Sunday, October 31, 2010

What should I write about when there is so much to say?

As I said in my last post, I signed up for NaNoWriMo a few days ago, with the goal of sitting down on November 1st and writing a novel from scratch. It all sounded very spontaneous and exciting—I was going to start writing whatever popped in my head and see if I could carry on with it for 49,300 more words.

But then, after I signed up, I checked their web site more attentively. They suggest I have an outline in hand.

Outlines and plot notes are very much encouraged, and can be started months ahead of the actual novel-writing adventure. Previously written prose, though, is punishable by death.

Gulp. I am writing this post on Thursday, setting it to publish on Sunday, because I imagine I'm going to be spending Sunday night scratching out potential plotlines.

J.K. Rowling said that Harry Potter came to her in a vision and she knew she had to write it down. I don't think such inspiration works well under pressure, or within a three-day deadline. I've been touching my forehead with my fingertips the last couple of days, trying to coax out ideas, but it is starting to feel like a clean slate in there.

It's overwhelming to realize that I could write about anything. So right now I am in panic mode, trying to think of new ways of doing something that is already tried and true (giving me a new empathy for film producers!).  Here's what I've come up with so far:

• As people are gathered in a fallout shelter in London, they each tell a tale from their lives to get through the night. 12 tales, based on Grimm's Fairy Tales, sort of a Canterbury Tales in the 20th Century. [After I imagined this, I realized it was inspired by the film "Atonement" and recently listening to a lecture in my car called "Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind." Why 12? I figure I'd write each chapter would be 15 pages, giving me the necessary total.]

• A female Holden Caulfield makes her way through a suburban Maryland high school year. But what does her voice sound like (too easy to fall into Valley Girl speak—not sure there is a recognizable Maryland teenager sound...)? What is her quest?

• 10 stories about Santa Cruz, each story a different character's story. Last story, they all come together.

The older I get, the more I realize how hard it is to be fresh and new and not derivative. There's an overwhelming amount of life experience to try to compact into 200 pages. At the same time, there's that need to drive the story along with challenges for the main characters, while scattering mysteries or unanswered questions every few pages that will keep the reader turning the page—to manage that is the difference between writing fiction and typing. I think I will be doing a lot of the latter, as I make my way through the necessary word count.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Another monkey typing at the keyboard

Like hundreds of aspiring novelists before me, I, too, have signed up for NaNoWriMo. What, you might ask, is NaNoWriMo? According to their web site:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

If a thousand monkeys can produce a Shakespeare play by typing at keyboards for infinity, surely hundreds of humans typing 50,000 words in a month's time can produce one good novel. The problem is that each of us may only be able to come up with one of the pages (or sentences) from that great work. Much of the rest of it will surely be crap.

I type, on average, 700 words per page, so I figure that I'll need to write 3.5 pages a day to meet the 50,000-word goal. But judging from past experience, I'm probably going to be holed up in my room in a desperate writing frenzy on November 28th. The evidence? My 63-page undergraduate thesis on the Aeneid produced in a week (on a manual Remington typewriter, no less); likewise, my 50-page Master's thesis, typed over five days and nights in a computer lab. A month, then, seems like a luxury of time,  or at least it will the first three weeks.

Is it physically possible to type 45,000 words in a day?

The alternative is to be left behind on the 5,000-word slope, telling myself that it didn't really matter anyway, while others with more passion or persistence make their way to the 50,000-word summit.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

56 drafts and three little kisses

After I wrote my post about Mary Amato's talk on revisions, in which she confessed that her last novel went through 56 drafts, I kept wondering—how did she keep track of it all?  Did she have 56 different computer files, 56 print-outs, or 56 of something else? So, I emailed her and asked.

Here is what she said:

When I'm writing, I don't print out until I'm "done" with a draft. After I'm "done" and I print out, then I read that draft and make notes in pencil about what I need to do when I revise. Then I go through the revising process and only print out when I'm "done" with that entire revision. So, when I say 56 revisions that means that I printed it out 56 times. Those revisions were not minor. Each one was major.

I haven't always used the most efficient titling system for my drafts. My suggestion for version management is to abbreviate the title and put the date that you're working on in the title.

Example: ILSept16.
If I'm working forward (writing new material and not revising old material), then I keep the same title and just keep saving the new material in the same file.

Let's say I work on that manuscript for a month. And after a month of writing, I realize I need to make a major change that involves revising from the beginning. Then, I will I save as a new filename: example: ILOct12 and use that file as the working file. If I decide to go backward and make revisions later on,  I'll rename it. That way I'll still have my old drafts saved (and not written over) in case I need to go back and look at an earlier draft.

How do you know where you left off? Do you make changes in (MS Word) tracking or do you write a sticky note to yourself about which page you stopped on?

I always leave myself three kisses... xxx. Then I go back and do a search for three xxx and find the place I left off.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The loneliness of the present moment

I have talked a lot recently about journal keeping, but I've never actually shared anything from my journal in this blog. What's the difference between a blog post and a journal entry? The journal entry isn't written for public consumption, but, at least during the moments it is written, for the pleasure of writing. Later, maybe, with editing, it becomes something else.

The paragraphs below are from my journal entry dated 4/12/2010. (These are unedited; I've only excised a few paragraphs in-between where I wrote more at length about having tendinitis in my thumb and the difficulty it creates for writing by hand).

I've explored the theme of writing out of loneliness before, in my October 1, 2009 blog post. Perhaps the other difference in writing for public consumption and writing in a journal is that you can indulge in a repetition of topics (like my perpetual prose on loneliness) without care that you are boring anyone; you are your own rapt audience (or not).

I realize now that when I was young, my writing came from unwanted solitude. Therefore, the reason I hardly write these days is from lack of solitude. It's ridiculous how many things take me away from writing when writing used to be my main identity/pursuit.

