So I’m Madly In Love With Nonfiction (whaaat?)

Hello friends! I am writing this blog post to inform you that I, Lilly, lover of high fantasy, having semi-actively avoided nonfiction for years, have been kidnapped and replaced by an alien creature with a wild appetite for memoirs.

How did this happen? Well, I read 59 books in 2017. Most of them were Young Adult fiction, and many of them were… underwhelming? Disappointing? I’m not sure, exactly, but at the end of the year, I found myself disappointed with both the amount and the quality of the reading I’d done throughout the year. Simultaneously, as the year was coming to a very stressful, tearful close (for boring and irrelevant personal reasons, December was not a great month for me) I was reading When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, which 1) Reminded me that your life is actually wonderful, Lilly, calm down, and 2) Made me realize that wow, nonfiction can actually be… compelling? Interesting? Good?

I know that this whole post is making me sound like a bit of an idiot. But seriously: up until that moment, I’d never really experienced the powerful joy of nonfiction. And it was wonderful. I’ve never been great at New Year’s Resolutions– I have this bad habit of setting ridiculously unattainable goals for myself– but this year, I found a good one. I resolved to read more nonfiction. And I have! So far in 2018, I’ve read 17 books, and and 7 of them have been nonfiction, meaning I’ve already read more nonfiction in the first two months of 2018 than I did during all of 2017.

Why do I suddenly love nonfiction so much? A couple reasons. First: I am no longer in school. Like, for the first time in 12 years, I am not actively pursuing an education. Being the huge nerd that I am, I always liked school, and because of my homeschooling background, the need to continue my own education independently is ingrained in me. Reading nonfiction is the easiest and most enjoyable way for me to continue Learning Stuff despite not being in any kind of school.

Second: writing. One of my greatest struggles when it comes to fiction writing is my tendency to subconsciously copy– or, to put it more gently, “borrow”– elements of my favorite books and apply them to my own writing. Lots of people make the case that this is inevitable and a natural part of writing. But personally, I kind of hate it. I don’t want to subconsciously re-write my favorite books. I want to find my own voice, my own style, and my own stories. Nonfiction presents an elegant solution to this problem. By distancing myself a little from genres similar to the ones I like to write, I’m less likely to subconsciously “borrow.” Furthermore, nonfiction is also a great source of inspiration, all on its own. (For example, my short story Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow was inspired by the widespread culture of conformity and self-repression in 1950s America, which I read about in AP U.S. History. See how seamlessly I pulled off that self-plug?)

So its seems nonfiction and I are friends now. Whatever the root of my own tiny reading revolution, I’m enjoying it. Sorry that I ignored you for so long, nonfiction. I’m making it up to you now by singing your praises in this blog post.



Free Time Is Terrible & I Am Very Cold

Imagine a world where, for one quarter of the year, the sun becomes elusive. The days are dark and short. You can’t leave the confines of your house without experiencing immediate physical pain. Everyone around you walks with their head down, their eyes blurry and unfocused. Or, in other words: welcome to the Midwest! It’s dark, it’s cold, and everyone is bunkering down in preparation for that good ol’ seasonal depression.

For those of you who don’t know, I live in the Midwest’s icy heart, Wisconsin. If you don’t know anything about Wisco, just think of it this way: it’s like Minnesota, but more people here voted for Trump. Delightful, right? You also might not know that I’m not currently in school. Instead, I am partaking in a weird and elusive phenomenon called the “gap year.” Let’s not talk about that. I am so tired of talking about that. (If you are considering taking a gap year, please be prepared to answer the question “So what are you doing with your gap year?” with a frequency that will make your head hurt.)

Anyways. Dramatic posturing aside. Here I am, in a cold place with very little sunlight, without even the structure of the Public School System to get me out of bed every morning. Needless to say, it’s not going so great. I do have a job that I like (in true struggling-artist form, I work at a coffeeshop. If I ever get good at latte art I will provide photographic evidence. Stay tuned!) which provides some structure to my weird life. Otherwise, I am ostensibly Focusing On My Writing.

