Life imitates art

I’m a little behind pace on my National Novel Writing Month novel. But I had a vacation day yesterday, and caught up just a little. I am taking comp time today, because I’ll work a full day Saturday covering various events, and hope to catch up a little more today.

Just a few days ago, I had my main character worrying about something going wrong with his car.

This morning, I had (re)scheduled a lunch with Chris Shofner, a former co-worker (Chris was editor when I first joined the T-G in 1985). I went out to my car at the time I wanted to leave, and – it wouldn’t turn over. Chris came over and gave me a jump start, and I got the car to the place where I normally take it – which has changed hands since the last time I went there.

They tested and ruled out the alternator, and then tested the battery – bad. Not as expensive as an alternator would have been, but still exactly the kind of thing my main character was worrying about in the novel. Chris and I had our lunch while they were putting in a new battery.

If I have this kind of control over time and space, maybe I should have my character in the novel win the lottery.

Day two, 4,100 words

bookcoverI might end up writing a little more before I go to bed tonight, but I seem to be at a stopping point.

I am officially ahead of the 50,000-word pace on my National Novel Writing Month project, “The Unreliable Narrator,” but I’m not as far ahead of pace as one would expect to be after two weekend days. I had sort of hoped to get 5,000 this weekend, especially since I may not have much time to write Tuesday, Election Day.

I have gotten off to a mixed start. I like some things, but what I’ve got so far is a little more scattershot, a little too autobiographical, and a little more rambling, than I had intended. But this is NaNoWriMo – it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be 1,667 words a day. It may be that nothing I produce this month will be marketable. Or it may be that there Participant-2014-Square-Buttonwill be parts of what I produce that I can turn into something marketable. But it’s more about the discipline and the experience than about crafting the next Great American Novel on this particular try.

One fun thing is that three of my “Daddy’s Dyin … Who’s Got The Will?” castmates are also taking the plunge this month, and so I’ll get to commiserate with them. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll get to make it to our cast get-together Tuesday night – I had forgotten about the election back when we scheduled this.

In the on-deck circle

At this time next weekend, I’ll be noveling.

It’s been two or three years since I’ve made a serious stab at National Novel Writing Month, but – along with several of my recent “Daddy’s Dyin’” castmates – I’m going to do so this year.

National Novel Writing Month – “NaNoWriMo,” to participants – is an annual writing exercise, just for the fun of it. It’s not competitive (unless you make it so!), and anyone can participate, whether you normally consider yourself a writer or not. The idea is that you write a 50,000-word novel (which some would call a novella) entirely during the month of November. You can prepare in advance (plot outline, character biographies, etc.), but the normal interpretation is that you do not start any actual writing until Nov. 1.

If you get to 50,000 words by November 30, even if you haven’t finished the novel, you have “won” – although bragging rights and personal satisfaction are the only stakes.

The idea here is that 1,667 words per day is a very fast pace. It’s too fast for you to stop and do any editing, and it’s too fast for any long pondering about what to add. You have to make yourself sit down and write, period.

Some of what you write in that fast a pace is, almost by necessity, going to be horrible. The novel as a whole may turn out not to be anything at all good or marketable (which are not the same thing). But by forcing yourself to write every day, and hopefully turning off that little “no” voice in your head, you sometimes come up with little creative ideas and twists and turns that would never happen in a careful, more deliberate environment.

The official NaNoWriMo web site offers you a chance to connect with other participants, gives pep talks, and allows you an easy way of tracking your word count. You enter your word count and the site and you can see an easy-to-understand line graph showing whether you’re ahead of or behind pace. If you’ve missed a day (I doubt I’ll get much writing done on Election Day, for example), the site will show you what your pace needs to be to catch up and still get to 50,000 by month’s end.

In some areas, there are actually author meet-ups or “write-ins” at some quiet place like a library or coffee shop, where you can bring your laptop and do what’s normally a very solitary activity in the company of others. (“Anybody got a suggestion for a character name?”) I don’t have a laptop, and the closest location for the meetups is in Murfreesboro, but I’d love to go to one some day just to see what it’s like.

