Tuesday, November 26, 2013

2013 NaNoWriMo Wrap-Up: Victory, Reflections, and Things to Come

Blog posts have been a bit thin on the ground as of late, but with good reason—I've been busy, hard at work on my novel, The Third Face of Janus, striving to reach the NaNoWriMo goal. Or rather, I had been busy, working relatively hard on the novel. If you haven't been following on Twitter or the Fane's Facebook page, it won't take long to get caught up: In an effort that was so direct as to preclude any appreciable amount of surprise at the outcome, I succeeded in topping the 50,000 words required to call myself a victor in this year's National Novel Writing Month. While the novel is far from finished—I expect to spend the next few months finishing the task of converting my novel-length narrative outline into a colossal manuscript before beginning a months-long editing process—it has indeed been accomplished. The battle has been won.

Before moving on to the rest of the war for writership, I think it best to reflect on the WriMo that was. It has been, for all intents and purposes, a fantastic month. I feel thoroughly redeemed following last year's dismal non-attempt. I've gathered unto myself a bevy of fantastic new literary acquaintances on Twitter, particularly those who participated in Friday Night Writes' boisterous Write Club sessions. I rediscovered my love for the creative process, renewed the appreciation I feel for the talents with which I'm gifted, and properly blew myself away with the level of productivity I was able to achieve. 

As I remarked in the previous post, this year's WriMo felt a bit off, owing to the ease with which I tackled each day's writing. In my previous successful attempt back in 2011—my first NaNoWrimo novel, The Lesser of Two Earths—I struggled well behind the pace for the entire month, only reaching the goal after a furious, mind-numbing effort that resulted in the addition of 15,813 words over the final three days of the month: 

It seemed a Herculean feat, as I recall. I can't say I remember it well, as those days were a blur, and so too are the memories hazy. I remember feeling exhausted for days afterword, though thoroughl content with my achievement. This year's WriMo effort, in stark contrast to 2011, was composed almost entirely of days such as those. 4,000 words per day seemed the norm, sometimes in as little as two hours' time. The lack of struggle was discomforting, unsettling, and it's not hard to see at which point those feelings overwhelmed me:

I was well ahead of the pace during the first half of the month, and that's including the first half of a week in which I wrote nothing at all. The lack of suspense had taken much of the fun out of the process, and like a spoiled brat I set about procrastinating until, on the 20th day of the WriMo, my word count fell behind the pace for the first time. I decided this manufactured concern would have to suffice, and returned to the project in earnest. Perhaps too much so. 

If anything can be said about the writing of those last 16,993 words, it's that my hands and forearms were less than pleased. There's always a slight discrepancy between Scrivener's word count and the official tally on the NaNoWriMo site, and I was short some 75 words. My arms, however, weren't having it—they thought the task had already been completed, and had already checked out. The physical effort required to add another few paragraphs was greater than that which had brought me just short of the goal. But there it was, a full 9 days left in the month, and I'd reached my goal. 

I took the rest of the day off, resting my arms and cursing myself slightly for having proven just how productive I can be, when properly motivated. The question of why I'm not more often motivated as such, even half as much, remains to be answered. The "why" isn't even necessarily that important, it's the doing that counts, and will continue to count. After a few days reveling in all things Whovian, and as the holiday season finally dawns on the Fane, the real question is, will I continue?

I can say, unequivocally, and for perhaps the first time since embarking on the writer's journey, that I feel like a proper novelist. As my novel is largely a character study, I'm not building worlds or weaving threads to create a complex plot; I am, however, in possession of an overall narrative in which I truly believe has merit, weight, value. I may spend a few more days catching the few bits of Whovian lore missing from my education, or throw on some Christmas tunes and raid the closet for decorations, but mark my words: I will complete the first draft of The Third Face of Janus

With the lack of down-to-the-wire anxiety, all the anticipation built up over the months prior to the WriMo are left wanting, and I aim to give them the satisfaction they're due. And besides, after seeing what I'm capable of, there's really no turning back. I've a new mission, and a renewed sense of purpose—I'm a novelist, now. And I don't think I could have reached that point without National Novel Writing Month having set the stage.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

WriMo in Progress - Day 13

It's been an exciting month so far, but this year's NaNoWriMo experience has finally begun to settle into some semblance of normalcy, if one could call nearly 300,000 participants across the globe endeavoring to write 50,000 words by month's end "normal". I've done most of my writing at a blistering pace during group writing sprints on Twitter, composing as much as 1,945 words in a single half-hour run. In this way I've managed to top 30,000 words without difficulty. It's been so easy, in fact, that it almost doesn't feel right. I know, by this point and without question, that I could reach the 50,000 word goal by week's end if I wantedI could've already reached it, if I'd just kept sprintingand therein lies the biggest problem for me during this year's WriMo: without the fear of failure, the constant and anxious pressure to add to the word count, I've grown a touch lazy. Without the worry, is it really NaNoWriMo?

Don't get me wrong--I'm still having an unbelievably good time. It's so easy to forget how enjoyable writing can be, when one falls out of the habit. And for it to have been going so well, I can't really compare it to any previous experience. NaNoWriMo '11 was won by the skin of my teeth, after a three-day blur that I still can't recall properly. That was tremendous fun, if exhausting, but despite the success of making goal I can't say I felt as confident in my novel or writing ability as I do now. That anxiety made the experience, thoughit's what everyone goes on about year after year, the desperation, the struggle. To borrow from a pop cultural entity whom I refuse to name, it's about the climb. With The Third Face of Janus, it's less of a climb and more like Superman zipping straight to the top, faster than a speeding bullet. It's exhilarating, but it's just not the same.

