On NaNoWriMo and writing the end

The first novel I ever finished was my undergraduate thesis. We English majors were supposed to write a 30-page scholarly essay, like a shorter version of a masters thesis, but I talked my mentors into letting me write a 300-page comedy novel instead, mostly because I figured the only way I’d ever finish a book would be with mentors hammering me with deadlines. Even then, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to reach the end. Then one day, on a long road trip with my then-fiancée (now my wonderful wife), a line occurred to me. Jennifer was napping in the passenger seat, and in the silence of the road I was daydreaming about my novel and some of the scenes I’d already written, and from one of those scenes, a single line flashed into my mind. It was connected to a moment early in the book, the first “turning point,” if you will, where the main conflict had begun, and suddenly, I saw the way to resolve that conflict and reference that early scene. The whole thing became so clear to me that I woke up Jennifer, asked her to root a piece of paper and a pen from the glove box, and dictated the line to her.

When she’d written it down, I told her, “I think you just wrote the ending to my novel.”

And that was how I met my undergrad thesis deadline and finished my book, because with that line, I had a direction, a concrete moment to move toward.

Almost ten years later, at the AWP conference in New York in 2008, I attended an address by John Irving, and he spoke in part about his process and the importance of the ending. He always began with the ending, he said, because if he didn’t know where the story was going, he would never know how to even begin a novel. I thought it was an interesting idea, but I still liked the process of discovery, of starting at the beginning and finding the book as I went, like an explorer or the book’s first reader. Let the ending remain a surprise, I figured.

At the time, my first published novel, Hagridden, was only an idea in my head and some notes in a folder somewhere. The next year, when I sat down to tackle Hagridden during my first NaNoWriMo, I knew the story I wanted to tell but I had no idea how it would actually end. I understood the direction but not the terminus. Which was fine for a while. But then, about two-thirds of the way through the book, the last scene came to me, the only possible conclusion, and though I’d been drafting more or less in order, writing my way through the novel from page one onward, in that moment I hurriedly jumped ahead wrote the last scene just to see it. And that was it. When I hit my 50,000 words and declared the novel finished, I hadn’t quite reached that ending yet — I actually wrote a chapter in that first draft that went “some more stuff happens here until we reach the end” — but I knew the book was done because I knew where it would arrive.

This past Sunday night, on the twenty-seventh day of NaNoWriMo 2016, I found the ending to this novel. I was not yet finished with the story — I’d not even reached the 50k mark at the time — but I wrote the last scene, possibly even the final lines.

I wrote those lines near the end of the evening and I went directly to bed, trying not to fret over them too much. As good as the words felt when I wrote them, I wasn’t sure if that was my ending or not, and this is the mad dash of NaNoWriMo — I try not to put too much stock in anything I write during November. But the next morning, when I reread the last paragraph, it made such good sense. It served as the right kind of reflection on the emotion of the book I am now writing, yet it didn’t feel too heavy handed, too pat. Nothing about that scene plays on explicit moments elsewhere in the novel; there are no pieces falling into place here. Instead, it feels like resolution in the classical sense, something I typically avoid in fiction but which, here, feels right, feels necessary.

And, knowing that — seeing the resolution I am now moving toward — all the other planned moments in the book make more sense than they ever have. The motives underlying my main character’s actions are clear to me, even if they remain unclear to that character. I’m not just writing scenes to write them; I’m not moving through all this violence and chaos gratuitously. I have purpose now. My characters have purpose now.

And for the first time since 2009 and Hagridden, my NaNoWriMo novel has purpose now.

And that is plenty to drive me past November, past the 50k mark (I reach 53k last night, and as of this writing, I’m currently at 60,028 words), and into the rest of this book, writing and writing, until it’s finished — until I’ve reached this ending.

But in the meantime, here’s celebrating probably my most successful NaNoWriMo since my first one! And that is a fantastic ending to the month of November.

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Some observations as I enter my final week of NaNoWriMo 2016

When I began the first version of this novel a few years ago, I thought it was about one man, a character I named Sergeant Tom Cleaver. My mother-in-law had sent me a book of obscure Texas histories and real-life wild characters, and I read about one crazed man so violent and so charismatic that I wondered what he must have been like in real life, and I set out to write that man’s story in the guise of my Sergeant Tom.

