Archive | March, 2012

Are NaMoWriMo & Script Frenzy Worth the Trouble?

15 Mar

Consistently I question the concept of the two yearly month long challenges that the non-profit ‘Light and Letters’ promotes, National Novel Writing Month (or NaMoWriMo) in November and Script Frenzy coming up in April. And yet the last two years I’ve participated in NaMoWriMo with a lot of enthusiasm. And for two years running I haven’t been sure of the results especially.
To fill you in on what I’m speaking of, for those not in the loop, NaMoWriMo is a challenge to write the first draft of a novel to the tune of at least 50,000 words in a single month. It was created nearly a decade ago and has in the last 3-4 years blossomed into a fairly well known and well talked about internet entity. It’s biggest success story is probably the novel ‘Water for Elephants’ which started as a project for it. It’s open to all to participate and as it’s become a larger deal it’s been able to offer, for verified success in the 50,000 word goal several small thank you gifts, the best promoted of which is the production of a single bound copy of your manuscript.

Script Frenzy is a sister concept, which deals with the writing of, well, a script, be it a screenplay, a teleplay, radio drama or stage play. It encourages people to write 100 pages of material in the month of April and is more targeted at being a contest and a ground wherein people may be judged for their talents, whereas NaMoWriMo is more interested in just getting you on the ground running.

Having participated twice in NaMoWriMo I’m mixed in my thoughts. On one hand, it definitely did make me write more than I ever had previously. On the other hand it made me write at such an accelerated pace and with so little interest in revision (in fact, revision is frowned upon) that I ended up with pieces that I didn’t much like, not to mention in the first instance, wherein I completed the assignment, I was feeling entirely like it was an imposition to continue writing what I was writing.

The problem, perhaps, was that I started with little to nothing, a small hook to hang my story on, and tried to take it and turn it into a novel, even past the point where I decided, early on, I neither liked the story much, outside of base concept or felt much momentum to continue with it.

My first NaMoWriMo had a plot borrowed from what was a small indie blog story at the time, the onstage break-up of the marginally popular indie band Women. They had a large onstage blowup and stories that resulted from that seemed to hint that there were perhaps complicated relationships with all involved. Between that and the general Fleetwood Mac type well documented strife in many bands I thought the idea of having a story where a band breaks up on stage and then we flashback to find out what happened was interesting. And on the surface I still think that’s a solid concept.

The problem, however, was that I hadn’t had the time to think it through. I tried to graft to that story, also the story of someone become an internet sensation through their lo-fi internet electronic project and having to put a band together. This too, was an interesting hook, I thought. And again, I still do. But I had little to no real idea what or how the dynamics of either concept really want and as much as I had an imagined idea of it it never really panned out to anything I was entirely comfortable with.

In the end I mostly tried, in vain, to try and take personal anticdotes and put them on the characters I was creating. I decided, in retrospect, that the problem was that I needed to try and do something more personal, that was deririved from my real life, perhaps.

So, after succeeding, in theory, with the 50,000 words and being unhappy with it, the next year I took a different approach. Given it needed to be a novel and given the weird nature of much of the fiction I was reading at the time, much of it non-linear and expirimental and some of it rather meta, I tried to write a once removed variation on a memoir.

Conceptually the project was going to be me, being interviewed by no one in particular and using that to talk about various experiences I have had. And then, to complicate things, the same interviewer would ask the other particpants in those experiences to tell their side of the story. I thought this was interesting meta concept. And I still do. But I got about 25,000 or 30,000 words in before I just threw in the towel, running out of steam of wishing to exhastively talk about myself and find cute ways to get around telling the facts as straight as if I was writing an actual memoir (and using the idea of the absurdity of self-involvement of writing a memoir for comedic effect at times)

The thing is, at the outset of both projects I had an entirely different story in mind that I had been thinking about for several months before the initial NaMoWriMo attempt and now several years has been rattling around my brain. I’ve pitched this idea to people to varying responses and honestly I like it a lot. But it doesn’t feel like novel to me – it feels like a screenplay.

