Taking the A to Z April 2012 Challenge!

Thanks to fellow blogger and WriMo Jim for pointing me to the A to Z April Challenge (check out Jim’s A to Z blog here)!  Participants are challenged to write 26 blog posts in April following the letters of the alphabet.  Posts are meant to be short and hopefully follow a theme.  You probably won’t be surprised to know that my theme for the challenge will be Jordan A-to-Z.

As most of you know, I am no stranger to month-long writing challenges.  NaNoWriMo has been my staple form of literary abandon for several years now.  This challenge sounds much more manageable than NaNo.  Basically I have to write 26 posts of any length in as many days.  The only real caveat is tying the post into my theme and using the letter of the day.  The way I see it, this should be a fun way to kick-start some posts I’ve been meaning to blog about.

You may have noticed that lately I tend to write rather sporadic and lengthy posts, not ideal for the blogosphere.  I am hoping that this exercise will help me be more disciplined about writing, focused in how I write, and in the end give me a platform of many posts from which to expand content on my blog.

So … stay tuned … please enjoy and comment if you have the time.  I also plan to post 3-5 random links each day from the list of 1,480 participants  in this year’s A to Z April Challenge (I am #1299).  If you are a fellow blogger and want to take the plunge with me … you can still click the same link and sign up to participate up until 11:59 PM CST on April 2nd!

Look for my first post later today Jordan A to Z: A is for ……

November Novel Writing in the Middle East

Wow!  It’s a little hard to believe that I have been M.I.A. from the blogosphere since September 18th!  That’s just a little sad, and more than a bit crazy but perfectly understandable.  Why?  (You might ask.)

National Novel Writing Month!

Those of you who know me well know that this has been my November obsession for the past 6 years.  However, some of you may have no idea what National Novel Writing Month is …. so an explanation is probably in order.  Basically, it’s a crazy writing challenge for those creative types out there who have always thought about writing a novel someday.  The official challenge is simply this:  write 50,000 words in the month of November.  This will amount to a rough draft of a Farenheit 451 or Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy-length novel.  At the end of the month participants can upload their novel to the NaNoWriMo (the affectionate short-hand nickname for the group) website and their word count will be electronically validated to make sure that they did in fact write 50,000 words.  The files are then promptly deleted and if they have been successful in their attempt, winners can claim their electronic winners certificate and their sense of pride in accomplishing an incredible feat of creative-writing.

That’s it.

No assurance or even hint at publication is involved.  There is  no reading of the novel in question and providing a critique or writing advice. It’s simply a gut-level challenge to churn out 50,000 words in 1-month.  That’s 1,667 words-a-day if you were trying to do the math in your head.

People Really do This?

Yup!  As a matter of fact its estimated that 1/4 of a million of us are doing it this month.  This is no small fact when you consider that in 1999 the event basically started out as a dare among friends and there were 21 participants.  They did it again in 2000 and had 140 participants.  2001?  5,000!  Apparently founder Chris Baty and his friends had struck a creative nerve.  No one expected at that time that a decade later over 200,000 people from around the globe would be participating.

This is one of the reasons I love NaNoWriMo!  It is such a fantastic example of a “00’s” cultural phenomenon.  Like Facebook …. it was something that started off as a kinda funny idea among friends and it turned into something with global reach.  It should be noted that NaNoWriMo grew from 21 participants to 25,500 by the time Facebook launched in 2004.  Technology did play a huge role in NaNo’s expansion … but before the advent of social networking as we know it today, they relied on Yahoo groups and a good “old-fashioned” bulletin board system (of the electronic variety, not cork) and chat rooms.

Another key to NaNo’s success, in my opinion was the recruiting of volunteer “municipal liaisons” to organize events in major cities around the US and later on around the world.  These volunteer leaders would put a face on the event as they met with writers in person to encourage them towards their novel-writing  goals.

So What Has my Experience Been Like?

I started back in 2005 when I was still living in the Western suburbs of Chicago.  I had learned of the event a couple of years before, but was in the midst of writing my Master’s thesis.  That turned out to be a 60,000+ word challenge of its own that kind of sapped all of my writing energy.  But with that behind me in the Fall of 2005 I decided to take the plunge and finished a 51,000 word rough draft of a novel.  I loved the idea and the main character and the process of writing, but I hated my rough draft.  It was so terrible!  Drivel.  And as my wife always likes to point out … incomplete.  Oh …. and 6 years later still unpublished.  Both moot points to me … the challenge was to write 50,000 words in a month, and I did!

