NaNoWriMo: The Ultimate Equalizer

Every November brings us “National Novel Writing Month.” For just 30 days, aspiring writers around the world try to write a 50,000 manuscript. They sacrifice sleep, errands, laundry, social engagements (except Thanksgiving dinner and possibly Black Friday shopping with friends.) In some ways, NaNoWriMo is the ultimate community builder, the ultimate equalizer.

* No fancy equipment is needed to get started (yes, a computer is helpful, but a pen and plain–or fancy–notebook will work just as well.)

*There is no age requirement. In fact, NaNoWriMo has special programs for young writers.

* You can write anywhere and at any time. There’s no geographic requirement that NaNoWriMo participants live in New York and write from their neighborhood Starbucks.

* Everyone is starting from scratch and staring at a blank page on November 1. (Well, except for all those people who literally spent the last six months planning every single detail of their NaNoWriMo story. Their “story notes” or “pre-prep” writing is essentially a first draft.)

The practicality of NaNo means that participants are pledging, er, planning, to write 1,666 words each day in November. Some people will find that there are days (especially in the beginning because you know — shiny new object) where they will easily surpass that word count. (I’ve seen people post that they wrote 4,000 words in a single day. I do NOT know these people and cannot imagine doing.) Most people though will plod away, working in small increments of writing time 15 minutes here, a half-hour lunch break there. Slowly, the word count will build. The focus of writing and the dedication to being a “writer” will also build in those quiet moments of work.

It is a wonderful way to see if you have what it takes to be a disciplined writer.

Full disclosure, I am NOT committing to 50,000 words this year. I have revisions on a soon-to-be published book that must be finished and a number of freelance assignments that are time dependent and can’t be pushed off. So why did I register? Because I love the community that is NaNoWriMo. I love that so many people are focusing on themselves and, for 30 days, putting their dream of being an author. There is simply no better energy for a writer than the excitement that NaNo generates.

PS: If you’re already signed up for NaNoWriMo 2019, you can feel free to buddy with me. You can find me at FayH123. You can also read my previous NaNoWriMo columns.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Do you have any questions, thoughts? Share them in the comments below.

The Winding Road of Fiction

Admittedly, I sometimes have a hard time motivating myself without a firm deadline. I like deadlines. They keep me on track and remind me of the days when I worked at the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia and had to juggle 2-4 stories a week. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

So when I arranged a deadline for the second book in the Layla’s diary series, I figured it would be a no-brainer.

I was WRONG!

Writing fiction uses a very different mental muscle from journalism. There’s no road map for how to pull it all together. (I cannot plot a book. I’ve tried and it doesn’t work for me.) I just have to travel the road the story wants to take and sometimes it meanders when it should be going straight ahead. Sometimes detours challenge the narrative I am hoping to tell.

I’m back on the right road now. I turned in the edits to Layla’s diary book two, Layla’s Sugarland Adventure, and have started book five in the Achdus Club series.

I want to thank all the bookstores, grandparents, parents and kids who have been asking for a new release. I can’t tell you what your interest has meant to me. Stay tuned, book two is coming and here’s your sneak peek.

Page 1 Layla's diary series
Page one of Layla’s Sugarland Adventure!

And in case you are interested in some of my newest nonfiction stories, check out:

Meet Leah Sokol/Leah Cypess

Fun fact, I actually first “met” author Leah Cypess after one of her daughters wrote me a fan email when my first book “The New Girl,” came out. Since then, I’ve been following her writing journey through social media. With two new releases for the Jewish book market and a resissue of her YA fantasy “Mistwood” all out now, this was the perfect time for me to introduce her to my blog readers. Please welcome Leah Cypess, aka Leah Sokol, to the blog.

How did you come up with the idea for “THE SPANISH PLOT,” a Jewish novel where readers have to pick what happens next? Were you a fan of this genre of books growing up?


I actually remember exactly where I came up with the idea. I was sitting in the coffee shop where I do a lot of writing, leafing through my copy of B. Netanyahu’s book about the Abarbanel, trying to figure out a way to write a children’s book about the Abarbanel. I even had a title in mind, “The Man Who Served Six Kings,” but I couldn’t think of a way to make it work as a story appropriate for children. I was thinking that the story about the attempted kidnapping of his grandson would be good for a middle grade book, but there wasn’t enough *story* there to make a whole middle grade book … and then this approach occurred to me, and I just whipped out a notebook and started writing.


