NaNoWriMo 2013 Update: HALFWAY!!!!

Today marks the halfway point in the 2013 National Novel Writing Month, and I have written 12,142 words—exactly half of the 50,000 minimum required to “win.”

Now, I can hear you all scratching your heads, checking your calendars, doing a bit of subtraction (let’s see, make that a 4, carry the pi, solve for x if the train leaves the station at 7 p.m.…) And I know what you’re going to say. “Ha, ha, ha. Silly word-writing man, you can’t do math. And November has thirty days. Don’t you remember the little poem?” But you’re just going to have to trust me. This is the halfway day.

It’s been a rough start.

I’ll explain, but first a confession: I am not writing a brand-new book. In fact, this will be about the fourth time I have written this particular story, and it will be the second time I have actually finished it. Many years ago, this tale was the very first manuscript I ever proudly handed to my wife as a completed first draft. (My pride was quickly pounded against the rocky shores of reality. Boy, did it stink.) It’s had two different titles, not including the unprintable epithets I have given it in my head. And it, not Legitimacy, was originally going to be Book One of the Vanilla Cycle. Imagine that.

So why did I think it would be a good idea to attempt to whip out a shiny new first draft during the winsome, tossed-salad days of NaNoWriMo 2013? I’ll give you a clue. It starts with an N. Not naiveté, although that’s a good guess. Nor was it narcissism. I’m still kind of noob, but I’m no novice. No, I’m telling you, it was NEED.

Not only was it time to write this—it will be Book Two of the Vanilla Cycle—but I absolutely have to get it out of my head, to set it in concrete once and for all, and finally breathe. I’ve had this story in me for way too long. But even after myriad attempts I’ve never found quite the right way to tell it. So I’m making myself finally do it.

Like I said, it’s been a rough start.

It’s taken me twelve days, but it seems to be coming together. I’ve forced myself to wrestle with most of the knottier details, and there’s an ever-expanding, increasingly smelly graveyard of darlings buried in the backyard. I’m at last finding how to express the day-to-day, minute-to-minute, details of these characters’ lives in a way that conveys the Story—the one with a capital S, the one you don’t realize a novel is telling you. I think this was the trick that I’d misplaced, or nearly forgotten in the bottom of my toolbox, during months of nonstop revision and editing. It feels good to finally be stretching my noveling muscles again.

So, yep, I’m calling this the halfway day. I’ve expended fully one-half of the energy required to cross the finish line on time. To this point it’s mostly been my frustration, fear, and fury fueling the fire. Sure the word count math may be fuzzy, but I’m finally feeling good—the last half of the month is going to be fun.


Gravity sucked.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I was at least three or four of the following things: blown away by the technical achievement, on the edge of my seat for the whole ninety minutes, deeply thankful that someone seemed to be making every effort at realism, forgetting I was watching a Sandra Bullock vehicle, wishing I had one of those EVA jetpacks, instinctively dodging the best 3-D shrapnel I’ve ever seen.

Here's the trailer, for those who haven't seen...

But still, Gravity sucked.

I’ll explain. First, let me add the obligatory ***Spoiler Alert***. Although, in truth, there’s little to spoil. The premise of the movie explains the entire plot: Astronauts face the dangers of physics and the harsh realities of space during a “space junk” disaster in low Earth orbit. You can pretty much thread out the disaster movie tropes from there. Which leads me to my first complaint:

Gravity is not a movie. It’s an experience. If anything, it’s a theme park ride relocated to your local multiplex. In fact, if the Universal Studios people aren’t frantically designing a Gravity! ride (ála EPCOT’s Mission:Space starring Gary Sinise) then they’re missing a serious opportunity. Theme park attractions like these make every attempt to be immersive: You’re the astronaut, you’re the subject of the experiment, you’ve been called on to solve the mystery/fight the battle/brave the trial. Gravity was nothing if not immersive, partly due to the amazing cinematography and sound design, but also because the main character was a near blank, easy to imprint one’s own perceptions upon. She had a shallow backstory (that I couldn’t help but think might have disqualified her to be an astronaut based on a psychological evaluation) and an even shallower character arc. In the end her arc mattered little; it’s really your arc that matters in this experience. Does this really make a movie? Like any other good theme park attraction, it left me temporarily breathless, but ultimately looking for the next ride.

