Cyber Monday and Storytelling

Last week I wrote about gratitude in honor of the warmth of Thanksgiving. Now, with turkey eaten and football watched, we’re several days into the traditional season of consumerism. Many of us stayed up late Thursday or set the alarm for ungodly hours (not I this year, I’m happy to say), only to wait in line for deals, stocking up on gifts for others and ourselves.

Our stated object is to snag a deal on something specific: clothes, toys, electronics, maybe a TV the size of a small village. But the goal is usually something else. It’s not Tickle Me Furby or the 108-inch Plasma TV that makes us want to stand in line for hours, elbowing aside other shoppers and reverting to our primal roots. There’s some other, deeper goal at work: putting a smile on our kids’ or spouse’s face at the holidays, proving our love and thoughtfulness, enjoying the thrill of the hunt, filling the black void in our souls with material things… hey, no judgment here. Whatever that true internal goal is, that’s what really drives us to do the things we do.

Characters in good stories are the same way. They pursue one goal on the surface: solving the crime, getting the guy/girl, winning the epic battle between vampires and werewolves. That’s where the action is. But what the reader really relates to (whether he/she knows it or not) is the internal struggle for something: redemption, self-acceptance, a change in perspective, hope for the future. These internal goals aren’t always positive, just like our own secret motivations for doing things aren’t always saintly in real life. In fact, the internal struggle is often where the real nitty-gritty of our characters’ humanity appears.

A good writer has to understand both goals in order to develop the character’s struggle fully. We have to know why our character thinks she is standing in line outside Target in the middle of the night, wishing she’d remembered those hand-warmers; and why she is really there. It’s all part of what draws the reader in and makes the story worth reading, all the way through to the bitter (or triumphant) end.

NaNoWriMo – Sometimes It’s About How You DON’T Work

By the time we were halfway through November, I had already figured out I wasn’t going to make my NaNoWriMo goal. I’d paved my road to hell with plans of staying up late, getting up early, and dedicating a few kids-in-preschool days to churning out 3 to 5,000 words apiece to fill in the gaps. Starting with Day One, I was reminded about what G-d does (or the universe, if you prefer) when we plan our lives.

On the very first writing day, my littlest one came down with this weird, uncomfortable virus that comes with painful mouth sores and high fever. When he got better, his big brother came down with it, and I went from screaming, fussy infant to mushy pile of whiny three-year-old. When that was done, I had an all-day consulting project to prepare for and implement, and then a belated birthday celebration for myself to attend (not strictly necessary, you’ll say, but I beg to differ!). I’m every minute of thirty-seven, if anyone is wondering.

When the little one got sent home sick from school AGAIN three days later, I officially threw in the proverbial towel on reaching 50,000 words by the end of the month. I’m not giving up on the project itself, of course, just the absurd artificial deadline. And after talking to hubs and one of my writing buddies, I realize how things have changed for me since my first time participating in NaNoWriMo. Not only was my life different then (no kids, for example) but so was my perspective on writing.

For me, NaNoWriMo was a fun, useful experience when my main obstacle was the idea of writing. There’s a boldness of spirit required to take on, and continue, that kind of ambitious project. If you don’t think of yourself as a writer, or you can’t imagine “finding time” to write, NaNoWriMo is a wonderful way to explore ‘literary abandon’ and find out that you’re capable of more than you once believed.

But as they say in Texas, I’ve been to this rodeo before, and the idea of writing a novel doesn’t intimidate me the way it once did. I’ve finished and published two already, and they’ve been pretty well received by readers. So whether I can do it is no longer a question. How to build on past successes and make this a sustainable part of my life is the issue now. And whether I like it or not, my life is going to include sick kids and social commitments and schedule changes. I love living a ‘literary’ life, but right now I don’t have room for the ‘abandon.’

At the risk of sounding like a huge snob, I actually think I’ve outgrown NaNoWriMo a little. It’s been fun, and I’ve really enjoyed helping my buddies find their feet in the world of long-form fiction, but I think I need to find a way of incorporating what’s positive about NaNoWriMo (ambitious goals, writing without criticizing) into my life all year long. With room for life, of course. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking 5,000 words a week is more realistic for me.

What about you? If you’re NaNoWriMoing, how is it going? What are you learning about yourself as a writer? Would you do it again?

Writer’s Challenge No. 7

It’s the Writer’s Challenge – Gratitude Edition! Feel free to respond on your own blog or site and link with a few words in the comments section below. Happy writing!

