Thanksgiving, Day 20: Being Able to Write

The internet has democratized content creation, and, to paraphrase Theodore Sturgeon, 90% of it is crap. Maybe it’s because education standards have fallen or because people don’t read as often as they used to, but a lot of the blogs I read and sites I visit – even the professional ones – feature really bad writing. People have no sense of the flow of language, how it makes you feel or how it works when you scroll down the page. They type what they think and then hit “PUBLISH,” not giving a second thought as to whether or not what they have put up on the internet is actually their best work. Even setting aside grammar and spelling errors that no one should make [1], a lot of it just isn’t all that interesting or appropriate for the point the author might be trying to make.

While I’m certainly not going to try and put forth myself as an expert on how to write, I can at least say that I’ve been doing this long enough to have a good sense of how to not screw it up. I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember, and even when I was a kid I practiced writing. I tried adapting comic books to text, wrote my own stories, and eventually ended up becoming a serial book reviewer. As soon as the internet became A Thing, I took to it like fish to tartar sauce – I wrote flash fiction, essays, arguments, all kinds of things. I started my own homepage after college, joined LiveJournal when it was still popular, and have maintained a written internet presence for ages.

Being able to write well takes practice, and lots of it. It takes observation of others, to see what you might want to emulate and what you want to avoid. It takes a certain amount of self-awareness, to know when what you are doing needs to be tweaked, revised, or in some cases thrown out entirely.

More importantly, though, it allows me to express myself. It allows me to take the ideas that spark and flash and smolder and effervesce in my head and organize them. It lets me lock them down and look at them from different angles until I know what they are and what they mean. Writing, in this sense, isn’t just the act of putting words in order, but rather of putting thoughts in order. And of all the skills I could have asked to have, that ability has been a mighty useful one.

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[1] And it is at this point that I start getting email from people about the grammar and spelling errors in my posts….

In which I am almost, but not entirely, like Ultra Boy

It’s very important that I write something. Over the winter break, I picked up a bunch of games off Steam – Batman: Arkham Asylum, L.A. Noire, Grand Theft Auto IV, Bastion, The Binding of Isaac – they call to me. They want to help me eat up vast amounts of time without really realizing it. They want to sap away my precious intellectual juices in a haze of car crashes and Batarangs.

On the other hand, I stole a SWAT truck!

As much fun as that sounds, I do have work to do. Not school work, though that wouldn’t be a bad idea. I have my own work to do – writing.

Last year, I got really lazy with writing book reviews, which isn’t really a sound strategy when you’re the sole writer for an internationally-known book review podcast. [1] With every week that I do the show, my backlist of reviews diminishes by one, and sooner or later I’ll be at a point where I have to actually write one review a week just to catch up. That’ll be the point where I’ll have to either end the podcast or put it on a hiatus, because there’s no way I can pull that off for very long.

So, one of my resolutions for this year is to get back in the saddle of review-writing, and make sure I always have plenty of reviews to choose from each week. As of this writing, I have a backlist of 48 reviews. That’s great. Unfortunately, half of them are either Wheel of Time reviews or Discworld. So I need to get moving on this and try to put some variety back in the stacks. I have a lot of old, pre-podcast reviews that I can beef up, but a lot of those are for books I no longer own. That means doing a bit of research to remember what they were about, to say nothing of cursing out Past Chris for not writing more thoroughly.

The other work I have to do, of course, is writing fiction. I’m still plugging along on my fic-a-day work, and have decided that in January I will use only all-new characters. That’s not as hard as it sounds, but after seven months it does seem to take a little more energy every day just to get started on writing. I know I have to do it, but I find other things to do, and that’s never a good sign. It also brings me to the title of this post.

His Ultra-Smooth is always on, though. Another difference between him and me.

In case you’re not familiar with him, Ultra Boy is a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes, a group that battles interstellar menaces in the far future of the DC Universe. Ultra Boy is a character with pretty run-of-the-mill powers – super-speed, invulnerability, great strength, and so on – but with one rather strange caveat: he can only use one of his powers at a time.

