NaNoWriMo Good News and Bad News

First, the bad news. Another National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has come and gone, and I did not win. Again. I’ve participated almost every year since 2012, and have never completed the recommended goal of 50,000 words. This year I completed 15,000 words, which is on the high side of my usual results.

Picture of old manual typewriter
Some guys buy the now-classic car they wanted in high school but couldn’t afford. I got the typewriter (though I still glance fondly at early 1970s Dusters and Novas -especially the hatchbacks).

To make matters worse, that word count is an estimate. The proper approach to NaNoWriMo is to draft a novel. However, on several occasions, I’ve used it to rewrite or revise a novel. This time, I was revising Romance One, a novel I originally drafted for NaNoWriMo in 2012. Since this is not a competitive event, the rules are loose, and I’m a self-declared NaNo rebel (yes, they have a badge for that).

Word counts can be tricky when revising. One day I added a new section of 400 words – that’s easy enough to count. The next day I reviewed the manuscript of 48,000 words to make sure all references to a minor character reflected new information about them. That took 2 hours, and required changing 20 words, with a net word count of 0. Somehow it does not seem right to count 0 words, but 48,000 does not seem right either. I ended up figuring an hour of revising is like writing 1000 words.

Even by that fudging, I didn’t come close to winning. When I’m in my groove, I spend an hour of writing each weekday, but I didn’t manage it over November. I have any number of reasons / excuses, including volunteer commitments (largely related to writing) and freelance work (money is useful). The new NaNoWriMo web site lacks the ability to specify the date when you update your word count, which I found discouraging. If you don’t log in every day, you can’t properly track progress.

I’m not worried about lacking the discipline to finish a book. I’ll get there. I know things can take longer than expected. For example, in 1995, I applied to enter a two-year Master’s Degree program. It took thirteen years to get accepted, and seven years to complete the degree.

A reassurance that I will get it done, and the biggest reason for not spending much time on Romance One or other fiction writing this month, is my good news: Halfway through the month, I completed a set of major revisions to the third draft of Romance One. This is a significant milestone – the third draft addressed concerns that had been raised by a trusted editor, and the major revisions addressed issues raised by people who read small portions of the manuscript while the third draft was being prepared.

With the third draft in good shape, I needed a short break, from any writing, before returning to the manuscript for minor revisions. Then it goes out to beta readers. That won’t happen until the new year, as I have an academic article to revise this month, as well as a couple of editing projects to work on.

If all goes according to plan, by next year’s NaNoWriMo Romance One will be published (likely under a better title), and I’ll be working on another project. If things don’t go according to plan, I may be rewriting Romance One for NaNoWriMo, again. Either way, I probably won’t be meeting my word count goals. But I’ll be writing some words, and, regardless of the word count achieved, signing up for NaNoWriMo is a step in the write direction.

Smells like Writing Spirit

I recently visited Ottawa, and I had a chance to try the new transit line. A former Carleton student, I’d used the north-south diesel trains serving the university for years, but the east-west electric light-rail line, running underground through downtown, had just opened. I wanted to check it out. In the 1980s, I lived in downtown Toronto, and frequently used the subway then, but otherwise my subway rides have been rare.

Ottawa’s Rideau station looks typical of the urban subway stations I’ve been in, and that I have seen in movies. It’s a collection of entrances scattered around local storefronts and malls, leading to tunnels and long escalators down to the platforms. Unlike suburban stations, with their eclectic mix of public art and low-bid functionalism, the entrances to urban stations are practical and blend into the connecting structures.

Ottawa’s Rideau station, but could be anywhere. Photo (c) Tim Covell

Once on transit property, the design goal is resistance to vandalism and ease of cleaning. Grey tiles abound. More distinctive than the familiar look is the smell – a not unpleasant mix of oil, burned electrical connections, and musty moisture. One whiff, and I was transported back to Toronto, decades ago. I recalled commuting to early jobs, mentally drafting my contributions to an APA (imagine blog posts printed and mailed to subscribers), trips to bookstores, and less wholesome outings. The rush of memories verged on disorienting.

