Monday, October 31, 2011

This and That

National Novel Writing Month begins tomorrow. Thirty days to write a 50,000-word novel, while celebrating Thanksgiving and at least giving thought to Christmas. Me? I'd have picked a 31-day month without much else going on, maybe March.

I am participating, at least in the sense that I am writing a novel and it is November. I started it last month and I don't expect to be finished by Nov. 30. I'm not ruling it out, but it's not likely. I'm sure I'll have written 50,000 words by then, but not all of them in the novel, many in the news stories I write to pay the rent. And the story is more likely to be about 65,000 words long, and if I pull that off, it'll be a first. The first draft of "Chance" was 110,000 words, which I eventually cut below 89,000. The first draft of "Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter" was about 85,000.

My daughter Kate is planning to take part, so it'll be fun to chart her progress. And my esteem for the concept has gone up quite a bit since I learned one novel that started as a NaNoWriMo project was "Water for Elephants," a great book and my favorite movie of the year.

"Scurvy Dogs" is going really well. I'm very excited about it. When I read the third chapter to the fourth graders, one asked about where the ideas come from, and whether I thought of the title first, or the story first. Actually, that last is a good question. Usually I (and every writer I've ever heard of) write the story, and the name kind of becomes obvious. There are legendary stories about authors whose desperately bad titles on great books were saved by publishers.

But with "Scurvy Dogs!" I actually saw the cover of the book – and of course the title in my head before anything else. I even made note of the typography, the font and text treatment. And the title told me a lot about the story, and the ruminating I did about it brought all the pieces together. As I told the class, I just wish I could have seen it a little more clearly and actually seen the inside pages. Then I could have read it, and writing would be a breeze, just a matter f retyping what I saw!

At the very least I wish I could have seen the back cover to see who gave me good reviews. And maybe the picture of the author (me) to see if I've lost that weight.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Interesting Morning, to Say the Least

I was planning on working on Scurvy Dogs! today but got called in on a story I had to cover. A junior high anti-gun rally. Problem was, the main speaker hadn't thought through her line of reasoning, lost control and it somehow ended up with her suggesting that when the kids go out they should make sure the gun they're carrying isn't loaded. I'm not kidding. "Leave the Bullets at Home" seemed to be the motto. Sort of like Chris Rock's advice on never going to a party with a metal detector.

She never perfectly extricated herself, but most of the kids ended up signing the anti-gun pledge anyway, so I guess it worked out. But that's how I spent the morning, instead of finishing what is an amusing chapter in which the main character is explaining to his guardian why Mr. Dawson was threatening to kill him if he was ever caught in his orchard again.

In other news, I've been reading an amusing memoir called "A Monk Swimming," by Malachy McCourt, an Irishman who came to the U.S. penniless in 1952, became the first celebrity bartender, invented the singles bar, was a well-regarded actor and ended up as a regular on Jack Paar's "The Tonight Show" spinning tales as only an Irishman can. In the acknowledgments he writes, among many thing, "To the English, for forcing their language down our throats so that we could regurgitate it in glorious colors." Which sounds like as good a description of the Irish as I've heard. It also includes this passage:

The great Gaels of Ireland
Are men the gods made made
For all their wars are merry ones
And all their songs are sad.

Yep, another hardcover I paid a quarter for at the thrift store.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Making Progress

Been really busy with work the last few days. Done a lot of writing, but very little of it on "Scurvy Dogs!" Still, I've had a little time every day, and it's added up. Finished the third chapter, and starting chapter four.

For the record, since Monday I've done 1,176 words for a total now of 3,192. Or, off the top of my head, roughly three to five percent of the book. And almost 3,000 words for the various news stories I've written.

And under the circumstances, that's not bad. You don't always get all the time in the world. Sometimes it's about making use of the time you've got.

Couple of bright kids

I mentioned last week when I read to Tori's class, and the fourth grade joined them. They're good smart kids. When we were talking about the characters afterward, I asked them what they thought of Maggie Williams. "She's very elegant and sophisticated," one of the fourth grade girls said, putting her nose in the air. Such language! And I don't mean that in the way I usually would when talking about the way "kids today" talk.

