Tuesday, November 30, 2010

NoWriMo for the win!

Today is the last day of National Novel Writing Month, a yearly event during which aspiring writers are challenged to write 50,000 words in 30 days. This averages out to about 1700 words per day, which is kind of a lot--about 8 double-spaced pages. Every day. For a month.

Stephen King wrote in On Writing that he generally writes about 2000 words per day when he's working on a new project. I do love me some Stephen King (like, a lot), but he writes for a living, has been writing for decades, and is financially, shall we say, comfortable. I'm sure he still has days when the words don't come easy, but he admits that on other days, his work is done by 11 a.m.

Joe Average works a full-time job, gets most of his writing experience from emails to mom, and can't afford the luxury of taking a month's leave of absence. Trying to emulate a near-King output is a pretty steep challenge, and I heartily congratulate all who participated, whether they won (finished) or not.

I've never done NaNoWriMo, but I did my own version of it earlier this year. The real thing itself didn't work for me--the pressure, the competing, the deadline. One thing I've never really understood about it is the timing. November? Really? I suppose some people can make that long Thanksgiving weekend work for them, but to me adding more stress to the holiday season = blech. But I knew I had to do something to get myself to write.

Last year when I was deciding not to do NaNoWriMo, I was about 30,000 words into a WIP. I wasn't working regularly on it, just puttering around on it every now and then when I had some free time. I had just re-read On Writing, and in it King suggests that new writers start out at half-pace, 1000 words per day. I was inspired, motivated, terrified that I would wake up in a decade or two and realize that I was never going to achieve a dream I've had since I was six, out of sheer laziness.

The holidays were a mess--travel plans, cancelled travel plans, last-minute travel plans. I decided to start when I got home from New Year's in Florida, on January 7th. A New Year's Resolution, if you will. Nonstop NoWriMo to the finish line!

I logged my wordcount on a Google calendar, and made notes for the days when I was supposed to hit the next big 10,000 mark. I won't lie, I was shooting for 100,000 words--pure speculation that that was how long my story would take. I didn't have a detailed outline, and I hit a few roadbumps when I would have to figure out a major plot point before I could continue. There were days when I did nothing at all, and days when I tripled my goal. And on April 28th, 2010, at 94,975 words, I finished the first draft of the first novel I ever actually completed.

This probably wouldn't have happened if it weren't for a number of factors. My husband was working in Florida most of the time from October until May, which freed up a lot of my extra time. A good friend moved temporarily to Asia, which also created more openings in my schedule, and another friend who'd become more of a burden than a friend was no longer around. It was a perfect storm of empty free time at just the right moment in my life.

Seven months later, I am still working on revisions. I'm sticking with this WIP, because I believe in its potential, but it had a lot of flaws that needed to be worked out. It's getting closer. You'd better believe I'm doing the detailed outline beforehand next time. I finally took the big step of seeking out some critique partners, which is terrifying and incredibly rewarding. And maybe, just maybe, I'll be ready to start querying sometime early next year.

NaNoWriMo winners, congrats. As I'm sure most of you know, your work is just beginning.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Traditional Blended Celery

On Twitter, I see this pre-Thanksgiving tweet: My mom has confirmed that pink salad is already doing its refrigerator dance of delicious wrongness. #yay

Pink salad? Sounded foul, so I had to look it up. Turns out, it's actually a relative of a salad* that makes an mandatory appearance on my own family's holiday table. My mom calls it ambrosia salad. Both contain: pineapple chunks, mandarin oranges, marshmallows and coconut. Pink also contains canned cherry pie filling, sweetened condensed milk and Cool Whip, whereas ambrosia needs only sour cream and walnuts. I think pink salad sounds like an unholy mess of saccharine grossness. Just putting that out there.

