Sharpen your pencils and your plot, NaNoWriMo has begun

National Novel Writing MonthYes, the name sounds like someone talking with their mouth full of food.

But NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, has evolved into an annual, global event, with amateur and accomplished writers chewing through reams of copy since 21 participants first put pen to paper and fingers to keyboards 14 years ago.

On the eve of this year’s writing free-for-all, the participant list neared 200,000.

NaNoWriMo’s stated goal is to get people writing that novel they always promise themselves to write but don’t because of ― whatever. The competition adds incentives: a deadline, a place to publish and the moral support of others who agree bang out 50,000 words of a new novel between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30, no matter the quality.

The word count falls short of typical for novels but exceeds the 40,000 of novellas. To reach the NaNoWriMo goal, participants should aim to produce 1,667 words daily during the contest.

Hanging over the whole event is the faint hope of literary success and wide recognition once the first, very rough draft is in hand.

“All I can think about when I’m starting a book are all the words I haven’t written yet,” said author Rainbow Rowell, in a pep talk posted this week on NaNoWriMo’s website. “I actually feel them hanging around my neck, tugging at me.”

Her third novel, Fangirl, began as a NaNoWriMo project two years ago.

“That’s why I eventually decided to try NaNoWriMo ― to fast-forward through that desperate, blank-page phase and get to the good stuff,” Rowell explained. “I told myself that it didn’t matter if my first draft was bad. All my books have required major revisions, anyway.”

NaNoWriMo’s website contains discussion forums, advice on writing strategy and technique, tips on writing tools and research, and suggestions on who to ask locally for guidance and support. It also delves into self-promotion with a small online store hawking T-shirts, coffee mugs and other items, because registration to the site it free.

And, of course, it offers courage.

NaNoWriMo “gets you started. It gives you the impetus to finally start, and/or finally finish,” wrote best-selling author Dave Eggers, in a pep talk in 2010. “Knowing there are thousands of others out there trying to do the same, who are using this ridiculous deadline as a cattle-prod and shame deterrent, means goddamnit, you better do it now because you know how to write, and you have fingers, and you have this one life, and during this one life, you should put your words down, and make your voice heard, and then let others hear your voice.

“And the only way any of that’s going to happen is if you actually do it,” Eggers continued. “People can’t read the thoughts in your head.”

For St. Louis-area folks seeking a nice, quiet place to be creative, the Writers’ Room offers its space during NaNoWriMo without charge from 2 to 6:30 p.m. each Wednesday. The Writers’ Room, at 2101 North Locust Street, has workstations, a big table, big leather chairs, the option for mood music, and free coffee. Call 314-669-1872 or email stlwritersroom@gmail.com for details.

Windows 8.1, Obamacare, and the risks of early adoption

Early Adopters

We all enjoy occasional trips along the cutting edge. Spurred by our adrenaline and excitement, these trips can lift moods and egos by suggesting that we’re smarter, faster, better than the masses.

Those who live by this routine are called early adopters, or “trendsetters.” They’re a step removed from innovators but enjoy the cachet of being first at anything.

They constitute a distinct population, whereas most of us prefer hanging with the masses and steering wide of the danger zone, because the comfort zone has lounge chairs and mini refrigerators.

But what if there seems no choice but to join the early adopters?

That was the feeling people had last week before flaws and a resulting wave of bad press beset two high-profile tech arrivals: Windows RT 8.1 and HealthCare.gov.

Both were supposed to address pressing national issues. Both were touted as easy fixes for those issues. And both went public after intense PR campaigns nudging the public toward early adoption.

Now, both are case studies for caution.

Windows RT 8.1, an operating system update released last Thursday, aimed to fix the balky, user-unfriendly Microsoft Windows 8 for tablet PCs. Less than two days later, RT was withdrawn from the free-download section of the Microsoft Store because of reports that it was rendering tablets unresponsive or inoperative.

HealthCare.gov, the official registration site for the Obama administration’s health care expansion, was promoted as an easy-open door to health care for millions of Americans without any. But it nearly drowned from a flood of applicants after going live Oct. 1, then suffered complaints that it was confusing and difficult to use.

Microsoft resumed Windows RT 8.1 downloads Sunday and showed dismayed users how to resurrect their failing tablets. Exactly what went wrong in the first place was not announced.

The federal government meanwhile says it will enlist “experts” to repair HealthCare.gov ― which sounds as if they weren’t already on board ― but time is against them; the deadline for millions of uninsured Americans to register is late March, and the site was supposed to handle much of the load.

Early adopters relish the exclusivity that being first provides. This emotional impulse puts these people out front and keeps them there.

But the impulse works two ways; a segment of the early adopter population simply seeks completion. Members vie for first place not to brag but to escape the crowd. Their comfort zones lack room for more than one person.

I was among them until becoming personal technology editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For six years, part of my job involved reviewing new devices and software before they went public and wrestling with whatever hardships ensued. The main benefit was that I learned how to fix computers and other gadgets without guidance, because sometimes the equipment was too new to have any.

