writing

Not Quite Gilligan

Time for another one of my not-winner flash fiction entries. For this one, the prompt gave us the first line (“They leap from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise”)  and the last line (“They command attention, leaving their spectators breathless.”). We had to fill the part in the middle. I immediately thought of a zoo-type setting, but wanted to twist it around so that the “breathless” part was literal. Blood and mayhem, baby. I didn’t care for it at first, but by the end I was okay with what I had written. Definitely not my strongest, but I’ve usually struggled getting to the action part, so it was nice for that part to come out okay.

Of course, I was really annoyed when I was 2/3 of the way through and all of a sudden realized that the first and last line were in present tense…

 

NOT QUITE GILLIGAN

They leap from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise. At least that’s how it appears to their spectators.

“Oooooo.”

The zoo’s visitors gasp as one through the plexiglass that is not quite plexiglass. One of the graceful specimens comes up a little short on this particular soar, and begins a plummet toward the soft grass canopy that doubles as their bedding. The anti-gravitational boosters kick in. The spectators learned the hard way that these specimens do not recover from a fall as easily as the research indicates.

“Why the hell did they give us branches to jump around on?” Chuck asks, sitting up and wiping grass off his tunic.

“We’re primates,” Arthur says, still sitting in the branch above. “They didn’t bother to classify us beyond monkeys.”

“I thought they were supposed to be super smart. They can’t even tell the difference between humans and goddamn monkeys?”

“Would you know the difference between a greyhound and a bulldog?”

“No, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t feed Meow Mix to a friggin’ lion.”

Chuck stands back up. Experience tells him that the mild electric tingling he is currently feeling will grow to a legitimate shock and beyond unless he leaves = the grassy canopy. The zoo is open, and during opening hours, they can’t be allowed to rest out of sight. The show happens up on the branches.

He walks over to the nearest tree that is not quite a tree. It looks like wood and acts like wood, but it doesn’t feel like wood. The best route up is a ladder embedded into its back. The spectators don’t seem to notice, or don’t seem to care, how their specimens climb up to the observational branches.

“At least that bought me another ten minutes before I have to make another leap.”

“And what are you going to do with it?” Arthur asks, standing up on his own branch and preparing to make a leap of his own. He flips his foot backward and grasps his ankle, stretching his hamstring. “Flip them the bird again?”

“I just might,” Chuck says, cracking his knuckles and wiggling his fingers toward the customers as if he is a wizard preparing to cast a spell on them instead of throwing up a universal signal that is not quite universal.

“You might as well fling your poo at them.”

Arthur leaps from one branch to the next, soaring with a bit more poise and grace than usual. Seeing a fellow captive stumble often has that effect on the next few leaps. It’s nature to relax a bit on a mundane task, until you are reminded how easily it can be made un-mundane.

“If I thought my poo would get through to those a-holes, I would,” Chuck says. “But it would just splatter on the plexiglass, and I don’t need a reminder that I’m in a cage.”

No one responds, so Chuck feels an impulse to continue.

“Besides, it would probably disintegrate in their poisonous atmosphere. No effect whatsoever except for me with a bunch of dingleberries left in my hand.”

Chuck laughs. He knows he’s made a good one, and screw the rest of the humans if they don’t like it. Besides, they’re all minding their own business. The zookeepers don’t like much fraternizing between the specimens. But Chuck’s already been buzzed once this hour, what’s the harm in getting another tingle?

“Their atmosphere isn’t poisonous,” Arthur responds. “We could breathe it.”

“How the hell do you know that? You been holding out some laptop or something?”

“Not at all. They come in to feed us, clean out our cages.”

Chuck says nothing. No one says anything.

“And what do they have with them when they do?” Arthur probes, enjoying the upper hand.

“Cattle prods and shit.”

“And what don’t they have?”

“Qgrxry.” A disembodied, synthetic voice garbles from the air above, a sound all of the humans have become well aware of. They learned quickly to understand the subtle nuance of an alien language.  

James, the third male prisoner, shakes out of his forlorn spot near the front of the cage, and turns to leap away from the spectators.

“Hey numbnuts, qgrxry doesn’t mean jump. It means-,”

“QGRXRY!” The voice booms everywhere, a god that is not quite a god.

“Silence,” Chuck mutters under his breath, refusing to let E.T. get the last word, but not wanting another shock. His internal bravado meets external reality.

James leaps. Layla leaps. Before too long, it’s Chucks turn to once again leap from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise. This time, he even manages to stick the landing, one branch away from Arthur.

“I’ll bite.” Chuck tries to look like he is only absorbed in his own thoughts, muttering under his breath. “What don’t they have?”

Chuck picks his nose for effect. He saw a real chimpanzee do it at a real zoo once. He twirls it in between his fingers, acts like he’s talking to the booger.

“They don’t have any environmental protection. The zookeepers look the same as the spectators. If they can breathe the air in here, we can breathe the air out there.”

Chuck pops the booger in his mouth. For effect, of course.

“Not bad, professor. Now can you turn a coconut into a radio and fix the fucking boat?”

Arthur just shakes his head at the amazingly failed allusion. It’s his turn to leap away, and he is all too happy to do it.

Chuck steps up to stretch, and leaps in the opposite direction long before any sort of warning can come from above. A couple times a day, he varies his schedule. Got to keep them on their toes, he thinks. He imagines some bureaucrat alien staring at a spreadsheet, trying to make rhyme or reason of the exercise habits of humans.

Plus this time, he has an idea brewing. The first person he encounters is Layla.

“So if he’s the professor, I guess that makes you Mary Ann. I mean, not that I’d like to see you in a halter top or anything, no offense.”

“None taken,” Layla responds. “I wouldn’t show you my halter top if you were the last… Come to think of it, you are one of the last three, and I still won’t show you.”

“Not the last three on Earth, toots. Earth’s still out there, with plenty of humans on it, and I’m starting to concoct a plan.”

