November 29, 2021

NaNoWriMo Success!

I've completed the National Novel Writing Month challenge to write 50,000 words of a new novel in November. As I posted last month, this was my return to NaNoWriMo after many years away, and my hope was to kickstart the drafting of a novel I was still very much figuring out. What I wrote this month didn't turn out to be so much a first draft as a lot of finding my way into the world, the characters, and the story. The demanding word count goal forced me to make progress much faster than usual, and while that speed produced some garbage, it also sparked some new, surprising ideas. So I consider the month a success at all levels.

To reach the 50,000 word goal (the length of a short novel) in 30 days requires writing an average of 1667 words each day. I started out the month keeping to about that pace. The first few days were slow while I tried to remember how to not worry so much about sentence quality, and as I stopped to think up names for every character who appeared. Then I eased into the NaNo groove and began writing faster and with more abandon. Some days meeting the word count was easy, others it was a slog, but I made myself get my words in every day.

About halfway through the month, I'd written every scene I'd imagined in advance and then some. I had the setup for a story, not much sense of where to go next, and many doubts about whether there even was anywhere to go. I'd already written some scenes and character explorations that fell outside the main storyline I was writing, so I decided I'd better do more of that, plus some writerly musings that I'd allow into my word count. Writing down my streams of thought about plot and character turned out to be an even faster way to generate words, and I realized I could probably reach 50k before Thanksgiving and be able to relax over the holiday long weekend. I ended Wednesday, November 24 with 50,108 words, recorded my win, and then happily put the story almost entirely out of my head.

Now I'm ready to start looking again at what I produced in the mad rush of November. About half the words I wrote are the first part (and a bit of the middle) of the novel this will eventually become, though much will change based on some new directions I worked out later. About 10k words are me posing questions to myself like "Where are the current characters headed, and what would improve their arcs?" and then brainstorming answers. The rest are experimental threads of trying out different character voices, backstories, and world details, and some of those turned out to be the most compelling stuff I wrote. In the final three days, I came up with two new characters who I'm excited to figure out more about. This mess of words is hardly a novel, but it's a lot of good material toward a novel, and I didn't have any of it a month ago.

I'll be letting these ideas percolate as the year winds down. I may start on some research and outlining, but most of that will come in the new year, when I intend to get back to work on this story in a major way. The NaNoWriMo site is set up for tracking word count goals at any time, and since I found the graphs there motivating, I may give myself another goal early in 2022.

I'm glad I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo again this year. The real goal of the event is the satisfaction of writing some words that wouldn't have been written otherwise. I've been happy to hear from many friends who also accomplished that success, regardless of whether they technically won. Congratulations to all of us!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Elisa Shoenberger at Book Riot offers A Tiny History of Miniature Books: "I was over the moon when I found out that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a famous collector of miniature books, amassing 750 of them, some gifts from Eleanor Roosevelt.... He's not the only president to have engaged with little books. There was a miniature book for Theodore Roosevelt when he was campaigning, [book expert Anne] Bromer said. Many years later, President Gerald Ford worked with a printer in California, Bromer noted, to make two miniature books of his speeches, which he signed." (And don't miss the link to the 1832 miniature guide to birth control.)

November 5, 2021

October Reading Recap

Once again, my reading month was busy, varied, and great:

MATRIX by Lauren Groff: In 1158, young Marie is ejected from Eleanor of Aquitaine's court and made the prioress of a remote, impoverished abbey. Marie has no desire to become a nun, to lead a religious life, or to be separated from the radiant Eleanor. Life at the abbey is terrible at first, and Marie goes hungry with the rest of the nuns and dreams of rescue. But when she accepts that nobody else is coming to save her, Marie takes control, making changes to bring the abbey money and status. She starts having visions that guide her in reshaping the community of nuns into a prosperous, powerful enclave of women.

