Giving up on NaNoWriMo (but not my novel)

Vintage typewriter and paper

I finished the first draft of my first novel more than a year ago, and have since redrafted it more times than I care to count. I have days where I wonder if it’s any good, but for the most part, I’m proud of it. And I hope you’ll get to read it someday.

But there’s a part of me that’s been wondering if it was all a fluke. I’ve had a couple of false starts attempting to write my second novel, starting new ideas before realising they just weren’t working, or that they were short stories rather than novels. Even though two of my all-time favourite books were written by authors who only wrote one novel, I intend to be more prolific than that.

(In case you’re wondering, the two books I refer to are The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I don’t count Go Set a Watchman because it’s a draft of Mockingbird. And Chbosky is still alive, so he may well write another novel.)

Vintage typewriter and paper
Photo: Merelize, Freerange Stock.
Anyway, November means NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) so I thought it was as good a time as any to try to write my second novel again. My final assessments were all due in November (including one week where I had six different things to complete) so I knew I probably wouldn’t get anywhere near the official goal of 50,000 words. And… I was right. I’ve actually only written about 7000 words.

A few years ago, I would’ve considered this an abject failure, particularly as I saw other writers soaring past me. But this year, I feel like I’m on the right track, even though I’ve been moving slowly so far. The novel I started on November 1 drifted in a completely different direction to what I’d planned, until it wasn’t even about the characters I’d started with. However, the new story feels more exciting to write. And I wouldn’t have discovered it if I hadn’t attempted NaNo with my original story.

I do wish I was a faster writer but as always, I am a work in progress. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Did you participate in NaNoWriMo this year?

Wearing my heart on my sleeve

Stack of books, rose, ink pot and quill tattoo by Dayne

I say words to this effect a lot, but I’ve been pretty poor with my blogging commitments lately. Although I have been ghostwriting blog posts for clients, so it hasn’t been a complete productivity fail.

In terms of my actual writing, I’ve mainly been trying to get my novel ready for submission. I made some significant structural changes in my most recent redraft, but I think it’s now a lot stronger than it was before.

Last week, I also added a new tattoo to my collection — this one is for my love of reading and writing.

It’s actually a cover-up of an older tattoo; I can still see the original but I don’t care because I love this one. Which is good, seeing as it’s the most visible of my six tattoos (The others are almost always hidden under clothing or jewellery).

I may need to wear long sleeves to cover it when I’m looking for work. I’m studying to be a library technician, and I personally think having a stack of books permanently inked onto your wrist is a mark of dedication to the job, but I know not everyone would agree with me. ๐Ÿ˜›

Talking about self-harm and self-injury #SIAD

Snapchat: leeannkhoh

A little over a year ago — in the lead-up to Self-Injury Awareness Day (March 1) — I wrote a blog post called Breaking the silence on self-injury.

My orange ribbon tattooIn February this year, I was asked by some of my classmates about the meaning of the orange awareness ribbon tattooed on my wrist. It was the first time anyone had ever asked me what it meant in the 14 months I’ve had it.

It was an opportunity to actually break the silence, instead of just writing about it.

I only had a few seconds to decide whether or not to tell the truth. When I first got the tattoo, one of the appeals of it was the fact that the orange ribbon represents several different causes, and I could decide later if I was comfortable with telling people what it meant. I could’ve said my tattoo was for Harmony Day — after all, I love its message of cultural diversity and inclusion. It’s a very worthy cause. But it’s not the cause I got inked on my wrist.

So, I told the truth: That my tattoo was for self-harm and self-injury awareness.

It’s a topic that tends to make people uncomfortable, and I get terribly anxious over uncomfortable situations. But I’m also a writer. I’m writing a novel about someone who engages in deliberate self-injury as a coping mechanism. And that comes with responsibilities that I don’t take lightly.

Here, I had an opportunity to speak up. An opportunity that had been fortuitously dangled in front of me. And not taking that opportunity — after I’d promised to myself and the world that I’d break the silence on self-injury — might have been my way of reinforcing its stigma.