Obnoxious whining aside, I do feel particularly good about this novel. I've enough notes and source material to exceed the 50,000 word goal well before month's end, and continue on to at least 200,000 words before the story's been told. I honestly have no idea how long the first draft will be, but imagine I'll wind up culling half the words, if not more, before I have a workable second draft. The tone of the novel is beginning to resonate soundly, and I'm starting to see in this effort more than a writing exercise. There really is a novel here, or at least there will be eventually. That's not a bad feeling, and I'm sure I'll more than make up for the lack of WriMo pressure when it comes time to find beta readers in preparation for someday querying agents. 

So what if I don't have the same experience as I did during my first run? Maybe I'm just chasing the dragon, so to speak. Maybe that first time can only be had once, like so many things in life. Maybe every year's different. Maybe this year I'll actually continue until the novel's finished. And maybe someday, I'll have more than a victory t-shirt to my credit. I have a habit of beginning each year claiming "This is gonna be my year!", and for the past 5 years, it's held more or less true. Maybe this novel is the start of something bigger, and it's time instead to declare "This is gonna be my decade." Time will tell, best to not get ahead of myself. But, for the moment at least, I feel really good about this novel. Maybe that can be enough, for now.

Monday, November 4, 2013

WriMo in Progress - Audio/Visual Edition

My pace is slowing, but the quality of the writing has vastly improved. I feel as if I'm finally into the swing of things, and so today feels like the first day of proper Writing. I know I should be working on the novel, but it's a lazy sort of day. I've been a bit distracted, taking bites out of the day's goal rather than tackling it as perhaps I should. But I'm up to 9027 words, so I'm still on track. I thought an update was in order, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention some of the A/V aids I've been using to help get the job done. I've already touched upon software to some extent, but there's more to writing than where the words go. 

When it comes to preparation for a project larger than a few pages, I find an outline helps. Usually, I'll worth with a narrative outline, or something more like a summarizing -play-by-play. I've read Tony Buzan's Make the Most of Your Mind, and while the majority of his methods have proved invaluable over the years, I never could get the hang of "Mind Mapping". Something about translating the abstract into a visual medium, perhaps; it's as if the instructions I've read were missing a few integral steps, the whole process eluding comprehension. Nevertheless, being a fan of Literature and Latte as I am, I just had to try their latest offering, the "Mind Map Plus" program Scapple.

Scapple is an extremely simple application, which is what makes it so tremendously useful. There's an array of options--the style of the notes, the way in which they're grouped and connected, even little things like the background and note's colorswhich help the user tailor the program to their needs. It's essentially a means of jotting notes, as one would in a notebook, but more convenient.

Photo from LiteratureAndLatte.com
My attempt to plot the timeline of my novel, to be quite honest, looks a mess. You can lead a writer to software, but you can't make him organize his thoughts with it. It's still useful, however, to see which portions of the story originate, feed through, or connect to other portions of the story. The above example, presented by the folks at Literature and Latte, is understandably a tad more presentable, but I wouldn't give up my nightmare of a Scapple file for the world.

Redacted because *Spoilers*
As for audible assistance, I haven't yet settled on a "soundtrack" for this year's WriMo. During my first effort back in 2011, I listened exclusively to the score to 2002's psychological scifi movie Solaris, composed by former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez. Based upon Stanislaw Lem's 1972 novel of the same name and directed by Steven Soderbergh, the movie stars George Clooney as a psychologist sent to investigate the situation aboard an observatory space station orbiting the titular planet. The film is described as a "meditative psychodrama", and Martinez's score matches brilliantly in tone.

As my novel, The Lesser of Two Earths, was to be an exploration of psychology and sociology set against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic dystopia of sorts, the score set the mood perfectly.

In the case of The Third Face of Janus, however, I've found it difficult to settle on a single source of musical inspiration. John Brion's score to Charlie Kaufman's 2008 masterpiece Synecdoche, New York could work, at least for some scenes, but Janus is of two minds, and I need more freedom to switch between them than listening to a single score will allow. I'm a firm believer in the ability of music to boost productivity, however, so I had to employ something to that effect. In the end i decided on two somethings: Focus@Will and Coffitivity.

Focus@Will offers a number of themed music channels purported to be "attention amplifying", "scientifically designed to engage with your brain's limbic system." There's been some talk recently on the web about the benefits of particular types of music, at low volumes, facilitating creative output. Focus@Will was the first example I'd come across, due perhaps to the fact that their site is so well constructed, user friendly, and effective. Not only do they provide the aforementioned music channels, they also provide (to subscribers) customizable session lengths and productivity trackers. It's the science of personal soundtrack, boiled down to its most simple. 

Coffitivity, born of the same science as Focus@Will, and geared toward the same audience, presents an alternative to music. Enjoy working in coffee shops and cafes? Now you can enjoy the auditory ambiance of those places without leaving home. Choose between 'Morning Murmer', 'Lunchtime Lounge', or 'University Undertones', whichever variety of background chatter suits you best. Both sites offer streaming to smartphones as well, for anyone writing on the go. Maybe the chatter at your favorite coffee shop just isn't doing the trick, or the Zen channel on satellite radio is throwing too many of the same tunes your way. Focus@Will and Coffitivity have you covered.

Whatever your methods, writing at home or abroad, to music or in silence, keep writing the good write. Have any you'd like to share? Leave a comment below! For now, I think I'm going to make a pot of Earl Grey tea and loop my personal theme music, Eric Satie's Trois Gymnopedies, for a while. I've got the 10k word mark in my sights; best to strike while the iron's hot.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

WriMo in Progress - Update, Day 2

Although it's still very early on, so far it's been an amazing start to National Novel Writing Month, 2013 Edition. Things kicked off at midnight Friday morning, and I spent those first few hours participating in #WriteClub writing sprints led by the folks at Friday Night Writes (@FriNightWrites on Twitter), who have been hosting a 48 hour marathon since the WriMo began. NaNoWriMo has also been hosting official sprints through the @NaNoWordSprints account. By the end of day one, I'd reached a total of 4,211 words, which happened surprisingly quickly though I'm not foolish enough to expect that rate of progress to continue the entire month. I would, however, prefer it if I were able to complete the novel within a month's time, which would require at least doubling the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words. It will, for the time being, have to remain to be seen whether or not this can be accomplished. 

