On “failing” NaNoWriMo 2014

So even though I haven’t been posting here as much as I ought, I did post a series of meanderings over at Writer’s Digest over the NaNoWriMo insanity. The last post I somehow missed, but it’s live right here. You can click through all the other bits I shared from that final post, but I wanted to share the post here because it’s important.

So, read away, losers.

So here’s the thing. If you’re being technical, Jonathan and I didn’t win NaNoWriMo. Neither of us hit 50,000 words.

But I’m not upset in the least.

Why? Because NaNoWriMo isn’t just about “winning” really. Sure, you get a nice little badge and you can share an icon on your blog and social media. But at the end of the day sometimes (and this has happened to me) what you end up with is more work than what you started with.

From the outset, Jonathan and I wanted to use NaNoWriMo as a tool. Not an event. The focus, for us, was kindling a fire, carving out some time in our equally hectic lives to do a project that neither of us could manage alone. Did we do that? Hell yes we did. To the tune of around 70,000 words, we’re more than halfway through the book, and getting into the nitty gritty now. The deep collaboration. We had no way of knowing, starting out, where that would take us, where we’d end up. But once I hit about 35,000 words on my part of the story it became clear that we had to work more closely—and more slowly—to get the rest of the book right.

The most amazing part of the whole process has been sharing a brain. Well, not exactly. A space. That’s why we called our blog Two Brain Space—instead of going it alone, Jonathan and I have been able to bandy about when we’re stuck for ideas. And going back and reading what he’s written always inspires me to tweak and improve, and sometimes figure out entire sections of the book. It’s a thrilling, wonderful process to share an imagined world with someone who isn’t you. Like playing pretend all over again. But, in our case, with more spiders.

Defining your own success is a totally hackneyed concept, sure. But if you lost NaNoWriMo this year, don’t despair. You’ve started something amazing. Something no one else could do the way you’ve done it. You’re not a loser.

Stephen King’s On Writing was a big influence on my process early on as a writer. And he’s the one that’s forever lodged the concept of excavation to me—that we’re not so much writing books as we are excavating them, like archaeologists. Not every writer has the same experience or the same tools.

And NaNoWriMo is just one of those tools. What matters is that you become familiar with the habit of writing. That even when November is over, you’re finding those whispers at the back of your mind telling you to dig a little more. You’re out there finding new tools to help you dig out that dragon skeleton. Or maybe it’s a cavern to another world. Or an old spaceship. But you’re the only one that can do it, the only one that can find it.
So NaNo losers, let’s celebrate! So long as you’ve honed your skills and fine-tuned your approach, you’ve won.

Being as Good as My Word: On Getting Distance from Writing

image cc by sa 3.0 - Natania Barron
image cc by sa 3.0 – Natania Barron

Writers. We’re a funny bunch. I fully believe that in order to cope with the general stress and chaos of having many worlds and stories and people in our heads, we impose odd deadlines and limitations on ourselves. We don’t always share these with the masses, and some of them are downright personal. But it helps us make sense of all the fractal patterns spinning around us on a daily basis. Because otherwise I’m pretty sure we’d never get anything done.

I do this quite frequently. And after the nine months of writing drought that came during pregnancy, I wrote a little book called Rock Revival about a fictional rock band. I wrote it, edited it, sent it to beta readers, edited it some more, and then casually set it aside. I told myself that as soon as I finished Watcher of the Skies, I’d pick it back up and get a better look at it. Because at that point, I had zero ability to judge it.

I remember reading Stephen King’s On Writing about a decade ago, and how he talked about this practice. Letting a book go for a while, after it’s finished, and doing something else. I had no specific timeline on Watcher–it was a far slower book than anything I’ve written in a while. But as I finished it, the melodies of Rock Revival started thrumming in my head (not the least of which was because Karen and Michael think it’s the best thing I’ve written to date, and have poked and prodded a good amount on the subject).

So I took out the draft and started reading it. Oh, there were some edits to be made. But what I found as I went through was that I wasn’t editing, or re-plotting, or rearranging. Really, it was just some tidying up here and there. A scene here, a deleted sentence, the removal of a cuss word. And it hit me, in a strange way, that I may have leveled as a writer. It used to be that I was so frustrated with my old drafts that I’d rewrite everything. EVERYTHING. Instead of going through and picking out the bits and pieces, I ripped the entire foundation down and started anew.

Now, I have trunk novels. I think at this point I know them when I see them. And it’s a hard, sad process to realize that something you wrote is never going to be good enough. But it’s something else altogether to step back and take a deep breath and realize… you did a good thing. You wrote something moving. And… weirdly… it doesn’t feel like you wrote it at all. In the time that I let Rock Revival sit, I got a new job. My daughter learned to walk and run, and now she’s having little adorable conversations. The seasons went around once, and then some. I gained a sense of confidence I didn’t have before. And it’s not about sales or markets or any of that junk. It’s just about me. Hey, sometimes that’s what it’s gotta be.

