Sometimes It’s Just Filler

It’s October, and time to start writing again.

I knew it had been a while since my last post; I didn’t realize it had been six months. Time flies when you’re in college.

It’s been an interesting journey. I’ll finish the Health Information Technology program in December, if I pass the proficiency exam. I should pass, but it’s hard to be confident about a single test that decides whether I’ve been wasting the last two years of my life. My grades are good; I’ve still got an 87.38 GPA, but…if I don’t pass this exam, with a 70 or higher, I don’t pass the program.

After the proficiency exam comes the national certification exam—another opportunity for stress related ulcers.

The pace has been grueling. I’ve written some flash fiction, and a few outlines for bigger stuff, but mostly I’ve been saving my brain for classwork. It’s worked so far.

But now it’s October, and time to start writing again.

I don’t have a formal diagnosis, so I won’t claim “to be OCD” about anything. All my little tics and rituals…That’s just part of what makes me my wonderful eccentric self. But when October rolls around, I find it impossible to resist the lure of NaNoWriMo. I don’t mean, “Oh, goody! I can’t wait!” It’s more like “I have to do NaNoWriMo. It’s the only way to silence the sound of all of those keyboards clicking in my head!” Even when I don’t plan to participate, I find myself writing my 1667 every day, and getting antsy when I can’t make time for it. The few times I’ve tried to ignore the event I wind up enrolling sometime around the 10th of the month…

I haven’t had time for NaNo for the last couple of years. That hasn’t prevented me from participating, with varying degrees of success. This year is worst of all. I should be spending every waking moment studying for those exams. Instead, I’m going through my plot files, looking for something to develop.

I’ll probably end up proclaiming myself a NaNo Rebel this year. Instead of trying for the magic 50K in a single coherent story, I think I’m just going to work on shorts stories, maybe a novella. Less pressure.

Looking back at this post, it’s just filler. Sorry about that. Maybe I’ll have time for something a little more substantial soon. Maybe a piece of flash fiction.

So That’s Where Ideas Come From

Normally I’m not a fan of fan fiction.  My attitude has been, “If you want to write it, fine, but don’t expect me to read it. ” (Okay, a lot of the time it’s been “If you want to write you should do the work and create your own world, your own characters.” I tend to be an elitist snob.) But there is a story thread in a popular series that has always bothered me; earlier this week, as stress relief from end of term studying, I started thinking about how I would resolve the problem.

After a couple of days of random ideas at random moments, I realized that I really wanted to write the story that was developing. I had fallen into the fan fic trap.

This morning I shared the idea that I had with my daughter, who has been troubled by the same story arc. We bounced ideas off one another,  going deeper and deeper into our idea.  Eventually we decided that over the summer we would collaborate on the story,  which had developed enough to either be a series of linked short stories, or a novella.

As we continued to talk happily, ideas that wouldn’t work began to occur to me; ideas that were unsuitable to the world and characters of the “broken” story arc, but still very interesting. 

It happened quickly.  The ideas that were unsuitable swirled in my head, attaching themselves to story fragments, free-standing characters, and scenes I had written without knowing where they belonged.  Suddenly I saw MY story, my world.

Obviously it’s influenced by the series that inspired the fan fiction.  But the influence is in the theme, not the characters or setting.  Many other books, movies, and even current events are influences, too, It’s a story from my world, influenced by the things that matter to me.

I still plan to write the fan fiction with my daughter; it’s a fun idea and doing it together will make it more fun. But the best part is that when I gave myself permission to play with favorite characters and scenes from my favorite authors I unlocked my creativity, and found a story of my own.

Another #NaNoPrep Blog

In about two weeks NaNoWriMo begins. You probably knew that; there are posts about NaNoWriMo, and NaNoPrep all over the Internet. This will be my fourth year of NaNo, and I’ve done Camp several times, too. In 2010 I led a group of high school students through NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program. I haven’t won every year I’ve tried, but I always have fun.

