NaNo 2013: How it begins

I’m presently doing National Novel Writing Month for the third straight year. In 2011 I attempted to turn my Occupy experience into something paying homage to Steinbeck and the cast of characters he describes in Cannery Row. In 2012 I wrote a lot of personal essays and memoir material, some of which was edited and put on this blog.

This year it’s an attempt to write fiction again- a near-future story about villains and the people that play that role.

Here’s the opening to the first chapter, “Through Crystal”:

The wind held them aloft, a billion tiny specks of crystal floating in a cloud. Were it not for a radiant sun, they would hardly be noticeable. The beams struck each point and cast innumerable rainbows. Beautiful. It was a sight that most would never see. And here, those that did see it in that brief, shining moment might never tell another soul, for today was a day of death.

The twentysomething’s gauntlet

Presently, I attend a junior college and have been working my way towards transfer. Due to the overloaded (and underfunded) California public university system, spring 2014 enrollment is largely off the table. So with that bit of time I’ve thrown some of my P.E and “lifelong learning” classes out to spring. That still leaves me with plenty of time to kill come January, so I’m looking for an internship to move things forward.

For my generation, the internship isn’t about rubbing elbows with the power players and starting up the ladder early. It’s work with absolutely insane hours, that pays at most a token salary, likely minimum wage or lower given time demands. A New York Times feature on people my age in the creative sector (to some extent, my sector) showcased how internships are a way to deny entry-level positions and create competition for an ever-shrinking number of regular jobs. The freelance market is no less bleak. Since so many writers are unemployed or cannot meet basic needs with what work they do have, firms can crowdsource material and have many options to choose from. If you go to any craigslist “writing gigs” section you’ll notice a variety of compensation schemes, ranging from pocket change to outright theft of material. In order of how insulting they are, least to most:

  1. Hey, we’ll pay you a certain amount per article! The length, research, and quality commitments will mean you at best make minimum wage. Also there is no guarantee that will will accept what you write.
  2. Hey you’ll get money once the site reaches a certain level of traffic! You’re basically a stockholder without the contract or cash value of what you hold.
  3. You will receive exposure on our site that will increase your value! Our site will have very little traffic and thus be useless, or a lot and the revenue remains with us.
  4. A certain number of writers will get $10 gift cards for their trouble.
  5. We’re just a true old-fashioned scam.

Legal action has been proceeding in various states against the unpaid internship. It will take longer to address internships that don’t violate minimum wage laws with stated hours, but require large amounts of unpaid overtime. The trend is obvious though- twentysomethings like myself and spending large amounts of our college and post-college years doing work similar in scope to entry-level work in our field, without any of the salary, benefits, or status.

Frustrating is an understatement. When you look at a list of majors by starting and mid-career pay, there is a gulf between hard science and engineering, and everything else. The bottom- social work, elementary education- has always been a particular tragedy, given how much time is spent discussing the flawed schooling system and broken social structure. But it’s mixed with people in the liberal and creative arts that are there to fill societal niches, yet private industry and government effort ignore.

One must begin with question- why do so many graduating students, from undergraduate and graduate programs not have a career path in spite of all their work and skills? If the American economy does not value education, what does it value? What is all this GDP being used for if not employment and capital usage?

If it’s not journalism, what is it?

One of the first examples of crowdsourced current events was on the Wikimedia sites in 2005. On July 7th that year a series of bombs went off in London, killing over fifty people. Starting with those that lived within earshot of the explosions, users attempted to create a Wikinews report, and then once it became clear that these were deliberate attacks, a Wikipedia article. Since these sites list all edits made to a page, you could see the evolution of knowledge. The initial edit is by a user with very little to go on. Two hours later the page has pictures, sources, and the beginnings of a timeline. Two hours after that, there are sections and a statement by the Prime Minister indicating a possible terrorist attack.

What this first example showed me was that the process of assembling a coherent (and factually accurate) narrative is ugly. You start with very little, and without fact-checking and additional, independent reports everything is by nature speculative. However, given some determination it is possible to put things together in an impressive bit of time. But the beginning is ugly and you’re going to be wrong quite a bit.

