Summer Camp Without Leaving Home: 5 Reasons To Try Camp NaNoWriMo This July


It’s hard to believe it’s been over a year since I wrote here; ironically, my last post was about discipline. Conversely, I also know it’s easy to get swept up in the daily commitments of life and lose track of the things that are important to us.

I graduated from college just six and a half short weeks ago - copious caffeine was required. And then we got rained on the whole time.
I graduated from college just six and a half short weeks ago – copious caffeine was required. And then we got rained on the whole time.

A lot has happened for me in the last year; a lot has been on my mind. After all, it was my senior year of college, and I was working to complete three simultaneous degrees without taking any extra semesters. I served as editor of a literary journal as well as on the executive board of my fraternity, and worked 9 hours a week on top of the rest. It’s a lot to accomplish, and I’m proud of every bit of it.

And yet, I feel as though for much of the last year, I’d lost sight of where I was heading. Despite the constant pressure every senior college student feels to know what their next step is, I was too focused on tomorrow every day, or even five minutes from now, to really think any further forward. I stopped putting emphasis on the goals that had long-term meaning to me in favor of things that were urgent, but not necessarily important (check out Franklin Covey’s quadrant planning for the difference between the two).

That, more than ever before, is the reason why I’m so hyped for this July’s Camp NaNoWriMo session. Now, I know you’re thinking “Isn’t that a bit drastic? Isn’t NaNoWriMo a big commitment?” And yes, it is – in November. But for two other months of the year, April and July, the people who bring you the crazy “50k words in 30 days” challenge offer you the freedom to choose your own word count goal.

I’ve participated in the last two sessions. I was wildly successful in July 2015, meeting my 20k goal in the first 10 days and then, unfortunately, made the mistake of upping my goal to 30k and fizzling out before I could achieve it once the drive of the first week and a half was gone. This April, I was less successful, with the end of my final semester looming, but since I still managed to put together a good portfolio for my creative writing adviser at the end of it all, I was okay with that.

This July, I know I need to refocus on my writing. I’ve been working on the same novel periodically since my senior year of high school. The concept has evolved dramatically since then, as I’ve matured as an adult and as a writer, but the core of the story and the characters are the same. Now, four years later, I think it has marinated enough. I have the time, and I want to have at least a preliminary manuscript before I go off to grad school.

That, I’ve found, is what Camp NaNo is perfect for. I’ve set a 25k goal for the month, which breaks down to just over 800 words a day. The freedom to choose your own word count prevents the immediate bitten off more than I can chew feeling that inevitably comes with November’s full 50k, not to mention that with approaching holidays and final exams, November is just downright inconvenient. For me, at least, July is far more amenable to creativity.

Here are five reasons to take up the Camp NaNoWriMo challenge this July, if I haven’t convinced you yet.

  1. The daily motivation to up your word count. campnano_target
    Watching the arrow on your target move ever closer to the bullseye can be kind of addictive. The visuals on your stats page are highly satisfying, and that’s just part of the fun. Knowing that every word you write moves you closer to your goal – heck, just having a tangible goal for the next 31 days – drives you to keep moving that pen, or tapping those keys.
  2. It’s the perfect jumping off point for a new project you’ve been meaning to work on, or for that novel that’s been stagnating for a while.
    Sometimes when we sit down to a new project, those planners among us get caught up in outlines, character descriptions, and whatever else, and forget to actually write. Camp NaNo is the time to write. So set aside those elaborate plans and just move forward. All the planning in the world won’t get you a novel if you don’t eventually transition into the writing phase, and this is the opportunity to just buckle down and put all of those outlines to proper use. If, like me, you’ve been writing (or rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting) the same novel for a while, but can’t seem to actually make any progress, this is a great opportunity to get that forward momentum back, as well. Stop trying to perfect those same four chapters and write the rest of the book. Revision is important, but it can come later.
  3. Your cabin-mates will serve as friends, advisers, and/or accountabilibuddies.
    Extrovert that I am, I prefer my writing to be at least slightly social. Camp NaNo organizes its participants into 12-person “cabins,” which are little mini-forums in which you can discuss any aspect of your project, your progress, and cheer each other on. Just remember that your cabin is only as active as you make it!
  4. 2 words: WORD SPRINTS
    I love word sprints. These are a great way to indulge any competitive tendencies you may have. The idea is to write as much as you can within the time frame allotted. There are generally five minute breaks between sprints to allow for bathroom and coffee breaks. If you’re short on writing time, these are especially great, because they help you to hit your daily goal in as little time as possible. I follow @NaNoWordSprints, which is the official page for them, but you can also participate in smaller sprints with your cabin-mates, or the various other people on Twitter using #NaNoWordSprints, or just #WordSprints.
  5. Daily Care Packages
    Okay, so it’s not quite the same as the box delivered in the middle of your week at summer camp, full of yummy candy bars and cute pens your mom sent. What these care packages do contain are pep talks from well-known writers and other helpful tools for reaching your word goal. And hey, if you want to read it with a chocolate bar in hand, go for it.

