NaNoWriMo, I don’t think we can be friends.

This may be difficult to explain without coming off as a fun-hating jerkmonster, but I’m determined to try. I’ve been struggling to articulate just what about NaNoWriMo feels ‘off’ to me, and I think I’ve finally reached a point where I can explain it without seeming like too much of a jerk.

My output the past fourteen days has been less than satisfactory by NaNoWriMo standards. Despite this I’m 100% satisfied with my pace and have been enjoying the excuse, however flimsy, to shut myself away for an hour or so a day and demand some peace and quiet. At the same time I see people with output that far exceeds my own (or even the recommended 1,667 words per day) gnashing their teeth over how they’re doomed to fail, how they’ve written all these words that amount to gibberish and they’ll fall behind due to not caring about it anymore. These concerns are inevitably met with a chorus of fellow participants cheering the afflicted writers on toward the 50k goal. “Win win win! Fight fight fight! Who the flip cares if you can’t write? Goooo, Wrimos!” Now… at first, this seemed really sweet and supportive. This writer is burnt out, and the other writers have banded together to cheer them on to the finish line. When I first started doing this, that was as deeply as I examined it. Now that I’ve seen it happen over and over again, and been prodded along myself, I’m starting to wonder if this isn’t the most healthy way to spur people on toward creativity.

Getting that first frustrating rough draft is important. Gaining experience as a writer by, yes, writing many words, is also important. There are other aspects to consider, but the discipline to sit down, get over yourself, and throw down some words ranks high on the list for most people. It can be difficult to hold your anxiety at bay long enough to actually write down what’s in your head. NaNoWriMo doesn’t encourage that though, at least not in effect. What it does encourage is spinning out words as quickly as possible, which is not exactly the same thing.

My biggest problem with NaNoWriMo is that it turns creativity into a win or lose situation and gives indiscriminate output as the win condition. I know that implementing a system by which entries are judged and determined to be something other than rambling diatribes with entire pages taken up by repeated instances of the phrase, “I’m a little Bantha with mashed potatoes in my knickers,” would be utterly unfeasible, but I think that holding a contest with no criteria for victory beyond amount of output is a pretty terrible way to encourage creativity. Despite what some people may tell you there’s a big difference between creativity and producing stuff.

On a personal level I have trouble enjoying NaNoWriMo because I simply don’t want to win. I held off on starting this book until November because some friends of mine were doing the contest and I thought it would be fun to play along and share the experience. I don’t want to win, I want to write my story.

But, you cry, isn’t it good to get the story out fast before it gets away? Stop letting your Inner Editor get you down! Go, go, go! You still have two weeks! There’s time! Damn the typos and sod the dangling plot threads, just write like the coffee-scented wind!

To this I say: You don’t get it. My goal is not a vomit draft I can lock away in a drawer with the comforting knowledge that it meets or exceeds the extruded word matter requirement. I want something that is as close to ‘good,’ as close to my vision for the story, as it can get before I give it the one-twice-and-thrice-over with the red pens. I don’t want to make the initial editing stage any more ludicrously painful for myself by leaving behind a nonsensical word slurry I have to comb through for the three or four decent passages floating in the morass.

Maybe I’m just not the kind of person NaNoWriMo appeals to. Maybe I’m missing something I’ll never quite capture. I can’t speak for anyone else, but the model of encouragement the contest offers doesn’t sit right with me.

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I Happen to Be a Fan of Things

I consume a lot of media. Books, comics, TV shows, films, music. It’s all media, stories and concepts and characters and thoughts carefully crafted or haphazardly slapped together by creative people. When I was a kid, I was all about Star Wars and Tolkien’s Middle Earth books. By extension, I was into Kurosawa films and fantasy stories. As I got older I discovered Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, Sam Raimi, and dozens of other people whose works nurtured and challenged me at a time in my life where I needed a little of both. I like more things now. For the past four years or so I’ve been more than a little obsessed with the Year 24 Group, particularly Hagio Moto.

I like a lot of things, is basically what I mean to say. In recent years I’ve liked a few things enough to try to connect with massive hordes of other people who like them through the social phenomenon of fandom. For those not already aware, fandom is a term for a sort of nerd subculture based around mutual enjoyment of something. The concept is older than you might expect, and I haven’t been alive long enough to be certain it wasn’t always filled with absolute nutters.

