Category Archives: writing

Excerpts from Rule of Thirds

I’m theoretically doing NaNoWriMo again this year, making up my own rules on relative word counts. I’m failing miserably, but that’s what happens when I try to write while working full time.

All the same, between word sprints on my phone and Melissa-enforced notebook writing while we were in Yosemite, I’ve managed to word vomit up some halfway decent words.

Here are some excerpts that I’m unreasonably proud of having written.

Continue reading Excerpts from Rule of Thirds

NaNoWriMo 2012: Which No’?

Hello friends, casual visitors, and spambots! As some of you may remember, I did National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) last year in a hilarious month of word vomiting, medical school application writing, blogging, and surgical procedures.

Long story short, I didn’t reach 50K in November 2011. (But I did reach 50K in February 2012. Doesn’t count.)

It’s a new year and a new NaNoWriMo, which means it’s time to pick a new novel idea that’s going to be the bane of my existence in the month of November. Here’s where YOU come in. Help me decide which one to write!

THE CANDIDATES

  1. Will
    Genre: literary fiction
    Premise: After a debilitating accident, recent college grad Will gets lost in the alternate reality of his coma/dreams while his friend Katherine tries to bring him back to reality. A coming of age story wrapped in a surreal dreamscape.
    Pros: solid and fully fleshed out characters, the disconnected nature of the surreal dream sequences makes it less likely for me to get bored, story could use a speed draft just to fill in the story and see where it goes
    Cons: minimal story line planning has been done
    Existing story bits: 1 2 3
  2. Evenfall
    Genre: fantasy (epic)
    Premise: The Evenfall Prophecy states that a set of twins, pit against each other by pride and circumstance, will bring about the end of magic in their world. The story follows precocious twins Kaeden and Kiersta as their lives inevitably fulfill the prophecy. An epic saga of possibly tome-like length. Oh, and did I mention it involves dragons?
    Pros: DRAGONS, magic, epic write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants action scenes, extremely long story line that I could write out of sequence all month
    Cons: while the middle is relatively developed I have no idea where this story starts, no concept of pacing, I can’t take myself seriously when writing fantasy (see here)
    Existing story bits: 1 2
  3. Rainwalkers of Penryn
    Genre: science fiction
    Premise: Set in the future, when humanity has razed the earth and caused environmental disaster, and the survivors establish themselves in underground metropolises. Twins Xan and Annilea, both members of the elite surface-restoration corps, go AWOL on the surface to rescue their kidnapped younger sister.
    Pros: cool blend of environmentalism and badass scifi, could use a speed draft like (1) just to fill in the story and see where it goes, characters mostly fleshed out
    Cons: futuristic world needs work, no idea how the story goes from point A to point B, haven’t touched this story in years
    Existing story bits: 1 2 3 plus Pengel’s Universe, a short story that’s not posted online in its revised entirety
  4. Rule of Thirds
    Genre: mainstream/literary fiction
    Premise: The three children of a photographer must cope with the sudden death of their father. Left with loose ends of their individual relationships with him, the siblings try to reconcile their versions of their father and the secrets he kept.
    Pros: interesting exploration of family dynamics, main characters are fleshed out, really really like the narrator
    Cons: runs the risk of turning into a depressing book or an overly literary coming-of-age-with-a-romantic-side-plot story, less action and more contemplation
    Existing story bits: 1 2 plus an unfinished short story/prologue that I’ll post later
  5. Skies Over Kalispell
    Genre: mainstream fiction/romance
    Premise: complicated girl falls for rock star bad boy? I bet you can fill in the rest. Started with the goal of writing a romance story with better writing than Fifty Shades of Grey (high standard, that)
    Pros: plot mostly planned, straightforward but fleshed out characters with some dynamism, same narrator as (4) but a little younger
    Cons: if I can’t take myself seriously writing fantasy, I can tell you I definitely can’t take myself seriously writing this
    Existing story bits: 1 2
  6. The Literary Adventures of Zeus Jorgensen
    Genre: mainstream fiction
    Premise: Bat-shit insane friend becomes the literary agent for a talented writer and whores him out on various writing jobs.
    Pros: episodic by nature and therefore easy to get a new ball rolling mid-month, room for hyperbole and absurdity
    Cons: conceived as a collaboration with Seth (could still rope him in? eh?), no thematic ideas for this one and not really any planning has gone into it
    Existing story bit: names are irrelevant

Thoughts? Comment below to make your opinion known!

