Sunday, November 25, 2012

November...The Month of Novels

Since we have a day, week or month for everything, seemingly, these days, it come as no surprise that a literary achievement has its own place in the sun as well. November is designated National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and unlike other observations it is not celebrated with parades, speeches or feasts, but with the actual writing of a novel at least 50,000 words long, beginning at Midnight on 1 November,  finishing no later than 11:59:59 PM on 30 November.

The event started in July of 1999 in that most literary of American cities, San Francisco, with a grand total of 21 participants. The creators did it because, as one of the first writers put it, "we wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands. Because we wanted to make noise. Because we didn’t have anything better to do. And because we thought that, as novelists, we would have an easier time getting dates than we did as non-novelists." By the time the second year rolled around, they had a website, a better title that "just a bunch of people noveling," and 140 participants. They also had a new month -- since July is such a great time to be outdoors (even in SF), they changed it to November when staying out of the weather takes no great incentive.

With each passing year, the participation has increased. In 2011, the number of participants who thought they had a novel in them struggling to get out was 256,618; the number who actually crossed the 50K-word finish line was 36,843.

Panera Bread
Chula Vista Shopping Center
(My Writing Home-Away-From Home)
I first heard of the NaNoWriMo competition several years ago from a girl I used to work with at the Library. Actually, she was quite surprised I had never before heard of it, but I'm not surprised since, except for local news stories (usually involving students, geeks with proud mothers, or cultural exhibitionists), actual coverage of the event by the media is lacking. To be fair to journalists, however, it's not really an event you can cover in the traditional way -- despite the website, the organization, the "write-ins" and web forums, novel writing is, at its core, a quiet struggle between a writer and a blank sheet of paper (or its electronic equivalent); it's a race against time, but there is no physical course to run; it's an act of creation, but even if you print it out, it's still just a stack of paper until someone reads it.

In years past, I've considered jumping in, but I always managed to talk myself out of it, citing one reason or another; one year, a kidney stone made the decision for me. This year, I ran out of excuses, and so I leaped into the fray, registering with the website and staying up late on Halloween night so I could begin typing at the stoke of midnight. 

Now, as you may know if you are a regular reader of Book Scribbles, I've written novels before, but never had I written one in a month. A month is usually the time I allot to a short story, not just because I am slow, but because I usually have several projects going at the same time, not to mention diversions and distractions. For me, novels were massive things written over the course of many months, sometimes edging into years. A novel in a month? Okay, I thought, but I must be crazy.

Here's the way it works: as you write your novel, you regularly update your word count on the National Novel Writing Month website. Of course, you can do this whenever you want, but, as they mention on their suggestions page, daily is good because there is a certain thrill and sense of accomplishment in seeing the cumulative word count increase, and your place on the progress graph; equally exciting, however is seeing the "Words Remaining" total decrease day after day. To finish the novel in thirty days, you need to type, on the average 1,667 words/day; each day you can do a little bit more lowers that average and advances your completion date. I started off with a solid 3,000 the first day, so managed to keep ahead of the curve, which was good since there were a few days when I failed to even meet the minimum.

So, what was my novel about (besides 50K words)? I wrote the story of my three dogs -- Sunny, Yoda & Levi -- as detectives in a pitched battle with a local gang of outlaw cats called the Feral Gang. It was a story I had had in mind for some time, even before Levi passed away a few years ago. When you register the title of the novel on the website, you also choose the genre. Because I had talking dogs and cats (not to mention some other critters) I listed it as children's fiction, but I later changed that to Mystery, Thriller & Suspense.

The cover you see at the left is not the cover of an actual book, but one I created on the computer for illustration purposes on the NaNoWriMo website. But the dogs on the cover are the actual characters in the novel, and they are probably more responsible for the writing of the novel than am I. An old writing maxim is "Characters make the story," and that more than anything else is what helped me finish the project -- I knew the characters from observing them over a period of twenty years, so all I had to do was present them with situations and conflicts and write down what they said and did. Since they were my pets, I never lost sight of the fact that they were animals and not human surrogates.

