Whether you noticed or not, from the minute you decided to write a novel in a month, the Central Casting wing of your imagination began contemplating contenders for the dramatis personae - No Plot? No Problem!
"So... my name's Random. It's short for, uh, Random Idea Number Forty Two. I mean, I'm hoping to get myself a proper name this year..."
The character in potential rubbed her hands together and pushed a stray curl of bushy red hair from her face, before focusing her attention on the plush red curtains before her.
"I'd like to be a main character. I mean... I suppose we all want to be main characters. But anything will do! I think I'd like to be a pirate? Or maybe a princess? Maybe a pirate princess? That would be.. that would be cool! But anything you've got, really."
Random clasped her hands, and paused. Getting hold of a role was a matter of impressing yourself into the collective mindset of the novelling universe. Immediate feedback was somewhat rare.
Nonetheless, she couldn't shake the feeling she was losing it.
"Something with a name, though," she said eventually. "I'd like a name."
The feedback machine whirred and trembled before Random's eyes. Little cranks and pistons flew up and down. Through its glass casing, she could see a reel of paper tape, strung out over gears and wheels, inching in little increments toward its destination. And then, with no warning, the machine slipped into overdrive, whirring so fast she could no longer see it as anything more than a blur…
Ding! With a noise like a microwave announcing that last night's prepackaged dinner was ready, a light bulb switched itself on and a small slip of paper fed itself out of the front slot.
Random tore it off and read it.
"Awww.." she said.
Behind her, the door opened and the next hopeful entered to wait for his decision. He was dressed head to toe in black, his face entirely obscured except for his eyes. "Hey, no luck?" he said. "It's okay. There's plenty of October left. You'll find somewhere."
"Thanks," she said, managing a smile for him. "You too?"
Of course, the well-wishing on her end was just a courtesy. There was always room for another ninja in a NaNoWriMo novel.
"I could be a ninja," she mused to herself as she stepped outside. "That'd be just as cool as a pirate princess. I'd just have to get all this under the hood." She patted down her mass of red curls. It sprang back up again. On second thoughts, maybe being a pirate was a better idea after all.
She had only just opened the door when an unidentified projectile came whooshing past, blowing her hair up into an even more gravity defying mess. "Sorry!" called out a voice in the distance. "Didn't see you there!"
"Oh, it's you!" She gave the little group of trebuchet wielders a wave, and walked on.
Characters need somewhere to go, when they're waiting for the story to begin, and the NaNoWriMo Nexus was that somewhere. This close to November, the Nexus was busier than ever. Characters rushed by one another in a hurry, or walked in little groups, discussing the month ahead and the plots they'd be playing out. Nowhere was this throng of activity more visible than the main square.
The character crowds were out in full today. Most were human, like Random, or human shaped, but here and there could be seen a dragon, or a unicorn, maybe an alien or two, or any manner of assorted odd little creatures that were probably dares. A few wordcount bots sat in the sun, glittering in its light, taking their last few days of rest before the activity geared up. But in the square, there was room for all this. The tall buildings, drenched in golden October sunshine, full of little cafes and bookshops, gave way to a vast paved space. At its head was the library, its broad steps leading up to every novel that had been written in NaNos past, and every one that would be written this year, where the librarians would be cataloguing the genre index in time for the 1st. And in the distance, far away where the Camp lands lay, there was more still. The distant and misty peaks of the Midway Mountains loomed, the Sea of Inspiration an uncharted expanse at its foot, and even more impossible geography beyond.
A few more projectiles whizzed through the air - that last one, Random was sure, was a penguin, or at least something well disguised as one. Another chapter of the Trebuchet Club were practising, stationed by a fountain and comparing notes on trajectory and distance. Maybe I could be a trebuchet operator? Random thought. Trebuchets were supposed to be in style, this year. She entertained the possibility of introducing herself to them, but decided against it. She'd promised to meet Neo after the audition. Maybe he'd have better news?
She was heading to the November Gardens, said to be the oldest part of the Nexus, there before the square and the city, before the mountains and the sea and the other, more impossible geography. Legend told that in the distant and murky past of 1999, a crew of hopeful, half formed characters had set off in twenty one novels to create the first NaNoWriMo, and that their combined efforts had created the Garden. Its external form had changed over the years, but these days it resembled a palm house, its roof formed from curved wood panelled with glass, and a hint of treetops inside. But that wasn't the real interior. To see that, you had to go inside and look for yourself.