When I tossed out that first draft and began again a couple of years ago, I did so because I’d realized that such a character as Sergeant Tom — a legend in his own mind, a fiction of his own making — could only accurately be described in multiple facets, from multiple perspectives, and I needed to write a larger, more expansive novel that was as much about the times that Sergeant Tom lived in and the people that gravitated to him as it was about the man himself.

When I tossed out that draft and began again, I did so because I had gotten lost in the din of those multiple voices and realized I needed to know these characters — and Sergeant Tom especially — more intimately. I wrote quite a bit of a draft focused on Sergeant Tom’s inner life, his background, his childhood even. I wrote almost 100 pages and I hadn’t gotten past Sergeant Tom’s mid-teens, and I realized I’d lost sight of the novel I had originally set out to write.

This year — these past few weeks, in fact — I have discovered a new truth: I’m not writing about Sergeant Tom at all. I’m not writing about his grandiosity or the fools that gathered around him. The real story — the story I should have been telling all along — is about JW Coe, the one man who finally saw through that grandiose leader, that braggadocious tyrant, and, in Coe’s waning years, sought to to amend for the violence he committed on Sergeant Tom’s behalf.

The plot of the book largely remains intact, though I have thrown out all the old scenes and rewritten them with this new purpose, not as rowdy Western action sequences but as JW Coe’s memories and regrets. In that sense, while the plot might be more or less the same, the story is radically different, changing sometimes before my eyes as I discover the words on the page. I also have restructured the novel entirely, with a new driving motion, new locations, new history to explore and unveil. The characters I tried on in the second draft are mostly still here, though they have become radically different people as I consider them through Coe’s memory and as the story changes in the writing of it.

As of this morning, I have written 41,156 words on this new story. And as I near the 50k mark for NaNoWriMo, I am more aware than ever that this novel is going to be dozens of thousands of words longer than the 50k I’ve nearly achieved. This was a realization I had in the second and third drafts, and the remaining length made me nervous then — it’s one reason I set the book aside in those drafts and eventually decided to start over. I prefer a shorter novel, a tighter book, and I wanted to keep this novel better reined in. But now, resting in the heart and mind of JW Coe, I have become more comfortable with letting this book unfold itself into a longer story.

This is something that Allen Weir told me last year at Sewanee, to let the book tell itself and give it the space and the time it needed, and while I understood back then, in an intellectual way, what he was getting at, I am beginning to see now what he must have seen then: the expanse of this story, and the time it will take to excavate it.

Over this Thanksgiving week and weekend, when I took a break from the book to focus on family and food, my wife asked me how the book was coming. It wasn’t a casual question, it was a sincere inquiry about my process, because she knows how many times I’ve set this book aside, how difficult it’s been to find the right story in it. And I told her it was coming along okay, but that I had a lot more work to do. And I realized as I spoke that while I was nearing the finish line for NaNoWriMo, I still have a lot of work left to do, and I told her I would probably carry on this project well beyond November 30. I hope to finish a draft before the year is out, but I’m not putting any hard deadlines on it. Because what I’m seeing unfold is JW Coe’s journey of discovery — of recovery, really — and that kind of journey takes time. So I’m just going to sit with the book and hear it out, let Coe tell his story and Sergeant Tom’s story and all the other stories he has to wrestle with until he finds his peace, and shares it with me.

 

Creative Colloquy and the Tacoma writing community

Yesterday morning, I shared the news that I had a new story, “An Understanding,” at Tacoma’s literary site, Creative Colloquy. Last night, I was one of the four featured readers at Creative Colloquy’s monthly reading series.

I read first, followed by Dianne BunnellAlec Clayton, and Kristine M. Smith. Because I wanted folks to bring a little web traffic to Creative Colloquy and read my story there, I decided to read a couple of other pieces at the mic: one of the stories in my forthcoming chapbook, Where There Is Ruin; and a microfiction piece, related to a scene in Hagridden, that appeared in the Microfiction Monday Magazine Best of 2015 anthology.

Dianne Bunnell read from her fictional memoir The Protest, Alec Clayton read a charming story about a ’70s roadtrip from the Deep South to New York City, and Kristine M. Smith read from her memoir about befriending DeForest Kelley (yes, really, THE DeForest Kelley!).

