NaNoWriMo – The 2/3 Check-In!

How many of us are still hanging in there?! Maybe we’re hanging on by the fingernails, or even by our teeth, to the end of the proverbial rope, but the point is, are we hanging in there? 

I am – barely, but I am.

This year’s different.

If you missed my last couple of posts, this year I decided I would start a massive nonfiction project that has been in the works, off and on (mostly off) for ten years – my research into the disappearance of George Kimmel in 1898. As I mentioned last time, the problem is that I didn’t do the research in time, so working on the actual writing has been problematic.

But what NaNo has done is give me the space, time, impetus – and permission – to really dig into the research in this case. For some reason, although this case has fascinated me for more than ten years now, and I’ve gone to the National Archives and photographed all the files, and I even pay $75 every three months for a Newspapers.com account to do further research, I’ve never really felt like I had permission to do it. I can’t explain it. I mean, I’m a historian, right? This is what I’m supposed to do, right?

Now that I’m spending 1-2 hours a night with the files, though, I’m seeing it differently. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so much nonfiction lately – Joseph Ellis, Gordon Wood, Jon Meacham, Ron Chernow. Through reading their works, I see more clearly how to structure such a narrative. The level of scholarship that has to go into it. Sure, I had to read constantly in grad school, too, but honestly, we were reading so much, so fast, that I never had the time to sit down and really read. Understand. Savor. Ruminate. Draw my own conclusions. Scribble in the margins and generate ideas (which has led, in the past six weeks, to acquiring another 20+ books!). In grad school, we did those things on the fly, writing papers so fast that they started to run into each other. We read more to write a paper than to truly understand the words. I think I needed the time away from that to truly start to understand how the process works.

Another reason I tend to “jump in, jump out” with this project is that I tend to get rather obsessive about it. This time around, I’m finding it easier to look at it objectively. Again, I think that’s thanks to the amazing historians I’ve been reading lately – and also because I’m totally obsessed right now with the Revolutionary War and the Early Republic. So my two obsessions are balancing each other out. 🙂

The other, daunting thing about this project is the sheer amount of material involved. None of it is easy to find. None of it, in the forms I have it (jpgs on my computer) are particularly easy to work with, either. So I decided the only way to solve that problem was to start typing. My keyboard is missing some letters now. 🙂

I won’t type all of it – but somehow, it’s easier for me to get through the material, to remember it, when I type it out. It starts to organize itself in my mind, slot itself into chapters. I notice things – like, seriously, every single person who did an affidavit as proof of Kimmel’s death used the word ‘sanguine’ to describe him. Who SAYS that?! Sure, I know it was 1898, but still! He was ‘sanguine about his prospects.’ He was ‘enthusiastic about his business prospects.’ He was ‘robust.’ He had ‘a keen mind for business.’ Two people mentioned that he said he’d rather ‘lay down his life’ than bring harm or disappointment to his uncle. They all say literally the same things about him. Why is that? Because the same lawyer was taking all these affidavits as proof of death for the insurance company, and he gave them talking points, a script to follow? Another, more sinister, reason? But see, if I wasn’t typing that, would I catch it?

So although I won’t probably complete NaNo this year, not in the conventional sense, anyway, I’m continuing on. Just as one of the reasons behind NaNo is to get writers in the habit of writing daily, it’s gotten me into the habit of doing daily work on these affidavits and testimonies.

Which, to me, is every bit as important as writing every day.

 

NaNoWriMo 2019 – You Ready for This?

Oh, yes! Did the date sneak up on you? Never fear, here’s your annual reminder – IT’S NANOWRIMO! 

If you are one of the five people who don’t know what NaNoWriMo is – this is National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days – that’s about 1600 – 1700 words per day on average. The goal is NOT to necessarily finish a novel (though if you do that, great!). The goal is simply to get people writing. Here’s the website:  https://www.nanowrimo.org/

nanoWhen you go to the website, you can set up a profile, find other NaNo writers in your area for ‘write-ins’ (where you meet up at a library or coffee shop for a few hours to write) – or, if you don’t live near a group, you can even do virtual write-ins. You can track your progress, chat with other writers . . . for some, it’s not so much a way to get the words down on paper as a chance to be with a community of writers.

I try to participate every year, because . . . why not? It’s a challenge. I do wish it was some other month – May or June, when I’m less busy – but if I’m supposed to be writing anyway, then I may as well challenge myself to do a little more, right? Besides, it’s dark early in November. I’m not outside doing yard work or going for long walks. I’m stuck inside. I can watch TV, or write. (Or, as it turns out, I can do both at the same time!)