BONUS: It’s fun!
Most of the time, we enjoy our creative endeavors, but it is possible to get bogged down in the feeling that we will never finish, or turn our beloved projects into dreaded chores if we approach them with the wrong attitude. Camp NaNo offers a fresh perspective on your writing, and the challenge is enlivening. I love the community that comes together around shared writing goals like this, and social media has made it more enjoyable than ever. My Camp NaNo experience last summer was some of the most fun I’ve had writing in the last couple of years.

So go ahead and try it! Create your account, set up your project, and watch your word count rise. I’d love to hear how you did at the end of the month if you participate, or any advice you might have for other campers if you’re a NaNo veteran.

Happy writing!


Journaling: Discipline in Writing

The Piazzale Michelangelo is one of the best overlooks of the city, and at sunset, it is absolutely stunning.
The Piazzale Michelangelo is one of the best overlooks of the city, and at sunset, it is absolutely stunning.

For the past two weeks, I have been immersed in the Italian culture, observing and absorbing everything I can. In order to do this, I’m keeping a journal of my experiences. No detail is too small to record – I want the words to prompt my memory later, so that perhaps I can tell inspiring tales of my adventures studying in Florence. It’s also come in handy in the class I’m taking here, which is, appropriately, Travel Writing.

But keeping a journal when there are so many other things to do is difficult. Why spend hours staring at the pages of my notebook when I could spend them exploring the century-old streets of this city or one of the numerous museums scattered throughout? Why remain indoors when there are views available like those from the Piazzale Michelangelo and San Miniato al Monte, or even the one outside my apartment window?

So much of writing is discipline. We call it a practice because that is what we must do in order to better ourselves in our craft.

I admit that I have not written every day – some days I leave in the morning, and when I return at night it is only to eat a well-earned dinner and collapse into bed for the night. When I have the time, however, I sit down to record the events from my day, or even from previous days, which make good stories or stand out as different from home. I attempt to capture as many images, impressions, and perspectives as possible. I have a running list of notes in my phone, just a word or two each, to prompt entries I want to compose when I have the time.

I keep my phone and notebook on hand at all times, either for jotting down quick notes, snapping a photo of something, or using a bit of free time to really write something. This has been incredibly useful in maintaining my discipline. I do the same thing at home, although my days there tend to be less eventful. You never know when a good idea may present itself. It’s easy to think “I’ll remember this later,” but then the thought that seems so strong, so present in the moment slips away when you aren’t paying attention. My dad often tells me that success happens when opportunity meets preparation; I make an effort to be perpetually prepared.

Journaling is a useful practice for all writers. It might not necessarily be a narrated record of events, as I have been keeping during my time abroad. It can be a list of impressions; a collection of quickly drafted poems; it can be daily; it can be sporadic; it can be whatever you want it to be. My journal at home tends to be far more eclectic. But having one place to record thoughts, especially a place you can carry with you at all times, means that when an opportunity does come along, you are prepared to take advantage of it.

Characters are People, Too

Think of the person you spend the most time with. It might be your dad, your roommate, maybe even the guy you share office space with. Picture them in your mind. Now: what are they wearing? What kind of shoes? What does their voice sound like; their laugh? Do they have a particular smell? What do they need for their 2 p.m. pick-me-up? What is their most grating habit? Quirks? Favorite book or movie? Pet peeves?

