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.

The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

Photo credit: Mark Bennington

This coming week, Kelly McGonigal will be speaking with fellow author Charles Durigg at the Penguin Random House Open House on Friday, November 8th, 2013. She was kind enough to share some of her notes on “Five Ways to Make a New Habit Stick”.

Five Ways to Make a New Habit Stick

1. Choose a tiny habit. Even if you want to change your whole life, the process of change starts with micro-decisions. Those little choices add up to big change. If you’re trying to form a new habit, change a behavior, or reach a major goal, start by defining the smallest concrete action you could take that is consistent with the big change. A right-size tiny habit is something you can do today, and you know when it’s done, so you can celebrate it. For example, if your goal is to quit smoking, saying “I won’t smoke today” is not a tiny habit, it’s a set-up for failure. Saying “I’m going to delay the first cigarette of the day by 10 min” is a good start. You’re practicing the habit of being able to tolerate the discomfort of a craving. If your goal is to get out of credit card debt, your tiny habit could be putting one thing back from your cart every time you find yourself checking out online or in a store. Here, you’re building the habit of rethinking every purchase.

The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.2. “I will” power is stronger than “I won’t” power. Even if your goal is to stop doing something, you will have more success if you can define it in terms of what you want to say yes to. For example, dieters have more success when they focus on creating health through nutritious foods and exercise than avoiding “bad” foods. Charles Duhigg talks about the importance of replacing a habit. But it’s also about creating an identity. You don’t just want to be an ex-smoker; who do you want to be? You don’t just want to be out of debt; what do you want financial freedom for? It’s important to be moving toward something that feels positive. Pair any “quitting” goal with a positive goal that your quitting goal supports.

3. Find your “want” power. Studies show that it’s important to be clear about what you are going to do to reach a goal, and when you are going to do it. But in a direct match-up, reflecting on the why of your goal improves success even more than thinking about the how of your goal. Make time every day to remember your why. Why is this change important to you? How will life be different if you succeed? How will you feel about yourself when you make this change for good?

4. Expect to change your mind. One of the most robust findings from the science of behavior change is that no matter how motivated you think you are, part of you will resist any plans that you make. If you’re at the gym, some of part of you will be ready to quit 5 minutes in to your workout. If you planned to have a difficult conversation at work, some part of you will decide it’s not the right day after all, tomorrow will be so much better. When you recognize that resistance is inevitable, you can start to see it as a signal to keep going, not to stop. Plan ahead – decide what you will say to yourself, and what you will do, when you find yourself talking yourself out of your commitment.

5. Forgive your mistakes. Research on habit formation show that slip-ups are part of the process, and any single setback has no effect on long-term success. What does predict success is how people react on day 2. Do they get so frustrated with themselves that they give up? Or do they forgive the setback and get back on track? Guilt and shame make it more likely that you’ll give up. A better strategy for dealing with setbacks is self-compassion. A setback means you are making a difficult change. If it were easy, you would have done it already. Accept an imperfect path to your end goal, and know that by getting back on track on day 2, you are choosing success.

Kombucha!: The Amazing Probiotic Tea that Cleanses, Heals, Energizes, and Detoxifies, Eric Childs & Jessica ChildsWhat do you get when you put a couple of love-blinded kombucha brewers into a tiny Williamsburg, Brooklyn apartment?  The same thing you get when you put yeast and bacteria in a nutritious broth of sweetened tea:


Just like the kombucha microbes whose purpose in life is to break apart, rebuild and reproduce, Eric and I found ourselves breaking down our expectations of what kombucha was and rebuilding it as it should be: exquisitely malleable, infinitely delectable, robustly healing and dependably useful in a wide variety of applications. What began as simple tinkering with the mechanics of kombucha brewing to make an even tastier healthy beverage, wound up being a full-fledged company sustaining the lives of our employees and an adventure into every room of our house to see just how useful kombucha could be. From the bathroom, to the kitchen, to the wet-bar and into the bedroom, we have tried kombucha in every application we could conceive of. To this day, kombucha is a marvel to us all bringing health, balance, fun and possibility.

