Writing Update #6: NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month (nowadays also known as NaNoWriMo) begins in just over six hours from the time that I write this. In 2001, when I participated for the first time, I was completely on the sidelines and lived in my own little world while I worked on it (of course, there were no forums on the website back then, and it was in the days before weekly write-ins in different cities and so on). I was all set to write my epic science fiction post-apocalyptic western back then, but at about 5:00 p.m. on October 31, I suddenly decided to switch and write Unfallen instead. I saved The Road to Gilead for 2003, which was the second time I participated in NaNoWriMo; and then I went to the kick-off party and to the Thank God It’s Over (TGIO) party at the end of November as well. The Road to Gilead was, if I do say so myself, a great story. It’s not fit for general consumption at the moment, and needs a lot of work, but I think it’s got great potential.

This year, I’m writing The Outer Darkness, and I am nervous. When I wrote Unfallen in 2001, I based it off of a role-playing game that I had run a couple of years before, so the plot was still strong in my mind. In 2003, when I wrote The Road to Gilead, the entire plot came to me in one sitting a couple of months before I’d even begun writing.

This time, though, I’m having problems with the plot. The novel is based off of a role-playing game that I planned and plotted and set in a milieu that my friend K. and I created together, but that I never actually got to run (and probably never will at this point, unless I do so for DunDraCon 2006). The plot is simple, but I have no idea how to execute it. None at all.

Which makes me nervous.

It could just be that I’m worrying too much. I’ve been planning on The Outer Darkness for this year’s NaNoWriMo since ’round about July, when I developed my Long Term Writing Plan (which I wrote about here).

In an ideal world, I would stay up really late tonight and begin writing right at midnight. Unfortunately, I have to get up really early tomorrow to work out, and, sadly, I can no longer do the all-night writing binges that I used to do way back in the day. Perhaps I’ll get up at five and push out a few words and upload the document to my CVS server so that I can punch out some more during some downtime at work tomorrow.

In other news, today is Hallowe’en. This year, we’re sitting in front of the television, watching specials on HGTV about haunted houses and throwing candy at small children when they come to our door making vague promises of vandalism. Next year I want to have a Real Hallowe’en Party, with costumes and scary movies and ghost stories and all that; I even have the perfect costume in mind for next year. Hallowe’en is my favorite holiday, and it seems a shame to sit around and moulder in front of a television all night.

Writing Update #5

I’ve put off updating this journal for a couple of weeks, partially because I wanted to give both of my regular readers extra time to read about Rebecca, but also because, well, I’ve been lazy. Bad Richard. No biscuit.

So, a quick update on what’s been going on.

Last week, everyone in my office went to a distance learning conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. My boss picked me up and we drove to Walnut Creek, where we picked up BART to Market Street (I thought of my friend Little Owl as I did so), and that was, on the whole, less exciting than I thought it would be — though I did get stuck behind the stupid gate on my way out of the station after we got back to Walnut Creek. I was pretty darn embarrassed, I can tell you.

The conference itself was pretty interesting. While we in our office are in the process of evaluating an ILM (Intergrated Learning Management) product called Moodle — which we are liking so far, partially because it’s written in PHP and is open-source — we found that there are plenty of other really expensive products that we could spend a year’s budget on. And plenty of on-line services ready to take the rest of our money as well. We only found one product that looked particularly valuable because of its ability to transform Power Point presentations into Flash files, but we’re not convinced that it would be a better investment than OpenOffice.org — which is free but less full-featured — would be. It was also an opportunity to do some networking, which I did a little of.

Mostly, though, the best reason to go to these things is because of the swag. Swag, of course, refers to all those little goodies that vendors give away: pens and Post-It notes branded with the company’s name, for example. I made out with a couple of T-shirts (always exciting for geeks), a frisbee, a tote bag (perfect for groceries), a mysterious tube-like device which turned out to be an on-the-spot hand sanitizer device (I swear, it’s like a highlighter pen — only it sanitizes streaks on your skin instead of turning it yellow), and a little stress-relief toy that’s shaped like a little man. And brochures and software samples, of course, though I’ve only ever recommended one software purchase based on a sample I received at a conference like this. However, the best item of swag that I picked up was a little green dinosaur made of foam and attached to the end of a stiff wire. For some reason, the cats seem to really love this and will attack it madly whenever I bring it out and dangle it in front of the.

The next day, sadly, Jennifer and I discovered that our cat Allegra has bone cancer. We don’t have much time left with her, which is a shame. This news came especially hard because we’re still dealing with the grief of having lost Rebecca so suddenly.

