NaNoWriMo Prep Resources 2018

After several years of writing novels during November, I’m finally starting to get more organized about the online guides I rely on to keep trying to make it work. Note that this post doesn’t explicitly include print books or other print materials, of which there are many excellent examples. And one caveat for you: Start with a good story idea. Brainstorm if you need a well-developed idea or premise to start with. It will help to visualize your idea in the context of the following developmental helpers for story writing.

Featured Resource: The Write Practice

The website Thewritepractice.com is quickly becoming my go-to NaNo prep resource this year. I’ll spare you the effort to recall exactly how I happened upon it. The point is I’ve found it really helpful, full of a-ha moments. Here are some of the particular a-ha moment articles I recommend so far, whether you’re a planner, a pantser, or aren’t sure what kind of approach you take yet but just might want to try writing a novel.

I find each article engaging and digestible, and each ends with a writing prompt exercise. I’m using them to recall and dive deeper into the principles of story writing as I figure out what my novel will be about this November. I hope you find something insightful in them.

A handful of other great materials I’ve found useful since 2011, my first year of NaNoWriMo:

National Novel Writing Month Young Writers Program Workbook (download the high school pdf) – Worksheets on everything from finding a premise to determining setting and conflict to writing good dialogue to choosing types of antagonists and more.

A Compendium of Novel Structure Resources – Just during drafting of this post, I found from Storm Writing School what might be the mother lode. It captures and links to 7 of the story structure systems and resources I’ve consulted or used in the past (Syd Field, Dan Wells, Christopher Vogler, Larry Brooks, Blake Snyder, K.M. Weiland, and Dramatica!), plus many I’ve never heard of! The article addresses the nature of acts (Act I, Act II, Act III) and organizes the resources into three aspects or types of structural frameworks–named stages, plot point outlines, and process guides. Check it out!

Brainstorming, Outlining, Drafting, Progress Tracking, Moral Support, and Organizational Tools including Mindly; AirTable; Nanowrimo.org library, word sprint tool, stats and goal trackers, pep talks, forums, and their blog; Writeometer and other word sprint/progress tracking tools; Scrivener; and PlumeCreator (open source).

Happy noveling or whatever writing you do!


If you enjoyed this post or want to know more about my personal novel writing journey and what NaNoWriMo–and Camp NaNoWriMo–can be like, I recommend:

Poetic Feet to the Fire

I’ve won a poetry contest before, once (granted I’ve entered only about 4 or 5 total), and I entered one recently. For this live performance competition, I collected a group of poems I thought to be of reasonably high quality for the upcoming event (end of July). Before long, I started narrowing down the candidates, returning to that process again after two things changed: The “tournament” became a showcase due to insufficient competitor entries to make the brackets work, and the accompanying call for literary magazine submissions opened up to entries from more writers than just would-be contest winners.

Thus, the pressure was lifted for content on one platform (stage) and transferred to the other (page). The result was to extend the time available for each writer’s decisions on what to submit (deadline moved from June 2 to July 1). With the change in deadline came more detailed guidelines as well. I suppose the crisis of faith that followed for me simply happened sooner than it might have, which is probably good since you don’t want to panic right before going on stage either. Whatever the cause or contributing factors, doubt has crept in.

I had already shuffled the order a few times, relegating poems to alternate status and back again, when I learned the news of the event’s structural changes. Before the tournament became a non-competitive showcase, there was to be a series of time limits for contestants at the mic. However, with a dearth of entries, stage time has expanded for each participant. By contrast, with the new goal for the literary magazine being to include more participants than before, page space per writer has shrunk.

The new submission guidelines for poetry (the event includes storytelling, comedy, and music as well) specify a limit of 30 lines per poem, including lines between stanzas, and this has added difficulty to my decisions. It’s appropriate–only your best work. Of course I would submit only my best! If I could.

My trouble, as I see it, given that I do not write poetry prolifically, is that my shorter poems, the ones eligible for submission, tend not to be as good as those just out of range.

The consequences? My collection has thus begun to dwindle further (not inherently bad); I was forced to revise structures to make a few poems more horizontal and less vertical in appearance (no biggie); and I started to feel the overall quality ebbing away (kind of a biggie). The bubble of my collection of poems seems already to have burst.

For this event, I’ve focused on nature poems, but so does my overall poetry collection. Due to my infrequent verse writing activity (up to a half dozen poems a year), the total collection of possible candidates also spans a period of decades. The oldest poem in the group is 24 years old, the youngest a couple of months. My verse children were born in different personal eras (adolescence, college, working world), geographical places (France, Ohio, and Massachusetts), and moments in my poetic development (confessional, abstract/obscure, nonsensical word play, formalism, free verse with internal rhyme, terse verticality, and so on). A diverse brood. Ironically, the oldest poems tend to be the most underdeveloped–sometimes that’s the nature of literary babies (and some humans).

I have not officially, i.e., formally, published any poetry in my career, if one can even call it a career. So, finding myself on the cusp of large-scale live audience action, if not publication, I’m sitting up a little straighter and feeling the lick of flames under my toes.

