NaNoWriMo 2013 reflection

From Wikipedia: National Novel Writing Month, shortened as NaNoWriMo, is an annual internet-based creative writing project that takes place every November, challenging participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel between November 1 and 30.

At the beginning of November, my plan was to complete 50,000 words (translation: approximately half of novel) by the end of the month. This was a brand new novel, a sequel to a previous one, but one I hadn’t yet started writing. I had most of my characters conceived, and a very rough idea of the plot, so I dove in. My plan was to write every day, at least 1667 words per day, to reach the 50K mark by month’s end.

At the end of day one, I had written 1,900 words, leaving me optimistic about reaching my goal. On day two, I wrote zero words for my novel—but I did start a draft blog entry about how I had failed NaNoWriMo. On day three, I wrote about half my daily quota, and on day four, my daily word count soared to 3,000.

The rest of the month went something like those first four days: very up and down. I did reach my goal of 50,000 words, but it will be some time before I can assess how much of it is usable story material and how much of it is pure drivel. There is certainly both. There were times when I just didn’t feel like working—if this was a job for which someone was paying me, I’d have called in sick—but in the spirit of the project, I plowed ahead anyway, even when I felt as though I was writing like a four-year-old. See Spot run.

The half-manuscript I vomited out during November has so many characters, and so much going on, that I lost my navigation of the main plot and sub-plots. But that navigation isn’t what NaNoWriMo is about—it’s simply about getting the words down.

Will I participate again next year? It depends—on the above-mentioned assessment, and on what else is going on at the time—and I probably won’t decide until next October. But whether I do or not, here are the top 7 things I learned about myself as a writer.

  1. I’m not a write-every-day author. While many authors write every day and feel that’s necessary to keep their momentum going, I’m going to need to take at least one day a week off from writing. I’ll still be writing “in my mind”—thinking about my characters and what they’ll do next, coming up with many different plot ideas so I can pick the best one—but for at least one day each week, the extent of my actual writing will be limited to social media interactions.
  2. I’m a plotter. I knew this already, but more times than ever during November, I cursed my October self for not preparing enough. He provided me with some great characters and settings, but didn’t give me enough plot points to work toward.
  3. My writer’s block is best overcome by writing pure dialogue. I have sat before the computer numerous times, stuck as to what to write next, staring at a blank screen. I try to describe the surroundings, or what a character is doing, and it takes me an hour to write a paragraph. But if I just stick to dialogue, writing only what the characters are saying to each other, the words flow. I can turn it into a scene later, adding in description and action during revisions. A lot of this dialogue will be cut—these characters do tend to ramble on—but at least I’ll have a frame around which to build a scene.
  4. I must look back before moving forward. The idea behind NaNoWriMo is to only move forward and not review what you’ve already written. However, my memory just isn’t that good. Half of what I wrote the day before was done in a sort of trance, so I don’t even know what’s happened in the story unless I review it. At the very least, after each chapter or scene I must write a brief summary of who was involved and what happened, and over time this becomes my “map” for the novel. The trick here is to resist the temptation to revise and restructure—save it for later.
  5. Writing hurts. I mean it physically hurts, sitting in a chair for hours. I must get up and stretch. I must take the laptop off the desk and move it to another location and then write some more. This is something else I already knew, but it’s very difficult to put into practice when you’re in the trance. It’s similar to surfing on the Internet—before you know it, three hours have gone by and your shoulder is sore from the cumulative tiny movements it takes to click on the mouse or reach for the keyboard. And stop slouching!
  6. I can do this. I honestly didn’t know whether or not I had it in me to complete half of a first draft of a novel in one month’s time. Mentally, I was 50% prepared for failure, and I was OK with that. Three weeks into the month, the best NaNoWriMo advice I read was from a person nearly one-quarter my age. More on that below.
  7. I am not an overachiever. If I set a goal for myself, I will reach that goal, but just barely. At times I will fall behind my goal, wallow in self-pity and doubt, and later pick myself up and do just enough work to get back on track. If I do get ahead, it won’t last long. The beauty in this is that I can set whatever goal I want for myself, and keep increasing it little by little.

