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Monday, May 28, 2012

The Old Goat Prepares to Move On

This won't be my last column here at the Friday Challenge, but it will be one of the last.  I still have a goodbye column to write; but this isn't that column.  This column is a bit of an introduction to my new writing project, the one I mentioned in the comments section of this weekend's Open Mic Saturday.  I'm talking about the Cliffhanger TwoFifty.

Let me lead into what the Cliffhanger TwoFifty is by telling you about its ancestor.  Way back in 1990, I landed my first IT job.  It was most definitely an entry level position; making software tapes for customers and handling data conversion when a customer chose to upgrade to the latest, greatest version of the company's software.  At the time, PCs weren't powerful enough to handle very much in the way of business software.  A lot of business software was written for and run on mini-computers, including ones from companies which used to be big names and the industry but exist only in our memories, today.

I did all of my work on mini-computers, using a standard terminal for the time.  The terminal could display 24 lines of text with 80 characters per line.  One slow afternoon, on a whim, I decided to start writing a story to display on my terminal when I logged off of the computer.  Thus began the Adventures of Penny Pretty (extra credit to the first person who identifies where I stole the name from), which I planned as a sort of modern-day Perils of Pauline (look it up if you're so young that doesn't mean anything to you).  The first chapter briefly introduced Penny, introduced danger, then ended with a cliffhanger.  I didn't tell anyone about the story, just logged off one afternoon and left it for my co-workers to discover.  The next day, the very first question asked of me was, "When are you going to write the next chapter?"  That wasn't always an easy question to answer.

The restrictions the terminal placed on me were brutal.  Like I said earlier, 24 lines, 80 characters per line.  That's not a lot of space in which to resolve a cliffhanger, advance the story, then introduce a new cliffhanger; but they were rules I couldn't break.  Anything beyond 24 lines meant part of the scrolled off the top of the screen, never to be seen by potential readers.  I had to work and edit and trim virtually every chapter to get it to fit on a single screen.  But Penny was popular with my co-workers.  Printed copies of all of the chapters made the rounds among employees (and even some of the more open-minded managers) and more than once I was asked to logoff the computer so someone could read the latest chapter.  I ended up writing around 20 chapters in four months.  Then I was transferred to a new position in the company and had neither the time nor the terminal required to continue Penny's adventures.

I hadn't thought about the Adventures of Penny Pretty in years, but the story resurfaced a few weeks ago as I was thinking, yet again, about trying to write a novel.  I've never written a novel.  I've never even come close to writing a novel.  Somehow, I just can't quite get past the size of the task.  I can't see the finish line from the starting line.  I've tried tricking myself by setting a goal of writing a full chapter, but I'm apparently too smart to be fooled by that trick.  While I was trying to figure out a new trick, Penny's adventures suddenly popped up and started waving madly, trying to get my attention.

Many of the "rules" for the Cliffhanger TwoFifty have been taken directly from the Adventures of Penny Pretty.  In each chapter, I'll be forced to resolve a cliffhanger, advance the story, then end on a cliffhanger.  The big difference is that I'm not restricted to 24 lines, each 80 characters in length.  I was free to choose any length I wanted for my chapters, including having no set length at all.  But I want the restrictions because they increase the challenge of writing each chapter.  Also, having to fit each chapter into a certain number of words gives a simple goal for each chapter.  I know there are lots and lots of chapters to come, but what's most important is fitting the chapter I'm writing into the framework for the Cliffhanger TwoFifty.  It's a trick, but it appears it's one I'm not too smart to fall for.

The last part of the puzzle was setting my chapter length.  You've probably already figured out that chapters are going to be about 250 words in length.  It's not a hard and fast rule; I can go over 250 words but will do my best to keep to within 10 to 20 words of that number.  Why 250 words?  Well, a while back, Bruce wrote a column about how publishers count words (or at least how they counted words in the days of typewritten manuscripts).  As a rule of thumb, a single typed page (double-spaced, of course) was counted as 250 words.  I decided to go with that, essentially choosing to write a novel one type-written page at a time, publishing each page online for all to read.

The first chapter of the Cliffhanger TwoFifty is already up.  It was published two hours before this column was.  Go on over and give it a read.  It's short and won't take very long.  Leave a comment, if you like.  Like all writers, I love to read comments about my work.  Tell your friends.  Link your sites to it.  I plan on having fun with it and hope you will, too.
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