NaNoWriMo and my first published novel

Five years ago, I embarked on my first real attempt at National Novel Writing Month. I signed up, planned my schedule, roughed out an outline, and buckled down. November 1, 2009, I began writing.

Two weeks later, I raced past the 50,000-word mark. The ending was rushed and the details were hazy and the characters felt rather flat and the writing was messy, but I’d put together a pretty decent story and landed at just over 53,000 words. And I’d done it in half the allotted time (my wife and I were going on vacation for Thanksgiving, so I had to finish early.)

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That first attempt at NaNoWriMo those five years ago wound up being the first draft of Hagridden, which, after years of revision and shopping around, came out from Columbus Press two months ago. (It’s listed in the page of “Published WriMos”! They’re organized by publisher, so scroll through the “Traditionally Published” list until you find Columbus Press.)

While drafting Hagridden back in 2009, I kept a running commentary on my process by posting regular updates here on the blog. It’s a habit I kept up every year since then, even setting up a special NaNoWriMo page here on my website, with links to all my posts from all the years I’ve participated (including my “tips for new WriMos“). But writing those update posts also gave me a chance to more deeply examine my writing practices and process, and when I wasn’t writing my novel or updates on my progress, I wrote a lengthy post on the myth of writers block and the first in what became a whole series of posts about researching for fiction.

It was a rich and instructive period for me, that first NaNoWriMo experience. Of course, it helped that I was away from the classroom that year and, for the first time in my life, was able to devote my entire schedule to writing full time. Balancing two jobs — writing and whatever else you do — is tremendously difficult.

But this is one of the things NaNoWriMo taught me how to do. That first November, monitoring daily word counts and tracking my progress along an outline and setting aside designated writing times, these tasks were how I learned who I am as a writer and how I need to work in order to write something as prolonged and as intense as a novel. I learned how to organize the work, how to sustain it over time, how to impose deadlines on myself and then meet them.

I’ve gone back to some of those early posts from that first year, and I’ve noticed some interesting things. In my first post, from my second day of writing, I went back to my outline and my schedule, and I predicted some things: “I’ve had a very clear vision for this novel for about four years now,” I wrote in 2009, “so at the outset of this project I set myself up a relatively detailed outline. Then I upped the page count (NaNoWriMo requires about 175 pages, but I was shooting for 210) and divided it as well as the word count by the 30 days of November, and then I synchronized the whole thing to my outline [. . .]. Strangely, I’ve already fallen a handful of pages behind my outline, yet I’m more than a thousand words ahead on my word count. Conclusion: This is going to be a longer novel than I’d planned, and I might wind up completing NaNoWriMo without having finished the novel.”

I was right, it turned out. Not only did I finish NaNoWriMo without fully finishing the book (as I’ve said, the ending was rushed and incomplete), but I also was spot-on about the page count: I was shooting for 210 but realized it would probably be longer; Hagridden, as published, is 241 pages.

But just two days later, I’d changed my mind: “I’m moving through my outline faster than I’d thought, and today I realized I’d finished a third of the story I’ve set out to write. That means I’m going to run out of novel before I hit 50,000 words.” That, too, wound up being true, because while I did finish the book, or at least wrote an ending to the book, I had skipped over quite a bit of story, and in my later revisions of the novel, I had to do a lot of work to add in character background, plot points, and world-building detail. In my first crack at revision, I threw out a lot of text and cut the initial 53,000 words down to around 49,000, but then I developed, and edited, and developed, and edited, and the final, published version comes in just shy of 69,000 words. That’s almost 13,000 words more than my first draft — 20,000 words more, if you consider what I cut.

The final discovery for me, in my last post about the process of that first year, was how important doing NaNoWriMo was for my sense of community. “I knew I needed to do [NaNoWriMo] publicly,” I wrote just after finishing the book, “not because what I’m writing matters but because I needed to trick myself into thinking it mattered to someone, I needed the illusion of some impatient audience out there in the world tapping their fingers and saying, ‘All right, dude, show what you did today.'”

I’m a terribly undisciplined person, really, and I often have to trick myself into doing the work, and no trick has worked better than the friends or colleagues or editors waiting expectantly for me to finish. Even if they’re an illusion I conjure or their expectation is one I asked them to have.

This is something I’d long known about myself and had used before in college and grad school. But NaNoWriMo taught me how to manufacture that experience outside of school, digitally, across the planet.

