Wednesday, November 30, 2011

NaNoWriMo: How to extend an imaginary deadline.

Today is the last day of November, the last day of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and a day in which thousands of writers wish that their keyboards came with an 'Extend Deadline' button. According to the official count, as of this morning, 2.9 billion words have been written and verified by NaNoWriMo participants, and over $640,000 were raised to fund the writing outreach programs of the Office of Letters & Light.

Last weekend, I took a moment out of my holiday to read through the #NaNoWriMo Twitter feed and noticed the number of people who were boiling with existential angst and self-loathing because they weren't going to make it. They weren't going to win.

As someone who bathes daily in the existential angst of students dragged unwillingly to the keyboard and ordered to write 1,500 words on the American Revolution (or whatever) it was refreshing for a moment to see people who begrudged the time spent at the table on Thanksgiving because they would rather be writing.

Then I came to my senses.

The NaNoWriMo movement gets a lot of crap, and I'm on record here and elsewhere defending the validity of the idea, but that does not mean it is without flaws. If there was one thing I could change about the way we talk about this, it would be to eliminate the word "Winner" from the conversation. Anyone who manages to vomit 50,000 words into the word counter -- any words will do -- is a winner; everyone else is, by extension, a loser. And that's a false premise.

Nevertheless, as the minutes tick away toward the midnight deadline, those who did not complete their 50k will inevitably fume and fuss and glare at their screens and think of ways to pad their numbers. Do outlines count? Character notes? This old short story that has a character with the same name? Some of them will make it across the finish line and some will not. 

I want to remind those people that the inability to write a novel in 30 days does not make you less of a writer. It's entirely possible that it makes you more of one.  So as this imaginary deadline approaches I want all of you to promise me not to take this too seriously.

This is a celebration of the novel, not a celebration of the deadline.

Your worth as a writer is not on the line.

Congratulations to those who will receive that postage-stamp sized digital diploma. You wrote quickly, and I hope you wrote well. Post your plaque on Facebook or Twitter, accept the plaudits of your peers and sleep well tonight. 

Whether you 'won' or not, tomorrow it will be December and you will all sit down at the computer out of habit, take a deep breath, and look back at your share of those nearly 3 billion words, and wonder "What now?"

The answer is the same for all of you, win, lose or draw... 

Make a fresh cup of your favorite morning beverage, congratulate yourself for surviving, and then hit that extend deadline button and keep writing.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Being Green :: The Jim Henson Generation

Of course, I haven't seen the new Muppet movie yet. But I come from that generation sometimes referred to alternatively as "The MTV Generation" or "Generation X" and a few other less salubrious titles. But really, we're the Jim Henson Generation.

And don't you ever forget it.

My generation was the first that never knew a time when it wasn't perfectly acceptable for a bunch of monsters to teach your kids how to share and get along with people who don't look just like them. I learned my numbers and letters from my sister, but she was backstopped by Kermit the Frog and company.

She didn't have to teach me it was okay to be green. Jim took care of that one.

Since Sesame Street first aired in 1969, by the time I was old enough to sing the song, it was already a cultural institution. I remember when no one believed Big Bird had a woolly mammoth buddy named Mr. Snuffleupagus. I remember when Grover was the monster at the end of the book and Elmo was just another red monster in the chorus of many. Ernie was my favorite, followed close by Grover and Oscar the Grouch.

Alas that mom refused to buy me a trash can to hang out in.

But it wasn't Sesame Street that makes me think of myself as living in a world that Jim Henson created. It was the Muppet Show, which ran from 1975-1981 and then lived on in reruns through most of my life.

As much as anything else, picking apart that show taught me how to write comedy.
‎"One thing that happens with comedy writers is that they are all really good at coming up with beginnings... really good set ups, but they can't figure out how to pay them off. What my father figured out was, if you can't get out, you just either blow something up, or eat something, or just throw penguins in the air."                                                                                               - Brian Henson
And the writing on the Muppet Show was nothing short of brilliant. At times, it was entry-level Monty Python and at the same time hearkened back to the vaudeville impresarios of yesteryear. They channeled Groucho Marx and Jack Benny and Bob Hope without pausing to see if you got the last joke before moving on to the next. Sometimes there wasn't a joke, just an absurd situation devolving into chaos.

