Forbidden Secrets of Novel-Writing (and Sorcery)

It’s been a very good week, all in all. My first two pieces for Mental Floss went up (unusual riots and repurposed mental hospitals!), I just found out a good friend got his dream job and I cleaned my kitchen in a major and necessary way, thanks to inhaling the available-on-Netflix season of The Great British Bake Off. The coming few days will include long-overdue quality time with the friend who got me into Studs Terkel, and therefore journalism; a trip to my favorite hair salon for some touch-ups and pampering; and more than a few excellent holiday parties.

What I’m thinking about, though, in my off-hours, is fiction. I did wind up completing that 50,000-word novel during the month of November, although I’m learning the truth of Terry Pratchett’s dictum now more than ever: The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. What I churned out during NaNoWriMo has a few nuggets and flashes that feel like the right direction, but the more I wrote, the more I realized it was maybe 18% of the thing I ultimately want this story to be.

I say story and not novel, even though novels are what I’m most comfortable with, as a medium, because I have such strong visuals for this story, and I’m really wondering if it should be a comic or a script. But again, written fiction is what I know how to do, so it’s how I can get the story down soonest. This is the first of many things about which I’m getting way, way ahead of myself. (Not a new struggle for me, either.)

But I’m trying to figure out the best way to tease out or work toward the rest. My elevator pitch for this story is “Three young witches join the USO during World War II.” So: What’s the system of magic? What are the communities of magic? What are the rules about participating in non-magic conflicts? How much backstory should I include, on the individual protagonists and on their mutual history? How am I going to research what USO entertainers could reasonably expect on the foxhole circuit, during their day-to-day? Where should they live? How late in the war were U-boats blowing up Allied ships? How do I even write the middle of this book, which I pretty much skipped entirely?

This is in addition to the complexities I want to explore in my three heroines, one of whom is furious that they’re not using their gifts to put an end to the Reich. How exactly do you confront the Holocaust as it’s happening without either trivializing it or letting it dominate the novel? Is that even right? (For instance, I can’t wrap my head around The Book Thief, in which the Holocaust was virtually incidental, save for some plot points that enlightened or ennobled the gentile protagonists. On the other hand, my beloved Captain America sidesteps it entirely, which is no better a solution.) There are also questions of religion meeting atheism meeting magic, and how that upends your world, and how you keep this story from turning into yet another earth-shattering epic, not to mention the accidental triangle of sexual tension that’s emerged with a ghost. Whoops?

There is an answer to all this, and that’s talk to people and do the work. Worrying about how you’re going to organize that conversation is a good way of convincing yourself that you’re doing something when you’re actually just spinning your wheels. (See also: perfectionism.) Anyway, one of my favorite working comics artists is doing an online course starting next month. Why worry when you can just learn?

(Good pep talk, self! Hope you enjoyed that too, reader. What are your best methods for just getting the novel done?)

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The Gift From the Allied Field

Right now my love-hate relationship with National Novel Writing Month is tipping solidly into the “love” column. Last night I finished my daily installment at exactly 37,000 words for the whole manuscript. The story is a hot mess and I skipped over basically the entire middle of the novel, but it’s a story I’ve wanted to tell for years and years and years, and I have a good feeling this will clean up into something really cool (and salable!).

Beyond the product of the story itself, I love how NaNo forces you to confront your fear of the blank page. It doesn’t matter how much you’re in your head about the writing itself, you have to put down about 1,700 words a day for 30 days. (There’s even an agreement you sign at the outset.) The beginning of each day’s installment usually feels rough and tentative, but once you get into your flow, it’s amazing how many words end up in your document before midnight. (I seem to do all my writing between 10 p.m. and midnight, which I wouldn’t actually recommend, but racing the clock to log your words before midnight helps in ways that word sprints or word wars on Twitter don’t seem to for me. Comparing your total against a handy wallpaper word count calendar has also been great; I’ve been using this typewriter one.)

But NaNo has been helpful in another way. Earlier this month, I left the job I moved to New York for. It’s been a big change, but I’m moving closer to the career path that most excites me, one that involves a lot more talking to people and writing about them. I’ve been thinking about what NaNo has taught me over the years: Break the big task into manageable bits and celebrate your accomplishments, because the small ones do add up. For instance, I spent a day or so retooling my RealName.com as a genuine portfolio site. I got anxious about spending so much time fiddling with clips selections and choosing templates, but when it was done, I felt confident about what I’d put together. I’d reminded myself that I have a lot to offer, and I can back up that potential with proven work.

