Harry Potter at 20

Quite a lot can happen in twenty years. When I think back on my own life in the last two decades, I marvel how much it’s changed. In the last twenty years, the following has happened: I got married, moved to a different state, bought a condo, had two kids, sold the condo and bought a house, changed companies six times, gone through half dozen cars, lost two cats, gained one dog, written several first drafts of novels, self-published one, and read an untold number of books. 

Seven of those books were the Harry Potter books. 

The last twenty years were not quiet for J. K. Rowling, Jo to her friends, celebrated author of the Harry Potter books. From that fertile mind sprung seven books of the Harry Potter story, which in turn spawned eight feature films, at least three side books such as Tales of Beedle the Bard, one of which has now spawned a new feature film, which is the first of a planned five, plus a two-part play that is essentially the eight Harry Potter book, not to mention a copious amount of ancillary writing that appears on the official Harry Potter website, Pottermore. Hundreds of characters, dozens of locations, scores of magical spells, potions, charms, and encantations, all in the course of twenty years. 

And then there’s that little thing about Rowling getting married and raising a family. 

I was in books when Harry Potter emerged on the scene. At the time of the first book release in the US, there was little to no fanfare. It was just a book. I worked for Borders Books & Music back then, and our initial stock of the Sorcerer’s Stone was a whooping three units. But despite the fact that there wasn’t the worldwide media buzz that all things Harry Potter generates today, you could still tell that there was something special happening. Those three units were always sold out. Without fail, when someone would request it, a quick search for the book in our database would show that, yes, once again, the book was out of stock. It came up in morning team meetings, and then in emails from the corporate headquarters. Something was happening. 

It wasn’t long before the publishing phenomenon that became the full Harry Potter franchise was in full bloom. Bookstores were hosting wizarding parties, and opening at midnight for the release of each new book. By the time the releases hit the mega frenzy they would become, I was out of the book industry, and working my way through corporate America. But I went back to the bookstore for those release parties. Not to buy the book, mind you, though of course I did. No, my interest was drawn far more by the crowd and the excitement and anticipation and overwhelming exhilaration a buyer displayed when they got the book in their hot little hands. There was the sense that you were witnessing something special that would not be matched again for a very, very long time, if ever. 

It’s hard to overstate the impact Harry Potter, and J. K. Rowling had on the publishing world. Certainly, there had been huge publishing successes, and books that sold out in record numbers despite anyone’s expectations. Books like The Bridges of Madison County and Angela’s Ashes stayed on bestseller lists for years. But Harry Potter was different somehow. The way I saw it was in the children. Kids, who otherwise might not be interested in reading, were picking up Harry Potter books willingly. It was not uncommon to see a child with a Harry Potter book plunked down in the middle of the Children’s Section, plowing through page after page, while their parents continued to shop. These same children would be a quarter of the way through the book before it had even made it to the cash register. Harry Potter, perhaps more than any set of books before it, got children reading. Willingly. 

And why not? Who doesn’t want to feel special the way Harry did? Who doesn’t want to think, when they are young, that the hospital made some kind of awful mistake, and that the people who are raising us that we call “mom” and “dad” are not really our parents, but that we are the scions of extraordinary people, and that we are called on to do extraordinary things? Literature is full of these stories. From Little Orphan Annie to Frodo Baggins, from Ender to Sparrowhawk of Earthsea, across the spectrum, literature of all kinds is filled with instances of outcasts reaching for something higher. 

And, of course, with success come critics. They come in all forms and flavors, from those with legitimate gripes to those who are simply after a money-grab. There was the person who sued Rowling for supposedly stealing the idea of “muggle” for use in Harry Potter. There was Ursula K. Le Guin, who didn’t decry Harry Potter but didn’t think it was all that original, wishing Rowling had done more to acknowledge those who came before. It was a fair gripe, considering her own fantasy series had an orphan wizard learning how to live in his world predated Harry Potter by decades. But while there’s certainly merit to the idea that Harry had progenitors, but it cannot be said that Harry Potter was derivative. There is simply too much packed into the million plus amount of words to describe it as derivative. Some critics had nothing better to do than to bash it for being simply commercial escapism and not aspiring to something higher. Those critics are full of stuffing. They spend countless hours and wasted breaths decrying the wasted opportunities of the written word, yet are incapable of contributing anything worthwhile to the very body of literature they deem themselves experts in. They can, proverbially, pound sand. And what would a book about witches and wizards be without concerned parent groups having those books banned, ostensibly because of concerns their children would become wiccans or satanists?

