getting psyched for NaNoWriMo

November is National Novel Writing Month, not an official holiday but the flagship event of the eponymous nonprofit organization. If you complete a 50,000-word novel during the month, you can claim to have “won” NaNoWriMo, though it’s not a competition. I did this once, almost 10 years ago. I wrote a novel, heavily inspired by The Dark Knight and Harry Potter, about a man who goes around taking the punishment for other people’s crimes. I had also been reading a lot of George Eliot at the time, so my prose in the novel is very dense, and my narrator often breaks out into philosophy. Unless you already know a lot about guns and police procedures, crime drama is not a good genre for NaNoWriMo because there’s little time for research. So my novel, which I self-published as A Man of No Reputation, has a lot of problems, but it inspired a number of themes that continue to appear in my writing, such as loneliness, self-sacrifice, and a protagonist with a perpetually sad-looking face (he can’t help it; it’s just what his face looks like!).

This year, I’ve decided to use NaNoWriMo as motivation to complete the zombie apocalypse narrative I have been working on, slowly, for over a year. I won’t be able to claim to have “won,” since I have no intention of writing 50,000 words; I am at roughly 26,000, and my story arc is nearing its end. (I’m not sure what the finished project will be properly called–a long short story? a novella? I’m mainly thinking of it as the source text for a movie.) Since November starts this Thursday, I want to take a few minutes to look back on the changes my story has gone through and forward to how it might end up. (I really do mean “might”; I have a general idea but no actual outline. I am what they call, in writers’ group lingo, a “pantser”–I plot by the seat of my pants.)

Originally, although I was and still am calling my story a (dark) comedy, my main character was going to die. It was going to be a beautiful, self-sacrificial death, kind of like in my 2009 NaNoWriMo project. I maintain that a comedy can end with the main character(s) dying, like in (spoiler alert) Thelma and Louise, a major inspiration for my story along with Zombieland and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (yes, I’m writing a road trip story). But after getting a lot of feedback about how much people in my writing groups loved my main character, Sam Larson, I started to reconsider killing him off. Yes, I was partly trying to please my audience (not a bad thing), but it also occurred to me that perhaps I could better reinforce one of the themes of my story by allowing Sam to survive.

That theme is LIFE, and it’s a theme uniquely suited to a zombie narrative, which is permeated with a grotesque parody of life. Readers learn early in the story that Sam suffers from clinical depression and that about ten years ago, he attempted suicide. Although Sam has learned to live with depression and no longer wants to die, he constantly struggles to believe that his life has value, especially in this new world in which people tend to be judged by their physical prowess and survival skills. (I’ve written extensively on my blog about this issue in zombie apocalypse narratives.) I think I could still convey this theme with Sam dying a heroic death at the end, but I believe the theme will come through even more clearly if I show him living.

I’m also using a motif that is especially suited to the zombie subgenre: eating. People are constantly eating in my story, whether it’s oatmeal heated up over a fire on the side of the road or a full Italian meal in the safe house. Of course, zombies are always eating too, but they derive no joy or satisfaction from this meaningless activity. In contrast, I wanted to show my characters enjoying food as a gift of life and sharing it with each other. So the eating scenes are not throwaways but integral to the message of my story.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Are there any other themes and motifs you can think of that are particularly appropriate to zombie stories? Let me know in the comments!

Am I not smart anymore?

Here’s what I’m a little bummed about right now: I haven’t written what I consider a real blog post (primarily text, longer than a few lines, and not recycled) since “My month with Kenneth,” published on November 10.  When I think about writing an articulate, coherent post that has a meaningful message, I feel really tired.

For example, you need to have transitions in good writing.  Transitions are really hard to write!  (Maybe I need to lay off on my English 102 students.)  I don’t know how to transition into my next paragraph, so I’m just going to jump topics, if that’s okay with you.

There’s a difference between having ideas for writing and actually writing.  I experience the former all the time.  I have so many screenplay ideas in my head, I would probably have a good statistical probability of winning an Oscar if I actually wrote all of them and saw them made into movies.  Examples: Best Adapted Screenplay: Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, starring Tom Hiddleston and J. J. Feild (because the screenwriter gets to do the casting, obviously); Best Original Screenplay: Sam’s Home (there’s a pun in that title), a bittersweet comedy about a 30-ish guy with depression who’s had some setbacks and is now back living with his parents and working in the same Italian restaurant he worked at in high school (it sounds like it’s been done before, but I have fresh angles).

See, that paragraph was easy to write!  Because I didn’t have to put sentences together logically; I just used a lot of parentheses.

