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Anger and disenfranchisement make good musical bedfellows; National Novel Writing Month

Wednesday, Nov 15 2000
Would you like some cynicism with your latte? Just when it seems like the populace can't get more cynical, we learn what a sham the presidential election is. Why should anyone bother to vote when he knows his vote might be lost, mistabulated, or neutralized by campaign workers offering cigarettes to the homeless in exchange for votes?

The worst thing about this kind of cynicism is the apathy it engenders. Before the election, one person I spoke with was looking forward to having someone truly abhorrent in office, like dear old Ronnie Raygun. Anger and disenfranchisement make good musical bedfellows, he said. He's got a point there -- no one ever wrote a punk song lambasting Bill Clinton.

It's ironic that as our economy grew stronger and the government grew kinder-if-not-gentler, punk bands moved from the political to the personal, writing angst-driven lyrics about how hard life was. During Reagan's tenure, there were hundreds of "protest" songs addressed to him, ranging from the Happy Flowers' messy take on "Reaganomics" to the Dead Kennedys' suggestive "We've Got a Bigger Problem Now" to the Ramones' arch travelogue "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg." Even 9-year-old hardcore kids Old Skull got in on the action, plaintively muttering "I hate you, Ronald Reagan" on "Homeless."

It's hard to see Bush inspiring such venom. Perhaps Ry Cooder could rewrite "One Meatball" as "One Meathead" or the Smiths could retitle their classic "There's a Light That Never Goes On." For now though, I'm trying to stave off these overwhelmingly bitter feelings with a slightly altered theme tune: "Ain't No Stealin' This Now."

It was the best of times and 49,994 other words "Writing a novel in a month is truly a stupid thing, but it will be the best stupid thing you'll ever do." Chris Baty was explaining the cracked reasoning behind National Novel Writing Month. Thirty potential novelists gathered around the SF Weekly freelance writer at the event's kickoff party at the Pacific Coast Brewing Company on Oct. 18. Each was willing to try the unthinkable and think the untryable: writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. For inspiration, Baty offered two mottoes: "Quantity, not quality" and "No plot? No problem!"

Last year during the month of July, the first such event took place, with six people out of 20 completing the task. This year, with the advent of a Web site ( and more extensive word-of-mouth, the challenge has drawn over a hundred participants, from as far away as Australia and as nearby as, well, me.

That's right, me. As we go to press, I have typed 14,020 words into a file with the mysterious name of Novel. Why, you ask, have I decided to put myself through this extreme form of masochism? Am I just a frustrated novelist trapped in a music scribe's cubicle? Do I truly have nothing better to do? The answer to all these questions, thankfully, is no. Then why?

Because of Emma Forrest.

Or, if you really want to go further back, because of Nick Hornby. Like a lot of obsessive music types, I hold Hornby's two 1990s novels, High Fidelity and About a Boy, in high esteem. While neither is groundbreaking in terms of language, style, or plot, the two books truly capture what it is like to love music to the point of insufferability. No piece of fiction had ever depicted that obsessiveness with such clarity, and certainly not with such humor, charm, and unlikable-yet-redeemable characters.

Unfortunately, since Hornby has been puttering around with movie scripts for the past two years, we have been left with a slow trickle of work from Hornby surrogates like Forrest. Written when she was 20 and living in London, Forrest's first novel, Namedropper, promises a titillating tumble through the hip London rock scene. Unfortunately, the promise goes unkept.

The book is simply dreadful -- full of bland prose that rambles on with little rhyme, reason, or wit -- a kind of Generation Y-bother. As for musical taste, all you need to know is that the 16-year-old girl protagonist is a huge fan of Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer."

I figured I could do a much better job of elucidating why music matters, even within a 30-day limit. Unfortunately, as Joan Didion once observed, the moment you put that first word to paper, your original idea goes out the window. I was amazed how quickly my "seriocomic take on the indie rock lifestyle" turned into a trashy, sexploitation story à la Judy Blume meets Lou Reed. Still, I decided to soldier on, for the express purpose of being able to say annoying things at parties, such as, "Still working on your novel? I finished mine in 30 days."

Next week: a word count update, and some suggestions on how to keep from throwing your crappy novel in the trash.

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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