Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Day 30 : Finito!

Yes, it's true. Sometime around 3:00 this afternoon, I finished my So-Called Novel, which officially clocked in at 50,532 words. It turned out I'd written more than 6,000 words while stranded in Cleveland, so "all" I had to do today was type those wretched words and then paste on an even more wretched So-Called Ending.

Since I've been regaling you with Last Lines, here is the conclusion of my So-Called Novel:
Inf somoyimos, in hok fkoims, Iyoxi siw Hiqy is sho hif soon him yhiy finiy yimo iy Yiyboy Hiyy, yooking fown fkom yho fookwiy of his offico is sho yofy him.Somoyimos in hok fkoim, Hiqy himsoyf wis i hqbyishof iqyhok, his konownof biogkihhy of yho Kovokonf Siyis Hokkins ihhoiking on booksyoko shoyvos iyongsifo hok own: his wokk of ficy comhyomonying hok wokk of ficyion.

Bqy in hok hoiky, Iyoxi know yho ykqyh: hok novoy cimo cyosok yhin Hiqy’s biogkihhy ovok coqyf yo cihyqking yho ykqyh iboqy Siyis Hokkins inf yho hiinyof yifios of Winsyon, fok yhoik syoky wis ono yhiy onyy yho oyos of fiiyh coqyf hokykiy.
No, I didn't suddenly start speaking an imaginary language during this last day of NaNoWriMo. Instead, I took the precaution of encrypting my text before uploading it for verification. Since the online verification process counts words without "reading" the text, writers who are paranoid (or shy) about sharing their complete draft can submit an encrypted form. By doing a document-wide search and replace with different letters, I created a loosely coded version of my So-Called Novel so the number crunchers could count words without seeing how wretched the prose really is.

And ultimately, I think this conclusion looks much cooler in its encrypted form than it did in the wretched original. :-)

Now that another year of NaNoWriMo is over, I have two questions to face. First, what is an appropriate way to reward oneself for writing a wretchedly awful So-Called Novel in 30 days? Second, now that my writing muscle is in shape, what should I work on next (after resting, of course)? If you have suggestions on either count, post them as a comment. In the meantime, I have to rest my typing fingers...

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Day 29 : The hard way

Here's one lesson I learned this weekend the hard way: if you're going to travel by air during NaNoWriMo, be sure to bring your laptop in case you get stranded in Cleveland.

Although I'd planned to arrive home from Thanksgiving (and back to my own laptop) yesterday morning, instead I've spent the past day and a half in Cleveland, where my flight yesterday morning was cancelled due to heavy fog here in New Hampshire.

Never to be daunted by mere circumstances of time and space, I wrote on regardless, scribbling about 6,000 words (judging from the number of pages and the size of my handwriting) in a pocket notebook. So tomorrow's task is to type those scribbled lines and see how close to "The End" I've come...with the official NaNoWriMo deadline looming at midnight.

Anyone in the mood for a come-from-behind, down-to-the-wire finish? And anyone have any Lessons Learned the Hard Way to share with the rest of us?
Word count: 43,150 + approximately (?) 6,000

Last line: Alexa thought this nearly as sad as the state of modern colleges, which no longer were spaces apart from the world but instead hedonistic places to be fully, loudly, and materialistically submerged in it. (yes, I was feeling a bit curmudgeonly when I scribbled that line...)

Friday, November 25, 2005

Day 25: Steering the horse

Years ago a Zen Master I know used a curious metaphor to describe the antsy feeling Zen students often feel during the last days of a long retreat. "You can't steer a horse," he remarked, "that's headed back to the barn."

The metaphor is an apt one. In the final days (or hours) of a retreat, your mind is focused on what you want to do after the retreat. The freedom of "The End" is so vivid, you can nearly taste it. Like Elvis leaving the building, you can feel your spirit moving onto "what's next." Instead of relishing the last days or moments of the retreat at hand, your thoughts race ahead to the future: what will I do tomorrow, the next day, the day after that?

Writing the last ten thousand words of my So-Called Novel feels a bit like steering a horse that's headed back to the barn. My head is looking forward to the end of NaNoWriMo: my head is looking forward to the feedbag called "Anything Else But This." After working on my So-Called Novel for nearly a month, I don't feel any closer to understanding the story or its characters; instead, I'm feeling a bit bored trying to get "inside" their heads.

Knowing that "done" is only about 7,000 words away, my mind is starting to wander, making it more difficult to crank out words. Either I'm tired of this project, I'm tired from too much Thanksgiving feasting, or some combination of the two. Whereas last year I was giddily overjoyed to reach 50,000 words and "The End," this year I'm feeling like I'll merely mutter "Good riddance" when I reach the magic number.

Whereas writing the first half of a So-Called Novel is exciting--anything is possible, and setting out on wild and woolly tangents seems invigorating and adventurous--writing the second half feels more like work. Suddenly you're having to rein in that adventurous spirit as you try to figure out how to tie up those wild and woolly tangents. Whereas the first half of a So-Called Novel involves letting your horses run wild in a pasture, the second half means harnessing them up and bringing 'em back home.

Right now, this narrative horse feels sway-backed and tired...and I'm looking forward to heading her toward the barn where she can eat and rest up for a while.
Word-count: 43,150

Last line: Alexa wished Paul would come straight out
for once and say what he meant rather than talking in circuitous riddles.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Day 23: Denouement

Although I still have eight thousand words to go before I hit the end of my So-Called Novel, I've been thinking a lot about literary endings. Even after nearly a month and over 40,000 words worth of writing, I still don't know where my story is I'm understandably wondering how I'm going to tie everything up.

As a literary scholar, I'm in the business of tracing narrative arcs. When lit critics talk about the classics, we make it sound as if their authors intended every single detail and nuance. "By placing the moral climax of Huckleberry Finn more than fifty pages before the novel's actual end, Twain suggests the difficulty of reintegration after spiritual awakening," blah blah blah. It's easy to notice and comment upon narrative patterns after a writer has made them...but how many of these patterns were premeditated and how many were cobbled together after-the-fact?

I've actually been thinking a lot about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn these days. Now, I know Mark Twain...and I am no Mark Twain. Still, I've been deriving an odd amount of comfort from the fact that Twain took eight years to write Huck Finn in dribs and drabs, spending large chunks of time away from the manuscript and at one time threatening to burn it, its composition troubled him so.

