Camp NaNoWriMo 2013

(or, The Magical Land of Word Frenzy and Writing-Related Camping Puns)

2013-Participant-Lantern-Circle-BadgeYou may remember me talking about NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writer’s Month, which occurs in November of each year.  Well, they also have two summer “camp” sessions each year, and this July, I’m taking part.  Did I love the grueling hours in front of my computer so much that one intense month of it would not suffice?  Not exactly.  But I did love the sense of accomplishment, the progress I made on my storytelling, and the real hope it gave me for one day becoming a legitimate author.  Can I reproduce the results in a month full of sunshine and the potential for summer fun?  Well, if I can, that will be one hell of a confidence booster.

In some ways, Camp NaNoWriMo seems a little more fun.  For one thing, their website is fully-geared into that camp theme.  The entire visual element (which is very nicely done, by the way – bravo, webmaster!) evokes the sense of an “idyllic retreat.”  The theme also creeps into their content in the form of puns like “the Block Ness monster,” giving the whole endeavor a sense of (admittedly cheesy but still delightful) humor that banishes the sense of dread or overwhelming that may otherwise accompany the daunting project ahead.  The atmosphere is much more casual, and you can even set your own word count goal, as low as 10,000 words.  You also have the option of being sorted into “cabins,” giving you the chance to interact with a small group of other random humans pursuing the same goal as yourself, talking with and supporting each other without having to express yourself to all the thousands of participants like you would in an open forum.

For me this month, I aim to add on to the project I started back in November, a novel that has since grown to just shy of 80,000 words.  If I succeed in writing 50,000 more words in July, then I will be nearly complete with my first draft!  It’s hard for me to imagine, actually having a full, completed draft of a novel, finishing a story I’ve loved and pondered for years.  Of course, that’s not nearly the end of the process – there will be months if not years of maddening edits ahead of me, followed by the uncertain process of attempting publication.  But that doesn’t deter me, not now.  Who knows, maybe a year from now I could be calling myself a published author!  Maybe even critically-acclaimed … or bestselling!  Yes, those may be a bit less realistic, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

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An Infinite Struggle

(or, My Love/Hate Relationship with BUGS)

As many living on the east coast are aware, we have just experienced a 17-year cicada swarm, the particular group of which is known as “Brood II.”  My own area saw a strong showing of the little beasties, though their numbers are well on the decline at this point.  This is a difficult time for me because, on the one hand, I can’t stand being in close proximity to bugs.  I see something flying at me or (heaven forbid) crawling on me, and I start screaming and flailing like a little girl.  All my sense and reason go out the window; the situation boils down to some nonsensical rambling paired with involuntary muscle spasms.  However, on the other hand, I find most bugs to be fascinating, even beautiful when I can observe and examine them without the threat of them crawling on me.  Also, this:

That video just about moves me to tears.  This man’s Kickstarter is still running, by the way, so, yeah – go fund that!  But the problem remains that even though I feel such compassion for this species, even though the raucous symphony of cicada-song echoing from the trees fills me with joy, even though I would never wish this docile insect any harm, when I see one bobbing toward me in their classic erratic, bumbling flight pattern, all I can feel is a crippling, inhibition-busting sense of revulsion and terror.  What is wrong with me?

As an artist and a writer, insects, arachnids, and other invertebrates are excellent sources of inspiration.  They represent beings that cohabitate in our environment, but go about their lives in very different ways.  Their bodies develop and function in a manner that’s foreign but functional, and sometimes unbelievable.  Their forms inspire artistic and industrial design, an influence can be seen in everything from construction equipment to the alien invaders of the next summer blockbuster.  Because of their capacity to be both beautiful and disgusting, they can also inspire creations with strong emotional impact, either positive or negative.

"So ... positive, right? Oh god don't squish me!"

“So … positive, right? Oh god, don’t squish me!”

Of course, it’s important to understand what it is about the bug that elicits the desired reaction.  Think about the xenomorphs from the Alien franchise.  They have insect-like qualities about them, and they are definitely frightening, so what insect elements achieve this effect?  Is it their exoskeleton?  Or their lack of facial features, with the exception of prominent jaws?  Their parasitic breeding habits?  Or maybe it’s an inversion of an insect trait – the fact that compared to normal bugs, they are enormous.

Sometimes you can get inspired by thinking about bugs in a different way.  One of the best insect documentaries I’ve ever seen was a French film called Microcosmos.  With no narration except for a brief introduction and denouement, it gave a fascinating up-close look at the lives of different bugs, including a snail-on-snail love scene so strangely romantic and beautiful that it called into question every perception I had about the slimy brutes.

