The Depressingly Low Expectations Of Christian Filmgoers

This morning Darren Doane, the director of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, posted the following tweet:

What’s happening for Doane and Cameron’s movie at Rotten Tomatoes is similar to what you’ll find if you look at many of the recently released so-called faith-based films: extremely low critic ratings and unreasonably high audience ratings. Let’s look at some of the results of other Christian-made films:

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What exactly is going on?

Is there a secular critic bias out there that says if a film is released with a hint of “faith-based”, it will be treated differently than a movie of a different genre?

Even if the movie is brilliant, it will not get a fair shake?

Is there a faith-based audience bias out there that says if a film is released with a hint of “faith-based”, the quality of the movie will be given a free pass as long as it portrays Christians in a good light, talks positively about Jesus, or has Scripture passages used in a semi-appropriate fashion?

Even if the movie is terrible, it will be received positively if it meets the criteria?

Personally, I think there is a bit of both going on.  Yes, there are secular critics who will not approach a Christian film without adding the caveat, “…for a Christian film”.   But one hopes that a critic will be able to separate that particular bias from what they experience on the screen and write a candid review that explores the positives and the negatives of the film.

And yes, there are plenty of Christians who will gladly support anything as long as what they are seeing on the screen reinforces or promotes what they already believe.  Thus you have hundreds of positive reviews on the Left Behind website from ordinary people who make the movie sound like the best film ever made, rather than the enormous cinematic shamble that it was.

But critic bias is by far the less alarming and less surprising issue of the two on the table.  I’m much more disturbed by the way so many Christians will line up around the block to embrace any movie that builds up their worldview – regardless of the film’s quality.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that many Christians have become so needy to see their points of view on the screen that they’ve become blind to what makes for a quality film at all.  At least that seems to be the case, considering the way we rally behind so many poor filmmaking efforts, treating them like the best thing since the last poor filmmaking effort.

Yep.  Our expectations have grown depressingly low.

There has been a two-pronged effect on Christian-made films that I see as a direct result of the low expectations of the target audience.

First, the low expectations force the filmmakers to sacrifice good storytelling on the alter of hitting all the right beats to please the Christian audience.  I’ve discussed this point before, in my article What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking, so I will move on to the second point.

Second, the low expectations damage our potential to be taken seriously by people outside the church, as they see us vehemently defending films that are so badly produced.

Our films are not taken seriously.  

What did George Costanza say about Christian rock on Seinfeld?  “I like Christian rock. It’s very positive. It’s not like those real musicians who think they’re so cool and hip.”

If George were still around today, he might also say, “I like Christian films.  They’re positive.  They’re not like those real films…”

We did it to ourselves with a Christian music industry supported exclusively by the Christian sub-culture, we did it to ourselves with a Christian publishing industry supported exclusively by the Christian sub-culture, and now we’re trying to do it to ourselves again by building a Christian filmmaking industry supported exclusively by the Christian sub-culture.

And it’s a huge mistake.

This “circle the wagons” mentality does little to help with building the kingdom of God, but does much for building up walls between the church and the greater culture.

In his Salon article entitled, Christian right’s vile PR sham: why their bizarre films are backfiring on them, writer Edwin Lyngar says some pretty damning things about what is happening in American culture as a result of this past year’s Christian filmmaking efforts.  Lyngar says:

The people who create and consume Christian film are neither mature nor reflective. They are at their core superstitious, afraid and tribal. They self-identify overwhelmingly Republican and shout about “moochers” while vilifying the poor. They violate the teachings and very essence of their own “savior” while deriving almost sexual pleasure from the fictional suffering of atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, Hindus, and even liberal Christians. To top it all off, the stories they tell themselves are borderline psychotic.

Is this what it means to be salt and light to a dying world, that the followers of Christ come off as ‘neither mature nor reflective’?  That we’re seen as ‘superstitious, afraid and tribal’?  That our stories are viewed as ‘borderine psychotic’?  I realize that this is just one man’s opinion, but I don’t think we Christians can afford to dismiss opinions like his, because I don’t believe that his opinion is so uncommon.

