Unleashing The Full Potential Of Write Now
I am ensconced at a self-imposed writing retreat in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan along the shores of Lake Superior in these last resplendent days of fall. I spot a few lonely ducks on the lake. I’d like to shoo them along on their southward journey.
A doe pauses and stops at the apple tree. I wonder if she appreciates the arduous months ahead. Hunting season opens November 15th, followed by a harrowing winter which many will not survive.
The Famous NaNoWriMo Write
I am here, alone, in this cabin in the woods to participate in the National Novel Writing Month (NaMoWriMo), where the goal is to compose 50,000 words in a month to complete a draft of a novel. I have been tempted by NaMoWriMo for several years, but have found the prospect daunting.
The 50,000 words can be pure crap, and many of them will be, but the more reasonable goal is discipline and a sense of community with the thousands of others who accept this foolhardy challenge.
My story is about a 1950s housewife who unravels in the more permissive 1960s and falls off a building. My first paragraph describes how the family is uncertain whether she slipped or threw herself, both are possible. The only thing they know for sure is that she was not pushed. The inportance of opening lines, the initial hook, has been hammered into me throughout my MFA program, online courses, and writing groups. I also know this as an avid reader.
As a participant in an earlier Novel Retreat, I had the opportunity to have an agent critique my first paragraph. We were warned that this exercise requires a sturdy ego – even for us writers who are overly familiar with rejection. Unlike a forgiving reader, agents have a hair-trigger for rejection as they work through a towering slush pile.
I have to start strong. Agents have no patience for a slow build.
Death seems like a good foreshadowing hook. I like what I’ve written. I gave my first page to the agent.
He doesn’t get beyond the first paragraph. “I need a better sense of what this story is about.”
Apparently, a violent death of questionable provenance is not compelling enough. The next day I submit a revised paragraph to the agent. My fingers hover above the keyboard. I add one sentence.
She tumbled off the building holding two energetic yap dogs. .
The agent looks up, “Hey, not bad. This is much better.”
Agents are the first tenacious gatekeeper in the treacherous journey to publication. So, what the hell, if an agent wants two dogs, I’ll give him two dogs. Or I could give him a dog and a cat, or one oversized dog. I wouldn’t be adverse to a monkey if that would do the trick. If I can get by this gatekeeper, I can always circle back and revise with a slow build, which is what I would favor as a reader.
Here is my new agent-friendly opening:
“The last ten years of my mother’s life were so intense, she was simultaneously running a restaurant, several apartment buildings and trying to become a respected patron of the arts. It all crashed in spectacular fashion when she tumbled off that building right in front of us. Did she slip or did she step off? Either was entirely possible because she was holding two energetic yap dogs.”
National Novel Writing Workshop, Part 2
Here I am sliding into the concluding days of NaNoWriMo. The sense of renewal and energy I’ve always enjoyed at the beginning of fall is petering out. Though I’m far removed from a school schedule, September is still imbued with the joy of starting fresh, the potential for new students, new clothes, new freshly-sharpened pencils. That upbeat feeling draws to a close by Thanksgiving.
I have a NaNoWriMo confession to make. I did not achieve the target goal of 50,000 new words. I’m not writing a new novel, I’m revising a book that has languished on my computer for several years. My goal is to pare down my manuscript from 110,000 to 90,000 words. I’m brutally killing my darlings – 20,000 of them.
One of the adages of writing is “show don’t tell.” Fill your story with compelling vignettes of your underlying theme, trust your readers to get the big picture. Novels and lecturing are not a happy match. My NaNoWriMo goal is to convert telling to showing, add by subtraction. I look to Vladimir Nabokov for inspiration, a renowned master at the telling detail. I find it in his imagery of houseflies.
To create a scene of decay, questionable hygiene, or personal dissolution, Nabokov knows that there is nothing better than a couple of flies to deftly intensify a compelling scene.
Here is Nabokov in Lolita, where he is describing the final scene where the narrator, Humbert Humbert, has shot his nemesis Clare Quilty.
“I could not bring myself to touch him to make sure that he was really dead. He looked it; a quarter of his face gone and two flies beside themselves with a dawning sense of unbelievable luck.”
Here he’s describing a dreary roadside diner:
“…one half of a chocolate cake under glass, and several horribly experienced flies zigzagging over the sticky sugar-pour on the ignoble counter.”
And in his magnificent memoir Speak Memory, he describes himself as a young boy playing in a tunnel created by propped-up pillows:
“…and then, in a burst of delicious panic, on rapidly thudding hands and knees, I would reach the tunnel’s far end, push its cushion away and be welcomed by a mesh of sunshine on the parquet under the cane work of a Viennese chair and two gamesome flies settling by turns.”
Not only does he use flies to set the scene, but he also gives them a personality – “beside themselves with luck,” “horribly experienced” and “gamesome.” (He also manages to give the diner countertop a personality – “ignoble.”) Only Nabokov could multipurpose flies.
Sure, why not, I’ll put flies in my novel, but I’m not going to limit myself to two flies. I want more than several, but less than a swarm. A plague is too obvious a symbol. Below is a fly-forward scene in my novel where a mother and a daughter try to reconcile an uneasy relationship.
My mother must have sensed my discomfort at the sight of coiled strips of fully-loaded flypaper twisting slowly above the ottoman fan.
“We’re having a problem with flies. Something to do with the strong south wind.” My mother leans back in her chair and watches a fly advance up her bare leg. She pauses with her flyswatter aloft, lets the fly have his moment on the expanse of human flesh, then nails it with a swift swat, and dispatches another on her forearm. She leans over to pluck the corpses from the carpet and flicks them into the wastebasket positioned for that purpose.
She hands me a flyswatter. “Here you do it, you’ll find it’s surprisingly satisfying to kill flies.”