October 21, 2010

NaNoWriMo is Nigh!

National Novel Writing Month is only 10 days away! This week I finally started getting excited. I've been thinking more about that barely formed idea I mentioned last month, and while it hasn't come much more together, I'm now certain that I'm willing to spend a month with it.

I don't like talking about my novel ideas until I've come up with a way to describe them coherently, and this story definitely isn't to that point yet, but here's what I'll say: the story takes place in the aftermath of an epidemic that has killed a lot of people.

Since I was a kid, I've been fascinated by post-apocalyptic settings, doomsday scenarios, and the collapse of civilization. I like to read this type of book (though I've only scratched the surface of the genre), so why not write one? The idea is appealing to me right now because I'm honestly getting tired of what I usually write, which is stories about people's personal problems. It's great subject matter and all, but I feel like it's time to write something where what's at stake affects more than a family.

Incidentally, there's a big earthquake in THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, so I was already kind of heading in this direction, but in the U.S., even a large quake is only a limited catastrophe, and that novel is still mostly about a family's personal problems. I'm sure my NaNo novel will also focus heavily on individual lives, but I hope to explore some broader issues, too.

I've decided that what I'm going to do differently this year is allow myself to not end the month with a readable story. In the past, I've always written from beginning to end, making every effort to create a reasonably coherent plot and stay within the bounds of what made sense to put in the story. At the end of November, I always had 50,000 or more words that I could give to friends who understood the roughness of a NaNoWriMo first draft -- not for critique at that point, but to satisfy their curiosity and provide them with some entertainment. (The last couple of years, though, I was so disenchanted with my NaNo novels that I don't think I even passed them on to these interested trusted readers.) I always wrote an actual first draft of a novel (or, to be fair, a chunk of a larger novel).

This year I'm going to aim to write 50,000 words in service of a possible eventual novel. Some will be normal first draft scenes, but I also expect to write a lot of world-building, backstory, and notes that would never go into the novel itself. I might write out of order, and maybe I'll try out different points of view that I won't necessarily keep using. My kernel of an idea is much too vague for me to just start writing a story, so I'm going to try out this method and see how it goes.

I think this is going to be an exciting November.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ MobyLives talks about the problem -- one I've struggled with -- of putting current technology in fiction without turning it into fiction about current technology: "It's a fascinating literary balancing act, the precarious wire between timeliness and timelessness."

October 14, 2010

Things Are Going to Start Happening To Me Now

Not long after the East of Eden writing conference and contest were canceled, I read about another contest in the San Francisco Writers Conference newsletter. The Houston Writers Guild puts on a contest twice a year that's open to everyone. It turned out that the first chapter and synopsis I'd prepared for EoE exactly matched the length of the materials requested by the Houston contest, so with very little additional work, I was able to send off an entry.

Once my submission was in the mail, I tried to think about it as little as possible and not get my hopes up. If you've ever submitted anything to anybody, you know how well that works. Despite my extensive daydreams about winning, I was still pretty shocked when the winners were announced and I learned that my chapter took third place in the mainstream category.

Dude. I won a writing contest. I won the first (non-canceled) writing contest I entered! I'm still kind of stunned.

This is the only feedback I've received on THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE from anyone besides my trusted readers, who are insightful and fair but necessarily biased by knowing me. It's huge to have a stranger (or likely, multiple strangers) decide that the first chapter of my manuscript deserves a prize. Entering a contest isn't the same as seeking representation from an agent, but this bodes well for when it's time to query. Plus, this win will be a lovely item to brag about in a query letter.

Now I need to use this to get truly motivated about making the rest of the manuscript as awesome as the first chapter so the querying can begin.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund of The Juggling Writer is podcasting his novel, HELL COMES WITH WOOD PANELED DOORS, "a humorous coming-of-age story about a family traveling cross country in a possessed station wagon." I'm enjoying the trip so far!

→ Nidya Sarria writes at The Millions about Reading Outside Your Culture: "Yes, Langston Hughes was a black poet from the Harlem Renaissance, far from me in distance and time. But Theme for English B touched a nerve. The speaker's relationship to society could have been my relationship to society."

October 13, 2010

Once and Future Novellas

I finished reading DIFFERENT SEASONS, a novella collection by Stephen King. I previously posted some thoughts on the first two stories. The rest of the collection did not disappoint.

"The Body" follows four 12-year-old boys on a long walk along a set of railroad tracks to view a dead body. If this sounds familiar, you've probably seen the 1986 film Stand By Me that was based on the novella. The story opens with the line "The most important things are the hardest things to say," a theme I agree with that gets explored throughout. There's a lot packed into the story's 150 pages, including topics like growing up, death, friendship, and writing, and I was completely engrossed.

"The Breathing Method" also kept me turning the pages, in part because I never had any idea where it was going. It's a strangely structured tale, with a frame story that's almost as long as the supposedly main story. There's much left unanswered, including why the two stories were put together. Maybe King himself isn't sure. In the afterword to the book, he calls this novella "an off-the-wall horror story about a young woman determined to give birth to her child no matter what (or maybe the story is actually about that odd club that isn't a club)."