And it all comes back to the depressingly low expectations that we have for the art being produced by us, for us, and in our name.

The irony is that Christians would be the first to stand up and say, “High expectations breed high results, and low expectations breed low results!” with regards to most things in life:

Education?  Aren’t Christians known for homeschooling our kids because we have high expectations for their education?

Employment?  Aren’t Christian employers known for holding employees to higher standards?

Ministry?  Aren’t we disappointed when people in positions of ministerial authority don’t live up to our high expectations?

And yet when it comes to filmmaking - as evidenced by the overwhelming support given to many of the not-so-great faith-based films that were released this past year - our expectation for quality Christian art is shockingly low.

And it just doesn’t make sense.

Meanwhile, not only was the director of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas out this morning stumping on the social media platforms for people to speak out at RT, but the man himself, Kirk Cameron, posted this on his Facebook page:

 

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I can appreciate the grass roots campaigning of Cameron and Doane, and I haven’t had the chance to see Saving Christmas yet to speak to the movie one way or the other, but what about this…

What if – instead of just flocking to a film’s Rotten Tomato page and putting up happy reviews to support the filmmakers - we showed that we have the capability to use our higher order thinking skills, and write critically honest reviews that discuss both the good and the bad about the film?

What if - instead of just flocking to the Facebook pages of filmmakers who believe the way we believe and gushing about how much we love their movies, or flaming about how much we disliked the movies, as the case may be – we do the same thing and give them constructive feedback so that they can improve the next time out?

What if Christians do the really heavy lifting and raise the bar on our expectations for films made in our name, helping our filmmakers by expecting them to make great movies that even the secular critics would have a hard time dismissing?

Folks, unless we start to adjust our expectations, unless we break the model set for us by the music and publishing industry, unless we start doing our best to pursue excellence in the films we are allowing to be produced in our name, we might very well find Mr. Lyngar’s heartbreaking prophecy coming true.

The fundamentalist community will continue to shrink until they start telling themselves—and those they hope to win over—more honest and humane stories… Christian film with its cardboard characters and heavy-handed messages will only drive an increasingly diverse and media-savvy populace away. Failing a profound change of heart, the best this community can hope for are films so bad no one will bother to watch them.

Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Day • November 20, 2014

Today is November 20, which means that the end of the month is just ten short days away.  If you are doing Nanowrimo, this is the time to pick it up, push yourself, and get yourself over that finish line!  Maybe you haven’t done as well as you were hoping this year, and you’ve only written a few thousand words.  It doesn’t matter!  Kick it to the end!  Maybe you’re right on track, but you’re running out of steam.  Push yourself!  Don’t let your hard word go to waste!  In the immortal words of Rob Schneider in Waterboy…

And in case you need a bit more encouragement, let’s see what Jenny has to say about it.

Forrest-Wrimo

Now on to the three interesting things I found on the internet this past week.

1.  The Peanuts Trailer

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This one is really, really interesting to me.  Like a gazillion other folks out there my age, I amassed stacks of Peanuts books growing up, and read them over and over and over again.  As a somewhat shy kid with self-confidence issues, I identified with Charlie Brown and the problems he faced.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if I could have become a part of any children’s literature at the time, I would have grown a round head and jumped into the panels of Charles Schultz’s world.

When Blue Sky Studios (the guys behind the Ice Age and Rio movies) announced that they were going to be making a new Peanuts animated feature, with CGI, I was initially pretty skeptical.  You could wallpaper your house with the bad reviews of bad movies that decent filmmakers have made from fantastic properties that I grew up with:  Transformers 1,2,3 & 4, Scooby Doo, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Smurfs, Smurfs 2, Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, Superman Returns,  Knight Rider, The A-Team, Charlie’s Angels, Get Smart, The Pink Panther, Robocop

…the depressing and continually growing list represents a non-stop assault by lazy Hollywood producers on the pop culture treasures of my childhood.

Given, there have been some successful reboots/reimaginings:  Battlestar GalacticaThe Muppets, Star Trek, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, the recent Planet of the Apes movies, James Bond, to name a few.  And while they prove that it can be done, they are the exception to the rule.