I was not without criticisms of Harry Potter as I read it. From some unimaginative descriptions in the early works (the “deluminator” was, in the first book, described awkwardly as a “light put-outer”), to the speed of some of the action scenes that I had to read again because they went too fast for me to take it all in (of course, that could be, I sheepishly admit, my issue), to the editorial largess that crept into the fourth book and continued to until the end, to the unpleasant read that was The Order of the Phoenix, I certainly had my own issues with aspects of the narratives. In the case of The Order of the Phoenix, watching Harry go through that awkward, hormone-driven, mopey, unpleasant teenage period was simply not fun. I realize all teens go through it, and if you’re charting a story arc that starts when the boy is eleven and continues until he is eighteen, you are required to deal with it. But I didn’t really care to read it. 

However, these things are minor annoyances in a grand, monumental achievement. When taken as whole, the world, story, characters, and villains are some of the most memorable in all of literature. I still maintain that Dolores Umbridge is most insidious villain in the last fifty years of literature. She is the Nurse Ratchet of the wizard of world and she’s absolutely horrifying. It is no mean feat to create such memorable moments such as the kind found in nearly every chapter in every single volume. 

Twenty years goes by fast and slow. For Jo Rowling, the time spent crafting the Harry Potter works must have been both a great toil and positively a blur. I can state from experience that waiting for each one to be released was a toil, and reading was a blur. But, looking back, I can say that I witnessed something incredible, something, yes indeed, magical. For many writers, Rowling is the embodiment of the “unicorn”. A struggling, single mother, writing in cafes in Edinburgh to keep warm, strikes it big with a sweeping epic magical fantasy that turns her into the most beloved children’s author since Mother Goose. The real life story is a magical epic in and of itself, one in which any author, especially those still struggling, would use the Cruciatus Curse to be in. But while we can’t all share in that kind of success, we can say we were witness to something that we may never see again in the publishing world. And that’s okay. Because, while the anxious eagerness of the wait for each new book may never come again, the joy of discovering the magic for the first time will never leave. And few things were more enjoyable than watching my own eleven year old devour the books, one right after another, with the same hungry anticipation that we all had we began the journey Jo Rowling set forth for us twenty years ago. 

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NaNoWriMo: The Kids’ Edition

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I feel very fortunate because this year, my younger daughter Maggie is doing NaNoWriMo with me. There is an entire young writer’s program for NaNoWriMo that kids can sign up for. Maggie is going to do it, and so are most of the kids in her class. And that’s my fault.

During the annual open house/back to school night that school holds for the parents of students, I got to talking with Maggie’s teacher, Patty, about people who come in and volunteer and get the kids interested in something that pertains to the lesson plan. At some point in the conversation, NaNoWriMo came up. One of the Patty’s former students participated in NaNoWriMo last year. She mentioned how she would love to get some of her kids to do that again.

I didn’t say anything at the time because I felt like I wanted to think that through. Patty had no idea I had written and self publish book (insert shameless marketing plug here) or that I had done NaNoWriMo last year. I sat on it for a bit, wondering if I wanted to mention this and offer to help lead the class in a NaNoWriMo charge. I’m not a teacher and have no training in classroom management skills. I didn’t know if I’d be a good fit to come in.

In a phone conversation I was having with Patty one night about something else, I decided to mention it, and offered to come into the class and talk about what the NaNoWriMo challenge is, and see if there are any kids who were interested. Her response was unbelievably enthusiastic, and so, last week I found myself in Maggie’s classroom talking to her classmates all about NaNoWriMo, writing, and storytelling.

I have to tell you, it was a metric ton of fun. The class is great, excited about the project, and from what Patty tells me, chockablock full of writers.

I talked about what NaNoWriMo is, and what a novel is. I talked about the kinds of ways you could write a novel, from typing right into a computer to writing it all long hand. I had one person ask if the novel could be dictated to someone, or into a into a software program. Hey, if it was good enough for Paradise Lost, it’s good enough for NaNoWriMo. I talked about the process writers use to write: some write in the morning, some in the evening, some in their bedroom, some at the dining room table, some even in the kitchen. We talked about the kinds of books the kids are currently reading, and what their favorite novels are. We talked about the Inner Editor, which I dubbed the “Evil Inner Editor”, who constantly whispers in your ear telling you to stop, or slow down, or do things differently. One of the exercises from the Young Writers Program is to draw the Inner Editor on a worksheet. Once drawn, the kids are encouraged to hide him/her away so they can’t work their evil spells. We did that in the classroom and some of the kids’ Inner Editors turned out really well.

As I said, it was a ton of fun.

Patty had already come up with the word count she is hoping the kids will hit. She’s shooting for them to complete 250 words per day, which is about one page per day. That means that the kids will end up writing a 7,500 “novel” by the time it’s finished.

