But NaNo! Life Ate My Mojo

November. The dregs otherwise known as National Novel writing month. Last year I took the opportunity to write a novel fictionalizing my experiences at the women’s college, Peace, the administration of which a few months prior announced it would admit men The book, Saving Peace, was shortlisted for the Kindle Book Review‘s literary fiction prize.

Over the summer I edited and released two books, rewrote a third, and wrote new chapters for a fourth. I was on a roll. All the while, NaNoWriMo loomed closer and closer. I tried to sweep my decks clear: I put the revision project on hold, cranked out another 10,000 words on the new project, and perfected a draft of my first short documentary film.

Into week two, one emotional crisis, several days of blank screens, and early bed times later, I’m several thousands of words behind. I have managed 6,000 words into this new project, the idea for which I had sometime last year. I booked November 2012 to write this story about a group of women who live in the same neighborhood yet are at odds with each other, despite the veneer of friendship. The twist? They’re all expats. Some of them have housemaids. One of them is pregnant, and no one knows who the father is.

The stuff of drama.

Hopefully tomorrow everything will calibrate itself and I will get back on the horse. Even if it doesn’t, I have an hour set aside to write with our local writers’ group, specifically as a NaNoWriMo write-in.

“You don’t even need to do this,” a good friend, a non-writer, said to me in the clear and encouraging voice of reason, trying to get the overachiever off the ledge.  “You’ve already done it once and finished it.”

She made sense. She was right. But she’s never felt the vortex of NaNoWriMo. How the crazy energy of people talking about it, particularly on Twitter, makes you want to roll up your sleeves and be where the rest of the nerdy kids are.

Here’s a taste of this year’s NaNoWriMo, working title, The Dohmestics. And maybe you see why a lot of sleep is not in my immediate future. Did I mention we are hosting Thanksgiving this year?



Chapter One

Edna tripped over a toy at the foot of the stairs. “Alice!” No one answered, not even Adam who could see her from where he was sitting at the kitchen table. Edna picked up the Barbie shoe, cursing her sister who had insisted in another extravagant Christmas to make up for the months when she was away from her niece.

“Have you seen Alice?”

Adam shook his head in the negative, eyes trained on the computer screen. From the way he was hunched over, she was certain he was playing another one of those games that gave her laptop a virus during his last trip home. On the floor in front of the television was more toy carnage: there were dolls in various state of dress and undress strewn around. More gifts.

“If you’re going to live so far away,” Chrissy loved to say, “then when you’re here, I get to do what I want.”

Edna plopped the plastic high heel on the entryway table and opened the front door. There were ten children in the road, boys on bikes, and nannies holding toddlers by the fingers as they took hesitant steps down the bricked street. No sign of either of her daughters.
“Alice,” she called from the front porch. There were several pieces of sidewalk chalk strewn around the front step. Edna picked these up, along with the discarded sandals Alice had left behind.

“She’s at the playground ma’am,” the neighbor’s nanny, Maria said. She was pushing a toddler, Hamad, in a pram, as he did his best to wail and squirm his way out.  A few steps later Maria stopped and took a deep breath.  Edna kept scanning the street. Anyone would need a few breaths with a screaming two year old boy. When she came back to Maria, the maid hadn’t moved. And Hamad was soothing himself with his thumb.

“Are you okay?”

Maria’s drawn face was her answer. Edna came down the two steps on the porch and led Maria by the arm to one of Alice’s play chairs. The wood was sturdy enough to hold an adult. Out of habit, she put the back of her hand on Maria’s forehead to feel if she had a temperature. No heat there.
Maria was tight lipped and her skin waxen. A few beads of sweat appeared on her upper lip though October brought the cooler temperatures.

“Would you like some water?”

Maria opened her mouth to answer but stood up suddenly, nearly clipping Edna under the chin. She ran to a nearby bush and began retching.  Despite the horrendous sounds, nothing was materializing.


Edna began approaching the maid, now on her knees, the teal pants of her uniform in the sand. Hamad had fallen asleep, worn himself out from crying.  The maid paused, took a few breaths and wiped her hand across her mouth and then her face. Edna bent down next to her.

“Should I call Noof?”

