#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.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 25: Travis Boccoli

Travis Boccoli — “spelled like Broccoli, but without the R and nutritional value” he taglined himself online — had finally bit the coffee bean and traveled up to Centropolis to visit his sister and her bougie husband. They had gotten married while he was down in Guatemala working on a coffee plantation, but the invitation never reached him. Something about living in a dirt-floor hut made you out of reach, even from ivory linen stationery embossed with real gold leaf. The night his whole family was dining on caviar and filet mignon in celebration of her matrimony, he ate the same corn tortillas and black beans as usual, feeling superior to the entire lot of them.

But once he had gotten back states-side, his family descended on him. His mother complained that he had lost too much weight; his father asked when he was going to get a real job. And his sister? 

“Travis, darling, I wish you had been there!” Cleo Meachum nee Boccoli had said over the phone. “We had a small chamber ensemble of the Centropolis Symphony Orchestra play a Radiohead song so it would feel a bit more like you were there.”

He smirked at the thought of something like “Creep” or “Something I Can Never Have” accompanying her nuptials, though he couldn’t trust Cleo to know what the lyrics were to those songs. She had always been a Top Forty flake. 

But when Cleo invited him to spend a couple weeks in her old apartment while the lease ran out, he decided it would be better than living at his parent’s house on the East Coast and packed up a couple flannel shirts, some jeans and his laptop. His blog, Brews with Boccoli, had just landed an ad deal from a couple micro-roasters, provided he keep his traffic up, and a trip to Centropolis would give him an in with the urban set. 

So the day Cleo had announced she was having a dinner party to introduce him to a few of her and Jack Meachum’s friends, he disappeared into what looked like a local coffee roaster to taste and review some of their offerings. He knew he was in for a critic’s feast when the first thing he heard was the whining voice of some folk singer with a name pronounced five different ways, and the second thing was “Cherry almond mocha blended latte with coconut milk for Alex.” 

These weren’t coffee people. These were donut-in-a-cup people. Just wait until he wrote up his treatise on the weakening of the American tastebud and used this overpriced joint as a framework. He walked up to the window and was immediately asked if he’d be interested in a taster of the barista’s newest concoction, a latte with almond milk, honey and cayenne pepper. 

He smiled at the cashier — friendly in her eyes, but devious in truth — and said “Sure, plus a small dark roast, small medium roast, and an espresso shot.” 

“Coffee blogger, huh?” she asked, unfazed. “We get one of you every weekend. I’ll just give you our flight so you don’t have to pretend to drink a full small size of each.” 

Travis’ smile turned genuine. The girl was cute. A treble clef tattoo curled behind her ear, and when she handed him his change he saw — no, was it really? — a Scrappy-Doo tattoo on her wrist.  

“Enjoy,” she said sarcastically. “I’ll bring it to you when it’s up.” 

Travis took a seat at one of the cramped tables, as far away as possible from a group of loud women comparing drinking stories from the night before. One one side of him was a woman watching something on her tablet while picking purple nail polish off her nails and letting the scraps fall to the floor like violet-colored dandruff. On the other side was a tall man who had propped his feet up on the chair across from him as he pretended to read his book. Travis knew the scheme well, having perfected it while eavesdropping on his parents’ arguments when he was a kid. 

He saw the cashier coming toward him with the flight of coffee on a tray, and he had less than a minute to decide whether to ask her to dinner that night. His sister wouldn’t mind one more — after all, she wasn’t doing the cooking or cleanup.  

Vignette: A literary name

“Margo Hendrix isn’t my real name,” she says, like it’s a big secret.

No, shit.

“It’s just that Anna Schamvich isn’t a very literary name.”

Now she’s got me — I have to do everything in my power not to snort into my coffee. Her name sounds like a mispronunciation of “ham sandwich,” which is absolutely hilarious.

Clearly Margo-nee-Anna doesn’t find it as terribly funny as I do, but when she actually orders a ham sandwich from the bored waiter who just materialized at our table, I can’t contain it anymore. Coffee burns its way through my nasal passages and out my nose

This clip was found in my writing notebook from 2011. A little throwback never killed anyone.

Short story: “David”

My stomach hit the sidewalk seconds before my coffee did. I had built up in my head that he was in a European prison where I’d never see him again — not standing outside the Starbucks next to where I worked and hardly thought of him at all except once or twice an hour when I’d create in my head my very reaction to seeing him again after all this time.