Despite my physical discomfort with the various creepy-crawlies of the world, now that the hum of cicadas has faded and I no longer see them bobbing across the highway during my morning commute, I confess I’m going to miss them.  The experience was so fleeting, yet so impressive.  But life goes on: the young cicadas will hatch and burrow underground as the fireflies begin to flicker out for the warm summer nights, floating about with their warm, golden glow as the sun sinks into the horizon.  I can still handle fireflies.  Whatever strange bug aversion I have does not extend to them.  So whenever I can, I let them alight on my outstretched hands, and we share a brief moment of connection before they float back off into the dusk.  It’s a good way to start the summer.

Publishing, Professionalism, and You

(or, Why Every Time I Learn New Things About Getting Published, I Feel Completely Oblivious)

I have this terrible habit of choosing life ambitions for which I have no good personal mentors, barreling blindly along toward a goal that I slowly discover to be more and more unattainable.  Coming from a family where college educations were rare and career paths were often just whatever came along first, any time I stood up and said, “I’m going to do something crazy and amazing and clever with my life!” all they could really do was smile and say, “Cool!”  Not that the emotional support was undesirable, but it usually came with the understanding that they had no idea what challenges I would face, how I might face and overcome them, or what were the right and wrong things to do.  They operated in the same school of thought that tells children they can accomplish anything they set their mind to, if they want it badly enough, or work hard enough, or whatever, and I’ve learned from experience that that mentality, when not supported by knowledge or experience, can lead to soul-crushing frustration as you begin gaining that knowledge and experience.  Eventually, you hit that brick wall where you know enough about what you’re doing to know that you have no idea what you’re doing or how you’re ever going to get it done.

When you hit that wall, it’s discouraging.  You begin to see clearly for the first time just how difficult the path ahead of you is.  You begin looking back at all the wrong decisions you made, decisions that cost you time and money and got you nowhere closer to your goals.  You start looking ahead at all the time and money yet to be spent toward uncertain returns. I have to believe this is the point where many people give up.  The nagging doubts and the nay-saying become the most prudent-sounding voices.  At the very least, this is where you have to really look at the costs of your pursuits and decide whether the end result is worth the effort.  Are you capable of achieving this goal?  Are you good enough?  Strong enough?  Persistent enough?  Charming enough?  Lucky enough?

I’d like to believe you can break past this point simply with the power of positive thinking, but to me, relying on optimism alone here seems irrational.  This stage requires honesty more than anything.  Honesty to yourself, and honesty from the world around you.  I think that if you’re honest with yourself here and decide that you can and will proceed to your goal, then nothing can stop you.  Well, nothing apart from a freak hot air balloon accident or a hostile alien invasion.

Now to circuitously get to my point.  It seems that the further I get into my writing process, the more things I learn I should be doing or thinking about.  Writing, like anything, is an industry, driven in no small part by cash flow and complete with its own rules, regulations, best practices, and etiquette.  It’s one thing to set aside your idealism and acknowledge that fact, quite another to actually operate within that understanding.  To me, it feels a little like wandering around in a foreign country where your language skills are just about equal to the first ten pages of your pocket phrasebook.  There are a lot of exciting things around you, but also a lot of confusion and awkward, shuffling silences as you search for the right words to express the simplest concepts.  For every new scrap of information you learn, three new questions emerge, and at some point, you find you’ve gotten yourself inexplicably lost.

So where do I stand now?  Well, apparently I should a) have a website (for which this ramshackle blog may or may not count), b) have a social media presence, c) be a member of some sort of writer’s association and/or d) be subscribed to some publication about the writer’s market, e) be networking with publishers and authors at conventions, f) be shamelessly self-promoting, and g) probably be looking for an agent.  Of course, the list changes depending who you talk to, and there doesn’t seem to be any proven method of “success.”  I’ve encountered writers over twice my own age who have done everything “right” for longer than I’ve been alive and still seen no success while on the other hand some starry-eyed teen strolls out of high school in a haze of invincibility and promise to get work published from the get-go.  I’ve obviously passed the stage of youthful prodigy, but where on that spectrum am I going to land?

The best I can do right now is take all the things I learn and just file them away.  First things first: finish the first draft of my novel, then worry about publication, publicity, and professionalism.  Some sources seem to suggest that I should establish myself as an author before I’ve actually written anything final, but however prudent that may be, I can’t help but feel like it’s a little pretentious.  For the time being, this little blog is my web presence.  A story will unfold here as I bring my novel to completion and (hopefully) get it published, and maybe as I start putting the things I learn into practice, I’ll become that smart, professional author I’m supposed to be.  In my most idyllic dreams, I imagine looking back at this moment years from now, with several published titles to my name, and laughing over my panic and naïveté.  Maybe some other young author with no clue what they’re doing will dig up this blog post and say to themselves, “See!  She was a wreck too, but she turned out ok!”  One can only hope.

