Only Two Days Behind

There is something very liberating about setting a novel in a place you know very well. Today, I had the luxury of going to my local Safeway and counting the doors in the frozen dinners aisle for the purposes of accuracy in a scene I’m writing. As much as I would love to have an excuse to do book research in Europe or any of the islands of the Caribbean, having a real setting to use as reference that’s just down the street is pretty handy. I can get my details right while picking up a carton of milk and I can even creep out store security at the same time. What more could an aspiring novelist hope for?

Six days into National Novel Writing Month, I should be 10,000 words into my 50,000 word novel. Unfortunately, I’m only a little over 7,000 words in. It isn’t where I should be (about two-ish days behind my word quota), but drastically better than the mere 2,000 words I had squeezed out of my beleaguered brain at this point last year. The fact that I’m only two days behind is cause for celebration. Cue York Peppermint Patty.

The past week has taught me a lot. I have learned what kind of shelving Safeway uses in its frozen food section. I have learned how to completely shut out the world and eliminate distractions while I work (my secret — log out of Facebook). I have also learned how to jump start my creative process even when I’m feeling tired or uninspired. My first strategy has been to imagine that Chuck Norris is looming over me and that if I stop writing, he will roundhouse kick me in the head. Failing that, when I lose focus, I simply go for a drive around town, where my novel is conveniently set, to find new locations and imaginary predicaments for my protagonist. Flagstaff is not only my home, she is also my muse.

My journey to “The End” is underway and I’m excited. With luck — and a wee bit of talented yarn weaving — the pages will continue to fly. Then, the real work can begin. Write on, my friends!

— 30 —

You can also follow my shenanigans on Twitter, where they call me @jonnyeberle.

NaNoWriMo Checklist

It is now just 36 hours from the start of NaNoWriMo, a 30 day novel-writing marathon. I have my outline ready, character sketches on standby, and a tingle on my fingertips that refuses to go away. However, writing a novel takes a lot more than a good idea. Last year, I fell flat just 18,000 words in. This year, I am assembling an arsenal of motivational tools, bribes, and threats to keep on track. Fifty thousand words, here I come!

My NaNoWriMo Checklist:

  • Space: Surprisingly clean desk, complete with stress ball, Nerf gun, and views of both the San Francisco Peaks and my neighbors’ living room.
  • Writing Utensils: Trusty old MacBook, trusty pocket notebook for inspiration on the go, freshly sharpened pencils.
  • Caffeine: Irish Breakfast tea, Trader Joe’s Chai.
  • Books: “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler, the Short Stories of Stephen Crane, the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, “No Plot, No Problem” by Chris Baty, the AP Stylebook, the American Heritage Dictionary, “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.
  • Movies/TV: “Throw Momma From the Train,” “Il Postino,” “The Walking Dead.”
  • Music: AOL Soundtracks Radio — Movie Scores (nice, unobtrusive mood music), The Hunt for Red October Soundtrack, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” by the Soggy Bottom Boys, “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas, “St. James Infirmary” by Josh White, “Back in Black” by AC/DC, “Runnin’ with the Devil” by Van Halen.
  • Treats: Dark chocolate York Peppermint Patties (rewards for meeting word counts), Harvest Cheddar SunChips, homemade burrito fixin’s, 2010 Norton Malbec (to be opened on December 1st).
  • Good Luck Charms: Black fedora, manual typewriter, a plastic skull named Julio.

What’s on your NaNo checklist? Tell me in the comments and good luck this month!

— 30 —

The Social Writer

Writing can be a very lonely process, as many have noted before me — hours spent in front of a computer screen, typing and talking to yourself. After a while, it either gets to you or you forget that there is such a thing as a world outside the one you’ve created. But does it have to be so brutally individualistic? In the opinion of this writer, no. I think there are two ways that writers are inherently social creatures.

The first is research. My favorite novels are those that hold a mirror up to the real world. How could an author effectively do that if they don’t engage with that world? I like to do a lot of research before I get down to writing something new and that has opened up many interesting new fields to me. I get to talk to new people and learn tons of otherwise useless information. It makes me a more well-rounded person and it will also come in handy if I ever find myself in the Cash Cab.

The second way I think writing is more social than we’ve been led to believe is the phenomenon known as bragging. Writers love to tell people that they’re writers. We’re self-absorbed, egotistical maniacs who want attention. Well…I am, at the very least. Not only do I like telling people that I’m a writer, other people tend to be excited, too. (What they don’t realize is that they’ll probably end up in my next project.) And if we find someone else with a literary inclination, we’ve found a new best friend.

For something that is often so isolating and has been stereotyped in the popular culture as a solitary experience, it starts to look surprisingly social when you take a step back. Wild, huh?

— 30 —

I’ve Got 99 Problems, But a Book Ain’t One

I was doing so well with this blogging thing and then something called “life” decided it didn’t want me to do that anymore. After a series of herculean struggles too horrible to mention, I have returned. My apologies.