The idea is that his body is full of some kind of “ultra-energy” that can allow him to do amazing things, but he has to consciously will it to do what he wants. And there’s not really enough of it to go around. So, he can be really fast, but not inhumanly strong, or he can be super-strong and yet vulnerable to an enemy’s weapons. It’s an interesting twist, and part of what makes him more than just Superboy with some stubble.

Now while I cannot, as of this writing, fly or shoot lasers out of my eyes, I do feel a kind of kinship with Ultra Boy. I have creative energy that I can do pretty good things with. I’m not superheroic or anything, but I’m certainly not bad. The trouble is that I can only use it for one creative outlet at a time. So if I’m writing, it means that I’m not drawing or doing photography. If I start getting more caught up in photography, then the writing will stop. If I feel the drawing itch kick in, then that’ll be it for the photography, and so on.

I hear Fitzgerald did this all the time.

The thing is, I don’t really have a lot of control over when my creative outlet is going to switch from one thing to another, or if it’ll just stop altogether – which has happened before. So when I get to a point like where I am today, where I just want to switch off my brain and hijack cars all night, I start to worry that this is the first sign of The Switch. I really want to continue with writing, and I have no plans to stop doing the podcast. But perhaps my subconscious has other things in mind for me.

The obvious solution, of course, is to soldier on. To write something, even if it’s half-assed and half-hearted, just so I can say, “Well, I did it.” But at the same time, I don’t want it to become a chore. I don’t want it to become just one more damn thing I have to do every day. I’m not making money off the podcast or the fiction, so the main reason I do it, really, is for my own enjoyment. And if I don’t enjoy it, then what’s the point?

Anyway, all that is neither here nor there. I’ll keep on keeping on, and monitoring myself to see what’s keeping me on track and what’s trying to nudge me off it. Self-knowledge is a good thing, if a little tricky at times.

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[1] There are people in other countries who listen to it. So I’m just being accurate.

NaNo was a Triumph!

Let me make a note here, hold on: huge success.

Seriously, folks – not only did I make the 50,000 word mark, but I blew right through it – the official final total was 73,176 words. Which makes me, as they say, a winner!

Before we get into a review of the whole experience, let’s just take a look at the last section, which was broadly based on the aether – a fifth element that, for reasons unknown to me, does not usually appear as a quirky redhead. It was, instead, the substance through which light waves were thought to propagate. A rather clever and simple experiment managed to prove that the aether didn’t exist, however, which makes it perfect for telling stories about other things that don’t exist – ghosts, ESP, spirits of every shape and size.

  • Houseguests is a tale of a haunted house, where fourteen boys were tortured and killed. The house is bought by a pair of dedicated skeptics. Because after all – there’s no such thing as ghosts, right? Except for the ones that really do live there…
  • The Bad News tells more of Carly Siminsky’s story. Carly is a telekinetic girl, held by the Department of National Security for – allegedly – her own safety. She’s doing well in her training, until she hears something that she cannot endure.
  • Spirit Guide, in which a young man is having problems with his date. Mainly because his spirit guide, a floating blue panda bear, is trying to help him get lucky.
  • Finders Keepers, a story that may or may not reflect some writers’ bias, is about a woman, a telepath who uses her powers to steal the seeds of ideas from famous authors to build a writing career of her own. The latest author, however, might be harder to get into than she thought.
  • Hotline is about a psychic, but not a real one. A young woman acting as a telephone psychic to make money for college. Her last call of the night, however, turns out to be one she couldn’t have forseen.
  • Dream Intervention is the monthly revisitation of a story I wrote last month. A man with the power to enter the dreams of others is trying to help a young man with a problem that even he doesn’t understand.