My first comment as I left the theater was, “The most unbelievable part of the whole movie was that the U.S. was still flying the space shuttle.” Ha ha ha. But overall, Gravity’s portrayal of the American space program left a sour taste in my mouth. At the beginning of the movie, I thought, “Awesome, we’re still flying. USA. USA. USA.” But the details began to bug me. What were the Americans doing up there? Swapping video cards on the Hubble? (And when, of course, it doesn’t boot up, they resort to blowing the dust off the circuit boards like some greasy Geek Squad counter jockey. Right.) Testing a new hyperactive EVA jetpack and aching to one-up the Russians? Showing off their witty, but multi-cultural, multi-gendered crew? The whole setup was filled with the reasons people hate the space program in general and manned space missions in particular. The public hates failures, from minor technical snafus to major crew loss disasters; propaganda stunts, from quiet nods to diversity to broad geopolitical hat-waving; and tax dollars spent on any of it, from cowboy showboating to incremental and arcane scientific achievements. It was all there on the screen, enough to stoke the anti-space exploration argument for years. Why spend so much money, risk so many people, and expend so much effort on something as tenuous as a nearly useless foothold in LEO, when the masses have such big problems here on Earth?

The answer to that is that our foothold on our own planet is just as tenuous—which brings me to my last point. The broader takeaway message of Gravity, in my opinion, was supposed to be one of hope: Life on Earth is fragile and unsuited to survive in much of the universe, but it is precious and unique. And like the first creatures to struggle out of the sea onto dry land (to use the movie’s own crude evolutionary metaphor) we are experiencing our first gasping pains on the new shoals of outer space. We will face difficulties, and some will not survive, but what we learn from these mistakes paves the way for the future. At least I’d like to think that’s the message of the movie.

However I fear that the message will be misread by casual viewers. Gravity can easily be seen as an anti-space program screed. Viewed a certain way, it posits the certain eventuality of such a disaster as a warning, and suggests that these fragile monuments to nationalism (the space shuttles and space stations) aren’t worth the effort. Mother Earth is our beautiful home, it exclaims; that’s where we evolved, and that’s where we should stay. You ain’t never gettin’ me up in one of those deathtraps! But this is a short-term view of our species, life in general on our planet, and our place in the universe.

Our planet may seem enormous and comforting, but it is no less an object in space, enslaved by physics, than the least free-floating suited astronaut. In time it will cook in radiation and burn up on reentry into the surface of its unforgiving star. On its surface, we exist in a razor-thin layer that at any moment could be choked to death by a supervolcano or an asteroid. But not content to wait, we’re almost wantonly destroying the layer on our own. So what will we choose? To ride it out, Slim Pickens style,
on our planet to the end. Or can we agree that if we want our children to survive, we need overcome our doubts and develop space technologies that take our ecosystems into space, to other planets, and hopefully, someday to other stars?

Did Gravity excite me to do that? No, and I’m pro-space. That is why Gravity sucked. I worry that it will leave too many in fear, certain that the problems are insurmountable, and in the end, not really caring, just looking for the next ride.


A Writer’s Adventures with Tintin: Episode One--In the Land of Stereotypes

I forgot to warn you. If it’s your first time reading Tintin; don’t begin at the beginning.

In fact, I recommend that you pretend that these first two (or three) books I’m discussing don’t even exist. Move along. Nothing to see here. Skip right on over to Cigars of the Pharaoh. Once you’ve read the 20 (or 20½) books in the canon two or three times, come back and we’ll talk. We’ll see if you’re ready for In the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in America. In fact, I, lifelong Tintin fan as I am, have never actually read the one book not listed on the back covers, Tintin in the Congo. One, because it was never actually published in the United States and as such was difficult to find before the days of Amazon and eBay, and, two, because I have always feared that it would sour my admiration for Hergé permanently.

