#NaNoWriMo 2019: What to do when you don’t have a plan

In my latest weekly post, I teased a character I had been working on for a while and was thinking of using for whatever I end up writing during National Novel Writing Month. When I posted it on Twitter, a friend from college responded, saying he was inspired to try his first NaNoWriMo but wasn’t sure what to know going in.

I responded with a couple 280-character tips: Have a network, set up a daily word count goal, tune out the editor in your head, etc. Anything you’d find on a typical writer’s blog.

But then I started thinking: What if you don’t have any plan whatsoever? How do you do NaNoWriMo when you have no concept of what the story is, who the characters are, and what critical human theme you want to explore?

I started thinking this mostly because, Hello! That’s me this year! And, as a sign from Master Bong Joon Ho himself, I saw Parasite on Sunday (excellent film, go see it), and there’s this monologue that’s gripped me since I walked out of the theater:

You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned…You can’t go wrong with no plans. We don’t need to make a plan for anything. It doesn’t matter what will happen next.

So in that spirit, here’s what I came up with if you’re facing Nov. 1 without any idea what to write but the egotism? courage? stupidity? to want to get to 50,000 words by the end of the month anyway:

1. Build the story around stuff that’s happening in your actual life. Have a croissant and coffee for breakfast? Your main character did to. What were you daydreaming about while waiting for the barista to hand you said croissant and coffee? Imagine that happened — a homeless man went sprinting through the Starbucks and dropped a weird metal piece on the floor, not turning around to pick it up because there’s three alien-looking dudes chasing him, leaving puddles of slime behind them. But then one of them turns and looks at you, and signals that he wants your croissant, and you (rather, your main character) is now part of the story. OK, now what happened? You’re easily at 2,500 words after describing the scene. Only 47,500 more to go!

2. Pick a two-word name for your main character. Every time it gets mentioned, you’ll be two words instead of one closer to that 50,000 word count goal.

3. Be super descriptive of everything. What music is playing? What does the coffeeshop smell like? Is the croissant crusty, or does it give a little in its paper baggy? What does the barista look like? Multiple hair colors are a plus because they take up more words.

(Spot the trend yet?)

4. Spell out the chapter titles. That’s two words each time you break. Might as well make chapters pretty short, then.

5. Everyone your character talks to on the street has a dog. Describe it in full. More words!

6. I’ve started putting allusions to pop culture into my work when they make sense. Do the same thing. Find a great song to write to when describing what happens when your character finds out that the metal part they absconded with from the coffee shop while the alien was munching on the croissant is actually the key to a spaceship that landed in the dog park across the street. Then have it playing on the character’s earbuds or something, and toss in some of the lyrics to boost your word count.

7. Stuck on a battle scene? Write “They fight” and follow it with little bullet points of things that might happen. Then highlight it bright yellow so you can find it later when you have a better idea (or just need to bite the bullet and write it). My first NaNoWriMo project literally had “Zombies attack” written in the middle of the second chapter because I wanted to get on with the story instead of focus on action scenes, which I hate writing.

8. Which brings me to my last piece of advice: Write something you LOVE! OK, so maybe you’re gluten free and can’t eat croissants for breakfast, and the thought of having to write about an alien species for a whole book makes you cringe. Find something else to explore and enjoy. That’s what NaNoWriMo is all about: playing and having fun with words. We just do it really fast, and really intensely. It’s like a month-long sprint, and we all end up stronger for it in the end.

Inglourious Basterds: A decade of revisionist catharsis

File this under “writespiration” — ten years of it, as it turns out. I was shocked to find out that it’s been a decade since Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds was released on an unsuspecting world.

I won’t take too much time talking about how the revisionist historical look at Adolf Hitler’s demise has gained new gravity since its release in 2009. Back then it was surprising and satisfying, watching Nazis die horrible deaths and Hitler peppered with bullets until his face looks like a cheap Halloween mask. Today it’s purely cathartic, as the very thing Aldo Raine, the basterds, Bridget von Hammersmark and Shosanna Dreyfus blew up in that Parisian theater has returned with internet memes, tiki torches and the presidential seal.

Instead, I want to focus on how Tarantino’s first installment of his revisionist trilogy (the other two being Django Unchained and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) inspired me to start writing speculative fiction. Revisionism and speculation are polar opposites, I get that, but they share the same starting point: Alternate reality.

Inglorious Basterds asks “What could have been?” I like to ask “What could be?”

