Decision Made — No NaNoWriMo

I woke up this morning and knew what my decision was, after having debated the issue before going to sleep last night. Not only won’t I be doing NaNoWriMo this year, last year will probably have been my last one. No matter how well I plan ahead, taking days off from writing, not pushing myself beyond my physical limits, NaNo is stressful, enough so that I always end the month burned out and unable to write again until I get my energy back. With one nearly-finished novel long overdue for completion and the most important book of my life barely started, I can’t afford the loss. My physical capacity is less each year and this year, I’ve really felt it. So that’s it for NaNo, probably forever.

It was a good run that taught me a lot, but other than cranking out one more novel, I’ve probably squeezed out all the juice that NaNo had to offer. I’ll miss it, but not the stress and anxiety.


Currently Reading, and Other Stuff

Keeping an eye out for Amazon book sales can really pay off. I had Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Days of Rain on my wish list, but put it off, as I so often do, because of the price. Then, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a sale on his climate change trilogy, Green Earth, of which Forty Days of Rain is the first. So I’ve been deeply immersed. I was unable to read his Mars series because he isn’t just a “hard” SF writer, he glories in details that go on and on forever, at the expense of story and characters. Green Earth is an edit and slight condensation of the original three novels, and while the book is still very science-heavy, it’s a totally immersive experience.

It’s about climate change, but what the characters call “abrupt climate change,” which is an actual possibility acknowledged by scientists today  but played down, probably because the prospect is so terrifying. In the book, “ice age” winter suddenly appear, even as the earth as a whole is heating up. That’s a possibility that resonates with me, more for emotional reasons than anything else. Here I sit in southern Michigan, having just experienced a cooler than normal summer while the world average temps have reached a new high. And Fall has come on quite abruptly, with unusually cool nights. I woke up this morning to 39 F. So the nervous ape inside me has to wonder, even though I know perfectly well that weather and climate aren’t the same thing.

There is too much in the book, including political maneuvering, that could be taken from today’s news, even though the trilogy began in 2004, and the last book came out in 2007. If you’re looking for a nice long read of about 1,000 pages, and don’t mind having your sense of “everything’s fine” shaken up, it’s a must-read.


The development of Empire of Masks is coming along swimmingly, with many surprises that appear out of nowhere. At the same time, Bright World of Sorrows is refusing to bow out gracefully, so that’s also in development. All of which means that the public debut of Camp Expendable has been put off, yet again.


One last chance at finding a site where I can post work and have it critiqued. After my experiences with Authonomy and Write On, you’d think I’d be gun-shy by now. And I am. Scribophile is one of NaNo’s sponsors, and failed to provoke my interest in previous years. For some reason, I decided to check it out this year. And joined. It’s very different from other posting/critiquing sites because you have to earn the right to post your work, by earning karma points via critiquing. Instantly, that raises the overall level of competence in what is posted. There’s very little of the YA and TV-inspired attempts at writing. The site also has excellent forums, and topic-specific groups. I don’t have much time or patience for critiquing, so my accumulation of karma points will be slow. But the level of the discussions about writing is such that membership is worth it for that alone. Judging by the number of “reputation” points some members have, they’ve been on the site for years, which speaks well of how it’s run. Altogether, it’s an enjoyable place to spend some time with other writers, which is more than I can say for those I’ve tried in the past.


NaNo Bits and a Mindblowing Reread

Skimming over the NaNoWriMo forums has solidified my feeling that NaNo has split into two separate factions, though factions isn’t really the word I want. There are the writers, who have a book they want to write and possibly publish. Then there are what seem to be increasing numbers of participants, mostly teenagers, who are there to have fun and socialize. As a grumpy oldster who’s been doing NaNo for quite a while now, I wonder if this is a good thing. National Novel Writing Month wasn’t meant to be a playground for people who are more concerned about setting up playlists, deciding what tea is best during November, and competing with their friends for word count, than about actually writing.