 

FAQs

Q: Are you ever going to finish The Jade League (NaNoWriMo 2011)?
A: Maybe. Eventually. One day.

Q: You wrote a column about the experience last year. Are you doing it again?
A: Nope. 1,667 words per day is already enough. And let’s be real, who would run that column of panicky nonsense?

Q: Wait, aren’t you working a full time job this year?
A: Yes. I’ll make it work?

Q: Are you making up these FAQs as you go along?
A: These aren’t the droids you’re looking for…

 

Lastly, to distract you, a picture of my dog:

The Rockhounder’s Sonnet

(In honor of Lucas, who has been obsessed with the poetry textbook I gave him. Sound and Sense, we salute you.)

~a Shakespearean sonnet~

Right here where rocks must stand to meet the sea,
There lies a strip of stones that brightly shine.
So scattered there, each thought and memory
Awaits my choice — discard or keep as mine?
Among mere pebbles I find agates cloaked
In ocean’s salt, now dry beneath the sun.
But look, what beauty there if washed and soaked –
We’ll find the stones that mark our days as one.
Before you came I thought that rocks were rocks,
And days would pass without the need to choose
Which moments to keep safe inside this box
To cache these stones that I fear I might lose.
    So polish, treasure all these rocks so rare
    To then put on display the love we share.

(Originally written 4/29/09)

(Also, “rockhounding” is a weird word.)

27 Hours in LA

2/13/12 2:30pm
Scanning people at SJC. Sweaty faces. Hurried footsteps. The man ahead of me in the security line is frantically taking off his belt. There is no security line–and that’s messing us up. No time to extract the one quart ziplocks of three ounce liquids from the rest of the luggage. No time to down that last gulp of water in the bottle. I’m stumbling over my shoes with one hand still trying to shove my ID back into my wallet–thankful, really, that belt-man is holding up the line.

I don’t scan for AEDs at SJC anymore. I already know where they are–a kind of learned instinct, I suppose. Instead I scan faces, make judgements. I’ll bet your cholesterol is high, man in the business suit whose tie is feeling a little too snug. You’re looking a little red in the face and I’m sure you’re a very important international businessman running late for your international business meeting, but don’t you worry, sir, I’m an EMT and I’ll be there in a flash if you start feeling weak and clutch at your chest and just so you know there’s an AED not 200 feet behind me and another coming up ahead. Don’t you worry, sir.

Stormy skies at SJC

5:40pm
Rattling down highway 405 in a Flyaway shuttle. The scenery bounces past for this mile or so stretch without traffic. I can barely focus my eyes on my iPhone screen, much less hit the right keys as I text my parents that I’ve arrived. Thank God for autocorrect. The shuttle rattles so much that the emergency exit window beside me is almost falling off, a thin sliver of cement highway pulsating between the black rubber linings with each bump in the road.

The hapless driver charges forth, spearing the tank of airport shuttle through openings in traffic. I would trust his experience except he already left the shuttle doors open while trundling around the terminals, oblivious until another Flyaway driver yelled, “DOOR!” as we drove past. He’s listening to something unintelligible on the radio, quietly buzzing beside him as we rattle on down the highway. The rattling sporadically connects the audio to the rest of the shuttle and blasts R&B in neurotic spurts, long enough for me to feel the soul of the singer pouring out but too short to even make out the words.

LA sunset in Instagram

11:05pm
Lying on my friend’s futon in the dark. The interview’s still nine hours away and I can’t think about anything else, much less sleep. I tell myself to breathe, slow it down, feel the calm creep into my bones. But it’s too early, too early for sleep to set in, even if I do need to be up at seven. I lie there and listen to the sounds of others moving around. Showering. Brushing teeth. Switching off lights. Rolling over in bed. To them it’s another night at home, another night before work or class, another night to fall asleep in.

There’s a strangeness in sleeping in someone else’s home, no matter how wonderfully gracious the host. It’s their home, not yours. I stare at the lighted porch outside, trying to summon parallels to make this place feel familiar. That light is the glow of the street lamp outside my senior year dorm room, I tell myself. It’s that soft glow on the ceiling.