That is not to say that all other geeks are crazy. I’ve known many a well-balanced and grounded nerd and don’t want to contribute any more to the prevailing notion that sci-fi/fantasy/anime/video game/comic book fans are inherently messed up. However, I think that Sharyn McCrumb made a good point about fandom in her book Bimbos of the Death Sun and subsequent commentary on the book:

Bimbos of the Death Sun was intended to be an observation of the culture of fandom, and a gentle warning. Science fiction writers build castles in the air; the fans move into them; and the publishers collect the rent. It’s a nice place to visit, but please don’t try to live there.

Since my introduction to internet fandom, I’ve noticed a passive withdrawal from reality and a powerful undercurrent of nastiness veiled in strained consensus. Both things, I think, are facilitated at least in part by the internet.

The constant availability of new facts, new discussion, and new content (much of which is generated by other fans) makes it so much easier to hole up in those sky castles. It isn’t often a conscious choice. I think it’s normal to respond to having yet more enjoyable things by gobbling them up. However, when the flow of new material becomes constant it can be difficult to ween yourself away from the supply and try other things. Or even leave the house.

The internet also presents people with some paradoxical opportunities: You can, in theory, interact with hundreds of people who share you common interest. You can also use screening features to shutter yourself away from opinions you don’t share. You don’t have to have a discussion with anyone you either don’t agree with or aren’t angry enough at to pursue.

So in effect you’re shut up in your room on the computer focused with laser precision on a single topic, and you don’t talk to anyone unless your views are being reinforced or you’re enforcing them on someone else. It’s a scary, confusing place to be when you haven’t been steeped in the law and lore of the land. I still have no functional idea of how to navigate any social situation within internet fandom. If you feel inclined to tell me in the comments section that you can easily treat it just like any other social situation, I hope you enjoy being wrong. 

After my short stint browsing around fandom, I don’t think I want to count myself as a member. I don’t have the laser focus, for one thing. Even now my obsession spreads across about a dozen things, many of them very different from one another. I don’t have the time, either. You’d be surprised how time consuming obsession can be, and I’m spread thin enough as it is enjoying things alone. Mixing other people up in it is just inconceivable.

A NaNo Pep Talk for My Pal: The Joys of Willful Distraction

I would like to propose that there is a difference between being getting distracted and willingly interrupting your work.

Before I sit down to write, I prefer to know that nothing and nobody has any reason to interrupt me. This isn’t because I don’t want to be interrupted, but because I would rather interrupt myself. I will inevitably toddle away from my work, and I’d rather go willingly than be forcibly yanked away.

To better understand what I mean by ‘willingly interrupting your work,’ recall the last time you woke up. Did you wake up naturally as a result of your sleep cycle coming to an end, or were you jarred out of REM sleep by the grating WANK WANK WANK of an alarm? Did you feel rested after the wank alarm? No. You felt disoriented, confused, and annoyed. The wank alarm effect is what happens when you’re interrupted once you’ve gotten into the swing of your work. When some schlub wanders into your workspace and asks something of you it interrupts your train of thought and finding your stride again can be difficult.

When you choose to be distracted, though, you’re the one in control of when the break in thought occurs. Your focus will always peter out at some point and staring blankly at a blinking cursor for fifteen minutes won’t help you. Sometimes the words stop or your brain pan overheats. This isn’t a problem unique to you. In fact, it’s not even a problem. It can put a dent in your projected output, but it’s a natural occurrence.

My advice, as someone who’s absurdly far behind on his word count and satisfied with every word so far? Let it happen. Let your brain drift away a bit. It’s what it does.

Go for a walk. Take a long shower. Hell, play a video game. Pick up your favorite book and re-read your favorite parts. Maybe just space out. Go out for a drink and a bite, and no, don’t go to a coffee shop to get a mocha and sit in the corner. Go someplace with a counter and eat there, get a sandwich or a salad and just chat with people.

One of the hardest things about trying to finish a project is focusing on your output volume while at the same time retaining your grasp on the world outside your work. Forcing yourself through the pauses your brain wants so badly to take can keep your output level high, but you run the risk of exhausting your creative resources through over-extension and losing sight of the world beyond the page.

NaNoWriMo: Adventures in Word Vomit

I’ve been sick for a couple days, and I must say I don’t care for the physical experience of vomiting. My decision to participate in National Novel Writing Month has made it clear that I can’t tolerate the mental process of vomiting either.

