Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On with the story

What does it mean to be a NaNoWinner?  Hell if I know.  But here's my virtual "badge" and my final post on the subject. That's a promise. 

Somehow the past 30 days have taken the stuffin’ out of me. With all the “writing” to do with NaNoWriMo, my 50,000 words-or-so are now stored on a thumb drive,  left there hanging in a tangle, with not a trace of a novel to show for the effort of getting there.  
NaNoWriMoWise, I have reached what appears to be the tip of the large toe of the foot of the mountain.  The story will go on without me, unless I take a wild leap of faith to catch it and run with it once again.  As I turn the page to December perhaps the energy will return.   
As for all the cooking and basting, and roasting and baking and heat generated in the kitchen for Thanksgiving, the leftovers were left in Chicago, where the family gathered.  We prepped and stirred, hung together and ate and drank, we laughed and teased one another-- as do brothers and sisters, long-married couples, parents and children, we put a thousand pieces of a puzzle together, and  parted once again.  Until next time.
I’ve come home to an empty fridge, in some post-partum blogger state.  
But there’s turning, always turning.  Turning the page to December, the season of lights begins tomorrow
Tomorrow we celebrate.  Chanukah. Hanukka. Hannuka. Channuka.  
(However you spell it, it's time for happy latkes.) 

If you want to become an artist you must come out of your shell...  There is so much to see, so much to experience which will be new to you...  You must come out and scratch and bite, and love and hate, and play and sing and fly, and earn your place in the sun.”   -Eugene O’Neill

Monday, November 22, 2010

My NaNoWriMo mania. It’s almost over.

So you believe you can fly. All you have to do is flap your arms, and if you flap and flail hard enough, oh yes, and jump up and down, and tell yourself you can fly, perhaps for a brief moment, you’ll leave the ground.  Just don’t try that stepping off the roof, okay?  
There are those who believe everyone’s got a story to tell and a great book to write, just waiting to break out like a fever.   “Take the leap,” they say,    “let your words fly where they crackle and connect, illuminate and surprise.”
 “Trust the process,” they say.  
To those who wildly, desperately believe there’s a book they could write,  if only they would sit down and write it, my advice is this:  write it if you must.  Write like the wind.  Write your heart out.  Write by all means.  But don’t expect outright results just for the effort. 
Writing fiction doesn’t pay that way.  At least not for me. Believe me, I could write a book about not writing a book.

I don’t know what I was thinking when I signed on with a friend to NaNoWriMo.  For those who don’t know, (it’s a good thing, indeed, not to know)  NaNoWriMo stands short and cute for National Novel Writing Month, “30 days and nights of literary abandon.”  The goal is to write 50,000 words,  presumably in novel form, from scratch to finish in November. 
“Let’s write laughably lousy yet lengthy prose,” the say, goading you on.  
NaNo in a nutshell: your words will not be judged, but every word is to be counted and verified by a “web-based team of robotic word counters.”  Bots!   They’re out there.  Counting words.  Sounds creepy.
There are no readers in this marathon.  So let’s not obsess over quality or clarity.  Let’s party in coffee shops, chat online, write ‘til dawn, “mocking real novelists” who carry on far longer than 30 days to finish their work.   According to the NaNoWhacko people, if you believe it’s a novel, then it’s a novel. And if you don’t believe, then what?  At least you have 170 pages of nothing you can call a novel-in-the-works to throw into a drawer and never look at again. 
Out of self-preservation, my “writing buddy,” my friend, the real novel writer, had the presence of mind to abandon the effort a week ago. Good for her.   With three finished novels under her belt, she has a voice in the matter, knows that writing in the long run is not a 30-day sprint.   
So what’s my story?  Still a mystery, where I haven’t a clue. But I’m still slinging words, like so much hash, slogging it out. Because I said so, that I would do so, and by-god, I’m going to see it through. 
Mercifully, the end is near. My NaNoWriMo mania will soon be over. 