During the “intermission” (alas, singer-songwriter Maddy Dullum couldn’t make it last night), I swapped Alec Clayton a copy of Hagridden for his novel, Tupelo, and then I had an espresso — the venue, B Sharp Coffee House in Tacoma’s Opera Alley, is a delightful place with seriously decent coffee (I’m an espresso snob) and fantastic decor.

The South Puget Sound  area has a fun and supportive and talented community of writers, so the open-mic was rich with other great readers — some of whom had been featured readers in the past and some of whom made the journey to Tacoma from Olympia to share poetry and prose with us. Some pieces were beautifully emotional, some humorous, and several powerful pieces got into politics and our response to these harrowing times. Writers like Christina Butcher and Shae Savoy and Emilie Rommel Shimkus and DL Fowler and Leah Mueller . . . . while the reading series is officially divided into featured readers and open-mic, both times I’ve been the evening has felt more like two halves of one big celebration of literature and literary voices. And I was thrilled to be part of it last night.

Congrats to all the readers, and thanks for such a lovely evening!

New publication

2quill21Wow, it’s been a while since I last used “New publication” as the title of a post!

But I am thrilled to tell you all that I have a new short story out today, this one in my local Tacoma literary publication Creative Colloquy. It’s called “An Understanding,” and you can find it here.

One of the exciting things about this publication is that Creative Colloquy is more than just a literary publication and website: it’s also a writing community and a reading series. Folks who follow me on Facebook might remember that I made my Tacoma debut when I hit the open mic at the Creative Colloquy reading back in September:

And returning blog readers might recall my write-up on October’s Creative Colloquy Crawl.

Now, this evening, I’ll be joining the Creative Colloquy reading series as a featured reader, alongside fellow writers Dianne Bunnell, Kristine M. Smith, and Alec Clayton, as well singer-songwriter Maddy Dullum.

And it’s all thanks to that little story I wrote that Creative Colloquy was kind enough to publish!

 

NaNoWriMo 2016: getting back to work

I began my 2016 NaNoWriMo on fire: thanks to a midnight start, I cranked out more than 9,000 words on the first day. By Day 4, I’d launched up to 15,000 words. As of Monday, November 7, I had written 17,643 words — I was WAY ahead of schedule, so I decided to take November 8, Election Day, off from the novel and just focus on the election.

In the afternoon on November 9, I wrote on Facebook:

The novel I’ve been writing this NaNoWriMo is about a gang of gunslinging, angry, white men trying to burn down the world they live in. I’ve been trying to write this novel for a long time, and for a long time, the world we live in has made that book difficult to work on.

This afternoon, though, I remembered the realization that allowed me back into that novel this year: I’m not actually writing about those angry white men at all. I’m actually writing about the one man among them who regrets every horrible, violent thing he’s done, and the actions he takes to try to right his years of wrong.

That’s the novel I’m going to keep writing.

Only I didn’t.

I researched, scribbled notes, sat in my chair by the fireplace and thought and thought . . . but I didn’t write anything until November 15. A week after the election, I needed the release of art. Plus, my very excellent librarian/genealogist mother-in-law had sent me a trove of amazing historical information about the region and time period I was then writing about, so I had pent up a backlog of ideas and, on November 15, I burst onto the page with almost 6,000 words, bringing my total up to 23,243.

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Among the items my mother-in-law sent me: this huge map of downtown Sulphur Springs, TX, from 1898. (The image on my laptop is a contemporary Google Street View of one of the buildings on the map.) And by the way? My mother-in-law is a badass.

But then I stopped writing again.

I am still taking notes, scribbling short scenes or character sketches, so in truth, I have been writing and racking up a higher word count. But it has never been sustained or cohesive work, and I haven’t bothered to tally up the words I’ve committed to page or screen in a week now.

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Seriously: if you love literature and want to support women and gender-nonconforming writers in print, help support this anthology.

I think in some respects I’ve been attending to the mind and the heart these past two weeks, concentrating on my family and my literary community. I’ve also been in shock. And I’ve been checking in with friends, reading essays and poetry and think-pieces, trying to figure out how to help people. In my house, we’re planning donations to activist organizations; I’ve donated to the Kickstarter to publish the first-ever Unchaste Readers print anthology of work by women and gender-nonconforming writers; I’ve signed petitions and called or written my government representatives.

