How to Finish NaNoWriMo

Happy Halloween, everyone, and to all the writers shitting bricks about tomorrow, happy NaNo Eve! While Halloween is sure to be delightful, tomorrow kicks off NaNoWriMo, the month where millions of writers will attempt to complete a 50,000 word novel in less than a month. Every year, I come up to November 1st dreading it, but every November 30th so far, I’ve out the other side with a brand new, word-vomited manuscript that I can go back and edit later.

This year marks my 12th year participating in NaNoWriMo, and while many of those projects never saw the light of day, one of them ended up being my first published book, Whiteout. Now, there are still 10 other mostly-dead manuscripts sitting around, but 1/11 ain’t bad, and some of those others might yet make it out. All that to say, I might not be a hot shit writer, but I do know how to finish a book and finish it quick. If you’ve ever struggled to complete NaNoWriMo, here are a few tips that get me through every year.

My NaNo Credentials: https://nanowrimo.org/participants/mac_ashton

1. Embrace the word vomit

I’ve said it a million times, but somehow it doesn’t seem to always get through. There are going to be days this November where you feel like you’re writing beautiful prose and every word is perfect, but the vast majority of them will feel like slinging shit at an empty screen. That’s ok. Even when the words are clumsy, you’re still writing, and every word is experience. Write words and fix it in post!

2. Don’t be afraid to deviate

Outlines are great, they help keep you on track through the month and make sure you know where you’re going. I’ve done novels with and without them, and it’s really a toss-up as to which came out better. But, either way, don’t be afraid to deviate from your vision. If you’re getting bored with what’s happening, have the characters go do something else. Sometimes these little asides can become the best part of your book (looking at the cannibal cult in Whiteout).

3. Set aside time

You’re not going to complete NaNo if you don’t set aside time to do it. This might sound silly and obvious, but making the effort to schedule writing time is important. I get up earlier than usual in November and get a lot of my writing done before I’ve even gone into work. Tell your loved ones what you’re doing, and ask them to encourage you along the way. It helps when there’s others yelling at you to go write 🙂

4. When your stuck, use the egg timer

If you don’t have an egg timer (because it’s 2019), use your phone. I learned this tip from the great Stephen King in one of his interviews. If you’re stuck, set a timer for 20-30 minutes, turn everything else off and write. I don’t care if it’s: “and then the characters went here so the plot could move along” (I’ve done that more than once), but write. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, because whatever you write in NaNo is a draft. You can go back and fix it later. By the end of the 20-30 minutes, I often find I’m through whatever plot block was vexing me and itching to keep going.

5. Have fun, remember, it’s just a draft

Tying into my previous point, you’re never going to produce a perfect, finished novel on the first try, especially if its through NaNoWriMo. A month is far too little time to produce something publish-ready, and that’s ok. The most important thing is that you got the words on the page, you gained experience, and hopefully, had some fun. Look, I won’t lie, NaNoWriMo can be stressful, but at the end of the day, I feel satisfied knowing I put in a month of good work and have something to show for it. Even if last year’s book was an ill-advised sci-fi romp through post-apocalyptic Seattle (yeesh), I still wrote it.

That’s all!

I wish you the best this year with NaNo, feel free to connect with me on the site, Twitter, wherever. Always happy to offer words of encouragement or to talk through plot quagmires. See you all on the other side, you beautiful novelists, you. Here’s to this being us in 30 days:

Writing the Book on the Jersey Devil – Brian Regal Interview

A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Brian Regal, a professor in the Science of History at Kean University in New Jersey. While Brian is currently studying the myth of who discovered America, in the past he’s written two books concerning cryptids, creatures that are not proven to exist, and the people who study them. His first book on the subject, Searching for Sasquatch: Crackpots, Eggheads, and Cryptozoology took a critical look at researchers looking for Bigfoot. In this episode, we dive into the topic of his second book, The Secret History of the Jersey Devil to examine one of the most bizarre myths I’ve ever encountered.

So, if you’re into demonic children, goat-horse-bat-devil hybrids, or just want to hear two skeptics talk about cryptozoology, give the episode a listen. I’ve got links to our Anchor page and below, but we are available on all major podcasting platforms, including Apple Podcasts where Cryptids Decrypted currently holds a five star rating 🙂

Star Wars – The Re-Review – A New Hope

It’s hard to review A New Hope without some aspect of nostalgia filtering into my opinion. This is a movie I’ve seen easily twenty times, if not more, throughout my life, and that makes it difficult to look at it through an objective lens. For a quick refresher, below is my watch order for the films, and if you haven’t already, check out my review of Rogue One which some think is a spicy take…

This is the watch order, deal with it

A New Hope is a wonderful start to a traditional Campbellian journey where a plucky, young, moisture farmer discovers a hidden talent and goes off to fight evil. Right from the start, this film leaves no room for interpretation in its black and white painting of a galaxy in crisis. The bad guys look an awful lot like Nazis, only in space, their leader dresses all in black and Princess Leia wears white. The pace at the beginning of the film is quick and manages to maintain its tension, even to this day after I’ve watched it far too many times. I still get a kick out of C-3P0’s pithy sarcasm, and Vader still cuts an imposing figure when he first comes through the smoke-shrouded doorway. It says a lot when a film that was made in the 70s can still successfully evoke emotions and immerse the viewer some forty-odd years later.

