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I've often thought, and said, that the thing I didn't like about NaNoWriMo is the idea that it somehow produces "winners." It's a challenge, sure, but writing is a process. It's about creating the motivation to write every day, knowing that it may not -- well, definitely isn't, in my case -- a polished, perfect anything. But I took it on because I'd gotten myself trapped into an editing frame of mind, where I was constantly thinking and overthinking and over, over thinking everything. Sometimes you've got to just write and see what happens.

So I signed up, with just a vague idea of what I would write, the main character only briefly sketched out. And now, according to the NaNo rules, I've "won." A touch over 55,300 words and a finished -- really, really, really rough -- first draft.



So what have I learned? For one, I learned for me that I don't need a full plot outline. Obviously this doesn't work for everyone, but with that rough idea in mind, I enjoyed seeing the characters come to life, putting them in a situation, and seeing what comes of it. It's probably a messy trial and error method for others, but I was amazed how often my subconscious knew exactly what it wanted, as long as I got my conscious thought process out of the way.

At the same time, it was great practice to just get into the practice of writing every day. That no matter how hectic, even thirty minutes or 45 minutes could produce something more than verbal diarrhea. It wasn't that the words that came out of that time were perfect, but rather that there was the kernel of something that I could develop later on, when it wasn't quite so hectic. And often, once that kernel was there, I couldn't wait to get back to it.

And third? Words are not permanent. The first draft is just that. A draft. No one has to see it. No one has to know that you changed your mind on the name for some tertiary character. No one cares. This can all be changed later. This is where I was getting myself caught up, the idea that an idea or a scene had to be nearly perfect from the first words on the page. I'd think of something that might be interesting to explore, but then never do it, because I didn't know how to end it or the perfect scene to start it with or the perfect sentence to hook the reader at the start.

So, will anything come of this novel? I don't know. Maybe it will. I'll let simmer for now, seeing if I'm still enjoying the bones of it enough to begin the monumental task of making it something more readable for others. I do know that I'm more excited by writing again -- by all of it, not just idea of putting something perfect on the page.

If anyone's interested, here's an excerpt. A really rough excerpt. Like I said, the best part of writing a first draft is knowing it's just the first.

Some background. The main character, Nick, finishes a tour in Iraq and comes home. With nothing waiting for him, he decides to see the country, traveling by bicycle across the U.S. Here, he's recently met a couple of other Army/Reserves vets, Wil and Jimmy, who take him in and give him a look at their part of the country, which happens to be a reservation in eastern Montana.

**********************


Nick woke to the smell of coffee and sun on his face. It took him a moment to remember where he was. He stretched and looked out the window. He could see more of the setting now. There was a spindly maple tree close to the trailer, and then a patch grass mowed into a neat square of a yard. Beyond that, grass and weeds faded into brush. The land rolled in small waves out for miles, maybe, until it rose up to the greater plains at the edge of the horizon. He couldn't see any other houses nearby.

He heard quiet voices out in the main room, and he pulled on his jeans and headed out.

"Morning," Wil said. "Hope you weren't trying to get an early start today, because we all seem to have slept in."

Nick checked his watch. Nearly nine o'clock. He'd usually have close to twenty miles under his tires by this time. "Guess we did."

"Why don't you hang out today, take a break," Jimmy said. "It'll give me an excuse to do a real barbecue."

"I don't want you to go to any trouble."

Wil placed a coffee cup in front of him. "Believe me, giving Jimmy an excuse to grill some meat is not any trouble," she said. "You'd be doing us both a favor."

Nick had been thinking about how nice it would be to pass out of Montana. He was only 40 miles from the border. But it was only a line on a map. It wouldn't make any difference if he crossed into North Dakota today or tomorrow.

"If you're sure," he said.

"Yes!" Jimmy pumped his fist into the air. "We shall kill the fatted calf."

"How about just some pork ribs. I don't think the store has fatted calf in stock."

"Ribs will have to do." Jimmy said. "And fry bread. And corn. And beans. We'll have a regular Fourth of July picnic on the second of July. Call everybody and let them know."

Wil saluted, then went back to her coffee.

---

"I've got to stop in to see a patient on the way," Jimmy said. "I hope that's OK."

"Fine."

The minivan had a couple of bags stashed on the floor behind the driver's seat, and a garbage bag that sounded like it was filled with empty aluminum cans next to those.

"Keep meaning to drop those off," Jimmy said. "They add up after a while."

