NaNoWriMo X: Half a Million Words

Last night, as my sweetie sang a victory song for me, I submitted for verification my NaNoWriMo effort for the year. Overall, I’d say it was a success; I think the crap-to-merely-bad ratio was better than in several of my other NaNo attempts.

This was my tenth NaNoWriMo. Back in the day there was no word-count verification, and we used Yahoo! groups for the forums – which proved to be mighty inadequate. In 2001 there were about 1100 participants total, if memory serves, and it was the first year that people clamored for some kind of system to verify their word counts. This caught the organizers unprepared, since the whole thing is on the honor system anyway — it’s not like you benefit from lying about it. The thing is, it’s a tangible reward to submit your work and get a “hooray!” message back. It’s not about honesty, it’s about breaking through the ribbon at the finish line. I made a little AppleScript that could take an email, count the words in an attachment and return an “official” count, but I didn’t push it as a real solution.

My, how things have changed. As NaNoWriMo grew and its infrastructure improved, I made a bunch of friends on the message boards. I even found a sweetie there. Then, as NaNoWroMo grew yet more I stopped visiting the boards entirely. It’s too noisy for me there.

But now I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo ten times, and ‘won’ every time. Last year was close; it took a huge effort over the last three days to get me over the line. But I did it. At 50,000 words per year, that makes half a million words typed in November. The actual total is much higher, of course; there was one year where I wrote nearly 100,000 words. Still, half a million has a nice ring to it.

There was a period this year when NaNoWriMo started to feel like a job, like I was doing it this year just to keep my streak alive. I think there were about 100 winners in 2001, so at most 100 other people in the world can have a ten-year streak. But really, is that any reason to write something?

Then, at the end of the month, I wrote a couple of really good scenes, including an actual ending for the story (some of the middle is missing), and while it was not the ending I was imagining, it turned out really good. And sad. But good. It’s an ending that would probably piss off most action-adventure/mystery/detective/crime/whatever readers, but it resonates with me.

Now I’m all stoked about writing again. Sometimes after NaNoWriMo I hit a low spot, but I don’t think that’s going to happen this time. Note to self: Next year, make sure to put on a strong ending.

2

PLENTY Bad Enough!

I’ve been struggling with the excerpts from the bad novels that I am sprinkling though this year’s NaNoWriMo. The thing is, while all of the writing is rough, I haven’t managed to push the preposterometer to the ridiculous levels I was shooting for. I have fallen far short, for instance, of the ridiculous plot of Step on a Crack.

Until today.

As the month closes out, I have finally managed to write a scene that would rival some of the most ridiculous action stories out there. I haven’t quite reached the level of, say that Die Hard movie that takes place at an airport — I honestly don’t think I’m capable of that level of suspension of thought — or the afore-mentioned Crack, but at last I’ve written something that gets me into that general neighborhood.

In the scene our hero:

  • Runs from machine-gun fire, only getting hit in the shoulder.
  • Jumps off a bridge while clinging to a bungee-jumper. (Oh, yeah, our hero is afraid of heights.)
  • Has flashbacks the whole way down until he and the bungee jumper are plunged into the river. (I think I forgot to call the water ‘icy’ in the scene. You can’t be throwing a hero into water that’s not icy.)
  • While hanging there upside-down, sees a bomb on the underside of the bridge
  • Releases the bungee jumper so the bungee flings him back up to the underside of the bridge, right next to The Bomb To End All Bombstm (which gives time-until-detonation updates in a female voice)
  • Uses a piece of debris from an exploding police car to open the hatch on the bomb
  • Defuses the bomb
  • Gets knocked off the bridge to fall into the raging river below when his own car explodes

The “performing well even when you’ve been shot” thing is all the rage in movies these days, and has become one of my new genre peeves; it seems you can’t have a good guy go a full ninety minutes without absorbing some amount of metal. It’s not allowable that the hero’s performance be in any way diminished, however — he still has to kick ass and take names! Apropos of little, I recently read an assertion by an emergency-room doctor that gang kids who get shot are amazed at just how painful it is to have a bullet in your flesh.