Most of what makes this possible in my opinion is the film’s emphasis on practical sets, as well as an unforgettable soundtrack. The music in A New Hope is easily one of its best features and a highlight for the series (Duel of the Fates aside). Binary Sea is one of the most iconic scores in film and still conjures up images of the twin suns setting over Tatooine. The music is constantly complimenting the film and is one of the main reasons it’s so memorable. I could keep naming tracks all day, but then I’d likely just wake up drunk in front of John Williams’s house again, so it’s best to move on.

The special effects in A New Hope were ground-breaking at the time but can feel distracting in the modern era. It might be easier to ignore them if George Lucas hadn’t spliced a healthy dose of 90s CGI here and there to try and give the movie a punch up. While most of these reworked scenes are unnecessary and serve as an opportunity to throw weird lizards in unused set space, there are a few I’d like to call out as exceptional. First, the trench run rework really adds something to the film, and actually makes the iconic battle better. Second, the little touches like removing the orange haze from beneath Luke’s speeder help the film age a little better.

Sure, it’s a bit video gamey, but it still looks cool

Unfortunately, Lucas wasn’t content to just mess with the effects, he had to add a few scenes too. I could talk about these all day, but I’m going to practice some restraint and do a few quick bullets:

  • Han shot first, and it should have stayed that way. It was a great moment for his character and gave him some much-needed darkness to contrast Luke’s goody-two-shoes routine.
  • The scene with Han circling Jabba does give some interesting context for Return of the Jedi, but it’s also awkward as hell when Han ‘steps on Jabba’s tail’ (gif below).
  • Adding Biggs into the final scene before the trench run is interesting, but thematically confusing as the only bit we’ve heard about him is that he ran off to join the Imperial Academy. There’s lots of great fiction about what happened to him, but we get none of that context, and it leaves me with a ton of questions.

Now, back to the original film. The scenes that hold up the best are character focused, with the practical sets and iconic costumes carrying the movie. Even with the corny lightsaber effects, the battle between Obi Wan and Darth on the Death Star carries weight and is entertaining to watch. It’s a far cry from the flashier sabre battles of the prequel and sequel trilogies, but the methodical samurai-like combat has a menace of its own that is engaging and beautiful to watch.

Name a more iconic Star Wars couple, I’ll wait

The actors themselves are a mixed bag, and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that. Mark Hamill did what he could with some pretty lackluster lines, but in the end, Luke is whiny and not all that interesting (in this movie). Luckily, like Rogue One, the protagonist is once again saved by an interesting cast of supporting characters. Harrison Ford’s Han is iconic and carries every scene he’s in. Han’s constant bickering and poking at Luke provides the relief the audience desperately needs from what is otherwise a traditional hero story. Obi Wan serves to ground the action and give Han at least a little push back while Luke is taking a verbal ass-whooping for the first half of the film. Despite starting out as just some guy living in the desert, Alec Guiness made Obi Wan into one of the most memorable characters, even with a relatively short screen time.

One of my favorite Han lines

The detailed supporting cast of A New Hope unfortunately serve to highlight Luke’s lack of character. Throughout the film, he’s going through a lot of changes, and the reasoning behind them can seem ham-handed. When we first meet Luke, he’s daydreaming about joining The Academy, and spoilers, there’s only one of those, it’s the Imperial Academy. If Luke hadn’t been lucky enough to be duped by a runaway R2D2, he might have been heading off to be an Imperial pilot, fighting The Rebellion. It takes ten minutes for Luke to completely change his mind on the subject after a meeting with an old wizard in the desert who he barely knows. Shortly after, his family is killed, allegedly by imperials, but he never sees that and ends up taking the old man’s word on faith… Soon, he’s gung-ho about joining The Rebellion, and somehow all of his friends are there (thanks 90s Lucas)… Yes, the same friends that joined the Imperial Academy. It would have been great to see a small character beat between Luke and Biggs where they at least talk about what happened, but instead, it’s left hoping that we’d have forgotten.