In desperation before these emergent, combined realities, I found myself scrounging for additional works to use. One poem I had discarded, or set aside, a few years ago as birth defected and beyond repair has become an object for resuscitation, remodeling, and renewal. You can do that with some writing. I journaled about it, scanned the meter, and color coded my pen marks for the strongest aspects I could isolate and reshape into something new. Now the poem awaits rewriting. Who knows? Maybe it will be the saving grace of the family.

Putting yourself out there is a healthy thing, I must remind myself, even if doubt lingers. It forces you to keep moving forward, find a way to make things work, and start new projects. With the imminence of the showcase, for which I’m officially on the schedule, I gain new motivation to work, to improve, to learn, and to try again. Sometimes, when idea inspiration doesn’t come, when desire to express doesn’t win out, the external pressure of a deadline and an audience can provide the needed incentive.

What is it? Disguised blessing? Healthy challenge?

There are more ways than one to get things done, and opportunity need not be a crisis. So courage, creator! And carry on toward adventure.

Noveling in November

It’s that time again!

NaNoWriMo_shield-left-spelled-out-right

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

And I didn’t yet finish that epic Alice books spin-off project, my vision of Lewis Carroll’s classic story from the Jabberwock’s perspective. In fact, following a fellow writer’s advice, I took a long break from it entirely after I got stuck in concept analysis and rehashing the outline for the umpteenth time. It felt as if it had become too unwieldy to manage, so from late May to mid-October 2017, I set it aside.

The story started at the July 2016 Camp NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), then I continued to develop it during NaNoWriMo last November, and I even managed to attend to it roughly weekly through early 2017. Après tout cela, le déluge. . . .

A lot has happened in the four and a half months since (in well-blended order):

  • read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • tutored English, essay writing, career help, and social studies through the summer
  • shopped for a dog
  • became addicted to Gold Peak green tea
  • read Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire and watched Brando in film version
  • gardened and weeded all summer
  • took a memoir writing class; planned and drafted the start of a memoir about teaching
  • took on more responsibility with my local writers group
  • hiked the Glens Trail at Gorge Metro Park for the first time
  • started a new endocrine medication
  • watched the scandalizing History Channel documentary series America’s Drug War
  • painted a portrait of Texas bluebonnets in vases
  • traveled to Pittsburgh to meet a puppy for adoption
  • same weekend, in Cleveland: Gold Cup double-header, nature hiking, Hofbrauhaus
  • adopted the cutest puppy in the universe two days later
  • nearly lost the puppy, who escaped his harness, in a plaza parking lot during the 1st week!
  • watched the affecting A&E documentary series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath
  • discovered the puppy had worms (gross) and fleas; got him de-wormed and cleaned house
  • worked with financial advisor to improve our finances
  • bought some new, softer bed sheets—nice
  • fell in the garage, bruised/scraped up my right side (mainly knee) trying to corral the puppy
  • rehabilitated and trained a fearful puppy in a month-long, self-imposed boot camp
  • dealt with 4 dogs who got loose in our neighborhood at different times
  • bought a new lawn mower after the handle on our old hand-me-down broke
  • consulted a dog trainer for the first time—helpful
  • fell in love with Panera’s green goddess salad and chipotle chicken avocado melt
  • took the puppy to an art festival only to discover no dogs were allowed
  • wrote a few journal entries
  • became less motivated and energetic for writing once we got the puppy
  • experienced and photographed the solar eclipse
  • watched the classic horror film Rosemary’s Baby for the first time
  • exercised a lot more because of the puppy, lost a few pounds
  • enjoyed a Labor Day party at our nephew’s new Columbus apartment
  • discovered new hiking trails and parks because of puppy
  • discovered we have a grub problem—evidence of skunks digging in the yard
  • took the puppy to a local mum festival (first time going)
  • saw Blade Runner 2049 and Wonder Woman (both great) in theaters
  • learned some agility basics and obedience training for the puppy
  • had several massage, chiropractic, and doctors’ appointments
  • replaced our ancient water heater after losing hot water
  • wrote a couple of poems, drafted some political essays
  • bought a UV light to kill mold and VOCs in our house
  • decorated indoors for autumn and Halloween
  • met lots of new people because of our puppy, including a neighbor friend
  • weaned myself off daily ibuprofen per my rheumatologist’s instruction
  • created a template permission contract for others’ use of my creative work
  • tried a few new recipes, including a great one for pumpkin chocolate chip cookies
  • stopped tutoring social studies after a trend of low ratings from students
  • wrote some blog posts and reblogged others
  • considered but decided against participating in volunteer community theater production
  • Droughtlander finally ended and an excellent Outlander season 3 began
  • attended some pre-NaNoWriMo meet-ups with our municipal liaison, seeing friends again
  • started feeling more pain in my left hip and left knee after stopping ibuprofen
  • signed on to help a writing teacher guide her students through NaNoWriMo
  • cooked a new turkey and white bean chili we enjoyed
  • started reading The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck for classics book club
  • made oodles of to-do lists and one done list like this one; took tons of notes

Not exactly achievements for a traditional resume, but I wasn’t a bump on a log either.