On some level, we knew that the show was trying to appeal to our parents. Going back and watching the shows now as an adult, I find new appreciation for just how much Jim was pitching over our heads to hit the adults on the sofa behind us.

The Muppets introduced me to Peter Ustinov and Zero Mostel, as well as the madcap brilliance of Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Henson and his writers delighted in wordplay and snappy patter. It's quite possible that they're responsible for my fondness for puns, but don't hold that against them. The Muppet Show was the first time I saw John Cleese. They also taught me a new way to think about comedy and led me, by way of Spike Milligan to the Goon Show and on to Monty Python and the rest is history.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the chance to watch the Muppet Movie again on the big screen. The Seattle International Film Festival has been having an entire month of Muppet-related shows and events.

Sitting in the darkness of the SIFF cinema, surrounded by children and their parents, I was astounded by how well it held up. Leaving aside the six year old behind me who whispered to his mom "Why are people laughing at the waiter? He hasn't said anything yet!"

How do you explain Steve Martin to a six year old?

Wherever I went, I was always the "different" kid. The outsider, and not in a cool way. But it didn't matter because I lived in a world where it's getting easier to be green.  And we have Jim to thank for that. When I grew up, I wanted to be Jim Henson.  I still do.  In the meantime, I'm having fun being someone that he inspired.


SIFF's celebration of Jim Henson "Muppets, Music, and Magic: Jim Henson's Legacy" continues through the end of November! Click here for show times and ticket information.

(Note: I am unaffiliated with the Seattle International Film Festival, et al. This is genuine enthusiasm, not a bizarre scheme to boost ticket sales.)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Shyness Unmasked :: Finding My Inner Extrovert

This morning, a writer and storyteller I greatly admire not only correctly identified me by my work, but also told me that he loved the story. My tongue cleaved to the top of my mouth, my palms got clammy and it took me several minutes to figure out how to respond.

If this interaction didn't take place via Twitter, I'd have been in real trouble.

Like everyone on the internet, my various bios conceal as much as they reveal. When someone asks about me, I'm prone to default to being funny rather than honest. I have no excuse for that, it's just the way I am. If you asked me the same question at a restaurant, I'd probably do the same thing.

Well, at least I'm consistent.

My sense of humor comes from a place of extreme discomfort. I am notoriously awkward in social situations, excitable, shy, prone to blushing, and generally nervous around new people. Strangely, I've been told by many that I'm a compelling public speaker. I'm not sure how that works, but when I hear it, I smile, sort of jerk my head in a nervous half-nod and carry on carrying on.

My favorite aunt was a source of particular terror for me as a child. I was so painfully shy that I ran away and hid from her. I locked myself in a bathroom or two and she once pursued me over and around furniture, determined to give her great nephew a hug. This perfectly turned-out woman, always proper and dignified and accustomed to moving in the circles of power and propriety, determined to get me over my fear of her.

Because she was just that awesome.

If you meet me, you might not realize I'm the adult that used to be that kid. I've been developing ways to conceal these kneejerk responses for over thirty years. When I was single it was ten times worse. It's a wonder and a miracle that my wife and I ever met, much less married.

Even conversations with people I've known for years are often filled with odd stretches of complete silence while I try to come up with something say.

I've always suspected that I'm not alone in this. Not to paint with too broad of a brush, writers are by definition, people who are inclined to spend a lot of time alone with their thoughts. Let's face it: when your imaginary friends are so good you want to share their antics with other people, it leads to a lot of living inside of your own head.

My imaginary friends are so at home they built a lovely little village named Westmoore and made themselves at home. If there's room for a whole village in there, surely the rest of you will fit?

One of the ways I get past my anxiety is by wearing a mask. And not a metaphorical one either, a real one. The one in the snapshot to the right.

I realize that sounds a little weird, but bear with me for a moment.

Consider for a moment a man who is terrified of walking up and standing in front of a room full of people and talking. Then consider what it would take to make that happen. What kind of shield would it take for that person to walk up in front of a crowd and not only command their attention, but hold it?

It was almost exactly ten years ago that I met my Dumbo's feather.

