guest post from icy sedgwick: visuals in fiction

It can be easy when writing to sometimes fall into the trap of reducing visuals to personal appearance, or a vague nod in the direction of setting. Literary fiction conditions us to primarily consider feelings or moods, and genre fiction devolves into a collection of stereotypes. Some writers use visuals purely to repeatedly tell us how attractive a character is, and other visuals end up standing in for an archetype – witness the number of beefy barbarians or aristocratic vampires. But can visuals play a bigger role, particularly in world building, and help transport a reader into the setting that you’ve imagined, rather than into their own interpretation?
I’m a big fan of set design within films, and I think there is real potential to use set design within novellas too – you’re not just ‘writing’ the setting, you’re ‘designing’ the setting. It involves a little more conscious thought and planning about how rooms or settings will look, and what impact those visuals will have on the reader. Consider the way JK Rowling depicted Dolores Umbridge’s office in Hogwarts – her cutesy obsession with pink and kittens was possibly more monstrous even than her behaviour, but it was a deft touch that helped to make Umbridge even more detestable.
Obviously you don’t want to get carried away with the visuals. If you start describing every single stick of furniture in the room, a reader isn’t going to know what’s pertinent to the story, and they’re also going to switch off from the story after being bombarded with description. Anton Chekov came up with the idea, now known as Chekov’s Gun, that if you hang a gun on a wall in act one, you’d better use it by act three, or audiences (readers in this case) will wonder why it’s there. You want to paint a broad enough picture that readers can ‘see’ the setting, but include enough details to foreshadow future events and give away details about characterisation that’ll save you from having to artificially describe them yourself. A room with peeling wallpaper and damp patches on the ceiling lets us know the inhabitant is slovenly and disinterested in his environment without us having to ever say as much.
The visuals of The Necromancer’s Apprentice are a bit of a mixed bag. The Underground City, where we first meet Jyx, was based very heavily on Mary King Close and the Blair Street vaults of Edinburgh. Picture dank spaces, devoid of natural light, where the air is clogged by the soot from gas lamps and the tall, narrow tenement buildings stretch up into darkness. It’s a Victorian slum, inspired in part by Gustav Doré’s nineteenth-century engravings of Whitechapel, where the alleys are called ‘closes’ because they’re so crammed together. By contrast, the part of the City Above that we get to see as Jyx travels to the Academy is based on Venice, all quiet canals and buildings with white shutters and delicate balconies, where Jyx can see the sky. It seemed a good way to set the two spaces up in contrast with each other, demonstrating the affluence and clean air of one, and the poverty of the other.
Yet that’s not all the visuals are for. True, they make good scene-setting, and people can quickly ‘see’ what sort of locations these are, and they can compare these imaginary locations with ones that they know in order to form connections or draw conclusions. You can also hide clues in the set design that like-minded people will pick up on, giving them a satisfactory ‘a-ha!’ moment when they recognise something in your design. When Jyx reaches the House of the Long Dead where he’ll be working for the necromancer general, he finds a lot of the art painted on the walls features figures drawn flat, in profile, which was my way of referencing Egyptian art. The Wolfkin are descended from Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, and he later discovers a statue of a man with the head of an ibis in my nod to Thoth, the god of knowledge. On their own, they just add to the set-dressing and help to build an atmosphere, but anyone who shares these interests will spot the references, and it should hopefully enhance their enjoyment of the story.
What about you? What kind of visuals do you like in your stories?

Icy Sedgwick was born in the North East of England, and lives and works in Newcastle. She has been writing with a view to doing so professionally for over ten years, and has had several stories included in anthologies, including Short Stack and Bloody Parchment: The Root Cellar & Other Stories.
She spends her non-writing time working on a PhD in Film Studies, considering the use of set design in contemporary horror. Icy had her first book, a pulp Western named The Guns of Retribution, published in 2011, and her horror fantasy, The Necromancer’s Apprentice, was released in March 2014.

help your writing with video games part 2: minecraft in creative mode

If you don't already know the basics of how Minecraft works, you might want to at least scan Part 1 of this series.

I really think Minecraft could be of use for a writer who is trying to figure out a complex physical space like a maze, a town, or the layout of a large dwelling like a mansion or a castle. This post walks through an example maze I built: a copy of the hedge maze at Hever Castle.

Hever Castle's maze is very uniform, with the paths between the hedges being about the same width as the hedges themselves. Judging from the photo, the maze is about 34x34 hedge-widths big. I translated that to 34x34 blocks, and built a 37x37 platform of sandstone to put my maze on, along with some wooden block markers to help with measuring things out:
The easiest thing to do seemed to be to start at the centre and work my way out. I grabbed one of the leaf block tools and started doing just that:
Once the maze was laid out, I went over it again and made all the hedgerows 3 blocks (3m) high. The Minecraft player avatar is 2m tall, so a 3m maze is high enough that you can't see over the tops of the maze when you're navigating through it:
The final result wasn't as beautiful as the real maze, but the maze path is the same. The next thing I did get back on the ground level and try it out:

The Hever maze isn't difficult, but it makes very efficient use of the area it covers. You basically wind up walking the entire space before making it to the centre:
The centre seemed a bit boring. For a story, I'd expect something interesting to be in the centre of a maze (more on that further down), but since this is just a demonstration I added a water fountain, some tables and chairs, and cake:
Well, so what? How does this help with writing anything?