I’m not sure whether I’ll post the scene here or not. Tomorrow I’ll try to decide if it reaches so-bad-it’s-funny level or just wallows in the so-bad-it’s-a-waste-of-time-to-read zone.

Microsoft Needs to Run its Grammar Checker on Word

I just saw this in the user interface for Microsoft Word:

“Word found 36 items matching this criteria.”

This criteria. In a product that is supposedly created by professional writers for professional communication. Interestingly, when running the above sentence through Word’s own grammar checker, the sentence is flagged. Use these criteria or this criterion, the software advises.

This isn’t the latest version of Word, so there’s a chance it has been addressed. But still, this doesn’t reflect well on the Quality Assurance team at Microsoft.

Incidentally, my sweetie and I discovered this while comparing to see who had the most f-bombs in their story. It’s been one of those years. (It would be premature to declare a winner, as she will be adding a lot more words over the next three days.)

Not Bad Enough?

My story this November is about bad writers getting murdered. One of the things that makes this an excellent NaNoWriMo idea is that I can include excerpts of the fictitious bad writers’ fictitious bad novels. Which means not only can I just let fly with the prose, I don’t even have to cringe and tell myself that I will fix it later. I can revel in the mediocrity, even add things that normally I would never do.

Except for the complete absence of structure, however, even this draft of Step on a Hack is ahead of some of the crap out there.

Occasionally I will write a scene specifically intended to showcase common crime story clich├ęs and blunders. Paragraphs of exposition and loose-end-tying while the protagonist and antagonist are in a burning building, for instance. It is a fun world to write in, where all the good guys are named ‘Buck’ or ‘Dirk’ and all shoot with far better accuracy than a bad guy ever could, where they live a solitary existence, all girlfriends and partners murdered, and are tormented by demons from the past. And out there somewhere, a criminal mastermind seems to have it in for that one detective.

Yesterday I thought, “I need a scene with cars and guns,” so I wrote one. Such freedom! As I wrote it I had several opportunities to include details that are personal peeves of mine (car doors stopping high-velicity bullets, for instance), but I didn’t. Instead I let the scene play out the way I would do it. It’s still mildly preposterous, but I think it scores in the acceptable range on the preposterometer for a story of this genre.

Were I to go back and tweak it, I can see several ways I could make it better, especially at the start, where I still had word-inflation and bad prose as goals. Overall, however, this scene scores a “not bad” from the not-as-dispassionate-as-it-should-be part of me that judges everything I do. Which, ironically, makes it unsuitable for Step on a Hack. Not enough for the cop reading the story to mock. Oh, well.

Here, for your amusement, is a scene with cars and guns. And swearing. If the occasional f-bomb is going to sour your stomach and cast a pall over the rest of your day, then you probably should stop now.

Ace Martingale shifted into fourth as the sleek black Dodge Charger roared up the ramp and onto the highway, a steel shark in the night. Ace lit one cigarette with another and threw the smoldering butt of the first out the window. The speedometer crept upwards, 70 then 80 then 90. He let it settle in at 100 miles per hour. A good speed. Fuck kilometers.

The mighty engine purred and the hot desert air blew Martingale’s hair and dried his sweat instantly. He punched in an eight-track tape to help him think. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Free as a bird now. Free as a fuckin’ bird. Maritngale smiled for the first time in five years.

He was out, he was in a fast machine, a twelve-pack of corona blondies in the passenger seat, bolt cutters, pick and shovel in the back seat. In the trunk, the last of his problems. Life didn’t get any better than this.

“Fuck yeah!” he shouted into the night. “Fuck yeah!” he threw his empty out onto the road and reached for another. By the time the glass bottle hit the pavement he was long gone. He was a spirit, a shaman, a god of the desert and he was going to live forever.

At Desert Center he left the interstate highway, turning north on state road 177, past a couple of industrial sites and into the breathing desert. Two lane blacktop. The way it was supposed to be. He slowed it down to a safe and sane 90 per and popped open another brew.