Unfortunately, you can't just wander around in a mask without paying a higher social price than you are already paying for merely being shy. It is possible for the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction and what I really needed was a controlled environment for the experiment where this sort of behavior isn't that strange.

I needed a place that would allow a largely inexperienced, completely unknown and shy actor on their stage.  There really is only one place where that sort of thing is possible. Luckily I'm an historical reenactor and was therefore already on the cast of my local renaissance faire.

Meet Calabash. (I'm the one that isn't made out of bronze.)

I've mentioned before that I'm a clown. Calabash began as a strange experiment and it became something more than that. He became the outlet valve for a part of my personality that I didn't know existed.

With that mask on, I could walk up to complete strangers and not only engage them in conversations, but I could stand on a stage, shouting at the top of my lungs and attracting the sort of attention that without the mask would have me scrambling for cover. I became a lead character. I got paid to show up places. I was on the cover of the program.

A terrified flying elephant holding onto a feather for all he's worth.

And like that feather, the mask was a trick. And just as with Dumbo, it worked.

About eight years after I first put on the mask, I attended my first writer's conference and I was one of the few people there actively meeting the eyes of those around me. Who was starting conversations with strangers, walking up to tables at the dinners and introducing myself, leading conversations, holding up my hand in classrooms...

Outside the agents and editors room instead of staring intently at my shoes, I pictured myself putting on the Calabash mask before I went in.  I was still shaking when I walked out, but my voice was as steady as my handshake and my eye contact was good.

As dumb as it sounds, I couldn't have done it without Calabash the clown.

Writers are mainly introverts, people who would rather sit and chat with their imaginary friends than stand in front of a room full of people who are looking for them to be as interesting in person as they are on the page.

Given my druthers, I would still hide in my corner and write my stories without ever doing anything else. Instead, I'm presenting ideas to the boards of local charities and nonprofits. I'm heading up comittees designated with the task of broadcasting the missions of those organizations to a larger audience. I've walked up to editors and agents and journalists and felt less like I was ice skating on thin ice over the dark waters of panic.  I've found myself on a stage both literally and figuratively, and I've found my a way to make myself at home there.

Because if I want to introduce all of you to those imaginary friends of mine, it's what I have to do. And to be successful at this, you do too.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Running out of stories, or just looking for a way around?

The other day, I posted on a discussion board dedicated mostly to discussing Queen Elizabeth & her reign, that I'd seen a copy of "The Secret History of Elizabeth Tudor, Vampire Slayer" on the shelf at a bookstore. I confess that I was snarky about it.

As someone who posted after me pointed out, this is one of an emerging genre of books that posit famous historical personages as secret warriors in the fight against the undead. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer is a famous one. There are others including Queen Victoria and even Sarah Palin, though I hope the latter is satire of some sort.

For what it's worth, I have nothing against these authors or any other who turns their hand to the literary mash-up genre. Kudos to all of you for pursuing your idea and getting it published and read in a tough market. This genre is emerging as adjacent to if not part of the literary mashups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies among others.

My problem isn't with the individual books, but that they are viewed by the world at large as science fiction or at best fantasy. And we should all be aware that to those outside the fan base for those things, there isn't a difference.

But the question this really begs is have we expended all of our ideas to the extent that the only way forward is endless remixing and rehashing of what we've already done?

I have a folder full of ideas that argues otherwise.  But if every author has one of these folders (and they do) then why does it seem like it?

While I was thinking about this, I stumbled across a thought-provoking essay by astrophysicist and novelist David Brin on how to define Science Fiction and while I don't agree on every point, it clarified a lot of what I've been feeling about the state of science fiction.

The lack of originality is one part pessimism and one part laziness. Because if you believe there are no new stories to tell, or if you believe that telling an imaginative and uplifting story is trite, then why not be lazy?
"Let there be no mistake—this is the giant fault line down the middle of science fiction’s broadly varied and tolerantly diverse community of authors and readers. The notion that children might, possibly, sometimes,learn from the mistakes of their parents, avoid repeating them… then forge on to make new mistakes all their own, overcoming obstacles on their way to becoming better beings than ourselves."
David BrinWriting for the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies
On this point, I concur with Dr. Brin: we live in a time when optimism is treated as though it were a contagious disease. When the hope that (as Dr Brin says) our successors might learn from our mistakes and not repeat them seems anathema to us. Year after year, we are hammered with stories whose key element seems to be complete failure of human society to learn and improve.