And now we have Peanuts up next on the horizon.  And I have hope that it will be an exception.

The two things that gives me hope about this film are this:

A)  The studio

If you go to the Blue Sky Studios website and look at the films they have released, they are almost all good movies.  The one exception was the underwhelming Rio 2, which I forgot right after watching it.  However, they did well with the Ice Age franchise, and have several other good standalone movies under their belt.  Peanuts is in good hands with this studio.

2)  The Creative Team

Peanuts has a strong animation-experienced director in Steve Martino (Horton Hears a Who, Ice Age: Continental Drift) and Charles Schultz’s son and grandson are sharing screenwriting credits with newcomer Cornelius Uliano.  Also, I was totally stoked to see that Christophe Beck (one of my absolute favorite movie score composers) is doing the soundtrack.  Hopefully, this creative team will seek to stay true to the spirit of the original stories, and not try to reimagine Peanuts for a new generation to the point of getting rid of everything that made Peanuts special and timeless in the first place.

That leads me to the message I would communicate to the creative team if I had the opportunity:

PLEASE MAKE PEANUTS THE MOVIE TIMELESS BY KEEPING IT FIRMLY ROOTED IN THE TIME AND SPACE FOR WHICH IT IS KNOWN!

Yes, I’m suggesting that they should keep the film in the 60′s – 70′s era.  No cell phones, no internet, no Facebook references, no hip lingo or jokes about celebrities, no setting in modern-looking neighborhoods.  Keep the music reminiscent of the jazzy style of Vince Guaraldi, as well as orchestral music – but no pop songs by One Direction or Christina Aguilera or some other teeny bopper music group that would plant the movie firmly in the 2014′s.

Go CGI all you want, and make it fun and funny for the kids!   But remember that the setting and the score are characters into themselves, and if they aren’t there, they will be missed as much as Linus or Schroeder.

At least by 40-something guys like me that grew up with Peanuts.

Now, I started all this saying that I was excited to find the release of the new Peanuts trailer, and so, without further ado…

The trailer looks pretty good.  We’ll hold out hope for the finished product!

2)  Bono and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

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First, Bono is on an airplane over Germany that loses a door (and Bono’s luggage) mid-flight.  Then, a few days later, Bono is involved in a very serious bike accident in New York City while biking in Central Park.

I don’t mean to sound snarky with another man’s misfortunes, but… I mean, wow.  That has to go down in the books as one of the worst weeks ever.  I sincerely hope that Mr. Hewson will have a very quick recovery and be able to get back on the road sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon had to have the best response of a host having a guest not be able to make it, when he and the Roots stepped in for Bono and U2.  I have not been the biggest Jimmy Fallon fan before, but this cover might just have made me a believer.

3)  10 Year US/China Visas

chinaThis one is quite selfish, but I was thrilled to hear that the United States and China agreed to extend ten year visas to each other’s citizens.  Living in China, one of the most annoying hassles is reapplying each year for the work visa.  This past year was especially excruciating, as we had several extra things we had to do to be able to get visas for all of my family.

But, thanks to President Obama and President Xi Jinping and their diplomatic staffs, I’ll have one more visa for which I’ll need to apply, and then I’ll be done!

Hopefully my airplane won’t lose a door as I fly home this summer…

 

Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Day • November 12, 2014

First of all, NaNoWriMo continues, and we’re nearing the middle of the month.  The middle of the month in NaNoWriMo is typically the time where we separate the men from the boys, the women from the girls, and the dogs from the cats.  It’s the time when we find out who is really serious about finishing 50,000 words in thirty days, come hell or high water.   I wish I could say it’s the time when one’s writing becomes really spectacular, but unfortunately, it’s when the quality of the writing starts to become sacrificed on the alter of word count.

In honor of the middle of the month, I give you Gandalf the Grey, and his experience with NaNoWriMo.

