#NaNoWriMo2018 Post mortem: A landfill of chaos

I’ve been away from the blog for a while because I’ve been recouperating — in all aspects of life: sleep, social, day job, reading. Turns out devoting all of November to 50,000 words of a book really detracts from, well, everything else.

But here I am, 50,788 words later, with 2018’s National Novel Writing Month behind me. Goal achieved. Book…in progress.

Because that’s really all this year’s NaNoWriMo accomplished, really. By the middle of the month I abandoned my usual approach of “write with a few plot points in mind and the connective tissue will come together naturally.” Instead, I found myself writing blurbs, scenes, and conversations in roughly the order I expect they’ll appear in the final product. 

I gotta say, my first three chapters are super tight, and there’s some real filth that would make EL James blush.  

In 2017, I wrote Omaha, the book that I had been planning for three years, submitted a detailed synopsis for, and promised to an interested agent. With Omaha currently “in sub” (a term I learned from a fellow corporate novelist that means “in submission with publishers”), I was both blessed and cursed with lower stakes this year. And that allowed me more wiggle room to write whatever parts of the book I wanted. 

But that’s the point of NaNoWriMo, as most participants understand. Author Chuck Wendig has the best, or at least most colorful,  perspective on the 50,000-word, 30-daylong sprint:

“What once was an innocent tract of unbroken order is now a landfill of chaos….That, I think, is the guiding principle of National Novel Writing Month: you are here not for purity, not for innocence, not for perfection. You are here to ruin a perfectly good empty page. And that isn’t just the purview of this month — but it’s writing any story, on any day.”

In a different blog post, Wendig also points out that you don’t win NaNoWriMo by hitting the 50,000 word mark by 11:59 p.m. local time on Nov. 30 — you win when you finish the book. And I agree. Here I sit with 81 pages of everything from full chapters to quippy five-sentence paragaphs that have to eventually get strung together into somethign coherent, and I don’t feel like I jogged across the finish line triumphantly but rather scratched my way across it, breaking a few nails along the pavement.

(Apologies to anyone like me who still feels their sphincter tighten when they think about that shot from inside Buffalo Bill’s well in Silence of the Lambs.) 

So as I finally sit down with enough energy to do a post-mortem on my work in November, I recognize that I’m far from winning NaNoWriMo, regardless of the snappy e-certificate they sent me. There’s a lot of work to be done, and I eb in and out of excitement and dread at it. But it’ll get done, and I’m a lot further along than I was in October.

Now it’s just time to bring some order to the landfill of chaos.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 19: An artist known as Epsom

The sculpture garden had exactly seven lifesize clay statues, donated to the gala by a nephew of one of the board of directors. His name was Matthew Gimley Solomon IV — a curse of a name handed down from grandfather to father to son to grandson — but the underground art world knew him better as Epsom. It was a little science joke he had created when he learned his initials, MgSO4, were also the formula for magnesium sulfate, better known as epsom salts.

It wasn’t that his work for the Gladstone Gala sculpture garden was particularly good. All seven statues were of humanoid creatures — an angel, a demon, a little girl, a little boy, a sorcerer, an archer, and an oracle carved from stone and each possessing a single rusted-metal feature — and while they demonstrated his talent for sculpture, they didn’t showcase any of the creative spirit he put into his other work, which was too avant-garde for this crowd. The board wanted to show open-mindedness by spotlighting the work of a one-name artist but not alienate their more traditional — and generous — donors, so while they allowed Epsom to go by his art name, they asked that he refrain from his usual melting-wax statues of screaming refugee children or towering spires made of tarnished wristwatches with broken glass faces.  