And I get that too. I watch the events that are happening in the world. As a student of history, I see the cycles of human experience repeat. And it saddens me.

But it does not make me a pessimist.

Howard Carter is an homage to the greatest stories of Sci Fi's past, but it is more than that. Its story rests on the refutation that cycles are unbreakable. Its stance is pointedly and fearlessly anti-fatalist.

Because I am, at heart, an optimist. I'm a cynical one sometimes, but an optimist nonetheless.

There are dystopian stories that need to be told. And science fiction does and should have a role to play in warning us of the future consequences of current trends. But I feel deeply and personally that we took a wrong turn somewhere when we decided that science fiction had to stop positing positive futures. Not that dystopian stories should not be told, but by making it cliche or trite to posit any advancement and dwell solely on the inevitability of decline, we've shot ourselves in the collective foot as a literary movement and as a society.

Though much of it is dystopian, Steampunk is an expression of this, a point that I think Dr. Brin misses. That by re-imagining the past as more enlightened and inclusive than it really way, we've turned our optimism inside out and sent it back in time and into alternate universes. When we were told we're not allowed to imagine that mankind can be better, we started imagining how mankind could have been better.

I don't think these strange genre fluctuations and mash-ups mean we've run out of ideas or that we've reached the end of our creativity. I think it means we're running against a wall and I see it as a sign of frustration on the part of authors at the constraints imposed upon them. I see them as a way of saying, 'If we can't go forward, we'll go under, over, or around'.

But then... I am an optimist.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Vlogbrothers and Nerdfighters: A case study in the futility of "Platform Building" advice

This is the topic I don't want to talk about. But it's a writing blog and we had to get to it sooner or later... Platform.

There are a lot of writing books in the world and I've read most of them. One of the reasons I particularly love the older ones is because they spend more time talking about how to write and less time talking about why you need to have a wildly popular blog or other online presence.

For the record: none of the books pictured do this.
That's part of what I like about them.
This advice is all-too-often dispensed with an air of "any idiot could do it".

Aspiring writers are repeatedly told (not advised, told) to create and maintain an online fanbase. Get online. What are you waiting for? Generate some buzz! And hordes of writers run screaming into the cybernetic night, searching for fans.

This is referred to as creating an online "platform".

Platform is one of those things that agents and editors talk about with dreamy voices. Most of the reasons given boil down to this: if you already have an audience, you don't have to waste time creating one after your book comes out.  At its best, it's a ready-made fan base that guarantees your devoted followers will mob bookstores on the day your novel comes out, or even drive it to the top of the bestseller lists before it's even finished.

Let me say that again: Before it's even finished.

Click that link. Go ahead. We'll be here when you get back.

Did you read it? Were you just a little sick with envy? I certainly was.

For people who don't click links: YA author John Green's newest book A Fault In Our Stars wasn't even finished yet when it became a bestseller.

John is a talented, award-winning writer. He received the Printz honors and an Edgar Award for his writing, quite apart from his online fame. (I doubt there are many Nerdfighters, as his online community calls itself, on the awards committee at the MWA.) His plaudits are many and that little bust of Edgar Allen Poe was well-earned.

You might recall that back in September of 2009, I named him "One To Watch" because he has a knack for using the internet to tell stories and create community.  (We'll ignore the fact that he was only one of the three on that list you still hear about.  As prophecies go, one out of three ain't bad.) The YouTube channel he created with his brother Hank (collectively known as the "Vlogbrothers") developed the kind of following that bloggers dream of. Millions of fans (myself included) who call themselves "Nerdfighters" watch the weekly uploads, follow him on Twitter, and buy his books.

Here's the tricky part that those advising that everyone go out and do likewise... in almost every case I can find of this happening, it happened mostly on accident.