Everything changes, of course, and institutions (which NaNo has become) change pretty drastically. But as the “rules” have become more and more forgiving and flexible, and as NaNo has become almost an “in” thing to do every year, the original intent, to encourage people to write, has been lost somewhere along the way. Is it really a great thing that last year’s participation was somewhere around half a million, when less than 20%, in any year, make it to the finish line? Maybe it says something about how NaNo has gone off course that one of the most popular threads on the forum is always how to increase your word count without actually writing a novel.

The argument that everyone uses it in their own way is logical and fair. Also, whatever goes on in the forums doesn’t affect what or how I write. But I wonder how many would-be writers are turned off by the dominant “fun” atmosphere of so many of the forums and never make use of the truly useful aspects of NaNo. And I wonder if NaNoWriMo will eventually collapse under the weight of its popularity.

As for me, I’m well into a rough outline for Empire of Masks, which was my original choice for this year, then rejected, and is now November’s goal. But Bright World of Sorrows, my vague, hand wavery choice which I then rejected, is still demanding time in the spotlight. From having no idea how to turn it into an actual story, I’ve been bombarded with plot points inspired by just about everything I’m reading lately. And one of the inspirations, though rather late to the party, is Shikasta.

Shikasta is the first volume of Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series of literary science fiction. Until a fire chased me out of my apartment and I had to make the agonizing decision of what few books I could save from the mess left behind, I owned the whole series and had reread each of the books many times. On the path back to owning old favorites, I recently got a new copy of Shikasta. My memory is always spotty, so I’d forgotten that the opening is rather dry and can be very off-putting. But delving back into it, I was amazed how prescient it was, as many great SF novels are.

What makes Shikasta different from the general run of even the best looks into the future is that the psychology of humans is a central concern. It isn’t an easy book, but for anyone who wants to delve deep into the reasons why we learn nothing from the past, it’s a must-read. Lessing was heavily influenced by a contemporary branch of Sufism, so her vision of humans is as much spiritual as psychological.

Free Download of Climate Change Anthology

Everything Change, an anthology of climate fiction short stories is now available in either PDF or ePub format from Arizona State University. Twelve stories, with a forward by Kim Stanley Robinson, and an interview with Paolo Bacigalupi. I downloaded the PDF version a couple of minutes ago, so I can’t say anything about the quality of the stories, but with two well-known SF authorts attaching their names to it, it isn’t likely to disappoint. The stories are winners in a contest held by Arizona State.

It’s somewhat interesting that it will also be available soon in Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo digital book stores, but no mention of Amazon. Makes sense if they’re planning to keep the book free, and available in as many stores as possible. Maybe there will be a Kindle version somewhere down the road.

NaNoWriMo2016 — Ready, Set, Go!

The old forum threads have been cleared out, and it’s time to update your profile with this year’s novel. All I have so far is the title and genre. With three different choices buzzing around in my head for the last few months, there was no point in writing synopses or creating covers. I have a cover image for A Well-Educated Boy, but since that lost the NaNo race, I won’t be working up the cover any time soon.

And yes, I’m in, after all the backing and forthing. And returning to the original choice: Empire of Masks. It’s a fantasy, and I’m hoping to make it as nasty as possible. Slavery. Drug addiction. Conspiracies. Not my usual thing, but when an idea won’t let go, no matter how many times you’ve tried to shut it down, then it’s time to give up the fight.

Book to Movie to Book, and Other Matters

The deeper I get into writing, the less interest I have in watching movies. For someone with a library of a couple of hundred movies, that says a lot. The Road is the first DVD I’ve bought in a couple of years, and it took me a month or so to get around to watching it. Several years ago, I read the book the movie is based on and hadn’t liked it. Mostly because the writing style bothered me. But I’ve been thinking that might have been too much of a snap judgment, and maybe seeing the movie would inspire me to reread in a less critical mood. So I watched it last night, and pretty much hated it. There I am being critical again.

I don’t really remember anything about the book except the style. But I’m willing to bet that it’s nothing like the movie. Does Boy find another family at the end, as the movie shows? I’ll be reading the book again next month, just to find out. But all through the movie I had the feeling: this incident has been made up, or jacked up, in order to give the film a dramatic punch. And are there really flashbacks to the protag’s life with his lovely wife who just happens to be Charlize Theron? Can’t have the audience becoming progressively more bored and depressed. There has to be drama. Including ominous noises that seem to come from nowhere and have no relevance to anything happening on the screen. And a fire. A big fire. Apparently, the film makers couldn’t find any justification for an explosion, so they had to make do with a fire. And an earthquake.

