On Writing (Really Really Fast)

This is the second post in a month-long series on Camp NaNoWriMo, in which Evaric and Venezia share with you the process of writing a book in a month.

A daily schedule indicating to write 3000 words in 1 hour
Typical Monday morning.

By the end of yesterday, the second day of Camp NaNoWriMo, I had written nearly 10,000 words (9,666 to be exact). This is more than I’ve written in the entire month on previous attempts. This is not a boast, but an example of the results of making tiny changes to your mindset and creative process. The difference between my output this year vs. previous years has nothing to do with me becoming a better writer or receiving a sudden burst of divine inspiration (hardly). It has everything to do with definitions.

Redefinition (or: the Secret to Doing It is Trying to Do It)

A graph of word count stats for Camp NaNoWriMo
Just over 7,000 words – not a bad first day.

To win NaNoWriMo, you have to write 50,000 words. That’s it. Quality and coherence are not factors. This is not a loophole; according to the movement’s founder, Chris Baty, it was a deliberate decision to help writers get past hang-ups about quality and inspiration and just get words on the page. I, like thousands of other writers each year, approached NaNoWriMo falsely believing that I had committed to this quantity over quality mindset yet still finding myself unable to meet word count goals.

There’s no reason writing 50,000 words in a month should be challenging once you accept the rules of the game. You could literally type “dog” 50,000 times and you would win. The problem was I had not accepted this definition of success. Secretly, I still hoped to meet the 50,000 word goal and come out of it with a decent manuscript. I was setting myself up to fail.

But then what’s the point? Will typing “dog” 50,000 times help you improve as a writer? Okay, probably not, but that was an extreme example. As long as you’re trying to write a real story, whatever you come up with will be worth something even if it is barely readable. To prove this point, here’s an exercise you can try at home next time you have writer’s block: go to the point where you’re stuck and type “Then the dead dog got up and did a jig.”

I’m willing to bet money that sentence doesn’t work. Most likely there is no dead dog in your scene, and even if there is, chances are it does not make sense in the context of your story for dead animals to stand up and start dancing. What did you learn from this exercise? First of all, that you don’t have writer’s block.

Writer’s block is having no idea what happens next in your own story. If that was true, you’d have no objection to dropping that sentence into your scene. You have no idea what’s going to happen, so how do you know a dead dog doesn’t do a jig? The truth is, you have some guesses about what’s going to happen next, and you know for sure capering canine corpses are not involved. You just don’t want to write it down because you’re afraid it won’t come out perfect on the first try. And that’s just nonsense.

A Truly Shameful Excerpt

In case you find it hard to believe I can write 3,000 words of prose in an hour, or worse, you are impressed by the fact, I’m going to share a sample of my output (though it pains me to do so).

He found Armand asleep against the trunk of a jacaranda tree, with purple petals scattered across his face and chest. Nando stpked th\e fire back into some semblance of life and let him sellep.

WHne he awaoke they explored the island a little more. This time, rather than climbing the central hill, which was, in fact, a pyramid, they circled around the degs. Nando traced the pyramid form with his yes and an idea began to occur to him.

“We’re still on it, aren’t we?”

“What’s that, boy?”

He was gflad to hear some of the gruffness had returned to the old hunter’s voice; he must have been okay.

“The pyramid. I think, well whatg if the pyramid isnt on the island. WHat if the pyramid is the island?”

The old bhunter looked down at the gleaming white sand beneath his feet. “DOnt know about all that, he muttered.”


Even ignoring the spelling and grammatical errors, it’s not exactly Hemingway. This scene is so boring it probably won’t even appear in the final draft, but it took all of a minute to write and I came up with some ideas I liked in the course of writing it: rather than an island having a pyramid on it, the entire island is an ancient partially-submerged pyramid; and the health of the old hunter character can be gauged by the gruffness of his voice. I don’t know if I would have come up with either of those ideas through slow, deliberate writing or outlining.