Sure, at some point, the Vlogbrothers discovered that their videos had acquired an audience. Since then, they have consistently made an effort to include those fans in what they were doing, to inspire them to raise money for charity, and have otherwise capitalized on their following in a way that managed not to alienate them. They even use their nerdiness to exploit YouTube's own ranking algorithm to push videos that advertise charities into the top rankings by motivating their fanbase to watch and rate these videos over and over again.

It's impressive. And I'd wager that it cannot be reproduced.

"Build a platform!" Is the new battlecry heard at a thousand writing conferences. Every book about writing that's appeared in recent years will tell you that you must create some level of buzz online in order to get noticed by publishers. And after every writer's conference, aspiring writers flood the internet, trying to become the next Vlogbrothers, or Bloggess, Scalzi, or Julie Powell, or whoever the presenter used as an example.

That's a huge wall to plop down in front of an aspiring writer and I think it leads to a lot of discouragement. And I think it's largely needless.

Yes, there are things we can all learn from watching those bloggers I just named find success. But in many of the presentations I've attended and books I've read, there lacked a key piece of advice: They did this by being themselves.

 Back to the Vlogbrothers... John and Hank Green built their fan base the old fashioned way: by being funny and topical, yes, but mostly by being genuine and sincere. Two brothers sending 4-minute videos to each other became a force that helped send John up the bestseller lists and helped his brother Hank hit the Billboard charts. Along the way, they've raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity and made the world suck less.  Their stated mission is literally "to decrease worldsuck" and they mean it.

More importantly, there isn't a disingenuous bone in either of their bodies. John didn't sit down with his brother and say "How are we going to use YouTube to make my books bestsellers?"

The siren call of the platform builders is a seductive one. I find myself listening to it from time to time myself when I'm trying to decide what to write or not write about on this blog. When in fact, this blog is not an effort to create an online platform. Not because I don't want to sell out a print run before it's even printed, but because that's not why I'm here. I'm writing here because if I didn't write this stuff here, I'd be writing it someplace else. And because I feel like someone should be able to find out the things I had to learn the hard way.

These really are the pages I need to type before I can sleep. And often, they're the things I need to write before I can write. When my brain coughs up an idea, I have to write it down or it will keep nagging at me like a song stuck in my head until I can't think of anything else.

I am honestly gratified that anyone chooses to read these brainfarts of mine, but it's not part of a master plan to build an army and conquer the publishing industry.

This is a place where I stand to tell the truth where the people I think need to hear it can hear me.

Remember when I said that the real successes, the things that really catch fire, mostly happen on accident? Well, that's not entirely true. You have to put yourself out there, and that means a certain amount of premeditation.

The decision to be yourself in public is a decision, not an accident. Being yourself is scary. I get that. But as someone else once noted, everyone else is taken.

And that's the only genuine "platform" advice anyone needs to hear. Because "Go be like them" is never good advice. You will never get anywhere you want to go by being someone else. I can try to write like Jenny from Bloggess, and I can go recipe-by-recipe through a cookbook like Julie Powell, and I can go on Youtube and talk to my sister... But that's me trying to be them, not me being me. And if there's one thing John & Hank's success really should teach you, is that if you have to be someone else to get there, it's someplace you don't want to go.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

My Tea Will Beat Up Your Tea

Okay, fine. I will drink tea. One condition: The strainer has to have a better than average chance of getting loose and seizing control of the planet.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The 5 Most Useful P2T Posts for NaNoWriMo

