National Novel Writing Month

Cape ability

If two people in your workplace showed up outfitted in superhero costumes (it’s not Halloween) how surprised would you be?

My sighting at the library did occur within a few days of trick-or-treat time.  But the main point is that when I observed two Youth Services librarians thus attired, what first caught my notice were Janette‘s nifty earrings and Andrea‘s cute new glasses frame.   The capes, logos, belts, etc. registered only on a secondary level.

Well, children’s librarians are known for amazing exploits of programming and entertainment; their outfits were in character.  Super people make difficult undertakings look easy.

It’s fair to say that others we encounter on a daily basis could justifiably include flashy costumes in their wardrobes.  Instead of Casual Fridays, we could have Cape Fridays…

Library colleague Tricia noted how unusual it is for a poetry book (Billy CollinsAimless Love) to make the New York Times Bestseller list.  This recognition–for producing selections so polished and accessible that thousands of Americans can overcome the perception that they aren’t poetry readers–spotlights how heroic the literary gift for thought-distilling really is.   Reading Billy Collins, you’ll not only smile or sigh at the aptness of his phrasing–you’ll want to try writing poetry yourself (this will only enhance appreciation for his effortless style).  This Library Journal article notes other contemporary poets whose work you might also enjoy.

During Halloween festivities, we glimpsed some young customers flaunting super-heroic garb, but we all judged their parents to be the most cape-worthy.  Juggling books, strollers, craft projects, schedules, and everything else on that day’s agenda with aplomb, these multitasking moms and dads managed to appear calm and good-humored amid the chaos.   That’s no simple feat.NaNoWriMo Logo 2013

And those of us who work at the Reference Desk upstairs would definitely award volunteer Jacquie Wilson a cape embellished with a jewel-encrusted “GA” (the gems would have to be fake, the library craft closet is our only procurement resource).  Jacquie is known as Genealogy Advisor–a role as day-saving as anything Marvel Comics ever dreamed up.  Imagine: someone willing to listen raptly to your clan’s history, then prescribe where and how you can fill in the missing twigs on your family tree.   Like those Ancestry commercials that give the impression of instantaneous family tree discovery, Jacquie’s searches tend to prove themselves fruitful more quickly than happens for lesser mortals.

Family history researchers will rightfully contend that genealogy is not for sissies.   As Samuel Johnson observed, “What is easy is seldom excellent.”

Another stalwart crew of aspirants–authors in the throes of National Novel Writing Month–would second Robert Kiyosaki’s contention:  “You have to be smart.  The easy days are over.”  I’m sitting out this NaNoWriMo year but as a two-year veteran can attest to one of the great rewards of NaNo participation:  after producing a 50,000 word novel in one sleep-deprived month, in December you’ll certainly believe that easy days are here again.

This November, success is in the bag

If you hear an odd metallic noise anytime in November, just ignore it.  It’s the sound of literary standards being ratcheted down another notch. 

Under normal circumstances, we readers maintain the loftiest of expectations, which of course do not include cliché’s, repetitive word choices, or plot mechanisms that either strain credulity or just downright insult it.

But these are extraordinary times, my friend.  November is National Novel Writing Month, and this year I am (usually late at night) concocting what is tentatively dubbed Another Terrible Novel.  Given that 50,000 words are required to cross the finish line on November 30, I’m not far behind the pace at my current 22,184.  This sum has only been achieved thanks to vats of caffeine and no thanks to a few unscheduled events of the sort that promise to continue throughout the month.

Does this sound like an excuse for a further diminishment of prose quality over the next two weeks?  Oh, good; that’s a relief.  To be fair (to myself) we NaNoWriMo aspirants know at the outset that quantity really is the goal.  To produce a 150-page document in 30 days, writers are compelled to “just go with it”.  In the sheer desperation of getting something–anything–down on the page, they are driven to thoroughly ransack their memories and psyches for material.

The process is much like finding oneself back in elementary school;  it’s lunchtime, and you’re opening the mysterious brown paper bag that you’ve carried all morning but didn’t inventory until this minute.  Clearly requiring sustenance, you dig deep and drag everything out.   Appalled at first by offerings that look unpalatable (to you and, you’re sure, every other person in the lunchroom) you check again–and spy a raw vegetable slightly past its prime.

