NaNoWriMo 2018 – 1 Down, 29 to Go

Happy First Day of NaNo!

Wordcount: 1,657

Time confetti. Stolen moments. Today I wrote in the car before walking my son to school, while I waited for my latte, on the train, at my desk before leaving for work, sitting on my kitchen floor before the PTO meeting, and while waiting for my daughter to fall asleep. Get it done writers!

Onward to Day 2.

A Lesson From Story Genius, Ch. 2

In Chapter 1 of Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, Lisa Cron sets out the premise of her book: that we are all biologically hard-wired for story–that stories are not mere entertainment, but an important evolutionary we use to virtually test new experiences.

In Chapter 2 Cron debunks a few (ok, quite a few) writing myths:

Myth 1: Great Writing Equals Great Story. This is like mistaking the wrapping paper for the present. The story is the thing that is essential, that makes us want to turn the page. Beautiful words and unusual metaphors are gravy. Want proof. Cron points out that the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy sold over 100 million copies. What did everyone in my book club say about it? “It’s terrible, just awful, but I can’t put it down.”

Myth 2: Pantsing (Writing By the Seat of Your Pants) Is the Only Authentic Way to Write. Yes, it’s liberating, fun, easy. It might get your creative juices flowing. But if you want a good story, you have to do some of the hard work of planning.

Myth 3: Just Get a Shitty First Draft On the Page. What you need is a shitty first draft of a story, not thousands of rambling words.

Myth 4: Figure Out Your Plot Points and You’re All Set. The plot is concerned only with the surface events. They are the after-effects. The cause, the whole reason a creative work exists, is because of the internal events. What is going on inside the protagonist’s mind. You need to know your character’s past so you know how the external events of the plot will affect him or her.

Myth 5: You Need an External Story Structure. You can religiously follow Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” but you will still be left with a dull, lifeless manuscript unless you focus on your character’s internal conflict and change.

So, if none of these things will guarantee you a good story, what will? You need to focus on your character’s “inside story,” everything that came before the inciting event. What starts on page one is only the second half.

Raw Material – Day 4

Prompt: You are an astronaut. Describe your perfect day.

My console sleeve gently squeezes me awake, signals the cover of my sleep cell to roll back with a whoosh of air. My lungs fill with a gasp and I blink, swallow, a thicket of needles in my throat. Rows of blue LED lights blink on slowly, in concentric rings. I calibrated them, years ago, to the rate at which my eyes adjust to light. That was a surprising discovery, I remember. So many things about the human body are the same–close enough for government work, at least–from person to person. But not our eyes. As it turns out, each of us sees the world quite differently.

I take a few ragged breaths to clear the stale air from my lungs, turn my head from side to side, and step stiffly from the sleep cell. Shuffling, bent at the waist, I make my way to the hex pod’s air lock and place my hand on the plate. The segments recede, close behind me as I step into the ship’s outer passage. Cirrus 8 comes to life around me, her dark corridors glowing lavender, pink, and gold as the operating systems, dormant or in conservation mode for years, hum and flicker to life.

I make my way to mid-deck and collapse in the cushioned captain’s chair, my weight triggering dust shields over the master console to slide back. Lines of data begin to flood the screens. Cirrus 8 pops up, a blinking green dot in the lower left quadrant of the galaxy model. A female voice, faintly British, booms through the silence. “It is Sunday, September 4, 2375.” A pause. Then, “Happy Birthday, Captain Sandall.”

I had almost forgotten. “Ah yes. And if I had a cake, Dac, how many candles would there be?”

“You were born on this day, Captain, 332 years ago.”

“Funny, I don’t feel a day over 100.”

“You have just logged your sixth 50-year down-cycle. Your biological age is 38 years.”

“That’s what I like about you, old girl. Your head for numbers.”

“I am preparing a status report. It will be ready in approximately three minutes.”

A little door slides away to reveal a pouch of peach-colored liquid and a cube the color of mowed grass. I drain the pouch and pop the cube in my mouth with a grimace. Re-entry nutriments are disgusting. I rise and turn to face the curved wall behind me. “Show me, Dac.”

