Monday, November 28, 2011

NaNoWriMo: One of my Best Failures Yet

Well, folks, it's November 28th, time for a status update. If you are one of those root-for-the-underdog, "maybe she'll pull it out of the fire at the last minute and surprise us" kind of readers, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I think it's highly unlikely I will write 32,940 words in the next 59 hours to complete NaNoWriMo. In fact, I took the last five days off from writing altogether, so that my official word count chart looks like a sad little plateau in the shadow of Goal Mountain.

And I couldn't be happier.

Why? First, the reason I quit writing this week was to give my family my undivided attention over the Thanksgiving holiday. Following a lovely meal with extended family and some midnight Black Friday shopping with my best friend, we had the most relaxing three days we've experienced in a looooong time. I think everyone in our house felt rejuvenated and more connected as we returned to work/preschool/play-mat today. And it was desperately needed. Even if I'd been giving up $32,000 instead of 32,000 words, that would've been worth it.

Second, it turns out that failing at NaNoWriMo was a huge success. As I described in my previous posts about this challenge, sometimes it takes insane ambition to force us to put in the time on something we love. Otherwise, there are too many excuses, too many alternatives, too many more sensible choices available. So even though I knew it was a goal I'd be unlikely to achieve this year, I started out the month with gusto anyway. And it worked.

I made time to dive back into writing by getting started on REGRETS ONLY, the sequel to THE MARRIAGE PACT, and things really started to flow. I got several great chapters underway and learned a little more about Suzanne (Marci's best friend in TMP, the main character of REGRETS). I'm looking forward to seeing how her story will continue to develop.... eventually.

In the meantime, however, the 'flow' has not restricted itself to the novel that I set out to write. In fact, as I plowed along, my conversation with Suzanne was interrupted several times by ideas for other projects, and other characters demanding that their stories be heard. One character in particular, a spunky young woman named Dina (whom you'll hear more about soon), just wouldn't let up. I don't know if Dina realizes that it's rude to interrupt a writer at work, but to be fair, she has an amazing story that I think you'll be clamoring for when it's written.

So, Suzanne, like any well-bred Southern belle would do, is stepping aside. Temporarily. Her story will be written in its time (and I have a feeling she'll get revenge for the interruption when it does). But for now, I'm going to follow the flow and Dina. I can tell by her crazy tattoos and bad attitude that it's going to be an interesting journey. So stay tuned. More fruits of my failure coming soon!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Voice

It seems writers are always talking about voice. Finding your voice, choosing a voice for a story... and even, on some occasions, hearing voices. (No one ever said we writers were the most mentally stable crowd.)

On a personal note today, I'd like to join the rest of the University of Georgia's Bulldog Nation in saying goodbye to a familiar and beloved voice: our longtime football play-by-play announcer Larry Munson, who passed away on Sunday night. 

Larry Munson was a spirited and colorful part of my alma mater's football tradition, and for many of us who grew up in Georgia, he was as much a part of fall Saturdays as washing the car or raking the leaves. Larry called the games for 40 years in his signature gravelly voice, using metaphors that were always lively, if occasionally incomprehensible. [Many will long remember his remark, ''We just stepped on their face with a hobnailed boot and broke their nose!'' after a big touchdown pass against Tennessee in 2001.] Since his retirement in 2008, there has been a void on fall Saturdays for Georgia fans everywhere, a void that deepened Sunday night on the news of his death. 

For me, the loss of Larry Munson is not so much about football, but rather the echo of a deeper loss. To be honest with you, I was never a huge football person, and it's only been in recent years that I have embraced watching UGA football on a regular basis. In fact, during the five years that I studied at UGA, I went to maybe four football games. And even then, it was mostly for the pre-game beer.

When I was growing up, though, my Dad watched and listened to the games religiously. Never mind that he didn't go to UGA, never mind that he spent most of his career working for in-state rival Georgia Tech. He was a bulldog fan through and through, and I can still remember the crackling sound of Larry Munson's voice on the AM radio while Dad cleaned the garage or worked in the basement. I wasn't really interested in the game itself, but my Dad was my hero back then. I didn't think anything was more perfect than a sunny Saturday watching him working around the house in paint-splattered jeans and a sweatshirt.

