NaNo Prep – Week 1 Recap

Hi writers! It was a busy first week of October for me. I posted my second NYC Midnight Flash Fiction entry on the contest forum and have had fun responding to feedback from other participants and reading their entries. I signed up for a noveling conference next month and have been trying to read at least one novel from each of the authors who will be presenting there. And I’m gearing up for an intense 48 hours this weekend as the NYC Midnight short screenplay contest kicks off.

And then there is NaNo prep! I’m loosely working my way through two texts this month in preparation for National Novel Writing Month in November: Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel and the workbook Ready, Set, NovelSo far, the two dovetail nicely. Chapter 3 of Story Genius is called “The What If?” (see last month’s posts for summaries of chapters 1 and 2, which lay out Cron’s story-writing philosophy) and Chapter One of Ready, Set, Novel is called “Storming Your Brain.” Both challenge you to tease out from that nagging little kernel of a story idea  you’ve been carrying around a bunch of potential novels. This is always the nerve-wracking part for me; committing to one idea when there are so many others floating around. What if I choose the wrong one and wind up hating it in November?

But that isn’t really how it works. I’ve gone into NaNoWriMo as both a serious plotter and a pantser (NaNo speak for someone who does no planning and simply sits down on Day 1 to write by the seat of his or her pants) and I can tell you I have never regretted a moment of planning. You are not rigidly stuck with your outline, notes, doodles, random thoughts, character sketches, or other NaNo prep work. You will still be surprised by the directions your writing takes during the month. But a little planning significantly cuts down on the amount of time you will stare off into space (or at a blank notebook page or blinking cursor), wracking your brain for what to say next.

This week I’m diving into Chapters 4, 5, and 6 of Story Genius, titled “The Who?”, “The Why?”, and “The Worldview,” and Chapter 2 of Ready, Set, Novel, titled “Creating Your Characters.”

Not into these books? Here are some other NaNo Prep resources you might be interested in:

  • The folks at NaNoWriMo have a whole workbook full of exercises to get you thinking about your novel that they use with their high school student participants.
  • They are also offering a few webcasts this month, including one this Thursday, October 11, on NaNo Prep, and one on October 15, focused on how to find time to write every day.
  • And you can check out the new weekly podcast Write-Minded, by NaNoWriMo executive director Grant Thornton and   Brooke Warner of She Writes.
  • Are you a checklist person? Check out this one by Deborah O’Carroll.

Happy prepping writers!

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2018

One thing I managed last month, in the midst of what otherwise felt like a general writing slump, was to submit my second short story in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. Contestants in each round are assigned a genre, character, and subject and asked to write a very short story (1000 words or less) in just 48 hours. There are four challenges in this contest. Contestants who do well enough on their first two stories move on to the second of three rounds.

You can read my Round 1, Challenge 2 flash fiction piece, Ruadhán of the Heath, here. My assignment for this challenge was fantasy, a bonfire, and a first-aid kit.

And you can read my Round 1, Challenge 1 flash fiction piece, Juror Number Twelve, here. My assignment was horror, a jury room, and a hard-boiled egg.

Guys, this is the beauty of contests: accountability and deadlines. Wish me luck!

Raw Material – Recap

Hi writers! No, I was not abducted by aliens. Yes, I did completely flake out on last month’s challenge. And just as I was feeling really terrible about that, someone posted this on social media: “Forgive yourself every night and recommit every morning.” I guess I’d like to amend that to “Forgive yourself monthly and recommit on the first of the month.”

I will say, I didn’t flake out completely. I continued to read Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. I thought it would be a good idea to pair doing that with working in a prompt book to generate a lot of raw material, which I hoped would give me an idea for something to write about next week for NaNoWriMo. But I felt like I was just going through the motions. As it turns out, there was an idea for a novel, simmering in the back of my mind, and reading Story Genius made me want to just steep myself in it and try to really figure it out. So I did a lot of daydreaming and spacing out and jotting incomprehensible notes. Procrastinating, you say? Perhaps.

So what’s the plan for October? I am going to continue to post tips I picked up from Story Genius. I’m also going to go through each of the exercises in the first part of the book, which are designed to get you to work out your protagonist’s internal struggle, the live wire that drives your story. I may also use,  Ready, Set, Novel, a noveling workbook I’ve used before, which also helps you develop your backstory, characters, setting, and major plot points, all before you sit down to write that novel on November 1.

Whether you plan to work with these books or do some other kind of NaNo Prep, I hope you will stick with me and tune in for more regular posts as we gear up for my favorite writing month of the year!

Raw Material – Day 10

Prompt: The worst Thanksgiving dish you ever had. 