We learn by doing. If you spend more time thinking about writing or planning what you are going to write than actually physically writing, you are not learning nearly as much about how to write as you could be.

At least that’s my take on it. Venezia has a different perspective.

On Writing Really Really Slow

Girl laying face down on a couch
My approach to writing.

Writing really fast would have helped when I started five years ago but I’m at a different stage of my book. I know where the story is going and most of it is written. It’s a matter of putting on the finishing touches and finding a way to say what I want to say.

I chose hours instead of a word goal so I can focus on getting the words right. 90% of the work I have left to do is reading and rereading my book as if someone else wrote it, making small changes until it feels right.

English is not my first language, so sometimes I feel self-conscious about the way my writing sounds. I write slowly because writing for me is a process of trial and error, writing and rewriting until I find the words that sound right. Knowing I can go back any make changes at any time helps me feel better and more confident about what I write.

Even if you choose an hourly goal, it is not an excuse to not get anything done. If you only have two hours a day to write you want to get the most out of them. For example, I write a lot better at night. Two hours at night counts for more than two hours during the day. Choose a writing time that works and stick to it.

 

Confidence and Competence: Charisma and Skill Points

When people talk about gamification, they’re usually thinking about video games, but the movement undoubtedly has its roots in pen-and-paper roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons. I might just be biased because I grew up on pen-and-paper roleplaying games, namely Dungeons and Dragons, but the whole “quantified self” movement is a natural progression from the concept of the character sheet.

Dungeons and Dragons and Self-Confidence

Notebook with schedule, budget, and Dungeons and Dragons dice
If I roll high enough can I skip work today?

For those of you who were popular in high school, every game of D&D begins with the players creating their characters, filling in details and descriptions on their character sheet, which in the old days was nothing more than a sheet of ruled paper. The people who live in a D&D campaign are truly quantified, with attributes such as strength or intelligence represented by concrete numbers on their character sheets.

To oversimplify what is probably the most complicated board game ever, you do things in D&D by rolling dice. Whether I want to hit a goblin with a flail or perform a sweet lute solo for a crown in the local tavern, I roll the dice. If the number is high enough, I succeed. If I have good scores in the relevant stats – such as a high strength score in the case of hitting the goblin – I won’t have to roll as high of a number to succeed. In other words, whether a veteran knight or a scrawny farm boy is swinging the flail, luck will be a factor, but the odds are a lot better for the knight.

I credit D&D, and this mechanic specifically, with teaching me two important things about life. First, the Universe is a cold, random, uncaring place where most things happen for no reason. That’s not really relevant here, but has certainly informed my life philosophy. More importantly, it taught me that the outcome of a given scenario has nothing to do with who you are as a person. A legendary knight might fail to strike a puny goblin, but that doesn’t mean his strength has suddenly diminished. If I was roleplaying as the knight, I would not suddenly lose confidence in my character’s strength and retreat. Seeing my exceptional strength score on the character sheet in front of me, I would write the event off as a fluke and attack again.

Confidence vs. Competence

In the real world, we do not have the privilege of character sheets. We are not always clear on our own attributes. In fact, the only way we have of measuring them is by testing them. Let’s say my D&D character has 10 points in the Perform (lute) skill. I get up in front of a tavern crowd, start to play, and roll a 2 on my skill check. I suck and get booed off stage. Not exactly a triumph, but nothing to worry about in the long run. My sheet still says I have 10 points in Perform (lute). I am objectively an exceptional lute player. Maybe it was a tough crowd, or the tavern had poor acoustics, or I just drank too much and struck a bad chord. If I perform for another crowd tomorrow night, chances are they’ll love me.

If that happened to me in real life, though, I would come to a different conclusion. Maybe it was a tough crowd, or maybe I don’t have as many points in the Perform (lute) skill as I thought. After all, tests like this are my only way of measuring my skill, and the results of this test were very negative.

