A Writer’s Biography, Volume II, Part Two: The NaNoWriMo Experience

It’s starting up again as November 1 draws nearer. Nobody seems to talk about All Saints’ Day anymore (at least that’s what it seems on my social media feeds, but it’s not like that covers a true cross-section of America or the world or anything like that).

Yes, the new secular writing holiday, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is upon us. For those not familiar with the event, it began last Thursday 1999 in the San Francisco Bay area. The goal is for participants to write a full 50,000 word novel in the 30 days November provides. It’s the idea that you can finally get that novel out of your system.

If you do not know already, word count and writing production is something that I’ve become a bit obsessed with. To make it to 50,000 words in 30 days, you have to write around 1,667 words per day. That’s a pretty fast clip. 50,000 words is not a massive novel, by the way – it’s pretty short by today’s standards. It’s not quite novella length, but it’s a short read. The Great Gatsby, Brave New World, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer all clock in around that length.

I think that it’s a great idea. NaNoWriMo is the perfect argument against “Well, there’s no way I could ever finish a book.” Right now, people around the world are gearing up for the fastest writing sprint there is.
As the image with this post indicated, I used to be one of those participants, and a successful one at that. And it resulted in the second completed book I ever wrote.

2005 was a lot different for me, other than the fact that I was 12 years younger. At the time, I hadn’t worked full-time for three years. I had been a freelance journalist during that time, doing some odd jobs, and looking after my two kids, who were preschool-aged then. Halfway through that year, I returned to school, the beginning of a nearly two-year-long process that resulted in the beginning of my teaching career.

The point being, I had a far more flexible schedule than I do now. And so I took one look at NaNoWriMo and said, I can get it done.

The story I had in mind was inspired by the rush of school shootings that had occurred both before and in the wake of Columbine. One question had come to my mind: If some of these kids survive and do their time in prison, what happens to them next? That got me thinking.

What I came up with was pretty good, but I think the original title I used (which I won’t say here) ended up being too gauche, to be honest. If I was going to re-title it, Excitable Boy sounds like a good one.

My Main Character (MC) was a 16-year-old boy with an undiagnosed psychotic disorder. Bullied at school by kids put off by his odd, secretive nature, he snaps one day in the middle of a delusional episode and kills two of his tormentors.

It was a tragedy all around. The MC’s father (his mother died of cancer a year previously) commits suicide when he learns of the incident; he has been in denial of both his and his son’s mental issues. The MC was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental health care facility.

The MC is released after five years at the center. He is reunited with his only remaining family member, his older brother, a law student at the state university. He goes to live with his brother and his brother’s longtime girlfriend, while he tries to figure out what he is going to do with the remainder of his life. But, there are a rash of murders around campus, and people are starting to look at him as a possible suspect. In time, it’s up to him and his brother to find the real killer and find out why somebody might be setting him up…

Looking back on it, the NaNoWriMo experience for me was two steps forward and maybe a step and a half back. I always felt that if I wasn’t producing that amount of writing, I wasn’t going to be a success. That bogged me down a lot when I started teaching and didn’t find (or couldn’t make) time for writing. Also, I think I wound up using too many characters, including a supporting character that wound up being too much of a Mary Sue for my taste. I think I tried to sell it at one point, but that never went anywhere.

I’ve just looked at the book again, maybe for the first time in… eight years, maybe? Unlike my first adult attempt at a book, there just might be a decent story in here. If I get motivated, I might want to take another look at it, trim down some characters, make the story simpler, and see what comes out of it.

But for now, I’ve got the new project to work on. Another time, maybe. It might have potential.

 

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Writing Journal, 10.29.2017: Steady success and some math

OK, if I keep having writing weeks like this, I will be cruising to the end of the book soon if my math is correct. First, here’s this week’s math:

4,213 words written.

Days writing:  7 out of 7.

Daily writing goals met (500+ words): 4 out of 7 days. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Two of those missed days were off of my goal by only a couple dozen words.]

My current word count on my new project is 56,796. As I mentioned before, I am shooting for a maximum word count of 100,000 or somewhat shorter. If I meet my minimum daily quota of 500 words for all of those remaining days (3,500 words per week, to put it another way), I will have an additional 31,500 words, putting me somewhere just under 90,000 words.