Here it is mid-autumn and what would naturally be a time of winding down, sticking closer to home and preparing for a cozy winter cuddled up together as a family, is more like a 24/7 dance-a-thon as we gear up for a whirlwind winter at KBBK. Between the increase in sales of kombucha home brew supplies leading up to the holidays, the launch of our new 12-oz bottles and the release of our first-ever book, this fall is all about getting out and shaking things up!

With our lives growing in complexity and with things like seasonally enforced restoration being diminished, we are moving away from simplicity, wholesomeness and balance. I believe wholeheartedly in the awesomeness of human ambition and I am elated to benefit from all of our advances (medicine! 24-hour taco joints! electric guitars!). I also want that progress to be made with our balance intact and with the awareness that simple and whole is often better (we don’t really need two-necked guitars, but it would be cool to have a simple, ingenious, zero-impact air conditioning system!).

And this is where my points converge.  Kombucha and Kombucha Brooklyn are not only the embodiment of this vision, but are also the perfect catalysts to exact this change. All-natural kombucha is known for its energizing, healing and detoxifying properties; thus it is the perfect beverage to fuel human progress with wholesome balance.  Kombucha Brooklyn not only provides our customers with delicious and convenient kombucha in bottles, but we also have a kombucha on tap program so kombucha drinkers can declutter their lives by having one refillable ‘buch bottle.  And why stop there? We’ve also gathered up everything the home-brewer needs to brew ’buch at home.  Our complete line of brew supplies further reduces waste, brings people in touch with the art of brewing, makes kombucha available to people who cannot access kombucha either geographically or financially, and educates the world about the beneifts of kombucha.

When people brew their own kombucha at home, they have the freshest, most robust beverage possible. In fact,  why not overferment a little and have fresh kombucha vinegar whenever you need it? Instead of keeping a bottle of chemical-laden windex on hand at all times, why not wash your windows with kombucha for an all-natural, streak-free shine? You can even wipe down your counters and clean your bathtub with a nice strong batch of kombucha. There’s no need to stop there, kombucha is great for your hair, skin and nails and it makes a mean mixer at the bar.  Talk about simplifying things! Using versatile all-natural products like kombucha around your house keeps your waste low, your respect for life high and prevents your life from becoming overcomplicated with clutter. In short, it restores balance.

Taking cues from our beloved kombucha beverage, Eric and I have built Kombucha Brooklyn with the same key values in mind. Our decisions are guided by health for ourselves, our employees and the world. We are always seeking out better and more efficient uses of our resources, especially our natural ones (compostable disposables, organic ingredients, re-using everything we can in-office, recycling, etc). We are committed to providing a healthy and nourishing work-environment (KBBK midday yoga classes, bartering opportunities for our employees with other healthy food companies, fresh kombucha on tap!). We also seek out and support other organizations that are advancing their goals in health, environmental stewardship and the arts.

Like kombucha itself, as Kombucha Brooklyn continues to grow, our goal is to restore the world and the lives we touch to a state of balance.  Through our products, through our people and through our company, this is the mission that we are committed to.  I can’t tell you how excited Eric and I and the entire KBBK team are to do our part in making this world a wonderful place for mankind to LIVE, SIP and THRIVE!

Happy Brewing,

Jessica Childs, co-author of Kombucha!


The Secrets She Carried, Barbara DavisI’m often asked where the idea for The Secrets She Carried came from. My favorite answer, and one that always gets a bit of a cockeyed look, is that it literally came out of the ground. I then have to explain, of course, that I was sitting in the car one afternoon, waiting for my husband to come out of a store, when I happened to notice a single grave standing alongside of the road at the edge of a vacant, overgrown field.

Now, these kinds of graves aren’t a rarity in North Carolina. In fact, they’re all over the place. You see them alone or in small groups, beside a road or in the middle of a cornfield, or even, as in Greenville, North Carolina, smack dab in the middle of the mall parking lot, because back-in-the-day, it was perfectly acceptable to just bury grandma on the old homestead, or out behind the little country church. But now, many of those homesteads and churches are gone, leaving the dead behind, their graves lonely stone questions marks dotting the landscape.

