Not too long ago I got a line from the book/film Dune stuck in my head and that got my subconscious mind doing some background thinking:
It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains. The stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.
I couldn’t tell you why, but that particular quote lead me to thinking about the French phrase “la petite mort” or “the little death” a euphemism for orgasm or the afterglow. Maybe it’s because of all that Fremen language and weird wording in Dune.
Whatever it was it lead me to my story for this week’s Ficly Friday, The Big Death.
The title is a play on the French phrase and also a little nod to Raymond Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep, which I read for the first time earlier in the year.
It’s less than 1024 characters of your time so please give it a read and I’ll try to keep writing short stories for Ficly Friday each and every week for the rest of the Summer.
I’ve participated in four consecutive years of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), beginning in 2005, and this is the first time I’ve crossed the 50,000 word threshold and “won” so that should tell you something about just how daunting a task it is to write an entire novel in 30 days, if you didn’t already know.
I went for a mixture of comedy and tragedy in a novel I described, as a tongue-in-cheek elevator pitch, as “Superbad meets Crime and Punishment”. If you think about it, that’s lofty company in both camps. I may have been setting myself up for failure, but I wanted to aim high.
This year was no different than 2005 – 2007, except for the fact that I finished.
Same lack of time. Same familial responsibilities and duties that hedged in to my writing time. Same late nights. Different result.
First, I think I finally found my angry place and went there. Part of what was holding me back was, quite honestly, me. I’d listen to my inner demons and let them direct me towards TV or surfing or just general apathy and major boredom (Thanks, Ben Folds!). I literally wasn’t giving myself a chance to win because I hadn’t planned a way to spend the requisite time physically sitting down and writing. It may only be 1,667 words a day but failing to plan for that actuality means a few days of missed deadlines equals 5,000 words, which is both daunting and demoralizing.
Lesson 1: Follow your muse, write ahead, bank the ideas and don’t stop when you’re on a roll.
That first lesson is a hard one to learn. You really do have to clear 3 or 4 hours on your calendar some days to write well and accomplish something. Even if you end up getting to 1,667 and stopping after only 30 minutes, you’ve “found” some time. You need to “find” time at the outset and enjoy getting it back when/where you can.
Lesson 2: Cheat (within the rules)
I’m not talking about importing someone else’s work or using something you’ve already written, but am suggesting taking shortcuts to meet your word count.
Quote some song lyrics or have your character sing in the shower. Recite biblical passages or have a preacher do likewise. Write a poem or any other form of writing apart from prose to break your mental lock.
Nothing kills momentum like good, old-fashioned writer’s block and the only sure way out of it is just to write. In a competition like NaNoWriMo, quantity trumps quality every single time. All of these ideas ARE NOT CHEATING per the rules and were actually given as advice by the helpful staff and guest authors.
Lesson 3: Don’t go it alone
I wasn’t too keen on following my advice or learning this lesson at all, but it’s important. Whether you have an album or playlist that helps you focus, a trusted friend competing alongside you or you’re the type (like me) that has to tune out all distractions by turning off all other media, have some kind of support structure around you.
I’m lucky that I have an incredibly supportive wife and some family members as a cheering section, but whatever will help you out the most, cling to it with all your life. There were times that I lashed out and got gruesome because things weren’t going my way, but I didn’t abandon hope or the support structure that worked for me. It’s not always people but things or rituals that can be your solace; let it/them help you.
Lesson 4: There is no lesson 4/keep your wits and sense of humor about you
If nothing else, NaNoWriMo taught me that, whatever external baggage I had heaped on top of it, it’s merely a competition to reach 50,000 words. 49,998 of those could have been “I” and the last two could be “Love You” and it would still pass muster. It wouldn’t exactly be the keenest narrative or commentary on the world – it wouldn’t be the “Next Great America Novel” – but you’d still win.
This Lesson (that isn’t a lesson) was hard for me. My version of not going it alone relied a bit too heavily on going it alone, without real people. It ultimately worked for me, but only following a prolonged, bitter outburst, a horrible weekend (maybe two), two late-night, five-hour writing sessions and 29 days. Which is to say, I’m still learning all of these lessons even as I type this post.
