National Novel Writing Month is proof positive that if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you will eventually work your way out of whatever task you’ve got before you. I believe that’s the actual point: to give writers confidence that they can, in fact, move forward with whatever they set their minds to.
This hasn’t been how I’ve NaNo’ed. Personally, I have no trouble setting down words – between my various writing clients, I’m sure I near 50,000 words a month at the best of times. If anything, my main struggle has been to focus on one single piece for thirty days. This November, I didn’t even try. Between growing this blog (hello hi how are you,) writing for Book Riot, and ghosting for persons redacted, I barely got my cathartic political battle royale off the ground. I did write the particular scene that I wanted, which made me cackle with glee at my own cleverness before I consigned it forever to the fire.
Beyond my unattractive tendency to be amused by my own work, I need to burn at least some of what I create in order to stay happy as a writer. There are times when writing is like riding a bicycle in the sense that it’s an empowering exercise. Then there are times when I’ve been pedaling so long that I begin to flag and worry primarily about where I’m going instead of taking joy in the action. I love a chance to enjoy the process of writing without having to worry about producing something good, or useful, or even saleable.
November, increasingly, has been my opportunity to write drivel. And I look forward to it with tremendous relish.
I don’t research and I don’t edit. I don’t worry that nobody will buy my work or that an editor would hate it. Nobody will ever see my NaNo writing. It won’t impact the rest of my career in a negative manner and my mother will not be ashamed of me. It’s true freedom, and it’s the delete key that caps it off. I don’t think I’ve ever kept one of my NaNoWriMo novels, even during those years when I’ve been able to focus hard enough to generate something coherent.
As a result, I tend toward bizarro fiction for NaNoWriMo. It gets weird. Gory, too, usually. I’ve had characters trapped in an enchanted Target with bloodthirsty love gods. I’ve had the Judeo-Christian deity Yahweh transformed into a rubber ducky and smiting people for their bathing behavior. I’ve had politicians cannibalizing each other. My hard drive is a bloody, disgusting mess in November, and then December wipes it clean. I’ve always admired those writers of extreme sci-fi, exemplified by Carlton Mellick III of Satan Burger fame, who fly their freak flags from the highest pinnacle. That’s commitment. It’s never been what I wanted, but it sure is fun to moonlight.
For my own part, I’m coming to realize that writing isn’t a monolith. Pieces that I write for fun and never publish are valid as personal entertainment, as writing that I do just to blow off steam and because I enjoy the craft. Listicles that I labor over, articles that I research, and book reviews that I blitz through don’t need to be as precious to me as the time I spend making something that I like just because. I could send a billion ghostwritten biographies out into the universe without once thinking of them as my precious babies, without ever considering them again at all except as points on my portfolio and solid pieces of work. But when I junk a NaNo novel, that’s the apex of my year. I never forget the joy of writing something redonkulously dumb, scrapping it without concern, and moving on with my life.
I have never felt the need to polish or publish my NaNos, not from this year or any other. I technically won the word count and I did have fun writing about someone whose name rhymes with Ditch McDonnell barbequing and heartily enjoying the roasted rump of someone whose name rhymes with Ronald Dump, but I’m equally comfortable not continuing the story. It was never meant to be completed or shared. That’s not what NaNo is about – for me.
In fact, there are a lot of successful novels that have come out of National Novel Writing Month. I did a whole bit about them over at Book Riot. I think that’s wonderful. At the same time, I’m not sorry I’ll never be one of them. I’m a rebel, baby. Someday I’ll write a serious novel, but it sure as hell won’t happen in November! The point of my journey is just to get some invigorating exercise.
It’s Saturday! That means I recommend a book that I think you’ll like. (Yes, you!)
Today, I’m recommending Python for Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming by Jason Briggs from No Starch Press. And I’m recommending it…for adults!
That’s right! If you (yes, you!) want to learn how to code, Python is a great place to start. It’s versatile, easy to learn (relatively speaking,) and professional coders do use it in actual applications. Kids can absolutely learn to make basic programs using the fun and surprisingly practical projects in this book, but I’m not ashamed to admit that this is where I started my own coding journey…at the age of 30. Remember that Jeopardy! champ who taught himself everything using children’s books? It’s not a bad way to introduce yourself to something new. Personally, I’ve not only learned to love Python thanks to Python for Kids, but found myself well prepared for the infamously difficult Java classes at my college because I’d already learned a similar programming language.