Like hearing, we have little control of what we smell, but we cannot record smells. My recollections of the sights and sounds of subways are reinforced routinely through movies, and other recordings, but smell is absent.

And we get used to smells. Those always present disappear, and we notice them again after an absence. I love the salt air of living near the ocean, but I am most aware of it when I return home from travelling.

Smells are a momentary impact, when new, or recollected, yet on recollection they can bring a host of attached memories, for better or worse. Decades ago, I briefly knew someone who wore a distinctive perfume. Since then, thanks in part to the growing support for scent-free places, I rarely encounter it, but when I do, all the pleasures, disappointments, and mistakes of that relationship come flooding back.

I’m thinking about the sense of smell not just to wallow in nostalgia for my adventures in my younger days … wallow, wallow … but to remind myself, when writing, not to overlook my characters’ sense of smell, and to take full advantage of it.

Setting is typically described visually when a scene begins, so we know where the characters are. Sound and smell might play roles then too, but we don’t want to dwell too much on descriptions. However, a smell, and its associations, can be brought in almost anytime, and they can be subjective – something only one character notices. It can be connected to the action of a scene, bring in backstory, or both.

Romance novels typically mention personal scents when a couple are close, to indicate awareness of the other person’s physicality, suggest intimacy, and later, suggest familiarity. But characters may encounter other smells. An unusual hand or dish soap might bring up memories, good or bad, of a previous relationship, house, store, childhood, etc.

Smells don’t need to be objectively unusual. A common smell such as sawdust or bleach might be unusual for a character, yet still have associations from a past exposure. And even without associations, if a smell is unusual for a character, it should be noted. Mentioning a character’s awareness of the salt air when they arrive at an ocean beach tells us they’ve been away, or perhaps never been there, while not mentioning it suggests they live in the area.

Smells, and their associations, can be powerful. Having been recently reminded of that, I must remember to use them effectively when writing.

Flash Fiction – Organized Crime

Public domain clipboard icon.

This story was written for a contest. I was given the genre, crime caper; the location, a comic book shop ; and an object that had to be mentioned, a clipboard. The story had to be 1000 words maximum, and submitted within 48 hours. Posted here as submitted. This submission placed first in the group of stories with these requirements.

Synopsis [part of the submission]: The mastermind of a perfect crime reflects on what went right, and struggles with why things went wrong.

The key to the perfect crime is organization, and I was organized. I’d had eight months to prepare. It started with the two weeks I invested in dating Julia, the building department clerk. We kept dating after that, but then it was pleasure, not work. Eight months was more time than I’d prepared for any previous job, but this wasn’t just gold. I was going for a hat trick: gold, rare Scotch, data, and rare comics. I know, a hat trick is three, but since I worked part time at the comic book shop, stealing from there didn’t count. Just to get that job took a month learning about comics, and then three months playing the free-spending fanboy. Meanwhile, I assembled my team — my regulars, and a bunch of new folks.

Julia helped, not just by finding new team members, but also by preparing checklists to keep me organized. She gave me a translucent pink plastic clipboard. “Don’t use your phone or your computer,” she said. “It’s easily monitored and leaves a record. Use a checklist and keep it on the clipboard so it is handy. Shred the paper after, and there’s no record.”

So, there I was, Saturday night, or, more accurately, Sunday morning, clipboard in hand, starting with step one on the checklist: “Use my employee key to enter Crazy Cal’s Comics” (check). Julia had recommended that as step one, since that was the official beginning of the crime. I was lucky to have met her — fantastic in bed and almost as obsessive as me. We got along great.

The next step was admitting Garry (check). He attached his phone to the alarm and gave me a thumbs up seconds later. My entry and recent video had been removed from the alarm log. Nothing would be recorded while we worked.

“How are things on the buses?”

