The Novemberist

This blog is now 20 years old. I know, because there’s a version of this post every few years, and the first of them appeared late in October 2001. I went and checked. You should not read your old writing. Doubly so, your old blog posts, but my excuse was research, and an anniversary, so off I went.

It’s incomprehensible, as most things made by 18 year olds are*. I would like to say that it is entirely so, but I haven’t changed that much in 20 years, and while his vernacular stings as young, I still understand that person’s inner workings. 

*(for public consumption, that is. I maintain that left to one’s own devices, making things mostly for oneself, quality can be achieved at any age)

I understand, for instance, the forced cryptic banter he employs to appear smug & worldly, of stories-in-progress and real life events, as if we are of the same secret club and will always have a keen memory of that time, of each story’s beats by its (often one-word working) title, of where he was in the real world (attempting to get a piece of paper that would pass for higher education). It’s one of the few times I wish he’d (we’d) commit that cardinal of writing sins, a character who turns to another and says, “As you know…”

As you know (and have forgotten), Vishal of the present, November & December 2001 was… eventful to say the least. Which is why you didn’t write anything else until January.

The older you get the more you partition major events of your life into sequential compartments, when oftentimes life happens with a simultaneity that would make for very bad fiction plotting. I had created a blog mostly to keep progress of my first attempt at NaNoWriMo, and that’s why most of the early entries read like an internal progress report, complete with word counts (god I could write fast back then) and side works (god I could concentrate fully on more than one task in a day) and college work and life stuff (god I… well I was shit at it back then too, but I still had it on my plate). 

And like all teenagers, the progression of each post is: life happens, but let’s get back to talking about me.

To be fair that was the pitch for blogs back in 2001. Like their video counterpart later in the decade, a blogspot (because that’s where we hosted things if you didn’t have a LiveJournal invite) was the place to go when you needed to talk about your shit. Google was barely a few years old, and social media was years away, so it’s not like anybody who wasn’t directly connected to you (and the handful of internet friends you’d made over the years) would even know about it. Virality was something that happened a couple of times a year to outliers with strange websites, who were then saddled with eye-watering server surge fees. It made sense to be hyper-focused on you and what you were up to, half private confessional diary, half look-at-me-I’m-cool.

(Side note: if I ever end up notorious for any reason, I should probably set up a cron to nuke the old posts or just the site entirely, because they’re “of their time” and I refuse to either apologise for them or give continued attention to anyone sniffing around looking to be outraged.)

The focus shifted and changed over the early years, as I myself shifted and changed. 9/11 had happened, and the region (I was in Dubai then) was about to go through interesting times, but for the most part I was still just a kid on track to have a normal life, college and jobs and career and whatnot, and maybe a successful stint in fiction writing. All deviations from the norm seemed like they’d iron out, and I’d get back to a fairly boring life. The following years were to teach me otherwise, and the older me can fill in the long gaps between posts, where I go from worrying about group projects to worrying that I just haven’t been productive that day (and what such mundane observations really meant).

(Had Millennials been invented yet? Because I was showing all the signs.)

It surprised me that, sporadic as posts became in the blur that was ‘02 to ‘07, I still did some odd detours. Some posts are a single line or a stray thought, prefiguring twitter by at least half a decade. Digital cameras brought a pivot to ‘camblogging’ (though thankfully I never vlogged when that was a thing). I even wrote–ugh–poetry.

Every November though, for the first few years at least, I’d come back to talking about fiction writing, NaNoWriMo, and the promise that November brings. Most of those projects are forgotten. Again, I talk of them as if I’d know each intricate detail forever, but beyond the name ringing a bell, all I hear is the dull ghost of that sound (skip to later in this post for those dull sounds).

At some point I seem to have gotten it into my head that, if not fantasy fiction, I might be able to ply a trade selling spec film scripts to people around the world. This sounds absurd, but in 2001, it seemed entirely unlikely that a teenage brown guy living in the Middle East could somehow finagle a career writing sword & sorcery novels, so even screenwriting seemed viable. Clutching as I was at the very notion of being a fiction writer when the tides of real life crept upon the shores of my sandcastles, it was something, anything to keep a major part of a personality I’d constructed, alive.

If Superman is the person and Clark Kent is the secret identity, then I was Vishal the Writer and everything else was something I did to bide my time. Graphic design, illustration, all just unpolished skills (at the time) that I didn’t want to hook my future to. That I did eventually become those things only tells you that saving kittens from trees doesn’t put food on the table. Graphic design and illustration did, at least now and then.