To date, I’ve poured nearly 46,000 aimless words into the effort. Four thousand words to go, and no novel in sight. Getting to the 50K has taken approximately 50 visits and revisits to a story that’s likely never to take wing.  My attention to its detail is beginning to wane. As Thanksgiving weighs in on the week ahead, my focus  drifts  kitchenward, to the assembly of cookbooks, and recipes for stuffing, cranberries and pumpkin.  There’s delicious reading and real work to be done.  Multitasking, writing and cooking, like simultaneously tapping your head and rubbing your stomach . . . is near impossible, and bound to failure. And so  I hasten to finish this NaMo thing. Setting myself free as a bird . . . this Thurday, long before the turkey browns, the last line will be written.  That's a promise.

Photo: Writer's Block I. Credit: Drew Coffman via Flickr.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Last Thing You Need: Pumpkin Gingerbread Pudding

15 years of recipes, thanks to Williams-Sonoma, Gourmet, Bon Appetit and Epicurious

Our Thanksgiving is a sprawling,  multi-state,  migratory affair.  Gathering forces and appetites from across the country, we have recently taken to flocking to my nephew’s kitchen in Evanston, IL.  There we settle in, to divide and conquer the feast. To each a favorite recipe.   
As the family has expanded, so has our nuanced turkey menu.   My husband’s specialty is the big bird, itself, prepared in a fast-roast method picked up from a recipe from “Mr. Brisket” in Cleveland.  Believe me, Mr. Brisket knows his stuff. 
The turkey being what it is, (a somewhat plain entree) I add a medley of colorful sides: a cranberry sauce laced with cherries and brandy, a red pepper ginger marmalade, and a tomatillo salsa with a poblano pepper bite.  For my son, it’s not Thanksgiving without both the chestnut dressing and the Southwest-style cornbread stuffing, so there we have too much.  My nephew takes on root vegetables with a vengeance. My cousin does a mean devil's food cake that she carries all the way on a flight from Dallas.  And my sister arrives with her husband’s favorites, a mile high key lime pie. . .and the cranberry jelly in a can.  
Heaven only knows why we add to all this a pumpkin pie, but we faithfully bake one on Thanksgiving morning, because you gotta have the pie.  It’s a tradition. 
So what could possibly be missing on our dessert table, where in one sitting and on one plate you can laden onto your meal another1000 calories of whipped, creamed, and nutted sweets?   
What else but our inimitable pumpkin gingerbread pudding? 
It’s so easy and tempting to make. Like a trifle, but not as rich. Like a souffle, but heavier.   Like a pie prepared in a cake pan, best when served slightly warm.  I’ve never seen a recipe quite like it, but  

Here's all you need:
  • A non-stick Bundt pan, well oiled and dusted with flour.
  • A ready-made gingerbread.  (The recipe  is very tolerant; bake your own from scratch, use a boxed mix or store-bought. Or get creative: Try it with pumpkin cranberry bread, or a cinnamon raison coffee cake. 
  • Your favorite recipe for pumpkin filling for a 9” pie 


Let me start with the admission that I don't follow recipes all that reliably. Cooking is like jazz to me.  Baking, on the other hand, is a science, an art that I have yet to perfect.  But this recipe has never failed me: 

  • Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
  • Cut gingerbread into 1” slices. Then cut slices lengthwise into 4” strips and line them up on the sides of the Bundt pan
  • Cut remaining slices into cubes and fill Bundt pan approximately half way. 
  • Pour pumpkin mixture into pan
  • Bake until pie filling rises, slightly golden, approximately  30 to 40 minutes.
  • Garnish with toasted walnuts, and powdered sugar
  • Top with whipped cream, or New Orleans-style whiskey sauce, or cranberry glaze
  • Enjoy

From our family to yours, happy Thanks-feasting. And thanks for dropping by.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Monkey Works

Slogging away every morning for nearly two weeks now, definetly not writing the novel of my dreams.  

Instead,  I've been rolling out of bed around 4 a.m,  tapping at the keyboard until I actually wake up and the fog clears around 6.  I admit to few if any aha moments where the writing breaks through and takes wing. How could it, under the circumstances?
In the process, between glimmers of insight and morning light,  I've caught the sniffles (cough, cough) and grown more irritable with each passing day, adding my slapdash words to the count, racing the clock before daybreak.   

In short-lived triumph, I post the morning's output on the NaNoWriMo site, hit submit, and watch the words melt away, disappearing into a graph, charting my "progress."  
My cumulative word count?  Around 21,000 words.  Give or take. My  "stats" assure me that at the present pace of 2000 messy words a day, my ETA for the finish line is November 25.   

And that's a good thing. 

With just fourteen days to go until Thanksgiving,  I expect to be diverting most of my energy and attention to a turkey, starting next weekend.  Prep for the holidays out of town is not conducive to the writing exercise I've imposed upon myself this month.  

(And speaking of holidays and exercise,  I'm gaining weight.)

Burning the midnight oil on research and spending hours at my computer before dawn, I've proven to myself that mental gymnastics, however arduous,  are no substitute for physical activity.  In fact, the “writing life” can be detrimental to one's health and wellbeing, particularly without creative energy boosters other than chocolate and caffeine.     

From monkey-at-a-typewriter to turkey.  Sounds about right.

As far as the whatchamacallit "novel" is concerned - this blogfest, marathon journal, tome, 50,000-word-doc-in-the-making,  whatever it will be -   I'm still taking it easy, one line at a time, claiming that all this is just "the research."  

My story?   You may be looking at it right here.  

Thanks for stopping by. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

13,400 words and counting?

Reporting in:  with 7 days down and 13,400 words submitted to the NaNoWriMo challenge.  

Just 36,600 words to go to reach the finish line.

I’ve been dutiful enough, getting up between 4 and 5 am every morning to slog through the daily quota, throwing down words as fast as I can.  But my word, what's “written” has nothing to do with a novel.  All I've got are the notes, bits and pieces, a few directions for scenes, some suggestions for characters, lots of questions begging for fact-finding and research, and plenty of running commentary to fill in the blank spaces.  And therein hangs the tale. Blank spaces.  

 My story is the story not being told.   The process has been at best. . . instructive, a rude awakening.  Writing fiction is a relentless pursuit, a discipline clearly out of my comfort zone.  

Am I having fun?  I can’t say.  What I have so far I wouldn’t give to a dog to read.  

So why keep going?  What’s there to prove?  Well, first of all, a 13,400-word foray into a novel is not enough to call off the game.   I imagine, or try to , that  there’s something to be learned in the next 36,600 words. Yes? Maybe?  

Over the past week, I have grappled with the question: what makes my story worth anyone's attention? And what keeps me here at the keyboard, hour upon hour, struggling word by word to write?              

Think about it.

I suppose we read novels to do what our incredible human brain does best: to explore realms we can’t physically reach, to visit worlds we can’t otherwise know, to time travel on a magic carpet we call a page.  

What distinguishes us (or so we think) from all other living creatures on this earth, is our enormous cortex – and that remarkable function of the human brain which allows us to see and feel and hear and put into context things that aren’t there. We can imagine the consequences of stepping off a cliff, for instance, without actually doing it. We can slay dragons, win epic battles, leap tall buildings, solve murder mysteries or save the world – without leaving an armchair, thanks to our capacity for imagination. And so we love stories and especially value those who have the gift of telling stories well.

 I have a story in mind.  Whether I can tell it well . . . well, it will take far more work than slapping it down in the next three weeks during NaNoWhaMoSlam.  But what the hey, 50,000 words may very well serve . . . as  the start.  

Will keep you posted. 

And thanks for dropping by. 

Photo by Michael Connors, the founder of MorgueFile

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

NanNoWriMo Slam

The lines are open.  The fingers are flying.   NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month,  is off to a record start - a literary marathon whereby 172,000 writers are currently racing to churn out their 50,000 words in 30 days, presumably writing the novel of their dreams.  This much-Twittered event has generated its own forum of rants and raves, most notably led by Laura Miller on Salon.   
In a stupor this morning, having reached my own 4,867 words on the NaNoWhammo Word Count, I happened upon Laura’s blog, “Better Yet, DON’T Write that Novel.    I would agree.  The Internet and the camaraderie of social media have cheered on far too many of us to practice literary witchcraft. 
I count myself among the unbridled impostors writing a “novel” this month, and confess that I’ve signed up to trick myself into writing every day, hoping in the process to build up some street creds for my blog.     
The words I’ve submitted to the NaNoWriMo site are merely words. At best, they are notes for a novel, to be sent back into the grinder, edited and culled and mostly discarded.  I am spinning material this month, not writing with abandon, and indeed there are moments when I think that my time would be better spent in the month of November reading 10 great books, rather than attempting to write a crappy one.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it.   NaNoWriting to the finish.
In this wildly exuberant human mash-up of literary output,  I’m going sleep-deprived and slightly crazy, doing my best to take deep breaths and take in this experience as an experiment where trial and error are expected.   
With the hundreds of thousands of books published each year, with the stockpiles of paperbacks and hardbacks you see at B&N and Costco, you'd think that that just about anyone can write a book.  Well, try it.  Making up stuff in your head is one thing. Writing it down is another.  I stand in awe of anyone who can write a novel - and I do mean anyone and everyone, all those 30-Day Miracle NaNoWriMo folks included. 