Over the years I’ve put together strategies for #NaNoPrep, and I thought it was time to share.
• Have an outline. It doesn’t have to be detailed, though mine tend to be. Even a vague list of key points will serve as a guide to keep you moving forward. If you are a pantser, try to develop at least a paragraph long summary of the story as you see it. Note any actions, decisions, or other plot points that must happen to develop the story.
• Make a scrapbook. Pictures help when it comes to description. Try to find photos of your main setting (or someplace similar) during the season in which your story takes place. Look for pictures of people with your character’s features and coloring (also known as “who would you cast when the novel becomes a movie?”) Character photos are especially helpful for consistency of description. Significant objects in the story are also good to include in the photo album, especially if it’s something unfamiliar.
• Make a playlist. Music is as vital to writing as caffeine. Here are my thoughts on playlists.
• Pay attention to your pantry. Some wrimos prepare and freeze 30 day’s worth of food prior to November, so that all they have to do is heat and serve, others put together lists of 30 minute meals, to minimize their kitchen time. Others live on sandwiches. Take a few minutes to consider the matter. If you work, are a student, or are a working student, then it’s probably a good idea to get at least a few meals in the freezer, whether you make them from scratch or just hit the grocery’s freezer aisle.
• Consider the snacking situation. While a caffeine boost can be a good thing, too much can be a problem. It can make you jittery, cause headaches and anxiety, and act as both a laxative and a diuretic. Too much chocolate can have the same side effects, along with higher blood sugar levels, and with continued over-use can contribute to weight gain. When you’re writing, drink water; save the coffee or tea for breaks. Substitute fresh or dried fruits and veggies for some of the chocolate. (My chocolate consumption: 1 snickers bite size candy for every 500 words written, and 1 extra for reaching the day’s goal. Round up to the nearest 500.)
• Discover your average writing speed. Don’t guess about this, based on the memory of the last few things you’ve written. Sometime soon, sit down and write a piece of flash fiction. 1000-1500 words. It can be about anything; fiction or non-fiction. You can work from an outline if you’d like. Don’t edit as you go. Leave the misspellings. Leave the abandoned thought. Just write. Time yourself. Don’t worry if your number seems low; you aren’t competing, you’re researching. If you aren’t convinced that you’ve found your true writing speed, do the exercise again, on a new topic.
• Consider your daily word goal. 50,000 divided by 30 is 1,666 words a day, and you’ll have to add an extra 20 somewhere. Or you can write 1667 words a day, and be 10 words over goal. But take a minute to consider: If you live in the US, you have to decide what you’re going to do about writing over the thanksgiving holiday. Traveling, family time, and increasingly, retail jobs all tend to infringe heavily on writing time during the holiday. Another schedule might work better than writing 1667 words every day. Knowing your writing speed will help you decide your daily word goal.
• Schedule your writing time. Extra writing time isn’t going to spontaneously happen during November. Decide how you’re going to make the time. Getting up earlier to write seems to be popular strategy, but I’m not a fan of anything that involves getting out of bed earlier in the morning. Writing through lunch is another popular tip, but I can’t type with my hands full of pizza, so it doesn’t work for me. For me, it’s a matter of sacrifice. I only allow myself a short amount of time per day for all my social media and news updates online. I quit television for the month. I limit the amount of fiction I read. I put all of the knitting and crochet away until December 1st. That gives me a block of time every day in which to write. (There are exceptions to this. I follow the #NaNoSprints hashtag all month on Twitter. I watch “my” college football game every Saturday, so I don’t get banished from the state. I do needlework while I watch football. I read short stories on break at work.)
• Know your writing requirements. I write best from 10 pm to 4 am, so when I can I write on that schedule. I don’t do well with distractions, so my best writing happens in my room, with the door closed, and music playing to filter out the rest of the world. I don’t write in coffee shops, and I don’t expect much from write-ins. Knowing the environment that keeps you most productive is key to winning NaNoWriMo.
• Learn to silence your inner editor. This is tough for most of us. The easiest way to do this is with total commitment. For the month of November, don’t worry about spelling, grammar or readability in anything you write. For most of us, this simply isn’t feasible. School and work require that we spell and punctuate; that our work be structured and logical. After years of wrestling with auto-correct and rewriting phrases as I go, I finally found a method that works for me: in my writing program I adjust the font color to the same shade as the background and turn off auto-spell. I admit, I cheat. My background is white, but I adjusted my font to a very pale gray. The text is almost invisible against the white background, and with auto-spell turned off there are no red lines underscoring my spelling errors. Once I got used to writing this way, my writing speed increased. This is something else to practice before November gets here.
These are just a few ideas that get me through NaNoWriMo each November. Hopefully some of them will be helpful to you.

