Tag Archives: national novel writing month

Post #29: Revising Blue Dot

Been spending my writing time the past two weeks beginning revisions on my new novel, Blue Dot, which I’ve been dubbing a horror/sci-fi mash-up.  For the uninitiated, I wrote the first draft of Blue Dot in a month during National Novel Writing Month, in which participants take on the challenge of producing a 50,000 word manuscript in 30 days.

Revising a novel is a daunting and exhilarating experience.  Exhilarating because it’s hard not to be thrilled by reading over a new creation, discovering some wondrous artifact that you recognize and yet, in mellowing, has taken on its own scent.  There’s an undeniable thrill in imagining that what you’ve created is fresh and bold and impossible to put down.  Daunting because, as Stephen King puts it, I’m still writing “with the door closed.”  No one but me has seen a word of Blue Dot and so, in spite of what I might think about it, and acknowledging that I’m the most biased person in the room and the least likely to know what’s truly wrong with it, its potential as shit that nobody has smelled yet, is very very high.

I envisioned a lean, fast paced novel (Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was very much on my mind) and the book is mostly supporting this vision as I go back through it.  More than ever before, I’m trying to stay out of the way of this one, to let it take whatever form it sees fit, rather than trying to impose my will on it or throttle it until it’s the best book I want it to be.  This was one of the unknown benefits of writing something so fast.  Its creation was so immediate, so dream like in pace that in many ways it feels like it wrote itself, like I was merely court reporter doing furious transcription.  The book wasn’t victim to my prodding literary whims or insecurity.  I didn’t have time to wonder whether it was any good or not, nor to worry about whether readers would like it, and in this, the novel, at least with the door still closed, feels liberated.  I’ve been cleaning up small matters, inconsistencies in voice and plot, reconciling some over-complications, and trying to make it cohere.

But a novel nobody’s read yet has two lives, and once you’ve given it to others and solicited their feedback, danger runs high.  Kill your darlings they say.  Then kill them again.

For now, I’m keeping the door closed  a little while longer. I’m looking forward to sharing it with some trusted friends soon, and then it’ll be time to sharpen my hatchet and be cold and exacting as I come to terms with all the holes I’ve left in the plot and the characters and begin trying to make the book whole, but for now the reverie of a book that’s still taking shape, becoming its own being with only me to water and nurture it, feels like watching wonderful flowers bloom in slow motion.

Advertisements

Post #21: Where My Boys At?

An aspect of my NANOWRIMO experience not yet chronicled here is the amazing group of students at the high school where I teach who also took on the 50,000.  A few reached their goal.  Many came along for the ride and produced a substantial amount of writing.  They thrilled and amazed me throughout the month, with their passion and zany enthusiasm, and pushed my own work to dizzying production heights.

Their awesomeness is without question.  I salute them.  Though I was struck during November and continue to be in reflection by the fact that there was not a single male among them.  One boy came to our first meeting, though never re-emerged.  A colleague of mine brought NANOWRIMO to her classroom in which there are guys, but as far as I could tell, no male students took the plunge independently.  And if they did, they weren’t coming to our meetings or must have escaped my notice.

I won’t pretend I was completely surprised.   And yet even that lack of surprise is surprising.  Why, I wonder, did it make so much sense to me that only girls would take such a thing on by choice?  Even among the four colleagues of mine who embarked on the journey, I was the only male.  Did it say anything about my own assumptions about gender, and if it did, did the evidence before me not bear it out in some revealing way?

The “I’m a writer!” pronouncement that comes with doing NANOWRIOMO is a bold one, nakedly artistic and daring, even if one has never written a word in her life up to then.  It’s the kind of gesture to which teenage males, in my experience, are particularly averse.   Once you claim to be doing something like Nanowriomo, you are branded in a way.  True, it’s not more of a brand than joining the soccer team or accepting a part in the musical, but a brand all the same.  And in a brand conscious culture, teenagers are the most impressionable of all.  And while the brand of “artist” in the world at large may be admirable in most circles, in high school, it’s not so clear cut.  By the way, this is not to imply that boys are not artistic or that they don’t write or don’t want to write.  I believe quite the opposite is true.  But how that urge gets expressed, and how public that expression is, well, that’s a different thing entirely.

