Winning Nanowrimo the Jack Burton Way

I promise not to blather too much more about National Novel Writing Month before November arrives, but this blog post demanded to be written. Seriously, it came in here and started breaking all my furniture. It couldn’t be negotiated with. My hands were tied, at least until I started typing. Anyway.

Nanowrimo can be a trying, exhausting, crazy time for a writer. Whether you’re just starting out with your first book, or a salty veteran participating for the sheer joy of putting off other work, Nanowrimo is a challenge, and challenges call for inspiration. And who’s more inspiring than Jack Burton, the fearless, hapless, meat-headed protagonist of the John Carpenter’s cult classic Big Trouble in Little China? Well… probably a lot of people. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take heart from some of Jack’s gloriously Eighties dialogue.

“Are you crazy… Is that your problem?”

I love these softball questions. Yes you are, or you wouldn’t be participating. Next.

“Like I told my last wife, I says, ‘Honey, I never drive faster than I can see. Besides that, it’s all in the reflexes.'”

Jack Burton might not drive faster than he can see, but face facts — you might have to. This November, write from the gut. Trust your instincts. Don’t second-guess yourself or get bogged down in detail.

“I’m a reasonable guy. I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.”

When the heady mid-November mix of exhiliration and sheer terror hit, family and friends may come to find you unrecognizable, and eye you warily as you twitch from caffeine jitters and narrative hysteria. Assure them that your wild-eyed stares and frantic muttering are at least slightly unlikely to persist beyond November. At least until National Novel Editing Month, am I right? Haha! Oh God.

“Son of a bitch must pay!”

As hard as you try, your Nano-novel will not write itself. Believe me, I’ve tried it a dozen times. I’d watch the entire run of Supernatural and come back to the computer only to find the blank page still sitting there like an asshole. Son of a bitch must pay, or, more accurately, son of a bitch must sit in the chair and meet quota if son of a bitch doesn’t want to end up crying. Not that I’m calling you a son of a bitch. I’m sure you’re a very nice person.

“I’m gonna tell you about an accident, and I don’t wanna hear ‘act of God,’ okay?”

Accidents are going to happen. Your hard drive crashes, your word processor mangles your chapter into something resembling Atlantean Senzar, you sneeze during an attack of diptheria and when you wake up your gritty paranormal werewolf mystery is now about Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Don’t panic and roll with the gleeful groin-punches Nanowrimo will undoubtedly deliver.

“This is gonna take crackerjack timing, Wang.”

Nanowrimo is all about time. Time to write, time to sleep, time for coffee, time running out. You just have to swagger bravely into the enemy stronghold and find the central junction box. Of your story. Or your soul. Or something. Look, these metaphors seemed like a good idea at the time, okay?

“You can go off and rule the universe from beyond the grave. Or check into a psycho ward, which ever comes first, huh?”

Beware yon hubris, ye mortals, your book cannot be both a touching May-December romance betwixt Haight Street bohemians with leukemia and a sci-fi epic about immortal vampires starting their own fast-food franchise. Or can it? You’ll never know until you try, and November is the one time of the year when you’ll be surrounded by writers who will never judge you, because they’re too busy making their own bad decisions. Make it work for you.

“Well, ya see, I’m not saying that I’ve been everywhere and I’ve done everything, but I do know it’s a pretty amazing planet we live on here, and a man would have to be some kind of FOOL to think we’re alone in THIS universe.”

Just remember that when the earth quakes, and poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake, that you’re not alone. There are other writers all over Twitter, the blogoverse, and the Nanowrimo forums. Together, let the sound of your panicky screams form a soothing chorus of fellowship.

“Feel pretty good. I’m not, uh, I’m not scared at all. I just feel kind of… feel kind of invincible.”

Sooner or later, you’ll hit your stride. Your ending will lumber into view over the far horizon of aching fingers and dying brain cells, and you’ll feel the thrill of knowing that the words THE END are now within your grasp. Embrace it. Flex like the vainest of bodybuilders. Bask in the beatific glow of impending success. Then get over yourself and get back to writing.

And that’s it. Whenever doubt strikes you this November, just keep in mind what Jack Burton always says? (All together now… “Who?” “Jack Burton, me!”) Ol’ Jack always says… “what the hell?”

P.S. If you love (or love to hate) 80s movies, you might also check out my joyful lambasting of Dreamscape. Also, when the Nanowrimo web site finally gets its buddy list act together, feel free to add me.

And this November, shake the pillars of heaven.

Mass Effect: Your Fantasy Novel is Too Long (And What to Do About It)

http://mightygodking.com/index.php/2008/10/20/mgk-versus-his-adolescent-reading-habits/
Image by Mightygodking.

And, right on cue from the previous entry:

I’m in the middle of a fantasy novel at the moment (which shall remain nameless because I’m about to heap a lot of unfair judgment on it), and its leisurely pace is painfully reminding me of a common problem with fantasy novels: too many of them take forever to get anywhere. I’m not talking about raw word count here — a book could be fifteen hundred pages long, as long as things move forward. But too often, they don’t.

For example, I’m two hundred pages into this book, and so far we’ve

  • Introduced the characters
  • Talked a little about the world
  • Some characters have made plans
  • They’ve talked about the plans they’ve made
  • They’ve had a nice dinner in which they talk about the plans some more
  • They reflect on the plans they made and the dinner they had

And that’s really about it. Two hundred pages, and I’m still waiting for something really significant to happen. As Mike Nelson said during MST3K’s send-up of The Undead, “I’ve never known more about what isn’t going on.” I understand that we’re still in the first act and all, but on the other hand, I’ve been reading Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber in parallel, and by a mere ninety pages in, Zelazny has covered:

  • A Coronet Blue-style amnesia subplot (now resolved)
  • A journey to other dimensions with about ten times the world-building of the above book
  • Five different individual battles
  • A half-dozen emerging interpersonal conflicts
  • An epic city siege

Now, Nine Princes in Amber was written in 1970, and the fantasy market has changed dramatically since then. Still, I’m struck by how dramatically these books differ in pace and brevity. I recently abandoned another fantasy novel midway through, because people were just puttering around a castle discussing interesting things that might possibly happen someday. I’m not talking about foreshadowing or even raising the story stakes — more like the prose equivalent of window-shopping at the mall.

Part of this, I’m sure, is just the market at work — readers want a lot of bang for their buck, and fantasy series can be a lot like car dealerships: why sell the reader just one book when you can sell them ten books over ten years? (Or, in George Martin’s case, five books over fifteen years. Zing!) Also, a lot of fantasy writers grew up with Tolkien and Jordan and epic doorstops that went on for thousands of pages, and so reflect that scale and ambition in their own work — which is fine. But for crying out loud, writers, if you’re going to write a 900-page novel, make something happen.

David Mamet’s infamous memo to the writers of the Unit sums up the matter succinctly:

EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.

LOOK AT YOUR LOG LINES. ANY LOGLINE READING “BOB AND SUE DISCUSS…” IS NOT DESCRIBING A DRAMATIC SCENE.

HERE ARE THE DANGER SIGNALS. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER “AS YOU KNOW”, THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

Brutally put, in true Mamet style, but pointed.

My favorite note on scene and structure comes from a writer whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, but goes like this: if two characters enter a scene, one or both of them must leave the scene changed somehow. If you have characters show up, discuss some things, and leave the same way they came in, nothing has happened. All the clever dialogue or vivid environmental detail in the world won’t change that. This is hardly a trade secret; it’s basic structure. And yet I see writers, even published writers, forgetting or neglecting it all the time.

