corporate ladder

“don’t worry about your place
on the corporate ladder,
there’s always some fucker
down there, two rungs below
…rubbing two sticks together
– trying to start the fire
to burn you down”

or so says Gus, the new bartender
at the Los Lobos Bar,
but what does he know (I tell myself)
damned bartenders
and their sage words,
all of ‘em
trying to sound like they
know things the rest of us don’t
trying to act like they
have done it all about two
weeks before the rest of us

…they think they’re a sounding board
for the desperate
and they think that we have no place
left to go

Gus asks if I want one more
before he gets busy
with the lunch crowd
but I wave him off
saying I have to get
back to
the office.

In Pursuit of Completion – Reflections on NaNoWriMo

Ernest Hemingway

You just  have to go on when it is worst and most helpless–there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is to go straight to the end of the damn thing.

–Ernest Hemingway

I was not going to write anything about NaNoWriMo this year. I told myself that a month ago, as the November 1st kickoff date for the event loomed. After all, the blogosphere is filled with commentary about NaNoWriMo, which for those of you who don’t know of it, is an acronym that refers (awkwardly) to National Novel Writing Month, and it takes place in November of each year – all 30 days of it. I was all set to move on to other topics, ignoring NaNoWriMo entirely, until I ran across the above quote from Hemingway. The quote is an excerpt from a letter that Old Hem wrote to Scott Fitzgerald back in 1929, presumably to prod his friend on to literary success (it obviously worked). And, since nothing inspires me to put fingers to keyboard more than a quote from Papa, and this one seems so perfectly tailored as an intro to a NaNoWriMo blog, here goes…

First off, NaNoWriMo is a challenge in which participants attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. To get some idea of the size of a 50,000 word novel, think The Great Gatsby at 47,180 words, or Slaughterhouse-Five which clocks in at some 49,459 words. In both cases, Fitzgerald and Vonnegut (respectively), would have needed to beef up a couple of chapters in order to complete NaNoWriMo successfully. Conversely, Faulkner would have handily picked up his NaNoWriMo award had he uploaded his 56,787 word manuscript, As I Lay Dying, to the NaNoWriMo server prior to the November 30th midnight deadline.

So, considering how large a 50,000 word manuscript really is, it is easy to see why completing such a large amount of work in such a short time period is a daunting task to say the least. It requires dedication, perseverance, and above all, hours of hard damned work. But the world has no shortage of aspiring writers. According to the NaNoWriMo website, the 2012 competition attracted 341,375 participants, and since its humble beginnings in 1999, 250 novels, birthed in NaNoWriMo have been traditionally published. I would venture to say that many, most, or all, of these novels would have found their way to publication without NaNoWriMo, but I can’t say for sure. Most were probably planned well before November, fleshed out during the competition, and then subjected to endless edits post-NaNoWriMo. But that’s just my feeling, so if you have taken a novel all the way to traditional publication and attribute your success entirely to NaNoWriMo (Jeez, one blogger is right, that acronym is damned annoying to type), then please feel free to comment here and flame the hell out of me.

There you have it. If you are ready to get your novel down on paper, or in the electronic can, head on over and sign up – just be aware that in order to complete NaNoWriMo, you’ll have to write a consistent minimum of 1667 words per day – 7 days per week, each day of the entire month. So what could possibly be controversial about a quarter million people or more, spending time writing novels? Seems like an innocent pursuit, right. Well, there are a good many people out there who do not share the love when it comes to NaNoWriMo.

Do a Google search for ‘nanowrimo sucks’, or ‘i hate nanowrimo’ and you will see what I mean. NaNoWriMo has haters. And many of them make very good points, one point being that the competition is totally about word count and finishing the work in the allotted 30 day period with total disregard to quality. Technically, Jack Torrence, Stephen King’s tortured writer in The Shining, could have submitted his ersatz manuscript wherein the words, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” are repeated endlessly, filling each page from margin to margin.  As long as Jack’s manuscript reaches the 50,000 work mark (and he has an electronic copy available for upload), he can walk away with a certificate of NaNoWriMo completion. This rankles some writers who believe that the world needs far fewer bad novels, and far more good novel readers  – a point that I feel has great merit, but not enough for me to come down hard on NaNoWriMo. I think that the advantages of competing in a challenge that encourages finishing a project to be admirable, and I have no unkind words for NaNoWriMo participants.

