Change The Goal

I’m always thinking about goals. Every morning, I jot down my to-do list. For breaks, I have to-do lists. I make New Year’s Resolutions. Sometimes, I actually keep them.

This week, I had to think about goals – a lot.

One of my favorite authors is dressage rider – and Olympian – Jane Savoie. She was one of the first to use psychology to aid her in riding, and she still gives clinics today in which she teaches her principles to other riders. Her book That Winning Feeling was one of the first books on sports psychology ever published, and definitely the first one geared towards horse people! In it, she uses visualization techniques to help riders achieve their goals; the more you mentally practice, the better you are in reality. She also states the importance of setting goals, and keeping those goals close to you at all times – jotting them on sticky notes and putting them on your bathroom mirror, your car’s sun visor, the ice-cream carton in the freezer. Wherever you need to put them in order to see them all the time.

But she also wrote something that has come back to me this week, about goals and goal-setting. It’s okay to change your goals.

When you’re riding, it’s not just you out there; you’ve also got a partner, and your partner weighs upwards of 1,500 pounds and has a mind of its own. Maybe today, your plan was to work on counter-canter, but ten minutes into the ride, you can tell that This Isn’t Happening. Your horse is spooky; he’s not paying any attention to you. Forget counter-canter. You’ll be lucky to get a regular canter today. So you change your goal. You’re not giving up on the long-range goal of moving up a level, or going to that show in two months. Instead, you’re changing your goals for today. Maybe today, then, you work on shoulder-in, or doing twenty-meter trot circles that slowly spiral in to ten-meter circles, then slowly spiral back out. Maybe today, the goal is simply not to get killed.

This week, I found out it’s the same principle with writing.

I had a very specific goal in mind for NaNoWriMo: finish my young-adult novel that I started last year during NaNo. I wrote about. I talked about it. I had a GOAL, damn it!

Then . . . life said, “HA! Screw you, lady!” There were many, many papers to grade. Exams to grade. Two new classes that started. A crazy schedule that just never seemed to leave me any time – at all – for writing.

None of this was conducive to working on that particular novel. Nicky’s voice is so unique that I can’t just jump into it. This is the only novel I’ve ever written where I can’t slip in and out of it at will. It’s a little spooky, to be honest. Fifteen minutes here or there just isn’t going to get it done. You have to be 100% devoted to it, or else Nicky just says “Lady, you ain’t listening. Get out.” And that’s it! You get out, because Nicky isn’t going to talk.

Finally, my grading was finished – two days ago. I realized that not only had I not written since November 9, I also had only written about 10,000 words. If I was going to win NaNo, it wasn’t going to be with my YA novel.

So. I changed the goal.

All this year, I’ve been re-writing my urban fantasy series, from third person into first. So I decided that since I had a mostly-written third book sitting on my hard drive, I might as well start on that. It would only be an average of 4,000 words per day. I had plenty of material to work with. I’d still accomplish something – getting this novel drafted. And I’d accomplish my other goal of “winning” NaNo with 50,000 words.

Now. I can hear some of you screaming already – that’s cheating! You can’t use an existing novel for NaNo! Well, I humbly beg your pardon, but yes, I can — and below, I’ve provided my proof. 🙂 The first section, in italics, is the new version just written; the second section is the original, sucky version. You see, they’re nothing alike.

Change the goal.

Is your goal for this week 10,000 words? So many pages? Does it seem impossible? Change the goal. You’re not giving up! You’ve still got the original goals – finishing this work, getting an agent, getting published. But why punish yourself for things beyond your control? Why not just change your short-term goals? Instead of writing X number of words, focus on rewriting some key scenes you haven’t been happy with. Instead of doing an outline by Saturday, maybe you work on character sketches. As long as your goal doesn’t change from “Write this week!” to “Watch seasons 1-3 of Sherlock this week!” you’re good! 🙂

(If you’re curious, here’s a link to That Winning Feeling):

(Here’s the rewritten version)

If you’ve never had broken ribs, I can’t recommend them enough. They remind you so very, very much of what it’s like to live a pain-free life. They make you nostalgic for stubbed toes and burned hands. You never truly know what pain is until you have a floating bit of bone stabbing you somewhere every time you move. Comfortable? Forget it.

