Beautiful Americans, Lucy SilagHalf the fun of NaNoWriMo is the breaks you take to update your word count on social media. Last weekend, I happily tweeted out my latest stats, hashtagging them with #NaNoWriMo. Then, I clicked through to see what others had just tweeted about it.

Imagine my dismay when I saw that two friends of mine from graduate school were just at that very moment engaging in a Twitter conversation about NaNoWriMo—and not a friendly one. Literary writers both, they were mocking the idea of anyone being able to write a novel in a month. One friend went for a cheap laugh by calling it “National Delete a Novel Month.”

I do not usually take people to task over differences of opinion on social media. But this time I felt compelled to intervene.

“You shush!” I tweeted at them. “I’m doing it!”

Immediately, my two friends apologized for any offense, which made me laugh, and then forgive them. They are both kind, funny people—snarky, but in a charming way. Their NaNo–naysaying was harmless. But the exchange stuck with me. Why do some writers resist the idea of NaNoWriMo, not just for themselves, but as a cultural phenomenon? What is it about binge-writing that is so distasteful to the “serious writer”?

Me, I’ve always been a fan of binge-writing. I wrote my first book, Beautiful Americans, in a series of Saturday afternoon binges. I was 23 years old, just out of college, and new to New York City. My fiancé, who was then my boyfriend, got up at 5am every Saturday for his shift at Borders at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. So every Saturday I was left to my own devices, since I didn’t have many friends in the city yet. For the first few months, I’d spent those days reading, or looking at Myspace. I’d always said about myself: “I could write a book if I tried.” Since I had some time on my hands, I decided to try.

Early drafts of that book, Beautiful Americans, were really terrible. My favorite TV show at the time was Lost, and because of that I was enchanted with the idea of my characters flashing back to really involved, harrowing scenes from their lives before they’d all met. There were about twenty main characters, and none of them were very likeable—they stole, lied, and cheated, and always with a snotty attitude. Not only that, the characters were 17 but spoke like they were 23 and just out of college—like their author. Best of all, the novel took place in Paris, a city I was not at all knowledgeable about or even particularly admired. Every time a character encountered the city around them, they remarked how much it smelled of urine.

Luckily, I was young and not very self-aware, and thought that if I was having fun doing something, I must be good at it. For hours at a time, I typed away at this manuscript, completely living in its world for the whole day. I never attempted to make it a part of my everyday life, because binge-writing was so engrossing. When I finished a draft, I binge-revised it. It went on like this for months, binge-writing and binge-revising as it made its way from pipe dream to agent to published book.

There were so many drafts of Beautiful Americans. I cannot tell you how many, because I lost count after 20. I wrote, rewrote, and copyedited that thing until it was a very, very distant cousin of the original manuscript, a cousin so far removed that they weren’t of the same species.

I recently heard a famous, National Book Award-winning writer describe her early days in this way: “I wrote my way to a new life.”  Beautiful Americans, and those long-ago Saturdays I spent just pouring out the words, not worrying if they were good or bad or even spell-checked, led me into a new life, too.

Even before I published the Beautiful Americans books, they gave me so much. Because of that first manuscript, I saved up for a research trip to Paris so that I could fact check the book before it was sent to publishers, and on that trip I started to finally see what was so enchanting about the City of Light, now one of my favorite places in the world. Writing that manuscript brought me into contact with a community of writers here in New York, which brought me friends in my city. Most of all, writing those drafts proved right something I’d always had a hunch about: I could write a book if I tried. Not everyone knows that about themselves. I do. It’s a great feeling.

I wouldn’t know what that felt like if I hadn’t started somewhere, and binge-writing on Saturdays, like Wrimos are doing all through the month of November, all over the world, is where I started.

Many “serious writers” are suspicious of NaNoWriMo because of how they painstakingly labor over every word of prose. Wrimos just let the words fly. How can something be good if so little thought is going into its construction?

Don’t be fooled by this. These are simply two ways of going about the same hard work, and arguments about which is the better way are silly.