I loved this beautiful, surprising story of a woman claiming power and wielding it for good. Marie is an excellently complicated character, motivated at different times by lust and love, by selfish and altruistic desires, by revenge and justice. (Groff created her starting from the few details known about the real medieval poet, Marie de France.) The many other women who inhabit the novel receive complex, compassionate portrayals as well. The story spans 50 years, with many events summarized, yet the narrative remains gripping and specific throughout. I wouldn't have guessed that I was going to find a novel about twelfth century nuns this compelling!

NEVER SAY YOU CAN'T SURVIVE by Charlie Jane Anders is a mix of writing inspiration and craft advice on "How To Get Through Hard Times By Making Up Stories". The book was originally published as a series of essays at that are still available online, but I appreciated having it to read in a single volume. This was definitely the writing guide I needed right now.

Anders talks about why stories are important even in (especially in) circumstances that make writing feel frivolous and pointless—and I found her arguments convincing in a way I often don't when this topic is discussed. She shares personal accounts of how reading and writing helped her through bad times, and she details how her writing changed in response to real world challenges. Interspersed with the encouragement is realistic, practical advice on producing first drafts even when writing is hard. I've long been a fan of Anders's craft advice, and here she focuses on the discrete elements and temporary decisions that can help get something down on the page to be improved later. The book includes some exercises to jumpstart writing sessions. While it's aimed at an audience of speculative fiction writers, most of the material would be equally useful for any genre. If you're feeling stalled or hopeless in your writing, I recommend this book or the individual online essays.

HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead: Ray Carney is proud to own a legitimate business, a reasonably successful furniture store in 1959 Harlem that will eventually finance a nicer apartment for his growing family. Carney is definitely not a crook like his late father or his cousin Freddie, even if he occasionally moves some merchandise of dubious provenance. When Freddie shows up talking about pulling a heist, Carney wants nothing to do with it, but he ends up involved in the scheme anyway. In the following years, as business thrives thanks to both showroom and back room dealings, there are more schemes, and Carney has to figure out how to exist at the intersection of straight and crooked.

Colson Whitehead has of course written another novel full of impeccable sentences, nuanced characters, and well-considered moments. Because the subject matter of HARLEM SHUFFLE is less grim than his previous two books (THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and THE NICKEL BOYS), he has more opportunities to focus on the humorous and ridiculous in his characters' situations, and this story is frequently funny. There is also plenty that's serious as Carney deals with racism, colorism, and the changes Harlem faces over time, through the riots of 1964 (in response to the police killing of a Black teen).

The plot of HARLEM SHUFFLE revolves around the details of several crimes, but this is a crime story in the same way that Whitehead's ZONE ONE is zombie story: heavy on digressions and character explorations that often leave the genre element in the background. But I'm a devoted fan of Whitehead's style by now, and I was happy to ride along with Carney even when it took a while to get to the action. I especially enjoyed getting to know all the story's excellent characters and watching Carney's life and the city around him evolve.

DEAR EDWARD by Ann Napolitano: A full passenger jet crashes during a transcontinental flight, and the only survivor is 12-year-old Edward. His injured body will heal, but he's emotionally shattered by the loss of his parents and the older brother who was his best friend. Edward is barely functioning when he's taken in by his aunt and uncle, who are consumed by their own grief. The three of them have to figure out how to become a family and find a path out of tragedy, all while dealing with the media attention Edward is receiving as the miraculous sole survivor. The girl next door is the only person Edward encounters who treats him like a kid, not a miracle, and her friendship is the first comfort he finds after the accident. As Edward's life moves forward, another thread details the doomed flight from the perspective of several passengers, each focused on their own problems and planned destinations.

I liked many things about this novel, though others didn't work as well for me. I was most impressed by Napolitano's portrayal of Edward's mental state, which makes use of surprising metaphors and taps into some very raw emotions. In general, I appreciated everything in the story that was unexpected and specific, such as the way Edward's friendship with Shay develops and the nuanced dynamics between Edward and his aunt and uncle. While the characters on the plane have some original flourishes, they struck me as more cliched and not as fully drawn as the characters in the aftermath. I also found the letters somewhat contrived and was disappointed by where they took the plot in the last third of the book. This was a good read, but I didn't love it like many other readers.