The Snowmobile Story project nearly complete!

I’m starting to see some light at the end of the writing tunnel, for this particular project, and more students have been reading it in my class — and telling me they’re enjoying it. Just two or three, here and there, but that makes the effort most definitely worthwhile. It would be so nice to have a proper title, but maybe it will come to me after I finish it up.

The funny thing is that the surprises keep coming. I thought I knew how the falling action and denouement would turn out, but once again, my characters are doing things I didn’t expect. And some of their motives are suspect. Such is the way of writing in first person — one never knows for sure what goes on in the minds of others. Even if the others are creations of my own imagination.

Because once again, I’m finding that even with the struggles I had in starting and continuing this piece, the individuals have become very real to me. They’re composites of real people I’ve seen and talked to, but they’re also very physical in my head, and I’d recognize them in real life if I saw them walking down the street. Adam Poirier, my sixteen-year-old protagonist, with his lanky build and dark hair. Penny, his girlfriend, all quiet sparkle and tidiness. John Murphy, the old man in the woods, who is very much the stereotypical bearded hermit, but with a dark and twisted personality.

Sometimes it feels like the story is carving itself out of a block of stone, chipped into the open a word or a letter at a time. And sometimes it feels like it’s more organic than that — a tree, maybe, with roots that extend out into other shoots and branches that cross over each other. That’s what I see in my head, realizing that the other characters have their own interesting stories that could also be told.

Two more days, as of midnight. Three of my students have now hit their word count goals for Camp NaNoWriMo, and the others are encouraging their peers to try to make it over the finish line. We’re having an awesome waffle party on Friday, to wrap things up, and then next week, it’s back to regular lesson format for them. No more daily writing. I’m convinced that as a class project, all of this has been totally worth it. But it will be nice when we have all caught up on our sleep again.

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Reflections on Writing for Tough Audiences: Them, and Me

One of the primary tenets of writing that I’ve learned over the last few years is the importance of writing for yourself, first. Good readers can tell when a book or a short story is written out of love and interest and dedication, and one that is forced, contrived, or tossed out to meet someone else’s expectations.

When I first started working on this snowmobiling story, the intent was to provide a short novel for my reluctant teenage readers that was based on their interests: snowmobiling, outdoors, survival stories, true stories. I’m using Crabbe and Hatchet a little as models, as well as my observations of local teenage individuals and their experiences.

Yesterday, I had some of those reluctant readers take a look at the unfinished draft, both to get their feedback AND because they’d forgotten their independent study novels at home.

Their first and main reactions were dismay at the pages of words I’d given them — “Aw, man, so many words. I don’t wanna read words.” They enjoyed seeing some of their slang in print — “Look, she’s been listening!” — and liked some of the descriptions, but they lost interest by page three. One said there was too much talking, and another said too much happening, and a third said not enough.

As disheartening as this was, I realized today that I’m actually really invested in this story, now. As difficult as it was for me to get into at first, working with a genre and style that’s unfamiliar to me, I really want to know how it turns out. I’m not sure how well any of it is working — the voice, the details — and I want it to be something that my former teacher and the esteemed writer William Bell would enjoy reading and recommend to people who like his books. I want Gary Paulsen to read it and say, “Yes, this works.” I guess I’m looking for reassurance that I’m on the right track.

I’m also about 5,000 words behind in my word counts at this point.

So, I guess the bottom line is this: I started writing something for others, and it’s turned into something for myself. Despite the change in my goal, I’m still feeling nervous and inadequate on this, even more so than with other works I’ve done. It will feel good to finish this. Even better if I can get someone in my class to read it and tell me they like it. Hell, if the kids I’m writing for are able to read it from start to finish, without giving up, I’ll have done something right.

Excerpt from my WIP Snowmobiling Story / Camp NaNoWriMo Project

*Desperately needs a better title! Even a better working title!

Have a look at a section of this YA fiction I’m working on for reluctant readers, and tell me what you think!

———————–

I heard once that when someone gets hypothermic, they take all their clothes off and dig a hole. No, seriously, that’s — well, it’s something that Penny read in an article online and then told me about. I didn’t get an urge to burrow or anything like that, but I got to a point where I just wanted to lie down and take a nap, and I didn’t much care anymore where I did it. But I knew that’d piss Penny off, ’cause she was waiting for me, and it was a stupid idea to lie down on the railroad tracks no matter what. My dad would kick my ass if I did that.

