Today I’m happy to introduce the second author participating in the Raining Cats and Dogs tour, Vickie Johnstone, talking about how she wrote her story, 3 Heads & a Tail.
Don’t forget to check out the tour homepage for great prizes.
NaNoWriMo and chasing my tail: writing 3 Heads & a Tail
I view 2011 as the year that I really started writing. That’s a long story, for another post on this blog hop, but I think that’s when this big adventure started. That year I self-published a book for the first time (Kiwi in Cat City, written in 2002) and found my first reader. I was ecstatic, as a long-held dream had come true for me. I met a lot of writers in the writing groups on Facebook, all helpful, inspiring, talented and fun, but, most importantly, determined. They seemed to have a determination that I lacked and would even get up in the middle of the night to write; they had saying power. This post is about NaNoWriMo, without which my novel 3 Heads & a Tail would not exist.
One indie writer mentioned how he did NaNoWriMo every year. I thought this was some holiday camp or Japanese game. I soon found out that it wasn’t – it was a writing competition. There was no prize as such, except the sheer relief of finishing. The challenge was to write 50,000 words in 30 days – that is, in November. For some reason, I decided to try. I’d never written a book that long or one for adults. The first Kiwi book had taken a couple of weeks or so, but I wasn’t working at the time; the other two had taken about six weeks a piece, typing away around my job. Thirty days seemed impossible, but I crazily decided to give NaNo a go, egged on by the other participants.
One of my worst habits is Laziness. Chuck in a big lump of Procrastination. They’re my babies, along with Forgetfulness. I used to sleep for 12 hours at the weekend and laze around doing sweet FA until I went out in the evening. On weekdays, I’d come home from work after a long commute on a packed, sweaty Tube train, and only be capable of eating, watching TV, maybe reading, and popping to bed early. NaNoWriMo meant that I had to change my habits, which had been many decades (I’m not saying how many) in the making.
On November 1, as soon as I got home from work, I got out my laptop and aimed to type at least 1700 words. I would try to do this every day. At the weekends I found that I actually wanted to get up earlier than usual, open my laptop and see what emerged, just because of the challenge I’d set myself. I guess it was a bit like an after-Christmas detox or training for a marathon (me run? never!) – you force yourself to do it, thinking that it will all be worthwhile in the end.
In the past, except for writing Kiwi in Cat City, my excuse for not finishing any story was that I had writer’s block. After Kiwi, I had this major road block for about ten years, apart from scribbling poems. They were short and didn’t demand an attention span of more than five minutes. I now know that it was all in my mind. NaNoWriMo showed me that ‘writer’s block’ was something I had used as an excuse to be bone idle in the creativity department. It was a sort of blanket that stopped me taking a risk on writing something that I might hate, being my own worst critic. It also meant that I didn’t have to try to make time for it.
I’d tell myself that I’d start writing sometime in that endless tomorrow when the muse took me. But what was that muse? It wasn’t a person, an object, a feeling or anything else majestic – the muse was me. I just hadn’t reached far enough into myself or tried hard enough. I hadn’t stuck at it. I started to realise that this had been a big failing – I never finished anything. If anything got too difficult, I just walked away. I guess I didn’t want to fail.
And so… I started NaNoWriMo. Back in my 20s (a long ago, in a time far, far away) I’d had this idea about three guys sharing a house. One guy would be super confident, one would be shy and love his guitar, and the other would be an aspiring actor whose hero was Kevin Spacey. I also kept thinking about a dog. The guitar man would have a pooch, but I wanted to make him a real, thinking character. At the time, I loved Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, with four POVs in separate sections, written in different, recognisable voices. Of course, I wrote a few chapters, never got to making the dog real, and somehow never continued. For NaNoWriMo, I started to rethink this idea. It was my starting point.
The first thing that came into my head was the title: 3 Heads & a Tail – representing the main characters, who would be two guys, a girl and that dog. The furry one had to be in it. He was the hero. He would be the most intelligent and moral character, who saw everything, and whom the whole book would slowly begin to revolve around. He would become its centre. One guy would be nice and cute, one would look like a model but be a total ass, and the girl would be cool and sweet. She’d be the one moving into this house that the others shared, and there would be a romantic triangle. I started writing with this idea. Apart from that, I just had the end scene in my head (can’t tell you what it is, but it was there).
And so I started writing, not knowing where the plot would go, what would happen, and how the end scene would be reached. For some reason, this time I didn’t think of it as being scary – it actually turned out to be fun, and it didn’t matter to me if I didn’t finish. What mattered was that I wrote a full-length book for grown-ups and kicked my lazy, procrastinating self up the arse.
It all began well, and I had a good sprint in the first week. My characters were buzzing in my brain, leaping out on to the page, whispering in my ear and doing funny things in my head. I decided to organise the book so that it was a game of two halves – the humans and the mutt. The chapters with the humans would be in the third person, past tense and the pooch’s bits would sneak in here and there, written in the first person and present tense, with the aim of getting the reader into the dog’s head. It sounds mad, but I loved writing those doggie bits. I named him after my first pet, Glen, even thought I couldn’t remember much about him. I looked forward to writing these bits and even though I’m a cat person, I started to love that dog. I felt that I could write anything in this book. I was writing for NaNo after all and I didn’t expect to finish, and I didn’t think the book would be publishable.
