Category Archives: writing

In Case You’re Wondering What It Feels Like

I reached my NaNoWriMo goal on Monday: 50,000 words in 30 days (well, technically 27 days). What does that feel like? At this point, it’s more a relief than anything else. I did celebrate reaching my goal by opening the 12 year old single malt scotch and drank a glass with my wife, but only because I decided to save the 21 year single malt for when the manuscript is actually done.

Because that’s the weird thing about NaNo projects, at least for me; 50,000 words has never, ever conincided with me reaching “the end.” For the only NaNo that actually went on to become a finished manuscript, 50,000 words was roughly the midway point.

Which means that there isn’t really a feeling of being done. You turn in your word count, get the neat little validation thingy from the website, which I do like quite a bit because I’m a gamer and gamers are conditioned to perform repetitive actions to raise bars. This aspect of my personality is why YNAB worked on my finances and Fitbit was working for my fitness level (at least, it was working until the damn band broke and I stopped wearing it).

So here I am, done with my big goal, my winning streak extended by another year (up to eight wins in a row now) and then, with all that said and done, you get back to work. Because there’s still a lot more story to tell and a hell of a lot of rewriting for this one.

NaNoWriMo Denouement

I meant to type this up a few days ago, but after thirty straight days of solid butt-in-chair time for the latest NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for the unfamiliar), it just felt really good to not write for a few days. But now that I’ve let my brain slack off for a bit, it’s time to get back to work, because even though another NaNoWriMo has come and gone, the book is nowhere near finished.

To be honest, I’ve never actually finished a book in the 50,000 words it takes to win a NaNo.

Which is why I have a hard drive filled with half-completed novels, along with one completed novel, which is, incidentally, the novel you can read right here on this very website, if you are so inclined.

So how did NaNo 2015 go for me? Really well! Let’s take a look at the stats (because I love stats).

nano

I love the NaNo stats page. As a gamer, I’m conditioned to see stats, numbers, and bars, and then do the actions necessary to fill them. This is why YNAB got my personal finances in order when no amount of New Year’s Resolution budget-attempts ever managed to stick for more than a week or two. It’s all about dem bars.

NaNo 2015 was easily my steadiest year ever. There were only two days where I didn’t hit the word goal; the first was Friday the 13th and that was due to have a Friday the 13th party with a bunch of friends and the second was Thanksgiving. I’m pleased to note that even on those days, I still managed to get some writing done.

The other thing that I’m really happy about is the quality of the writing this year. I did a lot more outlining, note-taking, and brainstorming when I wasn’t writing, so I never put myself in that “fuck it, now what, I dunno, something explodes” mode. That’s a great NaNo technique and I don’t discount its usefulness, but there’s a cost associated with it that you have to pay later. If your plot goes down the wrong track because of a “shit-now-what” decision, it can create a tremendous amount of work later to try and fix. This is precisely what derailed my 2013 NaNo book The Snake Detective. I was really unhappy with a decision I made to get unstuck. Even though it got me to 50k for that year, I ended up with only about 20,000 words that were usable. Eventually, my interest in the project faded during the attempted rewrite and I moved on to other things.

But let’s go back to this year! 2015’s NaNo is Dinomancer and I feel really good about it. The writing went well, as I mentioned, but more than that, I feel really inspired about this world. It’s my attempt to do something new with the fantasy genre, beyond the usual elves, wizards, dragons, medieval European fare. So instead, we have a world of dinosaur riders locked in a vicious battle for survival and they have a vaguely Roman flair. Also, there are intelligent, talking velociraptors. Well, they’re not really velociraptors, because “real” raptors were about the size of a turkey, but this is the description that creates the right image in your head.

If you’re a dinosaur geek like me and want to know what they actually are, they’re a highly evolved form of Troodon.

And this is why I’m excited; not just for the win, although it feels great to keep that winning streak going. I’m excited because this story feels exciting to me. One of the problems I’ve had for a while is, after writing a book about fallen angels and the Apocalypse, I didn’t really have a lot of enthusiasm for my own subject. I didn’t feel like I was doing or saying anything new about them.

But dinosaurs? This is shit that I read about for fun, because I never really “grew out” of my dinosaur phase when I was a kid. I love reading about new theropods. I love the ongoing scientific discussion about the new depiction of Spinosaurus. My dinosaurs are covered in feathers because that’s what the science is telling us, and it’s my secret goal to make the idea of a feathered Tyrannosaurus rex cool and scary. I want talk about this stuff with people. I want to think about it when I’m not working on it. That’s something I haven’t felt for a while now. It’s a great feeling.