Oddly, in addition to that feeling, is the fact that I believe I’m a more convincing writing of scripted fiction than any fashion of prose. So, one would believe that I would then be a great fit for Script Frenzy but honestly? I’m not entirely sure that’s true.

Something is keeping me from writing this screenplay and it might be the same thing that hurt the previous attempts at ‘novels’ – I’m not sure I really have what it takes to hit it out of the park. It’s an odd thing, because people will tell you that you should try and that failure is part of the creative process and in theory, I agree. In fact, in reality, I believe that to be the case – but failure isn’t something¬†I’m comfortable with, especially when it comes to things I really believe have merit.

I think, my reasoning, basically, for not writing this script, is that if I write a script, with the plot that I have been massaging in my head for a few years off and on, and it sucks, that that means that it’s dead and those years have thought have been a waste of time. It’s amazing though, how much time I’ve wasted avoiding wasting my time, however.

All of this is to say that I think I tried to use not terribly interesting and well thought out concepts for my previous attempts at making art because I thought that it was low stakes – if the concept didn’t work, well, I just should have tried something that had a little more oompf and really it was just a learning experience. And in the end – it is just a learning experience, in none of these scenarios do I expect to take a story, write it in whatever way in a month and then end up with a fully formed complete idea. But at the same time the fact that it ends up with such a mess and that so much time is put into making the mess then makes it very easy to disown those messes and discourage me from doing something more well thought out and potentially even more time consuming.

I also believe that part of why these contests are appealing is that they force you into a peer encouraged situation wherein you know what you need to do and you know you must write a certain amount every day, every week to make it to the total for the month and for the project. And something about that idea is very motivating in way that self-motivation does not tend to be. Encouragement is something that I have a very small well of naturally and that I need more of and am incredibly poorly equipted to manufacture, it would seem. I’m consistently seeking a creative concept that will attract a groundswell of support that will push me to create something that people will enjoy, which will push me to create more for those people who enjoyed the previous thing and so on.

That said – these competitions seem like the easiest way to manufacture something in the mold of what I’m looking for – you can find, in nearly every internet community, every message board especially, a community of people doing these contests, especially NaMoWriMo. And the push to complete your project can be cheered on by these people – to a point. There is very little individual attention, it’s somewhat a series of small socialistic societies, where everyone is encouraged to do their best and achieve their goal but where no one is celebrated above others.

Perhaps that’s my flaw, perhaps I have a need to be celebrated above others, to be told I am doing something above and beyond, something special that I must continue for the sake of the others enjoyment. It’s an odd idea, because it runs rather contrary to my overall worldview – not to say that I wish to be but a cog in the machine of things but I also do believe in everyone’s individual merits and don’t especially wish myself great fame and fortune. But perhaps that’s a lie. In fact, there’s a case it most certainly is.

Most of my goals and especially the creative goals, require a certain level of skill, if not fame and the best possible result from those endevors is, if not worldwide celebrity, a small scale niche celebration of the ideas and creative energy of the projects and their creator.

I think, on some level, the ideal level of success I could achieve is being a contributing part of something great and perhaps it would involve me being the previously mentioned cog in the machine but being the cog in the machine of something great, that I really believed in.

I don’t know that I ever want to be a great novelist or a celebrated famous writer, to the extent that such things exist outside of a niche these days outside of the crassly commerical likes of Stephanie Meyers or James Patterson, but rather I wish to just become a good writer who is appriciated and involved in things that many people enjoy.

Perhaps this wish is what makes me ill suited for either National Novel Writing Month or Script Frenzy. Their base appeal seems to be that they will help you break through and encourage you to become something great. And maybe that screenplay I’ve thought of is interesting but I’m not sure I want to be the guy who got wrote a pretty good screenplay that got made into a small independant production that faded into the background of the media landscape, there is a lot to be said, in my current feelings of things, about getting in on the ground floor of something grand and interesting and just being an active part, playing my role and being appriciated.

