29 Nov

Hitting the Checkered Flag at 50,069 WPM

That’s Words Per Month. Happy to hit the number. Very happy. A lot more to do and, really, at least another 50k words to finish this draft of Eating the Balrog (which is a damn silly title that pleases me and will likely change to something like Sword of the Malraugin or Bombs and Volcanoes and Balrogs O My! or What’s All This Then About Ballllrogs? or the Balrog with Nine Million Tongues.) I’ve been mighty afeard of writing something with fantasy critters init, but I’ve taken a practical approach, a thing of magic simply being  something we haven’t managed to capture (but will) with science. That’s not what the story is about anyway.

Here’s the synopsis I typed into the National Novel Writing Month site: I started with memoir combined with family folklore, and mixed in real history and fantasy elements to tell the story of two boys growing up in the foothills of the Oregon Cascades in the late 60’s. The main characters are young and it’s the story I want to tell, but I’m not sure if the end result will be a “YA” or adult novel (and don’t know there’s an important difference yet). I’ve written it by hand (164 pages in two college ruled notebooks and 4 pens later) backed up by a photocopier, to be typed during a rewrite. I did error on the conservative side of the count, so there’s more words than what’s listed here, but again, that doesn’t matter. (I’m not remotely a Luddite but paper and pen kept me focused and were incredibly portable). The draft is rough and tumble as hell and really not finished. It’s more episodic than I expected–there were plenty of surprises, most of them nice. It’s my second novel–the first took years and was a meandering mess. With this one, I spent a month churning out what I know now is mostly well structured exploration, and, with a lot of revision, will be the basis for a grand novel-length story possibly of interest outside family, friends, and captive cats (who I can’t keep off my lap anyway).

Other good news: our programmable thermostat has fixed itself after toying with me last night at 3 AM for a delirium-filled hour where it randomly thought the house temp was anywhere between 52 to 96 degrees F and wanted to hold it at 65 (which means 70 upstairs). After researching the problem thoroughly on the appliance webs, I learned that the best approach is to blow it out, shine the battery connectors for the LCD display, and whack it. That advice was given by a grizzled repairman who shut up the guys who were telling others with this problem everything from their furnace had died to their house circuitry was overloading and they were risking death by thermostat-induced fire. Now, it’s almost certain that my old thermostat, the Honeywell Chronotherm mark III, is past its prime and needs replacement with a touchscreen device that reads my secret temperature-based desires, but that can wait. Yes, the whack worked. A gentle whack.

Also, today at my house of workship, we received news that our paycut of the last 18 months was being rescinded starting Jan 1 (without the need for layoffs or other penalties to compensate). Debby did the happy dance when I sent her this news in a text. She was volunteering with Sophie’s kindergarten class and, she said, received some very odd looks. I love her because she outwardly expresses the things like happy dances that other people habitually keep inside themselves, taped over with a polite chuckle and a “rather.”

24 Nov

Verifying a novel written by hand for NaNoWriMo

From the NaNoWriMo Novel Writing Guidelines FAQ. This would be for me, who gave up tens of pages ago on the notion of typing this thing in. Better to type the next draft. I’ll be a smarter keyboard monkey, then, too.

Good old Lorem Ipsum. (I used to work with her sister, my dear friend Loren, who only spoke highly of her.)

How do I verify if I’m writing by hand?

Invoke the Luddite Clause!

What you do is write your 50,000 words, then have someone you trust verify that it is, indeed, 50,000 words. Then using something like the Lorem Ipsum generator, submit a file of the exact number of words of your handwritten manuscript to our word count validator.

So I’m keeping a Word doc up to date, word count-wise, with a draft for a very long future contract with myself written in nonsense Latin. Currently, I’m at 140 pages and an estimated 40,100 words, at about 286 words per page. That’s a conservative estimate, based on lines per page and average words per line from sample line counts.

15 Nov


The downside of writing on paper first is making backups. Not just of the draft but all the notes. Flipping a notebook front to back on a copying machine and hoping the cheap translucent paper (which, rightfully, makes you care less about the draft) doesn’t obscure the front of the sheet with bleed-through from the back. That becomes my Backup Prime, which I can duplicate easily by stacking it in the copy machine feeder. Then I have two or more piles of paper to store separately in case of puddles, fire, or falling into a shredder.

