03 December 2018

Post-NaNoWriMo Debrief

This was the hardest novel I think I've ever written.

Mind you, I don't particularly remember the trenches of writing my other novels. But usually I have a pretty good sense of which novels are decent and which are... not. And this one is trending to the latter camp.

First of all, my plot only percolated for about 36 hours before I started writing it (usually it's simmering in my brainpan for five or six months by the time November hits), so I felt like I didn't really know the story. It was like trying to eat an unripe fruit. It might have been good, but I was asking too much of it prematurely. My mystery story was a mystery even to me, and in fact, the plot grew murkier as the book went on. When I started the story I knew exactly who the murderer was, and by the time I hit 50k I had narrowed it down to three people. (No, that's not a typo.)

It was also hard writing without M. Even in the years when she didn't write a novel herself, she still commiserated with me as I wrote mine because she knew from the inside the madness that is writing a 50,000 word novel in thirty days and got, more than anybody else, the strange heady mix of elation and hilarity and angst that co-exists in the speed-novelist in those thirty days. But this year, I couldn't message her my characters' latest escapades and have her laugh along with me instead of taking a vague 'smile, nod, and back away slowly' approach like most everyone else does. I didn't have any of her insightful/funny comments on my NaNoWriMo Facebook posts. I never got to see her dramatic updates of her own novel. I didn't get to offer her ludicrous ideas and steal ridiculous plot points from her.

Artists -- true artists, who follow their calling with such passion and intensity -- are so rare already, and although we are often perceived as working alone, the fact is we can be pretty closely knit and when we lose one of our own, it's like taking a support beam out of a building. Although M and I worked on our novels in our own separate rooms, communicating almost exclusively online, she was integral in my own creative process and now that she's gone, my own work has grown paler, simply because she's not a part of my life anymore. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I would also argue that it takes a village to create art. Take one person out of the picture, and the whole composition of the photo is altered. Colours are missing -- the blue eyes, the blonde hair, the bright clothing. The light is different -- the reflection of the sun on her face, the sparkle in her eyes. The shape is different -- one less figure, one less shadow, the loss of shape and symmetry, a literal hole where there used to be a whole fascinating personality. You can tell me to get over it because she was 'just' a friend all you want (as opposed to a spouse or a child), but the fact is, she coloured my life and by extension my artistic output, and now with one of the arteries of my art severed, my art -- and therefore I -- can't help but suffer.

I digress.

I did make 50k though. I completely filibustered the last 10k. I had about four plot points of any kind, so I basically dropped one in every 10k and then milked it in great repetitive word-padded detail for as long as conceivably possible (and then some) before dropping in the next tiny plot point and milking that cow absolutely dry and so on. I lost my motivation somewhere around the 25k mark and honestly it was sheer force of will that got the book to 50k (I'm not calling it 'done' because nothing's wrapped up because I don't know how to wrap it up). I have never been so thoroughly, consistently uninspired for a novel. Even my 2016 novel (which only made 37k that November) wasn't this difficult to write.

Maybe in eight months when I get around to re-reading it I'll feel differently about it, but right now I'm not looking forward to that day. I can't complain too much though... my main goal coming in was not to write an amazing book (although that would have been nice), it was to write 50k in a month for the first time since 2015. And I did that.

Next writing project: back to revising Kyrie.

23 November 2018

The Hardest Thing

The hardest thing about an invisible/mental illness is the fact that it's invisible.

It's not the cowering beneath the whip of self-loathing, it's not the constant calorie-counting, it's not the paralysing fear of interacting with another human (though all that is certainly exhausting).

The hardest part is that nobody sees.


Oh I've played the game of hide-and-seek
When all I wanted was for them to see
See the lines upon my face
The memories have left their trace...

~ White Heart, 1990 (Storyline)

19 November 2018

Extraordinary

When I go visit my family, one of my favourite things is listening to my sister practice piano.

