WHAT IS THAT THANG?
Yesterday morning I finished the first draft of my novel, Jackson A(fter) D(eath). I began it for the National Novel Writing Month, known as Nanowrimo by its participants, in November, 2015. The novel addresses the question of what happens to Jackson Schmidt, Nami Greene and Gar Fox after they die. It combines the spiritual pilgrimage of Shusaku Endo’s Deep River, the struggle to overcome fear of Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life and the adventurous journey found in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. When I complete my fourth draft, the novel will be 80,000 to 120,000 words long. Currently it is 194,786 words.
WHAT IS THIS THANG?
With this post, I thought I would lay out the process that produced this tome. Maybe it will encourage youse. Maybe it won’t. For quite some time, I had been playing around with the idea of what happens when we die, thinking maybe I might want to take it on for a novel. Sometime at the beginning of 2015, I decided that I wanted to participate in the 2015 Nanowrimo. I had previously participated in the experience three times, producing novels over 50,000 words each.
In 2004, I wrote Secrets of the Fourth Lithuanian. There was no Lithuanian in the novel. I liked the title. In 2009, I produced the historical comedy, The Absolutely Unbelievably Extraordinary Adventures of Lady Wimpleseed-Prissypotte. It is the story of an American heiress whose daddykins has lots of cash and momsy wants a British title. The heiress marries a British lord with one foot in the cemetery and the other in the grave. He croaks in a bowl of soup in the third chapter during their honeymoon on Gibraltar. She spends the rest of the novel searching for true love or at least a good orgasm. In 2011, I wrote a romance called Five-foot-nine and Six-foot-two. The man was the shorter of the two. So I had a pretty good idea how to write a novel of over 50,000 words in November. 2000 words a day, that’s how.
OH, NO. HE GETS AN IDEA.
Finally in March, I made up my mind. I was going to write a novel about what happens after we die. As research, I re-read Philip Jose Farmer’s two Riverworld novels amd Shusaku Endo’s Deep River. I re-saw the Albert Brooks’ movie between March and October.
GETTING ON WITH IT.
On October 1, I began working on an outline. For previous incarnations, I had pretty much written the novels by the seat of the pants and for fun. I seriously considered that I might want to publish this one. From March to October, I developed my three main characters. I had a protagonist 37 years old. I knew that he had parents who would separate in April for a divorce. Come Thanksgiving they would be back together. They had done this for 24 years. He died from a heart attack. I also knew that Nami, the heroine, would die from a bullet. Her boyfriend’s six year old son would be the one who accidentally shot her. She had been adopted and she had a sister born nine years after Nami was adopted. The sister committed suicide. The antagonist would be Gar. He would be a contract killer who was seeking revenge for his daughter’s hit and run death.
THE DREADED OUTLINE.
During the month, I used a tarot deck to lay out my plot, Each of the following got a tarot card and a scene:
3.Plot Point 1
7.Plot Point 2
I saw this outline as a map. It didn’t mean there wouldn’t be changes. There would. I thought of the map as a route drawn out between Orlando and Los Angeles broken into four separate days. I saw each of the ten as stopping off points. Instead of just writing toward an End, I wrote toward each of them. With the outline, I knew the situation, the What. I didn’t know the how. It was the hows that often surprised me. In the past, I would have had to stop and think what’s next. I knew the what this go-around. I didn’t get stuck in writersblockdom. I have to tell you that this outline saved my rear-end.
It was Sunday, that November 1st day, and a beautiful day. For the past six months, I had changed my writing schedule. Come hell or highwater. I woke up early, got myself a cup of joe, sat down at my ‘puter and wrote for five minutes to a visual prompt. Then for the next hour or two, I worked on my current project. At the end of that writing time, I got up and didn’t worry about writing for the rest of the day. Oh, sure. I would take a note if I got a good idea. I felt like I had accomplished something at the end of the session each day and I thoroughly enjoyed that feeling. My goal for this writing schedule for Nanowrimo was 2000 words. Easy peasy.
