My NaNoWriMo Survival Kit

Frighteningly, National Novel Writing Month is only two and a bit days away. Starting Monday at midnight, us NaNoWriMo scribblers have 30 days to get 50,000 words out of our over-caffeinated brains and into our word processing programs, preferably in some sort of coherent order. I’m using it as the ultimate deadline in my quest to finish my first draft of Novel No.2 this side of Christmas. And although my best-of-intentions NaNoWriMo prep work got bumped this week for some really good books I just had to read (and The Apprentice, both the TV3 and BBC versions), I have managed to assemble my NaNoWriMo Survival Kit.

1. A clicky pen

I do all my writing on computer (I don’t even write shopping lists) but I have to have a clicky pen to hand at all times. It helps me think. Plus the incessant clicking noise keeps everyone else away so it guarantees solitude, and should a book deal suddenly materialize, I have a pen to hand to sign it. Bonus!

2. Alison Well’s NaNoWriMo post

The internet is awash with blog posts, tweets and telegrams telling you everything to need to know about how to do/survive/ignore NaNoWriMo – and then some. Don’t bother reading those. Instead, just read this: Alison Well’s pre-NaNoWriMo post, “How To Do NaNoWriMo If You Don’t Have the Time.

3. My Mac

I love my computer, which is small and light enough to take anywhere, and has keys that don’t make an extremely annoying clacking noise when you hit them. I’m just going to have to cut the umbilical to my wireless internet connection or we won’t get anything done…

4. New music

I have something ridiculous like 2,000+ songs on my iTunes, but somehow I only ever end up listening to the same 50 or so. With them constantly on repeat, this can get pretty boring after a while and constantly pressing the Skip Forward button can really interfere with the old word count, so for some serious writing to get done, new music is required. This NaNoWriMo I shall be listening mostly to Speak Now by Taylor Swift, Battle Studies by John Mayer (as I haven’t burnt that out quite yet), No Line on the Horizon by U2 (skipping “Breathe” which I have worn out already) and whatever songs from the new Take That album I can, um, source online.

5. More coffee than I can feasibly drink in November

It was a lucky coincidence that I got to go coffee-shopping in the States recently, and brought home four bags – and four blends – to last me through the entire NaNoWriMo slog. Tip: now is not the time to try a new espresso blend. Stick to mild mediums. Coffee-drinking is pretty much essential to my writing, and if I’m drinking a lot of it then I don’t want that horrible coffee aftertaste that sticks around after a really strong cup. Medium weaker blends are best for prolonged bursts of creativity, trust me. (And yes, it’s in my fridge. Opened bags of coffee stay fresh longer this way.)

6. My novel’s “bible”

Here’s how I keep track of what I’m writing: I take a ream of A4 paper and count out as many pages as I have chapters or scenes. My novel is also divided into sections, so I print out a title page for each of these. I also make a fancy cover using some clip art. Then I take all my notes (printed out on A4 too), put the chapters/scenes separated by their section title pages behind them, put the cover on the front and bind the whole thing using a large bulldog clip. It then becomes a “book” I can flick through, but because it’s only held together by a clip I can add to or subtract from it at any time. When a chapter/scene is written, I scribble a summary of it on its relevant page, and write any notes that have arisen out of it (i.e. “Kevin mentions Tom; this needs to be addressed the next time Kevin appears”) on the page representing the chapter ahead that the note refers to. Then when it comes to start a new chapter, I simply open its corresponding page in the “bible” and all the notes and reminders I need are there waiting.

(I realize this sounds complicated but you get what I mean, right?)

7. A clear desk

If there was a stray paperclip within reach I would play with it – that’s how easily distracted I am. Therefore a clear desk with no potential playthings is an absolute must if I’m to get anything done, a desk that looks the exact opposite of the one pictured above. (Which is my actual desk just before I left for holidays. It only looks this bad on weekends, I swear…)

8. Inspiration

Whenever I feel like I can’t be arsed, I have a flick through some of my favorite writing books: Wannabe a Writer? by Jane Wenham-Jones, On Writing by Stephen King, The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner and How Not To Write a Novel: 200 Mistakes to Avoid At All Costs If You Ever Want to Get Published by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark. I’ll also be using Save the Cat by Blake Snyder for plotting tips, as always.