“Kid! Hey, kid!” I’d call out.

And then I’d walk away and wait for him to chase me. Which of course he would — this was my fantasy, and he did what I wanted.

But as I stared at him in the flesh, I dropped my coffee and felt it scald my skin through my tights. Suddenly an inside joke from our past didn’t seem as appropriate as a solid “Fuck you,” but my mouth couldn’t form the words. All it could do was slam shut as I hoped he hadn’t seen me and my brown-splattered nylons. The same ones he thought I had worn over on a 20-degree March night with the purpose of seducing him (I had), despite how I insisted that I had actually come from happy hour (I hadn’t, unless drinking two glasses of whiskey alone on my couch counted).

“Well hello,” he said with a smile — the kind that had convinced me six months before to get out of the cab one stop early and have a one night stand that lasted two months.

“Hi,” was the only syllable my mouth could form during its battle against my brain, which was still figuring out what it wanted to say as it also debated whether to pick up the fallen coffee cup, hook it with my toe so it wouldn’t blow away or ignore it all together.

“Surprised to see me?”

Of course the fucker was going to make it about him. He always did — asking me if he was my best friend, playing his favorite clips from some show I couldn’t stand, dropping names I didn’t recognize as if the people in his life were celebrities, not just the kind who invited their defense attorneys to family barbecues.

I used to use his comments about his pending departure as a thermometer when I wanted to know how he felt about our relationship: When it was good, he might not have to leave after all. When he was bored or annoyed, moving day suddenly moved up. And when he finally did leave, he made sure not to tell me until a single message lit up my phone after a week of radio silence: “Ah! Last week in Chicago. You were a highlight of my year.” Then, nothing.

He had been the first boy to make me cry. Not even my first yearlong relationship’s disintegration had done that. It had taken me months to stop thinking that six blocks west, two blocks north of my apartment was his neighborhood.

And now he stood on my sidewalk near my office asking me whether I was surprised to see him. For the next year I’d have to turn this corner every day and remember he had been there — one of the few places he hadn’t defiled during the two months of mindfuckery — and it was like he had returned from across the Atlantic just because he had missed a spot.

Shock decayed into chagrin.

“‘Surprised’ isn’t the term I’d use,” I said, hoping the rest of my mind would get on the same anger page. Unfortunately, part of my brain was remembering the feeling of his lips brushing just under my jaw bone while the other part heard his soft, warm laughter in my ear.

“You look great,” he said, surveying the body that had gotten sleeker, stronger and tougher from exercise that had done everything but sweat him out of my system.

“Thanks,” I said, wishing I was the kind of person who could nonchalantly add “I know.”

“So I’m in town for a while staying at my old place,” he said. “Are you still in the area?”

The fact I had never told him where I lived remained one of the few victories I had over him. Then again, he had worked for the county: A simple search, if he had been so inclined, would have given him my address, tax code and social security number.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Well, you know where I live,” he said, and before I knew what was happening, he had kissed my cheek and walked down my street toward my bridge that I crossed every morning. Except now it was the street he walked down after kissing me on the cheek, and the bridge he crossed on his way to his neighborhood.

I didn’t tell any of my friends I had seen him. I just experienced the deja vu of receiving a parboiled invitation that ended with “or something,” which meant adding “Shave legs, change underwear, drink two glasses of whiskey” to the list of things I had to do before leaving my house at 7:53 so I could arrive at 8:05 on the dot, be pulled by my scarf into the house and pressed up against the wall as his hands pushed tugged teasingly at my collar.

The Corvette button he gave me and that I still wore (“I don’t care who gave it to me, I just really like it,” I would spit at friends’ raised eyebrows) made a clatter on the floor when my coat landed at my feet. For the third time, I abandoned my gray boots five feet apart in the hallway as I walked in like it was my apartment, not his. And I lost yet another pair of tights to his fingers as they grappled to pull them down while pushing me back onto the dining table where I once left a pair of earrings so he’d feel obligated to invite me back.

The apartment still smelled of cinnamon tea and vanilla wax. His breath still tasted of red wine and lies. And there was still a watermark on the ceiling that looked like the Virgin Mary from some angles and a mushroom cloud from others. That image of mass murder and destruction was the last thing I saw before closing my eyes in a mix of anger and ecstasy, if there was even a difference between the two. They both made me scream and arch my back.

