#NaNoMyWoe

The alternate title considered for this post was #NaNoWhyThough. I’m not trying to troll anyone, nor attack the whole NaNoWriMo project. This is an account of “my personal struggle” with the purpose of the thing.

Chatter on the interwebs suggests that a great many writers/would-be writers find the whole “write 50,000 words in a month” idea at once seductive, useful and motivating. I do not.

The #NaNoWriMo target is a manifestation of that oft repeated and irredeemably obnoxious piece of writerly advice: “Writers write”. This advice is frequently shortened to “Write”.

Is it really that obnoxious? Aside from being facile, self-satisfying and slightly insulting, I think obnoxious is the word. It’s the writing, stupid1. Seriously.

There are too many posts about advice for writers that:

a) state that you can’t tell people how to write, that you need to write to feel/know how to write in your heart, and,

b) insist, sometimes twice, that what you need to do is write

In response, I don’t believe that you can’t tell people how to write.

Most writing, including what little I’ve written, amounts to little more than abject hackery. That’s fine. Most people don’t want to write a dense, difficult novel. Most of us want to write an epic urban fantasy romance between a were-clown and a spaceship2. And you can tell people almost exactly how to do that. Indeed, most writers who earn a crust writing about writing write often about their ebooks and workshops that are selling exactly that. But they tell you that there aren’t shortcuts.

Telling people that “how to write” can’t be gifted to the uninitiated, that there are no shortcuts, seems disingenuous in the extreme.

The reader may be wrong-headed in their belief that “being a writer” is a binary state, that until they write/complete3 a thing, they can’t call themselves a writer4. There’s no excuse for writers, who should know better, to compound that misperception by implying that becoming a writer is a Hero’s Journey™ that involves such trials as “figuring out what kind of writer you are”.

But isn’t “Writers write” that antidote to all that alchemical symbology?

Perhaps, but the motto is also itself a mystical charm. One designed to imbue the act of writing with a undeserved power. To be absolutely clear, I do not believe that writing is inherently good. Yes, you need to write to get better at writing, but the flaws in the idea that you will get better specifically by writing 50k words in a month should be obvious.

If you told me to make 100 chairs in a week, what you would get is maybe 50 rubbish chairs. Crucially, I would have learnt and reinforced bad habits and corner-cutting while improving my ability to make chairs. Perhaps I would be better at making a chair at the end of the week, but I suspect I would get better, faster, with a little more patience, research, and consideration.

This is the central issue I have with NaNoWriMo. I am not writing hundreds of words I am proud of; not even hundreds that will do,  at least as a first draft. Its junk. Not in a “what was I thinking” sense, when reread. Junk. I know it’s junk while I’m writing it. But that’s what matters. 1,667 words a day. Any words, just bash ’em out.

I’ll admit to living out on the far edge of the slow, redraft-as-I-go arm of the writing-style galaxy5, so I find it difficult to write quickly regardless. The target count is just about manageable for me, provided that I do nothing else, but all I am doing is cobbling together rubbish chairs. I’m not thinking. I’m not enjoying the process.

But I am writing. And that’s all that matters…

The second serious objection that I have regarding the #NaNoWriMo thesis is the notion that completing a thing is inherently good or is important; specifically, completing a novel of 50,ooo words is important. Why the obsession with completion?

I suppose it’s technically more useful to a reader to read a complete story, but how can a first draft written at breakneck speed be any kind of complete? What about all the complete sentences, paragraphs, chapters?

I would rather half-complete something I enjoyed writing, to a standard I felt representative of my ability, in a style and tone that felt like me.

But you can! That’s the beauty of NaNoWriMo. Like all the best cults, it can be whatever you want it to be. Whatever you can dream.

The above sentiments are monstrous, but I stand by them. Lack of motivation is such a common, debilitating weakness, and anything that gets one off their “ass” and flexing the willpower muscle must have some value. But NaNoWriMo feels like that workout regime that’s really inefficient, and may even be weakening your joints.

You are writing. You are completing. But at what cost?

I strongly believe that if, at the end of the month, you have written 50k words you are not happy with, the whole thing was a waste of time.

Perhaps for some it would be better to find another model for motivation. Try qualitative targets, or get a spotter for your yarn-gym. Try less Z-grade6 motivational twaddle. Fewer blog posts, for Dickens’s sake7.