NANOWRIMO DAY UNO
I was excited about beginning my Nanowrimo-in-residence. I had thought about nothing else for the previous week. I was a ready teddy, ready to put the words to the blank page. That Sunday morning I did what I usually did. Half conscious and just barely awake, not a good way to edit but a great way to write a first draft, I opened up my word processor and did my five minutes on a new-born prompt. It was an easy pregnancy. Next I started a new file. My coffee mug sat next to me, encouraging, “You can do it.” I like it when my coffee mug does that. I opened up my Outline and read my notes. Yep, that was where I was sposed to start.
I did a “Chapter One” at the top center, then I set the cursor where the first paragraph was sposed to write itself. Nothing. Nada. Not one word. I screamed a few s-words and a few f-words. As you writers out there know, that never works. I turned to my coffee mug and begged and pleaded. She wasn’t playing by the rules. She wasn’t giving up the words I needed. Am I going to be sitting here all day, staring into el-blanko. I got things to do. You know, that bottle I planned to drink to celebrate. An hour went by. Two. Still nada. For the fifty-seventh time, I got up and poured another cup of mud and checked my outline. Nothing. I was not about to get out of jail free.
Then Muggie spoke, “Why not just write around that first scene?”
“Huh?” I say that when I am being stupid.
“Why don’t you just write around that first scene?”
“How do I do that?”
“Back story,” Muggie said and winked.
“I could do that,” I said. And thus it was that I wrote my first words: “In the beginning…” No, no, no. That’s not it. I wrote, “When Sam and Kate met, height was not an issue.” I suddenly knew that this was the Protagonist’s parents. I was going back that far. There must be a reason and Muggie was encouraging me.
THE BEAT GOES ON.
So off I went, not on a wild goose chase but toward the story I had outlined. For the next two weeks, I wrote back story, then I came to the first scene, The Hook/Opening Scene. I just kept going. After the writing was finished for the day, I would spend the rest of the day, thinking about what was next. If I didn’t have a what’s next at the beginning of my writing session the next day, it was a slog. If I had a pretty good idea, it was fast and furious. By the end of November, I had over 60,000 words.
THE OUTLINE GIVETH, THE OUTLINE TAKETH AWAY.
Did I quit? Did I rest on my laurels? I did not. December 1, I did what I had done the previous day. I got up, got my coffee, did my prompt, then continued on my novel. I was bound and determined to get ‘er done. Only my word count for the day changed. I changed it to 500 words. If I wrote more, great. If I didn’t, no prob.
With my Outline, I had a pretty good idea what was next. But getting there was always interesting. There were times when I lost a character. There were times when the Titanic sank. There were times when every Tom, Dick and Harry wanted to go left instead of the right I had planned. So I let them. They wanted to see the angels try to get through the head of a pin. I let them. They wanted to see the world’s biggest ball of twine. We saw the world’s biggest ball of twine. They wanted to visit Napoleon while he was getting ready for his Waterloo. We did that too. But pretty soon we were back on course.
So what did I learn?
1.The outline kept me from giving up. It wasn’t the 10 Commandments. More like the 10 Suggestions.
2.Breaking down a novel into daily baby steps is truly helpful. It takes away the fear of being overwhelmed by the big project.
3.When I write daily, my writing gets better. When I write daily first thing in the morning, I don’t feel guilty that I have neglected my work. I can go about my day with a hop, a skip and a jump. And occasionally a big Whoopee.
4.When I’ve finished my writing session, I can set it aside and feel confident I have done what I was supposed to do.
5.This is just a first draft. It will be crap.
6.I have found a process that works for me.
7.It’s great to have a coffee mug, talking to me.
Not sure this is helpful to any of you out there. But like everything in life, my storytelling continues to be a road to discovery. Even when I think I can’t do something, I know I can. I just have to sit my rear end in the chair, stare at the blank page and let Muggie give me instructions. Serially, it is only by the doing that we creatives learn. That is the ultimate lesson I have learned. And will continue to learn over and over again.
SO WHAT’S NEXT?
That’s easy. I have to mow the dreaded grass. Oh, you mean with the novel? I put it away for three months. At that time, I will print it out and read it straight through. Then I will go back and read it a second time, making notes. Breaking the novel up into scenes. I will power point each scene. Then I will write the second draft. Then the third. Then a final fourth and it will be dressed up in its Sunday best, ready for the world.