She did that right now. She opened the door, and felt an odd shift in her vision, as if she had passed from one side of a pane of glass to the other.
A whole garden stretched out before her in all its autumnal glory, the bustle of the Nexus long since left behind. Behind her were walls, not the walls she had seen on the outside, but high stone things, full of cracks and ridges. Once, on a dare, she'd tried to follow those walls as far as she could go, but was forced to turn back when it became apparent they were mot going to stop. Not even the Midway Mountains could do that. Ahead of her, the park lands rolled on. Winding paths, bordered by wrought iron lamp-posts, cut through grass and trees. The Gardens had chosen its best colours today, and everything around her seemed as if it was on fire, in shades of red and orange and yellow, set off by that low October sun.
"Thanks," she said, managing another smile. A breeze rustled the treetops in reply.
Neo was sitting by the duck pond, which was something of a misnomer in that there were no ducks. The Garden had never quite been able to get the hang of ducks, but everyone had agreed that every good park needed a duck pond, and it was a fine duck pond indeed regardless of the absence of ducks. He was lounging on a wrought iron bench as if he owned it, one hand draped across the back, his spiked hair ruffled a little by the wind.
"Hey sis," he said. Characters don't have family unless they're written in, but that didn't mean they couldn't use the words. "How's it gone? Wait. Don't say anything…"
"Yeah, I don't need to," Random sat down beside him, and stuffed the rejection slip into her pocket. She knew he'd seen it, but she didn't want to say it. "Think the Garden's trying to cheer me up."
"Hey, there's time left," he said.
She was reminded of the ninja. "You mean one week in October."
"Hey, that doesn't mean anything. We can always just crash a novel. Loads of things don't get plotted until the last minute. This is NaNo, remember? Loads of things don't get plotted at all!"
"It'd be a lot easier if I had a name." Random drummed her fingers on her knee. "People take you seriously, with a name. You've got a name."
"Yeah." Neo picked up a stone and tossed it into the pond. It sank with a satisfying ploop noise. "Can't say it's everything."
"Well, what with the late reopening this year…"
"Hey!" Neo sprang to his feet. "This isn't working. You're still glum! I know what we should do…"
It is a well known fact that fictional characters of any form do not obey the laws of economics unless it is important to the plot, and even then they will warp them to suit their own ends. Fiction may be a mirror held up to reality, but that doesn't mean it can't trim the boring bits.
The end result is that, in a place such as the Nexus, there may indeed be such a thing as a free lunch. Or at least a free shrimp dinner.
"I could stop by the Appellation Station," Random mused, as she poked at the little pink shapes on the plate before her. "You know, see if anyone's got any name ideas?"
They were hunched together at a two person table, by a wall covered in red and white life preservers and little plastic seashells. It had been the only one left. Either more characters than ever were down on their luck and needed cheering up too (the late start this year was having a dreadful effect on planning, so the rumours went) or Bob's House of Free Shrimp Dinners was going up in the world. Once you got over the fact that Bob himself was literally a bipedal, human sized shrimp, it was practically a second home. You just didn't ask too many questions.
"Names are overrated," said Neo. "Look at mine."
"S'good enough name," said Random, through a mouthful of shrimp and sauce. A passer by, on the lookout for a free seat, jostled her. "Mm, s'busy here, innit?"
"Doesn't get you everything."
"Aw c'mon, you… oh." Realisation dawned. "Aw, no, not you as well?"
"There's always tomorrow," he said. "I just figure you have to… be the main character." He stared up at the ceiling, a faint smile on his face.
"You always say that!"
"Yeah, cause it's good advice. Be the main character!" He waved his hand for emphasis, and ended up smacking it right into the face of a passing man.
"I'm sorry, my friend's an idiot!" Random blurted out, but it seemed to work, and he walked on. "Can you not do that?"
"You should still be the main character," Neo said. "Okay?" He leaned forward, chin resting on clasped hands, and when he spoke again it was hard to hear over the rattle of cutlery and the orders shouted across the room. "Tell you what, I'll make you a deal. You and me are going to get into a novel, the best novel ever, and when it's all over… hold on." He sat back up, and fished through the pockets of his coat - a long, flowing affair that seemed to hold anything he ever needed - and, upon finding pen and paper, scribbled something and handed the scrap over.
Random unfolded it
I O U One Free Shrimp Dinner.
