Archive for October 2018

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Becoming a novelist in 30 days

Like many authors, I have a “vanity shelf” in my home, with copies of all the books I’ve written (or contributed to). Well, at least it contains copies of all the printed books I’ve written—most of what I’ve produced in recent years has taken the form of ebooks and magazine articles. Among the titles currently on that shelf are books about Mac software and preparing Thanksgiving dinner, a bound copy of my Master’s thesis, and even—no kidding—a copy of Arnold and Sam, the Two Dragons, which I wrote in October 1974 at age seven. This 12-page book was my first work of fiction, and it was as bad as you might imagine, but I was understandably proud of it at the time. My mother typed it up, my father photocopied it, and my elementary school library even kept a copy on its shelves, with cover art hand-drawn by the author. By the time I left that school a few years later, it had been checked out nine times, only a few of which were by me.

In November 2005, I made my second attempt at writing fiction. I participated in National Novel Writing Month, which has been held annually since 1999. Along with more than 59,000 other aspiring novelists that year, I attempted to write 50,000 words of fiction between November 1 and November 30. I was one of almost 10,000 participants who reached that goal. However, what I wrote during that month is not sitting on my vanity shelf. I’ve declined requests to read it even by close friends and family members, who will love me regardless of how bad my writing is. In fact, I haven’t even looked at it myself since then. It’s so bad that it makes Arnold and Sam look like literary genius. And I don’t merely mean that it needs a few rewrites and a thorough going-over by a good editor. It is profoundly, utterly, and irredeemably awful. Humanity will be better off if no one, including me, ever sets eyes on that manuscript again.

Novel Ideas

And yet, say the organizers of of National Novel Writing Month—or NaNoWriMo, as it is known among its participants—I did exactly the right thing: I sacrificed quality for quantity. If you’re going to write a novel in 30 days, something has to give. But even if your novel is terrible, you can call yourself a novelist. The following year, you can breezily mention that you’re working on your second novel. And you can hold your head up high as you hobnob with other novelists, having accomplished a truly remarkable task—even if you accomplished it rather poorly. After all, so did most everyone else. The important thing is that you got it done, proving to yourself that you can make it through a process that has stymied and frustrated countless authors in the past.

NaNoWriMo began in the summer of 1999 when Chris Baty, a freelance writer living in Oakland, California, decided for no particular reason that he needed to write a novel in a month and invited a group of friends to do so too. That July, 21 people set out to write novels, and six, including Baty, finished. By “finish,” I mean they wrote 50,000 words of fiction. Baty had decided on that figure after picking up the shortest novel on his shelf—Brave New World—and doing a rough word count. Most novels, to be sure, are considerably longer, but 50,000 words, or about 175 pages, seemed to be just long enough while being achievable for the average writer in 30 days.

The following year, the event moved to November and, thanks to word of mouth, attracted 140 participants. In 2001, after newspaper articles and bloggers started covering NaNoWriMo, participation ballooned to 5,000. The number of novelists has continued to rise each year; by 2017, the number was well above 400,000. People from all over the world write novels, in a variety of languages, each November. The experience is oddly addictive, too; a sizable majority of participants from any given year repeat the undertaking again and again.


NaNoWriMo is about much more than simply sitting at your computer in a quiet corner somewhere and typing 50,000 words; it’s about being part of a huge number of people doing something challenging. In order to connect all the participants to each other, keep track of how many people are writing, and confirm reaching that magical word count, every novelist is asked to sign up (at no cost) on the NaNoWriMo website. In hundreds of cities around the globe, novelists schedule regular write-ins at cafés and bars to encourage each other as they write. In addition, online forums are abuzz all during the month as the writers seek and give advice, brag or complain about their progress, and try to maintain enough collective enthusiasm to get everyone through the month. There are also numerous kick-off (and “Thank God It’s Over”) parties, and in some places, even weekend novel-writing retreats. Writers are encouraged, but not required, to post their current word counts regularly. You can earn achievement badges as you go, for various forms of progress and participation.

When you’re finished with your novel, you can upload your text to the NaNoWriMo servers for a single purpose: to use its automated word count validator. This doesn’t publicize the text in any way, and no one on the NaNoWriMo staff actually reads your work. (In fact, they go to great lengths to assure your privacy.) But it does confer on you the official status of a NaNoWriMo “winner.”