Now, you’re generally more of a cheese-and-crackers or apple sort of person, but those options aren’t present.  Suddenly that carrot or whatever represents all manner of possibilities.  With creative thought, it could be rendered quite satisfying.   And–on a very few occasions–you peer into the sack just once more and discover a tantalizing morsel that anyone would covet.  You had only to delve into those dark recesses.

This all explains why writing quality occurs as a happy surprise, not an expectation, when the writer grasps frantically to fill in a blank.  I once noted that, in an otherwise nicely written novel, the author chose the phrase “shaped like a sarcophagus” enough times that it evolved into a joke, detracting from a more than competent story line.

Last week, on the verge of creating a time-traveling heroine deserving of a dashing name, I assisted a library customer searching for a book by legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier.  Brilliant!  That night, my character was christened “Augusta”.   And I realized how unsuspecting library customers could aid me in answering the 50,000-word question.  I only have to pay attention.   And they’ll easily find me at the reference desk.  It’s as large as a sarcophagus.

Yes, Yoda, there is a "try"

Those Texas Book Festival planners are geniuses.  Imagine not only producing a weekend of superb literary presentations but also conjuring up October weather that feels like October? 

I, however, am not brilliant and consequently found myself at TBF with 25 precious minutes available for reading–and no book.  The advance copy of Amity Gaige’s Schroder intended for that purpose was left basking in the gloom of the parking garage.

At least I’d arrived early for this speaker and secured an auditorium seat fronting the upper section.  Unearthing paper and pen, I spent the interval savoring the novelty of leg room and generating character names for my book.  National Novel Writing Month begins this week; thank goodness I finally have the skeleton (how appropriate) of a plot.

The story line involves a couple dozen individuals–people resembling the array of citizenry streaming into that very location, I realized.  Inventorying the audience, I cast my novel by identifying types like those in the story and engineering monikers to suit each one’s persona.

If you were present, you could end up in my fictional creation (sort of), but no one would ever know.  Besides, if this NaNoWriMo result achieves the quality of last year’s effort, I’ll hit “delete” and vaporize it as soon the word count is verified.  Having learned much from the previous experience, I’m striving for a standard above “no one should ever see this”.  Aim high: that’s my motto.                                      

Contently scribbling notes for a tale not fated to enrich humankind, I’d awaited a presentation by David Shapard, creator of annotated Jane Austen novels.  Shapard contended that Jane Austen could be the greatest English-language novelist ever.  Was it symmetry, balance, or irony provoking that auditorium to simultaneously host evidence of the best and the worst in fiction?

Shapard also noted– supporting his “greatest” assertion–that critics’ esteem for Austen’s work has (remarkably) not fluctuated over time.  And I mentally applauded Shapard’s assertion that Austen’s “good” characters are not dull.  Having earlier quoted a couple of snarky one-liners mined from Austen’s correspondence, Shapard conjectured that Austen characters were sometimes allowed to publicly overstep and later repent, much in the way that the author herself may have.  Goodness, Shapard maintains, was “an achievement”.

En route to the next venue amid readers, authors, event organizers–achievers all–I considered why NaNoWriMo authors sign on for a grueling month-long writing assignment practically guaranteed to engender a document that’s, er, flawed.   The reason:  success can follow only the act of putting oneself out there and awaiting the consequences.

And if the result seems a universe away from Jane Austen?  Well, NaNo is an achievement in itself.   At least, you’ll have proven Yoda wrong.

Writing for amateurs, bowling for vampires

Should I go with the classic “You like me, you really like me!” or the even more classic “Thank you, thank you very much”?  Of course, my novel will deservedly never see the light of day, so my National Book Award acceptance speech is not a major concern.  (However, if I ever need a book jacket photo it’ll be black and white and include my Scottie dogs).  

I’m nevertheless thrilled to have reached the 50,000 word goal for National Novel Writing Month–three days early.  I was spurred on to completion by the artistically motivated realization that the Christmas lights won’t put themselves up.

Responding to my description of the story line, a couple of colleagues have said, “That really does sound like an interesting premise” and “I’d read that book!”  All of which proves an important point: I have wonderful colleagues.  But I already knew that.

Here’s what I did learn:  apparently journal-keeping really is as vital as all those professional writers have claimed.   I never progressed beyond good intentions to start a writer’s journal and realized in the course of creating my novel–many times–how useful a collection of impressions and details could have proven to be.   