“Everyone’s fine, and no one is paying attention to the buses.” I checked the appropriate lines. I’d hired two tour buses and had them parked in the lot behind the building, such that no one could see people walking between them and the back door. This was the fourth weekend I’d hired the buses and parked them there, so the patrolling cops didn’t give them a second glance.

I opened the back door, and flashed the cat toy laser, signaling all clear (check). People streamed silently out of both buses. My people were well trained. Everyone moved to their positions. Alpha team removed the posters (check), and they started cutting the side wall to the jewelry store (check). Beta team worked the other side wall (check), leading to the hosting company, and the gamma team set up the rig (check), for getting to the artisanal Scotch bar upstairs. Delta team stayed in the book shop.

Of the four businesses, the comic book shop had the weakest security, and offered easy access to the others. Gold was my game, but when Julia pointed out the possibilities here, and encouraged me to go for it, I decided to enter the big leagues. It was the most complex and costly job I’d organized, but it was going to set me up for life.

My teams moved between the racks, more heroic than the illustrated crusaders behind them, more stealthy than the villain action figures on the shelves overhead. I was the director of a well-choreographed ballet. I was tempted to run the security cameras for a few minutes, to show off my work, but of course that was not on the checklist.

 If I was the director — or was it the choreographer? — Julia was the producer. In the movies, they never show anyone paying the bills to rent rehearsal space for the crime, organizing health insurance payroll deductions for the phony businesses to ensure team members are cared for, or creating phony tour companies to charter buses. She looked after all the paperwork. I wish she had come tonight, to witness my success at organizing the troops. But, as she said, “Your strength is the hands-on work. Mine’s support.” It was amazing how well she took to criminal activities, but I suspect pleasing me was a big motivator. It’s nice to have made a difference in someone’s life.

All teams had access. Three check marks and I started the next page.

As some team members removed items, others left phony replacements. The gold bars were replaced with gold plated steel. Replica bottles of rare scotches, filled with Johnnie Walker Red, went into the Scotch bar. Delta team members placed photocopies of rare comics, sealed in Mylar bags, into the display case. The data was only copied. It might be months before anyone knew there had been a crime. Julia assured me the materials would be out of state within six hours, and out of the country in twelve. She and my gold guy had worked together on how to get the loot sold. The advances they’d arranged covered expenses, and a lot more was promised.

My teams were repairing the damage to the walls and ceiling, and we were still on schedule (check). The paint would dry within an hour.

“Garry, confirm continuity.” He compared the store to photos he’d taken on arrival. He moved a poster two inches to the right. No one would know we’d been here.

“All good, boss.”

Check.

“You got the data USB from the beta team lead?” Julia had been particularly worried about the data USB, since it was small and easily lost.

He patted his pocket. “Yes.”

Check.

“Reactivate alarm.” Garry reactivated the alarm, with a thirty second delay, and left. I heard the buses pull away. Check, check and last item check. I put the clipboard down, looked around the shop, and congratulated myself. Well done. I left, locked the door behind me, and slipped into the darkness. If only I hadn’t left the clipboard behind. I wonder why Julia didn’t add that to the checklist. If she ever comes to visit, I’ll ask her.

Flash Fiction – Social Night

Image of the ISS from NASA, nasa.gov

This story was written for a contest. I was given the genre, comedy; the location, a space station; and an object that had to be mentioned, a surgical mask. The story had to be 1000 words maximum, and submitted within 48 hours. Posted here as submitted. This submission placed first in the group of stories with these requirements.

Synopsis [part of the submission]: Susan, a member of the female crew at a space station in a slightly twisted future, has high hopes for the evening when a mission crew of men arrive.

Honor among thieves? Not when a mission arrives. Then it’s every woman for herself and devil take the hindmost.

Rachel announced the mission at breakfast. “Out bound. Ten men. One social night, one rest night.” There were groans at the number, and just one social night, but it was still good news. For eight months, we only had each other’s company for the weekly social night. More action than I got before my arrest, but it would be nice to score a man.