I've now got an actual 3D model of a working, walkable maze. That means I can talk about blind alleys, wrong turns, and false exits from a working reference. Otherwise I'm stuck doing a lot of hand-waving and skipping transitional areas without knowing myself what's there. The reader will probably get lost in the narrative, but not in a good way.

I just made a rough copy of the Hever maze, but one could use it as a starting-point for a much richer world with more plot possibilities. Consider these options:
  • The maze is made of stone and has a roof over it like the labyrinth in the Minotaur myth. Or the maze is made of unbreakable glass, so you can always see outside and the centre, but you can barely make out where the walls themselves are.
  • The maze follows the same path as shown, but the centre is much larger and contains an entire castle. The castle's floor plan matches that of the surrounding maze.
  • At the centre of the maze is nothing but a trap door, and the door leads to... something cool, like a hidden city. Or another, different maze.
  • The maze's passages are streets, not paths. Replace the hedgerows with buildings. At the centre is the magistrate's building, or the market square, or...
Now, you may argue that any one of these things may be written about without creating a model or map first, and you'd be right. My counter-argument is simply that you'll do a better job of being consistent if you have a reference.

Furthermore, you might discover possibilities for conflict, plot points, and world-building that would have been harder to discover without the visual model.

To be fair, I'd guess that most writers would prefer a rough-and-ready version of their models, rather than some of the elaborately detailed (and beautiful) creations diehard Minecraft builders make. It's the difference between a film set and a real location. But even this very rough Hever maze copy only took about an hour and a half to create. If you're going to write a longer work with a complex landscape in it — a building with secret passages important to the story, say — isn't it worth it to figure out a physical structure that actually works?

Bonus: you can include a map or rendering of your model with the story so that readers can look at it. If the story has physical navigation as an important factor, readers enjoy that. Consider what The Lord of the Rings would be like without the map of Middle Earth in the end-papers.

Next week: notes on how Minecraft's survival mode can be used for ideas.

help your writing with video games

My brother Steve showed me Minecraft a while ago (back when it was still in alpha). He said I'd like it, but I try not to have too many time sucks around, so I didn't get my own copy. Then Peter Newman mentioned he was getting into the game, and I wanted a good game to play on my phone... That was the middle of January, and I've played it pretty much every day since.

The phone (Pocket Edition, or PE) version is a smaller world with fewer features, but the essentials are the same as the full version: you play in a "sandbox" (limited world) made of different types of blocks, scaled to be 1m cubed.

There are two basic modes of play:
  • Creative: there are no monsters, and no way for your avatar to die. You have as many blocks as you want, of whatever type you select. Your avatar has the ability to fly, which can come in useful for some of the construction work. The experience gets compared to virtual reality Lego a lot, which I think is fair. The landscape is created for you randomly by the app, and it is always a beautiful, sunny day.
  • Survival: there are monsters, mostly at night, and they are all trying to kill you. You start the game with nothing but your avatar's bare hands to work with, and have to build a shelter to hide from the monsters, and tools to work with and defend yourself with. The only blocks you have to work with are the ones you collect or fashion yourself. If your world is missing a type of block — my current survival game doesn't seem to have any lapis lazuli, for example — then you simply can't build with it. If you want to work with metals like iron or gold, you have to find some ore, smelt it, and then craft with it. It doesn't rain the way it does in the full version of Minecraft, but days and nights are ten minutes long each. You learn to run somewhere safe at sunset.
I hadn't been playing long when I realised that Minecraft could be a great tool for writers (really!). It gets you thinking about:
  • how geography and one's environment can shape culture and values
  • the history of civilisation
  • the place of monsters both real and imagined in history and mythology
  • "who's the monster?": whether the real monster is you, the human player, and what that means
  • aesthetics and architecture
  • how to plan out things in enough detail so that they work as you imagined
I'm not a writer who's very big on note-taking or diagram-making. I could see using Minecraft as a kind of cheap AutoCAD, though, for planning out things like:
  • house floor plans
  • labyrinth designs
  • town layouts
  • secret passages and rooms
  • re-scaling (lots of the creative designs in Minecraft are at a giant scale; the avatars are mouse-sized in comparison)
In the next couple of Tuesday posts I'll be taking a look at these and evaluating how useful they could be in practical terms. In the meantime, here's a link to Mashable's list of 25 amazing creations in Minecraft. It was fun to notice a lot of them are inspired by books!

we are all pro-technology

Every year, Lake Superior University provides a list of "banished words" — words or short phrases which have been overused, overexposed, or are just plain annoying. Utterances by businesspeople, politicians, and economists are especially prone to winding up on the list.

There's one word whose meaning has narrowed since the nineteenth century that I'd like to reposition, if not ban, and another related word whose scope has expanded at the same time. If I got total control over the English language for one day, as soon as I made sure everyone knew the difference between "it's" and "its", I'd make sure that "technology" and "luddite" went back to more accurate usage.

Let's start with "luddite". Originally it meant someone who disagreed with technology being advanced at the expense of people's jobs. Nowadays it just means anyone who doesn't consider themselves "technical".