He buttoned his jeans and padded into the kitchen to pour cabernet savignon into two white wine glasses. I got off the table and straightened my skirt, leaving the punctured tights in a ball on the chair. His desk looked the same as always with the laptop open to film editing software and an external hard-drive blinking lazily next to it.

“Let me show you what I’m working on,” he said, handing me a glass and sitting down on the cheap task chair.

I hated that chair. One night he had pulled me over while we watched a clip of a show he had played for me at least five times before, and my quads burned from holding most of my weight off his leg. I feared our equally strong personalities were two heavy for the chair’s flimsy plastic spindle.

Tonight I stood behind him, my chin pinning my hand to the top of his head where it memorized the texture of his curls. I remembered how the sun turned his tarnished gold hair silver. There must be a lot more sun in London than I thought.

And there it was, that same clip he had shown me before. When I had finally seen the show it was from months after his departure, I had skipped the rest of the episode.

“I have this insane idea,” he said when it ended, spinning around in the chair and wrapping his hands around my waist. “Stay over,” he whispered to my belly button.

He had said the same thing before. I had said I had meetings the next day. Tonight I just sipped my wine to buy time to decide on a response. The glass hid my smirk, but I hoped that just this once the cabernet wouldn’t dye my lips purple.

Still unsure of how I wanted to answer, I twisted out of his grasp and went to the window to make sure the 160-year-old city cathedral hadn’t changed in the months since I had seen it from this 10-story perspective. Nope, still there. Still majestic and still a reminder of where I stood, vibrating from the inside out and cursing how easily I bruised as I succumbed to the phantom of his hands clinging to the back of my thighs. I drained my glass as I watched his reflection close in on mine. It took a quick diversion toward the door to the balcony that I never remembered how to pull or push.

The cathedral lights illuminated his face as he smoked outside. I sat on the deck chair with my legs pulled up to my chest. the cool breeze bringing drops of rain and floods of memories. The night he had said he’d like to see if we could make this work. The night he said he might not leave. The night we had watched the sunrise while my thin socks kept catching on the rough concrete deck and his hand slid down the inside back of my jeans.

Now we sat in the two chairs, the air snapping as if to ask “What now?” Or maybe that was just the sound of his lighter as he lit a cigarette and listened to a group of women cackling with delight on the street below.

“Who has a bachelorette party on a Wednesday?” he asked, and I realized it is Wednesday — our usual day when we would bite each other’s lips and whisper things that would echo in my ears and make me blush on Thursday and even into Friday. They just made it harder to wait for some kind of text message from him that wouldn’t come until maybe Monday. Asshole.

We were just like this on his balcony when he said I talked too much and laughed too loud. I had been staring at the cathedral when he asked me to give him credit for taking me home with him instead of my more attractive friend because he thought I was more interesting. I stood up and leaned against the iron railing to get a better look at the church and heard him say, six months previous, “You’re so confusing. It’s like you’re as cool as a guy, but in this great female body.”

Suddenly I wanted to take the cigarette out of his mouth and shove the lit end into the bridge of his nose. Instead he flicked it into the planter-turned-mass-grave. As he stood, I hoped he would kiss me in time for me to still taste it on his tongue.

“I’m glad you came,” he said, wrapping his arms around me. I squeezed the air out of his down coat and wondered if we were going to watch one more sunrise together.

The sweet smoke smell fills my nose, cutting through the burnt black coffee smell rising from my hands. The man turns on the street corner, raising the cigarette to his lips as he waits for the light to change so he can survive crossing the street only to die of lung cancer when he’s 50. His hazel eyes catch the sun.

The stranger walked one way and I went the other, sipping my coffee and adjusting the Corvette pin on my jacket. Of all the things I remember about him, I still can’t recall the color of his eyes.

Short Story: “Smartass at a Coffee Shop”

She’s sitting in the next booth, reading a Jackie Collins book and just generally pissing me off.

Maybe it’s the fluorescent pink hardback she’s holding open so wide that my spine feels like it’s being cracked, too. Maybe it’s the perfect manicure that’s gripping the shiny dust jacket, or the way her Prada eyewear frames her eyes, which flit across the pages in a way that suggests she’s only interested in two or three words of each paragraph.