There’s an ongoing joke among D&D players about the attribute known as Charisma. Pretty much since the creation of the game up until the present day, it has been considered an exceedingly useless stat and the one you assign your lowest score to by default (when I play I always make Charisma my highest stat, but the reasoning behind that is a discussion for another day). The reason is that Charisma measures something that is exceedingly difficult to translate into game mechanics.

Contrary to popular belief, Charisma is not a measure of attractiveness or even social skill. It is essentially your strength of character, your belief in yourself, your very will to live. People with high Charisma usually are attractive, but only because confidence and self-assurance tend to be attractive features. One minor quirk I’ve always loved about d&d is that demons in the game, often outwardly hideous, possess superhumanly high Charisma scores. How could they not? They are cosmic forces of nature, almost physically incapable of believing anything they do is wrong.

The problem with Charisma is that the attributes it is supposed to define are left up to how a player roleplays a character. A character with a Charisma of 3 probably wouldn’t be able to work up the confidence or motivation to even go adventuring in the first place – but if the Dungeon Master told the player “You can’t go on this adventure because your character doesn’t believe in herself” it wouldn’t be a very fun game, would it?

In real life, Charisma is strictly enforced. My objective competence with the lute (skill points in game terms) might be very high, but my confidence with the lute (Charisma) might be low enough after one humiliating failure that I give up and never touch the lute again.

What Game Are We Playing, Anyway?

In Dungeons and Dragons, a bard character with 10 points in Perform (lute) is a very impressive lute player – if she’s a level one character. If she’s level 20, then hopefully she specializes in a different instrument and the lute is just a hobby, because that’s just embarrassing.

Another downside of not having character sheets in real life is that we have no idea what level we are and thus it is tricky to know how far in life we are supposed to be. People come up with all sorts of fixes to this problem, most of which have to do with comparing ourselves to other people. As an aspiring author, I think it’s perfectly acceptable that I have not published a bestselling novel by the age of 22. None of my friends have either, after all. Conversely, someone who shall remain nameless but also happens to be my girlfriend and Desdenada co-founder Venezia, also 22, considers herself a failure because Mary Shelley published her first novel, Frankenstein (you may have heard of it) at the age of 21. I don’t think that’s a fair comparison, though, because Mary Shelley had the luxury of being a noblewoman who did not have a job or any responsibilities at all really. Also, she had the help of her husband, the already-successful Percy Shelley.

Then again, it’s hard to find any valid comparisons to measure your progress with. Most people compare themselves with a peer group by default, such as their graduating class. If everyone you went to school with has a better job than you now, you must be a failure, right? Unless they came from stronger financial backgrounds, or you suffer from a mental illness, or you simply have different priorities than they do. If they’re all playing backgammon and you’re playing Chinese checkers, how are you supposed to figure out who’s winning?

I’ve talked before about my guiding life philosophy, influenced heavily by Nietzsche and a little-known philosophy professor by the name of Luke Cuddy, that life is a game in which you have to make your own rules and win conditions. By the same token, you’re in charge of measuring your own progress.

I won’t lie, that’s tricky. If you make the game too hard, your confidence and self-esteem suffer and you feel miserable. If it’s too easy, every victory feels hollow and you are dissatisfied knowing you are capable of more. I’ve spent most of my life grappling with this problem and coming up empty. It’s certainly a topic I want to discuss a lot more in the future, and something I would love to hear your thoughts on, as well. No, seriously, somebody help me out here, because I don’t have the answers.

Anyway. The major takeaway is that it’s impossible to know your true competence in any skill and thus it would ridiculous to base your confidence or self-worth on your perceived competence in any skill. Maybe I’m the best writer. Maybe I’m the worst writer. It’s impossible to know for sure. What I am absolutely confident of, though, is the fact that I can write, and the fact that I want to write. I’m going to keep doing the thing that makes me happiest, and try to stop worrying about whether I’m good at it, because that’s a question that can never be answered.

What about you?

 

Self-Creation and Fantasy: Gamify Your Life

Self-creation through hiking: gamify your life by challenging yourself
One thing’s for sure: I was not high enough level for this adventure.