“Accessing the viewing platform so soon after re-entry is not advisable, Captain.” I chuckle. The Syndac 850 is nothing if not pragmatic. But after 50 years there must also be a snall part of her that is lonely. And she is in fact rather eager to please. I know. I programmed her that way.

“Show me anyway.”

“As you wish, Captain.”

The eggshell surface of the wall shimmers once or twice and then begins to dissolve, allowing the scene beyond to come into view. Carthage Transport. Finally. I have to remind myself to breath.

It’s huge, a roiling ball of blue and gold gases that fills the view screen. Two of its three moons are also visible. Centennia, not much more than a bright spot in the distance, and Flournoi, floating massive and barren in the foreground. I feel a sudden wave of vertigo and stagger. I grasp for but miss the chair and fall hard on my knees, vomiting in great heaving spasms.

“Inadvisable, Captain.”

She’s right, of course. But it doesn’t matter. Carthage Transport. I’ve finally arrived.

A Lesson From Story Genius, Ch. 1

Hi writers! I hope you had a wonderful and relaxing Labor Day Weekend. I always associate this time of year with the bittersweet end of summer and heading back to school. So, let’s hit the books! For our challenge this month, in addition to toting around our prompt books and generating a lot of raw material to inspire us for NaNoWriMo in November, we are taking some lessons on what makes a great story from Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. Every few days I’ll post some thoughts and comments on the book here, but I highly recommend you pick up a copy (published in 2016, it is available in paperback and maybe at your local library) and follow along. 

I received Story Genius from a fellow writer in my neighborhood Facebook group. The thing that hooked me is this quote by Flannery O’Connor, which appears in the book’s introduction: “Most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” True, right? We all know, after just a few pages, whether we’re going to read a book and enjoy it. Pulp fiction or literary classic, there has to be a good hook to draw us in and keep us in. When we sit down to write, we may be very good at assembling all of the pieces of a novel–interesting characters, cool settings, a “neat” plot twist–but there is often something missing. The whole thing feels flat and disjointed. The idea had so much potential, but it didn’t go anywhere.

In Chapter 1 of Story Genius, Cron sets out the premise of her book: that we are all, by virtue of years of evolution, hard-wired for story. Stories are not purely for entertainment. That is just nature’s bait; the sweet dopamine surge you get when you settle in with a good book and completely lose yourself in the story. But stories are so much more than that. As social animals, we learned a long time ago that, to not only survive but prosper, we needed to understand our fellow humans. Stories let us do that, by stepping into the shoes of a protagonist and exploring an unfamiliar world. This is seductive and satisfying. MRIs reveal that readers’ brains are those of participants, not observers. With a good story, we are not watching things unfold. Reality is suspended for us. We are in it.

And so the key to a great story is not what is happening externally (a/k/a the plot) but what is happening internally, to the protagonist. Cron describes this as the electrified third rail of a subway train. Without it, you have a nice train, full of passengers, and tracks leading off into the distance, but you are going absolutely nowhere. In a good story “[e]verything–action, plot, even the ‘sensory details’–must touch the story’s third rail.” They must have some impact that the protagonist (and the reader staring out of the protagonist’s eyes from his or her virtual reality suit) can feel. Only then does the story begin to chug out of the station. Only by feeling what the protagonist is feeling, experiencing her struggles, and undergoing her internal learning and growth process in real time do we escape into the world of story. This is what makes us turn the page.

Um. Yes. Yes! So how do we make that happen? Check back with me as we read on and find out. Happy writing, guys.

Experience Journaling – Day 2 – Acceptance

Hi fellow journalers! You’ve cracked the spine of your nice new notebook and begun to capture some experiences. How does it feel? New to the challenge? It’s not too late to start. Get all caught up here.

I recently picked up an old copy of Natalie Goldberg’s classic Writing Down the Bones at a used book sale. It is one of those iconic books on the craft of writing that I have somehow never managed to sit down and read. Don’t let the slim volume surprise you; it is packed with Zen wisdom and creative insight. In the preface alone Goldberg quotes a few of Jack Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” which I think, given our monthly challenge, are quite apropos:

  • [Be s]ubmissive to everything, open, listening
  • [There is n]o fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  • Be in love with yr life

I would include one more:

  • Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy

And with that I will leave you with the final words of Goldberg’s preface: “Now, please, go. Write your asses off.”