There is no right or wrong way to do NaNo, and I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about it – any writing counts! Sure, it’s called National Novel Writing Month, but as I’ve said before, 50,000 words isn’t a novel. If you need to do a total rewrite on an existing novel, go for it! If you need to finish a novel you put down a long time ago, go for it! There are even – gasp! – NaNo Rebels, who write short stories, blog posts, fanfic, and other things.

Usual, I spend this month working on fiction projects – the first 50,000 words of Nicky came pouring out of me during NaNo 2014, after all. Some years its an assemblage of random projects; other years, I concentrate on just one.

But this year, I decided – at the last minute – that I was going to do something different.

This year, I’m focusing on nonfiction. 

Obviously, to do this thing properly, I should have started the prep work about three months ago. Because I decided, literally yesterday, to start writing my book about George Kimmel. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Or, maybe more accurately, into everyone’s world a little cray-cray must fall.

I should definitely have started the prep work earlier. I am working with half-assed notes and half-remembered quotes, and all my files are either on my laptop or in my office, but are not in both places. I should have had notes about everyone all ready to go, to start drafting their bios. I should have sketched out what the chapters would look like ahead of time, and started slotting testimonies and depositions into those. I should have gathered up my research into Ark City’s history so I could write an accurate description of it in 1898. You know, basic stuff like that.

Give me a break, though; I’ve never tackled something this big before! The papers I wrote in grad school were often written on the fly; I could rely on my writing talent and research ability to pull them off. (The most famous example of this, which I often share with my students as an example of what not to do, is the term paper I started at 11pm, finished at 5am, and submitted at 8:30am. Yes, I got an A. Let me reiterate:  DO NOT DO THIS.). This? This is not that. This is real. And frankly, that’s why I keep pushing it away – because not only do I get completely obsessed with it, to the point where I drive everyone around me batcrap crazy, but I get overwhelmed by the thousands of pages I already have – and the unknown amount of information I still need.

But. I was going to have to do that anyway.

Today I sat down at my favorite coffee shop, opened a blank document in Word, and started typing. I thought I knew how I would start George’s story:  it would start with him leaving town on the train. I even had the first line running through my head:  On July 31, 1898, George Kimmel waved goodbye to his friends ,and boarded the train for Topeka. They never saw him again. 

Instead . . . the first line from my keyboard was:  How do people disappear without a trace? 

It was an intriguing opening, and I hadn’t expected it at all. So I went with it. I talked about the number of cold cases in America right now, and the number of cases that go unsolved every year (the numbers, according to the US Justice Department, are 250,000 and 6,000, in case you’re curious). I wrote, very generally, about the uses of DNA and the difficulties in using it to solve these cold cases (NONE of which will ever make it into the final draft because it’s totally fluff and filler gleaned from years of watching Forensic Files). And then I asked another question:  if it’s this difficult today, to solve a case in which a person appears to have disappeared without a trace, how much more difficult would it have been in 1898?

In truth, what I started out writing was not so much a first chapter as a prologue, my reasons for researching Kimmel, and for ultimately writing this book. But that idea – How do people disappear without a trace? – has intrigued me.

How did Kimmel walk out of the Midland Hotel and into oblivion? How did he disappear, so completely that no trace of him was ever found?

I wrote almost 1800 words today. It’s not good – but then again, that’s not the point. The point of NaNoWriMo is simply to write. 

Which, when it comes to this project, is the thing I’ve needed to do all along.

 

Want to write nonfiction but don’t want to do it via NaNoWriMo? Check this out! https://writenonfictionnow.com/about-write-nonfiction-in-november/wnfinnanonfiwrimo/

 

“Can This Story Be Told?” The limits – and frustrations – of historical research

“It’s not a case of should this story be told; it’s a case of can this story be told?” – David Grann, 2017.

This quote, more than any other, was my takeaway from seeing David Grann two years ago on a nationwide tour for his new book, Killers of the Flower Moon. This book details a little-known aspect of history:  the murders of several wealthy and prominent Osage people during the 1910s and 20s, murders committed by the whites who were supposed to be working in the best interests of the very Osage men and women (and children) they killed. It’s a gripping story, and I reviewed the book here https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/killers-of-the-flower-moon-a-review/ (along with the experience of being able to see author David Grann talk about it).