It is increasingly common to come across books talking about self-creation or apps to help you gamify your life. As an avid gamer and self-improvement junkie, I could not be happier. I always found it odd that gamers are stereotyped as lazy or unsuccessful, since the act of playing a game seems like the ultimate productivity training. In any case, psychologists have confirmed what my 10-year-old self highly suspected: you can get more done by turning everything into a game.

From a psychological angle it makes sense. When you “win” or “progress” in a game, even an arbitrary one such as when a clever parent awards a child points for cleaning their room, the brain gets a dopamine hit. The main consequence of getting a dopamine hit is wanting more dopamine hits, so you can trick yourself into getting chemically addicted to productivity. I’ve always been more interested in gamification from a philosophical angle, though.

In my first post I talked about a life philosophy, based on the teachings of Nietzsche and lessons learned from World of Warcraft, that views life as a game. You are not only the player, but also the one who defines the rules. In time I want to get into the nitty gritty of applying gamification to your own life, but for now I want to explore it in broader and significantly less helpful terms.

The Fantasy of Self-Creation

I believe there are three kinds of people who emphasize fantasy in their lives. I do not mean the genre but rather any form of art or entertainment that allows them to leave this world and explore a new one. I tend to think of video games, books, and movies, but there are others. All three categories have a dark side, but each also has positive potential.

The Escapist

Now like I said, none of these categories are inherently good or bad. Observant readers, or, you know, readers with eyes will have noticed that I have plastered the phrase “a rejection of escapism” all over this site and all the social media used to promote this site. That said, I think the majority of Escapists do not have anything to worry about. I just have personally known many people – myself included – who tend toward the dark side of this category.

For a lot of people, fantasy is just a way to kill time or blow off stream here and there. After a long day of work you just want to lose yourself in a steamy romance novel or jump into a first-person shooter and murder your friends. This is normal and healthy. The problem is when escaping becomes the main focus of your life. When you have no real life goals or passions outside of your fantasy of choice. In my experience, Escapists who toward this extreme do not lack other interests, but merely believe themselves incapable of achieving their dreams in the real world. If these limiting beliefs are broken, it is astounding how quickly these people can turn into happy, successful forces of self-creation.

The Professional

While the Escapist divides life between time spent productively and time spent escaping into fantasy, the Professional makes fantasy productive. The author who spends a lot of time reading so that they can write better falls into this category. So does the Hearthstone player who pays rent by streaming on Twitch. In general, there is nothing negative about this. It is a job like any other, and if the Professional likes what they do and can pay their bills then they will probably live a good life.

The dark side of this category is that a lot of people see these jobs with rose-colored glasses. We all know a thousand people who are writing the next great novel and have been as long as we can remember. It sounds easy and fun to be a writer or a professional gamer, but the truth is being successful at either of these careers is usually harder and more painful than following a more traditional path. Putting in a solid eight hours of high-level content creation every day is one thing, but wasting your time on video games while insisting that one day you’ll make a career out of it is another.

The Seeker

Again, I feel the need to emphasize that none of these categories are inherently good or bad. Desdenada was specifically built to cater to people in this group, and for better or worse I consider myself a part of it, but that’s not a measure of quality. It just happens to be where my interests lie, and I feel like it’s a group that is underrepresented.

On a good day, the Seeker reads books or plays games as part of a quest for meaning and inspiration. They learn lessons and explore worlds, but always with end goal of leaving the fantasy behind and returning to the real world better and stronger for it. I don’t know if I ever would have taken a spontaneous solo pilgrimage to the enchanted wilderness of Bella Coola or dropped everything to move to Mexico if I hadn’t spent so much time with World of Warcraft, falling in love with the idea of adventuring in strange and exotic lands. Meanwhile, Venezia studied Microbiology due to her formative experience with Jurassic Park.

The dark side of the Seeker is truly dark. I spent a lot of my life in this category, and not in a good way. The same way the Professional might spend a lot of time hanging out at Starbucks talking about their book without ever actually writing about it, the Seeker can spend all day playing World of Warcraft and making plans to go on real-life adventures without ever actually following through.

