Writespiration: The Top 5 Tracks of NaNoWriMo 2020

This year for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) I’ve been working on my book about a woman who joins a train robbery gang to avoid having to marry an undertaker’s son. Of course, in the words of Rachel Bloom in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “it’s a lot more nuanced than that,” with key intersectional feminist themes, critiques of wealth hoarding, etc. It also comes with an ever-growing 60-song-plus playlist, though I keep gravitating toward five key tracks that fit the characters, story and message. Here they are:

“Giant” by ZZ Ward

I trekked through a Chicago blizzard to see ZZ Ward play the House of Blues in 2018, and not once have I regretted my it. This track dropped earlier this year when I first started thinking about Lucinda “Lucky” Ellis, and it helped form how she perceives her new-found power once she leaves life as a rancher’s invisible daughter to become a force that baffles the marshals and locomotive companies.

“Song for Bob” by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

I listened to the entire soundtrack from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for years before finally seeing the film this summer. Regardless of your feelings about the film (it took me four sittings to finish, but I found a weird peace in it during our crazy COVID times), the fact is that Lucky Ellis was born from that movie — particularly the musing of what would happen if one person on one of the trains that Jesse James robbed had stood up and said “Take me with you.” “Song for Bob” has been on repeat since then as I try to paint the picture of the Higgs Boys’ camp on the page using Times New Roman size 12.

“Rooted” by Ciara and Ester Dean

To know Ciara and Ester Dean’s “Rooted” is to know Ester Roth, the HBIC (head bandit in charge) of the gang that eventually adopts Lucky as their own. Ester is a modern humanist in the body of an 1870s descendent of free Black people living in the West. If that sounds far fetched, do some research: A quarter of cowboys on the Western side of the continent were Black.

“Pretty Waste” by BONES UK

What’s a playlist for one of my projects without a sardonic needle drop? BONES UK’s work has a special place in my heart as one of my top favorite sludge bands these days, but “Pretty Waste” is a fitting soundtrack for both train robberies and bodice rippings — both of which take a prominent place in Lucky’s story.

“Run Baby Run” by 2Wei and Ali Christenhusz

Another writing playlist staple: If it’s not the theme to season one of True Detective, it’s a 2Wei track (and usually more than one at that). This time it’s a toss-up between this piece from their album Emergence, which has echoed through the theater of the mind while plotting out train robbery action scenes, and their take on “Hit the Road, Jack.”

There’s plenty more music, and the list keeps growing. Check the full playlist out here, and follow it to get updates on when I add more (which is pretty much every other day).

Dottie’s Plot for Revenge

Yvette and her brother Mark sat across from the cemetery director, flipping through the pamphlets and doing the math in their heads of how much the endless fees would probably add up to, and whether it would be worth it.

“I suppose it’s odd,” Yvette said, tapping her toe nervously. “Most people who come here want to bury someone, and here we are, wanting to, to—”

“Exhume,” her brother finished for her.

“It’s really not that strange,” the cemetery director said. “We move people around all the time. Last month we had a couple remove both their sets of parents so they could be cremated and relocated to Georgia.”

“Well, we’re just hoping to move her a few plots over,” Mark said.

About fifty yards over, as she’d specified when she shattered the mirror over his fireplace, blasted them with Frank Sinatra and threw their Thanksgiving turkey out the window. The dead know what they want, but they have to resort to dramatic measures for anyone to notice.

~

This is a soap opera.

This is a soap opera starring nothing but people who are dead.

The setting: Somewhere on a different plane from here.

When Dottie Truman died, she knew her husband still had enough years ahead of him that he would need to find another companion. So rather than curse him to another two decades of lonely nights in front of late night television, she used her dying breath to tell Peter Truman to fall in love again.

Which he did, to a lovely woman named Beatrice Harper. And Peter and Beatrice were very much married and in love for fifteen years before they passed just weeks apart at the ages of 97 and 91, respectively.