What we do know is that one of these types of writers is spending November feeling like they are moving boulders uphill, and the other feels like they’re riding a bike downhill with no hands, whooping (or tweeting) are the whole way.

I’ll happily take the latter.

Lucy Silag is the Community and Engagement Manager for Book Country, Penguin’s online writing and publishing community.

The Lair, Emily McKay

The second book in the series, out now!

A lot of people assume that since I write vampire novels, I must be fascinated with this particular variety of the undead. Mmmm … yes and no. There are certainly elements of vampire mythology that I find curious. I’m interested in how our perception of vampires has changed over time. But would I want to be a vampire? No. In fact, hell no. Here are my top reasons why vampirism is not for me:

  1. Eternally undead = eternally bored – I could probably get on board with the whole not aging thing (Nobody wants wrinkles, right?), but frankly the idea of never dying kind of freaks me out. Forever is a long time. I mean, wouldn’t you get bored? Are really supposed to believe vampires experience no existential angst? But maybe I just read Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit at a formative age.
  2. What if I’m an unattractive vampire? Forever? – Here’s the part where I sound vain and frivolous. (Just thought I’d warn you.) I’m still working on loosing those last ten to twenty pounds. What if I get turned before I reach my goal weight? If eternity is boring, then eternity  fifteen pounds from my goal weight … well, that just seems very disappointing. (Actually Adam Rex wrote an interesting YA about this very issue called Fat Vampire. Check it out!)
  3. Diet – and speaking of diet, don’t you think that all blood diet would get boring? I don’t even like to eat the same breakfast cereal too many days in a row (except Lucky Charms) so I can’t imagine eating the same meal every day for, oh about …eternity

    The Farm, Emily McKay

    The first book in the series

  4. Holidays – Sure, there are no guarantees that vampires even celebrate the basic holidays, but if they do, what do they eat? Does drinking blood mean no Peeps? No Cadbury eggs? No Halloween candy??? I wouldn’t want to live like that. And no turkey at Thanksgiving? (Assuming these are American vampires.) No way!
  5. I’d end up hopelessly unhip – In the end it comes down to this. I don’t think I’m cool enough to be a vampire. I don’t think I could be an ultra cool and charasmatic vampire like Lestat. I don’t adapt to change that well. I’m not even middle-aged yet, and I already use the phrase “Well, when I was young…” entirely too often. Can you imagine how bad that would be after two hundred years? Or four hundred? “You have allergies? Bah! Back in my day we had the plague!”

In the end, I guess I’ll just have to stay human. Unless I lose those last fifteen pounds. And someone makes Peep flavored blood. Then, we’ll talk.

Headhunters on My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story, J. Maarten Troost

As we end 2013, the Penguin staff celebrates and recommends some of the outstanding books you may have missed this year.

J. Maarten Troost is the acclaimed author of The Sex Lives of Cannibals and Getting Stoned with Savages. His third foray into the South Pacific Islands is his newest memoir Headhunters on my Doorstep. Funny and witty, I found myself laughing out loud on every page.

Following in the steps of Robert Louis Stevenson, Troost island-hops to the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Tahiti, Kiribati and Samoa. In between bizarre observations of the local color, touching personal reflections and his ongoing struggle to stay clean, Troost makes the reader feel at ease, feel like they are there with him (the best kind of travel-log) and even tells the story of how he came to get his first tattoo…when he was over the age of forty – and sober! I want everyone to read this!!

- Beth Parker, Associate Director of Publicity, Gotham and Avery Books

The Lair, Emily McKayNow that the second book in the Farm series is out, I get a lot of people asking me which book was harder to write. Of course, the truth is, all books are hard to write. There’s the grueling emotional toll that writing takes on you (and if it’s not emotionally grueling, you’re not digging deep enough). And then there’s the sheer willpower it takes to sit your butt in the chair and put fingers to keyboard. That’s the same for every book. And then, there are the problems that are unique for every book. Each story taps into your fears and emotions in a different way.

