“Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?”

Every time I looked at Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” I noticed something new. The detail is incredible. The imagery is gleefully bizarre. It’s utterly bonkers, and I love it. So I couldn’t pass up writing a story in that world when I saw the call for submissions for the Honey & Sulfur anthology.

This one’s a love story. (Then again, aren’t they all?) But it’s a love story set in Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell, which has its own set of unique challenges. Most importantly, you have to watch out for those Birds.

Please enjoy “Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?” in the Honey & Sulfur anthology, available at Amazon.

It is also reprinted in Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 5.

I’m now providing it free to read on this very blog.

For inspiration, I stared at the painting even more, zooming in on the details. There’s a magnificent online tour of the triptych, with a haunting ambient soundtrack as you move from scene to scene. There are hundreds of stories hidden in the three panels. Once you get past the most obvious and famous ones, you start to notice the quieter, less salient parts, and when you’re looking with an eye for narrative, they become full of mystery. In the middle of Hell, for example, amidst the demons and torture, there’s a dark courtyard by a garden wall. There’s an open gateway arch in that wall, and through it pours a golden radiance. The pale figures in the courtyard stand just at the edge of the light, afraid, yet drawn to it. What else could such a light be in Hell, but a promise of salvation? And why would sinners cluster in the shadows if not out of fear that they were perhaps unworthy? Clearly this was a Hell that had emotional drama, not just the dull routine of bizarre torments–for on the scale of eternity, any torment becomes a dull routine. Drama in eternal torment required some kind of hope, and the ability to exercise agency on behalf of that hope. That meant that Hell had rules of its own, even if they were only there to prolong the suffering. What were they?

Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear - Courtyard

When writing this story, I had just quit a job that was a sort of Hell for me, and I didn’t have anything to immediately replace it. The best I could hope for was to find just another flavor of Hell. But in between, I took some time to write, to think, to regain my strength. This liminal space between Hells was wonderful, even joyful. But I knew it couldn’t last. Anxiety circled, ready to swoop. It started eating away at that joy. I needed to find a way to hold on to that joy, to insulate and nurture it from the grind of the obligations to which I needed to return. There must be a way to endure what was demanded, while in my heart of hearts living in my hidden sanctuary of joy. There must be a way.

At that point, the story wrote itself.

“Matchstick Reveries”

It is with great pleasure that I can now announce the publication of my third-ever short story sale, “Matchstick Reveries,” in issue 5 of the online magazine Truancy! Please read the story over at Truancy, and the come back here for some behind-the-scenes notes, if you’re curious.

Click here to read “Matchstick Reveries” in Truancy issue 5.

(The story, as originally posted in Truancy, omitted some paragraphs due to a publishing SNAFU. The editor has restored the full text.)


As with a lot of my stories, it started as a joke. The title I’d given it was “Marvel Comics Presents: The Little Match Girl” and it was a mash-up between X-Men comics and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” It had mutant psychics, a freezing little girl, and a cosmic force of fiery death and resurrection. It got some yuks from my Facebook friends, which is usually as far as these ideas go. But something about it stuck in my craw. There was a reason I took that troubling little H.C.A. tale in a different direction. I kept fiddling with it.

Matchstick Reveries - Phoenix 2

The Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Little Match Girl” horrified me as a child, a horror that only deepened as I revisited it over the years, in its various incarnations. It wasn’t just that a young child, cold, alone, and overlooked, lights match after match on a winter street, has visions of simple comforts she can never have, and then freezes to death on a street corner. It was also that the narration beatifies this senseless result of societal negligence. The dead little girl is better off now, in heaven, because nothing could save or comfort her in the temporal world. Maybe Andersen meant to stir societal shame through pity, but it looked like nihilism in my eyes. Then I heard of an African proverb that brought the theme into focus: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” So yes, I wanted to write a story where the Little Match Girl takes them all down with her, and instead of her world ending in ice, she sets her world on fire. That was the ending I needed to make peace with Hans Christian Andersen.