“Oh, sweet Jesus. Try not to get us all killed in the-,”

“GRZYXR,” the disembodied voice calls. Chuck clenches, but then relaxes. It isn’t the silence command, and he was planning on leaping away, anyway. He lands near James.

“Hey Gilligan, I got a plan. Sorry, Jimbo, but I figure, if we’ve got the professor and Mary Ann, and clearly I’m the Skipper, that leaves you as Gilligan. You don’t strike me as much of a Thurston Howell type. Do you mind if I call you Gilligan, Jimbo?”

James looks up, then immediately looks away. He likes neither Gilligan nor Jimbo, so he plots his next two leaps, hoping to get far away, fast. Of the four prisoners, he interacts the least, choosing to perfect his leaping and posing ability in hopes of being promoted.

“So I figure if they can breathe, then we can take their breath away, right? And I don’t mean in some cheesy eighties pop-rock sorta way. I mean kill ’em. Dead. Breathless. Although that sounds like eighties cheese, too. Tin roof rusted, and all that.”

James is astonished, and more than a little ashamed, that not only does he understand all of Chuck’s pop culture references, but the idea behind his misguided drivel, too. Chuck thinks he has a plan. It is not quite a plan, but it is, at least, an idea.

“Okay, so at the next feeding time, and man I hope we’re getting mac and cheese tonight.” Chuck pauses for a moment, thinking of the blue box of Kraft goodness that they’ve somehow perfected on this far away planet. “But at the next feeding time, we-“

“Qgrxry.”

James leaps from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise. Chuck has to admit that, of all of them, Jimbo has the most grace and poise. Even if he seems to jump away at the wrong commands. Doesn’t seem to know his Qgrxry from his Grzyxr, if Chuck is honest about faults. But he’s a damned fine physical specimen, and he should do well as front-line cannon fodder like the Gilligan he is.

“They brought an egghead and a stud,” Chuck mutters under his breath, a compulsion he often feels after the Qgrxry command. “Then there’s me, the streetwise guy. And the girl rounds it out as a foil, like any good story. Stand by Me, right? No wait, there was no chick in Stand by Me. What’s the other one? Oh yeah, It.”

The four specimens continue to leap in silence. If the bureaucrat with the spreadsheet is paying close attention, he might see a spike in their leaps from branch to branch, although the bureaucrat, not actually in the vicinity of the four humans, would fail to note their additional grace and poise. They leap with a vigor, with a purpose, that they have not had in ages.

While they command the attention of their spectators, their own attention is in a different direction. They leap for different vantage points, always mindful of the entrance. From each direction, the entrance looks the same. No hidden trick, a simple portal that leads to a hallway beyond. An airlock, the chance of breathing true air laying beyond. Although each human, apart from Chuck, rues the man who brought the idea to their attention, they cannot deny the merits of the idea. James and Layla and Arthur share glances with each other as they pass each other in silence. Eventually, they must even share their upraised eyebrows in with the malcontent. Everybody needs to be on the same page.

Not that it matters. The box is open, Pandora is free. Chuck is going to bum-rush the first alien motherfucker that walks through that portal, come hell or high water. The other humans were either going to let him fail, and be guilty by association, or help him succeed. It is no choice at all. No more soaring. It’s time for breathless.

“Chgrchx.”  

Feeding time always comes with anticipation, a moment to be human instead of spectacle. The anticipation of this particular Chgrchx, however, rivals all since their first one, when they weren’t yet sure if their captors could even produce human food. For the first time since that feeding, their survival is again in the balance when the zookeepers walk through the door.

Chuck knows the timing. He arcs through the grass, seemingly random but always with a direct line toward the door. If he is correct, he will be directly in front when they appear. Of course, he is correct. There is nothing to learn in this cell except for the timing between a Qgrxry or a Grzyxr or a Chgrchx and its insequential action, like a primitive culture knowing that the Winter Solstice sunrise will shine through a pillar. And when this Winter Solstice of a feeding comes shining through this particular Stonehenge, Chuck is ready to pounce.

He runs right at the alien, shoulder lowered. The alien is unarmed, holding only a tray with four plates of macaroni and cheese. Chuck’s shoulder makes contact with the tray, slamming it up into the chest that is not quite a chest. The alien stumbles backward, one step, then two, and is about to regain its footing when the second wave hits.

Chuck is vaguely surprised that it is Layla, not James or Arthur, that steps in from the alien’s left. Not a full step, only a half step. Only enough to prevent the alien’s third step, the one that would plant and pivot its gravity back forward, from landing on the grass. The alien’s tottering becomes a sprawl, and the alien sprawls backward through the portal, a spray of neon-orange pasta somersaulting through the air the only proof it had been in this location at all.

“Could’ve waited till the armed guards were in first,” says James, still poised on the branch closest to the door.

“Now what the hell do we do?” Arthur asks, already winded from running in on a diagonal course.

“The portal’s still open,” Layla says, returning upright and attempting to avoid being covered in macaroni. “Do we just run through it?”

“But we know there will be armed guards right behind the-,” Arthur starts.

“We keep the element of surprise,” Chuck says, and barrels into the around the corner into the hallway beyond.

Chuck doesn’t have the element of surprise anymore. Two shock sticks ignite simultaneously, one on each side. Thousands of volts course through his body. Chuck drops to his knee.

Layla kicks out again, this time higher up, knocking one shock stick away. Chuck can at least breathe, but even one shock stick is enough to immobilize him.

James aims his leap at the other weapon, but instead of kicking out at it, he grapples for it. The force of gravity, combined with the element of surprise, gives him enough leverage to seize the stick from the alien body he is tangled with. He rolls onto the ground, a move he was not capable of before his years of forced gymnastics, and comes set as the other two humans follow into the hallway.