Where my novel, The Third Face of Janus, is concerned, I feel things are coming along rather nicely. There are multiple overlapping elements, and despite the absence of a standard story arc I've identified a theme that the novel should, in the end, address to a satisfying extent. There's even subtext that, with any luck, will remain subtle enough to avoid obscuring the story proper. For now, I'm content to find myself writing what amount to episodes, to be linked together as the novel fleshes out over the course of the month.

I decided to make a celebration of Day 1, once my daily goal had been met and exceeded. It's been overwhelmingly awesome in the classic sense of the word, witnessing the fun and excitement of this event. Having taken that first day easy, I feel ready to tackle the task with gusto here on Day 2. Time to bite on the old nail, as Hemingway would say. There's writing to be done.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Scariest Night of the Year - NaNoWriMo Eve

It's finally arrived, the moment so many have been waiting for2013's National Novel Writing Month begins at the stroke of midnight. Those of us participating have only a few hours more before the time for outlining and organizing comes to a close and a month's worth of writing can begin. Judging by the activity on Twitter alone, it's obvious that there's no shortage of excitement and anxiety amongst this year's participants, and the Fane is certainly not exempt!

It's been a busier week than I anticipated; despite my best efforts to prepare over the course of the entire month, I entered this week to discover a mountain of work yet to be done. I knew better than to think a dramatized memoir would be easy, but I hadn't realized that my source material would amount to over 200 pieces of writing, to say nothing of the journals reaching back nearly a decade. Attempting to collect them in chronological order seemed an impossible task, until I stumbled upon a solution while preparing for the WriMo elsewhere by updating Scrivener.

For those of you who've never heard of Scrivener, it's essential a writer's dream word processing program, capable of so much more than default software like Microsoft Word. More than a simple word processor, it's customizable in ways you may always have wanted, but would never have imagined. Scrivener includes outlining and storyboard functions that make compiling the many scenes and chapters of your novel unbelievably easy. Friend of the Fane Jamie Todd Rubin has covered the virtues of Scrivener far better than I could, in a convenient Tumblr list as well as numerous posts to his blog.

Photo from LiteratureandLatte.com
Its creators at Literature and Latte offer a special NaNoWriMo trial edition every year, to make the month's writing that much easier. There's still time to download, install, and become acquainted with this fabulous program. If you manage to reach the goal of 50,000 words by month's end, Literature and Latte will take 50% off the selling price, so that WriMo participants can continue working on their novels after the trial period's completed.

Photo from LiteratureandLatte.com

For the week's work, I was confronted with the problem of a jumbled list of notes listed out of sequence, and a desire to compile them into a single, printable document. I found Scrivener's option to click-and-drag "scenes" to be the perfect answer to the question of how I might best arrange my source material. It's a laborious task, owing to the amount of material being assembled, but I'm positive it would be ten times more difficult were I to do so using Word. 

Beyond this business of preparing the materials necessary for the month ahead, it's been a bit of a scramble to get my house in order. I'm a bit of a cliche when it comes to clutter, my desk littered with notes, books, coffee cups, etc., and I strongly believe a clear workspace makes for a smoother writing process. I also remember that, during my first attempt at NaNoWriMo, I found myself suddenly much more interested in cleaning than I was in writing, at least as a distraction. So, today I'll be facilitating the month's work by decluttering, vacuuming, washing every last dish, and organizing work materials like the many reference books I plan to keep on hand during my novel's writing. Then there's shopping for the month's provisions, bittersweet farewells to friends and loved ones, last minute touch-ups to my outline...So much to be done, and less than 12 hours to go! 

Monday, October 28, 2013

How Strong is Your Foundation? Resources for the NaNoWriMo Writer

Ernest Hemingway once quipped that "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed". In many ways, this is (metaphorically) true. At the same time, he also once opined that "...writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else I have ever done--so I do it. And it makes me happy when I do it well." Perhaps paradoxically, this is also true; writing is at once as easy as setting down and putting words on paper, and a challenge of the highest order. Most importantly, where the latter quote is concerned, it is true that to write well is an indescribable joy. 

How does one learn to write well? There are countless methods and paths, suggested by educators, successful authors, and fellow writers alike. There are shelves of books, a branch of the self help genre, dedicated to teaching methods for developing and improving literary talents. There's no shortage of technical material, style guides from various schools of thought. As with most disciplines, a writer benefits from a sort of "muscle memory", an automatic or innate understanding of the mechanics and aesthetics of the craft. For my money, the following examples are the cream of the instructional crop, and the books I'll have on hand during this year's National Novel Writing Month.

Elements of Style

William Strunk, jr and E. B. White's classic collection of basic style guidelines is as brilliant as it is brief. At only 105 pages, it's easily the shortest piece of resource material in my collection, but page-for-page it is also the most thorough and informative work available. It's invaluable, and recommended that every writer, at some point, become familiar with its teachings.

Elements of Grammar

Another brief work, though slightly longer than Elements of Style, Margaret Shertzer's Elements of Grammar is similarly indispensable. In some ways more technical than Elements of Style, Shertzer's guide is nevertheless a marvelous resource, summarizing the basics of sentence structure and defining the building blocks of the English language in a way that better enables the writer to construct more solid works.

A Dictionary. ANY Dictionary.