I won’t detail the specific flaws of these first albums here, for they are legion—and Wikipedia articles do a fair job of contextualizing their failings—but a fresh read has given me several takeaway lessons I can use as an author.

Lesson #1: Write your own way

Tintin had a less-than-auspicious beginning as a tool of propaganda.

In the late 1920s, George Remi (Hergé) was a young aspiring cartoonist and illustrator, eager to create a regular strip for a newspaper. He was taken in by Norbert Wallez, a priest and editor of an extremely right-wing, if not downright fascist, Catholic newspaper in Belgium and given a chance to work for the paper’s weekly children’s supplement. While the characters of Tintin and Snowy seem to be Hergé’s creations, their initial adventures were not of his design. Wallez directed Tintin closely, choosing his destinations and dictating his politics—viciously anti-Communist, anti-Semitic, anti-capitalist, and patriarchal. Like many upstanding Catholic Belgian men of the time, Hergé accepted these ideas as a matter of course. Tintin’s overt politics weren’t necessarily controversial, nor did Hergé include them unwillingly, but without Wallez standing over Hergé’s shoulder, I’m sure that Tintin’s beginnings would have been much different. I believe that Hergé wanted to entertain, not to preach or to spout ideology. I’m certain, given his later, more researched, work, that Hergé would have preferred for Tintin to explore the world, to investigate, and to learn from its people, and not to venture forth with a closed mind and unshakeable assumptions.

Wallez’s hand is particularly evident in Soviets. Young reporter Tintin sets out from Belgium with the sole aim to expose the evils of the Stalinist revolution and regime in the USSR. Fine, yes, they were evil, but the misadventures that befall Tintin expose nothing of the true situation. They paint everyone as either wholly evil or wretched victims. There is no middle ground, no attempt to reflect reality. Soviets was the only Tintin adventure that Hergé refused to redraw and color in his eventual classic style for publication. He himself called it embarrassing propaganda. I think this reflects a possibility that he knew that the work wasn’t exactly his. It had been his pen on the paper, but it was not what he would have written.

As an author I feel pressure from many fronts—from my wife to random Internet commenters. And it seems like everyone has some idea of what type of book I should write. “That Dave Barry is funny, you should write like him.” “Fifty Shades of Twilight, but set in a beachfront town in North Carolina.” “Must your characters swear so much?” “…and then there should be a zombie attack!” But if I were to write solely to appease any of those voices, or heaven forbid, all of them at once, the result would not be my work. I doubt it would have much merit. And I wouldn’t believe in it. I have to write the books that I would want to read. My own books, in my own voice.
What would Tintin’s first adventures been like if Hergé had been able to work without Wallez’s hand on his shoulder?

Lesson #2: Stereotypes are lazy

Critics have long savaged Hergé for the excessive use of stereotyped characters, if not outright racism. The first two (three) Tintin albums are full of them: from bomb-chucking, trigger-happy Bolshevik devils; to money-obsessed, hook-nosed Jewish shopkeepers; to half-naked, fat-lipped, childish Congolese natives; to hatchet-burying, rain-dancing Native Americans. But I don’t think Hergé was intentionally trying to spew misinformation or foment hatred; he was simply naïve. He was a product of his generation, trying to please his employer, and probably on tight deadlines that gave little time for research. He used what he knew of far-off places and people, which unfortunately was very little and was sourced from such unworthy sources as Hollywood movies and propaganda pamphlets. Hergé stereotyped the countries Tintin visits as well, and the end results are more checklist-style travelogues than real stories. And as such, these first books barely fit with the others.