Of my 7-years I have won 5, one year completing two NaNo novels for a total word count of over 100,000 words.  Two years (the year before and after I moved to the Middle East) I totally tanked.  This year … we shall see.  Today I should have 30,006 words to be on track to finish on November 30th, but unfortunately I am around 10,000 words behind.  But I like this year’s story, as well, it is about a brother and sister who accidentally get drawn into an adventure that crosses over into a world filled with trolls and faeries and other magical creatures and happenings.  Actually mostly that world gets pulled into ours.  My goal is for it to be fun and whimsical and something I can read to my kids.  So far, not so bad … but not so great either … it will definitely need some revision before it gets read to the kiddos.

Over the years I have mostly written fantasy type stories that have some sort of cross-over between the “real” world and the “fantasy” world.  I suppose this is partly because I love CS Lewis’ Narnia, but also because I think we have lost a lot of our sense of wonder and amazement at life.  It almost feels to me sometimes that technology has drained some of the magic out of our daily lives.

I’ve also tried my hand at science fiction and mystery writing.  I discovered that to write well in either of these genres requires a fair amount of research, foreknowledge, and planning.  As it turns out I may just not be smart enough to write a believable mystery or sci-fi novel.  =)

Novel Writing in the Middle East

For the past few years I have been involved in what is known as the Elsewhere::Middle East region of National Novel Writing Month.  This basically includes all of the NaNoWriMo participants spread out over the Middle East that don’t have their own country specific region (like Israel or Turkey or Egypt … although we adopted Egypt this year).  There are probably around 200 participants in the Middle East.  A lot of them are ex-pats from America or Europe, but there are also a growing number of native Middle Easterners that have been getting involved.  There are around 20 writers here in Jordan and it seems like 1/3 are ex-pats, 1/3 are ex-pats married to Jordanians, and 1/3 are Jordanians.  Actually there is also a group of about 100 Jordanian high school students who take part each year through the Young Writer’s Program!

Here in Jordan we get together once a week for “Write-Ins” at a local coffee shop.  All of us WriMos (as we are affectionately, if nerdily, called) bring our laptops and spend 3 or 4 hours writing together.  Remember NaNo is a solo effort, so we are all writing independently, but it helps being in the same room with other “crazy” people going after the same audacious goal.

One thing I have noted here in Jordan is that among the locals participants tend to be women.  This is largely true around the entire Middle East region.  There are certainly male ex-pats involved, but when it comes to Arab male participation … it is very low.  Considering the great tradition of Arab novelists and poets this seems really odd to me.  Consider the likes of Khalil Ghibrain, Mustafa Al-Tall, Elias Khoury, Zakariah Tamer, Mahmoud Darwish, Naguib Mahfouz, & Nizar Qabbani to just name a few off the top of my head.  These were all literary greats with deep intellect and creative spirit … so where are the Arab male writers of today?

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that creativity is not as a highly prized cultural value as conformity.  I wonder if this plays a role in the popularity, or lack thereof, of something like NaNoWriMo here in the Middle East.  One female Arab participant related to me the litany of questions from family members at a holiday celebration.  They just couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea of simply writing for personal pleasure.  “So no one is going to read it?”  “It won’t be published?”  “Why are you doing this again?”  But in the end, even if they didn’t fully understand or even approve, they all had opinions about what she should be writing and how she should be doing it! LOL!

Well, I’ve wasted some precious time and word count filling you in on why I haven’t been active on the blog in the last month or so.  Now I should go and try to catch up on my 10,000 word deficit!  Be sure to check out the NaNoWriMo website if you are interested in the challenge.  It’s never too late.  And any Arab guys that are out there reading this … c’mon shabaab!  One of you might be the next Nizar Qabbani or Zakariah Tamer!

(inter)National Novel Writing Month in the Middle East

Click for the NaNoWriMo Website

If you know me well, then you know that since 2005 I have been involved with National Novel Writing Month.  What’s that?  Basically it’s a creative outlet for people who love to write that started out as a crazy dare among a few friends to write a novel in a month and in less than 12 years has turned into a world-wide phenomenon.  Last over 165,000 people participated – this year, just over 200,000! Can you imagine any event going from 8 to 200,000 participants in just over a decade?  In my opinion NaNoWriMo (as it is abbreviated) is such an important example of how the right combination of technology, human interaction, and creativity can start a self-sustaining movement.

