Chicago Writes: What #NaNo2016 Has Taught Me


This year, I decided to attempt NaNoWriMo. The last time I tried was back in 2005. I ended up getting a novel started out of it, and I did eventually finish that novel, but I didn’t *win* NaNo in the traditional sense of the word. (And no one liked that novel, so I ended up trunking it.)

So I decided to see if I could do it this time.

I should’ve known better. I’m a pretty slow writer. It can take me years to come up with a name for my main character, let alone plots and all that good stuff. And I’m a pantser. I have things I want to happen in the story, but I tend to use those as guidelines rather than full on directives. And I have a DayJob™ plus freelance clients. I’m currently juggling two. Add in health issues and well, I’m wondering what I was thinking.

But I’m glad I attempted it. I know I’m not going to win, but it’s OK. I think, what I’ve gained, is much more valuable for my writing and my (eventual) career:

  1. I gave myself permission to suck. Letting go of the expectation of perfection, even letting myself keep typos and misspellings and wrong words in the manuscript has been challenging, but liberating!
  2. No self-editing means more words can flow. Even if those words are crappy words or words that will likely get cut or changed later.
  3. I’m not even trying to write a coherent plot, and that’s OK. I’m letting my character tell the the story. It’s a hot mess. I won’t be showing this to anyone. But by letting her tell the story without worrying about making a brilliant plot or you know, crafting a NYT bestseller, I can focus on what she’s telling me, what she wants, and how I can get her there. And also, what crap I can throw in the way to trip her up! *evil cackle*
  4. No pressure! Once I realized that I wasn’t going to win (and let’s face it, I figured this out the first week of November), I’m simply letting myself have fun with the process. The last thing I want to do is put undue pressure on myself and my writing, and sap the joy out of the one place I feel really, truly home.
  5. Every book really is different. I have books I pounded out in six months. I have books that have taken years to write and more years to revise. I don’t know which this one is yet—because we’re starting a new journey together.
  6. I’m having a blast! Getting to know my main character, her co-stars, the setting, and even all the minor characters has been a lot of fun. I’m crafting a boss playlist, writing down ideas forever in my notebook, and staying up in the middle of the night thinking of things to happen, and trying to figure out exactly how to write this story.

I’m grateful for attempting NaNo this year. I like what I’ve learned, I like the newfound freedom I have with my writing now. I hope I can keep this mindset every time I draft something new, knowing I can always fix the hot mess of a draft later.


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Inspiration Station: Amélie Sarn on Love, Hate, & Longing

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.


I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister
By Amélie Sarn

Sohane loves no one more than her beautiful, carefree younger sister, Djelila. And she hates no one as much. They used to share everything. But now, Djelila is spending more time with her friends, partying, and hanging out with boys, while Sohane is becoming more religious.

When Sohane starts wearing a head scarf, her school threatens to expel her. Meanwhile, Djelila is harassed by neighborhood bullies for not being Muslim enough. Sohane can’t help thinking that Djelila deserves what she gets. But she never could have imagined just how far things would go. . .

This story won’t let me go.

At a time when everyone seems to feel that their beliefs—that their very way of life—is under attack, the sisters in this story show that different ways of life can coexist in harmony. Or they can collide in terrible tragedy.

It’s our choice.

Sohane: “You know how I hate seeing girls exposing themselves on billboards and in magazines. I don’t want to be like them. That’s not what it means to be a woman. I need to be respected.”

Djelila: “I want to be respected too . . . Without having to disappear or hide my face.”

– p. 57

Djelila and Sohane are two sisters of Algerian descent growing up in France. They live with their parents in a largely Muslim community, where not everyone agrees what it means to be Muslim—or what it means to be French.

Together, Sohane and Djelila beautifully demonstrate the multiplicity of narratives that inform feminism. And their differences highlight the importance of a feminism that does not demand uniformity. A feminism that respects equally the choice to wear a head scarf and to dye your hair. The choice to conceal and to reveal.

Because it’s the choice that matters.

Djelila: “I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t want my choices to be dictated by fear. I don’t want to be what others have decided I should be. I want to be myself.”

