#CampNaNoWriMo Vignette: “Homo sapien bitterus”

The first thing I see when I walk in is two construction workers sitting and chatting with Kris, the bartender. Shortly after I silently slip onto the stool, Kris approaches with an empty pint glass in hand, detouring briefly at the tap to pour the darkest stout on the menu before placing it in front of me.

“You’re a little early today,” she says.

“You’re a little heady today,” I reply, eying the two inches of foam filling the top of the glass.

One of the construction workers spins a pack of cigarettes between two fingers like a hyperactive watermill, and I feel my mouth itch. It’s been two years, seven month and nine days since my last cigarette, and although I can now run a mile without keeling over, the cravings haven’t gotten better.

The construction worker’s pal notices me trying not to stare at the pack of cigarettes.

“What do you want?” he asks, as if he doesn’t know.

“I quit, and I’m regretting it,” I say, nodding to the Marlboroughs once they’re face down on the bar.

“Sorry,” the smoker says, picking up the pack as if hiding it from me will make me forget how much my lips itch. “I tried a while ago, and I couldn’t do it. Girlfriend even threatened to leave, and I couldn’t stop.”

“She was a bitch,” shrugs his friend, sipping his bear. “A black lung is better than blue balls.”

His friend laughs, but it’s fake. I can tell that he’s still hurting from his girlfriend leaving, and he blames himself, his parents, his friend, the tobacco industry, even Marlborough Man Tom fucking Selleck himself, judging from the way he manhandles the crinkled box of cigarettes as he pushes them back into his workpants pocket.

The two of them go back to talking about something a guy named Ed did while sitting in his pansy-ass air conditioned trailer, and I go back to contemplating the now-thinned head on my beer. Behind the bar is a mirror hazed with time and tobacco, but I can see people walking past the bar and looking in at the urban zoo exhibit and its inhabitants. Morgan’s should have a plaque outside the door: “Species: Homo sapien bitterus. Diet: Alcohol, tobacco, regret. Habitat: Dive bars, construction sites, newsrooms. Thrive best in climates of sarcasm, self-pity and loathing.”

#NaNoWriMo2019 Excerpt: Bennett and the Halos

Bennett smeared the purple paint across her lips, filling in where yesterday’s application had flaked away or rubbed off. She was due for a breakout any day, having gone almost a week without washing the makeup off her face. That would change tonight, now that she had found soap.

“Are we ready to roll, or what?” Christa called from her brother’s Hummer. Its transmission had seen better days. Bennett could tell from the whine underlying the engine’s glubba-glubba.

She tossed the tube of blue eyeshadow back in her knapsack and straightened up from where she’d been bending over to look into the shard of broken mirror on the pavement. Someone had already raided this Sephora, and Christa was irritable because she couldn’t find her usual brand of toner.

Bennett swung her bag into the back of the Hummer and followed along with it, slamming the door shut just in time for Christa to peel around the parking lot and onto the road. There was nothing else in this shopping mall of interest to them. The Sephora had been cleaned out; the Target was too dangerous for a simple group of three to search alone; the Dress Barn was still immaculately intact due to the lack of interest in styles for middle-aged women. And besides all that, they could hear the roaring engines of multiple vehicles roaring up the street. Maybe if they had more Halos with them, they would stand their ground. But between being outnumbered and not having any reason to defend the Green Valley Shopping Center as their own, it simply wasn’t worth the effort.

Christa took a sharp right on County Farm Road, and Bennett and Imogene twisted around in their seats to see four dazzlingly bright muscle cars glint in the sunlight.

“Fucking Bowies,” Christa shouted from the front seat. “How many?”

“Four cars, so at least twelve people,” Imogene reported.

No one traveled in groups fewer than three, with four being the optimal number. The handful of survivors who had been Girl Scouts taught everyone that: Always go in threes, so if someone gets injured, one person can stay with them while the other goes for help.

“But what if the person going for help gets injured?” Bennett had asked.

“OK, so maybe go in fours whenever possible,” Felicity revised her statement with a toss of her brown-black hair, the sun drenching her blond roots.

