Author Jessica McHugh talks process (and horrible handwriting)

Last week author Jessica McHugh responded to one of my Facebook posts saying that she handwrites her drafts. I’m always curious about other writers’ process, so natch, I asked her to elaborate…

Jessica wins NaNoWriMo '13 with 15 days to go...on her birthday! I'd drink that whole bottle too.

Jessica wins NaNoWriMo ’13 with 15 days to go…on her birthday! I’d drink that whole bottle too.

TB: You HANDWRITE everything? What are we talking about here, 1st and 2nd drafts? Are you publishing books in your own script?

JM: I handwrite most of my work. Sometimes I’ll type a first draft, but it’s few and far-between, and I won’t do it for stories over 3000 words. Typically, I handwrite first drafts, type it into the computer, print it out and put it in a binder, and then edit/extend by hand. And as much as I’d love to publish books in my own script, no one would be able to read them but me! Even when I’m stone-sober, my handwriting looks like drunken Elvish. But it also it means no one can open one of my notebooks and steal my ideas!
TB: I see what you mean from the pic below. I did not think anyone had worse handwriting than me. So how long have you been doing this and do you have blisters?
JM: Since I started writing seriously at 19. Each of my twenty-one novels were handwritten. And I do have quite the triumphant writing callus on my ring finger. When I worked in a lab and had to do repetitive pipetting, I developed tendonitis, and it made handwriting difficult. My job actually tried to blame the tendonitis on my writing so they wouldn’t have to pay for it. Well, I’ve been writing full-time, by hand, since this past April, and I haven’t experienced a single twinge of tendonitis. Odd, methinks. 😉
TB: Odd indeed. Oh, day job. You and your tricks! OK. Truthfully, how is this process helpful (or harmful) to you. that even English?

Um…is that even English?

JM: Words flow more freely when I have a pen in hand. It’s a more visceral experience and makes me feel akin to my inky forebears. I honestly wish I could type first drafts, but I find the glow of a computer screen too demanding somehow. Paper is soft, and the notebook bends to me. I’m in control, like when I dig that pen into the pulp and create worlds, I’m really creating something. As much time as it adds to my process (having to type everything up), I feel more inspired and joyful writing by hand. Plus, sitting in the corner with just a notebook and pen means I don’t get distracted by the internet as easily. It still happens, of course, but not as often as when I’m typing.
TB: I see what you mean about having a visceral experience. It’s an incredible process. Thanks for sharing!
JM: Thanks!!
Jessica McHugh is an author of speculative fiction spanning the genre from horror and alternate history to young adult. A member of the Horror Writers Association and a 2013 Pulp Ark nominee, she has devoted herself to novels, short stories, poetry, and playwriting. Jessica has had fourteen books published in five years, including her bestseller, “Rabbits in the Garden,”  and the gritty coming-of-age thriller, “PINS.” 2014 will see the release of three more novels, including the start to her edgy YA series “The Darla Decker Diaries.” More info on her speculations and publications can be found at

Winning NaNoWriMo

2013-Winner-Vertical-BannerThis morning I got an email that declared that of the more than 300,000 people who signed up to do NaNoWriMo, I am one of only 41,940 people to finish over the 50k mark. This means that for every 7 people who participated this year, only 1 of them actually finished.

It’s a little bit crazy to set out intending to write an entire novel (or a good chunk of one) in 30 days, especially with all the regular distractions that make it hard to write anything at anytime on any day. But once it’s over, it’s great to just have the damn thing done already.

So it makes me wonder: if I do this twice a year, I could have two workable drafts to spend a few months working on, and I can switch them out so I’m not working on one at a time, and can give the ol’ brain enough in-between time to sort of forget one while I’m working on the other. An essential strategy for self-editing.

So I’m thinking about it. But for this week, I’m giving myself a little break. Real writers will say that I should not. But I deserve a break, thank you, and I will get back to the grueling early-morning writing sessions soon. After I do my I-won-NaNoWriMo happy dance.