I’m headed back into the classroom in the middle of November to check in with the kids and see how they’re doing. I’ll be giving them tips, most of which will be plucked from the wisdom of the NaNoWriMo community. We’ll talk about the challenges they’re having and see if we can’t find ways to working around them. Most importantly, I’ll be giving them the encouragement to keep on truckin’, and to keep ignoring the “Evil Inner Editor”!

After that, I’ll head back into the classroom sometime in December to find out how they did. There is a program NaNoWriMo has this year with FastPencil, which will help kids publish their finished work. Hopefully, at the end of the month, and maybe by the end of December, there’ll be enough kids that finish and publish that Patty will have a whole new library.

After the class was over, tweets were tweeted:

 

NaNoWriMo: 2015 Edition

Shield-Nano-Side-Blue-Brown-RGB-HiResIt’s November 1st. That means it’s time to kick off NaNoWriMo. And once again, I’m participating. And new this year, so is my nine year old, Maggie!

Throughout the month I’ll post various updates on the progress for both of us. Tomorrow I’ll explain how I got Maggie, and her whole 4th grade class, involved.

But for now, it’s time to write. NaNoWriMo has begun.

Aaaannnnnddddd GO!

The Problem with “Game of Thrones”

 There’s a joke I read online somewhere that starts this post beautifully: “GRR Martin, JJ Abrams, and Joss Whedon walk into a bar, and everyone you’ve ever loved dies.” Yeah, that sounds about right.

The Emmys were on a few weeks ago. “Game of Thrones” won big with a capital B. And I couldn’t help but think “why?” When I finished the past season, I sat back and wondered whether I would watch it anymore. The end of every season always finds the internet all atwitter with the various “shocking” deaths of certain characters. Why anybody is shocked by a character death, or at least maiming, in this show by now is beyond me. George RR Martin makes a regular habit of killing of whatever character strikes his fancy.  So I knew what was coming when I finally watched the finale of season five.

Was I shocked by the deaths? Not really. I’ve come to expect it. I’ve come to expect that any character that I might grow fond of is probably going to get the ax (figuratively and literally). And that illustrates the fundamental problem with “Game of Thrones” the show and “A Song of Fire and Ice” the book series.

Before we go on, let’s be up front, shall we? There WILL be spoilers below. Oh yes, there will be spoilers.

You’ve been warned.

Let’s get the problem on the table right now. GRR Martin has left us with nearly no character with which to emphasize. Every time we begin to get close to a character, that character meets and untimely and often ugly end. Let’s recap everybody who got killed off in the last episode of season five, shall we?

  • Selyse Baratheon, who hangs herself with guilt of what she let her husband Stannis do to their daughter
  • Stannis Baratheon, defeated in battle by Lord Bolton, and, after fleeing to the nearby wood, is discovered by Brienne of Tarth, who avenges her former sworn lord, Stannis’s brother Renly, whom Stannis killed
  • Myrcella, Lannister or Baratheon, depending on your allegiance, the young daughter of Queen Cersei who was sent to Dorn to be betrothed to a Dornish prince, but who is murdered by poison by the vengeful consort of another Dornish prince, who himself was killed by a man of the Lannisters
  • Jon Snow, Commander of the Night Watch (and fan favorite and apparently the biggest shock of the night, though I don’t know why since he meets this fate at the end of the fifth book)

That’s four major characters in a single episode. So major that two of these deaths, Stannis and Selyes, effectively close off an entire subplot, with Stannis’s effort to claim the throne for himself ending in utter bloody defeat.

I don’t mention Arya Stark, youngest surviving daughter of Ned Stark, (Ned, who you might remember was beheaded by Joffery in an act of malicious cruelty that Joffery reveled in). In the finale, she kills a man out of vengeance for that man’s killing of her first sword master. She’s been training to become a Faceless Man, which is akin to a ninja, a stealthy assassin that does his work then disappears. Except she didn’t have permission to kill the man she killed, so her punishment is…blindness.

This doesn’t begin to cover the other deaths that happened this season, the most brutal of which was the death of Shireen, Stannis’s daughter. Stannis, in a moment of blind faith to the new god he worships, sacrifices his only daughter by burning her at the stake, believing the sacrifice of king’s blood will bring him victory. Did I mention that Shireen is (was) eleven, maybe twelve?

Are you catching all of this?

It’s insane. And this is just the show. The books have a far greater number of characters. It’s a cast of well over a thousand characters. It’s a huge amazing epic that I’m not sure has ever been attempted in modern fantasy novel/series history.

And I won’t bother to read it.

And by the way, I might be done with the show as well.

