It’s November! Let’s write a novel!

Holy crap, it's here!

Holy crap, it’s here!

Once again National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is upon us. It’s a great idea, giving would-be authors the motivation and support they need to finally tackle that novel they just know is living in their heads. Many people choose, either through convenience or necessity, to work outside their home. Coffee shops in particular are great for this, due to the fact they offer copious amounts of caffeine and a fairly quiet atmosphere.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer what I consider my top ten suggestions (I don’t quite have the balls to call them rules) for writing in coffee shops and other businesses.  (Note:  All of these points have come about as part of my own experiences desperately trying to work in my local coffee house during November, where I’ve seen each and every one of them happen more times than I care to count.)

  1. Tables at coffee shops are like prime real estate. You wanna use it, you gotta pay for it. If you’re going to be there for hours, pay your rent with more than the bottomless $2 cup of coffee.
  2. The servers, cooks, etc. don’t care that you’re writing a novel. They’re working, so don’t tie them up telling them all about it. You should be writing it instead of talking about it anyway.
  3. Free Wi-Fi at coffee shops isn’t really free; they just aren’t charging you for it. This goes back to #1. If you’re going to use it, be sure to support the business that offers it. And if you’re not using it, turn off your Wi-Fi adapter so you free up bandwidth and IP addresses for those that are.
  4. You will probably see many other people with laptops while you are there. Ignore them; you’re supposed to be working, too. There are any number of places you can organize and connect with other NaNoWriMo participants; the coffee shop isn’t one of them. You should be writing, not talking about it with others. Especially if they themselves are trying to write, in which case interrupting them is a perfectly valid reason to kick you in the groin.
  5. Remember #1? Well, it’s doubly important during peak hours such as 11-2 and 4-6, when those places that offer meal services have their rush hours. If you’re going to take up a table, make sure it’s worth their while to let you, and don’t be that guy. You know, the one who nags the employees while they’re in the weeds with multiple lunch or dinner orders about the free refill coffee being out or old.
  6. Be considerate of other patrons. They, like the rest of the world, don’t care that you’re writing a novel, or that you need music or movies as background noise. If you do, use good quality headphones that don’t let the sound out past your personal space, and keep the volume reasonable. If the movie you use has content someone might find objectionable, make sure it’s either not on the screen or that your computer isn’t visible to those passing by. Don’t spread out like you’re in your own living room; keep your research and notes, etc, organized so you’re not chasing paper under someone else’s table every time someone walks by.
  7. Don’t be a camper. Bring only what you absolutely need to work with, and nothing more. If you find you need several props, trinkets, your favorite stuffed bear, or a picture of Elvis to work, consider working somewhere private. No one wants to walk by and see what appears to be a homeless person living in booth #4. Narrow your research materials to what is germane to your work. If your research is in several different books, consider photocopying or retyping it into one document. You’ll save time this way, anyway.
  8. Much like tables, parking spaces are prime real estate. Don’t park in the absolute primo parking space if you’re going to be there for hours. Leave that to the customers who come in, get their order, enjoy, and leave. Trust me, lack of good parking spaces cost a business more income than bad service.
  9. If you’re in a coffee shop, taking up all this valuable real estate and time from the staff to work, then make sure you are ACTUALLY WORKING. Here’s a hint: Posting to Facebook or Twitter isn’t working. Checking your text messages isn’t working. Talking on the phone isn’t working. By now, you should be aware of how important it is to set aside a block of time for work anyway; it’s doubly important when you’re doing it in someone’s business. If you’re done, then settle up any tab you might have, take care of the server, and leave. Don’t sit waiting for the next idea to come to you. It’ll come no matter where you are, but in the meantime there’s no point costing the establishment that’s welcomed you in more money.
  10. I can’t stress this enough. Working outside your home can be expensive, if you aren’t being a dick about it. If you can’t afford to do it properly, such as patronizing the business hosting you or taking care of the servers who waited on you, please consider the public library or working from home if possible. Even the most bohemian, artist-supporting, groovy businesses in the world are just that–businesses. At the end of the day, they’re there to make money.

With that in mind, go forth and knock that first draft out!  And remember, it’s perfectly okay to produce a shitty first draft; that’s what editing and rewrites are for.  Just get it on paper!




When the Good Guys Don’t Make It: A note about losing your favorite character

Some of you have asked how I make the decisions as to which characters will live and which will die. A few have even written me “How could you kill X?” messages.

It’s true, I’m not shy about killing off characters, and not always just extras. Sometimes not all the good guys make it through, and that’s not likely to change. But I thought I might share my thought process a little.