* * *

Day 2 – A Watercolorist’s Journal

One of three things will happen the first time you paint with watercolors: (1) you will make a mistake and give up; (2) you will make a mistake and start over, repeat this process until you’ve wasted a lot of expensive paper, sigh in disgust, and then give up; or (3) you will learn acceptance.

You will accept that the beautiful blue color you’ve mixed on your palette looks dark and muddy on the page. You will paint a dark and muddy scene. You will accept that there is no remedy for the drips and drops of water that have just ruined your beautiful swishy-sherbet sunset wash. You will turn the drips and drops into a misshapen cloud and (okay, screw acceptance) hate that cloud with an intensity all out of proportion to the situation. You will accept that your attempts to “fix” things result in sodden, buckling paper, furred and clotted with little abused paper particles. There is no “fixing” things in watercolor painting. There is only acceptance. And moving forward. Or giving up.

If you choose acceptance, you may begin to notice some things. That muddy denim-blue-lavender color is the color of anything, anywhere, in shadow. The hidden crook of a plant, where leaf meets stem; the underbelly of a bonfire-bright goldfish; the silhouette of a mountain range in the mist; the thin, reaching shadow of a thorn thrown against a cactus paddle at sunset. And just imagine, you learned to mix that color–that indispensable, depth-giving color, you learned the secret recipe, Cobalt Blue with touches of Cadmium Orange and Amazonite–on your very first try.

You will notice that the ugly little misshapen cloud is the best thing you’ve painted all week. And the more you stare at it the more you’ll want to clip it from the poor, dull sunset scene you’ve placed it in and transport it somewhere cosmic and surreal–to an acid-green sunset on the surface of Venus. You’ll want to give it twelve hundred brothers–an armada of weird little clouds, and call it all the moment the rain stopped in Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day.” You will never again try to “fix” a mistake in your painting, you will tell yourself. (But of course you will, you’re only human, and your great, lumbering human brain tramples where it likes.) You will instead wait patiently for the page to dry, for the alchemical changes of the evaporative process to take place. You will have faith in what is to come. You will practice acceptance.

Playwriting Workshop – Recap

Take a bow playwrights. We did it! We learned the rudiments of writing a play, from generating raw material and adapting it for use in scenes, to using settings, character descriptions, and stage directions to frame and develop conflict. We learned how to format scenes and wrote the first and last scenes of a full play. I hope you all continue on to connect the dots between those opening and closing scenes and polish and refine your final product.

But tomorrow is the first day of a new month, and with it a new challenge. So dig out your notebooks, writers, and get ready to WRITE WORDS NOW!

Playwriting Workshop – Day 15 – Disrupted Rituals

Okay guys, I want to squeeze one more exercise into the second week of our playwriting workshop. If you think back to plays you have read or seen performed, you will notice that many of them center on a disrupted ritual. What is a ritual? The authors of The Playwright’s Handbook define it as “any detailed method of procedure faithfully or regularly followed.” A ritual can be personal (how someone gets dressed, makes their morning coffee, packs or unpacks a bag), social (a weekly card game or happy hour, a monthly book club meeting), family (Thanksgiving dinner, summer vacation at the lake), or religious (Christmas mass, a Seder dinner).

Day 15: Disrupted Rituals: Using at least four characters from your stock company, create a 15-minute scene that centers on a disrupted ritual. Adapted from The Playwright’s Handbook, by Frank Pike and Thomas G. Dunn (Revised Edition, 1996).

Borrow liberally from your own life, adapting a real-life ritual to your character’s uses. Ask yourself the following:

  • What are the steps involved in the ritual? How does it begin and end?
  • Do the steps ever vary?
  • When in the process is the ritual interrupted?
  • What causes the disruption? A person? Event? The weather?
  • Does the interruption create conflict? Is the interruption much more significant to one character than to another?
  • Do your characters try to salvage the ritual or do they abandon it? How do they each react?

StoryADay May Recap

So writers, how did you do with StoryADay May? I have to say that my first StoryADay experience went much like my first NaNoWriMo experience. I was so enthusiastic at first, churning out stories in those first couple of weeks, but then life began to creep up on me. I went out of town twice, was busy at work, went to my kid’s T-ball games instead of writing. I was so disappointed with myself for “failing” the challenge.