Put it this way: if you remark on Twitter or a blog that you're a "luddite", you're in danger of being a hypocrite.

You're also not as eligible for sympathy as you might think. For every creative person who thinks that being a "luddite" is an excuse for a poorly-designed web page or a badly-formatted manuscript, there's at least one other creative who rolls up their sleeves and makes sure things come out properly.

Claiming to be a "luddite" in these matters is like a visual artist not bothering to learn what happens to canvas when you apply paint to it, or a quilter who doesn't bother learning about sewing machines (but uses them anyhow). If you're using the tools and materials, you should know about them. I'm not saying you have to learn to solder together your own motherboards; just that if you choose a computer as a means of expression, you should know how to do writing-related tasks with it, and know what best user practices are.

Now, on to "technology." When I was in high school, I saw a documentary that really opened my eyes about technology. The narrator explained that the purpose of the documentary was to explain how machines work. To this end, first the documentary was going to start with simple machines.

The first simple machine to be explained was a teeter totter (lever).

The second was a spring.

The third was a combination of those two simple machines: a doorknob.

A doorknob is a technological innovation. In comparison with the whole of human history, spring-controlled doorknobs aren't even that old.

"Technology" doesn't just mean computers, or cars, or radios. It doesn't only count if it's something you're not interested in.

And really: the average typewriter user in the 1970s knew how to change the ribbon, make basic screwdriver adjustments, and clean the machine's innards as necessary. They also knew how to change from Courier to Elite, black to red ink, memo paper to letter paper. They knew how to centre a title and right-align an address.

The average laptop/tablet/smartphone user should be able to do the equivalent. Nothing "technical" about it.

don't fear the adverb

The first time I noticed it was in Apple's ad campaign:

I remember having a conversation about it with a Mac power user friend of mine which went something like this:

Friend: I love the new Apple ad campaign. So elegant, so simple.

Me: [eyeroll] Yeah, except it makes them look illiterate.

Friend: How can it look illiterate when they're using photos of Mark Twain and Bob Dylan?

Me: Think differently. It's think differently.

Friend: Well maybe they didn't want to use an adverb. Adverbs are weak forms.

Me: It's still an adverb. Leaving out the suffix doesn't transform it into a non-adverb. The only word it could possibly be modifying in that two-word sentence is "think", which is unambiguously a verb. "Different" can't be a direct object or a subject, because it's not being used as a noun. Writing the sentence in natural order as "Different think" doesn't make any sense.

Friend: Oh whatever, but the sense is clear, and that's all that matters, right?

Me: Okay, so you're defending a company that's made its name on its design aesthetic and famously rigid attention to detail when they approve an ad campaign that gets the grammar wrong in a two-word sentence?

Friend: If Microsoft did the same thing you'd be defending them.

Me: Ah, no, because a) I don't use Microsoft products and b) I support choice in hardware and software...

If you know anything about the history of personal computing, you know we stopped talking about grammar then.

I don't know if it was the influence of the ad campaign, or if the ads were just illuminating that part of the zeitgeist, but it seemed that ever after that people were dropping "-ly" suffixes in print and speech. A neighbour a few doors down from me put a bumper sticker on his car that said, "Save the adverb". A lot of people who claimed to otherwise care about grammar and usage were claiming that the "-ly" suffix was going the way of "thee" and "yclept". They said it was "retrograde" to cling to it.

Let the record show: these people also tended to be the ones in my acquaintance who were completely okay with constructions like (dis)ease and inter/cut. Right.

That was then. Now telling writers not to use adverbs is considered standard advice — any adverbs, not just ones shorn of the suffix which tells the reader it's an adverb. Stephen King famously advises against them in On Writing, and other voices weigh in with their own examples.

The only legitimate reason I've found to chop out adverbs (general concerns about being too wordy notwithstanding) is that they are sometimes used to modify verbs which are too weak to show the action properly. Replace the verb with a more appropriate word, and the adverb is superfluous.

Example: He walked slowly down the street.

Change to: "He strolled -" or "He shuffled -" or "He dragged himself-" and get rid of "slowly".

Fair enough. However, I'd say in these cases it was never the adverb which was the problem, but the verb. The adverb swooped in and helped identify the problem, and got handed the blame for it. That's not a nice way to treat parts of speech.

To get rid of adverbs entirely is to get rid of an entire part of speech. Not a trope, or a convention, or a standard, but an entire chunk of natural language.

You may think differently, but to me that's reactionary and counter-productive.

are you victor frankenstein or professor utonium?

Victor Frankenstein's story is a tale well known. He collected corpses which suited his purposes. Then he dissected them, picked out all the good bits, and reassembled them into his modern Prometheus.

The resulting monster became more famous than its creator, both within the fictional story and in the enduring layers of meta­narrative, going so far as to steal his name.

Professor Utonium is perhaps not as widely known, but to be fair Frankenstein had a two-century head start on him. He's the father figure from The Powerpuff Girls, who decided he was going to create the perfect little girls from laboratory chemistry. (Apparently he skipped health class on the important days back in high school). He mixed sugar, spice, everything nice... but he accidentally added CHEMICAL X.

