Archive | November 2011

Mad dash to the finish for NaNoWriMo

Van Gogh's Night Cafe

National Novel Writing Month will be over in exactly 24 hours, and I’ve only got 48,000 words. The finish line is in sight, and by midnight tomorrow I’ll have to crank out at least 2000 more. I’m determined to do it, even if I have to pull an all-nighter the way I did for college term papers.

I hope the NaNoWriMo  administrators never read this blog post, because I’ve got a confession to make – I cheated a little. At about 35,000 words, like a marathoner, I hit a wall, and I knew I’d never make it at the rate I was going, so I copied a few online articles relevant to my research and pasted them into my document. Methods of suicide, assisted dying and state laws about same – fun stuff like that. Only a few thousand words, but enough to help me over what would otherwise have been a hopeless hurdle.

Even so, I’m proud to say that about ninety percent of the words are mine, all mine. Of those, I hope more than half are the actual first draft of my new novel. Those I’ve been formatting in traditional black type, double spaced. But they’re interspersed with miscellaneous meanderings. Many are about the developing plot and the evolving characters. I type those in single-spaced red. Green is for personal ramblings that have little to do with the novel – except that often they lead to new ideas for my fictional tale. And purple is for blog posts like this one, which I’m also copying and pasting into one enormous, unwieldy document.

I’m writing scenes about whatever captures my fancy at any given time, without worrying about where they may eventually end up in the book. Which point of view I pick depends on my mood – sometimes it’s Paula Rhodes, the temperamental CEO of Compassionate Care, the home care agency inspired by ElderSource, Inc., which I ran in the 1990’s. Sometimes I’m drawn more to Claire Lindstrom, the idealistic nurse who was my main protagonist in Eldercide. And then there’s the evolving character of Carolyn, who assisted at the death of her husband, who was suffering from the end stages of pancreatic cancer.

Edvard Munch - The Scream

My printer may have died, but I don’t have time to diagnose what the problem is and whether it’s fixable or I need to buy a new one. So I don’t yet have a hard copy to work with, nor have I reread most of what I’ve written. Sometimes I scroll back to read the last scene in order to hazard a guess as to what comes next, but by and large I’ve managed to banish my inner critic.

When December arrives, I’ll do a “save as” and begin dividing this humungous document into manageable sections. Then I’ll see what I’ve come up with and where I go from here. At that point I’ll have the luxury of slowing down and maybe letting that inner critic to have her say.

Though I’ve written four novels and published two of them, I’ve never worked this way before, but I’m enjoying it. Most importantly, the NaNoWriMo challenge has inspired me to barrel through the creative block that plagued me for so long, to get back to my writing, and to discover that my muse hasn’t deserted me after all.

 

Soap Operas: tried and true plotting tricks

As I was agonizing over the plot of my new novel today, I took my customary two p.m.break to watch my favorite soap opera, One Life to Live, and it got me thinking about the recurring themes and conventions that drive the multiple story lines.

Some of these plot devices are so unrealistic and/or overused that they’d be unbelievable if used in a novel. But if the story line is engrossing enough, it’s possible to suspend disbelief.

Here are a few that come to mind about the denizens of Llanview, Pennsylvania:

