If you’re a creative you may have heard of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. In short, it’s a friendly worldwide challenge in which aspiring authors try to write a 50,000+ word novel, from start to finish, during the month of November.
In recent years, they’ve been doing Camp NaNoWriMo each April. Same idea, except each user sets their own goal which can be any number of words or pages written or even hours spent writing. Being aspiring writers, both Venezia and I are going to participate in Camp NaNoWriMo this year.
Camp NaNoWriMo: In So Many Words
The beauty of NaNoWriMo is that it forces you to attempt something that should be impossible, yet most participants find it surprisingly doable once they get in the right mindset. In fact, it gets easier and easier every year, and I’ve personally come to believe that it is possible to write a complete novel every month without spending more than an hour or two a day doing so. More on that later this week.
Throughout April, we’ll post updates of how we’re doing as well as talking about what’s going on in our stories, what tools and tricks we’re using to get through the month, where our inspiration’s coming from, and so on.
Even if you are not a writer yourself, we think you’ll find the experience interesting. The creative process transcends any one art form, and whether you’re a painter, game designer, or bodybuilder, pushing yourself to accomplish the impossible is a valuable skill.
Without further ado, let’s meet the campers.
Evaric: A Memory in Indigo
Goal: 50,000 words
I’m writing a high fantasy adventure, with a twist. The genre is usually about battles and cosmic evil and saving the world, but it doesn’t have to be. My novel, A Memory In Indigo, follows a budding mixologist on a quest to discover the recipe for a particularly well-crafted spirit he tasted in his youth. There’s pirates and sea monsters and a hint of magic, sure, but the story is first and foremost about an artist’s struggle to master their craft. At least that’s the plan. I haven’t started writing it yet, so who knows how it will pan out.
I opted for the traditional NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words just for consistency. As I mentioned before, I have a theory about making a lifelong habit of writing a book a month. Starting tomorrow, I’ll put my theory to the test.
Venezia: Untitled (???)
Goal: 60 hours
I’m writing a mystery, although it’s not a very mysterious mystery. It’s a lot more about the characters than about finding out the answer to the mystery itself, so I’m not really sure how to classify it.
I am writing the end of a novel I have been working on for a very long time and I don’t know how many words I left. I am a slow and inconsistent writer so I don’t want to stress about word count. I’m just going to sit down and write for 2 hours every day.
Grab a Seat by the Fire
If you’re participating in Camp NaNoWriMo this year, or have participated in any NaNo event in the past, we would love to hear from you. If not, and if you’ve ever wanted to write a novel, consider giving it a try! You’ll be surprised what you can accomplish, and it’s a great way to meet people with similar interests. As a matter of fact, Venezia and I met at a local NaNoWriMo meetup – but that’s a story for another day.
If you have not lived or traveled in Mexico, you have not tasted Mexican food. Even if you go to Mexican restaurants (or God forbid, Taco Bell), chances are you have no idea what pastor is and think that burritos are something that actually exist south of the border. You just can’t get the best Mexican foods outside of Mexico, and believe me, you are missing out.
5 Mexican Foods You Need in Your Life
5. Oaxaca Cheese
With the consistency of string cheese and the shape of a soft pretzel, Oaxaca cheese can be a bit confusing at first. Try it, though, and you will find it puts all other quesos to shames. It’s mostly used in cooking, but I find myself eating strings of it raw as a bedtime snack more often than I care to admit.
4. Mexican Junk Food
Mexico’s colorful and ancient culinary tradition mixes classic Aztec and Mayan dishes with flavors drawn from all over the world, creating something truly unique and beautiful. Sometimes, though, you’re just not in the mood for unique and beautiful. Mexico has you covered: just head down to the Oxxo on the corner and grab a bag of Sabritas Adobadas (read: Lays but better) and a couple Carlos V’s (read: Hershey’s but better [but actually read: Carlos Quintos]).
There was more than one episode of Friends mocking this traditional Mexican dessert, which pretty much confirms none of the cast or crew every tried it. With a consistency somewhere between jello and pudding and a taste somewhere between “I’m happy because I’m eating flan” and “I’m depressed because my flan was so delicious I ate it all already”, this is a unique treat that can’t really be compared to anything.
What is pastor? Hell if I know. I’m not even sure what type of meat it is – pork, I think? It’s probably the one food on this last you would be hardest pressed to find outside Mexico – some gringo restaurants offer “pastor” on their menu, but if you don’t see a spinning fiery pineapple-topped meat wheel in their kitchen, it is not even close to authentic. There are a million ways to eat pastor, but the best way is no contest….
Not a lot needs to be said about tacos. If you haven’t been to Mexico, you haven’t had tacos. If you haven’t had tacos al pastor, you haven’t lived.
