A Writer’s Notebook: NaNoWriMo table of contents

In just a few days, National Novel Writing Month will begin. So of course I’m gearing up.

I have a lot of explaining to do about what you’ll see on the “notebook page” below, but I don’t want to front-load all this. Better just to give you the list, and then I’ll explain everything below. To skip to the story about this year’s NaNoWriMo, click here. To skip to the writing exercise(s), click here.

Basically, what you’re about to look at is the table of contents for my NaNoWriMo novel (or, more accurately, my novel-in-stories). This year, it’s an apocalyptic book; hence, the bleakness of many of the titles. But beyond these titles and the genre of the stories, I don’t really know what this book will be about.

For All It Reminds Us Of*

Lonely as a Weeping Trumpet

This Last March of the Human Animal*

Like a Cold, Heartless Whore

Winter Struggles Even as the Night

An Ugly Conversation

The Marrow Seethes with All We’ve Let Them Take

So Much Simply Lost

A Meaningful Conversation with a Stranger

The Dusty Shutters of Ourselves Thrown Open

A Cackling, Drunken Cure

Everything Created Will Be Joyously Destroyed

When I Sketch a Clean, Measured Line

Life, Thus Far

Like Churchbells on a Hangover Sunday

Either They Want All This or They Can Do Nothing to Stop Us

The Bones of the Long Forgotten

Today, Tomorrow, and the Day After That

Somewhere — an Insistent Harvest Moon

With a Doomed, Mortal Joy

A Very Good Thing

This year’s run-up to NaNoWriMo has been a strange ride, actually. Two years ago, I had a very clear vision of the book I wanted to write, and what I wrote turned out really, really damned well. In fact, it worked out so well that an excerpt of it appeared in Sententia‘s “pitch” issue of novel excerpts, and though the novel still needs a bit of spit and polish, it’s really a pretty damn fine book, I think.

Last year, not so much.

I went in with at least as clear a vision for the book, and with one successful outing under my belt, I felt pretty confident about the second book even if the premise was a bit silly. But the writing turned out to be rambling and tedious, full of some fun scenes but with no real story and no character development whatsoever. In fact, I basically managed to kill my own interest in a novel I’d been thinking about for almost twenty years.

Though maybe that was a good thing.

Anyway, so this year I had no real investment in any particular project. I just wanted to jump into something fun, something without direction for a change, something I could play with and figure out as I went. That was a couple of months ago. Then, while teaching writing exercises to my college freshmen a month ago, I started talking about the looping exercise, (more on which later), and I realized I could use it to write a tightly connected series of short stories: a story cycle, or novel-in-stories, or whatever you want to call them. (Academically, I prefer the term “composite narrative,” but that’s not something I’d ever use in a pitch to a publisher.) So I figured that’s what I would do: instead of outlining the book up front, I’d let each story dictate the next one, and just write a bunch of stuff until I hit the 50,000 words.

But then I found Hosho McCreesh.

You might recall that a few weeks ago I won a contest at Poet Hound, the prize for which was a free, autographed copy of Hosho McCreesh’s poetry collection, For All These Wretched, Beautiful, & Insignificant Things So Uselessly & Carelessly Destroyed. After I won the book, I looked up Hosho online to thank him, and I wound up friending him on Facebook. Later, I mentioned to him how much I loved the lines in his poetry, and that I’d found one I wanted to steal as a story title. “Do it!” he wrote back. “I’d love to see what comes of it.”

That line was “Everything Created Will be Joyously Destroyed,” which comes from the title poem in the collection. But the more I read and reread his poems, the more I kept finding other lines I loved as story titles, and then an idea struck me: Why not write a whole collection of stories using one line from each of McCreesh’s poems? That’d be twenty stories in all, each with an awesome title. And it was no small leap, really, from that idea to using it as the unifying, driving factor in my NaNoWriMo book.

So what I’m really doing, if you’re looking for a writing exercise, is writing stories by starting with the titles.

To find the titles, I went through the poetry and selected two lines from each poem (except the title poem, because the line I pulled from it is so perfect there was never really an alternative). Then I passed on the list of pairs to my wife and asked her to choose the lines that seemed like the coolest/most effective story titles, and this is the list (more or less*) she narrowed it down to. So now I have the titles of all the stories I’m going to write.

There’s no real “exercise” to the writing beyond using what works about story titles and reverse-engineering it: Instead of looking into the story and finding a single line or image that seems to speak for the whole story — to suggest what the story is without giving everything away but to also speak beyond the plot of the story and hint at some underlying meaning — you’re looking at the title and asking what sort of story it describes, what plot it might become but also what underlying meaning it might suggest. And then you’re writing that story. (There’s a discussion of all this at WritersNet, if you’re interested.)

So for this year’s NaNoWriMo, I’m actually engaging in a whole series of writing exercises: looping, pre-titled stories, allusion (to McCreesh’s book), and maybe a handful of others (one might consider this whole project a loose adaptation of McCreesh’s poetry, but maybe not).

As in years past, I’ll post little excerpts from each week’s writing here in the Notebook every Friday, and I’ll probably toss in some other posts about NaNoWriMo on other days of the week. Plus, I’ll keep tabs on the whole project at my dedicated NaNoWriMo page. So stay tuned next Friday for the beginning of NaNoWriMo 2011!


* I’m on the fence about the title of this book. My wife selected this one from a shortlist of four (all of which, remember, were originally options for story titles), and I really quite like it as a title for the whole book. However, I also quite like one of the alternates, This is All We’ve Really Accomplished, partly because it seems to work better in some ways than the one my wife and I settled on, and partly because “This is All We’ve Really Accomplished” was the title my wife picked for “This Last March of the Human Animal.” I prefer the title I picked for that story, which is why I overruled her, but I do get the merits of the title she picked and like it so much I don’t want to just toss it aside. So I wonder if I ought to make it the title of the whole book.

Thoughts, anyone?

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10 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: NaNoWriMo table of contents

    1. Thanks! I’m hoping to do the lines credit — I have to say, I’m pretty psyched about the directions I’m imagining for some of the stories — but I do have a tendency to go overboard. NaNoWriMo is all about wild abandon, which worked out great the first year but awful last year. This year, ironically, is going to be more about restraint, I think. But whatever the case, here’s hoping I can manage to honor the work that inspired the stories.

  1. Yeah! You’re doing NaNo again. So am I, though all I’ve got to work with so far is “ghosts” and the opening line “Ghosts don’t haunt graveyards.” I can’t wait until Nov. 1st to find out what that means.

    Good luck to you for year #3.

    1. Thanks, Wendy!

      Also, credit where credit is due: Everyone else reading this blog, meet Wendy. It took a few years of prodding and cajoling when we worked together, and I didn’t finally brave a full attempt until I’d moved several thousand miles away, but Wendy is the primary reason I dared take a crack at NaNoWriMo in the first place. Also, she’s awesome.

      Race you to 50k, Wendy! 🙂

    1. Thanks! And you’re right about Jessamyn West, though I’m thinking more along the lines of Helen Phillips’s And Yet They Were Happy. My favorite story cycles are probably Windesburg, Ohio, Go Down, Moses, and House on Mango Street, but those aren’t really in the style or structure I’m thinking about. But who knows how this thing will play out once I’ve gotten into it!

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