And it seems to me that both of these are good metaphors for the process of writing. They don't near cover all the major process types, but from where I'm standing they're two distinct processes which get confused a lot.

They're both analytical processes, in that you figure out what the guts are first and then work from there. But there's a difference.

The Victor Frankenstein writer is the sort of creator who's very comfortable talking about "beats" and plot points. They probably would be very comfortable writing for television. Just like Frankenstein was comfortable with grave-robbing at night to get his raw materials, they're perfectly fine with pulling from older known works and fashioning them into something new. Good examples of this kind of writing are... just about any kind of classic TV sitcom for starters, but also anyone who writes "classics" of any genre fiction (and when I say "genre", that includes "literary fiction*". There, I said it.).

The Professor Utonium writer does things a bit differently. They gather up all their basic elements and then see what happens when they drop in some Chemical X (or, as Erin Morgenstern put it, add ninjas).

I know I'm more of a Professor Utonium. I usually start with characters and a basic reason for them all to be together, and then figure out what's going on (the reason for the lab explosion) later.

Like most writing things, there's no "good" or "bad" way to be, so long as you get things done successfully. Frankenstein, Utonium, or someone else altogether, while it's useful to have some self-awareness about one's process, in the end it's whatever works.

*"Literary fiction" encompasses so much science fiction, historical fiction, and romance fiction that really it should be renamed something like "critically acclaimed fiction". Honestly, I've got a four-year bachelor's degree in this and I still don't see what's so special about it. We never talked about "literary fiction" when I was in university. Most of what we studied would count as "slice of life" or "psychological" fiction, with some historical (like Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year) or romance thrown in. And don't tell me "popular fiction" or "pulp" doesn't get counted, because Dickens and Cervantes among others are both canonical, and they were both pop fiction in their time. We used to joke serious fiction was pop fiction that had been around for a long, long time.

clarity vs. dumbing down

Last week I took a course for work on requirements gathering. We took all about how to elicit, verify, validate, and record requirements. One of the things emphasised (not surprisingly) was language usage. We were told to be clear, concise, consistent, concrete, and a whole lot of other adjectives that mostly started with the letter "c".

And for writing requirements documents, that makes perfect sense. But my brain working the way it does, I remembered something on a completely different topic while we were doing the pre-exam review on the last day.

You see, there's this documentary I like a lot, called In the Shadow of the Moon. They interview many (not all) of the Apollo astronauts, and show their responses intercut with footage from the various moon shots. I've never been able to catch it since, but the very first time I saw it, Michael Collins used a word which surprised me. It's not an unusual or rare word, but it is a polysyllabic one, and it's one that someone used to giving interviews would generally avoid. It's one of those words that falls into this weird hinterland of being only for "educated" people, even though pretty much anyone who finishes elementary school knows it.

That first time I saw the film and heard him say it, I wondered if he'd slipped up and forgotten the interview was for general public consumption. But then I realised something else was going on: he expected the audience to rise to the occasion. I'm convinced every phrase and sentence was being used to get the audience to turn their brains on, not just drift along. It was the opposite of the "dumbing down" we've become so used to in the last thirty years.

Just before the pre-exam shifted topics, I thought about the Lee Child novel I was reading. It was Killing Floor, the first in the Jack Reacher series, and it's remarkable for how Child uses vocabulary and sentence length. Here's the first paragraph as an example:
I was arrested in Eno's diner. At twelve o'clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.
The whole book is like that, a sort of See Spot Run with more plot and violence but no pictures. The writing makes Samuel Beckett's prose look purple.

I enjoyed the novel — after spending all day discussing the uses of UML diagrams in requirement verification, it was nice to treat myself to a little brain candy in the evening. But of course it got me to thinking some more about language.

Anyone with an opinion at all about writing will always tell you to choose simple, clear, and direct over complex, obscure, and tangential. I've always been a big supporter of this in writing: Hemingway over Foster Wallace. Beckett over Joyce. Camus over de Maupassant.

Simplicity can only go so far, though, and no farther. If it devolves too much, the writer has to make up for the lack of vocabulary with more words than necessary. I deliberately wrote "make up for" instead of "compensate" in that last sentence to illustrate.

I'm with the astronauts on this one: entice the reader to put their smartest selves forward, but do it in an accessible way. Who knows? It might give us all a chance to smarten up instead of dumbing down.

look! ew. depiction versus promotion

This post has been simmering for a while, but it's inspired by things like this*:
  • People dismissing Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy as a "rape fantasy".
  • The inside cover of a paperback edition of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. Instead of the usual blurbs from glowing reviews of the hardcover edition, the publishers had chosen to use blurbs denouncing the novel as perverse, calling for its banning and for Banks' incarceration.
  • I don't know if his publisher ever thought to use them as blurbs, but what happened to Banks had already happened to JG Ballard.
  • An article giving an overview of Stephen King's writing career, noting that there was a period earlier on where he was accused of... ghoulishness, for lack of a better word.
What connects the dots? All of these authors write strong, graphic, disturbing stories. Sometimes, as with The Wasp Factory, most of the disturbing scenes feature the protagonist as the instigator of the horrors. In other stories like the Millennium trilogy, the protagonist doesn't start the conflict, but she finishes it — in kind.