When I wrote The Lair, the opening action of the book takes place at Base Camp, where the teenagers who are part of the rebellion are living. It’s winter. They’re in the mountains. And all of civilization has collapsed around them. I spent a lot of time worrying about how to feed these two hundred plus imaginary people. It’s a world without grocery stores! A world without fast food! Where is the food coming from?

The question doesn’t even take up that much of the book. It’s just something I thought about a lot. It got in my head. I found myself creeping out of bed in the middle of the night to research how to stockpile food. Did you know you can have a year’s worth of food drop shipped to your house? Did you know you can make a candle out of a can of Crisco? Did you know it’s still possible to get scurvy if you don’t get enough vitamin C? This is the kind of information that can really mess with your head.

Then one day, I went to the grocery store and they were completely out of zucchini. I freaked out, sure this was a sign of the coming apocalypse. So … um, yeah. I sort of started stock piling food.

But here’s the thing about book-related insanity: it comes and goes. Now that my Lair-related crazy has passed, my brief foray into prepping has allowed me to make a generous donation to my local food bank. That’s a good thing, right?

I’ve moved on to other forms of crazy, now. Like wondering whether evil monsters will ever invade our world from a parallel universe. And if they do, will grocery stores still operate?

The Sister Season, Jennifer ScottI started writing in 2000. The very first novel I completed was a women’s fiction mystery—a huge manuscript—set on a farm in rural Missouri. I had no luck with that novel. I was a horribly inexperienced writer, and it showed. But just the act of finishing a novel planted a deep desire, and I was determined to one day become a published women’s fiction author.

Over the next six or so years, I wrote another three women’s fiction novels. I was writing a weekly humor column for The Kansas City Star at the time, so I decided to try humorous fiction. Each novel showed improvement over the one before, but none had quite the right magic to really work. All fell flat. It seemed at times that I would never get published, but I was still determined to keep learning, and keep trying.

Eventually, I strayed away from women’s fiction. My fifth novel was a young adult novel, about the aftermath of a school shooting. To my surprise, it sold. And so did the next three after that. In 2009, after nine long years of rejection, I became a published young adult novelist, writing under the name Jennifer Brown.

But even though I was published, and I loved being a young adult author, I wasn’t published in women’s fiction, and that dream still burned in my heart. I wrote another women’s fiction novel. While it was better, it still wasn’t quite good enough.

Five women’s fiction novels written; five failed. I began to suspect maybe it was time to finally give up. To admit that I would never achieve women’s fiction publication, and that maybe I should just be happy writing it…for me.

So I regrouped. I went back to the farm that featured in the very first novel I’d written back in 2000.

It was the farm of my childhood—a bit of acreage in Pleasant Hill, Missouri that my family owned, across the road from another piece of farmland owned by a close family friend. As a child, my every Sunday was spent on that farm, working, relaxing, eating. It was a place of comfort for me. A place of adventure. A place where my imagination could run wild. A place that meant family and friendship and the beauty of the Midwest, in all of its glorious seasons.

The land is still there, and still ours, but my family stopped regularly visiting the farm in the 1980s. But it’s still as fresh to me in my mind as it was when I was ten years old. When I revisited it in my fiction, I brought some characters—sisters—who had been as long removed from it as I had been. I wondered if they could experience the magic that I had felt there so many years ago. To me, the farm itself became a character in the story. A wise, comforting, healing force in the sisters’ lives, just as it was a shaping force in mine.

That second farm story was The Sister Season. Finally, after 13 years of trying, my first women’s fiction was finally born. I believe it was the power of passion, persistence, and personal past that all came together in just the right way for me to finally achieve my dream.

I hope readers feel the same enchantment as they follow Claire, Maya, and Julia through the Missouri fields as I felt in those same beloved fields so many years ago.

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, David Nasaw

American Experience JFK, Part 1 aired last Monday, November 11th, on PBS. This was the first of a two-part documentary honoring the life of John F. Kennedy, as we remember his life on the 50th anniversary of his assassination on Friday, November 22nd.