In the past few weeks, several friends of mine have moved on to great opportunities at great publications, and from the outside, it’s seemed like those just fell into their laps because they’re great journalists and great people. But they’ve all put in incredible amounts of work and time, and I’m just starting, so, you know: it’s okay to not immediately field dozens of job offers from your dream outlets when you’re an unknown factor. I know it can happen, though. I’ve seen the end result.

Off to the races, self — 50K and freelance both.

Famous last words to break the silence

I’ve been thinking about trying National Novel Writing Month again.

Last year I had moved to a new city a week before November started. The previous year was my final quarter of graduate school. The year before that, I was in no shape to do much more than survival stuff. But this year, this could be a thing. I’m looking for ways to write without shame again. I have this novel that I ought to just — write, rather than endlessly fret about whether I can make it perfect the first time around. I’ve got a 30-minute commute each way, and a nice new little Moleskine that could do the trick. (I’m easily bribed into doing things by rewards, including stuff and social encouragement.)

It also helps that I’m reading for pleasure again. This was a thing that felt lost to me for a really, really long time, but I’ve become one of those people who keeps finding reasons to go back to the Strand, and it’s given me some great, great things. H Is for Hawk was the grief memoir I knew I needed; Station Eleven made me want to do better; The Orchid Thief reminded me of how great nonfiction could be; I’ve discovered the amazing Jo Walton, whose Farthing ignited me and put my heart in my throat, and whose My Real Children I just finished tonight, which fascinated me until — tragedy! — it fumbled the very last chapter.

I logged into my NaNoWriMo account over the weekend and saw that I’d been a member of the site for “over 10 years.” That’s bonkers. But I can feel myself preparing for NaNo again. I’ve got these books to read for research (thank goodness for Sherrie Tucker!), and I’m collecting images for inspiration, and I’m wrestling with the basics of the story itself — is it during or immediately after the war? Is it all in Europe or is it sometimes in the U.S. first? Is it chronological, or do I do my weird time games with the story? Should I try NaNo as the social thing it’s designed to be, or just keep to myself like I usually do? I think I know the names of my three main protagonists, and I have to keep myself from worrying whether I should be writing more X or a different Y. I just have to write it first.

This is accountability, this kind of announcement. This site was always meant to be an author blog. We’ll see what happens. Hey, friends. Nice to feel like I’m back.

You can pick it up if you come down with ID.

This month is — who knows why — supposed to be the month for stories. I’m a big proponent of (Inter)National Novel-Writing Month, and I even said I would be sort of trying it in bits, even as my time at Medill winds down to its final weeks and the final project–a long form narrative piece that I’m rather excited about–looms ever larger.

Part of that has been The Shallow Project, which has been a blast, even if the photo element has proved easier at maintaining than the writing part; and part of that has been a side Tumblr I’m keeping for a story that I know very little about. Which is interesting, because usually when I start (or even fail to start [yet]) a story, I generally know some salient facts about the end, or the premise, or the characters. Right now I’ve got a setting, the barest amount of backstory for the two protagonists, and a vague idea of how writing this story is going to be intensely personal in that way that may or may not be obvious from the outside.

To be fair, I didn’t have any ideas about my half of The Shallow Project before we began, and all I needed for that was to move the story forward every single day. With writing, though, I want to be more certain. I’ve got some bits and bobs — I originally set myself a 750 words a day goal, but then, well, school — and I’m pleased with myself for just writing scenes or character moments, rather than obsessing about plot. When I make the time for it, though, I’d like to sit down with Chuck Wendig’s foul-mouthed and actually perfect questions to answer for character enrichment (which seems more doable than making my way through this comprehensive list of other great ideas). One thing I love about improv is that the story comes from character interaction, not a plot determined by an outside force. I have some plot points in mind, but more than that, I just need to know enough about my characters to set them loose and let myself be surprised.

It should be interesting. I’m not explaining much in public, but if you’re curious:

If you want to ask me (in comments, on Tumblr or over email) any questions about this project, please do! It will probably help me, in all truth, and that I always appreciate.