Work on Dinomancer continues. My personal goal is to be finished with the first draft by May 1st. I’ve scaled back my daily writing goal, because 1667 words a day every day does demand a tremendous amount of effort and focus. I’m not sure I could keep up that pace much longer than thirty days. But 500 words a day, as a baseline? That’s easily doable and it’s something I can do well and still generate a strong story.

So that’s where I’m at now. I have 50,000 words of a new novel that I’m really proud of, a story I want to finish, and a story that I want to publish. I feel like I’m doing something new in this space; there are a few books out there about fantasy dinosaur riders, but not many, and I think it’s a ripe area to explore. Even if it isn’t, I’m having so much fun with it that I don’t think I can stop.

And that’s why, even though NaNoWriMo 2015 is my seventh straight win, I feel like this year’s effort might just turn out to be the most important and most rewarding yet.

Taking Creative Risks, Or, Matt Considers Giving Away His Book

I started writing when I was about fourteen. I decided I wanted to write a novel and made two of the half-hearted attempts a young teenager makes when attempting a lofty goal. First, there was a horror novel about a serial killer who skins people alive that I called The Fur Trapper. I hadn’t yet seen Silence of the Lambs, so the comments about how it sounds just like that movie mystified me at the time. I think I wrote about two chapters, with each chapter being under five pages. Then there was a fantasy novel titled The Dragon’s Amulet that I never actually got beyond the conceptual stage, but I assure you, had it been written it would have included all the clichés and tropes of the high fantasy genre since that’s exactly what I would later do when I did write a book.

In the summer of 2002, I was deeply addicted to the video game Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The game had such a deep and complex lore that I couldn’t help but be inspired; I wanted to tell my own stories in that universe. I started writing about the backstory of my character, the dark elf assassin Ardryn (although, in the interest of honesty, the name Ardryn came later; originally he was Jango, having just seen Star Wars Episode II. What can I say, I was a teenage boy at the time). I worked on my story until it hit about fifty or sixty pages, which was far longer than anything I’d ever created. I wanted to do something more with it. I wanted it to be more than just fan fiction. I wanted it to be my own novel.

So I went back and took out all the details from the world of Morrowind and replaced them with a fantasy world of my own devising. It still ended up looking exactly like every other fantasy world, as it was a world of magic and wilderness with a snowy, inhospitable northern realm ruled by the evil frost elves who were constantly at war with the forest elves of the south. There was also an evil artifact and a good artifact that were in constant opposition to one another. And a prophecy. And a love interest. And so on.

That story became my first novel, Of Dawn and Dusk, (which, yes, sounds more like a romance novel than a fantasy book). I actually completed a roughly 90,000 word manuscript and sent it to exactly one publisher. It was rejected, of course. I wrote about 70,000 words of a sequel and had some notes and rough chapters for a prequel, but the years wore on and the story that I wrote when I was fifteen no longer enamored me as it once did. So I decided to abandon it.

Eventually, I would pick up NaNoWriMo as a thing and on my second attempt, I completed a 50,000 word draft that I would then spend another six months working on until I had a 125,000 word completed story. This novel is my story of fallen angels and the Apocalypse and the title is Unrepentant. Because it began life as a NaNoWriMo, however, large parts of it were completely terrible and I spent the next few years revising that draft while working on other NaNo projects and basically continuing a tradition of starting projects but never seeing them through to completion.

Why am I telling you all of this? There are a few reasons.

First, it occurred to me that, outside of the critiques I did during my Creative Writing degree, I can count the number of people who’ve read any of my novels on less than two hands, and that sounds impressive until I mention that the total number is about six, so I’m really not even using that second-hand. I’d like to say that my reason for showing so few people my work is because I don’t like showing work before it’s done; certainly, my many drafts and projects are in rough shape and need proper editing before they deserve to be shown.

Except that’s not entirely true, either.

I finished Unrepentant last summer. I completely rewrote the novel and stripped out tons of stuff that was messy, wandering, or just plain bad. I streamlined the text, trimmed up the story, honed it as best I could and sliced down my 125,000 word first draft into a trim, sleek 90,000 word second draft. I finally considered it worthy of trying to publish and so I’ve been sending it off to agents ever since. My last submission before I lost momentum was in January or February and it was the tenth time it’s been sent out. Since I’m not currently plugging a book deal here, you can surmise that it was never picked up.