This book is fun, hands-on, and wonderful for all ages. There are some knockoff programming for kids books from other publishing houses, but don’t settle for them. No Starch Press is the best. This book is exactly where to start for kids or adults, and there are follow-up books that will rocket your skills to the upper atmosphere, if not to the moon. I recommend!
It’s turkey time! Around this time of year, when debate turns to the possibility of zombies freezing solid, I like to throw a few dried femurs on the fire and ponder life’s great questions. This year, I’m wondering just how wide zombification has spread in literature. There’s Jane Eyre, of course. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, oh my.
Then there’s an entire army of zombie Christmas books. Twas the Zombie Night Before Christmas: A Zombie Kids Book, a heartwarming tale of how we hung up the stockings and “ate every mouse,” meets It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies!: A Book of Zombie Christmas Carols, a collection of undead holiday chestnuts fit for an Addams Family Christmas. Or, you know, a pretty good prank on the neighborhood for a fun-loving group of social anarchists.
Don’t forget the Zombies Christmas Carol, because Marvel Zombies: The Complete Collection Volume 1 wasn’t hilarious enough when it was fresh. (Poor Spider-Man. Truly, we have all eaten someone we loved in one way or another.) A Zombie Christmas: The Mike Beem Chronicles Volume One appeals because you should always help others at the holidays even with an apocalypse on.
Then there’s my personal favorite, a sequel of the oddly compelling Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament entitled I Saw Zombies Eating Santa Claus: A Breathers Christmas Carol. Any zombie fan who hasn’t read Breathers is cheating themselves, by the way. It’s a lovely book about community, sacrifice, and secretly eating your parents to preserve your way of life. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll examine your prejudices against the living dead.
But what about the Thanksgiving zombies? Well, there’s another Mike Beem book, A Zombie Thanksgiving: The Mike Beem Chronicles Volume Five, as well as Zombie Thanksgiving: A YA Paranormal Story and Gobble: A Thanksgiving Novelette of the Zombie Apocalypse. But that appears to be it.
This is weird, right? Zombies are the ultimate symbols of overconsumption, specifically of a consumption style that’s actively driving life on Earth into the ground. I can see why Christmas would evoke zombie tales aplenty – not only is it a very popular holiday, but the rabid, unremitting waste of the season is basically its own apocalypse. The metaphor’s not much of a stretch, is what I’m saying.
But Thanksgiving is, if anything, more food-focused. Why aren’t zombies more of a thing in November? The parallels are uncanny.
- The month starts slow. A few of the early infected begin to consume pumpkin spice and baked goods in quantity. Smart survivor types begin to stockpile food while it’s still cheap.
- Innocuous news reports about odd eating behaviors abound.
- As the month comes to a head, enormous numbers of people begin to travel. This is not unlike the zombie survivor’s futile flight from the plague, which only follows them because it is already endemic everywhere.
- No matter how prim you may be normally, you rip into a 3,000-calorie Thanksgiving dinner like you’ve never seen food before. You’re not consuming to survive, you’re consuming to consume. You are a zombie.
- Holdouts are cranky loners.
- Everyone becomes an eating machine in the end.
The zombie narrative is comforting in many of the same ways that a cozy mystery is comforting. There’s a structure, a plot that follows certain traditions, and usually a posse where characters fill certain roles. To a great extent, it doesn’t matter if the zombies win or the people win. (Although most of my experience suggests that people usually triumph in these stories.) The point isn’t the zombies – they’re the window dressing of our collective Jungian neuroses. The point is that it’s a comfortable pattern. And isn’t that what Thanksgiving is about, too?
It’s an odd holiday. People complain about it, but love it too. How like my own relationship with the zombie novel. As rote and repetitive as they can be, and as low as I find the literary quality of certain zombie stories, I keep coming back over and over again for that feeling of safety that I get when the first revenant reanimates inside of a zipped-up body bag. Maybe that makes me a bit of a zombie for zombie books. So be it.