I entered a version of the story in PodCastle‘s flash fiction competition, but the feedback was that it was too brutal, too unjust. That was, of course, the point, but the 1,000-word limit didn’t allow me to dig deeper into the moral framework I imagined for the story. And in truth, the story still leaned too heavily into the X-Men Dark Phoenix joke to stand on its own and have something to say.

So I did some research, and went off on different tangents. I learned that selling matches was, historically, used as a thin cover for begging in the streets. I read about the different incarnations of safety matches through the years, and how they were called “Lucifers.” I had a “her parents were French Revolutionaries stirring up trouble across the Channel” angle that I soon scrapped. I read about the Great Fire of London (inconveniently 200 years before the setting of this story), and how the original monument was supposed to have–no joke!–a phoenix on the top. And the suicides, from jumping off the monument and getting impaled on the iron fence posts below? That was historical too. And yes, children froze to death in the streets, and were carted away to paupers’ graves, and the Church tried to put it all into a context of divine meaning.

So Jeanne, this version of The Little Match Girl, is the eventual and inevitable reckoning that comes when the village doesn’t take care of its own. When the phoenix immolates, something new will always rise from the ashes. It’s brutal, terrible, but it sets the stage for a second chance. How will we do the next go-round?

From The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

  • volander – the ethereal feeling of looking down at the world through an airplane window

A Beginner’s Guide To Publishing Your SFF Short Stories

I sold my first short story for publication at the age of 45. I’d been writing stories almost since I could write at all, and daydreaming of being a published author for nearly as long, but back then, what little I could learn about getting published (and paid for it) made it seem like such a long shot that I shelved that ambition until, late in my middle years, I realized that my “somedays” were running out. So I got serious, and was fortunate enough to enroll in a night school program that included a “Business of Writing” seminar on how to sell one’s stories. That got me started, and when I decided to embrace science fiction/fantasy (SFF) instead of “literary” fiction, I learned that the gates were open much wider, and the community was far more welcoming. I also learned that selling stories was every bit the thrill I imagined it would be.

I’m new to this career, but the steps in the process are fresh enough in my mind that I hope they could help others who just need a little demystification of the process to get started. I’ve come up with ten concrete, practical steps to sell your first SFF/speculative short story.

  1. Write the “final” draft of your story.
  2. Find your markets.
  3. Format your piece and follow the guidelines.
  4. Write your submission cover letter.
  5. Make and track your submissions.
  6. Handle rejections with grace.
  7. Handle holds with grace.
  8. Handle acceptances with grace.
  9. Sign your contract.
  10. Publicize your story and market.

Keep trying. It’s not that mysterious at all.

1. Write the “final” draft of your story.

Unlike in novel publishing, you won’t work with a developmental editor from the publishing magazine or website. The draft you send should be the draft you’d be happy to see published. That means that you’ve done your revisions and line editing, had some other eyes look at it and give feedback, and read it aloud a few times. If your story is accepted, the editors may have some small revision suggestions, but they’re treating your story as a finished piece, not a work under joint development.

2. Find your markets.

There are several resources to help you find the magazines, anthologies, contests, and websites (collectively referred to as the “markets”). In addition to print resources like Writer’s Market and Poets & Writers, there is a popular and robust search tool called Duotrope, that will also help you track your submissions (more on that later). At the time of this writing, Duotrope is a subscription-based service for $5 per month or $50 per year. I use the Submission Grinder, a free, donation-powered website that gives you much of the same capability, and has a good user base. I’ve been using it for a couple of years, and it happens to be run by Diabolical Plots, a professional rate (more on that later) SFF market itself.

Some other websites I use to find markets include:

Social Media is especially helpful in finding markets. On Twitter, following short fiction authors you like will lead you to markets, editors, and other writers. (You’ll find some great stories to read, too.) At the time of this writing, I’m maintaining a Twitter list of short fiction SFF/speculative fiction markets you might find helpful.