When that doesn’t work, I lie there with my eyes closed, imagining best friends and calming presences in the rooms next door. What makes places feel like home? You carry the voices of the people you trust inside yourself. Let them permeate this unfamiliar space until the strangeness is gone.

2/14/12 7:40am
Making snap judgements of fellow candidates in the admissions office. Not so much judging as seeking guidance and comfort from our similarities. Girls with purses. I need a purse like that. Leather-bound portfolios. Just like mine. Mismatched pinstripe blazer and plain black slacks. I guess you pulled that off. Minimal makeup. Good, I didn’t under do it.

Chit chat fills our time as we wait for the bus to take us elsewhere. I’m not the quietest one like I would have been a few years ago. But I’m not the loudest one either, crowding the conversation with my voice out of nerves or affable personality. I’m calm. I leave the free coffee untouched.

12:15pm
Touring the campus behind three first year students. One guide in skinny jeans and sweatshirt branded with school pride. One guide in scrubs. One guide in his white coat and slacks, Skullcandy backpack, a pink collared shirt, and sunglasses settled jauntily on the top of his head. It’s this last one that amuses me–he wasn’t assigned to lead the tour, just hopped on like he owned the thing. He smacks on his gum while dispensing advice in his SoCal rhythm–so extroverted, so confident, so likable. One of the others reveals he was an English major who wrote for MTV before matriculating. And glancing at him again, this makes perfect sense.

He went out and purposely bought that pink shirt this morning, he tells us. Just for Valentine’s Day.

3:55pm
Sitting in a French bakery-café, watching all the dutiful boys go by with bouquets from the flower shop next door. They’re sweet arrangements, pink and white and red. Roses interspersed with baby’s breath, all wrapped up in tissue and cellophane.

You can tell which ones are headed for the flower shop by their walk. Head down, purposeful. Checking the street signs to make sure they’re going the right way. Even from across the street, watching them waiting at the crosswalk, I can spot these dutiful boyfriends and husbands fidgeting. Some worried–they forgot to order ahead. They remembered everything else–dry-cleaned the suit, made dinner reservations, bought her the perfect necklace. But some, they forgot it was Valentine’s Day until they got to work and every woman in the office was cooing over bouquets or chocolates or balloons or neon pink pieces of construction paper cut into hearts. These guys would never admit their fault–what man would? Besides, it’s the thought that counts and less is more and all those other clichées that are overused but so, so true.

I watch them parade past, calmed by the bouquet in hand, and for the first time in a while, I don’t loathe Valentine’s Day. It’s adorable, watching them file past this café window. Call it over-marketed, call it a corporate construct, call it a day to make us single people feel inadequate. But damn it’s cute to see so many romantic gestures synchronized to the same sunny afternoon in Westwood.

5:25pm
One last photo of a muggy LA sunset snapped through the window of the Flyaway heading back to LAX.

Goodbye LA. Perhaps I’ll see you again soon.

Hic sunt dracones

(I wrote this back in October, a little while after I wrote that thing about dragons. Let’s just say it turned into more than just a mild obsession.

Yeah, “mild” doesn’t cover it.

In any case, I decided to write this highly educational article about dragons. This is part of some thought dumping that will hopefully get incorporated into a larger piece at some point in the near future, what is a blog for, if not to throw useless information at hapless readership?)

 

Let me educate you about dragons. First off, dragons are beautiful, majestic, fierce, entirely imaginary creatures. By which I mean I’m about to tell you all about these creatures that are completely made up1.

Although dragons are often associated with medieval times and are staples of any high fantasy world, dragons have featured in mythology for thousands of years. Like most myths and fantasy, the idea of dragons was probably spun out of something more mundane – early usage of “dragons” might have actually been referring to snakes. Etymologically speaking, “dragon” and its equivalent words in Latin and Greek were used to refer to large snakes up to the 18th century.

Spitting cobra = fire-breathing dragon? I see the resemblance.

Many cultures have their own version of the dragon and its powers. Whether as dragons or snakes, they appeared in Greek and Roman mythology: the Colchian dragon guarded the Golden Fleece, the dragon Ladon protected the golden apples of Hesperides, the Ismenian dragon slain by Cadmus had his teeth sown into warrior men, and some consider the Lernaean hydra (killed by Heracles as his Second Labour) a dragon as well.

