Saturday, November 7, 2009

National Novel Writing Month

For those of you who don't know, November is National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. It is essentially a month long, writing project in which participants try to write a 50,000 word novel in only thirty days. While it is still called "National Novel Writing Month," it has truly become international in scope. Many people from many nations now participate.

NaNoWriMo was started in July 1999 by writer Chris Baty. That first year it had only twenty one participants, all of them in the San Francisco Bay area. Since that time it has grown considerably. By 2000 it had its own website, as well as a Yahoo Group for discussions. The number of participants that year had grown to 140. It was also moved to November,  with the idea that the more miserable weather would be more inclined to novel writing (hating summer as I do, I would argue with that idea....). It was in 2001 that NaNoWriMo really took off. Expecting only 150 participants, Chris Baty suddenly found 5000 people had signed up to his creative writing project. It must be kept in mind that at this time NaNoWriMo did not have an automated system for signing up, so that Chris Baty and several volunteers had to register participants by hand! Since then NaNoWriMo has grown by leaps and bounds. In 2002 it actually received coverage from both National Public Radio and CBS News. In 2005 59,703 people participated. In 2006 101,767 did.

National Novel Writing Month only has a few rules in order to "win" the project. The first is simply that one must write a 50,000 word novel from November 1 to November 30. The second is that the novel must be written from scratch. While one can create plot outlines, create character sketches, and perform research all before November 1, any actual writing cannot begin before that date. Third, the work must be a novel--a lengthy work of fiction. Third, one must be the sole author of his or her novel. Co-authored works are not allowed. Fourth, one cannot simply repeat the same word 50,000 times and win. Fifth, one must upload his or her novel to validate that it is 50,000 words or more. Here I must point out that there are no prizes beyond the satisfaction of completing a novel in one month. I must also point out that quality does matter for NaNoWriMo. All that matter is that the novel is written in thirty days or less and exceeds 50,000 words.

For those who are thinking that 50,000 words seems to scant too qualify as a novel, I must point out that a work of fiction need only be 40,000 words to be considered a novel (anything under 40,000 but above 17,500 is a novella, anything below 17,500, well, you get the picture).. Ray Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451 only has a count of 46,118 words. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five only has 49,459 words. Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby only weighs in at 50,061 words. All three of these works are considered novels, and yet only one of them has more than 50,000 words (and only a tad more at that).

Here I must point out that it is possible to write a novel, even a good novel in a month or less. The writers of the old pulp magazines actually did it on a monthly basis. Two of my idols, Lester Dent (who wrote the bulk of the Doc Savage novels) and Norvell Page (who wrote the bulk of The Spider novels) did this for literally years, and the majority of their works are quite readable. Ian Fleming wrote his first novel and the first novel starring James Bond, Casino Royale, in only around four weeks. While the emphasis for National Novel Writing Month is on quantity rather than quality--one simply has to get a novel out in 30 days, not necessarily a good one--it is possible to write something publishable in that time frame.

While I had heard of National Novel Writing Month several years ago, this is my first year participating in it. Here I must give credit to fellow writer, A Cat of Impossible Colour for alerting me to it on Twitter (otherwise I would have forgotten it until, oh, November 30....). For me NaNoWriMo is a chance to sharpen my writing skills. For those of you who don't know, while I am a published writer of nonfiction articles (and, of course, this blog), I have always wanted to be a published writer of fiction. While in my twenties I even wrote my first, unpublished novel (which will forever remain unpublished). After a lapse of  many years during which time making a living took precedence over writing, I decided once more to try my hand at fiction. I developed a concept for a novel and started on it this summer. It was then that I learned I was a bit rusty. NaNoWriMo is then a chance for me to sharpen my skills. Of course, as per the rules, I am writing a wholly original novel  for NaNoWriMo and not the one upon which I had been working.

Because of the time restraint, I am having to approach my NaNoWriMo novel a bit differently than anything I've written before. I did not even think of a concept for a novel that could be written in thirty days until November 1 was nearly upon me. This means that I could not develop a plot outline as I have for every short story I've written, the novel I'd written, or the novel I was writing. It also means that I had little time to do research ( my novel is set in England in 1654). I then find myself letting the plot develop as I write and not really worrying about too many historical inaccuracies (fortunately, I do have some knowledge of Cromwellian England). The biggest hurdle for me is finding time to write. I work five days a week, forty hours a week. This leaves very little time in which I can write even a thousand words a day, let alone the average of 1,666 words a day I  must write to reach 50,000 before November 30. I am finding now that I am having to play "catch up" on the weekends.

