Nanowrimo novel, chapter The Ghosts of November, part 4

(concluded from here)

Fall, Falling, Fallen, Fell

The story of a early-20s tomboy’s suicide attempt and the strange company she falls into in the ensuing therapy.

What was supposed to happen: our protagonist, jumping impulsively from the Hawthorne Bridge while shellshocked and panicked by the drunken car accident she’s just been in and which has killed her boyfriend, sets herself on a path through court-mandated therapy with a group of other attempted suicides. Falling in with an experimental therapy group led by an ambitious young psychologist, she examines her life and motivations while the varied stories and motivations of the other suiciders mix and mingle in weekly meetings. The group becomes more and more contentious, the psychologist’s grip on the direction of this niche community weakens, and the escalation of both romantic and antagonistic relationships among the group lead to serious problems and at least one subsequent suicide. And…well, honestly, I never got as far as figuring out where it would go.

What did happen: our girl jumped off the bridge (or, at least, fell from the bridge) and hit the water realizing she wasn’t ready to die yet, and managed to struggle to shore and pass out. Eventually, she woke up, and managed to sit and then stand despite exhaustion and some serious pain from the impact of the water and having smacked her mouth into her knee (shattering a couple teeth and biting her tongue pretty severely). She managed to stumble, dazed, through the early morning and continuing rainstorm, until she found the house of and old friend and cohort who she had in recent months (years?) fallen away from. She collapsed in tears on the friend’s doorstep, and friend and friend’s boyfriend took her in and cleaned her up and let her sleep on the couch. And, in the morning, she woke up in pain.

And that’s as far as the plot got. Between those story chapters I interjected with some first-person exposition from a variety of as-yet-unidentified characters, each talking in one way or another about a suicide attempt (generally their own). The clinically depressed girl who tried to dose on aspirin. The heroin-addled college professor who was too wasted to aim the gun right. The little old lady who accidentally! took far too many pills. The upset vanity-suicide broken-hearted high school girl.

My thinking about these anonymous expositions was that they were, perhaps, introductory stories by people who would, later in the book, be the crowd of suiciders at the group therapy meetings. Sort of a pre-emptive introduction, and the various stories interjected throught he beginning of the novel would server to establish the theme of suicide. Unfortunately, I never got as far as the therapy, or the psychologist organizing it, or the court-order that would land our protagonist in said therapy. These were ideas that I wasn’t sure how to get to, and I found myself describing the relationship of friend and friend’s boyfriend and the implications of the protagonists’s sudden intrusion into their lives. Which was catching my interest in its own way, but, well, I lost the will to take the energy and time to push on through.

Last year’s novel was a return to form: I put out something like 17,000 words and then just stopped halfway through the month, essentially a repeat of 2001 and 2002. A big part of that, I think, was based on fear of how to write the unknown. I was imagining a visit from the police, some time in a mental ward for suicide watch, a trial regarding the death of her boyfriend, the avoidance of prison with instead probation and therapy, etc, and all of that seemed very difficult to write because I had no idea how it would be accomplished. What do I know about the police? The courts? Criminal law? How could I possibly write that without either scads of research or embarrassingly bad assumptions?

Which, in retrospect, is ridiculous. Who cares? Why couldn’t I just close out that first run of plot — from the fall from the bridge to the inevitable visit from the cops — and then just do a heavy cut? She could have started the very next chapter at the first therapy meeting and only referred back to the interim events circumspectly. Skip it. Allude to it. Do the research and write that stuff in later, if it’s worth it. Alas, I didn’t. Maybe I was just looking for an excuse. Maybe my heart wasn’t in it. Work was in a pretty ugly state this time last year, layoffs and lots of worry. Poison in the well, perhaps.

Various little details

Among the every-other-chapter suicidal expositions was one stand-out entry: an angry rant by a bus-driver about jackass kids rushing out across intersections. The driver bitches about attention-starved fake-out teenager crybabies scratching at their wrists with razors because their allowance isn’t big enough, that sort of thing, and then basically wishes them a justly embarassing death by whatever means available. It came out of nowhere, almost — a much nicer bus driver expressed something more like matronly concern for jaywalkers when I was riding Trimet on the evening I wrote that passage — but it got me thinking: do I have an antagonist, here? Do I have a lynchpin character for the climax, an unbalanced bus driver who, in a fit of rage or depression or something, kidnaps his passengers as some freakout fight against the establishment or whatever the hell the bus driver is freaking out about? Bus-driver who happens to have a therapy group onboard? Bus-driver with a gun and an overdose of crazy? Do we end up seeing a group of suiciders put in the position of risking their lives to take down this psycho driver and save the rest? How’s that for a dramatic and ironic inversion, huh? I never really got as far as deciding whether that was too ridiculous to implement, though. For all it’s seeming silliness, it still makes more sense than some of the key plot elements in Johnny Psuedonym and the Noms de Plume.