Being born in New Jersey, and growing up in Florida, where you didn’t see these kinds of things, I was naturally intrigued. So there I was, sitting in the car, thoughts churning. Who was buried beneath that particular stone, and why? Did anyone ever visit? Were there family member still looking for that person, wondering what had happened to Great Aunt Lucy, or whoever? But more poignant than the who or the why, was my curiosity about the kinds of stories that might be buried there as well, stories that would be lost forever. And just like that, Adele Laveau, one of the main characters in Secrets, was born, fully formed with a present and a past, like a movie playing in my head.

But as I begin writing her story, and gradually unraveling her secrets, a theme I hadn’t planned on gradually began to emerge. It had to do with the way the strength of our families so often runs in the blood of its women. The tangible things, names and land and fortunes, are traditionally passed down through the male line, but the true legacy of a family—its stories and memories and traditions—live on in the choices and actions of its women, echoing down through the generations, subtly shaping the lives of those they left behind.

As I grow older, I find this to be especially true in my own family. Perhaps, because as I wrote The Secrets She Carried my own female ancestors were never far from my thoughts, along with the realization that when these strong and beautiful, women left this world, they took so much that is precious with them; answers to questions I’d always meant to ask but never quite got around to, the names and dates and places behind all the yellowing photos in the attic, the curious bits of memorabilia pressed into scrapbooks—of holidays and birthdays and vacations—the ordinary, everyday things that add up to who my family is today.

Yes, those women took a lot with them, but what they left behind is absolutely priceless, a legacy of love and strength and endurance, an example for those who remain, for my mother, and for me. Time is short, and so very precious, and someday slips through the fingers far too soon. So my advice to all—but to women especially—is to make the time to ask the questions and to listen to the stories, because though you might not realize it yet, they are your stories too, and down the road your life will be richer for knowing them.

Robicelli's: A Love Story, with CupcakesI’ve been reading cookbooks obsessively since I was a child, and having the chance to write one of my own has been a lifelong dream. I knew that I’d never write a “plain cookbook” — if you want recipes, check the internet.  The ones that always appealed to me were the ones with stories of distant lands, or elegant parties, or at the very least multipage instructionals on how to fold a napkin into a swan.

Unfortunately the only thing I can turn a cloth napkin into is a wad.

And being from Brooklyn — not the trendy side, mind you — this means my “elegant parties” usually involved a keg of Miller High Life and a six-foot-hero.  As for distant lands…does New Jersey count?

But this would not be something that would dissuade me from writing a cookbook.  I’ve worked hard in in my decade long career to become one of the most respected people in my profession. I’ve built a well-known bakery in New York City, the most competitive food market in the country, during the Great Recession. I’ve become, dare I say it, a Q-list food celebrity.

I’ve also become mainly associated with our most popular item — cupcakes. You know, the dessert that was “over in 2001.” The one there had been 10,000 books written about. The one people were, to put it mildly, not remotely interested in publishing yet another book about.  Hell, I’m not sure if I even wanted to see another cupcake book on the shelves of my local bookstore.  I knew I wouldn’t end up being one of the countless Brooklyn “artisans” who just got handed a book deal by some random person walking down the street who knew there was a market for a tome about fish-pickling at home. There would be actual work involved.

I began writing anywhere that would have me. First on my blog, then on other people’s blogs, and always shooting my mouth off on Twitter. This last one got me my agent, who probably has a smarter mouth than I do.

And the first place I took her to illustrate my point was the cookbook section of Barnes & Noble.

“Look at that wall of books. See if you can pick out the baking shelf.”

“Let me see…is it the one that’s all pink?”


My agent and I began to make a list of what we did and didn’t want the book to be. We didn’t want it to be pink, or baby blue, or kitschy, or a novelty, or a “humor” book.  What we did want was to write was a serious baking book, for, well, chicks like us. And by that, I mean really, really awesome chicks. And some dudes, too, but mostly chicks who like snarky, sassy, funny writing, who have brains and crave information that’s presented in a fun and accessible way.  There are millions of women in this country who are smart, like edgy, sophisticated humor, and yes, also like to cook and eat. Girls who like sports and movies like Dumb & Dumber, who can quote episodes of The Simpsons, wrote ‘zines when they were teenagers, were or wished they were in a band, and feel sexy as all hell in jeans and a t-shirt but can still put on a short skirt and heels and KILL it.  Where was our cookbook with lots of curse words and comic strips mocking the French?