Now, I’ve returned to the same Jabberwock novel to finish the story I started, and all that outlining is paying off. Having an established story structure–plus all my previous character development, world mapping, analysis, and storytelling–has prepared me to pick up where I left off. Now that I’m reoriented, it’s much easier just to show up at the computer, find my place, and write the next scene. I am free to be more creative and explore what remains: the story itself.

The following poem is a sample of my latest work on the novel during NaNoWriMo 2017:

To the Ray Harvesters from Cheshire Cat’s Pub

Let me sell you some sunshine
from the broad eastern plain
so you won’t have to reach so high up that tree
to catch the sun’s rays, blocked by dense
branches and lofty foliage from harvesting.

They have plenty of sun back east
where drought is too long creating
mirages in a soon-to-be-desert
and the drunkards stumble to the tavern’s threshold
only to find invisible smiling cats.

The sun is not useful there
where they block it with blinds
of thick wool and old wood planks
in the one building where infamy lives,
but barely, while liquor flows and cats nap.

The ground there is golden
with burnt grass and bright dirt, mocking
the yellow of sun beams wished
for growing green things, which you have
in abundance in your abundant shade.

Could we make a trade, perhaps,
a bargain of sorts? Rain for sun,
damp for dry, and a stoop of rum
or a sprig of thyme, for good measure
and good faith, or if you’d prefer,
some visions ground from your own toadstools?

It won’t be long now before you’ll
pale in the dearth of light on your western earth
and we’ll shrivel in the hot white searing
of sod and sand and roof on this edge of things.
We must take care of each other, or what are we?

Somehow, I rattled that one off in about 25 minutes after drafting a scene that takes place at the Cheshire Cat’s pub, a place I invented. It probably helped that I came fresh from studying poetry and contemplating the craft of verse writing as part of my responses to a friend’s questionnaire for profiling me as an artist on her blog.

The great thing about NaNoWriMo, which started midnight on November 1, is that there’s always another one around the corner for creative fuel injection. Now a global phenomenon, nearly half a million people are participating in this, its 19th year.

The NaNoWriMo Mission Statement:

“National Novel Writing Month believes in the transformational power of creativity. We provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page.”

The goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel between November 1 and November 30. As the website explains, “Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.”

It sounds like a lot of work, which it can be, but it can also be as enjoyable, enriching, and fruitful as you choose to make it. In the organization’s press release for this year’s program, they describe their enterprise as “one part boot camp, one part rollicking party.”

People unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, or the impulse to write long-form fiction, often ask why on earth anyone would schedule such a project during the busy holiday season, but there is method to this writing madness. Also, as part of that “structure, community, and encouragement,” there’s at least one article on time management tips by NaNo novel writers (see the sources at the end of this post). Authors whose NaNo novels have been published include Sara Gruen, Erin Morgenstern, Hugh Howey, Rainbow Rowell, Jason Hough, and Marissa Meyer.

I’ve blogged about the NaNo program and my involvement a few times since I started my blog in 2013:

2014 – NaNoWriMo blog “Now What?” post-noveling resources

2015 –
On Finishing That Novel
Literary April: National Poetry Month and Camp NaNoWriMo
Five-Phrase Friday (16): Alphas and Omegas

2016 –
Packing for Camp
Last Week of Camp: Ready to Start
This Hunted Story
Novel excerpt: Song meets Alice

2017 – Camp NaNoWriMo: Song of Spring

As I explained in my April 2016 post about my writing progress after the April camp:

“winning” [NaNoWriMo] is a formality and having some semblance of a recognizable tale when you reach the 50K happens only by the honor system.

[Unless you want them to,] no one reads the final product you upload for official validation to be classed among the winners. It’s all self driven.

This will be my fifth year participating since 2011. (With 2015’s fall workplace stressors, I opted for doodle-and-loiter therapy at those write-ins.) Raising a puppy this summer has worn me out a bit and thickened my usual brain fog, which always makes regular writing a challenge, but I’m hoping for an air-cleansing lightning storm from this year’s NaNoWriMo. There certainly is no shortage of resources for planning, pep talks, and inspiration. It has also helped that the puppy is more comfortable with us after almost 4 months and doesn’t need quite as much attention.

Here’s another excerpt from my first week of NaNoWriMo noveling:

Scene: The White King and Queen confer after the murder plot she has overheard.

The White King sat at his writing desk with yet more papers to go through from the post and the cabinet members’ council meeting of the previous day. The piles were piling up, and these clandestine rendezvous and illicit assassination pow-wows were starting to take their toll on his schedule. His large lower lip pushed out into his usual pout, though it was thin and hardly did a monarch’s pouty face justice.