There are a lot of little character inconsistencies like this riddled throughout A New Hope, but the main story distracts us from them with its glory. Look, no one is going to say that this is one of the greatest tales ever told; it’s generic, a bit overdone, and unoriginal, but it’s the world it all takes place in that makes it shine. Watching Luke and Obi Wan walk into a bar in Mos Eisley and listening to the iconic cantina band is an adventure in itself. The details scattered throughout the world make it impossible to escape its magnetic pull (almost like a tractor beam). Every character in the cantina scene feels like they could have some wild backstory, but the film leaves it up to the viewer’s imagination.

Still waiting on their new album to drop…

It’s the side interactions with these characters too that serve as some of the most memorable moments in the film. Luke’s confrontation with Butt Face (I refuse to call him anything else) and his partner in crime is one of the best scenes in the saga. It shows us Luke really doesn’t know what he’s doing, Obi Wan is a lean, mean slicing machine who is not to be fucked with, and that the denizens of the Mos Eisley Cantina see way too many people murdered. That’s a lot of story, setting, and character communication, and it takes all  of about thirty seconds. I only wish the rest of the film had that sort of concise storytelling, but hey, it’s still got a lot to offer.

Finally, before I run out of words here, a quick word about the opposition, the evil Galactic Empire. For the most part, they are characterized by incompetence in this film, and without Rogue One’s addition of the Death Star being sabotaged, they’d look like complete idiots.  Storm Troopers are supposed to be precise, and yet, Han Solo literally runs into a wall of them, shoots one in the head and gets away unscathed. They might be good at murdering farmers and Jawas, but anytime it comes to a real fight, they shit the bed.

Now, the Empire’s leadership? Full of petty infighting and scrambling for power. That is a believable story that somehow still mirrors the corporate world, and that’s a little bit scary. Peter Cushing’s Tarkin is a great, stereotypical villain with some incredible one-liners that serve to hold him in memory even after he’s blown up aboard his technological terror. Vader likewise isn’t given a ton of screen time, but when he’s there, he’s memorable, mostly due to the iconic James Earl Jones voiceover. My one gripe: Vader is allegedly the best pilot in the galaxy, and yet he still manages to miss the hulking form of the Millennium Falcon coming up behind him in the final battle? Maybe he should have tried spinning, I heard that’s a good trick.

In the end, I still love A New Hope despite its flaws. The world building is amazing and set us up for decades of fan fiction, lackluster prequels, and great sequels. While the story is very predictable and doesn’t do much new, it does it in a galaxy that no one had ever seen before, and that alone was enough to captivate people. Adjusted for nostalgic inflation, I still think this movie holds up and will continue to delight new audiences, especially with all the new Star Wars media coming out.

As always, if you disagree, I encourage you to fight me on Twitter/Facebook, it really drives the viewcount up on these pieces 😊

UFOs, Nuclear Engineering and Government Cover-Ups

Nope, I haven’t gone completely off the deep end, but the topics above were pretty heavily covered in my interview with Jan C. Harzan, the director of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON). Wondering what the hell a MUFON is? Well, in a way it shares a similar origin story to the fictional Men in Black, with a small group of midwesterners creating a group to study alien activity, and slowly growing into something larger. Right now, MUFON is one of the largest, if not the largest UFO monitoring network (aside from our government) in the world.

Jan was an engineer for 37 years before joining MUFON

Now, a quick note before I link you to the interview. Before you all think I’ve lost my mind, more than usual that is, I want to confirm that I am still firmly a skeptic, and not jumping on board the conspiracy train. In this interview, Jan shows a lot of distrust in what the government tells us, and a few other problematic views, but I still think it’s interesting. The whole point of Cryptids Decrypted is to hear odd stories from people on the fringe of science studying creatures that haven’t been proven to exist. Well, as of yet, aliens fit that category.

So, without further ado, here’s my interview with Jan C. Harzan. It’s available on all podcasting platforms from the link here, or you can listen below.

If you prefer video, here’s the video!

Star Wars – The Re-Review – Rogue One

We have ten weeks until Star Wars – Episode 9 – The Rise of Skywalker releases, and conveniently, there are ten films in the series that come before it (yes, I’m counting the spinoffs). To view Episode 9 with the proper perspective, and gain shameless views for my site, I’m going back to watch all ten movies and review them with fresh eyes. Now, before I get into the first movie, a couple of notes.

First off, I love Star Wars, always have, always will, but on this run through I’m going to be looking at them a bit more critically. So, know that while these reviews might harp on the films, they are still some of my favorites.

Second, my watching order. I’ve thought about this for a while and am going with a modified version of the Ernest Rister order. I may have lost some of you already but let me break it down with a picture to explain who the heck an Ernest Rister is and why I’m following him.

Now we have that out of the way, let’s talk about the first film.

