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Sunday, November 14, 2010


M. David Blake

Is this your first NaNo? How many have you done? How many have you won?

This is the first year I’ve ever participated in NaNoWriMo. In fact, I got off to a late start: I didn’t even register until almost midnight on 3 November, and started writing the next morning. NaNo kindly points out that to hit 50,000 words in thirty days, a writer must average 1,667 words per day... which put me 5,001 words behind (in other words, an entire short story!) out of the starting gate.

How did you first learn about NaNo?

Funny you should ask, because I’ve been relatively aware of it almost from the beginning. The NaNoWriMo project began in 1999, while I was in the middle of College, Round II. That year they had twenty-one participants. The next year they had a hundred forty. The year after that, in 2001, they had something like five thousand people sign up, because it had spread by word-of mouth. I learned about NaNoWriMo sometime in mid-2001, because I was in a lot of English courses that year (including, if I have my chronology correct, a certain famous “course dedicated to the study of science fiction,” which I “utterly flunked”), and a few of my friends entered.

So what kept me from entering in 2001? I was driving a few hundred miles every other weekend to see my fiancée, and we were planning a wedding, and I was spending just about every waking moment thinking about her.

All in all, I consider that a good reason.

What’s your story about for this NaNo?

Story? It’s supposed to be a story? I knew I should have read the rules more closely....

All right, here is my serious answer: It is essentially the setup for a multi-season, episodic storyline about a (usually) female private contractor, thief, and assassin with some unusual abilities. She isn’t human, but she doesn’t know quite what she is, either. She struggles with morality and consequences, because even though she sees them in play, they don’t always have the same implications within her own mental framework. At the same time, she isn’t always sure how much of that internal struggle is because of her non-human differences, and how much might be residual damage from some trauma she experienced... or inflicted.

On a subconscious level, I crafted a science fiction adventure/drama for which you could cast any reasonably attractive brunette with high cheekbones and a healthy dose of martial arts training, into one of those she-can-become-anyone-or-anything roles... as long as your definition of “anything” includes the words “smokin’ hot badass.”

How did you come up with that story?

I sat down at the keyboard and began typing. There wasn’t really any planning involved, and I had no idea what I was going to write before I began.
Here are the first two paragraphs, as they spilled onto the page:

He was waiting on the veranda. Sunshine and bird song permeated the air, and I knew the small glass table held a Bloody Mary for him, and a Mimosa for me. I’d been drinking Mimosas each morning since we’d met.

Mimosas are revolting. Orange juice has always been a taste I love, and champagne merely something I can tolerate. The combination kills everything I enjoy about the one, and emphasizes all the flaws of the other. A good Bloody Mary would have been much more appropriate, although no one ever serves them the right way. Coffee would have been best.

When I wrote those lines, my first mug of morning coffee was sitting beside me, and I had not yet indulged in a sip. I was probably longing for the coffee, but eager to begin the project.

Those few words set the scene for lots of internal conflict. This character is a walking contradiction, who won’t let personal preference get in the way of what she needs to do... but she definitely has those personal preferences, and will thoroughly indulge them if it is both possible and safe to do so.

At that point I stopped and had a few sips of coffee.

Do you intend to finish the novel, or are you using it more as an exercise?

Oh, I’ll finish. I won’t necessarily require myself to finish it this month, or even the next (although if Joel Surnow, J. J. Abrams or Joss Whedon decided to make me an offer, I am fairly certain I could do so).

For me, this is primarily an exercise, with an ulterior motive.

Oh, I should explain that? All right, but to do so we’ll need to examine the framework a little, and I’ll have to use myself as a glorified illustration.

A lot of new authors sign up for NaNoWriMo each year, because they have one story that they really want to write. A lot of them will also finish, and they’ll have 50,000+ words of a story.

Of those, a large portion will set their finished work aside, and get back to “real life.” This is essentially a subtle form of denial, because successful authors also have to deal with “real life.” There isn’t any magic switch that gets thrown once you’ve been published. The bills still have to be paid, the kids are still going to whine about having to eat vegetables, and the cat is still gonna throw up on the piano bench... yet the portion that finish their novel and return to “real life” imagine that successful authors live within gilded palaces, insulated from reality.

Now, a lot of those finished novels sitting in dusty drawers and neglected on hard drives are the purest dreck, and justifiably forgotten... although some of them are probably pretty good, or at least publishable. But a lot of those authors, having written the one story they needed to write, found that having done so satisfied the need.

That isn’t me.

