Friday, November 30, 2007

BattleJesus, Nanoisms and Cat People

November 30th: it's a strange old day. The wind is starting to gust and darkness is descending, even though it is mid afternoon. In our family, Christmas starts on December 1st, with the tree and decorations in place on the first Sunday of the month. I have an extensive collection of Christmas socks, and tomorrow I get to wear the new pair I bought last year. There's no rhyme or reason to all of this. It's simply a case of tradition.

Every year, as I leave November behind, I feel a sense of something beginning. I love Christmas: the build-up; the preparation; the excitement. Yet today, for the first time, I am sad that November is coming to a close, for it is the end of my first NaNoWriMo. It marks the return to reality.

However, I have no intention of lamenting this event, for it has been the best thing I have done in a long time. I place it alongside my children and my degree in the sense of achievement and self I have gained from it. As the clock strikes midnight tonight, I will rejoice in having completed a novel of just over one hundred thousand words in length, that I am reasonably happy is a decent first draft. It took two weeks of writing and two weeks of editing. I like the plot, know the characters well and look forward to returning to the novel in a week or so to start my first real edit.

Contrary to the way in which NaNoWriMo was presented on Radio Four's Today programme, many skilled and determined writers take part and go on to finish their novel. Evidently, such an undertaking means that the end product is a little rough, doesn't quite make sense here and there, is subject to sudden changes in plot and produces some spectacular typos. There is a forum thread on the NaNoWriMo site that allows writers to share their novel bloopers, known as 'Nanoisms', some of which are incredibly funny to other 'Nanos', but probably not to anyone else. These things happen when a community comes together - the in-jokes and the sense of sharing something that no-one else is a part of. It is what makes NaNoWriMo special.

As I write this blog, I am keeping an eye on the Chat Room, where many writers are battling through the final hours of the month, teeth gritted, the finish line in sight. It is a well monitored, spam free place where conversation is positive, light-hearted and always encouraging. It is also where the bot known as BattleJesus (BJ to his friends) resides and it is his fault I am writing this blog in the first place, for he is programmed to time Word Wars (where Nanos compete to write as many words as possible in a set time), provide prompts and quotes to stimulate ideas and to make decisions based on a number of user provided options (how he decided I should write this blog). I won't miss the chat room as I won't be leaving it when today is done. Here I have made new friends and I anticipate that it will be fun to share with them in the build up to NaNoWriMo 2008.

I'm not at liberty to discuss cat people, other than to say that I have enjoyed reading other people's excerpts, as well as the one completed novel that has been sent my way thus far and I'm looking forward to seeing where the cat people end up in the edit almost as much as working with my own main characters further. I might even give them a sequel.

And so, I say goodbye to NaNoWriMo 2007, with fondness and a little sadness, but tomorrow is another day. I am grateful for the patience and encouragement that has been afforded me over the past month, for it has given my writing the jumpstart it needed. For now I lay down my pen, certain that when I next pick it up I will know what to write, and if I don't, I'll ask BJ.

Inner Editor returns, and isn't too pleased with what she finds. This is an abysmal post, lacking in both quality and quantity. Could do better. Go to the bottom of the class.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

More Than Anything

As Steven Sondheim goes to great lengths to demonstrate, we really do need to be careful what we wish for. Wishes, like government policies, tend to bring about a whole heap of unintended consequences. The vast majority of my degree was spent dissecting past, present and future policy, and whilst I must confess that I am somewhat out of touch with these matters, I could still pick up any white paper and give it a good thrashing.

I don't want to wed a prince, find perfection, be rich beyond the dreams of avarice (too much Tom Holt). Evidently there are aspects of my life that I would gladly give up, others I would cling to with all that I am, because they are all that I am. I've read enough fairy tales and fantasy novels to know that the wisher's obsession pushes rationality aside. The outcome is predictable: she marries the prince only to discover that, if she's really, really lucky, he's just a bit of a misogynist, but more likely than not it will transpire that he bites his toenails, smells dreadful and has a fetish for cows. If only she'd thought ahead, planned a little before stating "I wish", then there would have been some smallprint in place to protect her from such eventualities.

And so, I edge towards my wish with a little hesitation.

Four days ago I began to write a novel. It was the 4th of November, and with a deadline of 50,000 words by the 30th of November, I was already behind by 6,000 words. As any past or present NaNoWriMo author will tell you (and you can calculate this for yourself), finishing the novel by the deadline means writing 1,667 words a day, every day, for the entire month. Therefore, by the end of today, I would need to have written just under 13,500 words to remain on target. In actuality I am almost halfway, with last night's word count standing at 24,018 words. I desperately wanted to reach 25,000 before I went to bed, but I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open, and I mean that absolutely literally.