She's someone you probably wouldn't expect to be a pianist. She's almost a tomboy -- short hair, loves the outdoors, loves bugs in particular, owns a pet rabbit and co-owns about twenty outdoor cats, perennially in jeans and running barefoot, and can throw a punch or two if necessary. She's kindhearted and small and feisty and you don't mess with her if you know what's good for you.

Yet, she sits down at that piano and spins beautiful smooth melodies out of it so effortlessly. It's hard to believe it's my own little sister -- the rough-and-tumble farm kid -- making music like that. It never ceases to amaze me. Two of my other sisters are violinists, but somehow that seems more natural -- they both have a personality more stereotypically like that of a musician, plus in violin you see their arm moving the bow across the strings. With a piano it's just your fingers hitting keys. It's a lot more impressive to make a piano piece smooth and emotional.

The other day I was backstage at a show and got talking with a few other choir singers that I sort of knew, but not very well, and in the context of a different conversation it came out that I'm working on a novel. They were in awe and peppered me with questions. They were so impressed. I was a little taken aback. Having written fifteen (and a half) novels in the past ten years, I often genuinely forget that people don't just write novels in their free time. To me it seems normal. To them, it's extraordinary.

So I write this to you, my fellow artists -- whether or not you think you're worthy of the title. You are extraordinary. Yes, your everyday life consists of practice and rehearsal and research and fine-tuning and critique, but the average person's life doesn't. I especially write this to those of you, like me, who are in this world full-time and all your friends are from this world of practicing and rehearsing and fine-tuning and you feel lost in it. You (and your friends) are all extraordinary. You are not the norm. It feels like the norm, but it's not. You do incredible things. For me -- I write novels. Whole novels. For fun. People don't do that. That's extraordinary. I practice dance multiple hours every day. I may not have 180 extensions, but I have speed, and strength, and grace that does not come naturally to 99% of the population (even though I still often feel like I'm less-than because I'm surrounded by flexible dancers).

All those years that you have dedicated to your craft -- your instrument, your poetry, your drawing -- are extraordinary. This past August I made a rough calculation of how many hours of my life I've spent dancing -- not rehearsals or performance, just class and my own practice. The number came to well over two thousand hours, and I know for a fact most artists practice much more than I did in my earlier years. To dedicate that much time to a craft is extraordinary. Nobody has that kind of patience or love for something so difficult and nuanced (especially if it doesn't earn you millions of dollars).

And all those hours have culminated to make you extraordinary. Because now this is such a part of you that you can simply sit down at a piano, like my farm-girl sister, and play something so clear and effortless that it takes our breath away. Now you can simply pick up a paintbrush and create a world with so much depth and detail we forget that it's not a real place. Now you can simply put on a pair of shoes with metal on them and make an engaging rhythm faster than your brain can think. Now you can shape words into a living, breathing sculpture of the effervescent nature of human experience, explaining and understanding at the same time.

You now have the power to do extraordinary things at will. Yes, there are always improvements to be made, yes, we must always practice, but remember that we are not the norm. We are, right now, this moment, already extraordinary.

18 November 2018

Novel Update - Day 18

I've almost come to a complete standstill on this novel. I only wrote 500 words on Friday, and I didn't write anything yesterday. I literally just stared at the screen and then eventually just went to bed. I don't think I have ever hated a novel during its creation as much as I hate this one right now.

And it's not even that bad. The story has potential. I just can't get it there right now. I don't know how to pull it out.

Currently writing a character in the midst of early grief. Trying to write the initial anger, and it's hard. As I've mentioned before, writing is a lot like acting -- you have to feel, really feel, what you're writing.

And because I'm in school, and because I am on my literal last chance to be happy enough to keep my place in this program, I can't let myself feel the anger that I need for this novel. I think that's why I'm struggling SO MUCH with this novel. I am no longer allowed to be angry or even remotely sad because my friends have died and my cousin has died. I'm not even allowed to access those feelings for the purposes of creating a character and telling a fictional story. And it's stifling me. It's stifling me as a human with a soul that's prone to wounds, and it's stifling me as an artist trying to come alongside those who feel alone in their anger and grief and the pain of being alive while others aren't.

