#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.

Scene of the write: The Music Box Theater

The street festival outside is closed, shrouded in thick white plastic sheets held down with duct tape so the midsummer breeze doesn’t pick them up and fly them like Halloween ghosts down the road. The emptied racks and tables underneath brace themselves for another 90-degree day.

Inside the century-old Music Box Theater lobby, it’s cool — the kind of dried and seasoned air that comes out of an aging air conditioner. Indie acoustic music plays over the speakers, and the Manhattans served in plastic cups taste worth the $13 even though they don’t look it. A dark luxardo cherry burrows under the ice, a secret treat to whoever finishes the booze part first.

From my seat in a chair that was once maroon but is now a dusty mauve, I watch the employee sliding the letters off a sign above Theater 2. The words change from “Paris is Burning” to “Paris is Bu” to “Paris i” to “Pa” to muted white light.

The projector could be illuminating the screen with anything, and I wouldn’t know it until I peeled my sticky legs from the grip of the vinyl seat and waddled across the floor, plucking the shorts from their bunch between my legs, and walked under the ladder and through the door. No longer would it be the story of Harlem’s drag queens. It could be a grim noir with revolvers, running boards, stocking dresses and hats with little netted veils. Or maybe it’s a new experimental film hand-drawn by someone coming down from an Adderall high courtesy of their college roommate’s drug dealer.

Overhead a white girl strums her guitar and sings Rihanna’s “Desperado” in a voice trained for honeysuckle country and straining for grit. And in a blink, the Theater 2 sign says “Escape from NY.”

This Banned Books Week, to Hell with the Hays Code!

In the early years of movies, filmmakers didn’t have any restrictions — apart from the sense of morality held by whoever was funding them — as to what they could put in a movie. And so the Hays Code was born.

Ultra-restrictive, the Hays Code was a set of guidelines to combat the liberal content increasingly present at the movies (which, of course, pales in comparison to today’s films). The bottom line: “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.”

Last week I learned about this mock photograph by A.L “Whitey” Schafer, who fit as many code violations as he could into a single photograph. At the time it must have been seen as shocking by some and considered deliciously disruptive by others.

Read more here.

Personally, I see this photo as a a much-needed middle-finger to stringent rules that, among other things, banned depictions of childbirth, interracial relationships, “sexual perversions (such as homosexuality),” religious figures as villains, and illegal drug use. You could not justify illicit sexual relationships between unmarried characters, and scenes of passion were closely monitored. In love scenes, partners couldn’t be in a horizontal position while kissing, and women had to have “at least one foot on the floor” (i.e. not in bed).

So what did Whitey do? He set up this photo, which broke ten of the Hays Commandments in a single image.

Writers face the threat of people reporting, banning or burning their books all the time. That’s why this week is “Banned Book Week.” To a lot of us, having your book be listed as a threat by ultra-conservative groups is a feather in the cap. The Hate U Give might be the most recent example I can think of as a YA novel that’s constantly in turmoil because of its realistic portrayal of a black teen being shot by a cop. Harry Potter was famously burned for its magical content — though its massive popularity stoked those flames, too, as not every fantasy book gets the same treatment.

That’s why this photograph came to mind when I sat down to blog this week. As writers we often have to make people uncomfortable to make our voices heard. Safe stories are sometimes nice, but we learn when we’re pushed to see things the establishment doesn’t want us to see.

The Hays Code was eventually abandoned in the late 1960s when enforcement became impossible — too many filmmakers were just paying the fine and making movies that shook the country to its core. If no one had flouted the rules, we’d still be watching versions of Frankenstein where the doctor’s god complex was completely brushed over.

It’s our job as creators to break the rules, but to do it in a way that “punches up.” Represent the marginalized. Criticize those in power. Funny, how that not only applies to making art, but also making life…

Worth the weight: On slowing down and dropping deadlines

Two things about me, one that I don’t like to admit, and one that I love pulling from my hat whenever I need to feel superior to others:

1. I am highly superstitious about some things, and typically in the opposite way as other people.

2. I used to be a journalist.

Now that you know these two things, you’ll understand when I say that I’ve always considered Friday the 13th to be a lucky day to accomplish things, such as ask a boy to prom (he said yes) or send a novel manuscript to an agent (he, too, said yes). And as a former magazine editor and reporter, I also function best with deadlines. If I miss them, I spend a debatably healthy amount of time berating myself for being forgetful, dysfunctional or just plain lazy.

