My NaNoWriMo win: I may be a cheater, but I’m not a liar

Trying my best at my own table

Trying my best at my own table

I made it! Last night I validated my National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) score of over 50,000 words, and the site declared me an official winner. They provided a link to an online certificate I can download, with lines to fill in my name and book title, and links to order merchandise, including a black tee shirt with this year’s emblem – a knight slaying a dragon.

There’s just one problem: I cheated. Yesterday afternoon I reached 30,747 words in the document I’d titled “NaNo total word count,” and there was no way I could legitimately come up with another 20,000 words in the last few hours of the contest. Illegitimately, it was easy, with just a few simple commands: Select all, copy and paste. Eureka! All at once, I had a document of 61,494 words. I uploaded it into the correct line in the NaNo form, hit the button marked “Validate,” and voila! I was a winner.

True confession time: this isn’t the first year I’ve done this. I’ve entered NaNo several times. A couple of times I dropped out, butDennys Nano 11-30-14 the other times I used the nefarious means I’ve described above. But this was the first time I solicited other people’s opinions – on Facebook, no less – before taking this sinister turn to the left. Those who replied, including my husband, felt I should take the high road and refrain from cheating. I’d be demeaning the efforts of those who won legitimately, they said. Heaven forbid I break the rules! Those rules are set by genuine human beings, true, but they’re enforced by a computer program. It counts words; it doesn’t read or judge content. Theoretically I could type the same word 50,000 times.

Our fearless leader, Shannon Kauderer

Our fearless leader, Shannon Kauderer

At last night’s final November NaNo write-in at Denny’s, the Albany group’s Sunday night hangout for the past month, I confessed my transgression and asked if anyone else had cheated. No one fessed up. I wasn’t tarred and feathered, but no one told me it was okay, and I didn’t win the plastic diamond our leader passed out to those who had won legitimately.

So am I ashamed? Embarrassed? Yes, to some extent. In the hard light of the morning after, I considered not blogging about this at all, but then I’d feel even more cowardly. Besides, in many ways I consider myself a genuine winner, with some bona fide accomplishments. For example:

  • I’m off to a good start on Sunlight and Shadow, the sequel to Hope Dawns Eternal, and I know where the plot is going from here.
  • I’ve learned the basics of the Scrivener program, which offers new ways of organizing my novel in a more flexible, less linear fashion.
  • I’ve found I can write at night as well as I can in the daytime.
  • My wine consumption has dropped dramatically because of the aforementioned night writing, because my writing suffers when I’m under the influence. Even a single glass makes me noticeably more slow and stupid.
  • I’ve gotten better at just jumping in and tackling a scene rather than procrastinating and waiting for inspiration to strike.
  • I’ve gotten better at banishing my inner critic.

I still prefer writing in solitude to writing in groups. And I’ll never be as speedy as those folks who can crank out thousands of words a day, but then I’ve never read anything they’ve written. For all I know, it’s total gibberish, but in NaNoWriMo, aside from counting words,  there’s no comparing and no critiquing. That’s why I’ll probably do it again. Who knows, next year I might even win without cheating.

Dennys NaNo Robb

 

The accompanying photos are from last night’s write-in at the Denny’s in Latham. A shout-out to the wonderful staff there, who let us hang out for hours in our very own room, overdosing on coffee and scrumptious desserts.

The NaNoWriMo Challenge – Do you play well with others?

Baldacci Total Control coverWarming up the car this morning before taking off for my Nia class, tardy as usual, I caught the tail end of an interview with the best-selling novelist David Baldacci on WAMC Northeast Public Radio. Joe Donahue, the interviewer on The Roundtable, asked him if he’d ever consider collaborating with another writer. “No,” he said. “I don’t play well with others.” 

Donahue was referring to writers like James Patterson and Janet Evanovich, who have published novels with a co-author listed in smaller type below their names. “Why would I do that?” asked Baldacci. “It would spoil all the fun.” 

