Saturday, November 28, 2009

Day Twenty-eight: Glimpses of Normalcy

NaNoWriMo is like taking part in a total immersion language program. For those who may not know what that is, instead of taking a foreign language in college for two or three one-hour sessions a week, you live in a dorm with other students of that particular language, French for example, and that is all you speak. By only being allowed to communicate in the language you are learning, you learn it much faster. The theory behind it is based on how children learn their native languages, which is primarily from hearing their parents and older siblings speak it.

NaNo is something like that. You may be physically present in a non-NaNo world, but much of your waking time is spent either working on your novel, corresponding with your writing buddies about your novels, or talking in the forums seeking support or discussing problems with your novels. Even when you're not actively engaged in writing or discussing, your brain is trying to work out plot snags or details of the next scene. You speak a whole new vocabulary, one steeped in writing terms and NaNoJargon.

It takes some adjustment when you finish your book and suddenly remember that you have a life that exists the other eleven months of the year. Somehow, during November, that seems to slip your mind. But I've begun to catch glimpses of normalcy. For instance, when I'm writing, I like to listen to the classical music station on the radio ("ALL Classical, ALL the time," is their motto). But a couple of days ago, I suddenly realized there was a smattering of Christmas music sprinkled in amongst the works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Grieg. Then, while watching television in the evening, it was impossible to miss the holiday commercials; and even two of our favorite programs had Thanksgiving themes, and one was a Christmas episode!

There have been more mundane reminders of that "other" life, too. Bills still have to be paid: creditors don't consider NaNoWriMo a valid excuse for late payments. And my husband informed me that there is something amiss with our refrigerator--how can it be freezing and thawing at the same time? So, it looks like a call to the repairman is in order.

And then there's the mud! Not only have we had one of the wettest springs and summers on record, but fall has not been much better. Our back yard is so saturated, I'm thinking of investing in "Wellies" for Mindy, my dog, so she won't track in so much mud from outside. If it were just a bit warmer, we could grow rice or perhaps have a cranberry bog of our very own. The bottom line is that the floor by the kitchen door needs to be mopped almost daily to keep the muck from spreading into the the main house.

It was also nice to take a day off from writing to enjoy Thanksgiving with family, to talk with real people instead of just the characters in my book, and to listen to conversation that I didn't write. Soon, meals will return to being more balanced, and more regular, as will bedtime. Once again laundry will be folded upon its return from the laundromat, and clothes will be available in drawers and closets instead of having to be fished out of the accumulated bags of clean laundry piled by the linen closet. Furniture will be dusted, floors will be vacuumed and mopped, beds will be made. In short, the normal rhythms and responsibilities of life will return--at least until next November.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Day Twenty-Seven: Oops!

Three days to go before NaNoWriMo 2009 goes down in the history books. This week, with preparations for the Thanksgiving holiday, and cumulative exhaustion kicking in, for the first time I got a bit behind in my word count. So, today, I wrote. And then I wrote some more. And then I did some fascinating research about engagement rings in the early to mid-1800s, before writing even more.

Did you know that most of the rings were yellow gold and had carved bands? Some had single stones, and not always a diamond since diamonds were so expensive. Other bands used gemstones to spell out the word "dearest" using a diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, another emerald, sapphire, and tourmaline. Still others used a diamond as the center stone, then had one or two stones on either side. And not all bands were a regular circle. One such band, called a "bypass" ring, caught my eye because where the stones were set, one end of the ring bypassed the other, with one gemstone set on each end so the two stones "hugged" each other. I thought, what a perfect ring for my protagonist to give his intended! So, I busily wrote the scene in which he selects the ring, choosing a diamond (his intended's birthstone), and a sapphire (his birthstone). I had nearly finished the scene when I realized there was a problem: my main character has amnesia. He doesn't know who he is, where he's from, or anything about himself, so how would he know when his birthday was? Oops!

What do you do when you still have approximately 12,000 words left to write before you can upload your story, and you run into a problem? At this stage of the game, I had three choices. Delete the past hour's work and start over, have him suddenly recover a convenient portion of his memory, or keep writing and "fix" the problem during revisions after NaNo is over. Since one of the "rules" of NaNo is "NO EDITING," I decided to keep going and solve the problem when I do the revisions in January.

