Mary’s Night Out

Today was a difficult day, so I wrote a short story. It’s about a girl learning to live on her own terms, so it felt appropriate. I used the prompt from Visual Verse, an online literary magazine full of flash fiction inspired by paintings and photographs. This picture (by Manon Bellet) is their current prompt.

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“Mary, what’s on your skirt?”

Mary blinked. She hadn’t been listening to her father as he read, but he didn’t seem to notice. He still held the book too close to his face, but his narrow eyes peaked out over the top of its cover, staring straight at Mary’s sister.

“Elizabeth.” Their father’s voice was strained. “What have I told you about interrupting our daily reading?”

Elizabeth bounced in her seat, making her white prayer cap come loose. She was at that age where she was still oblivious to their father’s severity. Mary envied her.

“But look, Papa!” Elizabeth said. “There’s something sticking to Mary’s skirt!”

Now he was looking at Mary. “Well?” he said.

Mary looked. Clinging to the side of her long blue skirt was a torn piece of a plastic bag with the handle still attached. She touched it gingerly before she peeled it off.

“What is it?” Elizabeth asked again, because she truly didn’t know. How could she? Their father was a staunch environmentalist. No plastic, no visits to stores with electricity, barely any paper except in books or when required for school. Even in a town full of Amish, their father looked extreme.

He snapped the book shut, narrowly missing his nose.

“You know we don’t allow such materials under our roof,” he said. “Our neighbors may be fine with damaging the Earth, but God put us here to protect it.”

“Yes, Papa.”

“Where did you get it? You haven’t even been out of the house today.”

Because it wasn’t today. The last time she’d worn this dress was two nights ago. It was the only one with sleeves loose enough to roll up and buttons up the front. When adjusted, it could almost pass for a dress that someone outside of her town would wear. And that was exactly what Mary wanted. To look like someone from Indianapolis, or Bloomington, or even Muncie.

The sounds of the city still filled her head: the screech of tires as her bus rolled into town and cars honking and the bubbling of conversation on the sidewalks.

She remembered the whir of the automatic doors, the chime of the cash register as she bought her first candy bar, the swish of the plastic bag as the convenience store employee slid the candy into it.

It was a simple stroll in town, Mary told herself. She just wanted to see what it would be like.

But she couldn’t tell her father that.

“I think the Nicholsons are littering,” she said.

Mary’s father stopped short. He had already been drawing a breath, preparing to yell at her, but now his rage was redirected. He flung himself to the front door and burst across their lawn to the Nicholsons’ house. Elizabeth covered her ears, and Mary reached out to pat her head.

Poor Matthew, Mary thought as she heard her father screaming at his parents. I’ll buy him a candy bar next time.

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Reflections from NaNoWriMo

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So NaNoWriMo is over. And I did not win.

I’ll once again give a little bit of a refresher for people who don’t know what I’m talking about. NaNoWriMo stands for “National Novel Writing Month”, which takes place in November each year. The idea is to commit to writing a complete 50,000 word novel, which comes out to 1,667 words per day. I wrote a blog post about how I was doing NaNoWriMo for the first time in years. I was scared but determined. After all, if you can’t produce, you can’t call yourself a writer.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. I’m still shellshocked from the election and worried about my country. I’ve barely written anything because writing fiction strikes me as insensitive to what’s going on around me, so I sit by myself or with my boyfriend and mope instead, which is even MORE insensitive. Good job, Alyssa.

But one day, I wake up, and I know I have to keep moving. I’m already behind by about 10,000 words, but I’ve always had a lot of blind faith in myself, so I don’t let it stop me.

The next week and a half are better. I’m writing a lot more, but I’m still behind, so I push harder. And harder. I say no when friends ask me to hang out. I skip exercise. My room gradually gets messier. My word count goes up a lot. I’m convinced I’m doing this right.

And then something happens. I start to write terrible things.