Distance is hard to get. And while letting a book sit for a year seemed like some wild hallucination to me the first time I thought about it, now it does make sense.

I have promised to find Rock Revival a home. I began that process last night. Another promise. Another process. I’m not worried about where I’ll be standing in another year. Who knows, really? All I can think is that I hope I’ll feel as if I’ve grown as much as I have between the last two books. Because while that growth is painful, it’s also thrilling. Without that growth, it’s just stagnant. And if there’s anything that kills a writer fast, it’s stasis.

A Room of Their Own: A Look at Characters and the Spaces They Inhabit

Image in the public domain. Via wikimedia commons

The last few days I’ve been thinking about some interesting aspects of the writing process, particularly in line with writing this follow-up (not really quite a sequel) to Pilgrim of the Sky. And a great deal of it has to do with space. So, in the first book, Maddie leaves her space (her apartment she shared with Alvin) and spends the rest of the book going to other places. But she most certainly doesn’t make a space of her own. As this book begins, she’s half in the process of doing that. But, as is the habit of many of my characters (when I think upon it) she doesn’t have a lot of agency when it comes to space. She appreciates decor significantly more than the average person, sure. But really, the only character in Pilgrim who’s created their own space to dwell in is Matilda. And we know how that turns out.

So, to take a step back and explain a little of what I mean, it’s important to note that Watcher of the Skies isn’t about discovering one’s godling status. Maddie’s journey was coming grips with her own demi-divinity. But in Second World the godlings there are established. Sure, they don’t trumpet their divinity to the skies (at least not the Londinium crew) but they have built lives–in some cases multiple lives–around their power. They’re comfortable, they’ve settled. Verta, the Venus analog, has an entire temple/brothel that she’s lovingly curated for over a century. And recently, aboard the Heol, I’ve been able to carve out a bit of La Roche’s space.  For those following along at home, La Roche is, of course, the predecessor to Randall in Pilgrim. He shares many of the same qualities, and even looks a bit like him. They are both from the Apollo analogue. While Randall characterized the genius aspect–always brimming with work and science and ideas–La Roche is the flashier, gaudier side of the god of the sun. And he’s very much aware of that fact. And proud of it. I mean, it is very fun to think about how a demigod might go about choosing their drapes, isn’t it?

Previously, I didn’t have time to create the spaces for my characters. The book just wasn’t written that way. But it is really important this time around. It’s a way to get into their skins, to see the world from their unusual perspective. Joss, as a character, hasn’t yet gotten to the point where he can create his own space (and his definition of space is significantly more complicated than Verta’s or La Roche’s–so far his only “space” is the roof of various buildings, since he can’t yet get the hang of sleeping inside). But for the first time in the series, the Apollo “raven” lad is able to make his own little corner. What he keeps, how he travels–all these things speak to him as a character. And I rather liked this bit. (With NaNoDraft caveats here!)

I’d never had the pleasure of seeing La Roche’s home in Londinium, but I was not surprised at the state of the cabin. As captain, or whatever official title he had on the boat, he commanded the most impressive quarters. Garish, for my liking, but not at all like the deep, sultry complexity of Verta’s brothel and temple. La Roche liked shiny things, gilded things, silver things, the sorts of things with corkscrews and curlicues on top for no purpose at all other than to draw the eye. Like a magpie in his nest.

Stepping in I had to shade my eyes from it all. There were so many things to look at that it made me dizzy. Shaking my head I was able to parse out the individual parts of the room—the elaborately carved bed, the thick, stuffed chairs with gilded embroidery, the many books and scrolls tucked away on shelves.

And in the middle of it all sat Andrew La Roche, smoking a long, narrow black pipe, one leg crossed over the other and staring at me intently. He wore a striped black silk robe lined with fur about the neck, and held at his side a bit of brandy which he swished back and forth in the glass. Brandy did make sense. It was the smell I’d gotten a whiff of most times around him.

Other things of note: I wrote a scene with a crazy Kraken who thinks she’s a fish, lit some bodies on fire, and shrunk my main character a few inches. That’ll teach him!

Words are flowing out like endless rain inside a paper cup

Image by Natania Barron. Ben Folds Five – Live in Cary. CC BY SA 2.0

Fall is here. This makes me happy giddy in a thousand ways since it’s my favorite time of year, and here in the South we’re getting a final respite from a very humid summer. “They” (as my mom says) are calling for a cold winter. And by cold winter, that probably means it’ll snow once. Or maybe twice. And we will dub it the Frostocalypse.

But I have been doing lots of fall stuff, including harvesting persimmons from two trees on our property (and amusing my son by climbing a ladder) and making exactly one jar of persimmon jam.