Story Time is Forever Awesome

(or, My One Saving Grace in My Inability to Interact with Small Children)

I’m at that age where my peers keep inexplicably producing offspring.  To be honest, I guess I’ve been at that age for a while, but my closest friends and family have had the good sense not to engage in reckless baby-making, at least until now.  In the past year, however, I’ve had one of my best friends give birth to a little baby boy, and I’ve discovered I’m going to be an auntie as well.  It seems I can’t let my discomfort with these little imps continue as it was.

Now, to be fair to my own ineptitude, I’m still no good with babies.  Try as I did, while handling my friend’s infant son, most of what passed through my head sounded like, Look at you.  All you can do is drool, flail, and nod off.  You’re like some kind of mutant slug creature that somehow inspires adoration instead of revulsion.  OH GOD I’M SCARED I’M GONNA BREAK YOU!  Here, back to your mommy before I do something wrong …  However, now that the boy has mastered things like eye contact, giggles, blowing raspberries, and basic motor skills, I’m feeling more optimistic.  You see, there’s one thing I think I could be awesome at.  I am super excited about the prospect of telling these children stories.

These days, something about the act of being read to personally makes me cringe, but when I was a child, it was about the best thing ever.  There wasn’t a huge selection of books my mother to read to me, especially since I was reading my own books pretty young, and I realized in retrospect that some of the stories she read got a lot of ad-libbing, but they were special nonetheless.  I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but one of my favorites was some generic 1960’s Western boy-and-his-horse tale that belonged to my mom called Fury and the White Mare by Albert G. Miller.  She would read me the whole thing with cowboy voices, and though I can’t recall most of the plot or characters, I do recall thinking it was pretty neat.

I still have it.  No joke.  This is my own copy.

I still have it. No joke. This is my own copy.

Of course, there were also the stories told on the spot, and sometimes those were even better.  Sometimes they were anecdotes of my parents’ own pasts, sometimes they were paraphrased stories and fairy tales, but no matter what the subject matter, hearing them told on the spot from memory somehow made them more real and intriguing.  Precious, too, because when I asked for the same story again, it was always slightly different.

That’s the part I’m most excited about.  Reading to children is certainly important, but I feel like there’s a lot to be gained by both the kids and the adults when passing along a story from memory.  Plus, the library becomes infinite!  I can share fairy tales, fables, and myths, personal experiences, plots of films and video games (or spin-offs based on those stories and characters), or I can ask the child to give me a few things he or she wants in their story and just make it up as I go along!  Sure, they may not always be the best, most technically competent stories around, but I have an audience who is basically willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while.  So, could my desire to tell little children stories be in part a way to bolster my ego by winning the praise of someone who doesn’t have the experience to know whether or not my stories actually suck?  No.  Shame on you for thinking that.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be a mother myself, and I don’t pretend to know the first thing about parenting, but storytelling is something I know and love.  For now, I’m perfectly content with being “that lady who visits every now and then with all the cool stories” – here’s hoping that’s what I become!

In Defense of Girl Gamers

(or, Why Aisha Tyler May Be My Newest Hero)

I admit, I wasn’t always a gamer.  As a very young child with an all-pink bedroom and more stuffed unicorns than any sane person could imagine, I was told by society that video games were for boys.  Yet whenever I was visiting friends or cousins and the boys broke away to play their games, I always wanted to watch, even if it meant bailing on the dress-up sessions and playing house, earning me the momentary scorn of my female companions.  But I was a girl; the boys usually wouldn’t let me play, and no one got game systems for me for Christmases and birthdays.  Luckily, my sister went through a full-on tomboy stage during the SNES era, and through her constant begging, pleading, and demanding, we finally ended up with a system of our own.  That was when the obsession took hold in earnest.

I loved to play video games, and I was very good at many of them.  Unfortunately, I had almost no friends who played at the time and my sister’s interest wasn’t as ravenous as my own, so I had very little guidance in finding and playing the gems of that era.  It wasn’t until high school, when my circles of friends expanded and I started doing more research on my own, that I really became game savvy.  Though it affected how “current” my gaming experiences were by starting a trend of going back to play old games I’d missed at the time of their release, I was never entirely out of the loop.  By my senior year, I was even employed at a video game retailer, surrounded by games and news and experienced players and soaking up all the delicious video game exposure I could.

For the most part, my being female elicited positive or neutral reactions from people who learned I was a gamer.  My guy friends thought it was cool, some of my female friends were able to share their own closeted love of video games, and guys who saw me working at the game store would react with anything from indifference to ecstatic surprise.  There were a few detractors here and there, as I mentioned in my last article, but for the most part I felt like my supposedly rare identity as a girl gamer was considered a good thing.  Rather than being ostracized by other girls for liking non-girly things, as I moved from high school through college, I found myself surrounded by people who embraced my geekdom and thought positively about me because of it.  It felt wonderful.

