Each November, hundreds of thousands of people around the world sit down and start to write, with the goal of completing 50,000 words of a novel by the end of the month. It’s known as NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month.
Crafting an original story is a rewarding endeavor but the scope of a novel can also feel daunting! To get the low-down on what it is like to be a writer we sat down with three authors who work at DC Public Library, Tracy Cross, Joy Jones and Jessica Spotswood. (Responses have been edited for clarity and length.)
How long have you been writing?
JOY: I knew in elementary school that I wanted to be a writer. I've always had a love of stories fostered by my parents. My father would tell me stories at bedtime and my mother would take me every week to the old DC Central Library, which is now the Apple Store.
JESSICA: I have been writing for fun since I was a kid, since maybe 4th grade? I started writing stories about the horses in the barn where I was taking riding lessons and then of course some Sweet Valley Twins knockoffs and historical fiction!
TRACY: I have been writing since I was 10 or 12. My first stories were comic strips. I wrote a comic strip based on the TV show Fame that I called Rain and it was raining happiness. Then I wrote an awful story called The Secret Affair. It was the era of Dynasty!
What inspired you to start writing professionally?
TRACY: In the 70s and the early 80s there wasn’t a whole lot of horror. There was Stephen King but I’m not a big Stephen King fan. I would read these stories and think, these are not the kinds of stories I want to read. I never saw myself reflected in the work. I thought, I want to write this and I can write this…so why don’t I?
JOY: I've loved the written word from an early age. I remember the first book I ever read. It was called Tip. It was about a dog who had a white tip on his tail, hence the name. I remember being so thrilled that I could read myself. It wasn't a long journey from wanting to read to wanting to be able to share that joy with other people and give them stories to read.
JESSICA: When I got my Masters’ Degree all of a sudden I had free time, which - what do you do with free time after grad school? Read for fun! I read a lot of YA and I realized that what I had been writing as a kid was YA, I just didn't know what to call it. I’d never known anyone who was a professional writer but with access to writers on Twitter and LiveJournal I thought, these are real people and I can be one of them.
When did you know you wanted to write something and submit it for publication?
JESSICA: The first piece I wrote to send out was a contemporary dystopian fantasy that took place in a world where artists were enemies of the state. I wrote it over the course of two years while working full-time. I sent out five queries and four were rejected. One was a request for a full manuscript, which turned into an offer from my agent who is still my agent 12 years later!
TRACY: I was writing the “Great American Novel,” you know, where you’re always writing and editing and it’s always “not ready yet.” And then I thought, you have to have a legacy, you have to share this with somebody. My sister was encouraging me to submit my work and I did…and the first thing I submitted they accepted! My brother-in-law said, “nobody does that,” and I said, “Well - I did!”
JOY: As a kid I would have thought I would have been published before I graduated from high school - you know, being young and naive! I didn't publish my first book until I was in my 30’s. I had written an essay about relationships for The Washington Post, and a publisher contacted me and asked me about expanding it. I had been thinking about it anyway and that fueled me to get it done.
Not every idea gets accepted, how do you handle the rejection that comes with trying to get published?
JOY: More often than not, it's sending your work out over and over again and being consistent and tenacious and remaining hopeful despite the rejections. A part of doing that is trying to not have too many expectations. I send work out and work on something new or send other stuff out. So a lot of times when I get that email I’m already on to the next thing.
JESSICA: Rejection is tough, and it's definitely part of writing. Ultimately you have to really love the process of writing. No matter how many books you sell, even if you're a New York Times best selling author, you will face rejection. What will keep you going is wanting to finish the story that you're telling for yourself.
TRACY: You can’t take it personally. They're not telling you I don't like this because I don't like you. When you get a critique just take what you can improve on. I know what my faults are in my writing and once I have taken some of the critiques, I have seen my work improve. But most of all, it’s just one person’s opinion, not everyone is going to like everything.
What advice would you give to someone trying to write a novel during NaNoWriMo for the first time?
JESSICA: Read! Nothing teaches you about story and character and structure than reading. In terms of writing I always get asked about writer's block. I think there are two types. The first is a fear of failure which is so real! You just have to push through that and write. Set a timer and write forward for that amount of time or switch from using a computer to writing long-hand - get out of your own head. The other is when you've taken a wrong turn in the story and it doesn't feel right. In that case, try going back to the last time a character made a decision and have them choose a different one.
TRACY: You can’t write 50,000 cohesive words in a single month. You’ll need to edit and you’ll spend another year revising the whole thing. Set bite-sized goals you can reach and then plan. In the first half of the year get your notebook and write down all your random thoughts. That way when November comes, you can start writing. And don’t compare yourself to other people. Today I may have written six words. That’s six I didn’t write yesterday! Tomorrow I’ll write 12 and so on.
JOY: Too often people tell me, “I have a book inside me.” They talk about it, but they never actually sit down with a pen or keyboard. A writer is someone who writes. You have to sit in front of that page and put something down, even if it's nonsense. Talking about writing is not writing. Reading about writing is not writing. Thinking about writing is not writing. Writing is writing.
About the Authors
Tracy Cross is based at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Her short horror stories have been featured in numerous anthologies and her first novel comes out this fall.
Joy Jones, who works at the Francis A. Gregory Library, writes fiction and nonfiction picture books and chapter books for children.
Jessica Spotswood at the Southwest Library is the author and editor of several historic fiction and fantasy short story anthologies and novels.