Ramping up for NaNoWriMo 2011

30 10 2011

Astute readers of my last post will have read, close to the bottom, a word that they probably have never seen or heard before: NaNoWriMo.

Don’t worry about it, 10 days ago I had never heard of this word either. But that was before I went to a writers’ conference, where each of the 800 participants was talking about it like it was some kind of holy grail.

Nano what? Nanotechnology? No, that’s something different. Nanoseconds? Uh-uh.

NaNoWriMo is “National Novel Writing Month,” also known as “November”. The movement was founded in the San Francisco Bay Area (where most of the world’s great, innovative and ground-breaking things tend to be founded) 12 years ago as a challenge to get people to sit down and write. Just write. Not edit, or research, or read, or rewrite, but WRITE.

Yup, I'm in!

The goal is to put 50,000 words down on paper (or a computer screen) during the 30 days of the month. For those who are wondering, that is a tall order, even for folks who do this kind of thing all the time. Sure I can bang out a blog post of 400-600 words in maybe an hour or so.  But NaNoWriMo will demand a much higher level of proliferation (folks also sometimes call this “verbal diarrhea” or “literary vomit”) and most of all, discipline.

50,000 words means a daily tally of 1,667 words, for 30 days straight. That is more than three blog posts. Every day.

That is like running a marathon each day for a month. I would be pretty sick and tired of running after that, I think. Of course, my hips and knees will have called a strike halfway through.

I’m sure by the end of November, I will be sick and tired of words, and my computer screen, and my keyboard, and that damn voice in my head, and that devil sitting on my shoulder. Am hoping my fingers, wrists and nerves survive to see the end of it too.

But the good thing about NaNoWriMo is exactly that – the deadlines, the pressure, and not wanting to give up because nobody wants to be a quitter.

The organizers have a great website with motivational strategies to fight the beast that will beset each and every one of us sooner or later…. the beast called: “There-Are-A-Million-Other-Things-I-Must-Do-Right-This-Very-Second-That-Just-Can’t-Wait”. Organized write-ins will up the peer pressure and make sure participants are not just staring at a blinking cursor on a blank computer screen for three hours a day.

The Zurich write-ins are at a local Starbucks. I see my caffeine intake peaking.

By virtue of the fact that I am telling you about this means I am making a silent and solemn pledge that I will finish the project to the best of my ability. And I’m basically unemployed now, so hey, I have the time. Maybe I could cheat and include blog posts in the 50,000 word total. In the end, I think any sort of writing is accepted by the kind folks in Berkeley. They are a tolerant people.

So for the next 48 hours I will go away and mentally prepare myself for my month of marathons. I have no idea yet what I will write, or about whom. In any case, at the end of it, I will be 50,000 words and one fascinating life experience richer. What I do with all that remains to be seen.

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Writers’ Conference 101

24 10 2011

I am just getting back from my first ever real live Writers’ Conference. Well, I did go to another conference about two years ago, but it was kind of local and small, and I only stayed for two sessions. So as far as I am concerned that didn’t really count.

At this conference, for which I flew close to 6,000 miles, I was one of about 800 participants. We took over an entire Sheraton hotel, and arrived on the day that two former U.S. Presidents graced that very same establishment (different conference) with their presence. Along with a rag-tag group of “Occupy Xxxx (insert criminal corporation name or location here)” protesters that big names like Bush and Clinton seem to magnetically attract, wherever they go.

Our reception committee.

I went with a friend, who has been attending for the past three years – she introduced me into the protocol of this kind of event. For her, this year’s meet was a massive success story. She snagged herself a book agent faster than you can say: “million-dollar advance”.

I sort of had a writing project to pitch, but not really. So I was somewhat overwhelmed at the wheeling and dealing going on, at every available moment, even in the Ladies’ rooms and the bar, late into the night.

Some of the workshops sounded a lot like RW1, the iconic initial reporting and writing course at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism that I attended 20 years ago. But even though I have a bunch of skills and experience already, I did learn a lot about the industry and what it means to “get published” in the day and age of social media. It truly is a jungle out there.

So here is some of the stuff I took away from the conference, stuff to think about for the future:

  • Bookstores are dead.
  • Physical books are dead.
  • Long live the e-book.
  • Every single person has at least one great story to tell (or write), probably more.
  • Every single story has been written before, just not by you.
  • Media piracy is not necessarily all that bad a thing.
  • The continuum of lies in memoir-writing – it’s okay… go ahead and use it. (I think that is the most liberating thing I heard all weekend.)
  • Agents are the gatekeepers, and they seem to think they can play God, even in the brave new world of self- and e-publishing.
  • Most aspiring writers sacrifice an unbelievable amount of time, nerves and energy in order to write. Good thing the actual act of writing is FREE.
  • Twitter is evil but it ain’t going away, folks. Further resistance is futile.
  • NaNoWriMo.
  • There are a couple of very cool folks out there whose ideas are absolutely priceless, and whose work is pretty darn impressive.

And finally the kicker, don’t ever forget this one:

  • This day we write.




Whale-watching – sans whales.

20 10 2011

After suffering a professional assault too complicated and sordid to describe here (I will, one day, when I have fully digested it, and spent all the money they threw at me to keep quiet), R. and I decided to get outta Dodge.