Since I don’t own a netbook or a digital pad, pen and paper are far easier to tote and boot than any computer and don’t distract me–they are a very singular but flexible toolset, good for draft text and notes and diagrams on the fly, along with marginalia and illustrations and effects. The only structure required is writing draft text on the lines to make rereading easier. If I had a netbook, I might use it, but trey’re so damn tiny and I like to see progress across a page. If anyone made a reliable electronic notepad for heavy use, it would go at the top of my list. I don’t even need handwriting recognition or, while it would be nice in the long term, I’d be happy if the tool just captured a “page” as a snapshot, similar to a scan, then I could return later to help it figure out what I typed and turn it into text.

I could use a scanner, but even a fast scanner takes twice as long as a copy machine, only because of the extra pre and post scan steps–although there’s probably some way to set up the big copier/scanner at work to take a sheaf of paper, scan it and save automatically. But then my employer might, if they so chose for whatever crazy reason, have legal rights to a portion of my work. Not worth the hassle of considering it (deterrence, I suppose, being the real purpose of such policies, followed by owning a piece of patents filed by employees who make something magical on the company dime.)

Living in a first world of highly structured and productized technology solutions makes us forget the value of starting with a mess and then capturing that mess and working it into something more structured for sharing (or just a different mess). I’ve lived with computers since I was a kid and my Dad hauled in one of the first generation IBM PC’s home for our dining room table. I’m not enamored with computers anymore–my honeymoon with the iPad lasted about a day, for all its wonder. (I don’t own an iPad; my employer builds products for them, among other platforms, and we have a couple at the office.) Give me smart hand appliances and tools that take everyday activities long practiced and do something special with the input, instead.

15 Nov

The Damn Quitters Club

John Green talks about the writer’s folly and letting your novel retain its promise by quitting now. Or giving up on the great notion that one month’s worth of furious writing is going to produce very much more than a month of furious writing.* It ain’t about the art, it’s about the work. And showing up and staying to the end. Or rolling off the back of the truck and hiding in the bushes before the others really notice you’ve ditched them, then dusting off and walking back down the road whistling your favorite old tune.


Why don’t I quit? I can’t see any reason to–straight ahead writing isn’t that hard (and believe me, I’m one of you who looks for any reason to procrastinate while proselytizing** out of the other corner of my mouth). The NaNoWriMo goals aren’t that hard to meet, especially if you start each session by putting on your Alfred E. Newman “What, Me Worry?” mask (which really freaks the kids out, by the way. It’s great, cathartic fun–after all, those little rats are the real reason you put off becoming a serious writer for the past decade or two, right?)

*You’re only one monkey at a typewriter, after all, not a million monkeys.

**Don’t just read “proselytize,”  say out loud it like your Uncle Tuck or Aunt Sunbeam from rural West Virginia would, relishing every syllable.

10 Nov

Pell Mell

I recently stumbled on a Huffington Post blog entry* crapping on NaNoWriMo from a guy holding up the Art end of Writing all by himself and calling on others to help. (I exaggerate a little, but it was the kind of silly huffy post some might write in a fit of indignation–which like other fits, usually involves at least a small amount of spittle.) My personal response is, it’s not the tool that matters, it’s how you apply it. Thankfully, there is no right way to start writing or to write. The point is to do it and use whatever you tools you need to make that happen, as long as there’s no hidden surcharges and minimal surveillance except by nubile young college girls sure that the unshaven older guy in the corner of the coffee shop is Writing his Novel.

The rest of NaNoWriMo (which awkwardly sounds too much like Robin William’s Nanoo nanoo) is, well, whatever the rest needs it to be, and employment for the few people who make it happen. Frankly Surely (my favorite hermaphrodite), I’d hate to be an agent or publishing house editor in the weeks following.

*I like the Huffington Post but that doesn’t mean I think the aforementioned blog entry deserves a link back.


The “structure of show” article linked here, is spot on, at least for me. Writing fast has often meant going “cinematic,” where I apply just enough character interaction and introspection  to move the plot along. At first I spent too much time worrying about the lack of depth or reader involvement in the characters, the story feeling like just another piece of prose skimming along to Soggy Bottom. Helpful to see that this state of draft is not uncommon and that, as I figured in the moments in which I figure, subsequent drafts start poking around in noggins in ways relevant to plot.

