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.

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.”

The Lost Have Less to Lose: Creative comfort for a lost generation

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

-Janis Joplin

The media has taken to calling American young adults like myself The Lost Generation, left in the lurch by the recession and saddled with crippling loans from predatory institutions. High unemployment, high underemployment, no healthcare, no government assistance. Our degrees, vocational or not, have become liabilities. They scare off employers afraid of paying for educated workers and lock us into endless cycles of debt. Our trust in a system we were raised to revere is shaken and shattered. We have the lowest rate of upward social mobility in generations. We are a generation ruled by uncertainty, disillusionment, and despair.

On the other hand, a certain freedom can be found in acknowledging that you’re most likely to fail regardless of your actions. Being financially and socially boned is especially freeing, since we’re taught from childhood that hard work brings lots of money and lots of money brings all you could ever want. What we’re being taught as young adults is that hard work gets you absolutely jack, and having jack to show for your hard work gets you labeled as lazy and stupid. Before now the only people who poured their blood, sweat, and tears into trying to sell their talent only to be called lazy and stupid for it were artists. Ah, and that’s where this is going.

I have been more productive as a writer, three times as productive, since I came to the realization that at this point I will never secure a lucrative career programming computers or doing field studies for advertising firms. I will never sit quietly at a desk compiling data for exactly eight hours and drive home in a car newer than I am to a home that I own. A little soul-crushing considering I was raised to attain these things and see anything less as failure, but oddly freeing at the same time. While I will never have these things, I will also never be limited by the fear of losing them. I am no longer locked into a career that would pervade my life in a field I’ve learned to resent.

I write more because the realization has given me the freedom to say “Screw it. If I’m doomed anyway, I might as well be telling stories when I’m not throwing resumes into the void.” There’s comfort in coming home from a long day of being turned away from even the simplest of jobs and knowing that you can create something. And if by some fluke you keep at it and wind up with something long enough/good enough/pretty enough to try and sell, the worst that could happen is that it won’t be bought. When you’re already doomed and have created something for its own sake, this prospect isn’t so terrifying. You’ve already tried to sell every other talent you have and been shot down, so why fret over it?

If you like me are a part of this supposed lost generation, I implore you to create. Write stories, write your memoir, write songs, draw, paint a landscape, take up a cheap instrument, something. Once you’re creating, put yourself out there. On the market, in the net, wherever.

No one can deny that these are difficult times, but it is not a time we should allow to pass us by. We are the fresh young voices being shut out of American society by hiring freezes, downsizes, and overqualification. Our experience is a unique one that imparts a unique change in perspective. Keep throwing your resumes into the void – I do, at least five times per week – but create when you allow yourself a break from that. Write instead of watching TV, paint instead of playing video games, write a folk punk tune for your $7 harmonica instead of staring out the window wondering what the Hell happened.

Artists Who Inspire Me to Write

I take my inspiration from many places, though few things send stories and passages rolling out of my brain like sound and sight. Today I want to talk a little about images, specifically the work of three artists: Arthur Rackham, Michael Whelan, and John Bauer.

Arthur Rackham

In the United States, Rackham is best known for his illustrations of Richard Wager’s Ring cycle. For those of you not familiar, that’s the one with Ride of the Valkyries in it. For those even less familiar, it’s the song old cartoons commonly played over dogfight scenes. Rackham didn’t do any plates for the particular opera the song is from, but now you know basically what I mean: The pictures to accompany music like that.

Rackham used a method unique to himself to create the blended, muddy colors over his gritty, realistic lines. The level of detail in his work is astounding, especially when you take into account how personalized his style was.

Something about Rackham’s grungy, earthy art holds a great deal of majesty for me. It is fantastic but not garishly colored; it seems so much more real and tangible. As a slight nod to Rackham, the hero of my current project has the same absurdly curly blond hair as Siegfried in the above Wagner plate.

Michael Whelan

Whelan may not be an old master like Rackham, but his work has affected me all the same. You may recognize his style from scifi and fantasy covers. I know that’s where I first saw anything he did, being fourteen and having no real admitted interest in art.

If Rackham is my subdued but majestic inspiration, Whelan is my extravagant and fantastic inspiration.

Whelan’s greatest strength, to me, is in conveying a sense of place. He illustrates some of the strangest, most gorgeous landscapes in a way that, for the barest moment, transports me.

Around two thirds of my current story takes place in a world that is not our own, and even when I don’t intend to I feel I must be siphoning off some of Whelan’s imagery, pulling out choice snatches of sight from memories of earmarked covers of books I bought for the pretty picture.

John Bauer

To the casual observer, Bauer’s work looks a lot like Rackham’s. His colors are earthy and washy and his lines are fairly detailed. However, Bauer’s work has a softer, loopier feel than Rackham’s gritty illustrations. It’s not as realistic, it’s much simpler. Lots of curly, wavy lines.

Above all, I appreciate Bauer’s depiction of natural things. The shapes strike a good balance between realism and stylized loopiness, and the combination just draws me in.

I know a few writers follow me, so I’m wondering: What images, if any, stir inspiration in you?