Category Archives: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

Back on the Wagon

This year, I made the very rational decision to skip National Novel Writing Month, reasoning that I should focus on revising my current novel rather than writing a new one. So here’s how I spent the month of November:

  • Organized and attended photo shoots in both Los Angeles and San Francisco for work
  • Drove to Los Angeles to visit friends for Thanksgiving
  • Attended a cocktail party and celebrated a friend’s birthday
  • Visited the Academy of Sciences to check out the skulls exhibit
  • Recorded a new Perspective segment for my local public radio station
  • Slept in, walked the dog, went out for brunch, went out for dinner, etc.

You’ll notice one glaring omission: No writing. Not even a little bit. So in an effort to kick my butt back up onto the writing wagon, this week I’m posting a scene I’ve been working on from my novel-in-progress. Thanks for reading!

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Excerpt from Small Legends Part Two: Keith

Most Thursdays after work, I told Pam I was heading to the Phoenix for a beer with the guys. And most of the time I was. Except when I drove out to Alameda to Ol’ George’s Bar. My father’s old stomping grounds. I’d been thinking about the place ever since I’d found out Pam was pregnant.

The bar probably hadn’t changed a lick in 40 years, down to the torn-up vinyl covers on the bar stools and the sun-faded photos tacked up all along the back wall. It smelled like old liquor and ancient cigarette smoke. The regulars were mostly old time drunks who showed up every day at 5 o’clock and stumbled out every night around midnight, their faces and kidneys bloated and pocked with dark purple spots. They sat alone at the bar, one stool between them and the next guy, and stared up at whatever game was on the TV, the volume off, making a comment every now and again about a ref’s bad call or the team’s chance of making it to the playoffs. It wasn’t exactly social, but I suppose it was better than drinking alone.

I took the table by the jukebox.

“What can I get you?”

Ginny’d been tending bar at Ol’ George’s since my father’s day. Her teeth were crooked like a stray dog’s, and her skin was like dried meat but she smelled like flowers. She wore low-cut tops but her boobs hung down so far on her chest, it didn’t make much difference. She was old, sure, but more than that she was practically pickled by years of hard drinking and hard living. Just like my father would’ve looked, if he’d lived long enough to drink himself to death.

I’d picked him out in the old photos from the first. As much time as my father’d spent sitting on one of those bar stools, I’d never stepped foot inside of the place until I found out that I was going to be a father.

The kid hadn’t even come out yet and already I was finding ways to not go home. Just like my father, I supposed. The man had been dead for nearly 20 years but there he was up on the wall, whiskey in hand like I remembered him. Except he looked a damn sight happier than I’d ever seen him. Ginny’d caught me staring at a black and white photo of him and a light-haired woman in a nice dress. They were dancing some kind of waltz. I’d have thought they were in a ballroom instead of a bar except for the jukebox in the background and the cigarettes burning away in their hands.

“Good lord how the time does go,” Ginny said. She was smiling, the creases around her eyes and mouth digging in a little deeper, but she didn’t look too happy.

“That you?” I asked, nodding my head at the photo.

“I never turned down a dance with Harry,” she said. And then without missing a beat, “You look an awful lot like him.”

I started to ask how she knew who I was, but there was no point really. Looking at that photo was damn near like looking in a mirror.

So I said, “I didn’t know he danced.”

Turns out there were plenty of things I didn’t know about my father. Including the fact that he’d been sleeping with Ginny. Not that she said so, but it wasn’t too hard to figure out. As old as she was, her face still lit up when she talked about him.

“Your dad had a special way about picking horses,” she said, “nearly always placed out at the track and then he’d spend it all in one night buying drinks for the regulars. He wasn’t much interested in the money, just in the winning. Very generous man, he was. Such a shame to lose him so young. I won’t deny I cried for a good long time after I heard.” She glanced down at my hand. “You a married man, Keith?”

In my line of work, wearing a wedding ring is a downright safety hazard. I hadn’t worn a ring since my wedding day.

“No, Ma’am,” I said.