But since then, the thing I’ve heard over and over, on countless Facebook pages and discussion groups, is this:  why were’t we taught this in school? 

Well, as a history teacher, I can tell you that one reason is that we have too much ground to cover in class. In an Oklahoma history class? Sure, this should be discussed. In a general survey of US History, however, it’s impossible to cover everything. We want to. As teachers, we want to so much, because it’s these kinds of stories that pique our students’ interest, keep them listening, and might even convince them that history isn’t so bad. The best we can sometimes do, however, is mention them in passing, in support of some other Big Important Topic we have to cover. Then, if students are interested, we can discuss it in more detail, either during class (yes, I will sometimes jettison other things to talk about smaller, but equally important, topics), or after class.

But there’s more to it. As historians studying the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 know, the truth can be buried. It can be buried so deeply, so thoroughly, that bringing it to light is a miraculous thing – if it can be done at all. When people want the truth to be buried, it’s easy to make it happen. Particularly if they are the people in power. And believe me, the people who committed the Osage murders had a reason to bury that truth. So did the perpetrators of the Tulsa Race Riots. But bringing it to light can be done – if the story is there. 

And that’s the question I face now.

As David Grann said, for him, it was never a case of should the story be told; rather, could he tell it? Did the evidence exist? It’s one thing to know something happened; proving it, telling that story, is another. One is easy; the other is not.

Grann was both lucky and good. He walked into the right museum, asked the right questions. He’s a good journalist; he followed his instincts. But he was also lucky – because in this case, the evidence was there. It wasn’t gone, just buried. It was just that no one else had ever asked the questions, followed the leads, gone to the lengths he did to find the truth. No one else had picked up the scattered remnants of this story and pulled them together into a coherent narrative.

But what do you do when, in fact, the truth is gone? Or, at least, you suspect it is?

Right now, I’m simultaneously reading Ron Chernow’s Washington and Alexander Hamilton (my second time). In these books, Chernow is upfront about what we do and don’t know about these men and their lives. We are lucky that Eliza Hamilton made it her life’s mission to collect every document Hamilton ever wrote, to gather as many stories about him as possible, to document his life so thoroughly, that historians have been able to mine that rich lode of information for two centuries. But even then . . . we don’t know the whole story. We don’t know what she burned. What was lost by other people. Likewise, Martha Washington burned most of the letters she and George Washington wrote to each other. What did these two have to say to each other? What insights into their marriage did they provide? What would Washington have told her in confidence that he’d not have told anyone else? We’ll never know. (Soapbox:  STOP BURNING LETTERS, LADIES! WE NED THEM!)

I’m absolutely in awe of the work Chernow did on both of these biographies. His task was downright herculean. From Washington’s diaries, to Hamilton’s letters, to the recollections of Jefferson and Madison and the diaries of others who knew them, he is able to sort and sift through it all to provide us with masterful biographies of both men that also give us insight into all of those around them. The treasury of information is almost bottomless. Like Grann, the story could be told. He had the information. Documents measured not by number of boxes, but by linear feet.

But . . . what if neither Chernow nor Grann had had that?

Historians don’t refuse to tell stories because we don’t care. Ask any historian – we care about everything! But we have to pick and choose our battles. And sometimes – as with the Tulsa Race Riot – the evidence doesn’t come to light for decades. The stories might exist – but the evidence might not. Without evidence, it isn’t history. It’s an anecdote. The problem is, how far do you dig before you accept that the evidence isn’t there? How much evidence is enough – or not enough? Can you tell the story right, if you’re missing key elements?

That is where I am now.

For ten years, I’ve been chasing the ghost of a story. I am, without a doubt, the world’s leading expert on George Kimmel. I’ve spent years tracking down every single court case. All the appeals. Looking at thousands of pages of depositions and testimonies. Reading hundreds of newspaper articles. I know the ins and outs of the cases. I know the theories about his disappearance.

What I don’t know, however, are the people involved. 

There are times when I think I do. When I get an insight into them via their depositions, or their behavior in court, and I think okay, I’ve got them now! I understand this person. And then . . . I realize, when I turn the page, that I really don’t, not at all. I’m not seeing them through their own words and actions. I’m always seeing them through a veil of secondary sources and hidden motives.

I’ve spent so much time tracing their footsteps – the lawyers Bacon and O’Brien, Kimmel’s sister Edna and his mother Estelle and his uncle Charles Johnson, his friends in Niles, Michigan and here in Arkansas City – that it’s easy to think I get this case. That I get all of their motives and know exactly what happened.