But it is also time, now, to get back to my work.

I was inspired today, in particular, by writer Evelyn Sharenov, who wrote on Facebook, “I feel like I’m finally awake. It didn’t occur to me than an election could throw me so far off course, that it could make me lose my focus, make me weep, overwhelm me with anger. But I am now awake.” She described a story she’s been struggling to write for a long time, and the breakthrough she had last night that has allowed her back into the piece. But I was most taken with those first lines, the nightmare she describes and that sudden, enlightening line: “But I am now awake.”

Something about that line woke me from the stupor of the past couple of weeks, and I am seeing clearly now the path forward, both for myself and for this novel. I don’t think I’ll be blazing through the words the way I did that first week of November — what’s coming requires a more deliberate pace, a more thoughtful approach to the narrative — but I know not only where I’m headed but also why I’m writing this book.

And that is empowering.

20161120_195738So this afternoon, I put on my Texas “home” t-shirt (another gift from my mother-in-law, and the company donates part of their profits to multiple sclerosis research, so here’s to doing a little more good in the world), and I picked up my Texas research and my laptop, and this evening, I’m getting back to work.

And now, fellow WriMos, let’s finish this book!

Kelly Luce and a literary communion

pullmeundercoverLast night I went to Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma to see my friend Kelly Luce read from her new novel, Pull Me Under. Kelly was in my workshop group at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in summer 2015; another fellow Sewanee alum, Jason Skipper, teaches at PLU and had organized Kelly’s visit to the campus. I was eager for the chance to see my friends and hear their words.

I was seeking the solace of their art.

It’s been a rough week since the election. Emotions everyone have been running high, and I’ve mostly wanted to just focus on home and family. I did notice that a lot of my writer friends, though, were throwing themselves into their art, or at least announcing on social media that they intended to. I couldn’t. I set aside my NaNoWriMo project and hadn’t written anything beyond a Wordstock recap since last Tuesday. Until yesterday, when I finally settled back into my own novel, returning to the outlet of fiction.

Kelly’s appearance here in Tacoma, then, was well timed, because now that I was writing again, the pull of literature drew me to my friends and an evening of art and creativity and intelligent discussion.

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Jason Skipper introduces the reading series.

The reading event itself was excellent. There was a good turnout in the audience, a mix of students and faculty and community members like me. I also got to meet another PLU faculty member, author Wendy Call (No Word for Welcome: the Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy). After Jason Skipper introduced the evening, a PLU student, Annalise Campbell, read an excerpt from an award-winning story she’d written. (It was a great piece — left me wanted to finish the story! — and she read it well.) Then Annalise Campbell introduced Kelly, giving a thoughtful (and thorough!) review of Kelly’s debut collection, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, as well as her new novel, Pull Me Under, and tied it all to an analysis of Kelly’s importance as a writer. Brought Kelly to tears; her first words at the mic were to ask if anyone had a tissue!

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Annalise Campbell reads from her award-winning short story.

Kelly’s reading was perfect: an interesting background for the novel in general, a handful of short selections rather than one long chunk of text, great transition banter and mini-intros between the selections. Her Q&A, too, was terrific, with audience questions about cultural sensitivity, differing perspectives on American and Japanese society, language choices, international education, and literary influences. I took a lot of notes — now that I’m back into my own novel, a lot of the things Kelly and the audience discussed inspired ideas for things to work on.

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Kelly Luce reads from her new novel, Pull Me Under.

Afterward, I was chatting with Kelly about her book tour, and how rough a week it’s been, and she commented on how many people she knew who were giving themselves over to art and literature, how many were attending readings and book launches and gallery openings and theatre showings more than usual in the past week. We talked about how artists seek each other out in difficult times, how much we need each other even when our impulses are to hide inside the page. And Kelly mentioned how much she’s appreciated the people who have come out to see her read. How grateful she is for them.

I was grateful, too. For the literary community, for the communion of art and ideas . . . for friends.

If you want to head out to see Kelly Luce read, she’ll be in LaGrange, IL, this evening (November 16), then she’s back on the West Coast for readings in Santa Cruz (November 17) and San Francisco (November 18). If you’re in New York, she’ll be at the KGB Bar on December 4. Check out her Appearances page on her website.