Most markets advise you to read some of their past issues prior to submitting. It’s good advice. Aesthetic and thematic preferences become quickly apparent, and if you can’t see your story side-by-side with the ones they’ve published, it may not be the market for you. Many markets make explicit the things they’re looking for, and things that would be hard sells or instant rejections. Honor them, but where the guidelines are fuzzy, take a chance on yourself. Most editors are looking for stories that affect and surprise them, not ones that conform to a prescribed formula.

Some markets have special submissions periods for stories on a particular theme or topic. These can be fun, especially if you’re searching for inspiration and can quickly write on specification, as with a writing prompt. Watch for markets that solicit stories from particular underrepresented groups or identities. If you’re not a member of the group, cheerfully move on. There is no shortage of places to submit. But if you’re a member, dig deeper, perhaps with a note to the editors, to see if the market seeks stories centered around the group or identity, or simply wants to boost the visibility of those writers, and the topics aren’t in any way limited.

Some markets are permanently open for submissions year-round, but many have specific reading periods, and will not accept submissions outside of that period. Honor the reading periods: they allow a small staff (or solo operation) to buy stories, edit them, produce an issue, release it, and publicize it. Appreciate that a small number of people are doing an enormous job, usually in their spare time.

The science fiction/fantasy short fiction landscape has many markets that pay on a per-word basis. “Professional rates” (as defined by the SFWA at the time of this writing) start at $0.06 per word. Other markets offer “semi-pro” or “token” payment rates, or a flat sum. Some (especially anthologies) offer royalties, or pay in “contributor’s copies.” Many are unable to offer any payment at all. Realize that most of these markets are labors of love. They don’t make a profit, and depend on donations. The staff have day jobs. That said, carefully consider your attitude towards “working for exposure,” and whether the non-paying market you choose will give you the kind of exposure you want. For me, there’s something especially validating about even a token payment. It means I’ve sold a story.

Some markets (most in “literary” fiction, less in genre fiction) charge a submission or reading fee. Be wary of these. Contests often have submission fees to cover their prize amounts), but in SFF, reading fees are often considered exploitative of writers dreaming of being published.

Probably the single most enlightening experience I’ve had in short fiction publishing was volunteering as a slush reader for Shimmer Magazine, during its final year. Slush readers are unpaid readers who help winnow down the submissions by issuing rejections and escalating the top candidates. Not only did reading slush give me a chance to read a lot of good stories, but it also gave me a sense for how editors discuss stories and weigh their merits. And it let me experience what kind of writing “pops” from among hundreds of stories under consideration. I can’t overstate how valuable it is to look at the submissions process from the other side.

3. Format your piece and follow the guidelines.

The top pet peeve I read from editors is about writers who don’t follow the submission guidelines. The guidelines may specify the file formats the market accepts, the fonts and line spacing, the information that should and shouldn’t appear on the page headers, whether to underline or italicize, and the minimum and maximum word count. Take these as hard rules. It shows consideration for the editors’ time. They don’t want to haggle with you about accepting PDFs when the guidelines say DOCs or RTFs.

Many markets will ask you to use “Standard Manuscript Format.” The most common example of this format I’ve seen referenced is from William Shunn: https://www.shunn.net/format/story.html

Some markets will also specify the kind of stories they don’t want to see. For example, they may be burned out on seeing vampire and zombie stories, or they don’t want explicit content, or they have a hard policy against depicting rape or violence toward children. Attend to these restrictions, and don’t waste everyone’s time.

The submissions guidelines may also mention “simultaneous submissions” or “multiple submissions.” Simultaneous submissions are when you submit the same story for consideration at more than one market at the same time. Some markets take more than a year to make a decision, and tell you that simultaneous submissions are okay, as long as you notify them if you get accepted elsewhere. Others expect a shorter turnaround, and ask that you only submit your story to other markets after they have rejected it. Multiple submissions are when you have more than one story under consideration at the same market. Some markets allow this, to a limit. Others ask that you wait for a decision before sending them another story.

4. Write your submission cover letter.

Don’t agonize over this. Keep it simple. The cover letter is not the place you need to be creative or make a sales pitch. For most markets, the following format is sufficient:

Dear Editors,

Please consider my [approximate word count]-word short story 
"Story Title Here" for the next issue of [market name here]. 
My fiction has appeared in [up to 3 other markets that have 
published your work, if any].