So if your prose has a bunch of limp scenes in which people discuss the plans they’re not carrying out, please do your readers a favor. Wade in there and start cutting.

Writing Like a Noxious Gas

Like a balloon... and something bad happens!

I have a problem with brevity. Some writers struggle with generating enough words. I struggle with not generating too many. Years ago, my friend Craig cracked a joke about Windows memory management “expanding to fill all available space, like a gas.” Sometimes that’s how I feel about my writing, except the “available space” is infinite.

Take, for example, my current novel. It’s in its second draft right now, and is sitting at 160,000 words. That’s not an unreasonable length for a fantasy novel. The length only becomes funny1 when you find out it was originally supposed to be a very straightforward short story. A short story born of a writing prompt, no less. A few months after that, it became a full-length book, and not long after, I realized I’d need three books to tell the story I wanted to tell. Suddenly, Yet Another Fantasy Trilogy is in the making.

This tendency carries over to my tabletop roleplaying hobby as well. It’s become something of a running joke. I’ll start a new campaign with the stern assurance that this will be a picaresque, episodic campaign of narrow scope and reasonable scale. Next thing you know, the protagonists are slaying gods and the world has cracked in half to release a tidal wave of magma. And that’s just the teaser opening.

My editorial process often suffers the same fate. In On Writing, Stephen King talks about how many editors are “taker-outers,” and he’s something of a “putter-inner2“), constantly adding new material to his work. I definitely fall into this latter camp. The scale and scope of my book has grown by an order of magnitude with each revision. It’s like the end of Akira in there.

I sometimes worry that I might be incapable of telling small, personal stories, and that I will fall into some sort of self-parody where I start a short story about a guy who’s pretty bummed about dropping his snow cone and later that year it’s a ten-book cycle encompassing the history of an entire civilization. Ever watch Adaptation, and the sequence where Charlie Kaufman manages to turn a book about flowers into a bloated treatise on evolution? Kind of like that. Or the anecdote about Harlan Ellison pitching a Star Trek plot to Paramount in which the crew of the Enterprise confronted God Himself (this was long before the risible Trek V) and the Paramount exec reportedly shot back with “What? Didn’t I tell you to think really big?”

This tendency toward bloat, coupled with my attitude toward storytelling in general, occasionally leads me into the land of blithe hypocrisy. I’m terribly picky when it comes to stories that don’t go anywhere, TV episodes that are clearly just filler or buying time, and authors who jam-pack a hundred pages’ worth of story into six volumes. One or two scenes in which nothing of note happens is frequently all I need to write off an entire book. I’m a big fan of introducing limitations to writing to encourage creativity. And yet introducing these limitations is a constant struggle and something I have to keep in front of me, lest my writing expand to fill infinite space, like a noxious gas. Writing bloat is like my own personal Hulk.

Still, it clearly worked for Robert Jordan…

1. That’s what she said.
2. That’s what she said.

Five Tools to Organize Your Digital Junk Drawer

Photo by net_efekt.

So today I’m going to talk about writing software. No, not Notepad or, God help us, Microsoft Word. I’m a FocusWriter man when it comes to raw text generation, thank you very much. I’m talking about keeping all those ideas, scraps of dialogue, abandoned outlines, inspirational pictures, and the other assorted objects that pile up in one’s digital writing drawer.

Almost all of the software I’m about to talk about has proven tremendously useful in organizing my writing. Problem is, learning software takes time, and organization can itself become an obstacle to writing — as can looking for shiny new tools to replace the familiar yet no-longer-so-shiny old tool.

Although these aren’t formal reviews as such, I do include a short list of pros and cons for each. I’m a big believer in using the tool that works best for you. So if you like a big folder full of Word files, go! Be that thing! But this is what’s worked for me.

1. Snowflake Pro

Snowflake Pro

Specifically designed for Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method — a method I’m quite fond of, by the way — Snowflake Pro is a very slick tool. Ingermanson was a software engineer, so Snowflake Pro is intuitive, well-documented, and easy to use. I picked it up on a significant discount, and it got me through the last couple years of National Novel Writing Month. The most impressive thing about Snowflake Pro is how it helps assemble a killer proposal — that alone is nearly worth the price tag.

Pros: Intuitive, friendly, well-documented, Randy is a helpful guy who will answer your emails.
Cons: Non-trivial price point, Java-based, doesn’t work perfectly on Linux (unfortunately for yours truly).
Website: Snowflake Pro

2. Liquid Story Binder

Liquid Story Binder

If Snowflake Pro is a finely honed tool for a specific purpose, Liquid Story Binder is a Swiss Army knife that just injected itself with horse steroids. Sleek, attractive, and distressingly flexible, LSB can take on crack-like qualities to writers obsessed with organization. LSB not only has planners, outlining tools, and storyboards, but image galleries and almost endless customization capabilities. For smaller projects, it’s like using a sledgehammer to swat a fly, but if you’re trying to wrangle a ton of content into a single place, LSB is a great tool.

Pros: Flexible, attractive, unparalleled freedom, handles images, sound files, and other media.
Cons: Payware, high learning curve, may harm your productivity in the short run because SHINY.
Website: Black Obelistk Software

3. CeltX

As far as I’m concerned, Celtx is simply the best screenwriting tool out there. It’s very full-featured for a free download, and the payware add-ons bring some very slick functionality to the software (especially the Writer’s Bundle, which is quite nice). I love Celtx for writing scripts, but find it’s not quite as well-suited to prose writing as, say, LSB.

Pros: Free, great screenwriting tool, lots of plugins and support.
Cons: A bit clunky at actual text editing.
Website: CeltX

4. Devonthink

Back when I was a Mac user, I swore by DevonThink. It was my first experience with a powerful organizing tool, and I loved it infinitely. In fact, it was my search for a free and / or Linux-based alternative to DevonThink that led me to most of the tools on this list. I don’t use a Mac anymore, and I bowed out before Scrivener became popular, but I still think it’s a fine piece of software and worth a look if you use Apple products.

Pros: Powerful, intuitive, holds all kinds of media, easy to import / export.
Cons: Payware, Mac-only.
Website: DevonThink

5. Zim

Zim is what I’m writing on right now. A “desktop wiki,” Zim organizes text into a series of files, which can be hyperlinked to one another, indexed and mapped. I like it mostly because it organizes everything into tidy “notebooks,” which I keep on Dropbox for easy and pain-free syncing. (I talk about said pain-free syncing at my gaming blog, but it works for any kind of writing project.)  Zim doesn’t really handle much beyond straight text, but sometimes the simplest tools are the best.

Pros: Fast, free, lightweight, writes everything to plain text files.
Cons: Bare-bones functionality, the occasional minor software bug.
Website: Zim

Honorable Mentions

yWriter and Writer’s Cafe. I used both for awhile, but ultimately abandoned them in favor of one or more of the tools above.

So what about you? Any particular writing tools you swear by?

Website: Snowflake Pro

Guest Post: Why Do You Write? Part One

It was balmy March afternoon in 2008 that I sat down to chat with my good friend and writing support group of one, Dan Swensen. At the time, my main energies were directed towards posting on message boards about writing. I had set aside my habit of daily journaling.  It had been years since I had written a poem, and more than 18 months since I’d even sniffed at a short story. With a tinge of sadness, and a feeling of defeat, I remember typing, “I’m not a writer. I haven’t been for a while now.”

Those words crushed me, as I had stumbled across a fundamentally true thing. A writer writes. They don’t just read books about writing, they don’t just chat about writing, they don’t just make plans about writing. A writer writes something. I wasn’t writing anything.

