November 23, 2022

NaNo Update

It's week 4 of National Novel Writing Month. I can confirm that as I planned, I will not be attaining 50,000 words this November, but I have already reached 25k, my tentative personal goal.

My half-NaNoWriMo has been going very well. I've written every day this month so far, and most days I wrote a thousand or more words. A thousand words a day feels like a sweet spot for me: high enough that I have to keep pushing forward, but not so high that I end up typing every random thought simply to make word count. It feels like a sustainable pace that I can continue on past November, as long as I keep the flexibility of having some shorter days and breaks.

Tracking my words and having a numerical goal is great motivation, and it's ensuring my progress doesn't grind to a halt whenever there's a decision to make (which is constantly). For example, I got to a point in my outline where some characters were supposed to have a tense discussion about a particular area of conflict. I didn't have any notes about what setting or context this scene might happen in, so I had to think of one on the spot. I considered sending them on a hike, but then I immediately had a million questions for myself about logistics and location and what other activities would fit the story better than a hike. But I didn't have time for any of that, because I needed to write the scene, and what's important about the scene is the conversation and how it leaves each character feeling at the end. That's what's moving the story forward, and that's what will most likely persist into the next draft. The details of the hike that I scattered in around the conversation can easily be changed in revision. Once I've written the entire story and can examine it as a whole, I'll have more basis for determining whether it would be most useful for these characters to habitually take hikes together or play games or do some activity I'm definitely going to invent to be popular in the hundred-years-from-now setting of the novel.

Next up in my outline is a scene in which two characters start a collaboration that becomes significant for everything that happens in the rest of the story. I don't think I've sufficiently established why they decide to collaborate, but in the interest of pushing ahead, I'm going to get them started anyway. Filling in the missing steps can happen in revision. So can addressing the many unknown details throughout this draft that I've marked with square brackets, like "They discussed [something related to somebody's job]" and "the program to do [whatever], which was located in [wherever]."

I've been thinking of this draft as a model of a bridge, constructed of popsicle sticks and string in a somewhat haphazard manner. It may not be possible to drive even a toy car across it without jumping over gaps, and it's certainly not designed for real traffic, but it should wind up approximately the right shape to represent the bridge I want to build.

The 25,000-plus words I've written so far are a much more solid start to this novel than what I wrote last NaNoWriMo. A good word count for the finished draft might be somewhere in the vicinity of 100k, but I'm not sure where I'll actually end up, or how that might relate to the length after revision. I know I've written a lot of long, throat-clearing passages that will be streamlined or cut, but I also have all those holes and brackets to expand.

After today's writing session, I'll be taking a few days off to gather with family and friends. Next week I'll get back to work, and I'll keep writing into December and beyond.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ B. A. Shapiro shares her visual and mathematical plotting strategy at CrimeReads: "So how the hell does one go about writing a novel with such a large unconnected cast and so many intertwining plots? Well, how about Excel spreadsheets, bar graphs, bubble maps, pie charts and scattergrams? Not to mention intersecting and overlapping normal curves. Not the usual items in a novelist's toolkit. But my tools, nonetheless. Granted, I have a math background—one of my areas of specialization in graduate school was statistics—and everyone knows that being able to invert a matrix is a prerequisite for a successful literary career. Or not."

November 7, 2022

October Reading Recap

Last month's reading was all brand new books I'd been anticipating:

BEST OF FRIENDS by Kamila Shamsie: Zahra and Maryam are fourteen in Karachi in 1988. They have been best friends for as long as they can remember. Also as long as they can remember, Pakistan has been under the rule of a dictator. In a year of many changes for the girls, they both experiment with first crushes and learn uncomfortable truths about their families, but their friendship remains a constant. When the president dies in a plane crash and a democratic election brings a woman to power, the future becomes bright with possibility. Then Zahra and Maryam share an upsetting experience with repercussions that will spool out over the decades to come.

I formed some early guesses about how this story would develop, then kept revising my predictions, but what actually happens in this excellent novel was always different and more complex. And often smaller, in a way I appreciated: For example, the event that sets pieces in motion is big by fourteen-year-old standards but not so terrible or significant in the scheme of things, and that makes what follows more interesting. This novel is all about the small moments between people and the effect of those accumulating over time, and Shamsie portrays those moments so well in every scene. I was invested in Zahra, Maryam, and their friendship from the first pages, and I remained captivated by every development.

THE FURROWS by Namwali Serpell: When Cassandra is twelve and her little brother is seven, he drowns in the ocean. Cassandra is there to witness Wayne's death, but his body is never found and the circumstances are confusing. As a result, Cassandra's mother believes Wayne is only missing, and her conviction interferes with the family's ability to grieve. Years later, Cassandra meets a man at a cafe and thinks he's her lost brother. At the moment of her realization, chaos erupts. Then the story seems to begin again, but this time, Wayne dies when he's hit by a car.

I spent the first half of this strange, absorbing novel wondering whether the shifting reality of the narrative would eventually have an explanation or was more of a metaphor about the uncertainty of grief. The answer is sort of both. In the second half, the book shifts even more, and certain mysteries gradually become clear, but not the expected ones. I never had any idea where the story was going, and I thoroughly enjoyed that experience. Serpell is a gifted writer, especially when it comes to narrative voice, and the characters she's crafted here feel solidly real even while the world around them fractures.

OUR MISSING HEARTS by Celeste Ng: At twelve, Bird is intimately familiar with PACT, the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act, because its importance in saving the country from crisis has been drummed into him every day at school. Yet he's only starting to understand what PACT has to do with his mother leaving three years ago, or with other children being removed from their parents by the government. Bird's father says to forget about his mother, but the kids at school never let Bird forget that since she's a Person of Asian Origin, the whole family's loyalty is suspect. When Bird receives a mysterious letter from his mother, he knows he should burn this incriminating material. Instead, he tries to puzzle out its meaning, while investigating her possible connection to a string of artistic anti-PACT protests.

The dystopian near future of this story is chillingly close to reality, and Ng sets it up convincingly. The speculative setting isn't the only shift from her excellent previous novels, both set in the recent past of the real world. In what I took to be a reflection of the many folktales referenced in OUR MISSING HEARTS, the plot and characters are often fable-like, involving an epic quest, archetypal figures, and long sections of storytelling. This is a departure from the earlier books, which stood out to me for how nuanced and real the characters and their dynamics felt, and that was a bit of a disappointment. I still found this an engrossing novel, but I didn't love it like Ng's others.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Mosberg analyzes the trend of TV and movie studios preferring to adapt books and other media instead of seeking original scripts: "One reason seems to be that the agents and executives and managers and assistants are lacking confidence in their own ability to judge material. Oh, this is a book that a company published? Then it must be good. But of course that’s not true; many books aren't good. Scripts—even when written by produced, award winning screenwriters—don't come with an automatic stamp of approval. And yet an obscure self-published comic book with no fanbase somehow does?"