How is that going? Well. I think there’s a fundamental flaw in the concept that a person should take a year off from Other Things to focus on One Particular Thing. (I mean, in the artistic sense. If you want to take a year off from school to focus on wading through the jungle collecting poisonous frogs, that strikes me as a very valid use of one’s time.) But like, when it comes to writing, I think the idea that you’ll get more of it done when you have more Free Time is a myth. An evil, evil myth. Honestly, the last time I felt super positive about my writing productivity was my senior year of high school, when I just barely won NaNoWriMo by squeezing writing time into bus rides.

There’s this song lyric that I love, from millenial music icon and goddess Lorde: “In my head, I do everything right.” That’s very #me. In my head, I am single-mindedly devoted to my writing. In my head, I write for an hour every day, minimum, and I do it while sitting at a beautiful desk with great posture, sipping my coffee and loving every minute of it. In my head, I do writing right. But my head is not realistic. In real life, I drink coffee all day, not just while writing, and my desk is usually covered in clothes, and my posture is pretty bad. More importantly, I am easily distracted, have trouble committing to one main project, and am often frustrated with myself and my work.

The thing is, all that has always been true. I’ve always struggled with commitment, with caffeine intake, and with organization. But somehow I fooled myself into believing in that magical elixir, the cure-all, the panacea of writing: free time. I imagined that just having more time in which to write would help me solve all my writing problems and bad habits. Well, guess what? That’s nonsense. 

Free time does not solve writing problems. In many ways, it enhances them. I think the reasons for this can be boiled down into three main points. First, more free time just makes the amount of work you’re doing feel minimal. Like, if you have twenty minutes to write per day and you write a page every day during that twenty minutes, you’re a rockstar! But if you have four hours to write every day but write one page during that four hours, you might feel like a failure. Second, more time = more procrastination. Like, give me twenty minutes to write, and I’m probably going to write. Give me four hours to write, and I’m probably going to spend 3.5 of those hours surfing Tumblr and, like, building a yacht or something.

Third, and most importantly: I don’t think free time is good for creativity. Sounds sort of weird, I know, but I just don’t. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that creativity actually arises from busyness, that more time spent doing non-writing things will spur creative, writing-related bursts. Yes, it can be hard to squeeze writing time in if you’ve got a tight schedule, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe this is just me, but I think a tight non-writing schedule helps keep my writing time focused and my creativity sharp and fresh.

(By the way, I know this whole post is very First World Problems from beginning to end. Middle-class Annoying Artist First World Problems, even. But I solve my writing problems by rambling about them semi-coherently into typing boxes, so. Here we are.)

The question then becomes… how do I create that for myself? Like, can I really force myself to be busier in order to give myself less writing time in order to make myself write more? Is that a thing? Like Taylor Swift in her 22 video, I could totally and very accurately rock a “Not A Lot Going on at the Moment” shirt, guys. Maybe I need to… take a class? Acquire a hobby? The possibilities are endless and endlessly intimidating.

TL;DR: Winter in Wisconsin is terrible, writing is hard, and I am going to go eat some pasta now.

5 Things I Learned in November

Happy December, everyone! NaNoWriMo is over, Oh-God-I-Have-to-Buy-People-Presents-Ahh-Help season has begun, and I am in the midst of college applications! In other words, it’s the perfect time for some light introspection, existential crises, and the like. So I did some introspecting and made a list (don’t you just love lists, folks?) of five things I learned during NaNoWriMo/November.