I’m with him – I don’t write well in groups. Case in point: National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. I signed up again this month, though it’s been an exercise in frustration when I participated in past Novembers. Writing 50,000 words in a month is a daunting task. It comes out to an average of 1,617 words a day. You post your daily word count on a jazzy bar graph on the NaNo website. The graph and its accompanying chart track your progress and the date you can be expected to finish if you proceed at your current pace. Last night the site told me I’d finish on Christmas eve if I churned out about 2,500 words a day. In other words, I’d lose. 

The Albany area has a large and dedicated group of NaNo participants. There are multiple write-ins at various locations in the Capital Region. For the most part they’re at cafes and coffee houses, and for good reason – the caffeine tends to inspire jacked-up bouts of creativity, and people can hang out for hours nursing a single cup of coffee. Personally, I feel it’s only fair to order some food as well. This usually takes the form of high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar concoctions. One of my favorites is warm apple pie a la mode drenched in caramel sauce. Denny's French toast ad

That particular diet destroyer is on the dessert menu at Denny’s, where write-ins take place every Sunday night. Writers with laptops descend on the place like locusts at the Latham location, where they’ve taken to saving a separate side room for us. The Municipal Liaison, aka chief cheerleader, is Shannon Kauderer, a young woman with blond hair shading to green, who’s a chemist by day and science fiction writer by night. 

These Sunday night write-ins have an unusual format: folks write silently for 20 minutes, then socialize for 20 minutes, then write, then socialize. And so it goes, usually till midnight, sometimes as late as 2:00 a.m. (The fact that Denny’s is open 24/7 is a major inducement to patronize the place.) 

My husband thrives on this format. He can flail away at his laptop, then get up and stroll around the room, chatting with the other participants, most of whom are several decades our juniors. Then when Shannon sounds the timer, he can sit back down and resume writing right where he left off. Others can apparently write this way, although I have no clue as to the quality of what they’re churning out. Still others ignore the chit chat and write straight through the social breaks. 

Woman Writing, Picasso 1934

Woman Writing, Picasso 1934

I can do neither – at least not well. I work best in absolute solitude, with only my dog or cat for occasional company. No background music, no interruptions except for full-blown emergencies. I’ve learned to write during those 20-minute sprints, but I hate turning my creative process on and off at will. And I never talk about what I’m writing in the midst of writing it. For me, it dissipates my energy and scares away my ever-elusive muse. Huddling silently over my laptop while my spouse enjoys the company of younger women, I may come across as curmudgeonly, but I truly don’t care. Like David Baldacci, I don’t play well with others. 

Still, despite my reservations, I’ll probably show up for another Denny’s write-in. The positive energy is infectious, and I’m getting better at jumping right into my writing without procrastinating. I may make my 50,000 word count after all. Besides, there are lots of scrumptious desserts I haven’t tried yet. 

What about you? Can you write with others around, or do you require solitude? I’d love to hear your comments.

 

 

 

 

 

Drifting downstream in search of inspiration

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, 1888

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, 1888

In search of illustrations for this blog post about NaNoWriMo and my writing process, I Googled “Woman Writing Painting.” Hundreds of images popped up, and as I scrolled through them, this painting of the Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse* caught my eye. The woman is drifting on a river, face tilted skyward, eyes downcast, in an exotic black boat. What is she doing amidst all the images of women sitting demurely in gardens or cozy interiors?

Through still more Googling, I learned that the work is inspired by a poem by Tennyson, in which the reclusive Lady of Shalott is lured by the sight of Sir Lancelot to leave her island and drift downstream in a boat to Camelot. As she floats, she sings until she dies.* But to me she’s a striking image for creativity, drifting downstream, open to whatever comes her way. It’s an image reminiscent of John Lennon’s lyrics too – “Picture yourself in a boat on a river” and “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.”

But I digress. Still, that’s the beautiful thing about sitting down at the computer in front of a blankJohn Lennon Imagine illustration screen – you never know where it will take you. In part, this image, labelled as being in the public domain, inspired me to look for other nineteenth-century paintings that might serve as cover illustrations for Hope Dawns Eternal. I’ve launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to hire an illustrator, designer and webmaster to maximize the impact of the book when I launch it, but maybe the illustrator won’t be necessary. So far, the results have been underwhelming, but I’m determined to persevere. One way or another, I’ll launch the book before the end of the year.