“No.” Maria’s quiet answer had a layer of desperation mirrored by the wrinkles on her forehead.  “Please ma’am. I will be alright.” She struggled to her feet, Edna bracing her with an arm, and back to the stroller.

“If I see Alice I will tell her to come home.”

“Thanks,” Edna said. She watched Maria’s retreating back, wondering what Noof was doing at that exact moment. She had a fairly good idea that her Qatari friend was not picking up her children’s playthings or other discards.  Or that she had any idea her ill maid was wheeling her toddler around with the risk of infection. Maria was one of the few people Edna trusted to babysit for Alice and Noof was willing to share her services when their family was traveling. The maid was normally so conscientious; the brief incident was very out of character.

Edna was torn between texting Noof, getting dinner ready and walking around the neighborhood to look for her daughter. The sun was setting, casting the adobe colored buildings in a haze.  The grumble of her stomach won. She turned back into the house, sandals in one hand and chalk in the other.


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Nanowrimo: Or Write a Novel in a Month

Four years ago I tried the wacky adventure that is National Novel Writing Month: 1600 words a day for 30 days to a 50,000 word manuscript. I was right on target straight out of the blocks. And then — Thanksgiving, a friend’s baby, life. I didn’t finish. But I had a toe in the pool of creativity and my first introduction to an online creative community via the forums, message boards, encouraging emails all created to make sure people keep going. There is more advice during this month than perhaps the rest of the year combined because nearly everyone in the independent writing community is talking about, sweating toward, and churning out those precious words. Free books on writing and I’ve joined in by making my e book on writing, So You Want to Sell a Million Copies free until the end of the month.

This year I’m back, using it to work on a project based on real life events that have happened around my undergraduate women’s college becoming co-ed. Using third person point of view (she rather than I) the story begins as three friends have very different reactions to the news of men being admitted to their beloved campus and follows a diverse cast of characters including their spouses and children. We learn secrets from the past and how they impact whether on not Sibohan, Mary Alice, and Mae will be able to save the Peace that they know or whether their choices will destroy the semblance of relationship they have left.

It’s been ten years since I graduated (more actually) and I got the idea to work on this novel when there were very few submissions to a commemorative anthology project suggested to alumnae. While there weren’t a lot of people writing in about their recollections at Peace, there was (and still is) a lot being said about the changes on Facebook. I can’t wait to hear that their reactions to this fictionalized version of events, past and present.

Main building at Peace College

If you’ve ever considered writing a book, or short story, there’s no time like November and Nanowrimo. Not only is it cool sounding and you’ll have a built in excuse everyday to wander away from your regular life (or stay up into the wee hours meeting your word count) but you just might discover that this writing thing is for you.

Below is the opening to my project Saving Peace. I hope to finish up and edit in time for the holidays.

Comments welcome!

Chapter One

Unlike most calls bearing bad news the call came in the morning, during daylight, while the sun was still outside. But Sibohan was still asleep.  She let the phone continue to ring or rather buzz,, and it rang itself off the night stand and onto the floor, under her bed. The home phone had one handset in the kitchen. While calls began coming in, she slept solidly. Yet  again she wasn’t there for the others when they needed her most. It was as she sat in the makeup chair, having her hair and face prepped for the six o’ clock news that her assistant, Peggy, poked her head in.

“Did you review the notes?” Peggy asked.

Sibohan shrugged. She would wing it as she had been doing for the nearly ten years she anchored for the station. It was a miracle she had shot to straight in front of the camera so fast, everyone said, and yet unlike Oprah, she hadn’t progressed.

“Sure, a home intruder, police chief anniversary…” she waved her hand to indicate this was more of the same.

“You didn’t see the headlines?”

But the producer strode in, shouldering Peggy aside, waving in new pages, with instructions about the sponsors and the salient points they were supposed to avoid for the evening. The co-anchor arrived and it was time to go onto the set. She brushed the wrinkles out of her blouse.

The intro music started and Sibohan shuffled her papers, trying not to touch elbows with Dan, the newest (and youngest) in a series of male anchors using WRAL as a stop in on their way to syndicated networks. He did have a deep voice, she would give him that much. The previous guy Nathanwhatshisname had the face of a choir boy and the prepubescent voice to match. He had done well between twenty and thirtysomething white males, interesting. But twentysomethigns didn’t really make a channel’s ratings.