  • People rarely phone ahead, preferring to drop in unannounced on the folks they want to talk to. Occasionally they knock, but they never wait for someone to open the door; they simply barge in.
  •  Invariably these visits interrupt something critically important: someone is about to confide a long suppressed secret or declare undying love, or a couple is discovered in bed, whether before, during or after sex. Sometimes the discovery results in a plot twist, but usually it’s just an excuse to extend the same theme for days, weeks or months without resolution.
  •  Comas and amnesia are amazingly common.
  •  People do a great deal of eavesdropping. This is a piece of cake, because the characters frequently deliver confidential tidbits in a normal tone of voice and in public places – bars, restaurants, hospital corridors, airports.
  •  People long thought to be dead come miraculously back to life. When a new actor is cast, the altered appearance is sometimes attributed to plastic surgery.
  •  Even when just getting out of bed, everyone is impeccably groomed, and like Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London, their hair is perfect.
  •  Men spend a lot of time parading around with their shirts off – at least the guys who have six-pack abs and obviously spend a lot of time at the gym. Their bodies are usually waxed and hairless. Those less fit or hairier have the good sense to keep their shirts on. Women stay relatively covered up, perhaps to avoid provoking jealousy in the primarily female audience.
  •  Men fall in love quickly and easily, are amazingly eager to get married and invest a great deal of emotional energy in fatherhood and questions of paternity. Currently, Brody Lovett (seen below) has kidnapped a baby that’s not even his, while John McBain (seen above), the true father, is in hot pursuit.
  •  People get married multiple times, often three or more times to the same person. But many wedding ceremonies are torpedoed by someone with a grudge to settle or a major plot twist to reveal just before the point of “I Do.”
  •  Many characters have high-level professions (mayor, newspaper editor/publisher, CEO of  a billion-dollar company) but are rarely or never seen at work. Police are an exception, since their work is more dramatic and impacts more directly on the unfolding plots. In addition to their primary professions, an amazing number own bars or restaurants, while those less fortunate wait tables or tend bar.
  •  The citizens of Llanview spend a great deal of time in said bars and restaurants, even in the middle of the day. Many secrets are spilled, and confrontations are frequent.

Speaking of bars and restaurants, it’s after five, and my interior clock tells me it’s time for a libation. No doubt I could come up with many more soap clichés – or perhaps you can add some of your own.

Sadly, ABC is canceling One Life to Live after a run of more than 40 years, and some of the featured actors have been around for almost that long. The network cites rising production costs, falling ratings, and changing viewers’ tastes as the reasons, and the last new show will be aired in January. OLTL’s hour slot will be filled by a show on health subjects, no doubt with a panel of obnoxiously cheery co-hosts along the lines of The View and The Chew, so I’ll be able to reclaim the hour that interrupts my creative flow just at my most productive time of day. (Yes, I could watch it at 9am or 9pm on the Soap Channel, but when there’s a real cliff hanger, I like to watch it ASAP.)

But all is not lost – a company by the name of Prospect Park plans to launch a new “Online Network” in January. They’ll feature all-new episodes, and reportedly many of the current actors have already signed contracts with them, including my favorite, Michael Easton, who plays John McBain.

By the way, my NaNoWriMo novel is coming along well. I’ve now passed the midpoint of 25,000 words, but I’m a couple of days behind. Stay tuned . . .

 

Keeping Up with National Novel Writing Month

This morning I rendezvoused with three other NaNoWriMo authors for an early lunch at Brueggers Bakery in Albany. They’re decades younger than me, and all three have completed the challenge of writing 50,000 words in one month several times already. But to my amazement, none of them are particularly concerned about getting published – the pleasure and challenge of writing are evidently enough for them, at least for now.

These young women reminded me of why I started writing fiction in the first place – not to become a published author, let alone a successful one, but because I had things to say that I simply had to get down on paper, even if no one else ever read them. If I recover some of that innocent enthusiasm this month, NaNoWriMo will have been well worth while. More than a third of the month is over, and I’ve turned out 18,000 words. That averages out to around 1,500 words a day and keeps me on track to finish on time, but just barely. The NaNo website features occasional pep talks by fellow writers. The first was from Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus, which is currently on the New York Times Best Seller List. She describes how the novel had its genesis during NaNoWriMo as a spin-off from the novel she’d set out to write. Water for Elephants also began as a NaNoWriMo project.

Maybe there’s truly some magic about circuses – they certainly spelled success for those two authors. Circuses don’t figure in my new novel, at least not yet, but who knows, maybe they will. Perhaps one of the elderly clients of Compassionate Care will be passionate about the circus, the way my father was; one of the greatest thrills of his life was riding atop an elephant down Wisconsin Avenue when Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey came to Milwaukee in the 1960’s. Not a bad obsession to help illuminate one of my characters, and the idea came to me just now.