Why? Because as I watched the season five finale, it dawned on my why I’ve felt less and less interested in investing time into this brilliantly complex story. It’s all about empathy.

Let’s baseline a little bit before we go on. What is the primary purpose of a character driven story? To make you empathize with the protagonist so that you care what happens to him/her. Think Harry Potter. There was another large series, lots of characters, several deaths (though rather bloodless compared to “Game of Thrones”). Kids, and adults, gobbled these books up. They would pick them up at midnight on release night and swallow them whole, unhinging their jaws like starving python. Why? Empathy.

The simple fact is that Martin, in his sprawling epic, has repeatedly given us characters for which he elicits from us empathy. He lets us get close to these characters, let’s us see their struggles, gives us a brief amount of hope that they will persevere…then he kills them. Sometimes gruesomely.

(Oh, who are we kidding? Most times its gruesome.)

I understand that Martin is basing a fantasy series of a real-world morals. The War of the Roses was the initial basis for the first war we see in GoT. Yorks versus Lancasters in England became a template for Starks versus Lannisters in GoT. It’s not that hard a stretch. In England, the Lancasters won, and so in Westros the Lannisters won. So I get it. High fantasy without the clear cut definition of black and white, good and evil. This is not the Lord of the Rings.

And yet, without some character around with whom the audience can rally and put their hopes for a win for the good guys, what are we left with? We’re left with twists and turns and plot yanks that no one sees coming, to the often fatal demise of its characters. We’re left with maybe two characters for whom we can empathize, Daenerys and Tyrion. For now. There’s no guarantee that they’ll survive the series. In whom should we out our feelings? Who will be left at the end of this sprawling epic, and will we even care? As all others perish, so too does our patience and interest. Why should we continue to invest in a show that promises us nothing but pain and misery? So we can talk about it over the watercooler the next day?

No, thank you. I think I’m watercoolered out.

NaNoWriMo – The Lessons Learned

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Let’s start off with this brief summary of my participation in this year’s NaNoWriMo:

I WON!

Yes, that’s right, I won the NaNoWriMo contest this year, where anyone who hits the 50,000 word mark in a brand-new-never-having-written-a-word-of-your-NaNoWriMo-novel inside of thirty days wins. What do we win? The ability to say we won. That’s it. No cash, no prizes, though there are some nifty T-shirts you can buy. So, in short, you win bragging rights.

Which is saying a lot for a free contest where there are thousands of winners.

That out of the way, I want to reflect on the lessons I learned from cranking out 50k words in a month’s time.

1) You are not alone. There are lots of people out there willing to lend encouragement and good thoughts and happy vibes and whatever else they feel like throwing your way for support. There are communities out there supporting writers, there are meet ups where you can all sit down together and write and lend an actual hand for someone to hold if they need it. There are professional writers who have lent their voices in encouragement, and there is no end to the number of people tweeting about NaNoWriMo on a daily basis.

2) You are absolutely alone. No one can write this thing for you. It’s you by yourself, mano-e-mano, man versus machine versus calendar. It’s a gnarly threeway brawl that you and you alone must fight. Nobody else can jump in. This isn’t the WWE. You can’t tag somebody else in if you feel like you’re fading. You are the only one who can write your book. Otherwise you fail the contest.

3) You are not alone. Think your special? Just because you did it? Just because you hit your daily word count? Get in line. There are thousands and thousands of people who jumped into NaNoWriMo and have hit their daily word counts. Thousands have hit their word counts sooner, faster, higher than you have. Take that in, realize this, take a big deep breath…then let it go. You can’t get caught up in how far ahead or behind you are in reference to anybody else. To do that invites disaster. If you start doing some sort of comparison project with your fellow writers, you’ll get into a mine-is-bigger-than-yours mentality that is at best a complete waste of time, and at worst mojo-wrecking. If you’ve got your mojo working, who cares if your mojo is better than somebody else’s? Who you trying to impress with that shit?

4) Write as much as you can as early as you can. Cause you never know when your gonna get an injury that requires you to be carted off the field. My goal was to finish my word count by Thanksgiving (which I did, by the way). I wanted to get it done so that I could enjoy my holiday, maybe spend the day picking at some words but not feel forced to hit a daily number. Besides, the food coma was gonna be epic this year, man, epic.

You know what I enjoyed most on Thanksgiving? Pedialyte. Thursday morning I got a case of the stomach flu and that was all she (or in my case, he) wrote. For two days my colon sounds like the French countryside in 1944. By Saturday I was finally starting to feel better, but it was slow going. I didn’t have a lot of energy since I hadn’t had a decent calorie in two days. By Sunday I felt well enough to open up the laptop, type in one paragraph, and that was it.