Throughout the month, the NaNoWriMo community was full of pep talks, and my favorite of these came from a 12-year-old (!!) from Oakland, CA, who is working on his 2nd novel (!!!). Tai Reichle had this to say:

“If at the end of this month, you find you haven’t written a novel (as I will probably find), and have that “Shucks, I didn’t write a novel” feeling: laugh at yourself. Seriously, think about it: you just got a little angry at yourself because you didn’t write a novel. In a month. Ha! I would have never guessed I’d ever think that. Let alone complain about it. So instead think this: ‘Shucks. I didn’t write a novel. Neither did about seven billion other people. But I tried. So there.'”

Even though I did reach the 50K-word goal, by no means do I have a new novel, or even half a novel. But I have something, and it’s a hell of a lot more than I had at the beginning of the month. Now I’m looking forward to setting it aside—probably for several months or longer—while I concentrate on whipping my first two novels into publishable shape.

San Francisco’s Batkid Day: a Testament To Human Grace

On November 15, 2013, parts of San Francisco were transformed into “Gotham City” in order to fulfill a 5-year-old leukemia survivor’s “Make-A-Wish” wish.

Miles Scott, 5, donned a “Batkid” costume and responded to several make-believe distress calls, all while being cheered on by city leaders, state leaders, celebrities, and thousands of residents who came to participate. He helped save a damsel-in-distress in Nob Hill; jailed the Riddler in the Financial District; and rescued our SF Giants mascot “Lou Seal” from the evil clutches of the Penguin at AT&T Park. He and his cavalcade then made their way to City Hall in the Civic Center, where Mayor Ed Lee presented Miles with a key to the city while thousands of onlookers—many teary-eyed—applauded and expressed their gratitude to Miles, a.k.a. Batkid, for making the city streets safer.

A more detailed summary of “Batkid Day” can be found using the link at the bottom of this blog post.

The crowd of supporters was as varied as the city in which these events took place. The appeal of Batkid Day crossed many borders: age, race, income level, education level, and many more. For a few hours, these disparate groups of people came together in an overwhelming display of support and compassion. We weren’t focused on our differences because leukemia and other cancers can affect anyone.

The fictional character of Batman doesn’t necessarily have universal appeal, but it’s pretty darn close. We live in a culture (in America, anyway; I can’t speak for other countries) where superhero worship seems to be at an all-time high. If Miles’s wish had been about Superman or Spiderman, I doubt the turnout would have been any less magnificent.

As Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area executive director Patricia Wilson said, Miles already battled a villain in real life, by fighting cancer.

As I watched the crowd of onlookers, a momentary sadness came over me. I wondered if perhaps some of them were just here to witness the event, without fully understanding why it had come about. My suspicion was confirmed when I heard someone refer to Miles as “the luckiest kid in the world” for having this day dedicated to him in this way.

No child—nobody of any age, for that matter—who has spent years battling an illness can be considered the luckiest in the world. Miles’s leukemia is currently in remission, but his battle will never be over.

Miles was thanked for helping to make the streets of San Francisco safer. The children within us cheered because, like Miles, we believed. We cried because it was so touching. For a few hours, we lived in a world sheltered from the truth.

The truth is that our city streets are not safer. The real villains carry guns and shoot people randomly,  kick people when they’re already down, steal for themselves and perpetrate all kinds of atrocities that it is not my intention to list here. There is no one superhero who can battle all these villains and ensure justice is served. It takes many people, many communities—creating laws, enforcing those laws, adjusting them as humanity’s sense of morality continues to mature and evolve—to become that superhero.

My momentary sadness washed away as I discovered how far and wide this story had affected people. It wasn’t confined to San Francisco. Social media was abuzz with Batkid links all day and all throughout the evening. Not just links to the story, though—social media was abuzz with an outpouring of emotion. Proclamations such as “I’m in tears” and “this is so moving” were common.

batkid2(photo by Jaime Babb)

A cynic might say something like, “It’s too bad people can’t come together like this for real tragedies, such as, for example, the recent devastation still in effect from Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda.” I know a cynic might say this because no matter how much optimism and hope I’m presented with, a cynic lurks deep within my psyche, constantly threatening my mood with its comparisons of one tragedy to another. But there is no comparison. We do what we can, and the truth is, most of us do what’s easy. I didn’t personally help coordinate any of yesterday’s Batkid activities; I merely attended the tail-end of it as an onlooker. Everything was already set up for me and all I had to do was show up. Effortless.

