A Little Sneak Peek

I did it! I hit 50,000 words in November and I am not dead yet. John has been very patient with my annual descent into madness for most of the years we’ve been married, but I hadn’t really thought about how this NaNoWriMo thing looks to him from the outside until recently. I read him a scene I was was working on, and he gave me this amazed look of utter surprise and said, “Oh, you’re actually good.”

Cue jaw drop. John doesn’t really read my stuff for any number of reasons, so he’s been encouraging me in this madness for five years, all the while thinking that it’s entirely possible that I’m absolute rubbish. Bless his heart. It is, of course, still entirely possible that I’m absolute rubbish, because John’s opinion of my work is not necessarily to be trusted. All the same, I thought I’d share the scene he enjoyed, which was part of winning this:

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Excerpt from first draft of “Emperor of None,” an episode of The Sentinel:

Haral Jalai Ranaran Olad Amran, the ninth of his name, High Holy Emperor of the Unified World Collective, felt cobblestone under his feet for the first time in all of his eighty-nine marks.

For the first time in his life, his thin slippers, made from the delicate fronds of a swamp plant that had to be harvested by hand to avoid disturbing the fragile symbiotic balance the root system shared with a specific species of fungus that gave the loloran fronds the deep red hue that none but the emperor was allowed to wear, were meant to whisper along polished stone and handwoven carpets. The cobblestone snatched at the slippers threads. It was pocked and torn from the spraying of bullets and the charging of cleated boots meant to grip slippery surfaces and rip flesh. The stains had dried now to rust, but Amran could still see the stones freshly glistening with treacherous red in his memory. Even from the safety of the Emperor’s Vault, watching the death of his world through the fractured report of a hundred far-seers, the stink of iron and shit had clung to his nose.

The wind, the rain…they had not stopped. In his exile, unable to break out of the vault, the wind and the rain had carried on as usual doing their mighty best to soften the evidence of Amran’s failure. In time, and not so much as Amran would like to think, they would succeed in erasing not only the bloody remains of war, but the fact that the many people of the Unified World Collective had ever existed at all. What happened here, the sublime and the wretched, would fade from the memory of the universe and the lesson would be lost.

Amran looked at the face of each body he passed. They were too far decomposed for him to open their eyes that they may meet the final wonder face-on, but he whispered the final benediction for each. “In fellowship, give you rest.”

It would take him the entire day to make his way to the outskirt of the city a mile away, so glutted the way was with the fallen, but did any one of their brave hearts deserve less? These had been the last to fall, his champions of the vault, and he had known many by name. Sent gifts to congratulate them for weddings and births. Sat with them in grief for a lost one both had loved. Knew their children by name, their partners, their aging parents. Broken bread with them on holy days. He would give each the final benediction even if it took him a week to walk his intended path.

When he reached First Court, the smell hit him like a physical blow and dropped him to his knees. The fountain was piled high with the bodies of the dead, their rotting limbs hanging down like the maleable limbs of a child’s posable doll, flesh gone gray. If his stomach had not already been empty, he would have lost its contents then and there. He did not force himself to walk closer to the awful pyramid, knowing that their flesh would melt way under his fingers if he tried to move these bodies, to lay them out with some personal dignity. So he prayed the full benediction, there on his knees, eyes refusing to close against the evidence of his shame.

When he had finished reciting the lengthy ceremony, he added his own personal prayer. “Hara Mother, why have you called me to bear the witness of these days?”

He received, as ever, no answer.

Bracing himself against a stanchion, Amran pulled himself to his feet and limped around the outer ring of First Court. His knees were too old for that sort of prolonged prostration. They screamed at him with every step. He ignored the pain, turning his focus to the shattered buildings that had been crafted as works of art, symbols of the love that had brought the entire population of a culturally diverse planet together under one government. Eight and a half emperors had been born, lived long lives, and died within the Vault at the center of Jalai Hasheen Nar, the Courts of the High Holy Emperor. As a child, Amran had used his flight of far-seers to wander the city freely, and he had marveled at the edges worn smooth by more than eight hundred marks of wind, rain, and life. Peaceful life. Now, the buildings were gap-toothed and cracked with webs where they still stood at all. He could see clearly that the coming winter winds would finish the job the war had begun and crumble many more into piles of rubble and dust.

“Please, Hara Mother, if I could have prevented this by actions of my own, let me find the answer. Let me find a way to share that answer with history and so prevent the fate of my people from befalling any other.”

The sun was setting when his destination came into sight. The mottled orange and yellow of the trees caught the fading sunset like a blaze: even to look at it warmed Amran’s heart and made him forget for an instant the pain of the scrapes and broken blisters his soft feet had earned on this unholy pilgrimage of the damned. He did not pick up his pace, however. The outer streets were no emptier of the lonely dead than had been the inner courts and he continued his work of pausing to bless each one where they lay.

