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A novel idea

Published writers and author hopefuls in Lodi put their lives on hold as they challenge themselves to write a 50,000-word novel in four weeks for National Novel Writing Month

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Posted: Saturday, November 7, 2009 12:00 am

With undeveloped characters running through their heads, bits and pieces of a storyline and a blinking cursor on a fresh Word page, two Lodians, Mike Szkodzinski and D.B. Pacini, are putting their lives on hold for the month and becoming full-time "wrimos."

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, claimed more than 100,000 writers and wannabe writers who decide to finally write that novel they've been planning. For the month, participants watch a little less TV, surf fewer Web sites, order in a little more, screen a few more phone calls, and, at the end of the month, have a 50,000-word novel to show. Or so they hope.

NaNoWriMo started 10 years ago as a contest between Chris Baty and 20 of his friends. On the contests Web site, he writes that they started writing novels for the same reasons twentysomethings start bands: to make noise and because they thought that, as novelists, they would have an easier time getting dates than they did as non-novelists. They tapped an audience they didn't know was there. Now people meet in groups and write, like the NaNoWriMo writers who sometimes meet at the coffee shop on Miracle Mile. Last year, there were 119,301 participants. 21,683 of those were winners, meaning they actually reached their word-count goal by midnight on Nov. 30. Their prize: reaching a goal and a certificate to hang on the wall.

With life set to the side, Szkodzinski and Pacini were ready to type their first words as the morning of Nov. 1 arrived.

Szkodzinski writes on a laptop that sits on a 150-year-old photographer's desk in his living room. A desk lamp shines dimly on a pile of books next to him: "Civil War Complete Photographic History," "Hodges' Harbrace Handbook" and a yellow legal pad. To the right, his flatscreen TV plays classical musical as stars burst on the screen. A bookshelf filled with military books, books by his favorite authors and an Army photo of him and President George H.W. Bush is connected to the desk. His two Shih Tzus, lively brothers named Oscar and Bear, keep him company.

Szkodzinski hasn't done much writing. He enjoys reading Stephen King and is reading each of the books "Lost" characters read on the TV show. He's in the middle of "Watership Down," but might be putting it down until he completes his own novel.

Szkodzinski, a military veteran, is writing a non-fiction novel about his own experiences looking for POWs and MIAs from the Vietnam War. Going through his memorabilia — a brick from the fallen Hanoi Hilton and blackened pieces of post-explosion metal — Szkodzinski recalls stories he's heard, people he's met. He is summarizing each of his missions using reference numbers and writing about what happened, what he experienced.

Following the rules of NaNoWriMo, Szkodzinski waited to start writing until Nov. 1. He didn't have an outline. He wasn't even sure how he would start his book. He just knew that for 10 years he has wanted to write his story, and signing up for a national contest would make him accountable.

"I think it's going to be easy, but I don't know," he said with unsurity it in his voice. "I hope I'm up to the challenge."

In her home bordering Lodi and Woodbridge, Pacini is also venturing into the NaNoWriMo world. While she also started from scratch, she is no newbie to the writing world. Her novel, "The Loose End of the Rainbow," the first novel in her Universal Knights Trilogy, was published in March by Singing Moon Press, and her novelette, "Sterling Court Cul-De-Sac," was published in August by Turner Maxwell Books in the UK.

This is the first time she has attempted NaNoWriMo, and she's determined to finish what she's started.

"I'm going to complete it . . . I will!" she said on the first day of the competition from the leather chair in her living room, where she does most of her research and character development.

Pacini is attempting to write a novel based on a five-minute conversation she had with her son, David, in which he described a sci-fi dream. Before the contest, she mulled his dramatic dream over and developed a potential story plot and characters. Now, she is writing the story of a young man who finds a portal for extraterrestrial beings in his deceased grandfather's basement. She is writing of the beings from the universe, who she says are phenomenal, extrasensory perceptive, multidimensional, mental telepathic creatures with no physical limitations of time and space. They help the grandson save Earth from toxic obliteration, if he chooses to.

To make 50,000 words, most people figure they need to hit the average daily of 1,600.

Like most participants, Pacini is trying to get ahead (and not get too worried about) interruptions like family trips and that little, time-sucking holiday known as Thanksgiving.

She is remaining confident. "Two thousand words in a day is not hard," she said, knowing she'll have to push a little harder to make up for lost time.

She is going at a steady pace. By the end of day three, she was at 5,448 words — and was already having the urge to revise, restructure sentences and expand sections (though she refuses to let herself backtrack).

The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to get words on a page. It doesn't matter about the quality, grammar or spelling. The storyline can have holes. Perfection is not the key. The idea is all editing and polishing can be done in December.

While most of the novels will never hit Barnes and Noble bookshelves or even ever be seen by someone other than the writer, more than 30 past "wrimos" have gotten book deals from their manuscripts. New York Times best-seller "Water For Elephants" was brought to life (and soon, the screen) after author Sara Gruen signed up for NaNoWriMo.

Szkodzinski would like to see his wartime novel get published, but he mainly wants to write his experiences for his children. For Pacini, who has set aside writing the second novel in her trilogy, is using this month to start a new novel and challenge herself. She will submit her new manuscript to literary agents and publishers, but that's a ways from now — or at least three weeks away.

For now, she is concentrating on her story. The feel of the grandfather's basement. The abilities of the extraterrestrials. How exactly to save the Earth. In the meantime, her life is on hold.

"When you take on a commitment like this, it changes how life will be," she said. "My husband said, 'well, I guess I won't have a wife for a month.'"