The eyebrows were another matter. Bushy, white streaked sparely with silver, and often scowling. He brooded over the documents, with one pudgy hand rubbing the barely touchable stubble of his rounded but well-proportioned and well-positioned chin. No one would have seen the stubble from across the room or even a few feet away. The King himself was conscious of it mainly because he had a hand on it, and because he knew he had one of those clandestine rendezvous not long into his future.

The white robe of the White King was made of mink and studded with onyx pyramids projecting from their impossibly soft surface and lining the length of the hem up over his pot belly and all the way around behind his white heeled buckle shoes, usually at least two feet in front of the draping train of the robe.

The White King wore a ring of the monarchy on his right pinky finger, this time a pearl set in 14-carat gold etched with mountain-range like ridges and curving round the stocky little finger with delicate scroll work in bas relief, projecting out like the studs on the robe. The pearl was bulbous and large, comically large against a little finger, however stocky it may be. It resembled a boil or a corn or some other nasty protuberance one does not want to see growing on the skin of a finger or anywhere else.

As she entered the brightly lighted room full of tapered candles and the elaborate royal chandelier just out and above the desk top, the White Queen’s eye fell instantly on that boil of a pearl she always felt compelled to lance, at least for that flicker of time before she again realized it was not illness or injury, but simply jewelry.

She looked up and stopped, raising herself to as majestic a height as she could muster in her diminutive stature, with a neat button nose, silvery hair not yet fully white and a smooth pallor to her facial skin worked in concert as an ensemble complexion that belied her significant age, near to the King’s own.

As was her custom, she folded her hands diagonally to one another, keeping her elbows bent above the hips, her chin up and back, shoulders back and low, elongating that petite frame in the neck and torso so that it almost did perceptibly increase her height. And there she waited for her husband to look up.

Concentrating as he was on the papers and matters of state demanding his attention, he neither heard nor saw her enter. See this, she subtly shuffled her slippered feet laterally beneath her long straight gown, and this did the trick. With almost a jerk, and possibly a shudder, the White King’s head turned up and to his left as he sat in his masterly chair.

“Ah, my queen,” he said mildly, attempting to conceal his startlement. “A word.” He had not summoned her. She had arrived of her own volition and initiative. But he behaved as if his will dictated her every move, even though he knew it did not and never had.

Amused, she waited for the “word” from her lord and master, neither approaching closer nor changing position nor slackening her dignified air. She simply blinked and smiled slightly.

Unperturbed, the King began. “Yes, I am glad you are here. There are some matters I would like to discuss with you, matters of some urgency that we must attend to, my dear.” His round chin drew up into a polite smile but his bushy brows remained concentrated and serious.

The White Queen replied with a soft, silvery tone, like a sword quietly unsheathing itself. “What is it, my lord?”

“Come here. I have something to show you that I need your opinion on.”

The White Queen suppressed a sigh, as was frequent, while she approached the King at his desk throne. She thought to herself, Ah, if only you had consulted me sooner, I would have steered you rightly. She was of course thinking of the plot to kill Jock Warber, which she had overheard her husband, not an hour before, assisting Humpty Dumpty to arrange with the White Knight.

“Yes? What is it, my dear?” she inquired, smiling as she reached his side and brought her hands with open palms on graceful limbs down to the desk surface, tilting her head to see what it was the King was looking at.

I’m a member of the Canton Region of Ohio’s NaNoWriMo participants, also known affectionately as Cantowrimo. Our municipal liaison has kept the Canton group going strong for 15 years. I enjoy attending write-ins, but just knowing the group is there keeps me honest and motivated.

This year for the first time I’ve been asked to join a local middle-grades writing class as an experienced NaNoWriMo participant and cheerleader. We’ve had two classes so far, and the kids are a true inspiration with their massive word counts and clever story ideas.

NaNoWriMo might just be for you, too.

Write on and on and on.

NaNoWriMo-shield-logo-abbrev

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

SOURCES

About NaNoWriMo: https://nanowrimo.org/about

Press Release – September 25, 2017: https://d1lj9l30x2igqs.cloudfront.net/nano-2013/files/2017/09/Press-Release-2017.pdf

8 Best-Selling Books Written During NaNoWriMo That Show You It Can Be Done: https://www.bustle.com/articles/192069-8-best-selling-books-written-during-nanowrimo-that-show-you-it-can-be-done

7 Time Management Lessons from People Who Write a Novel in a Month: https://www.fastcompany.com/3038045/7-time-management-lessons-from-people-who-write-a-novel-in-a-month

Last Week of Camp: Ready to Start

This month, in addition to reading, writing and revising poetry, I’ve been learning story craft as a way of participating in Camp NaNoWriMo, April’s more relaxed version of the annual National Novel Writing Month program. (Camp is also held in July.) In this post, I explore some of what I’ve been doing and learning as I ponder the mysteries of motivation.


The more relaxed approach that is Camp NaNoWriMo suits me fine since I’m just now fleshing out my story outline, and with less than a week before the “event” technically ends. I count this as an accomplishment for one who has never considered herself much of a storyteller and who is new to the practice of novel writing.