I hate that I'm being told what I can and cannot feel, and I hate what that kind of Cloud Cuckoo Land restriction is doing to my artistic output. This novel is an abyss of repetitive character ramblings on nothing at all because they're not allowed to feel anything because I'm not. I guess art does imitate life. As readers we'd never stand for such an emotionally flaccid book but we expect it of our real, theoretically bright Technicolor lives all the time. And that's what I tend to write about -- stories that could be real life. What a sad state society is in. But is it society or is it just me?

(Yes, I will be booking a counselling appointment tomorrow...)

16 November 2018

Music Day - Only One

I accidentally stumbled on this one in my iTunes yesterday and MY GOSH I am melting.

Within the first verse, Uncle Terry's incisive writing slices the heart with the line You've broken so many hearts, darling / That you're not untouched... (Is this true or is this true?)
Beautiful lyrics spin out across a lush early-'60s-style arrangement and can we talk about the harmonies? Mid-century rock harmony is what early DA did best and they may very well be at their peak here.

I've been listening to a lot of late '50s music lately for my novel this year, and this fits right in, but with lyrics that aren't cheesy, mushy, sappy sentiments. I could not ask for more. (I love the '50s sound, I'm just bored with the 'love' theme, in all eras of music.)

Title: Only One
Artist: Daniel Amos
Album: Shirley, Goodness And Misery
Year: (song) 1981 (album) 1992
Label: Alternative/Stunt Records
iTunes here; YouTube here.

The song has a complex history. Originally recorded during the ¡Alarma! album sessions (which was in itself a saga for the ages), the original version of the song languished on the shelves for eleven years before it appeared on a compilation of demos and unreleased songs on the Alternative/Stunt label (though a rewritten version with more synth strings showed up on the side-splitting Best Of album, The Miracle Faith Prickly Heat Telethon Of Love in 1990 -- the same album that first introduced us all to the hilarious if somewhat heretical Dr. Edward Daniel Taylor). The original has since found a wider audience as part of the bonus disc on the recently released ¡Alarma! two-disc deluxe reissue (which was my first encounter with it).

14 November 2018

NaNoWriMo Progress Report - Day 13

I feel like this year I'm having the NaNoWriMo experience Chris Baty describes in the monumental book No Plot? No Problem! (the book that introduced me to National Novel Writing Month and singlehandedly turned me into a writer who actually writes rather than just dreaming about writing).

He describes going in with zero plot and truly making it up as you go. He describes Week Two -- a week when everything in your novel is crap and you just want to quit. He describes the lifeless anaemic characters finally beginning to perk up and DO something in Week Three. And for the first time in ten years of month-long-novel-writing, I'm checking all these boxes.

While I try not to plan much at all, I do usually have a strong enough idea that I know I can squeeze 50,000 words out of relatively easily, even if I don't quite know how that plays out yet. I'm not usually worried about running out of plot (though I've had to stretch some of the novels a bit to make 50k). But this year, while I did have a bit of an idea, I had no earthly clue how I was going to get from point A from point B without making it too easy for the characters (that is, writing the entire plot arc in 10k and having to filibuster for the other 40k). This was the first time I'd really had to make a conscious decision to trust myself and my ability to write myself out of a corner -- something I've rarely had to actually do on this scale. Usually I have at least one ace up my sleeve, but I didn't this year. I had no escape route, no back-up plan. I felt like I was playing FreeCell on Windows XP -- there's no undo button, and if you make one wrong move, you lose, no second chance. It was a huge act of courage to even start the novel this year, not knowing how well I can actually write myself out of a true dead end.

I'd never really experienced the Week Two blues. Usually Week Two is when I tip the second domino chain into motion and really get in the pocket. The first week was historically the worst for me. But this year, Week Two was abysmal. One of my characters was dead and the other two had literally no personality (or social life -- so I didn't even have interesting acquaintances I could write about).

