Reader's Exchange

November 2011 - Posts

Writing for amateurs, bowling for vampires

Should I go with the classic "You like me, you really like me!" or the even more classic "Thank you, thank you very much"?  Of course, my novel will deservedly never see the light of day, so my National Book Award acceptance speech is not a major concern.  (However, if I ever need a book jacket photo it'll be black and white and include my Scottie dogs).  

I'm nevertheless thrilled to have reached the 50,000 word goal for National Novel Writing Month--three days early.  I was spurred on to completion by the artistically motivated realization that the Christmas lights won't put themselves up.Burning the midnight oil

Responding to my description of the story line, a couple of colleagues have said, "That really does sound like an interesting premise" and "I'd read that book!"  All of which proves an important point: I have wonderful colleagues.  But I already knew that.

Here's what I did learn:  apparently journal-keeping really is as vital as all those professional writers have claimed.   I never progressed beyond good intentions to start a writer's journal and realized in the course of creating my novel--many times--how useful a collection of impressions and details could have proven to be.   

I did, however, collect enough thoughts about the novel-in-a-month scheme to compose several new slogans for NaNoWriMo; these definitely reflect the ups and down of the sometimes exhilarating, occasionally despairing experience: 

  • "Sleep is overrated."
  • "The caffeine deficient need not apply."
  • "Just make it stop."

That said, I'll try NaNoWriMo again.  I enjoyed inventing characters and developed a deeper understanding of novel construction.   Also, repeat participation would bring me closer to other would-be and published authors.  The writing community can be a powerful source of support, and not just for other novelists.

This November 2011 article from Library Journal provides a great illustration from Bouchercon, the annual world mystery convention.  Teams of authors and related participants (including Charlaine Harris' Bowling for Vampires team) competed and auctioned their autographed shirts to raise $29,000 for a local library foundation. 

The authors' good works didn't end there.   Attendees voted on and presented the annual Anthony Awards for mystery writing; check out the 2011 winners here.   If you're on the lookout for the very best new mysteries, bear in mind that awards highlight up-and-comers along with established stars, so readers will also get great leads by consulting the Shamus and Macavity Awards lists.   Finally, for a comprehensive overview of the mystery genre, don't miss Anthony Award winner (for best website/blog) www.stopyourekillingme.com.

My own valuable prizes include a colorful certificate proclaiming me to be a "Winner" in NaNoWriMo 2011--and an opportunity to catch up on my sleep. 

Book groups are like snake oil

Both sound tempting and address issues other than the one you intended.Gertrude Bell biography

Of course, snake oil only answers the question of what to do with a portion of your money.  The right book club can update you as efficiently as the internet (but with no ads and no Kardashian stories).

As menu planner/cook/host for a November book club meeting, I was grateful that the assigned book featured so many food options: brunch, country club snacks, hamburger combo, Midwestern comfort foods, even Indian pudding.  I'd always wanted to try that; if you're curious as well (Is a long-baked blend of milk, molasses, and cornmeal as great as it's been cracked up to be?) here's a hint.  Serve this dessert with ice cream; those who don't love it can claim that they filled up on the topping.  At least I thought it was tasty.

You'd have to read the book--William McPherson's Testing the Current--to understand how the centerpiece (large hurricane globe filled with Beanie Babies) illustrated one of the novel's metaphors and elicited a chortle from the group.

And you should read it, particularly if you favor nostalgic glimpses into bygone eras; autobiographical detail and humor figure prominently, too.  I recently described it to someone as Red Sky at Morning meets Proust.  That was intended as a compliment all around.  Sadly, Testing the Current is out of print; it's available via interlibrary loan and worth the wait.

Actually, not everyone in the group approved this choice, but disagreement always generates a livelier discussion.  Yet even for those who prefer another writing style, Testing obviously drew out many connections to individual personal experience.

That's really what book groups are about.  Those who attend regularly discover that such involvement enhances their connections in general:

  • Everyone in our group has either renovated a kitchen or built a house in the past few years.  Thus, we've viewed multiple "reveals", not to mention gotten the lowdown on tile vs. laminate.
  • Book clubbers also tend to be indie film fans; you can hear live reviews from people you trust.
  • Previously read titles promote great follow-ups.  Because one of our recent titles was a biography of Gertrude Bell, someone just emailed me the news that Angelina Jolie has signed on to play Bell in the planned biopic.
  • With an assigned book on your radar screen, you focus your information intake; our next one is Julian Barnes' Talking It OverBarnes just published The Sense of an Ending, and I won't have been the only one who made a point of catching his NPR interview, knowing that other groupies would be listening.  That kind of peer pressure is good.
  • But it's still OK not to finish your Indian pudding.
All the good ones are taken
And what's worse, the most popular and compelling ones have been matched up numerous times with others who are more glamorous and successful, so what hope is there for me?