Right at that moment, I wanted it to be true. I wanted to walk away from all of it. The house, car payments, the responsibility. Pam. A baby coming along. I was 26 years old, a good fifteen years younger than my father’d been when he drove his car off the road. Was this how he’d felt?

“I’ll bet you’re a real heartbreaker,” Ginny said, winking at me. “Just like your dad.”

I finished my whiskey and said goodbye to Ginny. On my way out, I heard one of the old timers ask, “That Harry’s boy?”

Every Thursday, I’d head over to Ol’ George’s to drink with Ginny.

“Evening, Keith,” Ginny’d say, and bring me a whiskey. “What’ll it be tonight, a little Dean? A little Frank? You know your dad was always partial to the crooners.”

Some of the old timers remembered my father better than you’d expect after so many years and so many bottles of whiskey. They’d talk about the time Harry arm-wrestled a guy twice his size and won. The time Harry bet his whole paycheck on a pool game and won. I figured these stories were half true at best.

I told a few stories of my own. The time Harry slept out on the landing on our building because he was too drunk to find his keys. The time Harry took apart the blender to see how it worked, and then tried to put it back together when he was drunk, only to find half a dozen parts left over. The old timers had a good chuckle and bought me another whiskey.

“That sounds like Harry,” they’d say, grinning through their rotten teeth.

For a few hours, I was just a guy at the bar. Harry’s boy. Not exactly happy, but at ease. For a little while.

Every time I went to Ol’ George’s, I had a choice. I could take my father’s spot at the bar, like the liver-spotted old timers had, or finish my whiskey and go home.

I always went home. I went home and kissed my wife and rubbed her belly and pretended to be happy, so happy that there was a baby on the way.

But I always came back.

 

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No No NaNo

With the month of November comes early nightfall, a certain crispness to the air, falling leaves, and lots of feasting. And of course, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), when hundreds of thousands of people around the globe attempt to churn out the gloriously flawed 50,000-word first draft of the novel they always knew they had inside of them.

For the last four Novembers in a row, I have canceled social engagements, wiggled out of work obligations, and hunkered down in front of my laptop for 30 days. The net result is three out of four novels that – either despite their frantically paced origins or because of them – I’ve loved well enough to revisit, with one in particular that is now in it’s third draft.

Like many of my fellow WriMo’s, I initially took the NaNo plunge in the hopes that the Word Count is King rule would force me to produce first and edit second. And produce, I did. Before NaNo, I routinely struggled to craft a single paragraph without stopping to rewrite. After NaNo, I have thousands of unedited paragraphs languishing within lonely folders on my desktop, practically begging for a little attention. And therein lies the problem: while I have found the means by which to produce, I now have more material than I have capacity to edit.

Pay attention to me!

Pay attention to me!

In NaNo years past, I’ve been inspired by a particular story idea or a desire to experiment with plot structure or genre. But I’ve been scratching my head for weeks now, unable to come up with a compelling new character or storyline.

Then it hit me: Why on earth am I trying to dream up a new story when I already have three perfectly decent novels in various stages of neglect? What am I trying to prove by cranking out yet another first draft, that I am disciplined? That I can follow a ritual? I’ve already demonstrated as much to my friends and family by effectively disappearing for a month each year.

So what am I still trying to prove to myself?

The truth is that I don’t want to write a new novel. Not now, anyway. And I am perfectly okay with this realization.

Consider this my official announcement: I will not participate in NaNoWriMo this year. In other words, keep the party invitations coming.

 

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Small Legends

To celebrate the completion of the Dreaded Second Draft* of my current novel-in-progress, I have decided to put my money where my mouth is and share an excerpt from said novel-in-progress. The working title is Small Legends, and it takes place in four parts, as narrated by four different members of the same family over a period of 40 years. I wrote the first draft during National Novel Writing Month 2012, and have been diligently (okay, well sometimes less than diligently) revising ever since.

Excerpt from Small Legends, Part 3, Chapter 2

It’s kinda like that scene from The Godfather III. Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in. Just when I thought I had escaped the Chapman family saga, guess who turned up on my doorstep. Literally.