The more we talked about it, about our story, about the kind of book we’ve wanted to see for ages and didn’t, we realized there were lots of voids in the cookbook market that we wanted to fill. I was going to write a book for:

● People who love to bake but want to know more about HOW the process works rather than just a book full of recipes and pretty pictures

● People who have never baked, or really suck at it and want to learn not only how to do it, but to understand what they’ve been doing wrong in an entertaining way.

● Dudes who want to learn to bake something to help them get laid, but can’t make it past the back cover of most baking books.

● People who are interested in getting a behind the scenes glimpse of such exciting things as: owning your own business, working with your spouse without murdering them, juggling a business with your marriage while raising two children under the age of five without a nanny or trust fund, trying to keep your head above water during a recession, bouncing back after you lose everything and still managing to become one of the most buzzed about brands in the internationally known Brooklyn food scene, growing up and surviving in New York City, being a professional chef, and learning about the various conspiracy theories I have about the Catholic church and robots.

I worried it would be a hard sell, that no one would believe in our scrappy little book, that if I got any interest at all, they’d make me scrap all my jokes and four-letter words and write something traditional and gooey and oh-so-cutesy-wootsey.

Penguin didn’t want cutesy.  They have understood from the very beginning that this wasn’t a “Plain ol’ cookbook.”  From the language to the boundary pushing jokes, to our supremely odd cookbook trailer, we’re pushing way past the point of merely a collection of recipes, and into something different.

In their words: a cookbook like none you’ve ever seen before.

Drizzled with Death, Jessie Crockett I live in New England and set my books here for reasons that run the gamut from family history to the quality of life. One of my favorite things about New England is the changing of the seasons. All of them are delicious in their way but mid-autumn has a special place in my affections. By late October gusts of wind and bursts of rain have sent as many leaves pinwheeling to the ground as still remain clinging to the trees. Daylight feels scarce and wood smoke drifts through the air.  Summer is well and truly gone and will be a long, long time in returning.

And while vitamin D deficiencies may be in the offing, so is prime reading time. How light the heart of the avid reader in New England when the nicest weather is gone and you don’t feel guilty for wasting a beautiful day with your nose inside a book. How right you are to snuggle on the couch or in a wingback chair in front of the woodstove with a stack of eagerly anticipated reads and a mug of mulled cider.

Whether your taste runs to cookbooks or bleakly elegant Scandinavian crime novels there is no better pleasure than diving in headlong without asking yourself if you really ought to be out mowing the lawn or weeding the vegetable garden. Winter is relentlessly heading in your direction and blessedly, there is nothing to do but ride it out within doors. And while some people may seek warmer climes as the snow thinks about falling I am perfectly content to stay here in New England where the weather is just getting to be perfect.

Never Come Back, David BellNever Come Back is a novel about family secrets. The novel is narrated by Elizabeth Hampton, and in the opening chapter, Elizabeth’s mother is found dead. I’ll let you read the book to find out who really did it—suspense!—but I hope that final revelation comes as a surprise—as it has to a number of readers already. Along the way to that final revelation, Elizabeth finds out that her mother—a quiet, retired, sixty-nine-year old—had a secret life before Elizabeth and her brother were born—and her death in the opening chapter is the result of those long-hidden secrets. Even though this novel is about a mother and a daughter, I’d have to say that the story has some of its origins in my relationship with my dad who died in 2011.

I attended Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, as an undergraduate. When I was a junior in high school, living in Ohio, I decided—without any real, logical reason behind it—that I needed to attend Indiana University. It had a beautiful campus, a great basketball team, and it was far enough away from home (two and a half hours) to feel like a new life. Naturally, I told my parents of my intentions. I even went so far as to tack a Indiana University brochure up in my bedroom so that I would remind myself every day to study and do well on standardized tests so that I could get into my dream school. My parents were supportive of my choice even though no one we knew had ever gone to school there, leaving my mom to worry that I’d be all alone in that foreign country called Indiana. (I didn’t tell her I wanted to go someplace where no one knew me.)

