Despite my general aversion to the Main Story Quest in whatever guise it takes, fighting dragons will always be cool. It’s one of those immortal cliches that will never get old. A while back I did a post on why dragons appear in almost every European and Asian mythology, and dragonesque figures appear in most of the rest of the world. I came to the conclusion that dragons represent the awesome and terrible might of nature. Early European cultures saw nature, and thus dragons, as something to be fought against and overcome. Early Asian cultures saw dragons, and the nature they represent, as forces to respect and learn from.
Dragons in Skyrim are something to be fought and something to be learned from. In addition to being a metaphor for nature, they’re also analogous to something that strikes very close to home for anyone working in a creative field.
Dragons are creative competition.
There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris in which the protagonist asks my personal hero, Ernest Hemingway, for feedback on his novel. Hemingway says he already knows he’ll hate it: either he’ll hate it because it’s bad, or he’ll hate it because it’s good and that makes him competition.
Most creatives have a love-hate relationship with others in their field (in addition to with themselves). Anyone with talent is simultaneously a mentor and an adversary. When I read a great novel, I am both learning how to write better and confronting an enemy I must overcome if I want a greater share of the spotlight.
This all sounds pretty cynical, but ideally competition between creatives can be friendly and constructive. I use terms like “enemy” because we’re looking at this through the lens of Skyrim, where my character and dragons are literally trying to kill one another. Competition between writers is usually nonlethal and can result in both writers getting better at their craft.
Enter the Dragonborn
What does all that have to do with dragons? In Skyrim, dragons are masters of the thu’um, a magical kind of shout. Rarely, and with great difficulty, humans can learn to wield the thu’um. After slaying his first dragon, it is revealed that Aemilian (or whichever character you make) is Dragonborn, a mortal with the soul of the dragon. The Dragonborn can learn shouts instantly by absorbing the soul of a vanquished dragon, making him the only mortal capable of learning a wide variety of shouts in a single lifetime.
Though this is the part that originally put me off Skyrim–nothing ruins an open-world sandbox adventure faster than discovering you are the True Ultimate Hero of Prophecy and your destiny is already Written in the Stars–it does serve nicely for my metaphor. Like an aspiring writer, Aemilian has taken his first step toward mastery in a complex and challenging craft. This puts him in competition with dragons, whom he must vanquish, but also learn from.
Off the Beaten Story
I’ll keep my in-game recap brief, since anyone who has played even a little Skyrim already knows what happens: a dragon attacks a watch tower outside Whiterun, I go out with a bunch of guards to kill it, I absorb its soul and learn my first shout.
I will say that, on legendary difficulty, battling a dragon is truly epic. Any of its attacks can kill me in one hit, including its breath, which can’t be dodged–the only way to survive is to dive behind cover. When I ran out of arrows and had to finish the fight with my mace, each step needed to be executed perfectly to avoid being eaten.
Before returning to Whiterun to tell the jarl what happened, I am distracted from the Main Story Quest by a glimpse of fire in the distance. Another dragon?
My brother and I often start projects together and immediately abandon them. Not because we aren’t passionate about the idea, but because it’s hard to collaborate with busy schedules when we live two countries away from one another. One such idea was The Rational Alchemist, a site that would turn occult wisdom into practical life advice. Maybe it will become its own site again one day. In the meantime, I was still in love with the idea. This was about the time I decided to run seven weekly columns right here on Desdenada, and so The Rational Alchemist became seven of seven, a weekly dose of realistic mysticism delivered every Thursday.
It’s Occult for a Reason
The occult has fascinated me since I was a child, but I never really believed in it. I’m a special breed of self-hating skeptic: I approach conspiracy theories and ghost stories desperately hoping to find a shred of truth but expecting parlor tricks and noise. Yet I continue studying ancient traditions, even when I can’t justify it. Witchcraft and alchemy are cool, whether or not they work.
And it makes sense that they don’t work. A lot of people interested in these sorts of things are looking for some hidden knowledge that will give them an edge or resolve all their problems. If they’re not currently succeeding and living the life of their dreams, it must be because they’re missing some key piece of information.
This is backwards.
Good information is not lost or forgotten. It may be briefly hidden or forbidden, but that only causes those who seek it to fight more desperately. Ideas are not finite, and so knowledge that works and is considered useful is ceaselessly replicated and spread to the far corners of the earth.