So far, NaNo and I aren’t getting along. This isn’t because I’m not writing, or because I’m not happy with what I write, or because I’m stressed out. In fact, I appreciate finally having an excuse to sit down and pick away at my ideas for an hour or two every night. Somehow it’s easier to rationalize it to myself when it’s for a competition and not part of some long-term life goal. Now that I think about it, that’s pretty messed up. So far the only enjoyable part of NaNo has been the excuse to write a couple hundred words with complete peace of mind each night. It’s even easier to justify it to other people. For whatever reason, saying that you’re writing fifty thousand words of bupkis for a contest garners more approving nods than saying that you’re writing a novel of undetermined length which you intend to send to agents. I’m not sure why that is.

What I do know is that I don’t particularly enjoy the act of NaNoing, or WriMoing, or pantsing, or whatever the term is. Barreling ahead with no thought for what you’re creating. Word vomiting. I can force it, and I can draw the words out, but I can’t plow ahead recklessly for the sake of fattening my word count. It’s difficult to explain, and the closest i can get is to say that forced purging is unpleasant to me and harmful to my confidence in my work. I don’t moodily wait around for my muse to speak to me, but I can’t stand to force my ideas. I tease them out, I untie the massive tangle of knots. But that takes patience, and it takes care. I don’t know if I’m the kind of person who can balance NaNo and care.

So I’m Doing NaNoWriMo, Apparently.

I don’t remember exactly when I decided that I would try National Novel Writing Month this year, but I do remember that it was a friend’s participation and inevitable good-natured badgering that got the ball rolling. From my limited knowledge of the event, it looks like a good way to motivate myself to, well, actually write every day like a good writer should.

The event has (in my timezone, at least) been on for about twelve hours. I’ve yet to write a single word, prioritizing sleep and chores above getting the jump on others. The impression I get from other participants on the forums is that I ought to be ashamed of this. That’s the only thing that irks me about this exercise so far. As fun as it may seem in theory there’s an undercurrent of shame to it all. Everyone’s doing really well (except you (but that’s okay! (except it isn’t))).

There are lots of people who have done this before – specifically this, not just writing – who can and will devote immense amounts of time to fattening their word count to near-completion within the first week. For someone who can’t afford to shirt their priorities this drastically, the contest has the potential to become their own personal Lizard of Guilt.

That and the site’s always broken.

Why Write Dark Stories for Kids?

I write almost exclusively for kids, specifically young people in the age range of around 12 to around 19. Stuff you’d find shelved in the ‘young adult’ section. There are several reasons for this, one of them being that it was during this time of my life that it was most difficult to find books ‘for me’ that I actually wanted to read. I spent most of my tween and teen years making up stories rather than reading them and still want to write books for my 12 year old self.

One criticism I’ve seen lobbed against young adult fiction is that some of it is just too creepy, or too dark, or too intense for people too young to drink. Do a Google search for any reasonably popular kids’ book and you’ll likely find several results criticizing the book’s age-inappropriate content on the grounds of it being some ill-defined sort of unsettling. These complaints are, of course, made by adults. There’s the problem.

Pictured: Every single road you ever walked down at dusk as a kid.

As we grow older, I think we gradually allow ourselves to forget just how upsetting and, yes, creepy childhood actually is. Our imaginations shape our expectations far more than our limited experiences, and we often imagine the worst because our developing brains see that as the best way to be prepared. You’re small and weak in a huge, unfamiliar place full of malice, and confusion, and all the lurking dangers your parents and teachers make absolutely sure to tell you about. On top of that no one with any power in the world takes you seriously. That weird neighbor you’re entirely certain is a serial killer? Nobody’s going to listen to you. Absolutely nobody. In retrospect, as a rational adult, it seems absurd. Not so much when you’re eleven years old.

Dovetailing nicely into this is the fact that people tend to like having their fears, rational or not, validated by the fiction they consume. It’s nice to be told that we were right all along even when it’s a work of fiction vindicating us. Think of all the airport fiction with plots hinging on diabolical terrorist schemes that are, big bonus here, taken out by characters oddly similar to the target audience’s ideal selves. These desires aren’t limited to 50 year old guys on cross-country flights, or even to adults in general. They’re basic human wants. We want to be told, “Yes, you’re right, the world is scary. But someone like you can set it right, and getting there can be really exciting.”