Reflections on NaNoWriMo

It was not my intention to dive into the sea of National Novel Writing Month. I watched swarms of writers on social media, flexing and stretching along the dock, waiting for November 1st, the starting pistol shot that would send them all plunging downward in a desperate race against themselves for 50,000 words and a brand new novel manuscript.


I wasn’t wholly against the idea, but not wholly for it either. I have a rhythm to my writing. I put in about four hours of work every day on my manuscripts. Sometimes those hours are so beautiful and perfect that I write past my allotted time, in a fever of words and inspiration. Sometimes those hours are spent angrily poking the keyboard, writing anything, even if I know it sucks, just to stretch my brain. Other times it’s all spent in research or editing or outlining. I divide the rest of the day between query letters, reading books and articles, or performing necessary household duties.

I like my schedule. It suits me. I added more structure to it in September, when I started setting myself monthly goals. My goals for November were to finish the first drafts of two of my half-finished novels and keep working on querying agents.

Then my writing buddy Chandler, emailed me and asked me if I wanted to buddy up on NaNoWriMo’s website so we could encourage each other towards the goal. I thought about it for a few days. It isn’t like I was devoid of new ideas. I have notebooks full of stuff for new projects, but I also have 7 other novels at varying stages of development, that’s not including the 2 completed ones that need more love and proofreading, in preparation for (crosses fingers) a possible manuscript request.

But on a whim, I decided to slip into my bathing suit, and on November 1st, about 6 hours after everyone else was in the water, I held my nose with one hand and cannonballed in after them.

I started a middle grade fantasy novel called, “The Land of the Golden Raindrops.”

Here’s some of my thoughts and reflections, on what the whole NaNoWriMo process taught me:

1. Setting Goals for Your Writing is Key to Progress

I was beginning to figure this out on my own, but NaNoWriMo reenforced the lesson. I knew part way in that it was unlikely I would have an organized and readable first draft ere time had stolen sweet November from my grasp, but I was determined to get those 50,000 words. It gave me something to shoot for and I loved watching that graph tick slowly upward as my word count approached its goal.


2. Plug in and Build a writing community

Usually if I need history help, I shoot a text to my history teacher friend, Steve. So when my Google searches brought up useless information on the burial customs of the poor in 19th century London, I sent Steve a text but also posted in the forum. In less than an hour, a fellow writer had posted links to 4 great articles for me to peruse.

It wasn’t just about how fast the response came, it was that another writer, a stranger under the same deadline as me, took the time to copy and paste those links into the forum for me.

We know how to commiserate and encourage each other in a way that a non-writers can’t. We know how it feels when your brain is constipated and you can see your thoughts leaking from your ears in tendrils of wispy pale steam like a fresh cup of tea. We know how confusing it is to wander the internet, in search of fact, to find nothing but opinion. It was nice to know that if I ever got discouraged, I could email one of my three NaNoWriMo buddies or tweet out my progress, and immediately get love in the form of a thumbs up emoji. Sometimes that’s all you need. It’s something I hope to retain now that this is all over.

3. Do What’s Best for Your Progress

I got a lot of good out of this, so I’m glad I did it. However, if next year rolls around and I have to choose between my personal goals and starting a brand new project, I will probably watch the swimmers from a safe seat on the dock.

Life ate up a lot of my spare writing time this month making NaNoWriMo the only thing I accomplished. Don’t get me wrong, I love the result. I love my new characters, Lilly and Rascal, and had a blast making new worlds for them to play in, but they would still have come in time. Then it wouldn’t have cost me a whole month of spending time with Rory, Graham, Renaud, and Kaeli. It wouldn’t have set back my query letters and copy editing of “Us”, things that I consider more important.