Here’s the thing. I don’t know if I have it in me to publish Unrepentant. Publishing a book is hard. It’s really, really hard. You need to know a lot about who you’re writing to, who the market is, how to sell it, who might like to read it, and so on. And that’s the thing; I don’t really know who Unrepentant is for. It’s a book about angels and demons and fallen angels and the Apocalypse, but it’s not a Christian Fiction book, because I don’t talk about Jesus. But I also started it during a time when I was fascinated by Paradise Lost and John Milton, so it has those vibes far more than it does an urban fantasy or paranormal romance. I don’t know who’d want to buy it, even though I think it’s pretty good.

Originally, I’d decided to just shelve it and make it yet another trunk novel. Trunk novels are those works that writers complete but then abandon, locking them in the bottom of the trunk because we can’t bear to delete or throw away something that we worked so hard on, but also can’t or won’t try to release. Sometimes, trunk novels are better than their author’s give them credit for and end up getting published later on; Stephen King penned a trunk novel under his pseudonym Richard Bachman that was eventually published as Blaze, which was really good.

So Unrepentant is a trunk novel. And I’m off to new things; I’m really focused on my cyberpunk novel because I feel like I have a lot to say and I have a lot of knowledge about what I’m talking about in a way I don’t with fallen angels and such.

But I keep thinking about the fact that no one ever reads what I write, because I don’t give them the opportunity. Because I don’t give anyone the chance to read what I write. And my reason for doing so is based on fear; if you don’t ever get a chance to read my work, you can’t hurt my feelings by hating it. I’m immune from criticism. I’m safe.

I think that safety is one of the enemies of creativity. When people talk about creativity as a scary thing, this is what they mean. It’s putting yourself out there, stripping away all the armor, lowering all the defenses, and allowing people to shit all over something that means a lot to you. And not fighting back. And asking for this to happen over and over again.

Or at least . . . that’s what the Dark Voice tells me. I’ve mentioned the Dark Voice before; he’s the guy that started talking to me around the beginning of middle school and never went away. He’s the person on my shoulder reminding me of every possible insecurity, every possible mistake, every single failure. He’s not my Inner Editor, because the Inner Editor is at least trying to be helpful by making my work better, even if he’s killing it in the process by preventing it from being born.

No, the Dark Voice is mean and hateful and nasty and wants very much to make sure that I fail and that I’m miserable and that I don’t ever listen to anything other than him. He’s all the anxiety and depression I’ve ever felt in my life. It’s the entity that takes root inside your head when you grow up a little strange and you realize you’re not cool or popular and you’ve never going to fit in, not really.

The Dark Voice is the reason that I can be funny around other people; it’s the reason why sarcasm and dry humor are my default responses, because if I make people laugh at something I do, then they can’t laugh at me. Laughing at me only proves that the Dark Voice is right.

I really don’t like the Dark Voice.

And I think that putting Unrepentant in the trunk is listening to the Dark Voice. I think it’s a good book. I learned a lot writing and rewriting it and I put a lot of effort into it. But I also don’t want to focus on the same project forever. I want to move on to new things so that I can keep growing. And right now, that means setting my old work aside.

But here’s the thing: I also have this blog here. And even though I tend to disappear for weeks at a time, my blog is never out of my thoughts. I’m always wishing that I had more to post, more to say, more to do here. And I have a novel that I’d like to allow people to read, if they wish. And slowly, I begin to imagine a solution.

So, here’s what I’m thinking right now: I’m going to start posting chapters of my novel here on my blog every Friday. Since the book is already done, once the updates are scheduled to roll out, I can move on to the next project while these pieces are released. I don’t have to worry about schedule slip (the bane of so many serials and webcomics) because the entire story is already finished.

Originally, I thought about just posting the entire book as one big file and inviting anyone who wants to have at it. But I also know that I wouldn’t read that if someone else did so, because in the past when blogs I do read have released books for free, I didn’t read them. There’s something about seeing the entire work posted all at once and getting intimidated by it, thinking about how much time it will take to get involved. It’s why I’ll never start watching a show on Netflix these days if it has more than two seasons, because the time investment is just too much.

But a chapter a week, released as a blog post? That doesn’t take much effort to dip a toe in. And maybe that will be enough to spark your interest. And if not, that’s okay too. Honestly, I don’t really know why people keep reading this blog, even though WordPress assures me that you’re all out there. It’s not going to hurt my feelings if this doesn’t catch on. It’s just something I’d like to try.