Find a way to form a writing habit, starting as small as possible, but make the time regular, and easy to manage. That’s the only way I could manage it, anyway.

Or you could grow a moustache, abstain from alcohol and partake in myriad other lunar projects until you find yourself.

This rant totally counting towards my word count.

  1. Inset James Carville here.
  2. On average.
  3. More on this later in the rant.
  4. For my sins, I subscribe to this belief.
  5. I know, the outer edge of a galaxy’s arm moves faster not slow.
  6. As in bad, not zombie-grade.
  7. Dickens’s? Dickens’?

Escape Plan

This was going to be an investigative piece, revealing that Jim Caviezel and Eric Roberts are the same person. But it turns out they’re not, so-

In the war between the High and Popular cultures, neutrality belongs to the omnivorous. Maybe there is an advantage to taking one side or another, namely comfort, but I think you get more out of discomfort.

You feel more alive; never fully liking or disliking anything in its totality, eking nutrients out of even the most Kardashian1 of media.

Are you really better for dismissing something that someone else has found value in? Or are you narrow-minded, short-sighted, ignorant or pretentious?

I mainlined Alpha House recently. It is one of those high/low culture chimeras, at once a broad, laugh-free comedy and something with “politics” in it. If you’re not careful, you might learn something. I might have missed the sermon of the West Wing where they explain what a Super PAC23 is, but thanks to Alpha House, I now know.

I saw Rory Mullarkey’s adaptation of the Orestia at the Globe recently. Aeschylus’s trilogy is my favourite set of classical plays, so I came in with “High” expectations. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more as a tourist.

There was much to like, much to raise an eyebrow at, but the experience was more than worth the price of admission for one golden moment.

At the end of the cycle (spoliers), the cast come out to do their katharsis-inducing “Globe jig”. Instead of the usual dance, the cast carried out a giant winged phallus, painted gold, and conga’d it through the crowd. The crowd were bemused at best. But that’s not the moment.

It might be fair to say the crowd were already wavering. The end of Eumenides is problematic, and Adele Thomas4 took a slightly unnerving, slightly downbeat direction that neither whitewashed nor really engaged with the ambiguities.

So the crowd were already uncomfortable.

We were sat fairly central, a couple of rows back, on ground level. On the parade’s second, wilful pass through a herd of skittish groundlings, one of the actors carrying the phallus, Dickon Tyrrell, turned to us with a cheeky grin and said, “What does it all mean?”

It was executed perfectly, and summed up the play, the performance, the struggle to find meaning and to find comfort better than I could hope to.

The cast could not be coaxed out for an encore.

  1. I’m not going to apologise for this joke.
  2. Two legendaries in one Hearthstone card pack.
  3. It’s not that.
  4. Thomas’s Knight of the Burning Pestle was truly excellent.

I remember Quad Damage

I remember the box of the first copy of Quake II I owed. The avocado green. The iconic, battle-scared Q. The glossy, flimsy cardboard.

Quake II is almost 18 years old.

For the sake of authenticity, I’m playing WASD style. This isn’t authentic in the personal sense, mind. I grew up using arrow keys for movement1. I’m not a leftie. I grew up using a mouse with my left hand because my father is left-handed and that’s the side of the keyboard the mouse was on.

And I’ve used a mouse with my left hand ever since.

Occasionally, I’ll sit down at a strange PC and use my right hand for a few minutes, but then I realise what I’m doing and feel weird and gross2. Like walking, I can’t use a mouse in my right hand if I’m thinking about it.

But I want one of these. This Michelangelo’s David of mice doesn’t come in left, so it’s au revoir childhood,  guten tag conventionality3.

I highly recommend returning to Stroggland, or wherever the Hell Quake II is set. It’s on a planet made of crates and triangles. Super shotguns are there, too. It’s great.

I’m not a huge FPS fan, but if you buy more than one game a year, genre doesn’t mean much these days.

Shooters have had “RPG mechanics” for years. They have all the genres on your mobile now. And everything is roguelike.

That may be why Quake II feels refreshing. Like reading Homer.

In many ways, the game is manifestly part of a tradition. Quake II feels honed, tight, with facets that are presented without comment, presuming the player understands their nature through a shared language.

