NaNoWriMo Week 2. Or, the Wall

So the second week of NaNoWriMo has come and gone and I’ve fallen way behind on keeping up on this blog. In my defense, a significant part of that was because my mother ended up in the hospital for the week, so keeping up with her, stopping by the hospital every couple of days, and making sure her needs were being met took up a significant amount of my time that I would have otherwise spent writing. She’s home now, but still recovering from some serious health issues, so it looks like I’m going to have my hands full for the foreseeable future. But come Thanksgiving, one thing I know I’ll be thankful for is that she’s still around to share it with us. Because honestly, it was a close thing.

As for the NaNoWriMo thing, I’m still going strong. Mostly. At least I’m right on track for where I should be 18 days in (or at least I will be once I get my daily writing session in today. But that wall hit in the middle of week 2 and it hit hard.

In college, I signed up for a martial arts class through the school because I needed a PhysEd credit. I had studied tae kwon do for the last couple of years of high school, so I figured it would be a breeze. Well…I was kinda right and kinda wrong. Because I had previous experience, I picked upon the concepts pretty quickly, but it was a much more advanced form of martial arts, what my sensei , Mr. Smith, termed the Fighting Arts, because it was intended to be Martial Arts for the real world, something that you could use in real-life situations. He incorporated my familiar tae kwon do as well as jujitsu, jeet kune do, judo, kung fu, aikido, and one or two more that I’ve since forgotten. Like I said, it was pretty intense. The summer of my second year studying under Mr. Smith, he held his version of a boot camp. No Martial Arts was involved at all, just straight-up physical training the old school way. Like working out with sections of telephone pole old school.

About 3 weeks in, the entire class was worn down. We were meeting 3 or 4 times a week and working an absolutely brutal physical regimen. Our bodies just gave out on us. We were physically exhausted. I was taking a summer Spanish class at the time and was struggling at it because my entire being was so exhausted. Finally, it got to the point where we were all showing signs of fatigue; none of us was motivated and we were doing the bare minimum at class that evening. Mr. Smith reamed us out for not working hard enough and sent us home.

I dreaded going to the next class. I felt like I had let Mr. Smith down by not working hard enough. I felt like I had let myself down. I was a hard worker and was used to excelling at whatever I put my energy into. I wasn’t accustomed to getting yelled at like that (not that it had been directed at me personally—it was directed at the class as a whole) and didn’t want to experience it again. And I still didn’t feel up for working out that night. But I went anyway. Mr. Smith entered the room and very matter-of-factly informed us that for the first 3 weeks he had been breaking us down, that the lack of energy we were all experiencing was an accumulation of weeks’ worth of hard physical work, that our bodies and minds were worn down. And now he would begin to build us back up. That class, we started a different regimen of exercises. After a single week, I felt great. After 3 more, I felt fantastic. I had more energy and mental capacity than I had ever had before. I was in the best shape of my life, before or since.

Week 2 of NaNo was kind of like that for me. I’m not accustomed to writing every single day. I’m not accustomed to spending hour upon hour doing it. I’m not accustomed to putting out 1000 or more words in a single session. Toward the end of week 2, my energy and stamina flagged in a big way. The daily goal for NaNo in order to finish on time is 1667 words a day on average. Day 10 I put out less than 1500 words; day 11, only about 1000, and day 12, just over 900. Admittedly, part of it was that I had long since entered unplanned territory because my story had taken some unexpected turns and I was struggling a bit to set up some of the basic concepts that drive the plot later in the book. It was delicate work and hard. And I was tired. I gave myself a pass because I was actually slightly ahead; earlier in the week, I had had a couple of very productive days.

But I pushed through it. I kept writing even though I didn’t really know what was going to happen next. And what happened surprised me. Two new characters were introduced that I hadn’t planned for and they drove the plot in a completely different direction than I had planned. But so far, I like them both; they’re mysterious, intriguing, fun to write, and maybe most importantly, they’re holding their own in the story. I don’t know how their characters are going to develop down the road or what their paths are going to be in relation to the main story, but I’m getting some hints here and there as I go. And I’m having fun with it, and that, I think, is the most important part.