In my experience, the best advice is trite. Imagine you asked your personal hero how to succeed and they told you, “Work hard and never give up on your dream.” You’d roll your eyes. But what if you actually followed their advice, to the letter? If you worked hard, really hard, every day, eschewing television and social engagements to cram as many productive hours into each day as you could? If you never stopped trying to complete your goals, even when they seemed impossible or you felt yourself losing interest?
The secrets to success are not hidden in some musty tome in a Tibetan library. The formula was probably instilled in your brain when you were five years old. Yes, there are all manner of tricks to maximize your productivity and you should always seek out wisdom and advice where you can find it. But the hard truth is, success is mostly a choice.
It’s just such a difficult choice to make.
Making the Potion Go Down Easy
Yeah, you heard me. You get to choose whether or not you succeed, and success is certainly the less appealing option. The ins and outs of why I believe this are beyond the scope of this post, so I’ll stick to one example.
Let’s say you want to be a writer. If you block out four hours a day to do nothing but work on your writing, and I mean really working, putting all distractions aside and pushing your brain and creativity as hard as you can, you will succeed as a writer. Of course, many people who want to be a writer wouldn’t consider doing that every day to be success. They think that’s what they want, but have trouble ever completing one of the aforementioned writing sessions, let alone doing it every day for the rest of their lives.
What if there was a way to make this choice easier? That’s how I justify studying the occult to myself. It’s irrational, and maybe I’d be a better person if I wasn’t this way, but I get more excited by the idea of following some arcane tradition than I do about actually accomplishing meaningful things with my life. Maybe I would never keep up this blog every day if my only motivation was “to build my personal brand, develop my writing, and find a meaningful place within the wider community” or some lame shit like that, but if I tell myself “I must complete my Insight Work every day to ascend to the next level of the Tree of Wyrd” these posts are a lot more likely to go out on time.
Humans are creatures of dogma, whether not it makes any sense. If you’re as fascinated by the occult as I am, you can leverage this drive to trick yourself into being more productive.
The Rational Alchemist
To be honest, I’m mostly undertaking this project for my own benefit. If it happens to benefit anybody else, great. Specifically, I’m going to convert occult traditions into practical, contemporary self-help guides. There are many traditions I’d love to get to eventually, from Viking shamanism to Toltec medicine, but it feels only right to start with alchemy itself.
Alchemy, the pseudoscience that became modern day chemistry, is about components. At some magical moment in history, people discovered that objects are not intrinsically themselves, but can be separated into smaller pieces. This began with crude ideas about each thing in the universe being made up of different parts of earth, air, fire, and water and progressed to the study of subatomic particles. Alchemy falls toward the earlier end of the spectrum, but was still a complex and robust field of study.
The goal of our self-help course will be to wield the metaphorical philosopher’s stone, transmuting ourselves into gold, or our best selves. Of course, we’ll have to start at the opposite end of the spectrum, working our way there. Check back next week for a discussion of one of the most basic – yet most important – components of the alchemical tradition.
If I had to put a label on myself, it might be Nerd Who Doesn’t Like Much Nerd Stuff. Not that I dislike Star Wars, but I like it less than, say, everyone else I know. It’s like I always say: the formative experiences most other nerdy creators had when they watched Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, I had when I watched The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Princess Bride, which probably explains a lot about my writing.
That also explains why The Last Jedi was my favorite Star Wars movie of all time. In fact, it was this close to being one of my favorite movies in general.
What stopped it?
It’s Time for the Jedi to End (Please)
Turns out this one was controversial. Going in, I knew that a lot of diehard fans hated it, so I wasn’t that surprised when, as someone who didn’t like the rest of the movies that much, I like it a lot. Most of the controversy, aside from the casino planet, boils down to the fact that Episode VIII was deliberately different from those that came before. Not just that the content itself was different, though it was; at several points in the movie – such as Luke’s very first appearance – the characters are all but turning to the camera and shouting at the audience to move on.
The hate comes from the feeling some fans had that this was done too dismissively. The other side feels that the proper reverence was there: the movie is telling us gently, but firmly, that this is an expansive universe with untapped potential and not everyone needs to be a Skywalker and not every movie needs to feature a Death Star. Having already admitted I wasn’t attached to the original source material, I’ll have to opt out of this debate. I 100% think that this transition should have been handled respectfully, but am in no place to say whether it was.