– p. 131

Sohane: “I just want to be me. I don’t want to be ashamed of being Muslim and of practicing my religion. I’d like people to accept that. I don’t intend to harm anyone.”

– p. 86

Djelila and Sohane want the same things. They want to live freely and without fear. And without anyone else feeling fearful of them.

But their communities—their Muslim neighborhood and their secular school, their Algerian relatives and their French teachers—force them to choose one side or the other. Force them to fit into narrow boxes. Force them, really, to have no choice at all.

And the results are devastating.

Most journalists talk about what they do not know, about matters they don’t take the trouble to understand. They adopt the clichés that suit them—take one aspect of an issue until it becomes a caricature. . . I can’t say that this isn’t reality. But it’s only one reality among many.

– p. 55

This heartbreaking book shows us why diverse stories matter, in journalism and in fiction. Why we need many narratives. Why we need to weave a tapestry, not consign ourselves to a single thread. A thread that so often trips us up.

Amélie Sarn takes care to avoid stereotypes in telling this story. Despite the conflicts in Sohane and Djelila’s wider communities, Sarn paints their family’s apartment as a warm sanctuary. She shows their mother and father as supportive, loving parents who fight for the right of one daughter to play basketball and the other to wear a head scarf.

[W]e dreamt of a life that we would build, a life in which no one would step on our feet, in which we would walk with our heads raised. The world had better watch out!

– p. 62

In a political climate fueled by fear, this book is a reminder that the world is wide enough for all of us.


This book was originally published in French. I read the English translation by Y. Maudet.

The author, Amélie Sarn, is French, but as far as I could determine, she is not Muslim or of Algerian descent. She mentions in the acknowledgments that she sought guidance from those in the Muslim community. I welcome and encourage other responses, especially from those who are members of the depicted cultures. To start the discussion, here are two other perspectives on this book:
Review by Sarah Hannah Gómez
Review by Ruzaika Rifaideen

“The World Was Wide Enough” is a song from the musical Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda based the song on a quote from Aaron Burr, who in turn lifted the phrasing from Laurence Stern’s novel Tristram Shandy. For more on the history behind this line, see the Genius annotation of Miranda’s song.

Warning: this book contains graphic violence.

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Inspiration Station: Life Distilled in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

To be a writer in Chicago is to be constantly reminded that you stand on the shoulders of giants. That the same romance and dynamism and grit that moves you, also moved the many great writers who came before you. It is a humbling experience. And an inspiring one.

Sinclair and Algren, Hansberry and Norris, Bellow and Wright, Dybek and Cisneros and so many more have each painted our City with their own brushstrokes. And our poets, too, have looked to the lake, concrete, and steel and blood and smoke rising from factories, and penned the lyricism of Chicago, the contradictions. The pain and the glory. The simple quotidian existence of the multitudes who came to build this place. Indeed, Chicago may be one of the few cities that takes a traceable moniker directly from one of its poet sons. Carl Sandburg named us “The City of the Big Shoulders” and it stuck.

I want to share one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, the first poet laureate of Illinois, first African-American author to win the Pulitzer, Chicago’s beloved Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). I could spend pages talking about the rawness and power of her poetry, of its subtlety and activism. I could talk about her incredible commitment to this city where she taught classes until her death. I could talk about her love of our public schools and our people. I could talk about her most anthologized poem, We Real Cool, but listen to her instead. I had the privilege of seeing her read and she was a wonder.

“Poetry is life distilled,” Ms. Brooks said at Chicago Poetry Day talk in 1990. Perhaps the poem that best reflects this simple, beautiful idea for me is when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story.