But let’s think about that. At the end of my first failed NaNo experience I still had 15,000 words, a solid start to a novel. I had learned some strategies for fitting writing into my daily routine. And I was eager to try again.

At the end of StoryADay, my scoreboard looks something like this:

  • completed stories: 10
  • stories I made a solid start on: 11
  • story ideas I jotted down for later: 5

StoryADay, like NaNoWriMo, is a great challenge because, even if you fail abysmally, you are still generating new work. You’re still setting a PR for the challenge to try to beat next year. So, whether you wrote one story or 31 stories this month doesn’t really matter. You were a writer!

Now, on to the next challenge!

StoryADay May – Day 5 – Fan Fiction [updated: The Little Prince]

I was bad last night and didn’t finish my story! I wrote for forty minutes but wasn’t able to wrap it up in that timeframe. I thought about just posting what I had, but I am committed to 31 complete stories this month. So, stay tuned …

For now, on to the next prompt!

Day 5 Prompt: “Have some fun today: steal something from a favorite published universe. Remember, you can’t sell a derivative work without permission, or a license, but that’s not the point today. Today is all about having fun in a world you know well, or with characters you already love.”

Ooh, fan fiction. The possibilities for this are enticing. Harry Potter? Lord of the Rings? The wonderful world of Jane Austin?


I was going to set my story in the world of that magical childhood favorite, The Little Prince. And part of my story does take place there, but only indirectly. Stories have lives of their own. This one was fun to see unfold.

The Little Prince

“ ‘And that is how I made the acquaintance of the little prince.’ ” Sara snapped the book shut. Okay bud, time for bed.”

“But mom! Can we read a little more? Please? I’m not even tired!”

This was patently false. Will’s eyes were heavy, and she’d caught him blinking repeatedly during the sheep part. She hoped he was really interested in the story and not just stalling. It was one of her favorites.

“We can pick up where we left off tomorrow.” Will thrust his chin out in a little spasm of defiance and sulked at her. “And do you know what?” Sara continued, “We’ll find out tomorrow all about the little prince’s home. You know, he lives on his own planet. And guess what else?” Now she had him. “It’s actually an asteroid!”

“Really? How does he live on an asteroid? Don’t they go really fast?”

“We’ll have to wait and find out tomorrow. But trust me, he lives on an asteroid. And we’re going to read all about it. Good night, sweetie.”

“But mom?”

“Yeah baby?”

“I really want to read just one more page. Can we? Please? You will be my best mommy ever.” She had to laugh at his cheesy grin.

“Will. Come on. You have school tomorrow. And mommy …” Sara had a million things to do but was probably going to take a hot bath and go to bed early. It had been a long weekend. She was just about to put the book back on the shelf with the others when she stopped. “You know what? I have an idea.”


“This is an old trick Nana taught me. If you put a book under your pillow, then when you fall asleep you can visit the book in your dreams.”

“Is that really true?” He seemed skeptical, but curious.

“Well, it worked for me. I remember a whole summer I stayed at Nana’s house and every night I climbed the Alps—those are big mountains—with a little girl named Heidi and her goats.” Sara paused for a minute. It was true, she thought, smiling. She hadn’t thought about that in so long. But every day she’d read that book with her grandmother, and every night she’d had the most delicious dreams about Heidi and her grandfather and the goats. Maybe it would be the same for Will. “Shall we try it?”

“Okay.” Will lifted his pillow and Sara slid the slim volume underneath. They smiled conspiratorially as she turned off the light.

* * *

“Mommy, mommy, it worked! It really worked, I am not even kidding!” Will burst into the kitchen, just as she was starting the coffee.

“What worked, honey?” Sara stifled a yawn. She couldn’t remember how many scoops she’d put in and had to dump the basket and started again. “And before you start telling me all about it, do you want waffles or Cheerios?” Once Will started talking, there was no stopping him.


“The book, mom! The Little Prince! One minute I was lying in my bed, just starting to close my eyes, and the next minute … I was in a huge dessert! And do you know what I heard?” His face was so mischievous. Sara decided to play along. “A voice?” She set the bowl down in front of him at the counter and began slicing a banana over the top.