A #NaNoPrep Blog: Music Playlists

October is the month of NaNoPrep. All over the Internet writers are meeting and sharing their tips for surviving, for winning NaNoWriMo next month. I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo for several years; I haven’t won every year, but I’ve always learned something about myself and my writing process. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is the importance of a play list.
When I’m working on a novel I usually build three separate playlists; because I am bad a clever titles I call them a) the writer’s playlist, b) the novelling playlist and c) the mood playlist. Each playlist serves a different purpose, with very little overlap.
I usually play the writer’s playlist before I start a day’s writing. This list doesn’t vary much from project to project; it’s the music I listen to when I need to purge the mundane world from my system. My writer’s play list is eclectic; a few pieces to relax me after a day of retail or classes, a few pieces to pump me up. I won’t list the music on my writer’s list; just pick out about fifteen minutes of music that takes you away from the mundane and inspires you.
The novelling playlist usually takes the longest to build, because it is basically a soundtrack for the novel. This is the music you’ll play while you write, every day, no matter what the scene. It serves to insulate you from whatever is going on around you, and keep you from getting distracted when you should be focused on the story. When I’m writing, lyrics distract me, so I focus on movie soundtracks, television themes and classical music. For the most part this playlist is simply music that represents the genre of the novel. I’ve found it fairly simple to compile a playlist for horror and fantasy writing; it took days to build the playlist for my weird western.
The mood list is a variation of the novelling playlist; for a long time I didn’t use one at all. Look at your outline; identify the major emotions of the story. This list will have a few minutes of music appropriate to each mood, staying within the genre of the story, if possible. You might want to add a “theme song” for the major characters. When you get stuck, or just need an extra push for a scene, find the appropriate music on this playlist.
Whether you’re dealing with the middle of the month slump, or rushing toward 50K at the end of the month, a playlist can help you meet the NaNoWriMo challenge, and building the list is a fun way to spend a few days in October.

Intervals

This week’s flash fiction is part two of a the create/share a character challenge presented by Chuck Wendig. Two weeks ago characters were created, and I really liked this one by Aimee Ogden. On Friday Chuck challenged us to take our borrowed character and write a flash story. He gave us 2000 words, which is double the usual allotment. Didn’t matter, I need about 4500 word to tell the story I want. Below is “Intervals.” Hope you like it.

Intervals
Normally, her day off was for catching up—catching up on errands, catching up on laundry, catching up on cuddle time with Zoë, and maybe, just maybe, catching up on her sleep. Today, though, was devoted to getting the werewolf problem under control. After arranging with her mom to watch Zoë for a few hours, Lucia caught the bus for downtown. The bus stop was a couple of blocks from the library, so Lucia window-shopped the shabby storefronts along the way.

When she got to the library it took a few minutes to figure out the online filing system. Most of the books she found listed were fiction; several were children’s books. Eventually she found a few volumes in the folklore section that seemed promising, and settled down at a table to study them.

A few hours later, Lucia punched the last of the books away. She flipped through her notes in disgust. She hadn’t expected to find a lot of information, but what she’d found was pretty useless. She ran her hands through her short hair and sighed; then checked her watch. It was time to pick up Zoë and she still had no plan. She left the books on the table and headed back to the bus stop, reminding herself to pick up a pack of cigarettes for her mom, as a thank you for watching the baby.