The stigma of self-injury ultimately discourages people to seek help, because they feel like they’re all alone, doing something shameful that no one can ever know about. It’ll be a long time before I see my novel in print, and in the meantime, the least I can do is play my part in ensuring self-harm becomes an okay thing to talk about it.

For what it’s worth, when I told my classmates why I got my tattoo, they demonstrated empathy and didn’t freak out at all. Obviously, not everyone in the world will react in a positive way, but I shouldn’t necessarily assume that all people will react badly.

Anyway, that’s all I really wanted to say today… I didn’t manage to blog for all of February (even though I had an extra day to do it) but hopefully I’ll get some posts done in March. I’m now a full-time student again after five years away from the classroom, which has taken some getting used to. But I’m enjoying the course and the new routine. And I think my time management has improved (albeit through sheer necessity, since I’m continuing to do work for clients and revise my manuscript).

P.S. LifeSIGNS is my favourite resource on self-injury. Whether you self-injure, are trying to help someone who does, or just want to know more about it, there’s some really good information on their website.

Goodbye 2015, hello 2016!

It's 2016! Happy New Year!

If you’re reading this, you’ve made it into 2016. Here’s to happiness and exciting new beginnings. ๐Ÿ™‚

My 2015 in review

Despite falling into a bit of a holiday depression towards the end of the year, 2015 was actually pretty good to me — particularly from a writing perspective. I finished the first draft of my first novel in July, and went on to do another two redrafts before the end of the year.

I spent six months of the year doing the Write Your Novel program with the Australian Writers’ Centre, and my fellow students have now become my writing group. They encourage me, support me, and give me incredibly useful advice and feedback on my work. I hope I do the same for them, and that we’ll continue to help each other for many years to come.

I also started singing in front of people! First it was just my guitar teacher, but one evening, I signed up for live band karaoke at a local pub and haven’t looked back. I think I started because it dawned on me that I’ll probably have to talk to groups of people if I get my book published, and before that happens, I should at least be able to stand in front of them without passing out. But I also found singing a lot of fun. Although I still don’t know if I can talk to a group without music.

Other highlights include:

My goal for 2016

My biggest goal for 2016 is actually a goal I’ve had since I started reading chapter books at the age of six: to be a novelist. So I plan to polish my manuscript and start pitching my novel to agents this year. And then to publishers directly if I don’t manage to get an agent.

Hopefully in a year from now, my soul won’t be completely destroyed by rejection. ๐Ÿ™‚

I also want to start writing my next novel. I did begin a new story during NaNoWriMo, but other things got in the way of me finishing it. And I’m now pretty sure that particular story is actually a short story, rather than a novel. I’ve got some idea of what I want the next novel to look like, but I need to put pen to paper.

So that’s my plan for this year. It’ll take perseverance and self-belief, but the same could be said of all goals worth achieving.

How did 2015 treat you? What are your goals for 2016?

You don’t have to win NaNoWriMo

Blogging

NaNoWriMo
Trying to NaNo. Photo by Sumner Healey.
It’s Day 4 of NaNoWriMo and I have 3078 words. I don’t think I’ll get to 50,000 by November 30 and I’m trying not to worry about it. I know people who can easily knock out 5000 words in a couple of hours but I’ve never been a particularly prolific writer in terms of word count. What worked for my last novel, Black and Blue — and what I’m trying to do with this new one — is be consistent by writing something each day. Even if it’s just a scene, or a paragraph.

There’s no single way to write a novel. You have to figure out what works for you, and NaNoWriMo is a good way to do that, even if you don’t “win”. With all the writers around the world supporting one other during NaNo, it’s the encouragement a lot of people need to start writing a novel… and how else will you know how you write novels until you actually do it?

If I’m honest with myself, the novel I started this month — which currently has the working title Next of Kin — feels rather pedestrian. It could be natural self-doubt, it could be the fact that writing Black and Blue was such an intense experience, or it could be that Next of Kin is indeed dreadful. I’ll know soon enough.