This epiphany ate at me.  I’d like to say that I went on a writing tear, that my entire attitude toward writing transformed. No. It took a few months. And when I started, I started small. A few poems while I was doing live-in work in Idyllwild. Then, a few articles for a creative magazine.  A few more poems. Another pause. A few more years.

It wasn’t until this January that a question reared its head and demanded my full attention. “Why the hell am I not writing?” The fuller implications of this question were, “why are you letting bad workshop experiences limit your creative output? Why are you letting your old work languish? Why are you not actively shaping your creative life?”

This second epiphany lightened the heaviness of being a failed writer that I had been carrying with me. To be a writer, all you have to do is transform motivation into writing through the alchemy of keyboard, pen, paper.

The key that I had been missing was motivation. The reason I’d been lacking it was because I had a dearth of honesty. I had not answered the very simple question that big mucky-muck writers and writers down in the trenches get asked but few answer in a comprehensive way: “why do you write?”

Why do you write?

This seemingly simple question actually has three components to it (hence the likelihood of getting an abbreviated answer when you ask your other writer friends): “what are your general goals for your writing and/or what do you hope to get from your writing,” “how did you get started writing / why do you continue to write,” and “why do you write a particular project.”

So. Why do you write?

It is vitally important to be honest here.

If your answer is full of fakery and pretensions towards art, fame or money that you don’t actually want–or are able to achieve–there will be a nagging gap between the work you are doing (or procrastinating) and your ultimate goals. The greater share of writers that I have known have been filled with anxiety over their ability to achieve either artfulness in their writing, or the ability to feed themselves with their work. Then I left workshop, and met writers unconcerned with either goal; these writers worked (one, two, three) other jobs, and tried for skillful writing, but didn’t erect A LIVEABLE WAGE or the PROGRESS OF ART as their goalposts. And they were all the more successful (according to their goals) for it.

You are courting disaster if your goals even include a seemingly more modest goal of WRITING A POPULAR NOVEL. Basing your goals on the tastes of audiences is like drying your laundry in an oncoming storm. Some novels are popular; most are not; and even if you write something popular, chances are slim that you could ever name-drop your novel at a party or a twitter feed and get hushed and reverent responses. It is a far easier goal to “write a novel that has wide appeal/large possible audience,” since that goal makes no presumption of popularity–only of its potential to be popular.

Setting goals that you can live with, and that reflect your desires is the key here. Sometimes finding a goal you can get your mind around is as simple as figuring out the proper way to get at your goal.

I write because I want to wrangle the chaotic thoughts in my head and make something meaningful to others from that. I write poetry because, frankly, I have issues with brevity. I like cultivating this habit in myself.

 

So. Why did you start writing?

It’s a common experience for writers to get started early in life, but there are hundreds of path into the craft. Perhaps you started writing because you always wanted to live the glamorous Hollywood life of an out-of-work screenwriter. You needed to find a sense of closure from traumatic events. You were dying to rail against the exponential witlessness of pop-culture commentary. A person’s history layers new motivations onto the original writing impulse, making each person’s reason for writing a story itself (and is possibly the reason why so many first novels out of workshops have protagonists figuring out how/why they want to write as a part of the main plot).

I was good at writing when I was a kid, and it snowballed from there. When I discovered that I lacked the attention span to make novels, I settled on poems–then grew to love their gem-like qualities. My attitude toward writing changed dramatically during college; some of this story can be found in past articles on writing workshops at the university level, some of it opens this article.

I keep a running tab of places where I’ve talked about my writing history, because the story changes each time. Details are dropped or remembered. Different writing influences are foregrounded. Mentors’ advice seems more or less meaningful based on current experience. How you tell this story to yourself affects how you think of yourself as a writer. If you think your story is, “I’m a failed writer who couldn’t make it in workshop,” that is the kind of writer you will be. If you change that story to, “I am a writer who was failed by workshops, and now I need to remedy that,” suddenly the possibilities open. It may seem pedantic to you to talk about writing this way–but I guarantee that if you are not aware of the stories that zip through your mind at laser speed, you will be unaware of how pervasively they affect your entire enterprise of creating.

I cannot overstate how important it is to know thyself, writer.

Sit down with a journal / word processor / blog and make a narrative about your journey with writing, and don’t pull any damn punches. I dedicate a couple page in the back of my journal to evaluating my progress each year, usually after a major turning point in my writing. Major turning points are when I decide to start a new project, finish an old one, shelve a project indefinitely, start a new blog, explore a new genre, find a new writing group.

Keeping abreast of all of your writing activities helps with your honesty. If, like me, you bemoan the lack of writing in your life, then discover that you spend all of your time blogging, commenting, Twittering, guest posting, updating LiveJournal… clearly you are writing. Your issue may  simply be a matter of the type of writing that you are doing.

 

So. Why do you write the particular project that you are currently working on?

If there is one take-away from this post, it should be that specificity and honesty are your most important tools. While it is important to understand your impulse toward writing, it is equally important to understand why you are embarking on your specific project.

In my estimation, the reasons for working on a project boil down to four big categories: “because I can,” “because I want to,” “because I need to,” and “because I have to”.

Because I can. This category roughly covers the reasons that roughly begin with a, “why not?” or “why not me?” XX wrote the great teenage vampire-werewolf romance novel and made cash hand-over-fist, why can’t I do the same? I have a bunch of XX lying around, why don’t I collate it into a publishable book? I wrote an excellent post on XX the other day that got a lot of response from my readers, why don’t I write a book/blog/series of vignettes on that?

The “because I can” category is the weakest of all categories for sustaining a project, because the motivation dries up once the novelty wears off. Once you decide to write that novel in Reno just to watch it die, it’s important to keep the drive alive by making provisions for it in one of the other categories. That is to say, once you’ve decided on a a project (a novel, a collection, a screed) just because it’s something you can do–you need to own the project. You need to become invested in it by igniting a genuine desire to see the project through. This can often be achieved during the falling-in-love brainstorming stage, where adding more detail or researching new facets of the project bring you new sense of pleasure at your choice of project.

If the project fails to captivate you on a basic level, you should move on. A project that fails to interest you at its outset, and continues to fail to interest you as you get deeper into planning it, won’t bring you closer to any of your writing goals (unless being bored with your art/craft is one of your goals!). Readers can sniff out a writer doing it without passion (although faked passion will do in a pinch, if you have a knack for that). For writers who have gone through higher education, writing without passion is one of those habits that we have picked up, like tics in an open grassy field, and you seriously need to divest yourself of notion that a project will magically become interesting to you on page 200 if it isn’t already interesting to you by page 20.

If you insist on pursuing a project where the motivation never materializes, you need to impose deadlines on yourself as though the project were any other must-do task. I suggest treating the project like one of a client-designer relationship: set hard dates for various parts of the project, try various permutations of your subject/theme/project out until you settle on something you can live with, and make sure there is a critical eye on the other end that can evaluate your total work.

Because I want to. This category is probably the most familiar to us as writers. I write because, hell, I like the feeling of sitting down to a blank page and defacing it with words. I actively pursue that feeling by creating projects that will allow me to write, scribble, doodle to my heart’s content.

But “because I want to” is much broader category than simply wanting to write. It also includes wanting to say something, do something, or demonstrate something. And it is the category that writers, flush with the giddiness of having put something on the page, often have no clue about. Especially because, much of the time, a writer has no clue what she/he has written until someone gives feedback on the project.

Two examples will illustrate my abstract ramblings. Swensen and I have both suffered from this set-back. A couple of years ago, I was editing a fantasy piece for Dan that was eventually going to become a large world-building novel about a group of soldiers who were deep in a guerrilla war with another race. When I asked him why he had stalled, he mumbled something about having an issue with what his story was trying to say. He wanted to work on a project that expressed something beyond, “this was a cool story about soldiers. Badass.”