"Yeah," she said, trying to stifle a laugh. "Think you're missing something here. They're free shrimp dinners? We don't actually pay for them? Because we're fictional characters and we don't actually have an economy?"
"Okay, give it back," he said, taking it from her hands and writing something else below it. She took it back when he was done.
Even Though I Don't Have To Pay.
"Okay, I'll hold you to it." Random stabbed another shrimp with her fork and tilted her chair back, balancing on two legs. "I mean, even if I don't get to be princess of the high seas I suppose I can always-"
She was cut off by another knock to her chair, one that shook it off balance and left her flailing her arms out to steady herself. "Ow!" she yelled, as the chair fell backwards.
"Yeah, I'm fine." Both Random and the chair had survived the fall intact, so she got to her feet and straightened it back up. The shrimp hadn't fared so well. It had flung itself from the fork, tracing a neat little arc through the air that she'd seen out of the corner of her eye, and landed, in accordance with the laws of nature, narrative, and pale clothing, right on the front of her t-shirt. A trail of pink marked where it fell.
"Ew," she said, flicking it away. Something unseen, underfoot, snapped it up. "Guess it's laundry night now."
"Laundry night? Laundry night?" Neo leapt to his feet. "This is October! Nobody does laundry in October! They let it pile up all the way through November and do the whole lot in December! That is what a real character does!" He stabbed at the ceiling with his hand.
There were more than a few people watching now, perhaps wondering if their free shrimp dinner came with complimentary free shrimp related cabaret. Random gave them an embarrassed little wave.
"Besides," Neo said, sitting back down, "we're characters, so we don't do things like laundry. Not unless it's plot relevant."
"I still need a new t-shirt."
"Okay," he admitted. "We'll finish up and go home and find a shirt. Hey, if we hurry up we can catch the end of Tildeworth!"
"Random! Get in here! They're going to have Mr Ian Woon on in a minute!"
"Really?" Random looked up from rummaging through a forgotten clothes drawer and ran into the main room. Neo was already sprawled out on the couch, lit by the faint glow of the screen.
"Yeah, come on, you'll miss him!"
"I'm only over here, you don't need to capslock on me." Random walked inside, and slouched down in the spare chair. It was a little worn down, but the cushions were just the right sort of worn, so that she sank into them with ease. "What're they talking about now?"
"Finishing up something on the rule change. You know, that thing about works in progress."
"Oh, that." It had been only a few weeks since the rules had been changed to allow works in progress to officially compete, and the debate had been fierce. As it was Random's first year, she'd kept out of it, but she knew it had been the cause of more than a few rows.
"And in conclusion," came the voice from the TV, "the new rules seem to be divisive. What do I think? Well, I'm just here to talk about these things, I think as long as I can talk, I'll be happy."
"Got that right," said Neo.
"Some people may say 'Oh, but Tildeworth! Should you not have an opinion?' And perhaps they are right. But it is my role to present an unbiased and balanced commentary on the goings on within our Nexus, and so I shall. Incidentally, the person who stole my lucky pen from room 7a knows exactly who they are, and if they know what is good for them they will return it to its rightful position as soon as they are able to."
The screen, marked by a familiar rainbow coloured Viking helmet logo in the corner, showed a familiar figure sitting on a smooth curved chair in a light-filled studio. Tildeworth was a short woman, fond of floral patterned dress shirts. Today's was white, laced all over with little blue vines. She had fluffy hair that made her resemble a spaniel, light brown and greying a little at the temples, but she never looked old, not to Random's eyes. Insofar as fictional characters do not have an age unless written with one, trying to work out Tildeworth's was an exercise in confusion. But what struck the viewer most of all was her voice. It was several sizes too big for its owner, as if the voice had been there first and had been stuffed into the first body it could find. It was barking and commanding, and belonged to someone who could, with no effort at all, pronounce things in italics.
She was currently talking about drinks.
"But viewers," she said, "a crisis is looming, a large and terrible crisis, of the sort I would apply a long and detailed metaphor to were I the sort to apply long and detailed metaphors to things. It is a crisis of dreadful and epic proportions. Viewers, I am out of tea. If you could send some, that would be so kind.
"And now, the results of yesterday's quiz! In order, they are: the moon, the other moon, an elephant, yes, no, yes but only on a Thursday, no no no no NO dear Chris Baty himself what were you thinking, and the blue whale. Congratulations to everyone who played along.