Or maybe its because my life is nowhere near as perfect as hers, as I can’t just sit and read while Drummer For A Fiona Apple Cover Band Serena serves me endless $5 lattes and High Schooler Just Doing This Because It Looks Good on College Applications Ethan wipes down my table every couple of minutes to get a glance at the surgically perfect cleavage peeping out of my shirt.

Instead I’m here, peering over my laptop screen while Barista Who Foolishly Bought the Bankrupt Co-Owner’s Shares Walter gives me the fisheye for ordering a single small green tea. I learned long ago to take advantage of free hot water refills so I can continue to steep my brought-from-home tea bags. My chewed nails still have last week’s self-applied polish clinging on for dear life, and the last book I read was the owner’s manual to my new, but already outdated, Macbook.

There are only a few words typed out on the glaring white Word page: my name and the date, written like it would appear on a pretentious wedding invitation. “January the Fourteenth, Two-Thousand and Six” takes up more room than “Jan. 14, 2006.”

Now she’s paying her bill with a platinum credit card that catches the light as she holds it out to Serena. She’s probably charging fifty bucks of coffee and milk to her company’s account just because she can and wants the rest of the world to know it. As she clacks out of the restaurant in thousand-dollar shoes, I can only imagine she works for some high-profile PR agency or couture fashion house, which makes me hate her even more.

My editor calls me two minutes after the Jackie Collins reader walks out. He’s pissed because my second chapter is too short, or my first chapter is too long, and I’m not following the plot structure I’m contracted to observe in everything I write for Rose Throne Publishing, Ltd., a decades-old peddler of ripped bodices and oiled pecs. My editor likes balance, and I suppose I can’t blame him. After all, it’s because of him my books get published — and straight to paperbacks sold for pocket change to vacationers and rebellious teenage weirdos about to hide the lurid lasciviousness among ignored copies of Catcher in the Rye.

He also points out, and rightfully so, that I’m almost a week late with the third chapter. The problematic truth is that I didn’t plan on a Chapter Three because I was hoping to move on from this shit job by the time Chapters One and Two ended up on his desk. I was just lucky that a good enough plot presented itself to me for Chapter Two after I found that life would continue like usual after finishing Chapter One.

That’s why I don’t care or blame him for not liking the route the story is taking. This story wasn’t even meant to leave the parking lot.

Another patron walks into the café and orders a macchiato. He’s tall, dark and handsome, and the nightclub stamp fading on the back of his hand on this chilly Wednesday morning tells me all I care to know about his social habits.

He winks at me, and I return the favor by staring back at the glare of an empty Word document.

I’m down to the last tea bag in the box I brought from home, so I ask for a to-go cup as I pack up my laptop and notebooks. I’m too busy shooting a saccharine smile at Walter as he hands me the cardboard cup to notice that my phone’s still on the table.

The Nightclubber doesn’t even try to hide the full-body scan he’s performing with his eyes when he asks me how my day is going. I don’t give him the satisfaction of answering before breaking out into the freezing wind tunnel of Jackson Boulevard.

The beautiful thing about Chicago is that it’s freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer. There’s no in-between. The most accurate bumper sticker I’ve ever seen says “Chicago’s Four Seasons: Almost Winter, Winter, Still Winter, Construction.”

And I love it.

In the middle of January, it’s impossible to catch a cab. Overhead, the El rushes past. Tourists cover their ears from the sound. It’s really not that bad. Lake Michigan’s up ahead, where the wind makes everything colder. It’s a God-send in July, but a Devil’s advocate in January.

Jackie Collins Reader is visible a block ahead, walking in her fabulous shoes toward Michigan Avenue.

My editor probably tries to call me again, but I can’t answer because I don’t have a phone. I guess he’ll just have to wait, or talk to Busboy With A PhD in South American History Ricardo, whose Spanish, Italian and Portuguese are perfect, but whose English is limited to phrases like “More coffee?” and “Have a nice day.”

Or maybe the Nightclubber has got my phone and is adding every saved female contact with a 312 area code to his list of viable dates. The joke’s on him: Half the women in there are married or over 40, as they’re all my relatives or people at the publishing company.

As I cross the street against the light, I’m not thinking about this because I’m trying not to get killed by oncoming cars. When they honk at me, I trick myself into thinking it’s because I look stellar in my $20 jeans and Nordstrom Rack parka. The slip-on loafers can’t hurt, either.