Hendrick Goltzius - The Dragon Devouring the Companions of Cadmus
You’re just minding your own business when a friggin dragon pops outta the river and eats all your friends. Great. Just great. (Then you plant his teeth for some godforsaken reason, and BAM they grow into angry warrior men. It’s just one of those days…)

In slightly more concrete literary sources, we have the Iliad, in which Agamemnon is described with dragons on his armor, but those could just be snakes. In the Bible (Book of Revelations), Satan appears as a fierce red dragon.

Good thing we have saints.
Good thing we have saints.

European dragons were commonly depicted as evil or at least malevolent and adversarial, often guarding treasure. On the flip side, dragons have much more benevolent connotations in Chinese mythology, appearing as symbols of wisdom and auspicious power. Dragons have been long associated with heaven and imperial power; so much respect is garnered by dragons that a Nike advertisement of Lebron James slaying a dragon was quickly banned in China due to public outcry.

Or maybe it was more about the Kung-Fu master he beat up.
Or maybe it was more about the Kung-Fu master he beat up.

This brings up an important distinction: the European vs. the Asian dragon2. I like to think of European dragons as more lizard-like, with broader torsos and more musculature. They often have leathery, bat-like wings (although sometimes feathered, depending on interpretation), and generally hatch out of an egg. European dragons usually breathe fire, and are sometimes poisonous (as in Beowulf… I forgive you if you forgot, I blocked that seventh grade reading out of my memory, too).

Spiky and brawny.
Spiky and brawny.

In contrast, Asian dragons are more snake-like and rarely have wings. They are thought to have power over water and weather, and are generally portrayed as sleek, flowing creatures. Traditionally, Asian dragons were composed of features from nine different animals (making it more like a chimera counterpart), but at some point that kind of disappeared into the image of the Asian dragon we see today.

No—not that kind of… *sigh*
No—not that kind of… *sigh*
Thaaat’s better.
Thaaat’s better.

In both traditions, dragons are considered magical, can usually speak to humans, and sometimes adopt human form. Both European and Asian dragons have hundreds of scales, a variable number of legs (usually four), and often dorsal spines or fins. Asian dragons have a specific number of claws depending on whether it’s an imperial dragon or just a noble dragon. Sometimes dragons have multiple heads. I could continue listing physical characteristics, but let’s remember that any depiction of a dragon is an artist’s rendering, so who the hell knows what features a dragon “usually” has?

Some dragons have a beefy arm for good measure.
Some dragons have a beefy arm for good measure.

Which brings me to modern dragons. There is no such thing as the “modern dragon,” just a lot of fantasy writers and possibly low-budget TV and movie producers making it up as they go. That being said, there are a few highly influential dragon worlds that have spawned their own canonical dragon traditions:

  • Lord of the Rings / The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien): Tolkien portrays the traditional, adversarial European dragon who hoards treasure and is deeply magical. However, unlike traditional folklore and mythology, Tolkien’s dragons are highly intelligent. Depictions of dragons in literature are often consistent with this version of dragons, including the many fantasy worlds that were inspired by Tolkien.
  • Dragonriders of Pern (Anne McCaffrey): McCaffrey was likely one of the first fantasy authors to portray a deep partnership between dragon and human. Seeking to subvert European dragon clichés (evil, treasure-hoarding, innately magical creatures), McCaffrey portrayed dragons in Pern as intelligent, fire-breathing partners, telepathically linked to their riders3.
  • Dungeons & Dragons: I’m not even going to pretend like I know anything about D&D, but I’ll just say Wikipedia explains something about elements and colors. There’s also the DragonLance world, which involves dragons of various colors and moral alignments… I tried to read about it on Wikipedia and just couldn’t handle the information overload (which is saying something, because I absorbed almost everything else here from Wikipedia).

There are also a fair number of other writers that I’ve encountered who depict their own versions of dragons. The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini borrows heavily from Tolkien, but portrays a partnership with dragons closer to McCaffrey’s (with significant modifications)4. The Harry Potter series also has dragons, mentioning some breeds (i.e. Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback) and creating a little bit of history of dragons in our world, but they largely resemble D&D dragons, or dumbed down Tolkien-esque dragons. Meanwhile, Lawrence Yep’s creatively titled Dragon series is rooted in Chinese mythology; the protagonist is a traditional Chinese dragon with deep links to the sea. I also rediscovered the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede while browsing Wikipedia; in these books, dragons have princesses that they keep like highly productive pets5. Then of course there are dragons in Pokémon (Charmander) and Yu-Gi-Oh (Blue Eyes White Dragon!!!).

