Nano Wreflections

November 19th, 2009 by David Leave a reply »

We have passed the halfway point of this year’s National Novel Writing Month, or nanowrimo as the kids call it. I’ve crossed the 50,000 word threshold on my current project (a sequel to my first novel, which is currently out in the hands of test readers), which means I’ve kept my daily production around 3,000 words. That was my goal, as that’s about the fastest I can write consistently while still keeping my first draft to an acceptable level of quality.

The November schedule forced me to move up my starting point for the book, but it still worked within my original plan, and even got me thinking I could finish book #2 by the end of this year—which would make two books finished this year (one in first draft and the other ready for a second round of revisions before going out to agents).

Following are the things I loved about nano and some things that didn’t work as well for me. If you’re doing nano and haven’t friended me, please do so at the username above (worldblee)—I’d love to see your progress!

The good

  • The competitive spirit helped keep me on track: 3K words every weekday and 2K every weekend day. Measurable goals help keep me from slacking off, even if I don’t feel well or am having trouble with a scene.
  • I exercised my ‘write ahead’ strategy whenever I got stuck, picking up the narrative thread past any troublesome spots and then coming to back to fill in the gaps later. I find it easier to write through a tough patch when the action before and after is completely filled in—it becomes more of a transition exercise in that case.
  • Making new friends and keeping track of everyone else’s progress—it feels good to have a group of similarly motivated writers working on their projects on the same schedule.

The not-as-good

  • Word count goals are self-reinforcing. They don’t measure quality, story progress, or anything other than the number of words you cranked out. There is little incentive to rein in description, back story, etc. This means that within the 54,000 words I’ve written thus far are little darlings that will have to be cut later.
  • The timing of November 1 came up before I was as far along in plotting as I would have liked. I had the main story beats worked out and certain sections pretty well worked out, but others just had loose notes about the outcome of the chapter—so that meant making up a lot on the fly. I prefer to separate plotting from writing as much as possible, and I wasn’t always able to do that.
  • I probably would have been better served to delay my start for a few days while working on the chapter notes in more detail.


I’m always curious as to what others are writing in their daily word counts. So here is a scene to show what my rough drafts look like. This was one day’s writing. Open, kimono!

Beowulf and Riven led them at as fast of a pace as they dared in the growing dark. In the space of a half hour, they reached sloping grassland that marked the end of the hills, pushing their horses to a trot. They could not risk a light for fear of alerting their pursuers, but the sky was still faintly luminous and the ground was even.

As the darkness became more absolute, the moon not being scheduled to rise for hours yet, they slowed their pace. Beowulf noticed the faintest of glows to the west. “Do you think they got ahead of us?” he asked Riven.

The old soldier shook his head. “Even riding hard, I don’t think they could have gotten that far ahead. And if they did, why they raise a light to alert us? No, it must be a village.”

“It is hard to tell in the dark, but I feel I know these lands,” Freya said.

Beowulf thought back to the story of her childhood she had told him. “You were born not far from here, right?” he said.

“We could be close.”

As they grew closer, the glow separated into a number of small lights. It was not the light of a city, or even a town, it was the humble gleam of open fires. These villagers must cling to the old ways, as Freya had told Beowulf. It made Woden seem like a modern city by comparison, which took some doing.

Riven looked to Born. “It’s as good as place as any to stop for the night. Perhaps we can barter for a meal and place to rest out of the wet for the horses and us.”

Gargarin sniffed the air. “It will rain again tonight. A dry spot would be good.”

They slowed to a walk as they entered the outskirts of the village, looking about cautiously.

An old woman, bent over and with a cloudy mass of gray hair, watched them ride into the village. The houses were glorified huts, crafted from rough wood, some even with bits of leaves and thin branches left on. Cookfires were set before the door, perhaps to keep the bugs out and perhaps because doing so did not necessitate a fire hole in the roof that would let the rain in.