It certainly helped to have fewer of us participating in write-ins in person and to be a host for some of them each week–more pressure to make progress, I guess.

The pace of completion of this detailed outlining step in particular makes me impressed with myself, mainly because I tend to second-guess the value of the stories I think of telling. By outlining my intentions, I’ve given weight and form to a story that has not even been written yet.

Why should such a small step impress me? Why does being “impressed” matter?

It’s true that November’s NaNoWriMo more thoroughly facilitates the steady, somewhat high-paced push of “writing with reckless abandon” for thirty days straight than do her spring and summer cousin events. Camp is also flexible in terms of content, genre, form, purpose, and word count, whereas November’s goal is always 50,000 words by midnight on December 1.

Camp-Nanowrimo-No-Sign-300px-RGB2_400x400In both cases, “winning” is a formality and having some semblance of a recognizable tale when you reach the 50K happens only by the honor system.

No one reads the final product you upload for official validation to be classed among the winners. It’s all self driven.

In this way, for me at least, being “impressed” with myself or feeling good about my progress is crucial to furthering it.

My approach to Camp has been to study how stories are formed: brainstorming, researching theories, story structures, tools, and techniques, then outlining, profiling main characters, and then expanding that outline into a full, novel-length set of plot points.

It’s this last step that I was able to start and finish in one four-hour sitting, yesterday during our region’s Sunday write-in at Panera.

Now that I’ve reached this milestone, I am much more excited to move forward with composition of the story itself. I know what story I’m trying to tell, and I know the frame work within which I must work. I even know some of the symbolism, foreshadowing, irony and other literary elements I want to incorporate, and am starting to see exactly how I can accomplish them.

In other words, the fact that Camp NaNoWriMo is ending has less of a subduing effect on me than it has at the end of the last several Novembers. It’s easy to lose steam as the holidays approach, and I felt rather lulled into passivity by the achievement of “winning” NaNoWriMo each time. My stories became less important in themselves, so abandoning them was no great tragedy.

Still, it is a let-down. Some people are “pantsers,” writing by the seat of their pants without much forethought or planning, and certainly no outlining. I have tried that approach and found it unsatisfactory, so this Camp I used as a stepping stone toward becoming a bona fide “planner” of stories (who also happens to write them).

Aided also by regularly blogging and committing to taking my poetry more seriously, I may not even need something like Camp in order to finish this new story. But if I do, July awaits. . . .

I’ve always been better at planning than doing in many ways, so I was reluctant to begin my experience during my first NaNoWriMo in 2011 with too much planning.

Truth be told, I couldn’t help indulging in excessive research on the front end the first year. I found the subject of the Native Americans and particularly the Salish language quite fascinating as I prepared starting in September to write, during November, a story about a white teen raised by ranchers in Montana who comes across a mysterious wolf mask carving on her recently deceased parents’ ranch and begins her adventure. (I wonder what ever happened to that first novel’s protagonist, Emily. Perhaps I’ll return to the text of What the Wolf Knows some day and find out . . . by finishing the story.)

Whichever approach I take, though, I find that it’s practice and experience–and just going for it–that ultimately propel my development as a story writer.

So, although in some ways, my structured approach to a story beginning was rather formulaic, it served as its own kind of “going for it.” I’d never outlined a story so thoroughly before, after all. And it was only after writing a few rough novels, all four of which remain effectively incomplete stories today, that I had the confidence and motivation to teach myself how to plan them well and thoroughly, too.

I’m still in the process of planning the story, but after yesterday, I’m better prepared to write the story I planned. I had already begun some composition of the back story, but now I’m ready to charge ahead to write the main plot.

When you’re not in school formally and you don’t work at, with, or for an organization with a built-in structure for your work, i.e., when you’re a writer out there essentially on your own (albeit with a local support community and the Internet’s bounty), it’s helpful to have events like NaNoWriMo and its Camp cousins to assist with each new aspect of the creative project’s undertaking.

I realize each task can be useful if I know–that is, if I establish for myself–its purpose and see where it can lead me. Because I understand that writing is a multi-part process that is often cyclical in nature, I know that I may alter the plan just as I re-write some of the story.

As I often tell the students I tutor, each phase or step of the writing process holds importance and something to teach, just as each writer has a story inside waiting to be told.

There is hope, then, that eventually I, too, will bring all the pieces together and not only tell but also share my stories.

Every active writer has self-developed approaches, processes, and unique needs to stay motivated and be productive. This has simply been a slice of what mine look like right now.

“Stories matter.”  #CampNaNoWriMo2016

Happy writing.

Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 10 of 10

To conclude my Wild Verses series, I circle back to the sea again (and to a bit more coral, which appeared in the first sample of this series). “Green Turtle Picture” is an unfinished poem I first drafted in April 2009 and revised in August 2014 for writing group. This excerpt begins with stanza two and ends toward the poem’s second half.