I'm referring to fiction plots, naturally.  You've probably heard the argument that only seven plots can describe the entire spectrum of fiction/storytelling--unless it's three or twenty or thirty-six plots, depending upon your source.  Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories theorizes that these scenarios can account for the entire world of stories throughout the centuries:
  1. Overcoming the monster
  2. Rags to riches
  3. The guest
  4. Voyage and return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

    Scrooge McDuckOf course, once you undertake to categorize the tales humans tell, you’re also obliged to justify why we need to invent them in the first place, not to mention explaining how these archetypes have evolved in conjunction with their historical contexts.  And Booker does all of that.  At least, that’s what the critics have said.  I personally don’t have time to peruse Seven Basic Plots or indeed anything else this month.

    No, I’ll return the Booker volume to the shelf so that you may enjoy it.  I will nobly forge ahead with my resolve to finish that 50,000-word novel by November 30.  I have miraculously stayed on pace and so have reached 24,154 words. 

    What has delighted me in this second week of the National Novel Writing Month challenge is how much I enjoy writing dialogue.  I’m not a big talker.  Terrible in social situations that call for mingling and chatting, I can somehow produce characters who converse incidentally and fearlessly about all manner of things on cue.    The lesson here is that I should have been born fictional.

    The other lesson is that plotting is every bit as daunting as you’d imagine.  Latching on to some first-try advice from experienced novelists, I decided to (a) borrow from a proven structure and (b) exploit settings/ situations in which I am well versed. Thus, you won’t be shocked to learn that a library is featured on more than a few pages.

    The plot so far features elements inspired by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl, and the Jim Carrey movie The Mask.  And if you think that mashup sounds unlikely, I may as well mention that one of the characters is not a person but a thing—an antique item. 

    When I’m recruiting minor characters, I recall my good fortune to have grown up in a small town:  lots of wonderful Characters (capital “C” intentional) there, in a good way.  Still, I endeavor to merely use them as starting points to extrapolate other wonderful beings.  And don’t worry: the names have been changed to protect the interesting.
An immovable feast

At the library, we're accustomed to folks looking less confused after we provide an answer.  Last Wednesday, however, our response seemed to generate more questions. 

We'd publicized our annual City employees' lunch in the usual ways, but a number of customers were still caught off guard.  "You're closing in the middle of the day why?" was heard several times as we made the rounds of internet stations and study rooms.   Assuring everyone that we'd resume operations at 1:30, we explained that we had a lunch date with all the other City employees.  Longaberger building

Called Spirit Lunch, this once-a-year mass meal has happened for, I'm told, over thirty years, dating back to a simpler time when all the City employees could fit under a park pavilion.  Well, the spirit of camaraderie lives on; it's just more organized.  Choosing the venue is simple, as Clay Madsen Recreation Center is the only affordable location that can shelter hundreds of City workers.

The buffet meal is catered now (imagine organizing, heating, and serving hundreds of random pot luck offerings).  The Spirit Lunch committee always manages to come through with a tasty meal on their budget.  Granted, it's not as fancy as dinners I recall from my days in for-profit employ. 

But Spirit Lunch is only nominally about the food, anyway.  Just one time every 365 days, workers from Parks and Recreation, Administration, Communications, and all the other City divisions can associate faces with the names they've seen on emails and work orders.  

As a Round Rock taxpayer and employee, I have two opportunities to take my co-workers for granted.  When customer service is a priority, as it is for the City, usually things get done smoothly and without much fuss.  At least, that's what we hope for.  But when we're sitting across from each other having barbecue, we're reminded that real individuals doing hundreds of tasks keep the water flowing and the streets navigable and the website timely.  In terms of motivation and example, Spirit Lunch proves a worthy use of our time.

And speaking of proof: I have concrete evidence that I'll always need a day job.  For my first week of participation in National Novel Writing Month, I have achieved the goal so far--11,965 words. 

The quality of the plot--pedestrian at best (with no discernible "arc" yet)--is what I expected.  Here's the surprise:  characters actually do, as many professional authors have claimed, sort of materialize as you write.  More than one noted writer has asserted that they simply "walk onto the page". 

In my case, they are more apt to stumble over the threshold or perhaps be dragged in by another character, but I'm still awfully glad they showed up.