5) When the month ends, the motivation does too. It’s good to feel the pressure of the deadline. It makes you work for it, forces you to make time for writing. Even if you’re just picking up the story, writing 200 words for the fifteen minutes you have leftover from your lunch break, and closing it again. The deadline manhandles you into writing during any snippets of free time you have.

When the deadline has passed, the pressure goes with it. Now you’re not up against a wall, trying to squeeze words in, desperate to hit a daily word count. Now you start to think “Well, I couldn’t quite get to it today, I’ll just pick it back up tomorrow.” WRONG! You will not! Stop kidding yourself. If your motivation for writing starts to flag, then so does the writing, then it’s six months after the end of NaNoWriMo and you’re sitting on 55k words instead of 50k. Stop that shit! Open up your laptop and lay down some magic!

6) The choice of word processors makes all the difference. If you’re using a word processor or a typewriter or a pen and paper, that’s your business. I’m not going to tell you you need to use this one over that one. What I am going to tell you is that, no matter what you use, you’ve got to have it handy at a moment’s notice. You never know when you’ll get five minutes to hammer out two really great sentences. With a pen and paper, that’s a lot easier than just about any other writing medium. You can carry them with you anywhere and be ready to write in five seconds flat. With a typewriter, that kind of thing is a lot harder. You can’t really lug a typewrite around with you everywhere you go. I mean, you CAN, but you’ll get a lot of looks that suggest it might be time for the men in the white coats.

My choice of word processor was Google drive. Again, this goes back to the available-at-a-moment’s-notice requirement. Google drive is all cloud based, so your fictional manifesto is available anywhere you have an internet connection.

Using Google Drive, I created the document and was able to access it from any machine I happened to be using at the time. All I needed to do was to log into my Google account and viola! there it was. I could access it from a laptop, or a desktop, or even my phone. How’s that for ubiquitous? It was like having a pen and paper with me at all times. The best part? I didn’t have to type in all the things I had hand-written earlier. Best of both worlds.

7) Finishing feels like the frickin bomb! Nuf said there.

That’s what I learned this go-round. Maybe I’ll learn more next year. Already got the idea forming. Just have to let it stew, do some homework, and, oh yeah, finish the current one I still haven’t finished.

NaNoWriMo 2014 Update

IMG_4281We’re twelve days into NaNoWriMo 2014. How are you doing? Have you cracked under the pressure? Are the words flowing out of you like silver streams of pure literature destined to alter the landscape of fiction as we know it? Are you plowing through your novel, letting the stream of consciousness spill from your mind in an unhinged screed* not fit for human consumption?

(Hint: The answer to all of these could be “yes”.)

For my own foray into NaNoWriMo, things are going well. I passed the halfway point last night. I’m no longer underwater in my word count. As of this writing, I’m closing in on 27,000 words. Basic math tells me I have about 23,000 words to go. (Basic math, by the way, is sometimes a stretch for me–I was an English lit major, after all–but I think I’m on solid footing here.)

Here’s what I’ve uncovered in the twelve days since I’ve started this journey:

* I’m in LOVE with how much this contest forces me to write. I have a terrible habit of being what Stephen “Uncle Stevie” King call a “lazy writer”. When the writing gets tough, I have a tendency to walk away from it and come back a few months later with no clearer way of tackling the problem. Except that, a few months later, my writing muscles have gone unused and have atrophied and my creative mind has grown fat and lethargic. This contest forces me to confront my writing every day, to flex my penmonkey muscles, and make some actual progress.

* A single sentence CAN turn into a novel. Like, quick. The novel I’m writing writing now is called Lost Things. It was based on a single (and perhaps rather long-winded) “what-if” sentence I wrote on the back of a church bulletin. The sentence looked kinda like this:

What if a man helps ferry dead souls to the afterlife by the use of items that show up on his kitchen counter that were personal and special to the deceased, but one day, using one of these “lost things”, he accidentally frees something evil and is then caught in a battle to defeat it?

Yeah, it’s a run-on, I get it. But it’s turned into something special for me. This one (long) sentence has turned into 27,0000 words in twelve days. This short synopsis helps flesh out that “what-if” sentence:

For forty-two years Bill has been dealing with the Lost Things. They appear in the morning on his kitchen counter. Each time they do, he takes them to a local secluded glade and, using an ancient rite, he frees the Lost Things’ owners, for each Lost Thing represents a deceased member of the Bill’s town. Each soul needs help transcending the void. After so many years, Bill is tired. He can feel his own time is near and knows he’ll need a replacement, which is why he agrees to teach Geoff. Geoff is a young man, married to his cancer-stricken wife Mara. But there’s a darker force at work in Bill’s town. A force that drives them to free the soul of a maniac and unleash a monster. Bill, Geoff, and Mara must overcome their fears and stop this evil before it can unleash Hell on earth.