Even with the little "glitch" this afternoon, it was still a very productive day. I managed to add another 4000+ words to my total, with another 7,384 to go. So, my goal is to write another 4,000 Saturday, finish on Sunday, and upload the novel for word count verification on Monday before midnight. In the meantime, my story is building to its climax, and I can't wait to see what's going to happen.

Have you run into similar problems while writing your stories? Have you discovered inconsistencies in your plot, found that something you included in your story didn't exist until a later time period, or suddenly realized you'd changed the name of one of your characters without realizing it? Such things happen to us all, and that's where a good editor comes in; but that will be another topic for another day.

If you're participating in NaNoWriMo, writing furiously to finish your story before the end of the day on November 30, don't panic. Take a deep breath, keep writing, and remember that this is a first draft, and all its imperfections and inconsistencies can be worked out during the revision process. For now, just keep writing and keep the finish line in view.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Day Twenty-Six: Happy Thanksgiving!

In honor of the day, I thought I'd share the one-paragraph Thanksgiving story I recently submitted to a contest. It didn't win, but it did get read and tied for fourth place.

Tom shivered in the chilly November wind, a worried look etched on his face as he realized his friends were disappearing, one by one. He'd heard rumors all his life about Big Jack and what he did to you when you reached a certain age--the atrocities he allegedly committed; but didn't Big Jack take care of them? And wasn't it he who provided their sustenance, who tended to them when they were sick, who gave them shelter? No one knew for sure what really happened when Big Jack singled you out because no one had ever come back; but what he'd overheard Little Jack tell Annie yesterday had made his blood run cold. Kind of hard to believe someone who seemed so caring could also be such a heartless monster. Still, as the day wore on, and more and more of his friends took that one-way trip wrapped in Big Jack's arms, Tom's fears grew. "Gotta keep my head," he thought, "--try to think of a way to survive. " It was almost supper time now, and he saw Big Jack walking in his direction. Very nonchalantly, Tom began to ease to the rear of the nervous, dwindling group gathered in the yard. "If he doesn't see me, if I can just make it through the day, I'll be okay," he thought as he suddenly found himself pressed up against the rough siding of the building. No time left to run, no place to hide, his heart sank as he resigned himself to his fate. Gathering his courage, he vowed not to cry out as Big Jack scooped him up in his arms, held him close, and said, "Yes, Tom, you'll make a fine Thanksgiving dinner."

[Can you find the secret word hidden in this story? If you think you know what it is, post your answer in the comments. And have a wonderful Thanksgiving--but keep your head.]

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Day Twenty-Five: Traditions in Transition, and a Recipe for You

Today, I wanted to take time out from talking about NaNoWriMo and writing, to share something on a more personal level. I've been thinking a lot about family traditions lately--maybe because some of ours are changing. As children grow up, move away from home, get married, parents grow older or pass away, the family constellation changes and so do some of our traditions. Some of the old ones no longer seem to "fit," or are impossible to continue, and new ones take their place. Yet there is always something that we cherish and pass on to the next generation.

On a trip to Virginia, when our children were little, we stayed with friends and experienced grits, red eye gravy, and monkey bread--all for the first time. The first two were not met with much enthusiasm by our children, but the monkey bread was an unequivocal hit with everyone and became our traditional Thanksgiving breakfast. Why it's called "Monkey Bread," our hosts couldn't tell us. I'll include the recipe at the end of this post so you can try it and perhaps it will become one of your traditions, too.

As for dinner, of course, the center of attraction is the turkey. In my family, we always made a bread stuffing; but when I met my husband, his family made a meat-based dressing. When I became gluten-intolerant several years ago and could no longer have bread stuffing (I tried it with gluten-free bread, and it just wasn't the same), I was very grateful we had added this tradition from my in-laws. Of course our kids all wanted Stove Top, so that, too, became a staple at our holiday dinners.

When my daughter Jen was in nursery school, she learned how to make homemade butter. This has been present on our Thanksgiving table for more than three decades, though it may be missing tomorrow since Jen will be with her husband's family for the holiday this year and I may not have the time or energy to make it. The butter was for pumpkin bread, which my mother used to make. Now, my son-in-law Louie has taken over this part of the meal, and does an excellent job of it, too.