When I head up to my apartment three stories above a 7-Eleven with a perpetually broken slurpee machine, the red light on my answering machine is blinking. It’s Walter, the angry barista who was pissed about me taking up space and paying the bare minimum for heated tap water and a single bag of dead leaves.

“Hello, this is Walter from Kayama. I’m just calling to let you know that we found your cellphone at the table you occupied this afternoon. Please come by to pick it up by the end of the day. We close at half-past four.”

“Or what?” I talk back to the recording. The clock reads 4:23.

When I walk into Kayama the next morning, Walter is wearing the same annoyed puckers look he probably had when leaving the message, and I wonder if he went home to his two pugs with that expression on his face. I know I could make it up to him by ordering a $7 double-grande frappucino and $10 ham-and-gruyere tart the size and consistency of a Little Debbie cupcake, but I don’t have that kind of money. Just my phone and a small tea to go, please.

The bell above the door jingles while Walter is begrudgingly filling a cup with hot water. Click-clacking announces the arrival of Jackie Collins’ biggest fan. Today she’s reading Chelsea Handler, as she’s done skimming her read from yesterday.

She orders a $6 cup of Joe this time, and I walk out with my tea clasped in one hand and my phone in the other. Check Kayama off of my hangouts list. I don’t like cafes seeped in animosity and echoing with the heel-clacking of shoes worth more than my rent payment.

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 10.52.34 PM

Taken this weekend at Third Coast, an excellent Chicago brunch place that isn’t half-owned by an annoying barista named Walter. If you go, try the stuffed French toast.

Nonfiction: “Terminal L”

Let me tell you about Terminal L.

Because if you’ve never flown to a college town from Chicago, you’ve probably never had the pleasure to observe this part of O’Hare International Airport.

It’s like a campus in itself. There’s a McDonald’s, vegan snack station, Bank of America ATM and bubble tea stand, though you wouldn’t notice them behind the everlasting line for the crown jewel: Starbucks. The frappucino ingredients are the first to run out as students load up on caffeine and sugar — mostly sugar — before returning to institutions of higher learning, where the brain damage incurred by childhoods fueled by corn syrup, aspartame and Red Color No. 3 is no match for tuition bills and student loans.

Passengers walk around in hoodies and athletic shorts, regardless of the weather outside. Mismatched socks and Adidas slider sandals are the footwear of choice for about 49.8 percent of men here, and 38 percent of the female population carries sequined Victoria Secret tote bags that wear down the hip of their leggings. The other 62 percent lug around quilted Vera Bradley in colors God never imagined would be coupled together in one paisley pattern.

And then there are the hats. Pork pies, fedoras, newsboy caps, trucker hats, snapbacks, beanies, earflap-and-pompom hats and even a top hat crown the moving crowd, as if status is directly correlated to the obscurity of each style. Top Hat is probably working on his second PhD.

But the most utilitarian — and conspicuous — choice of headwear is a full microphone headset worn by a 20-something man balancing a laptop, mouse and external hard drive on his lap at Gate L6A, where the gate attendants have just announced a flight will be boarding. As precise as a sniper packing up his weapon, he stores the entire setup in the suitcase at his feet, nesting it around a box labeled “Game Capture HD 60” and a roll of red raffle tickets.

Replacing him is a 25-year-old woman daring to return to the place that prepared her for nine-hour days and two weeks of annual paid time off. She’s just changing chairs, though: The flickering fluorescent bulb above her original seat cast dizzying light on the pages of the Margaret Atwood novel nestled in her lap. But even in this more stable lighting, it’s hard to concentrate.

As she looks around at the people just three or four years younger than her, she wonders how a relatively short period of time has made her feel so much older than these broke dreamers about to board the same tin can hurtling toward mid-Missouri. Maybe it’s because she’s still in her office clothes — tights, boots, Calvin Klein dress, flaking mascara and her own cap of exhausted hairspray. Maybe it’s because she’s leaving for what she calls “vacation” and they call “midterm exams.” Or maybe it’s that she’s sipping straight black coffee instead of a smoked butterscotch frappucino with extra whipped cream and a cookie straw.

They call my flight. I dump the rest of my coffee in a nearby water fountain and line up at the gate, adjusting my tights on the way.