So that’s pretty much it. I of course am working on my own take on dragon lore, and I still have plenty to say about dragons and fantasy. But in the meantime, I’m going to keep being obsessed with them.

Uh, yeah, I drew this.

Fun and potentially TMI factoids about dragons:

  • It’s believed that cartographers used to write “here be dragons” (hic sunt dracones in Latin) on blank areas of maps to indicate these regions were unexplored and potentially dangerous.
  • Chinese dragons are often paired with a fenghuang, or Chinese phoenix. The phoenix is considered the female counterpart to the dragon.
  • Chinese dragons have exactly 117 scales (81 of the yang essence, 36 of yin essence). Why anyone decided this was an important detail, I don’t really know.
  • There’s a mild controversy surrounding Anne McCaffrey’s comments relating to dragon mating habits and dragonrider sexuality on Pern. If you’re curious as to how this even comes up, you can read about it on Wikipedia.
  • I am not the first person to carve a dragon on a pumpkin.

 


1 Which also means all my “research” is from Wikipedia.

2 Important enough that they have their own independent Wikipedia pages.

3 Of the three worlds I’ve listed here, these are the only books I’ve actually read. (But not all of them, by any means… there are way too many of them.) Spoiler alert: although only apparent in later books in the series, Pernese dragons are actually genetically modified firelizards created to fight Thread, a distinction which explains why the novels are classified as scifi instead of fantasy.

4 Much to the chagrin of many in the online writing community, I have indeed read all four books in the Inheritance Cycle. Therefore, I could expand on how Paolini portrays dragons… but I won’t.

5 This is a horrific simplification. I really liked this series when I read it in middle school!

Productivity BAM

Why is it every time I get the coherence gathered to write one piece, I get the urge to write a bunch of other things too?

Currently: the undefined nonfiction reflection something-or-another about dragons/fantasy/writing/young adult fiction/reading, an explanation of what draws me to a career in medicine (mixed in with a chronicle of my thoughts and internal debate while applying to medical school), a fiction short story that will either stand on its own or serve as the opening to a new novel, another blog post on NaNoWriMo (plus its aftermath), an essay about interdisciplinary study vs. specialization and how striking a balance can give an excuse to be mediocre.

 

It could be worse. I could actually be writing that story about dragons, and then you’d have to read it. (But let’s be real, the story about dragons would be way less pretentious than any of the above.)

Mini Dispatch from NaNoWriMo

[Cross-blogged for Leland Quarterly]

A brief dispatch while scrabbling out of the pit-o’-behindness.

Things I would do to my NaNoWriMo novel if I were appeasing public demand (a.k.a. my friends’ wishes):
  • Change the setting so that my readers don’t read dialogue in their heads with horrible, over-the-top French accents
  • Take all the male characters’ shirts off for all scenes
  • Revise the male protagonist from a lean, dark-haired Frenchman to Thor
  • Increase the number of intense stares, preferably having some turn into hot, steamy love scenes
  • Relatedly, turn this into a dime store romance novel
  • Narrate all the fight scenes as if I were a sports announcer
  • Add immense, fire-breathing dragons
  • Make every character flamboyantly gay and end the novel with a fiesta of gay marriages
  • Include a prologue/epilogue that simply reads, “This novel is an allegory for the military career of George S. Patton.”

Dispatches from NaNoWriMo: Flailing Up Word Count Hill

[Cross-blogged for Leland Quarterly]

Before I talk about me, I want to mention that yesterday was Donation Day! The Office of Letters and Light is a non-profit organization and needs donations to keep NaNoWriMo and the Young Writer’s Program running. If you think NaNoWriMo is awesome, take a moment to make your tax-deductible donation here.

Somewhere between the 15th and 16th was the halfway point of NaNoWriMo. Thanks to the other things in my life, I’ve been playing catch up for most of the last week. I’m trailing at 21,297 words when I’m supposed to hit 28,333 by the end of today. But never fear, I have learned something in Week 2: when I get going, I will steamroll through thousands of words a day.

Must... pass... gray... line...

Cases in point? Day 8: 4,333 words. Day 13, 3,681 words. So the 7K+ words I have to make up to be back on schedule? No sweat.

