NaNo 2013 Advice, Part 1

I’ve already made some silly mistakes as part of this year’s NaNo adventure.  In the spirit of last year’s advice (“Let me tell you the things I’m doing that aren’t helping…”), I’ve decided to go ahead and do the same this year.  It’s not so much advice as admitting my mistakes, but advice sounds so much better.

Don’t turn on the television.

This should be common sense.  When you’re trying to write a lot, the TV should be off a lot.  Notice, however, that I said should be common sense.

I started this year’s NaNo with one advantage and one disadvantage.  As I’ve already mentioned, filling in gaps is setting me up for a limited word count, but I started off this year with four days off from work.  The disadvantage is working well to make life difficult, but I totally blew my advantage by turning on the television.

It will be fine, I thought.  I’ll just put on a movie I know by heart and let it be background noise, I told myself.  Really?  I can’t even listen to music and write successfully!  Why on earth did I think this was a good idea?

The honest truth is that somehow the television and my recliner are now linked in my brain.  Turning on the TV when I sit down in the recliner is reflex.  That means I need to either fight the reflex or sit somewhere else for the rest of NaNo!

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Dissecting vs. Reading

I like to think that I’ve gotten reasonably good at understanding the basic mechanics of stories and recognizing common motifs.  That’s how I can break down story elements, like the different ways that you can interfere with a romantic relationship between your characters.  It’s also why I have blog-related reactions to familiar movies on television.  Of course, this skill would have been much more useful in high school and college, when I had to write papers analyzing poems and novels, but I won’t toss the knowledge out of the window just because it came to me later.  (If this is a skill you’d like to develop, I highly recommend How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster.  That’s where I got started.)

Dissecting a story, be it written or filmed, is something I have to do after the fact.  It’s one thing to be able to distill the essence of a character in a blog post, or to find commonalities between familiar tales.  It is something entirely to do it while I’m in the moment and enjoying the story.

Yes, some things become predictable.  I am rarely surprised by movies or television any more, at least in the genres that I enjoy, and when I am blindsided by a twist it is worth noting.  (Recent examples are the 100th episode of Castle and the movie The Tourist.)  This is much less common for me when reading.  Even when the relationship trajectory is clear to everyone, I am still painfully in suspense when the hurdles appear.  Will they get back together?  What’s going to happen?  That’s why books can still prevent me from sleeping – I just have to know what happens next.

After I finish a novel, I can recognize those similar themes and characters that run through many books.  When I’m done, I can look back and see how the author set up certain things, and how actions at the beginning led to results later.  If I’m actually absorbed in the story, however, forget asking me to explain it.  I’m too wrapped up in what’s happening to make those connections.

Commercials

I have been watching too much television lately, apparently, because I have commercials on the brain.  Due to that, I am going to share a few with you.  After the day I’ve had, it’s about all I’ve got. 🙂

I just saw a Guinness commercial that utilizes the build up of a concept and the element of surprise to tug at the heartstrings a bit.

This Dominos commercial makes me a little bit crazy, because of the end.  The vocal says “we didn’t stop at pizza” but the writing on the counter says “Oh yes we did!”

When we were in Custer State Park, my dad and I kept flashing to the State Farm bison commercial.  This was mostly because we were afraid it would happen to us!  (My mom took the following picture at the park, from our car.  We had good reason to worry!)

My mom snapped this photo from our car in Custer State Park!  See why I was worried about it smashing into us?

My mom snapped this photo from our car in Custer State Park! See why I was worried about it smashing into us?

Any commercials that have jumped out at you lately?

Relationships

There are very few movies, television shows, or books out there where one person is totally alone and interacts with no one.  I’m not saying they don’t exist (I can think of a few examples just off the top of my head), but they are by far not the norm.

Because of this, there are lots of places to turn to see both the good and the bad of how to develop a relationship between characters.  I’m not just thinking of romantic relationships, although many male/female pairings that don’t start out with that intent end up with at least sexual tension if not an outright relationship.

In this case I’m thinking more about friendships, partnerships, co-worker relationships and family bonds (or lack thereof).  Our main characters may be solo actors (although often they are not) but they still interact with the people around them.  While these secondary, tertiary, and peripheral characters may not be as developed as the main character, the interactions still need to feel genuine and human.

I don’t necessarily use fictional relationships as my base to develop those between my characters.  More often I pull from my personal experience; most of us have some type of interaction in our lives that can be used, even loosely, to create the dynamic between characters.  Even so, it is still interesting to think about books or movies you enjoy and the examples they provide, especially if the relationships feel forced or awkward.