Happy holidays, fellow shamblers. For just one day, let’s indulge without guilt. After all, there’s a certain bliss in being part of the horde.
Featured image from GirlZombieAuthors! Give them a look!
I originally came from a small town in central New York. Cows outnumbered people approximately three to one, rural values dominated, and it’s fair to say that I left as soon as I could drive. I went to college in central New York, then grad school, and got my first job there. The place continued to not work for me, and about eight years ago, I moved to Massachusetts.
Weirdly, since I moved here, I’ve encountered several books that make me nostalgic for home. Not that they make me want to move back – I spent 25 years trying and failing to be a good fit for CNY – but because they terrify me. They’re frightening in the same way that I used to associate with some of the small towns I’d drive through on my way to work, and then also frightening in the way that I used to feel when people would tell me, without affectation or agenda, that I’d be back. Because everybody came back. That was just the way New York was.
I cannot describe the dread I’d feel when people would say this to me. It always felt prophetic. Reading home – specifically, reading horror about New York State – feels a lot like daring fate. Or pondering a return. It’s hard to say. I don’t know why the concept of living in a place that scares me is somehow so comforting.
My first experience of reading home was The Twilight Zone: Complete Stories. Little-known fact: Ron Serling may have based the show upon his upbringing in the Syracuse area. You can really see it in this collection, some of which were adapted and some of which weren’t. It’s…uneven in quality. By today’s standards for science fiction, anyway. Part of the problem is that what was fresh when Serling wrote these is now old hat. Maybe I’d be more impressed 40 years ago. But the eerie quality that carries them all is as spine-tingling as anything from Clive Barker, or so it seems to me. That sense that the rest of the world might be a myth or a delusion, that your neighbors could turn on you if the snow lasts a day too long, that you’re the alien is palpable in my childhood home. It’s a weird place and weird stuff happens there. If you’ve ever seen My Brother’s Keeper, then you know of Munnsville. It’s literally just a couple towns over from where I grew up.
I’m not the only one who thinks so. Mr. Splitfoot took my breath away with its treatment of mystic cults, restless ghosts, and asteroid strikes upstate. I think I was lukewarm about this book when I first read it, but I may need to read it again. I’ve been thinking about it for years. The plot revolves around a pregnant woman whose horrible lover tries to slip abortion drugs into her food, prompting her to follow her long-lost aunt on a pilgrimage to a mysterious house in the woods of the northern foothills. Believe it or not, it gets stranger. I loved it. Part of the action took place in Troy, for goodness sake. I skated in a roller derby bout there once.
Did Mr. Splitfoot appeal to me because I recognized the place names or because it pinned the haunting nature of the place where I grew up? It’s hard to say. I’m certainly haunted by central New York now. One of the central themes that I noticed in this particular book was that it was impossible to tell who was the ghost and what, exactly, was doing the haunting. At times, it seemed like the living were haunting the dead, that the dead were being haunted by their pasts, and that New York was haunting everybody.
Finally, did you know that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow takes place in New York?
In case you’re curious, Sleepy Hollow is here. So it’s not far upstate, but I count it because the easy, immediate way that Ichabod Crane loses touch with reality doesn’t strike me as superstition. I like to read the story as an examination of an intellectual man trying to escape the appetites and desires of his baser half, which eventually attacks the very thing that makes him superior – his imaginative mind – and makes it so he’s never heard of again.
I can relate to the fear of being erased, tracked down by a part of yourself that you want to dominate and instead falling prey to it. It is reminiscent of the person I was back home – angry, isolated, and steeped in my issues with nothing to do about it but pace around my snowbound living space. Sometimes I feel like that paranoid way of being is constantly riding behind me, and if I look at it too closely, it’ll attack. Maybe it’ll replace me after all. Is that what I’m running away from? And will I make it to the covered bridge on time?