After ten years, I can honestly say I don’t have a damn clue about any of it.

Who were they, really? How did they really feel about Kimmel? How did they deal with his disappearance, and the subsequent trials? Where are their letters and diaries? Where are their conversations with others? Where are they in this narrative?

The truth is – they are nowhere. Because I don’t know them. Because I don’t have the very things that would let me know them. Diaries. Letters. Records of conversations. Memories from those who knew them. Things that could clue me in as to their motives. Things that could tell me if my suspicions are on track – or hopelessly off base.

As I said a couple of weeks ago in this blog, when you write history, you have an obligation to your subject and your readers to be fair, honest, and objective. When you haven’t got the sources that would enable you to be those things, how far can you morally go? How do I bring these people to life when they are little more than shadows moving through newspapers, or across the pages of depositions? How do I get at the truth of who they were and what they did?

That is why some stories are never told.

When I started this research, I had no end goal in mind. I just wanted to follow the story and see where it led. And then, as I got deeper and deeper into it, I wanted to know what really happened to George Kimmel on that July night in 1898. And when I did that . . . it changed everything. In part because of all the twists and turns the trials took, I never knew what to make of anyone involved in the case. How, for example, could you possible explain a woman who would sign away nearly $1 million in life insurance money just because her uncle told her to? There had to be more. I had to know why. 

This is not a biography; I get that. This is a mystery story, at heart. But in fiction, we say that there are no plots, only characters that want things. That’s what I’m missing here. It’s like I’m working backwards, precisely counter to where I would start if this was a fictional story. What did these people want? And what were they willing to do to get it? And it brings me, sadly, back around full circle to David Grann’s question:  can this story be told? 

This is the crossroads I find myself at now. Having gone so far, have I gone too far to go back?

Can the story be told – or at the very least, can it be told right? 

I honestly don’t know.

* For more on the Kimmel case and my research into it – including numerous times I’ve had my head meet my desk in frustration! – see these posts:

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2018/03/10/when-research-becomes-obsession/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/digging-deep-the-perils-of-historical-research/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2016/05/29/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true-part-2/

“Killers of the Flower Moon” A Review

Sometimes, historians run across stories that won’t let us go. Stories that haunt us, that creep up on us at odd hours, that refuse to go away quietly. And yet. We hesitate, because these are often the stories that have no resolution, no sources, no proof.

For us, as author David Grann says, it’s not “a case of should this story be told; it’s a case of can this story be told?”

51wnupYTkOL._SY346_Last Thursday, Grann was in Wichita, a guest of Watermark Books. A friend called, and I dropped everything to go. Grann’s new book is called Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. As I read up on the book ahead of time, what I couldn’t believe is that the book’s events took place not only right in my own backyard – the Osage Nation is maybe 30 miles from my house – but that I’ve been researching the same time period for a couple of years and have never run across any mention of this event.

If the name David Grann sounds familiar, it might be because he’s a writer for The New Yorker. It might also be because he wrote a little book called The Lost City of Z, which was recently made into a movie with Brad Pitt.

Killers of the Flower Moon is broken into three parts. Part 1 focuses on the early days of the Osage Nation, including the discovery of oil on their lands, and the first murders. Part 2 focuses on the story of Tom White, the FBI agent assigned to solve the crimes, and his investigations. Part 3 is David Grann’s story of finding out about the murders, his research, the questions he still has, and his own suspicions.

OSAGE_COUNTyThe Osage Murders are a little-talked about event in Oklahoma history. During the years 1921 – 1925, at least twenty-four wealthy members of the Osage tribe, as well as whites who were trying to help, were brutally murdered. But Grann thinks the murders began much earlier, and involved “scores, if not hundreds” more murders than the twenty-four officially acknowledged. Why were they murdered? One word:  money. In the early 1900s, there was an oil boom throughout northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas. Tiny ‘boom towns’ popped up everywhere, sometimes within just three or five miles of each other.  And nowhere was the oil boom bigger than in the Osage Nation.

Each member of the tribe had headrights – the profits from the wells – and most of those headrights made hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Per capita, they were the wealthiest people in America. The owned huge mansions, the best cars (according to legend, families owned up to 11 cars each!), and even had white servants. Maria Tallchief, the first prima ballerina in America, was Osage.

And then the murders began.

Wealthy Osage were being poisoned, shot, and simply disappeared right and left – and those who would have talked about the murders were also killed. After local investigations led nowhere, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent in Agent Tom White to put together a task force to investigate and solve the crimes.