As a writer, what inspires me about this poem is the simplicity of its language and the depth of its meaning, how the speaker is “Hugged by the plain old wrapper of no-expectation” and how those everyday words make us feel, for that brief moment in time, what she feels, a comfort of happiness even as she questions it. This poem is about love and loss and resignation and remembrance and about the cobwebs of memory that we brush away, though tiny particles of dust still linger. I have a smile in my heart and a lump in my throat every time I read this poem. Unpacking the craft makes me realize what a master Brooks was– how she takes us through the anatomy of a relationship, its tenderness and demise in a single afternoon. In 217 words, life distilled beautifully, poignantly by a poet at the height of art.

when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story

—And when you have forgotten the bright bedclothes on a Wednesday and a Saturday,
And most especially when you have forgotten Sunday—
When you have forgotten Sunday halves in bed,
Or me sitting on the front-room radiator in the limping afternoon
Looking off down the long street
To nowhere,
Hugged by my plain old wrapper of no-expectation
And nothing-I-have-to-do and I’m-happy-why?
And if-Monday-never-had-to-come—
When you have forgotten that, I say,
And how you swore, if somebody beeped the bell,
And how my heart played hopscotch if the telephone rang;
And how we finally went in to Sunday dinner,
That is to say, went across the front room floor to the ink-spotted table in the southwest corner
To Sunday dinner, which was always chicken and noodles
Or chicken and rice
And salad and rye bread and tea
And chocolate chip cookies—
I say, when you have forgotten that,
When you have forgotten my little presentiment
That the war would be over before they got to you;
And how we finally undressed and whipped out the light and flowed into bed,
And lay loose-limbed for a moment in the week-end
Bright bedclothes,
Then gently folded into each other—
When you have, I say, forgotten all that,
Then you may tell,
Then I may believe
You have forgotten me well.

Source: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997)

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Chicago Reads: Anderson’s YA Literature Conference

I was lucky enough to attend Anderson’s Bookshop’s YA Literature Conference last month in Naperville, Illinois. And I am so happy that I got to go with my ChiYA sisters, Ronni and Samira!


The lineup of authors was fantastic (keynotes in bold): Frank Beddor, Anne Greenwood Brown, Kym Brunner, Julie Buxbaum, Sharon Cameron, Traci Chee, C. Desir, Paula Garner, Kathleen Glasgow, Goeff Herbach, Ellen Hopkins, Miranda Kenneally, Brendan Kiely, Sarah Darer Littman, Chris Lynch, Adriana Mather, Anna Michels, Susan Moger, Jennifer Niven, Kenneth Oppel, Joy Preble, Adam Selzer, Adam Silvera, Sherri L. Smith, Jordan Sonnenblick, Ann Stampler, Laura Stampler, Aaron Starmer, Paula Stokes, Krystal Sutherland, Kara Thomas, Maggie Thrash, and Jeff Zentner.

On Saturday, the conference consisted of panels and keynotes. The panels were:

  • Get Real
  • Guys Write YA!
  • Love Contemporary Style
  • Mystery! Thriller! Suspense!
  • Navigating the Issues—Yesterday & Today
  • Sci-fi, Fantasy, & Witches, Oh My!
  • Write Down the Street

The best part of the conference for me was meeting other writers, teachers, and librarians. I was lucky enough to sit next to Sharon Cameron on Saturday and we hit it off right away. Sharon and I are both represented by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and Sharon had just met my agent a few weeks prior. We bonded over switching careers (she was a concert pianist and I was a dentist), feeling guilty about getting to write (as she said, it’s so fun it feels like it should be illegal), and all the good and bad (but mostly good) that come with the privilege.

Christa Desir and I also had a few things in common: we’re both Chicagoans and we’re both Simon Pulse writers! I’ve looked up to Christa and was honored that she took the time to tell me about her experience with Simon Pulse (she loves them and has five books with them!) and give me advice on the industry.

Traci Chee is a friend of ChiYA and it was so wonderful for us to meet her in person! We couldn’t be happier for her tremendous success with her debut, The Reader, which was released at the end of September and has already hit the New York Times Bestseller list!

Adam Silvera is also a ChiYA friend, and we’re always so happy to spend more time with him! His keynote was inspiring.

Jennifer Niven was such a sweetheart and Ronni, Samira, and I were lucky enough to spend Sunday with her. I’m so inspired by her writing, her story, and her characters.

I’m always so blown away by how supportive authors are, even when they’re internationally-bestselling authors. Many of them truly love the industry, love books, and want to see you succeed. Every single author I met at this conference was so supportive, and I want to thank each and every one of them for their kindness. The writing community is wonderful because of authors like them.

