One-Month Challenge

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Archives: by Challenge

After clicking a link, scroll down to see previous related posts!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The End

I've been meaning to give you all an update for some time now.  First things first:

  1. All my blogging ops are now moved over to the new (blogified) -- catch me there, especially if you have in interest in the art and business of writing, and in the occasional tech goodie.

Okay, then.  Now, the backlog: as of Feb 28 2008, I had five challenges completed, and a sixth in the making:

'being able to bicycle X miles'? [Mike Panitz] / [Compete] in the RSVP...Although it's only a weekend and you'll have to train for several months, probably. [Katherine Boyd]

I am continuing to work on this one; we (Mike, Katherine, and I) can breeze through a half-century (50 miles) in a few hours, but in the next few months we'll work up to two full centuries in two days.  This has been tremendous fun so far, despite the occasional injuries, and I'm looking forward to crossing that finish line in August.

So, I'll sign off here with 6 of 12 completed...well, just change your bookmarks to read "Two-Month Challenge" :-)

And I hope to see you all at !



Friday, February 1, 2008

And we're back...

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program.

Learn a new musical instrument and learn to play a few songs on it. [Catherine Murcek] / Learn to play the cello. [Rob Peck]

I've had this lovely old Yamaha G-50A classical guitar kicking around for the last decade. It used to belong to my mother (if I can find it, I'll post the circa-1970s black & white of my parents camping with it), who handed it down to me, and I've been shlepping it from city to city promising myself "someday, I'll learn".

UW's Experimental College (the place where they put all the fun classes, like Adventure Backpacking and Cartooning) runs a Beginning Guitar class taught by Jack Dowdell (who moved here to continue his public school career but did so well holding private lessons that he started his own business); it promises basic playing skill plus a little music theory for the low, low price of $125.

Let me put in a pitch (ha! ugh.) for NCR's PitchPerfect software. No need to buy a tuner; just fire up you laptop, slap in a microphone (or a bluetooth headset), and play a note: the software tells you how far off you are. Slick...and free!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

All written out

Perhaps I should rename this blog "month-and-a-half challenge"? It somehow always takes an extra two weeks (minimum) for me to get around to the writeup...well, this time it has been especially difficult, since this time I've been spending far too many hours each day writing, and since I (*sob*) must admit a kind of defeat.

> Publish a 2,000 word entry to [Thu Duong] / Write a short story of 3000 words on a topic and in a style of your own choosing [Lee Konstantinou]

I decided to take this one step further and participate in National Novel Writing Month: a truly insane thingamajig (technical term) in which folks across the globe agree to try writing 50,000 words in a single month. While I can't claim success on that front, I did get a good 25,000 words banged out; no small feat for a newbie. In the process, I learned a lot about the process of writing, and about my own skills, deficiencies, and style.

First, the raw data; allows you to submit your word total count on a daily basis, and generates some nice graphs (PS geeks: full API here):


Now, if I had kept up with the flock, that slope would be about twice as steep (imagine a line running from the bottom-left to the upper-right of the graph). So, I churned out about half as many words/day as I needed to, and often less than that. Note the big push at the end: the last several chapters were written in a single 48-hour period on a random road trip between Oklahoma City and Memphis (helping my friend John finish his all-50-states-before-turning-30 challenge...thanks for doing all the driving John)! I now understand why so many novels have terrible endings. Nonetheless, the plotline is completed. A few more subplots to round things out, and it will be ready for first revision.

The biggest eye-opener, I felt, was the way in which the characters really do take over. I've heard this from authors before: you may think that you can control the personalities you create, guide their actions, subject them to your will. But you are wrong. Once a character has his own view of the world, he takes over, pushing your plot where he will. Don't like it? Go back and rewrite him from scratch (ugh). Better yet, follow him and see where it takes you, because this is when writing really takes off: your hindbrain is in the moment, you are watching a movie on your private internal silver screen, and your only job as an author is to observe the action taking place and translate it into words.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't play continuously. Sometimes, you tune in and there's nothing but dead air, a blank screen staring back at you with guilty eyes. In fact, most sessions start like this. A couple hours might pass as you follow stray thoughts down dead-end alleys, sipp a latte or three, and check email three or four (hundred) times. But eventually, if you are patient, the film starts rolling and things are beautiful for the next few scenes.