I’m so convinced of the potential of Hope Dawns Eternal that I’ve created a brand-new blog at www.hopedawnseternal.net. That site will focus exclusively on my vampire soap opera thriller and my route to publication, as well as on the sequel, Sunlight and Shadow. (I’ll be keeping up this site as well, and sometimes you may see me cross-posting on both. If you do, please pardon the repetition, but please subscribe to both.)

I’ve been working on Sunlight and Shadow during this month’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge. I’m woefully behind,

Another Waterhouse painting of the Lady of Shalott, titled "I am half sick of shadows"

Another Waterhouse painting of the Lady of Shalott, titled “I am half sick of shadows”

because I’ve devoted the first third of this month to grandmothering duties and to the Memorial Society of the Hudson-Mohawk Region, of which I’m President. (You can learn more about this important community ministry, which helps folks learn more about affordable funerals, by visiting www.hudsonmohawkfca.wordpress.org. )

I’m aiming for 33,333*** words by November 30th, the equivalent of two/thirds of the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words. I know I can reach the 50K goal with the aid of some creative copying and pasting, and by counting blogging and journaling as part of the word count. Strictly speaking, that’s cheating, but who knows – I might even reach the word count legitimately if I can barrel through the doubts and insecurities that are entangling my creative process as I relax and float downstream.

*John William Waterhouse, a British artist born in 1849, the period when the Pre-Raphaelite style was at its height; he adopted the style decades later.

Alfred Lord Tennyson**Tennyson’s poem is beautifully evocative, and I was inspired to learn more about him. The biography at www.poetryfoundation.org describes how he suffered from deep depressions and was fearful of succumbing to the mental illness that ran in his family.

***$3,333 is the amount I’m hoping to raise on GoFundMe. Please help me by visiting www.gofundme.com/gep8ts. Every little bit helps. You can win prizes, too, including signed first editions of my books.

Robin Williams and the Dangers of Depression

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

As one of the millions of people who have suffered from severe clinical depression, I can readily imagine why Robin Williams committed suicide. When you’re in the depths of depression, it sometimes seems as though the darkness will never end, and suicide is the only way out. And when life pelts you with lemons, you can’t muster the strength to turn them into lemonade.

His widow has disclosed that Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, although he had not yet gone public with the fact. The diagnosis must have been devastating to a man who built his public persona upon his genius for rapid-fire, manic improvisation. Sooner or later, Parkinson’s would inevitably have eroded those gifts and slowed him down, and perhaps that prospect was more than he could stand.

Michael J. Fox has taken a courageous stand in going public about this devastating illness and appearing on camera with his tics and

Michael J. Fox

Michael J. Fox

tremors on display. But he’s always been a star with a certain sweetness and vulnerability, so his role as a crusader against Parkinson’s is a perfect fit for his personality. Perhaps in time, Robin Williams could have faced the diagnosis with similar grace, but alas, we’ll never know.

His career may have peaked. His CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones was cancelled this year after one season, and he worried about his finances, especially the alimony to two former wives. His California ranch was on the market, and he felt pressured to take roles he wasn’t enthusiastic about purely for the money. In his final days he spent most of his time lying in a room with blackout curtains, too exhausted to get out of bed.

I know that feeling well. I’m diagnosed bipolar, and within the past decade, I suffered two debilitating depressions, both of them after I had completed and published novels that failed to set the world on fire. Both times I was convinced life was no longer worth living, and I contemplated suicide, but like Dorothy Parker in her famous poem, I found something objectionable about all the possible methods and decided I might as well live.

With help from a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and above all my husband, I eventually climbed back out of depression, although I live with the fear that it may recur. For now, medications keep me on an even keel – Zoloft and Seroquel, to be specific, and Lunesta as needed for sleep. All three are now available in generic versions, so I spend under $20.00 a month for meds – a small price to pay for happiness.