The title, Fall, Falling, Fallen, Fell, was an expression of some lexical ideas I was playing with when taking notes last October. One theme I thought I’d explore in the book was whether she actually jumped from the bridge or merely climbed to the edge and, in a moment of indecision, fell. Was there a suicidal resolve in her panicked mind? Or did a gust of wind make her decision for her, perhaps even contradict her last-minute change of heart? That is to say, while she had certainly fallen to the water of the Willamette, is it accurate to say she fell from the bridge?

And that might have been the theme of a great deal of the book. All these suiciders, all these people who with varying degrees of sincerity and varying degrees of competence attempted to take their own lives — to what extent were they jumping, and to what extent simply falling?

(I also spent a lot of time thinking about regular and irregular verbs and the various conjugations of some of them. “Fall” is interesting because it has two distinct forms for past tense use: “He fell” vs. “He has fallen“. Compare to “jump”, which uses the same form in both cases: “He jumped“, “He has jumped“. Not that there’s anything terribly meaningful in this — I just spent a bit of time doodling with various verbs while I was brainstorming.)

And that was last year. Whether I have better tools or a better philosophy or even just a better sense of dedication this year, I don’t know. I’m going to try. I’d like to write something that I’ll be happy with in the end. And the only way that’s ever going to happen is if I keep writing. And this is a prime excuse to do just that.

Tuesday. Four days to go. I’m starting to feel nervous.

Phrase Breakery

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I’m sitting here giggling over grammar. Specifically, the breakage of stock phrases at a grammatically unsound point.

Seriously. This is the sort of thing that makes me laugh.

Example: “I can’t stand it.” Right. Everybody has this phrase in their arsenal — you don’t even have to think about it. It’s stock. It’s natural. You can manipulate it without effort, changing it around: “You know what I can’t stand?” “How can you stand it?” And so on.

There’s that central structure, that unbreakable connection of the ideas “can’t” and “stand”. Call it the Can’t-Stand structure. All the various renderings of the idea, as assertion or query, maintain that bond.

But that bond only exists because we’ve arbitrary generated and reinforced the bond through the use of those phrases. There’s nothing atomic in the English language about a connection between “can’t” and “stand” — we can generate all sorts of sentences using only one or the other, or even both in a different configuration, without error or tension. There’s no difficulty in saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t put the vase on the stand,” or even, “No, really, I can’t stand on my head.”

And so, hey, why not subvert that arbitrary bond? Why not intentionally change the glue-point of the canonical Can’t-Stand sentence? “I Can’t-Stand it” becomes “I can’t Stand-It”, for example, and then you can take this new sentence that, in it’s basic form, looks just like the original, and you can warp it into other forms and, well, hilarity ensues:

“You know what I can’t?”
“No, what?”
“Stand it!”

Ha! Okay, so after several paragraphs of prior explanation, it may not be so hilarious, but the point is that I’ve already thought about this a lot in the past, and so I just have these thoughts come flying unbidden to the forefront of my mind, and so my brain will, as it has this morning, just start throwing out these weird little one-liners until I’m just grinning like some linguophiliac monkey.

“You know what I can’t believe it’s not? Butter.

“What do we have to stand?”

Etc. I’m starting to think this post is pretty much unredeemable, but here we go: for significantly better lingual dorkery, you should really be reading The Language Log. You know what it’s a laugh? Riot, that’s what.

Nanowrimo novel, chapter The Ghosts of November, part 3

(continued again, from here)

Johnny Pseudonym and the Noms de Plume

At last, a winner! My third attempt was a success, at least within the generous framework of Nanowrimo: it was 50,000 words long, and it was at least aspiring to be a novel.

What happened: The story was primarily about Johnny Pseudonym, an embittered twenty-something rock musician trying find himself musically and reshape his life. He meets and, eventually, falls in love with Kat Isaacson, a smartmouthed highschooler, and they both have strange and eventually dangerous interactions with Harold Becker, a mentally unraveling divorcee and accountant for the company Johnny works for and Kat’s father owns. Things culminate when a completely whacked-out Harold tries to kill Johnny with a katana stolen from Kat’s father’s office.

