Monthly Archives: November 2012

NaNo Update #4: I Made It! No, Wait. I Didn’t.

I was there–at 50,000 words in my National Novel Writing Month entry and I was five days early to boot. I was with my regional NaNo group when I hit the magic mark. I drank in the applause when our Municipal Liaison made the announcement. I had won. And then I lost it the next day.

Blame it on my first chapter. I never liked my first chapter and I just had to go back and fix it. I did a complete rewrite. It wasn’t the greatest piece of fiction in the world, but it was a marked improvement over the original. I cut the original chapter one and pasted it into a fresh document (always save your work, even the parts you don’t use). I inserted the new first chapter and guess what? My word count dropped to 49,700. I looked at it again. I added details to it–a dash of setting here, an amplified piece of dialogue there and soon I once again surpassed 50,000 words.

I hated the ending as much as I despised the opening chapter. I vowed to rewrite the last chapter as well, but this time, I’m only adding words and not taking any away.

My plan is to finish polishing the draft on Wednesday and upload it for validation (that’s what they call it on the NaNo website) on Thursday, one day ahead of the November 30 deadline.

This was my second NaNo and my second “win,” but I found this year’s competition much more challenging than last year’s, but equally rewarding.

How are you doing on your NaNo novel?

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NaNo Update #3: Writing All Over the Place

The challenge of writing 1,667 words a day that comes with competing in the National Novel Writing Month means writers must seize every opportunity to put words on the page. A writer who has become accustomed to writing in the same work space at the same time might not be able to stick with his habits.

I have written in more places than ever this month: at the library, at coffee shops, and even at a café where I only had a half-hour of writing time.

I’ve done little writing at home since I lost my writing space recently. In early November I was writing most of my NaNo novel at the local library. On Veterans Day, the library was closed, so I hunkered down at a nearby Starbucks. I only had two hours to write but I managed to crank out 2,400 words.

Our regional group has sponsored several writing sessions at different locations. I’ve learned no matter where I write, I can zone out the distractions. An i-pod and ear buds help. Our Na No group also does “writing wars.” Our leader sets a timer for 15 minutes and we just write. Whoever produces the greatest number of words wins. I am consistently between 445 and 475 words.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned this month:

  • There’s no such thing as having too little time to write. A thirty-minute block can be enough to produce 500 to 1,000 words.
  • Take your laptop everywhere. You never know when an opportunity will present itself.
  • Good writers can write nearly anywhere. I’ve written in five different places this month. It’s all about training one’s self to focus and filter out any distractions.
  • The daily word count creates enormous pressure, but motivates the writer to produce work he would not otherwise generate.

There are seven days to go and I am at 44,000 words—6,000 words from the finish line.

 Does it matter where you write? Can you adapt your habits to meet a deadline?

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NaNo Update #2

November 15 marks the halfway point in the annual National Novel Writers Month competition. The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. As of November 15, I was at 27,500 words. This should be cause for celebration, but I’m worried about not having enough “story” left to get to the magic 50,000 number.

I’m getting helpful advice, though. One of the great benefits of “doing NaNo” is the opportunity it provides to network and brainstorm with other writers from your region. At a recent writing session the other night at a coffee shop in Hartford, CT, I shared my dilemma with my NaNo compatriots. Our Municipal Liaison, aka Fearless Leader, made a couple of good suggestions: add a dream sequence or another murder. My brother gave me the same counsel on the dream sequence. I’m not a big fan of dream sequences. They take the reader out of the story and can often confuse or disorient the reader. But, hey, this is NaNo. This is the time to try something unconventional. If it doesn’t work, I can always cut it later. The second murder idea intrigued me. I did this in last year’s NaNo entry and it added a layer of intrigue to my story.

Other suggestions from my colleagues included adding another character and a new story line and writing out of sequence, which I did last year to great effect. These are all sound ideas, but this is where my cautionary light goes on. When considering things like new characters or story lines, the writer must be careful not to merely pile on extra character or stories just for the sake of stretching out the word count. These enhancements only work if they flow organically from the core story. For example, if a writer is contemplating adding a murder, it cannot be a gratuitous killing of a minor character, which will have little effect on the story arc and serve only to distract the reader. And the writer must also select the right character to kill off. In any case, the act must flow naturally and logically from the prior events of the story. The writer must also consider how the solving of the murder plays into the resolution of the story.

One could argue these are questions for the revision phase of the process. The great thing about NaNo, though, is that for 30 days, writers can write with reckless abandon if they choose. Or not.

 

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My Character Hijacked My Story. Now What?

Imagine this: a writer prepares an outline for a new novel. The writer takes great care to develop the story. His main character is well-defined. There is a clear story arc. The writer has listed the key events. It’s all there: the premise, the theme, the entire piece. And then the writer sits down to write.