Dottie watched all of this from her little ethereal plot of the afterlife. She cried with a mix of joy and sentimentality at their sweet little wedding at the Beech Tree Shoals Retirement Home. When Peter went first, she prepared to meet him with one eye on his funeral, where Beatrice had to be helped by her son Tyrone and stepson Mark across the rolling field of the cemetery. Dottie was so busy checking her face and straightening her dress that she didn’t notice right away that instead of in the grave next to hers, he was being interred half a football field away, surrounded by gravestones marked “Harper.”

But when she did finally notice? Had anyone been near her own grave, they would have noticed the dirt above her coffin roil like the angry sea. Later on the groundskeeper would think that the black bear rumored to roam the woods around the perimeter of the cemetery had gotten in and started foraging.

“Trying to do my job for me?” He muttered as he set about seeding the grass in the disturbed dirt. “Wrong plot — no one’s due to be buried here anytime soon.”

See, Dottie was buried with the Trumans in a double plot that her husband was supposed to return to once he died. But that bitch Beatrice either didn’t know or didn’t care, and now she had absconded with Dottie’s husband of 49 years to her own plot.

As far as the logistics of the afterlife went, the location of someone’s grave didn’t affect where they could or couldn’t go in the next plane of existence. But that didn’t matter to Dottie: She was confident that being buried with his second wife, away from the Truman family plot and away from Dottie, was doing nothing to coax him back to his first love and the mother of his children.

And anyway, the Trumans had always been a stuffy bunch, and Dottie hated being buried alone with them for all these years. The least Peter could have done, if he had known he’d be buried with some Boca Raton bimbo named Beatrice (which, of course, he didn’t, but try telling Dottie that), was put Dottie in the ground with her own family.

So after five years of waiting, and waiting, and waiting in the afterlife for her husband to come back to her, she decided to get her childrens’ ever-divided attention. It started with turning their TVs at random times, to random channels, but she was so appalled at what she saw across the channels that she decided that was causing more harm to her sense of the world than good. So she resorted to other poltergeist-inspired chicanery: She would tip over a coatrack (which would be blamed on the dog), turn on lights during the night (which would be blamed on the house’s electrician), explode soda cans (which would be blamed on PepsiCo) and burn food in the oven within minutes of it getting hot (which would be blamed on whoever was cooking). Eventually she decided that Thanksgiving would give her the biggest and best audience, so she went nuts: Shattered a mirror, changed the stereo to her favorite Frank Sinatra tune and blasted it, and even threw the half-cooked turkey out the window before using the grease and drippings in the pan to write on the walls “BURY ME WITH YOUR FATHER. LOVE, MOM.”

Dottie wanted to add “AND MOVE THAT BITCH BEATRICE TO THE PLOT NEXT TO THE BATHROOMS” but ran out of grease.

Unfortunately, now that she was watching Mark and Yvette sit with the cemetery director, that wasn’t quite a possibility. Peter Truman, it turned out, had been buried with his second wife on one side, and an empty plot on the other. And that plot was saved for Beatrice’s son, Tyrone.

Who was far from dying.

And who had moved off the grid, never to be heard from again.

At least, not until Dottie decided she had to pay someone a visit. It was time to introduce someone to Old Blue Eyes, backed by a full orchestra, belting out “Strangers in the Night” at top volume around 3 a.m.

5 quotes from John Logan on screenwriting

This week is the (virtual) Chicago International Film Festival, and as an associate boardmember, I’ve been diving deep into the events, screenings and activities from the safety and comfort of my couch. Yesterday I sat in a masterclass conversation on screenwriting with John Logan, who wrote films like Any Given Sunday, Gladiator, The Aviator and Skyfall, created/produced the Penny Dreadful TV series, penned lots of plays, and just yesterday received a Tony nomination for the book for Broadway’s adaptation of Moulin Rouge! (which I was supposed to see at the end of March in New York…thanks, COVID).

In alliteration, Logan is a legend.

