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A NaNoWriMo Participant Reflects on His 30-Day Endeavor

After 30 long days and 2,872,682,109 logged words, participants of National Novel Writing Month wrapped up their work on Nov. 30, whether they had finished their 50,000-word novels or not.

Willis Chinn, a NaNoWriMo competitor whom I interviewed in an earlier blog post at the halfway point of the challenge, spent most of his November nights at coffee shops, racing to complete his fantasy novel, “Endangered.” When I last talked to the aspiring novelist he lamented that he was behind on his projected word count, but when I checked in with him at the end of the month, he’d emerged victoriously with a 50,005-word novel. Maybe those five extra words were, “I can’t believe I’m finished!”

Chinn said that by Nov. 29 the act of writing began to feel surreal. “It was this weird rushed moment—I kind of felt detached from the world. All I could think of was, write faster, stick to the script, or Oh crap I left something out, or Oh no I don’t know what to write,” he explained. “I had an overall idea of what I wanted to happen but the book wrote itself.”

But for Chinn, and presumably for many other writers across the world who reached the 50,000-word mark, completing the NaNoWrimo challenge hasn’t translated into a finished novel. “Sadly no, my novel is not at its final resting point,” he said, adding that while finishing the book that he poured so many long and caffeinated hours into is still very much a priority, he’s enjoying the freedom he once felt before November rolled around.

The winners have until June 2011 to put the finishing touches on their novels, at which point the company CreateSpace has offered to print up proof copies of completed novels for writers to promote or simply preserve their projects. Chinn plans to have his novel completed by then.

“I came in as a novice without anything but a simple yet dastardly idea, and to walk out hopefully in June as an actual published author… it’s just wow. I would have never thought,” he gushed. “This simple writing month can be pivotal for any aspiring artist.”

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Zines: Blogs of the Print World

When I was 16 I left high school, sick of the drama that came with it, and enrolled in independent studies. Because my new school schedule, which entailed only a few meager assignments and one in-class meeting a week, was considerably less challenging and time consuming than “real” school, I was suddenly bestowed with long, luxurious weekday hours to do pretty much whatever I pleased.

So naturally, being a teenage girl, I started a zine.  I called it Octopi are Jellyfish and I spent most of that year doodling with thin-tipped Sharpies, clacking out idealistic prose on my electric typewriter and making free photocopies of all my efforts at my part-time job at an insurance company (yes, I had a more grown-up job at age 16 than I do now).

Soon enough, one corner of my room was filled up with the tools of my endeavor—piles and piles of papers, old rub-on letters, and all kinds of odds and ends overflowing from boxes and filling up onto my walls. And then it was my mail box that overflowed, as I started sending zines back and forth with faraway pen pals.

I would argue that zines were sort of like the predecessor to blogs, only like most “old” things, they took more energy and creativity to produce. Sure, anyone with a pen and a Kinko’s card could (and still can) make a zine, but the resulting aesthetic is always going to be cooler and more distinctive than any template-driven blog. But it’s the accessibility of both formats, the fact that anyone with the time and the urge can be a self-published writer, artist or photographer, that unites the two methods.

I called it quits after three issues of my zine, but continued to collect them and spent around five years doing zine reviews for Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll magazine. I hate to say it, but the majority of the stuff I came across over the years was mostly just photocopied garbage, and I got kind of burned out on the whole zine scene. But I tried to save the better ones, some of which I’ll probably keep forever.

I rediscovered a huge stack of old zines in the corner of my bookshelf this morning and got a little nostalgic for the medium, both as an art form and a mode of communication. Here are some photos I took from some of my favorite zines, including some shots of Octopi are Jellyfish. As far as zines go, I love anything from the standard black-and-white photocopied stuff to the more fancy, glossy-paged printed mags.

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Rik Olson Teaches SFCB Students Linoleum Printmaking

The San Francisco Center for the Book is a gem for aspiring bookbinders and printers, with near-daily workshops on various printmaking and bookbinding techniques. Watch this slideshow I produced about a black and white linoleum printmaking class taught at the SFCB by illustrator and printmaker Rik Olson on Oct. 30.

Olson, who lives in Sonoma County, has been teaching classes at the center at least once a month for 11 of the 12 years it has been in operation. He got his B.F.A. from California College of the Arts in Oakland (though he was quick to remind me that the school’s name used to bear an extra “c,” as in California College of Arts and Crafts), and has done plenty of commercial work too, including the Sierra Club’s logo.

November is National Novel Writing Month

Alameda resident Lyndsey Davis is a retired Navy chaplain, a mother who teaches home school, an organic gardener and a writer.

Willis Chinn, of Concord, works a 9 to 5 job during the week as an administrative specialist in Hercules and is also working on an English degree.

It should also be noted that—for this month at least—both Chinn and Davis are determined novelists. The Bay Area residents are two of over 167,150 people around the world taking part in November’s National Novel Writing Month, or the more concisely worded NaNoWriMo, in which participants have 30 days to write a 50,000-word work of fiction.