About one-third of the way through the story, the writer makes a shocking discovery. He didn’t see this coming. Something is very wrong here. What happened? One of his characters has hijacked the story. This wasn’t part of the outline. It wasn’t even in his head. Worse still, it’s not the main character who has stolen away with the story.

This scenario happened to me during the writing of my National Novel Writing Month novel. It’s still happening and guess what? I am making no attempt to stop it from happening. How did this happen? Let me share some background. My story centers on an aging, alcoholic lawyer, Frank O’Malley, who is dying of cancer. His last wish is to reconcile with his estranged daughter, Maura. When I wrote the outline, I had the idea that Frank was the main character. Maura would exist as a sort of spectral presence–a mysterious figure who walked out on her family ten years earlier and kept her whereabouts from her loved ones.

As I started to write the first scenes, I labored over every scene with Frank in it. There are only so many ways one can write the interior monologue of a dying man, wracked by regrets and grief over the disappearance of his daughter and the death of his wife. When I wrote the scenes about Maura–this ghostly presence–a strange and wonderful thing occurred. Maura came alive. I traced her journey from the day she discovered she was pregnant, to the argument with her father that resulted in her leaving home, to Maura moving in with her rock musician boyfriend. And then the dramatic moment came to me: her boyfriend abandoned her and she was evicted and forced out onto the streets of Boston during one of the worst snowstorms the city had ever endured. From there, the events and scenes flowed one after another.

When I reflected on the reason Maura emerged as the central character, it was obvious. Her story involved action, movement, adversity, obstacles and daunting struggles she had to overcome to reach her goal. Frank’s story was a downward arc; he was dying and would continue to die and then he would be dead.

How does a writer know when a character has hijacked her story? The scenes involving this character come easy. The writer can’t wait to finish one scene and get to the next one. Conversely, the scenes involving the original main character become a struggle. The writer stares at a blank screen, unable to come up with real scenes and authentic story lines.

Here are some tips for dealing with rogue characters:

  • Roll with it, at least until the story plays out. Even if the new main character completely changes the story arc, see where it leads.
  • Define what it is about the new main character that is so interesting. Does this character have deeper motivations and internal struggles? How can the writer best maximize those challenges?
  • Consider the possibility of more than one main character. When I read Barbara Kingsolver’s classic novel, The Poisonwood Bible, I had a hard time sorting out who the main character was. I had a similar experience with The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. It was clear Henry DeTamble was the main character, but Clare had an equally important and symbiotic role in the story.
  • Reassess your decision once you have completed the first draft and given yourself time to reflect. Did it work as well as you thought? Or was your original outline the right way to go?

Have you ever had a major character hijack your story? How did you deal with it?

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NaNo Update #1

We’re ten days into National Novel Writing Month—one-third of the way there—and after the first nine days, I’m at 15,000 words. My stats page on the NaNo website tells me at this rate I will finish on November 29, one day ahead of the deadline. I have 35,000 words to go.

I should be feeling pretty good about my chances to achieve the goal of writing a 50,000 word first draft in thirty days, right? There’s one slight problem. I’m about two-thirds of the way through my written outline. In short, I’m running out of story.

So what do I do now? Here are my choices:

  1. Keep going and I might get to 30,000 words.
  2. Think hard about potential new scenes or story lines and add these to the draft.
  3. Begin writing the ending first and see how many words I can generate and whether the resolution of the plot jogs any additional story strands I can pursue.

I am leaning toward a combination of #2 and #3. I have already written two completely new scenes that were not in my original written outline. I was pleased with one of these scenes and unhappy with the other. If not for the word count pressure of NaNo, I would not have written either one, but that is one of the benefits of putting myself through the process. It has forced me to employ the most intense type of creative focus. If I was merely slogging my way through a first draft, the word count wouldn’t concern me and I wouldn’t have challenged myself to think about all the story possibilities. Some of these won’t work and I will go back and cut them, but there are those little nuggets in there that I will keep and polish.

There’s nothing to lose when the word count rules the day. When I revisit the draft later on, I will keep what works and cut the rest. And when I reach that 50,000 words (or should I say if?) I will have discovered the core of my story. And in my desperate desire to maintain 1,667 words per day, I will unearth some precious jewels.

If you are doing NaNo, what challenges do you face? How are you coping?

 

 

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Begin in the Middle

I managed to avoid taking Latin in high school. It was eliminated as a required course at my high school the year before I started as a freshman, but I came across a Latin phrase in my writing career that has stuck with me: in media res. It translates as “in the middle of things.”

Craft of fiction books mention this phrase to instruct writers to begin a story or a scene in the middle of the action or at a crucial juncture. There are several ways to do this. One way is to cut down on logistics. UPS may love logistics, but writers should avoid them unless integral to the story.