This should go without saying, but the number of writers who eschew the use of a dictionary might surprise you. I've always found them useful, not only for referencing correct spelling and definitions, but for the simple fact that the dictionary is a collection of words, many of which I might not have otherwise encountered. My preferred editions tend to be older, but truthfully any dictionary will suffice. I use Webster's New World Dictionary--Compact Desk Edition (1963) and Webster's Little Gem Dictionary. (1925)

A Thesaurus. 

In Stephen King's masterful On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, the legendary writer warns that "One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones", later asserting that the basic rule of vocabulary is " use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful." It's this last bit (emphasis mine) that makes a thesaurus so handy. Perhaps the first word that comes to mind isn't colorful enough, or perhaps you've used the same word so many times that it's become redundant, and therefore less apt. As with dictionaries, any thesaurus will suffice. I prefer Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (1937), in the original arrangement, which was categorical as opposed to alphabetical. Another suitable collection of verbal alternatives is Funk & Wagnalls Standard Handbook of Synonyms Antonyms & Prepositions.

Additional Resources

There are a number of works that, while not essential, I've found prove informative, useful, and to a certain extent entertaining. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is indispensable as an introduction to a host of idioms and phrases which we often hear but about which we rarely learn more. Similarly, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler compiles myriad phrases and notes on usage, oftentimes employing a dry wit that defies its place on the reference shelf. Other extraneous reference materials that I'll be perusing in preparation for NaNoWriMo include: The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage by Theodore M. Bernstein, and its humorous "sequel", Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer's Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Out-Moded Rules of English Usage; The American Language, by H.L. Mencken; The Dictionary of Cultural LIteracy; and The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions.

Books on the Craft of Writing

In addition to the reference materials above, I find it extremely helpful to have a number of works on the actual topic of writing, beyond the nuts and bolts of language. The aforementioned On Writing is both informative in terms of the more technical aspects of style and usage, and inspirational in that it details aspects of Mr. King's life as an author, and how his life led him to that point. Other works in this vein include Ray Bradbury's Zen and the Art of Writing; Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande; On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner; and a collection of topical tidbits from a variety of well-known authors, Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights

Truth be told, this is is by no means exhaustive. Depending on the genre in which one will be writing, there are countless other works that might prove useful as inspiration or reference. Whether it be an autobiography of an author successful in that particular milieu, or an encyclopedia germane to the subject, one does well to build a strong foundation for their work in progress. As my WriMo novel will fall under the auspices of literary fiction, I've been touching upon favorite works in that arena; since my novel will be semi-autobiographical, I've been reading works of a similar nature (such as Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn) as well as revisiting works that struck a chord with me in terms of identity, like Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse and Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

I don't intend to do much reading once National Novel Writing Month has begun—I prefer to keep my voice and story free of influence while writing—I will spend the remainder of the week reviewing these and other materials, so that when the time comes, my novel—written in earnest haste—will at least have been built upon as firm a foundation as I could afford it.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Final Countdown - One Week To WriMo

By this time, one week from today, I hope to find myself settling down to a celebratory lunch after a long and productive morning kicking off the 2013 National Novel Writing Month. I'm sure the day will start at the stroke of midnight, and seriously hope I don't spend those first few hours staring at a blank screen, struggling in vain to begin the month's effort. I'll have some shopping to do, after that lunch, to secure the last items on my list of necessary WriMo provisions. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

NaNoWriMo is one week away—before "Do or Die", it's "Prepare or Flounder", and I'm not entirely sure I'm ready to withstand the panicked anticipation the next seven days represent. 

Unlike last year, when I waited until the last possible moment to throw my literary hat in the ring, this year I've made a point of gearing up for this year's WriMo since early September. A few weeks ago I assembled a small tactical force comprised of my favorite reference books and sources of inspiration. I've mastered the art of manipulating my sleep cycle so I can navigate the month's events and appointments without suffering the loss of my writing schedule or routines. I've planned this year's novel as best I can, notified friends and family of my impending absence from their lives, and reached out to fellow participants in order to establish a small but reliable network of encouragement and support.

Despite this skillful exuberance—is there really only one week left before we begin??

Don't get me wrong, I feel to an equal degree the wish that today were Halloween, so that it would only be a matter of a dozen hours or so before I could throw myself into my work. I'm dangerously enthusiastic about this year's novel, and on more occasions than I can count have had to suppress the urge to go rogue and start writing ahead of time. There's still that lingering apprehension, as I've said before, and so much work yet to be done in preparation of the long month ahead.

I'm fascinated by the ways in which other writers work, and I'm always on the lookout for new methods, insights, and tips in general. In the spirit of reciprocity, beginning Monday the 28th I'll be touching upon categories of preparation in a series of NaNoPrep posts meant to elucidate my own methods: how I've prepared, and how I expect the writing process to unfold. Over the course of the week I'll also do my best to share similar posts by others, via Twitter and Facebook. With Writing Buddies, local Write-Ins, and The Night of Writing Dangerously, it's clear that we're all in this together—at least when it's not just you and your novel, staring each other down in the darkest hours of the night. 

For now, there's so very much left to do, and precious little time in which to do it. One week until the WriMo starts in earnest, but the NaNoPrep has already begun...

Thursday, October 24, 2013

An Interview with Falling Under Author Danielle Younge-Ullman

Your bio states that you spent 10 years performing in theatre before shifting your focus toward writing. How did that transition come about? Had you always had an interest in writing?

I was always a passionate and voracious reader and I think I’d always wanted to write, and specifically to write books. I just didn't believe I could do it—I didn't know if I could weave a coherent story, didn't think I had good enough ideas, didn't believe I’d have the self-discipline to get the thing done. In the meantime I fell in love with the theatre, and therefore buried even the knowledge of my desire to write. But all that time studying and working in the theatre was fabulous training for me as a writer. As an actor you work so hard to understand the vision of the playwright and the deepest motivations of every single breath of the character you’re playing, to get under and into their skin, and obviously these are also things you need to do as a writer. And I think being an actor gave me a good ear for dialogue and for how a story has to be shaped, how to create conflict. Ultimately, I wasn't happy as an actor; the business is crappy and even when I was working, I wasn't getting enough creative satisfaction from it. I wanted, needed, something that more directly expressed what I had to say. Around that time, someone who I’d let read some random stuff I’d written asked me if I’d ever thought of being a writer and all of a sudden I just knew that was what I was supposed to be doing…and that’s what put me on the path. 

