Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving Leftovers, and Some Fresh Meat

First, the leftover thoughts from last week:

Why do dogs love turkey so much? We left the turkey on the stove on Saturday night, to be picked at. My dog parked herself in the kitchen and barked at it, one bark every 5 or 10 seconds, until we kicked her out of the room.

Thanks for the comments on my last post. This is something I’m ruminating on and will likely come back to in the not-too-distant future.

Now for some fresh meat:

Well, there’s two days left in the insanity that is NaNoWriMo. To those of you that have crossed (hi, Donna) or will cross the finish line with your minimum of 50,000 words, a big, hearty congratulations! I’m sure you know the work isn’t done yet, but you definitely deserve a pat on the back.

For those of you who tried and did not or will not reach the magic line, that’s OK. I sometimes think we overdo it with our kids and the non-competitive thing – you know, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game and all that – but not in this case. For NaNo it really is the effort that counts. So, congratulations on trying, hopefully it is something that was good for you whether you reached 50K or not. The real important part is what comes next: finishing. I mean, really finishing the story. That means not stopping just because you hit 50K words if the story’s not really finished.

NaNo was a bust for me this year, but that’s OK in my book. I probably shouldn’t have signed up for it in the first place. As my musings in September and October showed (okay, so that last one was really November. I didn't want to throw off my posting schedule), I was rather ambivalent on it, and, once I started, I was not really ‘all in’. I was still pounding out revisions on that other thing, which was much more important to me than NaNo. So, in the first two weeks of NaNo, I managed all of 4100 words. When I cleared Parallel Lives from the deck I had a brief burst where I nearly quadrupled the word count in a span of four days (which was also tied into a change in PoV on my NaNo novel). And then I pretty much stopped, overwhelmed by a combination of Holiday preparations and something new that crept into my brain.

But again, it’s okay. NaNoWriMo 2010 showed me two things: first, that I could shut down that irritating (and often disabling) internal editor; two, that I could write 50,000 words in a month. Knowing this, I really didn’t need to do NaNo this year. After finishing last year’s NaNo, I cranked out 44,000 words on what became Parallel Lives in just under a month. So I came into the year’s NaNo without really needing it in the same way I needed it last year.

Detractors of NaNo point to tips on padding word count and talk about how it encourages sloppy writing habits. What I found this year, in particular, once I got way behind, is that I didn’t like pushing myself in the same way I did last year. I would start a writing session knowing that I ‘needed’ 2800 words to meet my quota for the day, and I found myself obsessively-checking my word count, and pushing on when my body and mind were telling me I was through for the moment. This works well for some people, but it’s not my style.

I think the biggest problem with me and NaNo this year was I just didn’t quite have the story down. It’s been in my head for the last year-and-a-half or so, and I’ve done a couple of start-stops on it. I figured, let me give it a fresh start for NaNo. Good idea. But I could never quite get a good hold of it. I thought I might be onto something when I changed the PoV (I keep hearing a particular character in my head as the MC, and was using first; it wasn’t until I switched to 3rd that I had my biggest burst of writing). And then, in last week’s writing group, I wrote a vignette about a man and a woman in a workplace breakroom. I like it a lot, and really want to do something with it, I just don’t know what, and it’s kind of pushed this story back a little bit. And, in the spirit of NaNoReviMo, I also broke out last year’s NaNo and started reading through it. I was never happy with the way it ended – it felt rushed at the time, the product of erroneous thinking on my part, that I needed to not just hit 50K words, but that I also needed to finish the story. I also wanted to see if it was as bad as my memory of a quickie read-through last April or May told me it was. It was, and it wasn’t, but after getting through half of it yesterday, I think I can see the diamond in the rough.

So, I pretty much put this year’s NaNo to bed at 19,000 words. It’s still a story that wants to be told, but I guess I’m just not quite ready to tell it. Not yet. Right now there are other stories to tell, other stories to polish. I guess this one just needs more time in the hopper.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Women and Men

First, some music, just because I like the song, and we haven't heard from They Might Be Giants in this space for a while (Short video, 1:47):

In early October my wife and I had the pleasure of playing host/tour guide for a gentleman who was in from out of town. How this came about is too long for this space, but neither my wife nor I were particularly looking forward to the day: there had been some unpleasant e-mail exchanges between my wife and this guy in the last two weeks before his arrival. Again, a long story. But we had an obligation to the guy, and, as much as we wanted to just tell him, "Do whatever the hell you want," we're not that kind of people.