  1. I work best when I’m busy. Too much free time? Absolutely terrible for my work ethic. I am much, much better at getting writing done when I’m forced to squeeze it into short increments than I am when I have long, totally free blocks of time in which to write. Counter-intuitive, maybe, but so, so true. This year, I had more time to spend on Nano than I ever have before… and my productivity was at an all-time low.
  2. First drafts will always suck. This a thing I am forced to re-learn every single time I begin a new project. I always go into it thinking “Now, THIS project will be different from the rest. This idea is so absolutely brilliant that it will not turn out any way besides brilliant.” Guess what? FALSE. FUTURE LILLY, I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING, BUT YOU’RE WRONG. THE BOOK WILL STILL BE GARBAGE THE FIRST TIME AROUND. WAIT AND SEE.
  3. Inspiration will not always show up for you. I know everyone loves that Stephen King quote about how you have to show up every single day for your muse in order for them to reliably provide you with inspiration or whatever, but for me, that’s just not always true. Sometimes you show up for the muse and the muse stands you up and leaves you alone at a table for two with a wilting bouquet of roses (ideas? I don’t know.) It sucks, but it’s okay. I am trying to make peace with the fact that there will always be some days– maybe even many days– when I do not like writing and writing does not like me.
  4. The best ideas come when you’re already working on something else. This is something else that I am forced to re-learn every single Nano, without fail. No matter how much I like my current idea at the beginning of the month, by the end of the month, my head will be crowded with at least two or three other brand-new ideas. I always have Shiny New Idea Syndrome, but it always gets worse in the middle of Nano.
  5. The good moments are still worth it. You know, there were probably only two days this November when I genuinely, wholeheartedly enjoyed writing and was delighted to be doing Nano. The other twenty-eight were a drag. But guess what? Those two days were worth it. No matter how many days I have where I sit down and writing feels difficult and frustrating and makes me want to bang my head against my desk and cry, it’s all worth it for those days and moments when everything clicks and your fingers start to fly.

What did you learn this November?

5 Things I Learned In July

You: It’s almost September!
Me, constantly two months behind on everything: Here, have this blog post about stuff I figured out… in July.

  1. Preparation Is… Get This… Actually Helpful. Wild concept, I know. Thank you, self, for your brilliant observations. But seriously, sarcasm aside, July’s Camp NaNoWriMo was really the first time I began writing a draft of a book with an outline that was well-thought out and took MAIN CONFLICTS and CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT into account. And shockingly… having a good outline made writing both easier and more enjoyable. Revolutionary.
  2. Prewriting? Also Helpful. Not only did I have an outline this July, I also began doing this super fancy thing called “prewriting.” Or, in other words, before I sat down to write a scene, I considered in greater detail  what should actually happen in the scene. Furthermore, I also considered what the main conflicts of the scene were, and what important change would have taken place by the time the scene was over. This was my way of ensuring that every scene actually had a point, and it was shockingly helpful. (Pictured below: a scene card and a tragically empty coffee mug. Also, the only pen I own that I haven’t lost yet.)20170704_151607
  3. Slow The Hell Down. Look, I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo since the age of 12. It’s one of my favorite things, and it’s been super important to me and my writing. But I have to admit that it’s also taught me some unhealthy writing habits– mainly, writing first drafts super quickly and then never writing second drafts. But this July, I not only began a second draft of my 2016 Nano Novel, I also slowed down. My word count goal for the month was 25,000 words, half of what it usually is. And what I found is that while there is glory and exhilaration in super speedy writing, there’s also something undeniably peaceful and lovely about taking your time.
  4. All Time Is Writing Time. This is a Golden Fact of Writing that I knew as a kid and somehow forgot along the way. It remained forgotten until I watched one of the author V.E. Schwab’s writing videos and a metaphorical lightbulb lit up inside my head. I don’t have my best ideas sitting at my keyboard. I have my best ideas when I’m riding my bike or gardening with my mom or rollerskating in my basement while listening to Lorde at midnight. The time you spend doing whatever it is that helps you think is just as valuable as the time you spend physically writing. Not typing =/= not writing.
  5. Rewriting is Glorious. As I mentioned before, July was sort of my first-ever attempt at a second draft. And dear lord, it was so fun. When I write a first draft, I’m still struggling to figure out who the characters really are. But writing a second draft wasn’t like that at all. Although of course I was still working out some things about my characters, I also felt like I really and truly knew them, and I loved them.

TL;DR: Putting time and hard work into stuff 1) makes stuff better, and 2) makes stuff more fun.

(Pssst. Another super cool thing also happened in July. One of my short stories was published with the online writing collective Dear Damsels. Check it out here!)