Regardless, NaNoWriMo is proving enjoyable. It is a bit of a challenge to actually produce a novel, even one that's not very good, in thirty days. I wholly recommend NaNoWriMo to anyone who is interested in writing fiction (although I think it would be a bit late to start now). And who knows? If Ian Fleming could start an entire franchise with a novel he wrote in a month, then maybe I could too?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Carl Ballantine Passes On

Character actor and magician Carl Ballantine passed Tuesday at the age of 92. He may well have been best known as con man Lester Gruber on the sitcom McHale's Navy. In both vaudeville and on television he also performed bumbling, inept magic tricks as "Ballantine the Great."

Carl Ballantine was born Meyer Kessler in Chicago, Illinois on September 27, 1917. At age 9 he was taught his first magic tricks by his barber. It was in 1940, when he was performing a straight magic act called "The River Gambler," using cards, poker chips, and money. Realising that his act was not a big hit in nightclubs, he decided to change his act. Ballantine developed an act in which he performed magic tricks very ineptly, expressing mock chagrin when they did not work. Ballantine soon found himself very much in demand as a nightclub performer. With a bad back, Ballantine was exempt from military service during World War II, but performed for the troops in England. During the Forties he performed at both the Palace Theatre in New York City and in Las Vegas as well.

Carl Ballantine made his first appearance on television on The Milton Berle Show, on which he performed his magic act/comedy routine. Throughout the Fifties he appeared on such shows as Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge, The Jack Carter Show, Frankie Laine Time, The Chevy Showroom Starring Andy Williams, and The Gary Moore Show. In the Sixties Ballantine appeared on such variety shows as The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Hollywood Palace, and The Dean Martin Show. As Lester Gruber, Ballantine was a regular on McHale's Navy, and appeared on the feature film based on the show--his first appearance in a motion picture in 1964. He guest starred on such shows as Car 54, Where Are You, That Girl, The Monkees, Laredo, Mayberry R.F.D., and I Dream of Jeannie. In 1969 he was a regular on The Queen and I. He appeared in the films Penelope, Speedway, and The Shakiest Gun in the West.

In the Seventies Ballantine guest starred on such shows as The Partridge Family, The Virginian, Love, American Style, O'Hara U.S. Treasury,  and When Things Were Rotten. He appeared in the films The World's Greatest LoverThe North Avenue Irregulars, and Just You and Me, Kid. In 1972 he appeared on Broadway in a revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. In 1980 Carl Ballantine was a regular on the series One in a Million. He guest starred on Trapper John M.D., Blacke's Magic, Night Court, and The Cosby Show. He also appeared in the film The Best of Times.

In the Nineties Carl Ballantine appeared in the films Mr. Saturday Night, Oink, My Giant, and Susan's Plan. He did voice work on the cartoons Garfield and Friends, Freakazoid, and Spider-Man. In the Naughts he appeared in the movies The Million Dollar Kid, Farewell to Harry, and Aimee Semple McPherson (his last appearance on film). He performed his magic act/comedy routine for last time in the autumn of 2008, at the "It's Magic" show at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

"The Great Ballantine" was an apt stage name for a man who was both a great magician and a great character actor. As a magician Ballantine had considerable skill, even if he appeared bumbling. Indeed, he was perhaps the first man to successfully combine comedy and magic in one act. As a character actor he not only played Gruber on McHale's Navy, but numerous memorable characters in his many guest appearances (including TV producer Hubbell Benson in The Monkees episode "Find The Monkees"). Carl Ballantine was a rarity, a man who was talented as a magician, a comedian, and an actor.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Actors Lou Jacobi and Collin Wilcox Pass On

Lou Jacobi

Character actor Lou Jacobi, passed on October 23 at the age of 95. He appeared on Broadway and in movies ranging from Irma la Douce to My Favourite Year.