I noticed something similiar last year when I was the coordinator for Poetry Out Loud, a recitation program in which students memorize, then master the reading of a poem.  Though our school champion, and the national champion, were male, only 18 of the 52 state champions in D.C. were male and of the ten students who participated in our own school competition only 2 or 3 (I can’t recall exactly) were male.

Admittedly, these are small data sets, but I’m done thinking any of this is a coincidence.

When it comes to the arts, are we encouraging boys the same way we’re encouraging girls?  Confidence is at play here, as is maturity–teenage girls have more of both–but so is the overall perception of the arts, which is largely a function of how the arts have been framed, or I might even say, “sold,” to the person in question.  Our culture sells.  Better than anything, it sells.  Am I selling my own sons soccer and trucks and guns more than I’m selling them writing and drawing and acting?  Are my neighbors?  My students’ parents?

What sorts of boys and girls does our culture nurture and create?  In a culture in which youth are being marketed to from the minute they get up in the morning until they sign off Facebook around two A.M. and come to school on five hours of sleep, they are being sold to.  Urged toward thoughts and positions and identities.  I think here of video games.  I think here of sports.  Girls play video games.  Girls play sports.  But when I consider how these things are presented in the culture, it’s hard not to see a male filter at work.  Can that filter be so strong?  So persuasive?

Post #17: Crawling Through the Nearest Window

Doing National Novel Writing Month is exhilarating.  I think this is mostly because I’ve never written, outside of education, for a capital “D” Deadline and the need to complete X quantity by Y date is a utilitarian sort of enterprise that’s added a different timbre to this writing experience than others whose end point hinges on a self-imposed deadline.

I’ve decided that NANOWRIMO is more about stamina than it is about creativity.  Not to shit on creativity.  Not at all.  But the truth is that the writers who have the best chance of starting and finishing a task like NANOWRIMO are those not necessarily with the keenest imaginations, but with the deepest well of endurance.  Those who can follow that sage piece of writing advice that I sometimes think is the only truly useful one: ass in chair.

Writing on a deadline makes you solve problems quickly.  My analogy is that when your story runs into a wall, find and crawl through the nearest window. Can’t find a window?  Tough.  Invent one.  I’m writing a sci-fi/horror mash-up because it sounded like a novel (pun so very much intended) change to my usual subject matter (realistic literary fiction) that would breathe enough fresh wind into my sails to make it to the finish line.  What I failed to realize is that genre writing is a lot harder than I thought it was.

Of course, all kinds of writing are difficult in their own way, but what I’m talking about is closer to the necessity in genre to respect the beginning-middle-end story structure.  I’m not writing a book about an existential crisis that doesn’t need to have an ending to be considered successful.  The plot is front and center this time out and the plot needs to, perhaps above all things, make sense to the reader.  And not sense as in “real,” but sense as in “consistent” and “logical.”  There’s a difference.

Consider The Catcher in the Rye.  In Salinger’s classic, one need not believe that the things that Holden does are the only things that could have happened.  For instance, after Holden’s conversation with the nuns in the diner, we don’t feel the need to make the meet-up logical or the basis to judge what happens next.  It may affect the next action, but it doesn’t have to.  Nor does the book have to really go anywhere, to end up someplace in order to be a great book, which is, of course, why it doesn’t.  For Christ’s Sake, the book’s final image is a kid on a merry go round!  In many ways this is exactly what makes a book like Catcher so great and so lasting–it prizes emotion and character above action.  And, quite frankly, character is more interesting.

But it all depends on how you look at it.  Seen through certain eyes, too large an emphasis on character could be a liability.  Most people I know who don’t like Catcher don’t like it because they don’t like Holden, not because “nothing happens.”   And if they don’t like it because nothing happens, well, they should probably put down Salinger and read Blue Dot, my NANOWRIMO book.  Because, let me tell you, all kinds of things are “happening” in my book.