(Click here to read about my favorite How To… writing books.)

9. A novelty mug

Any excuse.

10. Enthusiasm

This may wane by the end of next week, but right now I’m fired up.  50,000 words by the end of November? You betcha!

If you’re looking for another NaNoWriMo buddy and you’d like the opportunity to scream and shout at me when I get stuck around 11,000 words, I’m cathryanhoward on NaNoWriMo.org.

GOOD LUCK!

What I Thought of… THE REAPERS ARE THE ANGELS by Alden Bell

A few months back posters of syringes behind my local Waterstones counter got me all excited about The Passage by Justin Cronin, a post-apocalyptic saga involving zombies or “Virals” that was compared to King’s The Stand, highlighted by the likes of The New York Times and bought for a gizallion gillion million dollars by one of the dozens of publishing houses who fought for the rights, and the Hollywood studio who swooped in soon afterwards to secure the movie rights.

(Okay, so that paragraph may have contained a little exaggeration…)

This week I read The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell which, on the face of it, seems to be about exactly the same thing.

“God is a slick god. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe… For twenty-five years, civilization has survived in meager enclaves, guarded against a plague of the dead. A young woman named Temple wanders this blighted landscape, keeping to herself and keeping her demons inside her heart. She can’t remember a time before the zombies, but she does remember an old man who took her in and the younger brother she cared for until the tragedy that set her off on her personal journey towards redemption. Moving back and forth between the insulated remnants of society and the brutal frontier beyond, Temple must decide where ultimately to make a home and find the salvation she seeks. A powerful story of survival and self-discovery, The Reapers are the Angels is terrifying, atmospheric, and gripping, from its haunting opening all the way to its shocking conclusion.”

So… zombies? Check! A post-apocalyptic America? Check! A teenage girl who is more than she appears to be? Check! A million dollar advance, film deal and international publicity push? Um… well, no. Not even close. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of this book until the publisher offered me a review copy. And luckily for readers of The Reapers of the Angels, the dissimilarities between it and The Passage don’t end there.

Because Reapers isn’t your average post-zombie apocalypse book. Far from it. It reads more like a gothic literary novel than a futuristic thriller (it reminded me of McCarthy’s The Road in places), its main character, Temple, is deeply spiritual, and instead of doing a mediocre job of spanning hundreds of years (and pages), its slim form does an excellent job of spanning just a few days. The introduction of only a few characters leaves Bell plenty of room for development, and I know the character of Temple will linger with me for the coming days.

Throughout The Passage I was constantly yanked out of the narrative by things that didn’t ring true in the fictional world Cronin had created; with Reapers I had no such problem, because everything fits. Even the zombies themselves are more realistic: instead of vampire-like, cheeta-fast attackers, they amble and stumble – they are dead after all. (Is there such a thing as realistic zombies? Discuss.) The country is overrun with these “slugs” but humans can live among them because like, say, elderly grizzly bears, as long as you stay well out of their way, keep moving and avoid antagonizing them, you can stay safe.

And – crucially – there isn’t a boring chunk of pages in the middle. There isn’t even a boring paragraph. I picked this up one night when I couldn’t sleep, intended to read a few pages, and had to force myself to stop reading half way through. Not that it helped me with the not sleeping: this book is terrifying, as the threat of getting eaten alive by zombies should be. Bell doesn’t hold back on the details, and some of them made me glad I wasn’t reading this over my dinner, let me tell you.

I can only hope that Bell will get to piggyback Cronin’s publicity, and Reapers will reach the huge audience it deserves.

I highly recommend it.

Click here to purchase THE REAPERS ARE THE ANGELS from Amazon.co.uk.