That’s what I was trying to do that night – get comfortable on the couch. I was lucky. I was able to wrap my ribs, at least. And it hurt like hell to do it, but it felt so good – comparatively speaking – afterwards, that it was really worth it. I stretched out my sore knee and propped it up on a pillow, and nestled gingerly into the pillows at my back. Then, I picked up Jacob’s letter from the coffee table, and re-read it.

McLaren had suggested I stop at a hardware store and have them cut two pieces of Plexiglass, slip the letter between them, and then tape them together. That way, we wouldn’t run the risk of damaging the letter. Since he’d pointedly looked at my latte as he’d said that, I had a pretty good idea of what he meant by “damaging” it. But the plastic cover made it hard to read the faded handwriting, and I kept having to tip it this way and that to catch the light just right.

Part of the problem was that it wasn’t written in ink.          

It was actually Jacob’s blood, forming those words and sentences.

I knew what it said; I had memorized it over the past few days, ever since Spencer had given me the prayer book when I was in the hospital. Remembering that moment, when I’d flipped over that last page and found the letter, still made me both giddy and sad. Jacob had done what he could to make sure I found this. Despite the fact that he’d been in thrall to the demon for God knew how long, he’d somehow managed to start casting off those bonds, and tell me – in the only way he could – what he needed.

Okay. Total lie, there. He’d been in thrall to the demon. But it had been my peculiar ability to bring back memories for ghosts that had finally allowed his own memories to start coming back to him. I imagined them returning like things floating up from a dark lake after an earthquake – dim, unfamiliar, only slowly taking shape as they rose to the surface, only recognizable when they finally broke the water and bobbed into the light of day.

Wow. Those pain killers were really giving me an imagination.

Tonight, though, the words were blurring, swirling into a sea of letters that ceased to make any sense. I lay my head back, sighing.

 (And this is the original version)

That night, Erin shifted around on the couch, trying to find a comfortable position so she could read. She still had a paper due for Dearborn – and a few more changes and additions to make to her thesis proposal.

Plus, she had to figure out what she was going to do about McLaren’s paper.

She stretched out her sore knee, propped it up on a pillow, and nestled gingerly into the pillows at her back. For what felt like the thousandth time in the past five days, she re-read Jacob’s letter. Per McLaren’s suggestion, she’d stopped off at a hardware store and had someone cut two pieces of Plexiglass to slip the paper between, then taped them together so she could handle the letter without actually touching it. It made it harder to read the faded words; she had to tip the whole thing this way and that to catch the light just right.

But tonight, it didn’t seem to matter. The words on the page swam into a sea of letters that ceased to make any sense, and she laid her head back, sighing.

So I risked my life – my soul – for this letter. And it still isn’t enough.

Say Hello to Nicky . . .

All right. My friend Debra Dockter requested a meeting with Nicky, so this is as good an introduction as I can give. It’s rough! And as you’ll see, it’s nothing like what you’re used to seeing from me. This is why it’s so hard for me to slip back into his voice; it’s so unique, and the language is very different. The sentence structure, the dialogue, the word choice — all so different from what I usually write! 

Our first customer was the speakeasy east of Silverdale, down on Grouse Creek. It’s so well-known, they don’t even bother hiding what they are. It was January; really cold that year, with snow blowing and the creek freezing near solid. I drove Abby over to Simon’s and we loaded her up with the wooden crates. We’d taken out the rumble seat and put in some cotton padding in the back to give us more room there, and we’d shortened up the seat in the front some so’s I could reach the pedals easier and we could fit more bottles between the back of the seat and the back of the car.

“You be careful heading over there,” Simon said. “They play rough, or so I hear.”