Create Your Fantasy

In conclusion, I’m speaking to the Seekers. There aren’t a whole lot of you, but I know you’re out there. You who see fantasy as a tool of self-creation. You who hear “gamify your life” and do not think “maximize your productivity” but think instead “define your own reality”. There may not be a lot of your, but one thing is certain: you sure stand out in a crowd. Augmented reality, gamification, quantification of self, and the culture of self-actualization are on the rise. This is our time, and while others might see it as a time of turbulence and negativity, we know that life is nothing more than what you make it.

As usual, Nietzsche said it best: “One must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.”

 

The Importance of Fear

As we experiment with creating content and try to find what works, I’m going to follow a rough schedule with this blog. In keeping with our theme of getting ahead in the real world, every Monday I will write a post on the broad topic of self-improvement. As always, if there’s anything you would like to see more of or less of, let us know!

IMG_20170306_121532_386

There aren’t a lot of things I could think to do to myself that would be more unpleasant than publicly launching a video series. Observant readers will have noticed, however, that I am in the middle of doing that very thing. Am I a masochist? Maybe, in some sense. It’s not that I enjoy the terror and humiliation that I’m subjecting myself to every time I sit down in front of a camera. It’s more that I enjoy how every time I force myself to sit down in front of a camera, I feel the terror and humiliation just a little bit less.

I’m often surprised by the way people who know me see me. I recently dropped everything – leaving university and quitting my job – to move to Mexico with essentially zero notice or preparation. The exact story of how that happened will doubtless be the subject of another post, but suffice it to say that many people in my life were surprised by my fearlessness. This was not entirely a positive sentiment: while a few close friends were impressed by my fearlessness in pursuing my dreams, the opinion of the overwhelming majority was that I was simply too stupid or ignorant to be properly afraid.

The truth was, I was terrified, and totally unprepared. I went through with it anyway, because every time I was overwhelmed by doubt I asked myself one question: would the person I wanted to be back out?

I’m not going to lie, the transition was hard, and still is. Two months later, I’ve adjusted somewhat to my new home, but I still struggle constantly with sickness, money (or lack thereof), the language, and the customs and culture of Mexico. That said, I’m also having the most fun I’ve ever had in my life, and experiencing things every day that I never would have dreamed of half a year ago.

I was afraid of taking the plunge for good reason, and it’s the same reason I had to jump into it without taking the time to properly prepare. I was afraid because I knew I wasn’t capable of doing what I wanted to do. If I had taken an extra month or so to prepare, I would have had to face that fact every day, and chances are I would have eventually accepted that the task was impossible and given up.

That would have been a mistake. Because it’s true that the person I was two months ago was not capable of doing what I did, but by doing it I transformed myself into someone else. That’s the secret that so many people miss: the only way to become the person you want to be is by doing things that the person you are now can’t do. It’s hard, and painful, and scary, but if you truly want to be better, you’ll find a way through.

And so now I’m doing it all over again. I don’t know the first thing about video production, and I’m painfully awkward on camera. Every time I upload a video, I honestly feel as if I’m doing a disservice to the world. But I can’t quit, because the person I want to be knows how to make videos, and I’m not going to become that person by NOT making videos.

This, like many things, is an idea I picked up from the stories I experienced in books and video games growing up. We don’t read stories about people who only ever do things they are certain they are capable of. We read stories about heroes who confront impossible odds, plunging head-first into danger, even though they are afraid and unprepared and almost destined to fail.

So I hope you’ll bear with me as I stumble my way through this new challenge, making mistakes and publicly embarrassing myself on the internet. And I hope you’ll take the time to look at your own life and ask yourself: what am I not doing because I’m afraid? If I went ahead and did it anyway, how would my life improve? What kind of person would I become?

If anything comes to mind, let me know in the comments! If we’re going to set out on this terrifying, humiliating journey of self-improvement, at the very least we can do it together.