Under water, 
a green turtle looks at the camera.

The inanimate, animal expression
accuses. The cold stare—
framed by cold, clear-blue water,
and clustered blue-green coral,
locked within the same 

space as its cold-blooded frown and 
terrible, wrinkled neck, 
its hunched, armored back 
an echo of my subluxation and chronic dorsal 
inflammation—that look, rising above 
the shadows on its flippers, belly, tail,
imposes, penetrates, disturbs. I want
 
to look away, bury 
head into body like it can,
retract the mind down 
into the heart
and let the two mingle, and educate each other. 
Give purpose 
to small humps below necks.
But I can’t. I am out in the picture 

of reality, exposed
to the danger of capture, of shocking
spotlight ogling a creature as it faces 
the unfamiliar.

copyright C. L. Tangenberg

TurtleTeeth_honeymoon_Cozumel


I hope you’ve enjoyed this 10-post showcase of my nature verse writing, begun last month. To start from the beginning, go here.

My post about Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush” featured the first sample I plan to build on for a series of favorite bits of nature poetry by famous poets.

The full series:

  1. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 1 of 10 – ice and coral
  2. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 2 of 10 – the lizard
  3. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 3 of 10 – competition
  4. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 4 of 10 – lightning
  5. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 5 of 10 – danger
  6. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 6 of 10 – in the soil
  7. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 7 of 10 – under sea
  8. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 8 of 10 – feeble competition
  9. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 9 of 10 – the hawk
  10. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 10 of 10 – the turtle

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A novelist and a photographer walk into a theater…

In service of writer-to-writer, artist-to-artist encouragement, this excerpt in particular inspired my reblogging. It contradicts the notion that daring or interesting life experiences are required to fuel good writing, and it reinforces a belief I have held that a structured environment can be the best home for beauty’s thriving:

“As Mann herself said—riffing on Flaubert—’You should have an ordinary and organized life so that you can be extraordinary and original and outrageous in your creative life.’ (Admission: I didn’t know this Flaubert quote, and, as a fiction writer with a very ordinary and organized life, found it enormously comforting.)”

the literate lens

Mann1 Outside Symphony Space

Over the three years I’ve been writing The Literate Lens, few events have screamed “blog post!” as loudly at me as the one I attended last night at Symphony Space, in which Sally Mann, the acclaimed photographer (who, by her own admission, rarely leaves her Virginia home), was in conversation with Nashville-based novelist Ann Patchett.

I’ve loved Mann’s work ever since she blazed into the headlines with her 1992 book Immediate Family—I’ve followed her since into some strange and dark territory, and knew, from the essay excerpt published in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago, that her new memoir Hold Still would be fascinating. I also loved Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder, which can roughly be described as a sort of contemporary feminist version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A photographer-turned-memoirist in conversation with a novelist—needless…

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Review: Outlander Season 1’s Ironic Chilling Effect

Qualification: I really am one of those “rabid” Outlander fans of both books and TV show (see the links to other Outlander posts at the bottom of this one), but I call it as I see it. I took most of the adaptation’s departures from the book in stride and appreciated the season finale’s brilliant aspects at face value. It was lovingly deep thinking about this last episode and the season as a whole that made me aware of the issue I discuss here. Since everyone else is talking about character journeys and actor performances, which I, too, find fascinating and impressive, I thought I’d approach from a different angle: the show’s story structure. Spoilers ahead.


Pained, visceral reactions to the horrors of the Outlander Starz season 1 finale testify to Black Jack Randall’s icy impact on Claire and Jamie’s relationship. That is as the story and the show intended. Unintentionally, Jamie’s oddly rapid recovery from fever and mental anguish further cools the blood.

But it’s the beginning of Claire’s confession in the chapel that drops a treacherous icicle spear into the structure of the show’s first season. For such an engaging, steamy, now-classic story and its vastly entertaining TV adaptation, the resulting damage saddens me–though not quite as much as do Claire’s attempts “To Ransom a Man’s Soul,” with tearful pleas to Jamie not to give up on their life and love.

But the source of this cold stab may not be what you think.

During the season finale of Outlander, protagonist “Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser” begins her story to Father Anselm at the monastery by saying she arrived in the eighteenth century from 1945 “eight months ago.” Not “several,” not “last fall,” not simply “months ago.” Exactly eight. Hearing this immediately struck me with surprise and confusion, and I don’t think I’m alone here.

How did seven weeks of the first half of the season suddenly hurtle forward into another six months in the second half? Hearing Claire say “eight months ago” became an unwelcome distraction that raised unfortunate questions.

It almost made me wonder if this surge is meant to be the infusion of a new time-travelling element, but that’s definitely not it. Chalk this rationalization up to human nature: “When confronted with the impossible, the rational mind will grope for the logical,” Claire says in episode 101, “Sassenach.”

The time scale imbalance itself could be forgiven if the storyline somehow survived unaffected, but it doesn’t. Instead, the plausibility of outdoor actions and events strains against its crippling entrapment at the cold point of the spear, undercutting the immense care taken in the construction of historical and narrative realism in the season’s first half.