Falling Under is a tremendously evocative novel to have read; could you describe for us the emotional experience of having written it?

With Falling Under, I decided to take the gloves off and go for it, and be very instinctual. I knew the general conflicts and issues I wanted to write about, but I didn't really know where it was going to go. I just gave myself permission to go as crazy and raw as I wanted to and see what happened. It was terrifying and exhilarating, fun and frustrating. The book goes to some very dark places and you’d think maybe this might have messed me up...given me some hard days…but those parts were the most fun because I was being the most true, the most creative, and the most courageous.

Your portrayal of the classic, tormented artist is very thorough, even without delving too deeply into the technical aspects of Mara's particular milieu. How much of your own experience as an artist in theatre informed the creation of this aspect of the story?

Bottom line, it’s the creative process. I mean, if you’re making music, creating a character for stage or film, writing a book, painting; whatever it is, the technical aspects and skills needed are different, but what happens inside—that massive, sometimes magical-feeling effort to pull out something you want to express and then put it into a form people can relate to—I think it’s very much the same thing. I will say that for me, the descriptions of Mara’s artistic process are actually closer to my experiences as a writer than as an actor. The difference there is that as an actor you’re interpreting someone else’s words and vision, not your own. 

It's said that all fiction is at least partially autobiographical; in terms of emotional and family history, how much of yourself might readers find in Mara?

As writers, we write what we’re passionate about and what we’re preoccupied with…so I think with any book, an immense amount of who the author is, on an essential level, goes into character and story. But it’s fiction. 

Mara’s life story is completely different from my own, but I do come from a divorced family, and have strong feelings about what happens to kids when families break up. There’s also a lot of research that shows kids of divorced families (all different types of divorces) deal with anxiety and depression and a host of other issues. This information helped when I created Mara, and obviously there’s commonality here and there with my own experience, emotionally speaking. She also has my sense of humor!

The name Mara means "bitter" according to some sources. Were you aware of this when choosing a name for your character?

Honestly, I just liked the name and I had the vague thought it had something to do with the sea! I wouldn't have purposely chosen a name that meant “bitter” because I don’t really see Mara as bitter. 

Your book was released first in print, back in 2008, and reached the Kindle in September of last year. What was that process like? Do you have plans to make the title available in any other digital formats?

It’s been really exciting and fun having Falling Under out as an ebook. With the economic crisis in 2008, it was a tough year to be launching a debut novel—especially a dark-ish book that is so hard to define and describe. Re-launching Falling Under in ebook format has given it a second life a chance to reach a new readership—the very passionate and growing ereading community. The response has been amazing, and I’m really grateful. There was quite a bit of work involved in getting the book formatted and orchestrating the design of the new cover, but I’m thrilled with the result. 

Falling Under is currently only available on Kindle through the Kindle Select program, but it was available through the other ebook stores (B&N, Kobo, Sony, Smashwords, Diesel, the iBookstore, etc) and will be again soon. 

Your website says that you're hard at work on your next project. Could you tell us a little bit about it, like whether it's a play or another novel? 

I’m working on a new book and I've got two others sitting on the shelf that I’d like to pick back up and revise. The one I’m working on is about a teenage girl who gets sent on a wilderness trip against her will. She’s a fairly sheltered, “normal” middle class girl and expecting a camp-like experience, but the trip turns out to be much more hard-core than she expected and she finds herself surrounded by a really rough group of people with serious emotional and psychological problems. The whole thing is so much worse and so much more intense than she expected, and the book is about how she gets through it. 

Wow. You just forced me to summarize it, which I haven’t done in awhile! This book may turn out to be best for the YA market, but I’m not positive about that. Even though it’s about a teen, I’m not trying to deliberately cater to a certain age of reader—I’m just writing the story the way I need to write it. 

How would you compare working on a second novel to the experience of drafting the first? Can fans expect news on your next book any time soon?

This will actually be the 5th novel I've written. There was one before Falling Under, which I thought was great when I wrote it, but now realize should remain in the drawer. And there have been two written since Falling Under, both of which have been put aside at the moment and are awaiting revisions. As to how it is working on successive novels…I wish I could say it gets easier, but it doesn’t. I think you get better at the brass tacks writing stuff, and you refine your voice and style, but it doesn't get any easier to do. I will say that with this book I have an outline and I know much more specifically where it’s going, so that helps. 

As to when fans might see a new novel…I hope to finish the one I’m working on this summer, but then it will need revisions. I will keep you posted!

I'd like to thank author and playwright Danielle Younge-Ullman for having taken the time to participate in this interview, which previously appeared elsewhere in November of 2012

Throwback Thursday - Falling Under

At first glance, Falling Under—the debut novel of Canadian stage actress and playwright Danielle Younge-Ullman—appears to be a rather simple tale, recounting the interpersonal struggles of a troubled young woman attempting to recover from a challenging past. However, just beneath the veneer of the title’s basic description lies a multifaceted story every bit as nuanced as human nature itself. 

At its core, the novel does hold firmly to the path laid out by its premise. As the story begins, Mara Foster is a child on Christmas morning. Far from joyous, the occasion leaves the five year old shrinking as her parents bicker heatedly over the affordability of her presents. It’s soon established that her life is fraught with the fiercely invective quarreling between her hapless, alcoholic father and unabashedly venomous mother. The toll such fighting, and her father’s eventual departure, take on the young girl is unavoidably heartbreaking. The innocent self-recriminations all too familiar under these circumstances assail the girl, setting the stage for both the troubled life of the protagonist, redolent with self-loathing and insecurity, and the novel through which that life is viewed. 