Osage_murders_9

Document from one of the murder trials – held by the Oklahoma Historical Society. By Rmosmittens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47663712

As a historian, I’m always fascinated by the research end of things. Grann said he first learned about the Osage Murders by accident. He took a trip to Pawhuska, to the Osage Nation Museum, where he saw a huge panoramic photograph of the people of the area – with one corner cut out. That corner, he was told, contained a photo of “the devil” – the man who most believe orchestrated and perpetrated most of the murders.

Grann began to research in earnest, spending years in archives, libraries, and courts. He found, as have most writers and historians, that while there were enough primary sources to work with, they didn’t answer all his questions. The things he most wanted were the very things that had been destroyed or lost over the years. In fact, last Thursday, Grann admitted that this was the hardest book he’s ever worked on. He spent weeks at the National Archives in Fort Worth and other places, digging through tribal records. He sought FBI files. He sought out descendants of both the victims and the murderers – though, as he says, sometimes they were one and the same. For him, this was never a case of ‘this story needs to be told;’ it was always a case of ‘can this story be told?”

Killers of the Flower Moon takes an even keel – you can senses Grann’s eagerness to discover the truth, and his frustration when he can’t, especially in the last section. But a true journalist, he never inserts his own views in the first two sections. Even in the third section, which he writes from his ow perspective, he holds back. He does make it clear that he thinks the FBI screwed up. But he doesn’t level accusations, just presents the information as he’s found it, and leaves it to the reader to decide.

It’s well-written and fast paced, and I enjoyed it a great deal. I certainly am floored that I’ve never heard of these murders before. However, as a historian, I came away feeling that it was ‘History Lite.’ This is a book of popular history, meant for the masses. As such, it’s a great introduction to this time period, the history surrounding the murders, and the Osage themselves. If you’re looking for a true historical account, you’ll be a bit disappointed. There’s no footnotes and no proper end notes. I wish Grann had used a historian to help him with citations, because anyone seeking to follow his sources are going to have a tough time of it.

Still. As someone who has also spent years chasing leads and sources and knows deep down that they may never find the answers to a historic cold case, I understand how difficult this book must have been for Grann to research and write, and I think he did a good job with an introduction to the subject.

Now it’s up to the historians to follow his trail and tell even more of the story.

 

Slate.com – Review of Killers of the Flower Moon – http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2017/05/killers_of_the_flower_moon_by_david_grann_reviewed.html

An article on Atlas Obscura written by Grann about his research – http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/osage-murders-photos-killers-of-flower-moon

Getting to know you . . . Research and Characters

Have you ever had one of those ideas for a novel – or even a character – that sort of teases at the edges of your mind? There one second, gone the next. Coming just close enough for you to get a glimpse of it. To get an idea of what it might be about. But it never does more than that, and it’s frustrating as hell.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s had that happen . . . !

A few years ago, when I was taking my course on Young Adult Fiction from Oxford, I had an idea in my mind about a book. I thought it might end up being a series, in fact – maybe not open-ended, but maybe a trilogy. I’d written about it in our discussions, in fact, but I never got a good solid sense of who this character was and what he was about. His name was Chase; he was about fourteen; he was living in the 1930s; and he had an interesting side gig. But every time I tried to write about him, it was like trying to get a stray cat to come close enough to be petted – he just stood there and stared at me, with this sense of Really? I’m not that easy. 

But then Nicky came along in all his full-fledged, hotheaded glory, and Chase tipped me a nod and said, “We’ll meet again when you’re ready for me.”

Well, hell’s bells, I wasn’t ready for Nicky! But I’m beginning to understand why, although Chase and I have danced around each other a bit over the past few years, we’ve never connected.

It’s because I need to know more about how and what he is. And about his world.

Nicky, I knew. Nicky was easy to get to know. Not only did he come with a full set of operating instructions and a mouth bigger than Texas, but I got him. I knew all about the 1920s and rumrunning, and what I didn’t know, I could easily find out. But Chase was different. His story was different, and the things he knew were different.

Sometimes characters come to us, and because they’re like us, or because they’re already part of something we know, it’s easier to relate to them. Maybe they have the same outlook on life, or hate or like the same things we do, or grew up in the same town – or at least, the same kind of town. But those characters who come knocking, nodding shyly, holding everything back until they’re absolutely 100% sure you’re The One? Those are the ones that elude us sometimes, that make us worker harder than we’ve ever worked before.