In the end, from what I can tell, the idea is unappealing both from a personal lack of hubris and also, somewhat disassociatively a lack of feeling like I’d be working on something that truly matters.

In spite of all of this, it should be noted, that as April keeps getting nearer, I keep thinking that maybe, just maybe, I’ll write that screenplay. But my better judgment makes me think I’m better off just getting down the basic gist of some television sitcom ideas I have marinating in my head so that they might be presented to some other creative funny types I know and that I might be able to spark a collaboration with. Whatever I do, if I have learned anything, it can be certain I will remarkably overthink it. But as time goes by I get more and more comfortable with my own overthinking.

So, that’s something, right? I’ll think about it and get back to you…

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February Music Capsule Reviews

10 Mar

Sharon Van Etten

 

Tennis
Young & Old

Grade: B+

 


Coming into their second record with considerable buzz, Tennis, a wife and husband band who in their first record sauntered through sunny languid songs about their romance trade that relaxed sound for something more substantive and insightful, not to mention more traditionally melodic.
Their debut ‘Cape Dory’ was a critical favorite but was lacking something tuneful. It was pleasant and an easy, breezy listen but I never felt it had much to say. I think they have more to say here and it comes across with better, catchier and more entertaining songs.

Opener ‘It All Feels the Same’ kicks things off with a solid rock chord, lead single ‘Origins’ has a certain doo wop charm with a big chorus and ‘My Better Self’ hits a contemplative note with a certain level of panache. ‘Traveling’ keeps things going by hinting back at their prior records tone but I will say the record falls off a bit from there but never stops being fairly entertaining with only ‘Take Me to Heaven’ standing out as above average.

It’s definitely frontloaded but I think it’s a solid step forward for a band that will hopefully keep growing into one to continue watching for some time.

Hospitality
Hospitality

Grade: A

Hitting all the right twee indie pop notes, Hospitality’s debut self titled LP is catchy, engaging and probably one of my favorite records of the year thus far. It’s hard to stop listening to it – I tend to be caught up in a groove of listening to it twice or three times if I listen to it once.

This is a record that sucks you in and never really lets go – the worst tracks here have a lot to recommend, from the slow building ‘Julie’ which, the longest track here at four and half minutes, takes it’s time but is as engaging as a lot of bands better work to ‘Aragonaut’ which I’ve played plenty of times and couldn’t really tell you what it’s about other than having a fun hook and catchy chorus.

But then there is the standouts – ‘Eight Avenue’ estimates something in the range of classic Belle & Sebastian and hits the note with undue grace, ‘Sleepver’ manages to be just a bit touching while staying light and sunny, ‘Liberal Arts’ has a lot of satirical bite and then the standout among standouts is ‘Friends of Friends’, which is easily the catchiest thing I’ve heard this year and a highlight on a record full of things to recommend, with a full, fun chorus and a tremendous swagger to it.

Weighing in at just over a half hour, it never overstays it’s welcome one bit and recalls both the early Belle & Sebastian and a more twee, lady fronted early Weezer-esque sound. The first thing it makes me think of, honestly, is the straight-forward fun of The Blue Album back in the mid-90s.

If you couldn’t tell, I quite like this record.

Shearwater
Animal Joy

Grade: B-

Shearwater is a band that I have a complicated relationship with. They’re a spinoff of a longtime favorite of mine, Okkervil River, and their early records, still intertwined with the frontman of that band Will Sheff are records that I enjoy quite a bit. Their last three records, prior to Animal Joy were a ‘trilogy’ about, well, I’m not entirely sure – birds, it would seem?

Shearwater, especially in their last three records have been a very niche project – Jonathan Meiburg, the frontman has a falsetto that takes some getting used to in spite of being very pretty and lyrically they can be a bit hard to decifer, sometimes just because Jonathan, with a PHD is the study of birds, tends to have a lot to say about birds, which honestly isn’t a subject that I think most people can relate terribly to and combined with a very orchestrated indie classical influenced sound thus at best the easiest thing to say about most Shearwater music is that it’s ‘pretty’.