I’m one of those writers whose ideas flow most freely and unexpectedly when I’m typing at my computer. I know I’m on the right track when my characters start saying and doing the unexpected, and when they pop unexpectedly into my head at all times of the day and night. But I don’t talk about them or about my evolving story line with other writers – I find that dissipates the energy. The sole exception is my husband, who comes up with brilliant plot ideas on the fly whenever we talk about my book.

So I’m drawing inspiration from two extremes on the continuum of the writing life. At one end are the ingénues, who write for the sheer pleasure of the process, and at the other extreme are those who’ve made it onto the best seller lists. For now, I’m happy to be somewhere in the middle.

I’m signing off for now, eager to get back to Paula and Claire at the Compassionate Care home care agency in the fictional town of Cooperskill in upstate New York. But I’ll post here again soon. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you!

NaNoWriMo Progress Report

Today’s my sixth day of National Novel Writing Month. I started out with a bang and churned out a lot of words on the first three days, then goofed off and fell behind. NaNo has a nifty bar graph that charts my progress, telling me exactly how many words I need to turn out per day to finish in time and how long it’ll take me at my present rate.

Today NaNo says I’ll finish on December 8th, so I’ve got to pick up the pace. This is about the point I copped out the last time I tried several years ago, but I’m determined to stay the course. Fortunately my husband is understanding and supportive – he’s entered NaNo too. Right now I’ve got about twice as many words as he does, but he started late, and I expect he’ll pass me before too long.

I’m all too easily distracted. It’s a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon, perfect for leaf raking and putting the garden to bed, but I don’t dare go outside until I’ve written at least a thousand words. From my office window I have a bird’s eye view of my next-door neighbor’s roof. Two men are laying down new roofing, and it’s a pleasure to watch them, especially the younger one who’s wearing a black tee shirt and jeans as he crawls around with amazing agility. I’m admiring his musculature while I study their technique.

He’s working incredibly fast, while the older guy mostly stands and watches, hitching up his pants every once in awhile. This side show would be all well and good except for the fact that he’s using an electric hammer which emits a steady rhythm of “ribbet, ribbet,” conjuring up images of frogs. I’m tempted to give the men a neighborly shout-out of encouragement, but that would destroy my voyeur status.

Everything’s grist for the mill. I won’t be able to use this scene just yet, because my novel takes place in January, but maybe my observations will come in handy for a future book, so it’s good to take notes. They’ll end up in my 50,000 word count, and so will my thoughts as I worked in the garden yesterday.

Picasso's Woman in Mirror

But there are some observations I can use immediately. Yesterday I went to a vegan restaurant in Troy in hopes of meeting some other NaNo writers who’d said they’d probably be there. I met only one, but I ended up in a long conversation with a non-Nano woman who was unusually talkative and forthcoming with personal information, like the details of her incontinence problems. Only after I showed her a copy of my book MOOD SWING: THE BIPOLAR MURDERS did she reveal that she was diagnosed bipolar. She said she’s doing fine without medication and by adhering to a strictly vegan diet. 

After I extricated myself from the conversation and left the restaurant, a light bulb flashed and I realized she’d make a perfect character for my book – maybe a ditzy secretary who drives the other staff crazy with her never ending self-referential chatter. I’ll transform her in most respects, of course – I don’t even how what she looks like yet – but I can envision her as a recurring character who adds some levity, like the grandmother in Janet Evanovich’s books.

Although I vowed not to get hung up on editing for this first draft, I find I can’t resist the urge to tinker with my words, at least a little. Yes, it slows me down, but I need to feel good about what I write. If I fall further behind, I’ll just have to put in more hours. And when I’m really feeling panicked, I can always paste in a short story I never published, but which I was planning to incorporate in this novel anyway.