What I will say is that this is a transition I desperately wanted. Since I was about eight years old, I’ve hated the black and white morality, chosen ones, and world-ending stakes that dominate fantasy and science fiction. Is it any surprise Star Wars never grabbed me? Don’t get me wrong: the movies have potential in spades. I love the ships and the planets and the Empire’s fashion sense, but couldn’t get past the old tropes.
Which is why I was giddy when Kylo Ren told Rey that she’s nobody and her parents are nobody (though he probably lied), when Luke tried to murder his nephew in cold blood (though they mostly went back on that one), when the complete destruction of the Resistance and the death of Luke were literally caused by a parking violation (a lot of people despised that part but real-life wars are swung by shit like this).
This movie was a huge step toward converting me into a rabid fan like the rest of you.
If they only went one step farther.
I’ve Seen This Raw Potential Before
I held my breath the entire first half of this movie, unable to believe what might be coming. For most people, the Rey/Luke storyline was probably about rooting for Rey to prove to Luke he’s wrong about the Jedi, that there is still hope, that he must rejoin the fight. I came down on the other side of things (as usual). I agreed with everything Luke had to say about the Jedi and their hubris, about how irresponsible it is to label people as Light or Dark, and how arrogant it is to think the Force belongs to anyone. Not that I was rooting for Rey to give up. I hoped Luke would influence her worldview and she would go on to teach a new generation about the perks of moral relativism.
Then the Poe rebellion happened, and I began to believe. I thought the Resistance was about to devolve into genuine infighting, brother killing brother over one man’s pride and arrogance. For a moment I actually believed Poe would come out as a Bad Guy in the end, and the message would be clear: there’s as much evil in the Resistance as there ever was in the First Order.
On the other hand, there seemed to be some good in the First Order. This started back in The Force Awakens, with Kylo Ren struggling with his morality. Once he starts forcetiming with Rey and we see more of his side of the story, he straddles the edge of Sympathetic Villain and Troublesome Hero. And then, Snoke happens. This part is totally on me: I was reading way too much into my own theory and my ultimate disappoint is not really the movie’s fault. I extrapolated way too much for my own good. I’m going to put this part in italics to make it clear I’m self-aware about going off the deep end.
When Snoke commands Kylo Ren to kill Rey, there’s a bit where Snoke reads Kylo’s thoughts aloud. He says he knows Kylo is turning his lightsaber, preparing to vanquish his true enemy. It’s cool, but also a little convenient and a little fishy. Snoke closes his eyes for this part, but we’ve seen that he’s capable of telepathy with his eyes open. Kylo’s victory hinges on Snoke closing his eyes at the right moment for basically no reason. The way Snoke narrates the scene is also a bit strange. He refers to a “true enemy” as if whoever Kylo currently thinks is his enemy is wrong. But isn’t the assumption that Rey was the true enemy the whole time? Sure, he’s seen Kylo wavering, but a Sith telling a Sith that the Jedi are the enemy doesn’t feel like a revelation that warrants the term “true enemy”. My theory? Snoke knew that Kylo was going to kill him, and wanted it. Snoke, while maybe not a Good Guy, was roughly on the same moral footing as Luke. While Luke became disillusioned with the Light, Snoke had the same revelation about the Dark. The plan was always to get Rey and Kylo together, to forge a truly new order in which Light and Dark rule together.
When Kylo begged Rey to join him, I almost cried. Under any other circumstances, I would have seen this a mile away as the regular old cliche. The villain wants to team up. The hero obviously refuses. Maybe the movie was really good at misdirection, or maybe I just wanted to buy my own theory too desperately, but for a moment, I actually believe that Rey would take Kylo’s hand and usher in a new age of Star Wars.
But the Casino Planet!
The controversy about this movie is deep enough it has its own subplot. You either loved or hated how this movie fits into the larger Star Wars canon, and you either loved or hated Fin’s side story. The first determines how you felt overall, but tons of people loved one and hated the other.
I’m still undecided.
Rey did not take Kylo’s hand, Poe was redeemed, and Kylo is still the Bad Guy. This movie almost gave me everything I ever wanted, then turned around and ended with most of the usual tropes intact. That said, it did set up the possibility that the next movie will live up to my dreams.