Matthew Gimley Solomon IV had put up a fight for appearances sake before publicly acknowledging that in the spirit of hope and healing, he would be creating something “new and fresh for the gala that aligned with the foundation’s values and hope for a better world.” What he really did was go into the old storage unit he rented for unwanted work and taken a feather duster to a seven-piece collection he completed in his second year at art school. Some repairs should have been made to the metal embellishments, as a couple pieces had submitted to time and rust to loosen from their clay holds, but Epsom couldn’t be bothered. A bitter taste flooded his mouth as he remembered how the professor had given him a passing grade with a neon yellow post-it note that read “Great technique, but no heart.” On the upside, those five words had inspired him to make his work all heart, with very little technique. On the downside, that approach had gotten him kicked out of the school. 

Epsom had refused to attend the gala, insisting that he had another appearance priorly arranged. He was present for the installation of his seven clay-and-metal creatures but left under the cover of a hoodie and jogging pants before the guests had arrived. The only appearance he had to make that night was a date with a former Calvin Klein underwear model at his penthouse where there was always a bottle of Moet in the fridge and box of condoms in the nightstand drawer. 

So he had no idea that his mediocre art school project was about to become the focal point of a vigilante-villain showdown.  

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 16: The origins of Handel

When Anne woke up the morning after meeting Handel, she had two questions: how many tequila shots had she done, and why had she told the bartender she had a nice rack?

She hoped the answers would somehow explain exactly how she had fallen so hard for the Boy with the Blue Tie.

Anne first saw him from across the packed room, his face, neck and torso appearing in quick flashes between the legs of the pole dancers on top of the bar. At first she thought the abnormally well-dressed guy was watching the same cutoff-clad dancer as she was — then she realized he was watching her. While debating whether to shimmy through the crowd and introduce herself like the fresh-out-of-college adult she was, he made the choice for her and parted the sea of tees and jeans with his oxford shirt and silk necktie. And there she stood, feeling dumb and underdressed in her shorts and sweater.

He said his name was Handel, as in the violin composer. She remembered her best friend in high school playing Handelian concertos on his Stradivarius. Of course, Anne’s Handel wasn’t the Handel, but he did make her as weak at the knees as a Music for the Royal Fireworks. He asked her if she would like another drink, and they retreated to the outdoor patio where the music was softer and the air cooler. There was also a much thinner line at the outdoor bar, which meant the whiskey and cokes flowed freer — as did the tequila.

They talked until Anne’s roommate Lindsey came by with her boyfriend. She was swaying heavily, and Anne knew that meant it was time to go. The Boy in the Blue Tie was just so charming, a welcome change from the panderers and drunkards that usually made a pass at her on a night like this one. Handel treated her with courtesy and let her set the pace of their flirtations.

“Thanks, Mike, but I’ll stick here,” she told Lindsey’s boyfriend. “You take Lindsey home.”

Mike clearly looked concerned and insisted that she come back with them so she wouldn’t walk the three city blocks alone. That was when Handel offered to walk her. Any other man offering the same favor would have been regarded with suspicion, but Mike and Anne alike found themselves trusting the Boy in the Blue Tie. The last thing she recalled was taking a third tequila shot while watching Lindsey and Mike walk out the gate and onto the street. Handel was whispering something in her ear, and she liked the feeling of his hot breath on her skin.

The next morning, all Anne had to remember the rest of the evening by was a phone number sloppily scrawled on her forearm and a headache that split her head in a clean line between her eyes. She was in her own bed, alone, with no sign of anyone else sharing it with her. That was good. Mike and Lindsey were snoring in the room next door. Also good.

Then she saw the cerulean silk tie hanging off the back of her chair.

 

Handel spotted Anne right away. She carried herself with the same faux confidence to cover up the despair of joblessness that every other just-graduated-college adult bore. It wasn’t his intention to get her drunk, but there was little else to do at the bar. And she kept pulling his tie, like she thought it was a cute game of flirtation.

Which it was.

When it became clear that her roommate had abandoned her, he walked her three blocks to her apartment. As they walked in, he could hear the wet smacking sounds and moans coming from behind a closed door at the end of the hall. The only other open room had to be hers, so he quietly led her across the threshold and to her bed. She immediately curled up in a ball on top of the down comforter, the pillows framing half of her face so she looked like a mask upon a satin cushion in a museum. A thing of simplistic prettiness. The moon was low — it was almost 6 a.m. — and the cornflower sky made her fair skin glow with dawn.