Except I didn’t live there anymore. At the start of the fall semester, Julie’s roommate Terra announced she was moving into a studio apartment since she’d “never agreed to live with two other people”, and I moved in the next weekend. I got along with Pete okay but sharing a place with him and his drug habits was getting a little tired.

I hadn’t talked to Alice or my dad for at least a month, hadn’t gotten around to telling anyone back home that I’d moved. Because why did it matter, it’s not like anyone was going to show up at my front door. Or so I thought.

My phone starting ringing at 7:13 am. On a Sunday morning. I tried to ignore it but Julie started to whine.

“Who is calling you so early?” she moaned. “If it’s one of your other girlfriends, I’m going to kick her ass.”

I gave in and reached for the phone. Pete’s number. Fuck. He’d probably been up all night bending spoons and masterminding some crank-induced genius plan to end world hunger or build underground skyscrapers or some shit, and just HAD to share it with someone.

“Some people actually go to sleep at night,” I growled into the phone.

“Nate. Man,” Pete whispered. “I was totally asleep but someone was knocking on the door for so long that I had to get up and look outside.”

I sighed. “No one’s knocking on the door, Pete. Go to sleep.”

“Nate. Man, there was…is someone. A girl. She says she’s your sister? Man, I didn’t even know you had a sister.”

I sat up in bed, totally awake now. “My sister? Are you serious?”

“I don’t joke at 7:14 in the morning, Man.”

Julie stirred beside me and rolled over toward me, her eyes half opened now. “Where is she?” I asked.

“On the couch,” Pete whispered. “I didn’t know if I should tell her you don’t live here anymore. I mean, she looks kinda messed up. Still kinda hot though.”

“She’s also 15,” I said, “and I will pull your intestines out through your asshole if you so much as look at her sidewise.”

“Who the hell are you talking to?” Julie asked, her eyes wide open now.

“Look,” I said, ignoring her. “Put her on the phone. No wait. Did she say what the hell she’s doing here? Like, are my parents on their way over or something? I mean, what the fuck is she doing in L.A.?”

“Beats me,” Pete said. “But I don’t think the parentals are with her, judging by the fact that she smells a little like a Greyhound station, if you know what I mean.”

“What the hell does a Greyhound station smell like?”

Pete didn’t hesitate. “Mildewed socks and old flower water,” he said. “Of course.”

I sighed. “Okay, put her on the phone.”

“What’s going on?” Julie asked, sitting up now, the blankets sliding off of her to reveal her bare boobs. God, they were fantastic. But I had to focus on other things now. Like why the hell my 15-year-old sister was sitting on Pete’s couch. And what the hell I was going to do about it now.

“It’s Alice,” I whispered to Julie, my hand over the phone. “She’s over at Pete’s.”

Julie’s eyes widened even more. “Alice knows Pete?” But I waved her away.

Then I heard Alice’s voice, tired and scratchy, on the other end. She sounded beat. “Nate? Where are you?”

“Um, I think the more important question is why are you where you are?” I said. “What are you doing here? How did you get here? Does Mom know where you are?” I could hear the growing sense of panic in my own voice.

“Can we talk about this later?” Alice asked, her voice flat. “I slept for like an hour last night. Where are you? When are you coming home?”

“Alice, why didn’t you call first? I don’t even live there anymore,” I said, the volume of my voice rising along with my anxiety level. This was bad. Very very bad. Because Alice never came without baggage. Wherever she went, our mother was sure to follow. And sure to be really fucking pissed off about it.

“Oh, where do you live now?” Alice asked, sounding mildly interested now. “You’re still in L.A., right?”

I glanced at the clock. It was only 7:16 am. Probably no one had even noticed yet that Alice was gone. It was a Sunday morning after all. Maybe they thought she was still sleeping. If I could get her to call home and tell them where she was before they realized she was missing… “Listen, I’m coming to get you,” I said, reaching for my jeans. “But you have to call home like right away. Like in the next ten seconds. You have to tell them where you are before they freak the fuck out.”