Layla kicks again, this time in the direction of a groin that is not quite a groin, incapacitating the alien she had just disarmed. Arthur, in typical Arthur fashion, does not break a sweat as he walks through the portal. He picks up the shock stick the picks up the shock stick Layla kicked out of the first alien’s grasp. He thinks about brandishing it himself, but realizes that would make him a target. Instead, he hands the weapon to Chuck.

Chuck tries to stand, but can only get to his knees. He grabs the weapon and nods his thanks to the nerd. He wheezes and coughs, and pretends the air smells so different now, even if it is stuffier in the hallway than in their cage. He is trying, once again, to find his footing when a new sound comes from the next room.

It is not a new sound, entirely. It is a sound the humans are all too familiar with, but have not heard for years. The click, chink, chunk, of a gun being loaded. And not a gun-that-is-not-quite-a-gun, but an honest-to-goodness, steel assault rifle.

Chuck tries to stand once again. He wants to press the advantage. He knows the cause is lost if they wait until the machine gun makes its way into view. One foot up, dragging his knee behind, he takes one step, that is not quite a step, forward. He uses the shock stick not as a weapon, but as a crutch, dragging himself toward his adversary and his freedom.

Chuck never hears the bracka-bracka-bracka that slices through his body. He is breathless before he even sees the lone gunman, a cowering, diminutive zookeeper that had probably been staring at spreadsheets two moments before.

Chuck doesn’t know that James had already gotten into a defensive position next to the doorway, much as the two aliens guards had lain in wait for him, moments ago. He is long gone before James uses that shock stick to fell the alien and upgrade to an assault rifle. Not that it would have done Chuck any good to be in on the plan. One human was going to be the cannon fodder.

“He never knew he was Gilligan,” says Layla, grabbing a gun of her own from the second room. “Now I have a machine gun. Ho, ho, ho.”

Arthur smiles at the reference. “Old Charles would be so sad to know you waited until he was gone before making a Die Hard reference.”

“That’s why I waited.”

There are only two guns, just as there are only two shock sticks. For emergency purposes only. This is a zoo, after all. The zookeepers, the spectators, even the guards, scarcely need a gun.

“So what do we do now?” James asks.

Arthur ponders for a moment.

“We fight for as long as we can. If we can make it to a spaceport, so much the better. But failing that, we take as many of those spectators with us as possible. They are just as guilty as the one who captured us. Agreed?”

Layla cocks her gun. James cocks his gun. Both nod.

The three humans break out of their confinement. They emerge, guns blazing, into the crowd of zoo-goers.

They command attention, leaving spectators breathless in their presence.

 

A Writing Retrospective

A couple weeks ago, I did something I hadn’t done in almost 200 days.

Or rather, I didn’t do something I had done every day, for just under 200 times in a row.

On May 16, I did not write. No blog entry, no flash fiction, no in-progress novel.

Oh, I wrote plenty on May 16. Notes on essays, probably some e-mail responses, but those don’t count.

Prior to that Wednesday, however, I wrote. Every day, all 195 of them from November 2 through May 15, I created some typed content. I wrote on Christmas. I wrote on New Years Day. On Valentine’s Day. On St. Patrick’s Day. The day AFTER St. Patrick’s Day. I wrote the day I flew to Hawaii, and every day when I was there. On the day I flew to a curling bonspiel, and after every game I played while I was there. I wrote while camping (although it was only a one night camping trip, so I wrote before I left and after I got back).

More specifically, during that streak, I typed at least 444 words into the website 4thewords.com. That website is also the reason I know how impressive my streak was. I don’t even know what my best streak was before this. Maybe twenty days? I mean, I know I sure as shit never wrote on Christmas before. Or any of those other dates written above. Except for Camptathalon, of course.

But 4thewords keeps track of my streak, which thereby makes it easier to maintain said streak. My character gets special wings when my streak reaches a certain number of days.

The website and its various carrots are also the reason that the streak was as impressive as it was. I wrote about it after NaNoWriMo. Wow, the number of throwbacks in this blog post makes it feel like those clip shows that sitcoms used to run in April before everything was available on demand.

But because of 4thewords.com, for the first time ever, I continued writing after November was over. Every day. Some days it’s a struggle. Some days, I drudge back downstairs at 10 PM to put down some drivel. Naturally, I get wordier that time of night. Or maybe, since I’m typing this in 4tw, it might be better to say I get as wordy as a talkative wordsmith crafting his wordiness for a living.

What happened on May 16? It was a conscious decision to not write. No, I didn’t wake up with a general “fuck it.” But, with the finite amount of time available to me between the child being put down and my impending crash into unconsciousness, I opted for what was behind Door #2. The AP Test was two days away and I still had a handful of essays I wanted to return  to the students taking the test the following day.

So I said “Fuck it.”

Actually, after I “fucked it” (fuck ited? wordy wordsmithed it?), I logged onto the website to make sure I didn’t lose my streak. They have a special item that extends a streak without needing the 444 words. I had five of them in reserve. Then I got back on the donkey the next day. I’m now up to 216 days, which they count as 195 legitimate days + May 16 + 20 more days since.

So don’t worry, I didn’t lose my wings. Had I not owned one of those items, then I guess my students would’ve just been a little less prepared for a nationwide standardized exam. Gotta have my priorities, after all. Now I have four of the mulligans left. I’ll earn back the one I used next Monday when my streak hits 222. Who knows, maybe I’ll just get a hankerin’ and take a week off from writing. Of course, this is coming from the teacher who has 120 sick days banked, so it’ll take a much more legitimate “fuck it” before I lose that streak.

But still, maybe I should take Christmas off this year.

Oh wait, Christmas is with the in-laws this year? Yeah, I’ll be writing that day.

So what are the results of this newfound verbosity?

On a sidenote, I just looked up verbosity on thesaurus.com, and evidently there’s a word called logorrhea. Like diarrhea, but with words. I definitely need to use that word more.

Okay, here are the stats: I just passed 197,000 words written on the website. Not bad.