No, I don’t talk about my dad that much. He’s not home a whole lot. He’s not even really my dad, okay? Just like my sister isn’t really my sister. He works driving transports, so he’s always going across country or down into the States. The money’s good, so you’d think we’d be doing better, but after my mom got divorced she ended up with a whole bunch of debt, and he had some too from before they got married. They had a cheapo wedding, too, although I don’t know why they even bothered to do that. Should have just moved in together and been done with it, in my opinion. No offense, if you don’t think people should just live together, but it’s honestly cheaper than having a big party just to show off.

When my dad does come home, it’s all about showing off. Mom’s got to show that she’s got it all handled, and that means I have to keep my nose clean, not argue or leave messes, shit like that. It sucks. Why should I have to be someone other than myself? I mean, heaven forbid I leave some dishes in the sink when my dad’s home — I do it when he’s not home, too, and the world doesn’t end.

On the other hand, he’s been around since I was a kid, and like I told you before, he’s pretty cool at teaching me some stuff. He was with me when I shot my first buck, showed me how to dress it and got the rack mounted for me for my birthday that year.

That same year, I heard about this thing where you can put a penny on a railroad track and when a train goes by, either the penny gets flattened completely, or it’ll derail the train. Either way, it sounds pretty effing cool, so I took a penny to try it. I hung around for a while, waiting for the action, but it got boring, so I just left the penny there and went back later, after I’d heard the train go by. It didn’t crash, but the penny was squashed.

You know what’s even cooler than getting a penny flattened by a train? Getting a loonie done the same way.

Yeah, I don’t understand why I’d want a train to derail, but when you’re a kid, it’s just something neat and different. I get it now, why it’d be bad. At the time I was all into explosions and loud noises and stunts and shit. So I take a loonie out of my mom’s wallet, not knowing that my dad saw me do it — I thought he was just watching hockey and drinking a beer — and I go out to the train tracks again.

So the first thing I get in trouble for, after I get back, is stealing. And it was just a dollar! Man, can you imagine what he’d do to me if I got caught taking a twenty? Or one of his beers? That’s why I wait until he’s gone on a road trip again, heh. He doesn’t keep count when he’s gone.

Anyway, he kicks my ass for taking money without asking. And then he wants to know what I did with it. I’m just a kid, I’m freaked out, so I tell him. Dad hustles me back to the train tracks, holding me up by the back of the neck so I’m practically on my tiptoes the whole way, and we get the loonie back.

Then we stayed there, waiting for the train to go by. While we’re there, he starts telling me about this one time that he saw a drunk guy walking home on the tracks lay down or pass out, and got his legs cut off by the train. It didn’t even slow down. I didn’t ask whether the guy lived or died.

I did feel like puking, though. My dad’s a good storyteller. I can kill and gut a deer, no problem. I went all that way after getting kicked by a moose and I didn’t whitey even when I wanted to. But you get my dad describing something gory, and I tell you, my stomach just turns over. And you can totally tell how much he’s loving it while I’m turning white and trying not to listen.

“Adam,” he says, looking at me seriously. “There’s a reason why most of the time, houses aren’t built next to the railway tracks.”

Of course, that’s a lie. There’re houses up here that are right close to the tracks. Okay, so there’s a backyard between the house and the rails, but still.

He starts telling me about what a train derailment is really like.

“The cars knock together and push each other to the sides,” he says. “So it’s not just turning over to one side, there’s cars to the left and cars to the right. And as soon as the first ones stop moving, the ones behind them jump on top, ’cause they don’t have any other place to go. If those are passenger cars, you got people inside getting flung all over the place, getting cut by broken glass and squashed under iron wheels and trapped between the seats. They can’t hear themselves screaming ’cause the sound of metal screeching is too loud, but when it’s over, then they’ll hear each other. And if they’re really lucky, someone nearby will hear them and call 911.

“But if there’s a house or a car that’s too close to the tracks,” he goes on, pointing at the spots. “The train pulverizes it.”

That’s the exact word he used. Pulverize.

“It’s going so fast, and it’s made of steel so it’s heavy, that it knocks into whatever’s in its way and smashes right through. If there’re chemicals or gas or oil, and there’s a leak, the steel makes sparks and that causes an explosion. So whoever might have survived in the house or the car, if he lived through getting hit, gets burned alive by the fire.”

Yeah, at this point I’m just about puking.

“This is why you don’t put shit on the tracks to derail the train, understand?” He’s shaking me now, just enough to get me to look him dead in the eyes. “This is why you don’t play on the tracks, or lie on the tracks, or mess around anywhere near the tracks. You get me?”