Two News-Sentinel staffers let their fingers do the talkingKyla Cathey

Position: Copy editor

Age: 27

Writing/educational background: I write for The Beat, a Lodi News-Sentinel blog. I also write short stories and novel chunks for fun, but have never tried to get them published. I have a Bachelor of Arts in history and anthropology from Adelphi University.

Favorite books/writers: My absolute favorite piece of writing is "The War Prayer" by Mark Twain. I love pretty much everything he's written. Wen Spencer is another favorite author.

Best time to write: Very late at night, or when I first wake up.

Writing rituals: I don't really have any, except I cannot listen to music with lyrics I can understand when I write, or I get distracted and end up typing in the words to the song instead. I mostly listen to instrumental music from movie soundtracks or Asian rock when I'm writing, depending on the story I'm working on.

Kyla, on signing up for NaNoWriMo:

I have learned that for me, the first days working on a new project are the most important. If I can't get enough writing done while the idea is still fresh and exciting to me, then I'm just not attached enough to the work to finish it. So my goal for NaNoWriMo this year has been to knock out the first 10,000 words or more in four or five days, and I'm just over halfway to my goal as of day three. This also gives me a buffer, in case there is a day or two later when I don't have time to write or just don't feel like it.

It helps to have an outline of what I'm planning to write, even if it's just three sentences: beginning, climax and end. It's too easy to get sidetracked if I don't have that anchor to pull me back.

And I've found that you can't be afraid to start over in the first few days, even if you've already written a few thousand words. You can stick with a plot that you are struggling with, grow to hate it, and finally give up a week or two into the month, or you can ditch it, come up with something more fun, and then write frantically to catch up. And if it's really a fun idea, you won't even notice the extra words.

Machelle Homer

Position: Newsroom Assistant

Age: 42

Writing background: Most of my writing has been for school and work. I have, on many occasions, kept a journal for story ideas and to keep up on my writing skills.

Favorite books and writers: I have many favorite authors and books, so to choose a favorite is hard. One of my all time favorite writers is the classic Jane Austin. I have read most of her writings many times. Other writers I enjoy reading include Michael Crichton, Jean Auel, James Michener and J.K. Rowling.

Best time to write: The best time for me to write is in the evening, after dinner. It's a relaxing way to end the day.

Writing rituals: Since writing relaxes me, I like to write at home. Before settling down to write, I like to make some hot tea and sometimes popcorn, then find a nice quite place away from the noise of television. I will usually put on music but what I am writing determines what kind I listen to.

Machelle, on signing up for NaNoWriMo:

I have always thought of writing as a necessity of life, something that everyone should do whether they are good at it or not. It does not mean they have to write a novel, although for me, that is one of my goals. Writing a novel has always been something I wanted to do but never seemed to make time to do it. So, when I heard of National Novel Writing Month, I thought it was time. It seemed the perfect outlet since so many people were attempting the same thing — writing a 50,000 word novel in one month. It is proving a daunting task but one I plan to conquer, even if I did promise to host Thanksgiving dinner at my house this year.

From writer to writers

Lodi romance writer and novelist Susan Crosby recently spoke to News-Sentinel staff writers about writing more than 30 novels, how she got started and what inspires her.

Q: How do you know when an idea is good enough for a book, if there is a story?

A: You learn more by instinct as you go along. You learn by getting feedback. You cannot keep your writing to yourself — at all . . . After 31 books, I know if there's not a lot of meat there.

Q: Do you do extensive outlines before you write?

A: I do a family tree because I like to know where my characters fall in the grand scheme of things. I also do a timeline for each of the characters. And then I'll just start writing and then I'll start editing. I'll send a first draft to (my editing partner). She rips it apart, in a good way. And then I'll start over.

Q: How do you measure success?

A: The satisfaction, in the beginning, was probably just being published. Now it's: did I sell more books than the last one? Did it stay on the best-seller list longer? Is it higher on the list than it was before?

Q: Have you ever written a book that has been racy or that you haven't wanted your family or church members to read?

A: With my first book, I thought about how people are going to react. I was writing for Silhouette Desires, which is the spiciest line that Silhouette did. I wondered about it, but my neighbor — who's a very church-going woman — said, it was very tastefully done. I know it was probably hard for my sons, but my late husband used to brag about them all the time.

Q: What made you decide, I'm going to write a romance novel?

A: Reading one. I remember saying, wow, I'd like to be able to write something like this, something that made me feel that good. I liked how it explored emotion and relationships. That's what I'm interested in.

Q: Do all of your books follow a format, such as conflict should happen by page 42?

A: The conflict should be established at the end of chapter 1. You should have something that makes the reader want to turn to the next page. I look at it as the same way as a relationship in life. Generally, you're not going to kiss someone — or sleep with them, or whatever you're going to do — until a certain part in the relationship. It's the way a relationship grows. There's structure that we follow, but that's just standard, and what makes a good book.

Q: Do you have a set routine for writing every day?

A: I used to. I work best in the morning and it's really good I can just take my coffee and go in and sit down in my robe for a few hours. But in theory, when I do that, the doorbell will ring or the UPS guy comes and wants a signature and I'm still in my robe, and I hate that.

I write Monday though Friday, sometimes Saturday.

Q: What are some of the elements you need to write a romance novel?

A: Monogamy. A happier, satisfying ending. Beyond that, the world is your oyster.

Q: Who are the writers you really connect with?

A: Nora Roberts is my all-time favorite. She is able to grab you on page one and make you want something from those characters. She has a way that, to me, no other writer has. What she says of herself is she has a fast pace, and I admire that. She can sit down and probably do 20 pages in a day. If I do 10, I'm happy.

For more about Susan Crosby and her books, visit



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