You have to do what’s best for your art. If that means that you have your own personal NaNoWriMo in December, then you do so with a nod and smile. Or, perhaps…

4. Sometimes It’s Okay to Miss the Mark

If I had been a little smarter, I might have just shrugged and said, “Well today I’m not going to increase my word count on NaNoWriMo. Today I am going to work on the first draft of ‘The Channeller.'” But there were those badges that you could earn if you updated your word count every day, and that cool graph that told you how many words you added, and, basically, I got a little carried away with the fever of the thing.

I did it. I finished. On November 25th, I verified my 50,078 words and immediately dropped the project. My first draft is a chronologically disorganized mess, with bits and pieces from every end and corner of the story all mashed together. This is usually how my first drafts end up. I could have spent the next 5 days in November putting it in order, knowing full well that this draft would be thrown to the back of the queue for the next project I attack. It’s there. It’s a first draft. That’s it. I immediately printed out a new copy of “Us” and spent the rest of the day editing.

But what if I hadn’t finished? What if I had decided to drop the project entirely in favor of my previous list of goals for November? There is no shame in that. There is never any shame in setting a high goal for yourself and missing the mark. Do the work and do it with all you have. If you get to the end of the month and your word count isn’t 50,000 or you haven’t sent out those 10 query letters, it’s okay. Don’t batter yourself bloody. Just try again tomorrow. It’s about the journey. It’s about the climb. It’s about the effort. If you keep trying every day, eventually you’ll get there.


© Rachel Svendsen 2015



Definitions at 1am

wistful(having or showing a feeling of regretful longing)

restless(unable to relax or rest either emotionally or physically as a result of anxiety or boredom)

lost(unable to find ones way, unable to cope with a situation)

broken(having breaks or gaps in continuity)

disconsolate(unable to be comforted)

© Rachel Svendsen 2015

What Do You See?

I’m in the living room of my apartment. It’s 5am. I’ve been up most of the night reading “The Art of Asking” by Amanda Palmer. I left the finished book and my booklight in the bedroom, lying beside my sleeping husband. He hates to wake up and find I’m missing. He wanders from the bed half asleep, like a child who has just woken up from a nightmare, rubbing his eyes and muttering, “you left me”.

I’ve been slightly absent blogwise as of late. Why? Because I’ve finally hit it. That moment in life where you look around, where you’ve been, what you are, what you know, believe, hope, dream and say, “Crap. Who am I?” My husband calls it an existential crisis. I had to ask Siri what that meant. (Don’t judge! It’s the first one I’ve ever had.)

I was raised to think, feel, be, and do certain things. I’ve had many relationships where I was told what to think and who to be. I acquiesced for many years. Now I find myself looking at the world in a completely different way. It’s as though I’ve suffered for 28 years from a mental stigmatism and someone just handed me a pair of glasses. The world has come into focus but the sudden change left me with a crushing migraine.

One of the biggest changes I’ve had inwardly, is real compassion.

I’ve always been a softie, crying at films or books and crumbling into a hot mess when someone near to my heart experiences any sort of discomfort, but I think I missed what it meant to have real compassion for the people around me, those other lives that you brush with your fingertips throughout the day. I would see things, read things, hear things, and snap judge. A lot of people do this. Everyone probably. But I never realized until recently how wrong it was. Everyone has a heart, everyone has a story. Some guy cuts you off in traffic and you flip him the bird. Sure he could have hit you, but maybe his life is in crisis, maybe he’s just been diagnosed with cancer and flying down the highway makes him feel like he can run away from the fact that his body has turned against him. You don’t know. I don’t know.

Walk a mile in their shoes.

I hate canned phrases. They loose meaning, taste, texture, and nutrients from overuse. Yet this phrase keeps coming back to me lately. Walk. A. Mile. In. Their. Shoes.

We don’t try to see others, not really. When the lady at the checkout counters says, “How are you?” she’s just passing the time of day and expects the canned “fine” in return. A few weeks ago my husband and I were in line at Target. The lady asked me “how are you?” and I replied instinctively with a cheery “fine,” when in reality my heart and head were tangled and screwed into a gordian knot. I’m surprised my lie didn’t merit the tile floor below me splitting open to swallow my mortal flesh.