That first year was my most successful year. I wrote other books each November from 2010 to 2013. Some I finished, some I haven’t finished yet. Some were irredeemably terrible, some still hold great promise. Then, last year, I returned to historical fiction — and found my next book.

The new novel (tentatively titled The Devil Don’t Die, though I’m not yet married to that) never quite came together last year, and for the second time, I didn’t make it to 50k. But I fell in love with the story, and I’ve spent much of the past year thinking about it and tinkering with it in the background. Which is why, this year, though I will be writing, I won’t be participating in NaNoWriMo, because I want to return to a book I’ve already started. The work will be the same — and I’ll be chronicling it here as I usually do during NaNoWriMo — but since it’s technically against the rules to work on a book you’ve already started, I won’t be entering it on the NaNoWriMo site.

Which is to say, keep tabs on my progress here on the blog (and on Facebook, and on Twitter). And check out what I got up to each November in years past, including how I went about writing the first draft of Hagridden.

A new review of Hagridden, and FREE BOOKS!

Today has been a good-news day: I woke up this morning, silenced the alarm on my phone, and saw a Twitter notification that The Austin Review (a fantastic literary magazine, by the way!) had published Paul Adams’s review of my novel, Hagridden.

And what a review! Adams does an amazing close-reading of the text, picking apart characters and themes and motivations in ways that felt revelatory even to me, and I wrote the novel! (Word of warning, his review does contain some detailed plot analysis and therefore has a few minor spoilers, though he doesn’t ruin anything, I promise).

There is a strain of Gothic dread running through 20th century Southern literature, and it is clearly visible in Hagridden. Stylistically, the novel owes something to Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy: oppressively lush landscapes, dialogue lacking all punctuation, and sometimes jarring contrast between characters’ rich inner lives and their spare, gnomic utterances. When novelists use this style poorly, the result can be almost unreadably dense. When done well, as it is here, it creates a sense that the reader is looking into a separate and complete world, eerily similar to our own but tilted slightly toward the abstract. The characters’ actions become inevitable and weighed down by the burdens of past and future. Things become symbols of themselves.

Whoa. Faulkner and McCarthy? I’m overwhelmed by the favorable comparisons! And Adam’s isn’t done with them. Regarding the main antagonist, Lt. Whelan:

Whelan is in many ways the character who is most eloquent in speaking for himself, and some of the best passages involve menacing conversations he carries on with strangers during his hunt for Buford. His deliberate and dispassionate will to violence brings to mind the fatalistic killer Anton Chigurh from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men.

Holy shit! My character just got compared to “the ultimate badass”!

And finally:

There are details of almost hallucinatory vividness, and marvelous turns of phrase are everywhere (opening the book at random twice led to “he gored the muck from beneath his fingernail” and “he asked if any recognized the items or knew where he might find their like.”) Despite the desperation and menace that pervade this novel, a dry humor often seeps through in unexpected ways. With radical empathy towards deeply flawed characters and an ability to find the exquisite in the mundane, Snoek-Brown has created a complex and brilliant novel. Though its themes are dark and horrifying, there is a great deal of beauty in this book.

Adams himself is a more than capable wordsmith. I loved some of the sentences in his review just as sentences — the imagery he evokes, the rhythms of his language. “We are told that this takes place in Western Louisiana in the waning days of the Civil War,” Adams writes, “but it might as well be happening in the Middle Ages or on the moon. This is not a complaint; this book’s sense of timeless and universal horror is one of the things that makes it such a powerful work.”

I’ve heard so many people refer to what is supposed to be a historical novel as “post-apocalyptic,” which sounds odd until you realize they’re referring to the apocalypse that is all war, but Adams does a beautiful job of conveying that idea in the broadest and yet most explicit terms I’ve seen so far.

Elsewhere, describing the characters and the early intrusion of Buford, he writes, “The murderous peace of the two women [. . .] is shattered by the return of their neighbor Buford from the war.” I love that phrase! “The murderous peace.”

And, later, referring to the legends of the rougarou and the (fictional) Civil War group of the Rougarou Corps: “Since the protagonists of the story are serial killers (albeit motivated by hunger and despair), the villains must be literally monstrous.”

I cannot convey how wonderful this review is. And to literally wake up to it, to have this be the thing that introduces me to my day, was one of the best things that’s happened to me related to Hagridden since the book was published. Gang, I’m over the moon about this.

Thanks SO MUCH to Paul Adams (may I meet him someday and buy him many beers) and The Austin Review!

But wait! Today has more in store, and this bit’s for you, friends and fans!