They’ve come in all forms: blog posts, which have allegedly become more frequent; flash fiction, and I promise there are more of those on the way, I can only post them after I lose the contest, but I’m 0-for-4 so far, so I’ll start posting them weekly in the summer; e-mails, letters, and Facebook posts (don’t judge); and, of course, the novel-in-progress.

I started the novel way back in NaNoWriMo, 2014. You can read the basis for it here. And a sample chapter that’s four years old. It fizzled out after about 25,000 words, but the idea was still there. Over the next four years, I managed another 15,000 words. In the past 200 days, I’ve added another 75,000+ words to be on the cusp of 120,000 words. That’s too long for a first book, but a lot of those frivolous words will be edited out. I’m guessing it’s closer to 80,000 legitimate words.

How did I triple the output? Well, this will be a shocking answer to some: I actually sat my ass down and wrote. For 200 days. Not always on the book, but I run out of e-mails eventually, and if I want my 444 words, I’m going to have to move that pesky main character along.

I always knew where the book was going. Since I first started, I had this grandiose final scene in my head. Some of the dialogue’s been ready to go for four years. I’ve known where the characters will be placed and exactly how much of the big picture would be revealed (gotta keep a couple things for the sequel, after all).

But getting to that final scene is sometimes a problem. And by sometimes, I mean always. For four years. I’d often get stuck mid-scene. How do I get the characters or narrative through a particular scene? So historically, I would get to a spot, the main character dangling precariously from the precipice, and then I’d take a few days off while I mulled how do get him to the bottom of the cliff. Or a few weeks. Or years.

Then maybe I’d figure it out, and I’d sit down to write the scene, and I’d write 1,000 words and, wouldn’t you know it, the fucker’s still up on his clifftop. Because I forgot I needed a little internal dialogue or a scatological description of how scared he is. And then I’d get frustrated that I spent two months deciding where this scene was going and I finally sat down to do it and I DIDN’T EVEN GET TO THE FUCKING PART I JUST SPENT TWO MONTHS FIGURING OUT!

Here’s how that same scene has played out over the past 200 days: I blog for a day, write a flash fiction over the weekend, and when Tuesday rolls around, I guess I have to write the actual book. So I write 500 words. That’s easy enough. Nothing has to happen in 500 words. He shits himself. Then the next day, he wipes for 500 words. After three or four days, I finally get to the point where I just say “Fuck it” and describe him scrambling down the cliff. Three days later he’s finally engaging in the dialogue I’ve known he was going to get into at the bottom of the cliff.

There are chapters that I know for a fact I will chop 1000 of the first 1500 words. But a lot of times those words were necessary for me at the time, because they helped me work through what the character’s going through. I gain insight into my characters and their world that can be edited to be implied instead of explicit.

It’s the same process I would’ve gone through before, just without the winter of contemplation in between.

So here I am, 120000 words later and guess what? I’m finally to that culminating scene! The one that’s been in my mind since page one. Woo Hoo! Easy sailing from here!

And how’s the scene going? The one that I’ve known the intricacies of forever?

Well, I’m blogging right now.

Because, goddammit, this “easy” scene is just as difficult as any other scene. Maybe moreso because it’s the culmination of four years and 120,000 words of character and plot development. One of the characters who’s supposed to be there is dead. There is a character that showed up around the 70,000 word mark that is vitally important now. rDi I just have him stand around and pick his butt while the corpse of the dead character does something important? Just because I know Darth Vader’s going to reveal he’s Luke’s father doesn’t mean I know how Luke’s going to get there in the first place.

Come to think of it, how the hell is there a Death Star-esque bottomless cylinder in Cloud City? Is everything in the Star Wars universe built by the same contractor?

I think there’s something else hindering my process right now. Do you ever get to the end of a book and slow down your reading? Not sure if you’re ready to be done with it? Well, this book’s been in my thought process for four years. What am I going to write the next day? Sure, I have plenty of new books I could start, but which one should I do? I feel like I’ll be so lost when I don’t have this specific existential weight on me. If I’m not thinking of this specific character and plotline, will I suddenly become aware of a lack of substance in the rest of my life?

Meh. Maybe I’ll take another day off.

But until then, it’s a shit-ton of logorrhea.

4tw FTW

I’m currently kicking the ass of an evil marionette brought to life by a wicked witch. In typical RPG fashion, I already beat the shit out of the witch. Actually, the witch was a “global event,” so all the MMORPG players contributed to beat the boss monster. But now that I’ve finished this level, I’m bumping around to finish some side quests and level up. If I can beat this marionette two more times, I get some tickets that I can use to buy sparkly items for my character. Fun times.

Based on my current count, I will have killed the fucker by the end of this sentence.

Yeah, you’re dead. Eat shit and die, Ceratonia.

Of course, now I’m no longer fighting Ceratonia. I wouldn’t have wanted to waste that last sentence. I’m now fighting Wiwaz, an even “stronger” marionette. And the first salvo in our battle were the sentences “Yeah, you’re dead. Eat shit and die, Ceratonia.”

Dammit. I should have written “you are dead,” not “you’re dead.” Because the way to defeat these particular Dark Lord spawns is to write words.

I found a new writing website just in time for NaNoWriMo this year. I also won NaNoWriMo for the first time this year. Causation or correlation? I’m leaning toward the former.

4thewords.com is an RPG-style website. But each of the monsters require a certain number of words written in a certain amount of time to be defeated. Some of them are easy, 300 words in forty minutes. Others, like the Wiwaz I’m fighting right now, max out at the NaNo-inspired 1,667 words in 24 hours.

So maybe I should’ve told Ceratonia that he should dine heartily on a plethora of his own fecal matter. Oh, and die.

After a few fights, you can get better weapons and armor, so in my current battle, I actually have about 26 hours and only have to write about 1400 words. Easy as pie. A very, cherry, strawberry, boysenberry, and a zillion other kinds of berry pie. Shall I describe the scrumptious crust?