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I do have to say that if I make it to the finish line, I am going to have a very precocious eleven year old girl to thank.  I teach 6th grade here in China, and my class is doing the NaNoWriMo Young Writer’s Program.  We spent the month of October in intense preparation, and part of that was allowing the students to choose their own writing goals.  Most students chose around 15,000 words in the month, but one ambitious student chose 30,000.  When NaNoWriMo began, she made it her new goal to beat me, and so while I’m writing close to 2,000 words a day, so is she.  Currently, she has about two hundred words more than I do, so I’ve convinced her to up her final goal to the adult level of 50,000, and she has agreed.

This has worked out really well for me, because now I base whether or not I will quit for the day on her word count, rather than if I’ve reached my daily goal, so I’m being pushed forward.  50,000 words, here I come!

Speaking of young people, my own eleven year old daughter took an extremely cute picture of her seventeen month old brother, Noah, who has just discovered how to make duck lips.   The picture she took was so cute because Noah is standing much like an adult might, if they were striking a heroic pose.  I absolutely love this picture.

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And of course, the more I looked at this picture, the more it reminded me of one of the promotional posters that Darren Aronofsky put out for Noah.   And since our Noah shares the name, I thought it might improve the poster a bit to get rid of the sour looking Russell Crowe, and give Noah a more upbeat expression.

The Real NoahNow that would have been a spectacular movie.

And finally, I give you John Oliver, and the Salmon Cannon.

Now, considering that I’ve used several hundred words here that should have been on my NaNoWriMo novel, I’m going to go ahead and close it up.

See you next week, with the next three interesting things I can find!

P.S. On principal, I refuse to include Too Many Cooks in my list.  I just refuse to do it.

 

Don’t Kill Your Darlings… Yet…

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It’s November, and that means NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month.  The month when you work like mad to hit 50,000 words in thirty days.   It’s an insane activity to take part in, but I’m going to give you a huge piece of advice, a key component to successfully making the goal.

You must reject the age-old writing adage to kill your darlings.

kill-your-darlingsThis idea, to kill your darlings, simply means that when we’re writing the first draft of our novel, we will have parts of the novel that we love with all of heart, but they also happen to be the parts that don’t do anything for the story itself.  They don’t push the story forward, they may even be wildly self-indulgent, and while we may love them dearly, they simply have to go.

They are our darlings, and they have to be killed for the greater good of the story, as painful as that might be.

But in fact, November is a magical month!  It is the month that your darlings will love you, because not only are they permitted to live, but like little bunnies, they are encouraged to multiply at abandon, because your darlings are what will help you reach that golden number of your word count goal.  This is why you breed them, why you allow them to exist at all.  They will be the ones that help to carry you all the way to the finish line, and to the winner’s circle, so that you can get that cool little winner’s avatar and display it on Facebook and Twitter for all the losers to see and envy.

mandrake_harry_potterOf course, it’s best not to let them in on the secret that – like the mandrakes from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – they are only being bred to help you fulfill a grander purpose, that your intention is only to use them, and that when the time comes they will be chopped up into little bits and boiled up in a potion to help free Mrs. Norris from her petrification.

Yes, one day most of your precious darlings will have to die, and this is very sad.

But this is November, and it’s not the month to lament.  This is the month to revel in their creation, to encourage their reproduction, to massage them and make them feel like they are the most wonderful darlings to ever come out of the imagination of any writer since humanity first began organizing words onto papyrus back in Ancient Egypt.

And then, come December, they will die.  Most certainly, they will have to die.

But not until December.

So for now, breed your darlings, writer.  Breed your lovely little darlings to your heart’s content.

Nate Fleming is using NaNoWriMo 2014 to write the first draft of Thimblerig’s Ark Book Two: Forty Days and Nights, the sequel to Thimblerig’s Ark, published in March 2014, which he also wrote in a past NaNoWriMo.  So far, he’s written many more darlings in his first draft than he’d care to admit, but he looks forward to some bloodletting when time to edit and revise rolls around.

Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Day • November 4, 2014

I’m home from work with a sick daughter and wife, and so while everyone is blessedly sleeping, I decided to throw up (sorry) a few things onto my blog that I’ve found of interest the past couple of days.