Although the starting time of year in the book differs from that in the show, surely there were ways production could be true to the story without removing major organs from the time line, even in the modified seasonal arc. The results unfortunately fail to manifest any of those presumed possibilities. Let’s examine the evidence.

In the show, Claire time-travels through the stones on the eve of Samhain, October 30. During episode 108, “Both Sides Now,” Jamie tells Claire it will be “Yuletide by the time [they] get back to Leoch.” True enough: In episode 109, “The Reckoning,” observant viewers will notice that evergreen swags with white flowers and red berries newly bedeck Castle Leoch’s thresholds, hearths, and bed posts.

Also during episode 108, Frank Randall provides a more specific indication of timing as he challenges Reverend Wakefield’s theory of Claire’s getting lost near Craigh Na Dun, being swept down a river by the current to a cave, and “living on fish and frogs—for seven weeks.” At seven weeks past Samhain, with the parallel promise of Yuletide’s approach, late December has arrived.

Then, during “The Reckoning,” episode 109, while it snows when Jamie and Murtagh relieve themselves against the castle wall, Jamie resists Murtagh’s suggestion that they escape the MacKenzie clan’s tensions and live off the land. His line gives another sign of intended, or at least written, timing: “Ye’d have me sleeping under a tree, come winter, with my wife?”

With three distinct pieces of evidence, winter has not yet arrived and Christmas still approaches as of episode 109.

Early in 110, “By the Pricking of My Thumbs,” Claire deals with Laoghaire’s episode 109 attempt to seduce Jamie as well as her placement of an ill wish under their bed. Based on the scenes done in the castle, along with the winter coats, shawls, hoods, and cape-like plaid layers worn by the cast, it’s clear that it is still Christmastime or, at the latest, early January.

The problem is–although only days pass between Claire and Geillis’ capture (ep. 110) and trial for witchcraft (ep. 111), and between the trial and Claire’s rescue by Jamie–the outdoor scenery during the last twenty minutes of episode 111, “The Devil’s Mark,” shifts dramatically from early winter to early if not mid-spring.

The tiny leaves on the trees of the hill where Jamie surprises Claire with a view of Craigh Na Dun speckle the frame around the characters in a bright, budding green. Even in Scotland’s rapidly changing diurnal weather conditions, this is spring behavior for deciduous trees. To echo Claire’s voice-over in “Both Sides Now” (ep. 108), when she first realizes her nearness to Craigh Na Dun after the redcoat deserters’ attack, “There was no mistaking it”:

The Outlander TV adaptation has skipped winter altogether.

On one hand, as a native Ohioan who has endured two abnormally brutal winters in the past two years, I can empathize with the impulse to create a more hospitable fictional world to dwell in.

On the other, Outlander‘s actors are steadfast, adventurous players. The crew consist largely of hardy Scots. A clan of unflinching producers and writers have repeatedly claimed efforts to be as authentic as possible in adapting this violent action-adventure, historical romance with sci-fi elements. Combining all these factors, one would think this TV team, if any, could withstand a single Scottish winter, especially if an out-of-season shooting schedule were to necessitate a manufactured one.

Winter’s omission marks a surprising sloppiness not evident in other aspects of the production.

Its absence might not have been as noticeable had the writers refrained from exact time references in dialogue. “Eight months ago” could simply have been “several months ago” with less negative impact, though story incongruities of seasonal climate and daylight pose a larger production dilemma.

Climate-wise, skipping ahead in the story is evident because winter conditions are just as missing from the show as the time span itself is. Another prime example: If it really were winter in episode 111, Claire and Geillis would have been much colder than they appear to be while coatlessly awaiting their fate in the outdoor, underground thieves’ hole.

To rule out the possibility of later compensations for mid-season time warping, let’s take the viewer’s perspective of the time line in reverse from the announced endpoint. A closer look at the sequence and duration of events helps to illustrate how the time problem–like Jamie’s lingering psychosexual conflation of Claire and Black Jack–remains unsolved through episode 116’s final credits.

Eight months after October 30 means the story resolves in late June, early July, come the finale. It is then, just after Jamie’s rescue from prison, when Claire tells her story to Father Anselm. Only a few days pass between the start of the rescuers’ efforts in episode 115, “Wentworth Prison,” and the success of that rescue in episode 116.

Only about two or three days from the end of episode 114, “The Search,” through episode 115 stand between Claire and Murtagh’s recruitment of men for Jamie’s rescue and Claire’s ejection from Wentworth by Randall.

After Jenny gives birth during episode 113, “The Watch,” the next opportunity for a significant passage of time is in episode 114, “The Search.” Here, the story clearly takes at least a couple of weeks, if not a full month. But even if it took as many as two months, there would still be far more than a month’s gap in time unaccounted for.

