It’s a Scary World, Jane Doe

Jane Doe is on my mind a lot lately. It’s her fault I can’t sleep tonight. So, I sip at a mug of chamomile tea and write a bit about Jane Doe.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ve come to recognize Jane as a fictional character I write about in flash fiction. Her stories can be found under the “Flash Fiction” tab above, or click here.

Jane started her life as the protagonist in my 2015 NaNoWriMo novel. I won NaNo by completing a full draft of a novel consisting of at least 50,000 words (I finished with 73,270) in 30 days. She was born there, but she hasn’t taken shape or come into her own yet. That’s rewriting and editing to be done, a lot of it. I love NaNoWriMo. I’ve participated every year since 2008. It’s crazy creative fun and a wonderful way to choke a story out, to by-god get that first draft written so you have something to bitch about having to rewrite and edit, and it’s expected to be shit, because as Papa Hemingway said, the first draft of anything is shit. So, I love NaNoWriMo. But the drawback to NaNoWriMo is that with a crunch of a deadline like that, you’re not going to get a lot done in the way of character development, or logical story arcs, or well-crafted settings, or subplots, or any of that novel-y stuff.

Enter flash fiction. I stumbled across the weekly flash fiction challenges held over at Carrot Ranch Communications, and not only am I enjoying participating with other writers and having a ball with flash fiction in general, but I’ve been using it for little Jane Doe vignettes, and Jane is fleshing out far more than she did on the pages of that draft novel. I might be on to something here.

The defining thing about Jane is her homelessness, and that’s why I named her Jane Doe. That’s who she is to the majority of the people who pass her on the street: a hapless unknown, a lazy good-for-nothing, a nameless, voiceless nobody. I want to give her a voice and make her a somebody, help the world see that she is a real person, with fledgling dreams and broken dreams, loves and losses, starts and stops and failures, and she’s still out there trying, and surviving. Barely surviving.

Another defining thing about Jane Doe is that she is Anywoman, she is Everywoman. Any one of us could be Jane. I was hit by the bad economy in 2012-2013, when I lost my job in Nevada, moved to Washington because that was the only place that extended an offer of employment, and immediately lost two more jobs once I got here. I’d intended to keep my Nevada home as a rental and sell it when the market recovered, but I couldn’t hang on, and I lost it. If I hadn’t had a 401(k) to cash out, I don’t know what we would have lived on. Poof, home and retirement, gone.

(That could be my own fault, because I was unable to figure out how all these lazy unemployed people are riding high on unemployment benefits. My benefits were good for less than a year and didn’t even cover groceries for a month, let alone rent and all those luxuries like electricity and prescriptions and gas for the car and tampons and a phone and an Internet connection so I could look for another job, and if you think this paragraph is two barrels of snark aimed at unemployment haters, you’re absolutely right.)

I’m not bitching, not really. I’ve lost what I had invested and put by, but I did find another job and I’m still here. The Tominator and Dream Girl and I have a roof over our heads and food on the table. But it’s scary. I’ve heard it said a lot lately that most of us are one paycheck away from being unable to pay for that roof, and I’ve been close enough to believe it. I didn’t end up homeless, but the thought of it haunts me. I lost more than my house and my retirement. I lost security in my own capabilities and worth, my sense of my place in this world, my faith that I’ll always be able to take care of myself. Because for every one like me who had resources to fall back on and was able to find another job, there are thousands who didn’t, and couldn’t. How easily that could have been me. How easily it could still be me, at any time.

One of the things I did in response to my economic crisis was go back to school. Part of it was bucket list, part of it was a genuine desire to prepare myself for a new career, to make myself more marketable generally. But all the rah-rah you hear about a college degree guaranteeing you a good living is just that: rah-rah. I have a good friend who is highly educated, highly intelligent, highly capable, a powerhouse of get-things-done-genius, with a killer resume – who has been in various stages of unemployment for more than eight years. He would be homeless and without all his possessions, right now, if not for the kindness of his friends. And it’s not laziness. He estimates he’s applied for half a million jobs in all this time, and he has worked, happily, whenever someone invited him to, even temporarily. Overqualified? He doesn’t care. He’ll take it, and be grateful, and he’ll stay with you just to prove his gratitude. Unemployed too long? That’s bullshit. Those are the people who should be getting preferential treatment, if you ask me.

I did a bit of research about college degrees among the homeless but I didn’t find much. I found this story on Huffington Post about homeless college students, and this story about a well-educated and highly qualified man who is homeless, and this blog about being a homeless college grad. Nothing’s been written on the blog for a while, and I hope it’s because she found a job and was able to move in with her boyfriend and is now insanely busy and happy with her new career and their life together. I really hope that. But I would be interested to know how many of our homeless population are college-educated professionals who hit the wrong luck on the wrong day and don’t have anyone in their lives who will help them.

So.