The surge on day 13 was also aided by my first ever write-in! Well… my first successful one anyway. On day 9 I attempted to spearhead my own write-in, inviting fellow Stanford writers to join me at the CoHo—but the CoHo was packed and my writing buddy never found me (possibly because I left for Tresidder). I did, however, learn the Awkward Write-in Size-up. Remember that most NaNoWriMo participants don’t use their real names or photos of themselves on the website, which means when someone says they’re going to join your write-in, you sit there scanning the face of every last person who looks your way, hoping for a hint of recognition. As the organizer of this write-in, I wore my trusty husky hat to make myself more noticeable. So I stared down a lot of people who were actually just looking at my hat.

And c’mon, it’s a pretty sweet hat.

But like I said, this attempted write-in was a failure. The write-in on day 13 was significantly more successful. I met three other Peninsula NaNoWriMo writers at Happy Donuts on El Camino—same thing, the Awkward Write-in Size-up and trying to match faces with squashed Twitter profile pictures, this time made more difficult by the lack of interesting hats (our chicken-hatted coordinator came late). But once we established ourselves, we all got into the writing zone and each hammered out a solid word count. (We were also writing for Big Gain, a competition with the East Bay to see which side could gain the most words-per-participant that day in honor of Big Game. The Peninsula won. Just saying.)

An interesting side effect of writing in a public place as opposed to your own room is how little things about the setting will maneuver their way into your story. While at Happy Donuts, the delicious smell of a breakfast sandwich made me seriously consider adding a scene in which one of my characters would eat bacon. At one of the past write-ins, the music at Panera Bread apparently inspired one writer to throw in a beach cabana. Smells, overheard conversations, quirky passersby, and music can all distract you from writing until the frantic determination to bump up your word count forces you to make use of that lost time.

Smell that and try not to write about it.

Music isn’t always a distraction, though. I listen to a lot of movie soundtracks while writing to set the ambiance of the scene I’m working on. It helps get things moving when I only have a bare bones outline and just need to start writing. So far I’ve listened to the Batman Begins soundtrack, a French band called KYO, and a smattering of Debussy piano pieces to great effect. And if I really just need some awesome music to power me through, there’s the Russ Chimes Soundcloud.

So what happens when I get rolling? Well, for one thing, I stop making sense. It seems that for a lot of NaNoWriMo participants, this isn’t a problem. After all, the point is to get to 50,000 words, and at some point we should stop caring how we get there, right? I’ve heard some crazy tricks on how to get to 50K: write out the names and phone numbers of characters when they send text messages, spell out Greenwich Mean Time, etc. But something about that doesn’t seem right. Here’s my personal philosophy on this: mess with the plot, not how you write. Add intrigue, introduce new characters, develop new subplots—but do not expand contractions and write about the inexcusably mundane details of characters’ lives. If the story isn’t going to reach 50K, throw in some more plot points, but don’t try to stretch those couple words out by overcomplicating (and thereby sacrificing) the prose. I want to come out of this month with a story that I can go back through without having to completely rewrite. Sure, a lot of my novel will be revised out during editing, but I have plenty of material to get me to 50K. I’m embracing NaNoWriMo for forcing me to write every day, to get this story written instead of just festering in my head. But I don’t want to let NaNoWriMo simultaneously ruin the novel it has helped me to write.

Some tips and tricks from week 2 on writing fast drafts:

  • Dialogue first: for dialogue-heavy scenes, to ensure I still make sense, I write out the entire dialogue first with only cursory reactions from the characters. Then I go back through and add in what the characters are doing and thinking. This helps keep my thinking fast-paced but coherent, speeding along the writing.
  • Acting it out: sometimes when I’m strapped for ways to describe what my character’s doing, I rejoice in the fact that I don’t have a roommate to judge me and walk around my room pretending to be my characters. It helps for picking up those minor details, like how a character’s posture changes or how their mood affects what they do with their hands. This is probably why people say writers are crazy.
  • Like I said, music: the right music can set the scene’s ambiance, making it much easier to conjure detailed images of the setting and write about them. If there’s actually a specific sound or song playing in the scene, YouTube and Spotify will do wonders for adding that noise as I write.
  • Roadmapping: if I have to stop for some reason, I like to write out a quick blurb on where I want the scene to go next; or, if I just finished a scene, where the next scene will pick up. This makes it easier to pick up the pace again when I come back.