But now, suddenly, the characters are beginning to develop emotions. They're beginning to react to stuff and have opinions. At the moment, one character has just accused his best friend of getting his sister pregnant. I knew this was a plot point, but when I put it in I was surprised how angry the brother was, and how the accusation drove the friend to despair. The friend knows it's not true, but he has no way of proving it, and the sister's dead so she can't say. I had originally thought these guys would be grieving her death together, but last night at the write-in they suddenly stopped speaking to each other and that made things a little more interesting because now they're going to have to repair their friendship AND solve the mystery. Even more interesting -- my character who was all gung-ho about solving this mystery literally just gave up on it and has accepted that maybe the deadly fire was an accident after all (the other character never did care about whether or not it was an accident -- which also surprised me). So now they have to repair their relationship AND decide that actually this is worth investigating AND solve the mystery. I feel like having enough story to make 50k isn't quite impossible anymore -- it's only mostly impossible.

I'm currently at 24,677 words. It's almost halfway, but it really doesn't feel like it. I feel like there's still so many words between here and 50k and I'm trying to hold off all my plot points so I don't run out of story. (I need a subplot. Unfortunately I am terrible at subplots.)

Hoping to hit 26,700 words today. The official goal for today (Day 14) is only 23,333, but I've been trying to gain an extra day of word count every two or three days so I'll be finished (or extremely close) by the last week of November so I'm not trying to catch up on the novel AND keep on top of school AND open our massive Christmas musical.

31 October 2018

NaNoWriMo Eve Resolutions

On this, the eve of my 15th National Novel Writing Month (I'm counting Camp in these numbers), I decided to make a few resolutions in order to ensure my novel can be the best version of itself.


- None of my characters will have a lung disease. None. ZERO.

- I will remember that Daniel Amos did not exist in 1957 and therefore I will refrain from having my characters quote the entirety of their discography in this novel when I get stuck.

- (The above resolution also applies to Prodigal, David Meece, and Crumbächer.)

- I will remember to eat more than once a day.

- None of my characters will develop even a temporary lung issue. No pneumonia. No infections. Not even a cold.

- My secondary character is allowed to have an interest other than the performing arts. Just let her be a scientist.
(Besides, it's necessary for the novel's plot.)

- I will not give my characters names starting with 'E.'
*looks at list of three main characters*
*FMC's name is Elisabeth*
(...)
(Everyone calls her Bette though, okay?)

- I will not get sucked into the abyss of baby name websites for two hours as I try to find the perfect name for a secondary character that DOES NOT start with 'E.'

- I will not spend my writing (or practice) time looking at 1950s decor on Pinterest.

- I will learn to type FMC's name without typing 'Beete' first and having to delete and retype every single time she says something.

- I will not spend more hours making writing playlists than actually writing.

- I will not write the death scene in the first ten thousand words and then have to filibuster for the next 40k because I'm out of plot.

- The director is not the bad guy in this novel. This is not Kyrie. Or Angel Falls.

- None of my characters will die suddenly at a young age... oh, wait, that's literally the entire centrepiece of my plot.
(Hey, they say write what you know...)

- Seriously. No lung diseases.


Onward to literary greatness!

28 October 2018

Day 31

They tell you grief is weird and unpredictable. You'd think I'd know this already, having grieved so much in the last three or four years.

One month and one day since M's death, and this one is not at all like the others. With the others I sobbed uncontrollably for weeks. I spent months in a fit of rage -- how could this happen? -- and literally could not function for a long time. I completely stopped writing and choreographing -- only very recently have I begun to take these things up again.

But this time it doesn't hit me in tsunami waves like it did with my cousin and with Brittney. It's not a crushing heaviness like it was with my grandpa. It hits me in little needling moments, death by a thousand cuts. I have shed tears over M, but not all at once in full-blown sob sessions. The tears this time have been a collective, unobtrusive effort -- one or two at a time, and you'd miss them if you weren't looking directly at me and if the light wasn't just right.

