With hours left in NaNoWriMo

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It’s Nov. 30, and thousands of would-be novelists are reaching the end of their quest to lay down 50,000 words worth of story in NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month challenge.

Many have finished and learned just how few words are 50,000. Others have struggled and discovered that 50,000 are too many. In both cases they’re right.

I have probably composed millions of words in my lifetime and produced hundreds of hours of radio and other audio programming. (80 Uncle Warren’s Attic podcasts, 150 Ikthuscast podcasts, and 13 78 Revolutions Per Minute podcasts = 40 hours + 37.5 hours + 6.5 hours = more than two work weeks of stuff to listen to in that format alone.)

But I have yet to produce 50,000 words worth of one story. The closest I’ve come is the accumulated 160,000 words or so of Myke Phoenix adventures, but that’s 16 novelettes.

And so I understand how daunting 50,000 words are.

That’s why I hesitate on the brink of committing to write a minimum of four 60,000 word books in 2019, essentially the equivalent of five months of NaNoWriMo over 12 months.

More on this later.

For now, congratulations to those who reached their 50,000 words this month, and for those who did not: Don’t quit. Ray Bradbury wrote, in seven words I have taped just below eye level on this computer, “You only fail if you stop writing.”

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Captain Zap is 50

Captain Zap No 1 webI don’t know what made me write “11/4/68” on the cover of Captain Zap #1 when I finished it. All I know for sure is that it was 50 years ago today.

Captain Zap was my first experience in public acceptance of something I created. It was a ridiculous superhero comic book written and drawn in pencil, four pieces of typewriter paper folded in half to make a 12-page comic book with a cover.

When I say “ridiculous,” I mean it was intentionally silly. It was filled with moments like the assassination of Mayor Snort, who, when told, “Someone’s taking pot shots at you, sir,” replies as he falls from a balcony, “Pot shot, my eye! I’m dead.” The sound effect is “POT SHOT.”

Captain Zap was once Ralph Smith, who is struck by lightning one day while rushing to work. Rather than killing him, the lightning endows him with a strange power – energy bolts (er, lightning bolts?) that emerge from his hand when he points at something.

Of course, like any ordinary person, pretty much the first thing he does is decide to become a superhero, but the very first thing he needs is a good name.

“It must be something that would strike fear in the hearts of bad guys!” he proclaims, discharging one of his bolts. As it turns out, a nearby kid is saying, “Hey Joe, have you read the latest issue of Captain –” and his next word is drowned out by the “ZAP!” from Ralph’s energy bolt. Voila.

“And thusly was born Capt. Zap,” the origin story concludes.

I passed around the single copy of Captain Zap #1 and it was met with bemused approval, and so I ended up distributing 23 issues the same way, 22 of which survive, plus Captain Zap Annual #1 (64 pages!), a horror comic called “Tales of Fright (Stories That Reek),” two issues of a spin-off villain-turned-hero called Mass the Mighty, covers for Captain Zap #s 24-27, and a partially finished Captain Zap Annual #2.

Captain Zap - pot shot webOnly Captain Zap #11 is lost to the ages, having not been returned after being passed around. I even have Kapitän Zeppelin #9; a friend in my German class translated that epic battle of Captain Zap versus his archenemies Dr. Skull, the Red Demon, Mass the Mighty, Logicman, Vampireman, the Devil, and the Human Wrench (der Menschwrensch).

Dr. Skull was reborn as “The World’s Nicest Bad Guy” in my Myke Phoenix Novelettes, but otherwise Captain Zap was essentially forgotten until my brother found them in a box in my old closet a few years ago.

be silly - webActually, gone but not forgotten. I never lost the fun of entertaining my friends with my silly stories, and that motivated me to keep trying all these years as a “wordsmith and podcaster” while I made a living as a reporter and later editor. Maybe my friends were just humoring their eccentric lunatic friend, but we had fun together with Captain Zap, I think.

I pulled the pile of old pencil scribblings out recently because I wondered if I could adapt the concept for contemporary readers – Lord knows we all could use a little silliness – and that’s when I saw “11/4/68” scrawled there.

And so this morning I offer a toast to that high school sophomore who dared to be silly. That skinny, crazy kid still exists somewhere inside an overweight, somewhat addled older guy who counts among his prized possessions a plaque on his wall that says, “Be silly sometimes.” And he treasures the people who, 50 years ago, smiled at the “pot shot” joke and said, “This is kind of cool.”

10 authors to celebrate on National Author’s Day

author's day

I see by my desk calendar that today (Nov. 1) is Author’s Day. I see by my search engine that National Author’s Day is a thing: “Every year on Nov. 1, millions of people celebrate authors and the books that they write on National Author’s Day. After her grandmother’s death in 1968, Sue Cole promoted the observance of National Author’s Day.”

I wonder if that’s why Nov. 1 is the beginning of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, where thousands of writers and wannabe writers commit to writing a 50,000-word novel during the month of November – but putting NaNoWriMo into my search engine would take me down another internet rabbit hole, and I’m trying to write here.

Author’s Day coincides with the day after I finished reading the 70th book of my year. I have never read 70 books in a year before; I read 66 books in 2017 and 52 in 2011. These are the only years, since I started keeping track in 1994, that I’ve averaged as much as a book a week. Some years I read as few as 10 books, which for a wordsmith is a ghastly confession.