As I plow through the writing, I find the it’s unspooling in my mind, with each day adding a new facet that I can fold into the main story.

* As this is my first NaNoWriMo, I know that when I go and try doing this again next year, it’s entirely possible that the experience will be the WORST writing experience of my life. I have this thing in my head right now itching to break free. It’s scratching at the inside of my skull with long dirty fingernails, trying to open the cracks. It’s leaking out now, right into my novel, but that’s this year. Next year, I might have the story idea, but it could fight me tooth-and-frickin-nail every day for thirty days.

* Insomuch as there is a community out there to help encourage you to write, what with all the “pep talks” that appear in your NaNoWriMo mailbox, the NaNoWriMo forums, and the NaNoCoach hashtag on Twitter, this journey, this effort, this mountain I’m (and you’re) trying to climb–yeah, well, news flash, you’re climbing it ALONE. No one can help you with it. If it’s climbing a mountain, then all the encouragement is people lining the sides of the mountain trail cheering you on. But none of them can lend a hand or lower a rope or a tree branch or find something useful to…sorry, drifting in a movie quotes for a moment. The point is, YOU are the one writing. YOU are responsible for all 50,000 words. No one else. And while encouragement helps, YOU have to be the one with the intestinal fortitude to soldier on. This is when you learn whether you really can do it.

That’s where I am so far. To date, it’s a really great experience. More than halfway there. If you’re not halfway there, no sweat, you have time. We’re not halfway through the month. You got days to make up some lost words. So let’s keep it going. Time to knuckle under, not lose focus, not stray from the marathon course, and keep going.

I got this.

So do you.

 

* Borrowed this phrase from a friend of mine because I love it.

NaNoWriMo 2014 – Day 2

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I promise not post progress every single day. I think will tend to make people bonkers. But here we are at the end of day two of NaNoWriMo, and I’m just curious: how’s it going?

For myself, I’m just over 6000 words. It’s a nice start, especially since I know that once the work week hits, life returns to its normal state of crazy.

No matter how far you’ve gotten remember that it’s farther than you were. Keep writing!

NaNoWriMo 2014 Commenceth

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NaNoWriMo started today. For those unfamiliar with this term, it stands for National Novel Writing Month. It started 15 years ago in the San Francisco area with 21 people participating. Last year there were over 400,000 people who participated. Not bad for something that started as a tiny idea.

So what is NaNoWriMo? It’s a thirty day month in which you are challenged to write one novel. You might think, hey, banging out a novel in thirty days? No sweat. I can read one in five. How hard can it be to write one? Well, marathon man, you can drive 26.2 miles easy-peasy, but can you run it? Okay then.

Basically, you have one month, the month of November, to write a novel. What constitutes a novel? For the purposes of NaNoWriMo, 50,000 words is a novel. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s a given that it’s a first draft. It doesn’t even have to be complete. You might end up writing an Alan Moore length million word gem. As long as you’ve got 50,000 words logged by midnight on November 30th, you win.

What do you win? The ability to say you came to play and play you did. It’s bragging rights. That’s about it. No cash, no prizes, just the right to say you took up the pen and completed the challenge. That said, there are sponsors who put up prizes, and who knows? You post and validate your 50,000 diamond, maybe you’ll win those. But that’s luck of the draw. The main prize is saying you did it.

Cost to participate? Exactly zero dollars. Best. Price. Ever.

Last year I couldn’t participate. I was in the middle of trying to finish the first draft of a crime novel I’ve been writing. This year, despite being in the middle of revising the second draft of said novel, I had an idea and decided to jump in.

This is my first time participating. I’m determined to finish. Rough calculation means I need to crank out about 1600 words per day. This will take me about an hour to hour and a half each day. That’s the goal. Plus, if I write more on the weekends, I can “bank” some words so I’m not as crushed for word count in the middle of the week.

I’ve already got a start and have a little over 3000 words written. I’ll be posting updates on this blog, but if you’re participating this year, you can follow me on NaNoWriMo at this link. I’ll be posting excerpts and looking for ideas and feedback as I go. Obviously I won’t have time to edit just yet, but any constructive feedback is helpful. The more the merrier.

Let’s tackle this beast together! Who’s with me?

Oh yeah, one more thing: the writing has to be legitimate writing. This doesn’t count:

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“Stray”: A Short Story

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a short story. Time to rectify that.