Today I was thinking about one of my writing projects. There's a character who does highland dancing and of course my first, instinctive thought was, I'll ask M about highland stuff... and then I realised I can't. There was a window of opportunity -- years of it -- where I could have (if I had thought of this aspect of the character sooner), and I thought that window would stretch on forever, but it didn't and that somehow blindsided me.

The question that keeps coming to mind is not why? I know why -- or at least I have a pretty good idea. I've been on the edge of that cliff. The wind just happened to push me the other way. (For now.)

The recurring question is: is this how the story ends? All that enthusiasm and vigor and energy and life -- is this the apex? Does it all end here? Apparently it does -- it already has, thirty-one days ago -- but somehow I'm still haunted by this question. Is this really it? Is this really the end of her story? This? It feels so incomplete.

It scares me a little how quickly I've been able to just continue with my life, so unaffected. On one hand I'm waiting for it to bowl me over, and this is a possibility -- I tend to not fully process things immediately. It took me a full three years to process my cousin's death (how has it been over three years?), to return to some kind of normalcy after literal years of being almost literally paralysed with grief and rage. But at the same time, M's death has so far has almost zero effect on me, though I was much closer to her than I ever was to my cousin. Have I just grieved so much for others already that I'm out of grief? Have I spent all my life's emotions? Am I numb now?

And then the next little moment hits me that I'll never be able to tag her in another writing or dance post on Facebook, or I'll never be able to ask her a highland dance question, or I'll never be able to be a part of her dance shows again, or that we never did do that dance video I had started teaching her choreography for, or we'll never again spend 25 comments on her Facebook status talking about music, and I feel a tiny twinge of that huge hollow breathless ache that I know so well. It reassures me -- at least I'm feeling something -- but it also scares me. I only catch glimpses of it, but it seems somehow bigger than I remember it, and should the curtain be fully pulled back, I don't know if I can stand under that much nothingness.

26 October 2018

NaNoWriMo Indecision

National Novel Writing Month is coming up. Is that a thing here still?

I'm not sure.

There are a lot of emotions surrounding NaNoWriMo this year. I haven't done it since 2016 -- and even then I didn't finish, for the first time since 2008 (too much homework, too much stress, was still processing/not over The Year of Hell -- I pretty well imploded that semester). I haven't had much for ideas really since 2014 (Kyrie). Even the fire for the old ideas still languishing in my notebooks and computer folders has largely died.

On top of that, my perennial writing buddy committed suicide last month. And NaNoWriMo is significantly less fun alone (never mind the grief involved...).

I want to honour her. A good way would be to keep writing, in her memory. I want to give her a cameo in this year's novel, but how, and where? Do I write the entire novel about her? A subplot? A passing glance in the fabric of the backstory?

Earlier this summer, as I was contemplating this year's NaNoWriMo, I had toyed with the idea of finally doing the sequel for one of my earliest stories -- it was a time travel story, and I had left space for a sequel (which I'd already sketched out at that time). The main character in that story was in fact loosely inspired by Brittney (who passed away four years after I wrote it, but not before reading and giving her approval to the rough draft), and I have yet to write anything in her memory. I still have all my notes ('all' = maybe half a page) for that sequel, but I don't trust myself to pull 50,000 words out of it. In my younger writing days, I could start with literally nothing more than a sentence and maybe two characters (not necessarily named) and get a decent novel out of it, but 2012 proved that I don't really have that ability anymore (that novel literally ended with multicoloured cows in a field singing karaoke. It was supposed to be a serious military drama). I need some kind of an actual plot idea, or at the very least a character voice (Kyrie came entirely out of a quarter-page character monologue that fell fully formed into my head one day. Even all my subsequent planning for Kyrie was written in that character's voice).