We've even made a change in the squash, buying some that has already been peeled and cut into chunks (when we can find it). Davy and Sarah used to cut this up for me after I began having some problems with my hands; but when they're not here, we appreciate the convenience of buying it ready to just toss in the kettle, and are thankful for those who prepared it. I still make the boiled onions from scratch, though, because I don't like the flavor of the canned ones.

Several years ago, as our family grew through marriage, everyone decided to contribute to the meal so I wouldn't have to do all the work of getting a huge dinner by myself. Jen had tried a new potato recipe, "Cheesy Potatoes," and brought that as part of her contribution. They were a huge success, and were immediately voted in as a new "tradition." She has brought them many times since, and the dish has always been emptied by the end of dinner with one exception. Last year, the potatoes exploded! The glass casserole dish had been set on the glass-top stove, and no one noticed that one of the burners was on. Thankfully, it happened while we were at the other end of the room, and no one was injured, though it did take out two nearby pies. She made the potatoes again for Christmas dinner (by popular demand), and this time there were no unwanted surprises.

My daughter Sarah began a new tradition for us when she was in Girl Scouts and learned to make homemade cranberry sauce--super simple, super delicious! We also include the canned jellied cranberry sauce on the table's tradition! (I can hear Tevye breaking into song right about now. Tevye is the patriarch of the family in "Fiddler on the Roof.")

I always made at least three pies: an apple, a pumpkin, and sometimes a banana cream. Now, I make pumpkin custard (pie minus the crust), and Sarah (or my daughter-in-law Tracy, before she and Davy moved to Chicago) makes the apple pie. My mother always made a big fruit salad with both fresh and canned fruit, and fresh whipped cream and cherries on top. Now, that has fallen to me, only this year we're having it at Christmas instead.

And what would Thanksgiving Day be without the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade? We always used to get up and watch the pre-parade show at 9 a.m., then the parade itself from 10-noon. In recent years, I haven't always been able to watch all of it, but try to at least catch the last hour. Another relatively new tradition we added was watching the National Dog Show, sponsored by Purina, right after the parade. We're able to do this because, for several years, we have shifted our Thanksgiving dinner from noon to 4 or 5 p.m.

About five years ago, we had a very different Thanksgiving--one I'm glad did NOT become a tradition. I ended up in the hospital over the holiday! The doctors and nurses were very nice, and after a couple of false starts the kitchen finally sent up a turkey dinner that was gluten-free, but I much prefer being home. It was definitely our quietest celebration, and the only year I didn't do any of the cooking.

This year, Sarah and Louie will be with us, Jen and Kreig will be with his family but will call us, and Davy and Tracy will be home in Chicago having dinner with friends, and will talk with us on ooVoo later in the day. We may not all be able to be physically present with each other, but we will be in touch with each other and share at least part of our day via phone or computer.

In reading this over, I realize just how many of our traditions have changed over the years; yet the important things remain: keeping in touch with family and friends, taking time to give thanks for our blessings, and remembering to keep glass casserole dishes off hot stove burners.

What is your favorite Thanksgiving tradition? Have some of your traditions changed? Have you added new ones? Please share in the comments section. And have a very happy Thanksgiving!

Here's that Monkey Bread recipe I promised:

1 1/2 sticks of butter or margarine
1 1/2 cups of brown sugar
1 Tablespoon of cinnamon
4 cans of refrigerated biscuits
1/2 cup of chopped nuts (optional)

Cut biscuits into quarters.
Melt butter or margarine in a saucepan, add brown sugar and cinnamon. Heat until sugar is dissolved.
Place cut biscuits into a greased 4-inch tube pan, deep casserole dish, or oblong pan.
Pour the brown sugar mixture over biscuits and toss to coat biscuit pieces. Sprinkle nuts on top (if using).
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

[Note: This recipe is NOT gluten-free. To convert it, make biscuits from scratch using gluten-free flour, and use gluten-free brown sugar.]