“Uh huh … and do you know what the voice said?”

“Um, take me to your leader?”

“No! It said, ‘If you please, draw me a sheep!’ Mommy, it was the little prince. He was in my dream, just like you said he would be!”

Sara smiled and ruffled Will’s hair. “Nana always did know the best tricks. I wish you could have met her buddy.” She poured herself some coffee and brought a stool around to sit across from him. “So what did you and the little prince do? Don’t tell me you went to his planet without me? We’re supposed to read that part tonight.”

“Um …” Will squirmed in his seat. “Yeah, we did. I’m sorry.”

“What!? I can’t believe it!”

His face lit up as he remembered something. “And it really was an asteroid, just like you said.”

“Mmm hmm.” Sara unwrapped the morning paper and began skimming the headlines.

“And it doesn’t have a name, only a number. Well, a letter and some numbers. Asteroid B-612.”

Sara paused, coffee mug halfway to her mouth, and looked at Will over her glasses. “Did the little prince tell you that?”

“No. I just knew what it was called. In my dream I just knew it. The little prince doesn’t call his planet that. He’s kind of mysterious about answering questions.”

Sara was sure they had not read that far yet. “Will, did daddy read The Little Prince to you?”


“Did you watch a cartoon of it on TV?”

“No. Mom! I had a dream about it. I told you!”

“Okay, okay.” Will could sound out simple words now. He must been reading ahead. “Hurry up, honey, you need to get dressed for school.”

* * *

“ ‘ “Were you so sad, then?” I asked, “on the day of the forty-four sunsets?” But the little prince made no reply.’ ” Sara slipped a scrap of paper in the book for a bookmark and kissed Will on the forehead. “To be continued,” she said, sliding the book back into its place on the shelf.

She had installed the little shelf before Will was born, when they’d made the spare bedroom into a nursery. It had seemed like a good place for her Little Prince collection. Since she first began traveling, back in college, Sara had purchased a copy of the book in every country she’d visited. Almost every. She’d read once that The Little Prince was one of the most translated books in the world, but there were a few placed she’d been where she hadn’t been able to find a copy. Still, there were at least two dozen.

“No wait! Mommy! I need to put it under my pillow!”

Sara looked down at Will, sitting up straight in his bed. She was impressed that he remembered, and that he was willing to keep up the ruse. Who knew, maybe he’d actually had a dream about the little prince. She pulled the book back off the shelf and handed it to him. Will slid it somberly under his pillow and blew her a kiss.

* * *

Con su permiso, dibujame una oveja!” No sooner had Will managed to get the words out than he erupted into a fit of giggles. “That’s what the little prince said this time. He’s funny, mommy. He was talking Spanish really fast, just like Ms. Nikolina.” Ms. Nikolina was his friend Bianca’s grandmother, who sometimes watched them after school, if Sara had a meeting that was ran late.

“Oh, does Bianca have The Little Prince too?” Maybe Ms. Nikolina had been reading the book to the kids in Spanish?

“No. Mommy, I could understand everything the little prince said, even though it was in Spanish.”

“Like when Ms. Nikolina speaks to you?”

“No! I don’t understand hardly anything she says! Bianca tells me everything in English.” He gave her a look that said “duh.”

Sara was stumped. Maybe they were learning Spanish in school? “Okay Mister, shoes, coat, backpack. Let’s go!”

At bedtime, when Will was brushing his teeth, Sara slipped her hand under his pillow and drew the book out. She froze. It was the Spanish translation. She must have grabbed the wrong one from the shelf the night before. Will ran across the room and dove into his bed, pulling the blankets up and settling in for his story. “Will, what does this say?” Sara held the book out to him, open to a random page.

He squinted and made a face. “I can’t read that! He tried to sound out a word and giggled. Mom, that book is weird.” Frowning a little, Sara returned the book to the shelf and pulled down the English version.

When they were done, she traded it for the French volume, surreptitiously sliding it under Will’s pillow. See what you make of that, little man, she thought.

* * *

The next morning, Will slipped into the kitchen without a sound, making her jump when she turned to find him already sitting in his place at the counter. “Good morning.” She gave him a kiss on the forehead as she passed by to get the cereal.

“Good morning. S’il vous plaît, dessine-moi un mouton!”