Chances are, you can answer all of these questions and more about someone you spend almost every day with. Getting to know them is pretty much inevitable.

It's time to cut the strings and let Pinocchio be a real boy, Geppetto.
It’s time to cut the strings and let Pinocchio be a real boy, Geppetto. (Picture retrieved from IMDb. All rights reserved by Walt Disney Studios)

You should be able to do the exact same thing with your characters. If you treat them like tools on the page, they will come across as two dimensional. If, however, you set aside the notion that you are their puppeteer and invest in learning about them, their depth will show through when you write about them.

Easier said than done.

So then the question at hand is how to bring a character to life. Unfortunately, there isn’t one method that will work for every writer.

What I’ve done over the past few years to bolster my process is to write down all of the facets of character that I want to consider. I’ve written pages upon pages of questions. I’ve also found questionnaires that can be used to look at some deeper parts of them, or details you may not have considered (links to these can be found below). Of course there are questions that aren’t always relevant – chances are the name of their favorite celebrity and the brand of tea they drink won’t come up in your story – but knowing them may enhance your understanding of them.

The habit that I’ve had to train myself into most recently is applying these questions and techniques to more than just my protagonist. Unless you’re telling an extremely unusual tale, there will be more than one person involved. Close friends, allies, lovers, even the antagonist – and while you might not need to know quite as much about these people, they still need well-rounded backstories and personalities, or else the story will fall flat. A villain with inexplicable motivations or a lover who is little more than a “tall, dark, and handsome” cardboard cutout, unless you have a solid reason for them, will show ineptitude as much as a shallow main character. Every character’s choices and actions must make sense (at least to them) and seem authentic.

It can be tedious to go through your character questions multiple times to flesh out each and every important person in your story. Sometimes there are questions that won’t be necessary for everyone; feel free to pick and choose, but remember that the idea of “main characters” shouldn’t always be limited to your protagonist. If they get a lot of page time or are central to the plot, they might qualify.

If your characters are nothing more than narrative puppets, going wherever and doing whatever you tell them, then they cease to be people. You must allow them to make their own choices – or at least write them in such a way that they would make the choice you want them to – in order to appear real on the page.

Here are the links to the two character questionnaires that I’ve found most helpful:
“Questions to Create Character Backstory”: This one is more emotionally focused, digging into your character’s internal processes.
“The Ultimate Character Questionnaire”: This one is actually structured like an interview, asking the questions directly of the character. It is more all-encompassing and delves into backstory. Using your character’s voice to answer them may be an interesting exercise; I tend to ignore the direct questions and answer as the author instead. Whichever you choose, the questions will help you flesh out details that it may not have occurred to you to consider.

AWP: An Undergraduate Newcomer’s Perspective

Community, for a writer, is important. “Writer” is an identity often shunted aside in favor of more socially acceptable options, which means that finding others who share in your love of language and a well-crafted sentence is paramount. I have identified as a writer since grade school, so I have come to accept that people will raise eyebrows or hear “Starbucks Barista” dubbed over my words when I tell them what I want to do after graduation. While I do not believe, as they do, that my future in my field is nonexistent, it is frustrating to hear those doubts repeated so often. Occasionally, I struggle to remember that I am not the only person accustomed to hearing these remarks.

I went out to dinner on the last night of the conference with the other Widener students and faculty who attended the conference. (Photo courtesy of Michael Cocchiarale)
I went out to dinner on the last night of the conference with the other Widener students and faculty who attended the conference. The others were on the other side of the table. (Photo courtesy of Michael Cocchiarale)

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity, through the generosity of my university’s Creative Writing Department, to attend the largest annual gathering of writers in the country: the AWP Conference. There, I found a writing community that I could scarcely have dreamed existed.

I had heard stories of the conference from students who attended in past years, but being immersed in it was a wild experience. Here were people who have faced the same struggles as me; who strive toward the same dreams and goals; and who have found and succeeded at the very careers that some would have me believe cannot be found.

Better yet, some of those successful people were the panelists who shared their advice for writers aspiring to similar success (or just similar projects). I attended panels on careers in writing; on troubleshooting faulty plotlines; on writing unlikeable characters; on writing violence; on writing sex. No subject is taboo when you strive to allow the truth to leak from your pen. Authenticity supersedes awkwardness.