It was a good section, with some fun ideas that popped into my head, and others that actively resisted being drawn out into reality. But I suppose the aether is like that – indefinable, and unreliable. At 12,453 words, it was the second shortest section – probably due to the fact that there wasn’t a whole lot of pressure anymore.

Most important, though, was that I finished NaNoWriMo with plenty of time to spare, and managed to get a very respectable number of words in before the month ended. How did I do it, you might ask? Very simple:

  • I planned. I made sure that I knew what I was going to do for the month, and had keywords set up to give me something to think about while I put the stories together. Aside from providing a seed for the story to grow from (which is pretty much where Finders Keepers is all about), it allowed me to think about the stories during time when I normally wouldn’t write.
  • I was regular in my writing. My regular writing time is at night – usually after eight or so, given my schedule, and I need to finish by eleven. That’s not a whole lot of time, but I made damn sure I used it. If I couldn’t – for example, on Wednesdays, when the podcast is due – I would do as much as I could during the day.
  • I used all the time I had on my hands. The effect of this, of course, what that I didn’t have a lot of time to do anything else. I didn’t read a book all month, or write a review or anything, which seems really out of character and weird for me.

What this means for the future, of course, is that now I have an excellent month to point to and say, “I did that.” Over 70,000 words, and if I print out the whole month, single-spaced, it’s just over 160 pages.

A triumph indeed.

For December, though, I’m going to ramp things down a little. Do some world-building and exploring, look at some of the people and places I’ve created over the last six months and 279,000 words. It should be an interesting little vacation.

Take a Deep Breath…

I’m going to make this one a little short, since my body has decided that what it needs right now is to be allergic to something. So while I still have not yet gone mad from sneezing and tissue abrasions, let’s do a roundup of NaNoWriMo Part Five: Air.

  • In Self-Guided Tour, a young Ezra Resnick (whom we have seen before as an adult) is still learning what he can do with his ability to pass through solid matter. And what better way to test that ability than to walk right into one of the most heavily-guarded buildings on the planet: the White House.
  • Spotlight is a look at a former celebutante – a person famous just for being famous – who has tried to leave her old, shallow life behind her and vanish from the public eye. Angie Gallagher learns that disappearing in this day and age is harder than she thinks.
  • Prince of the Air, part one and part two, tells of young Prince Rissandir of the magic-powerful kingdom of Ardenspire. Rissandir wants to fly without magic, using a machine of his own design. His experiment could change the world. Or kill him. One or the other.
  • Before the Storm, a flash fiction of panic, anticipation and fear of a most formidable force of nature.
  • Up, Up, and Away, a story of the annoyances of flying and the lengths a friend will go to to get a lift.

Quite a few of these stories were related to air in a metaphorical way, sometimes a couple of steps removed. The most obvious example is Spotlight, which seems to have nothing to do with the theme whatsoever. Here’s how the thought chain went: Air > invisibility > trying to stay hidden > from people who really want to find you. Before the Storm was also more symbolic than it seemed at first glance. Mostly because I hate small children. But the rest were pretty straightforward, I think.

My favorite of this section was Prince of the Air, which got a nice comment from someone who said that he was pretty much beyond fantasy fiction right now, but really liked the characters. And honestly, so did I. Rissandir and Calaris appeared in my head pretty much fully-formed and already bickering, which is great. For a lot of those scenes, all I had to do was sit back and write down what they were saying. It made it a lot easier to examine the motivations of the brothers, too, since they were much more willing to talk to me.

Important plot point: aether doesn't exist.

All in all, this section netted me a paltry 11,742 words, mainly because I busted through the NaNoWriMo goal and can now afford to throttle back a bit. The grand total thus far is 60,593, which is impressive enough that the NaNo stats page had to bump the graph up to 80,000 just in case I have a final, manic burst of creativity in the next five days.