"And now, I'd like you all to welcome a very special guest! You might know him as the president of the Trebuchet Club, but we mostly all know him for his career, his significantly anagrammed name, and his unbeaten death scene record. Will you please welcome to the studio tonight, Mr Ian Woon!"
The camera panned back, and, to an extended applause… somebody walked on stage. It had to be Mr Ian Woon, because Random had no idea what he looked like. Even when she was looking right at him, her mind refused to fill in the details.
"Welcome, welcome!" said Tildeworth. "Welcome to the show! Please sit down."
"Thankyou," said Mr Ian Woon. (He was definitely talking. Random had heard him.)
"So you've had a very interesting career," said Tildeworth. "Tell me, does this… effect… cause you any problems?" She waved a hand in the air.
"Oh, not at all!!" said Mr Ian Woon. "It's only here that it takes effect, after all. When I'm in a novel everyone can see me just fine. I just look different each time, you see."
Random supposed that viewers all over the Nexus were trying to do what she was now, staring at the screen and tying her brain in knots in an effort to figure out just what he looked like. She could see a little. He was human, male, probably Asian… but beyond that, he eyes slipped away over and over again.
"Yes, you've been in a lot of novels, right?" said Tildeworth. "You must have been in hundreds."
"Thousands, maybe," said Mr Ian Woon. "I admit I've lost track, so it's no wonder I don't have a defined appearance."
"I bet. Is it ever difficult? How do you manage to be in so many novels at the same time?"
"Trade secret! But yes, November keeps me busy."
"Hah! Anyone would think you were in two places at once! But that's impossible." Tildeworth turned to the camera. "Incidentally, I would like to take the time to remind all viewers that unauthorised backups are dangerous and we do not in any way recommend the practice of such. Definitely not." Turning back to Mr Ian Woon, she returned to the cheery interviewer voice. "So, are you worried about being killed off so many times? It sounds harrowing. Do you ever feel that's all you're ever used for? I know it's tradition, but is it not hard to cope?"
"Honestly? It's sometimes annoying, being killed all the time," said Mr Ian Woon. "But it's not too bad. Sometimes you're in a novel and you think… 'oh, do they just want a bit of extra wordcount because my name is three words instead of one?' And then they kill me, because that always bumps up the count. But I've gotten used to it. It's the mark I make on the world, I think. And it's not all about dying. I've gotten some great scenes. Sometimes I'm even a main character. Or sometimes I'm not, but I'm a favourite character."
"Is there a difference?"
"Of course! Sometimes you're a main character, and that's a great thing to be. But sometimes, even if you're not, you get the feeling the story loves you. It winds around you in ways you never expected. That's what I love most about November. I don't know what's going to happen. Even the dying's interesting when you don't know what's coming."
Random stared at the screen in silence.
"Have you had any interesting deaths, then?" said Tildeworth."
"I've had a lot of run-ins with the Travelling Shovel of Death," said Mr Ian Woon. "But who hasn't?" There was a round of laughter from the assembled and unseen studio audience. "But I would say the strangest death I've ever had was when I was killed with a peach."
"How do you get killed by a peach?"
"That's a long story!" said Mr Ian Woon. "But maybe I'll tell it some time?"
"I hope you will. So, moving on, can we expect you to be at the kickoff party on the 31st?"
"Well, I am the guest of honour," said Mr Ian Woon, "so let's hope so. Unless I'm being killed again. You never know with the new rules!"
"Oh, let's not go there," said Tildeworth. "But I'm sure we'll all have a great time, right?"
"Of course!" said Mr Ian Woon. "I'll be there at midnight… of course not for long, as I'll probably be killed as part of an opening scene somewhere. Nothing starts a book like a good murder scene. But whatever happens, I can assure you I'll be there."
"Thank you very much, Mr Ian Woon," said Tildeworth. "And I'll see you there too. Mr Ian Woon, everyone!" She shook his hand to the sound of more applause, and the lights dimmed.
"Viewers, friends, everyone," said Tildeworth. "It's been a long October, so far. In some regards, it has been a very short October. But in others, long. Of course I suppose that is how time works here, so perhaps I should not be so surprised. One thing about time is for sure - that's all we have time for, on the show today.
"Join us tomorrow when we find out just how much yarn it takes to knit a sweater for a giraffe, as we begin our community-wide drive to be kind to giraffes. Because we should. Be kind, that is. To giraffes, and to everyone. Yes, even you, though I have my eye on room 7a right now.