Another portion will finish their novel and then say, “Gee, this is awesome! I’m a writer! Now I just need to get this published.” A good chunk of those will go the quick-and-easy route by throwing it onto one of the self-publishing eBook sites, and either giving it away or charging a small fee, with no further idea of how to proceed.

No disrespect is intended to those self-publishing eBook sites. As an example of their worth, I’ll testify that earlier this year I put “We Don’t Plummet Out of the Sky Anymore” on Smashwords, and made it a free download, because I wanted to see whether there was any market for my writing. As of this morning, Smashwords told me the story has been downloaded 39,636 times (which is roughly the current print circulation of Analog, Asimov’s and Fantasy & Science Fiction combined) and it’s the fourth most accessed work on the entire site. I don’t know how many times it’s been grabbed through Barnes & Noble or Apple’s iBookstore or Sony. Maybe those are all in the Smashwords number. When I did the eBook Signing Event though, I gave away enough additional copies to push the total number of recipients well over the 40k mark.

The story is doing quite well, but none of those downloads put any money in my hands. If I had charged anything for that one as an unknown author, it would probably still have garnered a few downloads from friends and family, but would not have received anywhere near the same level of exposure... and as an unknown author, I needed exposure.

Now, if “We Don’t Plummet” had been the one story that I really wanted to write, and if I had thrown it up on Smashwords and racked up impressive download numbers, and if ~brb had still included the story in STUPEFYING STORIES, then I would certainly be doing a lot of self-congratulatory back-patting! Where would I go from there, though? You can’t build a career on one story. You can’t even pay the light bill on a single story, if you give the story away for free.

Writing a quick 50k words just so I can give it away isn’t me, either.

A final portion of those who complete NaNoWriMo will take the finished manuscript, and submit it to an honest-to-goodness publishing house. Lightning may strike, but more likely they will gather a few rejection letters. The largest segment of the remainder will become discouraged after a few of those, even if the letters weren’t meant to be discouraging.

Realistically, I am going to submit whatever I finish, somewhere. But here is where my approach diverges from NaNoWriMo: I don’t necessarily believe it is essential to sink all of this month’s creativity into a single, unified work. Since I began my NaNo entry, I’ve also started two short stories, or what I presume will be short stories once they are completed.

By the end of the month, I will have finished at least one new piece, and possibly more, even if the words don’t count on my NaNoWriMo total. Whatever I have finished will be added to my submission queue. Whatever I haven’t finished by the end of the month will continue to receive work, and effort, and will eventually be completed.

A few more short story sales will put me in a much better position for selling the novels I will write... but a novel is a big thing, and a larger investment for a publisher. Short stories are a sort of proving ground, and a way of building the market in advance of that investment. Any story can be stretched out, so that it fills a few hundred pages. There is something fascinating about distilling the essence down to a more potent (and possibly more marketable) measure.

The point is that the most important story in my career can’t simply be the one, impressive beginning I wrote months ago, or the single, coherent narrative that I could spin on a thirty day deadline; to succeed as an author, it has to continually be the piece of writing that fascinates me right now, because that is the one I have the best chance of selling.

What do you like about NaNo?

I enjoy seeing the progress my friends are making! I know that NaNoWriMo doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to me that it does to them, but that doesn’t keep me from applauding their achievement, or getting excited when I see that one of them managed to crank out a few thousand words the day before.

How do you compete in NaNo and not lose your mind?

Look, I am a thirty-six year old stay-at-home father, with a beautiful four year old daughter and a happy marriage, whose fondest desire has always been to be a successful science fiction author. By definition, I think that means I lost my mind somewhere in early adolescence.

From a practical standpoint, I am not competing in the traditional sense. I know I’ll achieve more than 50,000 words of new writing this month, because by the end of the next question, this interview will stretch to over 1900 words. That easily puts me above the daily minimum to reach a 50k goal, and this interview isn’t the only thing I’ve typed today... nor will it be.

A better question would be, “How do I compete with every other professional writer aiming for those few available slots in the genre magazines, on a monthly basis, and not lose my mind?”

My wife and daughter are incredibly supportive, and their belief in me, as a writer, keeps me going. I love what I do, and I am effectively living my dream... and as we already established, I lost my mind several decades ago.

Anything else for the hobbitses (and hirsute elves)?

If you want to be published, begin submitting your work. If you don’t, you won’t be.
Aim high. No hunter ever put meat on the ground by blasting holes in the dirt.

There is a market for every story, and a story for every market... so understand your markets, and make each submission count. Sending high fantasy to Analog is a waste of postage. So is sending post-apocalyptic military science fiction to The New Yorker.
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