Wet clotted spoonfulls of stuffing, made from the rubbery crusts of day-old baguettes, wormholed by limp strings of sautéed onion. The cook attempted to “crisp” the thing, flashing it in the oven at high heat. This had rather the effect of an as-seen-on-TV food dehydrator, leaving behind a vomit-brown casserole the consistency of shoe leather, with little charred tips like the points of a meringue.

If you could get beyond all of that the–the texture and appearance–the sound of it squeaking between your teeth, the flavor would hit you. Not rosemary, thyme, or sage, those Thanksgiving standards, but oregano. Dusty green handfuls of oregano. The monstrosity tasted like nothing so much as a frat-party pizza, waxy and abandoned the day after the party in a grease-stained box.

Lucy dutifully raised another a spoonful to her mouth. She wondered if she had the nonchalance to spit it into the fancy embroidered napkin in her lap.

Raw Material – Day 9

Prompt: Tell a story that begins with a ransom note. 

She could do without it, Abby thought. Should be able to do without it. She had been planning on getting a new one soon anyway. The old one worked fine but it was a little slow, and beat up, with campground stickers from her gap year plastered across the top. Whoever took it must have known she needed it right now, enough to clean out her meager checking account and hide a fat was of bills in the prescribed hiding spot: under the loose plank in the step of the old stone water tower building.

That alone should tell her something, she thought. Who knew that building? An actor in the stage company that performed there on weekends? One of the tourist information desk workers in their blue T-shirts and khaki pants? Maybe someone less obvious. Some behind-the-scenes figure. A set designer or someone on the janitorial staff. Really, she suspected it was someone from the law school. Who else but a law student would think to ransom a person’s laptop in the last days before the bar exam?

She pulled the note out again and unfolded it. She smiled, in spite of herself. Someone had taken the time to clip letters from magazine and newspaper headings and paste them down on a sheet of white typing paper. It was a good, old-fashioned ransom note, fit for FBI scrutiny, the sort left by a serial killer at the scene of his last crime or stuffed in the mailbox of a rich celebrity’s daughter, as she lay gagged and squirming in the back of a utility van. It couldn’t be real, she thought. It had to be a joke.

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 7

Prompt: Something you had that was stolen.

The package arrived on a Tuesday. In a neat bubble-wrapped mailer with her address printed in black ink. The writing was big and bubbly, like a young girl’s. There was no address. Chandra didn’t think much of it. She did a lot of online shopping. Maybe something she’d ordered a while ago had been delayed. She tore open the envelope and turned it upside-down over the dining room table. It fell with a soft thud. A old wallet. Soft brown leather, rectangular. A woman’s wallet. She had the strangest feeling of deja vu as she picked it up. And she suddenly knew, even before she flipped it open, what she would find inside; her own driver’s license, from twenty years ago, at least. It was hers.

Raw Material – Day 6

Prompt: The long-lost roommate.

There had been a lot of grappling in the elevator. This she remembered. Could still picture it if she closed her eyes. The darkly patterned emerald carpet like a putting green or the felted surface of a pool table. The reflective black paneling, good as any mirror. The optical illusion, when you stepped inside: whole armies of yourself, standing at attention, in rows and rows. Forever.

When he’d reached for her it hadn’t seemed like a choice. Their movements were automatic, full of the inertia of that sea of tangled limbs and pressing torsos. Who were they to resist infinity?  When the door swung open to an instant of bright light on the tenth floor one of them–she could no longer remember who–had pressed the “closed” button. The other–it had been a joint effort, of this she was sure–had sent them all the way up, to the penthouse floor, where a tiny unlocked maintenance door led to the roof, to the hot dark summer air and a sky swirling with wine and stars.

Raw Material – Day 5

Prompt: What a character holding a blue object is thinking right now.

The girl next door had imaginary friends. A shimmering, otherworldly horse named spirit. And a beautiful woman, Varta, with thick black hair and a long trailing blue dress with belled sleeves and secret pockets. Annabelle silently listened to the girl describe them both on the swings one day. Varta was not really alive. Though she had been, or perhaps she still was, in some parallel universe. She appeared now only to the girl, as a hologram.

“Like Princess Leia?” Annabelle ventured.

“Exactly.” The girl dug her feet into the gravel mid-swing and looked at Annabelle with fervent, glistening eyes. Her knuckles were white, where she gripped the chains, and on the middle finger of one hand she wore a huge sapphire, on an old-fashioned filigreed gold band. Annabelle studied the ring when she thought the girl was not looking. It was too large, spinning around on the girl’s finger, but that didn’t seem to trouble her. She wanted to ask if the stone was real but knew, somehow, that that would be a mistake. One had the feeling that the girl was in the grip of some powerful spell, one those around her should take care not to break.

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.