October is turning out to be a bad month for animals in my family. First we lost Rebecca, then we got the bad news about Allegra; and earlier this week, my parents had to put down their little dog Rover.

I’m hoping November turns out to be better.

On the writing front, things are progressing slowly. I finally finished up the rough draft of “The Winds of Patwin County”; it’s about 15,000 words long altogether, one of the longest stories I’ve ever written. There were a couple of points where I almost gave up on it; but now it’s done. I also finished up the first draft (as opposed to the rough draft) of “Variations on a Theme”, which, so far, has gotten fairly decent comments from the one or two folks who have looked at it. I don’t like the title, though, and I’m unsatisfied with the ending, and I think I tried too hard in a couple of places. If you’re interested in reading it, drop me a line and let me know.

I also received a draft of part two of “A Thousand Times Before” from my friend Ed, and, along with some ideas that Jennifer gave me, I think that story has some Serious Potential. I probably won’t get to finishing that or finishing the first draft of “The Winds of Patwin County”, though, until December at the earliest. Because November, of course, is National Novel Writing Month, and I’ll be participating in that. My outline for The Outer Darkness, the novel I’ll be writing, is going slowly and with great difficulty, and I may simply scrap the whole thing and rework the entire storyline from scratch in a couple of days.

So, in summary: Life goes on, in spite of the randomness of animal health, the writing goes on. My goal is to be a full-time writer within five years, but I’ve got a long ways to go. I plan to write at least 2,000 words a day during November (so that I’ll have 60,000 words of The Outer Darkness done); hopefully, I’ll be able to write down some preliminary notes on a couple of stories as well: “Dracula Ate My Homework” and “Sunday Services”, but I won’t stress if I don’t.

No marker

I was avoiding going home.

I had to leave the office at three in order to take care of some business on the main campus. I drove out there, parked in the parking lot of Borders so that I wouldn’t have to pay the six dollars parking fee in one of the campus parking lots, and walked. It took fifteen minutes to walk to the office where I had to take care of my business. Then I walked back, went into Borders, and bought three books that I had been thinking about all day. I didn’t need any new books, of course. Jennifer and I had just spent the weekend moving about a hundred books and two bookcases from the living room downstairs to the spare room upstairs, the room that will eventually become our library. We had spoken over the weekend about the fact that we have close to three thousand books, many of which we should probably get rid of, but I have a hard time letting go of anything. Books included, even if I’ve never read them and probably never will.

I bought the books anyway. I wanted to browse more but I had promised Jennifer I’d get home before her so that I could start digging the hole to bury Rebecca.

I took the back roads home, because they’re more relaxing than the highway.

Why have I been crying about this? I’m not sure. Rebecca was Jennifer’s cat, after all, and had been part of Jennifer’s life eleven years before I showed up. Rebecca used to sit on the back of our couch where we were sitting, feet folded under her, eight pounds of cat, glaring holes into the back of my head with her sharp green eyes. Sometimes I’d pick her up in one hand and hold her above my head, with her feet and her tail dangling, and she’d look around the room, curious about what else might be happening that she couldn’t see from all of two feet lower down. She was the only cat I could do that with; none of the other cats would put up with that sort of indignity. Either that, or they’re just too heavy.

I never found the knack of carrying Rebecca, though. Jennifer could pick her up and carry her around for quite awhile, but I never did it right; I’d pick her up and she’d start to squirm and wiggle around, and if I didn’t put her down — carefully, of course — I was in serious danger of being scratched.

I thought about these things driving home. I wondered if I should put away her water bowl by the sink when I got home so that Jennifer wouldn’t come across it later on. Immediately, though, I forgot the idea.

Pulling into our driveway and opening the garage door, I thought that perhaps Jennifer was making a joke. She’s not given to practical jokes, especially not tasteless ones like this one, but for a moment I found myself desperately hoping that it were true. Of course it wasn’t.

I parked my car in the garage, left my briefcase and my workout bag and the three new books from Borders on the passenger seat, and got out. I stopped long enough to grab the shovel before going through the house to the back yard with the flower bed where we had decided to bury Rebecca. We had chosen the flower bed because Rebecca had loved rolling in the dirt, and it’s right next to the grass that she loved to munch on during the very few times that she went outside. On a more practical level, though, the dirt in the flower bed is softer and much easier to dig in than the dirt anywhere else in the back yard.

To get to the back yard, we have to go through the kitchen. In the kitchen is the freezer where Jennifer had put Rebecca in the morning, in a cardboard box. I didn’t want to look at it, but I had to, just to know how big I had to dig the hole. I opened the freezer door, and saw the box on the shelf under the ice cube trays.