More relevant to SF movies in general than to the book is the number of objects the characters found that were in perfect condition: canned and bagged foods, blankets, etc. No rotting fabrics despite the fact that the sun apparently never shines and it rains all the time, and this has been going on for years. No rats or mice in evidence anywhere. It reminded me of the  problem of there being no sound in outer space, no whooshing rockets, despite Hollywood’s penchant for irrelevant and unrealistic sound effects.

I’ll find out next month whether The Road will surpass Children of Men for a horribly filmized book. I’m betting on they’re being neck and neck.

In other “news”

It seems that I’ve committed myself to this year’s NaNoWriMo, though I reserve the right to change my mind at any time. I’ll be going (if I go) to the least developed idea of all those I might have chosen. For now, its title is A Bright World of Sorrows. A pair of aliens comes down to earth, alarmed at the apparent mental deterioration of one of their observers. They must decide what to do with their observer and about the inhabitants of the planet, which is in an advanced state of environmental deterioration, and embroiled in large and small wars.

Writing “slow” dystopias

To come soon, unless I get distracted by other subjects, the problems of writing believable dystopias. It takes research unless you’re planning to just do the thousandth iteration of Hunger Games, starring the thousandth version of the teen who saves everyone (and the world, while they’re at it).


SF Quickies

SF as Wish Fulfillment

Skimming through the science fiction blogs on WP today, I came across a statement that struck me, as such statements usually do, with how far outside the norm I am in almost any area of life. “At some point in their lives, all readers of science fiction and fantasy have wished, however fleetingly, that they could leave their mundane world behind and enter the world of their favourite book. That is, after all, why so many people read: to escape reality and go someplace else, be someone else, even for a little while.”

That’s probably true of most, or many, science fiction readers, but I can’t remember ever reading about a place or time that I wished I could explore in person. Of course, it isn’t only science fiction that appeals to readers in terms of wish-fulfillment. But it’s a state of mind that’s foreign to me. The lack, like many other lacks, does sometimes make me ask what kind of person I am.

Imaginary Societies

From John Michael Greer’s latest blog post, A Time for Retrovation: “Not all that many decades ago, SF authors routinely spun future societies as radically different from ours as ours is from, say, the ancient Maya, but such visions are rare now. I don’t think that’s accidental.”

For the most part, those societies were somewhere in outer space — alien societies that allowed writers to be as outrageously imaginative as possible. Or they took place in a far distant future that allowed the time for a complete overturn of everything we know, plus the possibility of humans having mutated or evolved into something quite different from us.

So, it isn’t surprising that most attempts to create a radically different kind of society tend to be nothing more than variations on the patterns that constitute our idea of “normal.” Those, in turn, divide into two mutually exclusive realities: a world which has regressed to random violence, war, and the brutality of trying to survive at the cost of other humans. Or a world in which our best characteristics immediately or eventually come to the fore and new cooperative enclaves are built.

Both depend almost exclusively on a catastrophic event: an instant ice age, the sun suffering a major glitch, a worldwide pandemic wiping out a good portion of humanity, nuclear war, etc. The alternative is the frog in the pot on the stove, which I’ve mentioned before. That really offers a lot more leeway for innovative thinking about society than defaulting to the either/or choice of cooperate or kill.

I’ve given this a lot of thought and I have to say I can understand why a gradual slide into a dramatically different kind of society hasn’t been tackled. Maybe it has, by someone, but I’m just not aware of it. I imagine a book like this would probably fall into obscurity pretty quickly, even though it would be more likely than the others to offer hope for the future.

Is it even possible to write such a book?

Between One Thing and Another…

Between one thing and another, I haven’t been doing any writing for the last week or two. Not good, because I’d set goals that should have been reachable without a lot of hassle. One of the things is that my Scrivener file for Camp Expendable became corrupted — again — and I just couldn’t face dealing with it again. At least I discovered the cause. It’s being dealt with on a temporary basis and will have a permanent fix as soon as I receive the 8 GB memory chips I ordered and get them installed. I’ve always known my Mac Mini doesn’t have enough memory, but for some reason it’s become critical lately, rather than just annoying. The other thing was an extended bout of being seriously under the weather.