“We do not often see travelers such as yourselves,” she said. Her voice was gritty, like rough pebbles, and her accent was strange. Yet it felt somehow familiar to Beowulf. I know someone who speaks so.

Born started to reply, but Freya overrode him. “We travel in peace,” she said, her voice formal. “Seeking hearth and home for the night, as we would share with you in turn.”

That’s where I heard that accent. Freya’s voice has smoothed somewhat since I’ve known here, but when she first spoke it had that air.

The old woman bowed her head. “You know our ways.”

“I was raised in a village much like this,” Freya said.

“You’ve risen far, then,” the woman said. “To wear such trappings and ride a fine horse.”

“One can never leave her beginnings behind,” Freya said. “No matter how far she travels, they are always with her.”

The woman nodded her head slowly. “Which village do you come from?”

“I do not know the name. I left when I was very young.”

Beowulf looked more closely at the woman. She was not as old as she first appeared. Life must have used her hard. Maybe stooping over a cooking fire had aged her skin prematurely.

“I had a daughter once,” the woman said. “But I had to give her up, and after that I had no more. I could not go through the pain of losing a child again.”

“What was the name of your daughter?”


A tremor passed through Freya. Then she mastered herself. “That is an unusual name. But it must be common, living close to the Great Forest as you do.”

“It is rare. A name given only to those who have special talents. But the auguries of her birth turned out to be false. My daughter never spoke or showed any signs of having a gift. So she was sacrificed to the forest to let the trees decide. I don’t know how the tree spirits judged her, but in my heart I hope they took her in and unlocked her gifts.”

“What would you say if your daughter came back to you?”

The old woman looked at her. “In truth, I would say she was lucky to get away. There is little here to soften a hard life. If she has found a way to leave her roots behind, she should realize it can be a gift to become your own person, free to choose who you are.”

“I do not believe that is so,” Freya said softly. “If you loved her once, you would love her still.”

“Love? It is a luxury for those richer than me.”

“It costs nothing to care. My mother had little, yet I swear she loved me.”

“Perhaps she was a better woman than me.” The woman paused and then changed topics. “But what brings you and your party to our doorstep?” Other villagers had spilled out from their huts, looking at the strangers with curiosity. They wore simple clothes of linen and wool, in drab colors and varying states of repair. Beowulf watched them back, he and his gelding both breathing clouds of steam into the cold night air.

“As I said, we seek shelter for the night. For our horses and ourselves.”

“What do you offer in return?”

“We can offer coin, if that’s what you want,” Born said. “Or the blessing of Od from one of his stormcrows.”

Greshawk raised his head from Beowulf’s saddle, where he had been riding, tucked between the saddle and Beowulf’s thighs. “I’m not sure they want Od’s blessing,” he said.

The woman looked at the black bird and spit on the ground. “He has that right,” she said. “The All Father abandoned his wife when he left the world. We live close enough to the trees to know this and have no love for him.”

Surprisingly, Greshawk did not seek to rebut her.

“A silver coin then?” Born asked. “Do you have a barn where the horses can stay?”

Beowulf raised an eyebrow. A silver coin was probably more than the woman saw in a year, if any coin crossed her palm at all. Maybe Born believes she is Freya’s mother.

“There is a lean-to that will keep the rain off. And hay. There is enough soup in the pot to feed you, if you wish.”

Riven dismounted and Beowulf followed suit. “Point me to the lean-to, good woman,” Riven said. “Some soup would please me, and the sooner we get the horses settled the sooner we can taste your fare.”

She directed them to a bark-roofed shelter, set on poles on one side and trees on the other. Beowulf and Riven led the horses to drink from a trough, unsaddled and rubbed them down, and set a pile of hay in front of them.

“You think we’re safe to rest here?” Beowulf asked.

Riven shrugged. “We’ll take watches either way. But I see no goods for Norkassel here. I don’t think we have to worry about these folk selling us out. If the soldiers arrive, we have a better chance of slipping away into the night before they find us than we would if we camped alone.”

“But we might be able to make the forest tonight if we kept pushing.”

“The horses need a rest. And we don’t know for certain how far the forest is—could be five miles or it could be five leagues. Let’s enjoy a hot meal and we’ll leave before first light.”

When they sat to eat on logs pulled up before the fire, the children gathered around them, quiet and wide-eyed. They evidently did not see many strangers. The soup was at least hot, with greasy chunks of lamb amidst root vegetables Beowulf did not recognize by sight or taste. They were pale and chewy, and they filled the belly. Better than what we’d have gotten if we stopped on our own, anyway.

After he finished his bowl and mopped up the broth with a crust of brown bread, Beowulf got out his goat hornpipe and played a melody for the children. Thirl got out the hand drum he’d kept from their spell of minstrelsy with Darl in the Sveldtlands, and together they played one of the songs Darl had taught them when they’d backed Freya’s dancing.

Beowulf looked at Freya, asking with his eyes if she wanted to dance. She shook her head, her face sad. She had been very quiet since her conversation with the woman. Even quieter than usual. Beowulf finished the song. The children wanted more, but he shook them off. Gargarin had wandered away, always more comfortable in the wild than in the presence of strangers. The wolf was not shy but she was no one’s pet. She preferred to hunt for her own meals rather than eat human food. This left Freya with no one to talk to.

He wandered in Freya’s direction but Riven intercepted him. “Can you take first watch, boy? I’ll take the second, and Gargarin will probably turn up in time for the final watch.”

“I was going to talk to Freya.”

“You’ll have time tomorrow. Besides, looks like she’d rather have some quiet time to herself.”

How do you know, old man? But he relented. “All right. I’ll take first watch.”

Freya glanced in Beowulf’s direction. “I will sit with you for a while,” she said.

His heart rose at that. Even if she only wants comfort, it will be good to have someone to talk to. “Company would be welcome,” he said.

She walked with him as they moved east of the village. There was a tree there that would keep off the worst of the rain, if it came again. And it gave them a view of anyone approaching from north or east. They sat with their backs against the tree. Beowulf arranged his cloak over their legs and Freya snuggled against him to share their warmth.

He said nothing for a time. Voices still came from the village behind them, chiefly Riven’s as he befriended the men of the village and sought to learn if they had any spirits to drink. But it was quieting down and he could hear the wind still blowing from the east. Stronger yet, he could feel it on his face, cold and presaging more rain. It made Freya’s warmth against him doubly cherished. He had to admit, though, that he would have appreciated her presence even if the night were sweaty hot. Probably because she’s the only girl I’ve been around since I left Woden. Save for Gargarin.

That thought made him smile and Freya looked at him quizzically. She did not smile in return and he saw again the hurt in her eyes. He was unsure what to say, feeling out of step with her.

“What does it feel like coming here?” That was all he could think to say.

“It makes me . . . remember things.”

“But not happy memories.”

She turned against him and he felt her warm tears on his throat. Her body shook and she put one arm around his far shoulder. Beowulf froze. If this were a fight, I’d know what to do. Then slowly, as if trying not to frighten a wild animal, he put his left arm around her body, feeling her strength as well as her softness. Her left hand was under his cloak, not far from his hand, and he found it with his other hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.

For once, he was wise enough to say anything. He felt an overwhelming rush of emotions and sensations, which helped silence his tongue. Her breath against his chest, dampness from her tears seeping into his tunic below his neck, his heart beating against her chin. His eyes grew moist too, but not wholly in sadness.

In empathy because she had chosen to share her sorrow with him. He had thought her a skinny, wild girl when he first saw her. Yet I never felt this way with Sjani. Beowulf did not want the embrace to end, even though the position was uncomfortable to hold. He was afraid that if he moved it would spoil the moment.