I read a ton of the classic “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of books growing up — who didn’t, if they were reading during the ’90s and had a library card? It seemed like they were everywhere for a while and then suddenly they went out of style. But then when my daughters were very into the “American Girl” books, I saw that they had a line of books called “Journeys” that were branching paths novels, and that probably reminded me of their existence. It’s also become more popular in science fiction/fantasy circles, usually in the form of online fiction/game blends, and I have a friend who was writing one. So they were in the back of my mind.

What made you pick the time period around the Spanish inquisition? 
Like I said, I started out with the idea of the Abarbanel, who had so many fascinating episodes in his life … this was just the one that seemed most appropriate as a story where a kid could be the main character. (His financial negotiations on the behalf of Venice, not so much.) It was actually quite a challenge to write in this time period because, as we all know, there’s ultimately no happy ending.


You have two new releases and a reissue out this month, what’s that like?
It’s a lot like having one release out, honestly! I guess I do half the work as I would if two books came out at different times, but maybe I only get half the promotional benefit?


And yes, one of my mainstream books, Mistwood (a YA fantasy novel, published under my actual name, “Leah Cypess”) was reprinted in paperback this month as well. That’s very good news but doesn’t require anything from me — it’s been out all along and it’s still out, it just means a certain number of copies was sold and they needed new ones.

Are you a plotter or pantser?
I am 100% a pantser. This actually made it very fun to write this type of book, because often, as a pantser, I write things I end up not using because they don’t fit in with where the book ends up going. With this book, I got to use pretty much everything!

You also write sci-fi novels and short stories, is your writing process the same for your Jewish and secular stories?
My Jewish stories tend to be much more research driven, so the ratio of research to writing is very different. Once I’m doing the actual writing, though, the process is largely the same.


What does a typical writing day look like? 
At the time when I wrote these books, my youngest child was only in school for 4 hours a day, so my (ideal) writing date looked like: Take her to school, go somewhere — a coffee shop, a library, a park — and try to write for 3 hours before running home to take care of some things and then picking her up. This year all my children are in school full time, so I’m still figuring out what a typical writing day looks like for me, but I can already tell they’re going to be a lot less stressful!

Learn more about Leah Cypess and her sci-fi work at: https://www.leahcypess.com/

The Picture Book Light Bulb Moment

I am always seeking new ways to grow my writing skills, and this year has been no different. One of the challenges/goals that I’ve set for myself is to write picture books for the younger set. I think I may have blogged about this last summer after I attended my first SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference as I was so in awe on the amazing work being done in this genre.

The fact is I had no idea how truly difficult it is to write a picture book. (I am going to go out on a limb here and say I am not alone in this.) Here’s what I knew I HAD to do:

Keep your story under 550 words. Okay, easy enough.

Have a story that will resonate with both the child and the reader, meaning the adult who will be hopefully reading your story a million times in one day.

Sounds easy enough right? WRONG! I had no idea of the reality of balancing these elements and more.

Here’s what I’ve learned since I started a picture book challenge group in January and have taken numerous online (and sometimes free) workshops:

A picture book is not merely a 550-word story. Okay, this was the BIGGIE for me. I had written a sweet, quiet story that takes place primarily in one location with two characters, and the feedback I got on the story was overwhelmingly positive save for one thing: IT WAS NOT A PICTURE BOOK. Huh? I truly didn’t understand the criticism at first. Add more movement to the story? AH NO, then it wouldn’t be the same story. There wasn’t supposed to be movement.

And that my friends is why it IS NOT a picture book story.

Picture books must have enough scenes and page turns to fill 32-pages of illustrations. No one wants to see the same picture over all those pages. In pictures books, the images and the words are intertwined. They must fit with each other and share the narrative equally. If you don’t have enough movement in your story, the illustrator will have nothing to create and your story will fail.

You have NO IDEA how long it took me to finally wrap my head around this difference. I mean I understood that there were pictures and that they go hand in hand, but I didn’t truly grasp what that means in terms of how the words must flow.

What made the difference, you ask?

I read lots of recently-published picture books since I’ve started my year of picture book writing. I’ve read them and reread and analyzed them.

I participated in online workshops and learned from published authors.

I kept writing and reviewing my own work.

It turns out what I had written is a lovely, quiet, sweet story best suited for children’s magazines. I’m going to revise the story now with an eye toward the magazine market. Some of the other manuscripts I’ve written since the start of the year do met the criteria for a picture book and will be revised with an eye toward submission in that genre.

I’m going to keep learning and growing. Will I be disappointed if after all this I don’t have the skills to write for the junior set? Nope. I have gained so much from just the work I’m putting into it, I feel it has made me a stronger writer in other areas.

Fellow writers, is there something you’ve learned in your writing journey? Maybe a misconception that you had when you started out that you now know isn’t true? Leave your comments below, so we can all learn from your experiences.

