Retiring from the Nanowrimo field

I was looking forward to it this year, but hit the sand early and never recovered. I started out as I had done last year, with an image, a situation, and then started to run with it. But the material didn’t form under my fingers as naturally as last year. I finally switched from a male, first-person narrator to a female, third-person narrator, and that helped a bit. I got several days of writing out of that.

I also adopted the Jeanette Winterson/Diana Gabaldon method of composing scenes out of sequence, thinking that if I could get the juicy scenes out first, then that would give my mind time to generate the connective tissue.

Well, it’s a good idea, and I should try it sometime. But tonight I sat at the keyboard and the ideas just didn’t come. I think the past that one of the main characters, a 96-year-old rural woman, on her deathbed, has lots of sadness and compromise in store for her, and I plain don’t want to go there. I don’t want to put her through it. There’s also the niggling feeling that I’ve read this kind of story before, that I’m just going through the plotting motions, and the sense of discovery I had last year isn’t there.

There have been pleasant surprises along the way, and I’ve rediscovered the truth that 50% of the material I generate will come out of the writing and I don’t need to do much in the way of planning. I did hit on some interesting connections in some of my daily writing, and some haunting (I think) images that I will want to come back to.

But as for making the 50,000-word count by Nov. 30 – nope. I’m bowing out. Nanowrimo should be fun, for me, and I don’t need the extra pressure of generating plot and words for a story that I am resisting. I reserve the right to continue to play with the story through the rest of the month (and beyond), however, and may break through whatever I’m resisting. But not today.

The Revenge of the Novelist

From the NY Times obit of John Fowles.

As much as it frustrated some of his readers, Mr. Fowles always believed he had done the right thing by leaving the endings of his most celebrated novels open-ended. But he was not above bending his own rules when the occasion called for it.

He once told an interviewer that he had received a sweet letter from a cancer patient in New York who wanted very much to believe that Nicholas, the protagonist of “The Magus,” was reunited with his girlfriend at the end of the book - a point Mr. Fowles had deliberately left ambiguous. “Yes, of course they were,” Mr. Fowles replied.

By chance, he had received a letter the same day from an irate reader taking issue with the ending of “The Magus.” “Why can’t you say what you mean, and for God’s sake, what happened in the end?” the reader asked. Mr. Fowles said he found the letter “horrid” but had the last laugh, supplying an alternative ending to punish the correspondent: “They never saw each other again.”

"Due to..."

From Melvyn Bragg’s latest In Our Time newsletter:

Monica Grady’s other mission seems to be to stop her students saying “due to” when they ought to say “owing to” or “because of”. She pointed out that in the case of libraries, babies and rent you can use “due to”, everything else is “owing to” or “because of”.

NaNoWriMo: The Adventure Begins

Yes, I’m one of the hairpins doing the NaNoWriMo challenge, though I will only use lowercase letters from here on out because those intercapitalizations drive me nuts.

Last year, I signed up on October 31st, just for a lark. I wasn’t working, nothing was going on, and I thought it would help me pass the time. I emailed my friend Sue in California, also a writer, and said this looked like fun, I may try out. Well, she signed up too. I got the No Plot, No Problem book, read through it, and plucked out a situation I’d written down in my notebook years ago but had never done anything with. I didn’t know where it might go, but thought I’d give it a try.

It had a magical, fantasy type atmosphere, and I read a couple of Lon Milo DuQuette’s books that helped feed my imagination during the process.

I wound up creating enough situations and piling up enough detail that I eventually “won” with about 51,000 words. Sue actually crossed the finish line first and called to tell me. This inspired me to sit down, finish mine, and upload it to the site (which I did before her). We were both abuzz for the rest of the year, comparing notes on the experience, and patting each other (and ourselves) on the book for taking on a crazy project (crazier in her case, as she’s a freelancer and mother of two little firls) and actually succeeding at it.

The lessons I learned and things I noticed:

  • I’d been rather glum and mopey for most of the year, with good reason. I didn’t feel that way during Nanowrimo month. (Sue noticed the same thing.)

  • I started out with only a situation–no plot, no characters, no themes. As I wrote, plots, characters, and themes emerged.

  • When I had a strong situation, the scene almost wrote itself.

  • When I could see the images in my head very strongly, the scene worked out pretty well.

  • When I had nothing, it was work to squeeze out the word quota.

This year, I also pulled a situation out of my notebook, what I had long thought of as a murder-mystery idea, even though I have no idea how to write a mystery story. The situation stands on its own as very melodramatic and maybe ludicrous, but it’s stayed with me for some reason, so I’m using it as my prompt to get the story started.