Also in the afterword, King discusses being typecast as a horror writer, even though that's not all he writes, as these stories demonstrate. And he talks about the difficulty of finding a market for stories of 25,000 to 35,000 words, particularly with a novella that's mainstream rather than genre. King was writing about this problem in 1982, and I'm sure it's even more difficult now to find print publications interested in works of this size.

But coincidentally, right after I read this, I saw the announcement that Amazon is introducing Kindle Singles:

Less than 10,000 words or more than 50,000: that is the choice writers have generally faced for more than a century -- works either had to be short enough for a magazine article or long enough to deliver the "heft" required for book marketing and distribution. . . . Today, Amazon is announcing that it will launch "Kindle Singles" -- Kindle books that are twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book. Kindle Singles will have their own section in the Kindle Store and be priced much less than a typical book.

It's a cool idea, and a logical one. Eric at Pimp My Novel has more thoughts on the subject (including noting that he had this idea a year ago): "I believe the sale of e-chapbooks, e-novellas, and even (gasp!) e-short stories via Amazon will help revitalize two flagging genres of American writing: poetry and literary fiction."

There aren't any Kindle Singles available yet, but I look forward to seeing what's offered.

October 8, 2010

Room... and Going Outside the Text

ROOM by Emma Donoghue was released in September, the same month it made the Booker prize shortlist, so I'd been seeing a lot about it on the literary blogosphere. The premise -- presented well by the book trailer -- intrigued and disturbed me: Jack, the five-year-old narrator, has spent his entire life in a room with his Ma, unable to leave, but perfectly content because he doesn't know there's any more to the world.

When I read Edan Lepucki's review at The Millions (contains spoilers), one line caught my attention: "[Jack's Ma] must keep Jack safe, but also entertained. And it’s not easy keeping a five-year-old entertained!" I'm still in the middle of Helen DeWitt's THE LAST SAMURAI, and much of the first half of that book is concerned with the difficulties of entertaining (and educating) a five-year-old. Thinking about that connection pushed ROOM from "would like to read someday" to "must read immediately".

I bought ROOM (the Kindle edition) and devoured it in three days, with breaks to read this week's section of THE LAST SAMURAI and marvel at the cognitive dissonance produced by reading both books at once. I spotted all sorts of weird similarities between the books and occasionally confused myself by misinterpreting things due to making an association with the wrong book.

Considering the books together led to me thinking about the stories in ways the authors didn't necessarily intend, but that also aren't necessarily so far from universal themes they may have had in mind. The circumstances of the mother and son in the two books are very different, except to the extent that they aren't. The life that Sibylla in THE LAST SAMURAI has created for herself and Ludo is an isolated one, and she often feels trapped, even if it's not in the literal sense that Ma and Jack are. For both pairs, the intrusion of the outside world leads to problems that didn't exist in the simpler world of just-the-two-of-us. And every time I thought about how different the characters are in the two books, I noticed more ways in which they are alike.

This reading experience made me think again of the column I linked to last week about reading multiple books at once. In the essay, Julia Keller says, "A wonderful literary synergy is created by the accidental juxtaposition of reading materials" and also "You can deliberately set books against each other". I might make a habit of co-reading books that go together in interesting ways. Any suggestions?

Even if you don't choose to pair it with THE LAST SAMURAI, I highly recommend ROOM (though if you're already feeling more disturbed than intrigued, this may not be the book for you). It's clear that Donoghue put a huge amount of thought and research into what this situation would be like and how it would work, and I was constantly impressed by how real and believable the story felt. I loved and hoped for the characters, and I never wanted to put the book (well, my phone) down.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Nathan Bransford talks about The Beatles. (Of course I'm going to link to that!) "Their greatness didn't just spring forth: they worked and worked and worked and worked some more. . . . the truth is boring: working very very hard and practicing a very very long time is not the stuff that great stories are made of."

→ A. Victoria Mixon offers 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Helplessly Addictive: "Why, if you did all this on every single page, you'd never have room for anything else! None of the other stuff you've written, none of the extra description, the unimportant actions, the insignificant dialog, the explanatory exposition, the filler. . ."

→ Vulture has screenshots showing what happens when Hogwarts gets online.

October 1, 2010

Oh Yeah, Duh

I think I should retitle this blog "Oh Yeah, Duh".

First I had to remind myself that, oh yeah, duh, I love reading. And then, huh, that's right, I do vaguely recall that writing is intense.

Now, for my latest blinding flash of obviousness, it's occurred to me that I should read my manuscript before revising it.

I don't want to go out on too much of a limb here, but it might be helpful to know what's in the novel before I try to fix it, right? And there's just a small chance that reading the manuscript might result in renewing my interest in the story, wouldn't you say?

To be fair, there was a point in time that I read this complete draft. I even read it IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, as Anne Mini likes to say. But that point in time was over six months ago, and that point in drafts wasn't entirely the current version, though it also wasn't entirely different. But still, come on, how clueless can I be?

So if you need me, I'll be over in the corner with a dunce cap, waiting for my manuscript to print.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Book critic Julia Keller explains why she loves reading many books at once. (Thanks, Beyond the Margins!)

→ And James Bridle at booktwo.org addresses the pervasive problem of book guilt: "People have confessed to me that it’s been months since they last picked up a book, because they still haven’t finished the last one."