Which, by the way, is Aether – time to explore things like ghosts, telepathy, maybe astral travel, possession and angels and demons and stuff. I’m looking forward to this one…

Dig Far, Dig Deep…

Once again it’s time to check in on the progress of my NaNoWriMo project, and I have to say that things are looking pretty good! The theme of this section was “Earth,” and it had a few entertaining surprises in it. So let’s look at the breakdown:

  • The Hole – A giant sinkhole opens up in the middle of the city of Freestone, and the mayor calls on the great geologist Jenna Spenser and her team to find out what happened. What she discovers is the last thing anyone expects.
  • The Golemime, parts one, two, and three – Mimes are being murdered in Estervale! Someone with a vendetta is killing right under the noses of the police department, and the chief is determined to find the killer. Precinct thaumaturge Thaddeus Zoltaire is tasked with creating an indestructible mime golem to catch the killer!
  • Away From the Green – Evelyn Pierce is cursed with the ability to communicate with and control plant life. She’s moved to the middle of the desert to escape it, but a visit from Department of National Security special agent Tanner Quan may force her to face her true nature.
  • Mother Earth – Starlight Moonwhispers loves all living things, and she believes that humanity is a direct threat to the survival of the planet. Her meditations have guided her to occupy an oil company building, but this time they bring her somewhere else. She meets someone who opens her eyes to the true nature of her mission.

Most of these stories were really fun to write. Let’s get the big one out of the way first: I wrote The Golememe for a Worth1000 contest – “Mimes” – the rule for which was that you just had to write a story and put a mime in there somewhere. I found a nice way to do it while keeping to my NaNo project, and figured I could write maybe 2,000 words, edit down to the required 1,500 and call it a day.

But the story had other ideas.

Now imagine him about seven feet tall and terrifying.

Before I knew it, the story was blossoming out into a full-scale police thriller that eventually stretched to about 8,000 words. And that’s without some of the twists and character issues that I came up with while I was writing it. And for those of you who are Discworld fans, yes, I had the spirit of Constable Dorfl hovering over me the whole time. I’m certainly not the first person to put a golem into a police department, but I may be the first to put one into a stripey shirt and heavy face makeup. In any case, I really enjoyed this story and will probably come back to it someday.

As for the others – The Hole was interesting and has some potential, but I didn’t really connect too well with it. Re-reading it, the narrative has a kind of detached quality that needs fixing. As of yet, I don’t seem to have a character to tap into for a good point of view. Something to fix in re-writes.

And it was nice to see poor Evelyn Pierce again. This is a character I never expected to write about again. She showed up as a throwaway character in the story Interviews (about a case worker for de-powered metahumans), and then got randomly chosen for a character mash-up that paired her with my Constant Victim, Rachael Decker, in A Friend in Need. When I thought about what I would do for the “Earth” section, I knew she’d be a good choice. A woman who talks to plants? And isn’t really happy about it? Score. She’s really miserable, and I haven’t figured out exactly where her story ends up, but she seems to be one of those characters that lingers. And you should take good care of those.

Finally, the last Earth story came to me in a flash while I was walking home. I thank both my Muse and my Inner Cynic [1] for this one…

One of the things that annoys me about environmental politics and activism is this constant idea that humans are “destroying the earth.” We’re “ruining” the environment or “ravaging” the planet, and that image is used to get us to send money to their cause or carry our own shopping bags, or stop using baby seal fur to make toilet paper. [2]

Whether the earth can survive the Invasion of the Paper Dolls, however, is unknown.

The fact of the matter is that the Earth has already been hit with far worse than anything we can throw at it. Ice ages, meteor impacts, mass extinctions, supervolcanoes, all these have happened in the planet’s long history, often more than once, and it’s survived. More than that, it’s flourished.

So maybe it’s time to admit that we don’t actually have the power to either save or destroy the earth. Maybe what we’re really interested in is saving our species. We’ve grown up in a very nice period of the earth’s history, and we want to not screw that up any more than we have to. Sooner or later, something will happen to wipe us out, of course. Let’s just try not to make it happen at our own hand.