In recent years, things had changed. Dad didn't do as much around the house anymore, and didn't seem to enjoy life with the same fervor I remember from my childhood. Our relationship changed, too, as our family went through a series of painful experiences. While we were always pretty solid, there were strains between us that didn't exist when I was a kid. It wasn't long ago that I found myself nostalgic and longing for those quiet Saturdays when things seemed simpler. When the sound of Larry Munson's voice was the backdrop for moments of calm amidst the chaos. 

When Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year, I was especially devastated because I felt that the birth of my older son (and the expectation of the younger) had finally brought us together in a way that we'd been missing. In fact, we watched more Georgia football games together in the last two years than we had in a decade. The last time I saw my Dad, he came to our house in early September -- you guessed it -- to watch the football game. Georgia lost that game to Boise State, but it doesn't matter. We had a great time together, and I'm so happy we had the presence of mind to take pictures of our family in Red & Black, sitting together, with my one-month-old son cradled in his Granddad's affectionate arms.

Dad died a little over two weeks later. Needless to say, the rest of the season has been bittersweet for me. The Dawgs are going to the SEC championship, but my Dad isn't here to enjoy it with our family, or to tirelessly analyze every step of the way with my husband. This past Saturday I got a message from one of Dad's best friends in the world, who he has known and loved since graduate school: "Guess I'll never glance at a Georgia football game and not think of your Dad." Me, either.

When a public figure passes away, we all have our own connections and reasons to mourn. I know I am not alone in missing Larry Munson, not just for who he was for my school, but who he represented in my life. For the memories and feelings that come flooding back whenever I hear that famous voice.

Thank you, Larry. You'll be missed more than you know.

Monday, November 14, 2011

NaNoWriMo - The (Almost) Halfway Point

Perhaps against my better judgment, I am participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year. As I might have guessed when I signed up, I am more than 50% behind pace to complete the 50,000 words in my latest novel, REGRETS ONLY. With each day that passes, it becomes less and less likely that I will catch up by November 30. The folks at NaNoWriMo even provide a helpful graph so I can visually see my meager little word counts straining to keep up with the 1,667 per day line.

It's hard work, it's frustrating, and it's almost ridiculous given the busy, sleep-deprived state of my life right now. And it's exactly what I thought would happen.

So why bother?

One thing I have learned about myself over the years is that I work better with (a) structure and (b) dramatic goals. The combination of adrenalin and a very tall measuring stick seems to work well for me as a motivator. At the beginning of the writing process, motivation is the most important tool. At this stage of the process, motivation trumps talent and experience by a long shot. It doesn't matter what an awesome writer I am unless I write.

Lots of people want to write a book - whether it's a novel like mine, a self-help book, a kids' book, cookbook, whatever... In my experience, many people are held back by the idea that they have to be "ready" before they start writing. If they can't envision the final product perfectly, or can't figure out where they would get the thousands of hours required to complete the project, they don't start.

Does it take thousands of hours to write a novel? Well, yes. But it only takes one to get started. Then you find another hour somewhere and keep going. The luxury of many consecutive, uninterrupted hours that can be dedicated to writing is a rare gift. More often, people write books by stringing together lunch breaks, jotting down notes while holding a sleeping baby (I happen to be holding a sleeping baby right now, in fact), and tuning out the background noise on the bus.

To make that kind of schedule work, to dedicate yourself to filling spare moments with words, means you have to leave perfectionism and self-criticism at the door. Otherwise, you'll get bogged down and self-destruct before you even get started. That's why the quantity-over-quality endeavors like NaNoWriMo are so useful. Don't edit. Don't critique. Just write.

I've been amazed, even with my paltry 9500 words, how Suzanne's story and the characters who inhabit it are evolving and moving differently than I expected, simply because I've allowed them the freedom to do so. And I'm going to keep at it, even if I don't make the 50K goal, even if I have to go back and rewrite every word that hits the page in November. Because everything starts somewhere.

In the meantime, cheers to my fellow NaNoWriMo writers, and to everyone following a dream during life's stolen moments.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Last night we took the boys Trick-or-Treating with some friends and had a great time. I didn't know whether Monkey would be able to keep up with the four- to seven-year-old crowd on his little two-year-old pirate legs, but he was a champ. I don't think he cares much about the candy yet -- last night he had perhaps his third piece ever and tried to eat the wrapper. Rookie mistake. But the thrill of running from house to house filling his bucket was irresistible and he loved every minute.