The shooting at the D.C Navy shipyard brings to the surface an inconvenient truth about major media outlets- especially TV news channels. John King’s on-air blunder in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings is only the most prominent recent case of this kind of grasping, speculative form of infotainment. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, among others, have ditched many of the cornerstones of journalism. It’s so egregious in the case of rapidly-changing current events that the question arises: is this even journalism anymore? And if it is not, what is it?

A couple key developments that strain credibility. First, the time-honored tradition of multiple independent sources, where two or more separate accounts of an event are required prior to reporting, is largely ignored. One sources often suffices, or the anchors simply interpret what is happening based on live camera footage. Instead of several people on the ground with local knowledge and different perspectives to the event, there are a couple news figures whose main job is to increase dramatic tension.

With the rise of social media juggernauts, verifiable sources are often replaced with the speculation and reports of the public at large. While this does have some use- it can give a more raw, immediate idea of what is happening. But a Twitter account that, for instance, states that they are within blocks of the shooting/flood/police raid cannot be quickly verified. Ultimately to accept the truth of a tweet posted three minutes ago, you have to accept the location, accuracy, and competence of the poster by faith.

Watching CNN deal with the Boston bombing and the ensuing manhunt gives the clear impression that there is no method or due diligence in their programming. On July 7th, 2005 information about what happened trickled in over hours for the more easily verifiable material, and days or weeks for things such as who conducted the bombing and why they did it. What 24-hour news channels have a habit of doing is filling in this gap with metaphorical sawdust. An important event does not always have news associated with it. Sometimes all that is known has been reported, and there is a gap until existing information is modified (say, a causality count) or new information appears (an apparent extra gunman, for instance).

So what is CNN and its ilk? In some cases it’s theater. Anchors hype up storylines that may or may not exist, and ascribe importance and meaning to events that are not clearly connected. During the election season CNN sported not one, but two tables of analysts. They each had a role to play- the intellectual, the smartass, the aww-shucks Cajun. One could also be less charitable still and call it bullshit. An hour of cable news can feel like a high school junior trying to write an eight page essay on a book they did not read. The crafting of artificial narratives (ascribing motive ten minutes after a crime is reported) also makes it feel like a séance. Instead of hard sources, why not pretend to be a mind-reader?

This is for the most part beating a dead horse. It is widely accepted that cable news is drivel. The takeover of MSNBC and Fox News by ideologues in place of standard news programming garners a lot of attention, but it overlooks how in the modern environment of social media and creating dramatic tension to increase ratings the regular news programming itself is less impartial and more speculative that one might think.

When we look at lessons from the slow death in print journalism, we should change the medium rather than the process. Journalism in the Internet age still exists (look at ProPublica, or the Center for Investigative Reporting) but discarding what made journalism so vital in the 20th century is dangerous. When it’s a rag-tag group of Wikinews volunteers, some sloppy reporting is excusable. When a large media outlet with researchers and an established set of standards do the same thing, it questions what they do with all those resources.


the dead planet mocks;
tells lies;
with its luminous purity;
seducing mankind since;
eras in which only whispers remain;
locked eyes in a tango, crescendoing to a;
brilliant climax;
Luna full, naked and unashamed;
grown old yet a child that has;
yet to grasp polite society;
its uniformity, dull features electrified;
only through the fury of Sol, the Father;
to gaze at Luna is to see;
a canvas touched only by the;
brutal march of time;

Sifting through the archives

For the past couple years I’ve ditched Microsoft Office and embraced Google’s cloud-based suite (presently called Google Drive). It’s quicker to start up, autosaves constantly, and I can grab whatever I need with the computer I have, rather than the one I own. It doesn’t have the features to do high-end professional work, but I am not a high-end professional.

Because it’s become my single writing platform, I can delve into the past and find bits of writing that fell through the cracks.

