November 2, 2009

Personal essay: Guess what? I'm writing a new novel.

Nanowrimo logo

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

What's that old cliche about the arts? "Those who can't do, become critics?" That's certainly how I felt for many years myself; because for those who don't know, far from reaching critic status in my own life through academic study, I was actually a creative writer myself for ten years before opening CCLaP, and a fine-art photographer for a decade before that, the subject I actually studied in college instead of literature. In fact, this is precisely one of the reasons that I thought I'd make a decent critic, once I did make the decision in 2004 to stop writing for a living and open an arts center instead; that since I had spent the last twenty years being an active artist myself, suffering the wrath of critics myself, I would not only be more in tune with what current artists are trying to accomplish but more sympathetic as well, more willing to cut middling authors a break when a look at their work could in theory go either way. And all modesty aside, I like to think that for the most part, this is exactly what has happened at CCLaP over the last two and a half years, and that the site has the respectable audience size it does (around 10,000 unique visitors a month) precisely because I'm willing to give so-so writers a bit of a break, to emphasize the strengths of their books in those cases instead of hammer on the weaknesses.

But it's been...sheesh, half a decade now since my own last full-length book (a travelogue concerning my most recent trip to Europe), and an entire eight years since my own last novel; and so maybe I'm losing a bit of that connection I used to have with the creative process, starting to let slip a bit my tendency to cut authors a break when they're teetering on the fence of quality. (Because let's face facts, that the few times I do deliberately decide to rip an author a new one, I don't exactly hold back, frankly because effusive praise is worthless when a reader has nothing to compare it against.) And this happens to coincide with finishing up this week the center's latest original book, volume 1 of the "CCLaP 100" classics essay series, which suddenly presents a plethora of extra time in my life that didn't exist before; so partly inspired by all this, I have decided for the first time in a long time to participate in this year's Nanowrimo, and to see if I might possibly have a new novel on my hands by the time Christmas rolls around, or at least a new novella.

Oh, you don't know what Nanowrimo is? It's short for "National Novel Writing Month," and is a simple if not daunting concept: it's the attempt to write an entire 50,000-word novel, start to finish, over the course of one month, a now international movement held every November. Originally started on a lark by a circle of friends in the San Francisco Bay area, here in its tenth year Nanowrimo now attracts tens of thousands of participants; and not only have plenty of these resulting novels now been signed and published over the years, but at least one has gone on to be a national bestseller. It sounds at first like an insane challenge, until you realize that this is only a little over 1,500 words a day we're talking about, which by coincidence happens to be the length of most of the book reviews I write here; and I can kick those out once a day with no problem at all, making the process of doing so with a three-act fictional story definitely a legitimate but not insurmountable challenge that very much can be accomplished.

The entire idea kinda scares the pee ouf of me, frankly, which is the entire point -- my entire goal of participating is not necessarily to get a commercially friendly book out of it, but simply to reacquaint myself with the sweaty night terrors that come with being an active creative writer. Because let's face it -- to confront a pile of 200, 300 blank sheets of paper and know that you need to eventually fill them all is a terrifying prospect, and is one of the main things that stops 90 percent of all aspiring novelists from actually becoming novelists; that's how Nanowrimo came about in the first place, after all, as a way to impose an artificial, arbitrary schedule to the entire thing, to not look at it as 200 empty sheets of paper but rather 30 days in a row of filling seven of those sheets each day (or that is, seven sheets if you're using double-spaced 12-point Times New Roman with one-inch margins on a typical piece of typing paper). I have no illusions about me in particular having something even readable by the end of this process, much less publishable; my entire reason for participating is simply to hopefully help keep me humble in my usual role as book critic, always remembering that what I'm really doing is reviewing the work of people who did something I have not, a process that is exhausting and terrifying and frankly a small miracle whenever successfully completed in the first place.

But of course, as mentioned, this is only a partial reason why I've decided to participate in Nanowrimo this year; the other reason is that a friend of mine in Chicago has decided that it's finally time for her to write her first full-length novel as well, a woman named Carrie Golus who some of you will remember as the co-creator of the old popular comic Alternator, which ran in places like the Chicago Reader and Seattle Stranger throughout the 1990s. She's looking for a "writing buddy" of sorts while she works on her book, someone she can exchange pages with every day and indeed give her a reason for even finishing new pages every day, a friend whose own motivation will keep her motivated too, and vice versa. And in fact this is a big part of Nanowrimo as well, not just to encourage the writing of a novel but the formation of a supportive community of fellow authors, and the entire reason it's held during one particular month each year is so that local groups can form around it, public "writing nights" at neighborhood cafes, forums and bulletin boards where people can share their successes and failures. (Chicago participants, for eaxmple, have a whole separate website they can head to for such support services, called Chiwrimo; check the national site to find resources for your own city.)

CCLaP Nanowrimo 2009 Facebook group

And that's why I'm happy to announce that I myself have started a new temporary group at Facebook just for those readers of CCLaP who will be participating in Nanowrimo this year, a support group based not on geography but a shared attitude about the arts. I'll be posting updates there throughout November on how my own novel is going, and I highly encourage anyone else who wants to participate as well, and to hopefully help build that elusive "CCLaP community" that's been sputtering and starting in bits and fits over the last two years now. And hey, if you don't feel like writing one big novel over the course of a month, why not commit yourself instead to the challenge of 30 short stories over the course of 30 days? Or four magazine-length pieces, one a week? Or two novellas? Or f-ck it, how about simply a new blog post every day for a month straight? As I've said here before, I'm convinced that the process of writing creatively yourself is a key to becoming a happier, more informed reader and literary fan, whether or not that writing is anything meant for publication or indeed even public viewing.

And speaking of which, yes, I promise to release the resulting story I come up with as a free eBook here at the CCLaP site, and subject myself to the same critical barbs as I impose on others here on a daily basis; that too is part of this process, to remind myself of how infuriating it is to have complete strangers destroy all of one's hard work with a flick of their stubby little Comic Book Guy fingers. ("Worst! Novel! Ever!") Oh, and for what it's worth, I'm writing a science-fiction novel, a "family drama" regarding three generations of artificially intelligent creatures, each of which created the next and thus became their "parents," and the complex semi-religious relationship these AI creatures have with their human ancestors, based on the particular generation and the ways they rebel against the beliefs of the generation before them. (Or, actually, it's a lot more complicated than this, but you at least get the gist.) But also like I said, I may end up with only a novella on my hands instead of a full novel, or I may not end up with anything readable at all; that's part of the big gamble of both Nanowrimo and writing a novel in general, that even after a monumental amount of effort, you still might not end up with anything usable whatsoever. And that's yet another fear regarding the creative process that I hope to get back in touch with, to hopefully remind me of what a freaking miracle it is just when one of these damn things actually gets finished in the first place.

Anyway, I hope you'll be able to join me and other CCLaP readers over at the new Facebook group this month; and I will of course be occasionally leaving updates here at the main site too on how it's going. Please be kind! I'm just as nervous about this prospect as any other novelist is about starting a new project; like I said, that's the entire point, and hopefully will result in me being a fairer, more sensitive critic of others' books by the time this is all over.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:42 PM, November 2, 2009. Filed under: Arts news | CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Literature |