So how does it all work? It’s simple, really.  The challenge is to write 50,000 words in a month.  This is the equivalent of a 175 page novel, or perhaps more accurately – a novella (think Fahrenheit 451).  Each participant signs up on the NaNoWriMo website and waits for November 1st to roll around and then starts typing.  Along the way writers update their word count on the website (on the honor system).  The site keeps track of word count for each person.  As I am writing this post I am at 28,000 words or so – about 3,000 words behind if I want to finish the challenge.  Here’s my current word count:

Click for my NaNo profile

At the end of the month writers can upload their novel for official validation.  Their file is promptly deleted and no one ever reads it.   If they have passed the 50,000 word mark they get a spiffy winner’s certificate.

That’s it.

It’s basically a solitary challenge to pound out a rough draft (of perhaps questionable quality) of a book in a month.

So why has the challenge become so wildly popular that even here in the Middle East there are almost 400 writers who have signed up and some of  whom are furiously writing the month of November away (already typing over 2,000,000 words, BTW)?

 

Click for the Word Count Scoreboard

  • First, I think for some people it taps into a deep creative well.  Some people have always dreamed of writing a novel.  For those, this is that chance.
  • Second, people love audacious challenges.  Writing a novel in a month just sounds ridiculous.  So ridiculous, in fact, that a lot of people think, “Yeah!  Why not?”
  • Third, NaNoWriMo as an organization has made smart use of technology.  The year they started the website their participation numbers exploded and have steadily grown since.  The website is a treasure trove of forums where writers from all over the world exchange a wealth of ideas.  There are forum threads committed to specific genres, particular topics, age groupings, geographic areas, and of course just plain goofing off.  It is here on the forums that many people make connections and feel like their participation in the challenge is part of something so much bigger than just themselves.
  • Fourth, NaNoWriMo turns out to be a great way to meet people.  Everyone who signs up has the opportunity to join a local Region.  Back in 2005 I joined the USA::Illinois::Naperville region.  Even though it had Naperville in the title it served as the region for the western suburbs of Chicago.  In those days we might have had just over 100 writers involved, now that region boasts over 1000 participants.  On the local level volunteer leaders called “Municipal Liaisons” organize, advertise, encourage, and advise the local WriMos (as the writers are called).  This includes setting up Write-Ins where people come together – not to discuss writing or critique each others writing, but to write furiously in the same room with other aspiring authors who are trying to reach the same 50,000 word goal.

NaNoWriMo and the Middle East

Click to see the Elsewhere::Middle East regional forum

When I first moved to Jordan there was no local chapter here.  There was something in Egypt and Israel, but nothing in Jordan or anywhere else in the Middle East.  I had to join a region entitled “Elsewhere.”  This was the catch all for places in the world that had no local volunteers to organize thing.  Then last year an “Elsewhere::Middle East” region popped up under the leadership of an American ex-pat in Bahrain.  She returned to the States and somehow the mantle of leadership moved on to me.  I actually had the honor of being featured on the NaNoWriMo blog recently on Municipal Liaison (ML) Appreciation Day – you can read the interview here.  So now I have the pleasure of interacting with nearly 400 writers in over 15 different countries.  (Truth be told 400 are signed up and affiliated with our region but only around 175 are actually writingbut still – that’s pretty good).

I think something like NaNoWriMo is exactly what the Middle East in general and Jordan in particular needs.  As I’ve interacted with people in our NaNoWriMo region,  I’ve noticed a good mix of ex-pats and locals.  Maybe more ex-pats than locals right now, but I see that changing in the future.  Of course, here, like everywhere else in the world, NaNoWriMo attracts very intelligent and creative people.  People with a talent to write and tell stories, but also to think outside of the box.  This, in my outsider’s perspective, is something that seems rare in this part of the world where cultural values say that tradition and sameness are important.  But actually I am beginning to wonder if creative people are rare, or they just seem rare because there haven’t been many outlets for them to express their creativity.

At a recent Write-In one of the Jordanian WriMos said. “Actually, this is a new kind of thing for Jordan.  A new way of thinking.”  We had been talking about family and friend’s reactions to people participating in the event.  Most were perplexed.  “You’re writing a novel?  Why?  Will it be published?  It’s just for your OWN enjoyment?”  In this collectivist culture, where tribal affiliation still means so much, an individualized competition with little public accolade is hard to understand.  Of course, although people didn’t seem to think it  a very worthwhile endeavor,  apparently they all had their opinions about what should be written into the book.  Another clue to me that there is some creative energy boiling just under the surface.

So what do you think?  Is writing 50,000 words in a month as a means of creative expression cool or crazy?  Middle Easterners, what do you think about it?  Is this a counter-cultural idea or just one that needs some more exploration?