 

Right now, if I continue on this pace, there is a slight chance I will finish a rough draft of this project by the end of the year.

This is unfamiliar ground to me as a writer. I’m beginning to like it.

[YET ANOTHER EDITOR’S NOTE: Come back to this space soon; I’m going to have a story from my Writing Biography series that has a NaNoWriMo theme to it in honor of this year’s upcoming event.]

Writing Journal 10.22.2017: A constructive disaster (with caveat)

So, you want to see the disaster? Here it is:

+991 words written.

Reviewed and revised +34,520 words.

Days writing: 4 out of 7.

Daily writing goals met (500+ words): 1 out of 7 days.

Reminds me of the bad old procrastination days.

However, there is a difference between just procrastination and this week. Now, notice the second line of that box. I found myself reviewing and changing the first two-thirds of what I’ve written so far. That involved a lot of thinking and some advice asking, but I finally got through it. You can read about the saga here and hear a few thoughts I had about the concept of research in writing fiction.

Hopefully, normal service will return this week.

On Research: writing what you know (or find out)

Tell me if I told you this story before (that’s a frequent request I’ve begun making of friends, family, and students if I tell a tale one too many times)…

 

I first became truly obsessed with the sport of soccer during the 1994 World Cup, when I saw the US beat Columbia due in part to an unfortunate own goal by the late great Andrés Escobar. I have been a #USMNT fan then and forever since, although there’s some other club teams I support as well.

That’s been a while ago; Eric Wynalda was a forward for that team, and now he’s a TV and radio pundit looking to run for the US Soccer Federation presidency.

Some years after that, as my love for the sport grew, I began thinking of maybe setting a story in the world of soccer, especially in Europe where the big leagues were, such as the Premier League and Serie A. There was one problem, however; I didn’t know anything about them.

So, that’s where the research comes in.

I’ve often been accused of being one of those people who knows a little something (or a lot of something) about anything you can think of. At the beginning of my fandom for soccer, I knew about Pele, Maradona, the fact there had once been a North American Soccer League (the first one, not the second) in the US that went bust years ago. But that was it. I had no idea about the transfer market, promotion and relegation, the history of soccer in Europe. When I played this one soccer game 10 years ago, I had no idea what they were talking about when they started showing me game schedules for the UEFA Champions League.

But I started reading up on the sport, both in books and online. I read more than a few selections of fiction, like David Peace’s The Dammed United. And I started watching more and more soccer matches. By about a couple of years ago, I felt confident enough to truly start thinking about writing a story based in the soccer world.

“Well, that’s touching,” you might say. “I appreciate those guys like David Foster Wallace who actually go to accounting school to brush up on IRS issues before writing The Pale King. But I’ve got a life? How much is too much?”

Ah, well, that’s what I found myself running into this week. Although some of the writing carnage was my direct fault of being lazy (I’ll post it right after I finish writing this), another part of it was realizing I had written myself into a research hole.

To summarize: My soccer project takes place in Texas. I originally decided to base the book in a fictional Austin suburb and a fictional college in Corpus Christi. My main character’s father is a football (gridiron) coach. I had originally thought my MC would go to a school separate from his dad because of the tension between them, but I realized that didn’t make sense, both from a story standpoint and wanting to keep the character list from mushrooming when it didn’t need to. So I took care of that, but then realized that why would my MC’s family live in Austin when the college is in CC and it’s over three hours to get there by car?

That’s when I had the idea to base everything in Austin and have the MC’s father coach the University of Texas. And that’s when I froze, fam. You should have seen me online with a dozen tabs open from pages on UT’s web site, with maps, academic information, athletic information. I was considering writing about a school that’s famous throughout Texas and the nation. Richard Linklater made Austin a character in his film Slacker, and he’s one of the best film directors there is. I lived in Texas for a few years, but I’ve never been on campus. And I’m planning on trying to make it sound credible?

Eventually, I turned to the Internet for an answer to my dilemma. The majority of advice said it’s easier to plan a vague fictional location than a real life one that its residents care about. The same thing for universities, especially since they can be really sensitive to anything that might put them in a bad light.