Of course, your characters also do some odd things. Aside from forgetting to follow their main plot objective, they also forget where they live, who they are sleeping with...even their own names. You will be tempted to revise these so-called "inconsistencies". Don't. If you do it now, instead of sitting back and waiting for the next scene of the movie to begin, your story will be clean and consistent...and about half as long as you'd prefer.

Pardon me while I wipe this egg off my face.

Other things you will learn while trying to write a novel:

  • You do not actually know how to spell the simplest of two-syllable words. Or, if you do, you surely cannot type them correctly on a regular basis.

  • Webcomics are not your friend, though you'll read a lot of them while you should be writing.

  • The Internet, as a whole, is not your friend. You will end up browsing YouTube, or the Jargon File, for an entire day. Add a parental control filter to your web browser so that it only permits access to Wikipedia, which is invaluable for research.

  • Your friends are not your friend. They want you to go outside, to bars, to anywhere that fun takes place. Your place is in a dark coffeeshop, far from anyone you know.

  • Other writers are your friend. Get a writing group, take a class, whatever it takes. Once a week, spend a couple hours with them, blabbing about your ideas and getting their feedback. A single offhand comment often generates a new scene or subplot. Best of all: unlike the rest of your friends, they don't get annoyed when you stop listening and start typing.

  • Subplots happen. You might be tempted to devise them ahead of time; this is not a bad idea, but be prepared to discard and revise. Your characters will end up in unexpected situations/relationships, and when these happen, you can simply open up a new file and begin writing about them. Oh, look: my female lead's parents died when she was four! I wonder why...

Okay, 'nuff lecture. Back to ME (that is, after all, what this blog is about :-)

I'm burnt on this one for now. Main plot complete(-ish), ending needs rewriting, but I know where things stand. I'll let her sit for a month or two, then come back and start exploring further: there are a lot of alleys left unexplored, and a lot of details need to be added. Even more importantly, I probably need to write a couple shorter stories before going back to a novel-length plot: these will provide more writing practice while simultaneously giving me the freedom to find out more about my characters in an uninhibited context, should I choose to include them in the shorts.

And lastly, a meta-analysis: I'm a natural ferret, a spaz, a hyperactive child in a grown body. My focus drifts from one obsession to the next on a monthly basis. The beauty of writing is that it incorporates this jack-of-all-trades knowledge into a single objective: who knew, when I became obsessed with martial arts and dance at an early age, that those experiences would be the basis for a couple chapters in a novel? Or that sleepless nights rewriting thousands of lines of code until they were just right would also help me design a protagonist and his opponent?

Writing gives us the chance to take all that we know, mix it up with a bit of speculation and fantasy, and produce something that somebody...somewhere...please...might care to hear about. All the random experiences of our lives coalesce into a new creation: a series of words never before spoken in quite the same order. Something unique. Something novel.

And the process of creating such a work is almost as satisfying as reading one.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Far. Too. Slow.

Halfway through the month, and I'm only a quarter of the way to my quota. My average is only about 1000 words/day at this point, largely due to plot development issues. It takes me about a half hour to mull over each scene before I begin, and after completing a scene, I often find myself adjusting plot inconsistencies elsewhere.

Bad NaNoWriMer, Bad. Think less: write more.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Today I must write 4,600 words

((50,000/30)*7)- 7,050 = 4,617

One week (almost) down, 3.29 to go...

Thursday, November 1, 2007

ZOMG: NaNoWriMo !

> Publish a 2,000 word entry to [Thu Duong] / Write a short story of 3000 words on a topic and in a style of your own choosing [Lee Konstantinou]

National Novel Writing Month runs from 11/1 to 11/30. Each participant has just thirty days to come up with 50,000 words. Preferably, different words. Or at least not the same word 50,000 times.

So, the heck with short stories: I'm going for quantity, not quality here. 1,667 words per day. Yeah baby. I'm gonna type till it hurts...or until Canal Coffee runs outta joe, whichever comes first.

Day 1, five minutes to midnight: 1700 words. Now I just have to do this 30 more times.

Watch me slog away at, or just watch this number here (when it decides to load):

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Four months ago...

> Brew a batch of "Peck-brand" beer, or, alternatively, ferment a few bottles of "Vin de Jon". [Katherine Boyd]

And it was a lot of fun. Enough to keep me going all summer :-) I'm not kidding...I still have a gallon left...although it would be too easy to blame my absence purely on that. In reality, most of my summer was consumed by real estate: the learning about, buying, and renovation thereof. More on that in a later post.

