Jan 212011

The Connecticut Science Center is launching a new exhibit, the puzzle-intensive Mindbender Mansion. To celebrate, they are running a five-week contest, with a whopper of a grand prize and puzzles created by yours truly. Solve one puzzle a week, and save your answers for the final puzzle appearing in late February, and you might find yourself on a plane to Belize to visit the Mayan ruins. Watch this space for all the details, and I’ll be linking to the individual puzzles as they are revealed.

Jan 202011

Really, really badly. Thank goodness this is only January — I’ll have the whole rest of the year to climb out of this hole I’m digging.

The basic problem is: I’ve got a lot of other stuff going on. To wit:

- The MIT Mystery Hunt. I’m captain of one of the teams, Palindrome, and there were the usual last-minute preparations, not to mention attending the five-day event itself. At MIT, I rarely get a chance to sleep, let alone sit down to do some writing. The Hunt is now over, but for a while it was eating up quite a bit of time.

- The Cybils. I’m one of the judges for the middle-grade fiction category, for this award bestowed by the online kidlit community. I’ve done this twice before, and enjoyed it both times, and I’m enjoying it now, too: I’m reading excellent books I would never have picked up on my own. There’s just one problem. The Cybils seems to be suffering from nomination creep. In 2006 and 2008, I had to read and discuss five books. This year, that’s been upped to seven books. And I’ve gotta read them all in six weeks. That, for me, is a rather rapid reading pace. And so poof goes a little more of my writing time, as I try to clear these books off my desk.

- Winston 3. I suppose I could cheat and allot my daily writing to the third Winston book, which is, after all, a book. But it would indeed be cheating. For starters, most of my WB3 time now is spent on puzzle creation, not writing. I have six more puzzles I need to create, for a mini-suite like I had in the back of Potato Chip Puzzles. These puzzles are going very badly right now, almost comically so, and this project is taking up WAY more time than I imagined. Still, it’s gotta get done, so a lot of my writing time is aimed here instead. And soon — literally any moment now — I am expecting the manuscript to plunk back in my Inbox with a bunch more notes from my editor. That’ll lead to another couple of weeks of rewrites, easily, which means yet more time away from the new stuff.

Are these excuses? To some extent, yes. A person who wants to write will by-God find some time to write. Even as busy as I am, I could have brought my computer home and done some writing before bed, or stayed late at work for an hour. I haven’t done that. My plan, instead, is to get through all these responsibilities that all seem to have hit at the same time, clear them off the agenda, and then start fresh again in February. There’s plenty of time to get my word count where it’s supposed to be, instead of at 120-words-a-day, which is where it currently is.

(That said, what writing I have done, I’m kinda pleased with. I dare say the new book is back on track, even if it is currently stalled on that track. We’ll see if I feel the same way when I pick it up again, hopefully this weekend.)

Jan 182011

The MIT Mystery Hunt is one of the highlights of my year, although sometimes I forget why. Specifically, when it’s 2:00 in the morning, and five of us are looking at a puzzle that would have given Einstein a brain hemorrhage. We’ve been looking at it for hours, hours, and though we have taken pages of notes, we have advanced not one step closer to a solution. And while only five of us are knocking our heads on this particular nightmare, there are dozens of other people in here, all with their own intractable problems. Few of us have slept; even fewer of us have showered. We’re doing all this in a little MIT classroom whose thermostat is nothing more than another puzzle we can’t solve. At one point it informed us that our crowded, airless environment was a tropical 80 degrees. That’s when a guy can’t help but wonder why he is here in the first place.

Sure, I love puzzles, but when you get right down to it, I am not very good at Mystery Hunt puzzles. The constructors take pride in coming up with ideas that have never been seen before. Maybe one puzzle out of twenty will have instructions — for the rest, you are on your own. And if you look at every puzzle over the course of the weekend, you will have seen over 125 puzzles, covering every topic in the world. This weekend I stared wide-eyed at puzzles involving math, history, science, languages, art, music, food, wordplay, and much more… not to mention any number of puzzles whose subject cannot be classified, mostly because we had no idea what the hell we were doing.