As I said above, right now, I’m basically right on track at around 29,000 words. I’m experiencing some fatigue again and I really feel like I need a night or two away from it, but I’m bound and determined to hit that 50,000 word mark by the 30th. Like I said, I’m used to excelling at whatever I put my energy into—or at least I used to be. It’s honestly been a while since I’ve put this much energy into anything for myself, so I’m a bit out of practice. But I’m not going to let something like a little fatigue get in my way.

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NaNoWriMo, Day 8: Entering Week 2

Today, being November 8, the 8th day of the month, 7 days having preceded today, there being 23 days left in the month of November, thereby the date today being the 8th, is Day 8 of NaNoWriMo. I had really intended to post updates on a more frequent basis, about every day or two; however, my personal life and writing have been my first priority lately, and usually by the time I finish up at the end of the night (or early in the morning), there just hasn’t been any room for updates. That being said, NaNo is actually going surprisingly well so far. At the end of day 7, I was a couple of hundred words ahead, which I’m ecstatic about. I’ve actually surpassed the point I reached last year (which, as I stated in my earlier blog, I ended up abandoning due to other writing obligations and then ended up losing due to hardware failure and my lack of backing the thing up). The interesting thing is, while it’s the same story I started last year with some of the same landmarks and milestones, the path is slightly different, which surprised me. I think having already written an early draft of the first few chapters allowed me the comfort of knowing how to approach the story early on, but also allowed me to make a few missteps in the plotting. I’ve added some detail, fleshed out my settings and characters more. I’ve done away with all of the lengthy exposition, working on revealing things at much more appropriate pace, one which hopefully keeps the readers (assuming there are some) turning pages to find out why the father was arrested, what it was he was searching for, if he had actually found their locations (assuming the artifacts actually exist and aren’t simply legend to begin with, and further assuming they actually possess the power they’re reputed to have), what the secret is behind them, and what it is the agents of the State are actually after and why. Also, who is the dark figure the sisters spy coming out of their house and who does he (she?) work for. Originally, I had laid much of this out in the second and third chapters, all in dialogue, afterward realizing that it was too much too early in the narration. These are all things that the protagonists need to discover along the way, and setting it all up at the beginning eliminated the driving force of the journey, just sending them from Point A to Point B without any real purpose behind it, basically telling them, “OK. This is the thing you need to do, this is why you need to do that thing, and this is where you need to go to do that thing.” So I’ve fixed that, given the protagonists as well as the reader a reason to wonder what’s going on and why things are happening as they are.

This is the first time I’ve really dedicated myself to writing a novel. Sure, I’ve dabbled in it before, and actually have several chapters of a fantasy novel that I think are really good. And other people seem to think so as well. But I’m realizing that I wasn’t really dedicated to it. I’d sit down and write a few hundred words, maybe a chapter, and then go do something else. And then I’d come back to it a few days or weeks or months later, write a little more, then go do something else. I think I liked the idea of writing a novel, but wasn’t really committed to the process. Additionally, I’ve realized that after so many years of reading how hard it is to write a novel, how it’s like birthing a child, how many years it took this author to write, how many false starts this author had before finally getting it right, etc., etc., I’ve built up the concept of writing a novel into a whole big, laborious, nigh-impossible thing that only Professional Authors can do. When really, all it boils down to is coming up with a concept, doing some prep work (world building, character development, plotting, research), setting a goal, and writing the thing. Even if the first draft is crap, it can always be revised. And that’s where I struggle; I tend to be a perfectionist, so every single word I set down has always had to be The Perfect Word the first time, a mindset that doesn’t mesh well with my organic, seat-of-the-pants writing style. Happily, I’m working on that. This experience has been a great one for just letting myself go and having fun while aiming for that end-of-day word count.

A fellow author recently posted that he feels that NaNo is a gimmick which should be shunned by the true professional. Well, I’m not a true professional, but I’m working on it. In the meantime, I’m approaching NaNo as an intense writing exercise as a way to build my writing muscle, to test the limits of what I can do, and to force myself to set a schedule and make my writing a priority. If I can write 50,000 words in one month, I figure I can do anything. And right now, I’m sitting at nearly 12,000. It’s not yet the longest story I’ve ever written, but in the next few days, it will be. That right there is an accomplishment. And then, when I finish the thing and have an actual freaking novel written? I’m throwing a party.