Columbus Press has decided to launch another giveaway on Goodreads, just in time for your Halloween reading needs. So follow the link to the giveaway page and enter for your chance to win one of three signed copies of Hagridden! Giveaway ends on November 20, so you have time to get your name in the digital hat. And don’t think you can’t enter if you already have a copy — get yourself an extra book in late November, and you can give it to someone else as a Hanukkah or Christmas gift! ;)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The book that made me a writer

The other day on Facebook, as a fun twist on Throwback Thursday, author and publisher Michael Seidlinger asked a “throwback” question: “The first book you read that blew your mind?”

The question elicited a few hundred responses, many of which felt nostalgic for me: Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” which remains one of my favorite long stories ever; Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which taught me that my casual love of books was much more important that I’d realized; Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stoker’s Dracula, which were revelations of literary horror; various Hemingway novels (I reread For Whom the Bells Tolls every few years); various Vonnegut books (my first was Breakfast of Champions and it changed everything) . . . .

But while all these books blew my mind, none was the first.

When I was doing my blog tour and book tour for Hagridden, several people asked me how I got into writing, and I told stories about reading Stephen King novels and my dad’s old Phoenix Force books and how I had stories I wanted to tell, too, and I realized I could tell them. I started writing my first book (a terrible action novel) in seventh grade. But those Phoenix Force action novels didn’t come anywhere close to “blowing my mind,” and even Stephen King, who was a fast favorite, didn’t do anything for me that Poe and Hawthorne and Lovecraft hadn’t already done.

Thinking about Seidlinger’s question, I realize there’s an earlier book, a single novel that changed the way I viewed the world and myself.

This was the cover my edition had.

This was the cover my edition had.

I was in the fourth grade, and I don’t remember where I got my copy or how I came to read it, but I became utterly engrossed with Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. It was the first novel I’d read that felt like a novel, something more sophisticated and complex than the chapter books I’d read as a younger kid.

But the real reason it stands out in my memory is Harriet’s notebooks. Sure, she wanted to be a spy, and her notebooks full of her critical observations of the lives around her were in pursuit of what she perceived as espionage. And they were, let’s face it, a terrible invasion on other people’s privacy.

But for me, at nine years old, they were also notebooks full of stories, and while I didn’t quite have the language to explain this at the time, I realize now that I wasn’t reading Harriet as a spy-in-training — I was reading her as a writer-in-training.

My habit of carrying notebooks around with me, my love of people-watching, of scribbling character details and bits of dialogue, of describing the things around me and recording my impressions — these are things I learned from Harriet. It would be a few more years before I thought to apply those habits to the craft of fiction, and many many years before I knew anything about what all those notebooks were actually good for — before I knew how to do anything but imitate a stereotype of writers everywhere — but when I look back now, I realize how transformative Harriet the Spy was for me.

She taught me not only how to observe but also how to respond, how to tell stories about the lives of others (in my case, I tell fictional stories about fictional people), and, most importantly, how to tell those stories responsibly. Because Harriet gets herself in trouble with the stories she writes down, and rightly so. But with the help of some important mentors, she finds a productive outlet for her talents — in her case, journalism, a great producer of writers and a field I occasionally practiced in school myself. Following in Harriet’s footsteps, even if by then I’d moved on to other novels, other exemplars of the life I planned to lead as a writer.

But it was Harriet who helped me take my first steps as a writer.

EJ Runyon’s new book, A House of Light and Stone

My friend EJ Runyon published a book last month and I’ve been meaning to tell you about it! It’s called A House of Light and Stone:

EJ Runyon Jo&D

Told in uncompromising clarity through the eyes of a child, A House of Light and Stone is at once full of heartbreak and hope, offering respites of warmth in the coldest of places.

You might remember EJ from the interview she did with me two years ago this month. You can find the first of the three-part series on her blog.

Congratulations to EJ on her new book!

New publication

A pre-columbian Chatino stela depicting a nagu...

A pre-columbian Chatino stela depicting a nagual transforming into a jaguar. His name is inscribed in Zapotec glyphs on his abdomen and translates to “5 Alligator”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the past few months, I’ve been writing new short stories related to my Civil War novel, Hagridden. Each story involves a minor character or two from the novel, people who have some important moments in the book but are definitely supporting characters to the main narrative; in these stories, those folks get their own narrative.

Today, SOL: English Writing in Mexico published the third of those stories, “Jarabe.”