He arrived in town and we met up with him, took him to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and then out to dinner. Everything was civil and pleasant, we all had a nice time. Finally, we took him to a local bar to watch one of the World Series games (it might have been game 1; I’m not really up on these things). It was very important for him to watch the World Series out somewhere, as opposed to in his hotel room. You see, as far as I can tell, the main thrust of what this guy does is, he collects stories and uses them to build contacts with people. For what purpose, I'm not really sure. So, throughout the day, we heard about how he was in this town or that, how he met this person or that (not name-dropping, by the way; it wasn’t a celebrity name-dropping sort of thing), and what he talked to them about. And we saw some pictures. So, naturally, we also had our picture taken in the bar, with the TV in the background, so that he could undoubtedly say, somewhere down the line, how he watched the World Series in Cooperstown, the birthplace of baseball*. Hey, nifty!

Again, it was more pleasant than I expected, but I was sneaking glances at the clock, willing the hands toward 9:30 when we would have to say goodbye. The kids were at rehearsal, and that’s when we would have to go and pick them up. And then another couple came in and sat just around the corner of the bar from us, and everything changed.

Our guest (we’ll call him ‘G’) overheard something the new man (henceforth known as ‘N’) said, and made a comment. Soon, he had out his blackberry and was showing them a picture of how he was, just a few weeks ago, in the very town they live in! They were from Cape Cod, which was evident the minute N opened his mouth. So, within a few minutes, the five of us were in a cheerful conversation.

After a few minutes, N’s wife (now called ‘D’) came around the corner of the bar and started talking to my wife. I was involved in the conversation for a few minutes and then got dragged into a conversation about hockey, which is a much better thing to talk about than baseball, as far as I'm concerned. As a native New Yorker who somehow grew up as a Bruins fan, it’s rare to have a conversation about my favorite team that doesn’t devolve into “Bruins suck!” (not quite; that was high school, it’s better now). I did notice that my wife and D seemed to be having a pretty serious conversation, while We Men were yukking it up.

All-too-soon it was time for us to go (funny how that changes; I was now sorry we had to leave). The evening, which had been crawling by after dinner, ended up flying. The plot picked up via the introduction of new characters. We said our goodbyes and, on the way to the car, I said to my wife, “Well, you and D seemed to be having a pretty serious conversation there.”

Indeed, they did. My wife learned how D’s father had recently passed away, and N’s brother as well. The trip was a way for them to celebrate N’s birthday privately, a chance to get away for a little bit from the reminders of recent losses. She also learned that N and D were childless, and that D had suffered through at least two miscarriages during the early days of their marriage.

I marveled over the exchange of information and said, “I learned that N’s favorite all-time hockey player is Terry O’Reilly.”**

One of the surest ways for me – or anyone, for that matter – to get into trouble is to make sweeping generalizations about the sexes, which is part of why I sat on this post for so long. And yet, I can’t help it. We spent six hours with G, and never really learned a thing about him, though I can say he also didn’t learn a whole lot about us, either. In forty minutes, we both learned more about N and D than G, and my wife learned far more about D than I did about N. Is this just a case of two people who clicked in a particular way, whose personalities were matched in such a way that information was passed back and forth so freely? Or is this the sort of thing that is much more common among women than men? At the risk of a controversy, it seems, from this man’s perspective, women in general are much more willing to talk about personal stuff than men, even among people they don’t know. But that’s how I see it. Am I wrong? Since my readership seems highly-skewed, I turn it over to you: what do you think?

Thanks for reading, as always, and have a pleasant weekend.

*Cooperstown as the birthplace of baseball is a myth long-since debunked.
**Terry O'Reilly is pretty high on my list of all-time favorites, a great example of how hard work and determination can pay off. Youtube highlights tend to focus on his many fights, but he developed into a pretty good all-around player.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Monday Fluff Post: Suspension of What?

A few weeks back, we had a conversation at the dinner table about…something, I don’t really remember what it was. Books, movies, maybe something else, I don’t really remember. What I do remember is I reached for a phrase, one that the writers among my readers are probably familiar with (and maybe everyone, I’m not sure): Suspension of disbelief. I reached for the phrase, but what came out of my mouth instead was ‘belief’, as in “suspend our belief” I’m not sure why it came out the way it did, except that it seemed exactly right at the time.

The very next day I saw this phrase in a comment on someone else’s blog: “but it certainly requires some suspension of disbelief.” Funny that this popped up less than 24 hours after I butchered the phrase. It made me think about it again. And, turtle that I am, here it is, a month later, and I’m finally posting something about it.