For the next hour he floated along the highway, in harmony with machine and road, alone and unencumbered. Past mile marker 239 he slowed. There it was. Martingale’s heart sped up a bit as he pulled into the primitive rest stop. Nothing more than a table and what had once been a sun shade. A rusting barrel overflowed with garbage.

He turned off the music and rolled gently to a stop, his tires popping over the gravel. Behind the table his headlights splashed on a gate adorned with a rusted, bullet-riddled “No Trespassing” sign swinging on a piece of wire. He left the motor running and reached back for the bolt cutters.

He opened the car door and stood, stretched his spine. The desert’s hot breath kissed his face. “I missed you, baby,” he whispered into the darkness. The gravel crunched under his boots as he walked to the gate. Before he even reached the gate, he froze.

The chain was already cut.

He dropped the cutters and ran back to the car, dove back in the waiting door.

A hole appeared in the windshield, nice and clean, matched by a larger, more ragged hole appeared in the rear window. The round passed his head with a supersonic crack and vanished into the night.

Martingale stayed low, cranked the wheel and mashed the gas. The car slewed and jumped forward, slamming the door shut. The passenger door made a booming sound like someone had kicked it, and a slug tore into the upholstery.

“What the fuck!” He screamed. Killing another man was one thing, but this car was a classic. It was art. You don’t shoot art. He lifted his head a little to guide the car out onto the blacktop, pointed north. The spinning tires screeched when they hit the pavement and thrust the car forward. The engine roared as Martingale went through the gears. The car started to float at one hundred twenty miles per hour, and Martingale held on for sweet life.

Two lights stared back at him on the road ahead. The eyes of an animal, reflecting his headlights. He hit it before he even had time to wonder what it was. Night insects flashed in his high beams, there and gone faster than a prayer.

More lights ahead. This time, a car. He hurtled toward it. Motherfucker had his brights on. Martingale pushed his speed up to 140. Holding the wheel with sweaty hands, twitching to keep it in his lane.

Just before the other car flashed past he hit the brakes. Flame burst from the other car, the muzzle flash of an assault rifle on full-auto, spraying the space he would have occupied had he kept a steady speed. The enemy flashed past as Martingale punched the gas again and heard bullets tearing into the rear of the car. Then he was away, and, for the moment at least, he was alive.

In the rear view he watched as the other car hit the brakes and began to turn around. Martingale was going to be a long was down the road before they even got turned around. They’d have to be driving one hell of a car to catch him.

He took a deep breath. Time to stop reacting and start acting. They had men and guns, he had a fast car and the desert.

This was his desert. Whoever those people were back there, they had missed their chance.

They knew about the rest stop, and that meant Olaf had spilled his guts. Which meant he was probably dead. Anybody with the means to make Olaf talk wouldn’t be the type to keep him around after they got what they wanted from him.

Martingale slowed to take one white-knuckle turn, then another. He checked the rearview. Nothing. Just before the next corner he switched off his headlights and slowed. He pulled off the road, over a cattle guard concealed by a boulder. He stopped the car and ran back to the road, brushing over his tire tracks with his boot. It didn’t have to be perfect, as long as they weren’t obvious.

In the still night he heard the hiss of the car as it approached, augmented by the roar of a large engine. He ducked behind the rock as the pursuit car screeched around the corner, then around the next curve and out of sight. He jogged back to his car. He’d be easy to spot by anyone coming back the other way.

He stopped short when he saw the bullet holes in the trunk, the metal shining silvery in the moonlight against the black paint. He put his hand on the trunk lid, afraid to open it. “Fuck!” he said, but there was nothing to do now except get well down this road before the others doubled back. He thumped the trunk twice with his fist and jogged to the door. He drove slowly, lights off, steering by moonlight but wishing it was darker.