Rachel posted their bios on the wall, along with details we didn’t care about, like which system they were exploring. Thanks to relativity, if they even came back, it would be long after we died. Health details were the usual – fit, sterile, and healthy, like us, and mid-twenties. Our ages varied, depending when we were sent and how long we’d been here, but thanks to good care and no sun, none of us looked our age.

The details that mattered were looks and rank. Captain Ninguno was the hottest – highest ranked, ebony skin, blue eyes. Rachel would go for him. As the lowest ranked crew, I’d be lucky to get any of them. But in for a penny, in for a pound. Cleaning wasn’t all bad. I listened to books while working. I learned proverbs and other things.

The shuttle docked right at 1500, and we lined up for the welcome. They looked surprised to see us, as usual. Everyone knew station crews were similar short, thin women, with short hair and identical uniforms, but ship crews reacted as if we were twenty identical twins. The men were oblivious to our different hair and skin colors, though not the different numbers and colors of our rank stripes.

Rachel stepped forward and shook Ninguno’s hand. “Welcome aboard ICQ 17.” He looked as handsome in person as he did in his image, but he was wearing a surgical mask. Odd, but the blue brought out his eyes.

“Thank you, Station Leader Rachel.” Introductions were made as per protocol. It was always pleasing how big the men were, and how obviously happy they were to see us. It was a long trip from Earth, although apparently men did not tire of each other the way women did. Ninguno ended his introductions with an explanation about his mask – not protocol, but neither was wearing one. “I have acquired a rare infection of the upper respiratory tract. Control is investigating, but meanwhile I must wear this, to prevent spread. My apologies.” Rachel tried not to frown, and I was disappointed myself. Even if my plans worked, that would limit our pleasure on social night.

Social night started with dinner, in three hours. Meanwhile, the men unloaded their equipment and our supplies. As we prepared for the evening, the others called me to one emergency after another. The soap dispenser in the shower stopped working. After I fixed that, the hot water ran out. The crew toilets clogged. The clean uniforms were covered with lint. Fortunately, I’d bathed and set aside a clean uniform earlier, and even bleached my hair.

Ninguno proposed the first toast, as per protocol. “Yonder all before us lie deserts of vast eternity. To the crew of ICQ 17, who make the departure so pleasant.” He didn’t look at me, sitting at the furthest table with the other one-stripers, but by his toast I knew he’d seen my note in his linens.

“Anyone going to try?” said Anna, to the table.

“I’ve made cookies for Derrick,” said Lori. “Just need to slip them to him.”

“Good luck,” said Stella. “Beatrice has her eye on him.”

“The cookies haven’t failed me yet.”

Regardless of how or if we paired, the two hours of dancing were when everyone got some contact. I hoped Lori succeeded with Derrick – he was a decent kisser. There was no kissing when I had my turn with Ninguno, as he still wore the mask, but we danced close.

“You were right,” he whispered in my ear. “The smartest, most beautiful, and most confident woman in the room, as I always expected. May I have you tonight?”

Rachel, nearby, tolerating Hogaza kissing her neck, glared at me.

“Yes.” Success! Though I was not sure why he’d always expected anything of me.

“Thank you, Angelica.”

“Who?” I said, but the bell sounded to switch partners, and he didn’t hear me.

At 2200, the unpaired women returned to the bunk room, Beatrice among them. Derrick held Lori’s hand, a foolish grin on his reddened face. He’d started on the cookies. Ninguno came to me.

“Where should we go?”

There were no private rooms, but we always found spaces. Mine was the cleaning closet, already prepared with a bed made of spare linens on crates of cleaning supplies. I led him to it, and the space impressed him. “Always a resourceful woman, Angelica. I’m looking forward to the honor of being with you and making love in half-gee.”

He removed the mask and leaned down to kiss me.

“Wait.” He stopped. “Your infection?”

“A lie to save myself for you, Angelica.”

A lie to Control made him brave or stupid. I was starting to suspect the latter.

“I’m Susan. Why are you calling me Angelica?”