As social media and the Internet continue to join people together, it takes less and less effort to become involved in helping people. This is a positive thing. The real effort is still there—someone has to set it up in the first place—but rounding up supporters becomes easier. I’ll be going into more detail on this in a future blog entry, specifically about relief efforts for victims of the largest, most destructive typhoon this planet has ever experienced. For that, I’ll wait a few weeks, by which time I suspect much media will have dropped the story, even while the survivors are still suffering its disastrous effects.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to smile at all the reports/shares/re-tweets of Batkid Day, knowing that despite all the ugliness we are faced with every day, there exists deep within our collective psyche a desire, a yearning to champion the possibilities our human race can accomplish, even when brought about by one small boy’s small wish.


For more information about Batkid’s adventures in San Francisco, a.k.a. Gotham City:

For more information about the Make-A-Wish foundation:

On becoming a writer: update – October 2013

Several weeks ago, I quit my job in order to write full-time. This is a temporary arrangement. I’m living off some meager savings, borrowing against my own future for this very scary experiment. My partner’s income doesn’t cover our expenses, but the emotional support provided is at least as—if not more—important.

I do not have any paid writing gigs, nor do I suffer from the delusion that my writing will provide financial support any time in the near future. For a man of no faith—in the religious sense of the word—I’ve taken a huge leap of faith.

My first novel—a science-fiction tale of time travel and murder—took me 19 years just to write the first draft. I wrote only when inspiration hit me, taking months or years off at a time, and there was little story planning involved. It was then that I began studying the craft of writing, specifically novel-writing. The biggest eye-opener? Successful novelists don’t wait for their muse to come to them—they treat their writing like a job, pushing through even when they don’t feel like it, and allowing themselves to write badly, with the idea that they will later be able to turn it into something coherent and intriguing.

My second novel—a sequel, picking up 20 years after the first one ends—was drafted in 10 months. I had transformed myself from a “pantser” (as in, writing by the seat of your pants, with little strategy) into a “planner.”  I had the major plot points of my story mapped out, so all I had to do was bridge the gaps in between.  Once the first draft was complete, I began what would become the first five months of revisions.

Half-way through this revision period, I could no longer deny the thought that kept creeping into my head, louder and more persistent each time: This is what I want to do. I was so sick of sitting down early in the morning—or late in the evening, or on the weekend—planning to write for an hour or two, only to get interrupted by incoming work.

My job in electronic data management was rarely bounded by the typical workday of 9 to 6. My clients were attorneys, searching for information relevant to whatever upcoming lawsuit we were working on. Usually it was patent infringement—they stole my stuff—and my job was to sift out all the garbage among millions of electronic documents, so that the attorneys and paralegals would have a smaller mountain of potentially relevant documents to examine.  

I was working for, and with, workaholics. They often worked until midnight, started up again before sunrise, and had little reverence for the restoration that a Saturday or Sunday off might provide. That our clients were all over the globe was another factor: if it was the middle of the day to them, then we should be working, no matter where we were located, and whether or not we had personal lives to attend to. It’s Sunday and you’re in the park with your kids? Who cares? We’ve got a client call scheduled—last-minute, of course—so get on it.

I don’t have kids, but witnessing others suffer this type of treatment was getting me down. Way, way down. I know there are much worse stories—horror stories—of how some employees are treated, but telling myself “you could have it worse” wasn’t doing much to improve my attitude.  I just wanted to write my book, and—just as important—to know when I would have time to write it. Ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there—some authors do write like that, and out of necessity I will likely have to do so in the future, but I wanted to know what it would be like to be able to schedule that time myself. Would I stick to it? Could I possibly be disciplined enough to crank out at least twice as much writing as I had while working a more-than-full-time job? Would it be worth it?