I have a rough idea of where I think the story is going, but I’ve already been surprised by the appearance of an unexpected character, who feels important (but I’m not sure how or why yet).

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo?

Grief, purpose, and moving on

Grief. Photo by Paul Cristian Geletu/Freerange Stock.

I want to talk about grief. By definition, it’s the reaction one has to losing something. But it’s a fascinating process, because it’s different for everyone, and so many people have an opinion on it, e.g.

  • “Haven’t you moped around long enough? Get over it.”
  • “How can you be over it already? It obviously didn’t mean much to you.”
  • “Look at all the other people in the world whose lives are worse than yours. How dare you be unhappy.”
  • “You didn’t know him/her as well or as long as I did, so you don’t have the right to grieve.”

Those weren’t direct quotes, but my friends and I have been told some variation of all of those things over the course of our lives. But grieving processes will vary, from person to person, from situation to situation. And that’s perfectly okay.

I used to think moving on from something meant it didn’t hurt anymore. But it doesn’t mean that at all. Moving on is accepting that you’ll always have a hole in your heart because you’ve lost something that can’t be replaced, and then getting to a place where you can still live in spite of that.

Grief. Photo by Paul Cristian Geletu/Freerange Stock.
Grief. Photo by Paul Cristian Geletu/Freerange Stock.
I have a confession to make: I cry almost every day. That might seem at odds with my last post (when I said I was in a much better mental state than I’d been in the past) but it’s not. I mean, I have good days and bad days, and good moments within bad days, and bad moments within good days. But the reason I cry is because I’ve finally, truly realised why I am here.

I could be dead today. I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation on and off for ten years, and for most of that time I was alone because my crippling shyness made it hard to make close, meaningful friendships with anyone. (However, I’m determined to ensure it won’t stop me from doing all the things I need to do to be an author.) But for various reasons, I’ve survived to this point, even though I often wondered why until this year.

I had a moment of clarity in April, when I read Dani Shapiro’s blog post On What it Takes. In it, she talks about the books she had to write (even though everyone told her not to), and admitted she cries every day. I try not to seek or depend on validation from others, but the truth was, her admission gave me the space to feel okay about my crying. And the “feeling okay” was incredibly liberating.

I’ve shed countless tears while writing my work-in-progress novel and I’m sure there’ll be many more to come (I just finished my second draft). I have no idea how my manuscript will be received when I’m ready to send it out to agents and publishers. All I know is that this particular book gnawed at me, demanding that I write it until I did. I’ve poured my heart and soul into it, taking the emotions I once thought would kill me, and crafting them into a story that I hope will resonate with readers. Dani’s blog post also talked about making something out of nothing, and I guess that’s what I try to do too.

As I continued to write, it hit me that I may have an unfillable hole in my heart, but I also have a reason for living, and that’s my writing. Even if this manuscript is never published, I’ve learnt a lot about myself for having written it. I used to think only other people could finish something so big. I used to think I couldn’t live without my best friend. I used to think I’d be dead before my 25th birthday. But bit by bit, I’m proving myself wrong (I’m almost 27). And it feels good. The act of putting pen to paper, and fingers to keyboard, gives me so much purpose. And if someday my work helps someone going through their own battles, then all the tears and bruises and pain will have been more than worth it.

It’s okay if you’re not okay

Are you and your loved ones okay?

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day and R U OK? Day in Australia. Of course we should try to look out for one another and listen without judgment all the time, but days like this are good for raising awareness in the community.

The novel I’ve been working on deals with depression, anxiety and self-harm. I hope someday I will get it published and it will help start important conversations about mental health. But whether I achieve that or not, talking about mental health and removing the stigma around it is so, so important.

