Taking the Nano-vella-wrimo challenge

Do you love books?

Silly question. You’re reading a blog all about things related to these literary objects of desire. Of course you do.

If you’re as much as a book lover as me, you’ve probably contemplated boosting your involvement with books by opening a bookshop (or working in one or spending all your disposable income and then some in one), starting a small book publisher (or working for one of any size), working in a library (or spending all your spare time in one), or writing a novel (or just writing about them as I have done as a literary editor, reviewer and blogger).

I’ve dreamt about becoming a bookseller (with a vegetarian café/wine bar on site), publisher (or commissioning editor) and novelist ever since I can remember.

In my first year at school, I devoured the “readers” (I think we started with a series about a dog called Digger), getting way ahead of many of the others by spending lunchtime in the library (my favourite read in that library was a little book called Lyrico, about a winged horse) and afternoons inside reading. Back then, I looked up to our school librarians, Mrs Goodes and then Mrs Dartnall, and thought I might follow in their footsteps one day.

At around that time, my mother bought a children’s wear shop next door to the original Paperchain Bookshop in Manuka here in Canberra. I used to browse for hours while she worked, pondering which series I’d read next – from Beatrix Potter and the Mr Men books through to Enid Blyton, Elyne Mitchell, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. It was a magical place for me, and may have something to do with my passion for shiny new books. I’ve never been big on second hand books or libraries since, which is great for the book industry but not for my bank balance.

I do still have romantic pipe dreams about owning a bookshop (though these days I’m thinking more of an ebookstore). Hey, I finally work for one at least – with this blog – after all these years. Paperchain never would give me a summer job back in my student days. I’d still love to become a book publisher (and if I play my cards right with my current day job employers just might manage this in the next year or so). And after decades of talking about it, and one or two aborted attempts, it’s probably about time I sat down and wrote a novel too.

That’s where all this is leading. I’m going to try my hand at a lite version of the US’s National Novel Writing Month. The full commitment, to write 50,000 in a month, won’t work for me this year. I have uni marking to do, two magazines to put out, a toddler to hang out with, and blog posts to write.

So I’ve decided instead to focus on writing a novella of say 20,000 words, with as many of these as possible coming during November, and the rest by the end of the summer.

If you’re contemplating writing a longer work of fiction, there is no better time to start than today – November 1 is day one of the international challenge. Check out the Nanowrimo website for details. Connect with fellow would-be churners from all over the world – or just around the corner. Sign up and get writing.

So You Think You Can Write A Novel?

NaNoWriMo LogoThere’s something simultaneously (and in equal parts) amusing and horrifying about the following video. It’s an experience we’ve all lived as the advisor and also hope that at some stage we haven’t been the completely delusional advisee.

Advisee is probably the wrong name for the wannabe novelist, who isn’t listening and isn’t accepting advice. He instead declares that he’s quit his job, is just going to pump out a best-selling novel, that agents and publishers will be scrabbling to publish his work, and that even though he’s only written one page and can’t spell very well, they should see and reward his genius immediately (or words to that effect and that will induce in you guffaws).

Those of us who try to earn a living as writers find such people offensive and, well, completely delusional. The reality of the job and the likelihood of succeeding is bleak. Even more so, I realised, when I saw the issue from another angle the other day.

In speaking with The Book Show’s Ramona Koval, Salon.com co-founder and senior writer Laura Miller noted that NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, encourages a whole new burst of wannabe writers to churn out work. Literary agents reportedly get an influx of novels shortly after this annual event, which frustrates them no end, because the work, although it may eventually have merit, needs refining, incubating, and a damn good edit.

I also find it ironic that the only book the founder of NaNoWriMo has published is not a novel, but a non-fiction book about how to write one. It goes back to my embittered university professor’s adage that we should forget about trying to write the Great Australian Novel because nobody will read it. It’s works for non-fiction, ones based on quirky ideas or how-to principles that will attract the greatest readership.

But I digress. What concerned me more in The Book Show conversation was how Miller said that while we have no shortage of writers or people who want to be writers, what we have is a dire shortage of readers. The average American reportedly reads less than one book per year (how, I don’t know—that figure truly boggles and bewilders my mind) and Australians are probably only slightly better.

I have been (and am) so concerned with both committing semi-coherent words to paper and getting those semi-coherent words published for payment that I never really stopped to consider that regardless of whether or not I achieve said furnishing the page with semi-coherent words or finding a willing publisher, there’s no point if there’s no reader. If people are neither buying nor reading books, you can be the best writer around and it still won’t count for anything.

Which raises the question: How do we get people to read?

Macbook Air Review

On this blog I’ve reviewed a few dedicated ereaders, as well as the iPad, but I’m yet to look at a single one of the most popular digital reading devices out there – the modern personal computer. PCs probably provide the worst digital reading experience, yet most people still do the bulk of their digital reading on a computer of some kind. Not just that, but the vast majority of novels are written on computers. And seeing as this is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I thought I’d take the opportunity to review one of the latest laptops available: the Macbook Air.

Conversations about what kind of computer you use are kind of like political discussions – generally only interesting if you agree. Otherwise everything that comes out of the other person’s mouth sounds like absolute twaddle, and you can’t find common ground. So for those people out there who hate everything to do with Apple, it may do you good to read no further.