Some of my favorite quotes from the weekend:

“I have ADD, I have a hard time sitting still, and I hate writing.” – Jordan Sonnenblick

“You are my rockstars.” – Jennifer Niven

“I’ve always taken pretend very seriously.” –Jennifer Niven

“The voice of the character is what carries through.” — Laura Stampler

“We carry these things in our lives and they show up unexpectedly in our writing.” – Ellen Hopkins

“I’m big on breaking stereotypes because we often look at the wrong people.” – Ellen Hopkins

“I’m the Taylor Swift of YA.” – Adam Silvera referring to his habit of writing his exes into his books

“What we say will carry on with someone for possibly the rest of their lives.” – Adam Silvera

“Harry Potter created me.” – Adam Silvera

“YA taught me the power of words even after I wrote a book.” – Adam Silvera talking about the YA community

Some of my favorite advice from Jennifer’s keynote (some of which can be found on her website):

“Do not enter your pin numbers all at once,” meaning you should take writing one scene, one chapter at a time.

“To do anything well, you have to be able to breathe.”

“Write and shake it off.” She likened the process to having a baby and sending it out in the world, only to hear others tell you things like, “If I had a baby, it would not be like that baby.”

“It’s a lifeline, not a deadline.” Remember, you get to do this, this work is who you are.

The authors were asked why they write for a YA audience, and the answers were inspiring. Here are the ones I managed to jot down, slightly paraphrased:

Chris: Problems don’t go away.

Susan: I write YA because it has a wide demographic, and because of conferences like these.

Ellen: I wrote my first book because I didn’t want that teen to go down that road. Now, I want to convey it does get better. YA = discovery, who you want to be, discovering who you were meant to be. YA is judging tomorrow by today whereas adult fiction is reflection.

Adam: YA is what I always picked up, the space where I’d want to be…even when I try to move away, I magnetize back. It feels great to make a difference and make these teens feel seen and heard.

Kathleen: YA has a desperation for meaning. Real stories live here. It’s an intense reading experience. YA is figuring out who we’ll be. 90% of kids don’t have a sunny, happy life and need to be represented. And I’m emotionally 15.

Anne: Different voices fit different writers. I never left high school and that’s the voice that came out of my mouth and pen. Also, YA has such a broad audience.

Geoff: I write YA because of my son’s smelly left armpit.

Julie: My son’s right armpit…Just kidding. I missed being 16 and wanted to go back to when the world was wide open. It’s fun to tackle firsts.

Jennifer: YA is bold, brave, original. It starts conversations that need to be had. My agent said to write what I have to even if it terrifies me. YA = Oz: the readers are eager, want to see themselves on the page, are honest, and if we write honestly they’ll be receptive.

Susan: I was told I couldn’t write YA and I had to show them otherwise…just like a teenager! I write what I wish had been available when I was a teen.

My favorite advice from the weekend:

Each book requires a new set of tools. You have the toolbox, but you have to find the tools, which can take time (for Susan, 20K words). It’s about recognizing the process.

There are different ways to write: Jennifer has a set of teen readers for the first draft but Julie doesn’t share her work. Sarah has a few trusted betas. It’s about finding your process.

Julie’s advice: read like a writer, not like a reader. You have to stop when it’s grooving to figure out why. Read widely and critically.

Don’t be afraid to ask people for help when researching your book. This was mentioned by multiple authors throughout the day, and the bottom line is, people want to help you. I’ve personally been afraid to ask for help while researching, and this was wonderful to hear and gave me confidence to explore areas of life I’m not familiar with.

On Sunday, “Fandom Frenzy” day, the attendees were mostly teenagers, and it was such a privilege to be able to see teen readers interact with their role model authors. I loved books as a child, but took a long hiatus during my teens and didn’t fall back in love until I was much older. I was so happy to see that there are plenty of teens out there who love and, more importantly, need these books, and it was wonderful to be reminded of this.

For more on the conference, check out the hashtags #ABYALitConf and #YAFandomFrenzy on Twitter!

Beautiful collage of all the authors’ books, courtesy of Anderson’s:


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