I did, however, collect enough thoughts about the novel-in-a-month scheme to compose several new slogans for NaNoWriMo; these definitely reflect the ups and down of the sometimes exhilarating, occasionally despairing experience: 

  • “Sleep is overrated.”

  • “The caffeine deficient need not apply.”

  • “Just make it stop.”

That said, I’ll try NaNoWriMo again.  I enjoyed inventing characters and developed a deeper understanding of novel construction.   Also, repeat participation would bring me closer to other would-be and published authors.  The writing community can be a powerful source of support, and not just for other novelists.

This November 2011 article from Library Journal provides a great illustration from Bouchercon, the annual world mystery convention.  Teams of authors and related participants (including Charlaine Harris’ Bowling for Vampires team) competed and auctioned their autographed shirts to raise $29,000 for a local library foundation. 

The authors’ good works didn’t end there.   Attendees voted on and presented the annual Anthony Awards for mystery writing; check out the 2011 winners here.   If you’re on the lookout for the very best new mysteries, bear in mind that awards highlight up-and-comers along with established stars, so readers will also get great leads by consulting the Shamus and Macavity Awards lists.   Finally, for a comprehensive overview of the mystery genre, don’t miss Anthony Award winner (for best website/blog)

My own valuable prizes include a colorful certificate proclaiming me to be a “Winner” in NaNoWriMo 2011–and an opportunity to catch up on my sleep. 

All the good ones are taken

And what’s worse, the most popular and compelling ones have been matched up numerous times with others who are more glamorous and successful, so what hope is there for me?

I’m referring to fiction plots, naturally.  You’ve probably heard the argument that only seven plots can describe the entire spectrum of fiction/storytelling–unless it’s three or twenty or thirty-six plots, depending upon your source.  Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories theorizes that these scenarios can account for the entire world of stories throughout the centuries:

  1. Overcoming the monster

  2. Rags to riches

  3. The guest

  4. Voyage and return

  5. Comedy

  6. Tragedy

  7. Rebirth

    Of course, once you undertake to categorize the tales humans tell, you’re also obliged to justify why we need to invent them in the first place, not to mention explaining how these archetypes have evolved in conjunction with their historical contexts.  And Booker does all of that.  At least, that’s what the critics have said.  I personally don’t have time to peruse Seven Basic Plots or indeed anything else this month.

    No, I’ll return the Booker volume to the shelf so that you may enjoy it.  I will nobly forge ahead with my resolve to finish that 50,000-word novel by November 30.  I have miraculously stayed on pace and so have reached 24,154 words. 

    What has delighted me in this second week of the National Novel Writing Month challenge is how much I enjoy writing dialogue.  I’m not a big talker.  Terrible in social situations that call for mingling and chatting, I can somehow produce characters who converse incidentally and fearlessly about all manner of things on cue.    The lesson here is that I should have been born fictional.

    The other lesson is that plotting is every bit as daunting as you’d imagine.  Latching on to some first-try advice from experienced novelists, I decided to (a) borrow from a proven structure and (b) exploit settings/ situations in which I am well versed. Thus, you won’t be shocked to learn that a library is featured on more than a few pages.

    The plot so far features elements inspired by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl, and the Jim Carrey movie The Mask.  And if you think that mashup sounds unlikely, I may as well mention that one of the characters is not a person but a thing—an antique item. 

    When I’m recruiting minor characters, I recall my good fortune to have grown up in a small town:  lots of wonderful Characters (capital “C” intentional) there, in a good way.  Still, I endeavor to merely use them as starting points to extrapolate other wonderful beings.  And don’t worry: the names have been changed to protect the interesting.

You can never have too much candy–or knowledge

I awoke today in a state of terror, which, given that it’s October 31, sounds appropriate.

Potential visitation by hordes of zombies, ghouls, and sparkly princesses doesn’t frighten me.  (Running of out treats would be ghastly, but I always overstock.)  No, it’s National Novel Writing Month–starting tomorrow–that gives me the fantods.

I said I’d participate and I will; I even have a plot, more or less.   My hope is that, after ingesting vats of caffeine, I’ll be miraculously swept along on a surge of inspiration and somehow crank out the required 50,000 words by the end of the month.   However, as any writer knows, nothing generates panic like an empty to-be-completed screen or pristine sheet of paper, especially when it’s accessorized with a deadline.  