Not technically a food, but this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning authentic Oaxaca mezcal. I’ve known a lot of gringos who like to think of themselves as serious drinkers, but I’d love to see any of them pound back a shot of real mezcal. It’s hard to describe the experience and do it any justice. You know when you take a swig of tequila and get that sudden burn in the back of your throat? Imagine if just as that burn started to go away, it came back again, stronger than before. And then again and again and again. Literally forever. That’s mezcal.
Instead of reviewing or discussing a specific piece of entertainment this week, I’m going to talk about an idea I’ve been thinking about for a while. As a lifelong aspiring writer, I’ve always taken a different approach to critiquing books, movies, and anything else with a story than most people I know. I’m sure any creative can relate: even if all you want to do is sit down and enjoy a fun movie, you can’t help but listen to that voice in the back of your mind asking “If I wrote this story, what would I have done differently?” or “What can I learn from the triumphs and failures of this work that I can apply to my own creations?”
Whether you are a creative or not, the books or movies that frustrate you the most are usually the ones with the most potential. Nobody gets upset about how bad The Room or Saw 12 is. The movies that really get under your skin are either the ones that you went into with high expectations and came out of disappointed, or the ones that could have been extraordinary with a few minor tweaks.
Just reading about the subject, you’re probably already reliving your anger with the last book or show that let you down. The fact that we can get so upset over bad entertainment is a telling sign of how truly pampered we are in our first-world bubble – as Tyler Durden would say, we have no Great War, no Great Depression, only Greatly Disappointing X-Men movies. But that’s not the point.
The point is I don’t think watching a movie that fails to live up to its potential has to be a negative experience, at least not for us lucky enough to be cursed with a creative spirit. I have friends who walked out of Logan saying “That could have been a lot better” but I walked out saying “How could that have been better?” I have no doubt that the next story I write will be a tiny bit better than it would have been if I had not seen Logan and reflected on its strengths and weaknesses. In keeping with the positive, improvement-oriented mission statement of Desdenada, I would like to introduce Potential Criticism.
Reviewing Better, Creating Better
I have long been in love with World of Warcraft and its expansive lore, but I’m not about to argue that any of the storylines in the game or its companion novels constitute great literature. Not that Blizzard ever set out to write Shakespearean tragedies. Instead, they created a truly enormous world, populated with archetypes and familiar tropes. Many of the characters and plots of the Warcraft universe feel familiar, and that’s okay, because the game’s best stories have always been the ones you and your friends create.
But every now and then I’ll stumble across a spark of real promise. My favorite example would have to be Garrosh Hellscream. I’ll never forget my first encounter with this troubled young orc: he was the son of a legendary hero and his people expected great things of him, but you find him brooding and dejected, staring into a bonfire with tears in his eyes. There’s a whole quest line where you reveal to him that his father, who Garrosh sees as a monster, redeemed himself and died a hero in the end.
With his faith restored, Garrosh takes a more active role in the leadership of his people – with mixed results. His heart is in the right place, but he was raised with a different ideology than the other leaders and he is haunted by his father’s name and his own insecurities. It’s a tumultuous journey: at one point a disagreement with the current Warchief of his faction, the Horde, gets so heated it actually erupts into physical violence; later, that same Warchief steps down and names Garrosh as his successor.
At this point in the game, not only were in-game characters split about his leadership, but so were the players themselves. The majority of players hated him, but I and a few other holdouts still empathized with the character.
Then, as Warcraft characters often do, he kind of went off the deep end for no reason. Garrosh was always aggressive and warlike, but he believed strongly in honor and at one point executed an underling who went too far and started attacking civilians. Later on, he changed his mind without explanation and bombed a whole city full of civilians. Like many characters who start off with interestingly gray moralities, he was ultimately corrupted by cosmic forces of evil and became a cartoon villain with no other motivation besides doing bad stuff for the sake of doing bad stuff.
I was frustrated, to say the least, by the ultimate handling of what was possibly my favorite character. In retrospect, I can see that this anger was pointless and misplaced. The conclusion of his story is a letdown, but it does not erase the story beats I found appealing in the first place. As a writer, I have a unique opportunity to recreate my own version of his story arc. An abandoned son who is unsure if his father was a hero or a monster, and in trying to live up to the family name must himself walk the line between hero and monster – now that’s a concept I can use. The best part is, I’m free to write whatever ending I want, using the poor conclusion of Garrosh’s story to avoid making the same mistakes myself.
Going forward, I’m going to do my best not to get angry or upset about entertainment that lets me down. There’s an ugly tendency these days to see creators as the enemy, as if they are maliciously sabotaging their own art just to make us suffer.
