NaNoWriMo, and the Benefits of Failure

It’s been about a month since I’ve posted anything here, and a lot has happened in that time.  Holiday stuff, family stuff, personal stuff, all kinds of stuff that has–of course–affected my ability to keep my nose to the proverbial grindstone where writing has been concerned.  With that said, I’m hopefully back to blogging regularly, and writing more consistently even when I’m not blogging.

As I mentioned in previous posts, I participated in NaNoWriMo this year, and managed to get a large chunk written of a novel that I’ve been spinning around in my head for years.  In terms of the stated victory conditions for NaNoWriMo–50,000 words of a novel written during the month of November–I technically did not win; my novel has come in at just under 40,000 words, and it’s not complete.  However, I’m not sure my failure this year is as complete as one might initially believe, even when one factors in the excellent pace I was maintaining at the beginning of the month, and the sudden drop-off at the end.

A number of factors have led me to consider that this failure might be one of the better things to happen to me, from the standpoint of one who aspires to write for a living.  Consider the following:

  1. The story that I’ve told this year is far more complete–or, at least closer to being completed–than the partial novel I wrote 3 years ago, when I “won” NaNoWriMo by getting 50,000 words pounded out.  That story, which still remains badly unfinished, was only to about the halfway point of the plot before I hit the word count minimum, and I haven’t had the gumption to go back and finish it.  This story, I’ve basically finished: there’s a beginning, middle, and clear end, and could probably work as it stands with a little bit of editing, polish, and a little more content.  I feel much better about this unfinished novel than the technical winner I wrote in 2013.
  2. I tried a new approach to this story that I hadn’t with the others–I wrote it in first person.  Typically, I’ve gone for the third person omniscient point of view, and even though I’ve gotten used to writing that way, I’m not sure it’s helped me over the years.  First person has allowed me to get into the head of my protagonist–no, it’s allowed me to express things through my protagonist’s viewpoint in a way that has just come off as more natural and relevant to the story I’m trying to tell.  It probably means I’ll be rewriting a lot of previously written stories, but I simply can’t get over how right it feels.
  3. My characters were talking to me.  This had previously only happened once previously, in a scene that still strikes me as one of the best character moments I’ve ever written.  It came about in that feeling of not actually having written it, but merely serving as the mouthpiece, or recorder, of your character’s words and actions.  That happened again during this story, and it resulted in some long-standing questions finally getting answered about several characters and their motivations.  It enabled me to get my characters to the final conflict, and has had significant bearing on the aftermath.  As I work to finish out the piece entirely, I look forward to hearing more from them.

I think the most significant indicator of this failure being in name only is that I’m still working to flesh this story out and finish it.  Consider it one of my New Year’s resolutions, but if I can get this story finished by the end of the month, I’ll think of this year’s NaNoWriMo as one of my most successful ever, regardless of whether or not I actually “won” or not.

A Sample from My NaNoWriMo 2016 Novel

For anyone who’s been awaiting my latest blog post, I realize the last couple weeks have been pretty barren.  I’m sorry about that, but I feel I have a good reason.  I’ve been working diligently on my novel for NaNoWriMo this year, and I just passed the 25,000 word threshold today.  That means I’m at the halfway mark, word count-wise, and it’s halfway through November.

With that in mind, I’ve pulled an approximately 500-word excerpt from my novel for anyone who would like to see what I’ve been working on in lieu of the blog (which will, I promise, have more regular posts when I’ve finished this monster).

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I didn’t know much about ammunition in general–I tended to prefer hand-to-hand forms of combat given the choice, though I wasn’t averse to using them if the situation called for it–but I knew demon killer rounds were some seriously high-power and destructive rounds.  They were probably all hollow-point, high-caliber, whatever the hell you say about bullets to make them sound cool, sexy, and high-tech, but they also contained traces of silver, holy water, garlic essence, and a number of other things that were generally known to be bad for most monsters.  They were a highly specialized item, and therefore not easy to get.  

“And, the organization cleared you for access to demon killer rounds?” I pressed, pretty sure I already knew the answer.

“I was able to requisition a couple of clips, here and there,” Alan said, his voice taking on a fluidic, almost evasive smoothness.  “For completely practical purposes, of course.”

“And just from where did you ‘requisition’ these clips?” I inquired.

“Spinner’s footlocker,” he said, his voice not bothering to hide the laugh.  “Last week.”

Oh, my hell.  I knew Alan could sometimes play a little fast and loose with the rules, but this was the first time I could recall him outright stealing something from someone.

“Oh, hell.  You’re kidding.  You’re kidding me, right?”

“What?” Alan asked innocently, his arms spread.  “They were extras.  It’s not like I left him with none.”

“I can’t believe you!” I exclaimed.  “You stole a man’s ammo!”

“Hey!” Alan shot back, as if offended by the accusation.  “First of all, I’m all about getting what we need, not what others think we need, regardless of who may think otherwise!”

I smirked sideways at the flimsy excuse, but kept silent.

“And second, what makes you think I procured these without Spinner’s permission and blessing?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  How about Spinner’s little talk about how they’re not for non-military personnel?”

I could see Alan rolling his eyes dismissively.  “Oh, sure,” he said.  “Bring that up.”

“You were the reason he brought it up in the first place!”

“They were pretty!” Alan shot back adamantly, as if that were all the reason he needed.  “Besides, it’s not like they didn’t end up being put to good use.  Right?”

I rolled my eyes and sighed, unable to argue that.  If Alan hadn’t had those bullets in his gun, that little tussle with the Omega Demon would have likely gone way differently–and certainly more bloody for the two of us.  I may not have approved of his methods, but I had to admit that Alan had made a good call in acquiring, however unethically, the rounds that had both allowed him to stun the Omega Demon and enabled me to tear its bullet wounds open with the enchanted crowbar.

“True,” I conceded.  “They definitely did some good back there.”

“Yeah.  Did you see the surprised look on that thing’s stupid demon face after it realized the bullets had actually pierced its stupid demon hide?”

“I did,” I answered, smiling.  “It almost makes up for the shocked agony on your face when you tried to swing your crowbar at it while it had a stoneskin enchantment up.”

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That’s it for now.  I hope you enjoyed it.  Please let me know if you like it, what you think so far, etc.

Happy writing!

Holy Cow–Cubs Win the 2016 World Series!

This is one of the few sports-related posts you’ll read from me.  But a break is in order from my usual geekdoms.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last day or so, you know that the Cubs have done the impossible and won the World Series after a 108-year drought.

This is kind of a big deal.

I’m not much of a sports person.  When it comes to that topic, I’ve made sure to know enough about each of the major league American sports to follow the basics of a game, understand how it’s played, and even pick a favorite team here and there.  But I have a lot of friends who are big into the minutiae of sports: statistics, business, owners, drafts, and even player rosters and attitudes.  It’s a thing I haven’t done in well over two decades, and these days I’m for the most part content to simply ignore what happens in the sports world.

The Chicago Cubs are one of the FEW exceptions to that rule.

It’s been well over a decade since I’ve called Chicago home, but I spent my formative years in its metropolitan embrace–specifically, a northwest Indiana city called Hammond.  It was there that I started collecting baseball cards, and got into sports with any degree of enthusiasm.  As you can imagine, there are plenty of Cubs fans up there, and it was easy for me to get swept up in the fever, particularly in 1989 when Mark Grace, Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, and Greg Maddux were part of a lineup that brought the Cubs the NL Eastern Division Championship that year.  Watching them then get trounced by San Francisco was hard.

After that year, my interest in baseball largely declined.  I still collected baseball cards for a few years, and followed the Cubs to some degree, as well as one individual player–Cal Ripken, Jr., whose unbroken streak of games played was something I greatly admired–but aside from knowing how the games were played, I’d largely abandoned any interest in sports, even as entertainment.  There were simply other interests and hobbies I was more interested in learning about, comic books and superheroes in particular.

But my interest in the Cubs never completely died.  I was watching in 2003, when poor Steve Bartman tried to catch a foul ball and possibly cost the Cubs the NL Championship.  I watched as the Marlins went on to beat the Cubs, and I shook my head, and thought what so many Cub fans thought: “Maybe next year…”

And then last night happened.

Now Cub fans don’t have to say those words anymore; well, at least, not for a good long while.

I wasn’t watching the game when they won.  In addition to being otherwise occupied, I wasn’t sure I could stomach a Game 7 World Series loss.  I watched social media, though.  I watched people’s Facebook feeds–I have a LOT of Cub fans on my friends list, apparently.  And I’m glad I did.  The game was dragging on.  People were on the knife’s edge, unable to handle not knowing what was going to happen.

Twitter hit me with the news first.  “Cubs are the 2016 World Champions!” someone tweeted.  Then the MLB account tweeted about it.  Then I saw my Facebook feed EXPLODE.

All the joy.  All the tears of joy, the people celebrating in the streets.  The videos of elders who waited their entire lives to see a Cubs win.  The talk of how the Curse of the Billy Goat is now ended.  Bill Murray talking about how anything is possible.  And the unabashed happiness coming from my friends’ feeds, many of whom still live in the Chicagoland area.

I celebrate in spirit with all of them.  I take joy from afar in the Cubs’ triumph, and for at least a moment, my 11-year-old Cub fan was given a glimpse of just how awesome it was for his team to go all the way.

Celebrate in victory, Cub fans.  You deserve it!

NaNoWriMo Report: When Your Characters Won’t Divulge Their Dark Secrets

As of this moment, I’ve amassed about 2600 words towards the 50,000 that dictate victory conditions for NaNoWriMo.  It’s a modest start, but a promising one, and I think I’ve got a decent first chapter written.  I’m planning to write more tonight, and every day, until I finish the story.

characterization-clipart-super-hero-cartoons-mdOne of the longer-term issues I’ve had with this particular story centers around one of my main characters.  She’s the main antagonist for this story, a former ally of my protagonist who has betrayed him and his group.  I’ve also decided that she’s irredeemable at this point, someone who has crossed a moral threshold from which she can’t return, necessitating the conflict between herself and the main character.

The problem is, I can’t get her to tell me exactly what it is she’s done.

That’s important information, and while it may not play directly into the conflict that I’m writing in the NaNoWriMo story, it will provide one of the main drivers for my main character to match wits and lives with her.  It’s a fuel source for their conflict.  I’ve tried to sit down with her and nail down what it is that makes her so beyond the pale in terms of redemption, but every time I ask, she just kind of smiles coyly, her eyes narrow slits, as if she’s about to say, “Wouldn’t you like to know.”

She has a number of character traits that make her both complex and interesting, but she’s using some of them against me.  Damn her.

I could try to arbitrarily come up with some big, bad, terrible situation she’s done or engineered.  I’m her creator, after all, and I could do that easily enough.  But I find these situations are so much better when your creations are so well formed and independent that they can almost take the proverbial pen from the writer, push you to the side, and go, “No, dummy, that’s not what I would do.  Here, gimme.  I’ll take it from here for a little while.”  Oftentimes, when I try to mandate a situation for my characters, it feels clunky, out of place, and in need of a lot of editing and revising.

In the meantime, I’ve got a story to write.  I plan to push on, and hopefully sometime in the near future I can actually find the time to psychically sit her down, treat her to a sumptuous meal and a glass of wine, and get her to tell me what her deep, dark secret is.  Until then, as long as she continues to play coy, I’m hoping that by plumbing the depths of the current story, maybe I can uncover a nugget or two as to what she must have done to make my main character despise her so much.

She’s enjoying the chase in the meantime, and for now I’m willing to play along.  I think she’ll eventually relent.  I would hate to think she’d be happy being a two-dimensional character–or, even worse, trapped in an underhanded scheme that wasn’t already of her own devising.

An Early, Spoiler-Free Review of Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange

maxresdefaultI had the benefit of going and seeing an early screening of Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange this evening.  It’s enjoyable, as Marvel movies tend to be, though it could easily be charged with taking the mystical end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and going through the same motions we’ve seen in the earlier films, but with trippier effects.

I’ll start with some of the positives.  Benedict Cumberbatch is spot-on as Stephen Strange, in looks, in voice, and in manner.  He starts off as he did in the comics: an arrogant, brilliant surgeon who has an automobile accident that leaves his hands all but useless to him.  This particular arrogant jerk is far less likeable than, say, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark, favoring a more caustic, at times visceral wit that can seriously cut.  It’s off-putting at times, but I think is ultimately successful for a character who takes on the burden Strange finds put on him, especially as he comes to understand how little he really knows as he studies the mystic arts.

nullThe supporting cast is also ably utilized.  Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One brings surprising warmth and introspection to a role I was expecting to be otherworldly and almost uncaring.  Chiwetel Ejiofor is superb as Karl Mordo, whose power and experience is only matched by a certain regimentedness of purpose that he can’t quite ever seem to shake.  Rachel McAdams is Strange’s romantic interest, Christine Palmer, who has a few amusing scenes reacting to Strange’s antics (both mystical and not so mystical), but is otherwise not terribly memorable.

The biggest problem one might find with this film is that, as a Marvel Studios film, it does seem to hit some fairly predictable points.  Marvel has clearly mastered the storytelling aspects of the hero’s journey, and has amassed a multimedia juggernaut by doing so successfully.  That’s why we see a lot of the same elements: a hero who starts off not particularly heroic, who finds a way to attain the power to change the world, loses an elder figure, and completes the journey themselves, changed for the better.  Along the way there’s some humor, some romance, and some fun.  Doctor Strange seems to follow this formula to the letter, and while Marvel still does the job ably, it may be time for them to consider new angles to their films’ storytelling.

doctor-strange-kaecilius-1And then there’s the villain.  Marvel’s tendency to do lousy movie villains (Loki notwithstanding) is intact and going strong.  Mads Mikkelson’s character Kaecilius is someone of whom I’d never heard until this film, and it turns out I didn’t need to know much about him, in the worst ways possible.  He’s out to remake the world anew, and willing to destroy reality to make it happen.  Armed with a bland fanatacism and an even blander cadre of disciples, he’s less of a threat and more of an inconvenience, as Strange soon deduces.