Today, the last day before NaNoWriMo,  I’m preoccupied with not tripping up the library stairs or snagging the trailing hem of my Halloween costume on the wheels of office chairs.  Re-using the elaborate gown that I made for my daughter’s Renaissance festival visit seemed like such a practical idea, too.  Imagine wearing this sort of thing back in the day, ascending slippery castle steps or navigating around open fires.  Truly horrifying.   

But modern navigation offers spine-tingling moments, too.

One morning last week, I was heading east into downtown on 620 when I detected a siren approaching from behind.   Several of us immediately pulled over as far right as we could and stopped.  A number of others did not; in fact, a few drivers accelerated directly in front of the ambulance, presumably to gain position in the traffic queue.  Those who simply proceeded as usual may not have heard due to radio volume, phones, etc.

We were lucky: no collision transpired, and the ambulance wove past without incident.  But afterward, I panicked a bit, wondering whether I had in fact made the wrong move.  Given the number of drivers not moving right and stopping, I began to question whether this was actually the correct practice.   

A couple of internet searches led me to the Texas Transportation Code online, specifically Sec. 545.156: Vehicle Approached by Authorized Emergency Vehicle.  Resources like Findlaw, the Texas Department of Public Safety (did you know that the driver’s handbooks are online?),, and the Round Rock Public Library’s Government and Legal databases can be quickly accessed.  They furnish a reliable knowledge base for everyday questions like this one.

And, if your legal concerns are city-oriented, it’s nice to know that Round Rock’s Code of Ordinances is handily online and updated on a monthly basis.  That’s one more issue not to worry about.   Now, if the City could only do something about those 175 blank pages…

All hat and no titles

“What are you, Queen for a Day?” 

The customer was puzzled.  Granted, my accessory choice for yesterday–a silver plastic tiara–may have been ill-chosen; other responses included “Aww, is it your birthday?”, “Theeeere she is…” and “OK, Your Majesty, I’ve got a reference question.”

On the other hand, Monday’s selection, a multi-colored baseball cap surmounted by a tiny frog hoisting a large propeller, was uniformly well received, especially when I moved and the propeller commenced twirling. 

Of course, none of the headgear modeled by library staffers this week would have looked appropriate unless you knew that this is Hats Off to Libraries Week.  Co-workers inventoried their closets and emerged sporting Continental tweed numbers, elegantly fashionable chapeaus, vintage and team spirit toppers, camouflage, a chef’s hat, and Western lids, for starters.

Extra effort was required, not just to procure a week’s worth of headpieces, but also to brave the startled gazes of patrons who are unaware of the campaign and understandably conclude that you are just really eccentric.  Rewards for hat-wearing this week were manifested in grins and delight from customers who appreciate the entertainment value, not to mention the energizing opportunity to step outside one’s customary persona.

And speaking of breakouts (as in comfort zones), the next hat I’m considering for try-on is that of Author.  If I can fulfill the goal of National Novel Writing Month–producing a 175-page novel in thirty days–I’ll be very proud indeed.  Not of the content, however; I can tell you right now that the NaNoWriMo webpage prediction (“Make no mistake.  You’ll be writing a lot of crap”) will apply to my manuscript.

It’s the outrageously impractical pace of production that appeals to me.  To achieve the 50,000 word goal, I’ll have to churn out several pages every single day, which means that ideas will have to flow from my brain to the paper without benefit of polishing or second-guessing.  In other words, there’s an automatic excuse if the book is bad.  And it will be.

In hopes of reducing the awfulness quotient of My First Try, I’m consulting books from the library’s collections:

  • How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them

  • The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

  • Is Life Like This?  A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months

One has to appreciate the irony of relying on nonfiction books in order to create fiction.  Come to think of it, if my novel results in the miserable quality that I’m anticipating, it’ll be classified as nonfiction anyway–humor.

Please have a doughnut and take me to your leader

Recently, my husband was startled to witness our phone announcing “call from City of Urrrr”.  A co-worker was attempting to reach me, thus the voice phonetically pronounced “City of RR”.