It sounds ridiculous in capsule form. But setting aside the plot arc summarized above, there was some good conversation and something in the way of genuine character development. Johnny managed to deal with some of the self-destructive anger he’d carried out of a (shadowy, briefly recalled) childhood in the Hitler househould (his father reversed the family’s WWII-era migration to the less contentious “Hiltner” based not on any pro-Nazi sentiment but on sheer bullheaded stubborn principle). Kat managed to turn some of her creative energy away from compulsive lying and toward more concrete outlets like music. Johnny and Kat’s one-time boyfriend managed to meet in the middle after a rocky emotional triangle. And a bunch of ancillary characters — high school friends of Kat’s, mostly — had all sorts of minor social adventures.

It was still a big ridiculous mess, though. Pretty much every portion of the book having to do with Harry Becker was terrible — I never had any idea who this guy actually was, his motivations were thin when they weren’t just plain contrived.

Harry was, in my mind, supposed to be a grumpy-but-reasoned anal-retentive accounting executive, perhaps an auditor of some sort (the book never got specific), with a dead wife, a simmering bout of alcoholism, and a grim, combative attitude toward the world. He was a pattern-minded person, excellent at finding connections and chains of reason or evidence. Also, a technophobe — he depended on his long-time secretary, the bookish Janice, to handle all of his email and miscellaneous computer tasks.

Early in the book, however, Janice is fired without specific reason (though, if you ask me, she was probably stealing from the company for years, the wily old bat), Harry quickly loses patience with his new temporary secretary, and the first act of the book ends with Harry throwing a hissy fit of such magnitude that he gives himself a stroke in mid-lambast.

And the rest of the plot of the book, the arc I imagined when in October of 2003 I was feverishly improvising a structure for the story, involved Harry losing it. And lose it he did: he found in the hospital-bedside Bible a rich new source of patterns and secrets to which he could turn his clever mind, and quickly took up an obsession with the image of God as a holy administrator and Harry as some ladder-climbing executive of heaven’s army. He begins seeing things, including, eventually, his dead wife — who, it turns out, is Janice, post-makeover, crazy in her own way and morbidly courting her way into the life of the man for whom she worked for years amidst the agony of an unrequited attraction. With Janice egging him on and playing the role of his deceased wife (whose presence Harry unquestionably attributes to the will of God), Harry moves from passive religious fanatic to active religioso thug when he concludes that Kat is some latter-day manifestation of a corrupting woman-demon, a Jezebel poisoning the life of her father, E. S. Isaacson.

A little about E. S. Isaacson, then. I had originally imagined him as a significant character in the story, a sort of mystifying and confident authority figure acting as a lynchpin to most of the business-related set pieces. As it turns out, he made perhaps five appearances in the novel, long enough to befriend and find an avid admirer in quietly-collapsing employee Harry Becker (who E. S., understandably in the scope of their interactions, scares the hell out of), have Harry over for dinner with his wife and Kat and Kat’s ex-boyfriend, and get hit by a car (driven by Janice! Who hit him on purpose!) and go to the same hospital his daughter later ends up in after a frenzied confrontation by a now-completely-bonkers Harry in an alley outside a club.

So much for E. S. Isaacson. The E, by the way, stands for ‘Elijah’; the S, ‘Something’. Apparently his parents had as odd a sense in names as did Johhny “Jonathan Hitler” Pseudonym’s.

And the gaggle of supporting characters — Vi, Branson, Alex, Jack, others whose names I really ought to be able to remember — were invented afterthoughts, characters written into the story on the fly when I wasn’t sure what to do with Johnny or Harry. And what a difference! Without a plan or a ridiculous plot-function, these high school kids were able to act like real human beings. They commited faux pas, they got drunk, they yelled at each other and laughed and had awkward moments. They were great. They were, insofar as the novel I ended up writing had one, the heart and soul of the story. They were the genuinely inspired, spontaneous breath of life, and I found as I neared the end of the book’s (ever morphing) plot, I was less interested in the plot-characters than in these misfits.

Theme! The book had a couple of aesthetic themes — again with the pre-planned Ideas and Notions that I came up with that October. Harry’s new-found obsession with the Bible justified the use of cherry-picked Biblical verse as chapter seperators. Harry had visions, Johnny had strange dreams (both flashbacks and surreal ad hoc mental trips), Johnny’s musical cohort staged an Apocalypse-themed music show near the end of the story featuring trumpeters and the breaking of seals and so forth (which biblical allusion led an unhinged Harry Becker to freak out and attack Kat). There was a strong if only superficial god streak to the whole thing: the attitude of the book was altogether secular and skeptical.