But I may be paying a much higher price. I was diagnosed as bipolar twenty years ago, and I’ve been on psychotropic medications ever since. I’ve accomplished a lot in the past couple of decades, including publishing two novels, but I no longer have the overriding drive and energy that powered me through my earlier years as an artist. Laziness and complacency are ever-present dangers. I’m content just being in the present moment – gardening, walking my dog, reading – though I suffer pangs of guilt over my lessened productivity. Is this a normal product of aging, or a side effect of my medications? Maybe it’s both, but I’ll never know for sure.

When I learned of Robin Williams’s suicide, my first thought, after the shock and grief, was that he too was bipolar. If so, he had never publically disclosed it, but certainly his public persona was over-the-top manic. But as I read more about him and listened to old interviews, it became apparent that his personality when out of the camera’s eye was calmer and more reflective. He readily admitted to substance abuse and periods of deep depression and discussed them candidly, so if he’d been diagnosed as bipolar, he probably would have disclosed that too.

Still, I can’t help thinking he may have been in denial about the nature of his illness. The rapid-fire imagination and creativity so striking to those who knew him well may not have been full-blown mania, but it teetered close to the edge. Perhaps he was afraid that the powerful mood stabilizers and antidepressants of modern medicine would dumb him down intolerably, and perhaps he would have been right.

I don’t know what meds Robin was on or what therapy he was receiving. But it’s extremely common for people diagnosed with a mental illness to refuse or discontinue medication because they don’t want to become comfortably numb. And the inexorable progress of Parkinson’s disease, with its many physical and mental symptoms, including depression, would have taken a terrible toll over time.

Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

Doubtless more details will emerge and more people will conduct psychological post-mortems. But in the meantime, although Robin Williams’s death is a tragic loss, I believe I understand at least part of the rationale for his decision.

 

April is Camp NaNoWriMo Month

On April Fool’s Day, a year ago today, I embarked on the Script Frenzy challenge, an offshoot of National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. I succeeded in turning out the requisite 100 pages during the month of April, then began turning the story into a novel I hoped would be finished and on the market by now.

Picasso 1934

Picasso 1934

No such luck, although strictly speaking, I’ve got to ‘fess up: luck has nothing to do with it. The past year has been wonderful in many respects. I crawled back up out of the black hole of depression I’d been trapped in for far too long, savored time with my husband and family, rediscovered the joys of gardening and downhill skiing, even adopted a dog. I’ve got an enormous amount to be grateful for, and maybe that should be enough. But I’m beating myself up over indulging in present-time pleasures instead of slaving away at my novel.

I’m hereby making a solemn vow: I will finish my novel this month! I’ve got some excellent incentives. In late May, I’ll be attending the fiftieth reunion of my Harvard-Radcliffe class, a golden networking opportunity I plan to take full advantage of. Then in September, Bouchercon, the world’s biggest and best mystery writers’ conference, will take place in Albany, just 20 minutes from my house. Talk about networking! I want to have all my books up on Kindle as well as in print in plenty of time to concentrate on schmoozing.*

I registered for Bouchercon this morning, and the online form included a section where I could express my interest in presenting. The form is simple, with three sections where I could describe my qualifications in 50 words or less. Lots of my favorite authors are already listed as attendees, with links to their websites, and I’m looking forward to seeing my own link up there one of these days. I’ve already connected with some members of the mystery site Dorothy L, who are planning a Friday night dinner, and they’ll probably take me up on my recommendation of the Pump Station.

A couple of New Jersey conferences are on my list of possibilities as well: Deadly Ink and the International Women Writers Guild. Both sound promising, but they may be beyond my budget, especially since I need to save up for a few concerts. I promised to take my granddaughter to Les Miserables when the road show hits Schenectady, and I’ve already got my ticket for Country Fest on July 13 – Darius Rucker and Sheryl Crow are headlining.

Right after I paid my $175 Bouchercon registration online, I wandered over to the Live Nation web site and scored a lawn ticket for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. I was actually looking for Rascal Flatts tickets, but they don’t go on sale till Friday. It’s a good thing I’m not in full manic mode – maybe a bit hypomanic, but I’ve still got a modicum of control over my online shopping.