“I am not calling home,” Alice said, determined. “Why the hell would I want to get yelled at? Anyway, I don’t even have my phone. Some skeevy old dude stole it out of my pocket when I crashed for like 10 minutes on the bus. At least I think it was the old dude. I totally saw him scope me out when I got on the bus, and then later when I woke up, he was gone and so was my phone. No way I was going to back to sleep after that shit.”

I stopped in my tracks. My 15-year-old sister had boarded an overnight bus to L.A., had been ripped off by some skeevy old dude, stayed awake all night in case someone else tried to steal something from her or worse, and then managed to find her way to what she thought was my front door. It was a minor miracle that she’d made it in one piece, this girl who wasn’t allowed to take the BART train from Berkeley into San Francisco by herself back home. I felt a little sick, and for a second actually felt a little sorry for my parents. But then it was gone.

“Stay where you are,” I said. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

“Nate,” Julie said urgently, “what in the hell is going on?” I pulled on my t-shirt from the day before and reached for my Converse.

“Well, you said you wanted to meet my sister,” I said.

Julie hopped right out of bed, glorious in her nakedness. But I couldn’t think about that and looked away. The shit was about to hit the fan on an apocalyptic scale. My stomach did another little turn.

“I’m coming with you,” Julie said, and started pulling on her own clothes without waiting for a response.

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* The Dreaded Second Draft is a direct result of the mad dash NaNoWriMo First Draft, in which you are freed from concerning yourself with plot or grammar or character development.

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Lost and Found

I strongly advise against smoking so close to all of that hair product.

I strongly advise against smoking so close to all of that hair product.

I was twenty-one years old, still wearing a lot of black and listening to angsty post-punk and industrial bands like Ministry and Skinny Puppy when I made one of my first attempts at novel writing. The story took place primarily in a nightclub called the Crimson Dungeon, which was inhabited by a cast of velvet-clad, liquid eyeliner-wearing malfeasants who alternately screwed with each others minds and bodies. Two chapters into my masterpiece, I accidentally deleted the file. There was no getting it back. I tried to rewrite it and move on, but it just didn’t feel the same. I had lost my momentum. I had lost my story.

In this case, it was probably a good thing. My characters were shallow and cartoonish, and the plot was both thin and overdramatic. At the time, though, giving up on the story felt like a failure. I couldn’t fathom the notion of writing for practice, couldn’t comprehend that although I didn’t move forward with this particular story, the whole experience had not been in vain. Chalk it up to equal parts naïveté, a false sense of creative grandeur, and youthful impatience, but I believed that “real” writers could craft the perfect story or novel the first time around, and that revisions were generally limited to minor spelling or grammar errors. It was inconceivable that a “real” writer would fail to complete any story he or she began.

Now I understand that all writers experience false starts. Some stories are simply not meant to be, while others are just not yet ready to be told. For instance, I’ve had a certain character clanging around in the back of my mind for nearly six years now: a thirty-something undiagnosed narcoleptic trying to form meaningful relationships while coping with an affliction that promises some truly awkward social situations. I have attempted to tell her story twice now – my most recent effort made it to the 50,000-word mark in NaNoWriMo 2011 – but it’s never felt quite right. Both times, I walked away from it. The story is in there somewhere, and I have to believe it will reveal itself when the time is right.

What kid wouldn't want to play here?

What kid wouldn’t want to play here?

For NaNoWriMo 2013, I revisited another stalled storyline. Initially, I’d set out to write a grown-up story about an eleven-year-old girl, but struggled to find a balance between accurately portraying childlike behavior and keeping an adult reader’s interest. Nearly three years later, I realized why it hadn’t worked: this story about a latchkey kid exploring the burnt remains of a neighboring home was actually meant to be for kids, not adults. I’d tried to force the wrong story a la square peg and round hole. Then I found the right path.

As I write this post, I am oh-so-close to finishing the second draft of a story that plagued me for nearly a decade. I am happy to report that it has found its home at last.

Patience. Perseverance. Exploration. Be willing to walk away, but don’t throw anything away. You just might want it someday.