I could go on. There a lot of details that are coming back to me as I write this. However, I’m almost out of time, so I’ll just toss out some tidbits and leave it at that.

Johnny continues the tradition established in my first effort of a leading character with a superficial resemblence to the author. In this case, we’ve got (a) disgrunted musician, (b) market research phone monkey. The fact that I wrote the entire book while on the job as a market research phone monkey and finding my feet in a new band ties it all together.

Kat owes a lot in at least inspiration to my friend Mary MacPherson, who in high school was a tremendous liar (or storyteller, depending on how you frame it).

The novel had about 12 appendices, written in a mad dash to reach 50,000 words. The day I finished the story itself, I found myself a couple thousand words short, and resorted to a series of dedications, explanations, lists (Vi’s 37 nicknames, broken down by good/ill/neutral intonations and etc), and alternative endings (replacing, for example, the katana by which Johhny is nearly killed with a frozen swordfish named “Katana”).

Johnny worked for a thin parody of the company I worked for at the time; Kat attended a thin parody of my own high school; the novel featured, through out it’s contents, at least a hundred fictional Portland bands; Kat claimed in a drunken prank to have fibromyalgia, an affliction I surprised myself by knowing the name of despite knowing nothing about; and so on.

Heady stuff, this novel-writing.

Meme Time: Sadvocate!

You know those clip-board bearing charity do-gooders that pop up all over the downtown area when the weather is nice? (“Canvassers”, we call them in the biz.) You’ve got your cheery super-upbeat sorts that greet you from across the street as you being to cross toward them. You’ve got your slackerly not-really-trying sorts who are clearly wondering why they signed up in the first place.

And then you’ve got the other sort. The gloomy, emotionally involved canvasser who hugs her clipboard and explains how awful it is for the children, please won’t you help the children. Or the forests. Or whatever. She has foresaken then school of a smile-and-a-handshake to pursue a study of plaintive, earnest empathizing.

I have invented a name for these downbeat, heartstringing charity casers: Sadvocates.

Tell your friends.

Actually, U R So Ugly

Actually, U R So Ugly

I’ve got a whole section (“set”, if you will) on Flickr dedicated to graffiti in Portland, but Angela and I came across this just this weekend. I’ve always liked conversational graffiti — bar and coffeeshop bathrooms being the best source for that sort of thing — and this just made me giggle.

It gives the distinct impression that the Internet is spilling over into the real world somehow. Some awful tearing of the fabric between dimensions. Soon, we will be overrun by an army of rofldeamons.

Nanowrimo novel, chapter The Ghosts of November, part 2

(continued from here)

Everybody Dies (working title)

A series of vingettes of several major characters — a pyromaniac, an incestous set of fraternal twin lawyers, a burnt-out rock guitarist, a young lawyer having herself an identity crisis, an increasingly fed-up stay-at-home mother, her precocious twelve year-old son, a mysterious homeless soothesayer — who, in every fractured chapter in the non-linear and poly-temporal storyline, end up dying.

What was supposed to happen: The central character (whose name I’m embarrassed to admit I can’t recall) dies in a series of contradictory circumstances, cementing the premise (not to say gimmick) of the book: these are glimpses of the possible deaths of this character, of these various characters; and in the moments leading up to death, these are the possible lives they might lead. As the reader sees ten, twenty, thirty different views of the different last moments of the characters, they develop a strong sense of character for these various misfits and self-seekers. Then, in the end, a redeeming chapter ends the cycle of deaths when a firefighter (our awkward young pyro, grown up and pursuing a tenuous compromise of self-control and impulse-satisfaction) saves the lives of several of the other characters in a nightclub fire.

What actually happened: the main character died a few times. Several other characters died, some of them more than once. And, frankly, I got sick of killing these folks off.

The first few chapters weren’t too hard. I had some specific ideas for the central character, the pyromaniac, and managed to portray an early experiment with fire that lead to the accidental death of his schoolmate, his death during the for-kicks burning down of a warehouse, ditto burning down the school gym after having his heart broken at a dance happening therein, and so on. And there were other characters, invented as I wrote them in for the first time, who died in ways and in circumstances that set the tone for future appearances.

But at some point I got to writing about a ten year old boy who found a dead cat on the way home. And I started liking this kid almost immediately (smart as a whip, great sense of humor, not a little bastard at all), and I liked his mom too. From the short slice of their life I wrote, they seemed to have a really great relationship with each other. And then, later in that chapter, while the mom discussed this feline discovery with a neighbor friend, the kid choked to death on a candy bar, and the chapter ended with the mom holding him in her lap and screaming.