I was stumped by Dan’s trouble. It was pretty clear to me that he was writing a fantasy novel that was borrowing literary tropes from war novels to make a more realistic, less high-fantasy-feeling setting that ultimately decried the war and violence that other fantasy novels glamorize (or at least make highly desirable).  When I told him this–he was equally stumped. He didn’t think he was writing that at all. These newly uncovered themes rose up dauntingly on the page. Did he want to write a novel with such weighty concerns, especially since the indelicate handling of topics about soldiering and warfare could bring criticism from a pool of readers he never even considered (the war novel aficionados)? Could he possibly do justice to these tropes, which were admittedly far outside of his areas of interest?

While I felt Dan’s anxieties were unfounded, they arose because he genuinely did not know what he wanted out of his writing. The project was eventually sideburnered in favor of his current project, now in its second draft. Dan figured out what he wanted to do/say with this new project, and felt the scope of the project was manageable to him. Ultimately this novel succeeded where a more ambitious (and less desired) project did not.

My problem was a bit different from Dan’s. I didn’t have the motivation to even attempt a book, even though I was sitting on a cache of poems that were begging to be edited. I had been discouraged by writing workshops, where I had been repeatedly shown the door and told to try a different genre. My writing didn’t fit anywhere. I became convinced it, therefore, fit nowhere. I stopped pursuing poetry because I convinced myself to stop wanting that.

In the end, the anger of deferring to authority sat up and demanded to know why I convinced myself not to want this. I wanted to be a published poet. I could taste the desire (it was a bit tangy). Once ignited, that want-to impulse sustained me through a self-imposed deadline of three months from inception to completion; writing, editing, and manuscript design on the back of grad school, teaching, and deteriorating health. The want-to was born from the desire to show the amalgamation of every polite workshop rebuff that I wasn’t the nothing voice. The work amounted to about 2 hours of writing, editing, and design on the project per day. The magic simply was that I would sit down at my keyboard and get something done even on days where I was tired to the bone.

I know that many writers have buttons that activate see-this-through-anything mode. If you are honest about who you are and what you want (and take the time to reflect on these questions to find these things out), it is possible to find the fire/drive to see projects through. The tricky part comes when you need to yoke that fire to a project that might otherwise seem marginal to you.

While Dan has said that being alone while you write is one of the most fundamental truths of writing; to me, the most fundamental truth is that you must learn the alchemical transformation to generate motivation even when you are staring down into the source-water of your anxieties, goals, and desires.

That does it for part one. In part two, I’ll tackle the remaining “Because you need to” and “Because you have to” reasons, and tie everything up with some peppy words about motivation and deadlines.

13 Ugly Truths About Nanowrimo

According to the National Novel Writing Month website, I’ve been participating for eight years. No one’s more alarmed about that than I am. That’s a minimum of 400,000 words, which is at least two-thirds of your average Robert Jordan novel. Countless hours. Millions of keystrokes. Untold cups of coffee. I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things in those eight years. (I’m not saying I have, necessarily, I’m just saying I’d like to think so). But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that Nanowrimo is not without its pitfalls.

1. You’re going to piss someone off.

The spirit of Nanowrimo is one of friendship, mutual support, and unalloyed enthusiasm about writing that novel. It would be nice if family and friends always felt the same way, but they won’t. Writing takes up a lot of time, and Nanowrimo even more so, because of the high word count and short deadline. Chances are, people are going to want to spend time with you, and will be tempting you with trivial concerns like socializing, eating, or expressing affection for your loved ones. Things can get especially problematic when the people close to you try to be “supportive” by lovingly telling you you’re wasting your time.

Not everybody is going to be happy with the time you’re giving Nanowrimo this November. Not everyone is going to believe in you. Not everyone is going to care about your novel. All you can do — in fact, what you must do — is shrug it off and soldier on.

2. Much as you might want to, you can’t completely ignore life.

What would an insightful point be without another that immediately contradicts it, right? While you have to let the unhappiness and disapproval of others bounce off like a cat hitting a beach ball, you also can’t turtle up entirely. Regretfully, you’ll still have to go to work, feed your pets, pay the phone bill, and shower. Seriously, shower. That unwashed writer cachet only works on film and television because you can’t smell film or television. Some things just can’t be ignored.

All passions, and especially writing, require a balance, and Nanowrimo is great at throwing that balance out of whack. You’re going to need to cut vast swaths of time out for writing if you’re going to make it — but you can’t, and shouldn’t, cut everything.

3. You’ll want to throw it all away.

You’ve just finished writing a twenty-page chase scene in which Flash Gordon, Spike from Buffy and Jack Burton drive the Pork Chop Express into the Grand Canyon in order to escape from the UFO piloted by the mirror universe killer android double of Thomas Edison and the Force ghost of Andy Kaufman. And that’s when you realize you’ve written the worst chick-lit teen romance novel of all time.

Sometimes, even if you carefully plan ahead, things will fly off the rails. If you don’t plan, they’re almost sure to. Something is probably going to crawl out of your novel, tie the rails in knots, cover them in C4, and thumb the detonator. More than once, you’ll find yourself wanting to chuck the last five, ten, fifty, or a hundred pages and start over.

Don’t do it.

Plow ahead. See where your latest gonzo plot development takes you. Better yet, see if you can wrestle that unexpected plot development back on track. Make a challenge out of it. At the very least, sit down and really think about whether your work can’t be salvaged. Tossing out big chunks of text is one of the easiest ways to get demoralized.

4. November really is a terrible month for this.

Oh, November, you so crazy. Thanksgiving. The day after Thanksgiving. In-laws showing up and lingering around like a herpes flare-up. November is a month full of distractions, obligations, and easy excuses for giving up on Nanowrimo. But here’s the thing: so are the other twelve months of the year. After all, after Thanksgiving comes Christmas, and then New Year’s, and then you’ve got spring cleaning, and who wants to sit cooped up all summer hunched over a laptop, and suddenly, oops, it’s November again.

Writers love to wait for that moment when they’ve just slept for ten hours, the kids are at the neighbor’s house, the boss just gave them the week off, the world’s most delicious cup of coffee magically brewed itself, the Internet stopped working, and the Muse has descended from on high to whale them in the back of the skull with the wiffle-ball-bat of inspiration. If you’re lucky, a day like that comes about once a year. You can’t count on it. Writing through inconvenience is something you have to learn to do, and November’s as good a time as any.

5. Something will go wrong technically.

I used to be a system administrator at a university, and there was one teacher who was constantly plagued by technical issues: hard drive failures, CD-ROMs that would stop working, backup devices that would stop working, monitors that would stop working… I think you get the drift. She would joke about “gremlins” and being “cursed,” and we would all have a good laugh because gremlins don’t exist, haha! But by the end, it got so bad that I wasn’t so sure anymore.

Whether it be gremlins or good old reliable Murphy’s Law, Nanowrimo is a great opportunity for either to strike. Take precautions. Back up early and often. Use Dropox or email yourself a copy of your novel regularly. Don’t assume that your creaky old laptop will hang on until you’ve written THE END on the final page. You think throwing out a thousand words is demoralizing? Try losing forty thousand. Plan for disaster and hope it passes you by.