Writing Prompt: In November, it’s customary to count your blessings (and as often as not, to post about gratitude on your blog, Facebook page and/or Tweetstream). Lovely. But what happens if we take the idea of blessings to extremes? What would life be like if you – or your favorite character – had everything you’d ever wanted? Or if you suddenly had none of the things for which you are grateful? It’s an apocalyptic thought, and a fascinating concept. Write 800 words today about having it all, or losing everything.

Business of Writing Challenge: What are you grateful for when it comes to writing for a living? Is it your natural talent, your tenacity, your friends who are always willing to share? Maybe you’re naturally organized and disciplined, or you have a knack for coming up with ideas that are truly original. I believe we are tasked with using our talents to make the world a better place (the Jewish concept is Tikkun Olam – Repairing the World). Take a moment to inventory and say “thank you” for your greatest assets, and to brainstorm about how you can continue strengthening them in the future.

Three Guys, a Girl and 200K

No, it’s not the latest reality show from VH1. It’s my National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) experience!

Last year I wrote my NaNoWriMo entry in a relative vacuum (perhaps one of many reasons I bailed out at 20,000 words), but this year I’m excited to say that I have three writing buddies who were already buddies to begin with. They also all happen to be men whose names begin with R. What can I say? I’m a girl with a type.

The first to join my writing group this fall was my friend Ross. Actually, he’s a guy I dated for a couple of years in college who is now married to a friend of mine’s younger sister. Awkward? Not at all. Why would you think that? I mean, how could I talk so freely about how not awkward that is unless it were totally not awkward, right? [insert high pitched, but totally not nervous laughter here]. Seriously, it’s exciting to see him challenging himself to write long-form fiction for the first time.

The other two are Ryan and Rob, whom I count among my very best friends in the world. The former and I bonded over Virginia Woolf during a summer at Oxford and have been alternately challenging, supporting and inciting each other to laughter ever since. Ryan and I exchanged playlists a few weeks ago, each of us creating an era-specific mix to help the other stay inspired in November.

And as for Rob, well, some may find this hard to believe, but Rob has been my friend since we were six years old. That’s more than 30 years, y’all. He is truly more like a brother than a friend, not just to me, but to my husband as well. It’s a gift.

People often comment about the longstanding, deep friendships in my novels. I can tell you that those relationships are certainly (fictionalized) reflections of what I am so blessed to have in my real life. Some writers prefer an isolated life, which I can understand, but that’s just not how I’m wired. I need that interaction and support, the stimulation of good conversation and mutual accountability.

Every writer needs a support system: whether it’s a richly woven web of relationships like mine; the simple acceptance of a spouse or partner who can take the kids while you write; or even a writing buddy who is time zones away, but can give you a pep talk just when you need it. The writing life can be difficult; but strong relationships can make it a little easier and a little more worthwhile. Who are your biggest supporters? Where would more support be helpful?

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo like me this month, feel free to connect with me and become part of my web. [Warning: once you’re in, it’s hard to get out!] The Writer’s Challenge Feature is on hold until December while I scramble for those word count goals, but we’ll be back with more fun stuff in chilly weather. Good luck, everyone!

Writer’s Challenge No. 6 – NaNoWriMo Kickoff Edition

As if NaNoWriMo isn’t challenging enough in itself, here’s the writer’s challenge of the week to help get you moving into those word counts. And if you’re not participating, it’s okay. You still have my permission to be inspired.

As always, feel free to respond on your own blog or site and link with a few words in the comments section below.

Fiction Prompt: Fight the intimidation of the blank page by writing what you anticipate will be one of the most climactic scenes in your novel first. You don’t have to lead up to it or know what will follow, just write the intense scene as it comes to you. Don’t edit or question at this point; allow yourself to get swept up in the emotion and write. When you’re done, read your scene. What do you love about it? What could be better? How can you set the stage for this moment, beginning at page one?  

Non-fiction/essay:  If you were going to write 50,000 words about your life, where would you start? What events would be in your own personal outline? Would you be the center of your own story, or would it start in another generation or with a different perspective? What would you want readers to learn from a glimpse into your life?

Writer’s Personal Challenge: Whether you’ve participated in NaNoWriMo or not, think about what short bursts of pressure and intense short-term goals do for you. Do you function well under immediate pressure or are you more wired for regular discipline and steady routines? How can you organize your writing practice to make the most of what motivates you?