So the story is a wee bit soapboxy, but the idea of taking a starry-eyed hippie girl and crushing her naive yet earnest dreams and ambitions just made me laugh and laugh and laugh….

It was an interesting six days of writing, and there are only twelve more to go! The next section is Air, and I have a few ideas bubbling around in my head for that. But first, some stats:

It turns out that I’m damn near at the goal of 50,000 words. The Earth section by itself was 15,997 words – not as good as Water, but better than Fire. Last night I hit 48,851 total, for an average of 2,714 words per story. I figure today’s story should put me over the top, so long as it’s over 1,200 words – which, if the rest of this month is any indication, it should very well be. And if I keep writing at this rate, the whole month should net me a bit over 80,000 words. Definitely a new record.

Thanks to everyone who’s commented and said kind things and all that. I appreciate the feedback.

Today's the big day!

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[1] I’m not sure if I have an Inner Cynic or if he has an Inner Me….
[2] It’s soft and absorbent, dammit! You’ll never get me to stop!

HehHehHeh… Fire. FIRE!

(Stock image by Tortured Raven Stock on DeviantArt)

Well, I’m now two-fifths of the way through my National Novel Writing Month project, with the elemental theme of “Fire” under my belt. Let’s see how we did:

  • StoryBreakers, a very thinly-veiled theft of homage to MythBusters. In this episode, Alan and Johnny find out what happens when you set off a blast that tears through the fabric of reality to release a very angry Elder God.
  • A New Star, part one and part two, a tale of the far, far future where intelligent life huddles around red dwarf stars, the last remaining sources of energy in a dying cosmos.
  • A Reason to Burn, a story about a man with the power to control fire, but who uses it to create and protect. What happens when he meets a man who uses the same power to destroy?
  • Carl’s Dragon, a story based on Carl Sagan’s famous “Dragon in My Garage” essay. Young Carl Stockman wants to convince his new friend Annie that he has a dragon. She’s skeptical, and for good reason. But perhaps too skeptical…
  • The Good Guy Bomber, a story about a man who loves more than anything else to blow things up. People included. Fortunately, he only blows up the bad guys, but it’ll be a little difficult to convince the world that’s what he’s up to this time.

This felt like a harder section to do than Water was. Perhaps it’s because some of that initial momentum wore off, or my own inherent laziness started to creep back in again. Either way, coming up with ideas seemed to take more effort this time around. The seed for The Good Guy Bomber didn’t hit me until very late in the day, and all I had was a picture of an angry older man stripping wires in his basement. It shows in the word count, too – I wrote about 4,000 words less in this section than in Water, and tonight’s story was the first time I came in under that magical 1,667 word count.

Shout-out to my old Performance Art classmates. You know why.

Why should this be? I honestly have no idea. I was a little surprised, too, because as the classical elements go, I have the greatest fondness for fire. Not that I’m going to start burning things, but it’s the most interesting to me, and when I was a kid, imagining I had super powers [1], fire was tops on my list. In fact, one of the first long stories I ever wrote was about a kid who gained the power to control fire. I have no idea where that story is right now, either. I imagine reading it would be a combination of nostalgia, stabbing pain, and gratitude that I have become a better writer since then.

Anyway, there were some parts that I liked about this section. I loved doing Carl’s Dragon, mainly because Carl Sagan is one of my favorite people ever. I like to think he’d read that and get a kick out of it. And while I was really enthralled with the concept behind A New Star, the execution was torturous. Maybe because it was on such a large scale or because it had so many possibilities for exploration in it that I couldn’t really pull the trigger and go all the way. Of all the stories I’ve done for NaNo so far, this is the first that I can really imagine being stretched out to novel-length someday. With a few little changes, of course.

He has Cthulhu on speed dial.

And StoryBreakers was just downright silly. I love MythBusters to death, even if I do think they’ve become a bit too explodey-centric in the last few seasons. Taking the characters of Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman and just stretching them out was a lot of fun. Plus, it generate one of my favorite lines of dialogue so far: “Banishing an elder god in ThreeTwoOneGO!”