Rogue One – The First Star Wars Story

From the moment the movie starts Rogue One tries to carve a unique space for itself in the Star Wars universe. There’s no opening crawl, and instead we’re thrust straight into the action, a first for the Star Wars series, and a good indicator that this sits outside the mainline films. Unfortunately, in an effort to set a new tone and quickly introduce us to all its characters, Rogue One’s first hour feels very disjointed in both tone and filming style. In the first thirty minutes we’re introduced to a myriad of new planets never seen on the screen, and each is barely given enough room to breathe before the film cuts somewhere else. This is understandable given the film’s already two-hour run time, but it can definitely be confusing, even for a fan of the series.

Putting aside the jumpy first half, Rogue One does introduce some memorable characters with the standouts in some of the more minor roles. Personally, K-2S0, yet another sassy robot, and the pair of Baze and Chirrut are some of the most interesting characters, despite not being the leads. K-2SO’s one-liners help break up the film’s darker tone with some comic relief, Chirrut gives us some insight into what happened with the Jedi temples after Order 66, and Baze carries a damned big gun. Saw, played by Forest Whitaker is another standout side character, but he’s given so little screen time, that its hard to really enjoy his performance.  

A blind jedi boi and a thick gunner make eyes at each other on the beach
Name a Star Wars couple you’d ship more, I’ll wait.

Getting to the leads, their characters aren’t bad either, but Cassian Andor, Rogue One’s captain, swaps between cold-blooded assassin and suddenly hopeful rebel at the drop of a hat. While I like the idea of showcasing a more problematic character in Star Wars rather than another cookie-cutter hero, Cassian wasn’t that. Instead, he came off like a half-baked Han Solo with more dramatic flare and it just didn’t work.

Jyn Erso on the other hand is a bit more interesting. Born the daughter of the Death Star’s architect, she’s got plenty of reasons to be confused by the way the factions of the world work, and her character works best when she’s all the powers at be. Unfortunately, the story of Rogue One ends up being pretty cut and dry, leaving a simple black and white position for her character to take. When it comes to siding with the plucky rebels, or The Empire, hell bent on destroying whole planets with their shiny new Death Star, there’s not much of a choice. There wasn’t anything the writers could have done to ameliorate this as the plot was set from the get-go, but it does shortchange an otherwise memorable character.

If only this line had been given a sarcastic delivery

There’s also a few returning characters that are a heavily mixed bag. Through the magic of ridiculously expensive CGI, a not-so-believable Grand Moff Tarkin returned, and to be honest, he felt unnecessary. The scenes with him were distracting just because of the uncanny nature of his animation and didn’t do much to further the plot. Vader on the other hand is a true badass, aside from possibly one of the worst lines in Star Wars history…

Darth vader has a terrible fucking one liner
Just… SO bad. Who thought this was a good line? Was Lucas involved?!

Yeah, oof, and this is in a series that had the lines “I hate sand” and “She died of a broken heart”. Even with those in mind, this is by far the worst line in the entire saga. On the bright side, the rest of his screen time is memorable and sets up his entrance in the next film beautifully. Come to think of it, that’s what Rogue One is best at overall: setting up A New Hope.

At its core, Rogue One is a film about filling one of the series’s biggest plot holes and making it seem like a stroke of narrative genius. As a quick refresher, and another spoiler, Episode 4 ends with the rebels blowing up the immaculately constructed Death Star by having a farmer shoot 2 torpedoes into an exposed vent on the station’s surface. This causes a chain reaction that blows the whole damned thing up. Originally, fans were left to believe this was a terrible design flaw on the Empire’s part, but Rogue One has a better answer: sabotage.

Rogue One’s narrative of an engineer at odds with the Empire’s goals of creating a planet-destroying weapon works, and creates a believable reason for the Death Star to be more vulnerable. It’s aspects like this, bridging the gap between movies where Rogue One really shines, and most of them happen in the film’s back half. The last forty-five minutes of Rogue One are arguably some of the best in the Star Wars franchise. The battle for Scariff is memorable, has a point, and unlike many of the other films, does a fantastic job of demonstrating the human cost of such an effort. It gives more weight to A New Hope and shows the audience exactly what the cost was to set up Luke’s miraculous trench run.

Overall, despite these misgivings, I still really enjoy watching Rogue One. It’s a fun film that gives us something different from the mainline saga. The battles are intense and easily some of the best in the series, most of the characters are memorable, and we are introduced to some cool new worlds, albeit briefly. The script’s tone and some of the more gratuitous fan service (looking at you CGI Tarkin) were definitely not necessary, but they don’t take the film down as a whole.

Final verdict: 3.5/10 – Absolutely worth watching if you’re a fan, and gives great context that somehow makes A New Hope even better.