Of course, there have always been people who rag on geeks in general; male or female, gamer or bookworm, sci-fi geek or fantasy buff.  That strange desire of human beings to tease and ostracize people with different looks, beliefs, interests, and so forth always crops up in one form or another.  In the eyes of a self-defined “normal,” there’s often no difference between a gamer who plays passionately as a part of their normal life and a hikikomori who locks themselves away with their games, replacing all normal social interaction with their fantasy worlds.  Gamers have to fight hard against the stigma that society has built up against them even as games have become more and more mainstream.

That is something I can accept, even if it is senseless and degrading.  The thing I have a harder time accepting is something I’ve only noticed in the last several years: the “hardcore” geeks and gamers turning against the rest.  I was guilty of this myself once, harboring resentment toward “casual” gamers for causing the proliferation of simple, gimmick-based games while grander projects and RPG opuses seemed to be languishing.  However, I soon learned that my reasons for disliking them were foolish.  A casual gamer could easily be introduced in stronger titles over time.  Little browser games and mobile apps can be like gateway drugs to more serious games, assuming we take all the negative connotations of that analogy and completely disregard them for the sake of me making a positive point.  As such, since I love games and want to share that love, there should be no reason why I would want to discourage or detest the playing of casual games just because they’re not to my taste.  If it shows someone, particularly someone who thinks negatively of video games in general, that games can be fun, where’s the harm in that?  Besides, with the money that some casual games make, their developers can afford to take on bigger projects and produce new, exciting, and more in-depth gaming experiences rather than Farmville and Bejeweled clones.

Unfortunately, some people aren’t learning similar lessons.  As geekdom and gaming have become more mainstream, there has been a lot of pushback from people who “were gamers before it was cool” or some such nonsense.  I see a constant struggle to establish “nerd cred” that not only alienates people with new-found or casual interest, but also reflects even more negatively on the people whose nerd cred is established, given the persisting stigma.  A strange cycle emerged where game publishers and similar organizations hire beautiful women to talk about and advertise their media in order to target a male audience, but in turn, real women and girls who love games, comics, and so on get labeled as fake and brushed aside.  Yes, there are some few women out there who capitalize on the trendiness of geekdom, but they do it for their jobs, to make money.  What reason does a girl have to claim she loves video games in her everyday existence except if she genuinely loves games?  Now, I love my gamer guys, but I can say from experience that those who tout their nerd cred as a sign of their soaring superiority are likely not as great a catch as they think they are.  A self-respecting girl or woman is not going to fake her interests just to get with them, and if she does, they should be respectful of the fact that she likes them so much that she wants to, heavens forbid, learn to share their interests.

It’s insulting and perplexing to me how this bias has developed.  How female gamers are subjected to derision and rage by their male peers rather than being accepted and loved for what they are.  It saddens me too, because even in a case where someone may not be as into or knowledgeable about something as you, there is so much potential for good times and bonding as you teach each other, good times you’ll never have if you just accuse the girl of being fake and move on to bask alone in your self-glory.

This is where Aisha Tyler comes in.  If you don’t know who she is, she’s a comedian, a gamer, a feminist, and an all-around awesome lady.  Last year, she was a host at E3, and for some strange reason, that earned her a lot of ridiculous hate.  Her response to this hatred, however, was brilliant.  This excerpt shows her point beautifully:

“I go to E3 each year because I love video games.
Because new titles still get me high.
Because I still love getting swag.
Love wearing my gamer pride on my sleeve.
People ask me what console I play.
Motherfucker, ALL of them.

I get invited to E3 because real gamers know I’m a gamer.
I don’t do it for the money.
I have plenty of money.
I don’t do it for the fame.
Fuck fame.
I do it because I love video games.

[…]
I don’t give a shit what you think about my gamerscore.
I don’t play to prove a point.
I don’t play to be the best.
I play because I love it.”

It all comes back to love, and we need more of it, both in the gaming community and the geekosphere as a whole.  We label ourselves as gamers because we love games, not because we crave status (at least, that’s true for most of us).  We are girl gamers, and we are here to stay, because we love games.

For one last affirmation of why Ms. Tyler is awesome, read this interview here where she discusses the post-E3 incident and sexual harassment in gaming.

Girls, keep gaming!  Keep talking about games, keep trying to get jobs making games, and keep trying to make games better!  I think it won’t be too long before we have brilliant female game developers standing alongside their male peers and making games so spectacular we could hardly imagine them now.  And remember when some  insecure hater out there tries to belittle or objectify you, you need only be true to yourself, nerd cred is meaningless, they are totally and unjustifiably in the wrong, and their judgments do not matter.  Stay strong, and do what you love.