“A woman wakes to an intruder in her bed,  the city of Raleigh honors a police chief that’s served for nearly thirty years and the historic Peace College changes its name and begins to admit men. All of this and more at the top of the hour.”

Sibohan nearly fell off her chair. They held their frozen smiles in place and waited for the ON AIR sign to click off.

“What did you say?”

“I’ve got two tickets to STOMP at the convention center.” Nathan’s chiseled lips curved into what she was sure was a practiced smile – the kind she learned to avoid from frat boys at North Carolina State. The university where they had prowled as girls, when boredom of the all female campus was too much to turn away.

“No, the other part. On air.”

“We’re back! Camera two, Nate,” Peggy said. “Quiet on the set. Rolling.”

Even after all these years, those two phrases managed to send a shiver up her spine. Sibohan straightened in her seat with a posture her college theater professor would have been admired. It was one of the few things she hadn’t let slide over the years – that the studio wasn’t responsible for.

“After over a hundred years as a school for women, Peace College has decided to open her doors to admit men.” Sibohan hear her voice reading the prepared segment, probably by some student news intern, feverishly typing as updates came in through the day. She kept the car salesman smile on her face as she read the rest of the report: an all too familiar list of financial woes, a stalled economy, a new president. It was a testament to her training that she made it through the segment about her alma mater becoming William Peace University without stopping. Or someone, certainly her former roommates, would have though this a defect, a sign of how low she had sunk.

   William Peace University?

The rest of the show passed in an even faster haze than normal: the insipid details of life in the Triangle area were the least interesting they had ever been. She couldn’t wait to get off set and make some phone calls. As the sports report wound up, the sub commentator with one of the worst spray tans she had ever seen, Sibohan wanted to woop for joy that she had made it through another night. She did a quick exit, not even stopping back into the dressing room for her notes from Peggy. Instead she made a beeline for her car. Once inside she turned on the AC on full blast, wiping sweat from her upper lip while sliding out her Blackberry from its case. There they were: a deluge of missed calls from the others as well as email messages.

In search of a word…

For the past week or so, I’ve been looking for a word. Yes, it sounds crazy, not a pair of glasses, or car keys, or even a misplaced phone number. But a word. The word I was looking for was – I thought – “asture.” 

But it came up with the red squiggly line underneath it which means spell check thinks it’s misspelled. 
So I clicked on the red squiggly and this is what spellcheck offered me:

None of these were the one that I wanted. I was typing away, happily meeting my NaNoWriMo goals, when I wanted this word “asture” to describe the boss in the novel I’m writing. I meant, purposefully sparse, a no nonsense man. I Googled it, figuring the internet dictionary would know exactly what I meant.
Turns out the Internet (and Google) have their limits too. This is what I got with a search for “asture”: lots of links explaining the word pasture.
I was getting desparate: had I made up a word? I am moderately dyslexic when it comes to spelling and numbers – things reverse themselves – so I turned to my tried and true source for all things literary: my undergraduate English professor.
Here is the email I wrote her, subject line, “What is the word I mean?”:
Asture? The word that means sparse, plain, reserved.
Would have been in Jane Eyre to describe that orphanage where her friend died from TB.
I can’t find it and the dictionary thinks I mean ‘astute’ which I do not.
Did I make this word up?

Everyday she is now living her dream of being in the Big Apple, teaching and walking around everywhere, or taking the subway, right in the middle of the city that pulses with life. After decades in North Carolina, raising three children, and teaching at a small liberal arts college, she threw off the shackles of domesticity and made me dream come true. Needless to say, with her in NYC and me in Doha, our correspondence is more precious than ever.
As I waited for her response, I posted to a NaNoWriMo (http://www.nanowrimo.org/user/234858) forum, WORD OF THE DAY, which offers everyday a word to work into your section for that day. There were funny ones such as flies, or cut, or purple, and there were interesting ones such as abandon, or precise, or betrayal. Having stumbled onto the forum, I was ten or twelve words behind. I busily started writing in the past suggestions but I was still stumped by the specter of “asture.” So I wrote the forum moderator, a similar, but increasingly desperate plea to figure out what word I meant. (For more on my NaNoWriMo: http://mohanalakshmi.livejournal.com/2813.html)
She (I’m assuming, not entirely sure that is a woman) wrote me back a polite message with various permutations of words that were close to the spelling of the word I wanted, and some that were not:
perhaps you mean:
astute: shrewly discerning, acute, wiley – someone who quickly picks up what is going on from minimal information