Click here to read my review of The Passage.

Click here to read all my book reviews.

Thanks to Henry Holt & Co for the review copy.

Are You Giving Your Writing 110%? I Know I’m Not…

I was watching an old episode of Oprah recently (one devoted disciple of The Big O, right here) when something one of her guests said struck me. The episode was about dream jobs, and one of the dream job holders was head of design for American clothing company JCrew. When Oprah asked her what advice she’d give to anyone looking to bag their dream job, she said two things: 1) do what you love and 2) always give 110% no matter what it is you’re doing, whether it be making coffee for half the office or being a CEO.

I’d give anything to be a published novelist, but am I giving everything to it right now? In theory, yes. After all I do this full-time, and I’ve pretty much pressed pause on everything else in my life – traveling, friends, pursuing John Mayer – while I try to make it happen. But watching that Oprah show I realized that on a day-to-day basis, I’m not giving 110%. Far from it, in fact. On a great day I’m giving about ninety, while an average effort is probably in the 40-70% zone by my estimation. Yes, sometimes I work really hard or put in long hours, but that’s more of an energy thing. I feel tired at the end of the day because my bum’s been in a seat and my fingers have been furiously tapping away on my Mac’s keys, and my brain aches because I’ve been using it, but am I really working at such a level that I can claim it’s not only my maximum, but a little bit above it? Am I ever really pushing myself?

And so for the month of November I’m going to do 5 things that I think will go some way to increasing my effort percentage:

  1. I’m going to do NaNoWriMo, the 50,000 words being part of The Second Novel: First Draft
  2. I’m going to write 500 words of a non-fiction side project every weekday to see if there’s anything there
  3. I’m going to blog at least three times a week without fail
  4. I’m going to schedule tweets linking to my blog posts during the night, to see if I can meet new Twitter peeps in different time zones and/or up my blog hits (let’s be honest!)
  5. I’m going to clear my To Read list (the non-fiction anyway; I don’t read novels while I write my own).

So what about you? What can YOU do to up your effort percentage?

(P.S. Whether or not such a thing as 110% effort exists is an argument for another day, okay guys? Thanks.)

What I Thought Of… NO WAY DOWN: LIFE AND DEATH ON K2 by Graham Bowley

I first started reading mountaineering books in March 2008, when a tattered copy of Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer I happened upon in a cafe in Guatemala gripped me so tightly that I dropped out of Spanish school so I could finish reading it, uninterrupted. (Had I been looking for an excuse to drop out of Spanish school anyway? Um, YES! But it was gripping.) I had never read anything like it before and despite my love of the Discovery Channel and its friends, I’d managed to avoid all Everest-based documentaries and movies. The only thing I knew about people climbing the world’s tallest mountains was that I didn’t understand why they did it, why these climbers risked their lives to indulge in a sport that seemed to have no respect for human life at all.

(And yes, I do see the irony of me reading mountaineering books. But anyway.)

“NO WAY DOWN: Life and Death on K2 is a dramatic account of the 2008 climbing tragedy on K2, the worst disaster in the mountain’s history. K2 may be second to Mount Everest in height but it is considered the most difficult mountain to climb on Earth. For this reason it’s known as The Climbers Mountain that only the very best climbers even attempt to conquer. Historically, one fourth of those who have attempted the summit have not made it down alive. August 1st, 2008 was the deadliest day ever on K2. On that fateful day, no fewer than ten climbing teams, 30 climbers from around the world, converged for an assault on the summit… it was one of the largest gatherings ever on those dangerous slopes. Working in loose coordination, each group left the final camp in the pre-dawn darkness… They had spent weeks on the mountain waiting, and finally the weather had cleared. Yet over the course of the next 24 hours, seemingly in slow motion punctuated by violent outbursts, the worst disaster in K2’s history unfolded, step by step… What unfolded that night remains one of history’s most dramatic and harrowing climbing stories. Heroism mixed with darkness, sanity with hallucination, tragedy with survival. Based on in-depth interviews with nearly every surviving climber and many sherpas and porters, the full depths of the drama can at last be told.”

