My View on NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo starts on Sunday. If you aren’t familiar with it, NaNoWriMo – which stands for National Novel Writing Month – is a writing community event in which participants attempt to write a 50,000 word novel during November.

This will be the fourth year I’ve participated in the event, although I use the word participate loosely. What I do is enter my information and update my word count by day for the book I’m already writing anyway. I’ve never reached the 50,000 word goal, and except for one year, I’ve always started prior to November 1 – I guess that’s cheating? Also, I think that some people go to meet ups to write, something I’m not really interested in.

I’m not really sold on the value of NaNoWriMo to me personally, though I imagine there are plenty of people who want to write but have issues committing to actually doing it. For these writers, the event makes sense, as its designed to break down the mental barriers keeping writers from completing a book.

I’m not a binge writer – I can’t sit down for several hours and write the whole time. I prefer to work for an hour or two every day, typically six days a week – Sundays are for football – and build the story in a steady manner over a few months. This is partly because I get tired after an hour or two, and have a hard time continuing to write. But it’s also because I feel the need to work ideas out in my head in between sessions.

Given my style of writing, 50,000 words is difficult to churn out in one month (even though its too short to be an adult novel). Actually, it’s a lot of words to write in a month regardless of the style of writing. And I doubt that I’m the only writer who can’t write that fast without the product suffering. Some people feel the quality of the 1st draft doesn’t matter, that you should write shitty-as-you-please and just revise everything afterward. But I really aim to make my first drafts good, then revise to make them great (not that they always/ever get there). So while I keep track of my word count on the NaNoWriMo website during the month, I always expect to “lose” the challenge each year, and honestly, I think that’s better for my writing than reaching the word count goal.

Still, I think that it’s sort of a cool, fun event, and one that’s probably useful for a number of other writers. It’s just not one that I take too seriously. I plan to keep on writing after November’s over – at a pace that’s right for me – for as long as it takes me to finish the book.

Big East MBB Predictions

College basketball is almost here!

Now that season tickets are out, and the temperature around here is dropping rapidly (we had highs over 70 Monday-Wednesday this week!), it definitely feels like time for college basketball. I’m both optimistic and excited about the Marquette men’s team this year. These last couple of seasons have been rough, but I feel pretty confident that we’ve righted the ship.

I figured I would offer up my preseason picks for the Big East. I’m late to the game, and everyone else has already done this, but I’m doing it anyway. Here’s a quick rundown on the official Big East picks by another Marquette fan.

Here are my selections (I assure you there’s no MU bias whatsoever…). I project the bolded teams to make the NCAA tournament:

Teams:

  1. Villanova
  2. Butler
  3. Georgetown
  4. Marquette
  5. Xavier
  6. Providence
  7. Seton Hall
  8. Creighton
  9. DePaul
  10. St. John’s

Player of the year

Kris Dunn, Providence

Rookie of the year

Henry Ellenson, Marquette

All-Big East 1st Team

Kellen Dunham, Butler
Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
D`Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown
Henry Ellenson, Marquette
Daniel Ochefu, Villanova
(Kris Dunn)

All-Big East 2nd Team

Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
Josh Hart, Villanova
Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
Roosevelt Jones, Butler
Angel Delgado, Seton Hall

My Favorite Resources for Young Writers

When I say young, I don’t mean by age, I’m simply referring to others like me who hope to someday be a big name author, but are still working on getting there.

These days there are a seemingly endless supply of resources for aspiring authors, especially with explosion of modern social media. In this post, I’m not trying to give some kind of comprehensive list of quality sources (which would be impossible anyway). Instead, I’d like to share my personal favorites – those that I’ve found most helpful to me over the last few years as I’ve honed my craft.

If you’re looking for a somewhat more extensive list, here’s one good reference by author Dan Koboldt.

Now for my list, in pseudo-alphabetic order. You’ll notice it’s heavy on sci-fi & fantasy:

Brandon Sanderson YouTube lectures – One of the most popular fantasy authors (and my favorite) teaches a class on creative writing in SF/F at BYU. He has a series of recorded lectures posted on YouTube.

Brent Weeks personal blog (writing advice) – Another one of my favorite fantasy authors, with a nice section on writing advice on his website.

Elements of Style by Strunk and White – Classic text on grammar and writing fundamentals.

Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal – Author of the uber-popular Dresden Files, with a series of LiveJournal entries over the years covering serious fundamentals.

On Writing by Stephen King – Part memoir, part instructional guide on writing, this is the first book about writing I ever read. Excellent for beginners.

The Story Grid – A website and accompanying book regarding story structure, written by an editor with decades of experience.

Techniques of the Selling Writer – In my opinion, the single best book available for authors. Great for all levels of expertise.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass – Comprehensive book from a big time agent.

Writing Excuses podcast – Hugo award winning podcast by Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells. Loads of great info here.

Sometimes the Sequel Comes First

I’ve recently started writing my newest novel, and I finished the first scene last night. One of the things I’ve learned over the years, especially as I’ve queried agents with my more recent manuscripts, is how critical the beginning of the book is. The first page is key, but so are the first five pages. This is what readers use to decide when they consider buying a book, and is therefore a major focal point for agents/editors. Most agents will ask for the first 5 pages or so when you query them, and that’s all they have to decide if they want to request more.

In the past, I’ve struggled with writing great openings to my books, but I hope that I’m getting better as I continue to write. In this post, I’ll be talking about the current strategy I use, but my thoughts here are somewhat speculative – I’m still working through the challenges of making my beginnings pop.

A common approach writers use to hook their audience (agents, editors, or consumers) is to drop the reader right into the middle of an action scene. While this is an effective way of cutting out the common fluff that most newbie writers like to load up their openings with – long descriptions of scenery, backstory, detailed worldbuilding – there is a major downside to this strategy. Openings that show a character fighting off demons, or attempting to pull a damaged plane out of freefall sound really compelling, but if the reader doesn’t know anything about the character, or have any way of connecting to her, it’s very possible the reader won’t care about the character’s success or failure. And if the reader doesn’t care, the scene loses all potential tension.

It’s hard to find the right balance in a novel’s beginning, giving enough characterization to make the reader care, while also making interesting stuff happen so the reader isn’t bored. In my current novel (and the previous) I’ve found myself starting in the middle of what’s known as a sequel – not book 2, but a scene that involves character reaction and decision making.

If you’re not familiar with the scene/sequel format of writing, I recommend Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. I’ve found it to be a great resource, and I think it’s valuable for writers of all experience levels. The original edition was published in 1965, but it’s remarkably relevant to contemporary writing.

The basic breakdown of scene vs. sequel is this:

  • Scenes involve a character goal, conflict, and a setback or disaster
  • Sequels are based on a character’s emotional response to a disaster

Scenes are where the action takes place. They are full of tension, and up until the end of the story, they always end with something going wrong.

Sequels are “scenes” where characters react to problems, work through them, and come to some decision that propels the character into the next scene.

A conventional novel is formatted as scene-sequel, scene-sequel, scene-sequel, …

But I’ve found that I like starting my books in the middle of a sequel, where some disaster has already occurred. The disaster need not have happened just before page 1, or even on the same day, but it should be something weighing heavily on the character.

I think this gives me a good balance of characterization and conflict/tension, because it immediately puts the character in an emotional situation, forces her to make a tough decision, and allows me to lead right in to a scene with real conflict. I think it’s key, though, that the sequel portion of this sequel-scene combo is short. Right now, my opening sequel is about 1,100 words, which may be too long. I’ll need to work on cutting that down.

Anyway, I don’t mean to say that I believe this is the right or best way to open a novel. I’m not even completely confident that this is a good technique. But my current opinion is that this approach can provide a nice way to get the reader to care about the main character and quickly give a compelling hook.

And So It Begins

I’ve begun writing the first draft of my newest novel, an as yet untitled epic fantasy. Assuming I finish this project, hopefully some time in late winter, this will mark my sixth book, not counting a couple of manuscripts I never finished. It will be my third epic fantasy novel – my other projects were horror, contemporary fantasy, and YA fantasy.

I spent a lot more time pre-writing for this project than any of the others, and I even put together a chapter-by-chapter outline, something I’ve never done before. For my first two books, I think I spent a combined total of about six hours planning before I started writing. I used to be completely in the gardener/discovery writer/panster camp, but over the years I’ve moved more and more toward the architect/outliner style of writing. This has been more of a conscious attempt at changing my ways rather than an organic shift, as I’ve tried to improve my craft. I don’t know if this transformation will actually make my writing better, but I think I needed to get to this point in order to be capable of handling what I think will be my most complex story yet.