If I have a dim recollection of the visual arts work I did back then, I have even less of the tens of thousands of words of fiction I put down, all of them into unfinished novels, not-so-short stories, and plans. In one November post I go on and on about the minutiae of interpersonal dynamics between characters in a multi-narrator book. All the characters have names, some of them have character arcs and there are Events of Great Import teased, but I doubt even Me of a couple of years later could tell you what those were, let alone Me of two decades later. And you know what? It was probably good. Decent enough. I’d discard ideas that didn’t immediately have that gleam of something valuable, that sting felt on the fingertips that tells you they’re important but fleeting, and these ideas would go into the big .TXT file of plans.

Oh, the plans. There’s a point soon after NaNoWrimo 2003 has passed (and lapsed) when I, a 21 year old, returned to the blog to rant about my surplus of ideas and plans, and how I do nothing with them. How they’ve ruined me. When I, at twenty-one, feel old.

38-year-old me nods in understanding at him. I too often feel this rush of ideas taking me over, only to be gone the next day, scribbled (now typed) in notes and filed away for an uncertain, unrealised future. I’m more forgiving of myself for these. The tide of Real Life Concerns has now ebbed and a tide of ideas flows in, frequent as before, but it breaks against a shack I’ve built just off the water to gaze into its depths, a pier for peering.

At 21 I cursed my lack of proficiency at my chosen profession (design, not writing), my inability to cook, my general state–then unnamed–of Can’t Even. I don’t want to hug that boy and tell him it’ll be okay. I don’t want to slap him out of it either. I know the things that happened between blog posts, the real life concerns he used to mention in posts nonchalantly as a teenager, that now he omits, out of shame and frustration.

We are all silent witnesses to our past selves, but if the universe allowed, I would point that boy in the direction of his frustration. Because I did get better, at all those things, to the point where I could, reasonably, to my own measure, be said to Even.

But that frustration was a turning point, because it was also when I stopped writing.

Okay, so it’s not as dramatic as all that, because for a few years more I did the NaNoWriMo lead-up dance, and off and on I’d put 10K words a year into shorts and other things. But writing was now no longer the pillar around which I’d built my personality, and rather than knocking it down and watching the roof come down on me, I’d watched it atrophy and seen that the roof, like most metaphors, is magically free-standing.

I’ve always struggled to define who I make things for. It’s easy and pat to say “for myself” as if that is some kind of morally sound thing, a virtue-signal of not pandering to an audience, or money-minded overlords. But I started writing fiction for a set group (it was a writing group, but thankfully it was genre fiction, not literary, else today I might be dead of ennui), and continued and flourished when I had people in my close circle that appreciated that fiction. Some of those people went away. The writing group moved on with their own real life concerns (and the occasional ‘what is fantasy fiction?’ quarrel). Things became wider and shallower until there was just a nebulous Audience to write for, and at that point, on that road, I found myself lost. Pens down.

Thus began the running joke of “I’m getting back to writing any day now.” It’s not like I wasn’t having fun learning and doing things in the visual arts, so it remained a joke, and whenever I’d take it seriously (usually around November) a new idea would rear up, only this time often with a serviceable fake cover done first, maybe some elaborate notes (plans had mutated into bullet point outlines by now. Progress!).

I did the November dance a few times in my 30s, in the 2010s, but older and wiser(?) I knew where things headed, or weren’t, a little better. Even now it’s nice to come back, perhaps especially among the din of the decade of Social Media, to a place that doesn’t beckon to me from push notifications. A place of my own, that I actually pay money for, and that, still, only a handful of people come to.

(Hello. I still see you and appreciate you.)

November pangs mutated elsewhere into October drawing pangs, with Inktober and whatnot, and I’ve been successful in those to the point that probably wouldn’t impress that raging 21 year old, but I frankly don’t care what he wants any more, even though I am entirely him, and also, entirely not.

He was the Writer. The frustrated Artist in denial. I am just me.

Sometimes though, in those first posts, a turn of phrase makes me genuinely chuckle. I suppose that’s a pact finally fulfilled, an audience found: a joke to myself, landing 20 years later.

Then young me ruins it by calling the phrase out as remarkable. Oh well.

Only the young are ever truly old.

And now, as a true indulgence, a run-down of all the novels I attempted to write for NaNoWriMo (and other things) over the last two decades.