I can’t say enough about how this website has transformed my approach to NaNoWriMo, and to writing in general. That 300 word monster? He’s the first one you fight. I always knew I could write 300 words if I was ready to go at the start. The forty minutes was a little daunting, but I made sure I was free of distraction and got it done.

The next monster I encountered required 500 words in two hours. Not surprisingly, the 300 words I had written against the first guy didn’t really get the scene I was planning down on paper. Of course not. Three hundred words barely gives you enough room to describe a bowel movement, much less how a wooden puppet is going to dine upon it.

And yet, in the first forty-three years of my writing life, there have been many days that I couldn’t even get 300 words on a piece of paper. And then I’d go a week without writing 300 words. Then a month. Then when I’d finally sit down and write 300 words, I’d get pissed that I had finally found time to write and I didn’t even get to that point of the scene that had been playing around in my mind for two months. Then it’s rinse and repeat, and a year later, I’d be a thousand words farther into the same damned chapter I was in a year ago and pissed as hell that I couldn’t get anywhere with this particular project.

But now? If I don’t finish my train of thought with one monster, I’ll just gauge whether I want to take on the next one now or tomorrow. Depending on what part of the dungeon you’re in, you can usually choose who to fight next. If I feel like writing 800 words over the next three hours, I can. Or if I want to take a more leisurely approach, I can got 1000 or 1200 over an 8- or 10-hour span. As a result, I’ve actually become pretty good at knowing how many words I need to get through a certain scene.

Now, in contrast with those days of struggling to writing 300 words down, I know I can do 500 words almost as an afterthought.

You get bonuses for maintaining a writing streak. You need to write 444 words to get credit, and no weapons or armor make that number easier to reach. That’s one reason I’m still writing into December. You put fake digital badges on the line, and I become obsessive. I lost twenty pounds the first month after I got a Fitbit, and was at fifty after a year.

And obviously, the website doesn’t distinguish between writing a book or a blog entry. I actually wrote a few things I needed for work on 4thewords. Cheating? Maybe, but the work shit had to be done and that’s the type of thing that would normally derail me from writing, whether it’s NaNoWriMo or any of the other eleven months of the year. And finishing that boring work report is a hell of a lot more fun if I’m shoving a metaphorical sword up a puppet’s apocryphal ass.

It should be noted the website doesn’t actually show the deaths of the monsters and any references to scatalogical functions are entirely my own. 4thewords.com disavows any and all unsightly references being made in their honor.

One other way that 4TW (as the cool kids are calling it) helps my particular brand of writing is that it counts all words, not just the final product. If I rewrite a sentence three times, I get credit for each of the words in each rewrite. One would think that would hurt NaNoWriMo. “Hooray, I’ve written two thousand words! Oh shit, it only counts as five hundred.”

But that doesn’t happen. For one thing, I don’t rewrite as often as I think I do. If I write 1000 words, the actual amount is usually in the low 900s. Sure, a particularly bad batch might only net me 850, but guess what? That 850 might not have been written in the classic NaNoWriMo. They tell you to turn off your inner editor, but I’m sorry, sometimes I know that what I just wrote makes no sense, and I like being rewarded for looking at it a second time. That doesn’t mean I’m going to agonize over every morsel. This isn’t editing.

But the NaNo mantra is ever onward. Each precious word is your child, and you’re not just going to go back and erase your child. If you EVER erase a baby, you will NEVER get to 50,000 babies!

But the way that plays out in my writing style is this: I’m not sure how to word the next sentence in the best way, so I don’t write it. I stare at the screen. I go grab a drink. I play a round of Candy Crush. Or a round of golf. Or I re-shingle the roof. Anything to avoid putting a sentence down that might need to be erased.

4TW works the opposite. When I get to that sentence, I’ll just write it. And as soon as it’s on the page, I can look at it, think it through, and go change those three words to three better words and, voila, I’m six words closer to defecating on a witch. (Not in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” kind of way.)

As such, I am amending a statement I made a couple of NaNo’s ago. It’s my most-read blog post, presumably because most of the participants of NaNo are trying to avoid “doing the NaNo,” so they google things to read about NaNo. I will insert a link later, but for the purpose of words on paper, right now, I will just describe the inserting of links later.

My original statement was that one thousand words a day was, under normal circumstances, an upper limit for me. 4thewords showed me that I can blow past that. Even if I’m not sure what I am going to write, I can at least bumble around enough to get words on paper. They might not be good words, but they’re there. Before 4TW, when the goal was just an amorphous 1667 words in a day, or even worse, “write something today,” a thousand words seemed some sort of natural upper limit before I needed an overnight to replenish my idea bank. Now I’m like, 800 words over 10 hours? Shit, I can go see Thor in between and still have hours to spare.

Most of the time, when I have a specific plan for then next 1,000 words, it’ll actually take me closer to 3,000 words to get through it. And the vague idea I have for what will come after that probably covers another five to ten thousand. It used to frustrate me that I’d write and get no closer to the next scene. Now I embrace it. Words on paper are the goal for today, not finishing the scene.

Of course, one thing I’ve noticed about both 4TW and NaNo are that they make you a bad writer. Usually the fewer words you write, the better. But, as I joked earlier, it’s easy enough to turn a five-word sentence into ten words. That doesn’t make it better and often makes it worse. It tends toward the passive voice. NaNo only does it implicitly. In fact, they explicitly say 50,000 words is an entire novel. Not any novel I’ve ever seen, other than “Slaughterhouse Five.” So it goes. So at least in theory, NaNo’s 50,000 words should not be wasting any space. Yeah, right.