At the end of the month, what you do with your novel is up to you. Needless to say, even highly experienced writers are unlikely to churn out anything more than a first draft in a month; further work on the novels, at one’s own leisure, is encouraged. In past years, December was the unofficial National Novel Finishing Month, or NaNoFiMo March, while March was designated National Novel Editing Month, or NaNoEdMo. But now NaNoWriMo devotes January and February to supporting the work of finishing and publishing novels. In one way or another, a number of NaNoWriMo participants have gone on to hone their works and get them published; many, however, have no aspirations to be professional novelists and do the writing just for the experience of it.

Light Reading

Given the hundreds of thousands of annual participants, National Novel Writing Month has evolved from an informal project managed by a few friends in their spare time to a full-blown nonprofit corporation (formerly called The Office of Letters and Light), complete with a paid staff and an actual office. The organization is funded through voluntary donations and merchandise sales, and the money raised supports projects for aspiring authors such as a Young Writers Program, the one-month Camp NaNoWriMo, and the Come Write In program held at libraries, bookstores, and other community locations.

Chris Baty’s motivational book about novel-writing, No Plot? No Problem!, is popular among NaNoWriMo participants, stressing as it does the importance of getting through the process without worrying about whether the writing is any good. Speaking for myself, not having any notion of a plot my first time around actually was a huge problem. Not only did it mean I ended up with something that—let me repeat—must never again be read by anyone, but it meant that as I was writing, I found it hard to generate much enthusiasm; I simply didn’t care enough about the story I was writing for it to be an interesting process for me. However, that experience also taught me some valuable lessons, and I fully expect that, armed with a clearer notion of what kind of story I want to tell, I’ll participate again. And if, some day in the distant future, I’m better known as a novelist than as a technical writer, I’ll have NaNoWriMo to thank for it.

Bonus Tips

If you’re planning to participate in this year’s NaNoWriMo, get a good night’s sleep, load up on leftover Halloween candy and caffeine for fuel, and start the month off right by writing at least 1,667 words (one day’s average quota) on day one. Many, many people say that an app called Scrivener makes the writing process simpler and more enjoyable—and it includes lots of organizational tools for those who find them helpful. I like Scrivener a lot, and in fact my company has published a book about it: Take Control of Scrivener 3, written by my colleague Kirk McElhearn. The book helps you make the most of the app, but remember: if you’re going to write 50,000 words in one month, you’re better off just using Scrivener’s basic and obvious features, and then taking the time to learn about all the bells and whistles later, once you have a bit more free time. Good luck!

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on October 27, 2006.

Image credit: Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day


Halloween is, you must admit, a pretty mixed-up holiday. I mean, start with the name. We all know it’s short for All Hallows’ Eve, but I’ve never heard anyone refer to November 1 as All Hallows’ Day; it’s more commonly called All Saints Day. Anyway, November 1 is supposed to be a day to honor and remember the dead, so naturally the day before we have… let’s see… pumpkins, witches, ghosts, spiders, random costumes, candy for the kids, and the threat casual vandalism directed toward those who fail to supply treats on demand. That all makes perfect sense. Also, for some reason, we’re all subjected to a playlist that consists mostly of “Monster Mash” and “Triller.” Well, the chocolate definitely takes the edge off the horror of death, so at least there’s that.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A dog in front of Mount Batur Volcano in Bali

Animals as seismographs

On our most recent trip to Indonesia, Morgen and I were reading Simon Winchester’s 2003 book Krakatoa, a history of the devastating 1883 eruption of the eponymous volcano (known locally as Krakatau). A couple of hundred pages into the book, the volcano hasn’t yet erupted, but we’ve learned about Darwin, the spice trade, Dutch colonization, and a long list of other things that, in one way or another, illuminate the circumstances surrounding that cataclysmic blast and how it affected the world at that time. Just as Winchester gets ready to describe the big bang itself, he mentions the fact that animals sometimes appear to be aware of an imminent seismic event, changing their behavior markedly just before it happens—often by fleeing, but sometimes by making noise or otherwise acting erratically.