The casino planet might support that possibility.
While we didn’t get the world-shattering twist I hoped for, we did make progress toward a world without Skywalkers. A world where not every story is about the rise and fall of Empires and the Ultimate Heat Death of Everything Good in the Universe. It hinted at a world where the stories are smaller in scale and, as a result, higher in human stakes. A world where there is some good, and some evil, but mostly middle ground. A world where anyone can be a hero but no one is a god.
The casino planet could be excellent foreshadowing for all of that. Fin and Rose accomplished nothing and actually got a lot of good people killed, but they achieved a few personal victories. We met a nobody kid with force powers, and we learned that small-scale animal abuse at a racetrack can provide enough conflict for a story (as opposed to the constant threat of planetary destruction).
It’s all up to the next movie, though. Until then, speculating won’t do a lot of good, so let’s move on to the verdict. This film fell far short of its full potential for me, but still is my favorite Star Wars movie. I’m cautiously optimistic for the next one, though I have a lot less faith in Abrams than Johnson. I love Kylo Ren as a character but expect a generic ending to his story. The silent spaceship crash was awe-inspiring and entirely unearned.
Okay, that wasn’t much of a verdict, but maybe that’s for the best. When everyone else on the internet is tearing each other apart over this movie, I’m happy to be the one who shrugs and says “we’ll see”.
But if you want to leave a comment and sway me toward the Light or Dark side, you have a good shot. I’m not known for being strong in my opinions.
After a bit of a hiatus, Desdenada is back. Rather than sticking to a theme, Venezia and I (Evaric) will talk each week about whatever happens to be on our minds.
I do a lot of weird stuff, but my latest project is a high (low?) point. I listen to a lot of podcasts, many of which are part of the interconnected FrogPants and Diamond Club networks (viewer discretion is advised for the latter). At some point, I got it into my head that I could write a Game of Thrones-style fantasy epic, with the characters and events based on the personalities and interactions of the hosts of the aforementioned podcasts. Bizarre right? I agree, and for a long time I tried to ignore the plots and settings brewing in my head.
In the end, I caved. I’ve written a good chunk of the story and intend to see it through to its conclusion. Not because I necessarily want to write it, but because in a way I have to write it. Why? Because writing is my calling. Specifically, writing about and sharing the experiences of my life. I never consciously realized it until recently, but the podcasts I listen to have impacted and shaped my life in a major way. If my calling is to write about my life, I have to accept that means writing about the disembodied voices in my ears.
To be fair, it’s not the worst use of my time. At least I’m writing. Plus I’m writing about characters and interactions I never would have come up with on my own, which makes for a nice writing exercise at the very least. In sharing the story with other listeners, and some of the hosts, of those podcasts, I’m getting comfortable sharing and promoting my work in a way I’ve never done before. (Speaking of which, I will include a link at the end of this post, but I can’t emphasize enough that if you don’t listen to the podcasts in question it will not make any sense to you).
That said, it is certainly not the best use of my time. I have other stories to work on, novels I actually plan on publishing and making a living off of. Or I could be working out, or learning Spanish (I’ve only lived in Mexico for 7 months now…). If having a calling means you sometimes have to waste time on bizarre side projects, is it worth it?
You Don’t Have to Like It
Venezia doesn’t listen to the same podcasts I do and might not get the story, but she understands why I have to write it. She’s always known she was destined to be a writer, even though a lot of the time writing is her least favorite thing to do.
Nine times out of ten, she hates what she writes and ends up feeling down after trying to write. The tenth time makes it all worth it. Like a lot of writers, she doesn’t feel like she’s making up the stories she writes. It’s more like the story has already happened, and she’s struggling to retell it correctly. That’s why, when it’s good, writing doesn’t feel like work to her.
I asked Venezia if she thinks the 9:1 ratio is permanent or if it would get easier with practice. She does think it will get better, but there will always be a high ratio of bad to good and that’s something she has to accept.
Why does she have to accept she’ll spend most of her life frustrated? Because writing is her calling. Not just writing, but writing the stories she’s always carried inside her. “There are stories that have to be written,” she says, “and I have to be the one to write them.” In other words, she could try to do something else than write, or try to write simpler stories that give her less trouble, but knowing she failed to rise to her calling would make her feel even worse. “When I’m not writing, I doubt if I could even make a living out of it. But when I start writing I know I could never do anything else.”