The latter, of course, is the basis for science fiction, and I suppose I write a lot of that. But with my current project — of which the first draft is done (woot) and awaiting two months’ worth of extensive edits (oof) — I prefer to focus on what our reality would be if tech-enabled vigilantes existed and were widely accepted. Where Tarantino’s film asked what would have happened if a band of rogue American Jews were enabled to massacre the entire Nazi party in one night, I ask what would happen if the Good Samaritan line cooks and taxi drivers of the world suddenly became superheroes…and super-villains.

My hope is that my project says as much as Tarantino did in his film. But because of that movie from 10 years before, I know the kind of emotion I want to draw from my readers: Not catharsis at watching one of the most evil men to ever live get blasted apart like a piñata stuffed with C4, but the same curiosity hinging on the question “What if?”

Music of the write: “Roddy” by Djo

I love a song with a good mood swing.

“Roddy” by Djo is just that — a chill summer jam meant to play low behind a patio party or blast through ear buds during a hot morning commute. It’s got a twinge of 1960s harmonies and 1970s dance to it, just like a lot of indie alterna-synth-pop (think Saint Motel, Robert DeLong, Peking Duk).

And then the beat drops, and it’s like the room’s gone cold, everything has slowed down, and any movement you make is, as many of my yoga teachers have described in restorative flows, “juicy.”

So maybe the song doesn’t have a mood swing as much as a temperature change. It’s because of that shift that it’s on my writing playlist. Sometimes I get writing so fast that the word selection is shallow. The drop in “Roddy” reminds me to slow down, maybe break the action to give the reader time to breathe, and really dive deep for the right phrasing.

Now to give a plot twist via some context…

Anyone who watches Stranger Things probably has an infatuation with Steve “the Hair” Herrington, the jock-turned-big-brother-figure who represents one of the strongest character arcs in recent television memory. He is the Don Draper of demigorgon hunting, the Walter White of the Upside Down.

He’s also the artist known as Djo.

It’s fitting that an actor who has so expertly carried a role as complex as Steve’s would also produce a dynamic groove. I look forward to seeing what else he released.

Time for a refresh: Blogging becomes routine

Most nine-to-fivers’ weeks revolve around Friday afternoon — that unavoidable feeling of temporary freedom from work when there’s a couch and a movie or friends and a drink waiting after 5 p.m. and two blissful days of no meetings, no deadlines, no mass-batch coffee that gets steadily more bitter throughout the week.

But for me, there’s something else that happens: Kellye Whitney blogs.

I met Kellye when she hired me in February 2014 for my first journalism job. It was one of the coldest Chicago weeks on record — nothing close to this year’s negative-40s, but at that time we didn’t see climate change plunging us into an Ice Age that quickly, so negative-teens was a catastrophe. For a year and a half, she put up with my New Grad Smell and how I, in her words, would “dance in her doorway” with a story idea or just another music recommendation she’d pass up because the artist didn’t sell physical CDs she could play in her car. I became a stronger writer under her editor-ship, and I became a more open-minded, critically thinking white woman under her mentorship. “Woke,” the young libs say these days, but more inclined to do something about it instead of just tweet about it.

We’ve remained friends after she lovingly nudged me out of the niche-magazine nest toward my next adventure and left our old company for her own odyssey as an independent consultant and content developer (hire her!). Except this time, she invites me to dance in her text messages on select Fridays with the same question: “What should I blog about this week?”

The text comes like clockwork in the morning, and most weeks I’m prepared with a list of things I’ve seen on Twitter that either made my blood boil or heart soften. My suggestions don’t always hit the mark, but when they do, Kellye never fails to acknowledge the source. Last week’s topic: Nike’s Betsey Ross shoe. This week’s topic — TBD. If asked, I think I’ll recommend some of the coverage of the U.S. Women’s National Team, as “A Life Not Grey” looks at diversity and media. Or maybe I’ll get her to ruminate on how if country cross-over “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, a gay Black man, spends three more weeks at No. 1., it will become the longest-running No. 1 in history.*

*On second thought, she won’t pick this one, as I don’t think there’s a CD version of OTR available yet…

But coupled with the satisfaction that I can still pitch a good story comes the guilt of knowing I haven’t blogged on my own site for more than a month. Then add in how WordPress just sent me confirmation that my domain name has been renewed for another year to the tune of $18, and I guess I should put at least $18 of effort into “Convincing the Muse” again.

So yesterday I texted Kellye that I was going to take a queue from her and make Fridays my “pub day” for blog posts. Her response was what she’s told me for years as we’ve continued our separate second-lives as fiction writers: “Schedule and routine are wonderful writing tools.”

So even though today is Monday, I’m kicking my newfound routine now and committing myself to at least a post a week. Fair warning: There are going to be some anemic ones in there, as well as some egregious typos, half-baked stories, shallow characters and blatant self-promotion.

So nothing too different from what already gets posted here. Just on a weekly, regimented basis.