The NaNo people say that you’ll probably add 10,000 words in the rewriting/editing phase, making it closer to “Lord of the Flies” territory. Um, no. Am I the only one that actually takes words out when I’m editing? The first time I attempted a 1,500-word flash fiction, it was close to 4,000 before I took the butcher’s knife to it. The book I worked on through November is at 70,000 words. (When I say I won NaNo, I actually cheated a little. There were already 20,000 words written. But I still did the 50,000 in a month, so screw you, it counts.) The book isn’t done yet. Based on where I am in the story, it’ll easily make it past 110,000 words. Then I’ll edit 25,000 of them out.

4TW actually exacerbates that problem by making the “add some frivolous words” a bit more explicit. If I’m nearing the end of a scene and still have 150 words to defeat this particular monster, I’m not going to spend the time making a new file, am I? Hell, no. So let me just make a wordier description. I’ll have my main character scratch his chin and think about the predicament he’s in, think through his potential choices and the logical ramifications of taking each of those choices. Ten words left? Fine, he scratches his ass, too.

That doesn’t make good story telling, but that works wonders for both NaNo and 4TW. Hence the reason I’m going to have to chop at least 10,000 words off of my novel once it’s finished.

The good news is that, for the first time since I wrote those first 20,000 words in 2014, I feel like “once my novel is finished” might actually happen. And I have 4TW to thank for that feeling. If you’re interested, look me up – my character’s name is Wombat. I also have a referral code. If you want me to let them know I recruited you, leave me a comment.

For now, I’ve got 800 words left to write in my current battle, and it might be worthwhile to put some of those in the actual novel. To quote the Blues Brothers, it’s 800 words to defeat Tamarix, I’ve got a full blog post, a half a book, it’s dark, and I’m wearing sunglasses.

Hit it!

 

NaNoWriMo Postmortem

National Novel Writing Month is insane.

Some might say evil, but that could be taking it a bit too far. Not because a month cannot be evil. It most assuredly can. I’m looking in your direction, August. You know why.

But NaNoWriMo is insane.  Writing 1,667 words a day is insane. That many words in one day is no biggie. In fact, I did that a whopping three times in November. Sometimes I can even back up one 1,667-word day with another day that approaches 1,000 words. Hell, I think I got 3,000 words in a weekend once. But writing that much every single day? That’s insane.

Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day. He is insane. He is one of my favorite authors, but he is insane.

Here are my totals for the month: I wrote just under 25,000 words. The first day I fell thirty words short. Could I have written the extra thirty words? Sure. But I figured those extra thirty wouldn’t matter in the long run, and falling short on day one might give me motivation on day two. I was correct on the first assumption, not on the second.

I participated in a number of Word Wars over the past thirty days. In Word Wars, a whole bunch of people stop chatting for about 15 minutes and just write, write, write. I’m usually good for somewhere between 250-350 words in a 15-minute span of writing. Some people write over 1000 words. How? I have no idea. They say things like “it was dialogue,” or “it was a scene I had already thought about.” Um, okay. I could have planned out every damned word, and I couldn’t regurgitate a thousand in fifteen minutes. My brain needs to stop and breathe from time to time.

And yes, I can hear you math majors already – if I can write 300 words every 15 minutes, all it should take me to write 50,000 words is… carry the one… about forty hours. One work week! What’s the problem, Wombat?

The problem is that I can’t string together too many Word Wars. I’ve improved a bit from last year, when I would spend the ten minutes following each Word War going back over the drivel I had just written and edit it. I became much more comfortable with writing, and more importantly leaving, that drivel this year. My inner editor took the month off, and I’m happy with that. I’ve found that the mantra of “fix it in the re-write” is a good one to write by. Characters are going to change, anyway. I’m going to be writing one scene and think “Oh, crap, I need to allude to this in an earlier scene.” So save it for the second draft.

But even without the inner editor and with Word Wars aplenty, I cannot consistently push past 1,500 words. My sweet spot seems to be about 800 words a day. I know I need to increase that. But for right now, those 800 words are all that fit in my brain at any given time. I think about what I’m going to write the next time I write, and about 800 words later, I’ve finished that scene or description or dialogue. Then I usually need some time to think about the next batch. Occasionally that will happen in the same day. I might write a few hundred words, take an hour or two to drive somewhere or take a shower (a really long shower) or whatever, then I’m ready to go again.

So why don’t I just make sure that I always write two batches of 800 every day?

Because I’m not insane.

Okay, maybe that’s not it. I very well might be insane. But the things that are preventing me from always double-dipping, from always pushing 2,000 words a day, are the same old things as before NaNoWriMo.  Lack of motivation, lack of confidence, real world distractions.

This year one of those real world items was my daughter, the best distraction in the world.  Some of the best writing times, evenings and weekends, are now prime baby time.

My wife also has a very busy November. She works in health insurance, and of course, most people renew their insurance on January 1. So her November is spent driving all over to various open enrollment meetings. Last year, she’d call and say she wouldn’t be home till 8:00 or she was spending the night in beautiful Redding, and I thought, “Cool, I’ll just sit here and write.” This year, that meant I was single parent for the night. Similarly, my school district gets the entire week off for Thanksgiving. Last year, I wrote in overdrive that week. This year, we took baby out of daycare for the week and I was full-time daddy.

Mr. Mom finds it hard to get things done. I know, I know, the baby naps. Why don’t I write then? Just like in the first month of her life, when the so-called experts said “sleep when the baby sleeps.” Sounds good in theory, but I never know if this particular nap is the 15-minute variety or the 2-hour coma. And then bottles need cleaning and, oh, a shower might be nice. I can also put the baby in her swing or give her some toys on her playmat. And in fact, I did get some writing done at those points, but anyone with a child knows that is living on borrowed time.

But I’m not laying this year’s shortcoming at those tiny feet. There’s still that fear of the unknown. Twenty-five thousand words later, I still haven’t finished the part of the story I had already plotted out in my head, much less figured out how everything would resolve itself. I thought it would take 10,000 to 15,000 words to get to a point in the story that is still probably over 5,000 words away. Sometimes I got disheartened by how little happened in those 800 words. Hell, I was writing a sex scene for five damned days. Every day, I woke up thinking, “Okay, another two or three hundred words to finish off this scene (literally and figuratively during the sex scene), then on the next scene where some cool stuff will happen.” Then the next day, 1,000 words later, I was still on that damned scene. It’s bad when even the guy writing says “Okay, this scene is boring me, when does the good stuff start happening?”

