Onion Starts

So much of life is about choosing. I’ve blogged about it before, talking about “saying yes” and “saying no.”

Down here in Central Texas, spring is nearly upon us. Now that I know I won’t have a fellowship, it’s time to plan both my garden and my writing for the rest of the year.

While I put my Michener application together and took the GRE, my novella revisions got pushed onto the back burner. Instead, I focused on shorter works and exercises. In November, I did my own personal National NovelWriting Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge, writing a new story “start” nearly every day. The whole exercise was wonderfully fun, and I ended up with 27 story starts. Of those, there are about a dozen that I think I can turn into viable stories.

In January and February, I participated in a flash fiction contest with one of my writers’ groups. A couple stories from that are already in submission and I’ll be sending a couple more out next week.

Looking over what I’ve produced over the winter and thinking about what I want to accomplish this year, I can see that I have far too many open projects.

It’s time to hunker down and face the hard part. Choosing. While Heinlein famously said “finish what you start,” adhering too strictly to that rule doesn’t allow for the kind of writing exercises and noodling in my journal that are an important part of learning how to craft a story or build a character.

Still, choosing is hard! Even the most cursory writing exercises produces images that stick with me, or lines of dialogue that keep whispering in my ear. Reading them over, I can’t help but think,  with a little water and sunlight something could really grow from this start.

But time constrains us all, and I’ve come to understand that not every start has to be finished. As long as I’m being productive in terms of completed and submitted stories, then there are some things that I can set aside. In other words, as long as I continue to finish things, I don’t have to finish ALL the things.

But, once I commit to a story, I have to finish it, because choosing is hard but finishing is harder.

I finished the first draft of a story yesterday, and it wasn’t pretty. I mean I just limped across the finish line. It felt like I was writing garbage. I’m reading it over and revising it today, and while the last third is a bit of a morass, it’s not nearly as bad as I thought it was when I was miserably wading through it. 

Things almost always get harder in the middle. Quitting one project to start something shiny and new is the trap to avoid. Each project comes with unanticipated demands, requiring me to stretch and learn in new ways. Choosing, and the commitment to finish, is where we grow.

More Advanced Reading for Writers

Briton Rivière (1840-1920) A Saint, from the ‘Jackdaw of Rheims’

Before I get to the books full of thinky thinks, my story, “The Horses,” is the featured link at the TTA Press Advent Calendar today. Check it out and leave a comment on their boards if you like. They’re posting links to stories all month, so be sure and check back for more goodies!

I enjoyed my own personal Not Exactly NaNoWriMo and will be blogging about the experience in its entirety soon. Today’s post is a bit of a NaNo corrective. After a month where everyone is focused on producing reams of quick and sloppy pages, I wanted to luxuriate in a few of my favorite books that dig deep into the art and craft of writing.

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte. Beyond the nuts and bolts of grammar, this entire book is devoted to sentences. I’m letting my geek flag fly here, but if you love sentences as much as I do and want to think deeply about them, check out this book. Soak up chapters like: Sentence Openers and Inversion, Free Modifiers: Branching Sentences, and Syntactic Symbolism. 

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews by Samuel R. Delany. This book is a brick of writing insight from a master of genre fiction. In fact, SFWA just declared him the 2013 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master for his contributions to the field. And about time! If you don’t feel like reading about writing, check out one of his novels. I’m partial to Dhalgren. It was the first book of his I read way back when.

Samuel R. Delany

Anatomy of a Short Story: Nabokov’s Puzzles, Codes, “Signs and Symbols” Edited by Yuri Leving. I’m actually currently reading this one. It’s straight up academic literary criticism. Maybe I’m just missing my college days, but I think it’s worthwhile to go deep into the workings of a single short story. It’s kind of fascinating to see just how many interpretations the ivory tower types can spin out of a couple thousand words. Nabokov’s correspondence with the editor of the New Yorker over the publication of the story is a fascinating chapter as well. 