By some mercy, the winding steps to the Garden of Insight were free of bodies. No one had bothered to bomb the tiny piece of landscaping, so no one had died in defending it. The sight of this sacred place left unprofaned drove home again the confusion and fear that had filled them all when the world went mad. The destruction had been utter and utterly impossible to imagine, but many gardens, the true holiest of holy places for his people, had escaped intact. How could anyone attack them with such ferocity and yet not seem to know enough about them to understand this idea that even the smallest children knew? Gardens were the symbol of the strength bred by the communion of diversity, a living example provided by Hara Mother of how to live well.

Amran climbed the steps, slow but steady. His heart felt ready to burst by the time he passed through the small worked metal gate at the summit. The hill was not high, but it was steep, and his life as the High Holy Emperor had wasted little focus on building his physical stamina even when he was a young man. He wondered if his body could withstand the trial to come for long enough to find the insight the central tree promised.

The Tree of Insight, with its evergreen leaves and bright yellow pseudocarps, was visible from the outer edge of the small garden, but the path was designed to invite meditation. One did not embark on the trial lightly, and in fact, Amran knew of only two recorded public uses of the trial since the founding of the Collective. Even so, maintaining the labyrinth of low berry bushes had remained the first priority of the Jalai Hasheen Nar gardeners. The paths had only been managed by volunteers, yet Amran had never seen so much as a single overgrown branch through the eyes of the far-seers. Only at the very end of the war had his people been unable to keep up the loving care of this sacred space.

Which in itself should have spurred those beasts to destroy it, Amran mused. Still and even so, he was glad it had not.

The tiny fragrant vines that carpeted the footpath released their comforting smell as he wound his way through the maze. Their oils soothed his soles, which were mostly bare as the bottoms of his slippers had shredded away many hours before. The ripe sour-sweet smell of the red berries, waiting for birds that would now never come to harvest them, was intoxicating, the very fumes of the fermenting fruit on the ground nearly enough to topple Amran in his hungry, exhausted state. This, however, he had been conditioned for, and he let his mind float away from his body as he stumbled through the steps of a sacred dance he had hardly practiced since he was first instated as the acting High Holiness.

It was not truly the steps of the dance that mattered now, of course. Who was there to watch and judge his motion? What mattered was the spinning and the way it forced his mind away from the pain of his body and forced out all but the most burning thoughts, all but the impossible questions that demanded answer. And so he whirled, now sunwards, now contrasunwards and stepped, now forward, now back, progressing towards the tree with the sacred slowness of the bird that Hara Mother loved, silly to look at, but utterly focused on its questing task as it chased the quick-quick beetles beneath the sand.

The dance felt broken without the shshing rhythm of the acolytes shuffling their feet in the sand to keep beat for the supplicant. Amran held that absence close to his heart as he moved, hearing in the too-present whistling of the wind the loss that he sought to understand. What other mantra but the keening emptiness of his world could better focus his mind on his questions?

By the time Amran reached the base of the tree, the sun had dropped below the horizon, taking with it what little heat it offered. The robes of the emperor were no better suited for cold than his shoes for stone, made of the same frail fabric that marked his status as more a work of art than a person, a pretty thing it pleased his people to maintain as a symbol of the hard-won peace and prosperity that so much blood had been shed to acheive so many lifetimes ago. The biting cold would soon be irrelevant, of course, so Amran clenched his holy teeth against the indignity of chattering and stepped onto the low bench ringing the Insight Tree.

Traditionally, the task of gathering the bright green drupes that hung from the yellow fruits like tails would fall to the same acolytes who shuffled their feet. Amran clutched the hem of his robe and pulled it up to form a basket, exposing his knobbly legs, and walked the perimeter of the circular bench from one end to the other, gathering a generous handful of drupes by his own hand. He stepped down into the spot where the path cut through the bench and considered the shrine. It was smaller than he had imagined, like the tree. Like the garden. Like the might of his own people. Barely big enough to hold one man bent with age and heartache.

He pushed his way past the hanging curtain of strung stones and turned himself around, waiting until his eyes adjusted to the dark well enough to find the tools he would need: the small iron brazier, the rough flintstone, the piles of tinder and wood.

The tinder, with no attendants to keep it fresh, had gotten damp and begun to rot. No matter. Amran pulled the shredded remains of his shoes from his feet and tore the cloth into little strips. He had lit enough robe sleeves on candles accidentally as a child to know his clothing was flammable enough. He piled the strips in the center of the brazier and struck the flintstone against the iron bowl until a spark caught and set the little pile smoking. He blew gently until a flame blossomed. The slivers of wood had yet escaped the damp and these caught readily enough as he added them one by one to the fire.

The fire was small, but in the tight enclosure of the shrine, it was enough to offer a little heat and comfort to Amran’s old bones. He permitted himself a moment of pleasure in the warmth before adding a few of the drupes to the pyre.

The acrid sting of the chemical in their smoke hit his eyes and nose almost immediately. He winced back at the startling pain, but forced himself to open his mouth and breathe deeply into the smoke. He added more drupes as the first few turned darker against the light of the fire, and as he added them, he prayed.