The NaNoWriMo ’13 tee will be my undoing

pixels of suckitude

pixels of suckitude

One of my favorite motivational tools while doing NaNoWriMo is getting that year’s tee. In my last three NaNo years (2009, 2010, 2012), the only time I didn’t get the tee, I also didn’t win. (Sorry 2012! I just don’t know what happened there.) So you can bet that as soon as I decided to do NaNo again this year, I went straight to the online store to buy my t-shirt and guarantee my November 30th victory. I mean, the numbers speak for themselves. 100% success with tee. 0% without. But what I saw made me hit the refresh button a few times hoping it would change.

THIS is the NaNo ’13 t-shirt? Seriously?

novelist-eating blob monster? nowhere on the tee!

novelist-eating blob monster? nowhere on the tee!

I’m all for arcade games and retro geeky stuff, but this t-shirt doesn’t go far enough in its pixilated embrace. The pictures of the people modeling the tee are more interesting. Where is that novelist-eating blob from the picture? Is it on the back? (Please say it’s on the back.) Where is the starburst of phaser fire that shows novelists blowing up words? Maybe it would have been more interesting if the pixillated people were larger? Or the background was something other than basic black? PC-screen-of-death-blue?

Well, t-shirt be damned, I am participating in NaNo this year. I have a sequel to write, which should be motivation enough. But if it isn’t, if I get to November 30th even one word shy of 50k, I’m blaming this sucky t-shirt.

Getting over NaNoWriMo

There seem to be a lot of writers suffering from post-Nano exhaustion. That’s understandable. It’s rough to open up a vein and pour out your soul for 30 straight days, at top speed. But NaNoWriMo has been over for 9 days, so the numbness should have worn off, and you really need to get back to your regular life: writing every day, NOT at breakneck speed. Plus you probably have a pile of laundry, hungry children, sticky floors and a husband in bad need of date night. I know I do.

First, reacquaint yourself with people. Hello children! How was your November? What’d I miss? Let them show you their latest refrigerator drawing, scientific discovery, and mega-building made of legos, rocks, and leftover Kleenex. (You’ll clean that up later.) Next, hire a babysitter and take your husband out. Things may have happened to him during November as well. Tell him about your novel if he wants to hear about it, but mostly let him talk. Call your mother.

Next, tackle that gross floor and laundry. Thank goodness for washing machines, right? Break out the swiffer, the Roomba, the regular old Libman, whatever you’ve got and clean up. Put some elbow into it.

Revive a nice old standby recipe for dinner. Use real plates. And non-plastic forks.

Go through your mail. There might be a check in there. You don’t know! Catch up.

Take a few minutes (an hour if you have it) to reacquaint yourself with your environment. Go for a walk. Do some yoga. Jog. Get an ice-cream. Say hi to your local librarian. It’s nice to do things away from your computer screen.

Ah! Doesn’t that feel better?

Now don’t go and ruin things by reading that NaNoWriMo manuscript. It’s only been 9 days. You’ll edit in January. It’s not going anywhere.

Nanowrimo Day 31: Two authors wrap up

Congratulations to everyone who participated in NaNoWriMo. Whew! It’s finally over! Today @RaleighRoxStar and I chat about our NaNoWriMo experience.

Tracey Baptiste: First of all, congratulations to you on finishing! Have you printed out your winner certificate yet?

Roxanne Ravenel: I haven’t printed out my winner’s certificate yet! Shocking since I have been waiting patiently since the 18th to print it out. It will be my first order of business after our chat today. 😉

TB: I printed out mine as soon as I was able to. But I was the kid who liked gold stars. Is this your first time participating in NaNoWriMo?

RR: It isn’t! I’ve participated four times before this. (I share what I learned from my six-year long NaNoWriMo experience here.) Each time I would start with lots of enthusiasm then I’d run into a wallI’d convince myself that writing 50,000 words in 30 days was impossible or I just didn’t have the time. In retrospect it was a bunch of self-defeating BS.

TB: Well, I’m glad you got over that! Last year was my first time, and somewhere around week 2/3 I hit a wall as well. But I was so determined to win, that I rallied in the last week and made it past 50k on the last day. It was a squeaker.

So is this the first time you’ve won? Extra kudos to you!