At the request of several friends who are too busy trying to hit 50,000 words to paw through the archives for inspiration, I've assembled my personal top five most useful posts for the NaNoWriMos. I hope it helps you!  (Each heading is a clickable link.)
  1. Last Year's NaNoWriMo Pep Talk
    I wasn't asked to write a pep talk for National Novel Writing Month.  But writing something no one asked you to write is really the point of NaNoWriMo, isn't it?  So in the spirit of the month, I did it anyway.
  2. Where do you get your ideas?
    Where do Ideas come from?  It's the question every writer dreads and emphatically answers with "I don't know".  Honestly, I suspect that for most writers that's a bit of a fib -- we may not know where ideas come from in the cosmic sense any more than we can tell you the meaning of life, but we generally know where a specific idea came from, or at least what prompted it.
  3. What if I get stuck?
    Especially during the month of November (cough-NaNoWriMo-cough), I get people asking me how to deal with writer's block. I admit that used to be a real problem for me until I developed methods of dealing with it when it happens, writing around it and generally stripping it of its power to hurt my productivity. In April, 2009, I compiled my 7 favorite tips for breaking out of a literary cul de sac.
  4. What if I'm still stuck?
    Personally, I think that a big part of writer's block is the fear of it happening much more than the actuality of the thing.  It's the bugbear under the bed, the monster in the anxiety closet of too many writer's offices.  So what do you do to disarm a bogey man?  We mock them, of course. So, in the interest of a bit of fun and making fun of the bugbears, I've generated a list of some of my favorite and most oddball advice on writer's block. If my advice doesn't help you, maybe someone else's will...
  5. Why should I listen to you?Listen to me only if what I say helps you. There's no such thing as "One Size Fits All" in either hats or advice. Only take what helps you; discard what that doesn't.

From all of us on the sidelines this year, cheering you on: Best of luck to you all! And we'll try to keep the vuvuzela blowing to a minimum.

10 Tips to Get You From Idea to Finished Novel

For all those who are on the NaNoWriMo marathon, here are 10 things that I keep in mind as I progress from the idea I scribbled on a napkin to the moment I sit down to turn it into a book.

Ten Tips to Get From Idea to Finished Novel
  1. Be interested in your story. Writing is hard work and before you commit to spending long hours sitting in a chair stringing tens of thousands of words together to tell your story, you'd better darn well be sure it's a story that interests you enough to make that worthwhile.

  2. Feed your brain. Your brain generates stories from the stuff you cram in there. Give it the fodder it needs to make new and interesting stories and well fleshed-out characters. Interview everyone you meet, explore every place you go, try new things.

  3. Everything is research. Accept it. Pay attention. Take notes and snapshots. You never know when you'll need the story about the kid who accidentally ordered a Harrier fighter jet on eBay.

  4. Ideas are not sacred. Don't get so attached to an idea that you're unwilling to allow it to evolve. A story idea is less like the directions from a GPS and more like finding your way through a new city with written directions scrawled on the back of a coffee-stained napkin.

  5. Write now, edit later. Just sit you butt in the chair and put the story on the page. Editing is inevitable, but it is a stage of its own that can wait until later. Your initial goal is to get the story out of your head, everything else follows that.

  6. Take little bites. A big idea can choke you if you try to eat it all at once. Writing anything long form is a lot like the old adage about eating an elephant: Start at one end and take it one bite at a time.

  7. Make stuff up. Research can be a very addictive drug. It's easy to get so wrapped up in the intriguing minutiae of your subject matter that you forget to write a book about it. If it ever gets shelved in a library or bookstore, your novel will be in the fiction section, this gives you license to fake it... within reason, of course.

  8. Keep everything. Create a file on your computer (or in your filing cabinet if you're a luddite like me) of the random ideas or characters that occur to you as you're writing. Not everything you create while writing will fit the story you're working on. Hang on to those tidbits for later use in this or another story.

  9. Step away from the Television and/or the Internet. That might sound odd coming from me, but these mediums are specifically designed to catch your attention and hold it. I've recently begun doing my writing on a computer that is isolated from the internet to combat this. My writing output tripled when we got rid of TV and as a bonus we saved a lot of money each month.

  10. Write with the vocabulary you have. Put away the thesaurus, it's just slowing you down and making self-conscious. Finding your authorial "voice" is about telling the story the way you tell it, not the way Roget would tell it if he were writing it. Your vocabulary will grow organically on its own and in a way that is unique to you as you research and read. Language is a fragile thing and it will break if you try to force it.
It's easy to end a list with the words "And it's as easy as that!" but it really isn't all that easy or everyone would do it.

It's not as easy as that and I think that's an important thing to keep in mind at every stage.  Writing is hard.  It's supposed to be hard.  So don't beat yourself up when you find that it isn't easy.  This is job, a task like any other -- a task that must be performed before you can enjoy the results.  

Because at the end of the day (or the end of November) it's the person who puts their butt in the chair and puts the words on the page who will win the race.

Best of luck to you all!