From what I understand of Twain's life and writing habits, Huck Finn started easily enough, but it presented various narrative challenges along the way. If Twain wanted to grapple with the delicate subject of slavery, how should he balance that weighty issue with the playful boyhood pranks that readers loved in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? And if Twain wanted to write the sort of colorful anecdotes his years as a Mississippi riverboat pilot had so amply blessed him with, how could he get around the fact that Jim's flight from slavery should have pointed him up rather than down the Big Muddy?

Although Huck Finn is a classic, it isn't flawless. As a lit scholar, I've always seen the text's seams: the places where Twain stitched together a slapdash "fix" to his narrative problems. At the very point when Huck and Jim should turn around and head north on the Mississippi, their raft gets "hijacked" by two characters--the King and the Duke--who otherwise don't belong in the story, thereby giving Twain an excuse to keep the raft floating south. And in an ending that causes lit critics to call out interpretive fightin' words, Twain chose to bring Huck's otherwise subversive story back to a conventional ending that nicely ties up some otherwise unruly loose ends. After a moral climax where Huck in effect tells society to go to Hell, in the end Huck returns to that same society...and seems to backpedal on some of his most profound moral insights.

As a lit scholar, I can explain away these flaws by making vague conclusions about Twain's "intent." As a writer of a So-Called Novel, though, I understand exactly what Twain must have felt six or seven years into the composition of a Book That Wouldn't Die. At a certain point, you realize that the story you originally envisioned is All But Unwritable, having wriggled into innumerable sub-plots and narrative complications. At a certain point, you decide to cut your losses, kill off (if necessary) a character and/or subplot or two, and make a mad dash toward "The End."

Someday, perhaps, lit scholars will peruse your tome and ponder its denouement. But those of us who write know the truth: after growing sick of writing the damn thing, you just wanted to end it, somehow. And if that takes an invading spaceship of death-ray wielding aliens to arrive and vaporize all your main characters, so be it. As an action hero might say, "Bring it on!" Or as Huck Finn himself said, "if I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it."

So what drastic measures have you pondered (or actually deployed) to end a Never-Ending Narrative? Do you feel cheated when a book you're reading ends abruptly, its characters suddenly dying, acting entirely out-of-character, or being abducted by death-ray wielding aliens? Or are you willing to cut an otherwise likeable author some slack if she or he pulls off a deus ex machina ending?
Word count: 42,044

Last line: And with a significant glance, Alexa knew
exactly what she and Paul would next explore: the attic of her own

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Days 21 & 22 : The Push

Between yesterday and today, I've written over 6,000 words on my So-Called Novel. I've been pushing toward 40,000 not because I'm feeling enamored with my story, characters, or anything else; instead, I've pushed toward 40K because I have my eyes on 50,000 words and the end of this present experiment.

During last year's NaNoWriMo experience, I went through the usual emotional highs and lows, at points loving, loathing, or surrendering all hope for my story. This year, I haven't had that same roller-coaster experience. Instead, I've just kept writing regardless of whether I "liked" or "understood" my story and its characters. It's almost as if this year I realized you don't have to like much less love your story; instead, you just have to sit there and crank out words.

Last year, I nearly had a nervous breakdown around the 40K mark, experiencing the Slough of Despond around 43K and a nearly crippling case of the 50,000-word giggles around 46K. Last year, I worried I'd run out of ideas and wouldn't be able to finish; this year, my So-Called Novel has too many ideas, and I'm wondering how I'll tie everything together in "only" another 10,000 words. I guess after having written a So-Called Novel last year, this year I know I'll finish...I just wonder how (and how badly).

I long ago gave up hope that what I'm writing is actually a novel; instead, I've begun thinking of it as "notes toward a novel": not an actual readable narrative, but the stops and (false) starts of a true work in progress. This being said, this year's So-Called Novel bears a closer resemblance to a "real" narrative than last year's did...but in the end, I'll still end up with a roughly 50,000-word document that in its present form will never be read by anyone other than me.

Will I ever return to revise this present work? Maybe...who knows...perhaps. Last year I told myself I'd revisit my first So-Called Novel when the time felt right, and as I've been working on this year's Narrative Mess, I keep feeling the urge to revisit and potentially revise last year's attempt. Part of me worries that this eagerness to revisit last year's So-Called Novel indicates how disengaged I am with this year's: part of me actually worries that I haven't had an emotional temper tantrum over this year's story, the fact that I've never wasted any energy on hating it suggesting that there might not be enough "pizzazz" there to engage a reader. As I tell my students, if you're bored with what you're writing, your reader will be twice as bored...and I'm wondering if I've grown too bored with this year's attempt at NaNo'ing.

But whether I love, hate, or am indifferent toward it, this year's So-Called Novel is rapidly nearing The End...and ironically enough, I think part of me is a little sad about that. Although I have no desire (for now) to spend another month with this story, I find myself wishing the thing had put up more of a fight instead of placidly allowing itself to be written in relatively pain-free thousand-word chunks. If nothing else, writing a novel day by day by setting a timer, writing, and then clicking "Save" when the timer buzzes doesn't sound very exciting, and maybe that's what I wanted most out of NaNoWriMo: at least a good horror story or two about the actual writing, a kind of war story to share with other writers around the proverbial campfire.

Before I give up all hope, though, I should remind myself: a lot of emotional turmoil can happen between 40,000 and 50,000 words, so I shouldn't either congratulate nor commiserate with myself too soon.

So, which do you think is worse: hating a project you're working on, or feeling mildly indifferent toward it? What tricks or techniques do you have for dealing with either scenario?

Word-count: 40,886

Last line: Somehow it gave Alexa pleasure to know that Perkins was a fraud and to know that she and her dreams had ferreted out that fact before Paul could discover it in his old and musty books.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Days 18 - 20 : Time off

Yes, it's true. I haven't posted here since Thursday because I took a long weekend off from NaNoWriMo. Although I haven't yet reached the point of being sick and tired of my So-Called Novel, I thought taking some time off might be a refreshing change. Since beginning to write on November 1st, I hadn't missed a day, writing at least 1,000 words (and at my most regular pace, at least 2,000 words) every day. After not taking any days off for whatever reason--work, health, play--I thought I deserved a weekend off. And what better time, I thought, to take a break than during a time when I wasn't sick of the project, during a time when I knew I could easily at any time pick it back up and make up for lost time.