No, I haven’t spent as much time devoted to writing as I had imagined I would. But yes, I’ve been disciplined enough to have made a big difference in where I am now vs. where I would be if I’d still been working that job.

After two weeks of freedom, I had revised the second half of my novel. I had completed in two weeks what had previously taken me two and a half months to accomplish. Not a bad improvement—I was liking these numbers. Over the next several weeks, I went through another round of revisions, wrote a synopsis, rounded up some “beta readers,” and hired an editor to do some substantive (not just copy) editing.

Now that my second, more polished, novel was in the hands of others, I figuratively dusted off the manuscript of my first novel and started planning a complete structural overhaul. I would keep the basic storyline the same, but aside from laying out the general idea and introducing characters, my manuscript was a mess. It contained long passages of characters’ thoughts, without any scenes moving the story forward. There were pages and pages without conflict. There were three protagonists and it was unclear exactly whose story I was telling.

The remedy was not easy to come by. I brainstormed, coming up with ridiculous ideas that no one will ever read. I couldn’t make it work. I had quit my job for nothing. At times, I was stressed and despondent and ashamed—but at least I had time to keep at it.

I kept trying different ideas of how to make the story work—how to make it more compelling, how to take the idea of it in my head and turn that into a reality. What finally kick-started the re-write was fairly simple in retrospect: I switched the point of view of two characters, so that the one written in first-person (originally written in third-person) was now my main protagonist. Secrets that had been kept until the middle of the book were now laid bare right up front, forcing me to come up with new secrets, new twists in the storyline to keep it interesting and moving forward.

Within three weeks, I had reached the one-quarter mark. Three weeks after that, I was halfway done with the first draft of my major re-write. I had done in six weeks what had previously taken me over a decade. It wasn’t purely self-discipline that got me there—I had, little by little, begun immersing myself in the writing life.

I’m not a joiner. It is a major effort to get myself to participate in social activities where I don’t already know someone. But they say you have to find a writing group. Well, you don’t have to—but so many authors have credited their writing groups, at least partially, for their stories’ improvements. It makes perfect sense. I would do it.

So I forced myself to join a writing group—it was a no pressure, come one time if you want, stay as long as you want sort of deal—and it wasn’t terrible. But it wasn’t great. It was, as they say … meh. I did get some writing done that day, in addition to discovering that a café I usually pass by has some great sandwiches and friendly service. And it’s a quiet café where a lot of people come to write. So maybe I did get something out of trying to find a writing group. I’ll keep trying.

The third week of October brought LitQuake, San Francisco’s annual literary festival. There are multiple gatherings throughout the week, many consisting of authors reading excerpts of their work. I went to a few of these events and started seeing some of the same faces in attendance.  One author, when asked about inspiration, said that NaNoWriMo was very inspirational.

National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo—occurs each November. It’s a community of writers whose goal is to write 50,000 words during the month of November. It’s quantity over quality, with the idea of fixing it up later. That many words would normally take me several months, but I’m committing myself to the challenge for NaNoWriMo. You’re supposed to start with a brand new book, so I’ll set books 1 and 2 aside and start on book 3, which will complete my trilogy.

So by the end of November, I should have: (a) the first half of my book 1 revision drafted; (b) feedback to start what will hopefully be my final revisions on book 2; and (c) the first half of my book 3 drafted.  

Looking back, that’s a lot accomplished in a short amount of time. I couldn’t have done it while still tied to the demands of my former job. I certainly don’t advocate quitting one’s job to follow one’s dream—”don’t quit your day job” is a common warning among authors—and yet that’s exactly what I did. I wish I could travel to the future for a few moments, like some of my characters do, and see what’s become of my future self.

In a way, there is a method for predicting the future, one that we all possess: you create it yourself. You lay out a plan, saying “first I’ll do this, which will lead to that,” etc. You may not have the timeline down, and you have to be flexible, but as the saying goes, the best way to predict the future is to create it.

The Next Big Thing Blog Hop

Thanks to Kristi Belcamino for tagging me in in The Next Big Thing Blog Hop, in which an author answers set interview questions and then tags more people to do the same.