The doggie was voofing like crazy as I typed his thoughts, feelings and ambitions. Gradually, he took over a larger chunk of the book. Suddenly he was chasing a Frisbee all over the page and wagging his tail and I think mine was going too. NaNoWriMo was freeing up my creativity like nothing before. I’d found the key to writing – plonk yourself down in front of your laptop, don’t think too hard, don’t worry, don’t judge what you’re writing, don’t panic – just write. Whatever came out could always be changed later. Or I could always hit ‘Delete’.
Cue week two. It wasn’t too bad, but it wasn’t as gung-ho as week one, but hey, I was doing okay. I was still hitting the keys every night after work, and it was still fun and the characters were still living in my own personal Funny Land. My boyfriend would come home, see me typing away, smile, and make the dinner, so I got away with not having to help with that for a while.
Midway through week three, I started to wonder what day it was. My brain had become addled by NaNo. No-No, No-No, I started to think, while having flashbacks to Mork and Mindy. I started to feel the pressure. Would I really finish? More to the point – what the hell was I going to do with these characters? I’d hit a wall. I’d run out of plot, inspiration, everything. I was dog tired, as was Glen. I did the only sensible thing – I took a couple of days off.
Then it was Saturday – the luxury of an entire writing day. There I was, all prepared: laptop, sofa, cat trying to sneak on my lap and… a big blank screen, which just seemed to get bigger. Mmm. What to do? I had no idea. The blank screen stared back, as if challenging me, but I gritted my teeth and started typing. I wrote anything – literally anything – the first stupid thing that came to mind. Who cared if it didn’t make sense – I had to make that finishing line. I was off… wee heeeee… but, oops, I fell at the hurdle. I think I managed 300 words. That was it.
So much for my plot bunnies – where were they? Nibbling grass somewhere? Munching carrots? Or had they just sprinted away, trying to escape the golden Labrador I had woven into my story… come back doggy, I haven’t finished with you, but he was gone too. He’d run off on the trail of the cabbage-munching plot bunnies. As for the other characters, I think they’d disappeared down the pub for an ale or two. I closed my laptop and did something different.
However, it seems that I just got tired. It wasn’t the Big Block. All I needed was a break – a four-day one. Lying in bed, various scenes suddenly popped up in my head. The story was back! I woke refreshed and started again. That week I finished the story, but I’d been used to writing children’s books of about 30,000 words. With a few days left to go, my story seemed to naturally end at 40,000 words, but I needed about 10000 more. What to do? I couldn’t extend the story as it had ended, so I went back and inserted some fresh scenes at different points. I wasn’t sure if they would make sense, but the joy of NaNo is that you write without editing or thinking too much. You just get that first draft down. I could edit it later. And I finished. Horrah!
I was so happy. I’d kicked my excuses up the butt, given procrastination a run for its money, and completed the longest book I’d ever written… and for grown-ups. Apart from those four days when my brain was too tired to think, I’d had fun. The NaNoWriMo experience helped me to write more books afterwards, and gave me some faith in myself (although I still get the wobbles after a bad review!). I really hope I never have another ten-year gap in writing novels, but I know now that it had nothing to do with writer’s block. It was to do with me, and how I viewed the process of writing. If you just sit down and hover your fingers over the keys, and just start typing the first thing that comes into your head, you’ll be surprised. I can’t say whether you’ll be pleasantly surprised or just damn horrified (I’ve been there), but you’ll definitely be smiling.
3 Heads & a Tail was published in June 2012. I edited it in December, and then Susan Bennett, an editor, saw it and gave some very good advice, and then I re-edited it again. The thing that worried me the most was that readers might not find it funny. I let out a big ‘phew’ when my first reviewer said they laughed. I was worried they would just think I was crazy. I’m not sure what genre the book fits into. I guess it isn’t mainstream romance. It’s a comedy-romance-general fiction-quirky-fantasy- doggy thing.
Maybe NaNoWriMo forces you to write in a way that isn’t mainstream. You’re flying by the seat of your pants and you’re not really thinking too much about what you’re writing. I think NaNo could be a thing that makes people kick writer’s block up the ass, break a rule or two when writing, and find their inner faith. And that can only be a good thing, surely.
An excerpt from Chapter 30 and Glen’s bit, cos he’s my favourite
Now that Ben’s fast asleep, I’m making my doggy move. Here I go. Pawtoe to the door, I’m standing on my back legs, dipping the handle with my nose… ooompf… come on, come on… ooomfff, ah… back on the ground. Poking the door open with my paw, slowly, quietly padding out into the corridor. Don’t worry about closing the door… too much trouble. It’s all a bit dark out here. No sounds. Voofing good. So it’s a pawtoe down the stairs and to the front door.
Next is the tricky bit, but it should be soon; always around the same time on a Sunday night. Just need to wait, keep my voofing cool and stay hidden. That’s it. Good. Don’t pant too hard. That’s it. I’m holding back the panting. I hear footsteps. They’re coming up the path, up the steps, up to the front door… oompf… try not to pant. Tail, stop wagging on the floor!