As usual, though, I’ve been making notes for various WIPs, including Expendable, since that part of my brain never seems to shut down, no matter how rotten I feel. To NaNo or not to NaNo is still up in the air, and taking a good deal of my own working memory, which makes me feel somewhat like a NaNoWriMo newbie rather than a scarred veteran.

What makes it even more challenging to make a decision is that a new contender for my attention is shoving A Well-Educated Boy to the curb. That wouldn’t be a real problem except that this story is nothing but a concept and a few notes and short fragments. No plot, no structure, and not much in the way of characters. So why am I even contemplating it? That’s the 64 million dollar question.

The only reason I can come up with is that I’m bored with the two novels I’ve been working on and want to get into something new — something that’s a real challenge. And what’s more challenging than pantsing a story that is still just a vague idea? The first time I tried to do that was also the last. That was the first time I entered NaNo. It was a complete failure of course, because it was also my first attempt at writing a novel.

So there’s an element of: can I pants a novel now that I have several under my belt and know a heck of a lot more about what goes into a novel? There’s no way to answer that except by doing it. Which I may do. Or I may not. I doubt I can come up with 50,000 words in one month, starting out with so little preparation, but it feels like something worth trying.

It’s science fiction, of course, and somewhere in the neighborhood of Clarke’s Childhood’s End. Just barely in the neighborhood. And it will be my seventh year of doing NaNo if I don’t count the first two years of trying to figure out the whole noveling thing and failing miserably.


Turning Dry into Drama – Bentham’s Dream

This is an unplanned followup to yesterday’s post. It may be somewhat disorganized, even a little incoherent, since I’m thinking with my fingers. Bentham’s Dream was originally intended to be part of a short story collection about prisons, from about the early 19th century to the 2060s or thereabout. Somehow, Bentham’s Dream took over and shoved the other stories out of sight. Credit the last few years of research about the death penalty, solitary confinement, and other aspects of criminal justice. The story has grown, from some 8,000 words to 26,000 words and is still a long way from being finished.

I think it was at about 25,000 words that I realized I had a problem and needed to do some very deep thinking about where the story was going. More important, and I think yesterday’s question about why anyone would want to read it was a trigger, the problems coalesced into one question: how do I turn a somewhat dry subject and two talking heads into a story that will fascinate rather than send readers off into slumberland.

This might serve as a metaphor for any subject that might grab a writer, but seems to have little potential for attracting readers. Fortunately, science fiction allows a lot of latitude in topics, and any serious sf reader probably has fond memories of books dealing with subjects that they never would have considered worth their time. This is worth thinking about in this age of formula writing. How many Hunger Games clones can you bear to read? How many zombie novels or post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world reruns?

There are thousands of possible topics waiting for the science fiction writer with some imagination, someone who’s willing to take some risks and walk away from the clones and clichés. But it won’t be easy. It’s probably been well over a year since I started writing Bentham’s Dream. My original concept was fairly limited, but turned out to be nothing more than the skeleton from which to hang something much more complex and, I hope, more dramatic. Something I discovered about my writing is that I tend to place my characters in very restricted circumstances. Well, there’s nothing more restrictive than a prison where there is zero chance of prisoners causing any problems for the staff. So, no riots, no murders. None of the clichés that we associate with prison stories. Just two people wandering around the prison, observing the prisoners, and talking about it. How in the world can I introduce action and drama into such a setting?

Originally, the main protag, an inspector for the region’s penal system, does his job and then leaves, trying to decide how he wants to slant his report. He and the warden have had an interesting and enlightening discussion, but never touched base with each other as human beings. Dull, dull, dull. After much backing and forthing about POV, I’m writing the story in first person, from the point of view of Jerry Stanton, the inspector. This puts us closer to him than third person would be, but also limits what we can know about Chandler, the prison warden. Since Chandler starts off as an efficient bureaucrat, Jerry’s point of view is important if we want to see him as a human being, possibly with doubts about his job.