Historian David Nasaw is featured throughout the documentary as an expert on JFK’s life. Nasaw is also the author of The Patriarch: The Remarkable Live and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, a “brilliant, compelling” (The New York Times Book Review) biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, selected by The New York Times as one of the Ten Best Books of the Year and a 2013 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Biography.

PBS’s American Experience JFK, Part 2, continued November 12th on PBS, and can be viewed online. This section examines Kennedy’s inauguration For an in-depth look, we suggest Thurston Clarke’s Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America. The documentary also talks a lot about Jacqueline Kennedy.  Acclaimed biographer Sarah Bradford explored the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the woman who has captivated the public for more than five decades in America’s Queen, now available with a new cover.

For more books about the life of JFK, take a look at:

JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President, Thurston Clarke

Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America, Thurston Clarke

If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History, Jeff Greenfield

The Lair, Emily McKay

The second book in the series, out now!

Ever once in a while someone asks why I decided to write my own take on vampires, especially since there are so many other books out there.

I was sitting in a writing workshop … oh, probably four years ago. The workshop was on world building and the presenter talked about how important it is for all the elements to make sense. At the time, I thought, “Well, the world in some vampire books doesn’t make any sense. If the vampires are really smarter, faster and stronger than us, then why are they in hiding? Why haven’t they taken over the world and started farming us as food.” And then I thought, “Someone should write a book where that happens. I’d totally read that!” And then I had that aha moment. “Hey, I should write a book like that!”

Ever since the vampire craze started (again), I’ve been missing scary vampires. So I knew I wanted to write scary vampires. I grew up watching Dark Shadows (which seemed really scary at the time) and reading Ann Rice. I wanted to be scared again.

The Farm, Emily McKay

The first book in the series

I don’t think the vampire market will ever go away completely. Vampire mythology speaks to something deep within us. Our fear and our delight in vampires is a metaphor for complex issues that terrify us. Whether you’re looking at the medieval vision of a vampire as a bloated corpus or at Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, vampires are more than just the monsters that terrify us (or seduce us). They’re the parts of our own nature that scare us the most.

Here are some of my favorite vampires:

  • Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Thomas from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files
  • George Hamilton from Love at First Bite (so cheesy and just so much fun!)
  • Gary Oldman as Dracula

Who are your favorite vampires?

Archipelago: A Novel, Monique Roffey

As we end 2013, the Penguin staff celebrates and recommends some of the outstanding books you may have missed this year.

Staff Picks

Ryan Murphy, Marketing Assistant, Penguin Books

The Guardian claimed that the book “travels to new, intoxicating latitudes,” and it was awarded the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. But good luck finding someone who has read Archipelago.

Monique Roffey’s mesmerizing third novel tells the story of Gavin Weald, Trinidadian husband and father, whose home and family alike are devastated by a raging flood. An island-hopping journey through the Caribbean allows Gavin to escape his hopeless, depressed existence, and his daughter Océan’s storm-induced night terrors.

Their trip is dreamlike and wandering, reflective of Gavin’s listlessness and Océan’s sense of young wonder, and it’s this tropical torpor that likely worked against it in the American marketplace—the New York Times chided the book for having “not quite enough action.” But action is hardly the point here.

Roffey’s beautiful and moving story of a shattered family trying to reconcile its fragments meanders and drifts, floats along amid dolphins and jellyfish, and is all the more quietly powerful for its refusal to hurry Gavin and Océan’s emotional voyage.

Do you ever sign up for something, like a potluck, or a 5K run, and then feel like you really wish you hadn’t bothered?

That’s kind of how I was about National Novel Writing Month, the online phenomenon where writers write fifty thousand words during the thirty days of November. This fall, it had been decided that Book Country, where I work as the Community and Engagement Manager, would be a sponsor of NaNoWriMo 2013. Book Country is Penguin Random House’s online writing and publishing community, and like NaNoWriMo, we are all about connecting writers. For the same reason that I love working at Book Country, I love the idea of Nano—a bunch of people, sitting at computers, smartphones, and tablets all over the planet—taking part in a conversation about writing, language, and what it means to tell a story. I blithely signed up, and started telling people that I was doing it.