Then he points behind me, and holy shit, there’s a fucking train coming. I nearly crapped myself. You’d think you’d hear it coming, but you don’t, not until it’s almost on top of you. We weren’t even standing on the gravel, but I could feel the wind coming off of it. You know how you can imagine grabbing one of the handles as it’s going by slowly, through an intersection? Well, outside of an intersection, it goes just a little bit faster. Scary faster.

So I’m walking down the tracks now, years later, knowing my dad will kick my ass again if he catches me, and kill me himself if I even just sit down for a minute, and I’m starting to wish I’d just taken the goddamned trail, when it happens.

Unfuceffing believable.

Coming toward me, way down the track, there’s a freaking train.

————————–

The premise of this novel is that a young man is out snowmobiling and ends up in trouble, first by encountering a moose, then by bogging down his machine. His experience only gets worse from there, with a events pushing him further from home and safety, and into more and more dangerous circumstances. I’m aiming for 50,000 words, currently at 35,389 at the time of this post, with 7 days to go.

WIP update: the snowmobiling story gets complicated and dark

The truth behind the skeleton is emerging. It’s not a pretty story. Also not what I expected — the tale is complicated, and perhaps open to debate. But it’s interesting.

I’ve decided to omit the use of a certain curse word from this YA WIP, switching it to “eff” instead. I’ve been playing with the style, as well, using text that’s been struck out here and there, to represent the idea that the young man telling the story changes his mind about what he wants to say or how he wants to say it now and again. I might do that with the swear words, in the manner that the kids do — starting to say the bad word, and if it all pops out, apologizing for it, or if they catch it in time, replacing it with a tamer version of the slang. But that will come after the whole draft is done.

I realized tonight, to my horror (slight exaggeration, although I was very dismayed) that I’d gotten four thousand words behind schedule. I’m closer to being back on track, having written 2,600 words this evening, and I’m tempted to keep going, but at the same time I will suffer in the morning if I push it too late.

Still need a title for this, too. If anyone has any ideas, or would like to read another excerpt to possibly offer suggestions, that would be amazing!

Writer Problem No. 153: Not Knowing How the Story Will End

My snowmobile story has turned into a bit of a mystery! I certainly didn’t see that coming. One of these days, I would like to write an honest-to-God, structured mystery novel. I’ve had that element in some of my short stories, and it crops up in the Talbot Trilogy, but not on purpose. Just — things that have to be discovered, or uncovered, in the course of the main conflict being pursued and resolved.

As a fan of Sherlock Holmes mysteries (read my brother’s copy of Adventures of Sherlock Holmes when I was 12), and the Harry Potter books, Nancy Drew when I was a kid, and Castle today, I keep feeling like that’s a genre I could really sink my teeth into. But I keep stumbling into the element by accident. I think, to properly write a mystery, you have to have that intention from the beginning, don’t you?

So that means doing research. Teaching myself with trial and error. Interviewing those in the know, like my dad, for instance, who also loves mysteries, and whose father was an insurance investigator. Taking copious amounts of notes and keeping them organized.

When I was working on the trilogy, I often wished that I had a bulletin board on which I could post bits and pieces of detail, a visual timeline that I could see all at once rather than having to flip through pages on my screen or in my notebook, and printed out plot details that I’d already written. I thought I was a little bit nuts, but then I saw the fictional character Castle doing it on his eponymous show, and I know that the writers of that program based his activities off of those of an actual mystery writer, SOOO . . . I’m not that crazy after all! There really could be a method to my madness! If only my house was a little bit bigger, and had slightly more wall space. Like a nice downtown loft apartment in New York City . . .

Anyway, now that I’ve got this great bit of inspiration going, suddenly the skeleton under the floor, the silver lighter that my protagonist has, and some of the troubles in his family are starting to make sense. I am tempted to go back into the exposition and rising action to clarify some of these things in the backstory, using flashbacks and reminisces as devices. But first I have to find an answer to the biggest burning question of all: just who is the skeleton under the floor, and who is the old man with the gun?!?

Oh, my brain . . . Why can’t you just give me answers? It’s so funny when I mention that I don’t know what’s going to happen next, or that I can’t explain whether a location is really haunted in one of my stories, or how a mystery is going to be solved — the students I talk to about these things kind of tilt their eyes and look at me like I’ve completely lost it. “How can you not know?” they ask me. “You’re the writer!”