None of this is to say the movie is a failure.  Quite the opposite.  It’s still building to a larger conclusion, and it does take this old formula and run it against the considerable backdrop of a mystical, reality-spanning adventure.  And the special effects are simply mesmerizing.  We have sorcerers and wizards bending reality all around themselves, creating portals, altering gravity, summoning matter and energies out of thin air, astral projections, out of body trips through the universe, multiverse, and so on.  It’s a visual feast, and a bit overwhelming at times, but it’s definitely worth experiencing.  Even if Kaecilius isn’t all that memorable, he can still do some fun things during a fight.

doctor-strange-benedict-cumberbatch-04-02-2016-620x413There’s the Marvel blend of action and humor, some of which you can see coming, but which ultimately works out.  A few of the jokes in particular come out of nowhere, making them rare gems indeed.  Stan Lee’s requisite cameo comes at a moment you can hardly miss.  And the post credit scenes are definitely worth sticking around for, both for humorus and plot-driven reasons.  Definitely worth a view, and I would say this is one of the few times I’d lobby for seeing it in 3D IMAX if possible.

NaNoWriMo and Pushing Through

This post will serve as something of a writing update, since I may not engage in them on more than a monthly basis for a while.  But NaNoWriMo holds a special place in my heart, and I wanted to talk about it before I plunge headlong into it in a few hours.

I’m happy that I managed to finish off my October project and write a two-sentence horror story for every day of the month.  I’ve been pleased and humbled to watch my views, visits, and likes increase as I put out content on a daily, consistent basis.  If you’re ever in the mood for a month’s worth of tiny bites of creepy content, I’m proud to stand by this collection as a flawed, fun set of unsettling goodness.

I’ve mostly managed to keep the 500 words per day writing goal intact, though I will admit there have been a few days where that simply hasn’t happened.  With November upon me, I should have no problem (I’d better not, at any rate) keeping this goal met.  I also intend to keep writing for other sites as well, so while there may not be as many posts from me on this blog this month, there should be plenty of content on my Facebook page for anyone who cares to follow along.

Now, on to NaNoWriMo.

nanowrimoI’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month three times in the last few years.  I’ve succeeded at it once, and I say this with no shame whatsoever.  Even when I’ve failed, I’ve at least tried to write a novel, and I’ve managed to create content whenever I otherwise might not have done so.  It’s a worthwhile, noble endeavor to undertake, and when you hit that 50,000 word threshold, it feels like you’ve won a mighty victory.  You have written a novel’s worth of words, after all.

In the past few days, I’ve seen a number of friends in my online social circles talking about NaNoWriMo, often with trepidation and apprehension.  Some have been downright pessimistic, saying something along the lines of, “I might try this, but I really just think I’ll flake/putter out/fail in some other fashion.”  I’d like to address this phenomenon directly.

It’s fine to feel apprehensive about trying to write a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days.  Doing so is a gargantuan task, and the fact that you’re pouring all that focus, energy, and concentration on one large work or project is intimidating as hell.  But one of the worst things you can do is set yourself up to fail.

Say this with me: self-deprecation is not okay for NaNoWriMo.

41The year that I succeeded in doing so, it took every bit of will, discipline, and determination I had.  I gave up video games that month, foregoing my X-Box so I could get my 1700 words per day written.  I was less available for friends, socializing, and often even family (except Thanksgiving.  I’m not completely dense).  Even in the home stretch, I wondered how I could possibly complete this task before my mental fortitude gave out.

I did not–could not–allow myself to contemplate the possibility of failure, even for humorous purposes.  Whenever that particular demon reared its head, I bore down and kept writing.  Even if it sucked.  Even if it was just to put words to paper and increase my word count.  I would see how other writers were doing.  I would look for support.  And I always got it.  And I kept writing.

And eventually I climbed the 50,000 word mountain.

I’m not exactly thrilled with my victory novel from that year.  My novel from that year may have hit 50,000 words, but its story wasn’t finished.  It was glaringly weak in places.  And, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit, it hasn’t receive much work since then.  But dammit, I proved I could get that amount of words written.  I could write a novel’s worth of words.  And as Captain Malcolm Reynolds, “That ain’t nothing.”  And I intend to build upon that.

dont-give-upMy biggest piece of advice for NaNoWriMo participants is to do the opposite of what I’ve recently seen.  Tell yourself you can do this, just for one month.  Join a write-in and get to know other participants.  Seek support from other writers.  Don’t allow any of your doubts to get a foothold this month.  Banish them.  I know how devastating they can be, and how easy and soothing they can make the temptation to quit, or even slack for a day or six.

Push through.  Write all month.  It’s just for this month.

I will do it this year.  And so can you.