After lunch Lucia convinced her mother to watch Zoë for the rest of the afternoon by telling her that she had a job interview, one that paid better than her job as a desk clerk, and then headed back downtown. Eventually Lucia found the address she’d looked up on her cell phone. She stood outside the shop, studying the window displays. On the right was a large display of books; the left window held candles, glass globes and assorted jewelry. It was the name of the store, painted in old-fashioned letters, that kept her from going inside.

INCANTATIONS

Lucia took a deep breath, reminded herself that at least no one she knew would see her, opened the door and stepped inside. She expected a dark, dusty room, filled with shadows and questionable display cases; she found a well-lit room filled with the scent of cinnamon cookies. A young blond woman stepped out from behind a counter and headed toward her. She extended her hand. “I’m Anneth.”

“Lucia.” She shook Anneth’s hand. She felt the woman’s grip tighten a tiny bit, then relax.

“What do you need, Lucia?”

“I thought I’d just look around.” She tried to sound casual, “Just to see what you have.”

Anneth nodded. “You could do that. But it would be faster if you told me what you were looking for.”

Lucia hesitated.

She bit her lip, and then said, “It sounds weird.”

Anneth smiled. “Don’t worry about that. It’s an occult shop, Lucia. We specialize in weird.”

“I need to know about werewolves. I went to the library this morning, but that was pretty useless.”
Anneth snorted. “I’m not surprised. What did you need to know? Were you interested in a particular aspect of the culture?”

“I’m…not sure what you mean. I just need to know the truth about werewolves, and how dangerous they are. How to protect people from them. How to cure it.” Lucia burst into tears.

Anneth guided Lucia to a small overstuffed sofa in a corner of the shop and disappeared behind a curtain. By the time she returned, carrying a tray with two mugs of tea and a plate of cookies, Lucia had gotten her tears under control.
“I’m sorry,” she began, as Anneth settled onto the sofa next to her.

Anneth handed her a mug. She waited until Lucia took a drink, and then said “Why are you interested in Werewolves, Lucia?”
Fighting back the tears, Lucia said, “I think I was bitten a few weeks ago. I met this guy at a club, and we went back to his place, and –,”

“That’s fine.” Anneth stopped her. “I don’t need details.”

“You believe me?”

Anneth nodded. “When we shook hands. I could tell.”

“Can you help me? The books at the library were so confusing. According to some of them it’s not that hard to cure, but some of them say the only way out is death.” She took a deep breath. “I don’t want to die, but I’ve got to be sure Zoë’s safe.”

“Zoë?”

“My daughter. She’s two.”

Anneth was silent for few moments. “The reason for the confusion about cures is because there’s more than one kind of werewolf. If it’s a magical condition it’s usually reversible. But in the case of infection…that’s a permanent condition.”

Lucia began to cry again.

“No. Don’t. It’s like a lot of diseases, Lucia. It’s manageable. You just have to make some lifestyle changes.”

“What?”

“Look, I asked if you were interested in the culture. There are a lot of werewolves out there. Most of them are like you; they don’t have any choice but to learn to live with the condition. And most of them lead happy, normal lives, without putting anybody at risk.”

“How do they do it?”

“”There’s a…support group, I guess you’d call it. Let me get you their number. Call them, tell them I gave you the number. They’ll explain what they can do.” Anneth saw the doubt in Lucia’s eyes. “Look, just talk to them. You owe it to Zoë.”

It had been hard to convince her boss to give her time off, and harder still to explain to her parents that she and Zoë were going away for a few days. But Lucia and Zoë were finally in a van, on the way to Intervals Retreat. As the driver had stowed her luggage, he’d assured her that they would be at the retreat well before moonrise. Fastened in her car seat, Zoë had fallen asleep before they’d left the city, and now Lucia stared out the window, watching the scenery.

Lucia woke when the van stopped. She turned to check on Zoë; she was still sleeping. She looked out the window. She saw a large house, built of cut stone. Three stories tall, with towers and bay windows, it looked like something from a movie. There were no other houses visible; the lawn was edged with thick evergreen woods. The driver had already taken her luggage out of the van; she watched as another man carried it inside. She unfastened Zoë; the child woke as she lifted her out of the seat. Lucia kissed the top of her head. “We’re here, pumpkin. Wherever here is.”