This short story is called “Stray”. I can’t say there was much inspiration behind it other than the opening sense of smell of vanilla and grill smoke. The rest came out of the characters themselves.

This one goes back a good ten years or more. It was published by a one-and-done literary journal called the “Literary Bone” back in 2005.

I hope you enjoy it.

Stray

By Scott Lyerly
 

One

 

The little girl’s hair smelled like smoke and vanilla: smoke from the great cloud of gray that billowed upward as the hamburgers barbecued; and vanilla, from the butter-cream frosting she was allowed to smear on her face, her hands, her hair in celebration of her first birthday.  She clapped her hands together with glee as partygoers batted the helium filled balloons toward her that brandished happy birthday messages.  Her father held her in his left arm, his right arm free to tend to the grill or sip his drink or perform whatever single-handed action needed doing.  For now, he was embroiled in a superficial conversation with his mother-in-law regarding the recent weather: hot today, cooler yesterday, thunderstorms due for tomorrow.  The mundanity of the topic drove him slightly mad while other guests continued to entertain and be entertained by the little girl, whose eyes sparkled when she smiled.

Past the chattering head of his mother-in-law stood his wife, appearing for the room like the queen of the beehive.  Around her swarmed friends and colleagues, attracted to her by both her smart wit and stunning beauty.  He watched her throw back her head in a laugh that rang out, not too loudly, and charmed the surrounding entourage.  But the charm was less like a barebacked and tanned old man with a flute and a basket; it was like the snake, having fled, cornered a terrified mouse, hood up, tongue out, eyes swirling.

Jake turned away from the tableau before him and focused again on the weather.

“Yes,” he said absentmindedly, “it has been an unusual spring.  At least the mosquitoes have stayed away.”

“Oh yes,” replied his mother-in-law, her helmet style of hair waving its fastidiously black dyed color at him, like a teacher wagging her finger.  “It’s been lovely without the miskeetos”—she made a point of elongating the “ee” sound—“but I suspect they will return with the rain tomorrow.”  Her hair, gray at temples despite her zeal with the dye bottle, bobbled in place, reminding Jake of a sports collectable.  “Well,” she said, “I see some cake that has my name on it.  Please excuse me.”  With that she turned, as if departing for a long awaited vacation, and went three feet to the dining room table.

Jake felt a sense of relief at her departure, only to have it usurped by the presence of his wife, silently standing next to him.

Jake started.

“I didn’t see you there,” he said, the apologetic tone long since engrained.

“You weren’t looking very hard,” she responded, the disdainful tone long since instinctual.  There were chuckles from a few of her admirers who had followed her across the room.

She reached out and took the baby from Jake’s arms.  The little girl’s smile widened and the party-guests smiled in spite of themselves.  She made happy noises and said “mommy” as Jake’s wife hefted the girl into her arms, eliciting cutesy sounds and remarks from the onlookers.

“She’s getting hungry,” Jake said, to which his wife snorted so softly that only he heard.

“I know, that’s why I came over to get her.”

“Oh.”

Jake watched as his wife and her circle moved away from him, his daughter in her arms.  He picked up his drink, a red beer in a tall glass, and placed his other hand in his pocket.  He had nearly made the decision to seek shelter from his wife’s beauty outside, when his mother-in-law cornered him, cake escaping the corners of her mouth in little moist driblets, as she descended into a fresh tirade regarding the weather.

Later that night, Jake undressed in his closet, taking care with his clothing, hanging his pants, racking his shoes, hampering his shirt and socks.  He unbuttoned his pants first, his belly, which until now had been pushed up and over his belt buckle like three pounds of clay in a two pound pot, dropped with relief as he lowered the zipper.  He stripped his feet of the socks, little tufts of black fabric clinging between his toes.  Lastly he unbuttoned his shirt and then quickly covered his soft pear shape with his pajamas.

Peeking out of the closet first, he spied his wife sitting at her vanity, a thickly headed brush with fat bristles making its way through her long auburn hair.  He stared at her for a moment.  She wore a pink nightgown with spaghetti straps that roped their flimsy way over her shoulders like the corded lifelines of lonely mountaineers.  Jake’s eyes took in the entirety of his wife in a single glance but came to rest on the back of her head, her hands moving through her hair like a shuttle through a loom.

“Are you planning on sleeping in there?” his wife asked, not turning around.  Jake brought his eyes to the vanity’s mirror and realized that she was watching him; her yellow-green feline eyes a stark harsh contrast to her soft auburn hair.  Her mouth, a steady straight thin line across her face, the corners tucked down slightly under her crescent moon cheekbones, showed no emotion towards Jake.  Indifferent he had used in the past, a sad but accurate way to describe her feelings towards him.  Apathetic might be another.