6. Something will go wrong non-technically.

This is related to the first two points, but really bears mentioning again. There’s every possibility that you might get deathly ill from Aunt Bethany’s Raw Duck Surprise or the germs off the liquid soap dispenser that claims to be antibacterial but clearly someone lied. Your car will die. Your closest friend will have a public meltdown at Burger King and need to be bailed out at four in the morning. The bank will add a minus sign to the front of your bank balance for a hilarious holiday-season sally. Something always happens, is what I’m saying.

When it seems like life is piling obstacles in front of your Nano-novel like it’s the star in a Steven Spielberg action blockbuster, just put your head down and get through it. Think of the bragging rights you’ll earn. Put the not-actually-hilarious events of your life into the book and make them actually hilarious. Make adversity work for you — or just grit your teeth. Either way, don’t let it stop you.

7. Someone’s always doing better.

There’s one every year — some clown on the forums who apparently just sits down, starts flapping at the keyboard like a chimp on horse steroids, and earns that 50K purple bar in an afternoon. “Ah, done at last!” they’ll post on the forums, all disingenuous relief and manufactured naivete. “That took forever! I thought there was no way I’d hit 150K words before brunch.” Pay no attention to these reprobates. First of all, they’re probably lying. Or, if they aren’t, their novel is even more unreadable than is usual for a product of Nanowrimo. Or maybe they really are some kind of unholy writing android named Picasso Prosaico Prolificus and they really did knock off a work of genius like it was an especially productive bowel movement.

Whatever. You’re not them, and the last thing you need is a heaping side dish of seething resentment to go with your buffet of word-count anxiety and your dessert of crushing-fatigue soufflé. Just keep working at your own pace and try to be gracious enough to congratulate those stupid jerks on their dumb stupid accomplishment. You know, like the Golden Rule says.

8. Someone’s always doing worse.

Check the Nanowrimo forums, and every year you’ll see some poor sap who seems to be writing from a condemned coldwater flat located directly beneath Satan’s butthole. His wife just divorced him, the heat got turned off, the dog ran away and only pieces of it came back, he tripped on his laptop cord and shattered his tibia, even as said laptop flew out the window and caved in the hood of the landlord’s brand-new Lexus. And if that weren’t bad enough, he’s 32,000 words behind with two days to go, and his protagonist was just vaporized in a hospital accident and he doesn’t remember how or why because he was on a lot of pain pills at the time, which he just ran out of, incidentally.

I know, you might be thinking, why do you care? Buck up, little camper, put some duct tape on that tibia, put those frostbitten fingers back on your keyboard, and get back to work. Well, it’s not quite as funny when it’s someone you know. I mean, let’s hope not. But writing buddies occasionally fall hard and need some support. It might even be some stranger on the Nano forums or on Twitter whom a fun-loving God has just swatted across the groin with the mishap stick. These moments can range from the merely amusing, to the inconvenient, to the emotionally exhausting. Do what you have to do to support your fellow Wrimo, but don’t let it become an excuse to give up.

9. You’ll start craving that purple bar.

One thing about Nanowrimo is that the little blue word-count bar will slowly creep into the center of your life and stay there, mocking you with merry japes every time you try to turn your bedraggled attention elsewhere. You’ll become obsessed with it. You seek out new and more complex widgets to post on Livejournal, or Twitter, or your blog, or the forums, or the project management software at work so everyone can see how badass you are. You’ll write a paragraph, and check your word count. You’ll write a word, and check your word count. You’ll do nothing and check it anyway, just because you might have read it wrong.

Checking your own progress toward that mythical purple bar can overshadow other goals if you let it. Don’t let it. Keep writing, resist the urge to update, and put your story first. Many are the Wrimos who hit 50K and ended their novel with “and then he was shot by the cops and died such is the price of hubris and the wages of fear OKAY THE END” and figured that was enough. Do this and the poor jokers you’ve suckered into reading your draft are going to want to beat you with a belt until you look like one of the California Raisins.

10. Word counts are not to be trusted.

I’ll be succinct. Word counts are goddamned liars. Microsoft Word will tell you one thing, OpenOffice another, Notepad something else still, and the Nanowrimo word count validator will renounce them all like Saint Peter selling out Jesus. Don’t be a chump and stop at 50K just because Clippy says you’re done. Finish the story properly. Add a denouement. Pad the thing out if you have to, because the last thing you want is to have a character recite the Declaration of Indepence for a finale because it’s ten minutes to midnight and Nanowrimo says you’re sitting pretty at 48,104. Which brings us to our next point:

11. The Nanowrimo web site will probably fail you when you need it most.

Anyone who’s ever done Nanowrimo will tell you that from the 1st to the 5th of November, and the 27th through the 30th, the two hamsters that power the Nanowrimo site will start getting tired, and it will stop functioning. Much of the time, this is a boon, as it keeps you from downloading wallpapers or browsing for overpriced coffee cups or whatever super-vital thing you’re doing that isn’t writing. However, more than one Wrimo has tried to validate their word count at the very last minute, only to find out a bunch of other people are doing the same thing, and instead of a pretty placard and a congratulatory message, their reward is a blank browser page and the sound of their own screams. Do your blood pressure a favor and finish as early as you can.

12. The Internet will eat your life.

This particular truth is not endemic to Nanowrimo, but to writing in general; at some point, it will become clear to you that you cannot in good conscience write another word without firing up Wikipedia and learning all about torture methods in Turkish prisons, or the synopses of every episode of “Super Train,” or how harshly libel laws are actually enforced in your country of origin. I’m not saying that research isn’t necessary for a successful novel. Quite the opposite. But I will suggest to you that when you’re three days behind quota and fighting off a panic attack about it, now might not be the time.

The same goes for social media and blogging. What information-age writer born with the procrastinatory gene hasn’t killed an afternoon on Twitter? I know I sure have. I’m doing it right now. But you have to wrangle that behavior into line if you’re going to finish on time. And don’t give me any of that bullroar about how you’re Twittering your novel and by OMG bizarre coincidence it features characters named @neilhimself and @ChuckWendig. I’m afraid it’s been done, Major Gimmick.

13. A Damp, Drizzly November in Your Soul

This is probably the ugliest truth to face when it comes to Nanowrimo, and when it happens to you, there isn’t anything funny about it. There will probably be moments when you’re exhausted, you’re frustrated, and it seems like there’s no one there who believes in you. You’ll wonder why you’re bothering. You’ll briefly entertain dramatic notions of Never Writing Again. And sometimes all the forlorn forum posts, despairing tweets, or maudlin blog entries in the world won’t make you feel better — even if you get a pep talk from fellow Wrimos past or present.

Nanowrimo can be a real blast, a useful experience, and a great utility for pumping out a first draft. But it’s very easy to take it too seriously and let the images of the purple bar, the winning trophy, and the approving faces of your friends coalesce into a harrowing vision of guilt and shame. When this happens, just sit back and remember, it’s just Nanowrimo. Winning is great, but it literally only means as much as you let it. Bailing out doesn’t make you a failure, or a bad writer, or a lazy no-good mutant. Sometimes, goals are just beyond our grasp for the moment.

But if you can, take the knowledge that you can walk away from Nano, consequence-free, and use it to rekindle your love of the game. You’re not here because you have to be. You’re here because you want to be. Because you love the exhilarating, exhausting, fun-as-hell rocket ride of Nanowrimo.

Then finish your book. Good luck.

7 Things I Learned from National Novel Writing Month

November is only a month away, and that means another National Novel Writing Month. For anyone who might not be familiar, Nanowrimo is a yearly online event where amateur and professional writers try to bang out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, in between carping on the Nanowrimo forums about how they shouldn’t have taken on the unreasonable task of banging out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. The point of the exercise is to free yourself from the constraints of your “inner editor” and embracing the joys of the berserk and uneven first draft. A lot of beginning authors struggle with trying to be perfect the first time. Nanowrimo combats that with a big word count requirement, an inconvenient deadline, and hordes of other poor saps doing the same thing.