Having a day job that puts me in a car for 90 minutes or more three days a week has helped me expand my “reading,” as has the evolution of audiobooks from a fumble of cassettes and then CDs to a simple download into a cellphone. The majority of those 70 books have been delivered to my ears instead of my eyes, by narrators who breathe an extra dimension into the words.

So, for National Author’s Day, let me share some of the authors I’ve been sharing my car and my easy chair with this year. Continue reading →

The call of the writer

call of the writerI had an epiphany the other day while reading a book about the professional writing life:

Writing is not work.

Work is dragging your butt into the office or into the car to drive somewhere you’d rather not be.

Work may even be forcing yourself to sit down at the keyboard or take up some other writing tool.

But once the writing begins, it is fun, it’s a challenge, it’s a puzzle to be solved, a mystery to be cracked.

Sitting down to write may be work. Forcing myself to focus may be work.

But once the words start flowing, it’s a river of fun, a gusher of joy, a knowing I am doing what I am meant to do, a contentment of being where I’m supposed to be, and a wondering why I fought so hard to put my body and mind in a position to be answering the call I felt all along.

The Parable of The 27 Failures

baseball - dreamstime_s_5496710

Blam! With a swing of the bat, a hard spherical object reverses direction and is sent hundreds of feet across the air, landing behind a wall. Thousands of witnesses erupt in happiness, praising the wielder of the bat. This is the ultimate achievement in this game, or at least the one with the most instant gratification – the ultimate achievement is probably pitching the perfect game, preventing 27 consecutive opponents from connecting with the spherical object in any meaningful way.

The appeal of baseball may be its lack of a clock, although it has its own deadline in a sense: You must score more runs than your opponent before you run out of opportunities to fail. You’re allotted up to 27 failures, and you only need to succeed a comparative handful of times (few teams ever get as many as 27 base runners in a game) to win the contest. You don’t know exactly how much time you’ll have before the 27th out, which is closer to life than games with a clock. In life, you usually don’t know when time will run out, either.

In life you’ll likely fail more times than you succeed – how many potential mates do you meet before marrying one, how many job interviews before landing one, how many great books rejected before finding a publisher – and you usually don’t know how much time you’ll have; you just keep going until you run out of opportunities.

Don’t be overly concerned when you swing and miss; step back up to the plate and give it another go. With persistence, you’ll connect enough.

[Photo © Michael Drager – Dreamstime.com]

Reconnected with the joy

audio-technica

I’m enjoying two new acquisitions: “Portfolio of Ahmad Jamal,” a brilliant jazz double album found while sifting the bins at an antique store, and the Audio-Technica 120 I left on my Amazon Wish List for about four years before finally pulling the trigger this week. I don’t know what took me so long.

Since my beloved vintage Dual turntable gave up the ghost a few years ago, my computer has not been connected to a source that can play vinyl, the format that comprises a huge percentage of my collection. We hooked up a turntable and sound system when we finished the basement family room a year or so ago, but I spend more time sitting at this keyboard, and I have made do with the vast array of available digital offerings.

But sometimes you want to dip into your own collection, right? After all, there’s a reason you collected that music in the first place. A lot of my stuff is stored on hard drive and CD, but most of it is not.

Anxious about the price tag on the Audio-Technica, I caved in and bought a $60 turntable from a big-box store and quickly relearned the meaning of the old adages, “You get what you pay for” and “You can’t afford to buy cheap.” Building a machine that draws the sound from these discs properly takes some craftsmanship worth paying for.

By the time I got to the end of the first track of the Jamal record, I was reunited with the joy. My work slows down when an especially memorable track rolls by, but that drawback is balanced by the harmony and speed of my work when I’m in the zone and typing to the rhythm.

I’m aware that at least one of my regular readers has lost the ability to hear music anymore. I can’t imagine what that’s like; he’s written how he hears music with his memory, which I think is good for sanity’s sake.

Music is the expression of a soul’s happiness – I suspect all creative work is. Even the darkest works bring comfort when they connect, the comfort of knowing that at some level, someone else understands.

#TBT While My Guitar Gently Weeps

The beauty of the Beatles was that they refused to remain the pop-rock band that emerged in 1963-64 as the most popular entertainers in the world. Starting, I think, with “Yellow Submarine”/”Eleanor Rigby” and probably sooner, they went out of their way to make records that sounded like nothing they had done before.

There were a couple of times when, as a teenage boy alone in my room with the stereo, I was left absolutely stunned by what I was hearing for the first time. The first time, of course, was the finale of Sgt. Pepper, “A Day in the Life,” probably acknowledged as the best damn thing Lennon-McCartney ever built.

But then there is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the moment George Harrison announced to the world that he is not only equal to his bandmates as a songwriter buy capable of brilliance that surpass anything they can imagine. His are the best songs on the White Album and on Abbey Road, and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is my favorite Beatles song of them all. The sweeping grandeur of the arrangement, the perfect weeping lead guitar by Eric Clapton, the evocative title and lyrics – this song had me staring at the speakers in shocked delight, soaking in the wall of sound. At that stage in the album, Lennon and McCartney had already dazzled with a half-dozen innovative tunes, but then, starting with a “Hey-oh” and guitar fanfare, George just blew me away.