Waiting at the front door was an older woman, wearing a white lab coat. She smiled at Lucia. “Welcome to Intervals Retreat. I’m Elizabeth Gower; I’ll be your counselor for this visit.”

The inside of the house was as elegant as the exterior, full of polished wood and glittering cut glass. “Only this visit?” Lucia asked.

Ms. Gower nodded. “I work with our first time guests. If you decide to become a member of the retreat, you’ll be assigned a different counselor, someone who can become familiar with you and Zoë, and make sure you get the most from the experience here at intervals.”

Ms. Gower led them upstairs and into a small, comfortable suite. “Tom already brought your luggage up; it’ll be in the bedroom. There’s a crib for Zoë there, too. I’ll let the sitter know you’re here. She’ll stop by and introduce herself before sunset.”

“Thank you,”

“Are you sure you don’t want to eat downstairs? The dining room is quite nice. There’s no reason to hide in your room as if you’ve done something wrong, dear.”

Lucia shook her head. “No. This is going too fast. I’ve got to get used to the idea that I’m a werewolf before I’ll be ready to meet others.”

Ms. Gower sighed. “Alright, dear. But you need to come to terms with this. There’s no reason for you punish yourself. I’ll go now, but if you need anything, just call the front desk, and they’ll contact me.”

The sitter, Martha, arrived before Lucia had finished feeding Zoë, and after introducing herself she took over, allowing Lucia to finish her meal. The two women chatted for a while, Lucia briefed Martha on Zoë’s evening rituals, then excused herself to get ready for the evening. She showered quickly and put on some loose-fitting clothes. While she debated whether to take a sweater, Ms. Gower arrived.

Lucia kissed Zoë, considered a list of things she should remind Martha about, and then turned and followed Ms. Gower out of the suite. They went down the stairs without speaking, and through an unfamiliar part of the house. At length Lucia found herself behind the house, looking at a small graveled drive, and several electric carts. Ms. Gower led her to the nearest and motioned for her to take a seat. They followed a graveled path through the woods until they reached a small cottage.

The counselor unlocked the door, but stopped before she opened it. Lucia pushed the door open and stepped into a small empty room. A thick futon lay in one corner. A cabinet was fastened to the wall next over the futon, and there was a door on the opposite side of the room. No windows, no other furnishings.

“We’ve found, especially for first time guests, that it’s best if the cottage is empty. There’s less likelihood of injury.”

“It looks like a cell.”

“If that’s how you choose to view it. Some members see their wolf avatar as a beast, a thing of evil. For them, these cottages are cells. For others, the wolf is a return to a simpler creature, and they just need a safe place to wait out the transitions.”

She crossed the room to the other door and opened it. Lucia moved next to her, and looked out into a fenced enclosure. The counselor explained that Lucia could be confined inside the cottage, could have access to the fenced area, or, if she wanted, the enclosure could be left unlocked and she could roam the retreat grounds. After confirming that the girl only wanted to access to the fenced enclosure, Ms. Gower reminded Lucia to store her clothing in the cupboard before the transition, and left. Lucia thought she had never heard a sound as loud as the turning of the key in the lock.

It was late the next afternoon when Lucia finally finished all of the paperwork, gathered Zoë and headed back to the city. On the ride back she looked through the brochures again. She wished she could afford more than the basic plan; childcare, meals and transportation were included, but she’d have to trade the suite for the smallest single occupancy room available. She wouldn’t be able to afford a private sitter, either; Zoë would spend her time in a nursery with other children close to her age.
The spa, the tennis courts, and the pool weren’t in the basic plan either. Worst of all, Lucia wouldn’t have the freedom of the grounds. She’d thought she wanted the security of the enclosure, but last night when she heard the howls of the other werewolves she’d gone outside to join them. Her blood still raced when she thought of it. But the grounds were only available in the more expensive plans, and Lucia was going to have a hard time paying for the basics. She reminded herself that it was worth it to keep her child, her parents and her friends safe.