I know, I know. It’ll come out in the re-write. Some of the excessive character introspection and revelations will be spread out over to other points in the novel.  But you cannot edit a blank page.

And I refuse to divulge how many levels of Bubble Witch Saga I passed when I should have been writing.

Now NaNoWriMo is over. The next time I write 800 words in a day, it will be an accomplishment, not a disappointment. And if I can string together a few of those, who knows, I might finally find out what happens after the sex scene.

This is the time to remind myself that I wrote over 20,000 words last month. That is no small feat, NaNoWriMo be damned. If I could add another 20,000 this month, and another batch in January, I’d be close to having a bona fide novel. Last year this transition from writing in November to writing in December was where I failed miserably. This year, I hope to do a little better.

Right after I do some Cyber Monday shopping.

If worse comes to worse, I can always just wait until next NaNoWriMo and try again. Then maybe I can do everything exactly the same way I did this year. I’ll just expect different results.

Because we all know what that is the definition of.

Not a Writer

I want to be a writer. A paid writer, preferably, but I’d settle for just being a writer. What makes a writer? I’ve visited blogs about writing, read some books, and subscribed to Writer’s Digest. They all give pointers on character development, plot motivation, editing, publishing, you name it. But there is one thread that runs through all writing advice.

Writers write. I think Chuck Wendig might through a “motherfucker” at the end. Succinct, pithy, perhaps a bit simplistic. But writers write.

That’s why I’m not a writer yet. But to continue the Jules Winnfield Pulp Fiction quotes, “I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard.”

Seriously, how hard is it to write? All you have to do is sit down at a keyboard and tap, tap, tap, right? And yet… and yet…

There are a whole bunch of books running around in my head. The one that’s been there the longest is a political drama about a dark horse running for president. It’s been in there since the government class in my senior year of high school. It would have some great plot twists, a seriously flawed antihero, and might even set up a sequel where his brother becomes Governor of California. That is, if I had ever written it. But as of the writing of this blog, (let me do some math, carry the one), about 8,500 days have passed since the idea came to me. The number of words I’ve written is (okay, logarithm to the base of e, translated into base-7, carry that damned one again) zero. Zero words have been put on paper. Oh, there are pages and pages of notes, timelines, character sketches, and outlines. Well, there were all of those things, but I don’t know that I’d be able to find them if I wanted to start up again. I’m guessing they’re in storage with some cassette tapes. But in terms of actual words in the actual novel, I’ve got notihing. Haven’t even created a file named “President Book,” nor typed “Chapter One” on the center of any top line. The good news is that I don’t have to worry about that blinking cursor screaming at me, like I’ve read on many of those blogs about how to get past writer’s block.

But writers write, right? I’m already doing this blog in Microsoft Word, so all it would take is a nifty Ctrl-N and start tap-tap-tapping. But I’m not a writer. I’m a thinker. From time to time, I’m a researcher. Maybe I’m a loose plotter, but what I really am, at this point, is a guy who can think up a scene here or there.

So why don’t I write them down? Oh, I can come up with a litany of reasons, but the top two are usually confidence and time.

My lack of confidence doesn’t mean I’m afraid of being a bad writer. My use of the English language is sound. Do I still need to consult Strunk & White from time to time? Sure, but that’s hardly a count against me.

But proper verb conjugation does not the next Jack Reacher make. All those ideas I’ve had? Most of them are scenes. I know how I might start a book, but then what would happen in the next scene? Or I know the ending, but how am I going to get there? So the internal critic says there’s no use writing the scenes I’ve thought of if I don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Then there’s the whole time thing. Who has time to write? I mean, sure, I’ve got fifteen minutes right now, but how much would I really write in those fifteen minutes? So I might as well play some Candy Crush instead, because that’s a MUCH better use of my time. Just until I lose these five lives, and then, oh wait, I have five more lives in the dream world? Okay, then I just need to see if I’ve opened the new world of Pet Rescue Saga yet…

Of course, now that I have a five-month old at home, I scoff at the silly boy who thought he didn’t have time. I’m sure he couldn’t foresee a time when the laptop isn’t cracked open until after the baby’s gone to sleep, leaving a whopping hour to pay bills, do chores, and maybe shove some food down the gullet  before passing out on the couch five minutes into a DVR’d episode of NCIS.

But that inner dialogue that keeps me from writing. Let’s call her the inner nag, instead. She is the ubiquitous crabgrass that I find whenever I’m looking for the elusive Kentucky bluegrass called a muse. Why bother writing a scene, she says, if you don’t know what happens next? Why bother writing for fifteen minutes if it’s not enough time to finish the whole thing?

The logical part of me knows these are stupid points.  The next scene isn’t forming in my mind yet because the current scene is taking up too much cranial real estate. And I can’t read a book in one sitting, why would I expect to write it all at once? But if I spent the next fifteen minutes writing a hundred words now, then maybe I can write another hundred the next time I am waiting for my Candy Crush lives to reset. Then, when I’m halfway through this scene and start thinking about what happens next, maybe I’ll make more time to start writing that next scene.

Stephen King writes two thousand words a day. Given his publishing schedule, I assume that’s enough to finish a 500-page book a month, right? He tells beginning writers that they might want to just start with one thousand. He also says the first one million words are practice, something akin to Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours. So maybe if I had written all of those scenes I had thought about, I’d be getting close to being an experienced writer. Maybe I would have even figured out how to string a few of those scenes together by now.