As the story evolved, Chandler turned out to be the key to the drama, and to a very different ending than I had planned, one that will be, if I do it right, a shocker.

WIPs Have Their Own Agendas

Sometimes I think WIPs have their own agendas, even a kind of life, that is independent of my priorities and ideas about what I should be working on. At the moment, Camp Expendable is waiting for me to stop dawdling and get it formatted, converted, and published. I had planned to get it out of my hair by the middle of the month, and that’s tomorrow. But I haven’t touched it for over a week, so that’s clearly not going to happen.

What shoved it out of the way? The story that is least likely to find readers, but has its grip on my mind and won’t let go. No matter what else I’m working on, Bentham’s Dream shoves its way to the front and demands that I get on with it. Who’s going to want to read a novella (which is what it’s turning into, from a short story) that takes place in a mysterious prison where the most horrific criminals are condemned to a life in solitary confinement. Even worse, there are only two protagonists, who spend all their time talking — about the problems and ethics of maintaining such a prison. Very exciting stuff.

It’s that kind of obsessiveness, willingness to let the stories dictate to the writer rather than the other way around, that separates some of us from the mainstream. We not only don’t write to market, we can’t write to market. We are internally inspired, driven, and motivated, whereas most writers seem to be externally driven and motivated. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re always going to write books without any chance of success in the marketplace. It does mean that we will put every bit of our creativity, and months or years of effort into book that we know very well will remain obscure and unloved.

Money is always welcome. Even a little bit of fame would be nice. But we’re willing to sacrifice all that for something that has meaning for us, even if that meaning may sometimes be obscure. It’s like a quest with an uncertain outcome, something you have to do whether or not it makes sense to anyone else.

A Well-Educated Boy – the 19th Century Concept

I sometimes work up the covers for my books before they’ve been written. Hunting down the most appropriate image and fonts, and then fiddling with the design of the cover, is a great way to procrasinate. When I came across this image, purely by accident, I knew instantly that I didn’t have to go hunting. It was perfect for A Well-Educated Boy. Now I have to make a decision about the font. Should I use one that matches the period of the image, or go aggressively modern to suggest that the book is looking down the road at another version of the future?

The illustration is one of a large set of postcards created in 19th/early 20th century France. The images were whimsical predictions of what life would be like in the 21st century. They prove that we tend to predict the future in terms that reflect the world around us, and are usually limited by the images and concepts that we are already familiar with.


The text at the top of the image is: “In the year 2,000.”

In 1986, Isaac Asimov published fifty of the set, with commentaries, in a book titled Futuredays: A Nineteenth Century Vision of the Year 2000.
To see more of the set:

Pantsing NaNo 2016?

It’s still completely up in the air — whether or not I’ll do NaNoWriMo this year. On the one hand, I’d like to get a first draft of A Well-Educated Boy written. On the other, I have too much on my plate right now to spend the necessary time to get all my notes into a more or less coherent shape. Since I have no idea yet how I want to structure the thing, my usual planning for NaNo can’t happen without an expenditure of time and energy that isn’t available.

The story is first person YA SF that probably won’t work in a normal chronological order, so trying to whip it into shape before it’s written, in time for NaNo, is just going to be an exercise in frustration. I could probably sit down and crank the whole thing out in a couple of weeks, but then would come the most massive revisions I’ve ever had to deal with — putting everything in a logical order.

The more I think about it, the more it seems as if that could actually work. So what I’m now considering is just writing scenes based on the material I already have, but without trying to put them in any order. In other words, pants the heck out of it, and deal with the mess later. I’ll still be editing as I go, as I always do, because “mess” does not mean incoherent sentences, misspelled words, etc. I have so many notes about the characters, the changes Hart goes through, the events that take place, and the background for the story that it probably won’t be too difficult to just open up my brain and spill whole scenes. All I’ll be leaving out during November is how to order and connect them. What I’ll wind up with, to work on in 2017, is the meat-covered bones without the joints to make them hang together. Looked at that way, it’s kind of scary, since I’ve never worked that way. But what’s life without challenges?