Her options, then, are to feel like a failure nine times out of ten, or to do something else and always be unfulfilled. Sound like a terrible choice? Maybe. Or, maybe, she’s the lucky one.
Can You Hear It?
Having a calling feels like a curse. Venezia and I have to write, even when we hate it, even when it feels like a waste of time, even when we feel compelled to write stories we’d rather discard. But it’s a blessing, too, because we never feel lost. We never wonder if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. Well, not anymore.
We’ve both been through times where we doubted what we were supposed to do, tried to find a different calling or give up on having one at all. We can both point to those times as the most miserable periods of our lives, and our shared experiences led us to formulate a controversial hypothesis:
Everyone has a calling. Most people even know what it is, but the majority never pursue it.
What stops people from doing what they’re meant to do? Societal factors, ego, and practicality.
Case study: we have a friend who is always saying she feels lost. It’s time for her to go to college and settle on a career path, but she has no idea what she wants to do. Except she does. Several times she’s confided that she dreams of being a stay-at-home mom, raising a ridiculous number of kids while her husband supports her. Unfortunately, she’s been raised in a society that tells her women are supposed to be strong, independent, and career-oriented (which are all great, but not for everybody). She’s ashamed to admit her calling, even to herself, because it’s not what her calling is “supposed” to be.
Venezia points out that, especially in the case of stay-at-home mom but also in general, there’s too much pressure in our society to be special. A stay-at-home mom might be the most important person in the lives of her immediate family, but she isn’t important to the world. She won’t go down in history and she’ll never be famous (barring a reality show, but getting a reality show probably means failing at being a good mom). A lot of people in my generation want to be YouTubers and Instagram models. Nothing wrong with that, if you’re calling – the one thing you can’t live without – really is video editing, or posing while wearing branded clothing. But if those didn’t happen to be the best path to stardom at the moment, would those same people still be interested in editing or posing?
Again, neither of us are saints when it comes to staying true to our purpose. The hardest period for me was when I attended the University of British Columbia. It used to be incredibly important to me that everybody know how smart I am. In university, I had better grades than anyone else I knew. The problem was, I studied English and Philosophy. My peers insisted good grades in those courses don’t really count, that an A+ in an English course is the equivalent of a C- in Chemistry or Psychology or International Relations or Women’s Studies or whatever else they happened to be majored in. I cared so much about how people perceived me, I actually considered switching majors (in my last year!) to something “smarter” just to prove myself (okay, I also am legitimately interested in a lot of sciences, but it was definitely part of it).
Venezia can relate. She spent years studying Molecular Biology, partly due to a childhood dream of creating the real-life Jurassic Park, but partly to prove she was smart (it worked, maybe too well: I almost didn’t ask her out because I was too intimidated).
The problem isn’t limited to callings, either. Piano is a passion of mine, but there was a time when it stopped being fun for me. Once I realized it was a way of showing off and impressing people, I got frustrated with the time it took to learn new songs and get better. For a while I stopped learning anything new and only ever played pieces I was already good at. Because I had an ulterior motive and got hung up on the end result, I stopped enjoying the music and missed out on the joy of learning. Lately I’ve relearned how to just play for me, and have fun with it.
“The most I’ve ever written is when I got there, when I was just writing for me,” Venezia says. “I get stuck when I think about fame and money, which are things I’d like but not really why I write.”
Until she said that, I didn’t realize the other reason I’m writing that ridiculous fantasy about the podcast hosts. Since I’ve moved to Mexico, writing has shifted from a hobby/dream to the way I make my living. I’m blessed to do what I love for work, but now I can’t help but focus on the end result. If I don’t sell something, I don’t eat. I slave over every word of my “real” novels so that when I release them, they’re perfect. Not so with this story: I can just have fun with it, and write for the hell of it without the pressure of anything else.
What’s your calling? Be honest. Do you know what it is? Are you actively pursuing it? Do you know what it is but aren’t pursuing it? Why or why not? No judgment: it’s okay if mastering reggae harmonica is what gives meaning to your life.