Sir Philip Sidney argued that the purpose of fiction/poetry is to "teach and delight". I once had a story of mine criticised at a writer's group for failing to include a moment of moral redemption at the end. The critic insisted that a story wasn't complete until the reader got to see the protagonist learn from the error of their ways.

There's another way of doing it, of course. Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is a great example: the writer doesn't break tone to overtly moralise within the work. Instead, they arrange things so the reader is the one made aware of the wrong. It's a somewhat trickier path to walk down, because one has to have faith that the reader will be thoughtful and reflective enough to come to the hoped-for realisation, but when successful it is often more effective than overt lecturing.

Larsson is on the record for using the "show-don't-lecture" approach in the Millennium trilogy (okay, yes, some characters get used as mouthpieces, especially in the last book. This is a blog post, not a thesis). He definitely didn't set out to promote the brutal rape of wards of the state by their appointed guardians.

As for the rest of my list: authors can and have defended themselves in three basic ways. They can say that they wished to evoke repulsion in their readers for the purposes of teaching — a negative example rather than a positive one. They can claim that their emphasis was on "delighting", rather than "teaching" their readers. Or they can claim that they believe the Sir Philip approach to be wrong, and that there is more to literature than the imparting of morals.

Their detractors — the people who call for the books to be banned, and for the authors to be incarcerated and/or committed to the insane asylum — argue that not only have the authors failed to not provide positive examples, but they are promoting the negative, immoral behaviour by writing about it in the first place. And because these promotions of immoral behaviour are also immensely popular, they are an influence. And not only must that influence be stopped, but its creators must be punished.

Not surprisingly, since I'm writing this post, I come down on the side of the authors. I've never seen any evidence that describing the world solely in terms of sunshine and lollipops ever made it a better place. On the other hand, "A Modest Proposal" is remembered today for its effectiveness as an argument as much for its audacity.

I'm also very uncomfortable with the idea that anyone who writes something ugly or disturbing "enjoys" it and wants to promote it. Sometimes ugly gets written about because if it isn't, it will be hidden. To write only of sunshine and lollipops while at the same time decrying anyone who chooses to write about anything else to is steep oneself in an awful lot of denial. If you want to write about sunshine and lollipops, go for it, but don't think that gives you the right to piss in the cornflakes of someone who chooses to go about depicting their truth differently.

* Funny thing about the list at the top of this post — I wanted to include some women authors to even things up... but I couldn't think of any. I even called the ever-resourceful J-A, since she reads a lot of horror (horror writers tend to get targeted for this kind of hate), and she couldn't think of any either. We ran search queries on every major woman horror, science fiction, fantasy, and "controversial topic" writer we could think of for the better part of an hour and came up absolutely empty.

That's not to say there wasn't any hate out there for women authors. There was loads of hate. The difference was that no-one seemed to be calling for these women to be put in jail or the insane asylum for writing strong, disturbing content. That included a couple of major women authors we thought of who have been accused of promoting Satanism.

If you have any ideas on what the difference is  — why men authors seem to get the "lock 'em up" response more please leave a comment about it!


This was the plan: Shelve the Tilly with the Others serial once it got to #50 (and its conclusion, natch), work on something else, and then start turning Tilly into a novel starting 1 June.

It was a good plan, but of course I wouldn't be starting a blog post that way if things had actually gone according to plan.

The "something else" I've been working on is coming along slowly, but it is coming along, and I'm loathe to interrupt it because I'm learning a lot of stuff. It's the first long-form piece I've ever done where I'm making myself figure out the entire plot before I start writing scenes in earnest.

One of the things I learnt is that I have a hard time with antagonists. Because, you know, they're the bad guys, and who wants to hang out with them? Readers, that's who. Not much of a story without conflict, after all.

So I'm sticking with my spreadsheets and notes for now. I still want to have the next draft of Tilly done by the end of this calendar year, but I'm not worried about delaying it. Tilly as a character has existed since the autumn of 2007, when she was created for a collaborative novel project I tried to get off the ground with five other people. (Despite our luck in having some brilliant writers on-board, it crashed and burned. I still think the method could work if people were willing to commit to it, but that's another blog post.) She's had the same biography and the same character arc the entire time; the difference with Tilly with the Others is that the action starts just before she moves to the Annex, whereas in the collaborative effort she was already there. The only thing I've changed is her last name, because "Zondernaam" is a better name for her and, as a name, has a very cool place in history.*

Writing-wise a lot of things have got better in the last year or so. I'm starting to learn how to write when I'm sick. I'm in less pain overall, but I've figured out a few ways to write while I'm in pain too. The one thing I haven't figured out yet is how to get more writing time in, but I keep trying.

*What is Zondernaam's place in history, you may ask? You could always Google it (although I just tried and couldn't find any references on the first results page, perhaps because I'm querying in English). Maybe I can cover that in another blog post too.

with all due respect to mr. ellison

Harlan Ellison is one of the few writers who can make me cringe and admire him at the same time. Admire, because he's a master prose writer and an incredibly articulate speaker. Cringe, because sometimes, as much as I appreciate whatever argument he's making, ultimately I just can't agree with it.