So! Who wants some links? Internet privacy and democracy, actual spoken Akkadian, unpaid internships and a cello-piano hybrid beyond the jump, plus more!

First I would like to mention that I remembered that I finally have a really nice camera that makes even my messy apartment look amazing. Hurrah DSLR!
First I would like to mention that I remembered that I finally have a really nice camera that makes even my messy apartment look amazing. Hurrah DSLR!

Continue reading “You can pick it up if you come down with ID.”

Teasing: The second best part

To date, I have attempted five rounds of National Novel Writing Month. I’ve been a winner twice, which came at the heels of a solid month of no socializing; even my parents know I’m usually doing something that requires alone time during Thanksgiving. Last year I decided to stop, because while quickly writing 50,000 or more words of a story you’ve been idly dreaming up is incredibly satisfying, it’s also a recipe for six months of burnout, at least for me.

However, I will always be grateful to NaNo for slapping my fear of the blank page out of me. It’s done marvels for pushing me to stare down a new document and put some words on it. One of the reasons I started “Innogen and the Hungry Half” was because I wanted a big project, something that’s been thin on the ground for me this year. I’m thrilled to share that the first chapter should, barring catastrophic edits, be up for your delectation early next week. (Even if the edits are catastrophic, I’m one of those nerds who lives for editing. I love it. It’s like a puzzle for me.)

As I geared up for putting those first sentences on the page, I could feel NaNo roaring away in the back of my head. It sounded like Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”: Valhalla, I am coming! I’d spent weeks thrashing out reams of notes, going in circles, unable to get the shape of the thing. I tried starting in about three different places, none of them right. In the end, it meant sitting in my chair and telling myself over and over and over again that it didn’t have to be perfect, not yet. On the first day, I got about 500 good words (which became 700 around bedtime, because naturally that’s when lines start to flow); on the second, 700 more. Yesterday, I did a full-on 1700. NaNo has trained me well.

Now, of course, the real work comes, because while I’ve had the beginning minutely envisioned for a while, the lumpy middle now stretches before me. Now comes the fun part! (She says, semi-wretchedly, laughing as she does so.)

In the spirit of experimentation, and also of my love for previews, teasers and trailers, I’m kicking off what should be a weekly feature, in which you all get a glimpse of what’s going into the writing and — oh yes — the seat-of-my-pants research. (Wikipedia, let me love you.)

One song


“One Beat” by Sleater-Kinney [lyrics]

I worked at a student coffee shop in college, and a group on constant rotation with one particular cohort was Sleater-Kinney. I hated them as much as they hated my Bjork, but this track redeemed the shift every time. It’s fierce and beautiful and it’s either about nuclear energy or fractal geometry. Either way, it’s a great thematic pace-setter, which I hope, in a story about Shakespeare, makes you curious!

Two links
I’m a nerd, but I have some big gaps in my knowledge base. The largest of these is anything to do with Ancient Rome. I’ll blame learning to read on Asterix comics: I could never root for the empire! Luckily for me, I not only have Classics-nerd friends to pester for help, if it comes to that, but I also have Roman-Britain.org. It’s not snazzy, but it is informative. I came for the Latin abbreviations (which I find fascinating!), I stayed for the lifeline to world-building.

Another gap in my knowledge base: steampunk everything. I’m skimming through a lot on Tesla coils and the Great Exhibition of 1851, but one of the neatest sidetracks has been learning about early animation — specifically, the praxinoscope. It’s a one-off detail in the story, but I really like how it looks. There’s something sort of eerie and dreamlike and lovely about it.

And, because YouTube contains all things: yes, it comes in the steam-powered flavor too.

Three lines

“But is that life? The most vital connections come to us by speech, which cannot be touched, even if it can be felt.

“I propose a future cut like the Gordian knot.”

So that’s that! Intrigued? I very much hope so. Again, barring catastrophe or natural disaster, the first chapter should be up early next week. You don’t have to know anything about steampunk or Cymbeline to enjoy the story, though of course, if you’d like to read the play, MIT has the full text available for free online. For a lighter, quick summary, you can watch the short video linked at the bottom of this post. I assure you the original text is exactly that ridiculous, wonderful and strange.

Hope you all have a marvelous weekend — catch on the flip side, chapter in hand!