“Are you not Angelica, leader of the resistance? You used the poem.”

“To seduce you. I don’t know about any resistance, and don’t care.”

“You’re just a one-striper crew, a cleaner?”

“Yes.”

“This is awkward.”

I slapped him. He put the mask back on and left. I slammed the door behind him.

A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. I opened it, expecting Ninguno’s apology, or Rachel announcing demerits. Hogaza stood there, half-dressed and looking like a bashful Norse god.

“Yes?”

“If you spend what’s left of the night with me, you will forget everything between you and Ninguno.”

“I will?”

“I shall endeavor to accomplish that.”

“Come in. I guess half a loaf is better than none.”

[To fully appreciate the comedy, such as it is, note that ninguno is Spanish for none, and hogaza is Spanish for loaf.]

Stealing Time to Write

Note 1: This is based on my final essay for a writing course. Modified to take advantage of no word count restriction on my posts.

Note 2: The author does not advocate stealing time from work, and has never ever used quiet time in a call centre to work on anything other than considering how best to respond to customer calls. The author believes a liberal arts education is essential to developing the soft skills required to provide good responses to customer calls. As always, readers are asked not to confuse the author with the narrator.

Picture of old manual typewriter
No power? No internet? No penmanship? No problem.

We’ve all read articles, online or in writing magazines, about finding the time to write. Finding the time, as if hours are scattered around the house, and all you need to do is look under the couch cushions to find four hours a week. Or get up an hour earlier, because that hour you spend sleeping is apparently totally wasted.

Do you have an hour or two everyday where you stare at walls, wondering what to do? Probably not. All the hours in the day are already occupied with some activity or another. To start writing, you must stop doing something else.

You’re not going to find time. You’re going to have to steal it. You must become sneaky and underhanded. Treat writing like the lover you meet mid-day while telling your boss you are at a client meeting. Not prepared to lie, cheat, and steal to write? You’re reading this because finding time hasn’t worked. Time to try something new.

Most of us work, because we need money to survive. Working less to write is rarely an option, because writing doesn’t make money. Sure, a few people make money writing. A few people win the lottery, too, but that’s not something you can rely on. I know writers who have a backlist of several books, and happily earn a thousand a month on their sales. Those of us who were proud to sell a magazine article, five years ago, for three hundred dollars, or anyone who knows how little an author gets when a copy of their book sells, are impressed that someone could make a thousand a month writing. But that’s before taxes, has no benefits, no security, and is less than minimum wage. We need to work.

You can’t give up work, but you can steal from it. Not in the sense of taking pens and paper (helpful as that is), but does your job have any downtime? I once worked in a call centre. Some days there were non-stop calls. Other days, there might be fifteen or twenty minutes between calls. I drafted several articles on my phone, between calls. What do you do during lunch, or breaks? Does your work offer time for personal development courses or open training? If so, take a writing course. Use your personal projects to complete exercises in the course. This is what the business types call win-win. You get writing done, and you get to check off the self-training box on your personal development plan.

You might also consider work that comes with available writing time. Spider Robinson starting writing science-fiction while working as a night watchman for sewer systems. Airport limo drivers and tour bus drivers spend hours waiting for passengers.

No time available at work? Do you volunteer? You don’t need to give up volunteer time to find writing time. Choose volunteer work that includes downtime, such as ticket taker, or standby driver. You might have hours between shows or waiting for passengers. Bonuses include looking civic-minded, being unavailable for social events, and a free t-shirt.

Household chores take a lot of time. Are you vacuuming or laundering once a week? Emptying the litter box daily? Spend less time cleaning, and more time writing. The resulting mess will discourage people dropping by – gaining more time. Think about everything you do during the week, including intimate activities (alone or with others), and decide if writing is more important than that. If it is, stop or reduce that non-writing activity. 

Stealing time to write is like robbing a bank. It takes planning and cunning – and, ideally, no one gets hurt. Stealing time to write is not easy, but the rewards are great. Money isn’t sitting around waiting to be found, and neither is time. Get greedy, steal some time to write.