Today I found this example on Twitter (an irony in itself):

I can agree with Ellison about not wanting the video clip included on the DVD for free. There's a tangible product, a clear line from content to supply and distribution, and so on. I can also see that he shouldn't have to go out and buy a copy of the DVD his work has been included on. The "oh, but you'll get publicity" line is just that — a line.

The part where I can't agree with him is when he starts attacking "amateurs" for making "professional" writers' business more difficult.

What Ellison seems to think of as a "professional" writer is someone who does nothing but write and publish. That is, someone who doesn't have a day job doing something else. Never mind that celebrated authors like William Carlos Williams made their income from day jobs. Never mind that families and circumstances can put up barriers that are impossible to break through. You've got to do it his way, or not do it at all.

Well, we all make our choices, although Ellison seems oblivious to how harshly different the consequences of the same choices can be for different people. Perhaps he needs to read what another professional writer, Virginia Woolf, described in her essay "Shakespeare's Sister." It was written in 1929, but a lot of what it has to say is just as true today.

And that's where the internet Ellison despises so much comes in. For the first time since the commonplace book was, well, commonplace, people can compose, distribute, and engage in content that is created by amateurs on an everyday basis. No longer do you have to hang out at the right café with the right clique and sleep with the right people (yes, plural, and if you've ever dealt with an artist's clique you'll know it's true) just to get five minutes in on open mic night. You can garner an international audience from the comfort of your own living room.

Sturgeon's Law says the vast majority of that amateur content will be dreck, and no doubt it is. But that still leaves an awful lot of excellent amateur writers.

The other thing is that the line between amateur and professional is and always has been blurry, which may well also make Ellison uncomfortable. Are you still an amateur if you've only had one book published (like Harper Lee)? What if you're massively rich, and bankroll yourself, but everything you publish loses money? What if virtually nothing you write gets published, or even finished, like Kafka?

And, because I'd like to stop writing this before I go into full rant mode, here's Monty Python making a few points for me:

keep pushing and the momentum will come

This week gave me a lot of reason to pause and reflect on what crosses in and out of The Eyrea, both in the physical and the on-line world. Something that's always present got significantly stronger: the amount of ideas and content that is part of resistance culture, as opposed to sanctioned culture.

Now, I'm no French cultural studies professor, so for the purposes of this blog entry I'm going to define those two terms, in the Humpty-Dumpty-it-means-that-because-I-said-so way.

Sanctioned culture is composed of cultural interactions and artifacts which get produced and/or explicitly distributed by a large, powerful entity. Usually that's either a government or a big corporation.

Resistance culture is also composed of cultural interactions and artifacts, but gets little to no explicit support by large, powerful entities. Governments, big corporations, or the like may be tangentially involved — an artifact is created with a mass-produced camera, say, or distributed via an e-mail account Google or Microsoft host — but they don't sanction it. Beyond a cursory, automated check to ensure it doesn't break any of their usage rules, they may not be aware it exists at all.

This is an interesting era, because for a very long time (how long? I date it back to the advent of the photocopier, but other people choose their own milestones), resistance culture has been becoming easier and easier to produce and distribute. It's got to the point where sanctioned culture will use resistance culture's methods in an attempt to give itself back some street cred; at the same time, some resistance cultural artifacts are looking awfully polished — like something we're used to seeing from sanctioned culture. One example of the former are the various flash mobs for the sake of advertising. One example of the latter is Nina Paley's wonderful animated feature film, Sita Sings the Blues.

So what's special about this week? This week alone:
  • Larry Kollar released Pickups and Pestilence, the sequel to his novel White Pickups
  • Marc Nash posted an hour-long video for his Friday Flash — basically a poetry reading you could enjoy in the comfort of your own home, without having to head out to that café that doesn't have any signage.
  • It was Mother's Day here in Canada and elsewhere, and my mum asked me to design and make her a necklace or bracelet instead of just buying something. At brunch today, we talked about stuff we were making and about the upcoming performance of my stepfather's first play.
All right, community theatre is as old as theatre itself, and Larry's not the first person to self-publish a novel, and Marc isn't the first person to upload a video to YouTube. I'm certainly not the first person to grab some pliers and head pins and stone beads and make a necklace.

All the same, think about it: for most if not all of the people on that list (including me), if marketers were to look at our demographic profile, they would come to the conclusion that we should be consumers, not makers. Certainly we shouldn't be publishing novels or plays. Our family just successfully celebrated that most Hallmark of holidays without directly buying a damn thing for it — even the card I gave my mum was an art card I picked up a couple of years ago... somewhere, and while it is mass produced it's not widely available either.

I don't have a very bohemian family — we tend to have jobs in IT or accounting. I grew up in the 'burbs, and most of my close relatives still live there. According to those who sanction sanctioned culture, there shouldn't be a single thing I own that can't be found in a shopping mall, bar maybe some tchotchkes picked up during an overseas holiday.

Resistance culture is supposed to require resistance. It's not supposed to be this easy to find and do. And certainly before the web took off, it wasn't.