We all know why we solve puzzles — the term “Aha Moment” is speeding its merry way into the land of trite phrases. Puzzle lovers are addicted (and for many of us, that is a literal term) to the moment when our eyes suddenly see a little more clearly: A minute ago I was stuck but now I am triumphant! I have met the challenge and faced it down! Where’s another puzzle? Bring that sucker on.

I have those moments at MIT, but they are not frequent. I had a big breakthrough on a puzzle about five minutes after the Hunt started, and that was good, because that fine feeling had to sustain me pretty much the rest of the day: I made some minor contributions to this puzzle or that puzzle, but those satisfying, brain-jazzing moments of brilliant clarity were eluding me. And then even the minor contributions dried up. By Friday evening our entire team (49 people!) was stuck. Every blackboard in the room was scrawled with notes. There were certain puzzles we had to crack if we were going to move forward, and nobody, least of all me, had the slightest idea how to solve these.

Every year this happens… and then, every year, this happens, too: Somebody makes a suggestion, and suddenly a crack appears in the high stone wall that surrounds us. It’s just a crack, but then somebody else says, “Hey, that might work, and what if…?” And before you know it, all of us, all 49 of us, are in front of the blackboards, either calling out answers or simply watching in amazement as the puzzles that seemed impossible five minutes ago begin to fall. If one person can have an “aha moment,” then this is something else, something bigger — an “aha explosion.” This isn’t a little electric tingle of satisfaction; it’s a whopping lightning bolt coursing through the room. And it’s the reason I go to MIT every year.

When the explosion happened this year, I was standing against a wall, just watching this amazing group of people and their delight at watching a tough puzzle get solved. We’re an open team, which means anybody can join us, and as such our identity is a little oddball. Our youngest member is a teenager still wearing braces; our oldest member is in his 60s. We have professional puzzle constructors, but we also have college students (from MIT and elsewhere), a children’s book editor, software designers, artists, teachers, musicians… And as frustrating as the Hunt can be sometimes, I never get tired of co-solving with these people. Even when it’s going badly, it’s fun. When it’s going well — when we suddenly and against all expectations plow through the wall to find daylight on the other side — it’s pure jubilation.

Thanks to this year’s organizing team, Metaphysical Plant, for an amazing experience. I am already looking forward to next January.

Jan 042011


- Emma Stone is such a wonderful comedian, I would have stayed with this movie even if it was twice as bad.

- Seriously, it’s rare for me to experience a movie that I can see is not working, but still find myself absorbed in. The plotting is weak; the premise is unbelievable. Emma Stone’s character, Olive Penderghast, is believed to have lost her virginity, and apparently high-school girls losing their virginity is a scandal in… modern-day California? I realize that Facebook and text messaging have put jet fuel in the rumor mill, and I have no doubt that even in real life some people enjoy feasting on the news of a good girl supposedly gone bad. But in Easy A, EVERYBODY drops what they are doing to gape at the girl (the one girl, apparently) who might have had sex. Nothing else even seems to be happening at this school. It just doesn’t ring true.

- But for all that, this is the funniest comedy I’ve seen in a while. The jokes are practically fired out of a machine gun, and the screenwriters have a perfect accomplice in their lead actress. Also Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s parents. They are too hip to be believed — they’re more like dorm-room advisors than parents — but individually they seize every scene they are given, and together they damn near form a perfect machine of comic acting.

- I share the modern thinking person’s dislike of religious fanatacism and, especially, religious hypocrisy, but I think I dislike even more the way religious folk are depicted in mainstream movies. It’s pretty clear early on that nobody involved in the production of Easy A has ever met a religious person. Amanda Bynes plays Marianne, the leader of a moralistic group of teens who target Emma Stone’s character. Marianne and the other religious nuts aren’t three-dimensional characters; they’re barely two-dimensional. They have two settings — honey-sweet hugs for people who think like them, and scowls for everybody else. Bynes is a proven comedian in her own right (if her career had gone a slightly different way, she could easily have been this movie’s lead), but there is nothing she can do with this holy-rolling stick figure. The moviemakers no doubt congratulated themselves for sticking it to the religious right, but mostly they just embarrassed themselves.