The van was well worn, its springs bottoming out on the hard packed, rough track leading away from the house two or three times, and a squeaking of metal on metal with every bump. In the daylight, Nick saw that someone had planted hay in the field. Huge rolls of the hay sat in the middle of the field, waiting for someone to come and pick them up.

"Wil's father owns this property?" Nick asked, remembering the conversation from the night before.

"He's got a place in town he likes better." Jimmy said, then winked. "He's got a girlfriend in town he likes better too."

A wind was picking up, out of the east. Nick told himself that it was a sign he was supposed to take the day off, rather than just feeling too lazy to face another day.

The van reached the end of the dirt road. Jimmy paused just long enough to see that there was no traffic, then headed to the left.

"You ever miss home?" Nick asked.

"Sometimes," Jimmy said. "I could try to sound like a lovestruck fool and say something about how anyplace is home as long as my wife is there, but that's not quite true."

He eased back in his seat, one arm on the windowsill. "I miss my folks, of course, my parents, my grandpa, my brothers and sisters, my nieces and nephews. I miss my people -- the Hopi tend to be a little more mellow, from my experience, but I miss the place too.

"I miss the way the rock looks when the setting sun hits it, and the way the earth smells on a winter morning. Springtime when the rains come, the whole desert explodes in color." He paused for a moment, and seemed to be seeing something beyond the windshield that Nick didn't see.

"Sometimes I imagine that the way the desert blooms must be what it's like for some of those miracle surgeries when a blind man opens his eyes afterwards and sees for the first time."

Nick nodded.

"But it's good here too, like when the thunder comes and the sound goes on forever, or the way the stars look at night."

"I know."

Ten minutes later, Jimmy was turning off the main road and toward an small frame house in a small grove of trees. Nick could smell peaches when the engine stopped.

"Mr. Stone said he had to haul water most years to keep those living after he planted them," Jimmy said.

Nick saw two peach trees, filled with fruit nearly ready to pick. There were green apples hanging from other trees.

"You can stay out here, if you want," Jimmy said, "but Mr. Stone likes company."

He took one of the bags from behind his seat and headed up the ramp into the house, knocking loudly on the front door.

"Mr. Stone? It's Jimmy. You home?"

He continued in, without waiting for an answer. Nick followed him.

Even though this place was a house, rather than a big trailer like Jimmy and Wil's, it seemed smaller, closed in. The windows were covered with thin curtains, and it took Nick's eyes a moment to adjust. All he could see from the door was a small living room, then a few pieces of furniture and a couple of tables covered with bits of mail, magazines, newspapers and a couple of books.

An old man sat on one side of a dark brown sofa, smoking what looked and smelled like hand rolled cigarettes. Nick guessed that he had been a big man once, but now his skin and bones seemed to have shrunken and caved in. An old pair of horn rimmed glasses sat on top of his nose, his hair white with just a bit of black still visible.

"You know you're not supposed to smoke," Jimmy told him. He stood in front of Mr. Stone, his bag slung over one shoulder, his arms crossed.

"You know I don't pay attention to you when I tell you that," Mr. Stone said. "He nodded at Nick. "Who's your friend?"

"That's Nick. Nick this is Mr. Stone. Don't let him give you a hard time."

"Why would I give him a hard time?" Mr. Stone asked.

"Because he's a dumb bastard like me who joined the Army," Jimmy told him. He turned to Nick. "According to Mr. Stone, if I'd had any ambition, I would have joined the Corps."

"Any fool can get into the Army," Mr. Stone said. "A real man likes a challenge." He seemed to size up Nick in a way that reminded Nick of the drill sergeant when he first reported to basic. "Army's better than nothing, I suppose."

Jimmy placed his bag on the table in front of the older man. "I need to check your blood sugar," he said.

"Didn't you just do that yesterday?"

"Yep," Jimmy said, "and I'll do it tomorrow too."

He sat beside Mr. Stone and opened the bag, took out a small machine and an antiseptic wipe. He put on a pair of rubber gloves.

"Looks like your friend isn't from around here."

"Just passing through," Nick said. "Thought I'd see the country for a while."

The old man nodded and held out his left hand, waiting for Jimmy.

"I seen it with the Corps, and a good part of the world too."

"Mr. Stone was a lifer. He joined up just in time for the Korean War."

"They didn't call it a war then, but it sure felt like war to me."

Nick nodded. "I know what you mean."

"I had to stay there until it was over, not like today, when they send kids out just as they get used to it."

Jimmy looked up at Nick and raised his eyebrows. Nick was pretty sure he'd had this discussion many times before.

"After that they sent us to North Carolina, then to Hawaii -- I liked it there."