No Way Down is one of the first climbing books I’ve read that isn’t about Everest (the only other one was the harrowing Touching the Void) and the only one that wasn’t written by or with someone who was involved in the climb in question, but I found it an absorbing read. Everest may be the world’s tallest mountain, but relatively speaking it’s not difficult to climb. (This has contributed to the commercialization of it and in turn, controversy; it seems if you have money to cover the price of the ticket, guides and sherpas will get you to the summit. No climbing experience required.) K2 is the second tallest, part of the Karakoram Range which sits on the border of China and Pakistan. It’s known as the Savage Mountain, and has killed one climber for every four who have made it to the summit.

Limerick man Gerard McDonnell on the summit of K2, August 2008.

I wanted to read No Way Down because one of the fatalities of the tragedy was Gerard McDonnell, a young Irish climber from Limerick who by all accounts was a bright light of a human being. I heard the news in August 2008 that McDonnell had summited K2, becoming the first Irishman to do so. He was reportedly in tears as held a tricolor aloft at the top (picture above), all the training, the effort and the risk suddenly worth it.

The following morning, he was missing and presumed dead. He’d been caught – it seemed – by  ice and snowfalls that had battered the mountain’s faces overnight, when McDonnell and his team had been attempting their late descent. Although the exact sequence of events that led to his death is contested, there is evidence to suggest that McDonnell died while trying to save the lives of three of his fellow climbers who having been caught in an avalanche, were hanging off the mountain and off each other, tangled upside down in their own ropes.

Unlike one of Everest’s darkest seasons – 1996, the subject of Into Thin Air – death on K2 seems to arise not out of bad planning or commercialization, or politics, or inexperienced climbers, but mostly out of sheer bad luck. Wrong place, wrong time. The mountain is a monster and those who try to climb her must battle her to reach the top, and then war with themselves to get back down – above 28,000 feet or “The Death Zone”, altitude starts to strip the body and the brain of function. Thus reading K2 stories is a different experience. Whereas Into Thin Air frustrated me, No Way Down terrified me.

The problem I have with this book is that I found it difficult to keep track of the cast of characters, but this is the case with most climbing books, as on a mountain like K2 or Everest there are generally crowds during summit season. You also find that many of the sherpas (high altitude porters) have similar names and people end up moving with teams they were perhaps not originally part of, which confuses the issue further. And there was one other thing: I found it extremely upsetting to read about how in a horrific incident a climber came upon the remains of what might well have been McDonnell, and I wonder how his friends and family feel reading about such awful details. I’m not sure that in that instance the author had to go quite so far, but then I supposed we are talking about an absolutely harrowing experience, and there’s little point in telling the story without telling the whole thing.

As for Bowley’s removal from events – he wasn’t on the mountain and is not a climber – I felt this benefited the book in that it enabled him to present an even and balanced account of what happened, taking into account everyone’s contributions and objections. (When altitude sickness strikes, so can logic and reason. People say and do things they never would otherwise and if they survive this, their memory of what happened to themselves and those around them can be unreliable. When they don’t make it down, their families contest the stories of what seems like uncharacteristic and impossible behavior. For this reason there are conflicting reports of nearly all mountaineering tragedies.) It may have stripped the text of some emotion though; the most moving part was, for me, the epilogue where Bowley describes meeting the climbers involved and even attending McDonnell’s wake, which was his introduction to this story.

I started reading these books because I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to risk their life climbing a mountain. I actually felt, if I’m being honest, that their actions were disrespectful to life. Why, when you are lucky enough to be alive and healthy, would you go and do something that on a good day means you lose some toes or go blind and, on a bad, can result in a sudden ghastly death or even worse, a slow quiet one?

But what I’ve learned is that they do it because to them, it is the heights of living. They think it is us who are disrespectful to our lives, wasting them away on the mundane and the unchallenging.