- Ultimately I have to say I liked this movie, but I wanted to like it more than I did. I could not, however, because there were simply too many times when I said, out loud, “WHAT?” The whole bit with Lisa Kudrow’s character: Besides taking a fun movie on a nasty side trip, I simply didn’t buy it. Her marriage is a shambles, we are told, but in the previous scene we see her and husband interacting, and they are bantering like nobody’s business, and he can’t keep his hands off her.

- Or the scene in the restaurant, when Olive goes on what she thinks is an actual date. We know that she is less and less happy with this provocative reputation she has acquired. We also know that she is smart as a razor. And yet we must believe that she would hold forth at length on the subject of aphrodisiacs with this boy who, we understand well in advance, is going to try to rape her in a few minutes. (Or, anyway, stick his tongue down her throat — the sexual violence is mercifully mild.) I cannot imagine what the screenwriters thought was the point of that little speech.

- Or Olive’s best friend, the blonde with about a mile of cleavage. When Olive’s reputation starts to get a little too big, this best friend… picks up a sign with a Bible verse on it and joins the religious protestors?? WHAT?

- And, of course, the whole movie hinges on a lie told in the first three minutes — a lie I had a difficult time believing would ever be told. That early on, I sort of tell myself: Okay, that didn’t work, but let’s just go with it. Ultimately I could have also said to myself: Okay, that didn’t work, but don’t worry: there are much bigger problems to come. But the funny parts will make it all worth it. And by the end, you will be happy to go see Emma Stone’s next movie, even if it is directed by Michael Bay.

Jan 022011

With the tentative debut of The 250 Club, I thought I might share an invaluable writing tool, at least for me: Excel. Yes, the spreadsheet application.

Last year I created a book calculator, and it has changed my perception of writing, breaking the hard-to-swallow concept of “writing a novel” into far more digestable bite-size tasks. I’ve uploaded my calculator as it stands right now. It’s pretty easy to understand, I imagine, but let me walk through it nonetheless.

First we have the Goal, the target number of words for the completed draft. I only have the vaguest idea what this will be, of course, but we have to plant our feet somewhere, so right now I have this set for 120,000 words. That is, to be sure, a long novel, particularly for YA, but that’s what this book is telling me it wants to be, and I’m not going to fight it. I’ll find places to trim it back later. For now, though, the goal is 120K.

Under that, the current length. It is this cell that I update frequently. Then you’ve got the number of words left to the target word count. After that, you’ll see today’s date, and the date I have set for completion. Because I am realistic, I have also allotted myself a certain number of “no writing days.” And because I am unrealistic, I have set this number rather low.

Then you’ve got some simple calculations: The number of days left until the target completion date, and the number of words-per-day I’ll need to write to hit that target.

Before I start writing, the first thing I do is open this file, make the “Old” count equal to the “New” count, and get to work. Every so often I’ll do a word count and update it in cell A2; in cell F4, I’ll see how many words I have written that day.

Yesterday, January 1st, I threw in some additional information. I created a “2011 Word Count” worksheet, and here I shall record my word count every darn day. Back in the main worksheet, Excel calculates my year-to-date average.

To what degree do I rely on this thing? It depends. Sometimes the muse is with me and I don’t think about it at all: I’m in the groove, the words flow, and I don’t worry about word count until I’ve stopped for the day. Other days, though, writing is nothing more than a job I have to do, and on those days it’s nice to have this little assistant on hand to tell me how much further I need to go.

I began using this calculator on the third Winston book, and I wrote the final words of the first draft five days before my scheduled completion date. (I then spent two weeks reading and re-reading the manuscript and ultimately turned it in late, but that’s another story.) You all know this, but sometimes we forget: Writing is not fueled by inspiration; if it was, I’d get around to writing six times a year. Writing is about sitting down and getting the work done. This spreadsheet helps me do that. Maybe it or something similar will help you, too.