How did everyone else’s first week go? What’s your daily and/or overall goal and how close to it are you? Have you been writing every day? What’s your view on NaNo: gimmick, writing exercise, or the means to publication? What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

Books about orcs, goblins, dragons, wizards, and bullshit

Earlier today on his Facebook page Patrick Rothfuss posted a link to the video below and said this about it: “When I was in Milwaukee, doing my reading and signing, someone told me that their creative writing teacher required them to go to a reading as part of their class, but that my reading didn’t count, because I wrote fantasy. I had her record a video where I voice my opinion on the matter.”

The thing is, I think he’s 100% correct and I think he brings up some great points; Midsummer Night’s Dream as fantasy? The Odyssey? I honestly hadn’t thought of them in those terms, but they are, indeed, very much fantasy. However, I think one could actually take his argument quite a bit further. If you look at its most basic elements, fantasy fiction can be traced all the way back to oral tradition, back before the Brothers Grimm set “fairy tales” down on paper, when the woods were a dark and unknown place and full of hungry wolves and cannibalistic witches; where the concept of “science” was not yet a thing and so we had to figure out a way to explain why the seasons changed or how the tiger got its stripes or why the bear has no tail; where “here there be dragons” was written at the edges of the known map; and the oceans were full of sea serpents and mermaids. I would argue that fantasy stems from the very roots of culture, that it’s the oldest form of fiction, that it contains our most basic fears, dreams, and desires.

Much of fantasy fiction feels like it could be told around a fire, like the stories of old were, long before the printing press had been invented. And like that ancient oral tradition, the best fantasy has a lyrical quality to it (Patrick Rothfuss’s books, “A Wind in the Door,” and “A Wise Man’s Fear” are both excellent examples of this–his words ring in your ear and his stories stay with you long after you’ve read them). Fantasy resounds with themes of love, loss, danger, betrayal, action, introspection, coming-of-age, and self-discovery, just as those old oral stories did. It can be used as a platform to get a point across or teach a lesson, to pass knowledge from one generation to the next. Just as oral tradition did.

What we now call fairy tales, the well that has been tapped for so long by Disney and other modern animators, movie makers, and storytellers, derives from a very dark and dangerous time in human history, when the world was a very scary place. We have these tales now because the Brothers Grimm took it upon themselves to record them; otherwise, they would have most likely been lost to time. Red Riding Hood is a warning: Don’t go into the woods because there are dangerous things in there. Including wolves that will eat you. Hansel and Gretel tells much the same tale, only it substitutes a cannibalistic witch for the wolf, which sends a slightly different message: Don’t go into the woods because there are dangerous things in there that we don’t really understand, but could definitely kill you and eat you. Other stories from the oral tradition such as Bluebeard, about a serial killer whose most recent wife discovers the room where he keeps the remains of his many past wives, and the Juniper Tree, about a woman who beheads her stepson and feeds him to his father in the form of blood pudding (I’d love to see Disney animate that!), both speak to the dangers of the society of the time, which could be lawless and cruel (so not too much has changed). In the Grimms’ versions of just a couple of stories that Disney has, uh, Disney-fied, Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off a big toe and a heel respectively in order to fit into the glass slipper and Snow White’s stepmother was forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes. It was a cruel, cruel world in the days of the fairy tales and awful things happened to good and bad people alike. But if you pay attention, you can learn about what was and was not socially acceptable behavior at the time and how to and how not to act toward others. And maybe, just maybe, if you follow those rules and play your cards right, you, too, could meet your Prince Charming and become a princess. In other words, what we now call fairy tales were used as a method of teaching, passed down from one generation to the next. Thankfully, we now have print, which is much more effective at doing the job.

