Sunday, January 30

A first novel: A hard week

This past week may has been, with no argument, the hardest to write yet. The daily thousand were a struggle as I grasped at and filled out mundane and redundant details to reach a thousand. This past week my characters spent a lot of time complaining about the heat and their hunger and thirst and how exhausted they are after days of walking. It will be no surprise to me if I come back to this section and hack words with a vengeance, paring it down to half its present size if not more.

The first fifteen thousand words were pretty easy. Things happened, and the characters responded to them. They moved from plot point to plot point. There was a clear destination and immediate goal, and they ran between them. Now they've attained that goal, and they're going to be hanging around there for another two years or so. Things are happening slower now. I know why and how things will change at the end of those two years and what will proceed from there, but things need to develop to that point. They can't just happen.

That's the problem, trying to fill all this time. It's an opportunity for the characters to develop, to be themselves at their leisure and not focus on staying alive until the next scene. I need to write things that don't matter as much and don't serve solely to advance the plot. That's harder, but that's why I have this goal of one thousand words a day. Without it I would be sore tempted to take a break now. Ostensibly this break would be to think about what came next. In truth it would be because the work became too hard. Now I don't give myself this luxury of long breaks from writing. I just have to keep pushing through and putting down whatever comes to mind first. A motive for a secondary character appears and guides the day's writing. A minor errand fills another thousand words. Maybe it's stupid, but it's something. I'll take care of it later if I have to.

Word count as of today? Twenty-four thousand and eight words.

Monday, January 24

McDonald's Adventures: The end

Two Fridays past I gave notice that I would quit McDonald's. Yesterday it happened. I worked my last shift. In two weeks I'll pick up my final pay check and turn in my uniform. For this, we can thank Mrs. Mallory Ferland Ramos who let me know about a place online that would 15 dollars for how-to articles, allowing me to make more money in less time according to my own schedule without three levels of managers and not requiring being on my feet all day. We can all show our appreciation to her by visiting The Salty Cod and reading of her baking adventures as an expatriate in Brazil.

To McDonald's I say so long, farewell, good riddance. I never wanted to work there, but when no other place would accept my application, I had to take what I could get to pay the rent and buy the groceries. I never liked working there. I never looked forward to the upcoming shift. I did not want to put my bachelor's degree to use in scraping eggs and meat off a grill. I did not want to come back from a year in Kenya and Indonesia to pull chicken and fish from deep fryers. Whenever the managers needed a volunteer to leave early because there were too many of us in the back for too few customers, I was always among the first to offer.

At some point, not so long after I started, this line of thinking mutated. It changed distaste for to an active hatred of my job. From there it was not such a leap to a demand for justice.

A ridiculous thought, yes. No wrong was ever done. They didn't treat me poorly. McDonald's offered me a job when no else did. No one shouted at me. So long as I dropped meat on the grill and delivered it to the heating cabinet as requested, they left me alone, all I asked or hoped for. My only complaint was that they scheduled me for the late shift on Christmas Eve and opening on Boxing Day, not even allowing me to spend a second night in Butte, but then they gave me New Year's Day off. Still I believed that wrong, somewhere, sometime, had been committed, and I needed to respond to it. To give it the simplest formulation: I didn't like my job. Someone had to pay.

Not that I pursued this anywhere either. Working slow would only inconvenience the customers, most of whom were senior citizens looking for a meal out that wouldn't break their Social Security check. Skipping a shift without a call would force more work on the rest of the crew, none of whom liked their jobs particularly much either. I didn't argue with the managers. They didn't make enough money to deserve it, and in keeping with the trend, also didn't want to work at McDonald's. Who was I to make their shifts any worse?

That only left the owners, a couple I saw pass through to their office in the basement a few times a week. What was I going to do to them, trip them? By the end, I resolved to spend as much of their money as possible. Not that this came to much of anything either. I wasn't going to steal food so long as I was a vegetarian or had culinary standards. I wasn't going to throw food away on a whim when kids were starving in whatever developing country. Instead, I used new paper tray liners for every run of meat and new boxes to microwave every batch of biscuits. These were the sorts of things that were taught in the training slideshows but no one bothered to follow day to day. I was reduced to trying to get back at the owners for hiring me by following the rules to the full extent.

Even on my last shift I took no vengeance. I didn't curse out the idiot manager whose idea of leadership was telling the crew under him to do what another manager had just asked him to do and who could only toast English muffins during breakfast because he had no idea how to do anything else. I stole a biscuit that would have been thrown out in any case because I was hungry. The opening manager was even pleasantly surprised that I showed up. Most people blow their final day off. I steamed the grill and left promptly when my shift was over. I just wanted it to be over.

I'm happier now.

Friday, January 21

A first novel: The longest

As of yesterday evening, my novel was seventeen thousand and twenty-six words. My thesis on service-learning, with a title page, table of contents and five pages of bibliography, is sixteen thousand, six hundred thirty words long. That makes these early scratchings of a novel the longest unified, coherent work I have written as of yet. That makes me happy. That is all.

Tuesday, January 18

A first novel: Dramatis personae

Today I began a dramatis personae for my novel. I had a character list before I began writing, but it was little more than the names of the five siblings at the center of the action, their relative ages and their motivations. This new character list includes the other twelve characters who've appeared so far, their relationships with relevant characters, their professions, their motivations and more precise ages for the children. It makes me feel awfully professional to have this. It makes me look like I know what's going on when I'm really just throwing words at the page as fast as I can to get the characters to the next place they need to be.