Part of the great learning and writing I did do came out of positive times I was describing, or the joy I found in having made time to write amidst all my other prerequisites. The fact that I could laugh and smile and play was born out on the page. I didn’t tag those moments mentally or in the document itself, but I think I can spot them upon reading and re-reading what I wrote.
Would have I done anything differently? Sure, but I don’t know that I could have. Sometimes you have to run the race first to know how you should have been strategizing all along.
In the future there are definite plans I could, and will make, should I write another “novel”. I’ll definitely outline the work, but also outline the time I’ll spend writing and share it with my loved ones. Setting expectations is key and another document shouldn’t be hard; you’ll be (I’ll be) writing a novel, what’s a few more words.
As far as next steps, I don’t think I’m brave enough just yet to share my masterpiece. One, because I think it’s complete and utter shit, and that’s not me being facetious or humble or overly negative, it’s me being honest. I don’t like the final product because my expectation are different than those outlined in the competition. I didn’t just want the words, I wanted the magic, I wanted the NOVEL!
All that said, I’ll probably put it on the blog or share the actual document on Google Docs to those who are so inclined to read and give feedback/constructive criticism. Leave a comment if you’re curious (morbidly or otherwise).
For a final thought I want to provide a metaphor for writing a novel, especially writing 50,000 words in 30 days, that occurred to me at around the 2/3 mark. Writing long-form prose is like being a sculptor if the sculptor had to create the rock out of grains of sand first and THEN whittle it down into its final form. You’re really playing God in writing and you have to build up and then tear down to get anything worthwhile. I know now that I’m at the creation stage and that, if I were to turn the NaNoWriMo into the work I’d eventually like to create, I’d get my chisel out and start hacking. Right now, though, I think the hackery is best left alone, there was enough hacking just to hack up what I put on virtual paper.
I’m proud, yes, of running the race and crossing the finish line but I want to think of myself as the winner of the Boston Marathon terms of potential and while competing in this half marathon of sorts is nice and finishing is admirable, they’re two different types of athletes and athletic competitions and I’m thankful to know I can at least be amateur level. But I want to go pro in the worst way, maybe not at long distance running, but in some discipline that involves moving my feet. Speed walking? Track & Field? Line dancing? I’m killing a metaphor here and not softly, but you get the drift.
Anyhow, if you’ve come this far you really love me and my writing so it’s a possibility you’d actually like what I wrote last month. It’s just as crazy, on that I can deliver on my promise.
Whether or not I compete again next year or in some other year is up for grabs, but for the near future I’ll be writing here. I enjoy it as I enjoyed NaNoWriMo 2008, so it can’t suck too bad if I have a good time, right?
Earlier today I had a chat that challenged my reasoning for wanting/needing to write. I had to discuss my motivations and really think hard about the desired outcome of all this output.
Do I want to be published? Do I need the validation (to say nothing of wanting it)? Do I define success already? Do I do what I do well enough already? Do I have a process?
There was talk of reading (Imagine that! Folks who want to learn to writer better talking of the bi-product of writing: reading) some helpful texts, specifically Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.
We also tossed around Ficlets (I know; I’m a broken record), bed-side notebooks, blogs, Twitter and “safe places”.
Deep, I know.
I’m focusing on a few key takeaways:
Who(m) else I would include in this circle
Concrete goals for my writing efforts/endeavors
Finding more time
Having more fun
Sharing more of my writing
Planning for additional meetings – both in frequency and length, but also purpose
Which is not to say I’m all business. Notice ‘fun’ is enumerated. That’s a sure sign that ‘fun’ will occur: writing it down on a list.
“You kids will have fun whether you like it or not” kind of a deal.
I also want to focus on the opposite goal: getting something written. Kinda obvious for a guy who wants to be a writer, but hard when I work full-time and have a wife and two young kids.
Still, I have enough snippets, thoughts, stray story-starters and ideas that, when added to my nightly allotment of WoW time should equal productivity in the form of characters, words, sentences, paragraphs and pages.