Thank you for your consideration.



If you’re a member of the SFWA, a Clarion graduate, or have some other writerly credentials, you can mention that. If the market states an interest in publishing emerging writers, you may mention that, if accepted, this would be your first publication. If you are an acknowledged expert in a particular relevant domain (like, you program robot behavior for a living, and your story is about robots), or a member of an underrepresented group writing about your group from an insider’s perspective (“own voices”), mention that. But be brief, and keep it to-the-point. Unless specifically requested, DO NOT summarize or tease your story. Let it speak for itself.

Some markets might ask you for a short third-person bio or even a statement of purpose. Feel free to get creative here, but look at the bios and statements already published by that market for a sense of what they want.

5. Make and track your submissions.

As you get the hang of the process, you will make more submissions, and sometimes those will take several months to resolve. There are guidelines on when to query (inquire after a submission that has received no response), whether you can submit a story to multiple markets simultaneously, and how long before you can submit to a particular market again. As you get busy, you may lose track of whether your story has already been rejected by a particular market, or when the submissions period opens. It pays to get into the habit of tracking the status of all your submissions. You can do this using online tools like Duotrope or Submissions Grinder, or you can just make your own spreadsheet with rows for each story + market, and columns indicating when you made the submission, the status of that submission, the market’s website, and the dates of any follow-ups and responses.

When you start making story submissions, you will probably find yourself refreshing your email and trying to perform predictive math on the submission / rejection / acceptance rates for your markets. BE PATIENT. SFF markets have a pretty good turnaround time compared to literary magazines (where you can wait a couple of years for a form rejection letter), but it may be months before you receive a decision, and a year or more before your story sees publication. Often, the submissions guidelines for a market will tell you the number of days you should wait before inquiring after your story’s status.

You may end up cringing at the story that was accepted, because you’ve moved far forward in your craft between that time and publication. But such is the game. Just use it as an incentive to get your next story out there.

6. Handle rejections with grace.

In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King described a spike on his wall, on which he’d stuck every rejection letter he got. For him, the thicker that stack, the better–it meant he was putting his work out there, and each rejection was another step toward an eventual acceptance. That’s a healthy and useful way to see rejection. You will get rejected, and you may not always know why. Your story may not fit the aesthetic of the publication. It may have structural problems. The quality of its writing may not be up to par. Or maybe it just didn’t “do it” for that editor, at that time.

Whatever the case, the best response from from you to a rejection is no response at all. The markets don’t owe you an explanation, so don’t demand one. Stick the rejection on your virtual spike and move on, revising your story if you wish, and choosing another potential market. (Unless specifically requested, do not revise and resubmit a story to the same market.) Occasionally an editor may offer some feedback when rejecting a story. This is not, on its own, an invitation to resubmit. You may be inspired by it, or you may reject it utterly, but don’t consider a personalized rejection to be an invitation to debate your story’s merits.

Rejections sting. There’s no way around that. But be a professional and deal with it gracefully. Resist any temptation to toss a barb (or worse) back in response. Rejections are not of you as a writer, but of that particular story, and you may write other stories you’ll want that editor to consider. Be someone pleasant to work with.

7. Handle holds with grace.

A “hold” is when an editor gets back to you saying they haven’t made a final decision whether to buy your story, but they’re putting it on a short list for consideration after they’ve reviewed all the submissions. Congratulations! Your story has done better than the vast majority of submissions. Now the editors will have to make decisions that factor in how much space they have in their next issue, whether any theme has emerged among the candidates, and which stories best reflect the diversity of their submissions. You may still be rejected. Or you may make a sale. And the waiting will be nerve-wracking.

But be patient. Putting together an issue or anthology takes a lot of work, and many short fiction publishers are doing it on their own time.