All that to say, I think I see people now. I haven’t learned yet how to deal with it, but I can see them. The man who holds the door for me at the library and smiles his “good afternoon” more with his grey eyes than his lips. The angry lady at the grocery store who is harassing the checkout girl. The checkout girl being harassed by the angry lady. The man on the side of the road, shivering in the cold, clutching a sign for food.

If seeing is a sign of life than maybe it’s the first sign that I’m beginning to live. If I live then maybe I can use my life to touch the needs in people around me.

So it’s 5am. I’m confused, awake, tired, frustrated, scared, hurt, and alive. ALIVE! Alive with a chance to live my life, not through others, but my own life. A chance to step out and try and touch the needs in other people with the gifts that I’ve been given.

I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know where to start. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I’m not even sure where this post is going! I guess I’m just hoping to be seen by someone. My husband sees me. He knows me. Sometimes I think he knows too much of me. But right now I just need to know that someone else out there sees me too.

Can you see me?

For Love or Money

I read my first Dickens novel in third grade. After that I devoured Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Agatha Christie, and so began my love affair with British literature, which continues to the present day. A reoccurring theme of many an old-timey British novel is ye old Rich guy falls in love with ye old poor girl. The rest of the story is composed of varied obstacles and circumstances that prevent them from being together. It ends with them either thumbing their noses at society and affluence to live in each others embrace, or a tear jerking return to money or position which leaves them forever regretting each other. I used to think that this was not an issue with our culture today. Apparently I was living in a daydream.

The other night I was watching “Shark Tank” with my hubby. If you’re not familiar with it, this is a reality show where up and coming entrepreneurs stand before a bunch of multimillion dollar business owners (called “Sharks”) and pitch their idea to them, in hopes that one of the “Sharks” will invest in their business. This episode showed a young man pitching his specially made golf clubs. Apparently they’re selling well in Japan but he can’t seem to market them to peeps in the US. I guess golf junkies in the States won’t use a golf club which isn’t endorsed by some big shot in the big leagues. Since the clubs are so precisely made, they cannot afford/don’t have the connections to get them out to the biggies in US golf.

The Sharks backed out one by one. The deal was too risky. When only one or two Sharks remained, the club maker burst into tears.

“I’m engaged to an amazing woman,” he said. “Or I was. Her parents called off our engagement when I left my well paying job to pursue my dream of running this company. I thought for certain, if I could make a deal here in the US, that they would realize I’m not crazy and still let me marry their daughter.” He touched his fist to his mouth, looked off to the side, blinked rapidly, and choked, “I just can’t believe I will have to choose between the woman I love and pursuing my dream.”

Let me tell you there was barely a dry eye among the Sharks. (Except the token cranky guy on every show. You know the one. He insults people just because it gains more viewership and his quips look great on tee shirts.) The remaining Shark invested, and the guy left with a whistle on his lips and a skip in his step.

I’m happy for him. I really am. I am all for making your dreams reality. I am super thankful my husband loves his job. I spent years working jobs that I hated just because they paid the bills. I know how gut wrenchingly dull it is to sit at a desk, poking a keyboard with one listless finger, knowing you’re not making a difference in the world, and tomorrow you’ll have to drag yourself out of bed to do it again. But… (the ever almighty “BUT”)

But I would spend the rest of my life digging ditches, answering phones, going door to door selling vacuums, waiting tables, scrimping, saving, living hand to mouth, or anything else, if it was the only way I could be with my Timothy.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “How could anybody pick anything over their ‘true love’. I mean, am I crazy?”

My husband smiled at me. “No, of course not,” he said. (You could argue that if he had said anything else it would have destroyed peace and harmony in the home, but my husband is a horrific liar. I saw him in a play in college. Oh my heck was he awful! He was like a spectator on stage who got to play dress up with the actors. He even laughed at their jokes. It was precious. He won my heart all over again that night and was generously rewarded with a big kiss.)