No one tells you to “just get over it” if you have a physical illness. With mental illness, you’re told it’s all in your head, as if that makes it less real. This week, it was revealed that AFL star Lance “Buddy” Franklin is suffering from a mental health condition and won’t play in his team’s qualifying final. While he’s received a lot of support, I’ve also seen comments on social media along the lines of “Hard to feel sorry for someone with so much money” and “If he can’t handle being famous he shouldn’t have become a footballer”. All this is ignorance (or douchebaggery) that I hope future generations don’t have to put up with.

It’s okay to say you’re not okay. I’m no longer ashamed to say that I wasn’t for a long time. But I got help, and now I’m doing a lot better. So please talk to a friend or family member, or call Lifeline (or the equivalent crisis support line in your area), or see your doctor. But don’t suffer in silence.

3 things I learned from finishing my first draft

pen and ink by Freerange Stock Archives

Hiro from Heroes
“Yatta!” – Hiro Nakamura, Heroes
One week ago, after several false starts and many tears, I finally finished the first draft of my novel.

It’s a good feeling, but there’s still a long way to go. I’m getting my manuscript workshopped by an awesome beta reading group next month, and I’m trying not to look at or think about it too much before then. Based on the feedback I receive from the beta readers, I’ll probably write a second draft before putting it away for a few months so I can come back to it fresh. I will most likely need a few redrafts before I’m ready to query agents and publishers. And there’s no guarantee it will even get published. Many authors’ first published novels are not actually the first novels they’ve written.

While I take a break from my first manuscript, I’ve started a rough outline of what might be my second. My theory is that having something else in the works will make the rejections less soul-destroying, but we’ll see. ๐Ÿ˜‰

In the meantime, I’ve come up with three things I learned by finishing the first draft. They’re obviously writer-focused, but I think the broad lessons are applicable to other areas of life.

  1. If something is important to you, you have to make time for it.

    A lot of people talk about wanting to write a book. Most of them never start, let alone finish one. If you’re serious about it, you need to make time to write, and prioritise your writing over other things. I don’t mean abandon your kids and stop going to the job that’s keeping a roof over your head. But if you take a good hard look at your day, there are probably things you can do less of, like watching TV and surfing the internet. Then set some time aside specifically for writing (or whatever your goals are).

    The perfect circumstances for something are never going to happen. For years, I wrote the occasional flash fiction but never made much progress with any novels I attempted. I’d told myself it was because I was too tired and didn’t have enough time to write. But the truth is, I simply didn’t want it enough back then to make any sacrifices for it.

  2. pen and ink
    I finished the first draft of my first novel. Photo: Freerange Stock Archives.
  3. Break big goals into smaller ones.

    Writing a novel is a daunting task. Many writers have daily word targets, and if that works for you, go for it. For me, setting a goal like “I must write 2000 words today” just made me feel bad about how little I was writing and how slowly things were going.

    Maybe it’s because numbers scare me (Contrary to most Asian stereotypes, I suck at maths) but my most effective goals were things like “I’m going to write that scene about X today” or “I have 20 minutes before dinner; let’s see how much I can write before then”.

    There were days I opened up my manuscript and eked out a hundred words or so. There were days when I easily cranked out a couple of thousand. There were days when I wrote nothing, but maybe had an epiphany about how I could solve a particular problem with one of the characters. But each of those days brought me a tiny bit closer to the end of that first draft.

  4. Be open-minded.

    Writers often talk about “plotters” vs “pantsers”. Plotters outline their novel before they begin, and I know of authors who have colour-coded spreadsheets of every scene before they’ve written a word. Pantsers, on the other hand, fly at the seat of their pants without much of a plan at all. I think most writers lie somewhere between these two extremes, but I was always closer to pantsing than plotting, believing that plotting would stifle my creativity.

    However, about 12 chapters in, I decided to try plotting. Using Scrivener, I mapped out chapter by chapter, scene by scene, for the rest of the novel. It took me a few frustrating hours. But after that, I was much more productive because when I sat down to write, I could just write — instead of staring at the screen for half an hour trying to figure out what scenes were needed to get from Point A to Point B.