According to history as told by Wikipedia (suspect though it may be), and Bartleby’s familiar quotations, the phrase was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge back in 1817:
“It was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

Wait, what did he say?

Let’s see. If I read a book that involves a magic carpet, what am I suspending to enjoy? As far as I know, carpets can’t fly, they can’t be imbued with a magical energy that lifts them off the ground and renders them capable of flight. So, I suppose I don’t believe in flying carpets, thus I’m suspending my disbelief. ‘Suspending my disbelief’ is, therefore, the correct expression.

But wait! Carpets can’t fly! To believe that a carpet can fly, I must suspend my belief in the world I know, in order to pretend to believe in something else. So, maybe I am suspending my belief after all.

My head hurts. I believe it’s time for another cup of coffee.

On another note:

My wife returned from her trip to visit her brother. She did not bring my book back. I think she tossed it out somewhere on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Seriously, it’s now in the hands of my sister-in-law (hmm, she’s married to my brother-in-law, so does that make her my sister-in-law, in-law?), who is an avid reader. Once my wife had read it, I found it was easier to leave it with another person that I know. I am relieved that my wife liked it, and that she didn’t come home giving me this look:

I have to have a serious conversation with her about it now, though, see if I can tease out of her anything that was wrong beyond the page of spelling errors and typos that she e-mailed me.

It’s been a relief, I have to say, having it out of my hands, and my head. I’m nervously awaiting an unbiased opinion, but that was one big hurdle crossed.

For my American readers, I wish you all a happy, healthy, and safe Thanksgiving. For my non-American friends, I wish you a happy, healthy and safe week. I’ll be back on Friday.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Fiddler of the Truth

In Monday’s post I alluded to my girls’ participation in the high school musical as being difficult for me. It was, but it wasn’t all related to the seemingly non-stop shuttling of kids back and forth to school for evening rehearsals. That could have been a lot worse. Our town is in the hinterlands relative to the school, a ten- to fifteen-minute drive, which isn’t too bad, but that ten minutes is ten miles of wear and tear on the car, ten miles of gas, and ten+ minutes of my life – each way. Fortunately, we did some ride sharing with a family that lives nearby, which took some of the load off. But I also got to let my daughter drive a bit, which is good practice for her. She’s improved quite a bit since she got behind the wheel for the first time this summer.

No, the tougher part was the emotional wear-and-tear. The school production this year was Fiddler on the Roof.

Now, I like to play at being the hard guy. I sit at the dinner table and make sweeping generalizations, bold proclamations, rigid declarations, and astute observations. I play at being the tough Dad. I have to, as I’m the only man in the house. Even our pets are girls. I’m completely surrounded. Someone’s got to be the stern male role model, right? So I bother the girls incessantly, and ask them if this boy or that one needs to have a conversation with me and my trusty lead pipe. For some strange reason, neither of the girls has brought home a boyfriend yet; I wonder why…

Despite the bluster, I’m a soppy sentimentalist, and everyone in this house knows it. And after seeing Fiddler on the Roof (the movie) for the first time, just before school started, I was not looking forward to watching the school production. Why?

If you’ve never seen Fiddler, it’s the story of a community of Jews in a small Russian village in 1905. At the outset, all is well and peaceful. However, change is coming, and we see the protagonist, Tevye the milkman, struggle to deal with these changes, which come from outside and inside the family. These changes threaten the very foundations – the traditions – his life is based upon.

The musical is fiction, based on a series of stories by Sholom Aleichem, yet it is also The Truth, and that is what we strive for in writing fiction, The Truth. Tevye is forced to come to grips with a changing world and changing traditions as his daughters assert their independence, and seek control over their own lives. I can relate to it so well, because I’m living it. While neither of my daughters has brought home a suitor (it must be that lead-pipe talk of mine), change is coming in my house. Both girls are in high school. One is college-bound next year. The entire dynamic of the family is changing; the house will seem so much emptier with one less child, and our lives, which have revolved so much around the kids for the last 17 years, will shift in some new direction. These thoughts were very much on the front of my mind when I approached that auditorium last Thursday night for the premiere, and I was honestly afraid I’d sit in the audience with a finger wedged into the corner of my eye to keep it from leaking.

And it wasn’t just from watching my own kids up there, either (in truth, both of them were chorus girls, though my older daughter also had the scene-stealing role of Grandma Tzeitel in Tevye’s dream sequence. I’m hoping someone sticks a video up on Youtube, but it hasn’t happened yet). It was from watching all the kids -- the ones I’ve seen grow from gap-toothed, chubby-cheeked imps to handsome young men and beautiful young women -- play-acting as adults, and knowing that, all-too-soon, they were no longer going to be play-acting.

I am happy to say that the performances (I went to 3 of the 4; Good Dad!) were excellent. It helps that the play’s director is a theater professional and was a member of the original Broadway cast, and that there are some remarkably-talented kids in this school. The kids were fantastic. And I didn’t embarrass myself, I didn’t choke or sob or cry, though The Truth behind the fiction was there the whole time, poking at my mind.

As a writer, I hope my little made-up stories and worlds can convey The Truth as well as The Fiddler on the Roof did, because that is how you really grab someone. Lots of stories are fun and entertaining, but the ones that stick with you long after you put the book down are the ones that find The Truth. They can be set on a starship 500 years in the future, or in a Ukrainian village 100 years ago, but they’re relatable, no matter what, because they hit the mark, they find The Truth. That’s what I want to write: The Truth.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Back on Track?

Last week was a tough one. If you read – or, rather, viewed – Friday’s post, you get the idea of what I was up against. It was a trying week on several levels. First, my NaNoWriMo and my NaNoReviMo turned into NaNoNo-Mo. Hence, the brick wall. The WriMo was understandable. I had written two days, getting a little over 4000 words total, but my focus was on ReviMo, trying to clear Parallel Lives off my desk and out of my mind. And that’s where the bigger problem was. By Tuesday last week the brick wall was evident. I knew there were problem areas on the MS (and still are). Unlike past weeks, when I pulled out a chunk to work on it, I had nothing. Usually I can rewrite an entire chapter without too much trouble, and even if I end up circling all the way back to where I started and decide it was better off that way, I can write, I can work it, I can play around with it and think about it. But not last week. I was stuck.

My end decision (and I may touch on this more on Friday) was to ship it out. It went on Friday to my committed reader. And this morning, I printed the bugger out and handed it to my wife, who is quite happy to finally have it. Whether she will still feel the same when she finishes it, I don’t know. I was able to do this in part because she’s gone away this week to help out her brother and his wife, who are in the process of bringing verrrry small triplets home from the hospital. I’m not sure who’s more frightened: her, at having to handle 5-pound babies, or me, at the prospect of my wife reading my book. I’m glad, on some level, to not have to look at her as she reads it. I gave her an excerpt last winter and spend 25 minutes walking up and down our snowy street while she read, just because I couldn’t sit while she read it. I’m going to have to get over this. I actually feel good, though, now that I’ve done it.

The other tough part of the week was the high school musical. Both my girls were in it. They had to deal with a grueling rehearsal schedule up until Thursday, when the musical premiered. It was hard on them, but tough on me, too, for reasons that went beyond arranging car pools and schlepping them to and fro. More on that in the near future.

Now that all of that is out of the way, perhaps I can get back to the WriMo. According to my stats page, I only need to average 2700 words per day to finish on time. Piece of cake!

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Lost Dream

Dreams are often filled with garbled messages and strange people—do they really mean anything? In all likelihood, yes. The problem is, dreams tend to dissolve on contact with the waking world, like cotton candy in your mouth, and the harder we try to remember them, the faster they disappear. In literature and movies, dreams are often presented as perfect bits of narrative with often-clear symbolism that everybody – reader and fictional protagonist – 'gets'. The reality is, they usually look more like something out of a David Lynch film:

I woke up at that slippery point that would still be considered late Saturday night, but is really Sunday morning – somewhere between 1 and 2, according to the clock, though I could be misremembering – with a crystal clear image in my mind, something from a dream I’d just been having. “Yeah,” I thought. “That’s good. That would make a great story.” And then, turning it over once or twice in my head, I went so far as to think, “That might even be better than my NaNo. I might want to scrap the NaNo and do this instead.” That’s how good it was.

You already know where this is going, don’t you?

I sat up in bed and wrote out a couple of lines in my head. I heard the words, saw a scene working out. “Yeah, that’s good.” And then I went back to sleep.

In the morning I stumbled down through the dark, made myself coffee, sat at the computer and started checking NaNoReviMo messages (17-1/2 hours for Peggy—way to go!), eyeballed some blogs—and it hit me: I had an idea last night, a good idea.

And that’s all I can remember, is that I had a good idea.

I broke a fundamental Rule of Writing, one that may be even more important than “Show, don’t tell”; “Avoid adverbs like the plague”; etc.

Keep a notebook handy at all times.

The funny thing was, when I was getting ready to go upstairs to bed, I eyeballed my notebook. It was sitting there, smack dab in the middle of my desk, standing out like that one Pope in the ‘Find the Pope’s in the Pizza contest’ (“All two hundred and fifty-four…Some are easy, some are hard…”). I looked at that notebook and thought, “I should take it up, just in case.” I wasn’t planning on writing, and nobody really wakes up in the middle of the night with a great idea that just needs to be written down right now, do they? That’s just some cheesy cliché. It doesn’t really happen, does it?

Apparently, it does.

I can console myself at least with the fact that I may not have written anything down even if I’d had the book. It’s quite likely I would have just gone back to sleep, without even thinking of the notebook. Or maybe I would have written something illegible, or something nonsensical. I went to my writer’s group and tried to write my way to it, by writing about what I thought I could remember about this dream, or image, or whatever it was. I don’t think I got any closer to it, however. But I did learn my lesson. Last night, the notebook came up with me.

And I brought a pen, too.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Frenzy: The NaNos

Oh, what a fool am I.
So, I committed to two NaNos this week.
NaNoWriMo, of course, that you know about. But when Peggy Eddleman started talking up NaNoReviMo, I thought, why not?
Why not? indeed. Parallel Lives was just about ready to go. And it’s about time, too. I’ve been writing that sucker since last December (oh, and there was a good chunk of November when I was thinking about it). It’s past time for other people to see it, and I saw the end approaching: I was almost done. The way I figured it, I’d have it out the door in the hands of at least two readers by this past weekend. It would take a few days (or maybe even weeks) to get a response, and then I could look at the responses, process them, and get back to work on it. Yes to NaNoReviMo!
In the meantime, I figured I could make good headway on a novel that’s been in my head for closer to two years. 50,000 words in a month? No problem, I’ve done it before (Twice, in fact. NaNo last year, and it took just about a month to get the first 50K of Parallel Lives down last December). And the fact is, I need to get onto something else. I don’t hate the WiP, but there is that deep-seated need to write something new. You know all about it, I’m sure.
I closed my document last Friday feeling good. I was pretty sure I was done (again). I told one of my readers to expect it over the weekend. I knew there would be issues with it, there were some orphans and hanging bits here and there, but it felt like it was time.
And then I took one last, quick cruise on Saturday. Damn those last, quick cruises (actually not; I’m glad I did). I found a hole I could drive my grandfather’s 1966 Chrysler Newport through.

“Crap,” I said. “Oh, well, easy fix.”
Not so easy.
It took me three full days of pounding away at that problem before I got to the point where I could move on, and I’m still not sure I like the solution I came up with. And, like picking at a loose thread on a sweater, I found more problems that I just couldn’t quite live with. As a result, I’ve been living NaNoRevMo, and NaNoWriMo has lagged way behind. I managed to crank out 2074 words on Tuesday, and I’ve done absolute zero since. According to the NaNo tracker, I now need to average 1776 words per day to hit 50K by November 30. That actually doesn’t look so bad, really, but it’s contingent on clearing Parallel Lives off the decks.
The good thing is, I’m not all that worried about ‘winning’ NaNo. Yes, I’d love to get this idea fleshed out this month, but it’s not going to be the end of the world if I don’t. No, the novel that is nearly ‘complete’ is much higher on my priority list right now. That’s the one I’ve got to get done.

Other business: Many thanks to Cassie Mae for bestowing the Versatile Blogger Award on me last week. I really appreciate it, Cassie! I’m supposed to tell you seven things about myself and then pass the award on to 15(!) other bloggers. Given my current condition, however, I’m going to cop out and say check out this post for Ten things about me, if you haven’t already. I’m also going to have to pass on passing this along right now, I’m sorry to say. It’s just that kind of week.
 I hope you all have a great weekend.

Photo courtesy of denizen24

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NaNo Yes, or NaNo No?


I must be nuts. Appropriate, since I just finished reading Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (I'm just loving my daughter's AP English class reading list). I heartily recommend that book, by the way. But, yes, I'm in. I actually sketched out a short list of characters and the barest bones of an outline. I'm kind of cheating, I guess,  because it's a story that I started two years ago, probably got about 10K words on paper, but I'm starting fresh with the writing, so that counts for something, right? Oh, boy, see you in December....

Actually, I entirely aim to keep up with the regular posting schedule here. Whether I produce anything of value is an entirely different question.