Then another fourth grader – I'm don't recall why – mentioned that I was obviously a fan of pirates because of the tattoo on the inside of my forearm. Only he didn't say it that way. He said, "because you’ve got Blackbeard's flag tattooed on your arm." Most people don't get that. I've had dozens of people ask me what it is, but no one has ever glanced at it and said, "Oh, Blackbeard's flag. The devil stabbing a heart." Even the local brew pub, on the label for its delicious Blackbeard Ale, uses the Calico Jack Rackham Jolly Roger (crossed cutlasses under a skull.) So for a kid sitting 10 or so feet away to notice it and recognize it was impressive.

These are smart kids. If there's something wrong with the story they'll find it for me.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A good day

So far, so good.

Read the first two chapters of "Scurvy Dogs!" to Tori's class of fifth graders – plus 18 fourth graders she invited in – and they liked it. Some of them were a little put off by the lack of exposition, as I had feared. But that was the fourth graders. Most of them got it. My secret weapon comes through again.

And afterward, when I asked them, "How old are these kids?" or "Where are they?" they were able to answer. And when, at the end of the talk, when I asked if they had any ideas what happened next some of them came surprisingly close, even though pretty much all we'd done was meet four characters and see a little bit of action. One of them, Ricardo, was quite close, although Maggie doesn't die as he suggested. That's kind of dark for him, he's one of the cheeriest kids you'll ever meet. He just appreciates the drama, I guess, and the biggest Harry Potter fan I've ever met.

Anyway, we're launched on the story and the kids understand that their job is to let me know what works and especially what doesn't, so I can fix it. And they were absolutely thrilled when I let them know that when – not if, but when – the book is published, their names will go in the acknowledgments.

Today – 884 words. Total words to date – 2,013.

Monday, October 17, 2011

And Away We Go!

That was fun. Enough with the plotting. Started to get moving on the story. Finished the first chapter. Didn't wrote as much as I usually like, but I've got a bunch of errands to run, so that's OK. In fact, it' probably a good thing. One of my goals is to write it a little shorter, make the book read a little faster. Sometimes my writing can get downright baroque, so shorter is good.

Also took a bit of a gamble, Instead of establishing characters and place and time, all that exposition that "has to go somewhere," as Diana Rigg says in "The Great Muppet Caper" (my favorite Muppet movie, not the least because it features Diana Rigg) I just have these two young characters being chased. I want to see if I can make that interesting enough that it captures the reader right away, and lets me do the exposition a little later. I do a little to set it up, but it's mostly just action.

And I must remember Steve Swinburne's rule no. 1 – Active verbs! Tumbled, not "fell." Pelted and raced and streaked, never "ran."

Anyway, it's started And away we go!

Today – 801 words. Total so far - 1,1,37.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Growing Plot and National Novel Writing Month

The plot for "Scurvy Dogs!" just keeps growing, getting more fun, more complex, more interesting, and the inspiration is coming from all directions, which is the exciting part. A couple of days ago I was playing a Wii game, "Sid Meier's Pirates," when an image from the game stuck in my head. Thought about it for a while and finally it was there, full grown, how to make it work in the story, and make the story I was envisioning much better. It requires two new characters, both of whom I'm delighted with. And it seems to work even better than what I'd thought of before.

Of course, now that I'm ready to write, you can never be sure what the characters will take it into their heads to do. That's really true. If you write the characters as honestly as you can, make them as real as possible and not victims of your plot – you know what I mean, characters whose actions are motivated only by the exigencies of the plot and the needs of the author – you will find them doing things that you hadn't planned, but you have to admit are right.

That's when writing gets really fun.


Next month is National Novel Writing Month. For 30 days, participants will work their little fingers off writing the great American short novel. To meet the goal you have to write 50,000 words, which works out to 1,666 a day every day (except for one day when you have to write 1,667) including Saturdays, Sundays, and Thanksgiving.

You can learn all about it on their website. I won't be taking part for the very simple reason that I've already started my novel (the rules say every word must be written between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30.) I don't want to start over, nor do I want to be confined by an arbitrary time or length limit. But I know a couple of people who are, and I encourage them – and you, if you want to try it.

I'm of two minds about it. Anything that prompts interest in the novel and in writing, or that inspires people to try their hand at being creative, is a good thing. So mostly I'm a fan. It's probably fun.