And let’s talk about those orcs, goblins, dragons, wizards, etc. for a second. First off, orcs were a creation of Tolkien, but they were derived from much older Western European legends and tales. But goblins, dragons, elves, brownies, trolls, sylphs, dryads, nymphs, mermaids, sea monsters, sirens, banshees, gods on high, etc., etc. go back to the early days of human culture and storytelling. They were ways to explain the things that go bump in the night, a way to comprehend the incomprehensible, to describe why things in nature happened the way they did. Science hadn’t been invented at the time of these early stories. Nature was only observable in the most rudimentary way; there were no microscopes or telescopes in early culture to discover the nature of the solar system to explain how the seasons work or the ability to observe nature on a microscopic level to explain that it was bacteria and viruses that make people and animals sick and not a curse by a malevolent witch. So stories were made to explain things in a way that made sense. And we borrow these stories today, as well as the characters and plots and settings because they have a cultural significance to us; they speak to us because they spoke to our ancient ancestors. In short, they’ve become archetypes.  We understand them at this point without them having to be explained to us.

So my question is, why shouldn’t a reading by a fantasy author count toward credit in a literature class? To me, any professor of literature who turns his or her nose up at fantasy and dismisses it as “genre fiction” hasn’t been paying attention.

My Muse Must be Crazy

Well. I finally started my own official blog. Why? Why not? Because it’s my blog and I can blog if I want to. Because it’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel like blogging. Because I felt like going off the rails on the blog crazy train.

Ugh. That’s a terrible first paragraph.

Let’s start over. This thing has gotten off track already and I haven’t even gotten started. I want my first blog entry to be a good one. It’d be nice if anyone who actually reads this comes back. And, yes, I plan on doing this again.

I assume anyone who is actually reading this knows me, either in real life or through social media (most likely Facebook as I abandoned MySpace about 6 years ago and don’t really get the whole Twitter thing, so tend to avoid it). On the off chance that you don’t know me, however, or if you’ve recently added me as a friend and don’t really know what I’m about, or even if you do know me and we’ve just fallen out of touch, I’ll do my best to fill you in briefly.

As I write this, I’m a 41-year-old father of two beautiful girls who unfortunately live with their mother 350 miles away. I have an amazing and super supportive girlfriend named Melanie who was one of the many people among my close friends who were instrumental in helping me keep my sanity during my less-than-fun divorce a couple years back. For my day job, I work as a Medical Transcription Quality Control specialist, which basically means I check other people’s work for errors. I’ve collected Transformers since they were first released in 1984. I’ve seen every single Star Wars movie in the theater. Batman is hands down my favorite super hero (more on that in a later blog). In my spare time, I’m a book lover, a comic book reader, a movie watcher, a gamer, a writer, and an unapologetic geek. I’ve had a handful of short stories published in various fantasy and horror anthologies and I’m working very hard to expand my portfolio. And I also took a huge leap this year and signed up for NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, which is primarily what I want to focus on in this post.

For the uninformed or uninitiated, NaNoWriMo takes place annually during the month of November. The idea behind it is to write a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days. And personally, having never written a novel—or more accurately, never finished one—this is incredibly intimidating for me. I have an idea that I came up with about a year and a half ago that I thought at the time would make a good YA series. The concept is that a pair of sisters who live in a world very different from our own, where alchemy is science, travel the globe in an attempt to collect mysterious artifacts of power in an effort to rescue their father, who has been arrested by the all-powerful State on the premise of treason, the only way to rescue him being to collect these artifacts and bring them to their father’s captors, who want their power for themselves.

Since conceptualizing it, I worked on the core idea for several months, came up with some interesting characters, locations, and concepts and feel like I have a pretty solid thing going. Now, it’s just a matter of putting the words down.

In the interest of full disclosure, I had actually kinda sorta started writing this for last year’s NaNoWriMo, but because I was also working on another short story, which then became two short stories, for the Ladies and Gentlemen of Fantasy 2014, this story kind of fell to the wayside; it had been several years, actually, since I had seriously written anything and to say that my skills were rusty would be an understatement. It was simply too much for me at the time. So I abandoned working on the novel in order to focus my attention on the short stories, which had an early 2014 deadline. In the meantime, the hard drive that I had saved my work on crashed, and foolishly, I hadn’t backed it up. So here I am again, starting from scratch.