If you make it, there’s usually a little certificate you can download and print out, plus a little logo you can post to your web site or social media. It’s all on the honor system, though. Sometimes the Amazon-owned self-publisher Createspace offers you a free proof copy of your novel, which is how I came to publish my own Bad Self-Published Novel, which began its life as a NaNoWriMo project.

You can always go back later, after November has ended and you’ve taken a bit of a break, and see whether or not you think there’s enough there to make it worth trying to rewrite the novel, taking out the terrible stuff while leaving in those moments of inspiration.

There have actually been authors who have traditionally published novels which began during NaNoWriMo. Many others, of course, have self-published their NaNoWriMo novels. I still wonder what would have happened to “Soapstone” if I’d been a little bit more patient and gotten it professionally edited.

Anyone can participate in NaNoWriMo. It’s completely free, although they do sell merchandise and solicit donations to keep the web site up and running. The sense of accomplishment you feel when you get to 50,000 is amazing.

White flag

On Monday, I had taken half a day off work and was working with the novel.

My original concept for the novel had been to start with a real personal experience – my colonoscopy, and turning 50 – and use it as a jumping-off point for a more fictional story. But I was having trouble moving the needle away from my own thoughts and concerns. And it was taking a bad turn. The best way I can describe it is to say that I was in sort of a negative feedback loop, where some self-pity and bad attitudes I had about some situations in my own life were being reflected in my main character – not in a cathartic or constructive way, but in a way that actually seemed to make things worse. And I was finding it hard to push the character’s timeline away from my own.

I was wondering what to do about the situation when I got the call about my father’s injury. I was at the hospital in Tullahoma until almost midnight Monday. Tuesday, worried about Dad on his first day home, and with a lot on my plate at work, I was cranky and tired. I took a little break in the late afternoon and then had a long night Tuesday covering the election.

Anyway, long story short, I am officially throwing in the towel on NaNoWriMo 2012. I am abandoning “Man On The Table.” Maybe, at some point this month, I’ll go back to my 2009 novel, which I’ve always wanted to try to finish and work on. But tonight, I’m going to relax.

Dad, by the way, is doing better today – he’s still hurting, but not as much. Thanks for all your prayers and words of concern.

Day 4: 7,756 words

Well, I’ve just barely made my daily 1,667-word NaNoWriMo goal. I maintained the cushion that I built up during the first three days, but I’ve only added 10 words to it, unless I write some more before bed tonight. Given that this was a weekend day, 1,677 seems like a disappointment.

The novel is coming along OK, but I’m wishing I had picked a different premise. Even though it’s fiction, and I’m trying in various ways to make the lead character different from me, I keep circling back to my own personality, my own fears, my own private struggles. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; the novel can be more cathartic than marketable. A few NaNoWriMo novels have been professionally-published, but it’s really not about churning out the next New York Times best-seller so much as it is about personal challenge and the discipline of writing. And no novel written at such a breakneck pace is going to be very good without a lot of editing.

Even so, it’s a motivating factor if you feel like there’s something good about what you’re writing, and so far I’m worried that this is going to have all of the most self-indulgent qualities that went into my Bad Self-Published Novel (which also started with NaNoWriMo).

There’s something to be said for writing what you know, and there have been some terrific writers who have put their own personality traits, real or imagined, into classic fictional heroes and heroines. But that can also turn maudlin and self-serving very quickly. And if the novel gets too personal, I may not want to show it to others anyway.

With “Soapstone,” the main character was obviously based on me, but I worked very hard to make sure that none of the other characters (with the exception of the Kenyan minister and his wife) were based on any specific person with whom I’d been in mission. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I specifically made it clear in the notes at the end of the book that none of Jeff Doermann’s mission trip teammates were based on any of my specific mission trip teammates. But I still sometimes have friends ask me if, for example, Schuyler was based on this person or that one.

That’s another trouble with a character who seems partially based on me but who is also partially fictional. People might wonder which attribute falls into which category.

I’m plowing ahead for the moment, but I’m less and less convinced that I’ll be able to rework this into something marketable after NaNoWriMo has ended.

Speaking of “Soapstone,” by the way, I offered it for free Kindle download on Nov. 1, to celebrate the beginning of NaNoWriMo. The Kindle program for self-publishers allows you up to five days a year for such promotional giveaways. The idea is that hopefully someone will review the book on Amazon or recommend it to their friends, although there’s still not a single review of “Soapstone,” either the print or Kindle versions, after several years on the Amazon site. That may be a good thing, all told.