Facing the blank page every morning, I’ll tell you, the challenge of turning an elusive train of thought into a living, breathing character, a plausible place and time,  and a moving plot device, sends me into a state of mild panic. 
And so I spin. Word after word. Like a caterpillar in a cocoon.  Whether my story ever emerges and takes wing will depend on the patience, discipline and level of craft I apply to it.  A far cry from the mad dash scribbler I’ve become this month.   

“Write what you know,” they say. What I know is that I’ve got a good blockage going,  blocking my passages through this fiction.  Going against the grain of most of the advice the WhammoRighto people have offered:  here’s what I’m NOT doing:  I am not. . .
  • writing three to four hours a day
  • writing in longhand
  • writing with buddies
  • writing in a new space, with a clean desktop
  • writing in pajamas and eating chocolate
  • writing under the influence
  • writing in coffee shops and bookstores
  • writing in costume
  • writing on vacation
  • writing with a program called OMMMWriter and listening to chimes
  • writing while listening to my favorite music
  • writing with an outline  (must do)
  • writing character profiles (should be) 
  • writing dialogue (would help)
  • writing with previously well-researched material (not even close on that one)  
  • writing following a well-reasoned plot
  • writing with a map
  • writing as I fall in love with my characters 
  • writing to a muse
  • writing to anything but the humdrum of my head and pounding of my  heart 
  • writing in fear of failure
  • writing a “novel” 
What can I expect? A week ago, I just grabbed a subject I know nothing about and jumped into a taxi with it.  “Follow that car”  I tell the driver.   Where I'm going, I have no idea,  but it's a start.
And so far it’s just this:  grist for the blog. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Are You Human?

Bots!   I don’t understand them.  But I know they’re out there. Web robots.  The lifeblood of the Internet.  Ingenious, calculating  little bastard programs posing as people, and working faster and with far more accuracy than would be possible for a human alone. 
In wiki terms: bots are software apps than run automated tasks. These tasks are  typically simple and repetitive, as in  search engines, Web spidering, crawling -- or creeping.  
As in the Land of Oz, where there are good witches and bad witches -- or more like bacteria in the body, where there's bacteria good for you and not so good -- there are good bots and bad.  

Best humanitarian use of bots (beside the automated bidding program on ebay) can be found on the site, Freerice.  
If you haven’t yet discovered the site, by all means, go and play.  Homepage | 
The website offers a variety of educational, multiple-choice games ranging from vocabulary-building to famous art identification.  For every correct answer, 10 grains of rice are donated to fight world hunger.  Good stuff.
Now the bad guy bots (and botnets) include all sorts of malicious intent including:
1. Spambots that harvest email addresses from internet forums
2. Downloader programs that suck up bandwidth by downloading entire websites
3. Web site scrapers that grab the content of web sites and without permission 
4. Viruses and worms
5. DDoS attacks
To protect websites against comment spams in blogs and other forms of internet highway robbery, there’s the familiar, yet curiously strange program known as CAPTCHA ( short for for Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart.)  A CAPTCHA generates words - or other visual distortions that presumably humans can read and computer programs cannot.  For example, you can read the text shown in the box above, while your current computer cannot.
In the battle of the bots and the CAPTCHAs, the CAPTCHAs continue to win -- generating all sorts of mischief and mirth in codes and camouflaged words. For more on CAPTCHAs , see The Official CAPTCHA Site
For a laugh today (God knows we all need a laugh today) visit Zrharc! The Comment Word Verification Dictionary -- offering nonsense definitions only humans can find funny. 
If you care to play along, send me your favorite CAPTCHA of the day, I’ll make a point of collecting them and posting them on this site.  
And bacqu very much for stoping by.