Beginning with Cigars of the Pharaoh, but especially with The Blue Lotus, (and not coincidentally around the time that Wallez was removed as editor of the newspaper) Hergé began to do a great deal more research. He began to talk to natives of the places he intended to write about. And he began to attempt to reflect the character of the locations more accurately. He paid attention to real modes of dress (later lampooning his earlier tendencies by dressing the Thompson Twins in ridiculous and assumptive native costumes). He began to add background, wherein a city would be populated with realistic locals going about their daily business. Villains were given actual motives such as greed, lust for power, or valid political disagreements and were not portrayed as innately evil. Hergé no longer depicted the locals as naïve simpletons desperate for Western enlightenment, but neither were they treated with kid gloves. They became people, some educated, some not, some poor, some rich, some helpful, some malevolent, and many simply indifferent to Tintin’s adventures. Tintin had moved from a fantasy into the real world.

Stereotypes are easy to write. We all have a ready storehouse of such characters. But stereotypes are insulting to readers, offensive to those portrayed, and, in my opinion, a mark of lazy writing. And, if one absolutely must make a political point, there are many other less ham-handed methods. Not every character I write gets a complete dossier, but as I haul my main cast around the world I try to consider the lives of the various people they touch. From the taxi driver with a four-word speaking part to the acquaintance who shows up for a whole chapter, I try to give each character a little depth, considering gender, age, family background, intentions, what kind of day they’ve been having, basically whatever might be relevant. This takes a little time, and perhaps a little research, but I’ve found that such consideration can create a believable human interaction, and I believe this depth fleshes out the world I’ve worked so hard to create. I absorbed this lesson from Hergé at an early age, and it has always stuck with me. Even as a child, I sensed that his stereotypes were jarring and empty. But when he began to treat everyone as an individual, Tintin’s world became tangibly and emotionally real.

Lesson #3: Action wins the battle…

So what did these books get right? Why didn’t these racist, fascist comic strips get pulped into history with the rest of Wallez’s newspaper? Why am I reading them still, 84 years later?

My guess: They were exciting. Hergé had undeniable talent. Even the crude sketches of Soviets show great promise. The book includes a power-boat chase that might as well be the storyboard for the Venice boat chase in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And the action is relentless. Tintin never quite escapes any peril, jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire on every other page, until he is left with only his wits, his mettle, and his dog. Like Saturday matinee cliff-hangers, Hergé kept readers dangling for next week’s strip. Will he…? How will he…? Wow.

A writer’s lesson if I’ve ever heard one. Make every scene matter. Up the stakes. Make the situation just that much more hopeless. Take away one more escape route. Kick your character down just one more time. Whether you’re writing bonnet-rippers or war stories, the lesson applies; only the volume of blood varies.

Lesson #4: …but story wins the war.

Soviets and In America both end with Tintin getting a ticker-tape parade. But I have always been left wondering, “What for?” All he’d done for 60-odd pages is to trip almost accidently from one stereotypical scene to the next. Sure, his life was usually in danger, but like I said before, the adventures read more like travelogues. And once all of Hergé’s (or Wallez’s) boxes had been checked, Tintin at last escaped, or finally caught the gangsters, and that was that. Hurrah?

As a sci-fi writer, this kind of checklist tourism is a real temptation. I invest a great deal of time inventing the world of my stories. I’m not careful, it’s easy to want to take my characters everywhere and explore every detail. Otherwise, what’s the point, right? My first full draft of Legitimacy was over 500,000 words, most dedicated to this very thing. As a child, Teague lived in the Bangkok of tourists, not residents. I took characters on actual guided tours of the inner workings of space stations. I spelled out exactly how vat-grown meat gets from the factory to an asteroid colony’s freezers. (Don’t ask why.) I described every technical detail of Gwen’s spacecraft. (I even have the blueprints if you want to see them. No surprise: They bear a stylistic resemblance to Hergé’s blueprintsfor the rocket in Destination Moon.) I outlined the rules of zero-G wallyball. Some of these scenes were vaguely exciting and most told a lot more about certain fringe characters. But in the long run, was any of it interesting? Perhaps tangentially, but little of it drove the story. It diluted the problems and buried the conflict. It may have been messy and cluttered as real life, but it wasn’t anything anyone would want to read. The story matters more than any technical detail, no matter how dear to my heart. And the ticker-tape parade at the end means little if not supported by the rest of the book.