If that’s not your sort of thing, skip the book and listen to Mary Gaitskill read Nabokov’s brilliant story at the New Yorker. For some lit crit lite, the podcast includes a discussion of the story with Deborah Treisman, the New Yorker’s fiction editor.

Update: Not Exaclty NaNoWriMo

I have to say I’m having a blast with my Not Exactly NaNoWriMo challenge. On November 1st I set out to write a brand new story idea every day for 30 days. So, every morning this month I’m spending about 30 minutes freewriting something brand new.

I’m working from verbal and visual prompts, notes for nascent ideas stashed in my journal. I also have a list of phrases that have caught my ear. Things that sound like great titles, but that I have no story for – yet. Ray Bradbury did something like this with lists.

After I finish writing my new thing, I’m free to revisit the previous day(s) work and further develop it. I’ve started to read over the earlier ones. I’m putting new thoughts in my journal, playing with the ideas and themes, working up outlines, so that I can draft the middles and ends and turn these fragments into stories. I’m aiming to keep most of these in the flash to short story range. I don’t know how the revision process will plug into what I’m doing, but I’m determined not to worry about it this month.

I’m also taking this opportunity to learn a little more about Scrivener. I set up a Scrivener project with 30 folders, one for each day. Each folder has the writing from my initial session, any relevant pictures and a place for random ideas and fragments of an outline. 

I now have 14 story starts (I have a 0 story that I did on October 31). Each entry is about a thousand words. I’ve listed them below along with the prompts, and for some, a little snippet of what I’ve written. Some are working titles, other titles I think I’ll keep.

0 The Window
From a combination of this picture of a woman and a child and an article about a memorial gate (see 12 below) that I got by clicking on Random Article in Wikipedia. I often use two or three disparate things to prompt my writing. This often helps me tap into the unexpected. Usually this works as stated. This time these two elements remained separate, and when I reread this one, I decided to excise the bits about the gate and use it as a prompt for day 12.

1 Frank Breech & Footling
This is a title that I’ve had floating around in my journal.

2 The Comfort of Busses
I’ve been riding the bus to work a lot lately.

3 The Sleeping City
A prompt from Storymatic: A runaway, a tourist, “where is everyone”?

4 The Thief and the Vintner
A prompt from Chaotic Shiny: A bottle, a thief, and a minor god.

5 The Reverse Pygmalion
From undeveloped idea from my journal.

6 A Time Travel Story
From notes copied into my journal from some article on the internet:

“Nothing is flat and solid. Everything is full of gaps and holes, crevases, wrinkles and voids. This is true of the physical world and true of time too, you just have to go VERY small.”

 7 The Angel in the Kitchen 
The prompt, from the Brainstormer app, was: Fish out of water/angelic/construction zone) Here’s a sample:

“Do you have a housemate?”
“No. Are you looking?”
“No. No. It’s just – I have an angel living with me. He wasn’t there when they showed me the house but –
“Ah.” He nodded, understanding. “Well, it won’t last forever.” Then he laughed at his own joke. “The roommate situation,” he clarified.
They’re refurbishing the barracks.”
“Angels live in barracks?”

8 A Bride for the Marsh

From a picture of a young Palestinian groom with his bride. I’ve finally started using Pinterest mostly to collect visual material (including story prompts) for writing. Click on the sidebar to follow my pins. Here’s another sample:

“A lilting giggle drifted out from behind the fine silk fabric that covered her, accompanied by a sharp movement of her head that he thought must mean no. The sound reminded him of water when it rushes through a narrow place, busy and contented at the same time.”

9 I’ve Got To Go
From the io9 Concept Art Prompt. These are posted every Saturday on io9, and writers are encouraged to post their stories in the comments. This is still a fragment, so I didn’t post it. The picture is a great start, now I’ll work to write a story that stands without the visual.