Apparently, the porch light code (lights on = candy, lights off = go away) either no longer applies or the people in this particular neighborhood weren't paying much attention to it. So the older boys who were leading our group adopted a scouting approach to each house, running ahead to ring doorbells and shouting back to the younger kids and adults whether each house held the promise of candy or was deserted. I'm not sure why, but after a while, they started saying that the empty houses were "haunted." I guess at six or seven, a lack of candy can be pretty scary.

So I started thinking about the concept of haunted houses. In my current philosophical state, I moved pretty quickly to thinking about haunted people. We all are, aren't we? Maybe not by ghosts and spirits, but by other things: Regret. Loss. Doubt.

Personally, I am haunted by mistakes I've made, things unsaid, and (perhaps more often) things I wish I hadn't said. I am haunted by song lyrics and poetry and even news stories. I'm haunted by longings for things I want desperately and things I can't even name. I'm haunted by reminders that life is short, unpredictable and makes no promises. Even when I count my blessings, I see their shadow -- the knowledge that everything is fleeting and nothing (no one) is mine forever.

Thirteen years ago I was hiking in the Scottish highlands, along a steep and rocky ridge next to a river valley. I'd been wandering around with nothing but a backpack and a credit card for nearly six months, and everything I owned was either strapped to my back or resting a few miles away in a tent, behind a tiny luggage lock. My companion and I had been hiking for hours in silence, waving away the midges and struggling for breath as we ascended into the thin Scottish air.

As we neared the top of a hill, we heard a sudden roar as a black RAF fighter jet zipped between our ridge and the one across the little valley. It flew past us almost at eye level, looking smaller than it sounded, and turned sharply to climb into the blue sky before disappearing over the next mountain. Another jet followed suit, and they both made a couple of passes between the mountains before eventually sliding off into the distance. (We learned later that the area in which we were hiking was a common training ground for fighter pilots to practice rough terrain).

Once they were gone, the beautiful mountain scene returned to its original quiet state and we almost wondered if we had imagined the jets entirely. It was pretty surreal. We continued our climb to the top of the ridge, took pictures, and worked our way back to the campsite a few hours later.

I can't say why, but I am haunted by that moment, even today. Maybe it was the intrusion of technology (instruments of war, no less) on my peaceful hike across the unspoiled Scottish countryside. But I have to admit that seeing the planes was a thrill, rather than a nuisance. Perhaps it was the way the scene changed and then returned to its former state so quickly -- a fleeting moment in time that can never be recaptured.

Or maybe it's because I felt freer in that moment than I have at any other time in my life. Even if it was a completely artificial way of existing, there was something liberating about being 22: carrying all I needed in one well-worn backpack, moving from place to place, snapping pictures and writing in my journal as though it were a real job. Climbing mountains just because they were there to be climbed.

Of course, I can't have that moment in my life back again. And frankly, I wouldn't want it back. There's too much that is wonderful and essential in my totally tied down, mortgage-paying, cheerio-sweeping life. But there are plenty of moments I would like to get back, to relive in a slightly different way. To hold my tongue in a precarious social situation. To speak up for someone who needed it. To hug my parents a little longer, and take the time to write down their stories, the ones I always assumed I'd be hearing again someday. So many choices I look back on and wish I could try out a different path. But then I wouldn't be where I am, wouldn't have the blessings I have. I'd be in an alternate universe that might be less perfect than my current life.

If you've read THE MARRIAGE PACT, you may have picked up on the theme of choices, and how they help weave the story of our lives. My next book is called REGRETS ONLY, and I hope -- through Suzanne's very unique lens -- it will at least touch on the idea of being haunted. By the past, by roads not taken, by moments and relationships lost forever.

Speaking of which, today is the first day of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). While I don't think I can crank out the 3,000 words a day I would need to complete REGRETS before December 1, I'm planning to make major progress this month and will keep you posted.

If you've been waiting for a cue to take a leap in your own life, here it is: November is a great time to seize a moment and accomplish something you've always wanted to do -- whether it's write a novel or pretty much anything else. We cannot recapture the past, but sometimes we can avoid regrets in the future, or at least choose what kind they will be. Better to regret the pain of loss, than of never having put your heart on the line in the first place.

So, good luck and get busy (or unbusy, if that's your thing), because time really does fly.