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.

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.

WWII is making my research tiring.

I’m writing a story set in Germany shortly before the outbreak of World War I, and let me tell you: Researching this can get very frustrating. Online research entails finding the magical Search Engine Genie Words that will bring you something other than Nazis, Nazis, Nazis. Now, it isn’t that I feel that this period of history doesn’t deserve all the attention it gets; it was a world-altering time. It’s just that it seems to siphon academic attention away from the period in history I’m trying to learn about. The popular concept of German history appears to be:

  1. Ye Olden Times
  2. Some religious thing happened
  3. Wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff
  4. NAZIS
  5. Berlin Wall
  6. ???

I just want something that’s between ‘NAAAZIIIIIIS’ and ‘Puffy pants still socially acceptable,’ and God damn that’s hard sometimes.

What Books Are to Me

I don’t think I’ve ever had what one would call a normal perspective on books. At least not a perspective other book people would consider normal. When I think ‘book,’ my mind remains fixed more on the content than on the object. You can write a 300 page novel and print it out on notecards that you glue to a wall and I would call it a book after some consideration. A book has always been an idea to me first, a physical thing second. They just happen to share a word.

When I was a kid, my books were transient things. A lack of money combined with my mother’s ever-expanding hoard of stuff that tended to swallow things up meant that most of the books I read were either borrowed from the library or bought cheaply and quickly whisked away from my possession. I did manage to keep some to read over and over, but not all that many.

The first thing of any considerable length that I wrote was typed on a computer, and even though I knew that I would never print it or share it with anyone, everyday I sat down to work on it I would think, “I’m going to work on my book.” From then on, I believe the notion of a book as a written collection of knowledge or ideas became fixed in my mind. My book had no binding save for the floppy diskette I used to back it up, but it was still a book to me.

I spent the next many, many years happily writing and reading primarily from a computer screen. The stories I read and the knowledge I absorbed were public domain or posted for free by the authors. My computer was mine and mine alone, and the files could always be found again if they’d been online. Anything I wanted, if it was there, if it was free, could be mine. My time was limited, of course, due to issues of eyestrain and not (at the time) being able to carry the internet around. That didn’t matter. I could read Moby Dick and plenty of miscellaneous supplementary information on the setting and the author without pleading with my father to take me with him on the eighteen mile car ride into town. I could read stories and essays by people I’d never even heard of, young, brilliant, unique people who so greatly differed from the haggard and religiously-stringent Southern Mississippi people I knew in daily life that the knowledge that they existed shook something inside me and made me feel a tremulous hope for myself.

When I first heard of e-readers, I was opposed to the idea of owning one for one reason: It looked like a large lump of money spent so that you could then spend more money on what I suspected would be a staggeringly limited selection of books. I wasn’t concerned about e-books not feeling, or smelling, or tasting like ‘real’ books. I have no such visceral attachment to the physicality of them. My love is with knowledge and ideas, with words, with something much more free-floating and accessible than wood pulp and leatherette.

I could not have imagined the variety, the opportunities, that would open up to me after I received an e-reader. The library, as inconsistent as its content may be, feels limitless. Even if I counted only the books offered for free, there is more than I could ever read. Browsing the selection for the first time was stunning. I thought of The Matrix and its many, many guns.

On top of that, I can carry it around. It’s absurdly light and it holds a great amount of stuff. I can finally take my immense internet library with me. I am no longer limited by location or space, and I am far less limited by poverty.

The definition of ‘book’ changed a long time ago for me. All an e-reader does is make the acquisition of books easier.

Make Your Biggest Investment Count: Covers and E-Books

If you plan on self-publishing an e-book, the cover will likely be your greatest investment not measured solely in time and personal effort. This is fortunate, considering that your book’s cover is its first opportunity to impress a potential buyer. It’s also often your book’s last chance at making an impression, since it, well… it sucks.

Above is the cover of Hayden Thorne‘s Arabesque, a book I finally bought because the cover was just that neat, unique, and strikingly designed. It didn’t turn out to be something I enjoyed all the way through, becoming rather muddled in the middle, but I did drop cash on it and the cover did the final convincing necessary to get me to do so. Had it been a physical book I could hold in my hands and flip to the middle of (as I am shamelessly wont to do) I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. Such is the cover’s power; this is why you need to make it count.

The internet connects us daily with sprawling networks of other creators, with thousands of artists, writers, and designers. Many artists take commissions, and it’s not hard to find free design advice and extra sets of eyes to appraise your cover before you publish. The couple hundred dollars you stand to drop on a simple illustration from a good artist is probably the largest lump sum you’ll spend promoting your book, and it’s a great reduction in cost from self publishing in print. Lurk in artistic communities online, get to know people, familiarize yourself with the process of commissioning art and which artists are willing to do promotional work and under what conditions.

While we’re on the subject of acquiring knowledge: Learn what works and what doesn’t, please. Make use of Google. If nothing else, familiarize yourself with which fonts are the most despised. Shop around for ideas, learn about the concept of white space, and for the love of God search out genuine free font files. Many websites offer fonts that are free for personal use, but some also offer fonts free to independent creators for use in their design and lettering.

Your cover can sell your book, or it can scare people away. “Dear God, what is that?” will get your curiosity clicks, but it’s far less likely to sell a copy to someone who’s on the fence already.