I prefer to think that we are all in this together. Creators do their best to make something we can enjoy. Sometimes they fail. As fellow creators, we can learn from their mistakes to better ourselves. As consumers, we can give them honest but fair feedback, so that they can learn and serve us better going forward.
There is so much potential beauty in this world, so why put effort into creating ugliness? With a little optimism and a little empathy, we can all contribute to the creative process in our own way.
That’s my thinking, at least. What’s your strategy for criticizing entertainment?
We are very excited to announce the launch of Desdenada’s first gaming series, Exploring Azeroth! I have discussed before how World of Warcraft has impacted my personal life philosophy, and now I hope to share that with Venezia – and, of course, with you.
In this preview episode, I give Venezia a rundown of the character options and the basic story of the world. Then she makes her first ever Warcraft character. If you are familiar with the game already you can probably skip this one, although you may be surprised how seeing a new player experience it for the first time can make the whole game feel fresh again.
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
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&Dcharacter 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.
I just passed my 22nd birthday and am coming up on the three-month anniversary of my arrival in Mexico. It’s still a lot to adjust to and a lot of things are still up in the air, but for the most part I’ve gotten settled and adopted something of a routine. So what is a typical day like for a gringo in Mexico City?
Daily Living in Mexico
I rent a room in a large old house with a handful of fellow tenants. The landlady also lives here. Between her family coming and going, the maid, and all my housemates, the place is always lively and bustling. I love the feeling of activity and community. There is always someone to talk to while I cook or eat, even if the conversations are mostly in Spanglish. At least I’m learning.
I had a couple room options when I moved in, and the other ones were more “normal”, but as soon as I saw this one I had to have it. It’s cozy and a little removed from the rest of the house, and there’s something almost…frontier about it. Venezia and I dubbed it Casa Hemingway because we agreed it was the room Hemingway would have picked. Moving here was the adventure of a lifetime, and now I live in what feel’s like an adventurer’s home.
A Run in the Parque
In the mornings before work I’ll sometimes go for a 5K jog in Parque de los Venados, a beautiful park a couple minutes’ walk from my house. There’s a surprising amount of wildlife there for a park in the middle of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, including many kinds of birds and squirrels. There’s also vendors hawking their churros and cheeses, young couples canoodling in the grass, and men and women shooting hoops in the nearby courts. As often as not, I share the paths with donkeys and horses.
Beneath the Jacaranda Trees
I work as a content writer. Basically, clients tell me what they want me to write about and how many words they want me to write, and I write it. My dream job is writing novels and I might not be quite there yet, but at the very least I can call myself a professional writer now. Besides, look at my office. I spend my 9-5 in the brilliant Mexican sun beneath the flowering boughs of the jacaranda trees that grow beside the house. Tiny birds sing all around me, and across the street there’s usually a group of construction workers joking and listening to Mariachi or Reggaeton. I’d take my office over a cubicle any day.
Tacos al Whatever
During my lunch break, or just whenever I get hungry, I step into the kitchen and whip up some tacos. I’m still learning when it comes to Mexican cuisine, and I wouldn’t call my tacos authentic, but with a fridge full of traditional ingredients anything I make ends up being delicious. I have the privilege of working with tropical fruits, veggies, and herbs fresher than any you could get north of the border, and meats that are delicious even if I add nothing to them – arrachera, cecina, chorizo, the list goes on. Not to mention tortillas that don’t taste like cardboard.
The Coolest Library in the World
When I need a change of scenery, sometimes I’ll bring my work to a local cafe (if there’s one thing Mexicans know, it’s coffee) or else Biblioteca Vasconcelos. There’s an outside chance you’ve heard of this place before – it shows up all over the internet in lists of “Coolest Libraries” or even “Coolest Buildings”. I swear half the pictures on Pinterest under the category Books are just pictures of this library. That said, photos don’t do it justice. When you’re inside, it feels like being in some sort of futuristic space station.
A World of Exploration
When Venezia and I get off work, the real fun begins. I may have been here for nearly three months, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the amazing things to do in Mexico City, let alone the rest of the country. From Bosque de Chapultepec, where you can find the only genuine castle in North America, to Teotihuacan, where you can climb massive pyramids built by an unknowable civilization that was ancient when the Aztecs were young, to Centro Historico, where you can walk the very same streets where Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortez once walked alongside Aztec Empire Moctezuma, as these unlikely allies struggled to hold on to a crumbling empire, there is enough to see and do in this city alone to keep me busy for a hundred lifetimes.
So here’s to another three months in this beautiful country, and then another three years after that. The odds may be against me, but I hope to explore and learn as much as humanly possible in the time I spend here, and I look forward to sharing this journey with you.