Yeah. This is part of the reason why I honestly believe that some stories are simply out there, floating in the ether, waiting for a conduit in the form of the teller. They reveal themselves when the time is right. So, Ether, I’m waiting. I’m listening. Fingers are typing. WHO IS THE SKELETON? WHAT’S WITH THE OLD MAN?!?

I bet Jack London never had problems like this.

The struggle in naming your great work of words…

Fellow writers, how do you choose the titles of your work?

I can’t keep calling my WIP the Snowmobile Story, you see. I’ve gotten to know Adam and made him suffer through so much, throwing him into this predicament and that — I feel like, at this juncture, I need a real working title.

A few years ago, when I was developing the Talbot Trilogy, a friend who was a former student suggested a formula she’d determined for finding a title. It involved looking for frequently used nouns, selecting the first or third or fifth word on page x, and seeing what sounded good from some combination of these things. At the time, it worked for me, but I didn’t write the concept down. If my description sounds vague, that’s because I cannot recall exactly what she said or what I did. So I’m back at square one for this novel.

I thought, for a while, that I’d just leave the title until the end. At that point, perhaps a quote would stand out for me, or a brilliant idea would burst forth from my weary brain, announcing itself with fireworks and fanfare. Maybe that will still happen, but until that time, I would like to come up with something a little more interesting and motivating — something that the growing draft deserves.

After all, it’s not a short story at this point, it’s midway to becoming a short novel. And it’s being prepared for an audience.

Sometimes, I find that having a beta reader go through a finished draft helps me out, because she or he (sorry, gentlemen, it’s usually a “she”) might suggest something better to call it than the title I’m using. I’m very open to suggestions.

So when it comes to titles, what do you do about them? Do you use a formula of some kind, or wait for inspiration? Start with a great title and write the story that belongs to it?

Musings on what influences the setting / environment of a story

When you have to go to the bathroom particularly badly, the sound of running water is the last thing you need or want to hear. (Well, unless you’re in the woods and will be needing to wash your hands afterward. Or if you are in a public restroom and require a little sensory input — a little encouragement — before starting the flow.)

Went for a walk yesterday, and the sound of running water was the sweetest thing I’d heard in a long time. Months, actually.

Today, raindrops pattering and splashing added themselves to the symphony that is nature waking up. Cold and damp, sure, but a welcome change of pace. Rain helps the melt to hurry itself along. It’s not perfect timing — a highway just a few hours to the south was washed out — but I’ll take the rain over more snow.

Fellow writers, do you find that it’s easier to write scenes that take place in certain weather conditions or climates if you actually live in or visit those conditions? Or is it easier to research and rely on imagination?

For example, a few summers ago while I was working on Blood and Fire, I was doing a lot of the writing in the summer, basking in the heat of the sun and enjoying the scents and colours of my backyard. It was fun, at that time, to think back on the winter. Nostalgic, even. Romantic, too. But the snowmobiling story I’m currently working on also takes place in winter, and as we’re just coming out of it, I feel as though I’m rather venting my weariness of being cold and snowbound. In fact, I find myself wondering why I didn’t decide to write about being some place hot and tropical, if only for the temporary mind-escape.

I do think that writers should travel as much as possible, especially when researching a locale, in order to get a real sense of a place and be authentic in sensory details and description, but how many of us can afford to do that? More often than not, imagination and research in the old-fashioned way has to stand-in for hopping a plane or driving the distance to the setting of the book. That can be frustrating in some ways. I read about writers who get to travel, and I feel more than a little pen-envy, but such is life, right?

Here’s another thought: if you can’t afford to travel, and you don’t want to research a place, is it cheating a little bit to set a story in your own regional backyard?

Of course, that leads me to wonder whether we really choose the stories we’re telling. On some metaphysical level, sometimes I feel like the stories are already out there, waiting for the right teller or writer to latch onto them or provide a conduit. And therefore, deciding to write about a place you’ve never experienced previously becomes less of a choice and more of a commitment. A journey, even if it’s in words alone.

I don’t know if I’m making any sense. I’m very tired and going to bed shortly. But as I’ve been working on this snowmobile story for Camp NaNoWriMo, changing the original timing from February to March and as I said, using my current combination of animosity toward and enjoyment of winter to fuel the setting and plot, I find myself wondering how differently this might compose itself had I started it in June or July, sitting in my backyard, rather than buried behind four walls and waiting out the siege of ice and snow.