Voomph… the front door is opening… away we go… whoosh! I’m sprinting for the door as fast as I can go, my ears flapping, my tongue lapping. I can see David is surprised… he’s wobbling and his guitar case smashes up the door. Oops, I banged into his legs… hey, asshole, move it! Flop! I think I almost knocked him over. His hand flies out and he’s trying to grab my collar. My ears flap past him. See ya!
Oomph, I’m slipping, I’m sliding, but I’m steadying… and now I’m running. I’m bounding down the steps. I can hear David shouting. I hope Ben doesn’t hear because he’d be sprinting down the street after me, but I know David won’t run. I’m not his dog and he’s too lazy. I’m running down the pavement as fast as my paws can carry me, my ears blowing in the breeze. But it’s warm out here, still mid-summer.
It’s a nice, cool run. I can’t hear David any more. He’s probably gone into the house. But as Ben isn’t talking to him, I wonder what’s going to happen. Ben might be like a volcano erupting. Wish I could see that, but I’ve got to keep on running. I can’t stop. I’m crossing the road, going round the corner, on and on. Should I take a shortcut straight across the park? Nope, it’s too dark and there are dodgy fellows in there at night-time. I’ll take the longer route. Glen, don’t be a chicken! Time is of the essence here!
Right, “voof”, I’m skidding round and charging back the other way, and into the park. I’m racing past dodgy man number one – he’s sitting on the grass singing. Keep on running. On and on, past dodgy man number two. He’s sitting on a bench, waving a beer can at me, cursing and calling me Charlie. I keep on running, past dodgy man number three. He’s staggering around with his trousers around his ankles singing. Not sure what he’s doing. He must be hot and just airing his bits. Keep on running Glen, but maybe go a bit faster. And I’m sprinting past dodgy man number four. Luckily, he’s just asleep. You’re snoring a bit, mate.
Then I’m out of the park and running across the road, down the pavement. I take a few turns, followed by a few more, and I’m there. I can see the house. I can almost smell the roses. But now I have to be quiet. I bow my head and sneak along the corner of the street. I daren’t go up the pathway to the front door, so I’m heading round the back where I’ve gotta jump the fence. Whoa! That’s higher than I remember. Whoosh, bump, and I’m over. Voof. Can’t bark, can’t bark. I must be quiet. Just think the voof.
And now I wait behind this big bush. I can hear something but I’m not sure what it is. Something is moving in the house, but the lights are off so I can’t make anything out. I slink my body close to the ground and move closer to the back door. I can see the outline of a shadow. It’s her! The door handle moves down and the door slowly opens. A pink nose is the first thing I see. My ears perk up and I can feel my tail gaining a life of its own. I try to stop it going too fast. Suddenly, her amazingly bright brown eyes are in front on me and she’s panting.
“I think we better go,” she whispers, her ears perking up. I know she’s never done anything this crazy in her life and she’s relying on me to guide her.
I nod, and slink slowly and quietly out of the back garden, hiding behind the bushes. She follows. I don’t look back, but I can hear her breathing behind me. We wander out into the street and for the first time we’re actually alone. It feels wild and unsafe, but good.
“Ready?” I ask her, certain that she’s scared out of her wits.
She looks at me quite calmly and just nods.
3 Heads & a Tail – a comedy romance with walkies
When nature lover Josie moves into a house share with two pals, dreamer Ben and model man David, she sees it as a short stop and doesn’t bank on an attraction developing with one of them. Meanwhile, Ben’s dog, Glen, has the hots for Miss Posh, the beautiful golden Lab in the park. When dog meets dog it’s puppy love, but a complication leads to Glen taking matters into his own paws. In this comedy of errors, romance and walkies, it’s anyone’s guess who is going to win the girl/dog and live happily ever after.
Ebook price: $2.99/£1.99
Paperback price: $9.99/£5.40
Vickie Johnstone lives in London, UK, where she works as a freelance sub-editor on magazines and an editor on indie books. She has a thing about fluffy cats and also loves reading, writing, films, the sea, rock music, art, nature, Milky Bar, Baileys and travelling.
Vickie has self-published the following books:
Kaleidoscope (poetry); Travelling Light (poetry); Life’s Rhythms (haiku); 3 Heads and a Tail (comedy romance); Kiwi in Cat City (magical cat series for middle grade readers); Kiwi and the Missing Magic; Kiwi and the Living Nightmare; Kiwi and the Serpent of the Isle; Kiwi in the Realm of Ra; Kiwi’s Christmas Tail; Day of the Living Pizza (comedy detective series for middle grade readers), and Day of the Pesky Shadow. The Kiwi Series has illustrations by Nikki McBroom.
FB author page: http://www.facebook.com/AuthorVickieJohnstone
FB Kiwi Series page: http://www.facebook.com/KiwiinCatCity
FB poetry page: http://www.facebook.com/KaleidoscopePoetry
FB editing service page: http://www.facebook.com/VickieJohnstoneEditing
Thank you for the opportunity and for taking part in the hop.
Thank you for reading.
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