So now it's Monday morning. The last time I set finger to key was last Wednesday, when I stopped at 32,312 words: well ahead of schedule. Now it's Day 21, and I should be at 35,0007 words...and after a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal mixed with thawed frozen blueberries (thank you, modern grocery miracles), I spent 40 minutes to break 34,000. That means I'm still a bit behind schedule...but I won't be later today. And having taken an entire long weekend away from my So-Called Novel--time when I refused to think about how I "should be" working on it--I'm looking forward to making some good, quick progress today. "Okay, typing fingers. Let's get down to work."

What's your favorite way to take Time Off from a writing project? Are you ever able to forget your work, or do you carry it around like an albatross around your neck?

Word count: 34,057

Last line: But Alexa did know with certainty that Paul would never know her dreams, resolving to record them with care into that small, well-hidden notebook while he still slept, oblivious, in a bed barely big enough to shelter them both.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Day 17: Resting

It's been a tiring day (and, in retrospect, a tiring week), so I'm taking the night off from writing. One reason I've been trying to push a consistent word-count over the past week or so is I knew I'd want to take an occasional day off, so today I'm cashing in one of my "gimme a break" cards. So today's word-count and last line reflect what I wrote last night, not today.

When and how often do you need to take breaks from your writing? And how can you tell the difference from "real" weariness and mere avoidance?
Word count: 32,312

Last line: Love was a deep pool Alexa didn't want to wade into, for she knew its waters were deeper and murkier--and its floor more slippery and downward-leaning--than anything she felt prepared to face.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Day 16: It was a dark and stormy night...

No, I'm not planning on using Bulwer-Lytton's infamous first line in my NaNoWriMo novel. It really is a dark and stormy night--or more accurately, a dark and rainy night--and I'm sitting on my couch listening to the sound of raindrops on windows.

I seem to have gotten in the habit of writing most of my So-Called Novel here on my couch. For the first couple of days, I wrote on my laptop in bed; these days, though, my wifi signal has been weak, so the couch is the best place in the apartment for networking. And since I tend to multitask, working on the So-Called Novel in roughly thousand-word chunks in between other laptop-centered activities, I've been spending a lot of time on my couch.

It's funny how certain places in my apartment become associated with certain sorts of tasks. I often grade papers in a green easy chair in my office, and I wrote huge portions of my doctoral dissertation on my laptop in bed. I seem to recall writing portions of last year's So-Called Novel in various locations around Keene...but this year's attempt has been a largely indoor pursuit, not transpiring far from my couch.

At one point earlier this month, I tried to work on the So-Called Novel in my office, and it didn't feel right: that green easy chair felt too casual for NaNo'ing, and my actual desk felt too formal. Just like the littlest bear's bed, chair, and bowl of porridge, my couch feels just right. So while I continue to listen to the sound of raindrops on windows, before I grade another batch of student papers and then stumble off to bed, I think I'll pound out another 1,000 words before calling it a night. What better way to spend a dark and stormy night?

So, where do work best? Do you have certain places in your home that provide a good writing environment, or do you prefer to take your writing show on the road?
Word count: 31,485

Last line: Like Alice in Wonderland, Alexa found that things in this present adventure kept getting curiouser and curiouser.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Day 15: Cranky, and cranking

Today marks the beginning of Week 3 of NaNoWriMo's month-long challenge: the official halfway point. Since I reached 25,000 words this weekend, I'm slightly ahead of the game in terms of word-count; still, I'm trying to leverage that momentum so I begin the week of Thanksgiving nicely ahead of the game.

And then there was today.

Today was an average Tuesday, which means it was a full teaching day. On Tuesdays I get up early, and although I have an afternoon break between classes, I'm usually too tired then to be very productive. And today was more tiring than usual, one of those days that makes you want to go home afterward and not do much of anything.

I'm finding, though, that even when I'm tired and cranky, I can still crank out words on the novel, this afternoon adding yet another sex scene (ahem) and just now an imminent chase where Campus Security comes to sniff out the secret hiding place where Paul and Alexa have been engaging in their, uh, extracurricular activities.

In other words, there's nothing like a sordid plot twist to make your own day seem not so bad by comparison. You think you've had a bad day? Imagine trying to seek tenure at a college where you're standing naked in a towel, about to get busted for having sex with a grad student in a bathroom. (Can you say, "Career suicide"?)

All in all, I wrote only about 1,500 words today: I would have liked to have written 2,000, enough to break 30K. But damn, this latest plot predicament is making me giggle, and I guess that's a precious commodity on an otherwise tiring Tuesday.

So, what kinds of things do you like to write when you're tired or cranky? Does writing make a difference in your mood, or do your moods get in the way of your writing?
Word count: 29,579

Last line: Alexa nodded, and Paul stepped toward the door, quietly turning the knob as he beckoned with one finger for her to follow.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Day 14: No hindrance

Now that I've reached the halfway point with the So-Called Novel, things are becoming a lot more fun. Although I can't say I love the story I'm writing, I'm loving writing the story. Now that I've learned I can generate words regardless of whether I "feel like it," I'm settling into the freedom of just writing. It's becoming a comfortable routine: set the timer for 40 minutes, start typing, then stop approximately 1,000 words or 40 minutes later, whichever comes first.

Today I had no real word-count goal: after reaching 25,000 words yesterday, I'm ahead of schedule. So since I didn't "have to" write today, I ended up writing 3,000 words almost effortlessly: the first 1,000 in a single 40-minute session this morning, then the next 2,000 in two "writing breaks" while grading student papers.

It's funny how lifting the burden of "having to write" creates an open space where you simply can and enjoy writing. It's as if I'm discovering writer's block is a purely emotional obstacle, and when I switch from obligation to opportunity--from "I have to write 2,000 words today" to "Today I can write 2,000 words"--a magic lever is thrown, turning a block into bliss.

I'm well aware that writing moods come and go: the words that flow easily today might freeze up tomorrow. I guess that's why I chose to ride today's surging word-count while I could, for I never know when the well will run dry.