It says a lot to me that, for the rest of the books, Hergé did away with the parades. Tintin returns from his subsequent adventures with little fanfare, maybe just a newspaper headline or two. I think Hergé understood that Tintin didn’t go on adventures for the fame and accolades. And he must also have realized that people didn’t read Tintin to just casually bear witness, but to journey with him, no matter how difficult, and somewhere in there is what story is all about.

Next time: Cigars of the Pharaoh: The Devil is in the Details



My intellectual life was altered irrevocably the day I entered the fourth grade. (Well, perhaps not that exact day—although some strange things did happen that day, but that’s a story for another time…) What happened was this: Fourth-graders were allowed to access the “big kids” part of the Burlington Elementary School library. This was a big deal for a voracious little reader such as myself. (Case in point: One summer, I spent my mornings reading the World Book encyclopedia from cover to cover.) On my first forays into the new library section, I found a set of volumes, curiously untouched by any of the other kids. They were thin and tall, standing out on the shelf. On their covers were clear, realistic oversized cartoons featuring a boy and his white dog caught up in moments of pure action and adventure—rocketships, shark-shaped submarines, castles, deserts, jungle river treks, mummified Egyptologists, Aztec pyramids. These, the covers proclaimed, were The Adventures of Tintin by a mysterious author who went by a single name, Hergé.


I don’t remember which one I opened first (knowing me, it was probably Destination Moon) but inside I found something entirely new. I was no stranger to comics, at least of the more kid-friendly variety (Richie Rich, Archie, Sad Sack, Casper the Friendly Ghost), but these were not just glorified comic strips; these were full novels, told with wonderful drawings, with as much nuance and drama as action and slapstick. I remember that I felt like I’d found a treasure.

I had.

Each cover was only a glimpse into the adventure that lay within. They were clearly from another time. The copyright dates said that they’d been published in the 1950s (although many of them were written much earlier and were subsequently reworked for new publishers). They were clearly from another place. At the time, I believed them to be British, but they were distinctly European, with a unique (and strangely exciting for a kid growing up in Reagan’s America), worldly sensibility.
Tintin himself was not the draw. He was a hero, but a blank one, and it was a simple thing to imagine myself in his shoes. He was often called a boy, an older teenager perhaps, and a prodigy of sorts. He lived in his own flat; no parents or family were ever mentioned. He had no attachments to girls; indeed, there were few women in Tintin’s world. He worked as an investigative reporter. He was often shown with a book in his hand, but he was no mere bookworm. He had a keen eye for detail, a trait that sparked many of his best adventures. Tintin was no superhero and yet at the same time he was. He had an unquenchable curiosity and clear sense of justice; two superpowers that made him an unstoppable force. And not just in Gotham or some Disney-esque fantasy world, but in the real world, one with very real and relevant problems.

And through every voyage, through every danger, Tintin’s faithful white dog, a terrier named Snowy, trotted at his side.

For those who have read Legitimacy, the parallels to my characters of Teague Werres and Monkey might be clear, as if I designed them to be an homage. But believe it or not, I did not set out to do that. And there were more parallels: a young, curious man alone in the world, readily crossing borders to balance the scales of justice, and rubbing shoulders (or butting heads) with some of the most powerful people in the world. Once I realized what I had done, I couldn’t deny that The Adventures of Tintin were powerfully influential—a fact I’ve decided to embrace.

If you’ll indulge me, over the next few months, I’ll be posting reviews of each of Tintin’s adventures. I want to read them again, not just with a fourth-grader’s need for adventure, but with a writer’s thirst for story.

Want to join me?