That sucked. Ruined my whole day. And I think that was just about when the novel started to die on me. I wrote a fair chunk more — that couldn’t have been more than halfway to the 15,000 words I ended up at — but that kid just stuck around in my head. It was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, hard to see the redeeming solution to all this death I was waging. Cheerless, cruel murders of character after character, instance after instance.

I don’t think I ever clearly established the parallel-dimension “possible lives” theme in what I’d written, which made the march of death all the more dreary and pointless.

I still like the idea, however. If it ever occurs to me how to actually accomplish the germ of the story, how to give it a structure that will make it writable and readable, I might just try it again.

Nanowrimo novel, chapter The Ghosts of November, part 1

I’m less than a week from launching into my fifth Nanowrimo novel, and I’ve been thinking about my previous November novel efforts. Remeniscence seems to be the companion of brainstorming, lately.

So here’s a brief summary of my first attempt. I’ll follow up with summaries for the other three in seperate posts (having discovered in writing this one that I’m going on at much greater length than I originally expected). I’ll describe both what the story was supposed to be about and what it ended up being about according to the evidence I produced in the respective November.


The story of Ed Powell, a depressed, single 20-something computer geek conscripted by his maverick publisher Aunt Janis to ghost-write some children’s books as part of some guerilla pseudo-kid-lit campaign. Ed shared an apartment and some sort of buried romantic history with Laurie, a bright and silver-tongued girl who never learned to read.

What was supposed to happen: Ed, after some initial hesitation, starts in on the kids books, and bolstered by some initial success and validation really gets into it and into himself, but as that progresses some hereditary stripe of schizophrenia goes early-onset and Ed starts to lose it. Based in large part on the cloistered and co-dependent relationship he has with Laurie, and the dissolution thereof, Ed finds himself increasingly introspective, mentally unbalanced, chemically dosed, and in every respect becoming the sort of scary monster no parent would want their kid in contact with. His books are extremely popular, however, and Aunt Janis handles his pseudonymous PR brilliantly. Eventually, Ed, who has been seeing the ghost of his long-dead and very-very-crazy father at the supermarket and around town, goes to his childhood home (itself a painful haunted place in his memory — his mother shot his father one evening when father attacked her in a schizo rage), where he ends up shooting the ghost in the darkness, who it turns out is his estranged uncle and hence the resemblence. Then, Ed flees to a cabin and self-destructs while spilling out the story that is the novel. Or something like that.

What actually happened, insofar as I ever wrote it down: Ed got as far as writing one kid’s book, while completely drunk. The book was about an Alaskan moose who died, along with everything he cared about, in a nuclear attack on Anchorage, and who then went on to haunt, um, something or other. Ed and Laurie squabbled a bit. There were some flashbacks, and some vague and foreboding flashes forward — who was conducting this narrative and when was never pinned down — and later on in the story there were some strange jaunts off into a tangential near-future sci-fi world of outlaw psychics. At about 17,000 words, I ran out of energy if not ideas.

I hadn’t done any significant amount of writing for a few years before I started in on this first attempt. I’d done some incidental writing for the college paper, but short of that I’d been very lazy for pretty much the stretch of my higher education, having gotten into a curriculum (Computer Science) that didn’t require that we ever even write English sentence except on the occasional mid-term. Trying to churn out a novel was a fairly intense method of literary (or even lexical or syntactic) self-discovery, and while I feel I was definitely better for having made the effort, the actual results weren’t much to speak of.

Fun facts:

Ed Powell‘s name was a real pain to settle on. Eventually, I started writing and had to, within a few days at least, call him something. Edward is my middle name, and the character was in many superficial respects a vingette of the Josh Millard of 2001 — post-degree early-20s Computer Science major languishing away in unrelated and unsatisfying grunt work while messing about with programming as a hobby. As for the surname Powell, I’ve always been fond of Powell’s books; in high school I spent a fair amount of time having lunch at fastfood joints on SE Powell Blvd; and it was a bit of punnish memorial to my late friend Emma Howell, the chutzpah and literary trappings of Ed’s Aunt Janis being in some small part an imagined version of Emma in her fifties, had she lived that long.

Ed made a brief cameo in the next year’s novel (attempt), as a thoroughly strung-out chemical casualty at a party, and played the (so to speak) straight man to a short comedy bit.