I can so totally imagine Adam Savage doing that.

In any case, my self-monitoring continues. I’m still trying to get an early start on writing whenever possible, and coming up with as many story ideas as I can so as to keep the creativity flowing. I think one of the things that blocked me a little with Fire was that I kept trying to find Meaning in it. I asked myself what fire Represents, what it Symbolizes, and perhaps that’s what hung me up on some of these stories. Instead of just writing the damn thing, I was trying to process what it Meant.

'Avatar' anyone?

We’ll see how the next section goes: Earth. I doubt I’ll stop trying to overthink things, really. There are some low-hanging fruits there, but I’ll see if I can’t spin out something more symbolic and important-sounding while I’m at it. In any case, right now my NaNo count is 32,854 words, at an average of 2,737 per story. At this rate, I’ll hit 50,000 by the 18th, which is awesome. I’ll keep going though, don’t worry about that…

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[1] Which, of course, I never do nowadays. Of course. Never.

One-Fifth of the Way Through

Well, I suppose a NaNoWriMo update is as good a thing as any to write about, so here it is. I know, I know, you’ve all been waiting on tenterhooks for it. Calm down, people, and form an orderly line.

Today marks the end of the “Water” section of the anthology, and here’s how it breaks down:

  • Out of the Rain, a story about a woman who devotes her life to others, but realizes that sooner or later she has to live for herself, too.
  • The Quarry, something of a horror story (I hope) about a boy and his friend who go swimming at a local quarry only to discover something truly monstrous awaits them there.
  • Rainsinger, a story of a young man from a nomadic tribe who has to come to grips with the fact that he can never be the man he wants to be.
  • Shift, about a young man who can change his shape to look like anyone he’s “scanned.” But he meets someone who not only defies his powers, but who completely upends his world.
  • The Proper Flow of Things, a humorous piece (I hope) about a man whose problems in both plumbing and life are addressed by a Zen plumber.
  • Water Whispers, about a young woman whose strange experiences around water lead her to a revelation that she never expected.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  • The overall elemental topic is very, well, fluid. Water, for example, could play a key role in the story, like in Water Whispers. Or it could be entirely metaphorical, like in Shift. Or somewhere in between. So there may not always be a strict means by which any particular story adheres to the element that inspired it. All that really matters is that thinking about water is what got me to these six stories. I expect the same will hold true for the remaining sections.
  • I'm not saying I look like this in the morning, but it's a surprisingly accurate picture of how I feel.

    Holy cow, but I can use mornings for writing. This was a bit of a surprise, as I am not really a morning person, but I discovered that if I give up listening to podcasts and reading Cracked.com articles on the morning train ride, I can start working on my story for the day! This may mean actually getting a few hundred words down on the iPad or it might just be sketching out some characters and a general idea. Whatever I do, though, it means I’m actually working on the story all day, in one form or another. If I have downtime between classes or during lunch, I might be able to get a few more words in, and at the very least, it means I have my brain working on the story throughout the day, whether I know it or not. Up until now, I’ve been starting to work on stories rather late – usually around 8 PM – which means that there’s been some variation in length and quality from time to time. [1]

  • In the same vein as above, it really helps that I made a quick rundown of topics for each section. It’s just a simple Excel document, but it has some ideas for stories for each element, which I can start thinking about as early as the night before. Preparation makes it a whole lot easier than sitting down after dinner and hitting random TVTropes pages until something strikes me as interesting.

You knew this was coming.

So, six days in, I’ve racked up a total of 18,397 words out of the target 50,000. If I keep up this rate, I stand to hit over 90,000 words by the end of the month.

Which is kind of scary, when I think about it.

So, Fire is up next and I have a few good ideas for that. If you have any thoughts or feedback, I’d love to hear them. Leave comments here or with the stories and let’s see what we can come up with!

So pretty...

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[1] That’s what he said!