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Day Twenty-four: Heading Into the Homestretch

Today is the first day of the final week of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). We have struggled through figuring out what to write about, coming up with a title, creating an effective "hook" (hopefully) so that readers will want to read our work, constructing a plot, and have been fleshing out the story with interesting descriptions, compelling dialog and action, and multi-dimensional characters. We have watched our protagonists start out with a problem to overcome, or go on a quest or voyage, face a monster (whether literal or figurative), or some other challenge. We have watched as they struggle through these challenges, sometimes failing, sometimes victorious, while experiencing personal growth. We have met their families, their friends, their enemies; we know their strengths and weaknesses, their flaws and foibles. Sometimes, they have taken us in unexpected directions, or stumbled upon an additional problem we hadn't foreseen. Now, we are reaching the climax of the story, and soon our characters will have their happy ending -- or not.

Some openly admit to hating their stories, but keep writing because they just don't want to give up. Some love their stories, and could write (or have written) more than the required 50,000 words. Some intend to never look at their stories again, while others will pursue the dream of getting theirs published, eventually.

As with some of our characters, not all participants will make it to the end. Indeed, some have already fallen by the wayside for various reasons: the intrusion of life's responsibilities--expected or unexpected, sickness--our own or that of a loved one, writer's block, plot knots that refused to be untangled, or computer problems that left us so far behind we felt it impossible to catch up. Some have finished early, having logged their 50,000 words several days or even a week ago, and can now bask in their assured victory. And then there are the rest of us, doggedly racing on, whether trying to catch up or right on target, determined to reach that finish line, to see our word count bars turn green, and receive the "WINNER" designation and all its attendant glory.

Wherever you are in the process, whatever the outcome, I hope you will have learned something along the way that will help you in your future efforts as a writer. Or, you may have discovered that writing is just not your thing, and that's fine, too, as one of my fellow NaNoer's said when I interviewed her. I'd like to share with you a few things that I have learned through the experience this year.

For one thing, I've learned that I need a schedule. NaNoWriMo has given me the structure of having to get a set number of words written each day. I seriously doubt I'll continue to write nearly 1700 words a day after NaNo is over; but I will contract with myself to either write a set number of words or write for a specified period of time on specific days, if not every day.

Another thing I've discovered is that I need a writing buddy and contact with other writers. I already belong to several writing groups online, plan to join a couple of "real time" groups, and have arranged with one of my NaNo buddies to continue our mutual support beyond November. It's important to have some kind of support system in place, at least for me, it is. I need someone to talk to about the struggles and joys of writing, to share ideas with, to discover new techniques, and to help each other grow and learn and develop our craft. I also need the wisdom of experienced writers who have traveled the path before me, who can share their wisdom, set a standard to strive for, and help me avoid some of the pitfalls.

I also realized I need to strive for balance. During NaNoWriMo, writing takes over pretty much everything. But to maintain a healthy mental and physical life, there must be time for other people and other things. I plan to enjoy the holidays with my family, and to have regular get-togethers with my children and their spouses throughout the year. I need to spend time with my husband, and support him in his artistic goals as he supports me in mine. I need to spend time with my animals, giving them the attention they so richly deserve for all the joy and love and humor they bring into my life on a daily basis. I need to keep in touch with friends, both inside and outside of the writing community. I need to properly nourish my physical body as well as my spiritual body, and I need to exercise both so they can be as strong and healthy as possible. And I need to connect with the natural world, the plants and animals that share this planet with me, and to enjoy the beauty of its physical features -- its lakes, rivers, mountains.

In closing, I just want to encourage all those who are still pressing on toward the goal to keep on, don't give up, hang in there. We're in the homestretch, and the finish line isn't far ahead. Let's cross it together.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Day Twenty-three: When Writing is a Pain

The writing process can sometimes be a "pain," for example, when you run into that "wall" I mentioned a couple of days ago, or you have trouble controlling your characters, or your computer crashes and you lose the last chapter you'd just written and have to reconstruct it, or you're in the last week of NaNoWriMo and you're still introducing new characters, story lines, and plot twists instead of heading toward the climax of the conflict and preparing to write the ending.

Yes, those are all problematic, but what I'm referring to is physical pain. When you're under the gun, trying to write a novel in thirty days, you spend a lot of time at the computer. That can wreck havoc with certain parts of your anatomy. Here are some suggestions that may help you minimize computer stress and its painful side effects. Let's start at the top and work down.

