Sunday, February 27, 2011

Novel Completion After Action Report

On February 20th, at 11:07 AM, I accomplished a writing goal.  In November of 2010, I started writing a novel, which the first book in a trilogy entitled, “A Spell of 13 Years,” for the National Novel Writing Month (“NaNoWriMo”).  I ‘won’ the NaNoWriMo by exceeding the 50,000 word goal set for the challenge, eventually reaching 75,127 words for the month.  But the novel was still incomplete and I made myself a promise to keep working on it until it was.  This last Sunday I completed the novel, eventually reaching 218,997 words. 
Besides the pleasure of now feeling entitled to call myself a 'novelist,' I have gained some insights into my writing from attempting and meeting this challenge.  I’ve decided to share some of these via my blog.  In no particular order: 
I CAN Write a Novel.
This was my second attempt to write a novel.  The first one remains unfinished.  One of the reasons I think I failed in the first attempt, possibly even the primary reason, was that I was trying to write it while working on other things, short stories and comic book scripts, that I wanted to complete and get published.  What I have discovered is that, unlike short stories where I can work on several at a time in different stages, a novel needs a greater degree of dedication to complete it.  To quote a 'famous writer' I heard interviewed long ago, and whose name unfortunately I can't remember, "a poem is like a flirtation, a short story like a date, but a novel is like a marriage."
I Like Writing Big.  
Before NaNoWriMo I would say I averaged about eight to nine hundred words a day.  This was about twice the two page a day minimum that I had set for myself.  When I did the math before going into NaNoWriMo, I realized that I needed to write about twice as much as what I was used to doing.  To reach 50,000 words in thirty days, one has to write 1,667 words a day.  Though the idea of doubling my production sounded difficult, I decided I would not let it daunt me.  So, I rearranged my work flow, immediately sitting down and start pounding out the novel during my scheduled writing sessions in the morning.  
My first surprise was that I had little problem meeting the daily goal, averaging over 2,500 words a day for the month.  In fact, writing in bigger chunks like that made each subsequent day easier, as I would find myself finishing whole scenes in a single session, and be ready to start the next one fresh.  Writing in bigger pieces allowed me to see each scene more clearly.  
I Know the Minimum Amount of Story I Need to Have Before I Start.
I began the NaNoWriMo project very differently from my normal writing projects.  For a while now I took the advice I heard from J. Michael Straczynski at ComicCon one year to heart: never start a story until you know how it ends.  My interpretation of that advice was to plot out the stories I wrote very specifically.  I would break everything down into a three act structure, knowing what the turning points needed to be and where the cliffhangers had to be placed.  I would then commence writing the story following my outline.  Quite often I would make discoveries along the way which would change some aspect of the story, but overall the draft would usually come out close to what I had created in my plot outline.
For ‘Spell of 13 Years,’ it happened differently.  Because I didn’t find out about NaNoWriMo until less than week before its scheduled start, I didn’t have time to create my usual detailed outline.  I had just come across the idea for the novel and was starting to jot down notes for it.  I did have the main character clearly in mind, and I did know how the story was going to end.  I also knew that, due to the main character’s background and other circumstances of the city where the story took place, the main character was going to participate in a coronation feast that would precipitate the drive to the story’s climax.  That was about it.  I had a general idea of the world the story was set in, and I had a concept for how magic worked, from which I derived the name of the trilogy, ‘A Spell of 13 Years.’  But when I started on November 1st, it was something like starting a race knowing there was a finish line somewhere out there, but not really knowing how long the race would take and where the twists and turns would come. 
I have to say that I found the experience very enjoyable.  At the beginning, my mind kept getting filled with details of what was going on that I struggled to write down fast enough.  Characters would appear out of no where, moving through the scenes, messing things up, adding color to the world or the character’s background.  Toward the end, it made things difficult as I kept trying to drive the story to the end, and kept stumbling over one obstacle after another that kept getting dropped into the main character’s way.  There were many days when I would finish my writing session thinking of the character, “How is he going to get out of this one?”  The next day, though, the character would find a solution, the next obstacle would present itself, and I would carry on.  
Writing in My Journal Helps Me.
My work process before working on 'Spell' was, after getting to my writing desk, to write a couple of pages of in my journal.  This is done long hand.  One page was filled with whatever was on my mind; dreams, things that happened to me the day before, things I heard in the news, lists of what I wanted in life.  The second page is more about my writing itself, such as story ideas, what is going on with my current project, things like that.  When I started writing Spell in November I stopped this practice for a while, thinking that I had to use my entire scheduled time for putting down new words in order to meet my writing goal.  What I discovered is that not writing in my journal left a 'buzzing' in my head that I would have to struggle to overcome before new words started to flow.  I later read, in the article "50 Ways to Improve your Life in 2011" by U.S. News and World Report, that 'morning pages' like these are a way of boosting your creativity by helping to clear your mind to focus on your project.  My experience taught me that this was the case and I make a point of doing my morning pages before working on my current project. 
The Result
I'm still dealing with the things I've learned from the experience of writing my novel.  I writing my 'morning pages' before I start working on my project.  I've increased my writing time from an hour and a half to two hours in order to meet my word goal, which I've increased to 1,500 words a day.  Other things will come to me as I continue to work through the post-rough draft phase.  But, and this is another big difference from before, I am much more confidant that whatever challenges I may face I'll find a way to overcome them.  
I'm a novelist, you see.  Overcoming writing challenges is what we do.  
A Question for Whomever Might Know: 
Does anyone know anything about something called the White Chrysanthemum Paper?  
During World War Two, during the invasion of Saipan, the first Japanese island to be invaded I believe, news reporters were horrified to see Japanese women from the island's villages grab their children and jump off the sea cliffs to their death when the American soldiers approached.  Some of these newsreel reports were captured by the Japanese, and the High Command decided to do whatever they could to make the Allied forces think that such a reaction would become more and more commonplace as the Allied forces approached the main islands.  It was hoped that, in the face of such fanaticism, the Allies would opt for a negotiated surrender, allowing the military regime to keep power and keep foreign soldiers off Japanese soil, over an invasion to seek the unconditional surrender the Allies had publicly announced they only accept.  The Japanese didn't know the Americans were creating a third option with the Manhattan Project.  It was after this secret disinformation doctrine was written that the Japanese High Command created the special forces units we knew as 'kamikaze,' and starting filming propaganda movies that were 'captured' by the Allies that showed people with spears and pitchforks attacking fake landing craft.  
I read a reference to this "White Chrysanthemum Paper" in a book about the war I was flipping through at a bookstore.  I can't remember the name of the book nor the author.  I can't find any other reference to it online.  Is there any World War Two history buffs out that that are familiar with this paper and can direct me to a source where I can read more about it.  
You're assistance would be greatly appreciated.  

