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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.

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The Trouble With Long Books

I read for a lot of reasons. One of the stranger reasons I read is because of how much I like entering my reading into my Goodreads profile. You enter the books you’ve read, when you’ve read them, give them a rating and a review (if you want). Basic social media stuff, but that’s now why I love it; I love it because of what Goodreads does with all that data after you enter it.

I love how the data get arrayed out into neat bars and stats based on how many books you’ve read in a year, how many pages, when you’ve read the book versus when it was published, and what the longest book was that you read for that year. Basically, these are stats for a nerd, the way a baseball player might be concerned with improving his batting average or a runner might want to improve her best times. Suddenly, I want to read so I can fill my bars and I want to read a lot, all the time, even if I don’t really feel like it because I have to keep filling those bars. This is also the neurotic motivation I have for gathering Achievements for my Xbox Live gamertag, incidentally.

And hey, as long as it all motivates one to read more books, what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is that when you set a reading goal for the year, and if you really focus on hitting it, you very quickly turn into a mercenary about what you’re reading. Sure, you could be reading Infinite Jest right now (which I am) and it could strike you was one of the best books ever written (which, thus far, it does) but it still only counts for one book. It’s over a thousand pages long yet it only moves my “books read” bar up by one tick. It’s over a thousand goddamn pages. I could read three average novels in the same time period!

There was one month (May 2013, according to Goodreads) where I did nothing but read Shogun by James Clavell for almost the entire month! And sure, it was one of the finest books I’ve ever read in my life and absolutely compelling, but an entire month was spent on one book! What about my bars? I have bars to fill.

Sure, there’s the fact that the graph also tracks the longest book that you’ve read, but that also has a flaw: what’s the point of reading a thousand page book if you’ve already got a 1100 pager on that graph? I have Neal Stephenson’s Anathem sitting patiently in my “to read” stack, but what’s the point? That shit only clocks in at a mere 937 pages, which makes it too long for me to stay on track with my monthly book goal, but too short to make “longest book of the year that I read.”

So, what, I’m left with the joy of reading? Maybe I want to marvel at a masterpiece of speculative fiction from a writer who cosistently delivers interesting and intelligent work that always impresses me? Maybe I just want to read something great for the joy of reading?

Fuck that, man. I got bars that need fillin’.