We agreed that City of Urr would be a great science fiction novel title.  I’m not a frequent sci-fi reader–I know, my loss–but since I’m hoping to gear up and enter National Novel Writing Month this year, suddenly every concept is potentially My Novel.

I wonder, though.  Could a tale inspired by our town offer enough world-building concepts?  Sure, we have high school football, Dell Diamond, The Rock, exponential growth, Ikea, and Round Rock Donuts, but could those attributes translate into an alternative view of society?  

Perhaps the story would open this way:

Cadres of adolescent humanoids portraying fire-breathing mythological beasts battle in contention with fierce adversaries.  Vociferous crowds of citizenry expressing their support from the perimeter of the arena would lend drama.  The object whose possession is sought, a leathery ovoid object, might symbolize the synergy between man and nature.

Elsewhere in this city, thousands more residents happily render the required tribute to acquire a small rectangle entitling them to enter a grandiose and revered public venue modeled after an immense brilliant gem.

The scene now shifts to identify an ancient boulder with a distinctive shape resembling both an anvil and a promontory.  Mysteriously, the name and reputation of this city are tied to this monument.  Legend has it that this stone marker was once consulted by citizens of an earlier era requiring prognostication on the advisability of travel.

Not long before, the city signified only as a rural hamlet, yet within an inconsequential span of time, it has magically evolved into a mushrooming expanse of settled territory now encroaching upon a municipality renowned for strange cattle bearing antler-like defensive apparatus (also Weirdness).

Across the cityscape looms a colossal structure so labyrinthine that visitors require treasure maps and are offered free nutritional rations in order to sustain sufficient energy to complete their transactions and depart.  Inhabitants of other settlements, undeterred by accounts of the vastness of the territory, are lured by their predecessors’ epic accounts of Scandinavian ingenuity and value.

Here’s another facet unique to this setting: ring-shaped comestibles so pleasing to the senses that they inspired the production of magnified versions of themselves.  These delicacies are not only highly esteemed by the locals and explorers from other regions; they are even glorified on a communication channel dedicated to studying the consumption of edible substances.

Hmmm, are we really dealing with sci-fi here–or is this fantasy?

The most exclusive book club ever

If and when I write my novel (did you know that November is National Novel Writing Month?) I’ll be thrilled if even one person deems it a “page-turner”.  Speed reading, however, isn’t the sole indicator of reader involvement.   Call me eccentric, but I can suggest a more significant benchmark.

Here’s what happens: you’ve already passed the “continue or abandon in favor of next book” stage; the story has earned your approval. Then, you know you are truly committed when you imagine a friend or acquaintance reading along and enjoying, commenting upon, or even disdaining the book.  The point is, you’re already sharing the book and prompting a response to it–and you haven’t even finished it.  Notice how I attribute all this to “you” in the hopes that I’m not the only person who does this?

This very process played out during preparation for yesterday’s Baca Center book discussion.  The particularly vibrant Great Conversations selection was “Hekabe” by Euripides, a dramatist who can condense more pathos and ethical dilemmas into a few dozen pages than anyone else you could name.  As Hekabe (Hecuba) grieved, argued, and plotted her way through the multi-layered tragedy, some of her assertions evoked speculation:  what would group members say about that?   By “say”, I mean not merely comment but also document opinions with passages brought along or reviewed in advance of the meeting.  Yes, it’s that kind of group.  

Nothing like that occurred during my perusal of a title I couldn’t resist: Target Underwear and a Vera Wang Gown.   Adena  Halpern’s contemporary dilemmas, e.g., whether to ditch her stylist, registered as so much less compelling than Hekabe’s ancient but ageless ones.  Without relating myself, it’s no surprise that I couldn’t channel anyone else’s participation.

Already sold my on my current read, Cristina Garcia’s wonderful The Lady Matador’s Hotel, I found a particularly sensual passage provoking this vividly imagined scenario: my mom has chosen this book for a a group of her contemporaries.  They’re sitting in her living room, reading it aloud.  Suddenly, eyes widen, lips purse, the room goes silent.  Finally, one ventures, “Well, I guess we don’t know Jean as well as we thought we did!”

You’ll find The Lady Matador’s Hotel among the titles offered as Book Club Carryouts.  All Carryout selections will delight some book clubs, and overall they represent a range of reading tastes.  I hope you’ll share them, whether your fellow readers are actual or imaginary!