Lit Crawl & Wordstock 2016: the recap

It’s been a week now since Lit Crawl and Wordstock. And what a week it’s been. I haven’t written much at all since Tuesday night, but this post has been brewing since last weekend, and it’s been a welcome change to take some time and look back on last Saturday with so much love and friendship.

I wrote last year about how amazing my first Wordstock was, but I also wrote about some of the bugs in the system during Literary Arts’ first outing as festival organizers and reported on some of the suggestions folks had to make it better. And it definitely seems that Literary Arts was listening to everyone, because they answered a LOT of those concerns!

This year was still technically one day, but the festival proper was preceded by an amazing array of readings and other literary events during Portland’s annual Lit Crawl, which afforded people a lot more opportunities to get out and see a whole bunch of authors.

20161104_183149And that’s where I started. I took the train down from Tacoma (I love Amtrak) and arrived just in time for the first of the Lit Crawl events at 6 pm. I had many to choose from, but I was eager to get to the collection of readings about mushrooms. Yes, mushrooms — literary mushrooms. I had recently read Alexis M. Smith’s gorgeous eco-mystery novel, Marrow Island, and because wild mushrooms play an important role in the book, she was on the panel. Also on that panel: Gina Ochsner, whom I’d never met before last Friday but who received an Oregon Literary Fellowship in fiction the same year I got mine, so I was eager to say hello and offer a belated congratulations.

And yes, it is surprising how fascinating mushrooms can be and how important a role they can play in narrative. Of course, I’m a geek that way — I love learning about just about anything — but seriously: a few years ago, I read Bill Roorbach’s Life Among Giants, and folks, there’s a mushroom on the cover of that novel for a reason. Or, consider the role mushrooms play in the second episode of the tv mystery series Midsomer Murders. So yeah, gang: readings about mushrooms. It was a fascinating way to kick of Lit Crawl.

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After that, I dashed around the corner to the Literary Arts headquarters for a special edition of Melissa Dodson and Marialicia Gonzalez’s Grief Rights Reading Series. I’ve been a fan of this series for a long time, and I joined the series as a reader back in February. On Lit Crawl night, though, I was an eager spectator (and I helped staff the book sales table for Amber J. Keyser and Oregon Book Award and Lambda Award winner Kate Carroll de Gutes). It was a beautiful reading, full of compassion and ceremony, including a blessing of the space and the ritual of each reader handing a rose to the reader that followed them. The work read that night was all amazing — meditations on loss and memory and love and self-care; I especially loved Kate Carrol de Gutes, Adam Strong, and finale poet DeAngelo Gillespie.

From Grief Rites, I hurried back across the street to the joint reading event hosted by the Salon Skid Row Reading Series and Portland-based publisher YesYes Books. I was excited for this reading because Salon Skid Row organizer Josh Lubin always runs a great reading, complete with a kind of media-accompaniment in the form of video montages projected on a side wall (that night’s was, brilliantly but, in retrospect, hauntingly, a bunch of old television campaign ads from Nixon and Reagan). Also, Robert Lashley was on the roster, and that man is one of my all-time favorite poets and live readers. The first time I saw him, he gave a rousing, angry rendition of his poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Motherfucker at the Club”; on this night, he brought me to tears with his emotional final poem. For real, gang: you need to buy his book The Homeboy Songs.

But I was also eager to see the offerings from co-host YesYes Books, whose authors and poets I love, and those folks delivered! I especially loved Jonterri Gadson (I later bought her book Blues Triumphant) and YesYes publisher KMA Sullivan.

Overwhelmed by all that beautiful art and exhausted by a day of travel and running around downtown Portland, I was ready to pack it in, but as I left the final reading, I ran into Mark Russell and Amy Temple Harper, two of my favorite Portland writers, and we all decided to hit the Tin House Awkward After Party together. There, I ran into Mo Daviau, who is always fabulous, and chatted in the beer line with a woman name Beth about her sister’s sci-fi writing. Alas, I never did get to see Carrie Brownstein, because the party became quickly crowded and warm, and I realized just how tired I was, so I made my way to the bus and headed back to my friends’ house where I was staying for the weekend.

