Nasty November

I said I’d do it and I did. Finished NaNoWriMo on the 26th, but the writing time was more like 18 days (never underestimate the ability of typing fast). Promises were broken in getting across the finish line, and that’s always a disappointment. I did not continue to blog, I did not continue reading other blogs I enjoy, and I pushed a bit too hard in the beginning, causing a nasty flare up of the RA I deal with. That lead to a week babying my back and hips, zonked on muscle relaxants and pain pills. I also tried something new this year: I started with an outline, which was so easily done with Scrivener.

That was a mistake.

Once the outline was there, I could see the theme. Once I could see the theme, I started writing to that theme, rather than letting it roll along under the story, giving it a bump and some urgency. When I’m writing and I know there’s something more than the story to be told, I’ve gotta keep going and feel the characters, twists, beats, and story taking shape around that certain something I know is there and I’m looking for. All the elements have a chance of finding their place as they fall when the theme remains buried. Everything becomes contrived when I try to make them obey the theme hoovering above the work.

That’s my process, and one of the biggest lessons I learned doing this year’s NaNoWriMo–my process. When it comes to creating anything, it has to fit the individual or it’s an imitation of someone else and fits like a secondhand coat. Readers are quick to pick up on stuff like that, and my job is to keep them hypnotized without any sweat dripping on the page or reminding them of anything old and familiar.  At least that’s how I see it.

I’m glad I tried it. I wouldn’t feel more grounded in my own process if I hadn’t stepped outside of it, and I can talk with others who write for the sake of discovery with a deeper sense of kinship. I also hope being more grounded in my process helps me respect the process of others and talk with them about how they do what they do with curiosity rather than vandalism or a stance of telling them how and why they’re wrong. As a candidate for the crown of Miss America might say about the competition, it has made me a better person.

The other big lesson of this year’s NaNoWriMo was that the theme I thought I saw became the runner up to a stronger theme. When it comes to the power of language, I’m not as smart as I think I am. As the word count piled up, it became obvious this was the second book in a series and had to come after another manuscript I’ve got on file waiting for polish. Together they complete the theme, the thing I want to write about most right now, the universal in these particular stories. It’s a big job that will take time and a lot of tough stuff I need to pull up from inside so I won’t get hurt.

Another bit of nastiness that came up this month was the election. Don’t panic, I’m not getting political, just state that I exercised my right to vote, and did so at my polling place–the city’s library. It was hard to keep from laughing when a guy told me the wait was ridiculous as he gave an evil look at the seven people in front of us. I’m a big city girl and used to waiting hours for everything. This was drive-by voting in the world I’m used to.

Since it was so quick and the ballot so small (there’s not much happening here in Arkansas), I was left with time to cruise our tiny library and enjoy a surprise. I’d just assumed there’d be nothing but good Christian fiction at a library here in the Bible Belt, but again, I was wrong. Not only were the shelves packed with the kind of books I like, they were cleaner and had fewer boogers than books I got in the city. I walked out groaning with the works of authors I’ve wanted to read for a long time, and I wasn’t broke or feeling guilty for having spent so much money. They were mine for three whole weeks. Mine, I tell you. Mine!

This untamed area I live in was once the hide out of Bonnie and Clyde. Our police department, recently expanded to three jail cells, bears a proud placard commemorating the sheriff who died in a shoot out with a member of their gang after they’d robbed a bank up in Fayetteville. I drove past that placard on election day, casting glances to see if the law was after me for making off with so many free books, then slipped into the house feeling like Bonnie herself with my loot, and lay down to read like a bum with nothing else in the world to do.

That was another mistake.

It made me remember. During the twelve years I’ve been away from writing, I’ve also been away from reading. I couldn’t focus long enough to get through more than two paragraphs, so I stopped buying books and even trying to read. Half way through the first book, I realized how much contemporary reading I’ve missed and how much of it I want to read until my eyes cross and fall out of my head in defeat. I realized I was hungry for books, and with that I remembered I’d also stopped dreaming during those twelve years–night dreams, daydreams, fantasies, dreams for my life and what I might have to offer, dreams of what surprises life might have for me.

Since I’ve come back to writing, my focus has been on the indie revolution and trying to get my bearings in this new game. I read all the how-to blogs and have a Kindle full of indie books that follow the new paradigm of cranking out entertainment and information, but I haven’t spent much time reading the masters, old and new. I am one of those freaks who likes Dickens and Melville and big fat books full of characters so fully realized they slide off the page and act out their stories on my belly, and long pages of dense storytelling that pulls me deeper and deeper into the worlds created by skillful authors.

There are a lot of very good indie writers out there, but they’re hard to find. I’m not a demanding snob who’s above a cozy mystery or a ghost story under the covers by the light of a Kindle (a country mile from it). But I do like dense books, and there doesn’t seem to be much room for those in the indie world. These writers have to crank them out to stay in the reader’s eye, and there are so many new books out there (500,000 indie books were published last year) that it feels as if they cut them short to match the attention span of readers eager to move along to the next book they got for free. I like books where I can feel the weight of an author’s time on the pages or the eReader screen. I want years behind every hour I spend reading, and I found them in the books I stole from the public library.

I found beautifully crafted language and research that had to have taken a very long time. I found weaves of plots and sub-plots so intricate yet easy to follow I disappeared in their mastery.

I remembered the kinds of books I want to write and found they’d already been written, but I’d been absent when they appeared. I felt no stirrings of confidence that I have anything to add. In Stephen King’s On Writing he states that a good mentor/teacher can make a bad writer good, but nobody can make a good writer great. As I read great writing, I didn’t feel I had that kind of skill, that art under my skin. And, surprisingly, I didn’t feel any compulsion to drive myself crazy developing it, if it happened to be there.

It’s been an odd and dispiriting month. Perhaps it’s post-NaNoWriMo depression. Ha! Perhaps it’s an awakening that during those twelve years I’ve been away, I’ve changed. All those days in a haze on my back and thinking, remembering, and wondering how far I’ve wandered since I put away my notebooks and thanked my agent for letting me out of my contract.

I don’t know. Let the merry month of eating and spending begin, then I’ll revisit my heart and take another look.

6 thoughts on “Nasty November

  1. Darrelyn Saloom

    Ah, so that’s where you’ve been. Hope your head is feeling better and your eyeballs are intact. I don’t NaNoWriMo or outline for that matter. I’m not saying it’s bad, it just doesn’t work for me.

    1. cydmadsen

      Hi Darrelyn. Thanks for stopping by. I think one of the first challenges we face as writers is figuring out our process, then sticking with it. I’ve always sat down with an idea and run with it, but since NaNo is such a marathon that comes with future edits, I thought I’d try something new. Didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the process that’s perfect for others. Thanks again for stopping by. Appreciate it.

  2. krpooler

    Hi Cyd, I give you a lot of credit for taking on NaNoWriMo. Even though you feel it didn’t work for you, you came out of it with so many valuable insights into your own process. A crash course in self-awareness. I’ve never participated but admire people who do. Thanks for sharing your engaging and entertaining story!

    1. cydmadsen

      Thank you so much for dropping by! And thank you for the kind words. This was my second time doing NaNo, but probably my last, especially with a memoir. Those are best taken in small bites 🙂

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