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Artistic Field Trips

This year I have decided to take 'Artistic Field Trips.'  I got the idea from U.S. News & World Report's article entitled, "How to Improve your Life in 2011."  It's listed in the sub-section entitled "Unleash Your Creative Genius."  
An Artistic Field Trip is basically going some place like a museum, a park, a garden, etc., and seeing and experiencing what is there.  I've added my own caveat of walking to these locations or talking public transportation whenever possible.  Thus far I've been to a couple of places I've never been to, such as the California Science Center in Exposition Park, and a few places I haven't been to in such a long time that the experience was practically a new one, such as the Los Angeles County Arboretum and the Norton Simon Museum.  I take my camera with me and snap shots of whatever catches my eye. 

The trips have been enjoyable and they've sparked a number of ideas.  At the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, a ten minute walk from my apartment, an exhibit about the Silk Road, the trading route that brought silk from China into the Middle East and Europe in ancient times, helped me come up with some background information for the universe I'm setting my science fiction stories, which I'm calling the "Tauian Adventure."  An incident that happened while crossing a street while headed to Colorado Boulevard to see the people spending the night on the street to see the Rose Parade, combined with an article I read in Scientific American, gave me a short story I'm going to write about how levels and points as those used in computer games might be used to make people better citizens.  

Beyond that, though, I've noticed how these trips have been altering how I see and hear things.  Sometimes it's not the artwork at the museum or the flower in the garden that is catching my attention, but someone I'm seeing there, or something I spotted along the way, or a memory that is being sparked by something I've noticed.  I'm sure these little details will filter into my stories eventually, but I find myself wanting to do something with them on their own.  

I've decided to share a few examples below, which I am calling "Interludes."  I'll be sharing more of them as the year goes on.  

Interlude #1 - Keeping Time

Walking home from the Norton Simon, I spotted this old gate.  
You see things like this here and there in Pasadena, parts of buildings long gone that have been left standing on their own.  Bits and pieces that remember some other time they can only hint to, but no longer show you.

As I got closer I could see the gate was pretty much useless.  It was partially off its hinges.  It's bottom was stuck in the surface of the concrete itself.

When I was standing right before the gate, I could see something through the bars.  At the time, I thought it was some strange looking sundial.  Something from another time used to measure time.  Out of reach.  Locked away.  Counting the minutes and hours, but with no one around to tell.  

Around the corner, I found a sign that told me the property was being renovated into a retirement home.  

Interlude #2 - Who's Learning What?

I saw this exhibit at the California Science Center, part of a larger exhibit about the human body and how it works.  I tried to enter this particular exhibit on human reproduction, but it was so crowded there was no room for me.  

As I was stepping out I realized everyone in the exhibit at the time was a mother with her daughter or daughters.  Not a single son or father.  Where where they?  They seemed to be more interested in playing a game, one exhibit over, that demonstrated the various ways seeds reach islands.    

Interlude #3 - A Haiku for a Pretend Memory

A couple of years ago I performed in the play, "Roshomon."  It's a famous story about a murder that takes place in a bamboo grove and all of the accounts told by those involved are different.  

Visiting the Los Angeles County Arboretum, I found a small bamboo grove there.  I stepped inside to see what it was like.  I found myself transported to the imaginary place I had created in my mind whilst performing the play.  

Look up at the sky
In the grove, the breeze's kiss
As I sigh my last.