Throughout the time I’ve been writing this post, those guys have been working nonstop on the roof. On this first day back on standard time, darkness will come all too quickly, but right now the sinking sun is throwing the young man’s face and arms into high relief. The pine trees framing the lake make a perfect backdrop, and on the opposite shore, there’s still lots of gold and red in the trees. All in all a beautiful sight.

So far, the biggest win for me in NaNoWriMo is the revelation that I can still write fiction, maybe at a higher level than I ever have before. In the year of depression from which I’m only now emerging, I’d seriously questioned whether I had another novel in me. Now I know I do.

*I found the cat photo above by Googling NaNoWriMo, and I don’t know what’s up with the spelling. But she does remind me somewhat of my tabby cat Lunesta, who is currently sitting atop the computer monitor batting intermittently at the screen. She’s still on daylight savings time, not having realized we’ve gone an hour backward, and thinks it’s time for her evening meal.

 

 

 

NaNoWriMo – can I write a novel during National Novel Writing Month?

This is the first sentence of my new 50,000 word novel. Yes, I’ve signed on for the exercise in masochism known as National Novel Writing Month. That big a word count averages out to 1,666 words a day, according to the site’s organizers, or about six and a half pages. That’s not an impossible goal on a good day, but I’ve never cranked out a novel that fast. Now that the race is on, my anxiety is already kicking in – I’m hyperventilating and my heart rate is rising.

NaNoWriMo (www.NaNo.WriMo.org) was launched in 1999, and it’s grown steadily since then. Last year 200,000 people participated, and of that number, 30,000 completed 50,000 words or more. Those who reach the finish line get some kind of sticker and certificate. There’s no fee to enter, and no one sees or reads the finished manuscript. When you reach 50,000 words, you upload your novel to their web site to verify the word count. If you’re paranoid, you can do a “save-as” and scramble the book a bit to insure that no one can steal your plot.

So why did I make the first line of this blog the novel’s first sentence? Because I plan to make my 50,000-word manuscript a form of performance art in order to beef up my word count and blend fact with fiction. I’ll alternate fictional scenes with stream-of-consciousness ramblings about my creative process, some of which will end up on this blog. Who knows, the process may open up new horizons for me as a writer.

I entered NaNoWriMo several years ago but dropped out after a week because the break-neck speed made me excruciatingly nervous. As a writer, I’m accustomed to taking my time, backtracking and editing as I go along. I agonize over the perfect words and phrases and make changes directly on the computer, so that before I print out the new pages, I’ve got a fairly coherent and engaging first draft, or so I hope.

With NaNoWriMo, there’s no time for that kind of lollygagging. As in a marathon, I need to sustain my pace. No time to fix typos or check for repetition, let alone worry about the finer points of spinning a compelling tale – there’s only time to spew, no time to analyze the vomitus.

Word’s spell-check just underlined vomitus with a red squiggle, telling me it’s not a legitimate word. Normally I’d take time to consult an online dictionary for fine-tuning, but not now – I have to meet my quota. But then what does this Microsoft program know? It doesn’t even recognize the word “blog.”  

No need to agonize in solitude – NaNo has lots of online forums where people can share the misery. You can find out who’s participating in your own geographical region and even meet them in person. In three hours I’ll be dining on free pizza, hobnobbing at East Line Books, an independent bookstore in Clifton Park, where the owner, Robyn Ringler, is throwing a NaNo kick-off party. Apparently some NaNo participants converge on local libraries and coffee shops to write together en masse, but I think I’ll pass on that – I’ve never done my best writing in a group setting.

You too can share in this November madness. There’s still time to sign up. I don’t see any entry deadline on the website, but of course every day you lose means more catching up in the remaining days. As the say on their home page, with a nod to Maurice Sendak, “let the wild rumpus begin!”

Anyone care to bet on whether and when I finish my 50,000 words? Give me your best guess, down to the date, hour and minute, and I’ll send the winner copies of my two mystery novels, MOOD SWING: THE BIPOLAR MURDERS and ELDERCIDE.

There, I’ve just written 647 words – over a third of today’s quota!