I mentioned the Nov. 1 giveaway briefly in a blog post a week or two ago, but I intended to call it to everyone’s attention again on Nov. 1, or maybe the night before. I completely forgot to do so. It looks like 126 people stumbled across the book and downloaded it that day for free anyway. I also have one sale in Kindle format this month, which is a good thing, although far from the minimum threshold before they’d actually pay me any profit.

Day 2: 3,650 words

It’s early, but I’ve gotten to the end of a chapter, I’m tired, and I wrote 1,765 words today. That’s not as good as yesterday’s 1,885, but it’s still safely above the 1,667 daily average, and so I built up my cushion today instead of depleting it. That’s always a good thing.

I have a relatively open weekend, so hopefully I can make good progress tomorrow and Sunday. Getting ahead of pace is insurance for the days when you can’t quite make that 1,667, as well as the unexpected things that might pop up. (One year, I got sick during in the last week, and that kept me from getting to 50,000.) It’s always nice when you have enough cushion built up to be able to take Thanksgiving off.

As I said yesterday, though, these first few days are relatively easy; I’m giving the main character an experience similar to something I’ve been through myself, and that will serve as the jumping-off point for the story. But once I’ve used that up, I’m going to have to do some more pro-active storytelling. I have some vague sense of where I’m going, but not as much as most serious writers like to have in advance. Then again, there are a lot of writers with a lot of different writing styles. Knowing NaNoWriMo as I do, I know that things will start to move under their own power if I can just be diligent enough, and patient enough, to get them to that point.

Day 1: 1,885 words

Well, it was a good first day – there may be rough sailing ahead, though. Today, and probably the next day or two, I’m working in part (not completely) from personal experiences that form the jumping-off point for the novel. But from there on out, I’ll get more completely into the realm of fiction, and I’m not sure exactly where I’m headed.

Even so, I’m ahead of pace after the first day, and with a weekend coming up, so I’m doing OK. Props to some of my NaNoWriMo buddies, including Donna Brock from church, my cousin Melissa Barrell, former coworker Mary Reeves, and my Mountain T.O.P. friend Beth Martin.

In non-NaNoWriMo news, it’s “change your clock, change your battery” time, and I went above and beyond by actually swapping out one of my smoke detectors today. The smoke detector right outside my kitchen has a nasty tendency to go off any time anything on the stove or in the oven gets the least bit smoky. (The people in the next apartment must think I’m a terrible cook who burns everything.)

I used to have a smoke detector with a really-handy “mute” button for such situations – it would temporarily silence the alarm, and then turn it back on again in five minutes. But it wasn’t working right, and while I had taken it down a year or two ago the apartment building came in and installed new smoke detectors that didn’t have this feature. Every time the alarm went off, I would have to take the smoke detector down, open the battery door, and pop out the battery. I had to remember to eventually put the battery back in and put the smoke detector back in place, which was a hassle. Eventually, the one of the posts on which the battery door pivoted came loose, and so the battery door wasn’t really fastened in place.

Today, I went out and bought the same model smoke detector I used to have, and put it up instead. I haven’t had to mute it yet – the only cooking I did tonight was Minute Rice in the microwave – but I’m looking forward to not having to have a stepladder handy every time I cook.

A revelation

I’ve been wanting to jump in to National Novel Writing Month this year – I haven’t gotten to 50,000 words since I wrote the first draft of “Soapstone” in 2007, and my last serious attempt was in 2009 — but didn’t have a good premise.

Tonight, I found one.

I’d been waiting all week for the somewhat-anticlimactic call telling me that the polyp removed during my colonoscopy on Monday was benign. It came today, while I was at work. (I thought I’d given them my mobile number, but I guess not.) I got it on the answering machine when I got home.

I think that seems like a good dramatic setup – someone waiting on results which could prove either a banal afterthought or a life-changing shock. Now, I need to flesh out some characters and situations. I can make notes, create character bios or plot outlines, and other such preparation between now and next Thursday, as long as I don’t do any actual writing.