And will I be participating in this year’s competition?  No, I will not. This year I’ve other priorities. But I shall be thinking of you all as the clock approaches midnight on Thursday evening, and I shall see you in my minds eye with nervous fingers tapping the keyboard waiting for the race to begin…good luck to all.

Location, location, location

An author friend of mine, an author that has known some success, and knows more about writing than I do, told me that the setting for his latest novel is Long Island, New York. Having lived in Long Island for three years back in the early 80’s, I was intrigued.

“Really,” I said to him, “Nassau, or Suffolk?” He didn’t know how to answer, but he did tell me the name of a town that I recognized. I went on to tell him that I lived for a time in Huntington Station, New York, which is in Suffolk County. Then I pressed him about his regional knowledge of that area – not because I was trying to embarrass him, or impress him with my esoteric knowledge of Long Island, but because I was curious as to why he chose that location as the setting for a novel – especially since his novel did not have to be set in that location for any particular reason.

My author friend finally confessed that he had never been to Long Island, or even New York for that matter, but he told me with great confidence, that with the tools available on the internet, today’s author can set a novel in practically any location they choose. By using MapQuest to locate streets and by using Google Earth and Street View to zoom in on actual locales, one can effectively write a novel set in any particular area without ever having set foot in Westhampton, Shinnecock Hills, or Amagansett.

I retreated from the conversation unconvinced.  I recall an article that I read many years ago in a magazine. I cannot remember who wrote the article, but it was an interview with a successful published author. It was one of those advice type articles, directed at novice writers trying to write their first published work. There was lots of good advice in the article, but I’ve retained only the following:

“Never, ever set a novel in New York City unless you know the town.”

Notice that the writer was quite emphatic about this particular point. While the writer spoke only of New York City, I suspect that the advice might be expanded to include many other large metropolitan areas, like Los Angeles and Chicago.

The author went on to explain that New Yorkers buy lots of books, and since many New Yorkers have lived in the city all of their lives, they will smell a phony in…well…a New York minute. Don’t alienate the New Yorkers!

I suppose it depends somewhat upon the breadth of the creative piece that a writer is trying to develop. It would probably be possible to set a short story in say, an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan by doing a bit of internet research, as long as the action doesn’t ‘leave the house’. Move your characters out onto the street, and then you’d better know the lay of the land. If your CIA agent meets her contact at the Feast of San Gennaro, you’d better, at some point in life, have walked Mulberry Street between Houston and Canal (something I have done, but I used the internet to verify that Houston to Canal Street part, thus highlighting my point that the internet is a useful tool for detail, but it does not take the place of the experience).

There are exceptions. Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of the epic Tarzan series of adventure books wrote prolifically about Africa, without ever having set foot on the continent. It is important to note, however, that Burrough’s work was consumed by an early 20th century audience who, like him, knew little of Africa either. Perhaps the more sophisticated the audience, the more regional knowledge the writer needs to effectively create a believable piece (and unless we are writing pure fantasy, we all want to write a believable piece – that’s the goal, right?).

I am wondering how others feel about this very important topic. You have the plot, you have the characters. Now where do you put them? Is it your hometown, a place you visit regularly, or maybe where you vacation? After reading some Nicholas Sparks (trying to find out what that guy is doing right), I suspect that he knows quite a bit about the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and I doubt he learned all he knows by searching the internet. I mean, has Google Street View ever swept through Rodanthe?

Hemingway once reflected that it was difficult for him to set his work in his present physical location. He felt that his 1937 classic novel, To Have and Have Not, a novel set primarily in Cuba and Florida, would have been much better had he not written most of it while living in Key West. He found that he wrote best about places he had left some years before.

In my own work, I am finding that Papa was onto something. As a native Midwesterner, I find it easier to write to mundane cities out on the Plains (The DUI Guy is set in suburban Chicago), than it is to set my characters in Florida, where I currently live – perhaps I shall have to move to New York in order to write the perfect Florida book.

In any case, I would be interested in your thoughts.

Until next post,

Mahalo,

Ed