(I will be referring to some by the acronyms on the filenames, mostly because they’re either funnier, or so cringeworthy that I don’t want to inflict them on you, dear reader i.e. me of 20 years from now,) 

ToATS! (often misspelled as TOAST) – 2001 – 41,789 words

The first one. The clumsy one that I actually managed to do a good third of (this will be a recurring theme) in a month despite having one parent in hospital for half of it. The one I still remember the most of, though dare not go back and read with any scrutiny because, good god, what if it isn’t terrible? Sure, I was 18 when I wrote it so the chances of it being un-problematic are zero, but I could probably iron it out in another draft.

What if I think of continuing it? There’s a nonzero chance of that too, since I did leave it at a clean act break more or less, and a part of me wants to just start cold with act 2, time jumping 20 years just to see how those characters did sitting in one place waiting for that time. I’m not even being metaphorical here: a bunch of protagonists were waiting for antagonists to make a move, and what happens when they don’t? What happens to a war that takes a 20 year break? What happens to characters aged 18, 35 and 3,725 when plot urgency just goes away for that long?

I must confess, it fascinates me.

Undecided at the Moment – 2002 – 4887 words

The first of many too-clever titles, I went back and skimmed some of this, and oof, I can see why the working title was in there, and why it never got off the ground. Ostensibly a novel about loss and moving on (it was three months after my mother died), I had neither the vocabulary nor the patience to be back at a keyboard. I don’t know if I am there even now.

It helps that this was the same central character as the previous one, aged 570-something not 3725, and by then I’d done enough writing with him that he’d taken up comfortable space in my mind as someone else, not a surrogate, but whenever I’d ask a question of how he’d be dealing with things, he had no answers for me. But someday I’d like to see how he deals with a supernatural horror military siege while tending bar and getting over the death of a loved one.

Polendron – 2003 – 3776 words

This was one of those Big Idea classic SF things, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, or at least it seems to be in the bits I skimmed. Probably an inversion of several first contact tropes, with intelligent aliens finding humans at their doorstep, and also a Big Mysterious Object of alien origin is there (shut up this was all new and exciting to me at the time). I don’t think there was a story per se, just a bunch of characters I could bounce around, get away from first person narratives.

Sixteen Permutations – 2005 – 7119 words

Back to my regular programming, this one bounced between two first person narratives (the guy from the first two was 501 years old here). It was mostly designed to call him on his own bullshit, to see said bullshit from another’s perspective instead of the lionising, rationalising or denial we often subject ourselves to. Probably too much for a 23 year old (who was himself not in the best mental shape) to reckon with, though I had the start of something good here and there.

Sundari – 2007 – 20,117 words

In mid-2007 the NaNoWriMo people decided screenwriters should also have some fun, and held an event with a much more achievable goal of 20K. So yes, this is the one I actually completed, though again I got maybe a third through the story, mostly wrote it as a very descriptive outline, and let it go at the end of the month. It was a twist on Beauty & the Beast set in a heavily Indian-influenced fantasy world, and I should probably have set it up as a YA novel or three anyway, because even the outline sure reads like one. I should note with some chagrin that a couple of the plot points have shown up in YA books & films subsequently, so while I may have been on to something, I’ll now have to rework some of its plot twists. 

If I ever go back. It was fairly generic (by design).

Fishbowl – 2007 – 13,186 words

At this point the few people I’d let read some of my fiction came asking for more, and by ‘07 I was thankfully not in the mental place I was in a few years before, and so, at one friend’s request, I put down some breezy adventure-y hijinks, with the aim of being done in 10K. Of course, by the time 13K rolled around, I hadn’t even got the protagonists out of Bag End, so to speak. But more on that later…

Faf – 2009 – 35,142 words (3 actual chapters 18K words, rest notes)

In retrospect, ‘09 might have been my most earnest “get back to writing” year. I got on social media. I made some friends. My health, both mental and physical, wasn’t terrible. Samit Basu, the fantasy author, was writing a new book. He encouraged a bunch of fellow twitter people to come along and write their own, and put wordcounts down. So I figured I’d do the most generic fantasy book I could imagine. My literal subtitle for the file reads as follows:

Because you can’t stare at a shelf of bad covers that say ‘Book 16 of the BloodDude Trilogy’ & not be spurred into writing a Sexy Elf novel.

Faf remains, if you’ve read the title, very early in, but with copious notes to flesh out the rest. 18K words of it, which is about 15K more than I remember writing. What’s there isn’t bad, but mostly in the notes. There’s a surprising amount of knowing where characters are heading that I’m not used to. Those first three chapters are hilariously overwrought, but god it felt good to be imagining and constructing sentences again, that did not involve pitching websites to apathetic businessmen.

I should probably write The BloodDude Trilogy though.