So last year, I ordered books. Lots of them. I do this a lot. Most historical writers do. We need to know something specific, so we go buy everything we can. I’ve got books on 17th century witch hunts, bootlegging, the KKK, every ghost legend in England, and more. But I realized I had nothing about Chase and his life. So I bought books.

I’m reading one now, in fact, and not five pages into it, I started to get ideas. Started to hear Chase talk to me, just a bit. Not a lot, but enough. He knows I’m here. I know he’s listening.

Yes, I can hear some of you now – But I don’t believe characters talk to us! So what does this have to do with me? 

Glad you asked!

If you’re researching a historical novel – or any novel for that matter – you have to remember that personality only goes so far. Environment shapes character. It shapes you and me and the cat in the tree, and it shapes your fictional characters, too. It’s just a fact of life. Take the 1930s, for example. A farmer fighting to keep his land in the Dust Bowl is going to be a far cry from Joe Kennedy, ex-bootlegger and now Ambassador to England. They had different upbringings, took different paths, made different choices. Knowing about the Dust Bowl will help you see how your farmer should behave. You know he keeps plowing his fields, even when all common sense says not to – why? Research into the farmers of the era will tell you why. And while your farmer may have other reasons, I’m guessing he shares a lot in common with the others.

Or let’s take a common trope:  a historical novel with a woman fighting for her rights in any era – let’s say the 14th century. That’s grand, but she doesn’t exist in a vacuum; she exists in a real world, full of real laws and real consequences. She resists an arranged marriage? Then what are her legal, realistic options? And is she ready to face them? (Now, if you want to put this young heroine in the midst of the Black Death and its aftermath, this might work – lots of opportunities opened up in Europe once 1/3 of the population was dead. But before that time? No.) So your research would naturally need to include all the jobs available to women in the time period, any women who were like your heroine, the laws pertaining to women, etc. This will help you get a better sense of who this character really is and make her much more three-dimensional and believable.

That’s what I needed with Chase. He resisted every attempt I’d mentally made to put him into a cubbyhole, a place I thought he should go. I had to go to him. I had to get into his world, see things through his eyes, first.

No, we’re still not quite talking – but the researching is really opening my eyes to all the possibilities. And I know that when the time’s right and I’m ready, he’ll be there.

Just like Nicky. 🙂

Now that NaNoWriMo is over . . .

So. NaNoWriMo is over. Maybe you got to 50,000 words. Maybe you didn’t. I did!

But even if you didn’t . .  . Take heart. Take stock of what you’ve written. Was it a novel you’ve had in mind for a long time? Or something you just started on a whim, with no idea where it would end up? Did you have notecards and plans and research done, or did you just say “hey, what happens if you take x and y and mix in this and that and . . .”

Either way, it’s good. You wrote.

But what now?

Apparently (and I didn’t realize this until I found this article – http://www.salon.com/2010/11/02/nanowrimo/), there’s a problem with NaNo novels being pushed onto unsuspecting agents and editors without any thought to the process whatsoever. To save you the trouble of reading the entire rant, here’s the salient point:

I am not the first person to point out that “writing a lot of crap” doesn’t sound like a particularly fruitful way to spend an entire month, even if it is November. And from rumblings in the Twitterverse, it’s clear that NaNoWriMo winners frequently ignore official advice about the importance of revision; editors and agents are already flinching in anticipation of the slapdash manuscripts they’ll shortly receive. “Submitting novels in Nov or Dec?” tweeted one, “Leave NaNoWriMo out of the cover letter … or make it clear that it was LAST year’s NaNo.” Another wrote, “Worst queries I ever received as an agent always started with ‘I’ve just finished writing my NaNoWriMo novel and …’”

I’d like to say that surprises me, but – given that I actually once read a message board post that said, ‘I just finished my 88,000 word novel two hours ago and uploaded it to Amazon as an e-book, and NO ONE has downloaded it! What do I do?” – I can’t. This could, in fact, be a pervasive problem.

So what do you do?

The last time I won – three years ago – I knew I wasn’t done with Nicky. Not by a long shot. I wasn’t sure exactly where it was heading, but I did know that Nicky and I stood at the edge of a big adventure together. I knew this would be bigger than any book I’d ever attempted before. Which is probably why I’m still feeling my way through it.

This year, I did a bit here and a bit there. I wrote on three different novels, in fact. None are done yet. But that’s not really what NaNoWriMo is about. It’s not about finishing a novel; it’s about starting that journey. (I think, anyway.)