What is the working title of your book?

Peer through Time

 Where did the idea come from for the book?

Time travel stories have long been my favorite. I loved the TV show “Lost” but I was disappointed that not all the intriguing questions were answered by the end. My story has nothing to do with being lost on an island, but it does broach what I hope are intriguing questions, all of which will be answered.

What genre does your book fall under?

Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

My mind resisted this question at first, but once I dug in, it was not only fun but a great exercise in unleashing character-development creativity. If Lindsay Lohan ever gets her shit together (a big if), I’d love it if she could call upon all that emotional baggage—and early talent and likeability—to portray our protagonist, Carmela. But realistically, Emma Stone would be a better choice, and Cissy Spacek could be the older version of Carmela.

Since Justin ages only slightly, the Franco brothers, Dave and James, might be a good fit.

 What is the synopsis of your book?

Carmela Akronfleck wants to return to her own time.  Twenty years ago, at age eight, she was unwittingly displaced from the year 2002 to 2059, unable to return.  Her new therapist thinks she’s delusional, but Carmela believes she will soon embark on a one-way trip to the past.

 While experimenting with quantum virtual wormholes, Carmela and her colleague Justin vanish from the laboratory at Wakeup Technologies. Carmela finds herself alone in the year 1934, with no sign of Justin. Now she must learn to live without the technology she’s come to rely on, hoping she can stay long enough to be reunited with her biological parents.

In the year 2079, Carmela’s adoptive mother, Margaret, feigns surprise about her daughter’s disappearance.  Although she knew the day might come, her grief is genuine–and it intensifies when some of Margaret’s acquaintances suffer unexplained fatalities.  She seeks help from the same therapist who was treating Carmela and two of the victims.

Back in the early twentieth century, Carmela makes a discovery that leads her to believe her adoptive mother is in danger. But she has no way of getting a message to Margaret across time–unless she can figure out how to travel through it again. If she succeeds in finding a way, Carmela will have to choose between reuniting with her natural parents and saving the woman she now calls Mom.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Hopefully by an agency, though I will consider self-publishing.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

It took 7 months to get halfway through, but I’m increasing my daily word quota, so I plan to finish the first draft within 11-12 months from the time I started.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The non-fiction writings of futurist Ray Kurzweil and physicist Paul Davies have been very inspirational in terms of the ideas I want to cover. As for stellar models of fiction, the writings of science-fiction author Robert J Sawyer and cross-genre author Dean Koontz have played a large role. And for story structure and plotting, I kneel before the shrine of James Scott Bell and Larry Brooks, who were brought to my attention by my writer-friend (and childhood classmate – sort of a peer through time, get it?) Kristi Belcamino.

Kurzweil has been especially inspiring because he believes the future of humans and our machines will not be “us vs. them” as found in much futuristic speculative fiction. Rather, we will merge with our technology so that they are us, we are them—this is already happening today, so I’m simply extrapolating it into the future. Despite all the harmony I predict, there’s still plenty of tension and evil doings. This is a fiction story, after all.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

While time travel is part of the story’s foundation, there’s also a murder mystery; some soap-opera-like character connections and family histories; and an indication that our technological advances will reveal an optimistic future for humankind.

On Wednesday, Feb. 20th, please visit my writer friend, Kai Venice, as he writes about his Next Big Thing.


Writing about Writing

As I gradually wade into the waters of the writing life, each step becomes less timid and more confident than the last. I look back at those few baby steps behind me, barely making an imprint in the sand, and I wonder–now that I’m ankle-deep—-if the arm floats I’m wearing will turn into iron shackles when I submerge myself further. I see a raft in the distance, beckoning me with its promises. When you’re ready to discard the last of your computer software chains, I imagine it saying, I’ll be here, waiting for you to embark on a ride through uncharted waters. But I won’t let you fall.  