The majority of the book is told through minimalist first-person narrative, reminiscent in some ways of Palahniuk’s style. The author’s vocabulary is rich in emotional import, delivered in fragmented thoughts and conversational observations. The first chapter, however, like all other passages which chronicle Mara’s history, is told instead in the mode of second-person narrative. While the difference may seem unusual, the affect proves to be most profound. By so relating the events which shaped and conditioned Mara’s character as she exists in the novel’s present, the author crafts a bridge of empathy between Mara and the reader. Mara’s life, past and present, is rife with tragic circumstances and questionable choices; and yet, regardless of what one may think of these events, the empathy imbued by the second-person portions of the story enables judgment and understanding to remain separated. Readers may not agree with Mara’s decisions, but they’re much more likely to at least understand how such decisions were made.

Irrespective of these narrative shifts, the story as a whole does a fair job of speaking directly to the heart of the reader. Anyone who has known the anxieties of a burgeoning relationship, or suffered the agonies of love’s sudden absence, will easily find a piece of themselves in Mara’s story. Despite a level of social anxiety that borders on agoraphobia, Mara’s is not a world lacking in people. There are the tenuous relationships she maintains with her parents; her friendship with a rather boisterous and independent lesbian named Bernadette; sometimes-lover Erik, with whom she has a relationship few would characterize as anything but desperate; and Hugo, a new romantic prospect whose appearance in her life, and insistence to remain there, shakes her already fragile existence to its core. A host of former lovers flood her memory, particular that of Lucus, whose loss has come to define Mara in every way. 

Even elements of Mara’s character which are perhaps not familiar to the average reader somehow manage to cross the author’s bridge of understanding. Mara’s lifestyle is that of the artistic shut-in, producing relatively bland paintings for Sal, yet another former lover turned agent and patron. One need not know intimately the subject to experience vicariously what it is for Mara to practice her art. In fact, though the author spares readers any excessive reference to the more technical aspects of painting, her description of the emotional and existential abstractions of the artist’s life convey far more than she might have done by describing practical details.

This aspect of the story—that Mara is made so identifiable—grates at times, much as witnessing a struggling friend may similarly frustrate. For example, as the story progresses there are numerous instances in which Mara is confronted by individuals angered by apparent misunderstandings. With their faces red and voices raised, Mara is paralyzed, so akin to the trauma of her childhood are these experiences. Where a simple explanation or word in her own defense might thwart further discomfort, Mara instead remains frozen, silent, leaving the angry other to their assumptions. Like a moviegoer warning onscreen characters in futility, so too may readers find themselves urging Mara to rouse from her panic-stricken silence, her periods of depression-induced malaise. The overall affect is nothing short of striking. As they come across these and other such examples, many readers will find themselves quite drawn in by the undeniable human quality inherent to the story.

Falling Under is not a novel without faults, though they are indeed few, foremost of which is the disproportionate attention paid to Mara’s livelihood in comparison to those of others. Most characters, if not similarly employed in the arts, find their lives receive little more than lip service. The most glaring example is that of Erik, described very early on as a computer hacker, involved enough in such activities to warrant an apartment littered with technological paraphernalia. After a few references to this effect, no further mention is made of his illicit behavior. In light of the thorough exploration of his relationship with Mara, however, it is perhaps forgivable, as the depth of emotion involved is clearly more deserving of the reader’s attention. 

While the novel explores themes such as struggle and redemption, Falling Under is ultimately a story about consequences. Whether these are caused by elements beyond Mara’s control, such as the fallout of her parents’ failed relationship, or the results of her own poor choices, the message most prominently displayed is that life is a matter of managing and navigating the consequences that punctuate our lives. As the story draws to its close readers may well find themselves feeling as if they have experienced a number of the consequences with which Mara herself has had to contend. Whether this feeling derives from having lived through similar hardships and triumphs, or from the vicarious experience of having read Danielle Younge-Ullman’s brilliantly insightful work, this much is clear: anyone with a taste for edgy, heart-rending fiction will find more than simple entertainment here.

Click here to read the Post Script to this review

This review previously appeared elsewhere in November 2012

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Post Script - The Time Traveler's Wife

Though I've enjoyed expounding upon the virtues of the page-to-screen adaptation thus far, it had bothered me that I hadn't yet covered The Time Traveler's Wife. Of all the titles I've covered or intend to cover, this was possibly the most important. To be honest, I feel I failed somewhat, as I do feel the movie, despite its redeeming qualities, falls so short of the source material; though I did touch upon the title's diminished screen presence, I don't think I necessarily drove the point sufficiently home. 

The truth is, I could have written ten times as much about this story, and still only scratched the surface. It really is my favorite book, and that's no small feat. It's not often I'm capable of selecting one particular item as superior to others of its kind. And for years, decades even, my favorite book was Frank Herbert's Dune, another complex novel that, despite enjoyable cinematic and television manifestations, had failed to adequately transition to the screen. 

I don't think I'll ever exhaust my desire to discuss The Time Traveler's Wife and the myriad ways in which it touches me. I similarly disbelieve that I'll ever find myself tired of rewatching the movie, nor is it likely that I'll cease the nascent tradition of re-reading the novel every September, just as the weather cools and it begins to feel as if the season of change has finally returned. It was a joy to share my appreciation for the novel and its adaptation. It's just a shame I could only do so once.