This one addresses the Jimenez brothers, Mexican men who operate a tent shop in a poor section of Leesburg. In the novel, they interact with both the women and the Confederate soldier hunting for Buford, but in the short story, the Jimenez brothers have not yet moved to Louisiana — they’re still in Mexico, fighting in a border war known as The Cortina Troubles.

This means that, unlike the other two stories related to Hagridden (“What Have You Done to Deserve Such a Halo,” in Bartleby Snopes; and “The Voices Captain Brewster Heard,” in WhiskeyPaper), there’s no mention of the Cajun werewolf legend of the rougarou. But don’t worry, fans of the quasi-supernatural: “Jarabe” does play with Brujería and with indigenous Mexican legends of the shapeshifting naguals. :)

Meanwhile, Hagridden is still going strong — I keep getting positive feedback! Don’t own a copy yet? Find one in a bookstore near you! Or order one online!

An appointment with loads of amazing writers

A couple of evenings ago, I went over to The Jade Lounge in Portland to hang out with Dena Rash GuzmanYuvi Zalkow, Julia Clare Tillinghast, and Parker Tettleton as part of Timothy Gager‘s book tour for his new novel, The Thursday Appointments of Bill Sloan.

We had a grand time. Despite the noise in the kitchen and the uncharacteristically limited beer options that night, I do dig The Jade Lounge as a reading spot — it’s so wonderfully dark and intimate and kind of jazz-loungy — and the company was terrific. Everyone there is a talented poet or fictioneer (that’s not a word but it ought to be), and I sold a few books and got loads of kind compliments on Hagridden. And in a weird coincidence, the guy who walked in during my reading, just looking for a beer in one of his favorite bars, turned out to be one of my former students! He hung around afterward to tell me how his degree is coming along (he’s nearly finished, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next, because he’s a talented artist).

As is usually the case in dark bars, it would have been pointless trying to get a selfie with the audience, but my wife managed to snap a couple of decent photos of me, as well as Timothy Gager and Parker Tettleton (who, I discovered, studied with Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin, two of my favorite writers — and favorite human beings — and Tom Franklin blurbed my novel, so I feel like Parker and I are practically related).

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Parker blogged about the reading and added one of the goofy group photos we did afterward. Timothy also blogged about the event, where you can find even more photos of our shenanigans (including his napkin-note telling the noisy kitchen staff to shut it!) as well as some genuine praise for my beloved hometown. (Thanks, Timothy!)

Stay tuned for news of more Hagridden events, gang! I’ll be down in Salem, OR, in a couple of weeks. But that, as they say, is another story post. :)

The Jersey Devil watches mermaid porn

October 14 cover frontThis might somehow be both the sexiest and the least sexy issue of Jersey Devil Press ever. I mean, on the one hand, we have a mermaid porn star and a dental assistant hot for bald men with cavities. But on the other hand, she’s hot for cavities! And there’s also a mind-controlling baby — a proven turn-off in any situation!

Of course, this is October, so there’s also plenty to chill your spine, including a satanic ritual that starts with frozen plumbing and a cremated corpse packed with explosives.

And unemployment.

Plus a spooky cover from Russian artist Yuri Shwedoff!

Lots to love (or loathe) in this issue, gang. So sharpen your knives and start stabbing pumpkins!

Reading with Eva Hunter at Annie Bloom’s books

Tonight I have the wonderful privilege of reading from my novel, Hagridden, with the woman who published the first complete, finished excerpt from that novel in her magazine, SOL: English Writing in Mexico. Even better, I got to read a portion of a short story, related to Hagridden, that will soon appear in SOL later this month! And Eva — who read from her memoir, A Little Mormon Girl — and I got to read together at Annie Bloom’s Books, one of my favorite bookstores in Portland!

Requisite reading selfie!

Requisite reading selfie!

(Incidentally, that’s Eva’s daughter, Portland photographer Octavia Hunter, giving me rabbit ears.)

Bonus: Eva selfie!

Bonus: Eva selfie!

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Molly, the resident cat at Annie Bloom’s.

Eva and I signed a few books, but if you missed us, don’t worry: Annie Bloom’s is stocking our books, and some of them are signed copies! If you’re in the Portland area, please do stop by the bookshop and pick up some books.

While supplies last!

While supplies last!

 

Letters of Note: Make your soul grow

This story about Kurt Vonnegut writing to a student is an old story, but it came across my Facebook feed again today and it got me thinking.