At the top of the world they feel closest to nature, closest to the world, closest to what they might call God, and I, for one, am in awe of them.

The Gerard McDonnell Memorial Fund supports the children of the Pakistani and Nepalese sherpas who died during the same K2 tragedy that took Gerard’s life. Find out more about it and how to donate here.

Click here to buy No Way Down: Life on Death on K2 from Amazon.co.uk.

Click here to read all my book reviews.

Free Stuff! Quick, Over Here!

Yesterday my little old blog hit 20,000 visits. Now while I try not to be obsessed with numbers, figures and followers, I am really quite proud that this blog has had so many hits since it launched on February 1st last. So yay.

And it’s all thanks to YOU, loyal blog readers.

(Or mostly thanks to you. It’s also a little bit thanks to the people who ended up here by Googling “George Clooney Nespresso.”)

As a thank you, I am offering you the opportunity to download an e-book edition of Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida, for free.

Yes, FREE. Like, as in no cost involved whatsoever. That’s a saving of $2.99, or a speciality coffee. Every little helps, as Tescos would say.

All you need to do is go to Smashwords.com, select the version you would like to download (you may have an e-reader device; you may just want to read it as a PDF on your computer) and enter the voucher SN78N at checkout. Then – hooray! – you’ll have a copy of Mousetrapped that you got for free.

Feel free to pass this voucher onto anyone you like or tweet a link to this post or whatever. The more the merrier. The only catch is the voucher code will expire tonight at midnight GMT, so you need to use it before then.

So – hurry. Click here to download yours. Now!

(If you experience any problems downloading for free, please email me at sales@mousetrappedbook.com.)

Praise for the Bubbliness

Mick Rooney of the POD, Self-Publishing and Independent Publishing blog had some really nice words to say about my talk at the One Stop Self-Publishing Conference:

“Catherine Ryan Howard went to work for a year in Disney World and decided to write a book called Mousetrapped about her experience on her return. She talked about the power of social networking at the conference. I don’t know of anyone more bubbly and infectious to talk about the subject and the importance of networking for self-published authors. Catherine created Catherine Caffeinated, her blog, and used CreateSpace to publish her book. If anyone couldn’t be encouraged or inspired to start a blog or create a Twitter or Facebook account after Catherine’s informative piece, then, frankly, they never will!”

How nice is that? Thank you, Mick! This is from his review of the conference, which you can read here (Part I) and here (Part II), and if you’re at all interested in self-publishing, you should already be subscribing to Mick’s informative blog.

The extremely talented (and award-winning!) Alison Wells also enjoyed the conference, despite me forcing her to take over the live-tweeting while I talked, and you can read her full report of the event here. (Tangent alert: Alison also has a fantastic NaNoWriMo prep post. She did it last year, reaching her 50,000 word target in just 30 days, so I really think we should listen to her!)

You can also read, should you have a few minutes to kill:

Visit the One Stop Self-Publishing website

Read all my self-printing posts.

The Future of the Writer… As If Writing Books Wasn’t Hard Enough

A few weeks ago – back in that giddy time I now refer to as B.M.H. or Before My Holidays – I saw this video, The Future of the Book, a teaser trailer for the ways technology might change the way we read books.

Featured in the video are three different applications or ideas:

  • NELSON: Giving readers what they need to form their own opinions on the most important topics of our time. Nelson helps put reference materials and other writings into perspective by rating the impact they have had on popular opinion and debate. A multi-layered reading experience allows you not only to read the book in question, but to see what is being said about it – be it in agreement or against – right now, and highlights relevant media stories in real time. The whole idea is that instead of reading one person’s view on a subject (i.e the author’s) you get to see where that view sits in relation to everyone else’s.
  • COUPLAND: Keeping you up to date with what’s going on in your field. This application sorts the must-reads from the won’t-do-you-any-harm-not-to-read-this-reads in a professional context, based on the reading habits of everyone within your company, industry or organization. It allows you to access your colleagues’ reading lists and enter online discussions with them. “Suggesting a book to somebody is easy; no water cooler required.” If enough employees purchase a book, it automatically becomes available to everyone in the organization.
  • ALICE: An interactive and playful reading experience that invites exploration well beyond just turning the page. Parallel to the text of the book, the story unfolds through the reader’s active participation, “blurring the lines between reality and fiction.” Plot twists, B-stories and other elements are revealed “unexpectedly” when the reader does something such as being at a specified geographic location with their e-reader (e.g. “Get to the statue in Main Street by 5 pm”), or even communicating with the characters outside of the story, such as receiving text messages or emails from them. The reader “co-develops” the story.