At the beginning, I did not think I could do it, especially as the midnight hour approached, but I did. I began work on Paws & Claws: A Three Dog Mystery at 12:01 AM on 1 November 2012; by 2:40 PM on 23 November 2012, I finished typing the last word, "dawning," word number 51,408. The point of all of this, however, is not that I can do it but that you can do it. If you have ever thought, I would like to write a novel, but I don't think I can go it alone, then the structure and encouragement (with its numerous pep talks) of NaNoWriMo may be way you need. Go to the website and plan for 2013. You can do it. I did.

ADDENDUM, 28 NOV 2012: It's difficult to write something like Paws & Claws and not yearn for publication. However, the publishing industry seems to be at a nadir, and then there's the matter of genres. If a story cannot be pigeon holed how to market it. Talking animals? Kidlit? No, not really. Detective? Only if dogs can be detectives to an adult. Fantasy? No, no dragons or chicks in chainmail. It does have religion and redemption, but inspirational niches would be an ill fit indeed. So, what does a optimistic cynic do? Go digital and self publish. I may live to regret it. Or not....regret it, that is. I'll let you know.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Bram Stoker & His Count...Both Going Strong

Irish writer Abraham "Bram" Stoker (8 Nov 1847 - 20 Apr 1912) turns 165 today, but his popularity has not waned with the passing of the years. Although his fame might not equal that of his literary creation, he has achieved the sort of immortality for which many writers strive but few achieve. It's a particularly remarkable feat when you consider that his fame rests upon a single novel, Dracula. Although he wrote a dozen novels during his career, eight of them were flighty romances of the sort popular in the Victorian Era, and, of the remaining four, three were supernatural or horror tales with a strong streak of romance running through them; there is only one Dracula.

His book The Mystery of the Sea is quite interesting for its maritime mood and dark atmosphere. And his novels The Lair of the White Worm and The Jewell of the Seven Stars (both made into films of dubious quality) are notable for their treatments of ancient legends, one Egyptian, the other British. The Jewell of the Seven Stars, in particular, was quite controversial for its gruesome ending, which his publisher demanded be changed before a reprinting could be considered. But, as well written and well intended as the books are, none of them are Dracula, a book which Stoker researched seven years before sending young solicitor Jonathan Harker in the wilds of the Carpathian Mountains in search of Count Dracula's crumbling castle.

Unfortunately, for modern readers, Dracula suffers much the same fate as young Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, in that most people know it by its cinematic avatars and not by the book itself. Even those fans who bought one of the many editions available sometimes must admit to never having actually read it, which is a shame, because it is not only a well-written novel but is told using a format that allows for multiple points of view and layers unusual for a book of its period. It's a novel whose plot is revealed though letters and diary entries written by characters who have varying viewpoints and levels of understanding about the other characters and the events which are touching their lives. Interspersed among these accounts are newspaper clippings written by others who are not involved in the story, adding not only an aspect of objectivity but also of ignorance, which makes the reader feel even more privy to the events. The book is given a patina of realism and verisimilitude by removing Bram Stoker from the position of author within the context of the story and relegating him to the role of editor, the man who gathers together all these disparate writings and tries to make sense of them. Even though sales of the book were not as brisk as hoped when it was first published in  1897, they remained steady and increasing, and the book has not been out of print since.

But, as mentioned, most people know Dracula from his many appearance on stage, screen and television. If Dracula was Bram Stoker's gift to the world, it is the gift that keeps on giving. We have seen Dracula reborn time after time, despite being staked, beheaded and incinerated. He has fought  the Wolfman, Billy the Kid, Sherlock Holmes, and even Batman; Buffy the Vampire Slayer had her shot at him, as did the Flintstones and The Munsters. In the series Sliders, when the gang "slid" into an alternate Earth where vampirism had been illegal since 1865, they encountered a rock band appropriately called Stoker. Like Dracula himself, just when you think you have heard the last of him (and vampires) yet another avatar comes rushing into the public consciousness. Who will die first, Bram Stoker or Dracula? Sorry, we're not taking any bets.