I’ve recently discovered that my writing goes more smoothly when I have several projects going simultaneously. If only I had learned that years ago! Here’s what I have in the works:

I completed the first draft of my first novel, The Cornflake Girl (still a tentative title for reasons I’ll explain), in May 2012. The second draft was completed three months later. Only then, in my backwards way of doing things, did I begin studying the craft of writing and the business of publishing. I quickly learned that my novel breaks all kinds of rules. There are three protagonists, one of whose likeability is questionable, and there is no tangible antagonist. There are parts of the story that I think are well-written and thoughtful but don’t necessarily move the story along. The title character is only one of the protagonists and for the first one-third of the book, she is only seen by another character, rather than being part of the action. It’s about so many different things that I’ve had a hard time explaining to people what it’s about. So it definitely needs an overhaul. All of these facets, combined with a common piece of writing advice, add up to my decision to shelve it – for now. The aforementioned advice, which I’ve read from several accomplished authors, is that if your first novel breaks a lot of rules, you should consider not submitting it for publication until you have some credits under your belt.

I began my second novel, Peer through Time, in June 2012. It’s a sequel to the first book so it shares the same predicament, but I’m early enough in the process that it should be salvageable. I’ve learned that it’s not unheard of for the second book in a series to be released prior to its prequel. This story is about a woman who grew up during the latter part of the 21st century and is sent back in time to the early 20th century where she must learn to live without all the technology she’s come to rely on. Meanwhile, back in her own time – the future – acquaintances of her adoptive mother are dying from what appear to be mysterious freak accidents. It’s all connected but I’m still working out the details.

In an effort to get some necessary publishing credits on my resume, I’ve taken the advice of my favorite science fiction author, Robert J. Sawyer, and started submitting short stories to magazines. The first one is titled Inauguration of the Hillbot, written during September and October 2012. It’s a near-future tale about a new mode of urban transportation that might endanger its passengers due to faulty testing procedures. It features a minor character from my novels-in-progress, who has a secret about this standalone event that takes place between books 1 and 2. I’ve submitted it to some magazines and I am currently waiting out the average response time, which is five weeks to three months. I know to expect rejection and will continue to submit to other publications.

My second short story was begun in late October 2012. Loneliness in the Late 21st Century examines whether technological advances that keep us connected to each other will evolve so much that loneliness is eradicated, becoming a notion from the past. Inspiration can come from unlikely sources: I was reading a thriller that had little to do with anything I was writing, but one sentence about someone being lonely sparked the idea. I’ve always written in the past tense and have been irked by stories written in the present tense: ‘he says’ instead of ‘he said.’ But it’s a grievance without rationale, so I’m challenging myself to write this one in the present tense. It’s working and I’m less bothered by it now.

Another short-story idea is tumbling around in my head; this one has to do with memory loss. As a society, we are already storing information in computers (or the cloud) that we formerly stored in our heads: phone numbers, for instance. As technology advances to the point where we can back up our memories, perhaps it won’t be a pill that solves Alzheimer’s disease and other types of memory loss. Maybe it will resolve itself as a by-product of the technology we’re developing for other reasons.

Then there’s my blog: the one you’re reading. An author’s blog ideally has a central theme. In my “weblog for miscellaneous thoughts,” each topic is different from the previous one. Another rule-breaker. But this is not my author blog, which doesn’t yet exist; it’s just my first attempt at an outlet for some writings that don’t have a home elsewhere. My mildly rebellious literary nature might be the very thing that prevents my initial success—-but might later prove valuable for its non-typicality. I can hope.

Many times I’ve been very close to giving up and relegating this dream to the archives along with so many other roads started but ultimately not taken: architecture; gymnastics; and computer programming, to name a few. But one of the most common pieces of author advice I’ve come across is this, or its many variations: Don’t give up. Keep going. The only way to guarantee your failure is to give up. It’s true: I guaranteed my failure in those other endeavors by not following through with them, continually dropping one interest in pursuit of another.

I take one more step into the water and my fear of drowning decreases just a little bit. The raft is waiting. Where it will take me, I have no idea. I don’t even know with certainty that I’ll reach it. Perhaps it looks sturdy but is really just a cheap, thin rectangle of plastic from the dollar store, its promises nothing more than imaginary. But I won’t know until I take several more steps; until the ground beneath me retreats and I risk sinking while envisioning the potential rewards brought forth by swimming.