I’ve been participating in Nanowrimo since 2004, and have had a love / hate relationship with it since day one. I briefly earned my bragging rights in 2007 when I landed an interview with Nano for writing 10,000 words in a day, and even got a photo of my smug self on the front page. In the years since then, the “10,000 word day” has become dirt-common, and now people are on to writing 20,000 words in a day while dressed in a chicken suit typing on an Apple II in the middle of Times Square at midnight. On mushrooms. The bar for getting noticed on Nanowrimo has risen somewhat.

Since I’ve been at it for long enough that I consider myself a salty old Nanowrimo veteran, I now have my process down to a science:

  1. Swear that this year I won’t be doing Nanowrimo this year because I have no use for it
  2. Do it anyway
  3. When my friends ask me why I’m doing it again, swear devoutly this will be the last time
  4. Quote Godfather III (“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”), goto 1

The truth is, I participate every year because it’s a lot of fun. There’s something exhilirating about a deadline that doesn’t involve paying the rent or a pissed-off client. It’s nice to shrug off responsibility and just write like a maniac for a few weeks. But beyond the heady rush of plowing through a dreadful first-draft novella in a month, there are actually a few valuable lessons to be learned from Nanowrimo.

1. This is your big chance not to care.

One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Seth Godin: “don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.” A lot of writers I know will do anything they can to keep from actually finishing a project. They write a paragraph, then go back and edit. They write a sentence, then go back and edit. They write one word and down Jagermeister until they wake up in a dumpster not knowing their name. They agonize over insignificant plot points. I know one damned soul who’s been typing his character names into Google for the last ten years, making sure that his super-original names aren’t duplicated anywhere on the internet. It’s appallingly easy to dwell in this hapless creative purgatory forever, slouching toward perfection and never getting any closer.

Nanowrimo can help you Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Writing Crap. If you’re going to make the deadline, you won’t have time to fart around. This is your chance to pump yourself up with a do-or-die attitude and learn just how useless a first draft really is.

Granted, this isn’t exactly a spectacular lesson, since it amounts to “I learned from Nanowrimo the basic premise of Nanowrimo,” but still, it bears mentioning. Moving on.

2. Good novels need planning. This is no time to plan.

This is a bit of a sweeping generalization, so I’ll amend it to say that my novels need planning. Some people, apparently, can just bang out a draft that has a strong opening, a clear plot, a taut second act, and a finale that brings together every element into a satisfying payoff. In six years, I’ve never come within spitting distance of doing that, and I suspect these people are some kind of genetic supermen, or possibly reptoids from the planet Smartron V.

Quality takes time, preparation, and hard work. Nanowrimo is more about gleefully building a mountain of chaff and separating the wheat out later on.

3. You’re capable of great things.

One of the big roadblocks so many writers run into is the lack of time. Jobs, kids, social lives, dentist appointments, fatigue, and let’s face it, Top Gear is hardly going to watch itself. Nanowrimo is an opportunity to put aside as many responsibilities as you can, stay up too late, drink too much coffee, and write more than you’ve ever written before. Write dialogue that makes you laugh out loud! Close nagging plot holes at two in the morning by the sallow light of your Macbook! Brag on your word count like it means something! Out of nowhere, add zombies to your novel in the second act, just because you can! Ignore the bleating taunts of your unsupportive peers and family members! Take on something unreasonable and impulsive and by God, finish it. Feel good? Yeah, you know it does.

4. Excuses are eternal.

Every year I participate in Nanowrimo, I see a lot of people give up, both strangers on the forums and people I know personally. The number one excuse is always the same: November is too busy. It’s the holidays. Thanksgiving is coming up. Family is visiting. I’ve got this killer hangnail.

I’m not saying that people don’t have time obligations, or that the holidays aren’t frantic. Our lives are busy. I get that. But here’s something I’ve seen probably a dozen times: the guy or gal who complains about how inconvenient November in particular is, and announces their intention to write their one-month novel in January. Or May, or June, or whenever. Then, by the time Mythical January finally rolls around, they’ve forgotten all about it. “I want to do this, but November is too busy” has become code for “I never really intended to start in the first place.”

Waiting for the perfect time to write — some magical time of the year when you don’t have a job, a life, and other things to do — will just leave you waiting forever. If you’re going to commit to writing, then why not make a commitment at the worst possible time? Think of how easy the rest of the year will seem by comparison.

5. You’re still on your own.

This is the tough one. One of the big selling points of Nanowrimo is that you’ll be working alongside thousands of other people, all struggling along to make their Great American Writing Dream come true. While this sounds appealing in theory, in reality Nanowrimo is highly unlikely to abrogate the built-in loneliness of the writing process.

For example: a couple of years ago, I announced my intention to give Livejournal another shot, and asked some of my aspiring writer friends to participate with me. Four agreed to participate. Of those, three signed up. Of those, zero updated their word count. Although one announced he was waiting until January and wrote his book then — oh wait, no he didn’t.

I say this without rancor, because it’s extremely common. You have to be in this for yourself. You can get a little support from the forums and the ambient feeling of community that comes with knowing other people are struggling along with you — but it’s a largely useless feeling, like the vague nausea that informs you not to buy sushi off the deli counter at the supermarket. You’re still going to be by yourself, plugging away at the words on the page, frustrated and isolated and wrestling with doubt, because that’s what writing is. Nanowrimo is no antidote, and reaching out to your buddies may end up just another source of frustration.

That said, I’ve been very fortunate to have supportive people cheering me on during Nanowrimo — but those people generally weren’t writers, and they sure as hell weren’t Nano participants. The people who said they’d participate and then didn’t basically vanished for the duration. Because that’s what you do. Tilt your ear to listen for your “writing buddies” and there is only the howling wind of guilt, shame, and sixty hours of Rock Band 3.

So, just don’t worry about it. You’re on your own, and that’s okay, because that’s the way it’s got to be.

6. Your novel might be finished, but you’re not.

A few years back, while I was browsing the Nano forums and basking in the sublime, worthless glow of my own purple bar (the icon you get when you cross 50K), I saw one author breathlessly anticipating the dump trucks of cash they’d now be raking in from their finished first draft. This demigod of writing had banged out a whopping 150,000 words in a month. Look upon his works, ye mighty, and despair! Only when you actually looked upon his works, ye mighty, it was twenty-six chapters of people eating dinner, with agonizing paragraphs devoted to every meager forkful. No one responded to his post, either because no one had the heart to tell the poor clod how publishing really works on planet Earth, or they just assumed it was sarcasm.

Don’t get me wrong. Successfully thrashing out a novella in thirty days is awesome, and can be a lot of fun. But it isn’t an end. It’s a beginning. If you think your first draft is worthy of publication, there are two primary possibilities at work: you’re some kind of Martian super-genius, or you’re living in deep denial. Most likely, you have a lot of editing ahead, in which you will learn just how frustrating and useless a first draft can really be.

But that’s a December problem, really. Nanowrimo is all about running across a sun-dappled dewy meadow into the loving arms of your crapulent first pass. Enjoy it. Burn in the fire of your love. You’ll be filing for trial separation soon enough.

7. Nanowrimo is only useful for so long.

This is another broad generalization, so again, I will just append “for me.” Some writers might participate in Nanowrimo every year and learn something new and amazing every time. I’m not one of those people. For me, the primary lesson of Nanowrimo — that you can, in fact, finish a draft — holds value the first time. After that, it’s redundant. That’s not to say that Nanowrimo still isn’t fun — it can be a complete blast. But it really is only the first step on the terrifying, winding stair that leads up to actually finishing a book.