The Patreon account is the second part of this idea. Patreon is a little different from Kickstarter, which you’re probably more familiar with. In Kickstarter, you back a project and pledge some money to help fund it, and you get charged if the project reaches its funding goal. This, then, gives the creator the funds needed to get a project created, the idea being that it couldn’t exist without those funds.

But for me, the blog is already online and the book is already written. So I don’t need funding to make anything. Instead, it’s a way for me to find out if it’s worthwhile to release fiction in this manner. For so many years, I’ve had my eye on the traditional publishing route as the only way to release my stories. And don’t get me wrong, I still desperately want to secure a traditional publishing deal, at least once in my life. But I also want to focus more on creating and sharing work, even if only five people ever read any of it.

The Patreon model is, as its name suggests, a patronage system. A patron who wants to support a creator pledges a small amount of money each month (I’m imagining something like a dollar a month, with the book’s run taking about two or three months to be released fully). At the end of the run, if there’s been any interest in this model, I’m thinking about doing some more stuff, such as recording the book as an audiobook or releasing it as an e-book on my own. A lot of this is me thinking out loud right now, coming up with ideas as I type. But here’s the bottom line: think of it as a tip jar. I’m going to release my novel here on my blog for free, for everyone. If you read it, if you like it, if you think it’s worth it, consider pitching me a dollar.

This won’t create the kind of money that will allow me to skip having a day job. But if I make a dollar off this, I’ll consider it a success. If I make fifty dollars, my story will have paid for my website costs for an entire year (domain registration and keeping my blog ad free, which is something very important to me as a personal and philosophical point). That’s enough of an enticement for me to try.

And if it doesn’t work? I’ll have the knowledge of knowing that I took a risk, tried something new, and didn’t let the Dark Voice win for a while. And that’s a win for me no matter what the Dark Voice says.

So look for details for the Patreon account in a day or two, once everything is all set up. And get ready for the first chapter (or chapters) of my novel to go up on Friday.

Taking creative risks. That’s what it’s all about.

Thanks for reading.

Why NaNoWriMo? Some Thoughts On Stories

I gave a presentation on NaNoWriMo at my library this past weekend and one of the questions I was asked by one of the attendees who hadn’t done NaNo before was why I thought it was worth doing. It’s a reasonable question, after all. Why undertake the mentally exhausting challenge of writing furiously for thirty days, especially when it’s very likely that much or perhaps even all of the words that you write will end up being complete junk?

There are a lot of possible answers I could have given; because it’s fun even though it’s hard. Because it’s the one time during the year that writing is a group activity and you can tell people about your novel without being the pretentious ‘oh-let-me-tell-you-about-my-novel guy.’ Because it’s good to allow yourself to be creative.

But here’s the answer I settled on and the one that I truly believe (although when I gave this answer during my presentation, I used considerably less profanity).

It’s a common saying within writing circles that everyone has at least one novel in them. Consequently, it’s popular to retort and say, no, everyone does not have a novel in them in a rather curmudgeonly, get-off-my-lawn-you-damn-kids sort of cane shaking. For the record, that post just happened to be the first one that I pulled up on Google; I don’t actually know if Tim Clare shakes a cane at kids on his lawn. I’m sure he’s actually a great guy and probably really nice.

Regardless, it’s trendy to be cynical and one of the best way to be cynical is to crush the idealism of others by telling them “no, the world doesn’t really need to hear your story. Your story probably sucks.” Even if Tim Clare isn’t saying that, many, many other people are. They want you to know that your story sucks. It’s bad and you should feel bad.

So here’s why I think NaNo is worth doing, no matter what you do with your story after it’s over.

NaNoWriMo is worth doing because it’s a month-long exercise in saying “fuck you” to the cynics.

A lot of people call it the “inner editor” or the “inner critic” or the “inner perfectionist.” You know what I’m talking about if you’re ever tried to create something, ever: it’s that little voice that tells you what you’re doing isn’t good enough or that you’re doing it wrong or that you really don’t have anything worth saying.”

I have a different name for that little guy. It’s my “dark voice.” It’s the voice that arrived in my brain sometime around middle school or early high school, right around the time that I left childhood behind and entered a world that was very eager to tell me how much I sucked, how much of a dork I was, how awkward I looked, and just how bad I was at life in general. The dark voice is always there and it’s always happy to remind me about all the things I fucking suck at in life. Writing. My job. Being a friend. Keeping my house clean. Doing yard work. Budgeting. Calling my parents. Exercising every day. Updating my blog. Blogging in general, actually.