10 In Time
The working title for an epistolary time travel story.

11 The Trumpet and the Ticket Taker
This is actually an old fragment. In the spirit of clearing the boards I have a couple story fragments that I plan to dump into this project. I pasted in what I had, then expanded on it with 30 minutes of freewriting. Here’s a bit:

The vulture hop-stepped to the raft, extended his wings and jumped on. The dull ache in my head was spreading through the rest of my body. I scrubbed my eyes to try to get my head on straight. When I looked back, a man in black jeans and a black tee-shirt stood on the raft, hands clasped behind his back. He was bald and ruddy, and watched me with a carney’s neutral expression that says, I know I look scary, but you really want to ride this ride.

12 The Wandering Gate
This one was an image that I’d written into story 0 that I split off into its own separate story. These two stories will be quite different from each other, I think.

13 Six Shades of True
This excellent title and my prompt was from today’s Daily Writing Tips post about the origins and connotations of the word true.

14 Time Delay
From an idea I’ve had floating around for a while about robots and humans working together to mine a distant moon, maybe Titan.

That’s all for now. I’m looking forward to another two weeks of taking the daily plunge.

National Novel Writing Month Isn’t Just for Novel Writing!

Or it doesn’t have to be. 

In case you haven’t heard November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This insanity has been going on for more than a dozen years now. I did it once a few years back and completed a perfectly trunkable novella. I had never written anything that long before and, on the most basic level, it gave me confidence that I could sustain an idea through at least 50,000 words. It also taught me that I could write one to two thousand words a day (at some cost due to Thanksgiving and its requisite family commitments). The work also contributed to my million words.

“Everyone has to write a million words of crap before they can start producing good fiction.”   ~generally attributed to Raymond Chandler.

One NaNoWriMo taught me everything I needed to learn from that exercise, and I haven’t done it since. Yet, I know many people who do it every year. They do it for many reasons, for the camaraderie and for the discipline of the deadline that requires about 1,600 new words a day, every day for a month. Doing something every day for about 30 days is also a great way to form a new habit.

While I am not interested participating in Nano according to the rules as they’re laid out, there is always a lot of chatter and excitement around November and that is one aspect of Nano that I really enjoy.* So much about writing is about pulling things out of the cave of my own subconscious, so much time spent in the fragile little worlds constructed inside my head. It’s nice to have a feeling of solidarity with other people who are all pursuing a similar endeavor together. 

In lieu of attempting to write a novel I’ve devised my own challenge and it has to do with a difficulty that I have specific to my own writing process. I’m calling it the Not Exactly National Novel Writing Month or NeNaNoWriMo!

Every day this month, I am going to freewrite (i.e. speed write) a NEW story idea. Some will be from title ideas I have noted in my journal, others from story prompts or writing exercises.

Here’s why I picked this particular challenge. I love doing speed writing exercises because they tap into the subconscious. No matter how silly the prompt, if I write for 30 minutes without stopping I almost always find something among those wacky sentences and jumbled images that suggest a viable story. Where’s the problem you might ask. The thing is, when I freewrite and see a gem in there, I immediately feel a certain obligation to pursue it. I tend to be very stubborn about seeing my ideas through and I have a rather layered, and time consuming, revision process, so I’ve been shying away from even playing with new ideas.

And that’s a bad thing. I think I need fewer precious curios and more nicked up toys in the pages of my journal. So, for the next thirty days, I’m going to freewrite a brand new thing every day. This is a 30-minute commitment, so I’ll have time to continue working on my other works-in-progress. If I have extra time I can fiddle with that day’s idea/story seed, but at the stroke of midnight I’ll close it and create something brand new.

Said Rear Admiral David Farragut
The important thing is to just keep moving forward. Oddly, the skill I want to end up with is the ability to NOT follow up on everything. I’ll sort things out in December, and surely some things will be left undeveloped. And that will be okay.

* I’m not signing up on the NaNoWriMo site, though I don’t think there’s any rule against it.