"You liked the Hula dancers," Jimmy teased.

"So would you, if you'd seen 'em. Went to Germany and to Italy and to Washington D.C. back when JFK was in office. I got picked to be part of the honor guard when they laid him to rest." He shook his head. "Over to California, then to Japan, and finally off to Vietnam."

He didn't seem to notice when Jimmy poked him. He fed the probe into the machine and stared at the screen for a while.

"That place was crazy," Mr. Stone said. "Didn't know who to trust, most days, so mostly we just trusted each other. They was still fighting there when I retired. Built me this place, and been here ever since."

"Never wanted to go anyplace again?"

"Saw everything I wanted to, except home." He narrowed his eyes. "It might not seem like much to you, boy, but it's heaven to me."

"Why?" Nick asked. "No disrespect, sir, I'm just wondering what makes people know when they're home."

"My ancestors are buried here. My big brother was killed in WW Two, and he's got a big monument with a star on it. When I look outside, I see the same hills he did, and the same ones our Daddy saw, and his Daddy before him. Our people were walking this land before your kind even knew it was here."

Nick nodded. Jimmy took advantage of the quiet and the man's break in his story.

"Your blood sugar's a little low, Mr. Stone. Did you remember to eat something this morning?"

"Wasn't hungry," he said. "I had some coffee."

"You know you need to eat regular meals," Jimmy said.

"Don't see as it matters much. I'm an old man. My time will come soon enough."

"Maybe it will," Jimmy said, "but that's no reason to bring it on any faster than it has to. Besides, who's going to teach me everything about how stupid I was to not join the Corps if you're not around?"

The old man grunted at that. Jimmy patted his knee. "I'll make you a sandwich before I leave. How's that sound?"

"Like something you're not getting paid to do."

"Guess I'll have to find some other way to get rich then."

Jimmy tossed his gloves in the garbage and rooted around in the refrigerator until he found some lunch meat.

"Will you eat an apple if I cut it up for you?"

Mr. Stone shrugged. He lit another cigarette, then pointed at Nick. "That boy could be a doctor if he wanted to," he said.

"Which I don't," Jimmy said. "Too much work."

"If you'd signed up for the Corps, they would have taught you to appreciate hard work."

"So you keep telling me."

Jimmy shoved some of the tobacco aside to make room on the side table for a plate with a sandwich, the apple, and a glass of water, then he picked up his bag and shouldered it again.

"I'll be back tomorrow," he said. "You remember to eat supper and breakfast without me nagging you, all right?"

The old man muttered something that Nick couldn't quite make out, but it made Jimmy chuckle.

"You coming back too?" the man asked, nodding at Nick.

"Don't think so," Nick said. "I've got a lot more places I need to see."

"You see them while you can," Mr. Stone said. "You get to be an old man, you'll find yourself sticking to one place."

They were both quiet for the first couple of miles heading out from Stone's place. Finally Jimmy cleared his throat.

"For what it's worth," he said, "I think he made a mistake. He should have retired in South Carolina with all the other Marines. He'd have a little condo it was easy to take care of and be surrounded by a couple of dozen old biddies trying to land him and his pension. He wouldn't spend all day hoping that some cousin or someone would stop by long enough to stay hello, rather than just stripping his fruit trees."

"You don't buy what he says about ancestors?"

"I'm not in Arizona anymore, am I?"

"No, but you're --" Nick pointed out at the surrounding land.

"The Reservation is all some people know. It's easy, in a way. You've got social services, you get free health care, if you're lucky you get a share of the casino money -- if you're lucky enough to be one of the tribes with a decent casino. But -- " he turned toward Nick. "It's a trap too."

Nick kept quiet. It seemed like Jimmy needed to vent anyway.

"You know what our high school dropout rates are like? Worse than anything you'd see in the inner city. Kids got nothing to do, so they get wasted, then go out and kill themselves with a car or a gun or just something even more stupid." He shook his head. "I could have been them, you know. I dropped out, started drinking. One of my friends knew just enough about chemistry to start cooking meth.

"My old man found out, which I didn't think was going to mean anything. He got drunk himself, most days, but he hauled me over to the recruiting office. Said it was the Army, or he was turning me in to the tribal cops. Army got me my GED. Army got me some training."

"Army got you a wife?"

"Best part," Jimmy said. "I thought about going back, but my old friends? They were still there. Still doing the same thing, and their younger brothers were coming up right behind me. Broke my heart to leave, but it broke it more to stay."

He stayed quiet after that for the rest of the drive.



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