I love the idea of writing 50K words in thirty days like I love the idea of potlucks, and the idea of running a 5K. But slaving over a casserole the night before a potluck, or getting up at 5am to run on a cold overcast morning? Those are hard tasks to actually execute. I was starting to get a bad feeling that NaNo was going to be a slog, and an uphill one at that. On Book Country, there’s no pressure: our members write as much or as little as they like. But if a Wrimo doesn’t reach 50K words, they don’t “win.” If there’s one idea I really don’t love, it’s the idea of being a loser.

As Halloween approached, I found myself making promotional memes for Book Country and NaNoWriMo that had a distinctly morbid feeling, using fonts named “Exquisite Corpse” and “Shlop.” It’s fair to say that NaNoWriMo had me spooked. But there was no going back now—too many Book Country members knew that I was doing NaNoWriMo. Had I set myself up for failure?

What scared me the most was the possibility of interminable exhaustion at my real job. Would I be able to pay attention in meetings? Would I get sick of staring at a computer screen? Would I be distracted by the novel plotting that was happening in my head, so much so that I couldn’t perform my job well? All around me were Halloween-themed zombie references, and that’s what I feared I’d be like to my coworkers—unfocused, unproductive, unhelpful, crawling like a zombie through our projects.

A while back, I’d arranged to take a vacation day on Monday, November 4th, so that I could spend some time with family and visiting friends, but these plans fell through. I almost told my boss that I would reschedule the time off, but something told me to just take the day.

Stocked with leftovers from the weekend in the fridge (and plenty of diet Coke!), I sat down Monday morning with the resolve to just “NaNo”—write without stopping—for as long as I could stand it. I had no other plans. If not on this day, when would there ever be a more perfect time to dive in?

For the next 12 hours, I punched word after word into my keyboard, stopping for short breaks to Tweet and to check Facebook (and to announce my word count progress, of course!).

NaNoWriMo, as it turns out, is a much different beast than other obligations I’ve taken on: it’s a blast!

That day, writing didn’t feel how it  normally feels: analytical, studied, focused. My writing was a sloppy mess. My neck ached from spending the day hunched over my laptop. When I closed my eyes, I saw a glowing Google doc with the word “NaNoWriMo 2013” swimming at the top.

And yet!

I ended up logging 10,666 words.

It felt like splashing red paint on a white wall: wild and crazy. It was the same feeling that I get after a fun party (or potluck), and I had as much breathless energy as I feel after a long run. It wasn’t just that I could brag about my word count on social media (though of course I did that right away). It was that it hadn’t felt like work; more like a 12-hour conversation with an outgoing, boisterous friend.

A useful vacation, too, in terms of writing: I learned things about how I write when I let go —what words I tend to repeat (“Smile,” “awkward,” “intimate”), what’s easy for me to come up with at random (dialogue, describing the way things smell), and what stumps me time and time again (descriptions of facial expressions).

That day of NaNo-ing was so much fun that now when I go back to my project, I feel inspired to just keep going, even if that only means a few hundred words tapped out on my phone during my commute. It all adds up, and it feels more like hanging out with a friend than writing a novel. I bring that energy into my workday with me, letting it be the escape I look forward to before and after I’m at the office. On Book Country, I’m telling our members how much fun I’m having, and I am encouraging them to do NaNoWriMo with me.

For those who are doing NaNoWriMo, and like me, are afraid of it becoming a drag on your energy level at work, do whatever you can to carve out a big chunk of time in the next few days, at least four hours. Use it to just sit with your novel and get to know it, so that it becomes a friend to you. If you’re among friends, you have nothing to fear.

Lucy Silag is the Community and Engagement Manager for Book Country, Penguin’s online writing and publishing community.