“I will,” I said. I shivered in my coat; it was deuced cold out, and my sleeves were about two inches too short. My pant legs were abut two inches too short too, and my socks were close to threadbare. Simon looked at me and studied me a second.

“You got anything else to wear?”

I shook my head, stamping my feet. I was outgrowing my boots too – I’d tied ‘em up in cardboard and twine, but my toes were freezing through the cracks. But Eunice and Sam were growing too, and they had to have new coats for winter. Mama had made over one of my old ones for Sam, but Eunice had to have a new one, and it’d taken the last of my money to get the stuff for Mama to make it. Hadn’t been nothing left for me.

“You go find yourself something before you go over there,” Simon said. “It’s only gonna get colder. Mind you, you get yourself over there before ten, you hear? Else they’ll want their money back.”

I nodded. I didn’t have nothing else to wear.

“I mean it,” Simon said. “You go get yourself a blanket or something.”

I couldn’t go back home; I couldn’t let Mama see me. I couldn’t worry her. But maybe she’d be in the sitting room with the babies, helping ‘em with their homework. Maybe she’d have a blanket or something in her room I could sneak in the back and grab. Something in her closet.

I pulled the Model T around the back of the house and waited in the dark, but Mama didn’t ever come to the door, so I got out and let the door sit there, not daring to shut it. Then I snuck in the back door and listened; I could hear Mama and Sam in the sitting room, talking about math, so I crept down the hall towards Mama’s room. Seemed like she kept old quilts and stuff in her closet. I didn’t dare light the lantern, just let my eyes adjust to the full moon coming in the window and opened the closet door.

God alive.

All of Daddy’s clothes was still there.

I couldn’t. She’d know.

But I could smell him – opening that closet was like opening a door to Daddy. Suddenly I was eight again, sitting next to him in the garage while he explained why spark plugs had to be cleaned regular, and how fuel lines could get clogged up with dirt and stuff . . . smelling the pipe tobacco he carried in his front shirt pocket, and the hair pomade he used on Sundays, or when he and Mama got dressed up on Friday nights sometimes and went to Ark City to go dancing. I grabbed a shirt and brought it to my face, breathing deep, and felt something twist up inside my chest and tears sting my eyes.

Why? I wanted to shout. Why’d you have to go and die and leave me here doing all this? Why’d you have to leave us and go to Europe and go fight? Why’d you have to take up with those damn Germans and get accused of treason anyway? Why’d you make me do what you were supposed to be here to do? Why’d you leave me? Why?

But I didn’t shout it. I just dug my fingers into the shirt real deep, like I was trying to reach him, and suddenly, I was pulling off my old coat and the ratty old shirt I’d been wearing for the past month ‘cause it was the only one I could still button up, and I was pulling on Daddy’s shirt. It was too big – I buttoned the sleeves and they slid over my hands, but I didn’t care. I smelled like him.

I had to grab one of Mama’s hat pins and put more holes in the suspenders to get ‘em short enough to keep his pants up around my waist, and roll up the cuffs several times, but the shoes, God love it, was a perfect fit. I pulled out his old overcoat – it was miles too long for me, coming past my knees, and I had to roll up the sleeves on it too, but it was so warm. Felt like I hadn’t been warm in years. I snuggled deep into it.

Daddy’s driving cap was hanging on a hook on the back of the door. Gray and tan houndstooth, like the coat; Mama always said he looked smart when he wore’ em together. He always said he’d buy her a coat to match, too, but he never did. The cap fell over my eyes, but I shoved it back off my face. The coat was so heavy it felt like I could barely move, but I wasn’t gonna leave it behind.

Mama had a clock on the table next to her bed – God alive! I had ten minutes to get to Sally’s. I ran out the back door so fast I didn’t even stop to latch it, threw myself into the Model T, and revved the engine. I thought I saw light spillin’ out of the house as I took off, but I didn’t bother to look back. I just shoved the cap further back on my face and shot her into third.