I took a ton of notes, but here are the top five quotes I feverishly jotted down during the hour spent listening to him describe process, research and the filmmaking business in general:

1. “Our lives aren’t interesting, but the characters we write can be.” Rather than writing what you know, write what you feel, what you think, and what’s important to you. This is good news to me, a Midwesterner for Life who’s trying to craft a novel set on the Western frontier. Logan also warned that we check preciousness and over-fondness at the door. You’ve heard “kill your darlings” when it comes to paragraphs you like — this is “kill your darlings” when it comes to the memories and autobiographical elements we try to preserve through fiction.

2. “Pitching (a movie) is not an audition; it’s a negotiation.” When approaching a director, producer, or (in my world) agent or publisher, don’t perform the entire work for them and hope they like it as-is. Instead, approach it as “I have something to offer you. What about it interests you?” and go from there. Note that Logan’s first feature film was Any Given Sunday, which was one of 10 pitches he brought an agent in LA. He sold the film by calling it “King Lear in the NFL.”

3. “Remember you’re a dramatist, not a historian. You’re just painting a base-layer with research.” Logan has written a number of historical fiction films and warned against the “siren’s song of research” — he spent five years studying Howard Hughes and all the industries touched by his octopus-like reach before having to actually sit down and write The Aviator. Currently I’m working on a Western, which means I’ve fallen down rabbit holes about clothing, food and weaponry during the Western migration; how a quarter of cowboys were Black; and how Jesse James was actually an asshole. It’s my first historically-set book, so I’m learning just how appealing that siren’s song can be, especially when procrastinating on putting pen to paper.

4. “Truth of the character is all that matters.” This really hit a nerve. When I wrote Nobody’s Hero, it was a cry for help as I sank under the waves of having a successful corporate job I wasn’t (at the time) sure I wanted or deserved. I poured my imposter syndrome and jaded perspective into the main character. From what my former agent told me, publishers and editors weren’t too enamored, and I think Logan made it clear why with this final quote:

5. “It’s not about my voice. It’s about my character’s voice.This is something I struggle with sometimes more than writing action scenes (which, I was surprised but comforted to know, are also a sore spot for Logan, who wrote two freakin’ James Bond movies). All my characters either sound like Kate in Life, Kate on Paper, or Evil Villain in the Show Kate Just Watched. Logan said he tries several voices and approaches for his characters, and eventually one clicks: This is a new practice I’ll be implementing for books moving forward.

BONUS: “Writers are great weeping masses of emotion and need.” No comment. Pass the Kleenex.

Music of the Write: “Appetite” by Casey Edwards and Ali Edwards

Spotify threw this one into “My Weekly Discovery” a couple weeks ago as I worked on Camp NaNoWriMo planning, and it seems like the music streaming service might know my work-in-progress better than I do.

Now that I’m committing to my house exorcist mystery, “Appetite” is a fitting theme for how Agatha succumbs to obsession while shadowing Handel and Maeve’s work driving demons from suburban homes. It sounds like something Billie Eilish would record after she graduated from college, joined a coven and opened a unisex haberdashery with a backroom full of spell and potion ingredients (actually — that’s not a half-bad story idea).

Music of the Write: “Warriors” by League of Legends, 2WEI and Edda Hayes

Imagine Dragons’ “Warriors” was already built to be an epic theme. It launched at the League of Legends 2014 World Championship and was later used as the theme for WWE’s Survivor Series. I’m also certain it was one of the original songs I used when writing Omaha back in 2018.

It’s hard to believe it can get any more heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping, fight scene-inspiring than that, but it can. Just add trailer music mavens 2WEI — responsible for the Tomb Raider reboot’s take on Destiny Child’s “Survivor” and the orchestrated cover of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” for the Valerian trailer.

This month I’m going to use the remainder of Illinois’ stay-in-place order to complete a book that came to me while listening to this version of “Warriors,” which means it’ll be on heavy rotation. I’m particularly envisioning a scene where a house implodes under the weight of very dark magic, and another where our witchy heroine has to face the “friend” she accidentally banished into a tiny stationery box so they can help her combat forces trying to end the world.

Music of the Write: “The Night Window” by Thomas Newman

If, like me, you’ve thought back to what life was like this time last month before an official pandemic required us to self-isolate, here’s what I was doing: I went to see the last movie I would see in theaters for a while, 1917. I know, about two months later than the rest of the cinephile world — but it was well worth it, as I can’t imagine seeing the film on a smaller screen and being as captivated by it. I was so tense and emotionally invested that the guy I was with at one point put his hand on my shoulder and asked if I was OK.

