I’m taking a quick “vacation” – and by that I mean, it’s the start of final exam season and I’m managing six classes. In the meantime, let’s start a new feature.


Small Updates

Here’s what you may have missed if Nanowrimo, final exams, or both have turned you into a hermit.

1. My wife, Elizabeth, was featured on Kisa Whipkey’s blog, Nightwolf’s Corner. If you’ve read the acknowledgements page of A Foundation in Wisdom, you may recognize Kisa as the editor. She’s also the senior editor at REUTS publications. Go check out Elizabeth’s article, “How to Judge a Book by Its Cover”!

2. Go check out Kisa’s new serial book, Unmoving. Serial books has been a relatively frequent topic on this blog, and Unmoving sounds like a good read. If you’re a member of DeviantART, Wattpad, Figment, or Authonomy, just add it to your watch-list, or for a one-time $2.99 charge, you can subscribe for a VIP, advance first-look.

3. I’m currently playing with Stencyl; like GameMaker and Construct2, it’s a Flash/App authoring tool. Although intended for 2D games, I’m investigating its potential as an alternate to Bowker’s “Your book as an app” service and Socrative in the classroom. More on that later.

4. I got a digital painting featured on the MyPaint homepage. MyPaint is a great FOSS digital painting tool. I prefer it over GIMP for the painting process – although GIMP still has its place in the final preparations.

5. Nanowrimo has almost come to an end, and there seems to have been a substantial drop in the number of participants. I’ll be interested to see how this year’s stats compare to the previous years.

How Many Novels Are There?

We are now halfway into November, and if you are behind on your Nanowrimo novel, you may be looking into how to cheat catch up. You’ve probably heard that a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters will eventually turn out the works of Shakespeare.

Is it true? Technically, yes. Likely is a different question. The odds are small.

Very small.

Let’s suppose we want our monkeys to type out a particular 50,000 word novel. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a good example, as it’s roughly around that mark.

There are 26 letters and seven basic punctuation marks (, . ? ‘ ” ! space) that are frequently used. There are others, but these are enough to make my point.

So the chances of a monkey hitting a particular character is 1 in 33.

According to the multiplication principle, the chances of a monkey hitting a particular 2-character combination is \left(\frac{1}{33}\right)^2 . The chances of a monkey hitting a particular 3-character combination is \left(\frac{1}{33}\right)^3 , a 4 character combination is \left(\frac{1}{33}\right)^4 , and so on.

If we assume an average of 3 letters per word, then the chances of our monkeys banging out Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is roughly \left(\frac{1}{33}\right)^{150000}

Note that there are roughly 10^{80}   atoms in the universe, and the universe is about 13.8 billion years old. To put the odds that our monkeys will produce Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy into perspective, if every atom in the universe was a monkey, and they had been typing 150,000 characters every nanosecond since the big bang, it still ain’t gonna happen.

This is probably the least interesting problem, though. If you want to win Nanowrimo with monkeys, you don’t need to write a specific 50,000 word novel. You just need to write any 50,000 word novel. And this is where the numbers really get tricky.

The fundamental question becomes what constitutes a novel?

There was an interesting discussion over at what-if.xkcd about how many unique English tweets are possible. The bottom line is that there are roughly 2^{140 \times 1.1} \approx 2 \times 10^{46} possible tweets. The details are in the linked post and its own references, but the gist is this:

In a 1950 article, Claude Shannon determined that the typical written English sentence contains roughly 1.1 bits of information per letter. If you have some text with n bits of information, there are 2^{n} ways it can be interpreted. So a written English sentence containing t letters, or about 1.1t bits, can be interpreted 2^{1.1t} ways.

This certainly cuts down the number of novels. There are roughly 2^{165000}  possible 50,000 word “novels.”

Does that make much of a difference?

No. The probability that any of the 150,000-character strings constitutes a 50,000-word “novel” has 178,000 zeroes after the decimal.

And keep in mind that I’m using a very loose definition of the word “novel”. A 50,000-word “novel” in this context just needs to be a collection of sentences that are readable individually, but not necessarily together. Here’s an excerpt of my fan-fic sequel to Atlanta Nights:

“Jim, do I have a dingo on my back?”
The sun set three fortnights ago on Afdw-IX.

But it’s not hopeless for my team of hypothetical monkeys yet. Perhaps out there is another segment of our universe, not unlike our own, except that not only did my team of monkeys actually write a 50,000-word novel, but also this blog post. And I have a pet duck. Just because, I suppose. The other me has a reason.

I bet its name is Fred.

Nanowrimo Week 2

So the second week of Nanowrimo is now upon us. According to the numbers I crunched in October, this is the week we’re likely seeing a lot of people throwing in the towel.

Just because I’m not doing Nano this year, doesn’t mean I don’t have my own literary battles to deal with. So perhaps a pact is in order. You finish your novel, and I’ll finish revising mine.

If your word count is lagging, I think it’s time to (re)visit an important question:


Who are you writing for? Yourself, or for an arbitrary challenge?


This is the week where motivation starts to run dry. If you really want to finish your novel, you probably will. Perhaps not by the deadline, but who cares? The point of Nano is to write a book, not cross a “finish line” for the sake of completing a literary marathon. Maybe you won’t get a fancy digital certificate, but Photoshop or GIMP can help you out there*, and nobody would ever know the difference.

Write for you. If you’re 6,000 words behind schedule and catching up seems hopeless, then it doesn’t matter. You’re not trying to hit a word count goal, you’re tying to finish a book.

On a slightly related note, about 40,000 people have signed up for Nanowrimo after 1 November. It appears the total word count has surpassed one billion. From the site, as of 22:31 (Eastern) 8 November, 2013:


site wordcount: 1085028275
average: 6314.95
count: 171819


I think it’s interesting that the average word count is already 6,300. I don’t think this suggests by the end of the month we’ll see about 4 times as many words. I think this suggests that there was an initial surge, and we’ll start to see the progress slow down as people run out of steam. Unless, of course, my “pep talk” above inspired hundreds of thousands of people to keep going. Somehow I doubt that, though.

We’ll see what happens next week, I suppose.

* If you’re arrested for counterfeiting Nanowrimo winner certificates, don’t forget that I didn’t actually suggest you do it. My hands are clean.