Nonetheless, let me say what a delight this laptop is to use. The model I’m reviewing is the 11.6″ Macbook Air. As far as pure grunt goes, it’s a complete lightweight. It has only a 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor with only 2GB of RAM, both of which are upgradeable at purchase time (but not after, as everything is soldered to the board). Plus it only has a 128GB hard drive. But this computer does not feel like a lightweight. The hard drive is an SSD (solid state drive), which is the kind of memory those USB sticks have inside them. In other words, they don’t spin like optical hard drives (making the Air completely silent), and they’re very fast and small. The SSD makes the Macbook Air feel much faster than its specs would have you believe (if specs are something that have you believe anything, that is). I’ve been using a 2007 model Macbook for years, which had upgraded RAM and a faster processor than the Air, and it feels horribly sluggish in comparison. Applications like Word and iTunes, which take several seconds to load on a normal computer open instantly on the Air. It wakes from sleep instantly, and boots up in 14 seconds. Not that you really need to shut it down, as it boasts a deep sleep mode that can apparently conserve the battery for up to 30 days on standby. Although from the numbers alone it should seem like an expensive, underpowered machine, the Air does not feel at all slow.

Where the Air comes into its own is its size. Having a full size keyboard and very decent screen means that you get the same experience writing (or reading on the web) on the Air as you would on a much bigger laptop, except it weighs only a little more than an iPad, and is only a couple of inches longer. Unlike an iPad, you don’t need a heavy or bulky case, either, as it’s made of solid aluminium. I’ve now written a few thousand words on this thing, and it’s a beautiful experience. It’s so light it doesn’t feel like there’s anything on your lap, and it doesn’t heat up more than a couple of degrees even after hours of use.

When I first used an iPad, I thought it could completely replace my laptop for almost everything. That turned out to be not so true. The iPad is an excellent device for consuming content (with the notable exception of flash video) – be it on the web or through an app to read books and PDFs. It also has a ten-hour battery life, which blows the Macbook Air’s five hours out of the water. But the iPad falls down when it comes to content creation. I’ve tried writing on an iPad, even with an external keyboard, and it’s a pain in the arse. The touchscreen interface is not ideal for writing or editing text.

If you’re considering going digital when it comes to reading, then the Macbook Air, or something like it, should be a consideration. If you’re someone who writes for a living and likes to read, I’d recommend the Macbook Air and a dedicated (and far cheaper) ereader like the Kindle. If you’re someone who mostly consumes content and writes the occasional email, then an iPad with a cheaper, bigger and faster computer is a great combination to cover your digital reading needs.

NaNoWriMo Procrasti-tools

For those of you who are not masochists, you may not have heard of NaNoWriMo. It stands for National Novel Writing Month, and happens every November. Participants attempt to write 50,000 words over thirty days and thirty nights in an often vain attempt to make some headway on that novel many of us have stored in our brains and nowhere else. As an editor, I hear about these novels all the time. “Oh, I’ve got a great novel idea.” Many people do. But few people actually have the chops to sit down and write it. Hence NaNoWriMo: an opportunity to get a support network together to help motivate, cajole, plead, coerce and bribe you to write roughly 1700 words per day every day for thirty days.

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo for the past few years and have never finished. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t useful. But I am an epic procrastinator, and NaNoWriMo does not reward procrastination. I can find ways to procrastinate that would blow the minds of lesser procrastinators. One of those ways, especially around NaNoWriMo time, is to investigate software that helps you write. As you can imagine, as someone hooked on gadgets, this always seems to be a worthwhile way of spending time and inevitably ends in seven hours of procuring software and no hours of writing. So to save those of you out there, like me, who like to software procrastinate: here are some software options to help you finish NaNoWriMo.

Scrivener was my writing software package of choice for many years, and if you’re on a Mac, is still one of the best choices out there (it’s coming to Windows early next year). It’s an absolutely fantastic program for starting a new writing project, as it keeps everything you might need for writing a novel in one place, from storyboarding and research to a full-screen distraction-free writing mode that keeps you in the zone when you need to be.

I discovered Write Or Die last year when I was a week from the end of NaNoWriMo and had written about five thousand words. Unlike Scrivener, Write or Die provides little in the way of procrastination options, but is great for forcing you to write. It is utterly diabolical. Available on the web and as a downloadable desktop program, Write or Die detects when you stop typing and then gives you a little leeway (which is customisable) before the screen starts flashing and then a loud beeping sound reminds you that you shouldn’t be staring at your screen, but typing goddammit! After this warning, the words you have already written will begin to delete, one word at a time, until you start typing again. Scared? You should be.

The Pomodoro Technique is less a piece of software than a productivity approach, but there are tons of software options out there to help you Pomodoro. The basic Pomodoro premise is that you set an egg timer for twenty-five minutes and work steadily without looking at any distractions for that amount of time. That’s one pomodoro. After twenty-five minutes you give yourself five minutes to stretch your legs, check your emails and tweet about #pomodoro. Then get back into it. As I said, there are a lot of software options out there, but a good web-based one is Tomatoi.st and one I use for my iPhone (or iPad) is PomodoroPro.

So there you have it, all the procrasti-tools you’ll need not to complete NaNoWriMo this year like me. Now, I best get back to the novel.