I used to be able to write really brilliant stuff.  The other day I was thinking about some of my best work: my master’s thesis about eating and bodies in George Eliot’s novels, the short story about Cain and Esau in a diner that I wrote in 2009, the paper I wrote on Moneyball and masculinity in a doctoral film class.  I’ve even written some blog posts that I’m pretty proud of.  (See my archives, at left.)  But now, this is the kind of writing I do every day: “Hey guys, we need to have a meeting about Topic X and Topic Y.  How does June 15 sound?”  After a day of writing that kind of stuff, I’m too mentally tired to write a blog post, or to actually start penning one of those screenplays (although I did read a couple of books on screenplay last summer), or (are you kidding me?) write something scholarly.

Does this mean that my creativity is sapped, that my argumentation skills have significantly waned, that my vocabulary has shrunk, or–as my title sadly suggests–that I’m just not smart anymore?

Or, is one of these three more optimistic things true (I know; “things” is a weak noun)?

  1. I just have to set aside time for writing, as Daniel Silvia has told me in How to Write a Lot.  Perhaps I was lucky in the past and was frequently struck with inspiration, but I shouldn’t expect that to be par for the course (ugh, cliche!).  Maybe if I actually sat down and said, “I’m going to write now,” I would come up with something brilliant.
  2. I can still write pretty decent prose–I mean, I’m writing this post!
  3. The “Hey guys” emails, the comments I write on my students’ papers, the Instagram photo captions–maybe those are actually just as brilliant as those old papers and stories I’m really proud of.  They’re just different kinds of brilliance for different contexts.  Maybe?

I want your sympathy.

I’m reading The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling’s 2012 debut “adult” novel, with the intention of having read all of her published works before I really get started writing my dissertation.  (I’m going to wait another week or two to see if inter-library loan can get me The Cuckoo’s Calling before I give up and order it from Amazon.)  I had heard multiple versions of two different, but compatible, assessments of The Casual Vacancy: that it was “racy” (invariably that was the word used) and that it was depressing because the characters were hard to like.

I’ve just finished Part One and found both of these evaluations to be true.  But I’ve also found something I didn’t expect: The Casual Vacancy reminds me strongly of a George Eliot novel.  What tipped me off to the resemblance was the name “Fairbrother”–it’s the last name of the man who dies at the beginning of Rowling’s novel, setting the story in motion, and it’s awfully close to “Farebrother,” the surname of a character in Middlemarch.  But this is just one of many resemblances between The Casual Vacancy and the Eliot canon, especially Middlemarch; others include themes of small-town life (and the pettiness that often accompanies it), sharply accurate depictions of mismatched marriages, long descriptions of characters’ interior thoughts, discussions of the problems of urbanization, and a particular focus on characters moving up or down the English social class scale, which appears in Vacancy to be fascinatingly (and depressingly) little changed since the nineteenth century.

What I don’t see in The Casual Vacancy, at least not yet, is any attempt on the author’s part to help us identify with the characters, especially the ones we don’t like.  Eliot did this a lot, and she did it masterfully, though not very subtly, often using direct second-person commands (“Ask yourself whether you would. . .”), all in an effort to develop the quality of “sympathy” (a key term for Eliot) in her readers.  Sympathy here is not feeling sorry for someone, and it’s not a naive ignorance of anyone’s faults.  It’s the ability to put ourselves imaginatively into another character’s situation and come to the conclusion that we would probably be inclined to act in a very similar way.  The point here is not to make a moral judgment about what would be the right thing to do in the situation, although that would be a logical next step.  The point is to be honest about ourselves.  I think all good realist novelists want their readers to develop sympathy; they just aren’t all as deliberate about it as George Eliot.  I think J. K. Rowling wants that for her readers too; she just isn’t making it very easy in The Casual Vacancy.  But a hard-won sympathy is probably more lasting than the knee-jerk kind anyway.  I’ll reserve my final judgment until I finish the book.

Let me make two more quick points about sympathy in a shameless effort to drag Charles Dickens and Harry Potter into this post:

1. It often takes multiple readings of a book to develop sympathy for a particular character.  When I first read David Copperfield, I thought David’s “child-wife” Dora was an annoying little twit, but now that I’ve read it several times I can see that she is remarkably self-aware in her own way and that she has a better grasp of the flaw in their marriage than David, apparently the more analytic one, does.  You gotta watch out for those first-person narrators.  They think they know everything.  (KATNISS EVERDEEN)

2. One valid reason for writing fan fiction is to try to develop sympathy with an unlikable, “minor,” or even villainous character.  Possibly this may be why there’s a lot of Draco Malfoy fanfic.  Certainly, some of it is of the shallow sort (“He looked extremely sexy and vulnerable as he knelt there weeping onto his elegantly cut black suit”), but I would also imagine–I haven’t actually read any Draco fanfic–that there’s some good stuff that explores, for example, what growing up in Malfoy Manor as an only child with those parents would do to a kid psychologically.

I promise I didn’t intend to write a literary criticism post this week; my original intention was to post pictures of my cute decorations for the afternoon party I hosted yesterday.  But I forgot to take pictures, so this is what you get.  I hope you’ll give me some sympathy.