Why Chapter One Had to Go!

If you are interested in writing, you no doubt have heard the old saying “writing is rewriting.” Nothing gets published without editing, revising, editing some more, revising some more and then starting the process all over again.

Sometimes those changes are minor, such as when you realize that you forgot punctuation or that a sentence doesn’t have the impact you hoped it would have.

In the case of the fourth book in my Achdus Club series, The Wedding Dance, this process actually led me to delete the entire original first chapter of the book. In my original draft, Tova Green, one of the main characters in the series, is shown at a physical therapy appointment with therapist Jill after being in a car accident in book three.

Here’s a snippet from that original opener:

“How’s my favorite fourth-grader doing today?” Jill asked Tova as she came over with a HEAT wrap that she put around Tova’s arm.

Tova shrugged and said, “Okay.”

“Just okay?” Jill asked. “Is your arm giving you trouble? Do you want to show me where it’s hurting?”

“It’s not my arm,” Tova said with a sigh as Jill checked the bandage around Tova’s injury.

“Well what then? It must be something,” said Jill. “You’re like my ray of sunshine client. I don’t have many of those, and if you’re down about something it must be super serious. So come on, girl, spill. Maybe I can help.”

Tova glanced over at her mother and saw she was concentrating on her book. She didn’t seem at all interested in what Tova was saying so Tova decided to share her thoughts. Well, not the ones about not wanting to come to physical therapy anymore, that she’d keep to herself. There was no reason not to tell Jill what else was on her mind.

“See, I have this new teacher,” Tova began, talking as fast as she could, “well substitute teacher, at least I think she is, or maybe she’s not.” Tova shook her head. “I’m not sure. Anyways, she’s not like my other teacher, my old teacher, who isn’t old at all, that’s just how long she’s been my teacher.”

I liked that the scene wasn’t something you’d ordinarily expect to find in the series, but there were several problems with this scene as a whole:

The character of Jill, Tova’s physical therapist, is introduced at the beginning of the book making readers think she will be important and return later. Turns out she did not get another scene. This was it.

2. More medical stuff … I wasn’t sure that the reader would enjoy seeing Tova in therapy.

3. Much of the scene is simply Tova talking to Jill and rehashing things for new readers.

4. There’s no real “Achdus Club” feel to the opener.

In an effort to address all these concerns, I tried crafting a few other scenes. Here’s part of the opening that eventually made it into the book:

Hili Rosen pulled open the door to the bakery as wide as she could as she waited for her best friend Tova Green to catch up. Tova wasn’t so much walking as she was hobbling, given that she was using crutches to get around. It was an improvement, though, over the wheelchair, and a sign that her friend was getting back to health, slowly, after having been hit by a car a few weeks earlier.

“Honestly, this is ridiculous,” said Tova with a huff as she entered the bakery. “Whoever came up with these things was just plain mean. I mean, my arms hurt, my hands hurt, and my leg is just plain annoying me.”

“That’s the Tova Green I know and love,” Hili joked as she closed the door behind them.

They made their way up to the counter, where rows of frosting-covered cupcakes, sprinkle cookies, and a wide array of fancy cakes beckoned. Tova’s mother had given them enough money to pick up a loaf of bread and some cookies. There were two women ahead of them in the store, so they waited as patiently as they could.

“I dare you to try these things, Hili,” Tova said. “I mean, they’re like…like…”

Crutches?” Hili said. “At least you’re getting better. That’s something. Before you know it, you’ll be back to normal.”

“You sound like my physical therapist,” said Tova. “Every time I have a session with her, she says, ‘It’s one more step to you getting back to normal.’ Really, I think I’m done wishing things would change. I just want them all to go back to the way they were.”

“You mean to normal?”

Ha! By the way, that includes Morah Steiner coming back and being our teacher again.”

Then there was this exchange to end of the scene:

I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Hili said, as she noticed that the two women in front of them kept looking back at them and whispering.

They’re talking about me,” Tova said, her voice just above a whisper.

Hili couldn’t disagree. It was rude and she wished she knew what to say to the grown-ups. If only they knew how upset Tova got by all the attention. So she was on crutches? Big deal. Yes, she’d been in an accident. Yes, it hurt. Yes, she occasionally still had some pain. That didn’t mean that Tova wanted to be the topic of conversation.

The first woman on line took her bag from the cashier and turned to leave. She stopped in front of Tova. “Oh, you poor dear,” she said. “I heard about your horrible accident. We were all praying for you and, well, it’s good to see you out and about.”

Tova shrank back as the woman pat her on the shoulder. Hili thought her friend looked like she was going to be sick.

