No Fun.

by Nicole Willson

So I did not finish my Camp NaNoWriMo editing rebel goal.

However, this time I think I had an actual good reason — being hospitalized for nearly a week for complications from a ruptured appendix, and still being pretty wrung out and fatigued from the ongoing recovery for the rest of July.

Turns out that when medical sites advise you to seek help if you’re having persistent abdominal pain, that’s more than just a polite suggestion. But because my pain lasted on and off for several days and never actually got that bad until the day I finally gave up and went to the doctor (who promptly told me “I think you came to the wrong place”), I assumed it couldn’t be appendicitis. Didn’t appendicitis come on suddenly and get really painful really fast? Like in that book “Madeline“?

In my case, no.

And I’m just putting this out there for others who might find themselves or someone they love in the same boat: The doctors did NOT take my appendix out, much to my initial disbelief (and the bafflement of my family). The doctor who was overseeing my care explained that my appendix was such a mess that opening me up to get at it could cause more problems than it solved. And because my infection seemed to be well-contained and I wasn’t going into septic shock, they elected to keep me in the hospital and pump me full of antibiotics until my white blood cell count and my temperature dropped to acceptable levels, at which point they sent me home toting even more bottles of antibiotics.

That hospital stay took nearly a week. For someone who hadn’t spent any extensive time in a hospital since my actual birth, that was a hell of a learning curve. Even though the hospital room itself was quite comfortable and the people I dealt with were all incredibly kind, I shed tears of gratitude on the day the doctors told me I could go home.

So if you’re ever in this situation and you’re searching the Web while muttering “WTF? I’ve never heard of not operating on a ruptured appendix!”, hi there! Now you have. It’s a more common approach than I thought.

I have to go for a follow-up CT scan in a few weeks and there is still a possibility that the doctor will elect to have whatever’s left of my appendix taken out, but for now, I’m feeling pretty good. I was allowed to telecommute for my first two weeks back at home, but this week I finally returned to the office.

And I’ve also picked up where I left off with the NaNoWriMo plan and continued to edit the first book. Even if I didn’t finish it on time, I really want to get that latest draft hammered out. It’s not that long now until November, when I want to write that completely different book. I’d like to have Draft Four all wrapped up.

Camp Nano Status Report

by Nicole Willson

Halfway through the month, here’s what I’ve done as an Editing Rebel:

I’ve edited fourteen chapters out of 33. I’d have liked to be a bit further ahead than that by now, but July was apparently designated as the month for me to get sick and stay that way.

What makes me happier is that I had a list of six things that I really wanted to achieve this month, and I’ve crossed off three of them. (However, I’ve realized that there’s one more big change that may need to happen.)

I’m not slacking this time. Yay me!

Meatball Update.

by Nicole Willson

So the Trader Joe’s stores near us have continued to be conspicuously free of the coveted meatless meatballs. I was beginning to despair of ever seeing them again. And then I happened to check Vegan Black Metal Chef’s Facebook page. (You should, too. Dude is a lot of fun, and his food looks good.) He’d just been to Trader Joe’s for the first time and was showing off his first TJ’s haul.

AND LOOK, LOOK AT WHAT HE GOT IT’S RIGHT THERE ALMOST CLOSE ENOUGH FOR ME TO TOUCH ARRRRRGH.

(And the damn packaging looks NO different from what I can see.)

VBMC lives in Florida, if I recall correctly. If you’ve been missing these meatballs and you’re a Floridian, you may be in luck.

Bill and I are going to need to go to TJ’s this week to stock up on some staples. Perhaps this will finally be the lucky visit.

Status Update.

by Nicole Willson

So I didn’t actually mean to be on hiatus that long. Yikes. Sorry about that, everyone who’s not actually reading this anyhow.

I did not complete a Book One edit during April’s Camp NaNoWriMo, alas. I don’t even really have an excuse other than my being really, really burned out on that story. I think I needed a little time away just to get myself used to working on it again.

However, I finally got back on the horse this month. Although I hate doing it, I’ve spent much of June making an outline of the current draft, and now I have a clearer roadmap of the work that I think needs to be done. (Yay. Even more work.)

It’s been daunting to realize how many drafts this simple little book has been through. I tried tallying them all up today and came up with the following:

I started with the “Draft Zero” NaNoWriMo draft, just as it came out of my head in November 2011. Someday if I’m feeling really brave I’ll post parts of it, and if you’re feeing really masochistic you can try reading it.

There’s Draft One, the first set of major rewrites I made in 2013.

There’s Draft Two, another significant rewrite in which I transferred the story chapter by chapter to a new Scrivener file in order to do some major improvements. That’s the draft I gave to my husband to read. I know you’re not supposed to show your work to people who know you, but he’s not afraid to be honest. That led to …

Draft Three, in which I incorporated a number of his suggestions.