Handel didn’t take much time to look at her. From her desk he took a felt-tip pen and wrote his number on her arm. She stirred slightly, giving the last number 2 an oddly angled tail. Before leaving, he left his tie draped on the back of her chair. If he had interested her while at the bar (and if she could remember it), she would want to meet up to at least return his tie. And if he hadn’t or she didn’t? Well, there were other ties in the world.

This was the first time I wrote about a character named Handel, who no longer resembles anything represented in this short vignette.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 10: Meet Foster Updike

Foster Updike was a tall man, had been a tall teenager and a short kid. The summer between freshman and sophomore year in high school, he had shot up six inches. The pain in his legs had been agony, but the way the girls and some of the boys looked at him that September was worth the sleepless nights, throbbing shins and, perhaps most excruciating of all, endless department store shopping to with his mom to buy new pants and shoes.

Perhaps it was his height that made him impervious to the 27-year scotch Pru had put in the monogrammed silver flask she had given him last Christmas. Not liking the taste of it — it made his mouth dry and smokey, like he had French-kissed a peat brick — he had left it in the bottom drawer of his desk. Tonight, however, had called for a celebration, and he gladly offered it up to his triumphant boss.

“You know what I like about you, Foster Up-Updike?” Pru hiccuped as she examined the flask now back in her hand.

He took it back from her but didn’t drink.

“Your name starts with an F and a U,” she said, drawing out the last vowel sound. “It’s like your parents knew you’d be too polite to tell people to fuck off, so they wanted your initials to do it for you.”

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 8: Enough

She was seized by the lung-squeezing, heart-exploding dread that all the things they said made her enough — brains, charm, humor, ambition, fiscal responsibility — were inedible fondant frosting on an otherwise dry and tasteless cake.

This wasn’t a fear of not being enough for the task at hand, but of being simply the wrong person for it. And no supplementing or sacrificing on her part would change that.

Hey look, ma, I’m published.

An announcement, rather than an excerpt or inspirational moment: I am officially a published creative writer!

Z Publishing House requested and accepted a short story submission I sent in May, and it is now officially in print via their 2018 issue of Illinois’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Fiction. The collection of stories is available on Amazon or directly through Z Publishing’s website.

You might recognize the story as a polished version of one that I posted on Convincing the Muse earlier this year, called “Septimus.”

Z Publishing — which makes it its mission to feature new writers so they get their first publication credit — contacted me through this website, so if you’re a creative writer who blogs and blogs and don’t see much come of it, be patient and keep writing: It could catch a publisher’s eye.

Also, feel free to submit to Z Publishing directly: They’re currently looking for their poetry, college advise and overall “Emerging Writers” collections.

 

Vignette: Marvin Gaye

At first I tried to contain it, sing it in my head — all the joy you fill me with, inaudible to everyone but me, like my own private practice that I refuse to share. But the more I tried to merely think the words, the more my lips moved, the more the syllables escaped from my vocal cords, the louder I got until I didn’t need a microphone for the whole world to hear me.

You’ve got me dancing and singing along to Marvin Gaye, the happiness and warmth and hope leaking out of me in the form of flat notes and white girl dance moves because mercy, mercy me: how sweet it is that ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby.

 

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The Chicago Ave. tunnel under Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.

#NaNoWriMo2017 Day 21: “Never Enough”

Oyinda hasn’t necessarily broken into the mainstream yet, but that might be one of the reasons I love listening to her music when writing. “Never Enough” was the first song I heard from her, but “The Devil’s Gonna Keep Me” is what sealed the deal. Her voice accompanied by the dark, foreboding instrumental that brings in both strings and 808s are positively haunting: the perfect soundtrack to stories about ghosts, possession and mind games.