As the woman walked out of the store, Hili whispered to Tova, “Are you all right?”

Tova shook her head. “Let’s just go, okay?”

By putting Hili into this scene, I have already brought the Achdus Club into the start of the book. Also, readers know the friendship between Hili and Tova, which adds a bit of familiarity and investment into this scene. This scene also shows a vulnerability in Tova that we don’t ordinarily see. Usually, when something is bothering Tova she’ll come up with a wisecrack or talk super fast, which is what happened in the original book opener. Here, we see Tova’s pain and feel it, deeply.

The original first chapter would have worked, but by changing the scene, the characters featured and showing a side to Tova that we don’t regularly see, I think makes this a much more powerful opener.

READERS: What do you think? Have you ever had to scrap an entire scene or chapter? Was the end result was worth it?

Top 5 Reasons I Haven’t Been Blogging

Hi, I hope to be back to a regular blog publishing schedule soon. In the meantime, here then are my top 5 excuses, um, reasons, for why I haven’t been posting recently.

Snickers, my 92-pound golden retriever, has been known to grab papers with his teeth and shred them. More likely, though, is that he simply gets tired of watching me work and wants my attention. When this happens, he will come over and whine like crazy until I stop what I’m doing and take him for a walk or he’ll put his paw or head on my keyboard making typing impossible. Either way the result is same: No work for Faygie.

Snickers is wondering why I haven’t handed over the treats yet.

2. I got locked out of the admin side of my website. Okay, this one is totally true. To those who are worried, NO, I wasn’t hacked. It’s a bit of a long story, but my colleague/neighbor was able to figure it all out and fix it. I’m back in control. Oh, the power!

3. It’s the summer … well, first it was spring and I wanted a break. Now it’s summer and I want a break and then it’ll be fall and I’ll want a break. (Um, I sound pretty lazy … )

4. I had some “ME” time. This spring/early summer was actually a very busy one both personally and professionally. Among the highlights, I participated in the inaugural Orthodox Union’s Women’s Leadership Summit. This program brought together women from across the United States as well as women from Israel, South Africa and Canada, to talk about our challenges as women leaders. We discussed issues facing the Orthodox Jewish community, got gain vital leadership skills and networked like crazy. It was fantastic. I also attended the American Jewish Press Association’s annual convention in St. Louis. Here, I reunited with old colleagues, met new ones, networked, and listened to some great speakers and panels.

5. DEADLINES. Writing books is incredibly, incredibly hard. I spent much of the spring writing the sequel to Layla’s Vistaville Summer. The book is with my editor now and I know it needs at least one solid rewrite. I may write a more comprehensive about the challenges of this book, but for now I’ll simply say that Layla has a great personality and sometimes trying to contain her adventure to a diary entry is a bit hard. In addition to the book, I’ve also continued to be busy with my article writing at JNS.org and Chabad.org. og at my blog post.

Finding Story Inspiration

For the month of January I’m taking part in a picture book exercise called “Story Storm.” The brainchild of children’s author Tara Lazar (7 Ate 9), the exercise asks aspiring, published and wannabe picture book authors to come up with 1 potential story idea or character sketch each day for the month of January.

The idea, as I understand it, is that by the time the month is done, you have a wealth of potential ideas that you can then work on throughout the year. Each day on her website, Lazar posts another guest post from a children’s author to guide writers on this journey.

My first few attempts at brainstorming weren’t particularly good, which is fine, this is an exercise after all. One idea in particular was an exercise in everything not to do if you want to write a picture book, which I discovered as a I read one of the Lazar’s guest posts.

As the month is going on and I’m reading and learning, I have come up with a few ideas that will merit further writing work later this year. One of which I am really, really excited about!

Even more important that just coming up with a list of 30 ideas (you get a day off at some point during the month), is that I’m learning how to come up with ideas. I’m listening to something or reading about something and I am learning to spin it for a potential book idea.

For instance, a news story on the radio the other day was about a moose who was walking around a hospital in Anchorage. Wow! Does that have a children’s book potential all over it or what?

Another idea came from a conversation with a friend who was looking for a particular book – she was thinking chapter book, but I could already envision a children’s nonfiction picture book.

So here’s today’s challenge regardless of what you write: read, listen, watch with an eye toward uncovering a hidden kernel of a potential story. Jot your idea down on your computer, in a notebook, on a square in your day planner, then try and come up with another idea tomorrow, and the day after that and the day after that. By doing so, you’ll ensure that when you are having a hard time filling the story water well, you’ll have some potential ideas to explore. Have fun!

Talkback: If you have some great ways to brainstorm story ideas, I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment below.