Ideas, Like Pasta, Must Boil

A couple months ago, a friend and I were talking about our favorite graphic novels (Nimona, Saga, and Giant Days, if you’re looking for recs.) I told her that I’m really interested in writing graphic novels, but that unfortunately even my stick figures are woefully pathetic, so I’d need to find a co-author with art skills. She gave me a look and was like “Hello, yes, remember me, your friend who DOES ART.” So now we’re writing graphic novel together.

As always, working with someone new on a writing project has been interesting, and pretty eye-opening. When we first started brainstorming ideas, my friend said something to me that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. She told me that I have so many ideas.  

I never really stopped to consider this before she pointed it out, but it’s true. I have a lot of ideas. Character ideas. World ideas. Story ideas. Novel concepts drift into my mind while I’m studying, while I’m gardening, and while I’m riding my bike. I can come up with an idea, brainstorm different possibilities for it, mentally write a synopsis for it, and get bored with it in the space of a single afternoon.

My friend seemed slightly frustrated when she told me that she doesn’t have half so many concrete I-should-totally-write-that-thing story ideas. What I told her at the time was “Yeah, but remember that I’m terrible at actually sticking with an idea.” Which is true. I start and subsequently abandon a whole lot more stories than I actually finish.

Thinking about this, I began to wonder about my own mental process when it comes to actually finishing stuff. I realized that I wasn’t sure why I abandon some ideas two pages in and stick with some until the cold, bitter end. And somewhere along the way, I developed a beautiful metaphor: my method of developing ideas is like cooking pasta.

I start my pasta-cooking, idea-developing journey by going to my pantry. Now, there’s a whole lot of packages of pasta in there. But do I pull out every single package of pasta and cook all of them? No. No, I do not. I pick a single package of pasta, a unit containing one collective hodgepodge of ideas for a potential project. Because the truth is that some ideas are never going to go anywhere. They’re just going to sit in the dark, cold pantry FOREVER AND EVER. We can consider those the ideas that I develop and abandon in a single afternoon (because seriously, that even I got bored of it that quickly is probably a sign.)

Now, do I take tender, loving care of my pasta? NO. I SNAP THE PASTA IN HALF AND I DROP IT INTO A POT OF BOILING WATER. That is what I do with my ideas– at least, the ones I think have some sort of merit. I toss them into the pot of boiling water that is my writerly brain. I stir them, mix them up. If those ideas are any good, being boiled in other thoughts and the busyness of life events does not ruin them. The best ideas thrive in the chaos rather than vanishing into it.

At a certain point, I’ll fish a piece out of the pot and bite it to see if it’s cooked yet. Often, I’ll do this three or four times, discovering each time that the pasta hasn’t completely softened yet. In metaphor terms, that’s me plucking an idea from my brain, sitting down, trying to write a story based around it, giving up on it quickly, coming back to it later, trying it again, and giving up on it again. (Yes, this is a common occurrence.)

Eventually, the pasta really will soften, and I’ll pull a piece out and throw it at the wall. In metaphor terms, that’s me writing a full draft of a book based on the idea. Often, the piece of pasta will slide pathetically down the wall, indicating that it’s not ready to be eaten. Metaphorically, that’s me realizing that not only is the first draft of a book garbage (as all first drafts are), but also that I am completely exhausted and don’t want to think about it anymore. I leave the pasta to boil some more and read a book or overthrow a government or something.

But eventually, after lots of stirring and boiling and hoping, I’ll toss a piece of pasta at the wall, and it will stick. At that point, I know that my pot of pasta has finished cooking, and is now ready to be drained and buttered and seasoned and covered in sauce. In other words, I’ve written the draft of a book that deserves to be rewritten and revised.

I’ve eaten a lot of pasta in my life, and I’ve written a fair amount of first drafts– 14 or 15, I think. Of those drafts, only three have stuck to the wall. Only three remain in my brain, needling at me, asking to be rewritten and revised. Those three are Demonic Dilemmas, Reckless, and Glass & Gold. Those are the ideas that have stayed in my head, the ones that are waiting to be covered in alfredo sauce and chopped parsley. (THIS METAPHOR IS GETTING WEIRD BUT I ALREADY SPENT A LOT OF TIME ON THIS POST SO WE’RE STICKING WITH IT, SORRY.)