Undoubtedly these hypothetical tools would have their benefits, and I love cool, exciting and sexy technology as much as the next Mac user. But I have some problems – and not just the obvious, which is that as a book lover I’m upset about anything which seems to completely eliminate the need for physical books.

(Although as a self-publisher, I’ve got my arms and legs well inside the gravy, um, I mean e-book train. I know. The irony, etc. etc.)

I think, for instance, we all already have a Nelson – except we call it our brain – and is it fair that I have to buy a book in order for it later to become free to my colleagues? You know there’s always the one who never buys the tea bags – having a communal office bookshelf would only make them worse…

But my real problem – as a book lover, as a reader and especially as a writer – is the innocent-sounding Alice.

Alice, if I’m being honest, makes me a little angry.

I get really annoyed when I see smart phone companies advertising things like “all your social networks on the same page” as if it’s a good thing, even a selling point. I got annoyed when Yahoo! mail started offering status updates, and Facebook changed their news feed to keep up with Twitter. I like Twitter and I like Facebook. I like that they’re different experiences. I don’t want to do both at the same time, and I definitely don’t want them to merge into one. That would be boring. Similarly, I like watching TV. I like reading books. I like discussing books I’ve read with other people. I like looking stuff up online that seems interesting at the time but soon gets relegated to the Useless Information file cabinet – or rows of same – in the dark dusty corners of my mind. I do not like doing all of them at the same time, which is what Alice seems to offer.

I want to read books – be it on paper or through code – because I like the experience of reading.

As it is now. No bells or whistles, just words.

Alice says that’s not enough.

Granted, young readers are a different matter. The bells and whistles help them learn, and I’m sure they’d love the interactivity. (I know I used to love those adventure books where you’d get to choose your own ending, even though I’d go back and read all the other ones too.) I’m on board with anything that gets children reading. But as an adult reader, I take offense.

And as a writer, it makes me want to strangle someone.

Writing 100,000 coherent words isn’t exactly a walk in the park on a sunny afternoon hand-in-hand with John Mayer. (Or Aaron Eckhart. Tangent: after hearing what has quickly become my new favorite song, Dear John by Taylor Swift, I think I should lose the Mayer crush. It’s reportedly about him and if it is, boy – is he a piece of work!) Who, pray tell, is going to write these new books, what with their videos and secret paragraphs and hidden backstories and treasure hunts and geo data and a partridge and a pear tree? And text messages from my characters? Seriously? I can barely get them to hang around long enough to round out my plot, for fudge’s sake – and that’s only after a lot of work, coffee and toast.

And at the risk of sounding like a crazy person, I’m the writer. It’s my story. I wrote it because I wanted you to read it, as it is. I love you and everything – really, I do – but I don’t want you messing around with it after it goes out into the world. This novel writing business isn’t a co-op, you know. The story doesn’t unfold by committee.

Considering the lengths I have to go to just to write a book in the first place, all Alice encourages me to do is crawl under the duvet and despair. Tacked to my noticeboard is one of my favorite writing quotes by Gene Fowler: “Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

How much worse are things like Alice going to make it for writers in the years to come? Or will there be a new breed of writers who specialize in those kinds of books? And which of us will be more attractive to a publishing house?

And am I just having a mental health episode, or is this something you’re occasionally mildly worried about too?