Time to go rack up that word count some more!

Dispatches from NaNoWriMo: Diving into NaNoWorld

[Cross-blogged for Leland Quarterly]

Here I am, one week into NaNoWriMo. So far, I’ve written 8,660 words that make up two chapters, coming out to 15 pages in this rapidly ballooning Microsoft Word document. And I’m behind—sometime today I’m supposed to hit 11,666 words. (So far this month I’ve also written 1,309 words for medical schools.)

Writing beginnings is hard. I’m pretty sure that’s in every writing craft book and essay ever. It’s that workshop cliché—“I feel like your story begins on page 3”—that makes you doubt the first words you commit to the page. I’m always stuck thinking, “Is this actually interesting? Does this hint at the exciting things that are coming? What if this isn’t consistent with things I come up with later?” For me, that last question always holds up everything else. I tend to get really obsessive about these details—I want to get every last bit of my world right.

I’m lucky in that I’ve tried to start this novel several times. There’s a lot of planning I’d already done for this story (notes on the world, an outline of the plot, character profiles, a compilation of reference photos, etc.), and I’d already written multiple openings that I liked or didn’t like for certain reasons. Borrowing from these helped me on days 1 and 2 to just charge forward and not worry about whether or not I was just going to ditch this writing later.

Reference photos open while writing a scene in chapter 2. (Having two monitors is really handy.)

Here’s why NaNoWriMo is different from any other time that I (and probably most other people) have attempted to write a novel. First, there’s a gigantic contingent of fellow writers suffering through the same experience. Second, all these writers are flailing wildly towards the same goal (50,000 words), and while it isn’t really a competition, it certainly sparks my competitive nature. The community is subdivided by region, so you can find people in your area, meet up and take over a corner of a coffee shop or library, or generally commiserate with each other on local forums. (Aside: it’s really disconcerting to see so much correct punctuation, capitalization, and grammar on these forums.) My home region is the “USA :: California :: SF Peninsula” region. We’ve had a couple write-ins (though I haven’t attended one yet), and we have our own hashtag on Twitter (#PenNaNo). We brag, we groan, we bang our heads on keyboards.

One thing that spurs the competitive spirit is comparing word counts. Every participant has a word count progress bar, and you can see all your writing buddies’ progress as well:

As you can see, I’m not winning. (But I’m not losing either?)

You also get your own personal stats page, so you can compete with yourself.

This induces a lot of panic.

All of NaNoWriMo has been designed to get people to the finish line. Whether you need people to complain to, buddies to rub elbows with while writing, competitors whose word counts are soaring over yours, pep talks from professional writers that pop up in your inbox, or helpful friends who can help you sort our that plot snag, NaNoWriMo lines it up for you. And that’s pretty sweet.

While I go attempt make up some of that lost ground, here are some resources from week 1:

  • GoogleGoogle Maps, and Google Image Search: Can we all just agree that Google is amazing? I’m working with fantastical circumstances in a real-world setting, which means Paris needs to look like Paris. How many pipe organs are in the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris? What does the underside of the Pont Alexandre III look like? Is my memory failing me, or are there actually bushes along the Champs-Elysées? Google makes writing infinitely easier without having to travel to Paris (again).
  • Fight Scenes 101: A fellow NaNoer posted this excellent blurb on how to write fight scenes well, including some helpful tips and points to consider.
  • Spotify: I have a love-hate relationship with Spotify. I’m not about to pay for premium, so while I have music of all types at my fingertips, it’s periodically interrupted by CMA advertisements, excerpts from Kelly Clarkson’s new album, Spotify job postings, and my personal favorite, an ad for Chino y Nacho’s new album SUPREMO. The reggaeton interlude in the middle of the Batman Begins soundtrack was really something special. Maybe it’s time to spring for premium.
  • Dropbox: My novel is in a single word document right now, so I keep it in the Dropbox folder on my computer, which automatically backs it up! And just in time, because today is Back Up Your Novel Day.

If you want to keep tabs on my progress, check my NaNoWriMo profile or read what I’m writing.

Dispatches from NaNoWriMo: The Prep-Panic Cycle

[Cross blogged for Leland Quarterly]

Screw you all. You damn people who liked my “Should I do NaNoWriMo?” Facebook status. You stupid false friends who said, “Why not? I’ll cheer you on!” Well, guess what? I’ve registered. Yes, I registered for NaNoWriMo – and I blame you.