“Hara Mother, hear my prayer, for I am dying in ignorance. Let me not pass from this world without first knowing why I could not save my people from this war.”

The Most Chaotic Time of the Year

It’s November. Again. And for the fifth year in a row, I am going to join that mad literary endeavor we call National Novel Writing Month. I maintain the opinion that November is a terrible month for a novel writing odyssey of epic proportions, given the obscene number of social obligations that always end up heaped on my plate with the encroaching holidays. I have, however, managed to hit more than my target word count three out of those five years. The lesson I have to take from this is that even if I have no time to write, I have time to write…if I make it.

On the years that I have failed to make my word count, it’s worth noting that my reason for failure was not actually lack of time. In 2011, I didn’t manage to finish the sequel to Autumn’s Daughter for a very simple reason: I hadn’t finished editing the first book and I was fighting against gaping plot holes and badly defined character motivation. Having pneumonia didn’t help, but my primary problem was lack of a story. It was still a worthwhile effort, because those struggles with the sequel gave me the questions that I needed in order to finish pulling the first book together into something that was workable and helped set the stage for the next book.

In 2012, I failed again with The End of the World Survival Society. Once again, the primary problem wasn’t time. I mean, it was a little bit–John and I had just bought our house, which was trying to kill us in subtle and horrifying ways, but the real issue was that I didn’t have an outline or a clear motivation for my character. In the years since, I have figured out that I can muddle through with poor idea of plot or poor idea of characters, but if I’m lacking both and have only a somewhat tired sci-fi scenario to fall back on, the story will die for lack of oxygen. And even that year was a useful learning experience–I learned a lot about the value (i.e., time-sucking necessity) of research in writing sci-fi and the challenge of juggling a large ensemble of main characters.

Comparing my failing years with my winning years, I have a few thoughts on things that are useful for getting through NaNoWriMo:

Write an outline.

It doesn’t have to be detailed. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It can be a sloppy plot arch scratched onto the back of a napkin with a restaurant crayon, but it should give you a clear sense of the story’s primary problem, how the main characters relate to each other around that problem, and what the outcome should be. You don’t need to stick to this outline, and you can trust yourself to fill in the details as you flesh out the world, but trust me: something like an outline or plot arch will make it easier to get started.

Write down what your main characters want.

What do your heroes want? What’s making it hard for them to get it? What do your villains want? How far are they willing to go to get it? Why are their wants are odds with one another? You don’t have to answer all of these questions or stick to your answers, but having at least a peripheral grasp on what makes the people you’re writing put their feet on the floor every morning will help you find their voices and give them skin and bones and believability with less of a mental hernia.

Plan for research time.

How much do you know about what you’re writing about? If you’re a psychologist who works with troubled teens writing about a character with an eating disorder, you probably have a good chunk of the knowledge base you need in order to put together a life-like and rich scenario with minimal research. If, however, you’re a copywriter who wants to tackle quantum mechanics, you should assume that research could take as much time as putting words on the page. Possibly more.

Be a little selfish.

I’m not saying you should let your kids go hungry or put your family finances in peril by not showing up to work for a month. But making the time to put down 1,667 words on a page every single day  does mean communicating your intentions to people who don’t have mandatory claims on your energy and making firm choices for yourself. You can tell yourself you’re just going to cut the Netflix bingeing, but word to the wise: don’t. Part of writing is mental compiling, and that happens better during whatever counts as lazy time for you. Of course, I’m an introvert and refill my energy tank from being alone. That’s not true for everyone, so I don’t have a universal step-by-step plan for keeping your brain fresh. Just be self-aware about what gives you energy vs. what saps it and cut back on what saps it. The writing will take everything you can give it.

Find a nemesis. (Or team. Whatever.)

My last and final tip is a little selfish: I like working with other writers, so I like finding more to rope into my circle. Thanks to the kindness of the Topsham Public Library, central Maine folks have a chance to do the same starting this Tuesday (Nov. 3) at 6 p.m. I’ll be there, doing something vaguely like leading the show, but mostly, I want to help writers find other writers who can motivate and support their writing. The why isn’t critical: competition and encouragement are two sides of the same coin with writers, but whatever the internal reason, other writers are great at helping one another find problems and solutions with their work. Also, and especially during NaNo, it’s nice to have a whining circle. There’s nothing quite so refreshingly cathartic as a mutual whinge-fest.

So there it is, my top five tips for making it to winner’s circle for NaNoWriMo. Bonus tip: If you’re blogging (or reading blogs), you’re probably procrastinating. Let’s both knock it off and get back to work, shall we?

p.s. Don’t forget to save your work regularly and back it up (to the cloud or a secondary hard drive) daily. Online file management services like Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive have tools for managing version control, so you can just upload a new copy of your backup every day without having a glut of files overtake your email.

p.p.s Also, remember that failing is still winning, because at the end of the month, you’ll have more words than if you didn’t try and you’ll have learned your own set of lessons about what slows you down. Certainty of failure is a crappy excuse to not try.

Okay, seriously this time: Let’s write.