#NaNoWriMo2017 Day 7: “Split-lip Gossamer”

Blood dotted my shoes as the blond girl flung the brunette girl down on the ground. The red bandana tied around the brunette’s upper arm meant this was what she wanted.

Across the makeshift ring stood Louisa, her face red with exertion and blood. She caught my eye and smiled, wincing as the cut in her lip opened wide and trickled crimson. The glossy pink lipstick she usually war was long gone, sweated all over the floor. The blood was a better color on her, she once commented.

Louisa and I met during our Survey of Celtic Mythology class two semesters earlier. We worked on a massive project together, which I guess in her mind made us friends. I was ambivalent, just trying to keep my head above water during that 18-credit-hour semester and thankful that she did most of the work without complaint. Then again, I was so scattered that she was probably happy to ensure we got a good grade, extra work be damned.

The next time I saw her after the holidays, she wore the same coat, carried the same bag and walked like she was strutting to music only she could hear. But something was off: Her face was pink from the subzero weather, but a California-shaped bruise darkened the side. Try as she might with makeup, it was clear as day.

I didn’t ask her about it because she walked too fast past me, clearly disinterested in talking. From the shy smile she gave me in recognition as she tugged her hair to hide the bruise, I guessed she was embarrassed. So was I.

The semester before had ended on a less-than-festive note. She had gotten drunk at a Christmas party, found me there and decided it was time to give me a kiss under the mistletoe. I wasn’t sober, either, and she wasn’t unattractive. I had no idea that she had a boyfriend. Not just a boyfriend; she was dating the Hulk.

I didn’t actually see him hit her, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had happened. There wasn’t much I could do — the party was at his house and all — but something about the way he steered her away, taking her arm like it was the strap of a book bag, gave me the creeps. The least he could have done was take a swing at me instead.

That’s why as I walked past her a month later, it wasn’t outlandish to think the California-shaped bruise looked suspiciously like massive knuckle marks chained together.

A few weeks later, she was sitting in the library. California was gone, but there was a tear in her lip and she had a brace around her wrist. I wanted to ask her what had happened, but she left too quickly.

The next week I saw her again. Her lip was half-healed, and she had upgraded from a brace to an ace bandage. Opportunity hit when she stopped to dig her phone out of her bag. I tapped her on the shoulder, and she winced, as if I had punched her.

Louisa looked up, phone in hand. Her knuckles were raw and red.

“Oh, hello,” she said. “How are you?”

“Fine,” I said. “Haven’t seen you around in a while. What happened?” I nodded to her knuckles. She smiled the sarcastic smile that she had all of last semester when I had a question she could answer glibly.

“Would you believe me if I said it’s from Fight Club?” she asked.

“No,” I said, not smiling. “What really happened?”

“I got in a fight,” she replied, shrugging. “Battle wounds, you know.”

“He’s still beating you, isn’t he?” I started. I didn’t want the conversation to go this route so soon after our reunion, but I saw no choice. My sister had been in an abusive relationship, and I didn’t want to see any other woman just shrug and sarcastically smile it away.

“I dumped him ages ago,” Louisa laughed. “He hit me for the last time. Even told the police. They didn’t do much, of course, but his parents pulled him out of school and put him in rehab. I don’t intend to find out if it worked or not.”

My eyes squinted against the veil of her smile, trying to see through the split-lip gossamer to see if she was telling the truth.

“Fight club, huh?” I asked, deciding to play along with the joke. “Isn’t the first rule of Fight Club not to talk about Fight Club?”

“Not ours,” she said. “If we didn’t talk about it, we wouldn’t have a club.”

Thanks to Chuck Palahniuk for the inspiration.

Excerpt: “Day 290” (from “Honeymoon”)

Although they had both passed under the signs pointing “To Ground Transportation” before, they had never been received by so many cameras. Neither had they received a police escort through Terminal 3 of O’Hare Airport. To two people who had just survived 278 days on an island bereft of healthy human life, there was only one word to describe it.