The web's going to be twenty years old in 2015, so again, maybe this shouldn't be this big a deal still. But consider:
  • Marc's in the UK, and I could watch his video. I cannot watch all  videos uploaded in the UK by sanctioned-culture entities like the BBC. If they deem it for international consumption, I can view it, but not if it's domestic-only. In practice this means I can watch a lot of news clips, but next to no drama or comedy. See that? A one-man production has less publicity, but greater reach than content that took dozens of cast and crew members to produce. We all know by now that when a resistance-culture video goes viral it gets more publicity than the sanctioned content.
So the next time someone complains to you that the world watches cat videos instead of supporting the latest Shakespeare adaptation, remind them the cat videos are easier to obtain. Also remind them there are hour-long poetry readings available.

Now, don't get me wrong, there's still a lot of sanctioned culture I quite like. I just finished re-watching my DVD of The Avengers before starting to write this post. But it just seems, year over year, there's less and less to entice me back anymore, and even the stuff that was enticing is getting harder and harder to find. I'd love to see that film Hysteria that Maggie Gyllenhaal starred in, but it only played at two cinemas in my city (and Toronto loves movies — there's a reason they have a film festival here). That's a sanctioned-culture film that got great reviews, but good luck getting to experience it.

There's so many more examples to discuss, but this is an overly long post already. Long story short: resistance culture is blooming in landscapes those heavily involved in sanctioned culture never thought it could even sprout in. Traditionally that means an upset is coming. This time... I think this time is going to play out differently. But maybe more on that in a future post.

Postscript: if you are into any facet of resistance culture and have not yet read Lipstick Traces, you really, really should. The historical dot-connecting makes it a very provocative read.

everybody knows

I went to a school where over eighty per cent of the kids were fifth-generation residents of the county. For the entire ten years we lived in this particular area, we were known as "the foreigners" not-quite-behind-our-backs. My schoolmates would regularly take it upon themselves to inspect my school lunches and declare "that's weird."

Some weird things I brought to school were:
  • sandwiches made with cold cuts which were not bologna
  • sandwiches made with rye bread or French boule, not Wonderbread
  • sandwiches made with cheese which were not Kraft slices
  • sandwiches made with Wonderbread and peanut butter, but with home-made peach jam, not store-bought grape jelly
  • Swiss ladybug chocolates
  • Hopjes coffee candies
  • cookies that came from a deli, not the cookie aisle at the local A&P
The most memorable occasion was when my dad packed our lunches instead of my mum, and he decided to give us a hot meal of bratwurst slices and sauerkraut packed in a spare thermos so it would stay warm. It worked very well, but I had a crowd of about five kids eyeing my lunch and making comments. The next day a girl came up to me and solemnly told me that her dad said sauerkraut was only a topping for hot dogs, and that eating it in quantity as a side dish would make me ill.

"That's crap," I said. "We eat sauerkraut all winter at home."

That turned out not to be a very good defence.

Live and learn is the way the saying goes, and the thing I learned from the critiques of my lunches (besides that intolerance is truly irrational) is that while writing what you know is important, you have to give the reader a chance to understand.

Say your character has trouble with kudzu growing on their property and choking out the other plants, and say you want to make that a plot point. You can't just have the characters complaining about the kudzu, or making jokes about it, or mention it's killed the rose bushes. "Kudzu" is a totally opaque term if you've never encountered it before.

What to do? Well, mentioning it's a type of plant is a good start. I'm deliberately using kudzu as an example because the first time I encountered the word, someone had written a jokey piece about it with "the war on kudzu" being literally treated as a military action. At the end of the piece I could see it was supposed to be amusing, but I wasn't sure if kudzu was a dangerous animal or a quasi-military Japanese-American survivalist group. Maybe an isolationist cult that had militarised? I wasn't sure.

I definitely couldn't tell from the piece that it was supposed to be a plant.

Yes, there's search engines and dictionaries and encyclopedias which a reader can reference, but it's not likely they're going to bother the moment they get confused by your text. They'll either keep going, hoping for some context to let them puzzle it out, or else they'll give up and read something in which they can understand the references. Readers don't necessarily want the entire background on something they don't understand. They just want to be able to say, "Ah, okay, it's a type of plant" so they can get on to the next part of the story.

If you're not even giving them that, even something as humble and commonplace as sauerkraut will remain exotic and opaque.

the penthouse incident

I am six and my friend Valerie is six, and we are at her house because her mum runs her hairdressing salon in the basement, and my mum is getting a perm. We were told to play quietly, and so we are, but not in the spirit our mothers meant.

Valerie has two older brothers. One is in his twenties and has already moved out of the house, but the other is in his late teens and in college, and still lives at home. He keeps his bedroom door locked so that Valerie can't get in and "break anything." Valerie resents this on principle, because she is careful with things. Besides, she's six already.

 Thanks to trying to keep up with her brothers, Valerie is mature for her age. I am the eldest in my family and just act like a six-year-old, but I have acquired one skill she has not yet — I can read well enough to read stuff for grown-ups. At my house that means National Geographic, the Toronto Star, and Canadian Living. At Valerie's house it means that as well... except in her brother's room. And that is why we're being very, very quiet.

How well is "well enough to read stuff for grown-ups"? In Grade 1 (the same year as The Penthouse Incident), I was tested to be reading at a Grade 6 level. This is not unusual for children whose parents read habitually. Which, even when I was in teacher's college, made me question the whole "reading grade level" concept.

More importantly for this particular caper, I knew how to read silently, without having to say the words out loud. The plan was for me to read what Valerie wanted deciphered, and then I could repeat it when we were somewhere we were actually allowed to be.