In the meantime, Happy Birthday to Me! -- and onward with the beer challenge:

Although some may claim is is possible to brew beer in a Coffee Pot, the better brews should be done in at least a 5-gallon batch. There is a pretty good guide here, so I'll just give you the fun tidbits.

The process starts with a giant brew pot, into which we throw malt -- both dry and extracts -- and boil for a mad long amount of time (meanwhile, we sterilize all our equipment, so as to guarantee that we'll be brewing beer, not penicillin). Next, we add hops...and as the solution cools down, yeast and sugar. It all ends up in the pail, on the floor, and on you, causing second-degree burns wherever it lands.

Next, we seal the pail and toss an airlock on it to keep the nasty microbes out, while still allowing the batch to vent, so it doesn't explode all over the basement. We let it sit for a couple days, measuring its specific gravity (basically, how watery it is) on occasion. When the specific gravity stabilizes, it has used up the available sugar. It is now alcoholic, but not pressurized, and therefore not fizzy. Flat beer is yuck, so we have one more step.

We siphon the beer into (sterilized) bottles, absorbing as much as possible into the clothing we are wearing, since now there is no risk of burns as it spills. A little ends up in the bottles, into which we add sugar before capping. We let it sit for a couple weeks, timidly awaiting the day when one blows up, taking the rest of the bottles with it.

Two weeks, two days, and two tubes of neosporin later: we have beer. Nice! I brewed up a chocolaty porter, with decent results. A couple were nearly flat...probably a leak in the cap...but most were just delicious. I have more than I can handle, so stop by for a jug sometime!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Mmmmm beer

Brew a batch of "Peck-brand" beer, or, alternatively, ferment a few bottles of "Vin de Jon". [Katherine Boyd]

Friday, May 25, 2007



While you are waiting, check out this pic...many of the flights out of Seattle pass relatively close to Mount St. Helens; smokin' !

PS check the Live Cam to see if I'm about to be buried in rubble.

Monday, May 21, 2007


Note: I'm taking a short break while my class wraps up.

Sunday, May 13, 2007


And my penalty for being off the interweb for 24 hours: 31 unfiltered spammails

Things I would miss most in a world without readily available electric power:
  1. Hot water on tap
  2. The internet
  3. Light without smoke
Not terribly surprising, I suppose, but there you go. Its not actually that hard to live this way for a day, but there are a lot of things that only show up in the long term: hot baths become weekly affairs, not daily; traveling 3000 miles to see your parents takes a week by rail; it takes a week to let your friends know, individually, by postal mail, what you have been up to.

And did I mention...while living without direct use of electricity and fossil fuels would be annoying, living without their indirect use would be nearly impossible. Without cheap available power, a bunch of products don't exist, and those that do cost orders of magnitude more to produce, since manual labor is once again king. Iron pans? I might be able to afford one. Books? Perhaps a few. My bicycle, ever-reliable source of cheap rapid transit? Weighs twice as much and is in constant need of repair. Cheap, refined soy protein? Not to be found!

Read the rest of my meandering thoughts from the day in the last post

Back online

Friday, May 11, 2007

It's about time...

...actually, it's more about clocks. Digital clocks.

Go one day without using electricity or gasoline (appliances, heating, cooking, cell phone, computer, etc). Don't use any store where your activity would increase the amount of electricity used (i.e., they can have electric lights, but not automatic door openers). ...realize how ubiquitous this stuff is, and what energy reform is really trying to tackle. If you're up to it, don't do it on a weekend. [Luke Donev]

Tomorrow will be my day-without-electricity (as much as I would love to tackle this on a weekday, I am a telecommuter: to do so would get me fired). For the past few days I have been contemplating every action I take, and whether each (directly or indirectly) uses electricity. There are some things I simply can't avoid, so I'm setting the following ground rules (and exceptions):
  1. No direct usage of electricity: no computers, no electric lights, no cell phone; no cheating by intentionally leaving the lights on throughout the house, or hiring a Shabbes Goy to do it for me. I can't even take a hot shower; our gas-powered furnace is electrically controlled. The one exception I'll allow is passive use of digital clocks (I won't use the alarm function, but I'm simply not going to go locate and purchase a spring-powered watch for just one day).

  2. Minimal indirect usage: somewhere along the line, the cold water in our house touched an electric pump, but the last few miles are gravity-fed. I can't convince most stores to turn off their lights for me (though I'll be paying in cash, not credit card, unless they use a click-clack). I will not open the fridge.