As it happens, tonight’s writing went OK (but I found myself checking the word count every 5 minutes towards the end–was it this hard last year?). I’m already finding that it’s going to contain lots of personal history and thoughts about my family, and the place of the outsider in the family. I didn’t actually get to the prompt scene. I started the novel after the funeral service; the narrator will be flashbacking to the prompt scene, and I’ll see then how plausible it feels.

But even if it doesn’t, who cares. It’s Nanowrimo month! I have license to be creative! I can splat things down just to see what happens! I don’t have to go back and edit or delete! God Bless Us Every One!!

Online holiday games to play

For those of us who just don’t get out enough into the real world…

Note that some of these require Shockwave or other plugins to work, and probably a fast connection as well.

Links courtesy of News from ME and Lifehacker (more links to other games included in the comments to the Lifehacker post)

10+ year old files

During the New PC Blues upgrade process, I ran across a 5.25” floppy disk Liz had used to store files related to a musicology paper she wrote back in 1989 – well before I came on the scene.

Why we hadn’t done anything with this diskette before, I don’t know. But what to do with it now? Our last two PCs had only 3.5” drives, and the current one has no floppy drives at all. Who needs the things, with USB flash drives?

Unfortunately, Liz didn’t have any other copies of this paper and wanted to keep them. What to do?

Few friends or co-workers had a 5.25” drive, even in a closet, let alone installed in a working system. Fortunately, Michelle’s boyfriend was visiting his father in Fayetteville who, amazingly enough, had a 5.25” drive on one of his computers. Michelle assured me that 5.25” diskettes were tougher than the 3.5” disks and that the files were probably still readable.

Her boyfriend copied off the files, zipped them, and emailed them to me. Easy as pie.

Next: Let’s try opening them in Word, surely there’s a converter … Ah, but no. Most of the text comes in, but the formatting codes interfere with too much of it to make the file easily readable. Then Liz remembered that maybe it was Wordstar for DOS instead of WordPerfect that she’d used for the paper.

I fiddled with downloading Word 2000 converters but instead invoked the Google oracle. Up popped several Wordstar sites, including several utilities to convert old WS files. The one I picked converts Wordstar files to formatted HTML. It runs from a DOS window and uses the command-line to specify the source and destination filenames.

Voila – it worked. The HTML files come up with the original formatting preserved and all the text in place. The text can now be easily copied into Word files or wherever they will sit for the next 10+ years.

RSS Feeds - one day at a time

This item from Merlin’s 43Folders blog knocked me for a loop and I took a few examples from the Probations idea and from others in the comments to adjust how my Bloglines feeds are displayed.

* First, I always have the option checked that only updated feeds be displayed. When I began editing my list, I was shocked at how many feeds I’ve subscribed to that haven’t updated in months. Out they went. Others went into the probation folder.

* I like sorting my blog folders in alphabetical order. It’s natural yet arbitrary. Sue me. So, I have “z_Probation” to hold the feeds I’m on the fence about.

* I also had subject-level folder categories, the largest being “Blogs,” which usually always had something for me to look at and/or clear out. So that needed trimming down. I picked out a few blogs I love checking on a daily basis–Catarina, Cool Tools, Core Dump, and a few others–but that don’t update constantly. These are the “desert-island blogs” that I let myself check anytime I want.

* I also created a Comics folder for the few comics blogs I read and a folder to hold various feeds from I let myself check these daily because they don’t update often.

* But I also enjoy the novelty and freshness of something new coming into Bloglines on a regular basis because, you know, my bored brain needs stimulation all the time. And there were plenty of blogs I like but that didn’t need to be checked daily.

So, I created a set of day-based folders–_1_Monday, _2_Tuesday, up to _6_Sat/Sun. I then arbitrarily split up my huge Blogs folder amongst this group.

So now, the simple rule is: On Wednesday, for example, I allow myself to read the blogs in _3_Wednesday and in any non-dated folder (Blogs, Comics, Audible). I cannot read Monday’s blogs till Monday, Tuesday’s blogs till Tuesday, and so on. I can tell at a glance if my Blogs and Wednesday folder are empty, and if they are, this is the signal for me to move on to real work. I know that tomorrow’s blogs await and that they will have something new to delight me. It keeps me from overdosing on them all today.

A final refinement: high-update blogs like Mark Evanier’s and Quick Online Tips go into the Sat/Sun folder because they generate lots of items daily. While I enjoy them, I simply don’t have time to process them. I have a little more time on the weekend, so the high-impact blogs go here.