In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, I have committed myself to participating in the mad writing dash that is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I’m going to attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November, which means I have to average about 1,667 words per day. But hey, I punched out 7,000 words in about three days to finish a short story once; admittedly, it was more about quantity than quality at that point, but that same philosophy holds for NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo doesn’t start for bit, but here’s the deal: it’s NaNoWriMo. The rules state you’re not supposed to start writing ahead of time, but outlines and characters sketches and all that planning stuff is fair game. And let’s be honest, how the hell am I going to write a 50,000-word (or longer!?) novel in a month that includes Thanksgiving and Big Game and medical school applications and interviews without some planning? Holy shit there’s a lot that goes on in November – how am I supposed to write a novel in this month of all months. 1,667 words a day? I must be crazy. Or I will be crazy soon.

Or, I could stay calm. Cut the excessive punctuation. Planning. I need to do some planning. I’m good at planning. I could plan novels for years! In fact, that’s what I’ve been doing for years. I guess that’s the whole point of this thing – to kick lazy would-be-wannabe writers off their asses and get them actually writing. Kick away NaNoWriMo – my ass needs you.

So here’s the state of things. In chronological order of inception (and therefore in order of quality), here are the novel ideas I’ve tossed around in my lifetime:

  • Something about waif-y princess-y girls surviving on a remote island. (In my defense I was eight when I came up with this.)
  • School on Tracks: a school on a train. It involved a love hexagon. (Again, in my defense, I was only twelve.)
  • The Gathering: fighter meets healer, mayhem and psychological insanity ensue. This was probably the first idea that actually had a plot. Sort of.
  • Roosevelt Academy: genius kids go to a school that trains them to become covert operatives. The idea was roughly Spy Kids (young spies) meets Gossip Girl (drama-rama) meets The West Wing (politics and smart, witty characters).
  • The Jade League*: mages lead a rebellion in depression-ridden Paris. This one’s actually pretty solid—interesting characters with clear motives, a well-developed world, and a decently compelling plot.
  • Rainwalkers of Penryn**: in the future, when humanity is forced to move underground, twins in the elite surface-restoration corps go AWOL to rescue their kidnapped sister. I like this one too, although the futuristic world needs some work.
  • [untitled]: man fakes his own death to live the life he’s always wanted, but runs into trouble when a reporter tracks him down. This one was intended to be a kitschy musical.
  • Will**: after a debilitating accident, a recent college grad gets lost in the alternate reality of his dreams while his best friend tries to bring him back. Another solid story idea, although I’m still not sure how he gets out.
  • Evenfall*: the sibling rivalry between precocious twins wreaks havoc. This one is classic fantasy (with dragons and all), and is pretty solid in terms of plot point and characters. Being classic fantasy though, it would be epically long.
  • The Literary Adventures of Zeus Jorgensen: bat-shit insane friend becomes the literary agent for a talented writer and whores him out on various writing jobs. This one was more conceived as a potential collaboration with a friend.

* Novels I would seriously consider writing next month.
** Novels that would require significantly more planning before I’d be able to write them next month.

Okay well let’s be honest, even the single * ideas above would need more planning. Like, a shit-ton of planning. Why did I wait until the last week to commit to this and start thinking about the story? And what do I do with the ones that I’ve already started writing? Do I have to start over?? That’s not the end of the world, right???? Stop it. From now on every sentence is only allowed one punctuation mark.

So I’m going to go prep and panic some more, and try to figure out what the hell kind of novel I’m about to write. Other preparatory steps taken so far:

  • Madly writing medical school secondary applications before their November deadlines so that hopefully I won’t have to write them during NaNoWriMo. In all likelihood, I am not going to finish.
  • Also madly trying to revise a scientific paper and adding new results before November.
  • THIS IS NO TIME FOR TV – that means you, missed How I Met Your Mother and Daily Show episodes.
  • Cleaned email inbox. There won’t be time for this next month.
  • Made a bunch of playlists for various writing moods.
  • Procrastinated planning by suddenly becoming very active on Facebook and Twitter.
  • What do you mean, I need a haircut?

0 days 12 hours and 25 minutes before NaNoWriMo begins.