It's funny how belovedly rigid a family's culinary traditions can become at the holidays. Our Thanksgiving menu never wavered. Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes: obvious. Stuffing: steamed, and flavored only with margarine, onion, and celery, the three of which HAD TO BE BLENDED because my dad DID NOT WANT CHUNKS OF THINGS IN HIS STUFFING. Cranberry sauce: homemade. And honestly folks, I really do not understand the whole canned thing, because it only takes like 15 minutes to make. Three ingredients. Minimal supervision. Really. We're talking petit filet vs. cat food here. I can only assume that some people prefer the taste of cat food.

Of course, things change between generations. We never had pumpkin pie in my childhood home. I don't remember what we had at Thanksgiving, apple or cherry or grape (yes grape, it is wonderful), but I do know that the first time I had pumpkin pie, probably at a friend's house, it was a revelation. Also, bonus, it is way easier to make. Choosing pumpkin for my holiday menu was a no brainer.

And then children grow up and start families of their own, developing their own holiday menus through the merging of heritages or by willful experimentation and a fresh copy of the Food & Wine holiday edition. In my brother's home, stuffing may be the dish that falls by the wayside, as his wife and children do not care for it, and he does not care to eat an entire loaf of bread by himself. I got lucky, since the lovely man I married hails from another country, and has adopted both Thanksgiving and my mother's traditional menu with frightful zeal. Sure, we've tweaked things a little by way of Food Network, but the standards are still there, like the ambrosia salad currently chilling in our fridge.

Tomorrow, far from our families like so many other young adults around the country, we will be sitting down to give thanks and overindulge with four friends, all of whom are native Swedes. One of them was eager to host and make the turkey this year, and she asked my advice on what ought to be on the menu.

I was happy to give her an authoritative American list.

Happy Thanksgiving! Let's all take a moment to appreciate the good things in our lives, like mom's pink salad and everything it stands for.

*I use salad here in the Midwestern sense, where the only requirements are that it is served cold and made with at least a whisper of fruit or vegetable.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Enemy Mine

A few months ago, my mother sent me a photo. In it, a small red plastic elephant wearing a yellow saddle and an perpetually idiotic expression sits in the rain beside a trash can. That elephant had lived on our front porch for decades, from my childhood until my brother's children were old enough to play with it. The colors were faded. The wheels had once broken off, and my grandfather strung them through with tough wire and reattached them. It was a thirty-year-old piece of crap.

She sent me the picture because I had always joked about that elephant and called it my mortal enemy, as it was the centerpoint of a very vivid and bloody memory from my childhood. One hot summer afternoon in Ohio, while the grownups were lingering over lunch, I got bored and wandered out onto my grandparents' porch. I saw the elephant, and, although I was too big for it, I climbed on and promptly tipped it over, cracking my head on the cement floor.

I got up, went back to the kitchen door and announced my fall. I did not expect the reaction: all four adults leapt to their feet. My mom whisked me to the bathroom and clamped a washcloth over my left eye. She told me to hold it there while she looked for the hydrogen peroxide. Don't look, she warned me.

Of course I looked. I couldn't not look. And when I peeled up the washcloth and saw all the blood on my face from the tiny one-inch split by my eye, I started howling.

My parents didn't take me in for stitches; hospital visits were reserved only for broken bones and other legitimate disasters. I asked my mom if I would have a scar, and she said probably, but she assured me that by the time I was older, it would barely be noticeable. I have a distinct memory of trying to imagine this older me, a worldly twenty-something sitting in an elegant restaurant, a barely noticeable scar over my left eye. It was fascinating to think that this moment, this little accident would stay with me forever. I still find these little defining moments infinitely interesting to think about.

So, here, twenty-odd years later, I'm thinking about that hot summer day, and the foolishness of lifting the washcloth, and my little self trying to imagine a grownup me, the way I now try to imagine what my life will be like in my forties, or my fifties, or beyond. Where will I be, what will change? What joys will I experience, and what tragedies will befall me? Will I reach my goals? How close will I be to the picture in my head?

The possibilities are infinite, and fascinating.

P.S. The elephant was finally getting chucked because one of my nephews had just fallen off of it too, and my mom realized that maybe it was not safe for children to play on. Whatever. See you in hell, evil red elephant.