The names part of the list is the most important for me. Deciding on an appropriate name for a character can knock me off my writing stride for a good five minutes. I can never just pick a name and call it good. The name has to have a thematic resonance with historical or mythological overtones. It has to look good on the page and sound nice, too. It's a little bit easier when the vast majority of the characters so far are from a single Kenyan tribe, and I only know so many tribal names, but it can still throw me. I've avoided that particular block for these first weeks by just calling them by a family name and title, but no longer. They all have names now, even if no one ever actually says their name. It seems smarter than just calling a man "the uncle" or "the father" sentence after sentence.

I have another reason for this small writing diversion. It reminds me that a character exists. In general, I know what the five main characters want, and I even have some idea of whether they will get those things or not. What I don't know is how they'll get to that point or how it'll change them. I need to remember these characters that they can appear again, drive the leads to or from their goals. I don't just want these characters to appear for a scene or few pages, to say their bit and leave. I want them to really exist within the story. I want characters to come back later in the story in different circumstances. This novel is going to cover years. There will be plenty of time and opportunity for revenges to be carried out and goods rewarded.

I wonder if I should include this in the completed novel. I haven't seen one in a contemporary novel for years, but it could help the readers navigate all the foreign names, especially when every woman's name begins with 'Chep.' I guess people manage through Russian novels somehow without though.

Word count as of today? Fifteen thousand and eighteen words.

Sunday, January 16

McDonald's Adventures: McMore

Everyone is familiar with McDonald's affinity for the 'Mc' prefix. Its their thing like square patties are Wendy's thing, fried chicken is KFC's thing and E. coli is Jack in the Box's thing. McDonald's has McNuggets, the Big Mac, the McChicken, the McDouble, the McRib and those are just for lunch. There are McMuffins, McGriddles and McSkillets for breakfast along with the McCafé line of drinks, and you can finish it all of with a McFlurry for dessert.

I would like to add two more items to this list, less obvious to the typical customer and ones you are advised not to order. The McFree is found underneath the back sink. It's a drain cleaner. The McBulk is a stainless steel tank taller than me deep in back storage. It's a carbonation system. McDonald's might have gotten a little carried away with those, or it has an inside line on the best carbonation and drain cleaning systems on this planet. I'm thinking the former. Unless the idea of the drain cleaner is to make a soup with the consistency of mud and the color of flesh rot. Then it works great.

Wednesday, January 12

A first novel: The first week of writing

I have a strategy in writing this novel. Five days a week, the five days I go to McDonald's, I write a thousand words. They are not good words. I write them as quickly as I can. At longest, when I dawdle to check articles on The Millions and links on Bookslut, it takes me ninety minutes to finish my thousand words. Characters are introduced and do some things. The plot moves along. Sensory details, rich dialogue, powerful characterizations are left for later. There will be time enough when I better understand the whole of the novel and am not concentrating so much on creating the foundations of the thing in the first place.

The sixth day, my first day off, is an opportunity to read what I have written. It is an opportunity to confirm that the thrust of the story remains true and to make necessary corrections and adjustments before I drive the novel into a blind alley, pursued by hooligans.

The seventh day, my second day off, is a day of rest. It is a time to concentrate on other things, on short stories left uncompleted but tantalizingly near their end.

This strategy has left me with 10,772 words as of last night. That makes these beginnings of a novel the longest piece of fiction I have ever written. I have a short story that recently passed eight-thousand words but is unlikely to go much farther. Few other of my stories have even breasted five-thousand words. That's exciting.

I still have no idea how long to expect the whole. It was taken this long for the Lochilang'or family to leave Nakuru and begin their journey to Pokot. Maybe they will stay there for twenty-thousand words or so before leaving for Nairobi. That final city ought to occupy some fifty-thousand words or so, and all those are fast words.

For a point of extrapolation, on my first day off from work, I began rewriting a single paragraph of about a hundred words until it was approaching eight hundred words. It would not surprise me to see this all go past two-hundred-thousand words when all is done. That's a long way yet. I'll be pleased to be halfway there by the end of this summer.

Saturday, January 1

A first novel: The first words

In my high school newspaper, I was quoted saying that I had made no New Year's resolutions as I believed that self-improvement was a constant project with neither end nor beginning. To reduce it to a list written on a single day was ridiculous.

I believe the same still today yet I find myself on the first day of the first month of this new year having begun something of a resolution. I have written the first words of my first novel. One thousand and seventy-six words have been typed, displayed on a screen and saved to my flash drive. I have no idea. how many words will follow. I have no idea how long before they are all assembled and groomed. But two hours a day, one thousand words a day, I will find out.

The idea came to me this summer. I wrote it down and saved it in August that I would not forget it. I promised in November to begin writing it in the new year, giving myself the rest of the month and all of December to discover the greater cast of characters and the beginnings of their vanities and ambitions and to finish some other writing work and not leave it half finished. The latter half of that has not gone as well, two short stories still well in progress and the end not so distant from them that it will be easy to push them to the side. The former half of that promise has not gone so well either, amounting to a few lines of scribbled notes for the five members of the Lochilangor family and an awareness of the dominant thrust of the story, but to know the names of the characters, their desires and motivations, and where all this will lead them, is a lot to begin with, even if I still have no idea of their ultimate fates.

My hope is that this chronicle of writing my first novel becomes a regular series on this blog. In its higher moments, I hope that it share the process of creating a novel and become a sort of companion to other writers, allowing them to see my challenges and victories and to know that they are not alone in their struggles in beginning and ending their own works. In its lower moments, I hope merely that the promise to write this series once a week and share my progress with you is motivation enough to keep me writing everyday.

What it will not be is a summary of the creative work. I do not like to talk about my work in progress as my wish is that people who may read it come to it without expectations and are surprised by what they find, but I do not wish either to be unnecessarily evasive in my writing, so allow me to share this at the beginning. The tentative title is The Subber. It is set in contemporary Kenya. It is about passion, responsibility, ambition, family, escape and all the rest. It's going to be amazing.

I hope you enjoy this journey as much as I.