When I started publishing, I did so with one golden rule; to never lie to the reader. While it’s certainly true that I control the events that happen in my works, I don’t intentionally try to shape them to allow this or that person (save the main/point-of-view character, naturally) to live when circumstances dictate they most likely wouldn’t make it.

Sometimes a character is too strong, and would prevent the events that need to happen from unfolding. Other times, it becomes apparent that my MC isn’t emotionally invested in the events unfolding, and needs a shock to get them into the problem. What better way than to take away part of their foundation? And yes, sometimes I kill someone off just because they’re too darned sweet, or it’s time to give the most important person in this equation (that’s you, the reader) a good hard jolt to keep you from getting too comfortable.

In Stephen King’s Cujo, Tad Trenton, the boy stuck in the car with his mother, dies of dehydration. It’s incredibly moving and sad, and was such a bone of contention that when the movie adaptation came out in 1983, the screenwriters changed the ending to let the boy live. It’s at once both a minor change, and an incredibly huge one.

Now, movies and books are two different creatures, and neither one is changed by the presence of the other. Sometimes, movies let us have the happy ending we want, because they can. Too often, even the best movies don’t stay with us in nearly the same way that all good novels seem to do. For that reason, a good novel can’t afford to flinch. To me, Mr. King’s ending rings more true. A young boy trapped in a car, in intense heat and under crippling psychological stress, doesn’t have a very good chance of coming out alive. But there’s something deeper at work here.

Since a good portion of the novel is told through Donna Trenton’s viewpoint, we have to assume she’s safe (well, okay, not safe, but probably going to come out alive). Since no one wants to see a child die, we tend to assume we won’t be shown that. Well, I think Mr. King had proven long before Cujo that it was never safe to assume anything in his little town of Castle Rock, Maine. But if we assume both characters are going to make it through, there’s no risk. No risk means no real tension, which means we don’t mind putting the book down to go water the rose bushes or catch the latest episode of our favorite TV show. After all, they’re not going to die, so we can come back and check in on them later.

But good stories always have an element of risk. Maybe not always life-and-death risk, but there has to be something vital at stake. So, with that in mind, remember that the one thing I promised to never do is lie to you. Even when it breaks your heart (and mine; remember, I spend weeks with these same characters living in my head. I know them inside and out) I won’t flinch. No one is safe, and the good guys don’t always make it through.


Literary Billboards, or, This Novel Brought to You By…

Theme. Message. Allegory.

It’s all too easy to get caught up in trying to use these tools. A written work is, after all, an expression of the author, and so it is very tempting to use them as vehicles for our own passions. But all too often, the push to include the right theme or message often drowns out the only truly necessary element: Story. Writers are, by nature and definition, story tellers. Telling the story is the first, foremost, and arguably the only real obligation of the writer.

The best written works often contain all these elements, but they all have one thing in common; they tell great stories. In Moby Dick, Melville gives us a stunning view of the dangers of blind obsession and revenge. There have been enough thesis papers on the themes, sub-themes, and such of Moby Dick written to sink a fleet of aircraft carriers, and I don’t intend to add to it. But in my mind, (and I’d bet in Melville’s, too) Moby Dick is really the story of the Pequod’s last journey. Yes, I have a point here.

Melville didn’t sit down one day and say “What if I told the world about the dangers of obsessive revenge?” He probably had a moment of “Hey, what if a whaling captain went bat-shit crazy trying to catch an elusive whale? Yeah, and maybe he’s pissed, like super-pissed, because it took an arm or a leg or something? He’d be so crazed trying to kill this one whale, he wouldn’t give a rat fart about his crew, his ship, or even his own life.” And then he started to write.

The best novels tell a story, and if there’s a message, it usually just sort of…happens. You can have the most powerful message in the world about global warming, genocide, racism, or what-have-you; if you beat the reader over the head with it, they’re probably going to put the book down before they finish it and move on to someone else. In her excellent Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling has a lot to say about standing up for what’s right, no matter the cost. But because you’re so engrossed in the adventures (and utter mishaps) of Harry and the gang, you don’t feel like you’re trying to see the story around billboards. In fact, it’s perfectly possible (and utterly acceptable, not to mention fun) to read the entire series, back-to-back, without giving a fig about the message or the theme.

I could go on and on (and believe me, if someone doesn’t stop me, it’s likely) but I think we’ve got the point. As a novelist, your first–and arguably only–job is to TELL THE STORY. By all means, develop a theme. Have a central message as part of your story arc. Use allegory to shape the story line and the characters. I promise to listen; as long as we both understand I might not agree with you, it’ll all work out in the end.

But tell a story, damn it. If you write an entire novel and you don’t have a story to tell, you’re just jerking off.