My God, she’s so small, I thought. The box was barely larger than a Kleenex box. I lifted it; it was about the same weight as the cat that I had used to dangle over my head. I opened the lid just a little, and saw the tuft of a scraggly tortoiseshell ear. I hurriedly closed the box and put it back into the freezer.

At work during the day, I’d talked to a couple of people about the specifics of burying pets. I’d never buried one before, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I don’t know what I could have been missing, though. I think I just wanted reassurance that I could do it right.

The flower bed in the back yard is a raised one that Jennifer and I had made about a year ago, lugging three tons of rocks for the wall and five tons of dirt for the filler, stone by stone, shovelful by shovelful. There’s a big empty spot near the edge where the flowers had never taken hold, and Jennifer and I had decided that this would be the best place for Rebecca. I started to dig, going by my memory of how big the box was.

At some point in my childhood I must have picked up the notion that when a loved one dies, they’re still there somehow, cold and dark and alone and confused. I know it’s stupid, but there it is. And it still seems to me that when burying a pet, they should be buried with a favorite toy or something like that to offer them some comfort: a favorite towel, a blanket, or something that smelled like one of us. Jennifer and I had talked about this, and had decided that we’d bury Rebecca with a twisty tie, or the plastic ring from a milk jug. Those were the only toys Rebecca would ever play with (though God forbid anyone catch her playing; if she was seen, she’d stop immediately and walk away from the toy as if mortally embarrassed to have been caught playing).

Halfway through the digging, I went inside to take off my sandals and put on my athletic shoes, which would make the digging easier. Jennifer came home while I was changing shoes. We talked for a little bit, then she went to the freezer and took out the box with the cat in it. She opened the lid and gave Rebecca one last stroke on her head. Then we went outside together and I started digging again.

“Is it going to be big enough?” Jennifer asked me.

“Yeah,” I replied. “If it isn’t, I don’t mind digging a bit more.”

Jennifer weeded the flower bed while I finished digging the hole. The fill dirt is about two feet deep; beneath that is the hard, nearly inpenetrable soil that we had built the flower bed on top of. I told Jennifer that the hole was done, and waited there while she went inside and got Rebecca. I asked her if she’d put any twisty ties or milk jug rings in the box; she said she hadn’t been able to find any.

I scraped a bit with the head of the shovel to make sure the bottom of the hole was flat, and we slowly lowered Rebecca into it. Then we started to bury her, and that was when I couldn’t keep in the grief any more. I could either hold back the tears, or I could bury the cat. I couldn’t do both at once. So I put the dirt on top of her and I cried. We put no marker on her grave; we’ll always remember where she is.

When we were done and I had finished tamping down the dirt with the flat of the shovel, the dirt looked like nothing had changed. We had done a good job. I thought briefly about watering the spot, just to help settle the dirt down a little more, but that part of me which is still hanging on to the image of the lost, lonely, and confused animal in the dark hole didn’t want her to get wet. Not now. Rebecca hates to get wet.

Hated. Past tense.

We went back inside and fussed around in the kitchen. Jennifer saw Rebecca’s water bowl by the sink, the one I’d thought about putting away but then forgotten to. We both started crying again. The other cats kept their distance.

Jennifer went to bed early, but I stayed up late, writing and reading and watching television and trying not to think about the cat that we had just buried. I laughed at Family Guy and Futurama on the Cartoon network, puzzled over the first chapter of the novel I’m currently reading, tried to concentrate on the short story I’m working on.

At midnight I finally went to bed. My thoughts always storm around in my head between the time my head hits the pillow and the time I fall asleep, and I tried to focus them on my short story. I couldn’t. I kept thinking about Rebecca and the other cats, and the fact that we’re going to have to do this at least another six times in the coming years.

I couldn’t handle it, and I found myself crying softly again.

I have a hard time letting go.


I’ve been trying to figure out why I keep thinking of this past year as the year that I finally got serious about writing. I’ve been writing all my life. Sometimes quite seriously. But something clicked during the summer, and now I feel focused and committed.

I’ve been reading all my life; I’ve talked to a lot of people who can remember when the words “clicked” for them and they were able to, for the first time, understand what the words were saying. Me, I can’t ever remember not knowing how to read; my mother says I was born knowing how to read. When I was an adult literacy tutor, this became an issue for me, because it was hard for me to empathize with adults who couldn’t read (I got over it, though, and got to be a pretty good teacher).

When I was about six I took it into my head to start writing books. So I wrote a few short little stories, illustrated them myself with crayon, and stapled them. I remember writing something called “Tunnel to the Moon” and another one called “Tornado in the Sky”. When I visited my mother a few years ago, I found that she’d kept “Tunnel” in her cedar chest. I’m pretty sure she still has that.