Prior to these events, only “several days” (ep. 111) pass between Claire and Jamie’s departure from Cranesmuir and their arrival at his home estate of Lallybroch, just as only a few days mark the span between their arrival home and Jamie’s capture by the British after joining the Watch on a raid. Two weeks maximum, all told.

In sum, we established earlier that episode 109 resolves in December, and now we also know that no more than eight weeks track back from the season finale to episode 110, which exists within 109’s Christmas time frame.

Thus, the approximate math from season finale back to episode 111:

1 day at the monastery (since it’s on the second morning that Claire declares her eight months’ saga) + 3 days maximum at Wentworth (surveillance plus searching plus confrontation and return to rescue) + 1 day maximum between recruitment and arrival at Wentworth + an indeterminate number of weeks searching for Jamie after his escape from British custody following their ambush of the Watch (at least two weeks, possibly as much as a month or more = say, max 40 days) + 5 days at Lallybroch (day of arrival, followed by Quarter Day, then Jamie’s next-day hangover and attempt to repair the mill, Jamie and Jenny’s reconciliation one day later, and the arrival of the Watch the next morning) + 8 days or so (4-5 days’ fleeing from Cranesmuir to Craigh Na Dun and another few days to Lallybroch) + 2 days of a witch trial =

A total of about 60 days between Christmas and early July. And I believe this estimate gives the show writers and producers the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.

Ouch.

Ironically, the truncated year of 1744 mirrors the two-month interval of the season’s first half, the end of 1743. It’s simply not possible to skip four full months of a year without accounting for the story’s arc across the gap, which the Outlander Starz writing and production team have not done.

In order to make sense of the total amount of time between episodes 111 and 116–stated by the characters as around “Yuletide” (Jamie, costumes of castle and cast) and “eight months” since October 30 (Claire), respectively–it would have to be more like early May in episode 110, “By the Pricking of My Thumbs.” Again, the second half of the season represents a total of six narrative months.

It does indeed start to look like spring as early as episode 108, especially in the woods where Claire and Willie await the return from Jamie’s meeting with Horrocks. But since the whole group has yet to return to Leoch for Christmas, according to Jamie, we know it can’t yet be spring.

Therefore, the viewer’s expectations of approximate time passage for a TV show’s seasonal arc are grossly violated in the Outlander Starz series’ first season. For one thing, the imbalance is stark: less than two months’ time for the first eight episodes, and a minimum of six months—three times the number in the first half—for the second eight episodes. But, for another, bypassing the winter season is a more egregious error.

And why make it? Writing adjustments alone could have minimized the impact, so it shouldn’t have been much of a budget issue. In production terms, because the creators made no apparent attempt to pretend winter occurs by their use of Scottish scenery in the season’s second half, noticing the lack of winter is easy for the audience to do. They must have known we would notice, and somehow the choice was still approved. Budgetary constraints might, in part, explain this fact.

Of all the issues with the book’s first adaptation, a Scotland without winter may not be the worst, but it certainly bothered me when I first saw episode 108, “Both Sides Now,” and it continued to disrupt my suspension of disbelief over the next several episodes. Add to this that, when we’re supposed to be focusing so intently on the emotional roller coaster and unprecedented drama of the final episodes, our main character Claire plainly states the exact passage of time.

The result? Any sense of a carefully woven TV plot structure–which means viewers wouldn’t notice the structure at all–freezes up, a hardening quickened by Jamie’s miraculous recovery from Randall’s twisted form of aversion therapy on him toward Claire, and by the mysterious disappearance of Jamie’s physical fever. But it is winter’s loss that leads us into the cold.

For fans of the book, and even of the show despite these flaws, let’s hope Ronald D. Moore and company find a way not only to translate Diana Gabaldon’s second Outlander book into sound plot structure and story pacing, but also to maintain the depth, complexity, and beauty of season 1 in a completely new setting. Perhaps with much of France being filmed inside Scottish studios, the hurdle of suspending our disbelief about climate and timing will prove more surmountable.

As Claire replies in season 1’s second episode, “Castle Leoch,” to Colum’s query as to whether her journey to France involves “a joyous occasion,” so we the viewers must echo: “One can only hope.” And perhaps the northern hemisphere’s imminent entry into summer will dilute a lost winter’s ironic chilling effect.

That won’t relieve us of Droughtlander’s irksome symptoms, unfortunately. Let us be industrious, then, in seeking solutions. Perhaps our resourcefulness can inspire the making of a season 2 Dragonfly in Amber encased in a more smoothly formed and comfortable home. All of its inhabitants deserve it.

Claire holds Munro's wedding gift of a dragonfly in amber image credit: Outlander Starz, Sony Pictures Television

Claire holds Hugh Munro’s wedding gift of a dragonfly in amber, ep. 108, “Both Sides Now”
Image credit: Outlander Starz, Sony Pictures Television

Note: Filming for season 1 began October 2013 and concluded September 2014. Filming of season 2 is under way as of early May 2015, and the plan is to air the first episode in spring of 2016.


Other Outlander posts on this blog include the following (the first two are closely related):