The Neck: If you become engrossed in what you're writing, you may not notice your posture and that can cause neck pain. The head is positioned on the spinal column, but they're connected at the back of the neck. So, when you keep your head bent forward and down, out of alignment, for extended periods of time, the weight of the head (approximately 8-12 lb.) pulls on the muscles in your neck causing muscle strain and stiffness. This can also affect the shoulders and neck. To combat this, adjust your monitor so that you can look at it without having to bend your neck at more than a 15-degree angle. Place the monitor or laptop on a stand to raise it to a comfortable level if it's too low.

The Eyes: Looking at a monitor for too long at a time can cause eye strain and make your eyes feel dry, itchy, tired, sore, and cause blurred distance vision. To help avoid this, make sure you position the monitor so there is no glare either from a lamp or from the sun shining in the window. If the screen is too bright, adjust the brightness to a slightly lower level. Try to maintain a distance of at least 20" between your eyes and the monitor. Periodically, look at something in the distance -- a picture on the wall, a tree outside that is a distance from your house, anything that allows your eyes a break from the closeness of the monitor. And be sure to keep your monitor's screen clean and free of dust and smudges.

The Shoulders: Tension often causes us to raise our shoulders without our even being aware that we're doing so; and poor posture can exacerbate the muscle strain that may already be there from the neck being out of alignment. Periodically, make a conscious effort to lower your shoulders. Take a few deep breaths, let your arms hang limp at your sides, and try a few shoulder rolls and shrugs to ease the tension and relax the shoulders.

The Arms and Hands: Improper positioning of the keyboard and mouse can cause serious wrist pain and carpal tunnel syndrome, often associated with repetitive stress injuries (RSI) including typing for extended periods of time. Adjust your chair so that you can reach the keyboard with your arms at your sides and slightly forward, and bent at a 90-degree angle. The wrists should be relaxed in a natural position, neither bent downward nor upward. Use your chair's armrests and a wrist pad to support your wrists if you have them. Touch the keys on the keyboard lightly. Take periodic breaks from typing, and if your wrist are painful, stop.

The Back: Slouching, bending at the chest, sitting with one shoulder elevated above the other, twisting, leaning sideways, and bending at the waist can all cause muscle fatigue, stress, and eventually, strain. When sitting at the computer, keep your back supported, especially the lumbar curve. Your back should be straight (neither bent forward, nor flattened against the chair) and the ribcage should be lifted so you can easily take a deep breath. If you bend forward, bend from the hips slightly, keeping your upper body in proper alignment. Get up about every half hour and do some stretches, move around the room, or take a short walk.

The Legs: Sitting for extended periods of time, crossing one leg over the other, or sitting in a chair that is not properly adjusted for your height can cause cramping, tingling, and swelling in the legs and feet. First, be sure your chair is adjusted so that your feet are flat on the floor in front of you or slightly forward. If the chair can't be adjusted, use a footrest, a low stool, or a couple of books to elevate your feet so your legs and back are at a 90-degree angle, and your knees are the same. Again, take periodic breaks to stand and walk around to get your circulation going.

Hopefully, these suggestions will help take the pain out of writing, and allow it to be the pleasure it is supposed to be.

[Disclaimer: The material contained in this post is for informational purposes only, and is not to be construed as medical advice. If you are experiencing any of the above mentioned problems, consult with your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment.]


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Day Twenty-Two: Ten Interesting Articles for Writers

In my travels on the net this week, I've come across some interesting articles, tips, and fun things I thought I'd share. If you find yourself in need of a break from writing, check these out.

1. 7 Reasons Why Agents Stop Reading Your First Chapter -

2. The Word(s) Is Independent Publishers -

3. Why Length Matters When Submitting Your Stories and Poems for Publication -

4. The Book Publishing Process (Mara Bergman of Walker Books takes us through the book publishing process) -

5. 9 Ways to Overcome Too Many Ideas Syndrome -

6. 100+ of the Best Authors on Twitter -

7. Promo Branding Ideas -

8. Writing Contests -

9. The Many Uses of "Up" - Editor Karen Reddick offers a fun article -

10. Treasure Hunt - author Pat Bertram is hosting a treasure hunt based on her latest release, Daughter Am I. Hurry, though--contest ends November 30 -