So, when do you find the words flow the most easily for you? Have you ever experienced a "zone" where your words seemingly wrote themselves? To what do you attribute such magic?
Word count: 28,040

Last line: Paul and Alexa passed a long and memorable night in the secluded attic of Talbot Hall, with Alexa forgetting entirely whatever it was she had come there to discuss with him.

(and No, you can't read the scorching sex scene that precedes today's closing line!)

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Day 13: Halfway home!

Today I had a pure and simple goal for my So-Called Novel: I wanted to reach the halfway point toward my 50,000-word NaNoWriMo goal.

Now that I have almost two weeks of daily novel-writing--and a "half-baked" novel draft--under my belt, I feel like I've learned, gained, or remembered a handful of important things:
  • This is a "zero draft." It's not going to read like a "real" (i.e. final draft) novel.
  • Cranking out 1,000 words doesn't take that much time: less than 40 minutes if I type continuously without stopping to edit.
  • If I don't worry about plot, my characters will find things to do with themselves: I just have to sit back and write it.
  • Although in retrospect I think trying to write a mystery without having a clearer sense of the plot, clues, etc. was a bad choice, I can still crank out word-count (and throw in some surprising plot twists) if I just let my typing fingers do the talking.
  • All factual errors, plot glitches, and narrative contradictions can be fixed later if I decide to revise this story.
The biggest thing I've learned from this second year of NaNoWriMo insanity is the fact that a month is far too short a time to decide whether what you've written is "good" or "bad," so that's why you should NEVER delete what you've written: just keep writing and worry about fixing it later. Only now--an entire year later--am I realizing that what I wrote last November wasn't all that bad...especially compared to what I'm writing this year.

They say the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence...and I'd add that Crappy Prose doesn't stink nearly as horrifically after you've let it ripen in the compost pile for, oh, about a year. That doesn't mean that I'm ready to publish last year's So-Called Novel as-it...but it does mean that I'm actually looking forward to going back to revise it now that the pain of writing it has passed. And perhaps this is the best way to "use" NaNoWriMo: as a way of generating a new So-Called Novel draft so you'll be really ready to revisit what you cranked out last year.

For now, though, I'm stuck with this year's So-Called Novel. And now that I've crested the halfway point, I'm hoping it's a downhill coast from here.
Word count: 25,041 (halfway = woo-hoo!)

Last line: More than finding Paul himself, Alexa wanted to find what he'd hidden from her: not exactly his heart, but the mysterious contents of those pilfered manuscript pages.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Day 12: Plot vs. character

As I've mentioned before, I began this year's round of NaNoWriMo with a basic premise: not exactly a plot, but an image of a painted woman looking out an attic window, like this picture I blogged back in March.

For last year's So-Called Novel, I didn't have a central image or idea; instead, I wrote a collection of short stories, each taken from a picture, name, or story I gleaned from the newspaper. Since I could start over with new characters and a new story with every chapter, last year's So-Called Novel was largely character-driven. If I went to the drugstore and was waited upon by an intriguing clerk, she'd become the basis of a character in the next story. If the guy behind me in the supermarket checkout line seemed interesting, I'd borrow something he said into his cell phone for a bit of improvised dialogue.

This year, though, I've been trying (slavishly, at times) to stick to the basic premise I began with: there's this creepy old painting and some mysterious unopened letters that lead a character called Alexa to start snooping through her town to figure out their story. The problem is, though, I'm not sure what the rest of the story is. I know Alexa is trying to sniff down a mystery, but I don't know what it is that she's supposed to find, nor do I know exactly how she's supposed to find it.

In a word, I've created an almost impossible situation for myself: I'm basically writing a mystery in which there is no crime, no culprit, and no clues. And with each step of the way, I'm wondering where the next step is leading and wondering why there isn't a logical "thread" connecting one element of the story to the next.

I've always mantained that NaNoWriMo is a great way to learn about yourself as a writer, and one thing is becoming clear to me: I don't seem to be a plot-driven writer. Some folks, I gather, start with a story idea (or just the "seed" of a narrative) and then flesh that out on paper; I, on the other hand, seem to be beholden to characters, not narrative.

So far, I seem to be holding myself back from "really" getting to know my characters...or so it feels. It feels as if I'm holding myself back waiting for the plot to take off, take shape, or take something that would make it both easier to write and easier to read: here's the storyline (A, B, C) that makes all the random bits fall into place. But now that I'm creeping up on the halfway point of my So-Called Novel, I'm beginning to wonder whether the plot I'd envisioned is going to show up: I'm nearly at the halfway point, after all, and the Painted Lady of the work's title has been mentioned only once. What the heck is up with that?

Wherever my So-Called Novel's plot (or lack thereof) is or isn't going, it occurred to me yesterday that I should let myself go with my characters, letting them lead me wherever they'd like, even if that has nothing to do with the plot I'd envisioned. If this indeed is a "zero draft" that I'm writing (and all things point to yes, it is), then I needn't worry now if I've left the right clues in the right places to set the scene for what I think might happen later. Instead of holding back in deference to some loosely scribbled, barely thought-out chapter outline, I should sit back and let Alexa do the talking.

And as luck would have it, as soon as I shut up and let Alexa do her thing, she suddenly stopped being a stiff and boring college prof, finding herself instead in bed with "Paul," that Mysterious Library Guy she met back on Day 7 after I decided she needed to get out of the house more. I don't know what bedding a random grad student has to do with the plot I'd originally envisioned...but as I learned last year, the word-count flows fast and furious as soon as I let my imagination wander into the realm of naked, quivering flesh. Maybe next year I should let myself really go and write a romance novel?

So, what sort of writer are you? Are you driven by plot, character, setting, or some other literary device? Do you need to have a full-fledged story from the start, or do you prefer for your characters to show you where your narrative is headed?
Word-count: 20,027

Last line: In her dream, Alexa called for a dog who never came, except instead of calling for Patches, she called for Paul over and again while copper leaves fell around her.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Day 11: Endless cravings

Okay, let's get down to the real nitty-gritty about this whole NaNoWriMo business. What kind of junk food (and how much) does it really take to crank out a novel?

When I started NaNo'ing on November 1st, I had an absurd supply of leftover Halloween candy: candy that I had bought and then failed to hand out because I (stupidly) forgot to turn on my porch light on Halloween night. So since no Trick-or-Treaters thought I was home, none ventured up the steps to my underlit, apparently creepy house.