8. Handle acceptances with grace.

Congratulations! You did it! At this point, the editors may request a few minor edits from you. They may ask for a short, third-person bio, and an author photo. Some publications may even do a short Q&A interview with you about your story. Respond promptly. They are at a particularly busy stage when they are putting the issue together, and having everything they need makes it easier to put out the issue on schedule. And thank them. They liked your story enough to put it in their labor-of-love publication, and as long as you’re professional and polite, you have the foundation of a writing relationship you can build on.

9. Sign your contract.

Your contract specifies the agreement between you and the publisher to publish your story, with what recompense, the media in which your story may appear, and the length of time you grant the publisher exclusive rights to present your story. Typically, copyright remains with the author for the small markets. Pay attention to the exclusivity periods, because when that expires, you may be able to submit your story as a reprint to another market. If there are clauses in the contract that give you pause, Google them–there are many discussions you can find about publishing contracts. It’s not unheard of to negotiate the contract, but bear in mind that most markets are using boilerplate contracts and don’t have the legal resources to hammer out separate considerations for you and your story. Pushing on the contract may make it more than your story is worth to the market.

10. Publicize your story and market.

Self-promotion is not a sin. When you’re also promoting the market that published your story, you’re helping them as well, not to mention all the other writers published in that issue. Boost their signals on social media, and let them boost yours. Bask in that special sunshine of being a published writer. And keep working on the next story.



“Remember the Ifrit”

I sold my second story, and the thrill is just as strong as the first. The Cast of Wonders podcast called for Young Adult science fiction/fantasy stories that evoke a sense of wonder — in 500 words or less. And since this is a podcast, I got to hear my words read by a professional voice actor (and Hugo award-winning author), which is pretty cool.

This is a short one. I hope you enjoy “Remember the Ifrit.” (If you’re in a hurry, my story starts around the 6:00 mark on the audio.)


Writer’s Endnotes

An image that stuck with me from childhood was from an episode of Cosmos, where Carl Sagan hypothesized what kind of life might exist in the atmosphere of a gas giant planet like Jupiter. (I’m pleased to see that the segment clip is up on YouTube.) It was only after I’d written the first draft of “Ifrit” that I realized I was stealing from Carl Sagan. Let’s call it a tribute, instead.


When the family went on a whale-watching cruise off Whidbey Island in Washington State, I resolved to experience it with my daughter, directly, with no camera involved. But my resolve faltered when the Humpback we’d been following began speeding just under the water’s surface. I had gotten my phone out of my pocket and started taking a video when she breached out of the water and then fell with a tremendous SPLASH. I never got her in frame — I wanted to see it with my naked eye — but in the audio, one can hear the family shouting and whooping, and mine was the loudest voice on the boat. That cruise, and sharing the experience with my daughter, was the first thing I thought of when I began considering topics of a story with a “sense of wonder.”

My cousin-in-law did manage to take a perfect picture of the whale, so I got the direct experience and a memento. I think it’s interesting that it’s not the photo that best recalls that sense of wonder for me, but the audio. The picture represents what I saw; the audio captures how I felt. For the story, I felt that both the experience and its recollection were important, along with the curious modern impulse to interpose devices between ourselves and a wonder in hopes of being able to re-experience it at will. And, of course, the power of an experience shared was the most important of all.

From The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

rückkehrunruhe – the feeling of returning from an immersive trip only to notice it fading rapidly from your awareness

“Old Customs”

I’m smiling today. There’s a bounce in my step. You see, I sold a piece of fiction for the first time, making me — at last — a paid writer. It’s the first step down a road I want to keep walking, well past my days of open floor plan offices, conference rooms, and software project estimates (although arguably, those are my first paid works of fiction).

This one’s a short (2,000 word) piece for Unlikely Story‘s issue 12.5, “The Journal of Unlikely Observances.” It’s a themed issue around rites of spring, festivals of renewal, and role reversals. I hope you enjoy “Old Customs.”


SFF short fiction reviewer Charles Payseur has proposed drink pairings with selected stories from July, including this one. Read his review on Nerds Of a Feather: http://www.nerds-feather.com/2016/08/the-monthly-round-tasters-guide-to.html?m=1

Author’s End Notes (because I’m an author now)

(I humbly request, dear reader, that you read the story, linked above, first.)