Sometimes, people who sound a lot like my dark voice write posts about how there are too many novels in the world and really, your story sucks and you should just keep it to your own damn self.

Well, fuck those people. Fuck the dark voice.

Telling stories is what makes us human. Every single human who has ever lived or will ever live has at least one story to tell. It doesn’t matter if that story will ever be published. Being published is not the quality-meter that says “your story is worthwhile and has justified its existence.” Don’t get me wrong, being published is great, especially if you want to tell stories and get paid for it (which I really, really do).

But that has nothing to do with telling or creating stories. Creating stories is something we do and have always done as a species because it helps us figure things out. It helps us understand ourselves and the world around us. It helps us grow. Telling stories helps us be better humans.

So write your story. Write it because it’s helping you be a better you. And whether that story is 500 words long or 50,000 or 500,000, whether it takes you 30 days or 30 years, write it because every story has value. Every story deserves to exist.

Stories make us better. All stories do. The world needs more of them. The world needs every story it can possibly get.

And that includes yours. So go fucking write it.

NaNoWriMo 2014 Begins!

Since it’s now November, that means another National Novel Writing Month is upon us. Not to brag (okay, I’m bragging a little bit here) but since I have a five year winning streak going, I think that means I’m now officially required to keep participating in perpetuity lest I break my streak. Each success only makes it harder to consider quitting.

I did a presentation at my library today about NaNoWriMo, which was a decidedly fun experience. I have no idea if the seven adults who attended my little workshop will stick with it or not but getting to talk about writing in a professional setting like that was wonderful. Likewise, I felt great talking about writing and getting to be the voice of encouragement to a group of people who don’t have to listen to me. That’s always empowering.

Perhaps you’d like to join me in doing some writing? If so, head over to the NaNoWriMo site and sign up. We can even be writing buddies if you’d like. Writing with other people knowing that you’re writing is always more fun, which is why we blog and go to coffee shops.

It’s very likely that there will be a halo effect here and the time I’m spending writing will actually encourage me to blog more than I did in October. I needed to take October off, I think. After that Gamergate post, retreating from the Internet for a while felt like the intellectually healthy thing to do. Also, there was this fun two-day thing trying to unscramble a mess involving a hacker, my Xbox Live account, and EA Origins.

All I know right now is that I wrote 3,000 words today on a new story, which is great, and it smells like dinner is ready, which is honestly even greater!

What I’ve Been Doing

After faffing about since 2009, I finally knuckled down and took the final stop in the novel writing process.

I wrote a query letter. It was about 250 words and it took me the better part of an entire afternoon.

And then, despite the hammering of terror in my chest, I looked at the list of prospective literary agents I’d put together and actually sent the query letter and a sample chapter to one of them. I had to force myself to hit send, but that doesn’t matter! What does matter is this; I took the big flying leap of faith on the road to publishing my novel.

I’m 100% certain I will be rejected.

But that doesn’t matter, because I finally did it. I sent it out there. It’s out there in the universe now.

In time, I’ll either get a rejection response or I’ll get no response, and I’ll move on to another potential agent. And then another. Because that’s what you do. The process will repeat, on and on, until eventually I have a published work in my hands that I can point to, admire, and feel proud about.

And maybe someone will ask me to sign a copy and I’ll feel absolutely amazing, even if that’s the only copy that I ever sell. And even if nobody ever asks me to sign it, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to convince my local public library to buy a few copies and then I can have the surreal experience of checking my own book out of the library. And won’t that be awesome?

Yes. It will be.

Desk Nomad

I have a perfectly lovely functional desk, which I have discussed before. It is quite a lovely desk and I’m very proud of it, even if it looks more messy these days. I’ve written a lot of words on that desk. It’s a good desk and a good writing space. On this desk, I have my desktop computer which served as my main workstation, writing space, and gaming platform until I purchased a new laptop back in January.

Almost immediately, the laptop became the de facto choice for work and writing. I think this is because it has a backlit keyboard. Writing in the dark on glowing keys is one of the greatest experiences in the world. It’s like writing with a quill harvested from the feathers of angels. Seriously.

The loyal desktop seems to be strictly for games these days, of which there has been quite a bit since I reactivated my Old Republic subscription. That decision may have been a mistake; I haven’t managed to accomplish much writing, but I do have a Jedi Consular who is level 30 now. That’s something.

The interesting thing about getting a fully functional laptop (instead of the tiny Acer I had before) is that now I’m free to wander around the apartment and try out different spaces for work. I’m no longer chained to my desk as I was when I was strictly a desktop user.

To celebrate this new-found freedom, I’ve tried writing in different places. I’ve written on my patio, I’ve written on the couch, I’ve written from the recliner and from in bed. The patio is nice enough but I don’t really recommend any of the other positions.

My favorite place for work, though, seems to be my kitchen table. I should note that this is also my dining room table and my board game/D&D table since, you know, apartment.

I’m not sure why I like working on the kitchen table. It might be the additional space. I can really spread out my worksheets and notes and such all over the table in a way that wouldn’t be feasible on a smaller computer desk. It might just be the sense of freedom. I can look at the place that I have claimed as my home-office-away-from-my-home-office and think to myself that I am living as primitive man once did, unbound by the shackles of staying in one place. I can wander freely as a free man . . . as long as that freedom doesn’t take me out of the range of my Wi-Fi network or outside of the 950 square feet I’m renting.

So, you know, it’s basically the same thing. Almost.

Regardless, now that I have a laptop, I wander. Does anybody else do this?

Creative Writing Professor Calls Creative Writing Degree “A Waste Of Time”

A professor who teaches Creative Writing at a university in Kingston had some decidedly harsh words for his field of study:

Creative writing courses are a “waste of time”, according to the novelist – and creative writing teacher – Hanif Kureishi, who says that “a lot of my students just can’t tell a story”. . . They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can,” said Kureishi.

Ouch.

But is he wrong?

I graduated from the University of Arizona in 2010 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing. I feel that this gives me some perspective on Kureishi’s criticism, even if novelist Lucy Ellman agrees with Kureishi and claims that she “can’t stand it when authors announce they have a degree in creative writing. So what? They’re a dime a dozen.” I guess she’s talk about people like me. Again, ouch.

I don’t think a Creative Writing degree is going to make you into a writer any more than getting a Music degree will turn you into a world-class musician.  Most of the students who enter such programs will likely stop writing once they finish. Few who graduate with such a degree will go on to publish.

Even when I was in the program, I could tell that many of my peers weren’t going to be writers and that there was nothing the professor could do to make them into such. I would even go as far to say that some of my classes were relatively worthless to me as well.

However.

I had the same professor for my final two classes. I won’t post his name out of respect for privacy, but he’d published a few books before teaching those classes and last I heard, he’d gone on sabbatical to write another book. His comment on the first day of his class stuck with me to this day: “if you need to get an A in this class to keep your scholarship or keep your GPA up, register for another class.”

It was a terrifying and sobering warning.

His were the best two classes I ever had. It took me five years to get my degree and all of that time was worth it just for those two classes.

That sort of speaks to Kureishi’s point in that an entire Creative Writing program isn’t worth it. His advice is to find one really good teacher. And he’s right, that would be better. I think of how much time and money I could have saved if I’d been able to pair up right with my one professor from the very beginning.

Sadly, that’s not something that most of us can do. You don’t know who’s going to be “that one professor” for your work and often you don’t realize it until your time with that individual is over.

So while I agree with Kureishi’s point that most of the people who enroll in Creative Writing can’t tell stories and I agree that having a mentor would be better than a program, I look at my own choices and I see the chain that led me to a teacher who helped me write the best work of my life.

I’m hesitant to ever make judgments about my fellow writers because such things reek of ego-massaging. Author Matt Haig said something similar in the same article”

“To say, as Hanif Kureishi did, that 99.9% of students are talentless is cruel and wrong. I believe that certain writers like to believe they arrived into the world with special, unteachable powers because it is good for the ego,” said Haig.

More has been said about the relationship between talent and hard work than I could ever hope to summarize in a single blog post. I try not to believe in some mysterious, super-special writing powers to describe why I do what I do. I like to imagine that what I’ve managed to do so far comes more from the fact that I read a lot and I write a lot and over time I’ve managed to learn a few things along the way.

The Creative Writing degree may not be valuable for everyone who earns it. It might be a waste of time and money for 99.9% of the people , exactly as Kureishi says. If I had the choice to start over, I’d still study it. I don’t know if I’m worthy enough to be considered in Kureishi’s elite 0.1% of students according to his estimation, but I certainly feel that way about myself.