Lou Jacobi was born Louis Jacobovitch  on December 28, 1913 in Toronto. He started acting at a young age, appearing in The Rabbi and the Priest in a Toronto theatre in 1924, playing a violin prodigy. As an adult he worked as the drama director of the Toronto YMHA, a social director at a summer resort, a stand up comedian, and as entertainment at such functions as bachelor parties and weddings. Jacobi went to London where he appeared in American musicals Guys and Dolls and Pal Joey. In 1952 he was even part of a comand performance at the London Palladium.

Jacobi made his film debut in the 1953 British film Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary. He made his television debut in an episode of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Presents in 1953. It was in 1955 that he made his debut on Broadway, playing Mr. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank. He would repeat the role in the 1959 movie adaptation of the film. In 1959 he appeared on Broadway in the play The Tenth Man.

Jacobi remained busy in the Sixties. On film he appeared in Irma la Douce, The Last of the Secret Agents, and Penolope. On television he guest starred on The Defenders, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and That Girl.  On Broadway he appeared in Come Blow Your Horn, Fade Out--Fade In, and Don't Drink the Water. In the Seventies he appeared in the movies Cotton Comes to Harlem, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, Roseland, and The Magician of Lublin. On television he was the lead on the TV show Ivan the Terrible in the summer of 1976. He also guest starred on The Dean Martin Show, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Love American Style, Barney Miller, and Sanford and Son. On Broadway he appeared in Norman is That You, Unlikely Heroes, The Sunshine Boys, and Cheaters.

In the Eighties he appeared in the films Chu Chu and the Philly Flash, My Favourite Year, Isaac Littlefeathers, and The Boss' Wife. He was a regular on the 1986 series Melba, and guest starred on Too Close for Comfort, St. Elsewhere, and L.A. Law. It was in the Nineties that he made his last film appearances, in I Don't Buy Kisses Anymore and I.Q.

Lou Jacobi was a versatile actor who was capable of playing many roles. He could play a  genius, like Albert Einstein's friend Kurt Gödel in I.Q. or someone less than honourable like Mr. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank. In his career he played comedic ethnic characters and dramatic roles with equal ease. Quite simply, he was one of the best characters of the latter part of the Twentieth Century.

Collin Wilcox

Collin Wilcox, best known for playing Mayella Violet in To Kill a Mockingbird, passed on October 14 at the age of 74. The cause was brain cancer.

Collin Wilcox was born Cincinnati on February 4, 1935. While she was still a baby her family moved to Highlands, North Carolina. Her parents were two of the founders of he Highlands Community Theatre. It was there that she made her debut when she was still a child. She attended the University of Tennessee and later moved to Chicago where she studied at the Goodman School of Drama. In Chicago she was part of the Compass Players, which included Mike Nichols and Elaine May. In 1957 she moved to New York City, where she studied with the Actor's Studio.

Collin Wilcox made her debut on Broadway in The Day the Money Stopped in 1958. That same year she made her television debut on The DuPont Show of the Month. She made guest appearances on Brenner, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Untouchables, and The Eleventh Hour. She appeared on Broadway in Look We've Come Through in 1961 and Strange Interlude in 1963. It was in 1962 that she appeared in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Despite her prominent role in To Kill a Mockingbird, most of Wilcox's career would be spent in television. Throughout the Sixties she guest starred on Temple Houston, Route 66, The Twilight Zone, Ben Casey, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Defenders, Run For Your Life, The Fugitive, and The Virginian. She appeared in the movie The Name of the Game is Kill.

In 1970 she appeared in the films Catch 22, The Revolutionary, and The Baby Maker. In the Seventies she guest starred on The Waltons, Gunsmoke, The Streets of San Francisco, Cannon, Columbo, The Manhunter, Quincy M.E., and Little House on the Prairie. She appeared in the films September 30, 1955, A Rainy Day, and Jaws 2. In 1977 she moved back to Highlands with her husband Scott Paxton. Together they founded the Highlands Studio for the Arts. In the last years of her career she appeared in the movies Fluke, The Journey of August King, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and A Twist of Fate. She was a regular on the TV show Christy as Swannie O'Teale.

Collin Willcox was a talented actress who was not afraid to play roles that were not always glamourous. She was superb as  Mayella Violet, the girl who falsely accused a black man, in To Kill a Mockingbird. On her guest appearance on The Waltons she played an Aimee Semple McPherson style evangelist. She was a talented actress who could play a variety of roles with ease.