Anneth was straightening the bookshelves when the phone rang. “Incantations. This is Anneth.”

“Anneth, it’s Elizabeth.”

“Yes?”
“We signed the girl you sent, but you needn’t expect a check.”

“We have an agreement! I send you werewolves, you sign them to a monthly membership plan, and I get ten percent.”

“That was the agreement. But lately the weres you’ve been sending us can barely afford the dues. This isn’t a charity, Anneth, nor a public service. Intervals Retreat is a business. Our shareholders expect a profit. So you tell your pack to set their sights a little higher the next time they go clubbing. I’m warning you, the next time you send a student or a single mother out here I’ll put her down.”

For years my family’s motto has been “I do what I want.” It’s not carved into a stone by the front gate. It’s not hanging on the wall as a needle point sampler. None of us could recognize it written in fancy script in Latin. (Well, maybe my daughter could. She took Latin in high school.) “I do what I want” is simply our response to being told what to do.
This motto sprung into being at some point when my kids were young. My husband or I would give a child a simple instruction, “Pick up your toys,” or “take that plate to the kitchen,” and the child would respond with “I do what I want,” and then carry out the task. Sometimes, if they were reading, or watching television there would be a short delay, but the task would be done. “I do what I want” wasn’t sass, it was a statement of independence. Coupled with the action, it became a way of saying “I am a person, and I do the things I do because I choose to, not because I am forced to.”
As family dialects do, it evolved with time. When the boys starting driving, I would always tell them as they left the house, to be careful. With a smile, they would reply “I do what I want.” When my younger son left for the Navy, he hugged me and told me not to worry. I replied “I do what I want.”

That’s the way it’s supposed be, folks. We are supposed to be reasonable, intelligent people, doing the things we do because we want to, not because we have to. We are supposed to be mindful of the people around us, and our responsibilities to them, while remaining true to who we are. We aren’t herd animals, we’re people.

On the Outside, Looking In: Flash Fiction Challenge

It’s been a while since I posted a story inspired by a Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge. The last one that came along was mashup; I got a dystopian wasteland meets a comedic fantasy world, and even though I managed to plot an idea I just couldn’t find the right voice. Oh well; it’s not the first time I’ve swung and missed. Won’t be the last either.

It’s been a crazy time for me lately. School has started and I’m doing my best to keep a 4.0 GPA; not a problem so far. I’ve changed jobs, and although I love my new one, I’m having to learn an entirely new skill set for it. My car is suffering from terminal Mechanical Shutdown Syndrome, so I’m shopping for an affordable used one. I know almost nothing about cars, so this is major stress. To top it all off I’ve been dealing with minor illness and major medication reactions. Meh.

But enough about me; you came for the flash fic. This week’s Wendig Challenge is Time to Create a Character.  The premise is simple: create a character in under 250 words. As I understand it, next week we will borrow from among these characters to create a new piece of flash fiction. So, here we go:

On the Outside, Looking In

I spend all of my time just watching. Sometimes it’s traffic; that’s mostly early mornings and evenings. This is a quiet neighborhood; people go to work, people come home. A few of them like to walk, or bike. It’s only a few blocks from downtown, but it’s the sleepy southern kind of downtown with diners and small shops, and a public library on Main Street. During the day, when there’s nobody around I watch the animals; dogs, cats, birds, squirrels; typical residential wildlife. At night, when everyone is sleeping, I just watch the houses, and wonder which one is mine.
I’m pretty sure one of them is, or was, but none of them look familiar. For that matter, I don’t recognize any of the people I watch, either. That creeps me out; I mean, if I lived in one of these houses then these are, or were, my neighbors, and I don’t know any of them.
To be honest, the whole thing creeps me out, which is kinda ironic, given my situation. Normally one doesn’t think about whether a ghost is ever frightened. It may just be me, though. I’ve talked with a few other spirits, and they don’t seem to as disoriented as I am. Of course, they all know who they are, and how they died.
I can’t remember either of those things, and I think it’s really important that I do. I’m going to have to find somebody that can help me with that.