So if you won NaNo, congratulations! But now, let’s think. What, exactly, have you written?

It’s time to be honest, unfortunately, and that’s hard for a lot of us. But as a writer, you have to be realistic about what you’ve written. I know, I know:  this is your baby. You just spent an entire month (more, hopefully!) writing it, crafting it, bringing it to life. You’re too close to it. Just like no parent wants to admit their child is a screaming, raging, bullying lunatic (and if you’re saying “but mine isn’t,” trust me, IT IS!!!) no author wants to admit their novel has problems.

You have to, though.

If you’re still writing, that’s great. That means you’re not satisfied with it yet. You’re not done. Keep going! Maybe NaNo just opened the floodgates for your characters and you’re only now feeling them come to life. That’s fantastic! Keep going!

But if you feel done . . . let’s evaluate.

  • How many words did you do? If you’re at less than 50,000 words, either keep writing or . . .
  • You need to decide: Is this a novel? A novella? A very long short story?
  • How do you know? Simple. Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? I’m guessing that yours may have only the beginning and the middle. The ending is probably not quite there yet. Keep working.
  • Characters: are they fully formed, or do they feel like cardboard cutouts you’re parading around on a stage? Do you know what they want? Do they know what they want? If not, keep writing. This goes for ALL your characters! Main characters, secondary characters, even – especially – your baddies.
  • Do the characters have believable goals, and do the goals remain consistent throughout? (Do their names remain consistent throughout? If you’ve been on a 30-day writing binge, you might accidentally have renamed someone at some point.)
  • Does the beginning jive with the end? In other words – do the characters achieve the goals they set out to achieve in Chapter 1? If not, keep writing. It’s really not surprising to find that your characters change from the start of your draft – what you thought you were going to write about isn’t what they want to talk about. That means they’re taking on a life of their own. And that’s a good thing! But it does mean some rewrites.
  • Are there plot holes? If so, fix them. Are there places where you just wrote “Stuff Happens” and forged ahead to a scene you really wanted to write? Nothing wrong with that – writers do it all the time – but you do eventually need to figure out what ‘stuff happens.’
  • Do all the characters have a reason to be there? If not, get rid of them.
  • Maybe most importantly of all:  are you scared to death to let your beta readers see it? If so, it’s definitely not yet ready to go out into the world!

While these are obviously big, overarching things – that’s where you need to start, because any one of these will cause a publisher or agent to toss your submission like yesterday’s cat litter. As harsh as that blog post I quoted above is, let’s face it:  it’s true. Agents and editors are looking for reasons to reject you out of hand. Your job is to force them to read your manuscript.

There are many published books that started as NaNo projects, but they all have one thing in common:  the authors took the time to craft them afterwards, to mold and shape them into a readable, marketable work.

Now, that’s your job, too.

 

Here’s a link to some novels that got their start as NaNao projects: http://mentalfloss.com/article/53481/14-published-novels-written-during-nanowrimo

And here’s a link to the NaNo Official List of published NaNo projects:  http://nanowrimo.org/published-wrimos

And, to give you some inspiration and make you feel better about that first draft, here’s a great blog post from NaNo published writer Alan Averill:  http://blog.nanowrimo.org/post/128034053636/i-spy-with-my-critical-eye-trusting-your-inner

Notes from a First Page Panel

Let’s face it:  first pages are hard work. Half the time you start your first page without knowing where your novel’s going; many times, those original first pages end up getting heavily edited, if not actually deleted. Been there, done that! And what might seem fine to us just isn’t fine to agents and editors.

The Rose State Writers Conference was in September. One of my favorite parts of this conference is what’s known as the ‘First Page Panel.’ Attendees bring the firs page of their manuscript and drop it into a box when they arrive that morning; at noon, the box is brought into the main auditorium, we all gather with box lunches, and the panel – composed of the guest agents, writers, and teachers – tell us what they like and don’t like. Each page is read aloud; anyone on the panel has the right to stop the reader at any time.

At first, the panel’s nice. After they get through about 10 pages, they start to get a bit tougher. 🙂 Here’s some notes from this year’s panel:

First – not too much backstory or dialogue. A lot of the pages broke this cardinal rule. In fact, one agent went so far as to say this:  No backstory. No exposition. Start with the character and their problem. You can fill in everything else later. Otherwise, it’s lazy writing. 