Exactly one jar.

I have been meaning to work on The Wind Through the Wheat, but my brain and the characters in Rock Revival are telling me otherwise. While I initially had plans to finish this at the end of August, it now seems highly probable that it will be finished at the end of September. It’s been so long since a book took hold of me that I figure I need to pay attention. It’s never happened with non speculative fiction, and as a result every time I get in the car and listen to music I’m getting new ideas about the next scene and strings of dialogue just start running through my brain. I fall asleep thinking of hot lights and chord changes. It’s pretty amazing and wonderful.

At the moment we’re in the lull before the end. The band has just played their first live gig in more than a year, and Kate is still trying to figure herself out and how to live without drinking everything away. I started this book thinking about religion and rock, but it’s become a lot more about addiction and rock. It’s more a “revival” in that, well, Kate nearly dies. The band nearly dies. Two of the principle characters are raging addicts, and that really puts a whole different spin on the central themes of the book.

The live show is a disaster, from Kate’s eyes anyway. She has no musical chemistry with their temporary bass player, and she’s got zero confidence (and really, very little of an idea as to how to perform while totally sober). This rough bit is sort of at the heart of what Kate’s journey is about. Finding herself, expressing herself, like a normal person, instead of running away:

For years I thought I’d only cried when I was angry. But then I realized that, when I was drinking, I basically boozed it up instead of let myself feel sad. Or boozed up while feeling sad. See: nearly dying a few months back.

And you know what? It felt strangely cathartic when I was done crying. The night had not gone well. We were off to an inauspicious start. But we’d failed, and I’d felt it. I hadn’t numbed it away, I’d let it just happen. No one came to rescue me, but the cold drizzle did enough to wake me up and remind me that I’m not the only one in the band with problems, nor the only one who screwed up the chords and forgot to sing.

Now, personally, I’m not an alcoholic. And really, it’s only by virtue of missing out on genetic Russian roulette, because both sides of my family have their share of them. My  mother’s brother even took his life after struggling for decades. I’m acquainted with the power it has over people, how it can utterly change them. And this book–since it’s told in Kate’s voice–has a lot to do with her exploration of the world outside of her own addiction, trying to find out exactly who she is now that alcohol isn’t always in the mix.

As a writer, writing a first-person, I’ve done a lot of thinking. Musicians do write their memoirs. But this isn’t a memoir. It’s not about setting the record (pun intended) straight. For Kate, it’s the act of telling her story that’s important. It’s putting  it down in something more lyrics, to piece it together. She’s a writer, too, but she’s different than I am. I’m obsessed with the role of women in rock and roll and she doesn’t care. I’m generally a warm, inviting, friendly person; she’s extremely guarded and hesitant. She’s not a very reliable narrator sometimes because, even though this is written after the fact, she’s struggling to make a story out of her life. And I think that’s one of the challenges I’m  having as a writer. Sure, it’s a contrived plot. But writing this as something written by a “real” person, I don’t want to force plot points into submission. I just want to tell her story. Which, by extension, keeps going well after the book is over. But I also realize that as the storyteller I need to maintain certain narrative expectations.

Anyway! If you’re curious, I’ve been building the playlist for the book, and I’m up to over 450 songs. If you’re at all intrigued as to what’s been playing a lot around here lately, take a listen. I swear, the book’s written between the notes.

I’m working on another post about bassists brought on by watching Ben Folds Five last weekend in Cary (see the photo at the top) and remembering (and hearing) just how amazing Robert Sledge is. Bassists are a big theme in this book, and I think it’s probably the most overlooked instrument in any given rock band. But it can really make or break the success of a group, and really can define (like in Ben Folds Five) a certain sound that can’t be replicated (like on Ben’s solo stuff).

“You and your bass players,” James said as we left the practice space the studio provided the night before the Roundhouse show.

We were walking the rainy winter streets, and in spite of the copious holiday decorations draped over every possible surface, it still felt cold and lonely out there. Especially leaving the warm comfort of a well-rehearsed set.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

James laughed into his scarf, elbowing me. “You think you’re a gentle instructor, but really you’re a pop music dictator.”

“Am not.”

“Did you see Azir’s face? Love, you treat him like he’s six.”

“He was being sloppy.”

I had to defend myself, but I knew James was right. The problem with Azir was that he wasn’t Sara and he wasn’t Kurt, and as much as I hated to admit it, I missed both of them tremendously. Neither of them required much in the way of schooling when it came to getting the music right. As it was, constantly hearing the wrong notes from the current bassist made focusing on my own playing really difficult. I had sort of snapped at one point and told him I’d just sample the right bassline and play it on the synthesizer if he couldn’t get himself together.

I may have been a little bit of an asshole.

Rock Revival: