World Building, or How I Always Seem To Fail at NaNoWriMo.

Like thousands of writers across the country, I participated in this year’s NaNoWriMo, also known as National Novel Writing Month. It’s an event that happens every November where writers dedicate themselves to beginning and finishing an entire novel. The general target is 50,000 words or more.

Also like thousands of writers across the country, I came nowhere near finishing the novel I started.

That’s life. But that doesn’t mean I’m stopping.

I’ve had this particular story in my head for several years now. It originally began as an outlet to write about a few of my roleplaying characters and get back into their heads when I lived two and a half hours from the nearest game. But it evolved into something much bigger as I outlined it, scrapped it, outlined it again, trashed it, completely revisited its story, outlined it again, pushed it to the back burner, dusted it off, changed the characters, and outlined it one more time.

Starting this past November, I picked it up again. The past year has mostly been spent writing and submitting short stories (five of them are still circulating out there, just waiting to be picked up), so I figured it was a good time to work on something a little bit longer.

I finished the outline within the first few days of November. This book, the first part of my fantasy series, was going to be a 33-chapter story, including prologue. Figuring an average of around 2,000 words per chapter, that would put this book at around 66,000 words. Certainly not the longest, but it seemed like a decent target for a first try.

Yeah, I didn’t finish the manuscript. Honestly, I barely even started it.

I started writing the prologue for the story on the first or second day of the month; I can’t remember exactly. I even marked the occasion with a rare Instagram post:

So it begins. #NaNoWriMo #amwriting #prologue #writersofinstagram #fantasywriter

A post shared by Ryan L. Haddock (@wordsbyryan) on

 

That image is no longer accurate, unfortunately. Within a few days of starting the prologue, I had an idea for a completely different start to the book — one that I liked much better than the one I was writing. So I did what I always do: completely scrap it and start over from the beginning.

So typical.

I’m a few pages into Chapter One now, and things are going much better. I adjusted the outline to accommodate the new prologue, and everything kind of fell into place from there. I have more confidence in the story I’m trying to tell. My cast of characters is larger and more diverse, and individual characters are more well-rounded than they were in my previous effort. There is more symmetry to the story, and it feels a little more complete on its own. Though it is the first part in a series, I want it to also be its own self-contained story. It may be asking a lot, but I envision the same thing for every entry in this series. It will continue the story that came before it while still telling one all in its own. Theoretically, a new reader could pick up the second or third book and still enjoy it without feeling like they were missing anything.

Chapter One of this story is mostly spent establishing the protagonist’s “ordinary world” — the daily life he experiences before I absolutely destroy it in Chapter Two and really get the story going. Since the first chapter is mostly setup for the rest of the story, it’s a great opportunity for world-building. This is where I get to weave in all those little details that make the world of this story seem more… real. It’s the background of the movie that’s playing in my head as I write it. No worries, I don’t go crazy with description. I keep it fairly simple. What I see when I’m writing it is probably slightly different than what someone else will see when they’re reading it, and I want to allow for that. It’s why I’ll never describe exactly what characters look like or what clothes they’re wearing unless it is distinct and unique or somehow integral to the plot. Maybe one or two vague adjectives, but that will be it. I love learning how other people interpret things.

As I was writing the other night, an image appeared in my mind. I was describing where the protagonist and his father live, a small hovel outside of a large, walled city, when I began to see shipwrecks. Dozens of shipwrecks. Airships a thousand feet long once crewed by hundreds of men, crashed and partially buried in the sand dunes of the desert outside this great city. The image stayed with me, and it became a part of the story. The first of the crashed ships were remnants of a war that occurred hundreds of years before the main story. Latter additions were castoffs from a more recent war, one referenced in the story itself that took place just a decade before. The empire at the heart of the story began to use that land for an airship graveyard, and even the wall of the city behind it was constructed partially from materials recovered from the shipwrecks, giving it a distinct look that makes it instantly recognizable to seasoned travelers. It also served as a wonderful base of operations for my protagonist and his father, a retired engineer and shipwright who loves to tinker.

It began as me simply describing the terrain. It ended with me creating a small bit of history for this boy and his family, as well as for the country and the world around them.

This is why I love writing so much. I might begin a story, but it often ends up telling itself. I just choose the words.

Carefully.

Probably a bit too carefully.

Which explains why it took me a month to finish a 2,500-word prologue. Oh well. Less time spent on editing, at least.


The Byline

You may be unaware of this, but when I started this blog six years ago, I wanted it to be a writing blog. As a matter of fact, the blog’s byline is “From writer to published author . . . and the long, winding road between.”

Over the years, though, I’ve written less about writing and more about pretty much everything else. That is for two distinct reasons:

First, my writing life hasn’t been all that interesting. I’ve written a handful of short stories here and there, and I’ve made progress in outlining a few novels. Outside of that, though, there really hasn’t been much to tell. I’ve been writing this entire time, but I haven’t done a thing with any of it. And that’s mostly because of the next reason.

Second, my non-writing life got a little too interesting. My family and I spent years living in crisis mode. First, there was Liam’s birth and its many complications. Then there was the time that it looked like our marriage might come to an early and unexpected end. We made it through, but we were anything but unscathed. We thought that escape was our only option, so I packed up my family and moved us all to Nashville to chase a job opportunity and a fresh start.

While we were there, I continued writing, determined to use the extra time I had to really make something of it. That didn’t happen. It wasn’t the happiest of times for us. I was constantly stressed about money, and the addition of Dexter meant we were adjusting to having a new baby again. Almost all of our weekends were spent traveling to visit friends and family, leaving little time for anything else.

There were times when we felt like we were drowning. Still, we kept on. 

It wasn’t all bad memories and longing, though; that’s just how I remember it most days. I am nothing if not an unreliable narrator.

I started writing about Rory’s birth on this blog last year, and I intend to complete that story, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Nevertheless, he brought us home.

Becoming a published author just wasn’t the priority it once was for me. I was too busy surviving. I was taking things day by day.

One of my many faults is that I tend to be a short term thinker. I make plans for here and now without much regard for the future. I solve the problems that are in front of me, not the ones that could potentially come up months or years from now. This kind of thinking has both caused me problems and served me well. It’s not that I don’t acknowledge that I should plan for the future; it’s more that I trust in my ability to solve problems as they arise rather than work them out with a detailed plan ahead of time. This is funny to me because I am also someone who relies on routines and checklists to keep my daily life straight. In addition to being an unreliable narrator, it seems I am also a walking contradiction. Surprise, surprise.

But we are in a comfortable place now. We’re back home in the city we love. I have a job that is both reassuring and fulfilling. We aren’t in the financial straits of yesteryear.

Things are good. The pendulum swung back.

So now it’s time for me to get serious about this whole “published author” thing.

A little over a year ago, I started submitting short stories to literary journals and fiction magazines. The first one I submitted, a novella titled “It Starts and Ends with You,” was rejected by the first lit journal I submitted it to. (And the second. And the third. But that’s another story.) The thing is, it took almost six months to get that rejection. If I was going to be published some time in the next thirty years, I was going to have to change my submission strategy.

A year later, I am still an as-yet-to-published author. But now I have no less than five short stories out for submission at a time while I work on something a little larger. Plus, I always keep an eye out for short story contests and calls for submissions to serve as writing prompts. Even if I don’t make the deadlines, I still end up with the story.

My byline suggests that I am on my way to becoming a published author. After a long sabbatical, I can finally say that is true again.


One Year Later, Part 2: The Drive

The morning I got the call started off fairly uneventful. The sky was overcast, with just enough of a chill in the air to require a jacket. I had started my new job on October 6th, and just a week later I could already tell that both the position and the company were going to be a good fit for me and for our family. I can’t tell you how reassuring that was. Things felt like they were falling into place, even though we knew there would still be difficulties ahead.

Michelle had an appointment that morning, and she had a bad feeling about it. I tried to reassure her on the phone the night before. I told her not to be afraid, that this was just a standard visit, and that there was nothing to worry about. I truly believed what I was saying, despite how wrong I turned out to be.

Around 10:30, Michelle called me, sounding more irritated than panicked. She explained that the doctor was sending her to the hospital; her blood pressure was elevated, and she needed to be admitted. They wouldn’t let her drive, so an ambulance was going to transport her and the boys to Vanderbilt. I told her I was on my way, and we hung up.

I put my phone down on the desk and took a breath. At the time, I was sharing an office with the COO of the company. He looked over at me and asked, “Everything all right?”

“They’re taking Michelle to the hospital,” I mumbled.

“Dude, go,” he replied. “You can call us later and fill us in.”

I didn’t hesitate. A minute later, I was in the car and heading up the highway. I actually think I left a half-finished cup of coffee sitting on the desk, though I can’t remember for certain.

Until that day, solo drives from Chattanooga to Nashville had always been quiet, calm stretches of time when I could think about things—usually whatever story I was working on at the time. In the early days of working for the Kirkland’s home office, I stayed in Chattanooga on weekends and drove up every Monday morning. It was nice to have that quiet time to myself. I didn’t always think about stories; sometimes, I just cleared my mind and enjoyed the scenery. The drive through the mountains just a couple hours after sunrise gave me plenty to take in. It was two hours of peace.

This drive was nothing like that.

Instead, my mind was racing. Is everything going to be all right? What are we going to do? What if he comes early? Who can take the boys for a few days so I can focus on Michelle and the baby? Dear God, what if he’s born today? No, that’s not going to happen. But it could happen, so we need a plan. Damn it, I don’t want to be thinking about this. This isn’t how it’s supposed to happen. This isn’t what we planned.

Normally, those kinds of thoughts would be limited to some kind of inner monologue. That day, it was out there in the open. I spent half the drive talking to myself. It was one of those moments where, looking back, I probably looked somewhat crazy to anyone who happened to be driving by. But, at that time, I didn’t care what other people thought. I cared that the plans we had made for baby number three were in cinders, and that we needed to come up with a new one.

Sprinkled throughout my ramblings were prayers. Some of them were in the form of questions, asking God why this was happening. Some were one part of a dialogue, with me imagining the other side of it and trying to make sense of the discussion. Most of them, however, were pleas—pleas for Michelle to be safe, for the baby to be safe, for all of this to be over soon (but not too soon), and, maybe most of all, for me to make it to the hospital in time to be there when my wife needed me the most.


One Year Later, Part 1: Back Home

How quickly things can change.

Well… they really didn’t change very quickly at all. I’ve written a total of three posts in the last 18 months of my life. I suppose if anyone decided to binge-read these, then everything I’m about to write would seem rather abrupt. But I promise—as quickly as it all may seem to have happened, it was all a long, winding, purpose-driven road.

When I last left you, I was pining for my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. I wrote several hundred words proclaiming my love for it and my desire to return to it. There really is no city quite like it, you know. In moving to the lonely metropolis of Nashville, we discovered that running from our problems only created more. We tried to make the best of a depressing situation, but it was useless. We weren’t making an omelet; we were just breaking eggs.

After writing that post, I knew we would be coming home sooner than we had originally planned. Once we found out we were pregnant with our third little boy, my timetable was moved up. The last thing we wanted was to be stuck almost three hours away from our extended family with three small children.

We were about to be outnumbered. We took that very seriously.

I applied for a several different jobs in Chattanooga, and I went weeks without hearing anything. That was the hardest part. With every resume I sent that went unacknowledged, every letter I sent that went unanswered, my spirits sank a little more. After a few months of fruitless searching and dreaming, it was beginning to feel hopeless. (Writing this now, it seems rather silly. Some people search for years to find a job, and there I was all downhearted because a couple months had passed without any results. But that was mostly a product of my environment; it wasn’t hard to feel down during those days.)

Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one looking. Michelle was also browsing all the major job sites, forwarding any that she thought I might find interesting. She’s the one who found the posting at Vikus, a software company that creates HR software for the senior care industry. They were in need of a content writer who could also handle digital marketing and social media. It was a perfect fit.

I’ll save my hiring story for another post. It’s quite funny, and deserves to stand on its own.

After I got the job, the planning began. Our third was due to arrive at the end of November, which gave us a couple months to get things figured out. We didn’t have a place in Chattanooga anymore, so we decided that I could stay with my parents for a bit while Michelle kept the boys up in Nashville. It wasn’t ideal for all of us to be split between two different cities, but my wife and the boys had developed a fairly active social life in the two years we had been living there, and it didn’t feel right to yank them away from it without a home of our own to go to. So we put the plan into motion, and I started looking for places for us to live while counting down the days to my new job.

Then came October 14th—the day history repeated itself in a way we hoped it never would.

 


My City.

My family and I have lived in Nashville for over a year and a half. In that time, we have managed to explore the city and even make a few friends along the way. We found the best pizza place . . . practically ever. We discovered some really cool places to hang out (like the Adventure Science Center and the Nashville Zoo), and we frequent them as often as we can. I found a great comic store that Liam and I like to visit on occasion, and the Dave & Buster’s that’s up here has proven to be a blast every time we’ve stopped in.

Downtown Nashville Skyline

We’re starting to learn our way around. The GPS is still a necessity, but it’s not a complete and total wash if I leave it at home. Nashville is a maze of highways and traffic, but it’s one that I feel I am beginning to learn to navigate.

All of that . . . and this place still isn’t home.

This weekend, we spent some time in Chattanooga. We were in town for a birthday party, and we managed to carve out some time that morning to see some friends, too. That night, I made the mistake of driving around downtown on my way back to my parents’ house to sleep. It could be said that the mistake was in attempting to navigate downtown Chattanooga during the notoriously chaotic Riverbend Festival currently taking place. But that wasn’t it at all. The roads weren’t difficult—the feelings were.

As I drove around, seeing the familiar sights and weaving through the familiar streets, I was hit with an overwhelming wave of feeling: This is home. This is where we belong. This is where life makes sense.

Downtown Chattanooga - Miller Plaza

This is My City.

When I talk about going home, I talk about coming here. Even when we’re in Nashville, the Reader and I both know that when we say the word “home,” we’re speaking of the next time we visit Chattanooga. No other place has ever felt like it, and I highly doubt any other place will.

When we left, it was due to necessity. We were in a tough position financially, and I was offered a job that would basically save us. And that’s what I keep telling myself: We didn’t have a choice. I was given an opportunity to advance my career as a writer, learn some new (and potentially valuable) skills, and get a pretty hefty pay increase at the same time. All I had to do was pack up my family and move to Nashville. I would have been an idiot to turn it down.

I still sometimes wonder if I should have.

Nashville is not home. It just isn’t. Many people have told me to give it a chance—that it has a lot of the qualities we’re looking for in a place to raise our family, and that it could be home if we wanted it to be.

And they’re half right.

It does have a lot of the qualities we’re looking for in a place to raise our family. It has a rich cultural heritage, and there is always something going on in some part of the city. Aside from the places I mentioned earlier, there is also the library system, which is one of the best I’ve ever had the privilege of using. There’s a lot of fun to be had here, and I’m sure we haven’t even begun to unearth all the possibilities that Nashville has to offer us.

But, no matter how much we might want it to be, Nashville will never be home. The most it will ever be is a way station—that place we stopped one time when we needed a helping hand. Funny thing is, it hasn’t been nearly as helpful as it was supposed to be. Despite having a substantially higher salary, things have never been harder for us financially than they are right now. With the bright lights and the big city came a big price tag. When you add the fact that we have never felt more alone and isolated than we do right now, we have come to one inescapable (and overwhelmingly relieving) conclusion:

I think it’s about time we came home.


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