"Stay tuned for Mundane Activities… IN A STEEL CAGE OF DOOM! But from all of us here at the Tildeworth Hour… etcetera etcetera, bombshell, thank you and goodnight!"
"Thanks, everyone! Thanks Vicki, thanks Jeff," Tildeworth bent down and shook hands and paws with a small neon pink stone armadillo who was currently engaged in rolling away one of the cameras. "How are you doing?"
"Fine, thankyou," said the armadillo. He moved on with a jerking motion, each step accompanied by the scrape of rock on pink rock, and his voice sounded like gravel. "D'you hear? I got a novel offer today!"
"Really? That's great!"
"I'm a dare, y'know," said the armadillo. "Sure plenty of stories will be lining up t'use me. Don't know how, I mean, but I'll know soon enough."
"So does that mean you'll be leaving?" said Tildeworth.
They stepped around one of the electricians, a fire breathing, dragon winged kitten currently engaged in unplugging one of the floor length cabled by batting it about the studio floor.
"Nah," said the armadillo. "Had some good times here, and t'stories might still edit you out. Then where d'you go?"
"You're welcome here," said Tildeworth. "Any time."
It was dark outside, by now, and the sun had left a cool, star-strewn, double-mooned sky in its wake. When Tildeworth exhaled, she let out a trail of mist that vanished into the air. November was on its way.
And she loved November, she really did. As one of the Personifications of NaNoWriMo, November was etched deep into her very self. But on nights like this, sometimes it was the only respite before the next show, the next blog post, the next video. Even a Personification needed a personal life.
She pulled her phone out of her pocket, and tapped the first number to come up. It ran for some time before a voice on the other end said, "Cedilla? That you?"
"Nobody else, Sue!" She hugged her free arm around her body. "Hey listen, I got out early tonight. How about dinner somewhere? Fancy the Warm Onion again?"
"Cedilla, I'd love to. But it just is that…"
"I can't. It's one of those nights."
"Oh." She couldn't hide the disappointment in her voice as she looked at her feet, but she tried, she did try. "Do you… do you need me there?"
"No, I am always…" But she faltered. "You are going to come home anyway?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I think I am. No, I quite believe I know I am. You know I worry about you, don't you?"
"I do," said the voice on the other end. "I know something else, too."
"Oh? What's that?"
"I know that I'm glad you do."
Deep in the wilds of a fantasy novel, begun early in October, an unnamed character was having a very bad night.
He didn't want to complain about it. It wasn't in his nature to complain. At least, he didn't think it was. But he was a farmboy in a quiet town where nothing ever changed, and that was the problem with stories. You got rewritten. Everyone knew it happened - it was part of being a character, after all. So now he was a nameless farmboy in the middle of nowhere, and wasn't going to be the Chosen One, which made it worse. He was turning into a complainer and all he got out of it was being an extra. It was bad enough that people were already giving him trouble over his novel starting early. It wasn't his fault! He was just part of the production, as Farmhand Number Six, or something like it. It hadn't been his idea to start early.
He wished there was someone to complain to.
Worse still, he had the sneaking feeling that he was in a scene.
He could feel the story tugging at him, trying to drag him into the narrative. He'd never been in a novel before, but he'd heard about the stories. If they wanted you, you followed, right?
Maybe he'd get to do something, at least.
He'd strayed far from town, and he was fast learning the first rule of night in a setting without electricity: it was dark. Not the dark of a lamp-lined street, but the real thing, blackness all around, and nothing more than a sky filled with more stars than he'd ever thought existed. His feet were sore from running over fallen branches and stumbling in unseen ditches and hollows.
He held still. Twigs crunched underfoot, but this time it wasn't him.
"Hello?" he said. Maybe it was one of the minions of the Dark Emperor Rawnimoon. Wait, was he supposed to know about the Dark Emperor Rawnimoon, or didn't anyone find out at this point? He wished he'd bothered to read the synopsis earlier. But the story was pulling him. This was what the story was meant to feel like, wasn't it?
There was a man, ahead. Perhaps it was a man. He could see nothing more than a lone, tall figure, shaded against the stars.
"Are you lost?" he said.
The man didn't move. Something behind the unnamed character did.
It didn't make a sound, but as he lay on the forest floor with his consciousness fading into the blackness all around, his last thought was that it felt an awful lot like a shovel.