I remember when I was in 5th grade, my language arts class went down to the school library and we got into the Contemporary Authors books in the reference section (I remember them being blue). We had to pick a YA author (though back then the term “YA” didn’t really exist) and write to the author. Took most of us a while to find an author, and even longer to figure out how to contact the author through the publisher or agent. I wasn’t even really aware of that intermediary at the time, though of course I must have been because of the way you had to address the letter. In my head, I was writing a letter directly to an author, and I didn’t have any literary ambitions at the time but I was a voracious reader and authors seemed like wizards, like rulers, like mythical beings. The idea that I could write a letter they would read astounded and thrilled me.

Of course, I don’t remember who I picked to write to. The copies of Contemporary Authors were as limited as our time in the library, and the volume I managed to get my hands on didn’t contain any of the authors I wanted to write to (Louise Fitzhugh, Katherine Paterson, Judy Blume), so when the teacher ordered us to hurry up and write down an address do we could return to the classroom, I just picked the first vaguely interesting entry I found and scribbled a name and address.  She was so elderly I wasn’t even sure she was still alive, and I’d never read anything by her, and when I went back later to search the catalogue for her work, I couldn’t find anything in our library. So I was a but dumbfounded as to what to write, but I wrote her. I think I must have asked her the usual questions: where did she get her ideas, what was she working on next.

Some of my classmates got back quick replies, often pre-scripted notes with a stamped signature but sometimes the real deal. My reply took ages, and when it came, it came from the publisher, who informed that sure enough, my author had died some years before.

So much for sage authorial advice.

A couple of years later, I did take it into my head to write a novel, and I attempted it during “sustained silent writing time” in Mrs. Hoffmann’s 7th-grade English class. I didn’t finish it, but I got the page count into the hundreds. Then I switched to short stories and poems in high school, and in college, I tried another novel, a bad Anne Rice pastiche with a vampire.

I wrote Anne Rice. Never got a reply, nor did I expect one, but shortly afterward, I visited New Orleans on spring break and, using nothing but her Witching Hour series of novels as my tour guide, I managed to find her Garden District mansion. A guard stood in a little booth out by the road, and when I approached the house he stepped out of the booth to intercept me, which I expected.

“I don’t suppose she’s in right now, is she,” I said.

“No,” he said. Then he recognized something in my face and added, “And to be honest, even if she was, she wouldn’t come down to meet you.”

“I understand,” I said.

“But I tell you what,” he said, and he reached into the booth and handed me a photograph of Anne Rice with her signature embossed in gold ink. I tucked it into my copy of her novel and thanked him and kept exploring New Orleans.

Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to study with a few authors and to meet a lot more, so the only times I’ve been tempted to write fan mail, it’s taken the form of emails and, later, Facebook messages. Some I’ve met in person at conferences — this past spring, at AWP in Seattle, I gushed like a fool when I spotted Roxane Gay leaving the bookfair. But most of the writers whocan count me as a fan I know enough to contact them online.

But I’m thinking that we’ve lost something in the writing of old-fashioned letters to authors we admire. Or, at least, I feel like I’ve lost something. I sometimes wonder whether it would be cool or not to send an old-fashioned letter and tell an author thanks for their work.

For that matter, I wonder who except the Big Names out there still get legitimate “fan mail” these days. I don’t know how that would go over anymore — the more public our lives become online, the more concerned we become with our offline privacy, and rightly so. Still. I’m sure it’s nice to know when you have a reader out there who loves your work, not because they want anything from you or are caught up in the celebrity of you but just because they’re a reader who loves to read.

I suppose these days that kind of interaction happens most often — and maybe best — in the form of online reviews, on blogs and on bookseller sites. Because authors do pay attention to those things. But I’m curious: when’s the last time you read something and thought, “I sure wish the author knew how much I loved this”?

Did you go to the author’s website and leave a polite comment? Did you email the publisher or the magazine and ask them to pass along your compliments?

If you did, did you get a reply?

 

And if you haven’t, what’s stopping you?

I read a little poetry now and Zen

from Isabella Petty's series of photos in The Zen Space

from Isabella Petty’s series of photos in The Zen Space

I guest-edited the Autumn Showcase of the Zen Space, a zen- and haiku-themed poetry magazine online.

It was hard work finding and collecting and editing the work in this issue, but I’m really excited about the poems and photos I get to share with folks through this experience. Seriously, you should go and experience this thing — I was fascinated by the way the poems and images moved together and play off each other as the work came in, and I hope you enjoy that experience as much as I did.

Much love to the amazing poets and writers and photographers who contributed work to this project!