Zombie Dreams and Some Alien Doctor

There are many benefits to having an active, vivid imagination.  One of those benefits is the ability to write stories, but there are others.  I can play out possible outcomes of a conversation, I can dream up new ideas for work, and I get very, very absorbed into books and movies.

The biggest downside I’ve found is sleep. More specifically, my imagination often prevents sleep, or interrupts it.

I find that my brain processes my day when I’m trying to fall asleep.  Sometimes that means an endless running of the work-related hamster wheel, with problems and stresses keeping my brain rattling.  Occasionally it will also mean that something I’ve watched or read earlier in the day gets replayed, in pieces or in its entirety, while I am trying to drift off.  I’ve found this is particularly the case with certain television shows, including one with a time- and space-traveling doctor and a phone booth that I’ve been hooked on lately.   Combine a mini-marathon (thanks, Netflix!) with caffeine after 8pm and I am not having a restful night.

Even when I can fall asleep, my imagination sometimes runs wild in my dreams.  Most often they manifest as generic “action-adventure” dreams, which don’t leave me with specific memories so much as a feeling that I spent the whole night running, thinking, and not resting.  Last night I had a zombie dream, which doesn’t really fit within my usual fiction-related habits.  I’ve watched a grand total of one zombie movie in my life, along with a couple of viewings of the zombie episode of Castle, and none of that has been recently.  I don’t even remember the zombies from my dream; I just know that when I woke up I was sure there were zombies involved.

Due to the sleep-affecting nature of my brain, I’ve learned to avoid horror (books or movies) and developed some coping mechanisms to help resolve some of the above.  I wouldn’t give up my imagination for anything, but it does make itself a pest from time to time.

Can you say meta?

I’ve been having a mini-marathon of the third season of my favorite tv show, Castle.  I also recently finished Frozen Heat, the fourth Richard Castle novel.

The writers of the show Castle love to pepper in references to other pop culture, particularly if it is related to the star of the show.  The last episode I watched has my favorite Firefly reference, when Castle (Nathan Fillion) speaks Chinese and explains it as “just a tv show I used to love.”  The episode that is currently playing has a reference to Jaws, which Nathan Fillion has said is one of his favorite books.  But the show has nothing on the novels, which are insanely self-referential.  I’ve mentioned this characteristic before, but the fourth book added some extra layers.

If you aren’t familiar, here is a quick overview of the layers found in the whole series.  The books are written by Richard Castle, a fictional character from a television show, including appropriate photo, bio, and acknowledgements.  They reference cases and characters from the show, in the way that an author would reference his own life.  (A quick internet search did not turn up the names of the ghostwriters.  Apparently it will remain a secret, at least as long as ABC is committed to the concept.  Given how popular the show and the books are, I’m guessing we’ll have to wait a while.)

Now to the new, very self-referencing layers.  In book three, there is a character with the last name Hamner, whose nickname is “The Hammer.”  (Nothing like a nice Dr. Horrible reference, is there?)  There is also an outright mention of Firefly, in a discussion of science fiction television.  Book four takes the Firefly reference to a whole new level, introducing a pair of detectives named Malcolm and Reynolds.

I love it all, but it kind of makes my brain hurt a little.  I must admit it also reveals the depths of my nerdiness!

Connections

How do people meet?

This is a question that authors and filmmakers frequently address, sometimes in unique and intriguing ways.

If the story involves the development of a relationship of any kind, the characters have to meet somehow.  At the very least they must learn of each others’ existence – you can’t be anything, even enemies, if you don’t even know about the other person.  These meetings are sometimes mundane, sometimes offbeat, but always necessary.  If an author doesn’t handle the meeting the right way, the relationship isn’t believable.

Even if there are people who start their part in the tale already in their relationship, it’s likely that their creator knows how they met.  There is a unique couple in Dragon, an elf and a human who are dating.  We meet them as a couple, but as the author I know that their relationship had an interesting start long before they are involved in the story of the book.

Sometimes it’s fun to find out how people met.  Occasionally the people who create TV shows will take us back, through conversation or even a flashback episode or two, to show us how our favorite team was assembled.  Authors will sometimes write the short stories of their characters’ meeting.  And sometimes a movie is almost entirely about the ways that people meet, interact, and intertwine their lives with each other.

Think about the most important people in your life.  How did you meet?  It isn’t just characters who have unique stories.  Fiction comes from somewhere – I’m sure you’ve got an interesting tale or two in your history, too.

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