But, of course, making things happen is its own kind of problem.  One problem being that the “happenings” have different rules in a plot driven piece than in a character driven piece.  Not dramatically different, but different all the same.  In genre, the cause and effect sequence needs to be cleaner, leaner, and ultimately, more satisfying to the reader.  After all, that’s what you’re selling them.  No one wants to buy tickets to the circus only to find, after the lights have dimmed and the curtains have closed, that they’re actually at an antique show.  It’s false advertising.  In filmic parlance, you might compare the ending of Die Hard to the ending of the last season of The Sopranos.  If Die Hard had ended with a long, slow fade out on the bloodied face of John Mclaine before his final show down with Hans and his reunion with his wife, and we were given no closure, no sense that the good guy had prevailed or that the estranged couple had re-united, myself, and a lot of other late 80’s Bruce Willis fans, would have wanted their money back.  The Sopranos could get away with such an ambiguous ending because the show was always more about Tony than it was about what Tony was doing.  Die Hard is about a guy too, but for that story to make sense to us, that guy needs to always be doing things that lead places.

I guess what I’m saying is that I choose a genre piece for NANOWRIMO because I thought it would liberating, and perhaps easier, to write.  But I’m realizing now this was a false assumption.  Genre isn’t harder, but it sure as hell isn’t much easier.  Which leads back to the earlier point that all kinds of writing are hard.

A problem for me is that I’m not used to writing plots that need to add up so neatly and my characters keep trying to stop my story and let themselves come front and center.  Part of me feels like they’re stalling because they don’t know what to do next.  I’m on track to finish my book on time, or at least get to 50,000 words on time, but right now the ending keeps getting further away.  And the further away it gets, the more I’m getting the feeling that Blue Dot may just be the world’s first alien invasion story that ends with a kid on a merry go round.

Post #12: I’m Starting a Novel on Tuesday

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, which I have officially committed myself to.  I mean, I opened an account on nanowrimo.org, so I’m pretty much locked in.

30 Days.  50,000 Words. (2 small children, 1 full time teaching job)

There’s over 200,000 other people trying to do this who can attest to the fact that I’m only partially crazy.

It’s a little daunting to know I’m going to be starting a novel on Tuesday.  Not Monday.  Tuesday.  In the past when I’ve written novels  (I’ve started over six and finished three, only one of which is any good), I’ve waited for inspiration to strike, and it’s known to come on any old day of the week, or just as often not come at all.  This time around, I guess I’m going to have to do the striking.

My biggest fear isn’t the word count.  My biggest fear is a disease well known to novelists the world over, and it goes by different names in different dens, but I like to think of it as “25,000 Word Disenchantment Syndrome.”  Side effects include disengagement, frustration, hair wringing, dark circles under eyes, bitterness, and sudden bouts of not finishing what you started.  50,000 words in a month I can do.  But can I do it if I decide half way through that what I’m working on is utter bollocks, the likes of which not only doesn’t deserve to see the light of day but doesn’t even deserve to be finished?  That remains to be seen.

I take no solace in the fact that Ray Bradbury claims to have written Fahrenheit 451 in less time.  And on a rented typewriter.  No solace at all.  Geniuses do things like that and later pretend like it was simple kismet.  Save it, Bradbury.  Save it!

No, I take solace in E.L. Doctorow, whose writing I don’t particularly love, though he said something sage once about writing a novel.  He said “it’s like driving a car at night.  You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Not Monday.  Tuesday.

Post #7: National Novel Writing Month

I’m considering trying out National Novel Writing Month in November.  The goal is to produce 50,000 words in a month.  Only about 15% of those who try finish.  I’m excited about it, but for reasons I can’t quite articulate, though they’ve already had me called a snob once (and counting), I’m dubious as well.   Part of me loves the challenge, wants to see what would come out on such a tight deadline.  And to see if I could finish.  Yet,  I can’t shake the thought that there’s something kind of South Beach Diet about all this too.  Try writing and you won’t believe the results!

Maybe I am a snob.

But then I take a step back and ask myself: what can be wrong with anything whose sole purpose for being is to put people’s asses in chairs writing a lot?

Myself answers: nothing, you idiot.

I kind of like what this guy has to say about it:  http://vimeo.com/7564037

Learn more at National Novel Writing Month’s Homebase: http://www.nanowrimo.org/