I don't trust myself to be able to pull off that sequel. I know that of course if I doubt myself I definitely won't be able to so instead I should just fling myself right into it without giving a care. The artist cannot put a brush to canvas doubting... (Milosz)

My other idea is a late 1950s theatre drama. I have three characters, but I don't know what the drama is, and that scares me. Five years ago, this would have been enough of a plot for me to start November with. But now, all I see is the terrifying blank space ahead.

Lately I've been fascinated by the modern-day parable. My last novel (2016) was that, and since then I've written a couple parabolic short stories as well. Not only does it give me sort of a direction to go in, it gives the story greater weight. The problem is I've run out of parables. I feel this blockage keeping me from both the sequel and the theatre drama -- I want to have a faint whiff of a parable somewhere in the background of my story this year, but I can't find the one for either of these stories.

If I'm honest, I don't really trust myself to write another good novel at all. Never mind the fact that my last novel, written in such a haze of stress and exhaustion that I literally do not remember writing it, is probably the best thing I've written next to Kyrie.

But I do feel like I need to write something this year. I took last year off of NaNoWriMo, but I think writing another novel is the next step in my slow healing. I haven't truly enjoyed writing since before the Year of Hell (2015), and I want to get back into it. I feel the time is right. But I've changed so much and I don't know if I really truly trust myself to be able to do this again.
It's just been so long...

16 October 2018

Deleting Humans

I'm having such a hard time deleting you from my life.

I've done this before -- too many times. A text comes through and you just sort of mentally scratch another person off your list of friends to call when something terrible or wonderful happens. You mentally note another anniversary. You read the obituary. And they just sort of fade out of your life -- just gone, irrevocably gone, incommunicado, with no explanation. You go back home and don't happen to see them and you think maybe next time.

Sometimes the funeral helps make it real. But yours didn't. It's still not real. I was there, in the pew, and I heard your brother and your teacher and your friends give the eulogies. I heard -- I felt -- the thundering bagpipe lift a mournful cry to the autumn heavens. I watched the still lifes of your now-still life float by me, mere pixels on a projector screen, trying and failing to capture and contain and give back to us the experience and essence of your life, the vivacious energy you carried. I watched the singers' faces crinkle, I saw them clasp each other's hands, holding tightly -- eyes closed, ribcages shuddering -- knowing they knew they could no longer take yours. I heard your mother weeping, howling like no creature in the world ever could -- the haunted, hollow cry of a mother's gutted heart.

And then I went out into the balmy fall day, into the coloured leaves and the blue sky -- I somehow assumed all the colour would die when you did. Maybe that's why my heart doesn't feel it yet. The world is still too bright for you to not be in it. How could you possibly be gone if the sun is still shining? I would think it's some dramatic trick for attention, but the echo of your mother's visceral sobs in my memory tells me otherwise.

I look at the pictures I have of you -- thank goodness I knew you during my take-pictures-of-literally-EVERYTHING phase -- and I study your face and I can't reconcile the fact that I will never see it again in real life. I can't remember your voice, but I remember the words you'd use on our Facebook chats -- I'd recognise your writing voice again in a heartbeat.

If only you still had a heartbeat.

I still do -- why don't you? How is it possible that I'll never -- truly, never -- see you again? How can I look at that face in the pictures, the face of my friend, and delete it from my life? That's so cold, so heartless, so final -- even though you've already deleted it from my life. It seems impossible to just take it as fact that I will never hear from you again. There's always hope, isn't there? The prodigal always comes home, don't they? Love conquers all, doesn't it?

How then can I look at you, that wildly expressive face, and say definitively that hope is gone, and you'll never return, and my love for you -- our love for you -- could not conquer your demons? To do so is to admit defeat. It means I've given up on you and I can't find it in my heart to do that to you; you who have been through so much and meant so much to me. You're not gone -- I just haven't seen you in a while. Like so many others in my far-flung life. They haven't died, they're just geographically far away. Can't you be the same? Can't I run into you at some gala twenty years from now and revert to overexcited fourteen-year-olds again as we catch up on shows, and men, and recent projects? I'll be waiting for that day.

I'll be waiting a darn long time for that day.