Some people will tell you that Nanowrimo isn’t even useful the first time, and that you not only needn’t bother, but shouldn’t. Laura Miller got lots of pageviews around this time last year by declaring that the world doesn’t need more novels or novelists. I’d argue that the world doesn’t need more trollish pop-culture pundits, either, and yet they keep showing up. But screeds like Miller’s actually do serve a valuable purpose: this is exactly the sort of dismissive attitude you have to learn to shrug off.

So if you are doing Nanowrimo this year, I wish you the best of luck. Go nuts. Write crap. Have a good time. We can even be writing buddies if you like. Just don’t talk to me about January.

Half-Witted, Stuck-Up, Scruffy-Looking Book Hoarder

TwistAPlotSome people’s reading histories have formidable pedigrees. For example, I have a close friend whose favorite book of all time is Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Another speaks highly of Stephen Jay Gould. Dig through my literary history, and you’ll find nuggets of Melville and Dostoevsky buried under broad strata of Dragonlance.

My earliest reading memories from grade school are dominated by Big Little Books, a squalid literary form rightfully lampooned by James Lileks as a “joyless synthesis” of books and comics. I owned both the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four titles in the Big Little Book series, and re-read both many times. Humorously, the Spider-Man edition I owned had a printing error in which two chapters of the book repeated themselves verbatim, which my young self took as some kind of intentional time-warp that I accepted as canon.

After that came the seminal Choose Your Own Adventure books, and their ill-fated and disreputable cousins, TwistAPlot. Golden Sword of Dragonwalk was my favorite, even though its narrative payoff in both swords and dragons turned out to be woefully lacking. My second favorite was Time Raider, which I only recently learned was written by the God Emperor of Goosebumps himself, R.L. Stine. Time Raider’s central conceit, as I recall, was a time machine that had a lever that read PAST and FUTURE and buttons with increments of tens, hundreds or thousands of years in either direction. Talk about user friendly. I distinctly remember writing the page numbers of these time increments on the back cover, so I could relive the thrill of the same brief story arcs over and over again. Like a lot of kids, I had a really high tolerance for reptition.

As adolescence approached, my reading tastes emerged into the ghetto of movie novelizations, leavened with the occasional sci-fi classic like Dune or the Foundation trilogy. I’d love to tell you that I’ve read Lord of the Rings a dozen times, but I haven’t. Mostly, I read the parts about Gollum and skimmed the vast swaths of history and geographical detail until finally getting serious about it circa 2002. On the other hand, I probably read Dragonlance Legends a dozen times in my eighth-grade year alone (a series I abandoned without remorse when Raistlin Majere’s kid came galumphing along like a spell-slinging Cousin Oliver). But I probably read the novelization to Terminator more than either of those works, because the author went into fetishistic detail about the guns involved and there was an amazing scene where Reese shared a slice of stolen pizza with a stray dog. Oh my god, you guys.

In my defense, there was a reason I read so many movie novelizations. I grew up in a time when cable was mostly a wasteland of crappy B-movies, punctuated with the occasional major motion picture. I once saw a stand-up comic joke about cable in the early Eighties being “Krull and Beastmaster five hundred times apiece,” but that’s not actually a joke. That’s how it really was. My parents didn’t own a VCR until probably 1993, and as a lazy kid with a small allowance and an undying thirst for Star Wars figures, I didn’t have the disposable income to see a lot of movies in the theater. So, to relive my favorite cinema experiences over and over again, I re-read the Star Wars novels like a junkie, little suspecting that there would come a time when there would be such an unholy glut of Star Wars in the popular culture that I’d lose interest in absorbing it. But I digress. The point is, my dog-eared, much-abused copy of the Star Wars novelization, ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster, was probably my favorite book in the world for several years following 1977.

High school brought an obsession with the blue-collar horror sensibilities of Stephen King, still the most influential author in my personal lexicon. I used to lug the unwieldy hardback of It to class with me and read it during study hall, to the revulsion of my classmates, who couldn’t believe I would read such a gargantuan doorstop on purpose. (This brings to mind an anecdote from a close friend who, while sitting in a small-town diner reading a paperback, was approached by some patrons whom she thought asked “what are you reading?” What they’d actually asked was “what are you reading for?” Good times.) People often seem surprised when I tell them I nearly flunked out of high school. It wasn’t because I wasn’t bright enough; I was just far more interested in the antics of Pennywise the Clown than my actual studies. This persisted well into college, where I picked up The Brothers Karamazov and Moby Dick on top of the books I was already reading for my classes; at that point, even my professors treated me as if I’d lost my mind.

Still, despite years of relatively voracious reading, I have huge gaps in what are generally considered the genre classics. I never got any further into Herbert’s work than Children of Dune, for example, nor have I ever finished Asimov’s Robot series. I could rarely do more than skim Arthur C. Clarke’s work, as hard sci-fi makes my eyes glaze over almost instantly. I’ve read exactly one Heinlein novel in its entirety (Stranger in a Strange Land), and didn’t get much out of it beyond a B+ book report. Even though I speak very highly of Ray Bradbury’s work on the craft of writing, I’ve never successfully made it through the Martian Chronicles (although I did watch the TV miniseries, and I’m genuinely sorry about that).

I never cared for Narnia. I couldn’t stomach Harry Potter. I recently gave up on George Martin’s magnum opus because I realized that after five books in fifteen years, I just don’t care anymore. (Having the outrageous cheek to criticize Martin probably deserves its own blog post at some point.) I’ve never read the original Grimm’s fairy tales. I have, however, read the Sword of Shannara series. Probably two or three times. I liked the original Hitchhiker’s Guide, but found the third volume in the series kind of flat and pointless. And so on. My favorite authors tend to be slightly more out of the way: James Morrow, A.A. Attanasio, Glen Cook, Matthew Stover, Robert Sheckley, Robert Anton Wilson (whom I recently found out a lot of nerds seem to despise, which I find dismaying).

Splinter of the Mind's EyeSure, these are just my personal tastes, but sometimes they feel like a thousand tiny heresies eroding whatever eventual credibility I might have as a writer, or even a reader. A lot of my favorite authors tend to be obscure, but it’s not even dime-store hipster snobbery at work; I genuinely wish those guys were immensely popular, and it bothers me that they’re not. Having obscure tastes is more irritating than anything. Who likes blathering about their favorite book and getting a blank stare in return? And where do I get off criticizing Douglas Adams, anyway?

So the lesson here is probably that when it comes to matters of sci-fi and fantasy, my opinion is probably not to be trusted. Still, I’m trying. I’m currently plowing my way through Steven Erikson’s Malazan series, for example, and have picked up Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and Iain Bank’s Culture series and Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, in the hopes of getting on board with the current genre darlings. I’m not sure that will lead to productive conversations with my book-reading friends at the end, but at least I’ll be able to recommend something that’s in print.

Speaking of which, I wonder if I still have my copy of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye somewhere…

So tell me, reader. What are your genre gaps? Any trashy series that you unabashedly love? Any classics you unreservedly hate? I’d like to know.

Zen in the Art of Bradbury, Or, Buck Rogers Needs Blood to Survive

Whenever someone brings up the subject of Westerns (which is pretty much never), I tell them that my favorite three Westerns are Tombstone, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Unforgiven. I love them not only for their inherent awesomeness, but because collectively, they cover all the Western narrative bases. Where Tombstone is a straightforward, rollicking adventure, Unforgiven offers a bleak, raw deconstruction of our assumptions about the traditional Western hero. I find Josey Wales occupies a nice space in between, rounding out the trinity with a balance of grit, verve, and snappy quotes about rock candy.