Let me share an example from my current National Novel Writing Month entry. My NaNo novel was based on a short story I wrote several years ago. I have adapted and expanded it into a full-blown novel. In reviewing the original beginning to the story, the main character’s closest friend is visiting him. I describe the friend, Tom, climbing the stairs, ringing the bell, and entering the house. A woman serves him coffee in the parlor while she gets his friend, Frank. All of these movements were completely unnecessary. The action began when Frank revealed to Tom that he was dying of cancer and his final wish was to see his estranged daughter. Getting Tom into the house and seated at the parlor did not heighten the drama or anticipation, but detracted from it. In short, my original short story started in the wrong place.

The new and improved version starts with some brief context and cuts to the chase quickly. In other words, it begins in the middle of the action.

Here are some ways writers can avoid the boring details:

  • Skip logistics. Start the scene in the location where the action takes place. If there’s an argument at the kitchen table, put the characters there.
  • Imply earlier events. The reader doesn’t need to know how Tom got to Frank’s parlor. He’s already there. A reference to the time of day could be made as a casual aside. I wrote that Tom saw a street light come on, telling the reader it is early evening.
  • Fill in back story later. The reader doesn’t need to know why Frank and his daughter don’t get along. Frank hints at it through dialogue, but the full story unfolds gradually. It could have been handled by an information dump but that would have sucked the suspense right out of the story.
  • Some context is needed, but don’t go overboard. I was tempted to start the scene with Frank telling Tom, “I’m dying of cancer and I need to see my daughter.” That would have been melodramatic and devoid of any meaning. Who is Frank? Why does he need to see his daughter? The reader would have no idea their relationship was strained.

In some cases, the writer needs to set up a dramatic scene over the course of a page or two, but these passages must be handled carefully. Each detail must build on the last until the “big reveal” takes place.

Starting a story in the wrong place is a common mistake, especially in first drafts. I’ve done it many times. The important thing is to think through the entire scene and ask, where is the most dramatic action or event? Start as close to that point as possible.

Have you ever started a scene in the wrong place? How did you fix it?

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Book Review: “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” by Ben Fountain

Ben Fountain’s debut novel centers on the Iraq War and the cultural and social values for which our soldiers put their lives on the line. The year is 2004 or 2005 and the Bush Administration trots out “Bravo Company,” an Army unit, for a two-week PR tour. Bravo Company has achieved viral celebrity status when a Fox News embedded crew filmed their heroic efforts to quell an ambush. Fountain’s setting, though, is not the battlefield, but a football field. The story begins as the war heroes wrap up their two-week tour with an incongruous appearance at halftime with Destiny’s Child during the Dallas Cowboys’ annual Thanksgiving Day game at Texas Stadium.

The main character is Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old Texan who joined the Army rather than face jail time after trashing his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s Mercedes. Bravo Company is accompanied by Hollywood producer Albert, who owns the movie rights to their story. In a nod to Joseph Heller’s classic war novel, Albert faces a Catch 22: the film based on Bravo Company’s heroic actions cannot draw financial backers until a marquee star is signed up, but no star will commit until the movie has financial support.

Fountain contrasts the abundance enjoyed by the well-heeled crowd in their luxury boxes, pumping hands with the Army heroes, with the gritty existence the soldiers experience in Iraq.

The author’s prose is both penetrating and eloquent, as he writes about the disconnect between the patriotic fervor at home and the soldier’s perspective. At one point, Billy reflects: “To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war? Their reality dominates, except for this: It can’t save you. It won’t stop any bombs or bullets. He wonders if there’s a saturation point, a body count that will finally blow the homeland dream to smithereens.”

The suspense that drives the plot is three-fold: the movie deal Albert may or may not be able to negotiate (promising each member of Bravo Company $100,000 from the film), Billy’s sister’s attempts to convince him to desert the Army and leave the stadium with an anti-war group, and the intense feelings Billy develops for a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, Faison. Fountain ratchets up the tension as the football game progresses. Will Albert get the soldiers a big payday and will it matter, since they are hours from being shipped back to Iraq to complete their tours of duty? Will Billy desert the Army and hide away with Faison?

Fountain’s highly detailed description of the excesses of football—the beef-fed gargantuan athletes, the gladiator equipment, the marketing machine hawking Cowboys apparel, the pompous pageantry of the halftime show—are in sharp relief to what Billy is feeling inside. Is this what we’re fighting for in Iraq? Billy at one point wonders when “America became a giant mall with a country attached.”

At times, Fountain lays it on too thick, portraying one patriotic fat cat after another, gushing over the war heroes. But this serves to drive home his point: war is not a game like football, where we cheer for our soldiers and root for quick, decisive victories. War is messy and it is hell for those young men and women who, in the case of Bravo Company after its two-week tour, wonder what values they are fighting to uphold.

In the end, Billy is true to his values and the reader is left to ponder the state of America’s values.

 

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