NaNoWriMo has grown exponentially in the past few years, and I’ve blithered about it here many times in the past, but if you still don’t know, it’s a writing exercise that takes place each November. Each participant attempts to write a 50,000-word novella between November 1 and November 30, an average of about 1,667 words a day. It’s just for fun; you’re only challenging yourself. There are no prizes except a downloadable certificate and web icons for those who reach 50,000.

There’s no real way to write 50,000 words of good fiction in 30 days – but “good” fiction is not what NaNoWriMo is all about. In order to keep up with the pace, you have to plunge in headlong and turn off any internal editors or naysayers. You have to just write, every day, whether it’s good or lousy. And this leads to unusual things; it liberates your creativity in unusual ways and results in things that you might never have produced at a more deliberative pace.

When it’s all over with, you have a big ol’ chunk of fiction. What happens next is up to you; you can have a good laugh at your own expense, and consider this an experience in the discipline of writing. Even if you have no aspiration of writing for others, you can compete in NaNoWriMo just as a personal challenge.

Of course, if there seem to be little flecks of gold in your 50,000 words of dross, you can go back and try to rewrite, refine, revise, edit. That’s what happened to me with “Soapstone” in 2007. I liked it and thought I could make something out of it. I tried to get some outside help in editing, but the person who promised to read the manuscript never got around to it. I did some rewriting on my own, and when a special promotion in the fall of 2008 offered the previous year’s NaNoWriMo winners a discount on self-publishing, I decided on a lark to go ahead and go that route.

I often joke in this space about my “bad self-published novel.” There are things about it I remain proud of, things I’m kind of embarrassed by, and things I still don’t know whether to think of as failures or successes. But it’s been fun putting the novel out there. In honor of NaNoWriMo, you’ll be able to download the Kindle version of Soapstone for free all day Nov. 1.

I still feel like I have a good novel, a real novel, somewhere in me, if I can ever coax it out. I don’t put enough effort into doing that the other 11 months of the year, but the fun, game-like atmosphere of NaNoWriMo brings something out of me.

The NaNoWriMo web site offers plenty of support – author pep talks, online bulletin boards, and even in-person meet-ups where participants from a particular city or region can gather with their laptops to write in each other’s company, kibitz and encourage each other. I’ve not been to any of those in-person events; maybe I’ll try to do so this year.

Anyway, whether or not you think of yourself as a writer, NaNoWriMo is a great way to challenge yourself. There’s still time for you to make preparations for Nov. 1!

Creativity

I’ve been looking for some sort of creative project for the past week or two, and I think I’m going to see if there’s anything I can do with my unfinished 2009 National Novel Writing Month novel.

I gave up on the novel near the end of November that year; a late-month illness put me far behind schedule for the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words in 30 days, and I had family members in town for Thanksgiving and wanted to spend time with them instead of engaging in a heroic, come-from-behind blitz. But I liked the way the novel had been progressing and always meant to go back and do something with it.

Now, of course, I have to remind myself of what I wrote a year and a half ago. I don’t want to sit and read 180 pages on the computer. I also didn’t want to print out 180 pages on my home printer. What I’ve done instead is to reformat a copy of the document so that it fits on about 50 pages. I won’t have much space to mark up the printout, but that’s not really the point. The point is to bring me back up to speed and remind me where I was when I gave up.

I’m not sure what’s driving this. I’m having a lot of career frustrations, and a self-help book I thought might give me some guidance turned out to be different from what I was expecting, and not much help in the essential question of what I want to do next.

I don’t necessarily think this novel will go anywhere professionally; maybe I’ll just self-publish it like the last one. But maybe it will give me a sense of accomplishment at a time in my life when I am becoming more and more frustrated and desparate, and when I seem to be not very successfully treading water.

Do not pass “Go”

I had every intention of participating in National Novel Writing Month again this year – in fact, it was one reason I turned down the opportunity to be in a play this month over in Tullahoma.

But I never came up with a premise that I liked. I had a vague idea for something – a man who steals a street sign which shares his name (I pass Carney Street on my way to work each day, although it goes without saying I’ve never stolen the sign) and who then becomes a sort of Robin Hood-like sign vandal. But I didn’t have a clear idea of where that was going. I was going to try to play with it tonight, and see if I could get any traction, but I’m tired and unfocused and just don’t feel like it.

So I guess I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year.