I’m toying with the idea of letting myself view any blog on the weekends or after work-hours, but for now, I’m sticking with this system.

New PC Blues: The Beginning

The time had come. My last computer had been an HP Pavilion, bought at Circuit City, when Windows Me was the OS of choice. It had 256MB RAM, a 20GB hard drive, and a CD burner, but I’d not upgraded it much beyond adding more RAM. Along the way, we got DSL, a wireless router, file and printer sharing between my desktop and Liz’s laptop, an HP all-in-one printer/scanner/copier/fax, several plug-in USB readers for various media formats, I’d compiled a large list of “essential software” for the PC, and I installed and uninstalled shareware like it was nobody’s business.

But little things began piling up – Windows began running arthritically slow (could it have been all the programs loaded at startup?), the “replace battery” light glowed red on the UPS unit, the network was acting flakey and I did not have the tools or methodology to deal with that particular problem.

And–embarrassing though it may be to say–when I saw the New Yorker was issuing all its back issues on DVD, I knew I didn’t want to have to trick out the old PC anymore. [Aside – I think the DVD set will sit nicely beside my previous magazine collection on CD. Lovely little bookends, what?]

It was time to upgrade–get a new PC, with a bigger hard drive, enough RAM, DVD burner and reader, built-in media readers, and maybe a few other goodies. Also, maybe, just maybe, please God – the network would again work as flawlessly as it had been working for the previous year or so.

Around this time, I had to sell a mutual fund to pay off some debts and thought I had enough left over to buy a new PC. After looking around, I decided to buy from a local computer store instead of the big-box stores and to bequeath my old computer to a friend who would appreciate it.

So this series of posts will catalog for future generations (or just me) what I did, why I did it that way, and lessons learned as I went along. I also always like seeing those wonderful checklists people make when they reinstall Windows, because it can be an elaborate operation and you always forget what you did from the last time you did it. Until I make such a checklist, I’ll let these posts take their place.

Links: Writing tips for academic papers

I compiled the following quickie list of paper-writing tips for a co-worker who is taking online classes and has been away from paper-writing for a while. The whole process seemed difficult for her, so these links cover a broad range of items. Some of the links to academic papers at the end of this list may have good clues, especially with selecting thesis statements. I’ve not vetted all these, but they’re a start. The little comments for each are reproduced from my original email to her that contained these links.

A good book I recommend is this: Books: Thinking on Paper

–Just read the first half (the second half is all about the Latin names for types of logical arguments). it sets forth a very good simple process for building a piece of writing from the ground up so that it isn’t as painful as you think.

Writing tips compiled by Mike Shea
–Here’s the PDF version

Poynter Online - The Writing Tools
–Just scan the list and read whatever article is of interest. His focus is on journalism so his approach might conflict with academic writing. but the writing tips are good and solid. You’ll be able to devise some simple rules to help you in your actual writing.

43 Folders: Hack your way out of writer’s block
–Entertaining list of bullet points and good comments. but lookit the next link too.

Google Groups : 43 Folders
–Advice on paper writing from a grad student

TOC About Writing
–I’m also interested in fiction writing and this page has mainly tips for that side of the house.

50 Strategies for Making Yourself Work
–A great page of tips to bust procrastination.

Study Guides and Strategies
–Scroll down to the writing sections, but good general advice to students.

Google Search: tips academic writing papers
–The search i used to dig up some of the links in this mail.

Timed Essays: Planning and Organizing in a Crunch
–This is for when you’re writing for an in-class test, but some good advice.

Thesis Statements: What are They?
-This might be more practical for your needs right now. BE SURE to click on the Related Links in the right sidebar. You might get good ideas there.

Academic Writing Handouts – Dennis G. Jerz
–The top page from which the previous two links were drawn.

Sally Slacker Writes a Paper (Dennis G. Jerz, Seton Hill University)
–I haven’t read all this but I like the title!

Tips for Writing Academic Essays and Term Papers in Philosophy at Erratic Impact
–Good numbered tips after the intro.

Writing Help
–Ton o’ links. Don’t know how many of them are still good.

Academic Center :: Writing Tips
–More basic tips on academic writing. After you’ve read about 10 of these kinds of pages, you’ll notice they start repeating themselves.

–A pretty good checklist to use after you’ve written a draft.

True Work

I had this on my office wall many many years ago, and can’t find the source again. But I think I remember it word-for-word:

True Work is that which occupies the mind and the heart, as well as the hands. It has a beginning and an ending. It is the overcoming of difficulties one thinks important for the sake of results one thinks valuable.

Jacques Barzun