Even now, weeks after returning to the daily grind of my classes, I cannot quite force my thoughts on the conference to coalesce. They are like clouds I watch while lying in the grass, constantly shifting: first a rabbit, then a dog, then a lion. Even if I were to give a full account of every panel, interaction, booth at the Book Fair, even of the hours spent away from it all in the Caribou Coffee shop two blocks away from the Convention Center, I could not possibly convey the magnitude of the experience. The words overload and overwhelming fall short of the array of daily options, after which it was all I could do to drag myself into the shower and then collapse into bed, making sure to set my alarm early enough to do it all over again the next day.

Representing at the FUSE table with the other student editors from Widener: Autumn Heisler of Widener Ink and Emily DeFreitas of The Blue Route.
Representing at the FUSE table with the other student editors from Widener: Autumn Heisler of Widener Ink and Emily DeFreitas of The Blue Route. (Photo courtesy of Michael Cocchiarale)

The conference also allowed me to meet undergrads from writing programs around the country through the Forum for Undergraduate Student Editors (FUSE), and to plug into my own Widener writing community more. My professors have never exactly been boring suits in front of a blackboard, but I still learned a lot by going out to dinner with them and talking about something other than the book we’re reading in class or how to improve my story/poem/essay to earn an A. It’s good to be reminded every once in a while that “professors are people, too.”

I have been fortunate in my life to find support for my creativity first at home, and then in the small Creative Writing Department here at Widener, among the students with whom I workshop in classes and work on the literary journals, but that is a mere microcosm of the community I found at AWP.

Why I Write

I am a writer because words are beautiful.
They twist and deceive and layer and become
so much more than they seem.

I am a writer because words are easy –
easy like simple, easy like slutty.
They open themselves to me like whores,
letting me screw their meaning completely
and destroy everything they are and should be.

I am a writer because it is socially acceptable
to bleed this way, inkwell heart pushing
thin paint through fingertips aching
for relief from excessive expression.

I am a writer because I can put ME into fiction
and no one will ever know how little pain I invent;
how I cry over characters I don’t even like.

I am a writer because I can revise ink,
even if I can’t erase it.

I am a writer because the page is my home
even when the house I grew up in is across state lines,
when thin blue lines on looseleaf conjure smiles
quicker than a phone call.

I am a writer because this kind of ink hurts less
than the tattoo I would get
if I weren’t a wimp about pain.

I am a writer because I like hard work;
because you are an IDIOT if you say
“the humanities are a soft option”
but complain about that 5-page paper in your
Freshman English class.

I am a writer because I can whip out
ten pages in two hours when
motivation and inspiration intersect.

I am a writer because words are everything.

I am a writer because words set me free.

Room to Grow

Image courtesy of amenic181 at
Image courtesy of amenic181 at

I am great at starting novels. When an idea pokes through the fertile soil of my imagination, I nearly smother it. I can write half of the first chapter in just a couple of hours, typing away furiously in an attempt to get the whole thing on paper before I lose track of my vision. The rest of that chapter is usually finished over the next few days as I alternate between writing the actual story, mapping out the details of my characters, and choosing an actual plot.

Chapter two usually takes over a week as it competes for time with my other commitments, which are often overshadowed by the emergence of a new idea. And then chapter three… is nowhere to be found. It is either lost in a mire of commitments that stretches on endlessly, or a new idea takes its place. Whatever the reason, it is rarely more than an excuse to set aside an idea that no longer has that seductive glow of promise it had when I was rushing through chapter one.

I’m a commitment-phobe. Not with relationships, but as a writer. My rationalization for backing off tends to sound similar, however: what if this idea isn’t “the right one”? What if it isn’t good enough to be a real novel? Do I want to waste all of that time and effort if it isn’t going to become anything?

My tendency is to decide that the answer to that last question is “no” and move on. The process that I take when it isn’t is what ends up making the effort worthwhile.

The problem I am really facing in these moments of self-doubt is that as is, my ideas are not good enough to sustain themselves. They need polishing; they need specificity; they need expansion. As they sit when I choose to abandon them, they lack the twists, turns, and developments that make a novel a page-turner (or even worth picking up off the shelf).