The secondary benefit was an awareness of what it took to be a successful early adopter: research. Those who take risks at any level and count their success in bunches also prepare for failure to come just as often. They examine what precipitated innovation and see obstacles as challenges. They have read about other people’s mistakes, even interviewed the people who made them. They trade wisdom and warnings, share insights and incentives.

In short, they’re prepared to accept the pain just as much as the pleasure of early adoption.

Close observers of Microsoft understand that Windows has a history of quirkiness. That’s not necessarily a dig against Microsoft, rather an acknowledgement that computer operating systems are complex and difficult to perfect.

Web developers understand that any site meant to guide millions of visitors simultaneously through a maze of information by disparate and perhaps conflicting sources needs testing and re-testing before going live. That’s not necessarily an assault on HealthCare.gov’s creators, rather a reminder that huge sites require a huge amount of testing no matter whose name is on them.

In hindsight, it was smarter to wait on Windows RT 8.1 and hold off jumping into HealthCare.gov. So, next time you’re pressured to be an early adopter, consider looking back before jumping out in front.

Please, please, PLEASE, think before you tweet

Think before you tweet

context (n.) — the portions of written or spoken statements that influence meaning or effect.

Philadelphia TV reporter and former anchor Joyce Evans may finally appreciate the meaning of this word, thanks to social media.

Kansas University journalism professor David Guth might as well, for the same reason.

Both have entered a pantheon of infamy wrought by ill-advised actions on Twitter, considered the fastest vehicle for embarrassment apart from reality TV. They are poster children for the importance of cramming context into the small space Twitter allows, no matter how tight the fit.

The question now is whether anyone who witnessed what they went through garners a shred of wisdom from the circumstances.

Evans ran headlong into a wave of unwanted attention this week after merging pop culture and breaking news into one cumbersome, 89-character blurt on Twitter for her employer, Fox affiliate WTXF-TV.

Evans' Tweet

Evans’ intent was clear; she wanted to surf the wave of attention spawned by broad public interest in “Breaking Bad,” the black-comedy crime drama on AMC that bowed out Sept. 29 after 62 episodes and a history of far-reaching social engagement.

But in channeling “Bad” the way she did, Evans trampled the distinction between reality and fantasy, and suggested she was deaf to the tone of each. Audiences tried to enlighten her.

Evans Criticism

An apology for her overstatement seemed in order. Instead, Evans compounded the problem by pushing off responsibility onto her Twitter followers.

Evans' Response

The subsequent fusillade stretched well beyond WTXF’s viewing area, silenced Evans’ usually busy Twitter feed as well as her Facebook page, and cost her the weekend anchor job she held since 1996.

Guth’s own Twitter reality check in mid-September, on the other hand, was purposeful and potentially more costly. The associate professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Communications exploded against conservative commentary on the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16. Thirteen people died, including the assailant.

In response to perceived invective on Twitter by alleged supporters of the National Rifle Association, Guth posted:

Guth's Tweet

The reaction was predictable. Even Republican state lawmakers vowed retaliation, and the president of the Kansas State Rifle Association promised that her NRA chapter would campaign to have Guth fired.

KU at first distanced itself from Guth’s comments, then from Guth. The university hustled him off on a research sabbatical that was not scheduled to start until next year. His Twitter feed also came down.

Guth remains unapologetic. He said on TV after the tweet that he was “deliberately provocative,” and in an email responding to my request for comment, he wrote, “It’s unfortunate that my comments have been deliberately distorted. I know what I meant. Unfortunately, this is a topic that generates more heat than light.”

He said he expects to be back at KU at the conclusion of his sabbatical but declines to say anything more about what happened. The university is similarly silent.

As for what the rest of us expect, especially from professional journalists and educators, it’s something more than selfishness, something more than a middle finger pointed at our sensibilities.

When Evans hyper-extended her comparison, she made what many of us might consider an honest mistake. The lure of social media is in part due to its speed and the excitement that speed generates. In turn, we react without full awareness of what we’re saying and remain ignorant until the excitement subsides.

A 2009 study by the University of Southern California seems to confirm this, explaining that social media moves too fast for our “moral compass” to catch up with what we’re thinking.

“If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality,” Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a researcher for the study, told CNN. “For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection.”

Sree Sreenivasan agrees. He’s a popular tech evangelist and one of the foremost advocates for sensible use of social media. At the Society of Professional Journalists’ national convention in Fort Lauderdale last year, he advised journalists against posting before thinking.

The owner of more than 50,000 Twitter followers, Sreenivasan waits three to six minutes between tapping a tweet and posting it because he knows that first words usually are not the best words, in any medium.

“Anything you share can and will be used against you,” he said.

This is sound and potentially career-saving advice for people such as Joyce Evans and David Guth who put hubris before introspection. In both instances, the Twitterers omitted context, either by accident or by design, then denied that their choice of words muddled their messages.

You are the best protector against your own embarrassment and ridicule. We need to remember that in this social-media inflected age, often our only guide to responsible behavior is staring back at us in the mirror.

Maybe Evans would still be a TV anchor and Guth still teaching if not for their unartful language. Unfortunately for all of us, their fame is based on what they said, not what they meant.

(Update: Guth will be allowed to teach again at Kansas next fall, the Lawrence Journal-World reports.)