I don’t want to be unfair. Perhaps I’m just different from other people. Maybe all it comes down to my real dream being a hand to hold when I’m ninety. I just can’t fathom choosing any job, position, house, car, or inanimate thing over a soul to love.

When Life

When life leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth,
Your kiss is the only flavour that removes the bitter aftertaste.

When life blurs my vision with cloudy veils of tears,
Your smile is the only light that clears the sky.

When life douses the flames of my hopes and dreams,
Your embrace is the warm blanket that blocks out the cold despair.

When life is a nightmare,
You are my beautiful wakening daydream.

© Rachel Svendsen 2015

Nighttime Revels

It was about 2 a.m. That’s my standard wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night time. I usually have to pee and spend about twenty minutes trying to ignore the urge so I can get back to sleep. It obviously doesn’t work and I end up getting up.

I hung my feet over the side until they reached the carpet and slowly sat erect. My head was still fuzzy and sleep filled. My husband was still fuzzy and sleep filled (actually he just snored on, unaware of my movement).  I stepped out into the hallway, which was oddly darker than usual.  I often leave a light on somewhere so that I don’t sustain serious injury during my nighttime revels. Apparently I hadn’t. I had my iPhone in my hand, so I tapped the screen for a little light as I tottered towards the bathroom. I heard something move. I stopped. All my senses were immediately alert and my brain clear from the fog of sleep.

“Timmy?” I murmured. He’s a heavy sleeper, so my soft frightened whimper would by no means rouse him. I didn’t really want to wake him. He works hard and deserves his rest. It was nothing anyway. Just the wind…right?

I took another step towards the bathroom. I peeked my head inside. My trembling hand reached for the light switch. The shades clattered. Shook. I jumped back towards the bedroom.

“Timmy!” I called. This time I was not muttering half hearted calls for his assistance. “Timmy get up there is something in the bathroom.”

Snort. Grumble. Mutter. Stir. “Whhaaat?” His response made it clear he was not awake. We sometimes have whole conversations while he is still in a state of half consciousness. I needed him awake now.

“Timmy get up!” I pleaded. “There is something in the bathroom and it’s freaking me out!”

Stir. Mutter. Groan. He sat up though, and his eyes were open. My valiant protector was awake. I swallowed and ventured towards the bathroom again. His words glided to me from behind, through a yawn, “What’s wrong babe?”

My heart beat in my throat. I flicked on my iPhone’s flashlight. Blue tinted light flooded the dark hallway. I stepped forward and directed the stream at the bathroom window.

Something leapt from behind the shade. It was about the size of a DVD case, unfortunately this DVD case had at least four more legs than you usually find attached to the average plastic container. I say at least four because it looked like it could have had eight, or was that a tail trailing behind it? It hit the toilet lid with a sickening thud and dropped to the floor, then flew across the tile, onto the hallway carpet, towards my feet, like it was pursued by Wile E. Coyote.

I screamed. I state the fact simply, but words would fail me to describe the horror and panic that billowed through my veins. I stumbled back towards my bedroom and the black thing surged on to take refuge in my husband’s “office” which is really no more than the family dump heap for things that don’t have a home.

“What’s happening?” and the like erupted from the bed behind me in the timbre of my husband’s voice. I barely had time to recover from my panic, and consider the horrors of seeking out the ghastly thing in that room-of-requirement/room-of-hidden-things-esque mess when I sat up in bed.

“Rachel are you okay?” My husband’s arms were wrapped around me. I was breathing hard and I was frightened and I was…still in bed?

“It was just a dream,” he murmured. His warm hands pulled my trembling form down beside him. He pressed his lips to my forehead and tucked me in.