09 Nov

Hey, who’s in charge here? NaNoWriMo Week 2

I’m writing by hand so far, pages and pages until I can almost no longer recognize my scratch. My biggest fear isn’t finishing, it’s going back and being able to read what I wrote so that I can type it up. It’s likely that I won’t recognize all of it and will end up rewriting, which is what needs to happen anyway. Where I know that I’ve written a gem worth saving–even if it doesn’t end up in this story–I draw some fast lucky charms around it (you know, moons, stars, and other marshmallow shapes) so that I don’t lose it.

Note on writing a  story that leans on personal history–it’s really easy and in my case wrong to let the past steer the story. This morning I’d reached the end of my beginning and wasn’t sure where to take key characters or aspects of the plot. I knew the beginning and have a strong possible ending. And I started thinking, well at this point in my life, my family did this, so how do I overlay that onto the story.

Didn’t work worth shit. People on my morning bus commute (where I usually have enough time to fill a page between the burbs and downtown, where I work) probably wondered why I was scowling so much, probably thought I was going to leap up and commandeer the bus, if I looked on the outside like I felt on the inside. I stuffed my notebook back in my pack, pulled out my little MP3 player and turned on Middlesex, where I’m nearing the end. Some fiction writers say that they can’t read fiction while they’re writing. To each their own–I find that I can and often need to read, if I’m very selective about the reading choices, and I only read in small bursts when I need to recharge, or refocus. (The other book I’m reading is the second book in Patrick Ness series called Chaos Walking (book 1, The Knife of Never Letting Go; book 2, The Ask and The Answer), a YA series set on another planet colonized by religious expats, where a local germ causes all men and animals (but not women) to broadcast their thoughts. The prose is often very effective and rich, especially for such sparse prose, which helps the techniques stand out.)

It was actually the beginnings of Middlesex that helped me move forward. Grandparents figure in my story, informing the plot and the protagonist with their own histories. Some of my favorite parts of Middlesex cover the lives of the narrators grandparents and parents, from their start in Cyprus in the early 1900’s to their migration to the US (fleeing the Greco-Turkish war) and their tragedies and successes. I realized that the best way to get unstuck was to start writing about the lives of those grandparents in my story–at least the portions that I think matter to the plot and its narrator. So there I go again (just like Mr. Gorbachev and that big haired lead singer from the 80’s band Whitesnake.)

* * *

While the piece by Aime Bender linked below was written for the NaNoWriMo crowd, it applies to writing long fiction in general. I saw Aimee Bender at Wordstock–she’s very sharp, very creative, and I thought pretty pragmatic about the process. This piece reflects that. And she’s right–follow the writing, because when I try to make the writing follow me, it just sits down in the path and refuses to budge. If I bribe it, I can get a little further, but the scenery turns drab and the mood turns sour till I let it have its way, let it stop to look at everything along the path and suddenly run off into the woods. It’s exactly like a smart child or dog.

Why That Pesky Tangent May Be a Vein: A pep talk from Aimee Bender

06 Nov

Eulogy Tunes

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is de rigeur for modern funerals. I love that song, like most Cohen tunes, but recently a friend gave me a better idea. When I go, I hope they play Johnny Cash: for the service/memorial, Burning Ring of Fire, about a love that never dies. Deborah. Add his Give My Love to Rose and cover of the Nine Inch Nails tune, Hurt. Hell, play the entire Man Comes Around album, and get the grieving done with. But for any wake, please, play the Benny Goodman Orchestra live version of Sing, Sing, Sing; the Latin cover by Pepe and the Bottle Blondes; and the glorious riff Sing, Sang, Sung, by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. And anything else that might make the right people smile and that fussy people would find inappropriate.

I don’t plan on going soon (or maybe never if that damn Singularity arrives soon enough), but I’m feeling contemplative in the midst of all this writing and wanted to stick this bit of info where someone would find it. Because, like diamonds and kidney stones and like me, this blog will be around for at least another half century.

04 Nov

Marco Polo Fire

Two things:

It’s easier to respond than to originate. A lot easier. A sustained origination like writing a novel* that eventually provokes a response is even more rare.

Writing a novel is like starting and maintaining a controlled burn. You don’t want it to get rained out (like a good ball game) and you don’t want it to take to the tree tops (creating a “fire tornado” that uses up all its fuel and then some and leaves a smoking wreck behind).

I’ve been thinking about fire. It continues to be a theme in this current work.

*An exercise in unhygienic literary self-exploration.