From then on, Bennett, Felicity, Christa, and Imogene were inseparable. Not because they particularly liked each other — Felicity and Christa were best friends, and Imogene was desperate for their approval, while Bennett just needed to find someone who didn’t mind her tagging along — but because it had helped them survive for three months since the world came to a crashing halt on June 25.

#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 Post mortem: A landfill of chaos

I’ve been away from the blog for a while because I’ve been recouperating — in all aspects of life: sleep, social, day job, reading. Turns out devoting all of November to 50,000 words of a book really detracts from, well, everything else.

But here I am, 50,788 words later, with 2018’s National Novel Writing Month behind me. Goal achieved. Book…in progress.

Because that’s really all this year’s NaNoWriMo accomplished, really. By the middle of the month I abandoned my usual approach of “write with a few plot points in mind and the connective tissue will come together naturally.” Instead, I found myself writing blurbs, scenes, and conversations in roughly the order I expect they’ll appear in the final product. 

I gotta say, my first three chapters are super tight, and there’s some real filth that would make EL James blush.  

In 2017, I wrote Omaha, the book that I had been planning for three years, submitted a detailed synopsis for, and promised to an interested agent. With Omaha currently “in sub” (a term I learned from a fellow corporate novelist that means “in submission with publishers”), I was both blessed and cursed with lower stakes this year. And that allowed me more wiggle room to write whatever parts of the book I wanted. 

But that’s the point of NaNoWriMo, as most participants understand. Author Chuck Wendig has the best, or at least most colorful,  perspective on the 50,000-word, 30-daylong sprint:

“What once was an innocent tract of unbroken order is now a landfill of chaos….That, I think, is the guiding principle of National Novel Writing Month: you are here not for purity, not for innocence, not for perfection. You are here to ruin a perfectly good empty page. And that isn’t just the purview of this month — but it’s writing any story, on any day.”

In a different blog post, Wendig also points out that you don’t win NaNoWriMo by hitting the 50,000 word mark by 11:59 p.m. local time on Nov. 30 — you win when you finish the book. And I agree. Here I sit with 81 pages of everything from full chapters to quippy five-sentence paragaphs that have to eventually get strung together into somethign coherent, and I don’t feel like I jogged across the finish line triumphantly but rather scratched my way across it, breaking a few nails along the pavement.

(Apologies to anyone like me who still feels their sphincter tighten when they think about that shot from inside Buffalo Bill’s well in Silence of the Lambs.) 

So as I finally sit down with enough energy to do a post-mortem on my work in November, I recognize that I’m far from winning NaNoWriMo, regardless of the snappy e-certificate they sent me. There’s a lot of work to be done, and I eb in and out of excitement and dread at it. But it’ll get done, and I’m a lot further along than I was in October.

Now it’s just time to bring some order to the landfill of chaos.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 30: An ending for ‘Nobody’s Hero’

The next morning, they packed up the lab and called a local charity that was willing to take the furniture for their resale shop. Foster picked up the U-Haul and drove it into the bay where the Corvette used to be parked, and together they loaded all of the papers, armor, weapons and hard drives.

They drove to the field where Foster and his buddies had experimented with flame color via fireworks and stolen chemicals from the industrial park surrounding their subdivision. Someone had left a Very Best of Cat Stevens CD in the truck’s disc player, so they listened in comfortable silence. Pru had heard it before —Yusuf Islam was a fixture in her childhood as her parents revisited their hippie days whenever the bohemian style came back en vogue — but she had never really heard it. But now “Wild World” patched the silent gap between her and Foster in the passenger seat, and she found herself moved by it. 

“Ooh baby baby, it’s a wild world,” Stevens sang. “It’s hard to get by on just a smile.” 

And yet that’s all she had anymore. She had alienated her parents, destroyed her career and almost burned down half of Centropolis in her pursuit of saving it. The FVA didn’t want her back as Nightfire, and she couldn’t think of who to call about a job now that she had wrecked her parents’ reputation (not that they didn’t deserve it in the end, of course). No PR firm was going to hire a whistleblower who had ratted out her own parents’ unethical practices.  