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Post-NaNoWriMo, aka The Love Haze

Hmmm, smells like a tear in the space-time continuum.

Hmmm, smells like a tear in the space-time continuum.

Despite the risk of nettling my fellow WriMo’s, I will start with a bold statement: This year’s November writing bonanza was by far my easiest. This is not to say that I did not get stuck in the mud a few times along the way. There were of course moments when I questioned my characters and my plot—for instance, the plausibility of dogs sniffing out disruptions in space and time just as easily as they can sniff out the cocaine hidden in your suitcase. But these literary roadblocks were more like mud puddles than floods, and I was able to navigate around them without stalling for too long. (How many travel-related metaphors and similes can you cram into a 113-word paragraph?)

So why was this November any different from my three previous jaunts? How was I able to escape with only minor psychological scrapes and bruises? Now a solid ten days into December, I can reflect back on a few of the key distinctions:

My Target Audience

Each NaNoWriMo, I challenge myself to write in a voice or format I’ve never tried before. This year I decided to write a book for kids. Or rather, for that magical age that falls somewhere between Barbies and keg parties, the ‘Tweens. Admittedly, this did pose some hitherto unknown challenges: Would an 11-year-old know what “bereft” means? Can I really write 50,000 words without cursing? No drinking, smoking, casual sex, infidelity, drug flashbacks, bar fights or hookers? What the hell (sorry, heck) else am I supposed to write about?

Trust me, you do not want to try to herd me.

Trust me, you do not want to try to herd me.

But these challenges were promptly countered by one of the really great things about kids: they aren’t yet jaded. When I was a kid, I loved to read mysteries and adventure novels…bring on the magical and the supernatural! I didn’t question a character’s motivations or scoff when the next-door neighbor turned out to be a witch or a unicorn herder. I did not need to suspend my disbelief because I still believed in most anything. I was – pardon the pun – an open book. So whenever I bumped up against a question of plausibility in my ‘Tween novel, I shook it off and kept going. Because of course an 11-year-old will believe that a rusty old ladder can serve as a bridge between the worlds of Here and There. Duh.

Plot-Driven vs. Character-Driven

My favorite books to read and to write have typically been character-driven. Another first, this year I decided to try my hand at Plot with a capital P. In nearly every piece of fiction I have written to date, I struggled to get to know my characters, to understand their thoughts and behavior, and how they grow (or don’t) over time. But with my plot-driven story, it felt like I was putting together a jigsaw puzzle; once I identified the “big picture”, it was just a matter of sorting through the pieces. Lesson learned: It’s much more difficult to determine the trajectory of a character than of a storyline.

However, when I mentioned this discovery to a writer friend of mine, she promptly asked, “But do you feel less close to these characters?” And the answer was unequivocally yes.

A Good Sounding Board

If all writers’ have just one thing in common, it may be that we tend to spend a little too much time in our own heads. Writing is a very solitary activity, and anyone who has ever had the fortune to find a good sounding board in a friend or colleague understands the value of talking through the issues. I was lucky indeed to have such a person this time around.

Having said that – and in keeping with my previous point – I find it much easier to obtain helpful input from others when it comes to matters of plot over character. Determining the sequence of events, when to reveal the plot twist, etc. is a very different matter than looking to someone else to predict your character’s emotional growth. That’s almost like a psychologist spending 20 hours with a patient, summarizing that person in two sentences, and then asking a total stranger how to advise him. Almost.

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NaNoWriMo Week 4: I See the Light!

Light on the end of railway tunnel.

Sorta looks like a scene from a scary movie.

The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is either sunshine or a train. In the case of NaNoWriMo, it can go either way (and often both). As of this posting, I have written 45,041 words toward the official goal of 50,000. I am so very close. My writing is fluid; the words stream out from my fingers often before I’m even aware that I’ve thought them. I am in the Zone. I see the light!