Cool Stuff on the Internet

Hey! Are you familiar with Hyperbole and a Half? Now would be an excellent time to check it out. Perhaps those already well-versed in hyperbolic lore could recommend particularly choice archival stories for newbies to peruse.

And as long as you’re looking at other sites that don’t take six years to load the way mine does, the November 24 Astronomy Picture of the Day just reinforces the growing urge inside me to head north in the next couple of years. APOD is awesome more often than not – I’m tempted to write a little program that turns each day’s picture into my desktop image. Not sure how that would fly on days like this one, however.

1

Well, THAT Sucked

The last few days my Web host has been having a tough time. I don’t know the exact nature of the problem and I doubt I ever will, but this site has been broken. For a while it would not load at all, and then it was in ‘read-only mode’, Which meant that it was still performing terribly and I couldn’t even put up a notice that I knew things weren’t going well but the solution was out of my hands. Not a good situation when my credibility as a programmer is an important asset.

I couldn’t even make a backup.

Things seem to be getting back to normal (though they are not there yet – the site is still quite slow). There’s even a chance that I’m running on a brand-new server that is not being shared with as many other people. Or at least a brand-new server. Unfortunately, however, while I have come to appreciate iPage the company, which was very helpful and patient getting me up and running, iPage the service has not been so great.

I have vowed that the next move I make will be to a server that I control completely, so I can choose who shares it with me. I’m looking at Co-location deals now, though I might wimp out ant take the middle road. A VPS (virtual private server) gives me all the control of having my own machine, but in fact it’s an illusion — I still share physical hardware with an unknown number of others.

1

Return of the Cyberspace Open

Time keeps passing, turning on mighty gears toward the future, and like clockwork with a tired mainspring the Cyberspace open has returned once again. The “fall” iteration of the contest has become the “fall/winter 2010-2011” version, with “fall” and “2010” being more of a marketing thing, since the contest is actually in January and February, with the final round running through late April.

I’ll be participating again as well; I haven’t done that well in my previous attempts, but I still have fun and I still learn a lot. Not a bad deal for eleven bucks. One of my favorite parts about the Cyberspace Open is hearing from other participants here on the pages of Muddled Ramblings. I’m looking forward to hearing back from a few of the folks who graced these pages last time around.

The format for the contest will be similar to last time: Participants are given a weekend to write a scene. The top 100 scorers from that round move on to round two, roughly six weeks later. (The delay is because the judges have to read and score a lot of entries, and provide meaningful feedback for each. Not a small job.)

Round two is different than in previous incarnations, and reflects a shifting emphasis for the competition as a whole. In the past, writers only had twelve hours to complete their second scene. (In the distant past, when there was a third round of writing, it was ninety minutes!) The competition has moved from being a test of writing under pressure to writing the best possible scene, and this year round two is an entire weekend, just like round one. I don’t think that works in my favor – more on that later.

Round three, like last “spring” (um… summer), is a competition between the top three scripts of round two. The scripts are read on video by aspiring actors, and folks are then able to vote on them. I’m not sold on this part of the competition, as the performance of the actors can make a big difference when people are supposed to be judging the script. I think it worked out pretty well last time, though, so I’m probably worrying too much. It’s what I do.

My own participation in the contest is a little different, as I have never made it out of round one. (You can see my earlier entries elsewhere in this blog.) Getting knocked out early hasn’t stopped me from participating in round two as a shadow contestant, however, and posting my work here as well. Interestingly, I think the scenes I’ve written with less time available have been better. We’ll see if I can break out of that this year.

I’ve made a few observations about what the organizers say they want, and what actually wins. As we get closer to the actual contest I’ll post some musings on that subject here.

For me, my mantra this time around will be ‘montageable’ (a tip given by a reader when critiquing one of my previous entries). Does the scene contain those moments that would go into the preview trailer and make people want to see the whole movie? That’s what I’ll be shooting for this time.

This really is a fun contest, one that is different than most of what you find out there. It costs a bit of money to enter (less if you act soon), but if you need something to kick your butt and get you writing this winter, you could do a lot worse. Check it out!