Tag Archives: writer

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.

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!

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.

On Reading Signed Copies

I really, really like getting signed copies of books. At this point, I have enough signed copies that it constitutes an actual collection. Best of all, I have signed copies of books by most of my favorite authors: George R. R. Martin, Jim Butcher, John Scalzi, and many, many others. At some point, I plan to reorganize my shelves to keep all my signed books together so I can look at them while working on my Gollum impression.

But.

You knew that was coming. I would never write a blog post like this unless there was a but.

I love my signed copies. In fact, I love them so much that I hate reading them.

Here’s the thing about me and books. When I’m in a book, I take it with me everywhere I go. My current book becomes my teddy bear; it’s with my all the time. It goes with me from home to work and back. I carry it on my lunch break and read it during lunch, which is especially dangerous to the book because I walk a mile or so during my lunch break which means much manhandling along the way.

This is one of the reasons why I will get library copies of books I already own, or buy copies of books that I’ve already read at the library. Reading a library book takes away the pressure and the anxiety. Now, wait just a goddamned minute, you might be thinking indignantly to yourself. Matthew Ciarvella, don’t you work in a library? Are you saying you don’t care about what happens to your library books?

I do work in a library, hypothetical blog reader. And that means I see the inner workings of the public library system. It means I have a library collection I maintain. And that means that, to be honest, I’m not as worried about the condition of my library books because I know the fate that awaits all library books.

That’s the thing about library copies: they’re finite. If you’ll pardon the expression, they have a shelf life. No library book lasts forever, because if it’s popular, enough handling will destroy it. How many times do you think a book can be checked out and read before it disintegrates? Well, depends on the book. I’ve seen hardcovers that survived ten years and roughly 100 check-outs before they had to be retired and I’ve seen paperbacks that destroyed themselves after five check-outs.

That doesn’t mean I’ll mistreat a library copy. It’s not mine, after all, and even we library workers have to pay for a book when we lose or destroy it. One of my life’s greatest shames is the fact that I lost a brand new copy of The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks. I still have no idea what happened to it.

When I read a library book, I know at some point that little book will be removed from circulation. It’s not meant to last forever. If it was, it would be in an archive. Or, as you’ll see now that I’m returning to my main point, in a private collection.

My signed copies are books that I want to keep with me for the rest of my life. Each one is special. It represents an experience I had both in reading it and taking the time to meet the person who wrote it; if I have a signed copy of your book, that means you’re part of my personal Pantheon of Writers. It’s not the greatest pantheon, all things considered, but how many people ever get to say they’re part of a pantheon in the first place? That has to count for something.

Signed copies are valuable and special things to me and while I know that part of a well-worn and tattered book is the mark of a book that’s been read and enjoyed, there’s enough of a draconic-hoarding tendency in me that I want my books to remain pristine. Which makes it tricky when I really, really want to read a book that I have a signed copy of and can’t easily get from the library due to the fact that it has a waiting list on it. When that happens, I have to make a hard choice.

In this particular instance, I’m going to be reading my signed copy of Faerie After because don’t want to wait for the library copy to come in.

But you can be certain I will be reading it very carefully. Possibly with gloves on.

I realize that this probably means I am a crazy person.

Writing Spaces

One of my particular interests is looking at pictures of other writers’ desks and offices. I know that it’s a common trait among bookworms to look at pictures of personal libraries; Neil Gaiman’s personal library is epic, in my opinion. I’m not certain whether writers do this as often, though the existence of various blogs and Tumblrs posting pictures of writers’ offices makes me think I’m not alone in my interest.

It doesn’t update very often, but Write Place, Write Time is a great Tumblr page of writer spaces. One thing that’s particular cool is that one of the writers featured on the page, Manuel Munoz, was my writing professor during my undergrad at the University of Arizona. He helped me develop my writing ability more than any other teacher I’ve ever had. It was cool to see what his writing space looks like, especially since it really matches his writing style in my mind.

If one’s desk represents the state of one’s thoughts, however, I am well and truly screwed. My desk is currently a nightmare. Without moving my eyes, I can see a stack of unopened mail, an empty beer bottle, my keys, a WarCraft III cd case, headphones, a coffee mug, a topographical map of the Chiricahua Wilderness, another pair of headphones, a bookmark of a vampire cat, two candles, sticky notes, two boxes of Magic: the Gathering cards, a signed picture of Boba Fett, a cartoon of Medusa blow drying her snake hair, and you know what, I think I’ll stop there. There’s more stuff.

In fact, I think this might be a sign that it’s time to clean my writing space. Maybe I’ll take some before and after photos to show you the horror.