Sunday 16 October 2011

November: It was a dark and stormy night...

The perfect opening line for one of the duller months of the year: 30 days of somberness between the sparkling heat of summer and the snowy cold of winter. Charles M. Schulz hasn't been with us since 2000 and even though his comic strip Peanuts is still republished, is the next generation familiar with these words? I am dating myself by the number of times I have seen Snoopy the writer on top of his doghouse pounding out that opening line on his typewriter in mock homage to Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton PC. November? Snoopy? Bulwer-Lytton? Is everybody confused by this mishmash of seemingly random ideas?

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo): thirty days of non-stop, unbridled writing to achieve the unthinkable of penning a fifty thousand word novel. Yes, this silly at first glance self-imposed marathon of an average of 1,667 words per day for an entire month is the opportunity for anyone who has said "Someday I'm going to write a book" to do exactly that, write a book. Started in 1999 in San Francisco by one Chris Baty and a group of his friends, 21 people participated and six people "won", that is, they managed to write 50,000 words. In 2010, 200,530 people signed up and 37,479 people "won". (see my blog: NaNoWriMo: Write a novel in 1 month?)

Edward Bulwer-Lytton was a prolific English author very popular during the 1800's who reportedly amassed a considerable fortune from his writing. We owe to him such common phrases as "the great unwashed", "pursuit of the almighty dollar", "the pen is mightier than the sword", and the famous opening line "It was a dark and stormy night". Apparently though, history has not be all too kind to Mr. Bulwer-Lytton. What was popular then is frowned upon today and this gentleman's writing is put forward as an example of what not to do.

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
-Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

This exemplifies according to the literary critics what is called "purple prose"; a style of writing so extravagant and ornate, it breaks the flow of the narrative. Just how bad is this? There is the annual Bulwer–Lytton Fiction Contest which awards a prize to that person who is able to come up with the worst opening line for a novel. Geesh, imagine having your name go down in history as a warning? William Shakespeare has been lauded, studied and considered one of the pinnacles of the English language for over four centuries while Eddy is mocked by none other than Snoopy from the Peanuts cartoon. What ignominy waits for us after our deaths?

Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, has written a book called "No Plot? No Problem!" which is qualified on the cover with the line "A low-stress, high velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days". With a deft touch and a comedic slant, Mr. Baty offers encouraging words to those who want to take on the personal challenge of writing a 50,000 word novel. He points out quite clearly that the goal here is the doing not the final product.

To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.
- Robert Louis Stevenson

The novice novelist in signing up for 30 days of self-imposed hell is opening himself or herself to the process of writing. That being said, Mr. Baty points out that anyone is shooting for quantity, not quality. Anything written must be considered as only a first draft; no writer sits down and spits out a masterpiece. The point to the exercise is that your average person gets so hung up on being perfect the first time they put pen to paper, they never get around to writing anything. NaNoWriMo is about saying to yourself "To heck with my mistakes" and going ahead and writing even if the opening line is Bulwer-Lytton opening. Baty himself says that we need to lower our expectations from "best-seller" to "would not make someone vomit". He also writes:

Writer and championship figure skater Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "In skating over thin ice, safety is in our speed."

Writer and championship figure skater? Chris is one funny guy but he does have a point. No procrastination, just do it. Start and don't stop until you're finished. And who said that was just a slogan for Nike? It does make a lot of sense.

The following comes from the NaNoWriMo Press Kit 2011. I see Mr. Baty's sense of humour and yes, you do need a sense of humour about this.

Novel fever takes the world by storm.
Symptoms include flashes of brilliance, questionable plotlines, and blatant use of mixed metaphors.

Berkeley, California (Oct 10, 2011) - At midnight on November 1, armed only with their wits, the vague outline of a story, and a ridiculous deadline, more than 250,000 people around the world will set out to become novelists.

Why? Because November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, the world’s largest writing challenge and nonprofit literary crusade. Participants pledge to write 50,000 words in a month, starting from scratch and reaching “The End” by November 30. There are no judges, no prizes, and entries are deleted from the server before anyone even reads them.

So what’s the point? “The 50,000-word challenge has a wonderful way of opening up your imagination and unleashing creativity,” says NaNoWriMo Founder and Executive Director (and 12-time NaNoWriMo winner) Chris Baty. “When you write for quantity instead of quality, you end up getting both. Also, it’s a great excuse for not doing any dishes for a month.”

Final Word
November, Snoopy and Bulwer-Lytton: so these three things really are related. By the way, Chris Baty is quite funny and I would highly recommend getting his book "No Plot? No Problem!" It's an amusing read about doing NaNoWriMo and does offer some great encouragement to anybody thinking of setting the (their) world on fire.

Gosh, November 1st is just around the corner. On your mark, get set, ...


Wikipedia: It was a dark and stormy night
"It was a dark and stormy night" is an infamous phrase written by Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton at the beginning of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford.

Wikipedia: Purple prose
Purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself.

Wikipedia: Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton
Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton PC (25 May 1803 – 18 January 1873), was an English politician, poet, playwright, and prolific novelist. He was immensely popular with the reading public and wrote a stream of bestselling novels which earned him a considerable fortune.

Wikipedia: Bulwer–Lytton Fiction Contest
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (BLFC) is a tongue-in-cheek contest that takes place annually and is sponsored by the English Department of San Jose State University in San Jose, California. Entrants are invited "to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels" – that is, deliberately bad. According to the official rules, the prize for winning the contest is "a pittance", or $250.

official web site: The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest
Where “WWW” means “Wretched Writers Welcome”

my blog: NaNoWriMo: Write a novel in 1 month?

my blog: NaBloPoMo: National Blog Posting Month

my blog: Writing: November Challenges

Wikipedia: Once upon a time
"Once upon a time" is a stock phrase that has been used in some form since at least 1380 (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) in storytelling in the English language, and seems to have become a widely accepted convention for opening oral narratives by around 1600. These stories often then end with "... and they all lived happily ever after", or, originally, "happily until their deaths". These are examples of the narrative form, and occur most frequently in the narratives produced for children aged between 6 and 8.

Wikipedia: The pen is mightier than the sword
"The pen is mightier than the sword" is a metonymic adage coined by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839 for his play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy. ... In 1870, literary critic Edward Sherman Gould wrote that Bulwer "had the good fortune to do, what few men can hope to do: he wrote a line that is likely to live for ages." ... The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, which opened in 1897, has the adage decorating an interior wall.

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty
Chris Baty, motivator extraordinaire and instigator of a wildly successful writing revolution, spells out the secrets of writing and finishing a novel. ... Baty puts pen to paper himself to share the secrets of success. With week-specific overviews, pep "talks," and essential survival tips for today's word warriors, this results-oriented, quick-fix strategy is perfect for people who want to nurture their inner artist and then hit print! Anecdotes and success stories from NaNoWriMo winners will inspire writers from the heralding you-can-do-it trumpet blasts of day one to the champagne toasts of day thirty.

Uploaded by HowToLiz on Nov 21, 2010
How To Liz - 47: How to NaNoWriMo!
[Charmingly tongue in cheek. Enjoy.]


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