Tag Archives: fiction

Readers vs. Writers

The Reader

The Reader by Dorothy F. Newland

I workshopped my novel through my writers’ group for over a year – revising as I went – before handing over a fresh draft to my first pool of beta readers. And with one exception, my beta readers were just that: readers, not writers.

When it comes to critiquing a story, writers can spot a “missed opportunity” a mile away, and can always point to at least three things they would do differently. If given the chance, a passionate writers’ group could tear the works of Hemingway, Dickens, Austen, even Shakespeare to pieces.

But readers – at least the ones I roped in for this round of reviews – appear to take more of a 30,000 foot approach to novel critiques, and I’ve found it both illuminating and entertaining how different the feedback has been from these two groups.*

For instance, my writers’ group expressed concerns about the believably of the relationship between two of the central characters. Pam and Keith are so different from one another, with completely different backgrounds. What drew them together? What kept them together?

However, when I asked my beta readers if Pam and Keith’s relationship felt genuine and believable, the answer was a unanimous yes. One reader said, “I’ve met too many seemingly mismatched couples to think this is unbelievable or uncommon.“

On the other hand, while my writers’ group praised my ability to create distinct voices and personalities for each of my four central characters, my beta readers were less sure about this accomplishment, and several commented that they could hear my voice coming through the characters. It is important to note that, with one exception, my beta readers are close friends and family. My writers’ group members are not. One friend summed it up this way: “I think I know you too well to be able to answer this question.” Fair enough.

Last week, I saved a copy of my novel, this one entitled Small Legends V4. And one of the first items on my list of revisions is a common comment among both the writers and the readers: “The ending was very satisfying, but it was all resolved a little too quickly.”

Clearly I have some work to do. Time to get back down to business.

 


*In fairness to my writers’ group, they did read the novel a few chapters at a time over the period of a year, so it does make sense that they would focus more on the nooks and crannies than the overall story.

 

 

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Even The Meanest Human Beings in the World Need Books

My middle school years were fraught with uncomfortable hormone changes and psychological torment from other girls. During the first week of sixth grade, a girl I’d never met before called me a slut. “What are you looking at, Slut?” she sneered.

I didn’t actually know what a slut was, but understood that it must be something very bad. When I got home from school, I looked the word up in the dictionary and was even more confused. I’d never kissed a boy. I’d never even held hands with one. Why was this girl calling me a slut?

rude-tweenFor weeks, I avoided the girl and yet she always seemed to find me. “What, are you scared of me, Slut?” she taunted. 

Eventually, she grew tired of me and presumably found someone new to torture. But this was just the first of many utterly perplexing and completely devastating incidents of girl-on-girl emotional violence. So I would have never predicted that, 30 years later, I’d write a book for ‘Tween girls, who are very possibly the meanest human beings in the world.

But even the meanest human beings in the world need books.

While I’m certain I tried my hand at the Mean Card more than once during this terrible age, mostly I read books and listened to music and wrote bad poetry about how mean everyone was. I’d outgrown Judy Blume but wasn’t yet ready for J.D. Salinger. At the time, what I enjoyed most of all was a good mystery with coming-of-age characters and enough of an “adult” theme to keep it interesting. And this is what I endeavor to achieve in my ‘Tween book.

My ‘Tween book started off as a National Novel Writing Month exercise two years ago, and has been collecting dust ever since.  Last week, I decided to pull it out and get down to work. I mean, I should do something productive while I wait for my beta readers’ feedback on my grown-up novel, right?

And to kick it off right, I’ve included below a short excerpt for all the ‘Tween novel lovers out there. Or perhaps just for those of you who are kind enough to indulge me.

 


 

The smoke was so thick that Molly pulled her shirt up over her nose and mouth. She looked over at Lauren to see that she had done the same. They squinted at one another, their eyes burning from the smoke, but they didn’t stop running, even when they heard the sirens coming up behind them. First the fire truck then the engine sped past them, and they ran even faster into the gray haze. By the time they’d covered the three additional blocks to Molly’s street, the firefighters were already directing thick streams of water at the burning house.

“It’s Mrs. O’Reilly’s house!” Molly called out, at once excited and relieved. Her own home was safe. For now.

“Do you think it’ll catch the other houses on fire too?” Lauren asked through her t-shirt.

Molly’s was four houses over from Mrs. O’Reilly’s, and it seemed unlikely that the flames would travel that far, but Molly still felt a pit of worry in her stomach. What if the firefighters weren’t able to contain the fire? What if it spread and ate up every house on the block? Everything that she had known her whole life would be gone, just like that.