New Flash Fiction Story Posted

Public domain photo of Ottawa Transit bus. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oc6136.jpg

I’ve never read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but it is the source of the expression “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” I heard this expression at office meetings, where it was presented as some sort of encouragement to teamwork. The mind wandered, as it does, especially at office meetings, and I speculated on when this expression might be used literally.

I doodled a few paragraphs, and a couple of years later stretched that into a flash fiction story. Over the last year I revised it several times, still in ignorance of the original usage of the expression. Now that I know the expression is from a 1968 story of hippies, drug use and travelling by bus, they way I have used it seems appropriate, if coincidental.

Click here to read “Route on Detour.” Comments appreciated.

Write, Revise, Repeat – Romance!

I entered my first 3-day novel contest in 2012. The story I wrote was a thriller, along the lines of North by Northwest, though considerably less epic in scope and execution. To keep it light, I attempted to parody the man-on-the-run formula (in the way that Mean Streets can be seen as a parody of The Godfather.) The story didn’t place, but I planned to revise it (taking a little more than three days) and perhaps self-publish it.

By 2012, I was taking writing seriously, but had not given much thought to tackling a novel (and that showed in the construction of my thriller). However, I had begun reading a lot of romance novels, found I enjoyed them, and a friend encouraged me to consider writing romances. For NaNoWriMo later that year, I wrote a first draft of a romance novel, this time paying some attention to novel plot and character arcs. Like my 3-day thriller, it was rough, and novella length, but a candidate for revision and self-publication.

My 2013 3-day novel was a sequel to the 2012 thriller, and dreadful, in part because I moved apartments during the weekend. Since then, my projects for these contests and others have been romances, and I’ve generated several drafts for romance novels. I’ve also taken classes and workshops on writing romances, joined a romance novel book club, and joined the Romance Writers of America. Though I say so myself, I am getting better at constructing plots and characters. In between shorter writing projects, I’ve worked on the thriller and the romance novel drafts from 2012.

I sent the revised thriller to a trusted editor a few years ago. It came back with many comments and suggestions. There were problems, starting with an unlikable hero. He was supposed to be a bad guy that learns lessons and reforms, but I did not have the authorial skills to make readers care about such a character. Other characters had poor motivations and their actions were forced to fit the plot rather than arising out of character.

I rewrote the story, trying to make my hero nicer, and other characters more complex. I improved the style, removing much of the passive and vague language my editor noted. Earlier this year I sent the novella to several friends for beta reading. There were still problems. The character tweaks were not enough to make the story work.

I was tempted to give up on the work. For several years, most of my fiction reading and writing has been romance. My heart was not in working on a thriller. I couldn’t decide if the story should be cozy or dark, which left readers muddled. Changing the hero enough to make him likeable meant the plot did not work. From a marketing and branding perspective, offering a thriller and a couple of romances would not help the sales of either.

Photo of light bulb
Public domain image.

Then an idea struck – in hindsight, an obvious solution. If fixing the characters will not work for the plot, then I need a new plot. So, my thriller is going to become a romantic-suspense novel. I have to rewrite it anyway – might as well do it in a genre I prefer and know well. There are already various romantic and erotic elements – they can be merged and expanded into a romance plot. Most the thriller elements can be kept, but will be in the context of the romance plot.

My hero will be more likeable – we no longer want him to merely survive (he was so unlikable some readers did not want that) – we want him to have a happy ever after. He’ll also have a stronger (and more heroic) motivation, to explain his actions in the suspense plot. A couple of characters will be combined to become a complex, interesting, and sympathetic heroine, and the relationship of another character to the hero will be changed to make her a more credible and motivated opponent. And the darkest, creepiest, scene in the story is coming out.

With this new genre goal, I’m no longer resigned to another rewrite of this story. Instead, I am looking forward to it. And I still have that dark and creepy scene ready for use in another story.