Last year I discovered National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, a challenge to write a novel in thirty days. Okay, only 50,000 words, which really isn’t a full-sized novel, but is still a sizeable chunk of one. It’s been going on every November since 2000, but this was the first I had heard of it. When all of your writing energy is potential instead of kinetic, you don’t spend much time in actual writer circles. Now that I’ve been spent a year doing some writerly type things, I don’t know how I had missed it.

But eleven months ago, an Amazon Kindle post about it on Facebook was my introduction. Intrigued, I checked out the website, and before I knew it, I had an author profile and a novel I was “working on.” I didn’t really think I’d follow through on it. First of all, it was already November 9 or 10 when  Amazon posted it. Better late than never, Kindle, sheesh! Plus I had a wedding to go to that weekend. No time, but what’s it going to hurt to say I’m working on a novel.

I already had about five thousand words of a novel written down, so that might compensate for missing the first third of the month. And if that statement seems to contradict everything I’ve said so far, bear in mind words had been written over a span of thirteen years. The book was a fictionalized account of my trip to Mardi Gras in the year 2000, so it had almost been in my mind as long as my political book. Hell, had I known about the first November NaNoWriMo , ten months after the Mardi Gras trip, I probably would’ve written the exact same book I attempted in 2013.

The night before that wedding, I dusted off the old Word doc and started typing what happened next. Only a couple hundred words. I didn’t write any the day of the wedding, but the next day I did. Then the next. Suddenly, I could find the time. And those plot holes? Some of them started fixing themselves. Some of the scenes that I had been thinking about for ten years ended up going a different way than I had always assumed. Who knew that actually forcing myself to put it on paper would finally flesh it out? Then halfway through this scene I had always thought about, I would think, “Oh, I need to throw this in here because the next scene will do this.” All those things I had heard were true. Scenes I assumed could not have more than five hundred words of content actually had three thousand words of detail, exposition, and dialogue. I thought about the characters and the plot when I was in the shower.

I didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo last year. After being spotted the initial five thousand words, I only added another 20,000 or so. Only. But if any statement should serve as an endorsement for the program, it’s me, a guy who spent thirteen years writing five thousand words (and really, twenty years writing zero words of my political thriller) finished the month and said “Dangit, I only made it to 27,000 words.”

The important thing, I realized, was that I was writing. “I’m a writer now,” I thought. And this would continue. Man, now that I knew what it took, the world was my oyster. I would finish that book by the time Christmas arrived and I had ideas for other books that I’d start up in January.

As of this moment, that book is at 38,000 words. I’ve only added eleven thousand words.

Why did I write 20,000 words in one month and only 10,000 words in the following year? I could blame it on reaching a lag in the book, damned old writer’s block stopping me from knowing what happens next. But a lot had to do with how successful NaNoWriMo is as makeshift muse. I missed the pep talks from accomplished authors. The word-count widget that satisfied my desire for meaningless accomplishments (“A badge for 5,000 words? Done!”) was gone .  During November, every time you update your word count, it tells you when you will finish your book based on your current pace, as well as the pace you have to write at to finish on time. The giddiness I felt when my finish date moved from January to December (“I’m going to finish this year!) was matched only by the dismay I felt when it disappeared on December 1. (“But I’m not done yet!”)

But the thing I missed most was the group camaraderie. We do write-ins at real-live locations, but even more helpful was an online chat-room. Chatting with people might seem to be a bad distraction for someone trying to type 1,667 words a day. But they are all in the same boat. The conversation ebbs and flows as inspiration strikes. There are word wars, where we all write for ten minutes, then report back with how many words we wrote. Then we write a little more leisurely until the next one.

When December arrived, all of those things were gone. I stopped off at Starbucks and Panera a few times that month to write, but could only manage another five hundred words a time. In November, I could get close to that number in one successful word war. Plus that old-fashioned lack of confidence came back. You skip a day of writing, you might get back on that horse, but another day or two of no writing and you start doubting you’re a writer.  Because remember, writers write.

But I also need to remind myself that the eleven thousand words I’ve added to the book since December are probably ten thousand more words more than I had written at any time prior to last November. And that doesn’t count the short stories, flash fiction, and blog entries that might or might not count toward Stephen King’s million word starting trot. I’ve also found more of those resources that had eluded me before. Writing blogs and websites, competitions, exciting new authors. I joined Storium, a very cool website that is part role-playing, part write-your-own-adventure, where you create a character and jointly tell a story with other characters. Shoot, a year ago I had no idea who Chuck Wendig was. Now I check his website daily, have written five of his flash fiction prompts, and have bought three of his books.

This blog has been part of my attempt to “keep on writing.” This post will mark the 7th Monday in a row that I’ve submitted a blog entry. I cheated and wrote most of it on Halloween.  It’s an artificial deadline, just like NaNoWriMo. If I miss a week, no hostages will be killed and I won’t miss a paycheck. But, as last December proved, if I miss one post, it will be much easier to miss the next week as well.

But now, NaNoWriMo is back, and I have to ramp up from writing two to three thousand words a week to doing that every couple days. I hope the flash fictions I’ve been writing haven’t destroyed my ability to write things longer than one scene. I guess I’ll find out with my first word war.

I will try to continue posting every Monday through November. The posts might change from my normal musings to book excerpts or check-ins. Or why there’s no way in hell I will make it to 50,000 words. Regardless, they should be shorter. Maybe I’ll just write a sentence or two.

Oh, who am I kidding? I can’t even describe a bowel movement in less than a thousand words.

And if I’m successful this year, maybe I’ll try it again next year. Maybe I’ll, gasp, try to write during the other eleven months of the year. Maybe next year, I’ll finally get around to that political thriller. Or maybe I should wait until 2016, the twenty-fifth anniversary of its residence in my head. I’ll feel like an empty nester. I wonder if I’ll solve world hunger or invent a warp drive with all of the newly vacated room in my brain.

More likely, the space will be filled with new ideas, new plots, new characters. Then al I’ll have to do…

…is write.