Although each writer experiences the Zone a little differently, certainly there are some commonalities. When we write, we sometimes feel as if an external source is feeding the words to us, perhaps whispering them into our ears or downloading them directly into our cerebral cortexes. In a recent shower-based rumination*, I found myself pondering the potential link between this creative inspiration and the scribing of religious literature.

For the record, I am not religious. As a child, I did not attend church or temple or go to a mosque; my Sundays were spent climbing trees and watching Shirley Temple movies. My particular knowledge of any religion is nominal at best. However, I do know that most holy texts – whether the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or the Quran, among others – contain some pretty whacky stories. And someone (or more likely many someones) had to author those stories.

whalediver

“Get in Mah Belly!”

About five minutes into this recent shower, a thought occurred to me: during those times when I feel a story flow through me, effortless and inspired – in short, when I am in the Zone – is this essentially the same feeling that the authors of the Bible and every other major religious text also experienced? While my “divine” inspiration leads me to write about trespassing children and farting dogs, did theirs rouse them to pen stories about golden plates and human-swallowing whales? While I simply muse “Wow, I didn’t know I had all of that in me”, did these men** in fact believe that the external something whispering into their ears was actually their preferred brand of Godspeaking through them, and that they were merely scribes for His word?

Fascinating.

Alas, I cannot say what went through the minds of those who penned the foremost religious texts of our time. That is, of course, unless I decide to write about one of them in my next NaNoWriMo novel.

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* In retrospect, I probably should have called this blog “Stuff I Think About in the Shower”. Thanks to my apartment building’s central water heater system, I can run both my shower and my dishwasher at the same time and never run out of hot water, a fact that makes me drunk with power and also gives me plenty of thinking time.

Something I learned today: Apparently the story of Jonah and the Whale (or Big Fish) is one of God’s favorites (moral: do as I say or you’ll regret it); a version of it even appears in the Quran.  

** Because let’s face it, women did not write a single line in any of the three holy books previously mentioned.

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NaNoWriMo Week Two: Riding The Fine Line

Ah, the dreaded Week Two! Until a couple of days ago — as predicted (see The Seven Stages of NaNoWriMo) — I was riding the fine line between glory and failure. All of those lovely words that sprung joyously from my fingertips during Week One hadn’t yet formed into a perceptible story, and the work-write-sleep-work-write-sleep routine was starting to wear on me. I was over it.

Damn, thwarted again!

Thwarted again? (Get your mind out of the gutter, people — it’s a shower mic)

Until I took one of the most productive showers of my life. Instead of cranking up my current go-to Pandora station, I opted for a silent cleansing. And somewhere between washing my face and my hair – in other words, as soon as I stopped banging my head against the proverbial literary wall – the ideas came tumbling out of my brain, all clamoring to be heard. (My next invention: waterproof voice-activated recording device.) By the time I was toweling off, I’d worked out several stymieing story issues and even plotted out the end of my novel.

Later that evening – buzzed on red wine and revelation, and with the help of my patient boyfriend – I continued to hash out a number of other plot challenges. Of course the main character would find the missing girl’s diary! Of course the neighbor’s dog would sense a disturbance in the space-time continuum! Once I’d tapped the well, I could barely hold back the flow of ideas. It felt fantastic.

clouds

Can you see the Pegasus flying over the rainbow?

I could have ended this post right here, with me soaring high among the clouds of inspiration. But lest my fellow writers begin to loathe me for my Pollyanna, sunshine-and-lollipops demeanor, I will disclose this: less than 36 hours after my remarkable shower, small black nuggets of doubt began to pop up in my mind. Was my plot even believable? Would anyone actually want to read this story?

While far from pleasurable, these moments of doubt are an essential part of the creative process. They keep us asking questions and improving our work. The trick, of course, is learning to trust your own constructive critic and shut out the internal naysayer. And that’s where patient boyfriends (and other good folks) come in handy.

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The Seven Stages of NaNoWriMo

The time has come to unleash your literary genius and pen (or type) the novel that is destined to be both a critical darling and a national bestseller. You’ve cleaned off your desk, created your writing playlist, stocked up on tea or coffee (or booze…whatever works for you), bid a fond farewell to your family and friends, and now it’s go time.

