Five Lessons from Writing a Novel in a Month

National Novel Writing Month WinnerYesterday I announced that I had finished writing my 2008 National Novel Writing Month effort, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel called The Least. This was my third attempt at writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days (that’s 1,667 words per day). While I’m definitely a winner because I finished (that’s all that matters with NaNoWriMo), The Least is definitely my worst novel by far. I did learn a lot in the process though.

1. Sci-Fi is Hard
I knew it would be, but science fiction is an especially hard genre to write, especially in 30 days. The biggest hurtle is that you have to create an entire fictional world. If you pick a contemporary setting, you don’t have to wonder what kind of clothes people will wear or how they find food. I knew this would be a problem and ended up deciding a few things and running with them, even after I realized some of my assumptions wouldn’t hold up. I love the thought process and imagination involved, but you end up putting a lot of effort into the setting and it’s easy to neglect the plot or characters.

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NaNoWriMo 2008 Winner

National Novel Writing MonthI finished. I just crossed the 50,000-word mark, wrapped up my epilogue and stuck a fork in The Least, my 2008 National Novel Writing Month novel.


It was quite a sprint at the end, when I wrote more than 6,500 words in one day to overcome loses from the holiday and travel but then just kept on going to finish a day early.

The novel itself isn’t spectacular. Few NaNoWriMo novels are, but this one by far has more glaring holes and painful moments than my previous efforts. But that’s OK. That’s not what’s important. Just doing it is important, and I did it. Now I can call myself a Sci-Fi novelist.

You can read it if you like, though I’m not really recommending that.

Winston Erlandson, 1927-2008

Winston Erlandson and his great-granddaughter LexiMy wife’s grandfather, Winston Erlandson, passed away on Wednesday.

Since local newspaper web sites are notorious for not leaving content online, I’m going to reprint the obituary here. Unfortunately the obituary doesn’t tell you much about who Win really was (obituaries never do). I didn’t know the man very well, but he was genuinely kind and gracious. He struck me as a stereotypical grandpa, joyful and fun.

I never knew quite what to call him, in part because I met him at that time in my life when it became appropriate to call adults by their first names (I grew up calling adults Mr. and Mrs.), but also because “Grandpa” seemed so fitting. I ended up oscillating between Win and Grandpa.

Some of the best details the obituary leaves out were that Win enjoyed square-dancing with his wife and had season tickets to the Green Bay Packers. I imagine those tickets are in the will. And yes, square-dancing, as in big hoop skirts and ‘twirl your partner round and round.’ Win and JoAnn’s 50th wedding anniversary included square-dancing and they often traveled to square-dancing competitions.

One of the things I learned from Win (and JoAnn) is that we don’t need so much stuff. They encouraged the family not to give them gifts at Christmas and to instead make a donation somewhere. I loved that idea and when we talked with them about it they were incredibly practical—saying in effect, “I’ve been getting gifts all my life, I’ve got everything I need.” We’ve been doing that with all our grandparents since, and this year we’ve started doing a version of that in our immediate family as well.

Win’s death wasn’t a big surprise as he’d been in declining health for a while, but it’s never easy. I am thankful that he didn’t spend a long time in and out of the hospital. While it’s sad to lose him, I am looking forward to the funeral and the chance to celebrate his life and memory. My favorite memory from my own Grandpa’s funeral was sitting around his kitchen late at night laughing with my extended family.

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NaNoWriMo 2008 Update

National Novel Writing MonthFor those who don’t remember or haven’t been paying attention, I’m participating in my third National Novel Writing Month right now. That’s when I consume massive amounts of chocolate and caffeine and write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. After 20 days I’m over 34,000 words. That means I’m ahead of schedule, but not by much.

You can read along if you like, though I promise it’s full of typos, bad ideas, moralizing and inconsistencies (hey, it’s an unedited first draft).

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You Can Change the World:

I'm About to Yo-yo 2 ClotheLast week I yo-yoed and clothed a homeless teen.

Here’s how it works: Virgin Mobile set up where anyone can submit a video*. They approve the video and donate one article of clothing to one of the millions of homeless youth in America. That’s it.

But it gets better. Each time a video is watched five times, they’ll donate another article of clothing. So far 11 articles of clothing have been donated from my video and the site claims more than 100,000 donations so far.

So let’s care for some homeless youth:

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You Can Change the World: Paso a Paso

Jenni White's painting of life in GuatemalaA friend of mine and his family spent six months in Guatemala finalizing the adoption of their second child. That experience inspired them both artistically and practically:

“It is a land of great beauty, but marred by devastating poverty and instability. Guatemala impacted us spiritually as well as aesthetically. We saw poverty and injustice unmasked. The reality of poverty—that some people cannot provide for their families no matter how hard they work—was overwhelming.”