Honestly, though, losing the story was a bit of a blessing in disguise. I feel like because I’ve got a pretty good handle on what happens in the opening chapters, it’s allowing me to focus on some of the details that I missed the first time, to take my time setting up the story and also to avoid some of the missteps that I had taken with that early draft, like writing far too much exposition at the beginning of the story rather than let things unfold naturally. It has also allowed me the time to think ahead, plan what comes in the chapters after I pass the point I had gotten to in my first draft. And I feel like, while I don’t have all the details worked out yet, I’m getting there, and I certainly have ideas on additional characters and plot stimulating events that I can work in that weren’t there in my first attempt.

I have to admit, though, that, being very much a seat-of-my-pantser, I don’t really know where the story is going to take me. I have a starting point and an end point, but the middle is very much a mystery to me. And that makes me nervous. I feel like I’m usually pretty good at figuring these things out if I just stick with it, but that’s kind of been my problem in the past—sticking with it. Which is another reason I made the leap to do NaNoWriMo, so I would force myself to stick with it from beginning to end, even if the finished product sucks, just so I know that I can do it. Because I have a fantasy novel that I started years ago that I got very stuck on after realizing that the story I thought I wanted to tell wasn’t the story that actually needed to be told. Long story short, I panicked, got stuck, and stepped away from it and after a certain point, had a very hard time going back (I’ll talk about that whole thing in a future entry, but for right now, it would take up too much space here). And that was part, although certainly not all, of the reason I got away from writing for a while—I kind of psyched myself out, thinking it was far too difficult and would take too long to actually put together a coherent, complex novel-length story and that I didn’t have the time in my life or the chops to pull it off. I think I made it a much bigger deal than it actually is (and have been told that I tend to do this). Mountains out of molehills, and all that. So, with maybe more than a little bit of urging on Melanie’s behalf, I took the NaNoWriMo plunge, officially signing up and publicly committing to 30 days of writing an average of 1667 words every. Single. Day. For thirty days. Until I’ve written a novel.

A novel.

I’ve never done this before. And I’m trying very hard not to be incredibly intimidated by it. And to be honest, I’m not 100% convinced I’ll actually pull it off.

But.

I’ve written 12,000+ word short stories, which is more than 20% of a novel. I’m 3 days in and have a total of 5032 words. I’m on chapter 4. I’ll be starting chapter 5 soon. I’m averaging just over the bare minimum needed to git ‘r dun by November 30th. Assuming I can keep my stamina up, I’m on track.

I will be facing some obstacles, like the fact that we have plans to travel to New Hampshire to spend Thanksgiving with Melanie’s family and it’s a 14-hour drive each way (thank God for good family and good neighbors who are so willing to house sit and feed the kittehs when we travel), so there are a couple of days right there where it’s very likely that I won’t be able to work on it at all. Also I need to start thinking about another short story that I need to have at least a first draft to present at the December meeting of my Friday peer review virtual group so that I can get the feedback in time for the submission deadline at the end of January. I don’t even have a concept yet for that one, which is starting to worry me a little.

On the other hand, assuming I actually get two days off for my scheduled weekends (which doesn’t always happen, especially if overtime is being offered), I should be able to write more on those days, so I’m hoping it balances out.

Either way, I’ll be posting about it. And that’s one of the real reasons I decided to start a blog; I thought it might be fun and interesting to chronicle the 30-day journey of a first-time NaNoWriMo participant who has no idea what he’s doing and isn’t 100% convinced that he can pull it off.

Which another reason I started this blog; not for the attention and certainly not to brag about writing a novel. I need to be held accountable. And if I know that I have to keep a journal for the world (or at least the few of you I think will actually take the time to read this), it’ll help keep me writing. I’ll still have to report in every single day, whether I write or not. And if I don’t write, I’d better have a darn good reason for it.

On that note, I think it’s time to sign off. This thing went on rather a bit longer than I intended, but I guess I had a lot to say, a lot to share. And I hope that anyone who takes the time to read this (and hopefully follow me) will take away from it—that while I’m writing about me—my thoughts, my experiences—ultimately, it’s just a thing that I’m sharing. And if you happen to learn something or get something out of it, then that’s a nice bonus.