Based on my experience over the last three years of participation, I have identified seven distinct stages of NaNoWriMo:

1.    Pre-NaNo, aka The Possibilities Are Endless!

What a fantastic idea, this National Novel Writing Month! First you think: I’ve always thought I had a novel in me but could never find the time, or Perhaps this will force me to stop editing the same sentence over and over again and actually put some new #%*&ing words down on the page. Then you muse: What’s 30 days on the grand scale of things anyway?  Which leads you to declare: The world needs another teen vampire love story! Let’s do this thing!

2.    Week One, aka I Can Totally Do This!

During Week One, my mind is bursting with ideas and the words fly from my fingertips with minimal effort. All day at work, I look forward to going home and getting back to writing. My storyline is full of promise; my characters are quirky and cool. I am kicking ass on a daily basis and the fiction world is my bitch. Bring it!

3.    Week Two, aka What the #%*& Was I Thinking?!

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The Aged White Cheddar is my personal favorite.

I don’t have the statistics, but I’m willing to bet that the biggest NaNo exodus comes during Week Two. By now, you’ve had enough time to write yourself into some literary corners, and you’ve begun to resent your characters for being too boring or mean or stupid. Dark thoughts creep unbidden into your psyche: Who did I think I was fooling? This plot is completely implausible and the characters suck! I’m not a writer, I’m a fraud! You haven’t done laundry or been to the gym in a week and your favorite TV shows are piling up on the DVR. Anyway, what’s so wrong about spending an evening on the couch watching the House Hunters International marathon and inhaling a bag of Pirate’s Booty?

4.    Week Three, aka Over the Hump

BUT if you can get through Week Two, it’s all downhill from here. Sort of. Hitting the halfway mark inspires renewed determination to soldier on. Beside, you’d feel awful leaving your characters to rot in that locked basement, or trapped on a rock at sea, or brokenhearted by their moody supernatural boyfriends.

5.    Week Four, aka The Final Week High

Lack of sleep, proper nutrition, exercise, and adult conversation evokes an ecstatic dream state as you draw ever closer to victory. For me, Week Four writing is the most fluid and also the most satisfying. I am gleefully entrenched in a world of my creation and have come to care deeply about the fate of my characters. And just like when reading a good book, I am fascinated to discover how it’s all going to come together in the end.

6.    The Final Two Days, aka The Sprint

There’s always going to be some asshole who shows everyone up by cranking out 50, 60 or even 75K words well before the November 30th deadline, yet I suspect that the majority of the NaNoWriMo population needs – and takes – every last minute up until midnight. In 2012, I was able to ride the Final Week High right through to an early finish, and spent those last two bonus days feeling both giddy and clever, as if I had successfully gate-crashed a fancy party and no one realized I wasn’t supposed to be there.

7.    Post-NaNo, aka The Love Haze

As with childbirth and other traumatic life events, on December 1st our brains take pity on us and quickly expunge the memories of our darkest moments of doubt. We conveniently forget the psychological labor pains; otherwise we’d never be able to do it again next year. Within a few days of completion, we think only lovingly of the literary children and scenarios we birthed, like remembering good times with old friends.

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Countdown to NaNoWriMo

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Daily Writing Challenge: How would you introduce a flatulent cow into your story?

For anyone who doesn’t know, November is National Novel Writing Month. During this time, writers across the planet cancel all of their plans and neglect both their loved ones and their gym memberships for 30 days while they crank out a mind-blowing 50,000 word novel (mind-blowing because it’s 50,000 effing words, regardless of the fact that most of them are crap). The idea is to temporarily silence your inner editor and just get something down on the page. Let your mind wander and see what springs up. Space aliens. Newspaper boys. Flatulent cows. It’s all fair game.