NaNoWriMo — A Journey Back

It’s November 1. The official beginning of NaNoWritMo, 2014!

If you don’t know what that is, it’s National Novel Writing Month, where you’re challenged to write 50,000 words in 30 days — between November 1 and November 30. (Ironic, that the first words I’m going to write are this blog!) Here’s the site:

The words don’t have to be on the same topic. That’s the best thing. You can work on different projects at once if you want. All that you need to do is actually write the 50,000 words. If you do, and you submit them to the official website count, you win! What do you win? The bragging rights and a really awesome banner you can put on your Facebook page. Here’s mine from last year! NaNoBut it’s better than that, because the things you really win by completing NaNo are intangible.

It’s the time when you put the pedal to the metal and prove you’re a writer. As I’ve said before — don’t make me get my soapbox out! — you don’t become a writer by talking about it. You become a writer by writing. NaNo makes you write. You have a daily word goal — just 1,667 words per day. That’s not a lot! You just write one word, and then another, and then another, and then 1,664 more, and by gum, you’ve met your daily quota! And best of all, no one cares what you’re writing! It can be a novel. It can be short stories. It can be blog posts. It can be dribbles of cold pudding. Who cares? No one will ever see it.

Unless . . . you’re like Erin Morgenstern. Or Sara Gruen. Or anyone else on this list of published novels that were started during NaNo: Heck, there’s an awful lot of published writers who actually do research ahead of time so they can spend the entire month just writing on their new novel. See, this can be about Something Bigger. Often, the ideas that germinate during the cold November days as you’re chained to your computer can bloom into full-blown novels . . . novels that can get published.

Before last year, I’d never done NaNoWriMo. But last year, I took the best class of my life — Writing Young Adult Fiction from the University of Oxford. And there, we had to come up with an idea for our own young adult novel. I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do. Until one day, on my walk, this pipsqueak kid in suspenders, a tweed driving cap, and a tweed overcoat that dragged the ground appeared to me. That was Nicky. My rumrunner.

Nicky is difficult to work with. Not because he’s reticent or quiet — absolutely not!!!! Exactly the opposite. Of all the characters that have ever come to me, Nicky is the one who basically grabbed me by the shirt front and said, “Hey, lady! You. Write my story. Now.” From the second I saw him in my mind, I knew he was going to be trouble. And he’s done his best to live up to that initial reaction. But I swore that this year, during NaNo, I would finish the novel I started last year. And I would do it because Nicky deserves it.

I won’t lie. Giving myself over to his voice is a lot like a medium channeling a spirit. Last year, I was even starting to talk like him, and it took at least a solid month to break myself of the bad writing habits he demands of me. But more than that, with Nicky, he grabs you by the hand and sucks you into his world — and moving between my real life, and his world, is very difficult for me to do. It’s exactly like time-travel. (Well. Not that I know that for sure, but . . .) I have to re-immerse myself in the year 1924 — remember the dialogue and dialect, the words and phrases, the music and cars, the businesses and politics. I live there, when I’m writing with Nicky. And in reality, I live in 2014. But I do it anyway, because I have to.

Will my entire NaNo be taken up with Nicky? Hard to say — but probably. Does yours have to be? It better not be! You stay away from Nicky! He’s mine! 🙂 Go get your own characters to talk to you and suck you into their worlds. Go get your own characters that demand hours of research at the library and an entirely new vocabulary. But I am finishing Nicky’s story. If I know him, the worst is yet to come, and there will no doubt be tears — many of them — before it’s done. There will no doubt be more times when I’m typing away whispering to myself Nicky, just shut up and stop digging that hole deeper! even as he continues to do whatever it is he’s hell-bent on doing. But I’ll do it anyway.

Because I have a novel to finish, and a fourteen-year old rumrunner who needs me.

(If you need an inspiring story to get you started, here’s Erin Morgenstern’s blog about her NaNo adventure, and the path towards being published: