Tuesday, December 01, 2015

NaNoWriMo, "In Search of Tom Purdue," and a Proustian Epiphany

This has been the second year in a row I have not engaged in the frenzy of creative writing known as NaNoWriMoNational Novel Writing Month – when too many people around the world (or at least across the nation) attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days.

I say “too many people” because there are enough novels out there already that are not being read and many more trying to find a publisher (or, given modern technology, alternative ways of reaching a readership).

But it is an important opportunity that, for many, can realize a dream – because there's a joke somewhere that practically everybody has a novel-in-progress in their computer, don't they?, something they're even more secretive about than that journal they're keeping.

For many of us during that month, we discover how hard writing really is, especially writing something that comes with as much baggage as a NOVEL. I'd often wanted to “take the challenge,” but always found work getting in the way. So finally, after having been laid off and finding myself in November with nothing to do, I figured “why not?”

For each of six successive Novembers, I tried to write 50,000 words. It doesn't seem like that much when you figure, in 30 days, that amounts to about 1,667 words a day and since, when I'm really into the blogging, I usually end up around 3-5,000 words (and that's including time researching a topic) in a productive day. So what's a mere 1,667 words, right?

Whether you finish the novel in 30 days is not important – the point is, you got 50,000 words or more written. You found the discipline to sit down and schlog it out. The problem comes at the end of the month when you look back over it and decide (a.) this is crap or (b.) well, I'll probably never actually finish it anyway. And (c.) now what?

Last year, I had a pretty good excuse for not being a WriMo with heart surgery scheduled for the middle of November. Not only would the week of the surgery and the ensuing recuperating put a crimp in my daily word count, I'd probably feel like shit and it's hard enough to write a novel when you don't feel like shit. Unless you're going to write 50,000 words about having just had heart surgery and why you feel like shit. I'm sure the world can do without my insights.

This year was different: it was a conscious decision not to participate because I was already working on a new novel. Now, I could've said “ah, I can use this time to add 50,000 words to my new novel” but the problem with trying to bat out an artificial word-goal is you lose track of the content and the craft. And besides, after six years of this - and I'm on my 5th novel, now, anyway - I began to think, “maybe I don't need NaNoWriMo now.”

That sounds a little hubristic, but I've started figuring things out.

First of all, I knew from other people's experiences that you don't sit down and open a blank page and say “okay, what will my novel be about?” on November 1st. There's an amount of time you spend planning it, outlining your ideas, building your characters, working on your settings and whatever other details may be important to whatever you want to write before you write the first word.

Unless you're going to write a stream-of-consciousness novel in 30 days just about whatever pops into your mind and what happens during those 30 days you're writing, you need to plan – and depending on that plan, that may involve “research.” You don't have time to be bogged down chasing facts and the last thing you need to do is get caught up in the google whirlpool before you realize – crap – there goes another day, shot...

Secondly, and perhaps more challenging, is the idea that you do not go back and reread what you've written and start editing – you do that after the 30 days is up. You're working on the rough draft of a novel. So does it count if you write 50,001 words by 11:59pm November 30th and then, during your first edit-pass, you cut out 15,786 of them? Or more? Hmmm...

Plus I have a really weird way of writing but I don't want to go into that, here. Let it suffice that while I pay very keen attention to word-count, it's the structural word-count I'm concerned about, not just the number of words I've pounded out on my computer. So instead of writing 1,667 words a day – where any 1,667 words will do – I may only get 377 words done. But I'm more convinced those are a good 377 words.

What was it Truman Capote said about Jack Kerouac's style? “That's not writing – that's typing.”

But then I'm not a fan of either, so perhaps it's a moot point.

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I managed to finish my third “Dr. Kerr Novel,” The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, part of a series of classical music appreciation comedy thrillers, in October last year, barely a month before my surgery. The day after my surgery, I was ready to start reading again, and the pile of books by the recliner in my living room was comprised of “research” or “potential research” for the fourth “Dr. Kerr Novel.” This had begun taking shape even before I'd completed the third one. Unfortunately, by the time I felt ready to begin, I had so many new plot lines I'm already thinking about the fifth one and I hadn't even begun the fourth yet. That back burner can't be far enough away...