In response, my friend’s wife Jenni created a series of 10 paintings depicting the life and people of Guatemala. They also got involved in Paso a Paso, a nonprofit organization that’s trying to build a sustainable community in a small neighborhood. They’re focusing on education, clean water, safe stoves and job training.

Most families in this community cook with open fires in their home, and as a result the World Health Organization reports that the leading cause of death for children under 5 in Guatemala is falling into these fires. That’s astounding. Paso a Paso is working to replace in-home cooking fires with enclosed wood-burning stoves made from insulated steel drums. You can buy a stove for $130.

In addition to donations, Paso a Paso also sells a few items made locally, including blankets, purses and stationary. Jenni just got back from a trip to Guatemala to work in the community and connect with the people.

Consider supporting Paso a Paso, purchasing some of their locally made products, or buying one of Jenni’s paintings (contact her through

The Guy Kawasaki Bump

My stats

On Tuesday I picked a fight with marketing guru Guy Kawasaki on Twitter. I called him out on what I considered to be a questionable marketing practice and he engaged in a little debate. I blogged about it in order to fully explain my position and Kawasaki linked to it, drawing even more attention.

In the end my traffic increased six-fold. For one day. You can see the lovely bump in the graph above. I’m sure there might be some residual folks—so thanks for sticking around. On Twitter I saw more than 100 followers in 24 hours (and they haven’t un-followed … yet). Wow. Kind of a wild ride. Not what I expected (or intended) from trying to point out a flawed idea. And thanks to the many, many people who agreed with me. The marketing guru isn’t always right (though he’d claim otherwise).

And for the record, I saw no corresponding increase in my Google Adsense earnings. The crap ads on the Kawasaki post didn’t help. Starting to rethink Adsense.

You Can Change the World: Invisible People

Mark is unemployed, his home is in foreclosure and he’s six weeks from homelessness. Again. Sixteen years ago Mark was homeless in Hollywood. And now on the brink of homeless again, Mark is telling the story of the homeless. Armed with a small video camera and a slow laptop, Mark is talking to homeless people, capturing their story, and sharing the unedited footage on his vlog, Invisible People.

Mark is an example that homelessness can happen to anyone. I’ve talked before about homelessness being on the rise, and as the economy tanks it’s only going to get worse. Watch Mark’s videos and start seeing the homeless as people. Remember the words of Jesus: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me,” (Matthew 25:40 NIV). And take some action. Support a local shelter. Donate to a food bank.

And somebody hire Mark. Or better yet, somebody fund Invisible People so Mark can continue to share these stories.

You Can Change the World: Moving to Uganda to Adopt

Francis holding a picture of his family.In 2005 the Palmer family of Tulsa, Okla. started the process to adopt Francis, an orphaned child in Uganda. In January the Palmers—all six of them—will be moving to Jinja, Uganda to unite their family under one roof and finalize their adoption of Francis.

It’s a crazy story, and it keeps getting crazier. In a nutshell, the Palmers were granted guardianship of Francis but fine print stipulated that they had to come back to Uganda in three years to finalize the adoption, essentially fostering him for three years. Since the U.S. won’t grant a visa under those circumstances, Francis is stuck in Uganda. So his family is coming to him.

How amazing. Stories like this bring tears to my eyes. Adam Palmer, the dad of the family, is a friend of mine (I interviewed him back in 2005 about his book Taming a Liger: Unexpected Spiritual Lessons from Napoleon Dynamite) and I’m so excited to watch their story continue. You can read a newspaper article about their story and follow the journey on their blog.

I Picked a Fight with Guy Kawasaki

Last night I picked a fight with Guy Kawasaki on Twitter. For those who don’t know, Kawasaki is a marketing genius, former brand evangelist for Apple and current venture capitalist. He’s a big name. One of his current projects is Alltop, a cool little site that offers the best of the web for any particular subject (say, church?).

I called Kawasaki out over the Alltop Twitterfeed, where anyone can sign up and let Alltop post tweets to their Twitter account. It’s essentially handing over the keys to your platform and ceding your voice to a commercial. A handful of people I follow on Twitter signed up when Kawasaki offered a signed copy of his new book. I started to notice when I saw friends posting tweets about stuff they normally didn’t talk about:

Is it stork time?: is for you.

Mostly for lawyers: Electronic Discovery news:

If you love bags, you’ll love this site:

And then different friends tweeting the exact same thing. I smelled a skunk. And it was Kawasaki.

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