Monthly Archives: November 2013

NaNo Update: Down to the Wire

As I write this, I have 36 hours left to reach 50,000 words and “win” the annual National Novel Writing competition, the goal of which is to reach that word count with an original first draft of a novel in just 30 days.

I kept pace with the daily word count until last weekend, when I reached the end of my story. What followed was an intense period of brainstorming as I frantically searched my brain to invent new plot lines to extend the story. I was at 35,000 words on November 21 with only the denouement to write. I wasn’t going to make it to 50,000 words unless I came up with a new story line. I was ready to throw in the towel. It didn’t help when I went back to rewrite a scene that didn’t work (a real no-no in Nano land) and I ended up having to change several other scenes and I ended up losing 300 words. Okay it did create a much better story.

I took a day off to regroup, and then I decided I had come this far. I just couldn’t give up. My brain miraculously came up with a way to extend the story and create new tension. I had back to back 1,800-word days on Monday and Tuesday, but I had fallen way behind thanks to my unproductive weekend. I was determined to catch up. I even wrote 1,000 words on Thanksgiving and I am up to almost 4,000 words today, but the clock is ticking.

I will update my status on Sunday, but I have to get back to my story.

If you are doing NaNo, how is it going? Keep writing!

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Book Review: “Sweet Tooth,” by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s “Sweet Tooth” is ostensibly a spy novel, but this tale centers not on highly sensitive state secrets, but on the fuzzy fault line between fiction and reality. The protagonist, Serena Frome, fresh out of college in 1972, finds herself recruited for MI5, the British spy agency, by Tony Canning, a professor and former spy operative she met through a lover while she was a student at Cambridge. Canning, who is married, becomes her lover and sponsors her for an entry-level job at M15, before abruptly breaking off the affair.

Serena’s first assignment is to participate in an operation called Sweet Tooth, which aims to use a bogus foundation to fund the work of writers who have shown an anti-communist and pro-capitalist bent in their writings. She is assigned to cultivate Tom Haley, a promising young writer. Critics have pointed out that Haley seems to be an alter ego for McEwan. They both earned degrees in English at the University of Sussex. The early work of both writers was dark and twisted. Both writers worked with Tom Maschler as their editor and knew the author Martin Amis, who makes a cameo appearance.

In the spy game, agents lead a double life. The persona they show when they are digging for information is a fiction. Similarly, Serena engages in a risky pursuit, falling in love with Tom Haley. They quickly fall into a passionate affair, but Serena cannot bring herself to tell her lover she is a spy. As her love for Tom grows, Serena is caught in an impossible dilemma: the emotions she feels for Tom are authentic, but based on a fraud she has perpetrated on him.

There is a needy, desperate quality to Serena that makes her suspect in the reader’s eyes. By her own admission, she was a mediocre student majoring in math at Cambridge, where she came to realize her true passion was literature. Her taste in books, however, is questionable as at one point she states that “Valley of the Dolls” is as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote. Her first love turns out to be a homosexual and her second love, Canning, is an older, married man. She develops a brief crush on an MI5 agent with the memorable name, Maximillen Greatorex, a socially awkward chap who eventually plays a pivotal part in the story.

McEwan plays Senera’s dilemma between her professional obligations and deepening love for Haley for all it’s worth. Though he reveals the outcome on the first page of the story, the unraveling of Serena’s double life unfolds through a series of cleverly plotted events that leave the reader surprised.

A major theme here is the line between life and art. Serena prefers novels with realistic plots and characters to loftier, high-minded literature. She states early on, “I believe that writers were paid to pretend, and where appropriate should make use of the real world, the one we all shared, to give plausibility to whatever is made up. So, no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in the books I liked for double agents.”

In light of the fate that would befall poor Serena, her words foreshadowed a cruel irony.

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Speed Kills—Or Does It?

Day 6 is a critical juncture for National Novel Writing Month competitors. That is the day when we should reach 10,000 words, or 20 percent of our goal, that is, if we are maintaining the pace of 1,667 words per day every day to reach the summit of 50,000 words in 30 days. As I write this, my word count stands at 10,061 words.

There’s a school of thought that warns nothing written that fast could be any good. I recently came across an inspiring Pep Talk on the official NaNo site (one of the benefits we NaNo’ers receive is a daily Pep Talk email from a veteran NaNo competitor). This one was written by author Catherynne M. Valente.

“I discovered NaNoWriMo in its second year and just the notion of it—the challenge, the seeming impossibility—lit a fire under me,” Valente wrote. “I even wrote a little manifesto about it. But it turned out that I couldn’t wait until November to start. And being 22 and thus full of equal parts arrogance, stupidity, and ambition, I decided that 30 days was too easy. I would do it in 10.

“And I did. My first novel, The Labyrinth, was written from October 1 to 11, 2002. I didn’t know I couldn’t do it. So I did. That novel became my first published book,” she wrote. “It was rereleased in a brand-new edition last year and I am still proud of it. Without NaNoWriMo, the lost 22-year-old poet working as a fortune teller in a little shop next to a Starbucks in Rhode Island, the girl with no particular prospects and even less clue how to write something longer than her (admittedly long-winded) poems, might never have figured out how many novels she had waiting inside her.”

Valente writes most of her books in four to 12 weeks, though she adds that the ideas percolate in her head for much longer than that before they get on the page.

“Yes, this is an experiment. Yes, it is difficult and not meant to be the scaffolding of a career. But the fact is, it can be,” Valente said. “A professional, full-time writer quite often writes more than 1,667 words a day for periods longer than a month. Learn how to flex that muscle, and how to build it up so it looks back on the early days of 50,000-words-in-a-month as an easy gig.

“To show up to play, puff out your chest like a damn proud toucan, and get shit done.

“That is, perhaps, the single most important skill of a working life, no matter what that work may be.”

As someone who has won at NaNo two years in a row, I will admit that 1,667 words per day every day for 30 days is an insane pace. I could never keep it up for any sustained length of time. I have a huge advantage over some writers because I cut my teeth as a newspaper reporter. I learned how to write on deadline at an early age and that habit, if maintained, never goes away. Whether you’re covering a city council meeting or a legislative session or a car wreck, your editor is not going to say, “Oh you don’t feel like writing today. That’s okay. File your story tomorrow.” I’ve written stories in as little as ten minutes, because that’s all I had.

The word count isn’t important. The daily habit is. Each writer must find the sweet spot. For me it’s between 500 and 750 good words per day. I can handle that. NaNo is a stretch goal for me, but it proves that a writer can push himself when he needs to get it done on deadline.

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