  • An essay outlining the curriculum, goals, and philosophy of an alternative secondary school in my area
  • A short treatise of feasible alternatives to capitalism and socialism
  • The introduction to a booklet about the concept of “neutral politics”- the philosophy that ten moderators and myself have developed in our discussion community
  • Several complete, edited speeches that I never got around to using
  • Truly bizarre fiction works- a man speaking to fog as day breaks, a devious thief admiring a storage locker of his (difficult to acquire) junk, some political fiction
  • Two edited statements of character that were needed for a series of scholarships that I did not apply to

Some of this has real promise- it’s unfinished but the writing stands up with fresh eyes. Some of it needs a full re-write. And of course, some of it is the utter crap that everyone writes as part of the process.

It’s cool to have this list of everything that I’ve felt needed to be written down. One can chart my psychological state, passions, and diligence based on the results. Many other people may not have such easy access to their archives, but it’s certainly handy to have.


Going the distance on writing- NaNoWriMo

Well, it’s about seven weeks before the 1st of November, and the beginning of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). During the month of November, a bunch of people will attempt to write a full novel- the only requirement being that it has to be at least 50,000 words long. And by ‘a bunch’, I mean that in 2011, over a quarter million people attempted the challenge. It is the largest event in the history of creative writing, despite that it dates from 1999, when there were 21 writers.

That’s quite a lot of copy- 5 1/2 pages a day roughly. It tests limits of endurance, time management, and dealing with the frustration associated with novel writing- condensed into a very limited time-frame.

I tried my hand at NaNoWriMo last year- attempting to create a fictionalized version of my experiences at Occupy. What I quickly realized as that my biggest problem, even bigger than the organizing and consistency, was that I have no clue how to write fiction. I’ve never been able to write more than ten pages without getting angry at my lack of structure, and lack of exciting passages. There are key problems with dialogue, with showing rather than telling, with creating a compelling setting.

A long-term solution is to educate myself through creative writing curriculum, find people with similar problems and form a group, embark on a writing project over many months. This, however, doesn’t fit into two months very easily. Fiction, therefore, is an unlikely path at present.

So it looks like I will cross the void and join a ragged group, the NaNoWriMo Rebels. Given their own discussion form in a far-flung place, they are attempting to reach 50,000 words by other means. Epic poetry, biographies, essay compilations. The organization that manages the event and verifies completion has recently come out and stated it plainly- it is not cheating to write something outside of the scope. Fiction is not necessary, neither is a cohesive and related 50,000 words.

It is there that prospects are brighter. Most of what I’ve written for pleasure since my senior year of high school have been essays- often in the form of blog posts. Much of this is unrefined, but two things drive me to an essay compilation:

1. I can generate quite a lot of copy in a single day from essays. In a couple hours I can produce a thousand word blog piece- less if I write about something that doesn’t need citations. Two thousand words is the daily minimum if I have any hope.

2. Unrefined is fine. The whole point of the exercise is to write a lot, and write everyday. It’s the important step to other good habits in writing- you cannot work on your editing if you have no copy to work on.

Only about one in seven participants actually completes the task. It is a monumental undertaking and stretches the limits of a great many people- even seasoned writers, let alone people who haven’t done intensive writing in years, if at all. I do not know if I am capable of doing this.

But that’s something you don’t know until you try.

A prompt to encourage reflection

What was the rarest thing in nature- animal, plant or inanimate phenomenon- that you have seen in its natural place? How did it feel to see it for the first time?

In short, I think the courtship ritual of the waved (or Galapagos) albatross, a fairly large bird of flight that migrates thousands of miles, but only nests on one of the Galapagos, far to the south of the rest. Their courtship is pretty hilarious to watch- it involves the clacking together of their beaks, putting their long necks under their own wings, then staring straight into the sky while making a strange “woo-hoo” sound.

Though I saw rarer species in the wild in the Galapagos- I saw a young wild tortoise that wouldn’t come out of its shell; also I saw a flock of Lava Gull, which only has 800 adult members and is endemic to the Islands. But the dance is so spontaneous, so bizarre, so downright fun to watch and to laugh at, it’s just amazing. We have some video that I probably would have to berate my father to find, so I’ll just post up a YouTube video. Most videos have hysterical laughing in them- it’s really infectious and you’ll find yourself at some point imitating the albatross.