For me to have conveniently packaged bits of candy lying about the house when I'm writing is a bad idea. I'm not one of those people who can ration my treats: I'm one of those people who will snack incessantly until every morsel of food is gone. So yes, I've already managed to eat my way through that absurd supply of leftover Halloween candy, finishing the last of it yesterday while I was home sick. That means today I'm left to NaNo in a depressingly snack-free household, and I'm still too tired/sick/lazy (you chose the adjective) to go to the grocery store.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not starving here. I have enough food to survive until I go grocery shopping sometime over the weekend. What I'm lacking, though, are munchies. I've no cookies, no crackers, no chips, no pretzels. I have a bar and a half of Burdick's dark chocolate for true emergencies...but gourmet chocolate is meant to be savored, not inhaled by the fistful. What I'm currently craving isn't good, fine chocolate: what I'm currently craving is Distraction Food, a sub-category of Comfort Food that you can eat by the bag- or bushel-full and then feel really, really bad afterward. It's this Really Bad Feeling that's the goal, believe it or not, because such food-inspired discomfort subsequently distracts you from the wretched pile of prose you're cranking out under its influence.

So, while I just passed (somewhat begrudingly) the word-count I "should" have reached yesterday, my mind now is fixating on the various sorts of Bad-For-Me foods that my Inner Glutton somehow thinks will make the writing go Faster and Easier. Between you and me, I know that gorging on snack food is not a good recipe for writerly success...and it surely isn't good for my waistline. But right now, my Inner Glutton isn't listening to reason, and instead she's chanting a litany of crisp and salty delights: Pringles and Doritos and Cheez-Its, oh my!

Instead of dashing out to buy the sort of junk food delights I would have gorged upon during my carefree undergrad days when everything would have been washed down by the neon-glow of buckets of Mountain Dew, I think I'll pop a bag of Smart Balance low fat, low sodium microwave popcorn; pour myself a tall glass of sparkling water; and KEEP WRITING. Sure, the life of a 30-something health-conscious So-Called Novelist isn't much fun compared to my junk food-inhaling days, but I hate to contemplate what my backside would look like, come December, if I were to continue my early November diet of All Halloween Candy, All The Time. Yes, I plan to be in this Life game for the long haul, even past I guess that means being smarter with my writing distractions.

So, what sorts of bad-for-you foods (or bad-for-you habits) do you indulge in when you write, and what (if any) concessions to Good Health have you made to curb your cravings?
Word-count: 16,981

Last line: Whoever this Paul character was, Alexa decided, her spending time with him was an exceedingly bad idea.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Day 10: Beware the unexpected

As if awaiting the onset of NaNoWriMo-inspired Nausea weren't bad enough, this morning I woke at a woefully early hour with flu-like symptoms: chills, wooziness, and an overall "weak as water" feeling.

So instead of trudging off to school, I cancelled classes then hunkered down in bed, where I've been intermittently napping, sipping tea, and otherwise being Unproductive all day. (It's nearly 3:30 in the afternoon, and I've just now changed out of pajamas and made the lengthy commute from bed to couch: so, how's your day?)

Since I'm sick, I've officially given myself the day off from NaNo'ing...but since I don't have a TV in my bedroom (or a working TV anywhere in my apartment, come to think of it, only DVDs), I did a little bit of writing on my laptop in bed before calling it a day. Maybe if I'm bored later, I'll write some more, but I'm not counting (words or otherwise) on it.

As much as I've written here about daily word counts and goals, part of the reason I'm such a stickler for such details is I know nothing in life is more predictable than The Unexpected. Right when you think you have your life Planned and Ordered, something unforeseen happens to throw everything off. If you've approached your writing or other High Priorities with an attitude of "I'll get to them when the time is right, eventually," these tasks will be the first ones thrown out the window when Real Life Chaos descends.

I don't keep (or try to keep, mostly) a routine writing habit because life is predictable. I keep (or try to keep, mostly) a routine writing habit because life is anything but predictable. Since I've been making decent progress with NaNo so far, I'm not wildly freaked about missing a day or two due to sickness. And since I'm not wildly freaked, just quintessentially flu-like, today there was nothing standing in the way of me making some (if not great) progress.

Life's unpredictable, so sometimes you have to adjust your goals. But having goals to keep you on track on the days when life is predictably mundane is what gives you the gumption to weather The Unexpected. Or so I keep telling myself...

So, what Unexpected obstacles have appeared on your branch of the journey, and how have you responded to the Universe's "reminders" of its unpredictability?
Word count: 16,428

Last line: "It's not his duplicity over his lover that is the biggest find," he explained. "It's the secret they shared between them."

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Day 9: Momentum

After yesterday's sludginess, today I wanted to make at least some forward motion with the So-Called Novel. On the one hand, I've been trying to stay in the general ballpark of writing approximately 1,667 words a day: the magic daily number for a slow & steady approach to NaNoWriMo's month-end goal of 50,000 words. At the same time, though, I've given myself permission to fall slightly behind during the work week (as I did last week) as long as I make a little bit of progress every day and use my weekends for catch-up.

That being said, though, I felt after yesterday's sludginess that it was important for morale's sake not to fall behind too much this week. Week 2 is the Heartbreak Hill of NaNo's month long challenge. After grooving on the adrenaline and "anything's possible" hoopla of Week 1, Week 2 is when reality sets in.

November is a long month if you try to get through it on pure adrenaline. The plot problems that felt like speed-bumps last week are starting to loom like mountains. Now that you've told everyone that you're writing a novel--Really!--during the month of November, during Week 2 the reality sets in. Writing a novel isn't as fun (at least not always) as it's made out to be. The prose that was slightly smelly last week is starting to reek to the heavens. "Anything is possible" is starting to turn into "This is crap, and nothing like a REAL novel." In other words, Week 2 is when it takes a huge amount of courage not only to make progress, but sometimes even to look at the damn thing.

Although I haven't reached full-blown Nausea yet, I'm fully, utterly aware now (as if I wasn't before) that what I'm writing is what I sometimes call a "zero draft." That isn't to say it's entirely worthless: at some later point, I'll probably reread this draft and find some salvageable bits. But right now, this isn't even a rough draft yet; instead, it's a "zero draft," a step or two before rough draft # 1. Rough drafts, after all, have beginnings, middles, and end, and right now it feels like my story is all over the place, with false starts and stops and a multitude of plot goofs I'll have to go back and fix if I ever want to share this with another soul.

But luckily, none of that matters right now. All writers have to produce "zero drafts" before they get to "done," even if they don't admit it in so many words. There's no narrative flaw so great that it can't be fixed or fudged, and that hard work comes later. Right now, it's all about momentum as I keep writing my way up and over Heartbreak Hill, and today's been a good day: 2,000 more words towards a cumulative total that's right about where it should be. In the world of NaNoWriMo, having enough momentum to make one's current word goal is all you need for bliss.

So, what do you do to boost morale and increase momentum after you've "hit the wall" of your own Heartbreak Hill? How do you know when you need to take a breather, and how do you know when you need to press on regardless?
Word-count: 15,120

Last line: Paul gestured toward the left edge of each of the loose manuscript pages, and Alexa noted that they each were edged by a thin jagged cut, as if they'd been sliced with a knife from a packet of pages.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Day 8: Sludge!

Today marks the beginning of Week 2 in this year's NaNoWriMo journey: the week that many veterans claim is the most difficult. I don't know about that...but I do know that this afternoon's stint of writing felt like trying to run in sludge.

In retrospect, I should have known better than to try to write this afternoon. Afternoons are typically a low-energy point for me, particularly on days (like today) when I wake up early to teach. This morning I got up around 5 am to prep for my 8 am by the time I sat down to write around 3 pm, I was dead tired and word-weary.

This sleepiness showed in my prose, which flowed as slow as cold molasses. Alexa has met Mystery Library Guy...but when I tried to write their first encounter this afternoon, I couldn't think of a name for him (calling him, naturally, "the nameless man" throughout the scene), and his dialogue with Alexa was woefully stilted. Given that I still haven't gotten "into" either of these characters yet--I still haven't figured out what makes either of them "tick," much less how they'll act and get along together--generating even a couple hundred words felt like pushing a boulder uphill.

So, I did what any sane writer would do: I took a nap, went to teach tonight's class, and then just now pounded out another several hundred words toward today's goal. I'm still not sure what's going to happen between Alexa and Paul (yes, Mystery Library Guy now has a name), but at least they're out of the scene where they were stuck earlier, thanks to my use of a miracle transition device: the start of Chapter 3, which begins with the phrase "Two weeks later..."

So, when do you find your writing to be the "sludgiest"? Are there particular times of day when you're not at your writing best, or are you sensitive to environmental factors like noise, non-ergonomic workspaces, or other externals?
Word-count: 13,366

Last line: "But my office is quiet and incredibly secluded: nobody wants to visit an overworked graduate student in a cramped, presumably haunted attic office."

Monday, November 07, 2005

Day 7: Desperately seeking someone

After officially catching up with word-count last night (woo-hoo!), today I had a thorny question in mind as I pounded out my daily dose of a thousand or so words: Where in the heck is this story going, and why doesn't my protagonist get out and mingle more?

Last year's So Called Novel was an assortment of loosely connected short stories set in a small town not unlike my own. This year's So Called Novel is my attempt to have an actual story line: a novel-length plot with a beginning, middle, and end.

But whereas last year's short story format allowed me to experiment with lots of different characters, dialogue among those characters, and more sex scenes than I care to admit (with sex scenes, I discovered, being an easy way to crank out lots of wretched but perfectly word-countable prose), the protagonist of this year's novel Doesn't Play Well With Others. It's not that she's unpleasant or antisocial...she just spends far too much time inside her house thinking.

By the 10,000 word mark, Alexa had interacted with exactly three people--her upstairs tenant, a fireman who came in the first chapter to evacuate her from her flooded house, and an across the street neighbor who showed up (thankfully!) out of the blue to share some tea and conversation. Apart from that entirely un-planned dialogue between Alexa and her across-the-street neighbor, which I wrote as a "fudge" because I didn't know what came next in the story and thus conveniently "allowed" Alexa's doorbell to ring as a stalling manuever, Alexa has spoken approximately two sentences in the course of the novel: approximately one to her upstairs tenant, and approximately one to that fireman.

So, today I sat down with a purpose: Alexa needs to get out of her house, and she needs to meet someone. Although I'm not sure how a love interest--or a failed love interest, or a possible-but-unrequited love interest, or a possible-love-interest who turns into a psycho-stalker--fits into the larger framework of my envisioned story line, I can't go on much longer having Alexa stay at home and read. So right now, in the middle of chapter two, Alexa's walked to the public library, where we both (she and I) are about to meet a Mysterious Stranger who doesn't yet have a name, much less an established role in the story.

So, what's your experience with fictional characters? At what point of your writing process (if ever) do they take on personalities of their own? And what sort of "scenes" do you find the easiest to write for your characters: dialogue? sex scenes? knock-down, drag-out fight scenes?
Word-count: 11,130

Last line: Walking into her usual reading room, where two long wooden tables with goose-necked reading lamps were circled by a handful of comfortable upholstered chairs, each pointed toward a window overlooking one of Winston's most picturesque residential streets, Alexa had nearly settled into her accustomed place at one of the tables when she saw she wasn't alone, a lone brown-haired man in khakis and a black turtleneck sitting with a stack of books at the next table.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Day 6 : Daily goals

One secret to successful NaNo'ing, I think, is to pace yourself. Although there's a temptation to treat this "novel in a month" insanity as some sort of sprint, the human body can't go full-out for 30 days (at least mine can't!) So a lot of people who get a quick start out of the NaNo gate, it seems, struggle with later segments of the race. When you consider that NaNo is a month-long endeavor, crossing the word-count finish line is more like running a marathon than doing a sprint.

November 1st was Tuesday: a teaching day for me. On November 2nd, I co-led my first coaching tele-group (interestingly enough, on how to make progress with daunting writing projects), so I didn't do much NaNo'ing that day. By Thursday the 3rd I was tired from a busy teaching week: this past week was the first week of the semester for SNHU Online, where I had two new classes starting. And on Friday the 4th, I was preoccupied with grading-catchup (a seemingly perpetual task), so NaNo wasn't a high priority then, either.

I mention all of this not by way of excuse, but as an observation. Yesterday I sat down and looked at my NaNoWriMo numbers. From Tuesday through Friday, I managed to write just over 1,000 a day: progress, but slow progress. If you divide 50,000 words by 30 days, you need to write approximately 1,667 words a day, every day, to reach your novel-in-a-month challenge.

But. Most of us don't write the same way every day. We each have our own writing styles, and we each have things apart from our writing that make some days better writing days than others. Last year, for instance, I tried to write 2,000 words a day so I could take an occasional day or weekend off, and frankly most days I didn't meet my own guidelines. But by the end of the month, I had enough uumph to produce those last 10,000 words or so when I needed them, so all's well that ends well.

This weekend's goal was (and is) to catch back up to where I "should" be with that rough, 1,667-word-a-day guideline. On Friday, I'd reached the 4,000 mark, so I figured if I wrote 3,000 words on Saturday and another 3,000 words on Sunday, I'd have met my "more or less" target of 10,000 words by November 6th.

And so yesterday was a good day: I wrote a total of 3,000 words in three less-than-forty-minutes segments. Those of you who know me (or who have heard me talk as a writing instructor and coach) know that I love to work with timers, alternating 40 minutes of distraction-free work with 20 minutes of goofing-off. I don't know about you and your attention span, but 40 minutes is "just right" for me when it comes to working: long enough that I can make progress, but short enough that I don't get too antsy. As luck would have it, I can typically write 1,000 words in 40 minutes or long as I'm not allowing my Inner Editor to stop and re-read. And as luck would also have it, working on the novel in roughly thousand-word chunks seems to work for me intellectually: I can dive in and let my writing thoughts wander, but about 1,000 words later I appreciate a chance to stop, stretch, and figure out "what's next?"

So, after writing another 1,000 words or so this morning, today's goal is to write another 2,000 words: enough to get me to the 10,000-word mark. At my current writing speed, that's two 40-minute writing sessions, which shouldn't be too difficult on a Sunday when I'm not planning to do much of anything else.

All this talk of word-counts and daily goals might sound ridiculously anal-retentive, and of course it is. But one great thing about goals and guidelines is that having them means you get to stop and rest once you've met them: last night, after meeting my 3,000-word daily goal, I got to take the night off, catch up with reading the newspaper, and just relax. Like I said in the beginning: NaNo is a marathon, not a sprint. Although it might sound romantic and fun to spend ALL of today writing, I know that if I write much more than my alloted 3,000 words today, I'll probably experience a NO WRITING backlash tomorrow. So, I'm taking a clue from the tortoise in that old children's story: Slow and steady wins the race.

So, how do you pace yourself when you work on a large, long-term project? Do you like to write a little bit every day with occasional "catch-up" days? Or are you a Marathon Man (or Weekend Warrior Woman) who prefers to crank out huge word-counts in occasional sprints? I'm convinced that either approach can work: it's a matter of finding out what works best for you.
Word-count: 8,043

Last line: Tom smiled at this remembered mischief, his eyes glinting with nostalgia.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Day 5: Chapter 2

Although I'd originally envisioned each of the So-Called Novel's presumed 10 chapters as being roughly 5,000 words long (yes, you can do the math: 10 times 5,000 equals the magic number, 50,000), last night at the 4,000-word mark, I grew Officially Sick of Chapter 1. In his book Writing With Power, Peter Elbow devotes an entire chapter to "Nausea," that sick, "I don't want even to look at it" sensation that writers eventually reach with a given project, or a specific part of a project.

In my case, it's not my So-Called Novel that makes me nauseous (well, not yet). I'm just tired of Chapter 1, having spent a wretched 4,000 words to float Alexa down a street that introduces the ominous red house that figures later in the story but doesn't otherwise move the story to any sort of thing resembling "narrative progress." And so last night before bed, I made the call: first thing in the morning, I'm moving to Chapter 2. "Ready or not, here I come!"

Apparently my brain is working on this novel even when I'm not consciously thinking about it, because in the middle of the night, I woke up thirsty...and after getting a glass of water and returning to bed, I had an idea for the first line of Chapter 2 (as well as an idea for an image/line to wrap up Chapter 1). And so I did what every how-to book about writing says you should do, but I'd never before done: I scribbled the opening line, and then a rough sketch of an opening scene, in a notebook I'd put by my bedside just for that purpose. So when I woke this morning and fired up my old but trusty laptop, there it was: a first line and a rough idea of where to go from there.

I'm hoping to make significant word-count progress this weekend, playing catch-up from a week when I couldn't devote much time to So-Called Novel-writing. But for now, I've broken the 5,000 mark, and I have a truncated Chapter 1 and the start of Chapter 2 to show for it.

So, at what point do, will, or have you become Nauseous with a past or present writing project? And how can you tell when you're done with one chapter and ready (or not!) to move onto the next?
Word-count: 5,505

Last line: How could any letters have remained hidden over the years (and survived the curiosity of the house's various owners and occupants) that separated Alexa from their long-dead writer?

Friday, November 04, 2005

Day 4: Chronology be damned

Having starting the So-Called Novel with some semblance of a premise, today I gave up (for now) any hope of a linear storyline. Yesterday I realized I'd written some 3,000 words without ever describing my protagonist, partly because I didn't initially know what she looked like. After settling upon some basic physical details (Alexa is taller than me, for instance, and has short, blondish-gray hair), yesterday I free-wrote, by hand in my notebook, a chunk of physical description which I just now typed up.

Normally, I don't like novels that "dump" huge chunks of exposition or description in the midst of a story, unless the placement of that exposition or description is strategic, designed to create suspense or otherwise work toward an intentional narrative end. But, inserting chunks of word-count--any sort of word-count--is exactly how you get to 50,000 (or so I learned when I did this last year). Come to think of it, this habit of "chunking" raw bits of writing into the middle of an otherwise organized document is how I wrote large portions of my dissertation: whenever I'd get stuck with one idea, I'd skip a few spaces, write whatever idea wasn't stuck, and would go from there.

In an age where revisionary cutting and pasting is as easy as a click of the mouse, why wouldn't you write a document this way, doing a "brain dump" of information whenever and however it occurs to you, and then going back later to re-order and revise those bits? Whenever someone asks whether they can read (heaven forbid) my NaNo novel from last year, I have to stifle a chuckle. That draft is literally unreadable, for it isn't written in order from A to B to C but in the order its ideas occurred to me: first A, then X, then some idea that makes sense only to me but might somehow relate to T.