Eduard Manet

Eduard Manet

Anyway, back to NaNoWriMo and Script Frenzy: they’re not doing Script Frenzy this month, but they’ve launched a new venture called Camp NaNoWriMo. Unlike the original November NaNo, where you have to churn out 50,000 words, they let you set your own word count goal. I picked 30,000 – a thousand words a day should be doable, and if I keep up the pace, I may actually finish the vampire soap opera novel I’ve been blogging about so much. My user name for Camp is soapvamp.In this new challenge, you can sign up to be in virtual cabins with writers of your choice, organized by genre or other factors, and if you want to be cliquish, you can even sign up with your friends.

Writing should be easier this month because Michael Easton is away from General Hospital for the time being, while they indulge in their 50th Anniversary celebrations. But that’s a topic for another day. Meanwhile I’m going public with this goal in hopes my readers will encourage me to keep on track, so please leave comments, and subscribe if you haven’t yet done so.

Happy April Fool’s Day, and here’s hoping April isn’t the cruelest month for any of you. Talk to you soon!

*The weird formatting above, with some sections in a larger font, is something WordPress is doing that I can’t get rid of. I may tinker with it later. I used to love WordPress, but every time I try posting something new, it gets worse in many respects. Is it just that they want me to pay for an upgraded version? Anyone else having problems?  I’ll add some links later, but I can’t cope with the program another second without freaking out!

Aside

Help! I’m on Katie Couric’s show next week and I don’t have a thing to wear!

 

Katie in a dress that would never pass her show's dress code!

Katie in a dress that would never pass her show’s dress code!

This coming Monday I’ll be in the audience at the Katie Couric show, soaking up the atmosphere for my novel-in-progress, which is set in the land of daytime television. But I don’t have a thing to wear! After the phone call inviting me to attend, they sent me a lengthy e-mail explaining what I should expect and what they’ll expect from me. “Katie loves bright colors!” they said. I should “dress to impress,” with absolutely no black, brown, beige or gray, nothing dark or muted, and no prints.

Though I love Duke Ellington’s classic “Black, Brown and Beige,” I don’t cotton to those colors when it comes to my wardrobe unless they’re combined with something brighter. Nor do I usually wear straightforward primary and secondary colors. As an artist, I prefer subtler shades – and lots and lots of prints. But it’s Katie’s show, and she has the right to determine her own esthetic, so I’ll be hitting the January sales this week.

I thought I was well past the age of slavishly following someone else’s dress code, so why am I caving for Katie? Because except for a visit to the Conan O’Brien show many years ago, I’ve never set foot in the TV studio of a major network. Even though my novel is pure fantasy, I’m a stickler for accuracy, so I need to do some heavy-duty research. That’s more or less what I wrote in the online application in the section asking why I wanted to attend the show, and maybe it piqued the interest of some lowly intern processing the applications. I didn’t elaborate further, nor will I do so here.

I’m so excited about this story, so convinced it’s a high-concept project, as they say in Hollywood, that I’m not about to give away any specifics until it’s up on Kindle. Suffice it to say that it’s my first excursion into the paranormal, and it’s a lot more light-hearted and humorous than Eldercide or Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders.

When inspiration struck last spring, I was slogging away at the sequel to Eldercide, but I was bogged down and blocked. My husband was planning to enter Script Frenzy, an offshoot of National Novel Writing Month, and he suggested I join him. The challenge: to write a 100-page film or TV script during the month of April.

JULIE

(Frowns as she sips coffee)

            But I’ve got no desire whatsoever to write a script. 

SPOUSE

            Why not give it a try? What have you got to lose? 

JULIE

            That whole show-business world is so competitive, I’d never have a chance. 

SPOUSE

            Just do it for fun, as a creative exercise (pause as he gazes skyward) I know. What if you write about that show you always watch, and that actor you’re so crazy about? 

JULIE

(brightens and grins)

            Hmm . . . Maybe that could work.