With ‘Animal Joy’, however, they take a step forward, into ground slightly more personal and with a bit more of a rock influence showing. It’s not a full step forward – the things that kept many people from latching on in the past are still present but are easily toned down a notch and there are a few standout songs here – the title track, ‘Breaking the Yearlings’ and a slow methodical climb in ‘Dread¬†Sovereign’ lead things off well and it has a consistent, interesting sound to it that continues through the record.

It seems to sacrifice some of the genuine beauty of previous records to look at new landscapes (and to take a break from singing so much about, say, landscapes) and while it thus doesn’t hit quite the highest notes of their catalogue it’s both their most accessible record and probably a move in a direction that if they can find a way to tap further into will make them a more formidable force going forward and bode well for their ability to do something different and exciting in the future.

Sharon Van Etten
Tramp

Grade: A-


Sharon Van Etten’s public profile has been rapidly on the rise for the past few years. Her first record ‘Because I Was in Love’ was beautiful and sad and caught the eye of several people but never really broke through to the larger public. Her second record ‘Epic’ pushed her further into something more resembling standard singer-songwriter territory with a fuller sound and caught the attention of not only a bit larger audience but peers such as Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver fame), who covered it’s highlight track ‘Love More’, as well as fellow Brooklynites The Antlers (who had her provide lead vocals on one of the tracks on their breakthrough LP ‘Hospice’) and The National, who had Sharon guest on recent track ‘Thought You Could Wait’ and a member of whom, Bryce Dressner, provides production for ‘Tramp’

Here Sharon opens herself up to even more complex orchestration without really comprimising her personal tone that shone so bright on her first two records. The atmosphere of something like ‘Give Out’ add to the cathartic notion of the song in a way that never cuts into the appeal of it. Guests from bands such as The Walkmen and Beirut compliment their respective tracks with appealing duets. A standout is the first single ‘Serpents’ which is the first time Sharon has fully done a song that fits comfortably into the category of a ‘rock song’ – and it works rather well and forcefully.

I wouldn’t argue that this is a better record than her previous two, both of which have fairly immense charms, but it is on par and another move forward for an artist who seems to have, in the course of a three year career, be getting better and better as an artist – it is a move toward a more fully realized sound and the songwriting continues to get better and more complex. It feels like a real coming out party for an artist who has been moving further and further on to the radar of the mainstream of indie rock stardom and who’s star will likely be shinning only brighter in the future.

Bruce Springsteen
Wrecking Ball
Grade: C+

This is, in my estimation, the best standard issue Bruce Springsteen record (which is to say, excepting projects like ‘The Seger Sessions’ or ‘Devil in the Dust’) in several years. That is, however, rather faint praise, considering ‘Magic’ felt like was warmed over leftovers from his early 90s shmaltzy period and ‘The Rising’ was tremendously over-rated and rode on a sentimentality borrowed from the sad events that surrounded it in late 2001.

This, however, is Springsteen going back to his roots as American anthemist – aiming for something in the vein of either classic ‘Born’ record and sometimes pulling it off, albiet never as well as one might hope. It can tend to be heavy handed and a bit broad lyrically and it doesn’t have the same charisma that his earlier recordings have that seem to be able to push those sorts of concepts into something more palpable.

All that being said – it’s consistently decent and has it’s moments of Springsteen-ian uplift, although they’re somewhat fleeting. It’s built around what ends up being a mixed bag of folksier elements and stadium swagger, the latter of which might just be the reality of needing to work in a 2012 Bruce Springsteen tour environment but which takes several of these songs down a notch.

If this was a little more focused and able to tone itself down it could have been a very good record. As it is, it tends to be something more in the range of ‘acceptable’ and given the last ten years of Springsteen in the studio, well, that’s something I’ll accept, I suppose.