First, my Nanowrimo word count is just over 4,000 right now.  Not as high as I’d like it, but not as low as it could be considering the sickness and family responsibilities I’ve been dealing with these past couple of days.

Snape WAYW

Second, Mat Kearney’s very cool new music video for his upcoming album, Just Kids, just went up.  The video was taken with a drone in one shot, and features some really nice dancing and video work.  I’ve been a big Kearney fan since 2007, when listened nonstop to his breakout album, Nothing Left to Lose, on my way too and from screenwriting classes in Hollywood.  I have a feeling that Just Kids will be immediately going to my writing playlist, as soon as it’s released.

Unfortunately, I can’t link directly to the video as it’s still not wide released, but if you click on the screenshot, it’ll take you to the video.

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Finally, living in China never stops being interesting.

For example, when I went to our local Walmart yesterday to get something to feed the sick women in my house, I found that – even though it’s November 3 – and even though China doesn’t celebrate the holiday – Christmas decorations were already up.

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November 3, in China, and Christmas decorations are already up.  In China.

Isn’t the world fascinating?

Anyway, got to get back to Nanowrimo while things are still quiet.   Why aren’t you writing?

Cheers!
Nate

 

Thimblerig’s Interview • Bill Myers

backcoverbill-jpgWith tomorrow being the first day of this year’s National Novel Writing Month, it seemed appropriate that my first Thimblerig’s Interview would be with the very accomplished and successful writer, Bill Myers.

Perhaps best known for McGee and Me!, the popular kids television program and novel series, Bill has also written more than 80 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and he also has experience in film, with credits as an actor, producer, writer and director.

Oh!  And Bill also happens to be a committed Christian.

I recently came across Bill’s work Kickstarter campaign for a film called Forbidden Doors, which you can read about here.  This campaign is raising support for an independent film based on his book series of the same name, Forbidden Doors.

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I was very interested to read about the filmmaker’s plans – that they want to make a film that reaches outside the Christian subculture, a film that entertains as well as shares truth, a film that has “plenty of chills and thrills to keep the audience glued to the screen.”

Curious to know more about the people behind this film project, I wrote Bill and asked if he would be willing to answer a few questions about being a writer who happens to be a Christian in the modern entertainment industry.  He graciously agreed and took the time to answer a few questions.

Please Introduce yourself…

Author/filmmaker, 70 national and international awards including the C.S. Lewis Honor Award. 8 million/books videos sold. And I take none of it seriously, just use it as cred to open some doors. For the most part, I’m the goofy neighbor next door who keeps forgetting to mow his lawn.

How did you get involved in filmmaking?

I saw the power story and parable has to mold and motivate our culture.

Who have been some of your most profound creative influences as an artist?

Sorry for the piety, but I’d have to say the Apostle John. Actually, Scripture in general. There has been no book I’ve found that so accurately captures the heart of God, man, and our world. I’m not talking religion here, but as a work of art, nothing even comes close.

What are your thoughts on the state of filmmaking in the Christian community?

I have very strong opinions which I never make public. I’m happy to sit down with a filmmaker and tell them my opinions and suggestions for improvement of their work (and when asked, do so) but I am loath to discuss their shortcomings publically. That’s like telling the world the flaws about somebody else’s baby. Making a movie is so difficult, we should be required to give standing ovations at the opening credits before we even see the quality.

Considering that most “faith-based” films only play to Christian audiences, what do you think is the key for films made by Christians reaching beyond the Christian subculture?

Stop the propaganda. Stop trying to change your audience. Stop using characters as mouthpieces for your philosophy and make them real with real strengths and weaknesses. Christian films for Christians are mostly to affirm. I get that. With all the tearing down, there’s a much-needed place for encouragement. But if we’re doing projects for those outside the family (and still want those projects to have an eternal impact upon our culture) than be content with simply glorifying God with your art (which is controversial enough in our current climate) and let the Holy Spirit do His part in drawing the audience closer to Him. Exalt God. Let God do the rest.