The truth was, I was more than OK: I was euphorically swept up by every artistic detail of the movie, as graphic and grueling as it could be.

Thomas Newman’s entire score is fantastic, but one song in particular has fueled my writing as of late. “The Night Window” comes early on the album and escalates to a heart-stopping swell. I lost track of how many times I repeated it last week while working on the next installment of Axiom’s backstory, and it’s earned a permanent place in my “Random Writing Music” playlist.

Return to the drive-in: A quarantine story of new hope

He was just settling in to the nightly news something sparked in the corner of Frank Goberwitz’s right eye. The sun was coming up again, but that couldn’t be right: It had finally just set for the day.

It couldn’t possibly be the sun, Frank decided. He rolled his wheelchair to the glass to get a better look and saw a white beam of light stretched across the empty lot next door, illuminating the giant white wall that usually did nothing but block the site of the traffic on North Avenue. “Welcome to the Cascade Drive-In” the wall now read, and as it came into focus, a cacophony of horns below applauded it. Tipping his head forward, he saw that at least a hundred cars were now parked on the crumbling asphalt.

Frank resisted the urge to harrumph his way back to the TV and instead slid the door open and rolled out onto the balcony. It was even louder out here, with the sound of motors and laughter wafting upward on a perfume cloud of popcorn and exhaust fumes.

Three years ago when he had moved into the Sunrise Hills Retirement Complex, he had been guaranteed that the drive-in next door had been closed and purchased by a golf course developer. That sounded fine by him: He didn’t play anymore, but he enjoyed hearing the clinks and pops of the clubs hitting the ball. Being 14 floors up meant it was unlikely for a whiffed shot to end up in his soup, but he would still enjoy the greenery below.

Except the golf course was still not built. The lot remained, as did the abandoned drive-in screen, which loomed like a ghostly monolith just halfway out of his sight line when he sat in his usual spot in the living room. Well, he thought, at least it’s still quiet.

“Ladies and gentleman,” a loudspeaker blared from the back of the lot. Frank jumped at the sound. “After fifteen years, we are glad to be back! Welcome one and all to the Cascade Drive-In Theater, and thank you for your patronage! Are you ready for a show?!”

The car horns blared again. Frank looked over to see Marjorie, his chatterbox next-door-neighbor, come out on her own porch. She clutched a cat in her arms, and Frank sneered at it, knowing that it was the source of the never-ceasing scratching sounds coming from her side of the wall they shared.

“What a night!” she said. “Isn’t it exciting?”

Frank grimaced. There was a reason he liked the last three months of quarantine: it meant not having to respond to niceties from people he didn’t know — or care to know, for that matter.

The cars continued to roll into the lot below as the loudspeaker shouted directions.

“Make sure your radios are set to Station 727.91 AM so you can hear the sound of the picture, though I’m sure many of you could recite it from heart. If you’re hungry, turn your hazards on, and one of our staff will come by with the concessions cart so you can make your selections. They’ll leave your order on your car hood — please remember to let them get six feet away before you exit your vehicle to retrieve it. Snacks in the time of quarantine, am I right, folks!?”

A couple car horns guffawed as Frank saw dozens of red lights start to flash below. Elaborately decorated bicycle rickshaws deployed from the back of the lot, zooming to each car that had its hazard lights ablaze.

“Wonder what the movie is?” Marjorie asked, more to her cat than Frank. He saw her slip inside her house and emerge quickly, the cat replaced by a small battery-operated radio. “I hope it’s one of those John Wick pictures. I love those, don’t you? The fight scenes are so good, and the dog is so cute. And Keanu Reeves is so handsome!”