One of the things I’ve learned from my own experience is that once you start to slide down this slippery slope, you’ve been marked. One woman wrote to me that after a brief stint of homelessness followed by the blessing of a home, she is still afraid. My good friend lives in fear now, and may always be even if he wins the lottery and buys his own island. I didn’t end up homeless, but my experience with jobs disappearing from under my feet and being just that close to not being able to pay the rent have left me frightened as well. I have a job now, I’ve had it for more than two years, but it still keeps me awake at night, how easily a secure life can turn upside down. This is not imagination; it is a real phenomenon. It hurts us, and it leaves scars. I’d read The Grapes of Wrath again if I wasn’t sure it would only leave me teary and depressed.

Getting back to Jane Doe, I’m starting to think that her story can best be told through a series of interconnected short stories, rather than a longer novel. Her desperation calls to me, creeping in and making its presence known in different ways and at different times and in different places. Jane’s resilience and determination define her as much as her homelessness does. The twin antagonists of her stories are fear and shame.

Your world is scary, Jane Doe, and I do want you to tell me all about it, so I can tell it to others.

But for now, please, let me sleep.

Photo credit: Hanibaael via Flickr/Creative Commons

What I Did on Summer Vacation, or, the Nicholas Sparks Challenge, Revisited

I  posted previously about trying my hand at writing a cheesy romance novel, after being absolutely amazed, and not in a good way, by The Notebook. The fact that this coincided with Camp NaNoWriMo was a bonus. Off to camp!

I loved summer camp as a kid. Even the cabins.

Here’s what I learned on my summer vacation:

1. The only time to take it easy on yourself is when taking it easy is the goal. Under the premise that summer camp is for relaxing, I set my word count goal at half the typical NaNoWriMo word count, 25K instead of 50K. However, the goals “take it easy” and “write a draft of a novel in 30 days” kind of work against each other. The lower goal fooled me into thinking I could slack off. Even if you only aim to write half of what you normally do, you still have to write it. The “if you have more to do, you’ll do more” maxim is true. Next year, I’ll put the bar back where it belongs.
2. On the other hand, I also learned that even the littlest bit is something. There are days when my mind simply won’t focus. The cat in the hat on the mat is sometimes the best I can do, and that probably counts as plagiarism. A word count goal is a good thing to have, but it’s also true that even if I only write a page, that’s still a page that wasn’t written before.
3. I learned that it’s possible to write romance without being smarmy. I hope. One quality of romance books that I dislike is the gushy phrasing. I admire the more stripped-down styles of other writers, and I believe I am employing that with some success. We’ll see how it turns out.
4. Social media is death to the writing process. I don’t kill as much time on Facebook as some people I know, but I kill enough. Telling myself that surfing was not allowed until I’d reached my daily goal helped some, but if I was determined to goof off, then goofing off was going to happen. Some of my best writing days happened when my Internet connection dumped me, again, and I was tired of getting up to reset it, again. (I have also come to suspect that social media is not good for me generally, but that is pondering and a post for another day.)
5. Writing well is hard. I already knew that, but it never hurts to learn it again. It’s easy not to take the romance genre seriously, but that doesn’t mean it’s just sitting down and typing, whatever comes to mind, blah blah, and they all lived happily ever after, gimme my royalty check. I have read other romance novels that I didn’t like simply because they were romances, but I recognize that they were well-plotted and well-written. If it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing it well enough to make it readable, and it’s hard work to write anything well. And that’s with no expectation of any commercial success.
6. It doesn’t kill me not to win, but I still don’t like it much. This is the eighth NaNoWriMo event I’ve participated in, and it’s the first time I didn’t cross the finish line into Winner’s Corner. I did not get the hokey but anticipated “Congratulations!” video from NaNo staff. I did not get the cool web badge to display on my blog. I’m still pouting, a little.

7. It would be more fun to actually write in a tent. If I pull this off even half as well as Sparks did, this is where you’ll find me writing the next one:

Or just forget camping. I could live here.

***

Camp Curry, Yosemite, by Miguel Vieira, Creative Commons Attribution License
Glam tent, Alice Crain/Flickr-Creative Commons

The NaNo Crazy is Coming (Updated)

Because it’s almost November.

Because everyone has a story to tell.

Because it’s dangerous, sleep-deprived, chocolate-fueled fun.

Because busy people accomplish more. If you already work, care for a family, keep a home and have a social life, why then, if you decide to write a novel, you just might clean out your garage too.
NaNoWriMo is a month of delicious artistic lunacy. NaNoWriMo is all about opening up creative gates, knocking down barriers, not just listening to the Muse but buying it drinks and taking it home and sleeping with it and cooking it breakfast in the morning. It’s about getting that crappy first draft written so you actually have something to bitch about editing later on. NaNoWriMo is all about getting the dross on paper so we can pan for the gold nuggets later.