Besides, I had an early day ahead of me as I made my way back downtown in the morning for my volunteer duties at Wordstock.

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My volunteer t-shirt from Wordstock

Because my bus ran late and I missed the beginning of the first round of panels, I began my Wordstock day by briefly hitting the bookfair before checking in at my volunteer assignment. Then I hoofed it over to the First Congregational United Church of Christ, where I’d been posted.

Another thing that Literary Arts did in the past year to address the problem of crowds: they vastly expanded their venues from one to eight around Portland’s South Park Blocks, plus a slew of smaller pop-up venues in the area. The expansion of venues also reduced overcrowding in events, so it seemed to me that fewer people got turned away because a venue had reached capacity. And Literary Arts also made a much more conscious effort to address accessibility and mobility issues, so more people were able to get into the venues they wanted to.

Consequently, from what I could tell, everyone attending was even happier and more excited by Wordstock than last year, and I can say that not only as an attentive attendee but also as a volunteer.

My building, the First Congregational United Church of Christ, was a gorgeous old church with pointed arches and stained glass and huge studded-leather doors and wood pews for seating. My initial assignment was to serve as door monitor, which meant I got to count heads as attendees entered (so we wouldn’t surpass capacity), check wristbands, answer any questions, and generally just be a cheerful face as people came and went. I did that for a while, but the first event — a discussion between Vailey Oehlke (director of Multnomah County Libraries) and author Alice Hoffman, who is probably most famous for her book Practical Magic (yes, THAT Practical Magic) but whose new book is Faithful — included a Q&A, and the organizers needed someone to carry the mic around the audience. They tapped me, so I got to hang out up front during the discussion and then use my teacher skills to scan the raised hands and make sure I brought to mic to a variety of audience questioners.

The second panel, with educators Michael Copperman and Nicholson Baker, made me cry with the hope and drive those two spoke about in education. They were especially insistent on greater diversity in our teaching and our teachers, and on reaching students where they exist rather than stuffing everyone into some artificial standardization. Also, the panel moderator was Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Dave Miller, so for the second Wordstock in a row, I had a public-radio geek-out moment and rushed onstage ahead of the event to fanboy over an OPB celeb. (Last year was April Baer.)

As last year, I didn’t get to all the panels I had intended to, but as a volunteer I was able to sit in on two panels, and in the evening I attended a third, a youth lit panel with the amazing Kate Ristau (author of Shadowgirl and the newly released Clockbreakers) and Bart King (author of The Drake Equation). The authors were amazing, but the real stars of that final panel were the kids in the audience. They asked a whole range of insightful, writerly questions, and when the panel asked how many of the kids were writers themselves, several raised their hands. (One young girl, I later found out, is a published writer, and I bought her book in the bookfair. Turns out, Bart King had blurbed it!)

 

Watching those young writers and readers ask such intelligent questions and get so fired up about literature was the perfect way to wind up my Wordstock experience. Except I wasn’t quite done yet!

Amid everything else going on, I managed to make the rounds in the bookfair a few times, and after that last panel, I sneaked in one more trip. Over the course of the day, I came away with quite a haul!

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I also got to see and hug and hang out with a whole bunch of my fellow writers and publishers, including —

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Me with writer pals (clockwise from bottom left) Kate Ristau, Jenny Forrester, Cynthia Dix, John Carr Walker, and Tina Connolly

Good friends and Facebook pals:

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Me with Forest Avenue Press publisher Laura Stanfill (photo courtesy of Laura Standfill)

New friends and Facebook pals:

  • Bart King
  • Cynthia Dix
  • Jonterri Gadson
  • KMA Sullivan
  • Tina Connolly

Writers and celebs:

  • Alice Hoffman
  • Chloe Eudaly (who is, as of Tuesday, Portland’s newest city councilwoman!)
  • Dave Miller

Writers I know and love but only glimpsed in passing and didn’t get a chance to say hi to:

In other words, Wordstock was just as great as last year, and then it was better. And next year? I imagine Literary Arts is going to continue to improve on Wordstock — and I intend to be there to find out!

Lit Crawl Portland and Wordstock 2016

I’m taking a short break from NaNoWriMo this weekend to catch a train to Portland, OR and attend Lit Crawl and Wordstock, two of the year’s biggest literary events in one of my favorite literary cities!