All ideas need room – and time – to grow. But if you’re too afraid of giving them that time by encouraging them, then they’ll remain little more than a single bud poking through the surface. The worst that could happen is that the bud you hoped would grow into a beautiful plant withers, or turns out to be little more than a weed. But even if the idea ceases to grow, you will have learned something from your time nurturing it, and those skills won’t go to waste no matter what happens to the novel.

How do your own struggles with committing to a project manifest in your process?

Death to the Bucket List: The 25-Before-25 List

Image courtesy of Simon Howden at
Image courtesy of Simon Howden at

I have never liked the idea of bucket lists. For one, I have no particular interest in sky diving, swimming with sharks, or climbing Mt. Everest. People have a tendency to fill their bucket lists with meaningless items that will make good stories. While I certainly have dreams I would like fulfilled and want adventures outside of my beloved books, qualifying those as a “bucket list” seems to do them a disservice. I also have much more finite deadlines for them than “before I die.”

Bucket list items also end up relegated to “after” various life milestones – after you’ve established a career and a steady income; after your kids are grown; after you retire; until eventually, the things that were important have lost their potency, or you’re too old to properly enjoy them.

What I believe in is setting concrete deadlines for your dreams and organizing your priorities in a realistic manner. To solve the bucket list problem, my dad suggested an alternative kind of list. Just after my 20th birthday (about a year ago), I had an existential crisis of boredom in which I wanted book-worthy adventures in real life. And so I gave myself five years, rather than the rest of my life, and decided what the most important things I wanted to accomplish by that time were.

I ended up with a list of 25 things I wanted to do before my 25th birthday (thus the title – creative, right?). Some of them are major life goals, like graduating college, some are more personal, like the adventures that I want to have, and a few are kind of silly. Is it totally comprehensive? Of course not. I threw it together in a little over an hour.

What this list has done is give me a deadline for things that should be a priority now, not “after.” I imagine in 4 years, my priorities for before my 30th birthday will be different. Whatever they are, I’ll create a new list for them.

I highly recommend you do the same. Putting off goals with the idea that you’ll get around to them “eventually” is essentially saying you’re willing to never see them met. Grab a sheet of paper – seriously, right now – and start your own list. The number of items isn’t important; only that they are important to you today. Then set an end date. It doesn’t have to be five years away. It could be one, or ten, or whatever makes sense to you.

The list doesn’t have to be permanent, either, once it’s created. Change it; add to it; if you no longer care about something, strike it. Make sure the list remains relevant. The feeling of crossing an item off, when you’ve been dreaming about it for months, is incredibly satisfying. One clean line to celebrate victory.

I’ve included my (annotated) list below in the hopes that it will help inspire your own. I’ve also put a * by those things I’ve accomplished since I first created the list.

(Before my 25th birthday)

  1. Graduate college
  2. *See New York (until last December, I had never been. Shocking, right?)
  3. *Go horseback riding (an old hobby I was feeling nostalgic about)
  4. Get in the best shape of your life – and then stay there
  5. Learn to cook something you love – from scratch
  6. Write a novel, start to finish, and everything in between
  7. Find the pencil skirt
  8. Follow your nose, and only your nose
  9. Attend AWP (in a little over a week, I’ll be crossing this one off!)
  10. *Write a blog (duh)
  11. Find your new passion (still working on this one)
  12. *Stay in Boston for a few days (I fell in love with this city)
  13. *Learn Italian (I’m hardly fluent, but I was looking for basics to use while travelling)
  14. Study abroad in Italy (Going this summer!)
  15. Really clean your room – spotless and organized
  16. *Take a yoga class
  17. Visit Mikayla (a friend who got married and moved to NM with her husband)
  18. Take a walk in the rain
  19. Grow something
  20. Go to a Renaissance Fair
  21. Paint
  22. Spend a day writing in a little café
  23. Visit the UK
  24. Get a bicycle
  25. Don’t settle for anything less than the best thing for you. (this is a constant work in progress)

As far as I’m concerned, #25 is the most important of all. This should make it onto everyone’s list.