In April I told my agent I’d have a full manuscript of Nobody’s Hero to him by Friday, Sept. 13. By the time I finished extracting marrow from my bones and putting it on a page — how else can you describe writing the first draft of anything? — I had less than a month to edit it, send it to my beta readers, incorporate their suggestions, copy edit, and ship it off to Ross via the Gmail Express.

In other words, to make my deadline I’d have to go on a leave of absence during a high-stress time at my day job, stop sleeping, cut ties with all my friends, and retreat to my apartment like Johnny Depp in Secret Window. And if you’ve seen that movie, you know that it’s best for everyone that I don’t become Johnny Depp in Secret Window.

So a couple weeks ago I looked at the 2019 calendar again and saw with relief that Dec. 13 is also a Friday. The year has given me one more lucky day, and it means that I can make Nobody’s Hero exactly as I want it to be before sending it off. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Mom keeps asking me if I’m enjoying the writing. Not if I’m doing it, or if I’m almost done with it.* She wants to know I’m having fun, and now that I’m allowing myself the pleasure of time, I am.

*Lesson to friends of writers: Don’t ask how close they are to finishing a project. Ask if they’re enjoying it. My mother is a wise woman who has dealt with the many Creative Moods of Kate.

I’ll admit that the editing process started painfully. That’s what happens when you write a book over 18 months — and may be why Stephen King insists that he writes a book each “season” rather than a year and a half. When you take that long to write a story, the tone changes, and although the characters morph into what you want them to be, they don’t always do it the way they should. Case in point, Pru Mornay is absolutely heartless in Chapters One through Four, and while having a flawed main character is interesting, having an irredeemable one is off-putting. The structure was all off, with the perspective shifting between characters from paragraph to paragraph instead of section to section, and innumerable details were flat-out wrong.

In the end, I had to rewrite those chapters, and in the process, kill multiple darlings. Farewell, Foster’s glib and uncharacteristically cold remark about Pru’s dating life. Au revoir, Opal’s penthouse apartment. You were once a gorgeous description and massive plot hole.

But the revisions are becoming easier, or at least more fun, to make, and as I read through what’s already on the page, I find more opportunities to organically world-build and bring in snippets of commentary that I wanted to make clear but never had time to develop when working off plot alone. I’ve had a couple revelations and added some minor characters that help deepen the personalities of my supporting cast. There’s a notebook on my beside table that I use to write down words in the books I’ve been reading (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Robert “JK it’s Rowling” Galbraith’s Lethal White) that I want to incorporate into my own work. “Gawping,” for one. “Indefatigable,” for another. Anything to liven up the writing.

And I’m sticking to editing a chapter a night, maybe more on the weekends, fueled by scotch, whiskey or limoncello. Sure, Hemingway said “write drunk, edit sober.” These nights it feels like I’m doing more rewriting, so as far as I’m concerned, he can put that in his Cuba libre and sip it.

Because dammit, I’m having fun!

A coda: Jidenna released a new album, 85 to Africa, the week after I finished the rough draft, and the first track was called “Worth the Weight” featuring Seun Kuti. While the song focuses on the experience of displaced and emigrant Africans around the world, particularly in America, a line really spoke to me as I came to terms with having to let go of my personal deadline in favor of drawing even more marrow from my bones to bolster Nobody’s Hero to its full strength:

“And I pray that I’m the brightest sound that you ever felt / I’ma take a million flights around, ’til that shit is felt / That’s that lead the way, ayy / That’s no piece of cake, ayy…”

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?”

The Immortal Toni Morrison

It took me a while to know what I wanted to write about Toni Morrison that hadn’t already been said more eloquently. So before you keep reading, please take a look at what so many talented black women have written, like Charlene Carruthers’ piece in Out Magazine, Akwaeke Emezi’s letter in Them, or Roxane Gay’s piece in the New York Times.

And once you’ve read their takes — and hopefully followed the breadcrumbs to other fantastic writers who were not just inspired but seen and represented by Ms. Morrison’s writing — you can come back and read mine.

Back?

Cool.

I credit Meggan Burgoni, my 10th grade English and 12th grade Humanities teacher, with introducing me to two literary loves of my life: Kurt Vonnegut and Toni Morrison. The first she sent me on a two-week getaway with in the form of a winter break Welcome to the Monkey House assignment. The second she teased me with in the spring of 2009 via a slow-paced reading of Beloved.