I have a similar trio of books on writing. My bookshelf fairly groans with books about writing. I love reading about craft. I love reading about how other writers work; their inspiration, their frustration, their process. Of all of these, three stand out as my personal trinity of essential works: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, for its dry and unsympathetic mechanical advice; Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, for its mix of practical craft advice and fond sentiment; and Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, for its infectious and totally unselfconscious passion.

Most writers, I suspect, have a handful of quotes or passages that sum up how they feel about their writing — something that inspires or haunts, possibly even mocks from time to time, like that obnoxious voice that wakes you up in the middle of the night after you’ve just killed twelve hours with a Two and a Half Men marathon and asks, hey, how that novel’s coming?

I have a heap of such passages, hoarded away in my consciousness like stacks of old newspapers in a shut-in’s hovel, but Bradbury’s words tend to haunt me like no other. His book opens with what I consider one of the most concise and cutting essays on a writer’s self-doubt ever written:

Sometimes I am stunned at my capacity as a nine-year-old, to understand my entrapment and escape it. How is it that the boy I was in October, 1929, could, because of the criticism of his fourth-grade schoolmates, tear up his Buck Rogers comic strips and a month later judge all of his friends idiots and rush back to collecting?

Where did that judgment and strength come from? What sort of process did I experience to enable me to say: I am as good as dead. Who is killing me? What do I suffer from? What’s the cure?…

Part of the answer, of course, is in the fact that I was so madly in love with Buck Rogers. I could not see my love, my hero, my life, destroyed… It was like having your best all-round greatest-loving-buddy, pal, center-of-life drown or get shotgun killed. Friends, so killed, cannot be saved from funerals. Buck Rogers, I realized, might know a second life, if I gave it to him. So I breathed in his mouth and lo! he sat up and talked and said, what?

Yell. Jump. Play. Outrun those sons of bitches. They’ll never live the way you live. Go do it.

Bradbury is talking about writing, of course, as much as he is Buck Rogers. Few writers make it through life without a generous helping of friends and family who are ready to inform them that they’re wasting their time. That no one reads, that writing doesn’t pay, that writing isn’t an honest trade or even a respectable hobby. If you’re really lucky, they might smugly quote Ghostbusters at you: “Print is dead.” Surely no one can argue with Egon, the fictional mad genius who once tried to drill a hole in his head, which would have worked if no one had stopped him.

Like Bradbury, we must judge these people idiots if we are to survive — or, to be a bit more charitable, acknowledge that they might mean well, but that their well-intentioned advice must be ruthlessly discarded as the insidious toxin it is. People can be smart, brilliant, and loving, and still give you advice that will lead you down a miserable path. To Bradbury, this was literally a matter of life and death, summed up succinctly in a single, unrelenting maxim: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you… not to write, for many of us, is to die. “

There are many days when I envy Bradbury, not for his talent or his success, but for figuring this out so early in his life. Simply put, my own personal Buck Rogers lay dead for a long time; a withered corpse who would wheeze to brief life a few times a year, only to be felled by the first unkind word or gnawing self-doubt that floated my way. It took decades to gather the mojo necessary to rouse him back to vibrant life and keep him there. Some days he still teeters, like a marionette whose strings are half-cut, and I have to nurture him back to health with some quality time at the keyboard.

And that’s the thing, of course: Buck Rogers can’t make it on his own. Neglected too long, he’ll just wither away again, a harrowed revenant wandering the bleak hills until he drops dead unloved on some blasted Lovecraftian heath. When it comes to our creative selves, love is not enough. We have to keep them fed. Buck Rogers needs blood to survive.

Which brings me to the other Bradbury quote I like to keep close to my heart. It’s a short quote about the necessity of writing, frequently and regularly. Like so ideas in Zen in the Art of Writing, Bradbury frames it in a breathless imperative:

I have learned, on my journeys, that if I let a day go by without writing, I grow uneasy. Two days and I am in tremor. Three and I suspect lunacy. Four and I might as well be a hog, suffering the flux in a wallow. An hour’s writing is tonic. I’m on my feet, running in circles, and yelling for a clean pair of spats.

While I’m familiar with the delirium Bradbury describes here, I’ve become skilled at ignoring the madness that boils up when the writing urge goes unattended. It’s all too easy to let the insanity dwell there, like a buzzing mosquito in the back of my brain — constantly annoying, but too small to really hurt. There’s probably some sort of belabored, hoary metaphor about malaria I could make here, but I think I’ve done enough damage for one day. Fighting that laziness is vital to keeping Buck Rogers plodding along.

I’ll have a lot more to say about Zen in the Art of Writing in the future, I’m sure — his chapter on “How to Keep and Feed a Muse” is partially responsible for the name of this blog, after all — but that’s a story for another time. Suffice it to say, whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, I pick up Bradbury’s little white book and let his wild, unrestrained glee infect me like a joyous malady. Hard-nosed advice and stern essays on craft are all well and good, but sometimes you just need to remember why you love your shambling, undead Buck Rogers.

Full Circle

Over a decade ago, I began a very personal blogging project. This was circa 1997, when blogging was still a relatively new thing and the Internet wasn’t spawning a thousand new blogs a second (or whatever we’re up to now). I was inspired to start it by an Asian girl who went by the name of Chunk. Chunk overshared the minutiae of her life in the lengthy, intimate way that’s since been largely overshadowed by tweets and Facebook status updates. She had no thesis, no purpose, no agenda; just the charming self-absorption of someone youthful and articulate, trying to lend insight and meaning to the drab circumstances of everyday life.

When I started that project, I was pretty certain no one would care — I was and am, after all, not a cute Asian girl, despite all my best efforts — but to my surprise, people did. People emailed. People commented. For a short time, people would occasionally recognize me on the street, which freaks me out even in retrospect. That would never happen now, amidst the din of a billion cleverly-produced Youtube videos, but back then, this was all relatively novel. I never attained the Internet fame of, say, Jennicam (how’s that for a hoary old reference?), but I did all right.

Chunk’s site is long gone, as is mine; I took it down some time ago and am grateful for its absence and obscurity. I’m not even going to mention its name (although you could probably find it quite easily with a little effort), because it’s a thing whose time has come and gone. Sure, nothing is ever truly lost on the internet, but I like to think I’ve come pretty close. Mostly, I’m afraid that if I read it again, my eyes would roll back so far in my head that I’d get detached retinas.

Stick with me a little longer through my vague nostalgia, this is going somewhere.

Recently an old friend of mine asked me about that project, and told me it had inspired her to start her own introspective journey — although hers has more practical value, in that she’s trying to motivate herself to write regularly and mine was a highly dubious search for personal profundity, taking the red pill and seeing how deep my own navel went. I find it curious and gratifying to inspire someone at all, much less thirteen-plus years after the fact. It’s good to know that my defunct old self-absorbed blog served a purpose after all, albeit posthumously.

Anyway, this is a very long-winded way of saying that I decided it was time to start a new blog. My old site, dimfuture.net, has been suffering from an identity crisis since about 2001, and it’s hard for me to even think about giving that old jalopy another overhaul. I decided it was time for a fresh space, dedicated to one subject: the art and craft of writing.

So here we are. The world may not need another writing blog, but it’s getting one anyway. If I manage to entertain, then I’ll consider the whole thing worthwhile. If I somehow manage to inspire, then that’s a big heap of delicious gravy on top.

I’m still not a cute Asian girl, though, for which I am truly sorry.