So thanks, Kellye, for continuing to be the editor I need — a total boss, in more ways than one.

 

Writespiration: “The Unthinkable Has Happened” 

Tonight I was working on the Nobody’s Hero synopsis when I took a break — OK, several breaks — to check my Twitter feed for the writing community’s response to my question of “How do I write a synopsis without tearing all my hair out?”

Instead, I found this piece on Vulture.com:

https://www.vulture.com/2019/04/jayson-greene-memoir-once-more-we-saw-stars-book-excerpt.html

It’s an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Jayson Greene called Once More We Saws Stars, and it’s heartbreaking. The story on its own — how the author and his wife lost their young daughter to a falling brick from an apartment building window sill — is tragic, but the way Greene writes it…well, I haven’t been so moved by writing in God knows how long.

“‘She’s going to be okay, ‘ he tells me, and I hear a touch of a plea behind the reassurance in his voice. I don’t know very much yet. But I had seen the haunted looks on the EMTs’ faces when I entered, and I had already behld the terrible sight of Greta’s body, lifeless and birdlike, lying limp on a massive table.

“‘No, John,’ I say grimly. ‘No, I think she won’t.'” 

Emotional context aside, that sentence structure is jarring. It’s clearly the author’s voice, and it’s so purely caught in the moment — distracted and absorbed all at once by the events going on around him. 

It feels wrong to say that Greene’s excerpt “inspired” me, as it’s a real and terrible moment in his life. But the vulnerability he shows is something every writer should display in cases like these, as it pulls the audience in and makes them feel just as susceptible to the tragedy of the story.

Note: I wrote this in April, but my internet connection was faulty and the post was never published. Tonight I found it in my drafts folder.

Writespiration: “bury a friend” by Billie Eilish

My friend Hannah describes Billie Eilish as “if Tumblr was a person.” She’s artistically angsty with a dramatic edge that can almost induce an eye-roll if you’re not paying enough attention.

The first song I heard from her, her new album’s first single, “bury a friend,” was exactly that. God, she’s like the girl from The Ring meets Wednesday Addams meets a record deal. But then I payed better attention. The song is clearly about mental struggles — burying a friend isn’t literal, as it is in My Chemical Romance’s “Kill All Your Friends” (in that one, the singer laments that “We all wanna party when a funeral ends; and we all get together when we bury our friends; it’s been eight bitter years since I’ve been seeing your face,” hence the reason for the murder spree). For Eilish, it’s dealing with the emotional demons that haunt us. 

So perfect for half the character I write, as the greatest enemies they face are themselves.  

Writespiration: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama

Trust me, when I cracked open Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, the last thing I expected to get out of it was writing inspiration. An increased respect for one of my heroes, inside look into the Obama administration, and painful nostalgia at how far we’ve fallen since her time in the White House, sure. But who on earth would turn to the memoir of a former First Lady and forever champion of children, equal rights, health and fitness for a pep talk on writing?

But there it was, page 43. 

“Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result.”

Obama was writing about her elementary school in Chicago’s Southside. In seventh grade, the Chicago Defender ran an opinion piece that claimed Bryn Mawr was a “run-down slum” led with a “ghetto mentality.” Despite protests from the teachers, principal and community saying otherwise, that article contributed to a growing fear that her once diverse neighborhood was finally succumbing to the blight that struck communities affected by White Flight in the 1970s. 

The theme continues throughout the book, and she brings it up a couple other times when describing college and her husband’s 2008 campaign. But when I read that line, I immediately applied it to my writing.

Nobody’s Hero is a wreck right now. I’ve been her before with other projects, most of which are now collecting proverbial dust on a literal hard drive, not even close to being continued, let alone finished. They vary in style and genre, but they all have one thing in common: they were chucked aside as soon as I started feeling like I was failing them.

Reading Obama’s story — the major shifts in her career from lawyer to community advocate, the highs and lows of her husband’s presidency, the love she has for her country — you know she wouldn’t be in a place to tell us her story if she had surrendered to that feeling of failure instead of pushing through.  

All writers have those projects that they stuff away because they become too challenging, too messy. It’s not easy to declare something a failure and move on to the next project, but it can be a lot easier than continuing to work on a book or script or poem that’s complicated to untangle. I wonder how many pieces with great potential we’ve left languishing in forgotten drawers and cyber folders because we never got past the feeling that they were lost causes. 

Another surprise from the book: I have never before read a memoir that I couldn’t put down. I think I literally consumed the whole thing in four sittings (thanks, cross-country flights!) thanks to its candid and conversational writing style. It’s an absolute must-read for anyone contemplating writing a memoir — or writing in general, come to that.