What irked her the most was that she wasn’t even sure what she wanted for herself next. There was enough money in her account to sustain her for a year, but what she needed sustenance for was the question. She didn’t mind driving this truck while listening to Cat Stevens, who had now gone on to sing “Where Do the Children Play?” Maybe she could get a job driving a rig for a while. Get out of town, see the country. Listen to all the Cat Stevens, Stevie Nicks, Nick Cave she wanted. Wear denim jackets and T-shirts under flannel. Find herself under all the makeup and nail polish that she’d layered on throughout the years. 

This is an excerpt from the ending of my NaNoWriMo project this year, though the book isn’t nearly finished yet. Stay tuned for a post-mortem on the month and lessons learned. For now, I’ve got 2,000 words more to write by midnight!

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 28: “Savior” by St. Vincent

Another song discovered this week at just the right time. I’m diving more into Pru’s romance with Federal Vigilante Agent Maxwell Spelling, and when I heard “Savior” by St. Vincent — really heard it — and decided it was a perfect summary of their relationship. Pru is so enamored by him that she doesn’t mind that he’s looking for her to be a distraction, scapegoat, accomplice and victim all at once for him. Similarly, St. Vincent’s song cosmetically sounds like a woman’s adventure with sexual experimentation as her partner begs her to take on different roles (nurse, teacher, nun, cop and leather-momma).

But that’s not the point of the song at all, it turns out.

“I got ’em trying to save the world,” she murmurs at the end. “They said, ‘Girl, you’re not Jesus.'”

So not only is “Savior” about the demands Max makes on Pru in their relationship, but also on the demands she makes on herself and those around her. St. Vincent insists she “can’t be your savior” until being worn down by her lover’s pleas. Pru succumbs to her own addiction to the rush that comes from making a difference.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 27: Amorous Congress

Having been a bartender for ten years, Nick Matthews could tell when a date was going well, and when the dude should just put down his card and call it a night. It usually had to do with how long either person took to look through the ten to twelve cocktail cards and pick their drink. If only one of them picked it right away, it meant they wanted to get the hell out and on with their separate life. If both were antsy to order, it meant they wanted to knock it back and leave to the next thing (depending on the hour, dinner or bed). And if both mulled over the menu because they were too busy talking about other things, it meant that this was a long-term relationship in the making.

The couple that had come in tonight — Lou, the owner, had told the hostess to move them up the list for a coveted spot at the bar because he recognized them from TV — were so busy talking that Nick wasn’t sure if they’d ever order. Finally they decided on something and put the order in. Two cocktails with egg whites. Nick would have to strangle whoever decided the menu tonight should have three different shaken egg white cocktails on it. His arms were killing him. 

“An Amorous Congress and a Screaming Mimi,” he said, pushing the drinks across the bar at the couple. They hardly noticed him, but the man flipped a card out of his wallet.  

“Tab?” Nick asked. 

“Sure, why not?” the man said with a smile.  

The name of the cocktails were also a sign of where things were going. If the woman wasn’t interested in her date, no way would she have ordered a drink called Amorous Congress. There were others on the menu sometimes — Or Gee, It’s Punch!; the Boot Knocker; and the Bondage Night Special — that could be used to subliminally tell a drinking partner (or partners) what you might be up for, but there were others like Not Tonight, Satan, and We’ll Never Have Paris that hinted the other direction.  

Two Amorous Congresses, one Screaming Mimi and a draught of Whistle Pig scotch later, Nick was hoping they’d either get another round or get the fuck out. His girlfriend had texted to say she and a friend wanted to stop by, and he could use the two seats. 

That wasn’t to say he wasn’t thoroughly entertained by the couple. They had turned out to be all right folks: well-versed in their brown liquors and convivial toward him. Unlike some of the more stomach-churning dates he had seen, there was never a dull silence or barbed comment. He didn’t know where some of these guys got the idea that insulting a woman was the best way to gain her favor. 

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 26: The city’s ribcage

For being called “The Oculus,” it looks more like a ribcage than something that can see — especially in this February fog. Its bones splay out, opening its spine up to the sky and exposing the invisible heart that floats within. It’s the heart that holds all of the memories of what used to be in this spot before that Tuesday in September, so no wonder the ribcage is open: It’s trying to let out some of that agony.

The Oculus building stands in New York at the World Trade Center

The Oculus in New York overshadowed by a February fog.

#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.