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I wrote about Wordstock last year, but this year I’ll be volunteering (I’ll be a door monitor), so in addition to helping out at one of my favorite literary events, I’m also hoping to get a kind of behind-the-scenes perspective. But when I’m not assisting Wordstock attendees, I’ll definitely be hitting panels and browsing the bookfair and just generally geeking out over the whole glorious literary extravaganza; expect photos and a post next week!

litcrawlpdxAnd the night before (tomorrow night), I’ll also be attending Portland’s annual Lit Crawl! There are SO MANY readings and events that I want to attend, and of course I can’t get to all of them, so I’m wringing my hands over all the amazing things I’m going to miss. But I’m also giddy at all the amazing writers I’m going to see and hear — in fact, I’m so excited I’m even planning to attend the Tin House Awkward After Party (“A post-Lit-Crawl party featuring literary people standing around awkwardly until the music takes hold of their bodies” — this is definitely an event for writers! I, for one, excel at standing around awkwardly at parties).

I am still working on my NaNoWriMo project, but I have some breathing room (on Day 3, my current word count, believe it or not, is 10,492, and I haven’t updated that to include today’s count yet), so while I will probably write some on the train to Portland and on the train back to Tacoma, I expect I’ll take Saturday off and just baste myself in all the literary fabulosity that is Wordstock!

Look for updates next week, gang.

NaNoWriMo 2016: starting over

People have been asking me on social media if I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this year. Friends, former students, readers who liked my first NaNoWriMo attempt (Hagridden) — I even got a Facebook event invitation from NaNoWriMo executive director Grant Faulkner.

I’ve told them all the same thing: of course I’m participating!

Except, as I’ve done a time or two in the past, I’m kinda-sorta cheating this year, because instead of starting a new project, I’m actually returning to a book I’ve already written — in fact, it’s the NaNoWriMo book I attempted back in 2013 — and returned to 2014.

I’m not really cheating, to be honest. In 2014, I was cheating, because I simply continued to work on an existing project rather than starting something from scratch. But this year, I am starting from scratch, because I’m throwing out the entirety of my 2013 and 2014 drafts (and, dear readers, my 2015 draft as well — because yes, I did rework that same book a third time and I’m still not happy with it).

I am keeping some of the elements of the project: most of the main characters, most of the settings, the general thrust of the story . . . .

But I have tossed all the text and most of the individual scenes I’d written, and I’ve spent the last month drafting an entirely new outline for the story. I’ve also finally wrapped my head around the narrative style I want for this, which is been the biggest hangup for me with this book. The first draft was all first-person, which was great for scenes and a few whole chapters, but I quickly realized that I just couldn’t sustain a first-person voice that consistently felt as authentically late-19th-century as I needed it to. The second draft, I tried some third-person voices and multiple perspectives, which let me shift narrative voices and keep the pieces of first-person narration that I thought worked, but in the end, the draft was just a patchwork quilt of vignettes and the stitching wasn’t strong enough to hold the whole thing together. So for the third draft, I scrapped all of that and went back to the distant, third-person limited narrative voice I used in Hagridden, because hey, it worked once, so why not use it again? And for a while it was working wonderfully, and (ironically) it allowed me to drill into the characters more and let their worlds unfold in a more natural way. But eventually, I got so mired in the details of their lives that I lost sight of the plot and had no idea how to get the book back on track.

So, here I am, once more with a blank page and this same story I have yet to finish telling. And I do want to tell it — it’s still a story that lives in my head, and it wants out.

I’m hesitant to reveal too much here about why I feel like this year merits another attempt, but I can tell you these things, gang: This past year, I’ve been following some long-running national and international news stories that, while fascinating in their own right, kept reminding me of elements of my own novel. Also this past year, I’ve read a few books that triggered ideas for me, including Andrew Malan Milward’s stunning story collection I Was a Revolutionary and (currently) Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, as well as a few history books relevant to my story.