aesthete: one who makes overmuch of the ‘sense of the beautiful’ generally someone who is not a part of the real world of emotions and dirt

apathy: indifferenct to what appeals to feelings – dont care about anything

aloof: removed in distance or feeling from, reserved stand offish, not involved

Was her tone slightly…. Impatient? 
I waited, knowing I would be vindicated by my now urbanite mentor.
Her opening line:
“I’ve never heard of it in my life.”
What? I thought. Eeek! I

’ve invented a word, and not only that, a word so obscure that even my most favorite literature teacher in the world hasn’t heard of it. I despaired and felt foolish. Perhaps the forum leader on NaNoWriMo was right to edit me. Perhaps I was a dolt, searching for a word that didn’t exist, stubbornly bothering people who had better things to do – like write with words that everyone knows, for example.

Then, in the typical intellectually curious fashion that she used on me all four years of undergraduate to bolster a burgeoning interest in graduate school, she recounted an episode of something similar happening to her:
But then I was teaching a poem by Francis Ellen Watkins Harper called “Bury Me in a Free Land.”  It’s in one of those used-to-be-$1, now $2 Dover editions.  One stanza starts, “I could not rest if I heard the tread / Of a coffle gang to the shambles led.”  I’d never heard to coffle and didn’t get around to looking it up.  Then the day I was teaching it, I went and left my book at home, so found it on the internet and printed it out.  There, the line read “Of a coffee gang to the shambles led.”  That sort of made sense – maybe a coffee plantation on a Caribbean island.  I made a point about how Dover can’t afford to do careful editing and still keep the price down.  Then in the middle of that night I suddenly remembered coffle, went to dictionary.com, and learned it’s a line of prisoners chained together.  So the next class, I had to make the point that the internet is even less trustworthy! 
I put this all behind me and kept going on NaNoWriMo, kept going with daily tasks like work, laundry, having a dinner party, cleaning up. 

My husband has recently started going back to school to complete a bachelor’s degree that fell by the wayside when he was offered full time employment as an undergrad.

“How do you know so many words?” he asked me one night while I was typing busily on the laptop on NaNoWri
He was at the dinning table, typing on his latest assignment on his laptop.
“Reading,” I mumbled, “I read a lot and you always learn words that way.”
“Do you stop and look up every word you don’t know?’
I looked up.
“I don’t really have to anymore. But I used to. Sometimes I’d circle them and then come back.”
The rest of the evening went in companionable silence and we both reached our requisite word counts.
A few more nights go by and I’ve forgotten all about my quest for this word that no one else seems to know but me.
And last night, tucked in bed, feeling a little achy from a cold he had likely passed on to me, I read. I read because I always have read, ever since I can remember, from eight or nine, my mother taking us to the bookmobile to get our weekly allotment. I’ve read things she didn’t want me to read, romance novels before she thought I was ready for them, and this is how I found about many things about life as an adult she would rather have kept secret (but that’s another story).
So I read last night, like nearly every night for a ten thousand nights.
And that’s when it happened:

In the middle of SUITE FRANCAISE by Irene Nemirovsky there it was:

“Mentally Charlie reproached her for this – he liked his maids to be thin and a bit austere – but she looked about thirty-five or forty, the perfect age for a servant, when they’ve stopped working too quickly but are still fit and strong enough to provide good service” (223).
THE WORD! Used EXACTLY as I meant it to describe the boss in my novel!
I circled it, dog-eared the page, and went to bed with a smile on my face.
Now even Google knows what it means:
Austere, bleak, spartan, stark all suggest lack of ornament or adornment and of a feeling of comfort or warmth.”
Thank you, Mom, for sharing with me the love of reading.
Thank you, mentor, for giving me the courage to ask questions.
Now, back to that novel, and that austere boss character….