    I’m not telling you to write a certain way. There’s no one way to write a novel, and you need to figure out what works for you. But the things that work for you might not be what you expected, so be open to trying things a new or different way.

Hope that helps you in some way! What are your goals?

11 thoughts that went through my head as I wrote my first sex scene

love scenes in fiction

love scenes in fiction
Love scenes. Photo by Chance Buell.
I’m working on a young adult novel and recently had to write my first sex scene. More than one published author has told me that sex scenes are always difficult, and my view is that they — like all scenes — should serve a purpose in advancing the story or the developing the characters. I’ve read a few new adult books where the two leads seem to be banging every five minutes, and I get bored by it.

I don’t know if the scene I wrote will survive the redrafting and editing process, but here are 11 thoughts that went through my head as I was writing it:

  1. Are they really going to do this? Maybe I can just make them watch Star Trek or something.
  2. No, this has to happen. It’s a highly emotional moment. It’s an important character and plot development. Just write. Write. Write!
  3. How far am I supposed to take a sex scene in YA fiction? Maybe I should put this away and read Forever by Judy Blume. Or Looking for Alaska by John Green. You know, for research and not at all for procrastination.
  4. Okay, I’m really writing this. I’m sorry, Mum and Dad.
  5. I think this could actually be the most awkward piece of writing ever produced. Hopefully it’s, “I can empathise with that”-awkward and not “I’m so embarrassed for this terrible author”-awkward.
  6. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. Uh, no pun intended.
  7. Why did I become a writer instead of an accountant?
  8. I did it! I just wrote my first ever sex scene!
  9. Oh god, I just wrote my first ever sex scene. What if my family and friends think I’m some kind of pervert?
  10. What if I get nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award? What if I win? Or maybe worse still, what if no one feels anything when they read this?
  11. Stop talking to yourself and just keep writing. It’s only a draft.

As a reader, how do you react to sex scenes in fiction? To what extent should sex be addressed in a book aimed at teenagers?

And if you’re a writer, how do you approach writing about things that make people (including yourself) uncomfortable?

Breaking the silence on self-injury

My LifeSIGNS and beyondblue wristbands

As I write this blog post, I am wearing two silicone wristbands to raise awareness for two mental health causes Iโ€™m passionate about. One of my wristbands is for beyondblue, an Australian not-for-profit organisation that helps people with depression and anxiety. The other is for LifeSIGNS, a UK-based online support network for self-injury awareness.

As important as they are to me, I donโ€™t talk about these topics often, because Iโ€™m shy and donโ€™t like making people uncomfortable. But Self-Injury Awareness Day is coming up on March 1, and Iโ€™m writing this because itโ€™s important to break the silence in order to break down the stigmas associated with self-harm and mental illness.

My LifeSIGNS and beyondblue wristbands
My LifeSIGNS and beyondblue wristbands
My first contact with self-harm was when I was 12 years old and a classmate asked to borrow my scissors or the pointy end of my compass. It was an eye-opener for someone who had led a very sheltered life. But self-harm is probably a lot more common than you think and can impact people of all ages, genders and backgrounds.

Iโ€™m currently writing my first novel. I donโ€™t know if it will be publishable when Iโ€™m finished with it; all I know is that this is the story I have to write.

The protagonist in my novel struggles with depression, social anxiety and self-injury. Her main coping mechanism is bruising herself. I didnโ€™t deliberately set out to challenge the misconception that Self-Harm = Cutting. But the term โ€œself-harmโ€ does encompass a whole range of behaviours that include cutting, bruising, burning, eating disorders, substance abuse, etc.

I may not be able to change the world. And itโ€™s often hard to find the right words to say in a given situation… I wrestled with this post for hours. But I hope someday my novel โ€“ or something else I write โ€“ will help someone, somewhere feel a little less alone. And maybe even start a conversation.

Have the conversation (beyondblue)

Self-Injury Awareness Day (LifeSIGNS)