The Indian holiday of Holi inspired “Old Customs,” in particular, the variant of Lathmar Holi, in which the women beat the men with sticks. Filmmaker Prashant Bhargava (a childhood friend, taken from us much too soon) did a study in footage and music of Holi, including the lathmar practice, in “Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi.” What struck me in his images was how, under the color and exuberance, there seemed to bubble a real, visceral something that was looking for cathartic release. That was the seed of this story.

I never say “India” in this story, nor do I say “Holi.” It’s obviously about Holi, and is obviously set in India (I was thinking of Colaba, in Mumbai, during the hotel scene), but I wanted to give myself license to create a fictional history for this holiday. It was harder than I thought to grant myself that permission. Instead of imagining, I kept researching, checking the things I dreamed up against fact. I had no small amount of anxiety about misrepresenting a real cultural practice. Refraining from explicitly naming the festival Holi and setting the story in India helped me move past those hang-ups. It astonished me how much that helped.

On the topic of anxious sensitivity, I’m a man, writing about women, in circumstances where harassment and abuse are at the center. It wasn’t lost on me that I was writing about things I’m not especially qualified to write. When I did the fiction certificate program at Northwestern, a couple of our instructors encouraged us not to shy away from this. Writing is an exercise in empathy, and attempts — however imperfect or flawed — to empathize are valuable in themselves. So here, I’ve tried. And even if I’ve failed, I’ll try again.

“Old Customs” walks backwards through (fictional) history to reveal the history behind a myth. Pretty early in the writing, I was aware I was stealing from Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. After all, each book in the series starts with the catechism:

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.

Book 4, The Shadow Rising, even provided me with a structure for my story. But I spared the reader from having to journey to Rhuidean and walk through the glass columns to learn this history.

Image credit: India – Lathmar Holi Festival of Colors

From The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

  • ecsis – the haunting sense of mystery infused into certain random details that beckons you to wonder how it ended up here at this point in time

Planning Fiction With Workflowy and John Truby’s Anatomy Of Story

The hook in John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller is that when a piece of fiction doesn’t “work,” or the writer feels blocked, the likely culprit lies in the structure of the story, in an element that the writer hasn’t thought through. Instead of hand-waving through the concept of structure, Truby takes a hard stance on what makes a piece of writing a story. Whether or not you agree with his stance, each component in this structure is worth serious thought when you craft your fiction. And while writing in a state of exploratory “not-knowing” can produce some good results, my first experience with NaNoWriMo taught me that starting with an outline keeps you on track when on a deadline.

For outlines of any sort, Workflowy rules my world. I use it for everything from note taking to to-do lists to project plans to professional journaling. It’s also nifty for writing fiction. I create items for each scene, use @ tags for each character, hashtag each plot line, and rearrange and filter the scenes as I figure out the best sequence. It’s a slick way to restructure a story without cutting and pasting big blocks of text. Workflowy has proven to be a great way to brainstorm through John Truby’s 22 Steps as well.

I made a stab at extracting the concepts of The Anatomy of Story into a Workflowy outline. It pays to read Truby’s book — he provides precise definitions and exhaustive examples of each element — but after you’ve done that, you’ll want a more concise cheat sheet. I’ve tried to provide this in the Workflowy outline. And as Workflowy allows you to share sections of your document with a read-only link, I’ve made this outline public. Just duplicate it into your own Workflowy document (or export it as rich text into an editor) and fill in the sections. I’ve found this works best after you’ve written into your piece a bit, captured a few of the most interesting ideas, and are searching for how to grow them into an actual story. Use the outline as a checklist of questions you ought to think through to ensure your story is structurally sound.