I’m going to need to get back into the habit of writing if I’m going to survive the next month with my wits intact. You see, November is National Novel Writing Month, 30 days and nights of literary abandon. The premise may seem ridiculous at first: write 50,000 words in just 30 days; however, it’s not as crazy as it may seem.

I caught the NaNoWriMo bug last year and while I barely eked out 18,000 words during that month, I did learn some valuable lessons about how to approach the daunting task of writing a novel. For instance, I finally grasped the importance of outlining before you write (a revelation that was too little, too late). I also learned about bribes, self-imposed threats, and the adrenaline rush of hitting upon the perfect phrase (Seriously, who needs drugs when there’s NaNoWriMo?).

Now, like most people, I am completely buried in things I need to get done in the so-called “real world.” I have a capstone project due in the middle of November, papers to write, and discussions to attend on top of a 25-30 hour work week. I have a million things that already demand my complete attention and this might be the straw that breaks my back. Or I may rise above the insanity into literary nirvana. I’m really hoping for the latter.

I am now just 5 days away from the starting line; from allowing my soul to be devoured; from complete surrender to the creative ether. This time, I have a plan. I am armed with research, character sketches and an outline pinned to a large bulletin board in my house. At the stroke of midnight on November 1st, I will take the plunge. Who’s with me and what are your strategies for getting to 50,000 words?

— 30 —

[Also, you can add me as a Writing Buddy at There, I’m jeberle.]

Forget What You Know — Write What You Feel

“Write what you know.” It has been the maxim of writing teachers for decades. We have all been told to write what we know and the universe will reward us royalties and renown.

I hope the writing gods forgive me, because I am about to commit an act of literary heresy. Don’t limit yourself to writing what you know. If you let yourself be tied down by that thinking, you’ll miss out. What did J.R.R. Tolkien know about being a wizard? What did Shakespeare know about being a twin separated from his brother at birth?

You don’t have to have firsthand knowledge of your subject to write a classic that will enthrall readers for generations. You do need to get your facts straight, though. You don’t have to write what you know now, but you should write what you can research (Tolkien spent a lot of time creating the languages of Middle Earth, you know).

Now, does that mean that “write what you know” is dead? I don’t think so. I do think we should reevaluate what it means. I don’t want to be stuck writing story after story about writing papers or worrying about grad school. Perhaps we can look at it another way.

At the heart of any good story, in my opinion, is human experience. That is something which cannot be faked. We are drawn in by emotion and we react to authentic emotions. So, how about we simply write what we feel? Think about it. I have not personally dealt with cancer-related deaths in my family, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write about a family that is forced to deal with it, because I do know loss. My characters can pop off the page because the emotion is real — derived from my own painful experiences.

As a human being, I’m intimately familiar with love, heartbreak, success, failure, happiness, despair, friendship, and loneliness. Aren’t these feelings at the core of every great story? I may be limited in my knowledge, but my background is rich with experience. If I make the emotion the center of my characters, then I will have crafted characters readers can identify with. Everything else will then crystallize around it. It’s that kind of raw human passion that makes the great novels so great. In the end, it is the emotion that will carry your narrative, not your research (though it will go a long way toward reinforcing your credibility).

So, forget what you know — write what you feel.

— 30 —

The Enemy of Completion

As an amateur filmmaker, I occasionally get contracted to film an event. In most cases, this is a simple undertaking. Bring a camera, set up in a corner out of the way, press record when it starts and press pause when it’s over. Other projects are a little more demanding.

Take, for instance, the wedding I filmed last summer. No, not Summer 2011, but Summer 2010. It was a big deal. I had never filmed an event of such magnitude or importance, so I was taking no chances. I borrowed cameras and tripods, I tripled my memory card reserves. I brought along my trusty AD to run half the show. We spent hours running ourselves ragged, trading out cards when they filled up and cameras when the batteries gave out. We raced around to get in everyone’s face and capture even the most incidental moments for posterity. Between the two of us and four cameras, we recorded over 12 hours of footage.

And 12 hours of footage has lived on my hard drive ever since. I was making progress over that summer until I got a job that demanded my attention and the school came along to gobble up little time was left. As fall gave way to winter, I experienced a hard drive crash (actually, I had physically damaged my drive by being too rough with it over the years, but that’s a different story). Luckily, I had all of the raw footage on an external hard drive, but all of my progress was lost.

In the spring, I bought new editing software (Goodbye iMovie ’08, hello Final Cut Express) and had to begin the long and arduous process of learning a whole new editing language. Once again, jobs (of which I currently have two) and classes (of which I take five — all upper division) have sucked dry the watering hole of my free time. Time is the enemy of completion.

So, here I am. Over a year after the nuptials, feeling like a scam artist for cheating a nice family out of a sizable chunk of money with nothing to show for it. Unprofessional. Inexcusable. All accurate.