  3. If needed, gas, not gasoline: if I decide I must have a heat source for cooking or washing, I own a (cheap) coal grill and an efficient propane/butane camp stove. Were I in a more rural area, I'd chop down a tree...but my neighbors might complain if I burn down our deck to toast marshmallows.
Of course, to truly do this properly, I'd need to go hew my own axe from stone and proceed from there; nearly every component of the home I live in and every object I own was created using electricity. Then again, it seems impractical to replace all the nails in my building with iron pins struck by hand in a wood-heated furnace.

11:05 PM... 55 minutes of internet-usage left in my day, then 1,440 without. I'll be slowly counting them out. One Mississippi, Two Mississippi...

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Next: Go one day without using electricity or gasoline [Luke Donev]
  PS added Lee's suggestion to #12 of Suggestions to-date

Sunday, April 8, 2007

One-Month Waste...ahem, Challenge... complete

A breakdown devised after carefully pondering all 887 pages of Gravity's Rainbow:

Sunday, April 1, 2007

When all else fails, blame the feds

While I only have about 4 hours worth of reading left, tax day is approaching, and it will take up to 2 weeks to track down the all the info I need, once I determine exactly which info that is. So, sadly, I'm putting GR on hold for a few days while I get that rolling (which is fine -- I started on 3/8 so next Sunday will mark 1 full month). Back soon; stay tuned.

Friday, March 16, 2007

15 days, 200 pages

Gravity's Rainbow is a slow, at times painful, read. Half of the allotted time has elapsed, yet I'm less than a quarter of the way through this tome. I may not make it. How sad: "so Jon, what awesome challenge did you attempt this month?"; "um...I tried to read a book..and failed".

What makes Pynchon such an imposing author, such that my progress appears capped at a mere 20 pages/hour? Is it his expansive vocabulary? His brilliant intellectual arguments? Complex plotlines? None of the above. Rather, I would argue, the entire difficulty in reading Rainbow lies in the meandering, nonlinear nature of the writing. Simple speed-reading techniques fail, because it is almost impossible to pick out, at a glance, the important phrases in any given paragraph: one must read and re-read each individual sentence (which, in Faulknerian style, might actually be a series of fractured sub-clauses spanning a page or more) to catch the overall meaning -- where "meaning" is a derivative of the paragraph's tone, not the facts it conveys or the context in which it resides.

Pynchon is less concerned with long-term plot arcs than with the "feeling" of any given scene. There are, without a doubt, threads which will continue to develop in the remaining 700 pages...but ultimately Rainbow is a series of hallucinogenic vignettes each designed to convey a sense of a given concept or theme. That any particular scene may happen to advance the plot seems an afterthought. Characters are introduced, reappear, and die because the themes they represent need to be present or absent; the fact that individual persons are connected to these themes is mere coincidence.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Drum roll please

And the March challenge will be:

  • Read the Entire Baroque Cycle [John Mullervy] / Read War and Peace and write an analytical paper on it. [Catherine Murcek] / "Gödel, Escher, Bach" ... read it & actually take some time to understand it. [Mike Panitz] / Read Gravity's Rainbow. [Anna Korpak]

Specifically, I'll go with Gravity's Rainbow for this one (why? Because it has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time now and I have yet to crack the spine). 887 pages in 31 days = 28.6 pages per day. That should be simple; unfortunately, the copy I'm holding appears to have been laced with some sort of hallucinogenic.

Watch this space for my book reports. Giant adenoids, beware! Jon Peck is on the case...

P.S. To all of you who think reading a book is a lame challenge: die, jocks! Um, I mean: reading grows a mind. Yeah. And I'm traveling a lot this month. And it's a really tough book. No really; if you think I'm kidding, go get a copy and try to read the first fifty pages without going to your psychiatrist or joining a cult. Ha! So there! You sitting there in your football jersey and catcher's mit, you think you're so tough. Well try reading a novel for once, would you? What do you think now, tough boy? What did you pick, "Catcher in the Rye?" Oh come on, how 1950's can you get?