Even when I'm around lots of people, though, there's still that persistent loneliness, which only writing seems to appease. Saying something—putting an idea into words—feels like an accomplishment; it takes me away from the loneliness of the present moment. There's the possibility of touching the infinite, however momentary or fleeting.

I used to love the sensation of writing with a pen, but how it hurts and the pain detracts from what I want to say. How can an aching hand freely speak of joy?

It's nearly 11 p.m. I am sitting up in bed alone. I am not writing now because I am especially lonely but because I started to get that yearning that means it's time to say something, which I can only say with written words. I'd be tongue-tied if I tried to say any of this aloud. The paper is such an absorbent, steady listener—one couldn't ask for better.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Digging through journal pages, sometimes surprising artifacts are found

Looking through an old journal recently, I was elated to find a photo of my Aunt Stella's bedroom pasted into one of its pages. It was within a sort-of collage I'd made as a tribute to my then-boyfriend in California. ("Thinking of him in North Carolina," I wrote on the opposite page.)

Last spring, a writing teacher had asked me to describe Aunt Stella's house in greater detail in an essay I'd written about her, but I couldn't remember its layout, especially beyond the front rooms most often seen by visitors. I thought maybe the guest room was in an isolated back corner of her house.

And there was the evidence in the photo—next to the guest bed is a door that leads to the hall. It added another piece to the jigsaw puzzle her house has become in my mind, almost all the rooms filled in now except for the mysterious bathroom that I can't visualize at all, save for the white enamel, claw-footed tub.

This is the only copy I have of that photo, the negative lost as far as I know. I know it is probably of little importance to anyone else—who else would care if there was a door there? There are only a few of us who can still conjure up the memory of her house as it was this point in time.

The photo is a document of a place I can no longer visit, as the house was sold years ago to people I don't know. Looking at it makes me feel a little more whole, like a missing piece of myself has been found. In that moment I feel like I am back home.

The boyfriend? Long gone, his head folded down in the collage (as seen above) so I could get a better scan of the other photos. And yet he is what I thought was important the moment I glued them in; I thought he would be important to me forever.

A journal can provide accidental but valuable artifacts of your life, even when you don't realize you're placing them in there, the years like layers between the moment you write something and the moment you read it.

Perhaps it's best not to censor or edit yourself too much as you compile a journal. The future-you sometimes knows best what to look for, what has value that lasts.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Using WOW and other strategies to write and revise fiction

I went to a terrific workshop given by Mary Amato yesterday for SCBWI's Author Book Club. Her topic was Revision, specifically the 56(!) drafts she went through for her last book, Invisible Lines.

Mary spoke about all the levels of work she puts into a novel, from writing out all actions on wall charts, index cards, etc., to putting herself in the action she is describing. For instance, she had written a paragraph about a boy lying in the grass looking at the clouds, but it just didn't feel descriptive enough to her. So she got up from her desk, went to her backyard, and lay down on the grass. Just those few minutes gave her the idea of clouds imagined as graffiti, which became three pages of text.

Mary offered these 6 Things to Succeed with Revision:

  1. Fluidity: don't get stuck with ideas in your original draft (to divorce yourself from your own lovely prose, write out the actions as simple sentences to see if they work)
  2. Define yearning: every main character should want something (She suggests interviewing yourself as the main character, asking "Who am I? What is important to me? What do I want?")
  3. Define the story: use the WOW technique, e.g. Wants something; Obstacle; Win [for a description of this, see Mary's essay on How to Encourage Creative Writing]
  4. Get into character: literally act out the scene
  5. Use resonating motifs: make multiple story webs, if necessary
  6. Look at secondary characters and subplots: make sure they amplify the original theme
I didn't realize that writing a novel could be such hard work—which is probably why the only novel I've ever written is something I'm not even sure I want to re-read myself. But having this six-step outline makes me almost eager to revise it.

For more tips and recommended resources, see Mary Amato's Writer's Blog.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The super-absorbent writer

 As evident in recent posts, I've become slightly obsessed with journals, mostly because I don't know what to do with my old journals. I don't want to pitch them, but I don't necessarily want to read through them on a regular basis, either.  If you look too much to the past, how can you live fully in the present?

Maybe if you call a journal a "writer's notebook" instead, it becomes a source of material rather than mere documentation of one's life. But isn't there a distinction between a notebook and a journal? A notebook would aim to provide a ready source of material, a journal would aim to document moments or feelings, no thought for material purpose.

I suppose a good, or at least thorough, writer would keep both—the notebook aimed toward public viewing, the journal held more private.

What brings up this observation is a long piece on David Sedaris in the Washington Post Style section a few days ago. In it, the reporter, Monica Hesse, mentions that Sedaris keeps a small, spiral-bound notebook in his shirt pocket, in which he records observations of everyday life, with the intention of spinning them into stories. Hesse observes:

If your life, however, is writing about your life, then how do you find time to live in ways worth writing about? Does being a famous self-parodist make it harder to be a good self-parodist?

I don't want to end up as a caricature in one of Sedaris's stories, so I don't relish the idea of ever speaking to him. Surely, though, there are people with the opposite desire, who want to be granted some kind of immortality through his textual alchemy. Wouldn't this affect how they interact with him?

Maybe that's true for any writer. An acquaintance once told me that she had a friend who attended a dinner party with Joyce Carol Oates. The friend related an interesting experience and a little while later, like clockwork, the story had been turned into a piece of fiction by Oates. It was no longer her story.

Best to keep your lips pursed around those super-absorbent writers if you don't want your stories taken. Perhaps, though, such super-absorbency is the mark of a great writer, and should be the aim for any journal writer or note taker, to take what you need and make with it what you can.