So I was accepted to Indiana. I went to orientation with my parents, then in the fall they moved me into my dorm. My parents came and visited a few times, and because I didn’t have a car, they came and picked me up on holidays and breaks. All told, I’d say they visited Bloomington about ten or twelve times during my first two years of college. At the end of my second year of college, my parents came to pick me up for the summer break. We decided to go to lunch, and I noticed that my dad—a man with the best sense of direction of anyone I’ve ever known—was driving some circuitous route to the restaurant. He was taking his sweet time and turning his head from side to side as though checking out all the scenery.

“Dad, what are you doing?” I asked. “Is something wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “I’m just trying to remember where I lived when I lived in Bloomington.”

A long pause while his words registered in my brain.

“What do you mean where you lived when you lived in Bloomington?” I asked.

“I lived in Bloomington for a year or so before I married your mother. I’m trying to remember where my apartment was.”

Again, I paused and took this information in. Then I said, “Do you mean to tell me I’ve been going to school here for two years, and before that thinking of going to school here for two years, and you never thought to mention that you lived here?”

My dad offered no comment. That was frequently his way of handling questions. He just didn’t answer them.

“Mom?” I said, turning to the other adult in the car. “Did you know that Dad lived in Bloomington for a year before he married you?”

Without missing a beat, my mom said, “That’s the first I’ve ever heard of it.”

My dad was a bachelor until he married my mom. They were both thirty-six. After he died, I found a box of old photographs in our attic. They showed my dad in a lot of different places—at the beach, in the Air Force, in nightclubs and at parties. He had a lot of friends—and he posed for pictures with a lot of different women. I found a psychological profile of him written by a prospective employer. It said he could be cheerful and garrulous but also a bully who tried to argue with people until he got his way. We found out about all the creative ways he “paid” the bills. (Hint: Mom’s still paying them.)

I loved the man dearly, and I never doubted he loved me. But I sure as hell didn’t know everything about him. Is it any wonder I wrote a book like Never Come Back?

Drizzled with Death, Jessie Crockett As much as I might like to be, I am not really a black and white thinker. If you hand me a multiple choice test I can usually make a pretty decent argument for reasons any of the answers could be correct given certain circumstances. While this is not a trait that lends itself to standardized test taking, it is well suited to a career as a fiction writer. Since I write mysteries, a life spent entirely in shades of gray is particularly useful. I have much more trouble winnowing down motives for murder for each of my suspects than I do thinking up reasons someone would poison her neighbor.

You get used to yourself, of course, and don’t realize how weird it is to think of these things until you do so aloud in the company of others. A couple of years ago a friend and I were following an ordinary looking sedan down a quiet, country road. Framed in the rear window of the sedan was a plastic laundry basket. The basket appeared to be empty, in decent shape and of a deep gold color that was last popular in the seventies.

How was it possible, I asked my friend, for such a thing to have lasted so long and why would anyone stick it in their car where it would block the driver’s view. I kept throwing out possibilities that could solve the mystery. Had they used it to transport a lost kitten back to its home? Was it holding a work of art flat in the bottom? Had the driver, in a fit of unbridled optimism, purchased the contents of an abandoned storage unit and the laundry basket was the only thing worth saving?

And why wasn’t it placed on the backseat instead of in the window? After all, no heads were showing and I couldn’t make out tops of child safety seats either. Was there a sleeping dog sprawled across the seat? Or, could there be a body cooling there instead? Was it a rare vintage laundry basket worth killing someone for?

My friend let me ramble on for several minutes and then sighed deeply.

“Jess,” she said, “it’s just an ugly laundry basket and I couldn’t care less why it’s there. I wouldn’t give it another thought.” But I did. Every now and again when I am doing laundry I still get to thinking about that basket and what could explain it. Sure it’s crazy, but I can’t help but think one day it will end up in a story.