Suggestions to-date

Here we go! I have thrown out a few possibilities on the basis that I've already done them ("increase Ania's alcohol tolerance"), they're too expensive or take too long ("invest in real estate"), or they simply violate my ethics ("eat a porterhouse steak"). After pruning out those lovely but invalid ideas, 14 potential challenges remain. In no particular order, they are:

  1. Write down the 10 most important things you want to do with the rest of your life and actually start doing them / Figure out what you want to be doing in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years (job, life, family, whatever) from now and start taking concrete steps toward making sure that is what will happen. [MJ Peck]
  2. Learn a new musical instrument and learn to play a few songs on it. [Catherine Murcek] / Learn to play the cello. [Rob Peck]
  3. Read the Entire Baroque Cycle [John Mullervy] / Read War and Peace and write an analytical paper on it. [Catherine Murcek] / "Gödel, Escher, Bach" ... read it & actually take some time to understand it. [Mike Panitz] / Read Gravity's Rainbow. [Anna Korpak]
  4. Learn to touch-type. [Anna Korpak]
  5. Increase the girth of your upper body and biceps by some amount. [Catherine Murcek]
  6. Go one day without using electricity or gasoline (appliances, heating, cooking, cell phone, computer, etc). Don't use any store where your activity would increase the amount of electricity used (i.e., they can have electric lights, but not automatic door openers). ...realize how ubiquitous this stuff is, and what energy reform is really trying to tackle. If you're up to it, don't do it on a weekend. [Luke Donev]
  7. Increase your ability to do some physical task by 10%. Bench-presses, push-ups, sit-ups, etc, immediately spring to mind. [Mike Panitz]
  8. What about 'being able to bicycle X miles'? [Mike Panitz]
  9. How about achieving an X% return, for the month, through day trading? [Mike Panitz]
  10. Volunteer X hours for the month to help a good, progressive candidate win? (At least, I assume progressive - if you want to volunteer for the Republicans, then I Officially Retract this idea) [Mike Panitz]
  11. Write up what you know (about wine, scotch, etc, etc) as an intro for those of us that don't. [Mike Panitz]
  12. Publish a 2,000 word entry to [Thu Duong] / Write a short story of 3000 words on a topic and in a style of your own choosing [Lee Konstantinou]
  13. Arrange and promote an event. You don't have to create the event (someone else can write the music or arrange the dance or whatever), but you do have to do all of the other things to bring it to life: get the venue, make the deals, get publicity, arrange for loads of your friends to show up, etc. [Katherine Boyd]
  14. Brew a batch of "Peck-brand" beer, or, alternatively, ferment a few bottles of "Vin de Jon". [Katherine Boyd]
  15. [Compete] in the RSVP...Although it's only a weekend and you'll have to train for several months, probably. [Katherine Boyd]

Given that this leaves a fairly narrow selection range, I'm happy to accept more challenges; just send them in! But I shall begin NOW by embarking on the March challenge....

Before I begin

I'll get into the challenges in just a minute, but first I have to relay this email from Mike Panitz, fiance to the lucky Deb Alterman and all-around decent guy:

"You should increase your tolerance for alcohol by 10%. This will be measured by a 'pretest' (at the beginning of the month), and a 'posttest' (at the other end). In both cases, you must do one (1) activity using physical coordination (e.g., play Jenga), one (1) activity that uses mental acuity (e.g., integrate something), and one (1) activity that has you doing both (e.g., recite the National Anthem while demonstrating swing dance moves). We'll measure you three times in each case, and from that, calculate the Mean Time Till Screw Up. Between the beginning and end of the month, you need to be able to increase the amount of alcohol you consume prior to this test by 10%, with no appreciable increase of MTTSU."

Let me say that I would love to take this one on (go ahead, twist my arm), but sad to say it is definitely a feat I have accomplished already, although with not-so-much scientific precision. In fact, I'm willing to bet that my MTTSU increased by 10% EVERY month from 1996-2000 (insert witty but inappropriate-for-publication reinterpretation of given acronym).

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

I can't let them have all the fun

The January 2007 issue of Wired magazine challenges three contributors to improve themselves in just four weeks by learning to Run Faster, Be Smarter, and Shoot Straighter. As a jack-of-all-trades (aka hyperactive unfocused freak), I love this concept, and have resolved to embark on a similar challenge.

Over the course of the next year, I will embark on 10 month-long quests chosen by you, my dear readers. Dream up the challenges, and I shall endeavor to accomplish them.

The ground rules:

  1. I will select 10 challenges from the set of all submissions
  2. each challenge must be one I can accomplish (perhaps with great difficulty) within a one-month timeframe (max 4 hours/day 5 days/week)
  3. my financial outlay for each challenge cannot exceed $250 (this may simply mean I need to be crafty about how I approach some of them)
  4. each must "improve" me or those around me in some way; this might be learning a new skillset, toning up my body, banishing a childhood fear, or accomplishing a task for the greater good
  5. each must have a measurable output, but need not be a distinct black-or-white result