It's been four days of writing for around twelve hours each day, watching TV for an hour or so, then going to sleep around 1am, waking at 7am. This pattern is not new to me: I am well used to it, because I am a teacher and a web programmer, both greedy consumers of time. However, one of the more subtle differences between these and my current occupation surprises me, and that is that I have been able to break away for small periods of time, to talk to my friends or family, help my daughter cook or whatever else is required of me in my multiple roles in this life. What's more, I pause without begrudging the distraction.

The broader context is that I've been off work for two months, dealing with the persistent shifting between highs and lows, which has been terrible and unpredictable but not particularly extreme, all of it catalogued here. In the space of a few minutes I can go from optimistic planning of my future (just as soon as my head is working) to a sense of woe, for I am trapped in this existence forever.

Now, I'm certainly not going to lie and say that four days ago the mood swings came to an abrupt halt. I have been this way all of my life and it's not been an easy one. There have been times when I could have given up fighting, because of illness, love or finance. A colloquialism I especially like is 'on the bones of our arses' and this is precisely where we are right now. I'm writing, so my needs are simple: coffee and cigarettes. What I have in front of me now is the last of both of these, because people owe us and don't understand what 'we have no money' means. My children have rightly lectured me on spending the last of our money on these commodities. In the general course of life this alone would have me on my knees, punching the floor and screaming about the unfairness of it all. However, I am not.

Other trials have attempted to thwart me over the past few days and received the same treatment. I momentarily sense the downward slide, the impending doom, the misery that will accompany it. And then I say to myself "Write, goddamnit! You've got a deadline!"

For years I have proclaimed that I want to be writer, yet when I have the time to be this I am not. Instead I design a web page, create some elaborate code or produce a pile of educational resources that may or may not come in useful at some point. I lament that I have no time to write, a partial truth constructed by the other things I have used to fill the void. I dabble a little here and there, come up with ideas, write short prose, poetry, this blog, an introductory chapter or a preface, then I return to what I was doing under the guise that I must.
    And the words that fill these pages
    Won't bring in any wages.

There's no denying it. I have to earn a living somehow. If some kind publisher advanced me enough to settle my mortgage account I would still need to work to pay the rest of our monthly expenses, in the short term at least. When I say work here, I mean any wage-paying occupation that is not writing.

The smallprint: must pay a wage and must not come at the expense of family and friends. Please note that my dogs are part of my family.

I wish to write, more than anything, without further qualification. I can write to deadlines, I could be a working writer and not hate it. When I am writing all other things exist in their true perspective. Writing makes me happy, not the guilty part-time pleasure, or means of casting out some demon within, but real writing. Four days ago I didn't know these things.

Now, where are those beans?

Monday, November 05, 2007

NaNoWriMo: The New Black

No time to stay, I have a novel to finish.

Yes people, I have a new addiction, but this one is just perfect, for several reasons.

Firstly, I have been sucked into a void over the past few weeks, one where deadlines and dates have ceased to have meaning, no-one has been cracking the whip in my direction, or indeed when they have it's not been cracked hard enough. No deadlines equals no progress or achievement. That's shockingly how this cookie crumbles.

Secondly, I am a writer. There is a passion within me that just needs to put down words. Half the time I strangle my own creativity by being a petulant and indulgent self editor. Take that away and I go free-form, Beat, take the story where the story takes me. Admittedly right now that does appear to be into romance (uggh!), but who cares? Life is romance: love, sex, infatuation, lust. There's also some stuff to do with birth and death, biological functionality that we still somehow manage to romanticise.

Thirdly, I am feeling a certain joy that I haven't experienced in quite some time. It comes from freedom of guilt. "I'm sorry, but I have a novel to write." What more reason do I need not to wash up / programme that web site / worry about my day job? None, I tell you - no further explanation is coming your way.

So, a writer who needs deadlines and a reason to write. The solution: NaNoWriMo, short for 'National Novel Writing Month'. The deadline is the 30th of November; the novel must be 50,000 words or more. There's nothing to be gained from this, no prizes, publishing deals or other incentive. It was exactly what I needed.

Champagne took what seemed like an eternity to finish, and I read back on it, hating certain paragraphs, loving others, but always thinking that had I taken six months instead of six years to write it, I doubt it would have been any better or worse. Admittedly the word count isn't double within the NaNoWriMo remit, but even so. In two days I have written 10,000 words. At that rate I could, theoretically, complete a novel the length of Champagne in twenty days. It would be terrible, as is the one I'm writing, but nonetheless possible.

I have obtained a state of acceptance about what I write: it might be rubbish, but it's my rubbish. At times it stinks, so hold your nose and walk away. Me? I'm stuck with it and I must dispose of it somehow. That's what it's about, this writing thing. As Allen Ginsberg said, "It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public". My writing, wherever it may roam, is the private made public, what we really think, who we really are, behind the shirts, ties, uniforms, careful hairstyles and cosmetics.

Thank the Lord for NaNoWriMo - for now I have remembered who I am and what this whole fight was for. Still, I have 39,950 words to write in 25 days, so I best sharpen my pen. There are swords out there who still believe in the old ways.