Winchester writes: “There is no firm scientific evidence that there is a connection, nor is there a true basis for a new pseudo-science called ethogeographical prediction, which seeks to forecast earthquakes by observing carefully calibrated animal activity.” He says that while some geologists concede that animals might sense changes too subtle to register on modern instruments, no one has been able to prove a connection between animal behavior and impending earthquakes or volcanic activity. Nevertheless, a good deal of anecdotal evidence supports this notion, including a particularly interesting tale of a circus elephant that seemingly “predicted” the Krakatoa eruption.

I was unaware of the existence of anything called “ethogeographical prediction,” but I always enjoy learning about wacky pseudoscientific undertakings. So I consulted the usual search engines and found exactly one page on the entire web that mentioned the phrase “ethogeographical prediction”; it was a review of Winchester’s book. (There are now at least two, including this one!) I then tried searching on “ethogeology” instead and found another, different page—also a review of the book. Great, but I was no better informed as to who is engaged in this study or with what result. A quick scan of the book’s bibliography provided no obvious clues, either, so it could be that Winchester himself coined the term or that it simply hasn’t caught on widely yet. In any case, it’s clear that ethogeology is a portmanteau of ethology (the study of animal behavior) and geology.

Nothing to See Here

Even though no one referred to ethogeology by name, I did find lots of information about how animals behave oddly before various kinds of natural disasters. The way writers often address the subject matter is by asking, rhetorically, whether this proves that animals are psychic, have E.S.P., or are in some other way supernaturally gifted. In most cases, the writers end up debunking such claims, but I find it troubling that the question is even asked in the first place. I’m pretty sure it’s common knowledge that dogs have a superior sense of smell and that bats use echolocation to find their prey, to take two common examples of animal abilities that exceed those of humans. This, I can assure you, is more of the same—nothing mystical at all is going on.

Unfortunately, no one can yet demonstrate by precisely what mechanism animals apparently become aware of an upcoming earthquake. One theory is that certain animals can hear ultra-low-frequency sounds generated by seismic activity just before an earthquake. Another is that they can feel tiny vibrations in the ground when a quake is brewing. Based on these theories, some researchers are trying to construct measuring devices that mimic the anatomical structures that might be picking up the noises or vibrations. If they work, they could provide some hard data that might lead to more reliable early warning systems. But that’s a big “if.”

I Smell a Volcano

As a matter of fact, we don’t currently know for sure whether animals can be aware of future seismic events at all. It seems that they can, but even if so, clearly this is true only for certain animals, in certain situations, at certain times—which is a little unsatisfying scientifically. Supposing that someone could prove this adequately, the next step would be to quantify it. What does a particular behavior of a particular animal indicate? In order to use animals to predict earthquakes, we’d need a little more to go on than “if Spot starts growling, there might be an earthquake soon.” It could also mean that Spot is hungry, for instance. Getting any truly reliable data is going to be awfully hard, because you’ll never reproduce, in a controlled laboratory setting, the exact conditions of an impending volcanic eruption; nor can you interview your test subjects to find out what they hear, feel, or think.

Seismic events are not the only disasters animals are said to predict. I’ve read stories of animals behaving strangely just before hurricanes, typhoons, and thunderstorms, for example. To study these phenomena, however, we’re going to need an entirely new field: ethometeorology, a term that was, surprisingly, found on zero other webpages before today. I predict linguistic storms in the near future.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on February 13, 2007.

Image credit: William Cho [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A checklist

October 30 is Checklist Day! Let’s see if we’re ready…

☑︎ Checkbox character
☑︎ List of items to check
☑︎ Gratuitous items, already done, to add and then check off to stoke my sense of accomplishment
☐ Actual productive work

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

The Grande Chartreuse monastery

Keeping the faith quietly

One Sunday afternoon in 2007, Morgen and I went to a local theater to see the film Into Great Silence. We expected to be pretty much the only ones there—how many people could really want to sit through a three-hour-long documentary about a group of monks in the French Alps who live in almost complete silence? Especially on a Sunday afternoon, a traditional nap time if ever there was one! But the line stretched halfway down the block, and we were lucky to get seated before the film began. The documentary contained no music except for a few scenes in which the monks were chanting, no voiceover, very limited dialog, and in fact hardly any sounds at all. I’ll admit, in fact, that we both dozed off once or twice (it pays to go with someone who can nudge you when your eyelids droop). But we also left the theater agreeing that we’d just seen one of the coolest things ever: an intimate glimpse into the lives of the Carthusian monks who live at the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble, France.