So yes, I have a lot of ideas. Yes, I write– or start writing– a lot of drafts. But at the end of the day, only a few of those ideas stick. And the whole point of this long spiel, and this weird and probably unnecessary metaphor, is this: it doesn’t matter if you have two new book ideas per year or two hundred. All that matters is that you have a way to weed out the ones you really love from the ones you only sort of like, and that once you have, you keep working on those ideas until they become the most delicious bowl of pasta you’ve ever eaten.

Books are not instant Ramen*. They’re not quick, easy, or cheap. They take time, effort, dedication. You have to write a whole bunch of terrible drafts before you write a good one– call it developing a recipe, or learning the skills of the chef. But a dozen bad bowls of pasta are worth it if, in the end, you MASTER the art of pasta and your pasta-making skills make you a really popular dinner party host.

So go write some words, go eat some pasta, and remember that no matter how hard it can be to find an idea that sticks, it’s worth it when the final copy of your book turns out as fantastic as THIS BOWL OF PASTA.


*Not that I have anything against instant Ramen. I love the taste of MSGs and the satisfaction of a meal that takes 6 minutes to prepare.

On Outlining

“To outline or not to outline” has been one of my constant refrains for years now. I was a non-outlining person for years, mainly for two reasons: one, I didn’t know how to outline, and two, I thought that outlining would drive me up the wall.

At this point, I’ve pretty much accepted that writing is going to drive me up the wall no matter what I do, and I’ve found that outlining can actually help me… climb down the wall a little? (I really should have chosen a different idiom.) However, Problem #1 remains: I still don’t know how, exactly, to create an outline.

Different writers have different methods of outlining: some follow a Hero’s Journey-type formula, while others use the Snowflake Method, or a three-act structure, or a beat sheet. My method of outlining thus far has pretty much been “here’s a list of things that are going to happen in the story”, but what that leads to is the development of a plot that has basically nothing to do with the characters. A plot that has nothing to do with the characters is only slightly more interesting than a grocery list and the opposite of what I want.

Okay, so I need to find a new method of outlining. Easier said than done? Pretty much.

There are two books that are on my Oh-God-These-Desperately-Need-to-Be-Outlined-and-Rewritten radar: Reckless, which I wrote during July 2016’s Camp NaNoWriMo, and Demonic Dilemmas, which I wrote for regular NaNoWriMo in November. I began both of these projects with my terrible, plot-heavy outlines. The outlines were definitely an improvement over having no outline, but the fact remains that both books need to be rewritten, and that both rewrites will require new outlines.

One method I’m considering for Demonic Dilemmas is a zero draft, which is basically a messy outpouring of thoughts, scene snippets, character ideas, and keyboard smashes as the writer tries to figure out what in God’s name their story is supposed to be. (Similar to the majority of my  blog posts, come to think of it.) It’s sort of like a very, very terrible first draft that turns into an outline.

Part of the reason I struggle with outlining is that my stories never, ever come together in a neat, linear way in my head. A zero draft would let me start halfway through the story, or 9/17ths of the way through the story, and then work my way from there. Since I have a hard time with structured outlining, maybe I need to move away from that and try a more fluid approach.

At the same time, I’m also thinking about a very different approach: using a screenplay as an outline. This doesn’t seem to be a super popular method, but apparently, some writers prefer to write their stories out in script form– just dialogue and action– before actually writing the novel. I’ve never written a screenplay, but I have learned how to format one, so I’m considering that as well.

Essentially, what it comes down to is this: do I need to give myself more freedom when it comes to outlining, or less? Or, in other words, what it comes down to is this: it’s time to try both and see which works better and probably end up extremely frustrated with both and end up stress-baking cookies because AHH OUTLINING IS HARD NO MATTER HOW YOU DO IT.


What’s your preferred method of outlining?

You can find me on Patreon and the NaNoWriMo website

On Female Characters, Strong and Weak

I grew up surrounded by strong female characters.Even before I understood the meaning of the word ‘sexism’ or knew that I would one day grow up and shout “You do not get to slut-shame Margaery Tyrell just because she’s a female character who has sex!” at my older brother, I was getting a pretty cool feminist education– an education that took place mainly through literature.