[The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, by John Truby]


[John Truby Story Development Framework]


What I learned from NaNoWriMo 2013

“We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”
— Samuel Smiles

I finished my first National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) having accumulated 21,196 words of the 50,000 needed to win. It can be argued that a challenge bested on the first attempt is no challenge at all, so I am dusting myself off and taking a hard look at what happened with an eye to the next time. I’m the sort of daydreamer who has often fantasized about chucking away the career to write for a living — short stories, essays, articles, novels — hardcore writing that owns my most wakeful hours of the day and tops the priority on the daily to-do list. Surely if I could only do that, I could be the kind of Self-Actualized Human Being that Abraham Maslow would place at the top of his eponymous pyramid, from whose pinnacle I would gaze down at the rest of the world like some sort of radiant Sun-God…

But before checking in to that flight of fancy, I knew that there were more reasonable milestones, like finishing something, and paying my ego-dues in rejection letters until I finally published a piece. And the steps towards those milestones, according to every writer who cared to opine on the subject, were to WRITE. EVERY. DAY. Not to make excuses. Not to lie there waiting for inspiration. But to make myself prolific and practiced enough to call myself a writer without qualifying the word, or feeling like a fraud.

NaNoWriMo was the perfect opportunity to test myself. I claimed to want the Writer’s Life, but could I live it for 30 days? Could I block off the time to produce 1,667 words every day, alongside my day job and parenting a toddler, no matter how tired, burned-out, distracted, or blocked I felt?

No, as it turns out. I couldn’t.
But now I have a much better sense of why.

I Dropped Out Of Weight Watchers, Too

Writing 50,000 words in 30 days is no easy task. In a standard manuscript format document, that equates to writing about six pages every day. For me, the daily 1,667 words took around 3 hours of writing time; more, if I had to piecemeal it throughout the day and settle back into the groove where I left off. Falling behind was disastrous. It incurred a debt not easily paid off.

It reminded me a lot of another exercise in self-discipline I attempted a few years ago: Weight Watchers. Both NaNoWriMo and Weight Watchers are structured to help you establish a goal-oriented lifestyle. Both have a form of daily check-in, progress-charting to encourage you, and legions of cheerleaders to help you to your feet when you stumble. And in both programs I fought against the downward spiral of failure begetting failure because it’s so much easier to let gravity win and stay off program than it is to get back on. But while Weight Watchers is open-ended — you can spend two years to take off those last 20 pounds if you need to — NaNoWriMo has a narrow time frame in which to win. Sure, the ultimate lesson is that any progress towards your goal is better than none or regression. But when you’re playing the NaNoWriMo game to win, unless you have the discretionary time to binge-write, do not fall behind.

NaNoWriMo, like Weight Watchers, is about establishing and sustaining habits that support a goal. Some would call that “intentional living.” In concept, it’s a great thing, and there’s no good reason not to do it. And yet, somehow it’s hard. Because… excuses.

Excuses, Excuses

There are those who claim that there are no reasons you can’t reach your goals, only excuses. As a motivational slogan it may have merit, but as a description of reality, of course, it’s horseshit. The slogan’s main merit is to force you to examine your values and make the hard calls on where writing fits into the demands on your time — on what constitutes a reason and what is an excuse.

Was winning NaNoWriMo more important to me than caring for my 2-year-old, fulfilling the obligations that allow me to draw a paycheck, or feeding and taking out the dog? It was not, and that meant that I would not be writing between 6:30am and 9:30pm (except during a few stolen moments), weekdays and most weekends (my kid doesn’t nap). That left 9 hours a day of discretionary/sleep time to allocate.

Was winning NaNoWriMo more important than catching up on Boardwalk Empire/Homeland/American Horror Story/TheWalking Dead? Yes, it was. And still, there were nights when I didn’t choose what I valued, I chose what felt comfortable. (Lesson learned: stay strong.)

Was winning NaNoWriMo more important than sleeping? Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. It depended on how many consecutive days I decided it was. (Lesson learned: I’m not as young as I used to be.)