After realizing that several things need to be punched up or moved in the story and that some of my characters still don’t seem to have much life on their own, I’ve now started poring over my newest outline and hope to produce Draft Four in July for the summer Camp NaNoWriMo session. I know I said that back in April, but I have a much clearer plan for what needs to be done to the manuscript now, so I think this upcoming month will be much more productive. And I’m very, very hopeful that this will be the last major overhaul. No matter where this book is, I’m writing something entirely different and new in November 2014.

In another status update, someone should have warned me that one day, a piece I wrote complaining about the absence of Trader Joe’s Meatless Meatballs would be one of the most popular things I’ve ever written. Lots of y’all out there seem very curious about what happened to those meatballs. I’ve used Morningstar Farms’ meatless meatballs on occasion, but while they’re an OK substitute, they’re just not quite the same. They also aren’t vegan, so they won’t be a viable substitute for everyone.

Anyhow, I took my own advice and wrote TJ’s back in April. They apologized for the long delay in bringing them back and told me that they should be back in stores by the end of the month. That was in April. It’s now late June, and I have yet to see the meatballs back on shelves. For shame, Trader Joe’s.

Up with QuizUp.

by Nicole Willson

A few weeks ago, I saw an online ad for QuizUp, an app that hosts a worldwide, 24-hour-a-day trivia tournament. I’ve tried plenty of online trivia games (especially in times when I was trying out for Jeopardy or practicing for my appearance), but something about this game drew me in and has yet to let go. The interface is clean and colorful and works well on both my iPhone and my iPad mini, and the game itself is incredibly addictive.

There’s a wide variety of topics that gets wider by the day, so you can either test yourself on what you think you already know or try out something you don’t know and possibly surprise yourself. I do fairly well in Spanish despite having never taken a single class; it’s amazing what I’ve picked up from bilingual labels and signs, as well as from the language’s similarities to French. And try Beer Labels for a laugh — even if you never touch the stuff, it’s fun to try to noodle out the brands simply from examining the labels, especially if the Photoshopper didn’t do a good enough job of removing identifying information.

The game offers several achievements and rankings if you continue to play and do well, especially if you do well in several categories. As of this writing, I’m “Best in Virginia” in both Horror Fiction and the new category Riddles, although there’s some pretty fierce competition in Riddles.

A few gripes: There are occasional questions with blatantly wrong answers; although you can report these easily, it can take time for them to vanish to the cornfield. And because the game wants you to have someone to play against at all times, you may find yourself matched up with a bot that answers questions randomly if there are no other actual humans playing your category. Bots tend to have low user rankings, no personal photos, and an odd tendency to know all about obscure horror novels but nothing about Stephen King or Edgar Allan Poe. Because bots are generally easy to beat, they’re fun if you’re going for the 50-wins-in-a-row Ramtastic achievement. They’re less fun if you’re looking for a genuine challenge.

It wasn’t long before I had the itch to start contributing questions of my own; QuizUp has a big green “Contribute Content!” button at the bottom of most main pages. I rather brashly submitted an entire figure skating quiz before realizing that there’s an etiquette to suggesting new topics (and that several of my questions were already part of the Winter Olympics category), but I did better with my second submission for Horror Fiction. QuizUp wrote me back pretty quickly asking me for more questions.

So yay! Someone somewhere will be using my writing.

And I am “Nicole Willson” on QuizUp if you’d like to friend me or challenge me at anything. It’s free, so what are you waiting for?

Fannibal.

by Nicole Willson

(This will be spoilery, both for the TV show and for the films based on “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” You have been warned.)

When I first read that NBC ordered a series based on Hannibal Lecter, I rolled my eyes. I may or may not have muttered “The 90s called — they want their pop culture icon back.” I mean, really. Hadn’t this character been run into the ground already?

But then I started reading things about it that piqued my curiosity.

The show was created by Bryan Fuller, who was behind “Dead Like Me,” a short-lived cable show I’d enjoyed a lot. And then I saw that Scott Thompson had been cast in a supporting role. Scott Thompson, from “Kids in the Hall”? Playing a character who was described in all the books as a grumpy old man? This was definitely different.

The show itself would be set in a time prior to the events of the novel “Red Dragon.” Nobody would know who — and what — Lecter really was at the beginning of the show. Nobody but the audience. This was an approach to the story that I hadn’t seen before.

And here comes Blasphemy Time: I don’t think that any of the Hannibal Lecters in the films did justice to the character as he’s depicted in the books. Yes, I know Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for the role. But I don’t think his portrayal in “The Silence of the Lambs” has aged well at all. The Dr. Lecter in my head is subtle and smooth. Hopkins — at least in SotL — is all campy and over the top. I don’t know how Clarice didn’t burst out laughing at him, because he’s like what Truman Capote would have been if he’d been a serial killer. I think that Hopkins’s Lecter is much better in “Red Dragon;” he has more of the subtle restraint I think the role really needs.