Actually our trip to the Left Coast had been planned for a while (like, a week). We felt like we needed some California fresh air before the next dark Swiss winter puts us in a deep-freeze. The fact that my unexpected and untimely departure from my high-power, high-paying, high-profile and high-risk-of-falling-into-disfavor job just happened be on the day before our flight was to depart from ZRH to SFO was, well, a coincidence.

A hint of San Francisco is enough to make anyone positively sick with longing. A few days of wandering the streets and tasting the freedom and you have to pry me from the Golden Gate Bridge, finger by finger.

Paradise, no? Close?

But the highlight of this trip was to be whale-watching in Monterey Bay, about 2 hours south of the City. Monterey is on many peoples’ bucket lists, and migrating whales seem to like the place too. It’s apparently one of just a few locations along the coast where some species of the sea mammal can be seen any time of the year. So we booked ourselves into a 120-year-old bed-and-breakfast and decided to go whale watching.

The day we arrived in town, a brilliant blue sky greeted us. Hundreds of sea lions, comfortably lounging on buoys, breakwaters and the shoreline, barked their welcome. Seagulls the size of turkeys populated the piers and coveted our dinner. Towards the southeast, a wall of fog seemed far too far away to do any damage.

The next morning, we could barely see 50 feet (30 meters) and the temperature had dropped a good 30 degrees F (16 degrees C).

But the intrepid will not be hindered by a little fog and a lot of cold, especially not here in California. (Right?)

40 bucks a head and we boarded the Princess Monterey, headed for the open sea. The outing started promising enough, with dolphins emerging from the grey-in-grey ocean just barely after we left the harbor… The pre-game show had begun. More dolphins, with a couple of sea lions in the mix for good measure. Awww… look at them play… aren’t they cute?

A dolphin, not a shark. (Or a whale.)

Okay, great. ‘Nuf dolphins. Where are the stars? The reason we all came out here in the first place! The giants of the ocean! The magical creatures of the deep! The largest mammals on earth!

Nowhere to be seen. It was like they all got together and decided Tuesday was their day off.

They are unionized, after all.

Three hours later, 40 tourists aboard the Princess Monterey chugged back into harbor – disappointed, freezing and seasick. R. resented having been captive aboard a vessel with a bunch of strangers whose behavior and noise level he could not control. Including the woman whose slobbering, sniffing and severely shedding hound the size of a pony pulled her around the boat. Repeatedly.

(Why would you take a dog whale-watching?)

So much for connecting with nature and learning about sea-life. Sayonara 80 dollars.

When we got back to our car, an acutely observant meter maid provided the perfect end to a miserable day. 35 more dollars for an expired parking meter (by 16 minutes).

Okay, I’ve had enough. Time to go back to San Francisco.





Of journalists and corporations

9 10 2011

Like many employees in these difficult economic times, I am disillusioned and disappointed in the place I have been lassooed to these past four years. While chained to my desk, I have become increasingly cynical and disgusted with the superficial nature of the corporate world as a whole. Of the relentless chase after the almighty buck and the daily soul-crushing acts of psychological torture.

A few months ago, I resolved to return to journalism, to my roots, somehow. I decided that I am probably far too critical of corporate hot air to really ever be able to breathe it with ease and spread it with pleasure. Or to drink the poison Kool-aid like I would need to in order to fully succeed as a media flak.

There is no way I will ever be as comfortable in stilettos and a suit as I was in hiking boots and cargo pants, with a reporter’s notebook in my back pocket.

Last week, I received a painful rejection for a journalism job that I felt like I had all sealed up. The hiring manager had (perhaps inadvertently) signaled this to me during my meeting with her.

After I spent weeks waiting for the final thumbs up (that was supposed to be just a formality), she called to tell me that she could not offer me the job covering the Swiss banking industry. Not because my qualifications or experience were insufficient, and not because I was too expensive either. The reason is much more banal and dogmatic: I was disqualified from a job for which I was the top candidate because… (drum roll)… I am married to someone who works at a large Swiss bank.

She told her own superiors that she really, really wanted me on her team, and that she would reshuffle the reporting assignments, allowing me to cover an entirely different industry and focus on entirely different topics. Her managers reiterated their “no way”.

When she told me this, I was stunned and speechless. I had never before been rejected for a job because of the company I keep or the man I am married to.

For those who don’t know Zurich well, it is a small town chock full of financial service companies. It would indeed be strange, I countered, if I did not have close friends (or relatives) in the industry which employs the most people and generates the most tax revenue and economic value in all of Switzerland.

And the fact that the top editors at a high-quality international news organization would not even consider a change of reporting beats to accommodate a very qualified candidate indicates to me that they are more concerned with doctrine and ideology than finding the best people for a particular position. To me, this reeks of discrimination and middle management that has been intimidated into spinelessness by some corporate policy that is not worth the paper it’s printed on. How ironic.

So after this unusual, unbelievable and stinging rejection, I continue my search to be relevant. My search to find a place that will value my skills and experience, long for my writing and appreciate my personality. A place that will not judge me by who I fell in love with and married.

Can’t wait to find out if that place exists out there.