Fishbowl (again) – 2009 – 25715 words

Between Faf and NaNoWriMo, I seem to have mustered up the strength to put 10K more into Fishbowl. This time the protagonists did leave metaphorical Bag End, and got to a place where plot could happen. Unusually, I’d come up with scenes from later in the story and instead of ignoring them or writing down little one line outlines, I’d just break and go write the scene. It was an odd process, sort of like shooting a movie out of order, but it worked, and some of those scenes, even if they get obliterated in edits, have a certain energy I like.

What I dislike is that it seems to have the same plot a lot of these have, which is that in the third act a giant army invades and now the protagonists need to sort shit out.

Look, this was before Marvel Studios films, and even they got away with it multiple times.

Three Typewriters – 2009 – 4381 words

This was ambitious. It was Magic Realism and literary faffery mixed with pulp bravado and alcohol-fueled machismo having a fistfight on the page. I made timelines and relationship charts just to get my head around where things had to be, and even if I wrote it now I’d have to, just based on world events, set it back in 2009, when men were men, and smartphones were shit.

I’d tell you the premise but it would sound absurd in summary, and that’s usually when I know I’m onto something good. There are actually three typewriters involved. And magick with a K like the Victorians fucked around with.

It mostly never got off the ground because I had no handle on who the protagonist was, and while a stupider novel could make do with a cipher, this one needed someone with an actual personality, and I just couldn’t figure that out. I knew the antagonist well: he was me, just taken to the nth degree, and born in my grandfather’s time, with all the good and bad that it entailed. I probably wasn’t ready to face that either, as a 26 year old.

SUPERVEG – 2011 – 1400 words

Like all comic book fans, I often fall for the fallacy that superheroes are inherently interesting and that therefore, the more abstract and surreal the hero, the more interesting he must be. SUPERVEG (all caps) was supposed to be a towering work of genre-bending brilliance, the profound and the profane all together, a Shakesperian tragedy and triumph of the inner psyche and cellulose-rich biceps of a superpowered piece of sentient broccoli.

God, when you’re 28 you think you’re hot shit, right?

Sidekick – 2013 & 2015 – 5015 words

Somewhere, on paper, is a 30 bullet point outline of Sidekick, chapter by efficient chapter. I know this because it was the only thing I’d reference both in 2013 and 2015 when I made two feeble attempts to write it, a more sober, almost nostalgic take on 90s Image comics and their pouch-laden, stoic heroes and, of course, their sidekicks. It’s amazing what can seem fresh when you’re surrounded by the high period of geek media as mainstream pop culture. I don’t really have fond memories of those Image comics the way some do: even as a kid I marvelled (no pun intended) at the art and the glossy paper, but the wafer-thin plots kept me away. In a novel, I wanted to see if there was any meat in there, something worth saying about ‘roided up behemoths with tiny feet and guns with more guns on them.

I still think there’s something in it, but who knows? I hear pouches are making a comeback in comics too.

And that’s the list. It’s by no means a comprehensive view of what fiction I wrote, because a bunch of shorter-length things (also unfinished) was the bulk of my output, especially in the non-Wrimo years.

I haven’t written much since moving to India in 2017, not for lack of wanting to. But if I’m to be honest, the same fear and concern I had in ‘02 is still around, that keeps me relegating fiction writing to that running joke about Somedays:

I’m afraid that if I ever do go back, I’ll do nothing else.

I know this sounds absurd, but fiction writing is one of the few things I can just do with no effort, the way some people can play sports or do complex math or neurosurgery. Now, I’m not putting any kind of quality judgement on my fiction. It’s all probably very bad and should never be read by anyone, let alone be published and give me fame and fortune.

But the truth is I don’t care if it’s bad. If it’s unsuccessful. If I’m the Tommy Wiseau and Neil Breen of paperback monstrosities. I’d be writing. I’d be happy doing it. Fuck the rest. Fuck elegant design solutions that could be of use to actual people. Fuck drawings of naked weirdos and misbehaving animals. Fuck every other ambition, every skill of service and craft that my 21-year-old self despaired at not being able to do, that I spent two decades working to get better at, and did. Time to write stories and shit again.

Did you see that turn of phrase? Did you see that plot resolve? I did that. I can do that all day. A gambler’s addiction. An addict’s fix.

I don’t have the ambitions of success that I used to. Nor do I have the hollow despair of living to survive that I also had back then. I do not believe that my writing acumen is tied in any way to those hungers, but I know that sometimes, when I was hungry, writing was enough. And it shouldn’t be.

This blog is 20 years old.

This man, is more than that.