(I know there’s a fan belief that Brian Cox is a vastly superior “Lecktor” in “Manhunter,” but: Meh. I generally like him, but I see none of Lecter’s sleek, brilliant sophistication in Cox’s portrayal.)

My initial resistance worn down, I tuned in for the show’s premiere last year. The show was nothing at all like what I expected. It’s about as far from the typical gritty TV crime drama as it’s possible to get. It’s bloody and violent and so very, very dark, but it’s also surreal and haunting and oddly beautiful. I wasn’t too sure about it after the first couple episodes, but eventually it reeled me in.

One thing: You will have to suspend the shit out of your disbelief. You will be saying “Like THAT would ever really happen” all the time as you’re watching. I know that’s pretty much SOP with any TV crime drama, but “Hannibal” cranks it up to eleven. But if you can let that go, it’s worth the ride.

Another thing: You’ll have to forget everything you know about the Will Graham/Hannibal Lecter storyline in the books. The show takes the bare bones of that situation — Graham consulted with Lecter a time or two before realizing that Lecter was in fact the killer he was pursuing — and runs wild with it.

I didn’t realize just how caught up I’d become in the show until they recently killed off a character I liked more than I knew. But the performances have been top notch across the board. Mikkelsen is a little taller than I imagined Lecter being, but other than that he’s about as close as anyone’s come to a portrayal of Lecter that matches the impression I got from the character in the novels. He’s sleek. He’s sophisticated. He serves his friends divine-looking gourmet meals. (Don’t ask what’s in them. Just don’t.) He’s so good at passing himself off as a sympathetic person that only a handful of characters have recognized what he really is.

And while I don’t think Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham would work at all in a straight adaptation of “Red Dragon,” he’s perfect for this particular take on the story — vulnerable because of his awful gift of being able to visualize crimes just from looking at the bloody aftermath, deeply tormented as he makes the connection between the killer he’s hunting and Lecter (that odd creature up above is Will’s mental manifestation of this terrible realization), but tough and steely as he fights out of the trap Lecter set for him.

Crawford, played by Laurence Fishburne, also gets a much richer portrayal than he ever has in the movies. I never found any of the film Crawfords compelling, but I could see why Clarice Starling might risk a lot for Fishburne’s version of the character. I’m glad the show didn’t brush aside his wife Bella’s fight with cancer as the film adaptation of “Silence of the Lambs” did, because it means I get to see the wonderful Gina Torres at work.

The show does not shy away from depicting the thing that Dr. Lecter is most famous for doing. Don’t assume that if you’re a smug vegetarian like me, you’ll get away unscathed — the “human mushroom garden” in season one put me right off of portobellos for a good long while.

As is too often the case with shows I like, “Hannibal” gets very low ratings and I was honestly surprised that it survived to a second season. I really hope that if it gets axed by NBC, some other network grabs it up. I started off as a skeptic, but now I am definitely a Fannibal.

Camp NaNoWriMo 2014.

by Nicole Willson

Yes, it’s that time again. I enjoyed being a Camp NaNoWriMo editing rebel so much last year that I’m going to do it again this year.

As I mentioned previously, I got some valuable and badly-needed feedback on Book One earlier this year. I would have liked to be further ahead in editing the manuscript, but Real Life got involved in a very big way in the latter half of March, and I just didn’t have the time or the brainpower to get very far into the edit.

April is looking somewhat calmer (knock on wood), so I’m going to give Camp another shot. Having a targeted goal seems to help me stay on track with writing and editing. I believe that last year, we figured that 50 hours of editing could sub for 50,000 words, but I’m hoping to get a complete edit of the manuscript done no matter how many specific hours it takes me.

Anyone else giving it a try? Camp tends to be a little looser than the actual NaNoWriMo event in November. You don’t have to knock out 50K words; you can set a much smaller goal for yourself.

Writing Old School.

by Nicole Willson

So I haven’t been writing in this blog as much as I expected to lately.

There’s an actual reason for that beyond laziness this time: I’ve been writing stuff down in an old-fashioned notebook. Maybe thinking about “Harriet the Spy” brought that on; I don’t know.

Keeping a paper journal was something I did religiously in high school, college, and my first few years of adulthood. I’d buy plain spirals from the drugstore and go to town.

I remember being very nervous that someone in college would find my journals and read them and I’d end up on the receiving end of a huge round of Harriet-style revenge for what I put down in there. Like Harriet, I was pretty unsparing about the people in my life, even when I liked them.

