A Writer’s Notebook: NaNoWriMo 2011, week 3

I’ve said before that I want this whole apocalyptic novel-in-stories to focus on the characters and their personal struggles more than on the trappings of the whole apocalyptic genre thing. Which is to say, I don’t want to eat up much page space with descriptions of the apocalyptic environment or background on how the world got into the mess it’s in or explanations of how people are rebuilding society (or societies).

And yet that’s precisely what I’ve been doing. Part of this makes sense, because I can’t do much to write in the mindset of the survivors without understanding what it is they’re surviving. And I think it’s actually quite interesting to explore how our internal, emotional world reflects our external environment.

But I’m also aware of what a distraction all this background work is. And I’m aware of how much of this is purely background work, meaning however much it’s contributing to my NaNoWriMo word count (and I’ve almost doubled it from last week), I’ll ultimately have to delete a lot of what I’m writing.

Which isn’t a bad thing, really. It just makes for strange excerpts in the weekly Notebook.

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

I looked around at the trees, the regal mountains that the trees called home. Birds switched branches somewhere in the distance, the wind gusted like laughter. A cluster of brave young flowers on the edge of the camp’s clearing bent to touch the ground. The breeze slowed until it stopped, the warmth of the new sun flushed my skin. I closed my eyes.

I listened for him. They said he never went far. I sat on the log and studied the grains of the earth while I waited. An ant, lost and confused, scurried around the boulders of shattered pebbles that surrounded her. The ant stopped next to a dried-up bit of leaf, contemplating it. I knew she was nowhere near home and would probably never find her way back. Alone in world much too large for her, the ant wouldn’t live to see her hill again. I believe that the ant understood this. With no queen to feed, all the ant could do was eat the leaf herself and move on. There was no reason to pick up the morsel and take it along her hopeless excursion.

The ant reached out, picked up the leaf in her mandibles and, throwing it on her back, went along her destinationless journey.

from “Like Churchbells On a Hangover Sunday”

Someone had a plan: we would bag and tag our children like they were bodies already, tiny corpses just waiting to happen. It was like that game you play at the airport, everyone saying goodbye at the car so no one had to say goodbye at the gate. We buried our children in clothes and luggage and sent them with their own coffins — this is true — by the truckload to all these safe havens out in the countryside, up on the hilltops, anywhere we could think of.

We’ve done this before. The Brits did in it World War Two, loading millions of kids onto trains and shipping them out of the cities. They brought a lot of them back too soon, of course, and so many died in the Blitz anyway. But something about that stuck with us, especially over here in the States, where our children were never in any danger from anything but ourselves. We fell in with the romanticism of the idea. I blame CS Lewis, really, for the idea that if you ship kids off they’ll all wind up in wonderfully romantic places, huge abandoned mansions with crabby old folks but with wondrous hiding places, musty forbidden rooms, and, if you were lucky, secret magical kingdoms. That was Britain, this is not. But we took the idea and ran with it. When I grew up, it wasn’t the kids getting sent to the countryside for romping adventure and days of eternal sunshine. It was our family pets. Dogs by the millions were galavanting across someone’s open field, cats by the hundreds of thousands catching mice in someone’s barn. Goldfish finding their way through the pipes to the wide open sea that glistened gold and blue in the setting sun.

We’ve told our children these stories for generations, so even though we don’t have the history of the British, we had precedent enough to make the plan work, and away the children went.

from “Life, Thus Far”

Food stores were thin and the days were long and cold when Henrietta and Roberto went to Larch Mountain looking for food. They each carried a large bell, one stolen from a cattle barn where it had once hung from the neck of a cow and the other dismantled from an abandoned firehouse where it had hung ceremonially. They had agreed that whichever of them found any kind of food — berries, mushrooms, nuts, even the squirrels that hoarded the nuts — that person would ring the bell and wait for the other to arrive so they could share the food. If they had extra to bring back, that would be good, but the first order was to eat their fill, but of even greater importance was to do so equally. This was the way of new and desperate societies: individualism had died with the old world, and now survival depended on collective effort, for without Henrietta, Roberto would have to learn sock darning and wood working and other necessary crafts; and without Roberto, Henrietta would have to learn medicine and cooking; and without each other, they would loose what little warmth they got from each other’s bodies in the night, for their small cabin had no heat. They were the smallest possible community, but each depended on the other, which was how things worked now.

When they reached the summit, they split up, assured of their mutual agreement. Roberto wandered south but found nothing edible. Henrietta, however, searched north, where she found a large chestnut, nearly as big as a small apple. It was grotesque how massive the nut had become. It looked less like the offspring of a tree than like its tumor. It was decadent in its size and Henrietta felt so overcome with her desire to eat it that she dropped her bell as she bent to scoop it up in both hands. She pressed the nut between her breasts and drew a breath to call out for Roberto but her voice caught. She pressed it into her stomach, which now churned at the proximity of food, and inhaled again, but her throat was too dry. She pressed it between her thighs, as she had when she was a girl and needed to pee but couldn’t, and she calmed herself and took a long, careful breath. But she could not call for Roberto, and she had entirely forgotten her bell. All she could think about was the chestnut.

from “A Meaningful Conversation with a Stranger”

I lit some candles, tried to sex up the storm a bit. Rubbed Jess’s shoulders, kissed her on the neck. She shrugged me off, just kept staring out the window. Fewer scavengers, more rain. I walked around a while, bumping into doorways in the dark. Then I said, “You know what we could do, Jess. It’s all dark — no lights, you know? Like you like it?” She wasn’t interested. And so there was nothing left; I pulled up a chair. It was all we could do: sit and watch. Neither of us liked it, I can tell you. Not a damned bit.

Hours. Lots of them. Who knows how many — we couldn’t see any of the analog clocks in the dark, and the one digital with a working back-up battery had never properly reset itself. According to it, the time was 12:00 12:00 12:00.

But it was late, I think, when we both jumped in our chairs, when we both heard the noise out on the front porch.

I said, “I didn’t see anything.” I looked at Jess. “It’s so damned dark out there — did you see anything?”

She shook her head.

And right then, no word from either of us, the door came open and the rain pushed in a man. The door slapped against the wall and left a little dent where the lock poked out from the knob. The man said, “Well, shit, sorry about that,” then he jerked the door into its jamb.

He stood on the mottled little welcome mat on our tile entryway, dripping. His long coat hung sloppy with rain off his skinny shoulders, and his hair did about the same from his long head. Everything about him dripped, as though he was hung up from the doorway and was not standing on our welcome mat but spilling onto it.

He wore a tie with the knot half undone and draped down mid-chest. And he carried an umbrella, rolled up and point down like a cane. Looked like he’d never bothered to open it out there in the storm.

Jess and I still sat on our window seat, me with one leg over the edge in the middle of standing up. I couldn’t see Jess’s face from behind, but I’m pretty sure her mouth hung as open as mine.

The man looked at us square on, shook his head once, and screwed up his brow.

“Why are you two just sitting there? Fine night like this! Shit, the power out, everything all freaky-like, we could have some hilarious fun, you know.”

Total word count as of this post: 33,300 words.

For more about my NaNoWriMo project, check out my NaNoWriMo page here or my profile on the NaNoWriMo website.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

2 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: NaNoWriMo 2011, week 3

  1. I know what you mean about backstory. However, I think the danger is that it tends to take away the immediacy of the ongoing story. I keep imagining how it must have been after Kristallnacht, or how it must have been to live in the Warsaw Ghetto, or in a Gulag, or in Cambodia in ‘Year Zero’. Of course there was a context, a how-we-got-here, but what must be uppermost in anyone’s mind is the here-and-now survival. A changed present soon institutionalises people; memories don’t disappear, but they become odd things, returning at inconvenient and unpredictable moments. When I find backstory sections in post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction I tend to say “yeah, w’ever” and skim over them to find where the action starts again. I’m not suggesting that as a principle – it’s probably more of a bad habit.

    However, it governs how I write. In my novel ‘Lupa’ I do use backstory to some extent, but almost always it is as a result of something conjured up by a character. When one character (Vittorio, Italian) explains to another (Jelena, Serb) about female gladiators in ancient Rome, it sets her thinking about the part played by women in Srebrenice during the Balkan War. This isn’t simply backstory, as there are details in it which are relevant to what happens later in the novel, and so the flashbacks are important in that respect, not just in giving background.

    Anyhow, that’s me. This blog is about you and how you write. Sorry, I’m always doing this!


    1. No, don’t apologize! That’s brilliant! That’s pretty much exactly what I was trying to explain: how A) I need to write some of this backstory stuff just to keep this reality straight in my head, but B) I know I’m going to wind up ditching almost all of it, so it’s weird to be writing stuff I know will wind up in the trash, except C) I’m starting to feel like I’m getting sucked into it and losing sight of the characters, so I’m at a place now where I’m resisting that urge to explain and just sort of living in the moment.

      But you explained it beautifully.

      Really, there are times I look back over this, or lie awake at night thinking about it, and I feel like I’m writing two or three different books. One is just notebook junk, throwaway passages that are just the crap I have to get through to get to the good stuff. One is pretty interesting, not brilliant but good enough with a handful of pretty great paragraphs, but it might not be the book I really want to write. And the third is the book I really want to write. And I don’t think I’ve actually started that third book yet. But I’ll get there. Right now, during NaNoWriMo, it’s just about the word count, and 33,000 lousy words are just as good as 33,000 brilliant words. And that’s what keeps me writing. 🙂

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