FADE OUT

sf_winner_180x180And so I took a flying leap into the unknown – a totally new format, a new genre – and before long I was having a ball. I made my quota of 100 pages in the 30 days of April, submitted my script for verification and printed out my winner’s certificate, but that only took me a third of the way into the story. Then began the challenge of turning it into a novel.

I’d hoped my new opus would be finished already, but now I’m aiming for the spring equinox on March 20th. I’m asking you, my readers, to help hold me to that deadline. I’ll post progress reports every week or two, and I hope you’ll leave comments to cheer me on. If I really buckle down, maybe I’ll be free to write another script in April. Well before then, I’ll blog about Script Frenzy in hopes of enticing you to join. In the meantime I plan to reconnect with the wonderful online community of writers, and beginning this Valentine’s Day, I’ll be hosting guest bloggers once again.

As I wrap up this post, I’m watching the Katie show. Though she doesn’t look it, she’s celebrating her 56th birthday today. And those women in the audience are all decked out in cheerfully brilliant colors. Time to head for the mall – since orange is my favorite color, I’m envisioning something in orange sherbet or tangerine.

What colors do you favor for your wardrobe?  And how much are you willing to tweak your image for special occasions?

The Slippery Slope to Senior Sloth

Henri Matisse

Watching six straight hours of Project Runway reruns? Lounging in bed reading a mystery until two in the afternoon? Why the hell not? Now, in the dawn of my eighth decade of life, haven’t I earned the right to kick back and be as lazy as I like? Maybe, but if so, why do I feel so guilty about it?

Yes, ashamed as I am to admit it, I’ve indulged in these wretched excesses in the past few days. Even worse, I still haven’t kicked my Spider solitaire addiction. And today I managed to get to my Nia class at the YMCA, but I copped out of doing the weight machines. After Nia, I generally take a snack break in the Y’s lobby perusing magazines others have donated that I normally wouldn’t buy, like Vogue and Entertainment Weekly, before heading for the weight circuit, but today I simply stashed the magazines back in their rack and split for home.

The Y used to have a  computerized Fit Linx system that tracked exactly how much weight I lifted during each session as well as my cumulative total, which added up to several million pounds over the past few years. But they took away the Fit Linx. Now it’s as if Big Brother has abandoned me, and there’s nothing and no one to track whether I do the machines or not. So why bother?

In part, I’d persisted with the weight machines to condition my body for skiing, but I’ve become a slacker in that department too. Back in December, when cold winds began sweeping down from the north, I thought how much more frozen I’d feel skidding down a windswept mountain and decided that maybe it was time to give up skiing, at least the downhill variety. For now, this weirdly warm and snowless winter has made that a moot point, but even if Lady Gaia favors us with tons of white powder, I suspect I’ll stay cozily hunkered down in my recliner rather than hitting the slopes.

I could regale you with other fascinating details of my descent into senior sloth – the crossword puzzles and movie matinees, for example, not to mention my favorite soap opera. Since One Life to Live was cancelled last month, I’ve gone cold turkey on that one, but Michael Easton, my favorite soap star, will be bringing his Detective John McBain character to General Hospital next month, so alas, I’ll probably relapse.

One problem with writing about all these mundane details of daily life is that they’re boring. But even worse, they’re sins of omission rather than commission, of passivity rather than active engagement in life. According to the experts, staying mentally and physically active while aging probably lengthens longevity, but by how much? And in the long run, does it really matter?

Henri Matisse 1923

When I engage in these “What’s it all about?” ruminations, my husband frequently reminds me that the universe doesn’t give one whit what we do with our lives. So should we follow Joseph Campbell’s advice and just follow our bliss? And can bliss lie lurking within such ordinary slothful pleasures? For me, probably not in the long run. My most blissful moments come from creativity.

But for others, who’s to say? And who am I to pass judgment?

Should I be ashamed of my tendencies toward senior sloth, or is it OK to silence my inner critic and indulge in periods of vegging out? Any thoughts on the subject? I’d love to hear from you.

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