My main character is this retired music professor and reluctant music detective, Dr. T. Richard Kerr (from ricercare, “to search”) and in the new novel, In Search of Tom Purdue, this friend of his has disappeared, perhaps the victim of the evil organization known as SHMRG who's figured as the collective villain in all the other novels so far (originally a take-off on James Bond's Soviet-era SMERSH). Unfortunately, I'd already killed off Klavdia Klangfarben who'd figured villainously in the previous three novels, so I needed a new threat.

Thus was born the shadowy organization of The Aficionati – the 1% of the classical music-loving elite who wish to keep the enjoyment of great music for themselves. Any similarity between them and the Illuminati is quite welcome.

There is also this “Proust thing” going on – having resumed re-reading In Search of Lost Time once again, reading Swann's Way (the first of its seven volumes) in 2013 for the fourth time because it was the Centennial Year of its publication, and then starting the second volume in the recent (and wonderful) Penguin Edition translation by James Grieve shortly after my surgery. Should I mention Proust's original French title is À la recherche du temps perdu?

It's not that I'm trying to condense a parody of Proust's 1,414,975 words into a single novel – which, I've predetermined, will be about 196,418 words (only 498 words less than Swann's Way) – but more on that at some other time. There are numerous themes in Proust's work that correspond to my characters and the situations they find themselves in, not to mention issues of creativity (musical and otherwise) as well.

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While I don't want to get into the plot, just now, much of what fuels my creativity is coming up with the characters' names. While Tom Purdue (temps perdu, lost time) is a given, I'm not borrowing from Proust for other characters except that the love of his life is a dancer named Violetta Diehl whom his friends call “Odile” from not hearing her name quite correctly the first time. Now, “Odile” is the Black Swan that misleads the hero in Tchaikovsky's ballet, Swan Lake. But the ballet's main swan is “Odette.” And the woman who becomes Charles Swann's mistress and later wife in Proust's novel is Odette deCrecy.

Most of my characters' names are puns – usually musical or literary or just word-play: if the reader “gets” them, fine; if not, the names can be funny or perfectly normal names. Some were chosen just because they sound funny – Klavdia Klangfarben, for one; Inspector Hemiola for another, based on musical terms.

But others have a connection in some way, like the local police detective in The Doomsday Symphony, Jenna Sainte-Croix (from “je ne sais quoi”) or her colleague, police officer, Sgt. Lou Tennant. There's the villain in The Lost Chord called Tr'iTone (after an interval known as the “devil in music,” the tritone), or the diminutaive Asian-American detective from the International Music Police, Yoda Leahy-Hu. The viola-playing villain of The Labyrinth is Nepomuk, one of the more common names in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and the middle name of numerous Bohemian-born composers like Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

So I started building a world of characters around Tom Purdue, a not-yet-retired composer and estranged friend of Kerr's. There's his student intern, Amanda Wences (his amanuensis), and his ex-wife Sue Stenuto (from the musical term, sostenuto, sustained) who didn't like being known as Sue Purdue (just say it fast, you'll get it). The local police in the town of Marple – complete with numerous Agatha Christie puns, including Tom's Aunt Jane – are mostly based on dances, aside from Detective Laura Narder (not related to one of the many TV police show franchises): there's Alejandro Tango and Jamie Reel, and the old-timer, Captain Freddie Gagliardo (a.k.a. Grumpy Cop), Paula Naize and Maureen (“Mo”) Zerka, among others. And of course there's this novel's detective from the International Music Police, Bond – Sarah Bond – who may or may not dance to a stately sarabande.

Then there's the dance school in Marple with Patty Beret and Rhonda Zhomme, based on the ballet steps pas de bourrée and rond de jambe. I'd already used P.K. Arabesk and Tom LeVay in The Lost Chord, unfortunately.