And then, of course, there’s that most universal of excuses: the holidays. I used to wonder why NaNoWriMo was in November. Thanksgiving is in November. There’s travel (or houseguests), cooking, cleaning, interacting with family in real-time without the benefit of a computer screen and asynchronous communication. Now I think it’s genius that NaNoWriMo chose November. Thanksgiving plans are usually made well in advance; the holiday is toward the end of the month, and there is ample time to plan your strategy around the holiday — because if you’re going to live the Writing Life, this kind of stuff can’t knock you off your game. In Weight Watchers, they would devote an entire meeting session just before each holiday to help people plan how to manage the caloric temptations, and familial pressures to eat, that we all knew to expect. Was winning NaNoWriMo more important than cooking the family meal, or spending time with my mother who lives alone in another city, but had come for a week to spend time with her son and granddaughter? Hellz no. And I knew that before November even started. Lesson learned: plan for the holiday.

The clearest lesson out of this process of weighing values was that there was a set of things I was willing to give up, and a set of things I was not. That defines one’s level of commitment to any new undertaking, and sets some practical boundaries and expectations. I learned a lesson in undergraduate that hadn’t been true before, but has been true ever since: there are things that can’t be accomplished even by staying up all night. When we were young, we were encouraged to know our limits so we could exceed them. In my 40s, I’m starting to feel the need to know my limits so I don’t sprain something.

But I Did Some Stuff Right, Too

In October, I prepared for NaNoWriMo by creating an outline, and it was the smartest thing I did. I had never written a novella-length piece of fiction before, and I didn’t know how to approach one. But I had written many a short story, and I figured out pretty early on that I wanted four point-of-view characters in my novel. Not only were they the smallest subset of characters who could properly represent the story’s events, but they had some elegant symmetries and contrasts that seemed too clever for me to pass up. I started by having four headings, one for each character, and jotting down a rough chronology of events or scenes I envisioned unfolding under each point of view. I kept this outline electronically so I could review and tweak it on the bus, in the restroom, between meetings — whenever I could. My goal before November was to have four reasonable character arcs, as though I were writing four short stories.

At various points, two or more characters’ scenes would intersect, so I restructured my outline from a character chronology to a global chronology. For the outline, I used my favorite Web-based productivity tool, Workflowy, which let me create a line to describe each scene, and I tag each scene with the characters who appeared in it, as well as a “#todo” that I would later remove after the scene had become paragraphs in my manuscript. I could then use the tags and Workflowy filters to collapse the global chronology to a character-specific one, or even to just the scenes I had left to write. Before I even began writing the novel, I ended up with two things: a sequence of scenes that told a complete story, and some confidence that each character had his or her own internal journey over the course of the tale. I’ve trained myself to be ruled by checklists, so having an ordered (and re-orderable) set of bullet-pointed scenes made the whole idea of writing a novel much more approachable.

As I was writing, of course, I allowed myself the freedom to veer off the outline, and if I chanced upon something interesting, I retrofitted it back in to the plan. I also used the outline to jot down notes about the emotional core of a scene, and what experiences of my own I could tap into to make the scene ring true. Or I’d make a note about character voice — channel a little Han Solo when writing this guy, or Hannibal Lecter when writing that woman.

I jumped around in the chronology. I wrote the first few scenes of each character, then the last climactic scenes. Then I started working backwards and forwards toward the middle. I stuck with one character until I got bored or blocked, and then I moved to a different one. I dispensed with scene transitions if I was eager to write the action. Or if I couldn’t think of a good way to move a scene forward, I’d pour in physical description or prattling dialogue until something sparked (or until I got my night’s word count).

And as the NaNoWriMo coaches encourage, I dialed down my internal editor as much as I could. The only metric that mattered for November was word count. If I used the same turn of phrase in two consecutive paragraphs, I let it slide. If the descriptions were workmanlike and lacking flair, I didn’t worry about it. If I wasn’t sure of a detail, and wanted to do some research first, I went with my gut and deferred the research. From my experience with short stories I knew that revision was where the magic (and much of the fun) happened. I committed to making my job in November the creation of a substantial draft that I could revise.

Even if I didn’t win, I’m pretty happy with the result. I wrote 19 of the 26 scenes I had planned in my outline, and I have 75 pages of writing. This is a project I believe I could finish. And isn’t that the bedrock difference between real writers and dabblers? Real writers finish things. And I now have the confidence I can do it.