Music of the Write: “Shutter Island” by Jessie Reyez

I saw Vogue included Jessie Reyez in their list of “Bright Young Things: 2020 Rising Stars” and was reminded of how important her debut single, “Shutter Island,” has been to formulating a number of characters.

“For a second I forgot I was a bad bitch. Begging you to stay became a habit” — that’s Axiom (whom you’ve met), as well as Pru to some extent, and a new character I haven’t published here yet. Of course, I realize that it’s also me: A fact I’m grappling with while also reflecting on a number of other things about my love, professional and creative life at the moment…

#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.

Writespiration: “Worst Poetry” by Sarah Kay

Sarah Kay is my favorite living modern poet, full stop. I could listen to her all day. “Mrs. Ribeiro” contains stunning imagery and emotion. I gave my mom a hardback copy of “Point B” for Christmas and watched tears well in her eyes as she read it right there under the tree.

But there has always been “Worst Poetry,” one of the first poems I heard her read. At the time it was cute but not my favorite. But as I’ve grown up a bit and experienced new people and relationships, I understand it better.

Her poem deals a lot with love and relationships, but it also points out that there’s a distinct difference between a muse and a supporter: The person she describes in the poem doesn’t make her work better, but they do make her life better. Now is there a strict mutual exclusivity between who inspires you and who encourages you? I’m still figuring that out. Maybe another blog post is coming on that.

But for now, let me say this: Muses can be dangerous. Support is forever beneficial.

Find someone who makes you want to work on your art. Who wants to be there while you work on it but knows art takes solitude sometimes. Who is is open to examining your art but doesn’t ask to see it. Who’s patient when you say you think it’s crap but knows better than to say “It isn’t!” even when they haven’t read it.

And get rid of the mofos who take pride in causing your writer’s block. I’ve known those people before. They suck, and we no longer talk.

Welcome to “Convincing the Muse”

Maya Angelou described her writing process as persistence:

“When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.'”

When I was 11, a muse decided to sit on top of my history textbook and tell me to write instead of study. More than a decade later, that muse rather watch and re-watch YouTube clips of 1950s-era Academy Award acceptance speeches.

But the last few years of creative drought have to do with more than procrastination (and having a full-time job). Sylvia Plath once said the “worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt” — and as I’ve gotten older, I understand what she meant. I used to think more life experience would help: Unfortunately, it also comes with the crippling realization that I’m not the only one with a story to tell or the ability to tell it. Sometimes, the words just don’t work in my favor.

But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up.

Convincing the Muse is an act of selfishness. It’s a site meant to encourage and challenge my writing. Yes, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (another writing idol, or “writol”), said “Write for one person.” In this case, that one person is not you, internet explorer, but me.

But since you’re here anyway, here’s what you’ll find:

  • Excerpts are spoiler-free samples from larger projects that I’ll share once in a while. When you see these, you’ll know I’m either in a committed relationship with what I’m writing or need to make a grand romantic gesture to win back its heart.
  • Nonfiction are observations, descriptions and commentary based on real-life experiences. Stay tuned for some refreshed content from my old blog when I’m feeling lazy or busy working on something big.
  • Poetry doesn’t happen often, so don’t get your iambic (pants)ameter in a twist.
  • Short stories will be far and few between because they can be harder to write than novels.
  • Vignettes are stabs of dialogue or description that come to me when doing dishes, painting my nails, walking to work, pretending to meditate or completing other mundane activities.
  • Writespiration are photographs, songs, quotes, advice or anything else that cloud-seeds a brainstorm. Want to skip my work and start your own? Use the “Writespiration” tab up top to go straight to some shots of creative adrenaline.

If this seems like an unnecessarily strategic approach, know that my father is an engineer and my mother used to make index-card itineraries for family trips to Disney World. Over-organizing and perpetual planning are as snugly woven into my DNA as my eye color and risk for colon cancer.

Sometimes the muse decides to do stand-up comedy. Other times it broods in a one-muse angst play. You’ll find a lot of genres, moods, and characters among the posts. Some pieces will sing, and others will get stage fright from being published too soon. But they all have one thing in common: They’re proof that I’m ready to get to work.

Come at me, muse. I’m serious.