Jan 022011

So we have a few people interested in this 250-words-a-day support group. I think the way to work this, for now, is to keep it very loose and unstructured. There’s only one key component: At the beginning of each month, I’ll put out the call for updates. You post your average daily word count for the year-to-date as a comment; I’ll update the blog post with that information. It’s just that simple.

Now, to make this a wee bit more official, I’m going to list the names of the people who’ve expressed interest in this notion. If you’re still on board, I would be most curious to hear just what it is you plan to write over the course of the coming year.

Deb Amlen
Bill Braine
Linda Acorn Budzinski
Angela Gunn
Thaddeus Howze
Andrew Kantor
Kevin Kulp
Andrew Senger

Since I asked, I will also answer: I am working on a YA adventure novel. My three books so far have all topped out at about 60,000 or 65,000 words — this new book is already at 50K words and I’m not sure I can say I’m at the halfway point. (I can see this baby is going to need a lot of editing one day.) It is my hope to have a draft completed by June 1. This might be an aggressive goal, as I will also be called upon now and again to work on the third Winston book, which is currently wending its glacial way through the production cycle. I also have some freelance committments; some school visits coming up; and, by the way, a job during the day and a family that might want some attention in the evening. Now you see why I settled on 250 words as my daily average target. Stephen King in On Writing says a real writer should be able to do 2000 words a day. I chortled long and hard when I read that one.

So that’s me. How about you?

And if you’re reading this and want to join us, well, all you have to do is say so.

Jan 012011

This is not, repeat NOT, my New Year’s resolution. It just so happens the beginning of the year is a good time to start something like this, that’s all.

I think it was Cory Doctorow who pointed out the irresistable math: If you write 250 words a day, you’ll have 91,250 words at the end of the year. That’s a novel, or if you write for kids, most of two novels. And somehow, to my ears, “writing 250 words a day” sounds a lot less threatening than “writing a novel and then some.”

So that, I’ve decided, is my goal. I’ve got 50,000 words on this thing I’m writing — that non-Winston book I’ve been dragging with me through the years — and it is my intention to finish it in 2011, and then continue on to another story I’ve got brewing in the back of my brain. Will I do it 250 words at a time? Hell, no. When I sit down to write, I hope to be a little more productive than just 250 words. But I know there will be other days when I can’t write at all — such is life for many folk for whom writing is a sideline, behind more important matters of work and family.

Sometimes those wordless days start to pile up. A wise writer needs a plan to keep the word processor going.

And so. It is my intention, throughout the year, to keep track of how many words I write each day, even if that is zero. And at the end of the year, I hope to find that I have written 250 words a day on average.

Here’s my question: Want to join me? I’ve never had much use for National Novel Writing Month, because I know there is no waaaaaay I’m going to write a novel in 30 days. But I envy the support structure that has sprung up around NaNoWriMo. Well, if there is interest, maybe we can set up a similar thing that lasts a year instead of a month: The 250 Club. What form would it take? How would it work? I don’t know, and probably it’s premature to even ask the question. First let’s see if anybody else besides me wants in.

Interested in pursuing this? Leave a comment or drop me a line, and we’ll go from there.

Jan 012011

For the third time in five years, I am on the judging committee of the Cybils awards, an honor bestowed upon the best books of the year by a loose affiliation of kidlit bloggers. (Somehow they keep letting me participate even though this blog has been in low gear for quite a while now.) As usual, I asked to be placed on the Middle Grade Novel panel. Today, moments ago, the finalists for 2010 were announced. Here are the books I’ll be reading and thinking about in the next few weeks:

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea
Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs
Betti on the High Wire by Lisa Railsback
Crunch by Leslie Connor
Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze by Alan Silberberg
The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

Congrats to all the finalists! I am looking forward to reading these and PASSING JUDGEMENT UPON THEM. Well, okay, that sounded harsh. But since I don’t generally have time to belong to a real-and-true book club, I really enjoy these brief forays where I get to discuss and argue about children’s literature with my Cybils co-panelists. I expect to enjoy it again this time around… as soon as I’ve read these books. Guess how I’m spending my long New Year weekend?