NaNo and “Book in a Month”

So I’m planning to do NaNoWriMo again this year, and I’ve actually been doing some preparing. You read right — preparing! Me! Ahead of time!

I’ve been trying to work on my story idea a little every day — fleshing out characters, world mechanics, trying to come up with an outline (I’ve already got a cool ending in mind, but it’s occurred to me that I might need a beginning and middle too).

So far, my mood has been going in about one-day cycles: one day I’ll be totally pumped about my idea, the next day I’ll be in a state of abject depression and totally convinced that my idea is hopeless and I don’t have the skill to pull it off and I’ll never, ever make it as a writer. So, about average for NaNo, I’d say. The real test will be whether I can keep dragging myself to the keyboard in November, even when I’m in Maximum Marvin Mode.

Jennie and I stopped by a bookstore last weekend, and one of the books I picked up — on an impulse — was called “Book in a Month“, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. It has some general advice, followed by a day-by-day plan for developing your plot, characters, etc. throughout the month as you write the story.

The short version: it looks like this is going to be well worth the price.

It’s not solid gold. A lot of the advice was old news, like the tired old “don’t write something just because you think there’s a market for it.” I’ve heard that advice so many times — and I can’t believe anybody even does that. Why would you write something you hated? How would you even come up with an idea that you felt capable of pulling off, if it wasn’t a genre that you loved to read?

There’s also a lot of yammering about “imagine how you’ll feel when you’ve written an entire novel”. Well, I’ve done that. Twice. Doesn’t feel that different, honestly. Now, if I had actually done any revising — or better yet, if I was depositing a hefty advance check — that’d be a different story…

But the book does have some real gems. I really like the advice to “write ‘as if'”: if you’re halfway through the month, and suddenly realize that you need to change something in an earlier chapter, then you just make a note, then keep writing as if you had already rewritten it that way. As she says, “You cannot write and rewrite at the same time if you want to finish a book in 30 days.” You’ll probably change your mind again before you’re done, so why waste time writing what’s likely to get cut or changed anyway? YAGNI as applied to novel writing — cool. And so very NaNo.

And then there’s Chapter 5, which all by itself is worth the cover price. The chapter title is a yawner (“Setting and Keeping Goals”), but what it’s really about is discovering what kind of books you want to write. I’ve found that I write best when I can put my own spin on something and make it my own — but what, exactly, is my spin? Could I explain it? Recognize it? Work consciously (instead of by luck) to apply it to a project? It turns out that maybe I can — and while my one-sentence self-pitch is still only on about its third draft (and needing a lot more), it already gives me a lot better insight into why I like the books and movies that I do, and what it would take for the book I’m writing to actually be the kind of book I’d want to read — and re-read — and re-read again. And that, really, is why I want to write in the first place.

The biggest downside to “Book in a Month” is that it’s spiral-bound. Pretty freakin’ chintzy — I expected better from Writer’s Digest Books, and I almost put it back on the shelf because of it. Heck, I almost didn’t pull it off the shelf in the first place. The spiral binding is easy to lay it flat, I guess (though far from the only choice, if that was their intent); but every time I open or close the book, or just turn a page, I’m deathly afraid that a page is going to tear out. I think they’re thinking of this as a disposable workbook (they come right out and say they expect you to buy another copy of the book for every novel you write), but if they really meant it as a workbook, they’d have left a lot more room to write in answers to the questions. (“What types of books do you enjoy? Movies? Music? Here’s a space half-an-inch high to write your answers.” I filled two pages of a spiral notebook before I got to where I could start seeing the patterns and making sense of them.)

But the book definitely got some sparks going in my head. I think it’s already earned its purchase price, and I’m only up to Day 1 — and it’ll probably earn more the first time I reread it. If you’re doing NaNo, I think this book is worth a look.

NUnit and Silverlight

Unit testing in Silverlight is a persnickety business. The NUnit.Framework binary is built for full .NET, so you can’t easily use it to test Silverlight assemblies. I tried a few different things, but kept running into walls.

Fortunately, smarter people have already figured it all out. Jamie Cansdale made a Silverlight NUnit project template that gets you started right. It’s intended for TestDriven.NET, but it works great with ReSharper’s test runner too. Just download and open his template, and it’ll add itself to Visual Studio. Then the next time you do New Project, there’s an extra “Silverlight NUnit Project” option available under the Visual C# > Silverlight project type. Very cool.

However, the nunit.framework assembly in Jamie’s template is from some unidentified, but old, version of NUnit. There’s no version info in the DLL, but I know it’s gotta be 2.4.x or earlier, because its Is class (from the fluent assertions — Assert.That(2 + 2, Is.EqualTo(4));) is in a different namespace, whereas I know that 2.5 moved it into the main NUnit.Framework namespace.

Since I use the fluent assertions all the time, and since I just don’t want to use an old version, I went hunting again, and found Wes McClure’s NUnit.Framework 2.5.1 for Silverlight 3. It’s only a little old — right now the latest version is 2.5.2 — and his binaries are working out quite nicely so far.

So I use Jamie’s template to create a new project, which includes a lib directory with the old version of nunit.framework.dll; then I grab Wes’s nunit.framework.dll and drop it into the lib directory, replacing the older version. And I’m good to go.

Now, back to those fiddly trig calcs… (See, there was a reason I wanted to add a test project!)

Update, Oct 10 7:30am… Intellisense works great with Wes’s assembly. Building and running are a different story. Much unexplainable behavior from Visual Studio. Short version: I couldn’t get Wes’s assembly to work with the ReSharper test runner. But Jamie’s template is working fine so far.

BarCamp Omaha 2009…

So I’m finally getting around to writing about last weekend’s BarCamp.

My overall impression was “awesome”. Two things that stand out in my mind are:

  • Going to great presentations by people I know;
  • Being able to flag down the conference planners at lunch and bounce ideas off them.

Neither of those are something I’d get at a Microsoft TechEd — or even so much at a Heartland Developers Conference. Great sessions, yes; but I really value the sense of intimacy, and it’s just not the same at big conferences.

They had three tracks — creative, entrepreneurial, and technical — and I wound up splitting my time pretty evenly between them, which surprised me a bit. Erica gave a great talk about the power of conversation. Someone (I’ve got his name in my notes) gave a talk about the nuts-and-bolts of how the brain works… neurotransmitters and all that. Nate had a round-table-ish discussion of how attention deficit disorder affects us as IT workers. Bunch of other sessions that I don’t recall in detail at the moment, but I took notes. Very cool stuff. I was drained by the end of the day, but it was a good kind of drained.

Totally worth $5 and a day of my time.

The biggest downside was that they got donuts, muffins, and bagels for breakfast. All carbs, no protein… a nap waiting to happen. (Turned out the sponsor who was going to provide breakfast fell through at the last minute, so they had to scramble to find something else — so it’s actually pretty cool that there was breakfast.) But I managed to find some peanut-buttery candy to help tide me over till lunch, so it worked out OK. I’ve volunteered to bring a big jar of peanut butter next year.

I did find that, for me as an introvert, the evening-before party wasn’t very interesting. No offense to the people I talked to there; but it takes energy for me to be around people, and mingling doesn’t do much for me. I’ll probably skip the evening parties at HDC again this year for the same reason.

But the conference itself is totally something I’ll do again.

Session notes will be forthcoming as I get around to it.