Quad Damage, for one. Yes, there was a picture in the manual, but in 1997 it was fine for games to have inexplicably anachronistic power ups and floating, rotating guns. Now everything has to be lying on a table.

It would be reductive and fanciful to write “And yet, the game feels pure.” But it does feel pure.

Not pure like distilled vodka. Pure like spring water.

Quake II has terroir rather than a literary tradition. The game may not be the better for it, but is fresher.

  1. Like God intended.
  2. ;-).
  3. ‘Conventional’ with respect to gaming mouse-owning hipsters.

Ant-Man and the Sky Woman

This week, I consumed two units of media.

Yesterday, I finished The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. The book is set in North America in the 1630’s1 and depicts the relationship between the French and the Huron, told from the perspective of a Huron war-bearer, his adopted Iroquois daughter and a Jesuit missionary.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is one of my favourite books. I read The Orenda expecting a similarly violent and wry dreamscape of a novel. I was certainly wrong, but not disappointed.

Boyden’s book captures, within a grounded, realistic framing, two life philosophies, two competing schools of magic, their meeting and ensuing struggle.

Père Christophe, “the Crow” , tries largely in vain to save the souls of the Huron among whom he lives. Despite his ambiguous personal progress, he is the herald of a new, inescapable pantheon of interests, interests that stumble across the Atlantic and trespass into every aspect of the lives of the Huron. By the book’s end, the course of the future is clear.

Bird, the Huron war-bearer, Gosling, the Anishinaabe mystic, and Snow Falls, the adopted daughter, represents facets of the magic of the native people, their Orenda. They are varied, human, proud and doomed, without2 resorting to cliché; without even the threat of cliché.

We’re familiar enough with colonial narratives to know how the story goes. To Boyden’s credit, The Orenda reads as though independent of that epic cycle of exploitation, justification, blame and guilt. It is consciously a story about people coming to terms with incredible change, even apocalypse, and is well told.

The book didn’t smash my worldview, but I don’t think it was supposed to.

I closed the book with a profoundly-felt respect for its characters and for the historical figures and peoples they represented.

Ant-Man is probably not post-colonial literature.3

I cherish those films that you can watch again and again, without ever getting bored. The background films. The movies you can dip into, that don’t ask too much.4

Marvel’s Ant-Man might be one of those films.

Like many of Marvel’s recent entries, it suffers from being what it is, an entry in a franchise. Unlike many such films, Ant-Man revels in those fanboyish obligations, stuffing the picture full of in-jokes and references.

Much has been said about Ant-Man’s troubled gestation and weak box office. I love Spaced as much as the next guy5, but I don’t regret Edgar Wright’s leaving the film. Perhaps Wright’s pure-blooded Ant-Man would have been amazing. Perhaps it would have utterly failed to integrate into the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”, both stylistically and narratively.

Wright started on Ant-Man in 2003, long before the world we know now existed. A world where Groot is a thing.

The comparison between the first Iron Man and this film is apt and unnecessary. Ant-Man is a origin story, with mad science, families, fathers, sons, daughters, all that, but it isn’t weighed down by an obligation to be an “origin story”. It concerns itself with being a cool, comic book movie. The origin stuff just happens.

Like Netflix’s recent Daredevil, Ant-Man is mature in that it knows it is a comic book movie and leans into the comic book tropes that serve its narrative. In one scene, an Ant-Man and an Avenger6 have a fight, but it turns out they are both good guys and it’s all a misunderstanding. Like every issue of every superhero comic ever. Delightful.

In addition to all that lowest common denominator froth, crafted to tickle and caress my geek bones, Ant-Man depicts an exhilarating moment that literally7 left me breathless. It could have been ripped out of the trippier parts of Kubrick’s 2001. The scene is sufficiently, delicately foreshadowed such that it easily fits within the film, despite its otherworldliness. That was a good scene.

Ant-Man isn’t art. I’m not convinced The Orenda is either. But neither of them need to be.

We celebrate noble failures all the time. We perhaps give such failures more credit than they deserve, or wear rose-tinted spectacles for longer than we should.

I think, on most days, I’d rather consume a well-crafted, workmanlike meal than a failed, but noble, gastronomic experiment.