This year will be my fourth participating in NaNoWriMo. I am proud to say that I have successfully hit the 50,000 word count each time so far. In 2010, just days before the November 1st start date, I thought, “I suppose I should come up with a storyline or something”. I knew that writing about subject matter I was already familiar with – in this case, an 18-year-old girl leaving home for the first time to go to college – would make things decidedly easier. What I hadn’t anticipated were all of the sub-themes that popped up along the way. For example, I had no idea that I’d been ruminating over the subject of gay teenagers and homophobia, but there it was, manifested in the form of a 15-year-old kid named Andy. I was even more surprised to realize that, without my knowledge, I had written a young adult novel.

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I managed to wait until December 1st to crack open this beauty.

For my second round of NaNoWriMo, I got cocky. I thought, “Last year was a piece of cake. I’m going to really challenge myself this time!” And then proceeded to torture myself with an overly complicated plot structure in which the point of view alternates between three different characters whose overlapping story lines traverse the same one-month period of time. Is this doable? Sure. Is this doable in 30 days? No way. At least not by this writer. Twelve days in, I was on the verge of tossing my laptop out of the window and hiding in a quiet corner with a jug of gin. But once I accepted defeat and allowed myself to stray off the plot-line path, I was able to make a respectable comeback and still hit my 50,000 words.

I kicked off NaNoWriMo 3.0 immediately after a breakup. This was both good and bad. On one hand, it was a relief to delve into a fictitious world where I could focus on other peoples’ problems for a while. But on the other, my anxious state of mind drove me to create a dysfunctional family of wretched yet sympathetic characters who took up residence in my head and then barely slept for 30 days. Again, many curious sub-themes popped up along the way: women’s changing role in our culture, family secrets, the accuracy (or lack thereof) childhood memories, commitment issues (no duh), among others. It was a grim place to be at times, but I was proud of the end result. In fact, I have spent the last year revising this novel, and will set it aside only temporarily to participate in NaNoWriMo 2013.

So what will I write about this year? What kind of world do I want to live in for the 30 long days of November? I am presently undecided. And that’s the beauty of writing fiction: what you write about is completely up to you.

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A Backward-Looking Foreword

As a child, I was always making up stories. Some may call this lying, but I prefer to think of it as being imaginative. I was in third grade when I first transcribed one of these stories onto a piece of paper. It was a gripping supernatural tale about jolly, treasure-laden fairies and the pair of naughty raccoons that slip into fairyland to rob them. The treasures were far too plenty for the fairies to carry around with them, so instead they placed their gold bullion and jewel-encrusted tiaras within the most beautiful flowers in the meadow, where they were ripe for the raccoons’ picking. Long before I studied Greek literature in high school, I created my own deus ex machina in the form of the sun, who offered the distraught fairies a simple solution to prevent future theft: he would keep an eye on their treasures during the day and then each night as he set, he would close all the flowers’ petals to keep them safe. And this was my rationale for why flowers close at night. Perhaps it isn’t quite Greek mythology-worthy, but really it’s not too shabby for a nine-year-old.

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My Dream Boyfriends in their Hair Heyday

In my pre-teen, boy-obsessed years, I was less concerned about understanding the meaning of the universe than I was about meeting and dating pop stars. Enter Duran Duran. In fifth grade, my friend Cass and I wrote our first epic love story, trading a small embroidered notebook back and forth between us as we chronicled our grown-up lives as notable fashion designers who just happen to meet John Taylor and Nick Rhodes at a party. Throughout junior high, a steady diet of soap operas and Tiger Beat magazine fueled my solo practice of penning epic tales (the longest of which got up to 800 handwritten pages) of my torrid relationship with Nick. We fought. We made up. We had a lot of sex (really mortifying written-by-a-12-year-old-virgin sex). We were harassed by the media and plagued by his jealous ex-girlfriends. But at the end of the day, we were in love.

Nowadays, I’m pretty sure I create fictional characters primarily so that I can torture them. Why else would I introduce the shy, undiagnosed narcoleptic woman to the guy with erectile dysfunction and a chip on his shoulder, and then force them to date? Why else would I conceive of the career woman whose child is kidnapped while she is sleeping with her boss? I am a literary sadist. And as my fourth round with National Novel Writing Month creeps ever closer, I am already stalking my next victim…

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