On a side note, I also can’t imagine how emotionally cutting it would be to have be one of Kureishi’s students and read this article. It certainly can’t feel very good to know that your professor basically told the world that you suck.

A Cold Ride: A Short Story That Actually Happened

It was a cold December morning when I rode my motorcycle onto the interstate. My hands began to freeze beneath my two layers of gloves before I reached the five mile mark.

At the 20 mile mark, I started talking to myself.

How long does it take before frostbite starts to set in? I asked myself as the world blew past me at ninety miles an hour. I think this wind is giving me frostbite. The only thing I can feel under my gloves is pain.

Don’t be ridiculous, you can’t get frostbite if there’s no frost, I replied. It’s not called windbite. 

It’s thirty-four degrees and there’s a windchill factor involved, I argued. It might be frostbite. And look! There’s frost right over there! 

On either side of the highway, long rows of planted crops were sporting a very festive shade of white.

Well, shit I thought. I guess it could be frostbite.

Epilogue: When I arrived at my destination, I went inside and ran hot water over my hands for ten minutes and felt better. No fingers were lost. For a while, I was worried about my toes, but they’re still attached as well.

NaNoWriMo 2013 Retrospective

I met my NaNoWriMo word count goal last night: 50,149 words in thirty days (actually twenty-nine days since I finished a little early). Hooray!

2013
The stats for the Snake Detective.

I only started entering my daily word counts a few years ago but it’s one of my favorite things about doing NaNo. I like seeing the daily goal, the words per day, and the various other statistics it provides.

One thing that I’m proud of is that I didn’t miss a single day of writing, although I did have a few lean days here and there. Compare that to last year or the year before and you’ll see the difference. This year was much smoother than previous attempts.

2012
The stats for Bleed (NaNo 2012)

In 2011, it was even more spotty. The first big gap was caused by a local convention that I was working, but I honestly don’t know what happened on the other days.

2011
Stats from Angel’s Descent (NaNo 2011)

Another statistical quirk I noticed is how things always accelerate in the last few days. I think this is because the momentum starts to swing in my favor; I’m moving towards the most exciting part of the story (hopefully) and I also have the weight of all those words behind me spurring me on to finish. It’s a good thing, too, because it’s nice to have things move so smoothly after the slog that is the 20,000 to 40,000 push. I think the only reason I was able to tough it out this year was because I’ve seen the pattern a few times now.

So I’ve finished another NaNoWriMo; my fifth, to be exact, and yes, I am bragging a little. For one thing, I’m proud of the accomplishment and it’s the kind of thing one does just to do it.

With the conclusion of NaNoWriMo for another year, it’s safe to say that December will be a much better month for blogging than November was. My original intention was to keep up a blog schedule of 3 times/week, but by day three of NaNo, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Although I’d love to spend all of my spare time writing things and posting them and then writing other things, I did have a graduate school course that needed attention. And my friends like to “socialize” and “see me” now and then. And I need to finish the quest for my legendary cloak on my druid. So, you know, I was busy.

I titled this post “a retrospective” because I spent a lot of time thinking this pat month thinking about what NaNo meant to me and why I was doing it. I’d like to share a few of those observations.

I can honestly say at this point keeping up the streak is a pretty big motivation, as petty as that sounds. Alcoholics and anybody who has tried to quit smoking (or other drugs, I imagine) can attest to the power of the streak; if you break it, all that hard work is undone. You go back to day one. Is doing that thing (or not doing it, in my case) really worth going from five years back to day one?

With five NaNos under my belt, where do I go from here? I know there are other challenges out there. Some folks do a “double NaNo” and aim for 100,000 words or they try to do 50,000 in half the time or whatever. That’s not really for me. Honestly, I feel like I manage to make the 50,000 writing goal by the skin of my teeth every year and trying to increase the difficulty of the goal seems a recipe for failure. Life itself seems to be a great way to add difficulty to one’s writing time; every single time I was asked to go out for a beer with a friend or to see a movie or anything . . . that was a challenge on the writing time.

Not that I’m complaining about those other things, of course. I enjoy those things very much.

There was something else I realized during this past month. Before I explain, a caveat; I love NaNoWriMo. I will advocate for it for the rest of my life. I love that for a month, being a writer is cool. Everybody wants to talk about writing! Do you know how often people want to talk about “that novel you’re working on?” Other than NaNo, the answer is never.