There are also two friends of Purdue's and Kerr's, reunited from their days at graduate school. One has gone on to become a second-rate musicologist, Martin Crotchet, the other a pianist named Dorothy (“Dottie”) Minnim – both names coming from the British terms for quarter note and (dotted) half note. While I often try to imagine certain TV characters or actors taking on my characters' personas so I can develop reasonable dialogue around them, I've thought of Martin Crotchet as being played by Freddy from the BBC comedy Vicious but as if played by Martin Clunes's Doc Martin instead of Ian Mackellan. I'm not sure I can maintain that, however, so I'm sure he'll mellow out quite soon.

Then there's the Kapellmeister, a take-off of Dr. Who, and his search for the mysterious Belcher Codex, a theory text originally written by early American composer, Supply Belcher (and that's his real name!) but let's not get into that just yet...

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So, let's look back over what I've done this past month – completing the 2nd chapter, writing all of the 3rd chapter and getting the 4th chapter started. So far, I'm 42,187 words into the novel but I began working on it sometime in late-June. But during the past month when I considered a 610-word day productive, I only managed to rustle up 14,518 words, barely 29% of the NaNoWriMo Challenge's Goal.


On the other hand, figuring how much is left and that I'm only in the introductory stages, I'm not sure I want to contemplate there are still 154,231 words to go or how long that would take, at 14.5k words/month, to finish.

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On a related note, yesterday was the 1st day of deer hunting season here in Pennsylvania - an actual holiday when kids have the day off from school! - and I recalled the time I referred to the 1978 film “The Deer Hunter” as “The Deer Slayer” which friends thought was a clever social comment on the whole hunting mind-set. At the moment, I hadn't made the connection that James Fenimore Cooper's 1841 novel The Deerslayer which I had never read was a more significant point of reference to me than a 1978 movie which I had never seen.

I went to my bookcase to look for my grandfather's copy of the Cooper novel. I was pretty sure he had owned all five of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales and since I had inherited his books, I figured it would make sense to read at least a few pages of it “on the day,” however much about deer hunting it was (as I recall, it has more to do with scalping in the pioneer days before the American Revolution).

I was not prepared for the wave of nostalgia when I opened the book and saw my grandfather had inscribed his name in a fine precise hand (he would go on to become a draftsman) on the inside front cover with his address in Steelton PA (Dauphin Co.) on October 14th, 1902.

There was something about holding a 113-year-old book in my hand that my grandfather had read when he was probably 15 years old.

The pages were deeply yellowed and the type – an incredibly fine font to begin with already, almost like reading microfilm – was considerably faded, making it difficult to tell an 'e' from an 'o' or a 'c' though despite its age, the binding was quite sturdy, yet. I managed to read the first 19 pages, despite my one cat's best efforts to make that impossible.

Then I noticed the hand-made “Library of” stamp he had drafted in India ink, a double-bordered square with his name and town, with “Shelf No. 1, Book No. 1,” the numbers written in red pencil for presumably easier correcting should they find a different location on another shelf someday.

Was this the first book he bought himself and started his collection with?

my grandfather's house, today
Today, I googled the address and found not only does the house still exist, it is for sale. I was able to take a “virtual tour” of the house and its rooms though there is nothing my grandfather or his family could recognize from it, after all the remodeling that has been done (I'm not sure a family living there in 1950 could recognize any of it, for that matter). It has apparently been subdivided into two units (my grandfather was the youngest of a large family so I'm sure they occupied the entire building) with different sidings and different roofs including an addition onto the front converting part of the original front porch into an inside room and, on the back, a treated lumber deck.

My grandfather, who married my grandmother in 1911, bought his first house in the 1920s and in 1946 built the house I knew in my childhood, when I used to stretch out on the floor in front of his bookcase and page through all these different books of his even though I was only 4 or 5 years old (I'm sure I spent little time with Cooper's Deerslayer then as it had no illustrations).

It was, for a moment, my sitting there with his book in my hand, looking at a current photograph of the house he lived in when he read it, feeling a bit like Proust and his madeleine, that little pastry eaten with a cup of lime tea when he was a middle-aged man wondering whether he'd ever succeed at becoming a writer or not; then, without being aware of it, taken back to a childhood memory, sitting in his great-aunt's home, eating a madeleine dipped in lime tea, and from there, recalling the details of a life that would eventually become his novel.


- Dick Strawser

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