As a journalism student specializing in newspaper reporting, the average story I write is about 600 words, a 1,500-word piece is considered lengthy and the thought of writing an entire novel seems like a truly monumental and very terrifying task. Never mind that there’s  an obvious distinction between journalism and fiction (OK, maybe not for all writers), but how do you organize all those words and thoughts into one cohesive narrative without getting lost in all that length?

It takes time and skill, which is why a novelist can spend years on a story, tweaking and revising until they’ve written something they can stand—or until they can’t stand it anymore. But the idea behind this endeavor, which was started in the Bay Area by freelancer Chris Baty, is to forget about editing and just write. The goal is quantity over quality, a concept that makes most writers uncomfortable.

The strategy is explained in NaNoWriMo’s mission statement: “You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.”

Davis, who is writing a fantasy-style novel about a group of “tween angels” on a distant planet, says that turning off her internal “edit” button has helped her writing process. “I don’t erase a thing,” she says. “If I think of two ways to write a sentence or a piece of dialog, I write both. Every word counts. I’ll edit later. I write with freedom and speed, unencumbered by the need to be exact, perfect, or brilliant.”

It also helps that NaNoWriMo participants have an an extensive support network in each other, with writers of all ages and experience holding local writing groups from the Bay Area all the way to Latvia and Northern Ireland, as well as 24-hours access to a message board on the group’s website.

Chinn, who says that at 20,119 words into his novel he’s about a day behind on his targeted word count, is writing a story about a girl who goes on a quest to find her sister after losing her entire village, and in the process meets up with a tribe of people who have the power to transform into giant hawks.

Chinn says he would love to have his novel published eventually, with some editing. He says the challenge “has made me more consistent, and [given me] new strategies to use when writing on my own. I’ve met some interesting people as we share this horrible fate between us.”

A Century After His Death, Mark Twain’s Autobiography to be Published

Samuel Clemens—also known as Mark Twain, or the Great American Novelist—who died a century ago this year, has a new book coming out next month.

The University of California Press will release the first of three volumes of Twain’s previously unpublished autobiography, “Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Vol. 1,” on Nov. 15.

According to the book’s introduction (you can preview the first chapter here) Twain spent 35 years—between 1870 and 1905—haphazardly piecing together the stories that comprised his life, not necessarily in chronological order, but as he felt like telling them. In 1906 he worked more deliberately on the task, regularly dictating stories to a stenographer, Josephine S. Hobby. He completed his autobiography in 1909, just four months before his death.

But it would be another century before readers would get a chance to see the novelist’s memoirs. Twain stressed that the book would not be published in its entirety until 100 years after he died. “A book that is not to be published for a century gives the writer a freedom which he could secure in no other way,” he is quoted as saying in the book’s introduction. “In these conditions you can draw a man without prejudice exactly as you knew him and yet have no fear of hurting his feelings or those of his sons or grandsons.”

The book’s eventual, official publication was orchestrated by Robert Hirst, who leads a team of editors at UC Berkeley’s Mark Twain Papers and Project. The project, housed in the Bancroft Library, is an extensive archival resource for many Twain-related photos, writings and letters. The MTP claims to have in its archives almost every known surviving piece of writing by the author, either in original or photocopied forms.

Hirst will talk about the work that went into the book’s approaching release and read excerpts from the first volume Nov. 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hillside Club, located at 2286 Cedar St. in Berkeley. Free for members, $5 for guests.

More Free Books in El Cerrito

After visiting the Bay Area Free Book Exchange in El Cerrito last week, I was reminded of another place that gives away books and which also happens to be conveniently located just a few blocks away from the exchange. The El Cerrito Recycling Center—in addition to accepting old batteries, cell phones, plastics and scrap metals—takes donated books, magazines, CDs and tapes, a portion of which are then given away in a small outdoor library that’s set up on the premises.

My dad, who used to be pretty fanatical about dumpster diving, took me and my brother to the recycling center every so often when we were kids, and we’d spend hours swimming through the glossy pages of Reader’s Digests and National Geographics that filled its metal bins. Sometimes some shiny page would catch my eye, and I’d rescue a random recycled book or magazine to read or cut up into a collage.

The community-run exchange is similar to the one I reported on last week in that patrons can take and leave books as they please without having to donate anything in order to take something home. As you can see from the map below, the two locations are only a quick drive or bike ride apart, making El Cerrito an ideal destination for anyone whose love for books outweighs their pocketbook.


The El Cerrito Recycling Center is located at 7501 Schmidt Lane, and is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., and Saturday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.

The Bay Area Free Book Exchange, Where all the Books are Free

Imagine going into a bookstore, grabbing a handful of books and then walking out without paying. At most places this practice would get you a shoplifting charge, but at the Bay Area Free Book Exchange in El Cerrito, taking books is encouraged—because everything there is free.

Open only on weekends, the Book Exchange regularly accepts book donations that are then offered to the public free of charge. It’s kind of like a library, only you don’t have to return anything. Listen to the podcast below to learn more about the little book “store” on San Pablo Avenue.

You can visit the Book Exchange at 10520 San Pablo Ave., in El Cerrito; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.

Songs: “Ouverture,” Evan LE NY, and “Keep Walking,” Lonah.