But she slowly gathered herself, releasing her arm from his shoulder and drawing away. He released his arm as well. I do not want to hold on to her if she does not want to be held. But that was a lie. Beowulf still wanted to hold her.

Freya took a deep, shuddering breath and said, “I am sorry. I did not mean to cry.”

“I did not mean to cry after my first battle. But I did. And you were the one who gave me comfort.” He realized he had never thanked her for that, or even spoken of it.

She gave him the tiniest of smiles, a half-hearted effort that gave her mouth a sad, crooked expression.

Beowulf finally asked the question that was on his mind. “Was she truly your mother?”

“I do not think so. There are many women with similar stories. When times are hard, daughters are given to the forest.”

“But she said her daughter was prophesied to have gifts,” Beowulf prodded. “Like you.”

“It doesn’t matter. You heard what she said. She has no love for her daughter, save for a dim hope the forest took her and she still lives.”

“Perhaps I did not hear her right,” he said. “But that was not how I read her words.”

She abruptly straightened her leg, throwing off his cloak and kicking his foot in the process. “You’re so wise I’m sure you hear better than me, what with the spirit of Od inside you.”

Beowulf gritted his teeth, willing himself not to respond in kind. “You know as well as I people don’t always say what they mean. I think she hoped you were her daughter, but was too afraid you were not, or that you’d reject her.”

“Why would I reject her?”

“Because she cast you out. And now your station seems so much better than hers, riding into town in fancy clothes. Why would someone who escaped here want to come back?”

“Is your Woden so grand in comparison?”

“I’m not saying what I think. I’m saying what she might think.”


There was a long pause.

“Would it be wrong if we helped the plants of the village to show her our powers?” she said, slipping into the third person she still sometimes employed, especially when she thought of her kinship with the sentient trees of the Great Forest.

“I suppose not.”

“There should be fall crops in the gardens north of the village.” She looked down, oddly shy. “Would you like to come and watch?”

“I should keep watch. But I guess I can see from there,” he said, finishing in a rush. Don’t trip on your heels as you follow her like a pup. “If you want.”

Beowulf made a show of looking out at the horizon and then they walked together. He felt awkward, the change in context having stripped away the intimacy he’d felt earlier. She just needed a shoulder to cry on. Don’t fool yourself.

The growing fields were largely bare, the harvest—which looked to have been meager—having been gathered. There were some spindly apple and pear trees and rows of leafy plants Beowulf assumed were the tops of the root vegetables they’d eaten in the soup. “Not much to work with,” he said.

Freya looked intently at the earth. “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

She was focused on her examination, so Beowulf turned to his watch duties, looking out into the night for any interlopers. When he was convinced nothing stirred, he watched her again. Freya had her hands on the little trees, stroking the branches and whispering to herself. She moved from tree to tree, her face radiant and alive. Growing things are what she truly loves.

She finished with the trees and crouched by the vegetables, running her fingertips over their tops as she moved down the row. This took a few minutes, during which he once again stood guard. Then she walked over the empty ground where wheat, rye, carrots, potatoes, and other crops had been harvested. He watched her finish.

Then she came back to him, her eyes alight. “It is finished,” she said. “I had a good talk with them.”

“Where they shirking their duty?”

“It’s not like that. They needed encouragement and help gathering themselves to grow stronger.”

“What about the bare ground?”

“It only looks bare on the surface. There are seeds there, waiting for spring. I wanted to make sure they and the ground were ready to do their best when the time was right.”

“If you’re done, I should get back to my watch.”

“Do you want me to stay with you?”

Yes. “No, you should rest. I’m sure the trees will have much for you to do when we reach the forest. I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll see you in the morning then.”

“Sleep well.”

He watched her go then returned to his post. Nothing interesting happened, other than the usual nighttime sounds, until Riven came to relieve him sometime around midnight. His blanket had been unrolled by Thirl and Freya, and he took to it with pleasure.

It had been a busy day.

(c) Copyright 2009 by David C. Lee. All rights reserved.


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