It’s past Halloween, and therefore past the time of year when we can have fun being frightened. Now comes the really scary time of the year: the cold months. Even ensconced in our modern comforts, life is a little less certain when the snow starts to come down. You could skid on ice and crash. You could run out of food in a freak snowstorm. You could get snowed in on the highway without a sleeping bag.
So I do the New York things that remind me of home. I put on snow tires. I stock up on food in case we get a bad storm. I pack a down sleeping bag in my trunk.
I pack a copy of Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber. And I don’t look over my shoulder.
You might be aware that I like to cook. You might also be aware that I’m a bit of a techie and in school for all the things techie-nological. Knowing this, you might well think that I prefer online recipes.
Well, not entirely wrong. I’ll often trawl vegan cooking blogs for seitan recipes. (Hail seitan!) But there are a few things that make paper cookbooks better in my humble techie opinion. Allow me to share these with you.
Any cookbook I own rapidly acquires its own unique set of stains. Most of these come from sloshings with liquid, an experience that sends my computer into an instant whirling dysphoria. My iPhone fares little better around water.
The fact that I can slosh a bunch of ranch dressing onto a book without having to worry about killing it is a relief and a pleasure. If necessary, I can also tear out pages and re-set them in a form more to my liking, for example, in a scrapbook of personal favorite recipes. They stand up on their own, too, and never fade to black at just the wrong time.
Nobody will ever take down the recipes from The Oh She Glows Cookbook. Even if those recipes prove questionable (and the tempeh recipe in that book is Very Freaking Questionable) they will never disappear or change. This is magical, especially since the vast majority of the recipes in there are amazing, particularly the saucey dressing recipes that know what to do with nutritional yeast. They should never be changed.
Recipes that work for food scientists don’t always work for me. For one thing, I do not mill my own carob. (Press? Harvest? However people make carob, I don’t do it.) So I often find that I need to get creative. This can be a matter of taste, too. I love This Can’t Be Tofu because hello, it’s a cookbook full of everything you can do with tofu, but there’s ooonnnneeee recipe where I sub in cumin and cayenne for curry powder. Guess where the note for that is.
There’s probably an app out there where I can index my notes and search them and stuff like that, but that removes a lot of the extemporaneous fun from the cooking adventure. What’s life without a few surprises from your past self?
Long Stories = Easy Skips
Every dish does have a story. That does not at all mean that I’m interested.
I like that cookbooks have talky sections. In many cases, I will read them for fun. However, I also like that they’re not gatekeepers of a recipe that should require maybe fifteen or twenty lines. I get why bloggers do this. Total respect. Seriously. But when I’ve got six hours to make 100 sugar cookies with my one bitty little pan, I can’t waste time scrolling frantically through your life story in search of the part where you talk about lemons vs. lemon extract.
Cookbooks get right to the point. I might read the author’s thoughtful words of wisdom when I don’t need to crank out cookies like my life depends upon it, but in the moment, brevity.
Similar Recipe Discovery
I like to eat some odd foods. Bugs, for example. Wheat gluten products. things made from pea protein. I will pizza just about anything. When I find a cookbook that caters to my unusual tastes, I snag it just because it’ll expand my horizons. Consider The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook. When I first got ground grasshoppers from my amazing grasshopper supplier, Bug Bit Farms, my only idea was to mix them into brownies. David Gordon gave me all kinds of new ideas, even though I don’t think he directly deals with ground crickets as an ingredient. I now try them in some soups, cautiously.
Regional and Temporal Authenticity
In my travels, I’ve found that the best recipes are often self-published by roadside diners and super-local places that won’t bother to market outside of their area. Bloggers will replicate the recipes after tasting them, but the real deal is to be found in books like Fisherman’s Wharf Cookbook. Incidentally, that’s a classic. You won’t find it in a library because it’s too old. (I wouldn’t find it in a library anyway because I mess up every cookbook I touch. I’m careful about this one, though.)
I got that book in a used bookstore in San Francisco itself, and the recipes are both simple and delicious. If you want’ genuine, get a cookbook from the area you want to cook about. Bonus: awesome memories every time you cook!
So you can pry my cookbook collection away from me when I finally eat myself to death. Until then, I’m going to keep building, raiding used bookstores and hoarding every good cookbook I find.