Not to mention, NaNoWriMo was a great catalyst that got me through my own writing doldrums. My first win in 2009 was the first time I’d managed to achieve something in writing since I wrote my first (terrible) novel at 16 and then I languished for several years, starting dozens of projects but never developing any of them.

NaNoWriMo gave me my confidence back. It gave me a seed that grew into the novel I’m proud of today, the one I feel really does deserve to be published. Sure, it took years and years of work and rewriting, but the important thing is that it exists and it exists because of NaNoWriMo.

That all being said, it pains me to admit that I think this past month was something of a distraction. Yes, I wrote another story. Yes, I wrote a story in a genre I’ve never even tried before (although it did slip into something else quite bizarre halfway through). Yes, I challenged myself and proved once again that writing time can be carved from even the busiest schedule.

But NaNoWriMo also meant that for an entire month, I completely ignored all my other projects. Actually, it’s been more like two months since I worked on anything else, since around October, the gravity of NaNo’s impending arrival started to pull my thoughts away from anything else. I didn’t do any editing. I haven’t attempted to do any more query letters.

I now have another half-finished story sitting on my hard drive. With the exception of Unrepentant, which I wrote in 2009, all of the NaNo novels I wrote since then have gone untouched since reaching the 50,000 goal. Some of them may remain buried forever. The Snake Detective might end up being one of those stories; I’m not particularly pleased with large parts of it and I don’t know that I have the motivation to polish it up. I did have one idea that appealed to me that I may still pursue, depending on relevant enthusiasm. Since I have no real intentions of trying to publish the Snake Detective, I might edit it and post it for free on my blog. At the very least, it’d be a chance to show something of my writing beyond just talking about it all the time.

Regardless, what I learned this month is that sometimes, even writing can be a distraction from writing. I allowed this month’s NaNo to be an excuse to not work on other things. Yes, it was fun (mostly). Yes, it means I cranked out another story that would have otherwise just languished in my brain as a weird idea (it’s like Castle, but he’s a herpetologist and then things get really weird. Seriously, that was the extent of my outline before I started).

So what do I do moving forward? Although it might seem premature to start thinking about next year’s NaNo before this one is officially over, I want to write down what I learned so I have it to look back on come October 2014. And what I realized from this past month is I need to make NaNo be about something else other than hitting the word count. I need to change things up.

The rules state that you shouldn’t work on a novel you already started and that you should always start from scratch. From nanowrimo.org:

This sounds like a dumb, arbitrary rule, we know. But bringing a half-finished manuscript into NaNoWriMo all but guarantees a miserable month. You’ll care about the characters and story too much to write with the gleeful, anything-goes approach that makes NaNoWriMo such a creative rush. Give yourself the gift of a clean slate, and you’ll tap into realms of imagination and intuition that are out-of-reach when working on pre-existing manuscripts.

Honestly, this is a very good rule. Most writers have a novel, whether it’s their first or just their favorite, that they’ve been working on for years and years. I did that for almost six years myself and I can honestly admit that I would not have been able to write recklessly with the characters and plot I’d begun in 2002.

This rule served me well for five runs, but I think next year, it’s a rule that I need to break. I have four stories sitting on my hard drive that are half-finished and need some attention. They are stories that deserve to have a shot at being completed.

Patrick Rothfuss has a great post on his blog from a few years ago where he arrives at a similar conclusion. I encourage you to take a look.

NaNoWriMo gave me the push to start and develop stories. Now I need it to help me finish what I’ve started rather than continually starting one project after another whenever my attention wanders.

This could change, of course. Maybe I’ll finish Bleed (fropm NaNo 2012) or even the Snake Detective and be ready to start a new story. I still have a few ideas that I really want to develop at some point; Dreamshift seems like it could be awesome and I had a pretty amusing idea after watching the trailer for Divergent for a parody version involving the MBTI. Perhaps the appeal of one of those ideas will provide the impetus for me to finish one of my other projects to clear some space for a new story. Otherwise, for NaNo 2014, I’m going to continue a story I already started, even though it’s against the rules. I’d really like to finish writing Bleed and I know I have at least one person who is absolutely appalled by the fact that I haven’t touched Angel’s Descent since 2011.

There’s a lot to do. I’m grateful that something like NaNo exists. It gave me the boost I needed to get where I am today. I think next year, it might again be a source for growth. Regardless, it’s a wonderful thing. I’m glad that it exists and I’m proud to have completed it for five years running.