You are currently raising funds to make a film called Forbidden Doors with a Kickstarter campaign. Please give a synopsis of the film and tell us a bit of the history of the production.

It’s based on my teen book series, Forbidden Doors. A couple teens return to California from the Amazon and discover their classmates, in fact the entire town, is falling under some very evil occult influences. With so much attention toward the paranormal these days and so many misconceptions, it seemed a natural and much-needed project. And since you brought up Kickstarter, here’s our link if you feel like helping out or forwarding it to friends. http://kck.st/1rdb4UI Thanks, we really need it.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced so far in developing the project?

Um, er . . . money.

Forbidden Doors has been described as Christian Horror, which is unusual for a film made by Christian artists. What advice would you give to other filmmakers who want to go down this path in their own stories?

Don’t get carried away with the creep factor. As an old agent once said, “Bad publicity is better than no publicity.” The devil doesn’t care what you say about him just as long as you’re talking about him. Don’t give him too much credit. If kids go to bed at night afraid of him, you’re working for the wrong side. Make sure God not only trumps evil, but does it in a way that we stop fearing that evil and realize we actually have the power to kick its butt.

Do you think it’s possible for Christians to make edgy – even R-rated films? Please explain your thoughts on this question.

The Bible is full of edgy, R-rated scenes . . . but the edginess is never glorified.  I think the reason some Christians don’t make R rated movies falls along the lines of what Paul says regarding stumbling a weaker brother. That’s the tension of being in both worlds…the religious (and I use that term intentionally) and being relevant to a very different culture. Whatever you decide requires careful prayer and expectation of ridicule. I plan to be raked over the coals by secular reviewers who say Forbidden Doors is too tame because it’s too realistic and that there is no gore…and bad-mouthed by the Pharisee element of Christianity that is eager to judge without evaluating my heart and purpose.

What final advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers or novelists, especially those who are approaching filmmaking or writing as a calling or a ministry?

If you sincerely see it as a ministry (and not some way of being famous or being loved by the world) immerse yourself in God’s presence. Take quality time each day to feed your soul, to dwell in His heart. It’s not your ministry, it’s His. Be flexible to His desires. I want to exalt Christ to the nations, and for decades I wore myself out doing it on my own (while begging God to wake up and get with my plan). Only recently have I discovered His real method:

“Be still and know that I am God. And I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10.

Do you want to exalt Him? Then be still in His presence and know Him. If you’re under thirty it’s doubtful you’ll believe me. I wouldn’t. But don’t take my word for it, take His. If you want to exalt God . . . be still and know that He is. It’s totally backwards and upside down thinking from that of the world. But if you’ve hung out with God for any time, you know upside-down is pretty much His style.

I appreciate Bill taking the time to answer my questions, and hope that the readers of Thimblerig’s Ark Blog will be encouraged and energized by Bill’s advice, garnered by years in the industry.

Finally, I encourage my readers to head over to the Kickstarter page and consider being a part of making Forbidden Doors a reality.

Find out more about Bill Myers at his website

Bill on Twitter: @BillMyersauthor

Bill on Facebook: /billmyersauthor

NaNoWriMo: I’m Only Going To Say This Once, Okay?

thimblerigsark:

This post is a couple of years old, but it’s just as relevant heading into #NaNoWriMo2014. Everyone should just relax and enjoy the month to come! Happy writing, y’all! Nicely written, Catherine.

Originally posted on Catherine, Caffeinated:

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starts on November 1st.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, the idea is that you pull out all the stops to write 50,000 words of a new novel in 30 days, or around 1,670 words every day during the month of November.

Every year around this time, something else starts too: NaNoWriMo Snobbery. Professional writers, who the other eleven months of the year seem like the nicest, most generous and friendliest people, suddenly start tipping their noses in the air and saying or even writing things about how NaNoWriMo and the people who partake in it are belittling their profession, ridiculing their craft and making a mockery of the 1,670 words they write every single day of the year in order to make a living.

Now, usually I just grit my teeth and try to ignore it, but this year I’m finding it impossible—and…

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