My original review of The Time Traveler's Wife

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

WriMo In Progress - The Third Face of Janus

I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a palpable amount of trepidation over this year's National Novel Writing Month. There's always an element of apprehension, of course—churning out 50,000 words in a month's time is certainly daunting. The standard nervousness is exacerbated by my decision to base this year's novel, The Third Face of Janus, at least in part on my life. Names will be changed, personalities blended into new characters, but at its core will lie a significant amount of genuine Me. 

As with any instance of working with an idea I believe to be of sufficient quality, I'm tremendously excited, and more than a little confident, but there's a part of me that's decidedly reluctant to proceed as planned. While I'm no stranger to introspection, however difficult, to endure a sustained effort as such will no doubt take a toll. An upshot of using myself as the basis for the main character is that I'll be able to use my reactions to the writing process as fodder for more writing; whatever issues arise, the novel will essentially feed them into itself, and reaching—if not exceeding—the goal should be no problem whatsoever.

Over the years, I've bounded between extremes in terms of personality. I'm fairly consistent these days, having leveled off a few years ago, but I thought it might be interesting to explore the back story a bit, detailing the effort required to resolve the various selves I felt I exhibited. As I'm writing it as a dramatization, I can play fast and loose with the facts, exaggerate certain elements, and introduce entire fictions to elucidate the experience far more than a simple accounting of reality could do. I'm never short on hypotheticals and counterfactuals to consider; the perspectives afforded by writing this novel alone should be worth the trouble. We're all, ideally, perpetual works in progress, and its not a stretch to suggest the quest to resolve the many aspects of self is a continual one. The title of my novel refers to this stable middle-ground, between conflicting iterations of self, the place of balance between positive and negative extremes. In the end, success will mean finding, identifying as, and donning, the Third Face of Janus.

Much as I may harbor reservations about this project, I'm unbearably eager to begin. There's no rushing the clock, however, and so I'm resigned to obsessive amounts of NaNoPrep. Most of my preparation will be detailed in future posts, but having recently completed the synopsis and excerpt (or in this case, jacket blurb) portions on my NaNoWriMo Author Page, I thought I'd share them here.


Over the past few years, bi-polar freelance writer Jackson Dolakov has managed to pull himself out of the miserable drink-and-drug filled hole in which he spent most of his 20s. Living alone in a basement apartment on the city's west side, he does his best to continue rehabilitating himself and reintegrating into society. Shortly after he enters his 35th year, however, his therapist goes on leave without warning. Bereft of this point of reference, his fledgling attempt at normalcy begins to crumble, and his tenuous hold on rational thought slips inexorably toward the volatile, nightmare purview of his past. As he struggles to keep his world from falling apart, he sifts through a sea of recollection in hopes of finding the key to preventing a complete and total relapse. In the end, his success will depend on whether or not he can find common ground between the amiable gentleman everyone has come to know, and the misanthropic beast he fears he might yet become.

Dust Jacket Blurb

"The nights used to call out to me, fill me with a sense of potential and purpose and power. The car would top a hill's crest, bring the lights of the city into view, and I'd feel this energy surge into and through me, feed some part of my self long starved in the dismal hours of daylight. Or I'd look out the window at home and watch the houselights go out as the old brass art deco lamp on my desk warmed up and shined like day on my hulking grey tank of a typewriter. I'd pour a drink, light a smoke, and breathe fire onto the pages. 

"These days I'm not much for excitement, anticipation; so long as I know there's a few meals and a laugh to be had, I'm just fine facing another day at home. Good enough food, a laugh, or a drink maybe, with a few smokes alongside--old habits die hard. It doesn't take much. I prefer it that way. It wasn't always like this, but a man can only bear so much blood and shame and pain before he's whittled down to the tragic, crippled shape he's doomed to take before finally giving up the ghost. I might have barely entered my thirty-fifth year, but what they used to say still holds true: I'm an old soul, deep down. And I'm not getting any younger..."

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Growing Season - Summer in Review

Proper reflection can be an arduous process. To thoroughly expound upon events past is challenge enough, but to attempt the encapsulation of an entire season takes more than a few days' thinking. Though autumn is already a month underway, the leaves already changed and falling, it's only now that summer's expiration has finally sunk in. And while I did well to appreciate its passage at the time, it's only through the lens of hindsight that I'm capable of seeing what a spectacular summer it had been.

Sunrise over Lake Glacier, Mill Creek Park
Owing much to the annual school schedule, we are trained from an early age to view summer as a season apart, unique and detached from the rest of the year. It is a time for late nights and lazy mornings, frivolous hours of outdoor play in the extended light of day, vacations and day trips, carnivals and parades. It's a season of adventure and exploration, of excitement, of fun. What did my spectacular summer entail? At least at the onset--reading. Lots and lots of reading.

One of the benefits of cavorting with other writers is catching the fire of their inspiration at the hands of sources new to you. Passion is contagious, particularly when it comes to literary proclivities. A friend enthusiastically endorsed a host of artists and authors with whom I had yet to become acquainted, but none grabbed my attention so firmly as Henry Miller. The nature of his work—controversial, semi-autobiographical, rambling, graphic--intrigued me, and I acquired a copy of 1939's Tropic of Capricorn for my introduction. 

I was instantly seized by the novel's tone, gritty and dark and discontent in the way only a true romantic could portray. In many ways the novel is a period piece, describing a particular moment in history, and yet it also seems to have been ahead of its time; there's a quality to the prose which places Miller, in my mind, at the forefront literary movements that followed, particularly the Beat era. Literary fiction to the core, Capricorn has little in the way of plot to summarize; essentially, it's a window into a portion of Miller's life, however dramatized it may be. Though his work proved controversial enough to earn the ire of censors in its day, the novel's mature themes are almost charming in a way, or at the very least amusing; though the exposition of its protagonist's knowledge and experiences is of a uniquely high quality, its basic import is nothing particularly out of the ordinary in the modern era.