“No, I was just looking for…” but he nothing to fill in the space.  The sentence died on his lips and he had nowhere to go with it.  His wife continued to stare at him, emotionless, the brush with its fat bristles sliding through her hair.  She made no effort to help him find the words he had lost and eventually he gave up hoping she would.  He changed course.

“She went into her crib pretty easy tonight,” he offered about his daughter.

“Of course.”  The reply was terse but soft.  At least if her voice had been harder it would say that she was mad at him, but with this, nothing.

Jake, having nothing left to do for the night and no more conversation to make under false pretenses, climbed into bed, pulled up the covers and turned out his light, the soft swishing sound of a brush following him into his dreams.

 

 

Two

 

The bar had a seedy quality that Jake didn’t really appreciate; but then again, he wasn’t staying in what could be considered the lap of luxury.  The accommodations were cheap but clean; the rental car was older and the cloth interior exuded the odors of previous users and their filthy habits.  Asking the hotelier in the front office the best place to go a have a beer was not likely to elicit the most upscale place in town.  Like his room and his car, it was clean but smelled like smoke and sickly sweet perfume.

Jake had removed his tie before coming out to the bar, but left his jacket on.  It could be cold later.  Now he would have to send it out to be cleaned before returning home.  If he came back to the house with a jacket smelling like a bar, he might not be able to hold his daughter for nearly a week.  Punishment was subtle but devastating.  He made a mental note to check the phone book for a dry cleaner, rather than ask about one at the desk.

He removed his glasses and palmed his eyes forcefully.  The flight had been bad, the car smelled and the business trip was going to be a marathon of presentations.

“Tired?”

His head came up from his hands, where he had not realized it had come to rest in an odd tableau of prayer.  He reached for his glasses but a hand lay down on top of his, halting his action.

“No, keep them off for now.  You have nice eyes.”

He turned and found that a woman, maybe in her mid thirties, had sat down on the barstool next to him.  She was pretty in a chubby way.  Her figure was fuller than it needed to be, but there was enough shape left to remind Jake of what her figure had been when younger.  Her hair came up just off her shoulders, a dirty streaky blonde that would have looked unwashed at a distance but rather nice up close.  Her eyes were too close together; not so much that she appeared cross-eyed, but just enough to be noticeable.  They were blue, like her shirt.  Her lips with stained a darker shade of red, like the bra strap visible at the edge of her scoop-neck collar.  They were full and stretched easily from ear to ear when she smiled.

Jake shook his head.  “I’m sorry, are you talking to me?”

“Yes, silly” came a reply, tinkling with laughter.

“And you are…?”

“Sylvie.”  Out came her hand, which Jake looked at apprehensively, then decided it was safe enough to take.

“Jake,” he managed, cautiously.

“Very generic,” she smiled.  He smiled weakly back.

The introduction lagged as each one waited for the other.  Sylvie took a long pull from a half-full tumbler, replacing it on its soaked napkin.  Jake sipped his beer, looking straight ahead.

“So,” Sylvie said, “where are you from?”

“D.C.,” answered Jake too quickly.

“Oh,” she replied.

The uncomfortable paused hung limply and the bartender smiled at the scene.

“So are you here on business, or—“

“Look, I don’t want to seem impolite,” Jake interrupted, “but I’m really very tired.  I just want to sip my beer and then go back to my hotel and sleep.”

Sylvie’s face soured.  “There’s no need to be rude about it,” she said.  “I was just making conversation.  I’ve no one else to talk to in this place.”

“Sorry,” answered Jake, not feeling that way.

“What, are you afraid that I might come on to you?  Afraid I might try to make a move?”

“No, no,” Jake answered, shaking his head.

“Cause that’s not who I am.”

“I didn’t mean to imply, it’s just, you see….”  But he couldn’t find the way to describe his fatigue.  The exhaustion came from being an outsider in his own life.  A controlled distance was constructed between him and his daughter.  A means to an end, that’s how his wife viewed him.  She had her child, her lifestyle, her doubtless affairs; her soul was complete.  Jake’s grew emptier.

“I’m sorry,” he said again, this time with sincerity.  “I just don’t have a particularly good home life right now.”

“So you’re lonely?” Sylvie asked, her icy tone melting.

“Yeah, kinda.”

“There are all kinds of ways to cure loneliness,” she answered, her voice dropping in tone and volume.

“Yeah,” said Jake.  “There are.  If you’ll excuse me, I need to go back to my room.”

Sylvie’s mouth hung open in surprise as he dropped a five on the bar and walked out.  The bartender suppressed a laugh as Silvie’s face changed from stunned to incensed.