One of the resources I’ve found useful during my pre-writing process is the Story Grid website by Shawn Coyne, editor at the independent publisher Black Irish Books. I’ve adapted some of his editorial tools for my own purposes, tweaking them to suit my own personal needs, and I think they’re going to provide a great deal of help for me as I write. I will probably talk about these a little bit in future posts, discussing how I’ve applied the lessons I learned from following Shawn’s blog.

In the meantime, I #amwriting.

Smart Investors Know (Good) Hedge Funds Diversify Their Portfolios

Hedge funds tend to take a beating in the financial media. It seems like every week we see at least one new article from a major financial news center, pointing out how hedge funds continue to underperform major indices year after year, and wondering with astonishment how any investor could possibly still consider allocating any funds to these money-drains. I suspect part of the motivation for these pieces is regular schadenfreude, and some of it is writers knowing that their audience lacks sophisticated (and usually basic) financial knowledge, and therefore will gulp down any analysis that will provoke some kind of emotional response (those fucking rich hedge fund managers don’t deserve a damn dollar of their money!!). Some of the analysis you see is actually reasonable, but usually oversimplified.

I won’t link to any specific pieces that I find to be poorly constructed, mostly because there are so many, it’s easy to find them any time. But here are a couple good posts that take a more nuanced view, written by well-known professionals (outside the financial media), Ben Carlson and Cliff Asness. (I will echo some of their points here)

Now, as someone who has worked for one of these institutions for 7 years, I like to think I have a better understanding of this industry than just about all the financial writers that occasionally write hedge fund articles. Of course, that also means I have a significant bias. But I’m not writing this simply to defend hedge funds, nor do I feel like I need to. Somehow all the hedge fund bashing articles haven’t yet convinced the big institutional managers from allocating a portion of their assets to these alternative investments. Huh, wonder why that is?

The main point I’d like to make is that the analysis you see within most or all hedge fund trashing articles is oversimplified and usually worthless. The general lack of understanding of basic finance displayed by the writers of these things is astounding. The primary problems with the typical “hedge funds continue to underperform and STILL charge insane fees” article are:

Compiling an index of hedge funds is kinda stupid. This is such a broad term, it’s hard to define what should be in the index.

It’s rare to see someone compare the “hedge fund index” to a benchmark on a risk-adjusted basis. If you fail to consider risk in your comparison, you get an F in basic finance. Stop writing about finance. You are incompetent.

Still, the aggregate set of hedge funds is unlikely to beat a good benchmark, even on a risk-adjusted basis, over the long run. That’s because we all compete with each other, and if my fund is winning, some other fund is losing. Subtract fees, and the aggregate will probably underperform. But here’s the big, big secret that (almost) nobody seems to understand. Outperforming a benchmark is NOT THE POINT OF HEDGE FUNDS. Or other alternative investments. Sure, some funds may exist (which they probably shouldn’t) to try to outperform, but most will fail, and these funds are only worth investing in if you can pick the winners ex ante. Which is really hard, and requires a lot of resources.

So what is the point of investing in a hedge fund? Diversification. This seems obvious to me, but apparently 99.9% of the financial media can’t comprehend this incredibly advanced concept. Even if a fund underperforms whatever standard financial index you compare it with, it can still improve the risk-adjusted return of your portfolio, provided it is sufficiently uncorrelated with your other assets. That’s the most important thing here, and it doesn’t necessarily require great resources to figure out which funds are real diversifiers. Unfortunately, most available hedge funds are NOT great diversifiers. They pick stocks just like active mutual fund managers, charge higher fees, and usually do rip off their customers. So yes, some of the criticism directed at hedge funds is legit, but it really belongs to a (large) portion of the funds, not all of them. See Sturgeon’s Revelation.

So to sum up what I want to say: when evaluating (a) hedge fund(s), single out those that act as actual diversifiers to an investment portfolio, and see how they improve or degrade the risk-adjusted return of that portfolio (you can also look at drawdown mitigation). Ignore those that have a really high correlation to the other assets (including when you consider allocation). Comparing an indiscriminate aggregate of hedge funds to some benchmark may give you sadistic pleasure, but it’s fucking stupid.

Disclosure: This post reflects my opinions only, and does not constitute an offer of any kind.