However, there is hope. I have become fairly competent in my new skill set on Final Cut and finally feel comfortable enough to tackle this monumental project. As always, time is my nemesis, but next week, a ray of light is calling to me. I’m flying to New Orleans for a few days, meaning at least 10 hours of uninterrupted, Internet and text message-free time to sift and edit. I will not waste this time. After more than a year, I will get the long awaited DVDs to the family that so generously paid me upfront and regain a measure of the personal and professional integrity that I lost somewhere along the way.

Problem solved. Case closed. Now, about that year-old play footage that’s taken up residence on my SD cards…

— 30 —

The Obsession

The life of a writer is often quite lonely. Even in a writing group or a room full of people furiously weaving words together, the creation of a new world has a strange way of trapping its creator inside.

Last night, I finished co-writing a script for a play and came back to my house, which felt empty and deserted, even though there were two cars in the driveway and the lights were on. It was as if I hadn’t been there in weeks, despite the fact that I had been home only a few hours before. I was coming out of a daze of character and plot that had thoroughly consumed me for more than a month. Even when I wasn’t writing, my mind was turning over the endless possibilities of the narrative. It’s the natural high of neurons firing continuously in the right hemisphere of the brain that can put an artist into a trance-like state. It’s great…until you emerge from it.

My room is a mess. Dirty and clean clothes are flung over the chairs and on the floor, empty bowls are piled high on my desk, envelopes and Post-It notes blanket my nightstand, and my bed looks as if it hasn’t been made in days. Who destroyed my living space? I guess it was me, while I was sunk deep in my creative madness.

It feels good — therapeutic, even — to get it all out onto the page, but as I pick up the mess, I wonder what else I haven’t made the time for, or have ignored all together. There is a single-mindedness to the creative process. It makes room for genius by pushing aside anything the mind (or the muse or the subconscious or what have you) considers to be “nonessential.” This has gotten me in trouble before. More than one woman has been jealous of the characters in my latest story.

It’s an incurable obsession, this whole writing business. It gets under your skin and burns like a fever. It’s an addiction — you become dependent on it. Perhaps that’s what makes it so lonely. When you’re so in love with your creation, where could anyone else hope to fit in?

For now, the thirst has been quenched and I get back to picking up the pieces of my life that I left scattered and abandoned at the end of August. In many ways, I wish I could descend under the surface of the insanity again, but for now, there’s a real world to get back to dealing with (begrudgingly). I know the cycle will bring me back soon enough.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is this: Be careful if you fall for a writer, because their affections will always be torn between two lovers.

— 30 —

From “Once Upon a Time” to “The End”

I have nine unfinished novels on my hard drive. The longest runs almost a hundred pages; the shortest about two paragraphs. I have several folders full of research, character sketches and plot outlines. I have poured untold hours and progressively larger pieces of my soul into these projects and not one of them has panned out.

I don’t know why I struggle so much when it comes to finishing what I start. I don’t know if I’m so paralyzed by perfectionism that I can’t continue for fear of ruining the story or if I’m just easily distracted by the thousands of other things I could be doing on my computer instead of writing. All I know is that sooner or later, I hit a block. Is it the result of perfectionism? Laziness? Poor planning? Cheating on my beloved novel with a new idea?

Maybe my problem more basic than creative infidelity. Maybe what I’m really missing is structure. In a newsroom, things get done because everyone is working under an immovable deadline and everyone is held accountable for getting their contribution finished. I think my novel writing process needs to work more like a newsroom. Accountability and deadlines are a writer’s best friend. When you’re working under pressure, all kinds of magical things happen. Your right brain goes into overdrive, solving problems as they arrive instead of languishing on them for weeks or months (or years) and your inner editor doesn’t have time to convince you to go back and rewrite. There will be time to rewrite when this draft is finished, your right brain tells you.

Deadlines can be an incredible tool for a writer. So, as I gear up to embark on yet another excursion into novel land, I’m going to try to give myself some structure. With any luck, it will keep me focused all the way from “once upon a time” to “the end.”

Tenth time’s a charm, right?

— 30 —

Why Write?

I am a born storyteller. I penned my first book at the age of 4 (by dictating to my mom, because I couldn’t write yet). I won my first short story contest in second grade. In eighth grade, I successfully convinced my English teacher to let me write a novel during our daily silent sustained reading time. I wrote my first screenplay during my freshman year of high school and my first one-act play during my senior year. I tell stories. It’s what I’ve always done and it is everything that I feel I am called to do with my life.

Words are powerful. In many cultures, to name something is to become the master of that thing. In the Bible, Adam’s first task in subduing the creatures of the Earth is to give them names. In linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues that language creates our reality. Those with the ability to craft stories — to piece together letters into words and sentences — can literally change the world.

Writers have always been among humanity’s greatest thinkers. Writers can record history, criticize society and topple governments. The pen (or, in the 21st century, the keyboard) truly is mightier than the sword.

That’s what I love so much about writing — the ability to create lasting change. What better use can a person have for their brief time here than to leave the world a little more beautiful than it was before?

So, why do I spend so much time writing? The answer is simple: Because it comes as naturally to me as breathing. You could no more stop breathing than I could stop writing. As Walter Wellesley once said, “There’s nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

— 30 —