It was the staggering figure of Mrs. O’Reilly herself that snapped Molly out of these thoughts. Mrs. O’Reilly was dressed in the same blue housecoat she’d worn as long as Molly could remember, but she looked madder than Molly had ever seen her before. Her hair was wild, and singed in places. Her face and neck were streaked with soot, and one of her bare feet was bleeding. Molly wondered if she’d barely made it out of the house alive.

Mrs. O’Reilly yelled something toward the house but her words were swallowed up by all of the commotion. Molly inched closer, cupping her ear and listening hard. Then she heard it.

“Burn! Let it burn!” Mrs. O’Reilly shouted, but the firefighters weren’t paying any attention to her. Until she rushed toward the burning building, and then one of the firefighters blocked her path, but she fought against him, still shouting. It took two firefighters to hold her back, and then two police officers took over, forcing her into the back of a patrol car. She fought them the whole way.

Lauren’s eyes were wide despite the smoke. “I think she’s lost her marbles.”

“I don’t think she had many left to begin with,” Molly said. Mrs. O’Reilly had always been odd and unfriendly, and without being told Molly knew it was best to keep clear of her. Of all the houses on their block, Mrs. O’Reilly’s was the only one Molly had never set foot in.

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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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I Am Legend

Earlier this year, I attended the retirement dinner of a well-respected architect. In his mid-70s, he is nearly as spry and just as passionate as he ever was. At the dinner, he shared stories of how he founded not one but two internationally successful design firms, landed his first big project, once took a mad scramble plane trip to England to deliver drawings on time, and his collaboration with legendary architect Philip Johnson. My favorite story involved his alma mater and a crumbling football stadium: when his firm didn’t make the shortlist to design the renovation of the stadium, the architect picked up the phone and essentially demand a recount. He explained that no other architect would put as much love and care into the building as he would. He won the project.

The architect’s stories got me thinking: When I “retire” many years from now, what stories do I want to tell? What memories do I want to celebrate? What do I want my literary legacy to be?

Like most writers – or all, if we are honest with ourselves – I want to tell stories about having my first book published, reading my first great review, even my first bad review. I want to celebrate that my second book was translated into twelve languages, and my third into thirty. And so on. I want my curriculum vitae to read like a literary catalog.

You call yourself a writer? You've never even published a book!

Your inner critic says: “You call yourself a writer? You’ll never even publish your own obituary!”

But what if I am never published?

How many times has this happened to you: You declare/admit/reveal to your co-worker/neighbor/barista that you are a writer. His or her immediate response is, “That’s great. Have you been published?”, thus perpetuating the belief that one is not a writer until one can prove it via paperback.

A writer pal recently remarked that she’d better find a publisher for her sci-fi/fantasy novel series, since she doesn’t know how to do anything other than write. I asked her: “What if you knew for certain that you would never be published? Would you still write?” She thought for a moment, and then answered, “Yes. Absolutely.”

We write because we love to write. But since we are human, we also crave validation that we didn’t spend all of those hours alone with our laptops for naught. We want strangers to love our books as much as we do. Can we be satisfied in knowing that our readership will never expand beyond supportive friends and family members?

Many people view their children as their greatest legacy; while I’ve never wanted to have kids, I’ve always wanted to write and publish books. I want to hold my newborn novels in my arms, clutch them to my breast, and nurture them as they nurture me.

Currently, I’m plugging along on the third draft of a novel. I may see my book published one day, hold it in my hand as tangible proof of a legacy that may outlive even the architect’s buildings.

But if not, at least this legacy will remain: She always loved to write.

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Hurts So Good?

In my teens and early 20s, the stories I wrote were even more melodramatic than I was. Infidelity, drug problems, and dreadful parenting were commonplace among my characters. I hadn’t experienced many of the circumstances I wrote about, and therefore wasn’t able to comprehend the potential impact these experiences might have on a real human being. Like small children who overload on sugar cereal because their taste buds aren’t developed enough to appreciate subtlety or nuance, I gorged on tragedy and distress. I couldn’t get enough.

Suffer for my art, suffer!

Suffer for my art, suffer!

As writers, we know intuitively that we must experience life to write about it. Travel to foreign lands. Taste unusual foods. Fall in love. Have our hearts broken. But how far must we go to tap into our creative voices? The once enchanting notion of the writer as alcoholic genius living a glamorous yet lonely existence due to his or her internal demons has, for the most part, evolved to the point where we accept that one can be a talented and productive writer without dying alone in a dark room above the bar in a seedy Paris neighborhood. We’ve come a long way, Baby.

However, the fact remains: to write about joy, fear, pain, or sadness, we must experience all of it. Repeatedly. But just how much suffering must we endure for the sake of our art? And how much suffering must we inflict upon our characters for the sake of the story?