RR: It is my first official win. I am focused on my dream of becoming a published author of women’s fiction. So it was important to take NaNoWriMo seriously and complete the challenge this year. It is a fantastic feeling of accomplishment to finally reach my goal.

TB: Do you mind revealing the title of your novel and a little bit about it?

RR: Not at all. My NaNo novel is entitled BEST FRIENDS FOREVER. It grew out of a short story called Sorry Charli that I recently had published in Romance Stories Magazine under a pen name.

My MC, Charli Chamberlain, was dragged onto Facebook kicking and screaming by a friend. Just when she is about to chalk the whole thing up to a bad experience she gets a message from her childhood best friend, handsome Donavan West. They’d given a romantic relationship a try back when they’d both headed off to college. The relationship didn’t end well and they became estranged. Now, more than ten years later it seems she’s been given a second chance. Charli must fight her own fear and everything else in the universe that is plotting against them.

TB: Ooh, sounds steamy! Did you manage to finish the entire thing during NaNoWriMo?

RR: It is a bit steamy. I like to add a little bit of a sizzling edge to my stories. I didn’t finish the book. I feel like I’m 2/3 of the way there.

TB: You were way ahead of me the whole time. How did you manage such a high word count? And is there any downside to working that fast?

RR: I knew I didn’t want to write every day and I wanted to finish early. I created a schedule that would allow me to do that. I was able to take weekends off, but I worked longer days. I also participated in Word Sprints with the Endurance Writers group. That kept me going, kept me accountability, and plays on my slightly competitive streak. 😉

I can’t see a downside to cranking out the work faster. Believe it or not, I still do some editing (a NaNo no-no, I know!). I also switched my story from 3rd person to 1st person more than 75 pages into the story.

TB: What are your plans for the novel now?

RR: I plan to finish the story while it’s still fresh in mind. Then I’ll let it sit and marinate while I turn my attention to revising my two completed novels.

TB: That’s an excellent plan. I get the impression that many NaNoWriMo participants think that finishing in the 30 day limit means that their novel is complete and ready to submit. I think I’m a year away from being really “complete” with what I’ve written this year.

That’s all the questions I have Roxanne. Thanks so much for answering them.

RR: Thanks Tracey for your questions. It was fun answering them!

Here’s my first question for you:  Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been writing? What genre is your specialty?

TB: I’ve been writing since I was three (says my mother). I wrote my first novel at age 12. It was regrettable, and I’ve tried to block it out. Then I thought I was going to be a brilliant picture book author, but it turns out I super-suck at picture books. So I write YA. The first novel I ever wrote (not counting the pre-pubescent attempt) was published. And it was also the last… so far. I also write non-fiction for middle-school kids.

RR: Last year was your first attempt at NaNoWriMo and you’ve won two years in a row. Congratulations! To what do you contribute your NaNoWriMo success?

TB: Sheer competitiveness. Last year I had no plan, and I got stuck and the manuscript that I wound up with was unusable. I still like the concept but it’s a total re-working whenever I get around to it. This year, I outlined ahead of time so that I would come out with something that I could work on. It also helped that this novel is the sequel to something I’ve already written. Being familiar with the characters is helpful.

RR: You are the mother of small children, yet you’ve won NaNoWriMo two years running. What advice would you give to busy moms and writers who feel like their plate is too full to attempt 50,000 words in 30 days?

TB: You really have to ignore the children. Teach them to make their own sandwiches. They’ll thank you for it later.

Actually, I carve out specific times for work, even if it’s a short 30 minute block. The kids know that when I’m working, I’m not to be disturbed. When the inevitable disturbance does happen, I try to deal with it quickly and get back to work.

RR: What lessons have you learned from your NaNo experience? Would you recommend NaNoWriMo to other writers? If so, why?

TB: NaNo is a rare opportunity to commune with other writers even though it’s all virtual. And it’s a great way to get a chunk of work done especially if you’re not used to the rigors of writing. Sitting for long periods of time to write is harder than it looks. I think every writer should do NaNo at least once. It’s a good time.

RR: You changed your approach to NaNoWriMo and did some outlining in advance this year. When did you begin preparing for NaNoWriMo and how did it impact your experience this year?