He was asleep again, almost instantaneously. He’s actually calmed me from nightmares in his sleep. I have them so frequently that it became a reflex for him after about 3 months of marriage. I laid in bed, eyes wide open unable to sleep. You see…I had a problem…

I had to pee…and it was dark in the hallway…


I Dream of Bovines in a Large Red Barn

The cow in question
“You like ‘Alice in Wonderland’?”

I looked up from my book to my guy friend. I sighed and exchanged it for my Algebra II book.

“Yes I do.” I replied. He wrinkled his nose.

“But it’s so weird.”

“It’s clever!”

“He wasn’t clever. He was on drugs!”

This revelation crushed my world, but didn’t change my opinion of Lewis Carroll. I still think he’s a genius and I still love Alice. I think the reason it was so devastating is because I’ve always had super Alice-in-Wonderlandesque dreams. Now I wonder if people think I’m on drugs too…

I once dreamed that I was chugging along in my Uncle’s black pick up truck. I have never in reality driven this truck. It’s massive. It has one of those oversized truck beds with wheel wells that stick out like sidecars. I’m a tiny little Honda Civic kind of girl. The more compact the better.

Regardless, I was trucking down a narrow side street on the way to my grandmothers. I took a sharp bend in the road and…


I didn’t see her until it was too late. She was a middle-aged brunette in jeans and a black vest. I slammed on the breaks and jumped out of the truck. My heart was pounding. My slumber infused consciousness had not yet registered these events as a dream, and, as far as I knew, I had just hit a person.

Oddly enough she was fine. I mean…she was a bit miffed. It’s legitimate. I would be too if you hit me. Especially since she was already lame, as evidenced by her black and sliver cane laying on the side of the road.

“I’m so so sorry,” I moaned, at a loss for anything else to say. “Here, I’ll take you to the hospital.”

These were the pre-cellphone days of our lives. This seemed like the best option. She acquiesced to my offer and I carried her into the truck. I laid her on the floor behind my seat and quickly made my way towards the medical center. I didn’t make small talk. What do you say to a woman you just hit? She was the one who first broke the silence.

“Why are you going this way?” she said nervously. “Are you insane?”

“What are you talking about?” I responded. My palms began to sweat against the wheel.

“Just whatever you do, don’t look that cow in the eye! He’ll kill us.”

“What cow?”

“The one in that barn you idiot!”

A massive three story barn stood in the field in front of us. The field was wide and empty save that big fire engine red building with the white trim. The grass was yellow, dying with the change in seasons. I tried to recall this building being there before. I’d driven to my grandparents house a million times, I was practically raised there.

“Don’t even think about looking!” she snarled. I locked my eyes on the road and kept driving.

Curiosity is a dangerous thing and my veins flow with an abnormally high amount. Figuring it was safe to check my rearview mirror, I waited until we passed the building and glanced up.

The three-story barn was built like a hugermongerous doghouse. One large curved opening framed the biggest cow I will ever see. It looked inflated, like those ridiculous blow up decorations that are so popular around the holidays. There was no fan blowing merrily under this beast though. It had big white horns and a massive golden ring embracing his nostrils.

I shuddered as fear rippled through me. The huge round eyes locked with mine in the mirror. My heart stopped beating. The warm brown eyes of the cow melted into a menacing red. Steam poured from his nostrils. One hoof struck the ground, tearing up the dying grass. He snorted.

“You fooooool!” the woman behind me moaned. She dissolved into hysterical sobs.

The cow charged. I woke up screaming. I sat in my bed, safe, sound, and completely devoid of cows. I laid my head back on my pillow.

“Wow,” I murmured. “That was weird…”

I recently left my job and a coworker bemoaned my loss. “Who will tell me their weird dreams now?” she asked. Who indeed Sandra? For I have not yet met anyone in person who has dreams like me. I know there are others out there. I can’t possibly be the only living being with vivid bizarre dreams. I just wish they would affirm me. So if you’re reading this and you’ve had similar bizarre things occurring in your slumber…let me know…please?