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.

White flag: 38,767 words

I was too sick to concentrate on the novel on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, and by the time I started to feel better Friday night, I realized my chances of making the 50,000-word target by midnight Monday were waning fast, especially since if I recovered, I would want to spend Saturday with my brother and sister-in-law (which is what happened).

Some people who were as far behind pace as I have been able to catch up. And I had much of the day today and all day tomorrow (another of my burn-off vacation days) if I had chosen to make such an attempt.

But I didn’t.

I think part of the reason is that I was already closer than I intended to be to the end of my story. So writing 6,000 words today and 6,000 words tomorrow would have truly been filler for filler’s sake, with little chance of anything revelatory. If I do decide to go back and rework what I wrote this month (and I have no idea whether I will or not) I will have to flesh it out by adding things to the beginning or middle of the story, and by rewriting some of my shallower scenes, not by tacking stuff on to the end.

Anyway, I offer my hearty congratulations to those who have already reached their 50,000 or will reach it in the coming hours. NaNoWriMo is a great experience, and I hope to join you in it in 2010.

Day 22: 36,726 words

It was an unusually busy Sunday, and I wasn’t in much mood to write when I first got home. But the point of NaNoWriMo is discipline, and I was able to get things moving as the evening went on.

Actually, doing the math just now I am still ahead of pace overall but fell a few words short of my 1,667. Maybe I’ll go back and add another sentence or two, just for bragging rights.