Lonely.

“We can do this,” Thom’s hand reassured as it squeezed hers.

“I don’t know,” Anna’s hand squeezed back.

“You killed that many zombies, and you’re scared of a few reporters?” his hip laughed as it bumped into hers.

“Hardly the same threat,” her eyes flashed in a side-glance.

The bottom step of the escalator came quicker than either of them wanted, and they were immediately surrounded. The two officers who stood in front of them were pushing the cameras back as the two behind them moved to their sides and shepherded them past the crowd as more flashes and questions blinded them.

“Did you know each other before?”

“How many did you kill?”

“Who are you going to visit first now that you’re home?”

“What did you eat on the island?”

“Will you ever go on an island vacation again?”

“What’s it like being home?”

“How many did you kill?”

“What thought kept you fighting?”

“How many did you kill?”

“How many did you kill?”

They had been instructed not to answer any questions and to keep their faces down. No looking at each other because it would connote a relationship that would land on People Magazine’s cover. No displays of affection, not even a look at each other, because it would become US Weekly’s money shot. But hold hands because it shows solidarity and fortitude. A handholding picture would be on Time or Vanity Fair with a tasteful cutline.

So they had exited the plane, walked through the terminal, descended the escalator and now were standing next to a coffee kiosk besieged by photographers climbing on the counters to get a better angle — all while hand-in-hand with their heads bowed.

The crowd pressed against the four soldiers and five airport personnel who had come to the rescue. Overhead, announcements and security reminders barely cut through the camera clicks and questions being hurled.

“Has this affected your stance on vaccination rights?”

“How many did you kill?”

Anna and Thom surveyed the crowd, looking for the thinnest layer. Just like old times — meaning just 12 days before — Anna squeezed Thom’s hand when she saw a spot in the surrounding melee that was only two bodies deep. He squeezed back to signal he had seen it, too, then again to say he was ready. She squeezed back one more time before Thom raised his other arm over his face, leaning in to cut through the middle of four reporters and cameramen huddled together.

Outside was a black SUV usually reserved for high-ranking politicians and visiting celebrities. The driver, a Secret Service veteran, was supposed to take Anna and Thom straight to her old condo, where another team of agents would stave off the press.

Instead, they ran past it and into the taxi column, where they jumped into the nearest white-and-teal cab.

“119 West Randolph Street,” barked Thom, sliding a stack of bills onto the driver’s armrest before ducking down to join Anna, who had already crouched onto the floor.

“That was remarkably easy,” she said. “Almost too easy.”

“You’re confusing ‘easy’ with ‘bloodless,’” Thom said.

She kissed him with smiling lips as the cab pulled into crawling traffic. Only when they felt the car get up to speed on the expressway did they sit back into the seats. Anna played with the diamond on her left hand, letting the light catch it and flash at her like the cameras had in the airport terminal. Somewhere in the haze of normal life, she had dreamed of being so important that reporters and cameras met her at the airport when she returned from some major economic summit or peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, she was one of two surviving warriors returning home from a nine-month zombie uprising that no one even knew about until three weeks before.

Meanwhile, Thom watched the light glint off the diamond and thought about the day he had gotten it for her. The cut on his hand had scabbed over, but it still itched. It was all worth it, he thought as his eyes traveled from the ring to Anna’s downturned face.

Forty minutes later, the cab slowed.

“119 West Randolph,” the driver said. Thom worried about how quiet he had been during the drive, but didn’t dwell on it — they had gotten where they wanted to go, and no police, news crews or military seemed to be waiting for them at their destination.

He handed over another $20 before joining Anna on the sidewalk. They looked through the handful of usual protesters to the marble interior shielded by bulletproof glass walls. Anna took his hand again and gave it another squeeze. He returned it. They walked in together.

“Hi,” Anna said to the clerk at the front desk. “Can you point us toward the marriage and civil union court?”

This is the first chapter of a larger project, Honeymoon, that I started over National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2015.