Not “terrible” in the sense that awful things are happening to my characters (though that’s also true, heh). “Terrible” in the sense that what I’m writing is just plain bad. I was already putting my story down with a degree of abandon, but up until that moment, I still knew where the story was going. But I was losing that direction. Suddenly the characters were doing things that didn’t make sense. The plot was taking pointless twists, which is something I hate as a reader because it’s so obvious that the author is just making something happen for the sake of it. I knew I could do so much better, but part of the NaNoWriMo tradition is that you’re not supposed to edit as you go. But I wasn’t even editing — I was writing things down knowing I could do better if I just thought about the story for even a few minutes longer.

It was becoming clear to me that I wouldn’t get to 50K, though, and I wasn’t all that bothered by it. The last draft I wrote was almost three times that size, so there was never a question of whether or not I could do it. Instead, I felt concerned for my characters. Like any writer with any of their books, I’m obsessed with the story. I want it to be good so that maybe I can make it great. And even if I had a 50K word draft to work from, what if I ended up scrapping most of it the way I did with the first draft of The Lost Royals? That was painful, and I didn’t want it to happen again. This time, I wanted salvageable material. I wanted good to make into great.

And so I took a breath, and I returned to writing just over 1,000 words a day. Already, I feel a lot better with what I’m seeing on the page. And I ended up with just over 25,000 words that — dare I say it? — I’m actually sort of okay with. This is a big step up from post-TLR Alyssa, who was very emo about how awful her draft was.

Even though winning NaNoWriMo will no longer be a goal of mine, I’m fully planning on participating next year. I loved being part of online word sprints and reading author pep talks and seeing people writing their hearts out. It’s inspiring. And in the meantime, I’ll be finishing my current draft. Writing this book has been a huge learning experience so far, and I’ll be talking about that in my next post. And I think I speak for many people when I say: good riddance, November.

Gearing up for NaNoWriMo

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          The definition of “terror”.

Almost eleven years ago, I created an account on NaNoWriMo.

I can remember how excited I was when I found the website. If you’re not a writer and you haven’t heard of it, it stands for National Novel Writing Month and is, in my opinion, one of the best things to have come out of the internet.

In a nutshell, you sign up to write 50,000 words in the month of November. But it’s not just about the word count. NaNoWriMo asks that you create a fully realized story. One with a beginning, a middle and an end. If you treat it right, it’s basically one of the most grueling writing bootcamps out there. Not that it makes you into a good writer, per se, but it makes you produce. In the end, if you don’t write, it doesn’t matter how pretty your words are.

With all that said, I’m embarrassed that I’ve never “won”, despite a handful of attempts. That is, I’ve never written 50,000 words in the span of a month. I’m a slow writer, and even though I was always excited to participate in NaNoWriMo, I got discouraged when I didn’t like what I was writing. My lifetime NaNoWriMo word count is just over 15,000 (I’ve formally attempted it twice). My actual lifetime word count is way, way higher than that, but seeing that little number on the NaNoWriMo dashboard makes me forget that tiny detail. Instead, it makes me feel competitive. I want to crush that little number under the weight of thousands and thousands of words.

And so, because there’s no one I like competing with more than myself, I decided this will be the year. Since I’m no longer fourteen and am much better at pushing myself through a draft even when it’s a giant stinking pile of poo (see: The Lost Royals, draft 1), I’m going to go for the 50K. I’m taking an idea that I’ve already done a solid amount of pre-writing for, and it’s tentatively titled The Tower. It’s a story about a young woman who escapes a doomed fate as a sacrifice to a mysterious creature only to have it follow her into the streets of London and beyond. The time I’ll be spending on this means I’ll be putting my main project on hold for the month, but I think I need that. I’m at a point in the middle of my second draft of TLR that’s hard to wade through, and the solidity and encouragement that would come from finishing another manuscript is probably what the doctor would order if there was a doctor especially for writers (is that what shrinks are for?).

I’ll be updating my progress on my blog throughout the month. But first, I need to stock up on coffee.