Don’t start with dialogue. Especially when there’s no speaker delineated, or grounding for the reader. There’s no context; it’s just wasted words. And contrary to popular belief, it generally doesn’t incite curiosity in the reader, unless it’s the right dialogue. Most isn’t.

While I’m on the subject of dialogue . . . Dialogue cannot be used to get information across. “As you know, Bob . . .” Just don’t. Agents will throw your manuscript across the room and curse you forever. Well. Maybe just for a bit. 🙂

And before we leave the subject of dialogue . . . Give us an idea of your MC in your dialogue. Age? Speaking voice? Dialect? (Not too much of that, though.) Remember, show us what they’re like. That means the voice, too. What words they use. How they structure sentences. What they talk about.

Make sure you set the time and place, and let the reader orient themselves. Don’t set them adrift! This is one of the reasons why starting with dialogue is bad – because there’s no context. Think about your favorite movies. Do they start with dialogue? Or do we start with a few opening scenes that let us know when/where we are?

But:  Choose your details carefully. Watch the pacing. Too many details will slow it down and the reader will walk away. This is NOT an info-dump. This is not backstory. Setting is never separate from the story. Choose your details well. Give just 1-3 telling, specific details; the reader will do the rest. More, and the reader will start to skim, or even get resentful. If you describe a house as a “pink Victorian,” for example, the reader knows what that should look like, and they’ll fill in the rest with their own imagination. And this gives them buy-in! The house they imagine won’t be like yours, and it won’t be like anyone else’s, either. It’ll be theirs.

Create conflict from the get-go – or at least, create interest intrigue for your readers. Hook them with a question. As I’ve said before in other blog posts, that’s the job of the first sentence, the first paragraph, and the first page – to lure the reader in by asking questions they must know the answers to. 

The first page should ask questions. Questions should be asked throughout the book. Picture these as stepping-stones, leading the reader from one to the other, until they are done. But don’t lay down your questions in a way that confuses the reader! Lay them down in order. Answer one, raise two more. Sure, we’ve got this solved – now what conflict arises because of that?  Or, as author Katherine Center put it so eloquently,

“The readers are in your roller coaster. Lock them in and take off!”

BUT . . . There’s a subtle line between making people curious and overwhelming them. Once they’re confused, they’re lost. Don’t pull them out of the story! And don’t let them put the book down.To hook readers, give them one little thing that’s out of place. Set up questions for them. One example from the conference was this gem:  “When I got home the door was locked – and I never lock the door.” Doesn’t that put a question in your mind? Maybe two or three, even?

Emotions:  make the reader feel them. Show, don’t tell. Every single word needs to be there because it’s important to the story. Make sure the reader knows what they have to know. Give the basics – that’s it. Description kills the urgency. The pace of the story should reflect the characters’ emotions.

And on that note, watch your writing. The first page may be all you get to entice agents, editors, and readers. Do. Not. Use. Adjective and Adverbs. Too many adjectives make agents and readers ‘too aware of the writing.’ They notice and stumble over it. Make the words disappear. Never pull them out of the story. And don’t make them think about the language. Or again, as Katherine Center said, “Thinking is hard. Stories should be easy!”

One tidbit I learned is that agents have what they call the ‘modifier zone’ – the point at which agents stop reading because the author is putting in too many modifiers (dapper, plush, etc.). Just tell us what’s what. Tell us what we have to know to move forward. Picture the first page as the opening scene of a movie. Do we need to know everything? No. Should we have some hint, some clue, as to the central conflict and characters? Yes.

Prologues:  it’s hard to gauge a novel on the prologue, especially if it’s about 5 pages long and the agent or editor has asked for the first five pages. It’s often written differently than the rest of the novel, and usually it’s info-dumping. Get to the story.

More importantly, ask yourself:  why am I starting the book here? What is the purpose of this scene? If the answer has anything to do with backstory, you’re not staring in the right place. Backstory = prologue, in most cases. Get rid of it.

We weren’t able to get through very many in an hour and twenty minutes – of the 50+ submissions, I think we read about 15 aloud. But those 15 bold guinea pigs helped their fellow attendees, and I hope they may have helped you. 🙂 I do, however, want to leave you with just one more tidbit from Katherine Center:

“Anyone who writes has to know what they LOVE to read.” And then they should be writing that. Not something else. That. “Write the story you wish was out there in the world. If it’s romance – great! Whatever it is that lights the reading fire in you is what you should be writing.”

 

Katherine Center’s website:  http://www.katherinecenter.com/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/01/04/first-month-first-week-first-lines/