So, this is what I decided: The hometown of my MC, where he grew up, is now a fictional north Dallas suburb that remains one of the few enclaves around Dallas resisting cultural diversity. It will keep the old name, however, that was inspired by a few Austin suburbs. The college is a fictional one in a nearby north Dallas suburb, inspired by but in no way derived from colleges such as SMU and University of Houston. I now have a fairly nice and tidy setting for this book.

As for whether I should use the name of an actual Premier League club – I think that’s a conversation that I’ll have later.

Research is great and essential for making your book sound realistic. But it shouldn’t get in the way of you telling the story.

 

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: Today’s pic comes from Jurgen Vantomme, and you can check his web site out here.] I discovered his work in the blog In Bed With Maradona.

Inertia 

I thought I’d come up with an interesting post. This probably isn’t it, but it might be illuminating anyway. 
My mother was the first indication of what parenting would be like for me. She has operated on the premise that I will always be the kid that was her son, no matter how old I get. But that’s how it works. You never stop being a parent, no matter if they leave the house or your life. 

In that role, she’s given me plenty of advice over the years, the greatest majority of it top shelf. Her most recent advice a few weeks ago stuck out to me today. She said, “It’s important for you to keep moving, Lee active. You find out it’s hard to get moving again if you get out of the habit.”

She was referring to physical activity that day, and I think she had a good point. However, tonight I also think it could equally apply to mental activity, as well. 

Today my brain shut down. I couldn’t do more than stare at screens and passively review content rather than creating it. 

Not to go into great detail, but I think I have to make sure I’m looking after myself during rest times as well as working times. I’m going to keep up the momentum from last week, write one or two kick-ass posts for this blog (Thank you, thank you, to all that come here to check out my stuff and follow me) and finally start sending out some query letters for The Holy Fool. 

Mom was right. It’s hard to get started back up again. But, I am getting back on it. 

Writing Journal 10.15.2017: Looks good for once, and another milestone

Felt good about this week – finally took my advice about only writing the interesting stuff rather than the boring stuff.

 

The stats:

+3,856 words written.

Days writing: 5 out of 7.

Daily writing goals met (500+ words): 5 out of 7 days.

Improvement across the board from last week and even from the week before. It’s good to see.

Also, I wound up hitting the 50,000-word mark on the new project. Right now I’m shooting for the manuscript to be under 100,000 words, so maybe halfway there with a first draft.

This is the quick pat on the back before getting back to it.

About Characters, And The New One I’m Writing About

If you’re going to tell a story, you’re going to have to have someone interesting to talk about.

 

That would be probably the First Law in dealing with characters in fiction, if I were so inclined to try my hand at creating my own version of On Writing. I’m not planning on that – even though this blog could be seen as a limited attempt to do that – but I do believe in the statement on top. Throughout the years, the more and more people I have met, the more I’ve noticed that a good number of them are too limited as humans to be truly compelling. It’s all very good to stay true to life, but to make people want to pick up your story, you have to make it about people who will attract readers’ fascination. To be frank, those characters have to be compelling for the sake of the author, because you’ll be stuck with them for hours and hours as you try to tell their story.

When I started writing, I tended to write main characters that had very clear parallels to me. Every MC is like that to some extent, but there were a few of those characters that were much too much like myself. Sometimes that has worked out, and sometimes it flopped.

The MC in The Holy Fool was a step forward – someone like me, but a larger personality in many ways, perhaps an alternate history version of me. He was a freer version of myself, someone who be more daring, more risk-taking – definitely more successful than I was as a journalist, due to differences in ambition, life-choices, and luck.

But this guy I’ve been writing about, during the past few months, the guy who’s been rattling around in my head for the past few years – this guy is totally different.

To keep some of my writing close to the vest, I’m going to refer to the MC for The American 9 as D. For as long as I’ve been a soccer fan, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of an American player who could one of the best players in the entire world, a guy who could be on the same level of a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. The more I started thinking about what type of person it would take to be that good, the more D. started growing in my head.

He’s grown into someone far beyond my own experience. As much as I loved soccer as a kid, I was never a natural athlete, I never had those experiences. Now I’m writing about someone who is the son of a legendary athlete. I never had that experience, either, but I’ve read enough about such families to be able to picture what it might be like.

I’m normally a pretty calm guy; D. is someone for whom it seems like his life is one big fight – fighting for who he considers are his people, and fighting against those who he considers (with reason) to be his enemies. I’m heterosexual and monogamous; D. is bisexual and polyamorous, although as a teenager he is keeping that part of his life out of the public eye. He’s far more charismatic than I think I ever could be, and probably more handsome.

What I do like about D. is his sense of right and wrong. I love the fact of someone who has been given so much and yet has enough empathy to recognize his privilege and how it can be used for good. I like his love for his family, friends, and lovers, and his willingness to do anything to take care of them.

Every time I sit down to write something about him, I want to find out how he’s going to react, what he’s going to say. If I’m wondering that, I have to think others will, too. I want to tell a story, but I want to have an audience, as well.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: The pic I used for today’s post comes from a photographer I found out about from the blog In Bed With Maradona. If you are massively into football ⚽️ culture, you need to check it out. The photographer’s name’s Jurgen Vantomme and he does some great stuff. This comes courtesy of this collection, and you can check his web site out here.]

Writing Journal 10.8.2017: Uuughh….

OK, might as well face… the carnage.

+2,821 words written.

Days writing: 4 out of 7.

Daily writing goals met (500+ words): 1 out of 7 days.

All numbers down. I think my explanation is that I started to get to some parts of the book I already wrote, started tinkering, and screwed around too much. Work also interfered and I’ve been battling a cold, although I could have easily made time if I made the extra effort.

In the end, the excuses don’t matter. This week I plan to turn it around.

Oh, and there is another post coming, too. That will likely happen later tonight.

Writing Journal 10.1.2017: Sliding Into October With Less Production But More Consistency

Oh, yeah, nearly forgot to give out the totals for this week, right? Well, the title of this one pretty much says it.

+3,356 words written.

Days writing: 7 out of 7.

Daily writing goals met (500+ words a day):  4 out of 7 days.

So, much less production than the last two weeks, but writing more and more consistently when looking over the numbers. Right now that is what I am trying to maintain.

My Philosophy About Plot

The more I read in On Writing, I was fascinated by Stephen King’s vision of writing – putting interesting characters into fascinating situations. Plot was something that evolves as you put the characters through your situations, not something that you spent hours and hours outlining what will happen in your story.

That was not something I ever expected to read. I always had the impression that writers did spend hours and hours of time sketching out events, plot twists, and shocking endings. They used sticky notes or 3×5 cards like old James Jesus Angleton at the CIA, but trying to find the perfect plot rather than the mole destroying American intelligence. Nowadays they can use programs like Scrivener to help map it out with electrons and magnetic storage rather than paper products.

I’ve got a copy of Scrivener myself. I’ve actually found some use for it, just as I’ve grown attached to Microsoft OneNote for keeping track of things.

When I do use those programs, however, it’s usually more like writing reminder notes to myself than seeking the right path. As much as it has taken time for me to get on with things and be a true writer, once I’ve gone through the effort of committing the story to the computer and/or page, I’ve already written it over and over again in my head. How many times? For every novel-sized work I’ve written, it’s been too many to count accurately.

It’s like I’m one of those old oral storytellers, the ones they used to have in Ancient Greece or the Celtic lands. They were the guys who used to travel from town to town, village to village, telling their epics for room and board, maybe a small bit of gold if they were lucky. In my case, the audience was myself, but every time I retold, the story, I’d hone it, add and subtract characters and scenes.

And the story of this main character for the new project, the one I’m working on now, that’s what’s really driving this new project. This is one of those people that reminds me of some of the great characters I’ve read in novels, people like Daniel Torrance, Zaphod Beebelbrox, Muad’ Dib, Lisbeth Salander, Burke, Mark Watney, Anita Blake, and many others I’ve encountered in my fiction reading days. They’ve proven over and over again that when you have people this dynamic, this interesting, you can put them into almost any type of situation and it will generate a good story.

And the character, the one that’s been rattling around in my head for a few years, getting refined and honed until I might know more about him than I do about most of the people in my life? That’s going to require a post of its own, and I’ll get to that next.