Recently I read Wired’s review of Euphoria that rightfully lauded the HBO series as the “perfect anti-binging show” — that part of the series’ allure is how it forces you to sit with what you’ve seen and develop your opinions, hopes and fears for each character over eight weeks instead of eight hours. Beloved can be described in the same way. You can read it in a single night, but it won’t have the same effect. You’ll miss things. And so Burgoni would quiz us daily to make sure not that we had done the reading we had been assigned, but that we hadn’t gotten farther in the book than she asked us to read.

(This is where I confess that I totally read ahead sometimes, just made a mental note of where each assignment passage ended so I’d still pass the quiz. Sorry, Mizz B.)

A year after I read Welcome to the Monkey HouseCat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five — the latter two by choice — Kurt Vonnegut died. When we heard the news, a lot of us didn’t even realize he was still alive. I think it was because Vonnegut’s wit and voice, while staying mostly relevant throughout the American Idiot Bush-led era we were teenage-angsting our way through, was clearly from another time. He was one of the literature titans that had formed modern sci-fi satire and been overthrown by the Zeustic powers of Chuck Palahniuk, Christopher Moore and other nihilistic authors who captured our attention with their equally raw but timely storytelling. It was sad he was gone, but we’d still have fun scouring used bookstores for vintage copies of Timequake.

But on Tuesday when I heard that Ms. Morrison had passed, I was gutted. She was supposed to be immortal. Souls are immortal, aren’t they? After all, she was the soul of American literature. She was the conscience, too. And the heart. And the folds of the brain where relationships and emotion hold hands. I haven’t found another writer like it, and I’ve blown my book budget and deprived myself of sleep trying to find one.

There was no other writer who could slice me open; fill me with the faith, skepticism, jubilation, torment, distrust and fellowship felt by her characters; sew me up again for 200 pages; yank out the stitches and the stuffing with one hand at the stories’s climax; and leave me with more understanding and compassion than I had when we started. Her writing changed me.

And she did that without even writing for me. She wrote for black women — the “most disrespected person in America,” as Malcolm X famously and accurately said — but everyone else had the privilege of reading it and learning from it, too.

A couple years ago, I sat in the airport before a business trip, reading Beloved for the fifth or sixth time (I read it every 18 months and always find something new in it). A group of older black women walked past me, and one of them stopped.

“Great book,” she said, more to herself than to me. Then she called to her friends: “This white girl’s reading Toni!” We ended up talking about the book for a couple minutes before their flight was called. She told me the next one I should read was Sula. I’ve read it twice since.

I think that was the first time I saw through the privilege I had experienced as a Caucasian reader and recognized that I was reading something that wasn’t created for me. It was my first reckoning that artists don’t just write for anyone — they have a specific audience, and if they’re good enough, their work attracts readers from outside that group. And I thanked Burgoni all over again for tempting our mostly white, middle-class Humanities cohort to huddle around our red paperbacks at lunch, desperately reading ahead to see what would happen to Sethe, Baby Suggs, Denver and Beloved.

There’s a lot more I could say about Ms. Morrison. How she pulled other underrepresented writers up with her, saying “the function of freedom is freeing someone else.” How she refused to be a victim of racism and demanded that white people be the ones to fix it. Then there’s her work on its own: How The Bluest Eye made me a sobbing wreck on a very crowded rush-hour train. How Tar Baby gave us one of the best deep-dives into the social and spiritual meanings of beauty, and Jazz gave us this beautiful quote:

Don’t ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it.”

Instead, I’ll leave you with one final story. I mentioned to my mom on Tuesday that Ms. Morrison wasn’t published until she was 39 or 40. As I currently lose sleep (and possibly friends) over a first-draft of a book that ebbs between good and garbage, this is reassuring to me, as well as a reminder to slow down — much like when reading Beloved. In fact, I joked to my mom as my throat closed up around a sob that maybe this is a sign that I should just stop and wait until I’m 35 or so to pick writing back up again. The Bluest Eye took five years to write, after all.

Then Mom countered with another biographical detail. When Ms. Morrison’s son died in 2010 from pancreatic cancer, she quit writing from grief. But upon thinking about it, she realized that the last thing he would have wanted. So she started writing again.

“So what would Toni want you to do?” Mom asked.

It’s simple. It’s the quote that most writers have tattooed inside their skulls, if not on their actual skin. And I hesitated to include it in this post (everyone is including it in their posts), but it’s a rally cry that every writer should shout at the top of their lungs and blog pages for the rest of time:

“If there’s a book you want to read, write it.”

I love you, Ms. Morrison. Thank you. Rest in power.

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.