That we should be drawn to the story of monks living in silence probably comes as little surprise; the themes of quiet and solitude have come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day. But we were frankly shocked to discover that life at the Grande Chartreuse, as depicted in the film, seemed completely at odds with our image of what has been called one of the most ascetic monastic orders in the world. The monks’ cells looked quite comfortable and reasonably spacious. The monastery’s setting in the Alps was simply breathtaking. Even the food looked amazing—no shortage of fresh produce and delicious-looking bread. We also saw a few moments of monks at play and got a small taste of their sense of humor. They seemed, to me, quite comfortable, well-adjusted, and serene—yet intensely focused on their work. I turned, as usual, to the web to get more details about the monastery and the order of which it is a part.

Chartered for Silence

The Carthusian order was founded in 1084 by Saint Bruno. The first monastery—at the site of what is today the Grande Chartreuse—was established in the Chartreuse Mountains in southeastern France. Over the centuries, the monastery has burned down and been rebuilt several times, its occupants have been displaced by wars, and various other catastrophes have occurred. The structure as it exists today was built in 1688, and is one of 24 such monasteries, or charterhouses, around the world; the word charterhouse and the name Carthusian both come from the same root as Chartreuse. Nineteen of the Carthusian monasteries house monks, while the remaining five house nuns; with minor differences, the day-to-day lives of the 450 or so members of the order are the same, regardless of gender.

Although the monks do not take a vow of silence, they limit speaking to times when it’s strictly necessary so as to focus all their attention on contemplation. Each monk spends most of the day alone in a cell—in this case, typically a two-level apartment with space for sleeping, eating, work, and prayer, along with a garden area outside. They gather three times a day for prayer services, once a week for a shared meal followed by a recreation time, and on other special occasions. Every hour of every day is rigidly scheduled, and only about six hours per day is allowed for sleep—in two segments, separated by a long service in the middle of the night.

Habit Forming

Becoming a Carthusian monk involves a multi-stage discernment process that can last as long as eight years before taking the eternal vows; during this time, the monks-in-training can choose to leave or be asked to leave if the other monks feel they don’t fit in or have not chosen their vocation correctly. Only a small percentage of those who set out to become monks ultimately stay. The order distinguishes between fathers, who have taken the vows and who live in almost complete solitude, and brothers, who spend more of their time working to maintain the monastery, preparing the meals, and so on, rather than focusing entirely on contemplation. Of the brothers, some are full monks while others are laypeople who have a sort of volunteer arrangement with the monastery and are therefore given more leeway in the use of their time and their interactions with each other.

The Grande Chartreuse is a huge complex situated on some prime real estate, and despite the simplicity of the lifestyle practiced there, the monks do require some income to pay for things like the electricity bill, building maintenance, fabric, and any food they can’t grow for themselves. One source of income is the sale of the eponymous Chartreuse liqueur. Only three monks at any time are privy to the drink’s secret recipe, which reputedly contains extracts from 130 plants. The herbs are mixed at the monastery and then sent to a distillery in the town of Voiron for processing and bottling. Other monasteries have their own sources of income so as to be self-sustaining as much as possible, and those monasteries with greater income share with the ones that have less.

Half a Monk

The monastic lifestyle depicted in Into Great Silence produced surprisingly mixed feelings for both of us. On the one hand, the silence, the solitude, and the simplicity of their lives held great appeal. On the other hand, the intense schedules, the lack of variety, and the inability to travel would probably drive us mad. Not to mention the little fact that we aren’t actually Catholic, and don’t accept many of the beliefs that are central to the monks’ daily practices. However, I’d be thrilled to see a secular version of the Grande Chartreuse: no scripture chanting, shaved heads, midnight chapel services, or eternal vows, but the same combination of solitude and community, the same silence, the same blend of contemplation and work. Sure, I’d still want periodic doses of the outside world, but even getting halfway to what the Carthusian monks have seems heavenly to me.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on March 23, 2007.

Image credit: By Brucyn [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day