So, how do you write documents? Do you go in logical order, starting with a first line and then ending with the end? Or do you write your documents as I do: in fits and spurts, jotting things down (and rambling) as thoughts occur to you, wandering into a totally different direction when one thing has you stuck, and trusting that you can reorder, rewrite, and rework any- and everything when revision time comes?
Word-count: 4,001

Last line: All Alexa knew was that when the waters subsided and she once again walked the dry streets of her town, she thought twice before heading down Winston Street toward its outskirts, secretly avoiding the ominous red house with its fiercely barking dogs.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Day 3: Camaraderie

This morning I got up at an insanely early hour to write another 1,000 words on the So-Called Novel. I'm currently about 2,000 words behind where I "should" be for today, if you divide NaNo's 50,000-word monthly goal into 30-day increments. But since the weekends are for catch-up, it's not word-count that pushed me to get out of bed, turn on my laptop, and start cranking out still-sleepy prose.

No, this morning I was motivated by guilt...or, more accurately, camaraderie. Last night my coaching colleague Donna and I led a tele-workshop (our first!) for blocked writers. We had about a dozen people show up on the call, all of them facing blocks of various sorts. As people went around the group and offered one word to describe how they felt about their writing projects, I heard a string of adjectives that accurately describes the ebb and flow of emotion you experience when you try to write a daunting project: stalled, flummoxed, perplexed, frustrated. Given these negative emotions, why would any of us choose to write...and why would any of us choose to continue writing when warm beds and real lives so alluringly beckon?

This morning, I got out of bed at an insanely early time because I knew later this morning folks would be checking this blog to see if I'm still standing, still writing, on my NaNo journey...and I knew that later this afternoon, I'll be sending participants in last night's tele-class the URL for this site. Knowing that the folks I talked to last night might check on me this afternoon, I couldn't face the thought of them finding I'd done nothing on my present project since last talking to them. How can I as a coach and tele-workshop leader tell people to make time to write (even a little!) everyday if I'm not willing to get out of bed to do the same?

In his book No Plot? No Problem!, NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty uses the phrase "writing in packs" to refer to this social aspect of writing. Although we carry the image of a writer working alone, it's very difficult to keep writing if you're the only one doing it. Several participants in last night's tele-workshop remarked that it's somehow encouraging to know that other people are facing the same or similar problems as they work on daunting projects...and I know that when I was working on my dissertation, it was immensely helpful to have a coach (along with several writing buddies) who offered that sense of camaraderie while I was slogging away with a seemingly un-finishable task.

Even though I was physically alone when I got up at that insanely early hour to write another 1,000 words toward my So-Called Novel, I didn't feel alone. Instead, I felt the camaraderie of knowing other people sometimes feel stalled, flummoxed, perplexed, and frustrated just like I do. And I felt the camaraderie of knowing there are folks who might occasionally check in here, both to see how I'm doing and to share the setbacks and successes along their segment of the writing road.

So, tell are you currently feeling about your writing project, whatever it might be? Where and how do you find writerly camaraderie? And when's the best time for you to pound out words: early morning, late at night, midday, or otherwise?
Word-count: 3,018
Last line: As she looked around her at the wide, now watery expanse of Winston Street, Alexa realized that she and Rebecca were the literal floats in a sort of impromptu parade, folks who had not yet left their homes (but who were slowly rousing from sleep) standing on their water-surrounded porches to watch the stream of rowboats, rubber rafts, and weekend kayaks that were ferrying people up and down the normally fast-trafficked street.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Day 2: The premise

Last year when I participated in NaNoWriMo, I started with absolutely NO idea what I wanted to write about. I had no plot, no characters, no setting, no ANYTHING. I had the crazy idea that if I started with a single line ("The first line, like the next step, is always the most difficult"), I'd be able to free-write my way into some sort of story. Instead, I spent the first three days producing nearly 6,000 words of free-written crap. It wasn't that there weren't some interesting sentences and paragraphs in amongst the mess...there just wasn't any discernable story-line to pursue as I flitted from one possible character (and subsequent narrative dead-ends) to another.

Last year, I didn't happen upon an idea of what to write about until November 3rd; this year, I tried to hit the ground running. Although I don't have the sort of plot outlines, character sketches, and research notes that many more organized writers start with, I have a basic premise, based upon this picture. Although I don't know exactly who that Painted Lady is, she's the muse of this year's NaNo novel, in which a college prof (someone like me, but not me) becomes fascinated with a creepy house in her neighborhood, a mysterious packet of unopened letters she finds in her cellar, and the revealed connection between that house and those letters.

I'm not sure what that "slowly revealed connection" is exactly: it feels like I'm writing a mystery, and even I don't know whodunit, or even what sort of crime was committed. But I have a main character, a rough premise for a developing plot, and a quickly scribbled idea for the first five chapters. So word-counts notwithstanding, I'm ahead of where I was last year, at least in the idea department.

So, how about you? What promising (or paucity of) premises are you working with? Do you prefer to make things up as you go along, or do you prefer to have a roughly charted plan?
Word-count: 2,059

Last line: Turning her attention from Rebecca's cell phone conversation, which loudly continued, to the gray sleepy world around her, Alexa saw her neighborhood slowly drifting by as her hip-wading fireman pulled her aluminum boat like Charon ferrying souls across the River Styx.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Day 1: Anything is possible

It's just past 5 am and I just wrote my first 1,227 words toward my month-end goal of 50,000. Beginnings are simultaneously terrifying and exhilirating. On the one hand, there's the fear of a new project: where is this going, and can I do it? On the other hand, with a new project everything is fresh and not-yet-tainted: absolutely anything is possible because I have a full tank of gas (metaphorically speaking) and a wide-open horizon.

We'll see how enthusiastic I'm feeling in about a week or so...but for now, there are 1,227 freshly typed words on a hitherto blank screen: in other words, progress. The stone is moving, so now I just keep pushing!
Total word-count: 1,227

Last line: "Between that and her long sought after job, Alexa felt shored from monetary want, secure in her own (or at least her own family’s) self-contained resources: a feminine island among men."