On the other hand, it sets up some unreal expectations. 50,000 words does not a novel make, even a YA novel. And there's a sort of attitude on their website, a "Ha ha, see, this isn't so hard. What are those whiny authors complaining about" feeling, that's a little hard to stomach.

But the biggest problem I have is that the website suggests that Nov. 30 is the finish. Look at you! You wrote a novel! All done! Well, yeah, you finished a first draft, and a short one at that. The reality is the first draft isn't the end of the process, it's the beginning. Now comes the rewriting, the editing, the brutally honest reappraisal. Somebody (wish I remembered who) said, "Novels are never finished. They're eventually sent off to publishers." Because no matter how hard you've worked it, there's always something more you think you could do.

But decide for yourself. It might be just the thing you've been looking for to get started, and there's one of those online communities of other participants to cheer you on, plus listings of writing groups all over the country where you can find fellow pensters to work with.

If you want to knock out a novel next month, by all means do. Start your planning now (no rule against that) so you when you roll out of bed Nov. 1 you have some idea what you're up to. And get to it.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Someone a Lot Smarter than Me (12)

"Repeat the mantra: Writing is when I make the words. Editing is when I make them not shitty."
– Chuck Wendig

As usual, Wendig says it more pithily and more pungently than most.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Busy But No 'Scurvy Dogs' Today

It hasn't been the day I'd expected, anything but that.

First, we took Millie to the airport where she left for L.A. and the start of her great adventure we call life. Very exciting, but we miss her already.

Then I was off to a meeting of the Elections Board, which of late has been surprisingly contentious. Today it took them forever to get a quorum. When they finally got one, it turned out they had no business to take care of. They did nothing, and they did it really slowly and politely. Then they lost their quorum. That as my morning.

This afternoon I was hoping to get work done on "Scurvy Dogs." Instead we had one of those stories that took all hands to the pumps – and it's not over yet. Federal agents raiding a V.I. senator's office. Because I happen to be home I'm the one taking info from people and rolling it into the story.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Plot Thickens!

OK, first of all, sorry for that last one, the post last week on dialogue. What a pedantic pile of crap. The point was good. I just wish I hadn't sounded like a horse's ass while writing it.

Now, on to better stuff. I'm starting to hit my stride with "Scurvy Dogs." I'm in the plotting-it-out stage. That's what I did with "Chance" and "Chrissie Warren," and for me it worked. If I'm driving cross country, I'm gonna bring a map so I know more or less where I'm going. I don't have to stay on that road – I can take scenic detours and short cuts as the mood strikes, but I want a feel for how I'm going to get to the end of the journey.

Similarly, when I write – especially when I wrote "Chance" – my plot outline is, as Barbossa says of the code in "Pirates of the Caribbean," "more like a guideline." It was a rare week that I didn't go into the plot and amend it as the story took unexpected twists and the characters insisted on doing things I never expected them to. That necessitated either figuring out how the story could eventually get back on the map, or were it would go instead. The point is to not become so attached to the plot outline that you don't give the characters free rein to ignore your best laid plans, if that's what they insist on doing.

So anyway, I spent the last week working on the plot for "Scurvy Dogs." Started a little slow – I knew generally what the story is going to be, but hadn't really thought about the details, all the things that happen along the way to give it depth and texture.

And then all of a sudden, it started happening. I'd be driving somewhere or washing dishes and suddenly something will occur to me – "Of course! Buck has some land that he'll lose if he can't come up with cash!" or "Of course! Jamie is being taught by his uncle!"

It always feel like "Of course." It's a great feeling. Sometimes you don't even realize what was troubling you, or that something was troubling you, and from out of nowhere, when you weren't even thinking about it, there comes an answer, sometimes an answer to a question you hadn't gotten around to asking yet, but as soon as the thought occurs you realizes it solves a problem. They won't all pay off. I've got a note about deus ex machina that I'm pretty sure will seem too contrived when I get to the writing. But I write it all down and see if it can fit somewhere.

As the ideas occur, I dash off a note to myself and later work it into the plot which is growing excitingly now. I'm almost ready to start writing in earnest and looking forward to it. Because the "Of course moments" feel great, but they're nothing compared to the "Ahas!" that come when writing.

Sunday, October 2, 2011