  1. Or thereabouts.
  2. At least to my unsophisticated ear.
  3. Heh, ant colony.
  4. E.g. Anchorman, Back to the Future, The Seventh Seal.
  5. The next red-blooded, British, Star Trek fan guy.
  6. Spoilers. *cough* Falcon *cough*
  7. Literally.

In defence of the right-hand man

Netflix’s Daredevil is the closest thing to watching a TV comic book you could hope for. Cheesy dialogue, strong art direction, and a slow-burning, yet episodic, plot.

But that’s not why I’m here.

The stand-out character of the show is James Wesley, played by Toby Leonard Moore. Wesley is the right-hand man of Vincent D’Onofrio’s delightfully interesting lead villain, Wilson ‘Cuff-links’ Fisk.

When it comes to stereotypes and archetypes, it’s easy to write things like “Moore’s performance rises above the norm” or “what, in other hands, would have been a forgettable performance”.

Moore’s performance as Welsey is great. Welsey becomes a thinking, feeling major character, his reactions and behaviour human both in their consistency and inconsistency. When he is summoned or dismissed by Fisk, Moore captures in Wesley’s face the satisfaction of playing the part of a valued factotum, and also the struggle between that pride and the hurt and fleeting anxiety of a friend losing control and influence over a man he loves and respects.

I haven’t finished Daredevil season one yet, so I don’t know if it gets weird1, but as it stands I have been hugely impressed by how Moore’s Wesley improves on the right-hand man archetype. This article does a great job of indicating why.

That said, I don’t want to write about how good one actor’s performance, or one writer’s script, makes a rubbish thing great. I don’t see why the baseline for second-in-command needs to be an archetype we expect so little of. When did that happen?

Number twos can become great in their own right. Ask Lucifer.

I think the reason right-hand men2 and women are often rubbish characters in their own right is because they act as a factotum in service of the plot, the themes etc. of a creative work.

We know better than to make the villain of the piece a symbol. We expect them to be a real character, with hopes and dreams of their own. They need to smile as well as frown, whisper and shout, be nuanced and all that; else, they would be accused of two-dimensionality.

But it’s okay for henchmen to be one-dimensional. Right-hand men are frequently used to augment or supplement a main villain’s strengths 3, or to distil their essence into a simpler form4, a symbol.

Writing a second-in-command into which you can dump all the stuff you would have had your lead villain do/represent, but for the sake of art, is worse that writing a two-dimensional villain. You’ve indicated that you know better, by creating a fleshed-out antagonist, but left a skeleton standing next to him.

Let’s consider a few points that could apply to any would-be second-in-command:

1. Make a henchman/woman a character in his/her own right

At least try. What would the story be if told from this character’s point of view? What to they think and feel? Do their actions make sense?

2. Don’t engineer behaviour from necessity

Are you sure a henchman needs to do/say/be those things? Could the lead antagonist do it? Does it need to be done/said at all?

The easiest way to make something feel organic is for it to be organic. “Smash characters together and see what happens” is one approach. Another is to put more effort into looping through the logic of a plot-based decision; you need X to happen, so Y does a thing, but does it make sense for Y to act so that X happens?

3. What would the follower do without the leader?

If, upon removing their boss, the right-hand man simply evaporates, try harder.

Characters are always going to be artificial things, collections of words and/or pictures that pretend to be people, but there aren’t degrees of reality5. If characters are going to pretend to be real, they need to pretend to exist in terms of themselves, not as extensions or reflections of other characters.

Minor, out-of-focus characters need to come into focus as you approach. They can’t stay fuzzy. That is hideous.

To be honest, any or all of the above could be nonsense.

I suppose my point is that no characters should be written weaker, narrower or with lower expectations of realism because of their function. Nothing should be an afterthought.

When we, as a society and as individuals, create, we should aim for all killer, no filler6.

  1. Ahem, Rule 34.
  2. #everydaysexism
  3. The mastermind’s pet ninja or heavy. The brutal tyrant’s vizier. The visionary’s pragmatist.
  4. The evil sensei’s protégé. The tyrant’s general. The visionary’s fanatic.
  5. Or maybe there are. I’m not a physicist.
  6. Does This Look Infected? is better.