Dare we ponder what difficult experience Brett Easton Ellis was working through when he wrote this?

Dare we ponder what difficult experiences Brett Easton Ellis was working through when he wrote this classic?

Writers – and other artists – often seek emotional solace in their work. If a painful experience can be redeemed in the form of a compelling character or storyline, it wasn’t all for naught; something of greater value came from that suffering. I have found this to be true in my own life. My current novel-in-progress was born during a difficult emotional time. I pored all of my sadness and anxiety into creating others who shared my pain and helped to carry the burden of my distress. And I am prouder of this novel than anything I have written to date. Would I elect to go back and experience that difficult period all over again? Of course not. But neither would I erase it from my life. From my pain came something beautiful.

But what about these characters we burden? While conflict is an essential ingredient to any story, we writers mustn’t become complacent to the suffering our characters experience at our hands. For instance, we mustn’t assign someone as “broken-hearted” as indifferently as we assign him brown hair or a love of sushi. Broken-hearted is not an attribute, but an all-encompassing state of being: heart, mind, body. It should never be taken lightly.

Admittedly, heartbreak has been on my mind lately. As I write this post, I am smack dab at the center of the sadness, disappointment, and sense of loss that go with it. One of the most important relationships of my life has very recently come to an end, or at least an end to this phase of it. I wouldn’t wish this kind of grief on anyone, yet I compel my characters to experience even worse. The difference, however, between my 16-year-old writer self and my 41-year-old writer self is that I understand much better now the repercussions of my deeds. I can much better distinguish between the subtle flavors and textures that make up an emotion, that drive us to action or reaction.

So. How much suffering must we endure for the sake of our art? And how much suffering must we inflict upon our characters for the sake of the story?

My personal rule of thumb: Suffer only as much as necessary to experience a full life. Make your characters suffer only enough to let them be who they are.

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Small Legends, Part Two

Due to popular demand — literally tens of people requesting more more more of my novel-in-progress — I have decided to post another excerpt. (We writers must delude ourselves a little to maintain the will to go on. Please indulge me.) While this is the second excerpt that I’ve posted, it is actually the very first chapter of the book. Personally, I dig a story that kicks off with a little foreshadowing of what is to come. I hope you do too.

Chapter One

I was thirteen when my mother found a condom in my room. I expected her to yell or cry or possibly threaten to send me to an all girls’ school. I was wrong.

It was 1969, two years after the Summer of Love, and I hadn’t so much as kissed a boy yet, let alone seriously contemplated having sex. My friend Jessica had smuggled the condom in question out of her parent’s medicine cabinet while they were out one night and had left her in charge of her little brother. Jessica made a habit of rifling through her parent’s belongings whenever she was forced to babysit. Whether she was taking advantage of the opportunity to snoop or seeking a small bit of revenge for having been forced into this unwelcome position of responsibility, I do not know. What I do know is that Jessica’s parents seemed to have an endless supply of interesting objects stashed away throughout their house. Sexy books with curse words in them and drawings of naked people, sometimes even three or four people together. Little tins of marijuana and packs of rolling papers. A metal clip adorned with unnaturally purple feathers that Jessica and I used to take turns wearing in our hair. Jessica was careful to put these little gems back where she had found them so as to conceal her knowledge of their secret unsavory ways, but she hadn’t been able to resist stealing one of the condoms. She brought it over to my house the next day, hurried me into my bedroom and shut the door behind her. She held out her hand to reveal the small square foil package. “Look what I found,” she said, revealing her crooked front teeth in a wide grin. “Do you want to open it?”

Of course I wanted to open it. Or at least I wanted Jessica to open it. And quickly, before my mom or one of my sisters came barging in on us. I was required to knock before entering their bedrooms, but somehow this rule didn’t work both ways. I had taken to changing my clothes in the bathroom from the moment I noticed that my breasts were starting to come in. The bathroom door was the only one in the house with a lock.

“Open it,” I nodded and then said, “Wait!” I grabbed my garbage can and placed it between us on the floor. Jessica looked confused. “I don’t know, in case it leaks or something.”

“Why on earth would it leak?” Jessica asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. She carefully pulled back the foil and peeled a thin strip down along the edge. I felt suddenly nervous then, and wanted to reach out and grab her hand to stop her from pulling out the contents of that little square. I felt as if what I was about to see would somehow change the course of my life. I would no longer be a kid. I would suddenly have to grow up and think about things like whether or not boys liked me or if they wanted to have sex with me, or if I was going to get pregnant and have to spend the rest of my life living with my parents like my cousin Nancy, who no one ever mentioned by name anymore. I wanted to reach out and grab the foil wrapper from Jessica’s curious hands and throw it out the window and as far away from us as possible. In that way, I could save us both a lot of trouble.

