at the Center Guest Poet Post series. Today, we are pleased to feature a piece by Karen Finneyfrock, a poet from Seattle, WA, who invites you to participate in the yearly 30 poems in 30 days writing challenge. Please enjoy her post—and pick up your pens! 

Author portrait by Inti St. Clair

30/30: National Poetry Month Challenge

We all know that National Poetry Month was created by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. (Or, at least we’re all nodding along like we did know). It’s tougher to determine the origins of April’s 30/30 Poetry Challenge.
Sometimes called 30 for 30, or NaPoWriMo, sister to the popular novel writing challenge, NanNoWriMo, the 30/30 Challenge calls upon writers to write and publicly post a new poem for each day of April.
It all begins in the waning days of March, when poets start asking one another who will be taking the challenge and where they will be posting. Poems show up on facebook, blogs, tumblr, group sites created for lots of poets to post work, even hallways and telephone poles. Poets often form haphazard e- campfires, tagging one another, commenting back and forth on poems. It’s a chance to read poems so hot off the presses, they smoke. As you would guess, the product is a mix of surprising success and expected failure. The poems often have the friction and heat of a first draft, along with the sandpapery roughness.
As a poetic and cultural phenomenon, poets reading each other’s new work for thirty days straight would be enough. But it doesn’t stop there. When I post a poem on facebook, there is no telling who will comment. I’ve had acquaintances from high school who haven’t read a poem since graduation comment on my work. I’ve had poetic heroes of mine pop over and leave a suggestion on a stanza. The challenge reaches poets and non-poets in a social media storm of metaphor.
Here’s why I anxiously await April’s 30/30 every year: For one month, I’m actively engaging with other poets. I’m not buying their books and reading them at my leisure over the coming year. I’m reading work they produced that day and commenting on it that day, in all its raw newness and slop. It contains the thrill of seeing behind the curtain, or watching the final dress rehearsal and then staying after to give feedback. You join the poet in the creative process, rather than consuming the product of that process.
The second reason for my ardor toward 30/30 is the product. I write SO MANY POEMS in so many experimental ways when I’m under the gun. “Okay, I’ve got 30 minutes to pop this poem out, let’s try a Cinquain.” Or, “Let me just write down this dream I had last night and see if it looks like a poem.” Time limits are often good for the creative voice and 30/30 is a month-long grueling timer.
Speaking of which…the Challenge? I’ve never made it. In my years of doing 30/30, I haven’t even gotten close to writing a poem every day. Does this mean I’ve failed? Not in the slightest. 30/30 is more like a writing prompt than a writing assignment. It doesn’t really matter where you end up; it matters that the journey is taking place. I generally come out of 30/30 with about five new poems that I edit, perform, and publish. For me, that is a seriously productive month. But, here is a word of warning to poets: Some journals will consider a poem “published” if it has already appeared on your blog or facebook page. If you write something you love enough to submit, you might check out a couple of publications before you post.

Now, here’s the glorious hard part, the part when I try to tell you how to get involved. Since 30/30 is more of a poetic ground swell than a waterfall, there isn’t one source of information on the web where I can direct you. One easy way to discover 30/30 poems is to seek out a poet you like on facebook and then look for posts by other poets you might enjoy on that poet’s page. Or, start your own campfire blazing by asking other writers to join you in taking the challenge. Here is a blog about NaPoWriMo where you can learn more.


Karen Finneyfrock is a poet, novelist and teaching artist in Seattle, WA. Her young adult novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door, was published by Viking Children’s Books in 2013. Her second book of poems, Ceremony for the Choking Ghost, was released on Write Bloody press in 2010.  She is a former Writer-in-Residence at Richard Hugo House in Seattle and teaches for Seattle Arts and Lectures’ Writers-in-the-Schools program. In 2010, Karen traveled to Nepal as a Cultural Envoy through the US Department of State to perform and teach poetry and in 2011, she did a reading tour in Germany sponsored by the US Embassy.
Karen’s poem “Monster” is featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Seattle edition. Both books are currently available from your favorite local bookshop or online retailer.