Reading Miller isn't easy, at least not at any appreciable pace. After borrowing Tropic of Cancer from the library, I found myself covering no more than a few pages at a time; sometimes a single sentence would be enough to floor me, bringing me to a state of cerebral paralysis, basking in its genius and wallowing in that novitiate writer's lament, "I'll never write anything half this well..." However, I will say I found I identified with Miller in a number of ways, which was at once welcome and disturbing. The man was many things, but as a role model I'm sure one could find a thousand better choices. Taken by his writing style and what he hoped to achieve with it, my own approach to writing has since shifted in a decidedly Milleresque direction, hopefully for the better.

Something about Miller's style, though I've yet to successfully pinpoint the exact aspect, called to mind Hemingway's writing. I'd only read one of Hemingway's books—The Sun Also Rises—as an adult, but the comparison was distinct. Having seen him portrayed cinematically in Hemingway & Gellhorn and, to a lesser extent Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, I had developed a curiosity about the man's life and work. I began with Papa: Hemingway in Key West, by James McLendon, an account of Hemingway's time in Florida compiled from interviews with, and as described by, those who knew him. I came to find that behind the myth and the offensively macho veneer lay a man wholly dedicated to his craft, fueled by an insatiable lust for life. I followed Papa: Hemingway in Key West with Papa: A Personal Memoir, written by his son, Gregory, and Ernest Hemingway: A Writer's Life, by Catherine Reef. I read Hemingway on Writing, The Selected Letters of Ernest Hemingway, The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition, The Nick Adams Stories, To Have and Have Not, Death in the Afternoon, and what became my favorite of the lot, A Moveable Feast.

Say what you will about Hemingway, he was no small figure in American literature. I had never had much of an appreciation for his workThe Old Man and the Sea, required reading in high school, left me baffled as to why anyone would bother with his oeuvre at all. Even after The Sun Also Rises, I remained confused, though for different reasons; the "iceberg theory"—Hemingway's assertion that a writer well-versed in his or her story could leave out the bulk of it, and allow the remaining "the tip of the iceberg" to intimate the rest—was surprisingly effective, but I couldn't fathom how it worked. I could appreciate the simplistic, direct tone, and his use of syndeton was masterful, but there are whole paragraphs comprised of sentences that seemingly have little to do with one another, yet still manage to propel the story in a capable and meaningful way. It all seems so random, and even now I fail at fully comprehending it. That something so simple could prove to me so confusing is a testament to the man's art, infuriating though it may be.

Just as one could never divorce Hemingway from his reputation as a drunk and belligerent misogynist, one is hard-pressed to discuss the man without coming across the topic of hunting or, much more likely, that of fishing. As stated above, passions are contagious. So it was that I went from the summer's first chapter, reading, to its second: learning how to fish. 

Lake Glacier, as viewed from Fellows Riverside Garden, Mill Creek Park
Teaching yourself something from scratch, without the aid of a guide or mentor, is definitely a difficult task. I didn't know the first thing about fishing, and had no idea where to even begin aside from a few "for beginners" books found at the library. I'd initially thought that procuring the necessary equipment would be difficult, though I'd always known my grandfather had an old fishing rod tucked away in the garage. it wasn't until my father caught wind of my sudden interest and located a completely stocked tackle box that the possibility of seeing things through became a reality. I began to seriously consider becoming an angler. 

One of the greatest perks of living in Youngstown, OH is our magnificent park. Mill Creek Park is a beautiful sprawl of forest paths, fields, and waterways. It's also a good place to catch your first fish.

Fishing pier, Lake Glacier, Mill Creek park
After a few weeks spent researching the ins and outs of fishing, practicing a few integral knots and learning about the assortment of accessories used to catch the various fish I might encounter, I took to the park with an inordinate amount of enthusiasm, spending hours at a time practicing my casting, trying different bait and rigs, and eventually catching more than a few bluegill, rock bass, and carp. There's something to be said for the benefits of fishing as a hobby, namely that it's surprisingly conducive to meditation; while fishing, one thinks of the setting, the water, the wind, the line, the bait...but little else. 

There was, of course, much more to the summer than reading and fishing. I attended a wedding reception, for example, that was easily one of the greatest celebrations in which I'd ever participated. I relished the time with the best of old friends, made quite a few new ones, and frighteningly enough, caught the garter with a disturbing degree of enthusiasm. 

I've also endeavored to improve my skills in the kitchen, mastering meringues and excelling at entrees; a particular point of pride is my ability to now bake a palatable cake from scratch. I've become more health-minded, experimenting with green smoothies and far less processed meals. So much of our lives revolves around food, and it was a delight to spend time focusing on it in ways that didn't leave me feeling guilt-ridden, making meals I could proudly share with others. 

Boat launch, Lake Newport, Mill Creek park
In light of all these activities, I reached summer's end feeling more capable in virtually every way. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times--but it was a tremendous season of growth, a season of Becoming. Allowing for a week or two to enjoy the milestone of another year's aging, it's honestly due to this estival progress that I'm back at it here at the Scholar's Fane. It's how I made the decision to take the inspiration gleaned from Miller's writing and apply it to this year's National Novel Writing Month and my novel The Third Face of Janus.

I continue to be overwhelmed by the experience of living, enjoying a lust for life of which Hemingway might have approved. It was the most memorable summer I've experienced in years, and though I was sad to see it finally end, I'm left feeling emboldened, confident, and ready for a spectacular end to the year. Autumn has always been my favorite season, a time for great change and introspection. Only a month in, and it's already proven to be every bit as hectic and fulfilling as the summer had been. As I turn my gaze from the past to the present and future, I can't help but smile. 2013 has turned out to be a far better year thus far than I'd anticipated. It's been a wild one, but for once I'm glad to have gone along for the ride. It's your turn, autumn; let's make this a memorable one.

Parapet Bridge, Lake Glacier, Mill Creek Park