Since moving to Mexico City just over three months ago, every story I write has taken a turn for the Mexican. At the time I was writing a thriller set in an unspecified American city, but it took less than a week for me to realize it would be far more exciting if it were set here. Now for Camp NaNoWriMo I’m writing a fantasy adventure, set in what is essentially a medieval fantasy version of Mexico.
That’s not much of a stretch since Mexico is almost a fantasy setting already. Ancient pyramids rise from the desert, and in their shadow prowl creatures which could fell a man with a single bite or sting. Mexican history is a collection of desperate uprisings, unlikely alliances, and prophecies that came true.
Today we’re going to talk about how we, and all writers, can take advantage of where we come from and where we travel to create richer, fuller stories.
I’ve always been a sucker for pyramids. The first place my mind went when concocting the setting for A Memory in Indigo was pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica and the amazing societies that ruled it. My gringo compatriots probably think, as I used to, that the Aztecs and Mayans were the only real players before the Spanish came. Some of the most impressive pyramids in Mexico – like the one above – were built nearly 1500 years before the Aztecs existed. Here’s a fact that sends shivers down my spine: the time between the disappearance of the Teotihuacan (who built the aforementioned pyramid) and the rise of the Aztecs is over three centuries greater than the time between the fall of the Aztecs and the present day.
When something inspires you, it’s helpful to dig deeper and find out why. I know that pyramids make me happy, but if I just throw a pyramid in my story for no reason it will fall flat. After some reflection, I realized the appeal for me comes from the inherent, beautiful irony. Thousands of years before we were born, people created something we still find impressive today, but in the end it didn’t do them any good. Their society became dust, and all that remains of them are these structures that have long outlived their usefulness. Now that’s something I can tell a story about.
Mexico City at Night
I was a little disappointed when I first moved that I wasn’t able to pull off an insane Vancouver to Mexico City road trip and had to fly. Venezia told me the view of Mexico City at night would make up for it. She wasn’t kidding. Since that beautiful first impression, Ciudad de Mexico has continued to take my breath away at every turn.
When I started writing this month I didn’t think anything to do with CDMX would make it into the story. After all, it’s a medieval fantasy set in a fairly small town on a backwater archipelago, not a sprawling urban metropolis. Then, as I had with the pyramids, I thought deeper.
My first glimpse of the city was inspiring because each of the hundred million points of light (probably not even an exaggeration) represented some new experience or opportunity for me. The main setting of my story, the City of Fuscia, may be tiny by modern standards, but my main character wouldn’t see it that way. He comes from a fishing village with a population south of 20. To him, the modest harbors and ramshackle taverns of Fuscia are a whole new world.
Just this morning, as I was walking to the cafe where I’m writing this, I had another thought. An interesting quirk of this city is that each self-contained neighborhood is well-planned out, organized, and aesthetically coherent, but the way these neighborhoods are laid out in relation to each other is sheer nonsense. The result is a diverse and beautifully chaotic patchwork of a city.
My fictional city of Fuscia is constructed across a scattering of small islands linked together by bridges. With borders clearly defined by water, the city is unable to expand outward and new neighborhoods are literally stacked on top of old ones: second stories are added to houses and shops, linked together by catwalks. It seems blindingly obvious in hindsight, but until now I’d never thought about how the design would affect the feel of different neighborhoods. Now my mind is reeling with possibilities: you cross a bridge from a harbor neighborhood, packed with bustling sailors and fish markets, and after walking all of ten feet come to a somber island full of ancient government buildings, a neighborhood that has stood for thousands of years. Climbing a ladder up the side of one of these structures, you find yourself again in an entirely different neighborhood, a recently constructed residential neighborhood of wooden shacks strung with colorful banners where the air is full of laughter and music.
You can find inspiration anywhere. The old adage “write what you know” is both true and not true. You can certainly write about places you’ve never been, jobs you’ve never done, and experiences you’ve never had, but drawing from your own experience lends truth and depth to your story. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a medieval city ruled by pirates and smugglers, but I do know what it’s like to move to a new place and feel your life has suddenly begun.
Venezia has been very busy applying to and interviewing for universities so was not around to share her thoughts this time, but fear not! There is plenty more to come.
¿Y Tú Tambien?
What about you? How have the places you’ve lived or traveled shaped your creative works?
Feeling inspired? Check out our video series Exploring Mexico to see more of this beautiful country.
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)
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
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.