Easily the most influential people in my life, both then and now, my mom and big sister introduced me to a wonderful amount of female-led literature. My mom read Pollyanna, Mandy, A Little Princess, and Laura Ingalls Wilder aloud to me probably dozens of times. Meanwhile, as I grew older, my sister introduced me to her personal favorites, such as the Song of the Lioness Quartet and His Dark Materials. And of course, I inherited a love of Harry Potter from every member of my family and thus added Hermione, Ginny, and Luna to my long list of female heroes and inspirations.

As all this reading and being read to happened, something strange happened: a rift appeared between my Pollyannas and my Lyras. My sweet and kind girls who ran through flower-filled meadows and my fierce, snarky warriors became separated. The concept of a “strong female character” emerged, the idea being that the belligerent– and, generally, tomboyish– girls were “strong” and the sweeter, gentler girls were not. This became a pattern of thinking that I feel into and stayed stuck in for a great number of years. These also became the sort of characters I wrote– fierce and snarky girls with little interest in traditionally feminine pursuits.

Flash forward to March of 2016, when I started watching the HBO series Game of Thrones. Going into it, I already knew a lot about the series and the characters, both from spoilers on Tumblr and listening to my mom and sister talk about the show. Because of that, I was fully expecting Arya Stark, the sword-carrying twelve year old girl who doesn’t want to be a lady, to be my favorite character. And she was one of my favorites, at first. But then a strange thing happened. The more I watched, the more attached I became to a very different female character: Sansa Stark.

Sansa Stark, the young, vain, somewhat selfish girl who just wants to get married and have beautiful blonde babies, was not my usual “type” at all. She did not carry a sword, and probably never will. She wore dresses and sewed things and really wanted to be kissed by a boy with pretty hair. It seemed absurd for her to become my favorite… and yet, as the series went on, that’s exactly what happened. Sansa suffered and struggled and, in the end, underwent one of the best character arcs on the whole series. She emerged from all her suffering vengeful and determined, but still kind, still, in her own way, soft. She’s still not “strong” in my traditional arrow-shooting, dragon-slaying sort of  way, and yet she is a character I adore, a character I find inspiring. She is a hero.

And why shouldn’t she be?

We see female characters who pursue things stereotyped as masculine and call them strong, but when a female character wants to wear dresses and kiss boys, she’s considered weak, or boring, or bland. The characters I relate to most are probably the Pollyannas, and even I used to discredit them. Why? Because somewhere along the way, it got hammered into me that girls have to act “masculine” to be strong, interesting, or feminist. That’s absurd.

Don’t get me wrong: I still love my other girl heroes just a much as I used to. Lyra Silvertongue and Alanna the Lioness will always be some of my favorite characters. But I’ve also started to realize that I was pretty unfair to all my Pollyannas.

Take Anne of Green Gables, for example. Anne is one of my all-time favorites, and she’s an impulsive, whimsical girl who loves romantic daydreams and wants to wear pretty dresses and dance with dryads. She’s not the sort of character one would call “strong”, and yet she truly is a wonderful female character: she’s complex and three-dimensional, learns from every one of her many mistakes, and is very kind and loving. In fact, she’s a character I relate to in a lot of ways, and it’s a bit unnerving to think that I’ve spent so much time discrediting characters like her and Sansa just because they didn’t fit into one female-character mold.

We call any female character who carries a weapon “strong”, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that some of those acclaimed strong female characters are actually sort of one-dimensional and underdeveloped. I don’t want to read or write about characters whose only defining quality is “strength.” I want female characters with more than one personality trait. I want girls who have flaws and vices as well as virtues, who cry and get angry, who are strong and brave in lots of different ways.

There’s not just one type of woman in this world. In fact, there aren’t any “types” at all, because we’re not ice-cream flavors or paint samples. Women are human beings, diverse and messy and flawed, and as I continue to write stories filled with lady heroes, I want all of my  characters to reflect that.