But I’ve been here before. So why revisit this old book for NaNoWriMo rather than simply start a new project? I’ve been thinking about this the past month, and I think it boils down to two reasons:

  • I don’t have a new project, and it’s hard for me to imagine a new one until I get through the projects already in my head. This is the older of two books I’ve been trying to get out of my head for years, and I’ll take any excuse to make new progress on it.
  • It’s been a crazy six months — I’ve wrapped up a life in one state and begun a new life (new home, new town, new job) in a new state — so I haven’t been doing the writing I’ve been wanting to. Even with my new study and all this dedicated writing time, I’m still playing catch-up on other, smaller writing projects while also juggling a series of non-writing projects. But NaNoWriMo, both as a frenzied writing deadline and as a supportive community of fellow Wrimos, has always been a good motivator and a wonderful excuse to set everything else aside and crank out the words. Which is what this book needs right now.

So, starting tomorrow (or, I’ll be honest, maybe tonight at midnight, because that’s how NaNoWriMo usually works), I’ll be off and running.

I can’t say how regularly I’ll be blogging about my efforts, because I still have a lot of other things going on (including Wordstock this coming weekend) and it’ll be a struggle just to keep up with my daily word count. But I hope to check in from time to time, so hang in there with me, gang.

And if you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, leave a comment and let me know what you’re working on!

Tacoma’s Creative Colloquy doesn’t crawl, it PARTIES

Last Wednesday, I ventured into the heart of Tacoma’s Stadium District to experience as much of my new hometown’s creative and literary scenes as I could in a single night.

12771928_210946462591234_5163157776731370438_oThe event was the second annual Creative Colloquy Crawl, a kind of literary and creative “pub crawl” through businesses in one of Tacoma’s coolest and most creative neighborhoods.

Not every event was at a pub, of course, and not every event was strictly “literary” in the sense of the printed word. In addition to storytelling and poetry readings, the crawl included interactive horoscopes, a teen writing workshop, music and theatre performances, graphic narrative and street art . . . even selections from banned books read by burlesque dancers!

The downside to any literary “crawl” event, of course, is that for everything you attend, you miss a handful of other amazing events. In my first outing, I’m sad to say I only made it to two events (I suffered a mild asthma attack at the end of the evening and had to miss the burlesque dancers). But those two readings were stunning displays of the talent in Tacoma!

My first event was Candlelit Stories, an hour of ghost stories and eerie tales hosted in the “library” room of the amazing Sanford and Son antique shops. (Yes, I had the theme song for the old tv show in my head the rest of the evening, which was great because I loved that show!)

The show featured readings by YA author Kimberly Derting, urban fantasy author Mark Henry, urban fantasy author Lish McBride (Necromancer), Creative Colloquy editor Elizabeth Beck (who did a very cool performance piece with her story!) and professional storyteller (and all-around badass) Sarah Comer.

The first three readers were terrific — a nice blend of spooky and humorous — but the party really got rolling with Elizabeth Beck’s performance piece, a dinner scene with unseen guests, and then Sarah Comer (who also served as emcee) killed it with two stunning and expertly delivered classic campfire ghost stories, including one set right there in Sanford and Son!

I had plenty to chose from for my next hour, but I wanted a beer, so I headed to Odd Otter Brewery for Poetry & Pints, where I enjoyed some powerful poems by Emilie Rommel Shimkus, Paul Nelson, and Peter Munro.

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Emcee Christina Butcher

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Peter Munro and the audience out in Fireman’s Park

The Crawl had a bit of overlap with Odd Otter’s regular pub trivia night, but emcee (and host of the podcast Literally Tacoma) Christina Butcher did a fantastic job of segueing into the poetry readings. Emilie Rommel Shimkus was fierce in her reading, and she worked that noisy bar like the pro she is (she’s also an actress); and Paul Nelson had a fantastic blend of wry humor and punchy, poignant observations. But for the last performance, we realized the night was lovely and we decided to give way to the second half of the bar’s trivia contest as the lit folks drifted across the street to Fireman’s Park, where Peter Munro unleashed on us an epic narrative sea poem, all waves and rhythms and harbor pilots and commercial fishermen. It was a fabulous piece and a perfect way for me to conclude my evening, as I climbed Tacoma’s Spanish Steps and paused to look out over the nighttime Port of Tacoma, the black water nestling long, yellow-lighted cargo vessels.

Overall, I had a wonderful time, and I’ve heard this past week that others at other events had just as much fun, heard equally wonderful work. But more importantly, for me, I got a deep view inside the creative heart of Tacoma, and gang, Creative Colloquy does things right.