If you’re not familiar with National Novel Writing Month, it’s gloriously simple. Many of us who set out to write novels get bogged down by the enormity of the task, pulled under by our need to make it perfect, and give up in frustration after Chapter 4. NaNoWriMo requires an entire first draft of a complete story with a minimum of 50,000 words in 30 days. The idea is “don’t get it right, get it written.”* You won’t have anything to edit and polish later if you don’t let yourself plow ahead and make mistakes and write schlock right now, because that’s what most first drafts are–schlock.

November is coming. WriMos are gearing up. We’re outlining plots and subplots, we’re sketching scenes, we’re developing characters from their underwear to their horoscopes, preparing to plunge into novel-writing madness for 30 days and nights. Or, some of us are doing that. Some of us dive in headfirst with no preparation beyond stocking up on coffee and junk food. Whatever works.
NaNoWriMo is about letting yourself get into that zone where words bypass your thought process, rising up from some unknown secret wellspring deep inside your psyche and flowing through you like molten gold, out though your fingertips and onto the keyboard while magically bypassing all the self-defeating noise your Inner Editor* spews to make you think it will never do anything but suck, and just writing for the sheer joy of writing.
But when you’re in the middle of it, NaNoWriMo is mostly about word count. Those of us who participate in this annual insanity are mainly after one thing: to cross that mythical finish line, getting that quota of 1,667 words every day for 30 days straight to add up to the magical 50,000 words that makes us NaNoWriMo winners.

 

My winner’s badge from 2014. I didn’t finish last year, but when I get this year’s you’ll know it.


So of course it’s about words because it’s about writing, but it’s about numbers too. Yes, I want what I write to have some element of quality, but the way I win is by getting my word count goal for the day, every day. Some days, it’s tough. I have a few tricks that I’m happy to share. You’re welcome.

1.  Have a deaf character. When everybody has to say things two and three times, you get that many more words. It can also be hilarious.
2. I’m not one for long flowery descriptions of the scenery. When I come across them in books I tend to blip over them. But I’m not above resorting to this when it’s the only way to reach my daily word count, and I’m told it’s good practice. For what, I don’t know.
3. Give people double names. Elizabeth becomes Betty Jean. Robert is Bobby Joe. You can always search and replace it later if your novel doesn’t happen to be set in Arkansas. You can also give them titles and use those titles every time you reference the character. Betty Jean Smith, Grand Exalted Poobah-ess of the Majestic Arctic Wasteland has 11 words to Elizabeth’s one.
4. Keep calm and kill the character. In the world of your novel, you are God. Smite ’em down. One little death gives you a wealth of subplots, zinging out in all directions. Check A Game of Thrones. If Martin hadn’t killed off Ned Stark, there would have been no story. As much as we all loved Ned, we must remember that he died nobly for the greater good.
5. Bring in a new character. Maybe your heroine is riding the bus when it brakes suddenly and she lands in some guy’s lap. Maybe your hero answers the door to find the child he never knew he had standing on the porch. Run with it. You get lots of mileage and you could have a new big player.
6. Follow the Plot Bunnies.* You know, those weird floppy-eared creatures that hop into your scene from nowhere and hijack it. You’re laboring along, painstakingly carving out mother-and-daughter literary angst over oolong, when a cockroach comes out from behind the breadbox in broad daylight and starts talking. Let it talk. See where it goes. Follow along. Sure, you’ll probably edit it out later, but it might be good enough to paste right into a whole new work.
Plot Bunny bait.
7. Dream sequences. Yes, I know, dream sequences are cheesy as hell, but they can be germane to the plot if they’re recurring or prophetic.
8. A great suggestion from Chris Baty, author of No Plot? No Problem! is to avoid contractions. Makes sense. A contraction is one word, not using it is two. When you are desperate, you are desperate. This doesn’t always work well for me because it doesn’t flow with my style, but I keep it in my ammo belt.
9. Have your character find a diary, receive a letter, or read a newspaper article. Any one of those can be good for a couple hundred words, and it can jump-start a stalled story line.
10. Title your chapters. “Chapter One” is two words you didn’t have before. Or get Dickensian with it: “Oliver Becomes Better Acquainted With the Characters of His New Associates; and Purchases Experience at a High Price, Being a Short, but Very Important Chapter, in This History”** is a chapter title to die for at 28 words. You can also do chapter leaders, where you quote a poem or song lyrics or book passage at the beginning. Bonus: finding those quotes is a great procrastination technique.
Speaking of titles, I have fun playing with this random title generator. Here’s another one. Occasionally they give you something useful. I like to play a game where I have to make today’s chapter fit both the randomly generated title and the novel I’m actually writing.
Any other WriMos out there? What are your word count padding tricks?
*Thank you, Chris Baty, NaNo guru. Yes, I endorse this book.
**Thank you, Oliver Twist.
Photos, in order of appearance:
Book: Mikko Luntiala, Flickr Creative Commons
NaNoWriMo winner badge: Mine. I don’t know who created it, but I won it and it’s mine.