But I didn’t want to actually touch the thing, so I just stood there, frozen in place with little pricks of sweat popping up on my upper lip, my stomach acid churning, and watched as Jessica pulled out the milky-colored, semi-transparent disc. She turned it over in her hands, poking an investigative finger into the center of the ring. Then she pushed her finger firmly into the little tip in the center and began to unroll the ring. “See, this is where the man’s, you know…penis goes.” She continued to unroll the ring until the condom reached its full length, perhaps five or six inches. I started to relax. After all, it was just a piece of rubber stretched over my friend’s finger, like a doctor’s glove, except with just one thick finger. It wasn’t so scary, now that I had seen it. Jessica pointed at the little tip. “And this is where his, you know…baby stuff goes.”

“Baby stuff?” I squeaked, covering my mouth to stifle a giggle.

Jessica ignored me and instead wiggled her finger around inside of the condom. “Of course, the man’s penis would be much bigger than my finger. I mean, it has to be big enough for the condom to stay on anyway.”

A thought struck me. “What if it’s not?” I asked, slightly distressed.

“What if it’s not what?”

“What if a man’s…penis isn’t big enough? What if he puts it on and then it falls off when he’s, you know, inside?”

Jessica shrugged. “I guess that the woman better make sure she only has sex with men who have big enough penises.”

For nearly an hour, we’d passed the condom back and forth between us, taking turns stretching it over a variety of pens and pencils, a ruler, a pencil sharpener, the little porcelain dancing lady figurines that I’d reluctantly inherited from my great grandmother, but I had to draw the line when Jessica reached for my hair comb. “Gross! I have to put that thing in my hair.”

“And one day, you’re going to have this,” she held up the now misshapen condom, “in between your legs.”

When we grew tired of the condom, I attempted to roll it back into its little ring but quickly gave up and stashed it under my mattress for safe keeping with a plan to smuggle it out of the house and into our neighbor’s trash can after dark. And then I forgot all about it.

It was a Friday afternoon and I had just arrived home from school. I ran upstairs to throw my backpack in my room before I went back out to the park, where Jessica and I would sit on the swings for hours and talk about the other kids in our class and who we liked and who we didn’t. My mother’s back was turned to me when I walked in the room, and I barely registered the heap of dirty sheets on the floor. She always seemed to be laundering something since my dad had bought the new washing machine for her. “I’m going to meet Jessica at the park, back before dinner,” I said quickly, wriggling out of my backpack and dropping it at the foot of my stripped bed. When my mother turned to face me, she was holding up the limp, misshapen condom by two fingers, as if it was a snotty tissue carelessly tossed on the floor. My stomach turned and what seemed like all of the blood in my whole body flooded into my face, my cheeks burning with mortification. I braced myself for the oncoming storm and tried to think of what I could possibly say to diffuse this situation, but my mind went blank. Empty. Overtaken by fear. I just stood there, willing myself not to throw up.

My mother looked at me without expression and said, “Smart girl. You get pregnant and you can kiss the rest of your life goodbye. Just like your cousin.” And she went out of the room and straight to the kitchen, where she made herself a Manhattan.

It wasn’t the first time she’d expressed her frustrations with motherhood. As far back as I could remember, my mother had lamented what her life could have been if only she’d been born 20 years later, in my sisters’ and my generation. Sometimes after a drink or two, she’d launch into a monologue about how much her daughters took for granted and how they didn’t appreciate the opportunities that were afforded to them now that women were (almost) equal to men in the eyes of the law. More than once she’d brought my eldest sister Katie to tears by emphatically stating that if she, my mother, had it to do over again, she would go to college or travel to a foreign country or both instead of marrying our father right out of high school. She would never have had three babies by the age of 28. My father, my sister Margaret and I had learned long before to tune her out. But Katie had always been a crier.

While I’d heard my mother express these regrets many times during my short 13 years of life, that day as she stood before me in my bedroom holding out the clearly abused condom and her only reaction was to essentially tell me to keep up the good work, something clicked in me. Something changed in the way I felt about my mother. Mothers were supposed to be upset when they found condoms in their 13-year-old daughter’s bedroom. And they were also supposed to tell their kids how great they were and how happy they were to have them, and how much they loved them. Everyone knew that.

That was the day when it really hit me that she, the one and only mother I would ever have, was a bad mother. And I swore that when I grew up and one day got married and had a little girl of my own, I would never tell her how much better life would be if she hadn’t come along. I would love her. I would treasure her. I would be the best mother of all.

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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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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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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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