TB: I started outlining about a week and a half before. And I decided to write about 2000 words/day rather than rushing. The month was less frustrating, and I could carefully consider my words so that my finished manuscript is completely usable, unlike last year’s giant word-mess. Plotting before starting is better.

RR: Can you tell us a little more about the sequel you worked on during NaNoWriMo?

TB: It was probably a huge mistake to work on a sequel, because the first in the series is still out on submission. For this series, I went back to the Caribbean folklore that I grew up with, the equivalent of vampires, werewolves, and mermaids, which we call Soucouyant, Ligahoo, and Mama D’Leau.

The series is set on an island in the Caribbean, and starts as 10 year old Corinne unwittingly lures a forest spirit, called Vera, out of the woods. The spirit tries to take over the island, starting with Corinne’s family. As she struggles to get rid of Vera, Corinne learns that she is part spirit herself, and must find a way to use the magic of her ancestors even though she has only just discovered this power. In the second book, there are more destructive spirits for Corinne to fight, and although she has learned to use her magic, the spirits tear apart the people of the island, and cost Corinne her friendships, and members of her own family.

RR: Okay, I have to ask about the Office Dino. Tell us how he became your personal writing mascot.

TB: [Office Dino growls.] I never grew up. So I like toys. I have another mascot for my novel and she travels around visiting readers. I particularly like monsters and other scary things. My office dino is Rex from the Toy Story series.  He makes an excellent companion despite the fact that he only says about 10 things. They’re all pertinent, so maybe 10 things are all anyone ever needs to say.

RR: It’s apparent that you are passionate about knitting. It’s a clever theme for your blog, Knitting with Pencils. How long have you been knitting and why do you love it so much?

TB: I started about 8 years ago. I love that I can make unique things. I often start a project with no idea what I’m going to make, but I’m always happy with the results (even the ones that come out wonky). Knitting and writing are similar in that way. You start out with a string of words (or a ball of string) and put them together in a way that no one else has and voila! Magic.

RR: Last question: You’re the author of the YA novel, ANGEL’S GRACE. Tell us about the book. What’s it about? How did you come to write this story?

TB: ANGEL’S GRACE is about 13 year old Grace Brewster, who visits Trinidad over summer vacation. She discovers a photo of a man who has the same hand-shaped birthmark over his heart that she has, and since no one seems to know who he is, Grace launches an investigation on her own, accompanied by the boy next-door (who she thinks is cute) and her little sister (who she finds annoying). In the end, Grace learns a few things about her identity, and the value of family. It was chosen by New York City librarians as one of the 100 best books for reading and sharing that year.

I started trying to write the story of an outsider, and one day I saw a billboard that reminded me of my cousin. He and I share a birthmark, and I immediately thought that the girl I was writing about felt like an outsider until she found this one connection with someone. Once I had that idea, the rest of the story fell into place. It’s also very much about my mother, who grew up estranged from her father. She and Grace have the same red hair.

RR: Awesome! Thanks Tracey! This was lots of fun.

TB: Thanks Roxanne! Good luck finishing your novel.

Nanowrimo Day 22: Get a move on

I was going to do a Harry Potter And the Deathly Hallows Part 1 post today, and then I realized that Thanksgiving is in four days. So instead, I’m doing a hurry-up-and-get-some-writing-done post because I need to get a word count jump before I head into the inevitable food coma, and decorating-fest that usually comprises my Thanksgiving weekend.

And I suggest that you do as well.

This is the time to push yourself past what you’ve already been doing. The good news is, now that you’re coming to the end, your options have considerably narrowed. There are so many possibilities at the beginning, but at the end, there are only a few things your character can do to get that redemption, or foil that villain, or beat that opponent with mere seconds to spare.

This is the most exciting part of the book when the plot moves along at warp speed as everything comes to a head. If you’ve done your job, many things are hanging in the balance and all you have to do is weave their solutions into the Exciting! Earth-shattering! Stupendous! conclusion.

It’s the most exciting part of the book. So it should be the most exciting to write.

Which means you should be able to get it done quickly, right?



[Image from:]