It wasn’t until I dug those college spirals out and read them again a few years ago that I realized the sad truth: Nobody who wasn’t me would find those things interesting enough to bother with for very long. At the time, I thought everything I was going through was incredibly significant and meaningful, and I’d stay up late into the night writing every last bit of it down. Now it all seems like semi-drunken adolescent twaddle, way too much mental energy expended on things and people that didn’t deserve it at all.

But I also wrote about things like my father’s death. There are details in those entries that I’d probably have long since forgotten otherwise, like the time when I got into our car after returning home for the funeral, found my dad’s coat in the backseat, thought “Mom brought that so he wouldn’t be cold when he got out of the hospital, and now he will never wear that again,” and got tearful. I hated getting tearful because anyone around me felt compelled to come over and make a fuss over me, and even though I knew they meant well, I hated that. I wanted to be left alone to cry. There were many little moments that would catch me unaware and knock me breathless all over again, and darned if they weren’t all immortalized in those spirals.

I very much hope that this little paper journal I’m keeping now will not have anything quite so devastating in its pages.

One thing that makes paper journaling more challenging than it was: Holy hell, but my handwriting sucks now. It was never very good to begin with, but after decades of me doing 99.99 percent of my writing on computers, it’s almost illegible. I might as well be writing in secret code.

And also: After all my years of typing and typing, I get writer’s cramp much faster than usual now. Gone are the days when I could scribble for hours without even having to shake my hand out, so my journal entries are much shorter.

But then again that’s not a bad habit: Figure out what I really need to say and the most efficient way to say it. Maybe it will be good practice.

Happy 50th, Harriet.

by Nicole Willson

At some point while I wasn’t looking, “Harriet the Spy” hit its 50th anniversary.

I’m not sure if I can even express just how much I loved this book when I was a kid. A chubby, bespectacled girl who liked to write snarky things? Harriet M. Welsch was more than just a fictional character for me; I think she was a life model.

I spent my first few years in a Manhattan environment very similar to Harriet’s, and so her surroundings felt like home to me. She seemed like someone I might have actually known. I never lived in an apartment with a dumbwaiter, but I knew what they were. (Never occurred to me to try to hide in one, though. Just as well; I could imagine that ending badly.)

While I tried to be Harriet when I was a fifth grader without a lot of real-life friends, I mostly lacked her nerve. I popped the lenses out of a pair of bright blue kiddie sunglasses and wore them like they were real glasses, Harriet-style, but my parents told me they looked ridiculous and made me stop it. (I got to wear real glasses soon enough, alas.) My “spy route” was mostly whatever I could see if I looked out my bedroom window on a slow afternoon.

And I was not about to take my “spy” notebook out in public where anyone could possibly discover it. Because this picture from the book, right after Harriet’s friends have read all the awful stuff she wrote about them?

Aww, poor Sport. Everyone else is pissed, but he actually looks really hurt.

Brrr. Man, that image is still the stuff of nightmares for me.

Something else that made an impression on me back then and has influenced my reading preferences to this day: Harriet is far from a nice kid. She can be a bratty, mean little shit for no reason at all, just like everyone at that age. She wasn’t always likable, but that made her relatable to me. I detest perfectly perfect heroines whose one flaw is that they’re klutzy (which is, of course, not an actual character flaw at all).

The book also did — and does — an excellent job of capturing how weird it is when you’re a kid and you realize for the first time that the grownups around you have lives of their own, that they did not come into existence at the same time you did, and that their worlds don’t revolve entirely around you.

And one of the last lines of the book — and arguably part of its underlying message — is “Sometimes you have to lie.” Whoa. That message in a children’s book seems positively anarchic. Telling kids it’s OK to lie sometimes? I’m amazed I don’t see this one turn up on yearly “Banned Books” lists more often.

But it’s those very things about the book — the bratty kids, the utterly unsentimental messages — that make it so enjoyable and enduring.

I also remember feeling dejected the first time I read the author bio and learned that Louise Fitzhugh had died not long after the book was published. That made me feel like something about Harriet herself was lost.

I very much like the book’s first sequel “The Long Secret,” in which Harriet takes something of a supporting role to her mousy, quiet friend Beth Ellen. While Judy Blume’s “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” gets the lion’s share of attention when it comes to books about preteen girls grappling with their first periods and the role of religion in their lives, I think “The Long Secret” handles those topics almost as well, albeit from a very Christian-centric worldview.

The rest of the Harriet sequels and spinoffs didn’t do much for me; neither did the Nickelodeonized mid-90s film. Bill and I were probably the only adults in the audience who didn’t have kids with us when we saw it in the theater.

Whenever someone asks what books from my childhood stayed with me and influenced me, I like to give more intellectual-sounding answers like “To Kill A Mockingbird.” But if I’m being completely honest, “Harriet the Spy” wins that question hands down.