Frank didn’t know who the hell John Wick was, possibly because he hadn’t seen a movie in some time that wasn’t edited for public consumption on cable. The quarantine had caught him with a hatred for modern technology, which meant he was at the mercy of the network schedulers — possibly another reason he had devolved into the crotchety old bastard that looked back at him from his bathroom mirror. While the rest of the world still zoomed around in its cars and video chatted with family around the world from their pristine kitchens, Frank had developed intimate friendships with Alex Trebeck and Pat Sajack as he waited for one of the nurses to drop off his tray of daily meals. His daughter, Cindy, lived across the country and used to call daily, but after a month of having to listen to his pissing and moaning, she had started only calling on Sunday afternoons. He didn’t mind. Pretending to be happy was exhausting.

Marjorie’s deck chair clattered closer to the railing, and Frank saw her hop up on top of it and prop her chin on her folded arms that rested on the balcony railing. Her feet dangled inches from the ground, one of her house slippers barely holding on.

“What a nice surprise,” she said into the evening breeze. “The first night in a week that it isn’t raining, and we get a movie!” She turned to look at Frank, and the light from her apartment sparkled in her eyes. “It makes me feel closer to humanity, somehow, even though I know they’re all down there. We’re all experiencing something at the same time, together, like a real community.”

“Sure,” chuffed Frank, who backed off the porch into his house. The news anchors were finishing their report about how quarantine had been extended for another two weeks: No gatherings of more than 10 people in an enclosed space. No bars or restaurants open for the public. No visits to senior centers unless you’re a health care provider.

Frank sighed as he turned off the TV and the side table lamp before pivoting his chair toward the bedroom door. Outside, he heard Marjorie’s tinny radio screech with the 20th Century Fox theme, followed by an orchestral explosion that blast his thoughts back to 1977.

He was 39. Cindy was 10 and desperate to see the new movie that had all the kids at school talking. Frank’s wife — God rest her soul — thought it would be too violent. “Wars” was right there in the title, after all.

The Addison Multiplex Movie Theater was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, and he took his daughter’s hand as they slid into the fourth row from the back just in time for the show to start. The lights dimmed, the 20th Century Fox searchlights lit up the screen, and then everything went black. John Williams’ fanfare sent a wave of adrenaline down his spine as yellow words floated up the screen.

That same yellow scroll now lit up Frank’s entire living room as it towered three stories high across the lot. Cars blared their horns in excitement. Marjorie applauded from her perch. And Frank shot out onto his balcony in time to see that it was time for Princess Leia to race home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that could save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…

Music of the write: “Vampire Money” by My Chemical Romance

If there was ever a way for an emo band to scream itself into silence for a decade, “Vampire Money” is it. As the final track on Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, the song acts as a farewell from My Chemical Romance — one that would seem permanent (if you don’t count the B-sides they released separately over the next year) until this year when they announced their reunion tour.

“Vampire Money” was nowhere near my favorite song on the album when. I was working on my screenplay for an Adaptation of Literature for Film class I took shortly after the album came out. But in the years since, I’ve been possessed with its David Bowie references, head-banging beat and guitar solo that begs to be taken on its back. And now it’s on constant rotation in a number of my writing project playlists for its adrenaline-coaxing quality.

Music of the Write: “Brand New City” by Mitski

I’m late to the Mitski party, but “Brand New City” came on my Spotify radio, and it struck a nerve in my writing — so much so that I added it to my “untitled fantasy bounty hunter story” playlist. But here’s the thing: I interpreted the lyrics differently than I’m sure they were written.

“My brain is rotting in places / I think my heart is ready to die…Honey whatcha take, whatcha take, honey look at me, tell me what you took, what you took…”

On the third listen — this time detached from the project I was thinking of — I realized that “whatcha take” refers to drugs: What drug did you take? What’s in your system? Do we need to pump your stomach?

But the first two times I heard it, I was in such a headspace with this potential fantasy story (as well as my current Dungeons & Dragons character, the undying warlock Axiom Thorne) that I heard them as “What did you take from me that’s making me fall apart now?” It’s a little Dorian Grey: The narrator is disintegrating, and she’s quite convinced that some asshole stole the Grimmoire or relic that has sustained her for so long.

Again, probably not Mitski’s intended meaning, but it fits this potential project…

#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.