In my pre-teen years I also wrote a series of mystery short stories about a private investigator named Fizziwinker (I have no idea where that name came from, and I’ve never figured out if it was his first name or his last name). I thought they were serious adult mysteries; turns out they were juvenile comedies. I had one fellow offer to publish them as a book for children, but I was determined to published them in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock. As a result, these stories continue to languish in my desk drawer. Someday, I’m sure, I’ll take them out and dress them up and try to publish them as juvenile stories. But at the time, I was really embarrassed.

In high school, I kept writing a lot. I still have most of the stories I wrote from this period: “Eradicator”, “Courage is an Accident” (another one my mother kept in her cedar chest), “Derelict”, “An Authority on Everything” (written when I was convinced I was destined to be the next James Joyce — that phase lasted about two weeks, until I finally tried to read Finnegan’s Wake), and others. I was really strongly encouraged by my high school English teachers, one of whom wrote this in my senior year yearbook: “You are without a doubt the best writer it has been my privilege to teach”. During that time I even made half-hearted attempts to publish; I collected quite a collection of rejection slips; and, as I’d heard many writers do, I even wallpapered my bedroom with them.

So what happened in college?

At the risk of sounding like I’m bragging, I blame my loss of focus on the fact that I was good at just about everything I set my mind to in high school. My AP biology teacher told me I was one of the finest biology students she’d had the honor to teach. My history teacher told me I was great at what I did. And so on. I was in love with biology and went to UC Davis determined to be a doctor.

In college, though, I found that chemistry killed me. If I’d been smart, I would have switched my major to English and been done with it, but I was determined that I was going to stick with the sciences in some way. Somehow, though, I wound up getting a degree in philosophy, while taking as many electives as I could. I couldn’t take seriously the idea of doing graduate work in philosophy, so I floundered for a long time. I ended up focusing my creative energies on role-playing games, and became known in my town as one of the best game masters around.

So I lost focus on my writing for a lot of years. Now I’ve refocused, and even made a list of writing goals which should see me through the next decade or so. And somehow I’ve managed to stay focused for several months now. I think that part of this comes from the realization that my creative energies have been focused on my gaming for so many years. And as my friends continue to grow up and mature and take on responsibilities like families and going back to school, they simply have less time to commit to the kind of massive storylines and fifteen year plot arcs that I like to create. But the huge storylines and plot arcs are still yammering in my brain, desperate to be told.

I came to rely on role-playing games as my primary creative outlet, I realize. They’re great for getting a small group of people to think and enjoy themselves and my storylines for a few hours at a time. The risk of rejection is low, too: after all, my players kept coming back for me, which felt like success to me. And it was good to have the instant gratification and feedback that I could get from running a great game. Right after finishing up a game session I could count on my players to tell me what they liked about it, and I could take their suggestions. But best for my approach to things, I found I didn’t have to work too hard on making the stories work; I’m good enough at improvisational storytelling so that I can run an epic twelve-hour game session with little more preparation than a few lines scribbled on a piece of paper, and perhaps a few minutes to review the previous session.

In other words, running a role-playing game is simply not hard work for me, and that’s what attracts me to it.

Writing is harder work. To complete my massive storyline and my fifteen-year plot arc, I have to actively sit down for a couple of hours every day and write. I have to plot, plan, conceive, envision, write, and rewrite. The risk of rejection is greater: I could spend years working on the books of The Terassic Cycle, only to find at the end that no one is willing to publish them — or, if they’re published, that no one is willing to buy them and read them. The vacuum in which a writer exists is much deeper than the vaccum which envelopes a game master.

And I have discovered that one of my strengths as a gamemaster has proven to be probably my greatest weakness as a writer. As a gamemaster, I’m able to sit back and let the players drive the story, while my NPC’s are generally fairly passive (except for the villains, of course). The heroes really are my players, and I think that this makes me a very good gamemaster. Unfortunately, my tendency toward passive storytelling means that the characters in my stories are fairly passive, and events end up just happening to them. The characters are not played by other people, they’re played by some part of myself which I’m not used to listening to. Even the story I think of as my most recent success, “Burying Uncle Albert”, suffers from this flaw. Fotunately, I at least know that it’s a weakness of mine, and that I need to tune in to that part of myself where my characters are walking and talking, and pay attention to it.

Ultimately, though, I think that the rewards from writing are greater than the rewards from gamemastering. If my books are published, then the stories I tell will be appreciated by more than the five or six people who play in my games. And, perhaps, if my writing is good enough and appreciated widely enough, then someday, someone somewhere might just develop a role-playing game based on the worlds in my head.