There was a crash from the pantry. Little fruit-flavored Oh’s rolled across the floor in all directions.

* * *

Thinking herself very foolish, Sara nevertheless embarked on a series of experiments. The results were as follows. If she placed a foreign language version of The Little Prince under Will’s pillow, the next morning he claimed to have spoken to the little prince in that language in his dreams. He could even recite the prince’s first words—his plea for a drawing of a sheep—in the new language. She tried German, Hebrew, and, just to be sure, Cantonese. But Will grew bored with this approach. He seemed to be reliving the same scene each night, just in a different language. So she put the English version under his pillow for three nights in a row. And in the morning, over pancakes and syrup, bacon and eggs, bagels and cream cheese, he amazed her with his recounting of the story. His visits with the little prince did not necessarily track the order of scenes in the book. Sometimes he told her things that happened much later.

And the things he said! These were not a child’s made-up tales upon studying the illustrations in a book. He knew, for example, that the prince’s rose was not only beautiful, but that she was a little selfish. That the prince loved her, but that he also wanted to be free from her. “That’s why he left his planet, mommy,” Will explained, “And the rose knew, she knew that it was her fault that he wanted to go away. And she told him to go, because she could tell that something bad was going to happen. But you know what I think?”

“What baby?” Sara was leaning close to him over the counter, practically spellbound.

“I think the rose really wants the little prince to come back to her. But sometimes you have to let go of something to keep it.”

Tears sprung up in Sara’s eyes. “That’s true baby, that’s very true.” She blinked, thinking how silly she was being, and turned to clean up the mess from breakfast.

To round out her experiments, Sara one night slid the book out from under Will’s pillow, careful not to wake him. She stood in the doorway watching him sleep, then looked at the book for a long time. Instead of putting it back on the shelf, she placed it under her own pillow.

The next day was Saturday. No alarm clock. Will came bursting into her bedroom, distraught. “Mommy, mommy, I was talking to the little prince, just like always, and then, all of a sudden, he was gone! And it was just dark and quiet. I kept calling him, but he wouldn’t answer. And when I woke up, mommy, the book, was gone.”

Sara smiled, a little sadly, and drew the book out from her own pillow. Will gasped. Then a thought registered. “Mommy, did it work! Did you meet the little prince?”

“No baby, it didn’t work.” Incredibly, Sara felt a little sob grip her. It was ridiculous, but some part of her had actually believed that something magical was happening. And maybe something magical was happening. But it was a child’s magic. And she was a grown-up.

That night, after they had read her favorite scene, the one with the little fox who wished only to be tamed, Sara handed Will the Italian translation, her favorite, because of the beautiful illustration on the cover. “This was the first Little Prince I ever bought,” she told him. The English version had belonged to her mother. She placed the book under Will’s pillow and gave him a big, squeezy hug.

“Mommy? Will you sit with me until I fall asleep?” Sara looked at him. She didn’t typically go in for such things. They were usually just ploys to delay bedtime. But Will looked so serious.

“Are you scared, honey?” She remembered him studying the drawing of the first King the little prince came upon, after leaving his planet. The depiction—deliciously awkward, like all of the book’s illustrations—showed him as a severe-jawed man with a flowing star-spangled cloak. Rather intimidating, she had to admit.

“No. I just want you to sit with me. Just for a minute.”

“Okay, sure.” Sara dimmed the lights and sat on the edge of Will’s bed. She watched his long eyelashes flutter in the moonlight. Suddenly sleepy, Sara stretched out on the bed next to him. Will nuzzled his face into the crook of her neck and, just before they both drifted off, she twined her fingers through his and gave his hand a little squeeze.

* * *

Sara woke with a start, disoriented. She lay stiffly, uncovered, on the edge of Will’s bed. He was awake too, staring into her eyes, their hands still clasped together. She narrowed her eyes at him, questioningly, and he seemed to answer her, without saying a word, excitement lighting up his face.

At the same moment, they both bolted upright and shouted, “Se per favore, disegnami una pecora!” Sara yanked the book from underneath the pillow, held it in front of her triumphantly, and joined her son in a fit of giggles, until they were both rolling on the floor, tears in their eyes.

[Day 5: 2327 words]