Valerie takes the spare key to her brother's bedroom from its hiding place in the linen closet. She opens the door and we creep in. She locks the door behind us so that it looks like no-one's there.

First she shows me the model frame house her brother built for class. It's beautifully precise, and I think it would be a great start to a doll's house. Then we tiptoe back to the front of the room to complete the main part of our mission: her brother's porn magazines are there, and Valerie wants to know what they say because no-one will ever tell her. That's why she needs me.

We start by giggling (and shushing each other) over some of the pictures. We know what naked females look like. We are female. The magazine only shows naked grown-up women, of course, but we've both been in enough public swimming pool changerooms for that to be no big deal.

There is an extended photo essay of two women posing in a shallow pool of multicoloured poster paint (which they are completely covered in). Valerie points out one photo where one woman is trying to lick the other woman's bum. 

"Ewwwwww!" we say.

"What if she slipped?" I say. We both know what poster paint tastes like from art class. Getting a mouthful would be disgusting.

"That's going to take a long time to wash off," says Valerie.

So yeah, sorry to disappoint the morality brigade, but looking at photos of naked women when you're too young to understand what a turn-on is just doesn't seem to be a life-scarring event. Maybe if we'd seen more explicit stuff, but this was back when skin mags had to at least pretend to be artistic or risk getting censored.

Now, I'm not saying it's all right for little kids to look at porn. I'm just saying we shouldn't freak out if by chance they do see some — at least if it's just nude photos. The "not freaking out" part is important. Save that for when you find the grown-up who didn't take enough care... or didn't account for six-year-olds finding spare keys.

We hear footsteps downstairs, so Valerie quickly flips to an article for me to read. It's an entire page, two columns, with no pictures breaking up the text, and after a couple of paragraphs I'm bored and she's impatient with waiting. By now I'm holding the magazine, so I flip through it for something shorter and find a comic strip. Jackpot. I love comics.

So I read. And I read. And I flip back to the beginning because I'm sure I must have skipped a part, but I haven't. This lady who sort of looks like Wonder Woman gets into a cab, and the cabbie is driving along, and suddenly in the next frame she's taken all her clothes off and is attacking the cabbie, who looks terrified and then happy and then angry in turns.

"What does it say?" hisses Valerie.

I flip the pages back and forth. "It doesn't make any sense," I say.

It still doesn't.

sprint vs. marathon

One thing I have learned through working in project-based environments is that humans are absolute crap at estimating their own endurance levels. We're also crap at remembering other people are humans too.

Loads of times there's a situation where a higher-up screams, "but it has to get done!", as if the laws of physics will bend to their will if they say it emphatically enough. So people (sometimes including me) wind up pulling all-nighters attempting a last-ditch effort. Usually we get something completed; it's just not completed very well. By Hour Ten we're starting to lose the plot. By Hour Fourteen one team member winds up in charge of Remembering What the Hell Task We're On Right Now.

Then morning comes, and the code gets run, and (surprise!) there are mistakes in it, and we wind up fixing them over the course of a day or two. Typically it takes about a week to get things in good shape. Coincidentally, the number of days to fix everything often matches the number of days of work the team estimated in the first place, before heroic measures were invoked. 

What's going on here? And what does it have to do with writing?

Writing a text like a novel is projectised work. There's a kickoff (an idea!), a construction phase (a word count!), and a refinement phase (edits!). Eventually, you might even get to publish (deployment!).

And yes, having deadlines and pushing yourself and sticking to your work are all ways to get there. Deadlines are good.

Having unachievable deadlines is bad.

If you're assuming you'll be as fresh on the sixth straight hour as you were in the first, you're setting yourself up to fail. If you decide on a word count goal that can only be achieved by living on so little sleep you're not awake enough to drive safely, you're setting yourself up to fail.

Now, I'm not against a little writerly boundaries-pushing. I've had some amazing ideas about half an hour after I should have gone to bed. At that point, I'm so tired that the characters just come out and talk to me as if they're sitting in the living room with me. Likely I'm so wiped out I'm half-dreaming them already. That's all fine and well for first inspirations, or having some fun with automatic writing.

But for the long haul, you have to keep your strength up, because if you don't, the writer's block is going to come down like a hunk of granite, if some other aspect of your health doesn't fail first.

Writers have to watch this especially because we are both the project executor and the hands-off manager. Unless we're actually under contract to a publisher, we're the ones calling the shots on ourselves. We have to remember that while our taskmaster self may want the next five chapters edited and done by next Wednesday, our writer-self may only be able to pull off two before burning out. On the other hand, if things aren't moving forward at a certain rate, inertia will overcome momentum.

Right now, I'm trying something that's new(ish) to me — doing a book breakdown before I get too far into the words themselves. It's an interesting approach because it's closer to what I do for my day job on software projects. Next week I want to walk through the series of spreadsheets (yes, spreadsheets) I've been filling out.

location, location: #200

This is my 200th blog post! Quite frankly, I never thought I would stick with the idea for so long.

The Eyrea had a previous incarnation on LiveJournal back in the day, but I wound up deleting it after a few months. My needleworking friends complained I wrote too much about writing and film, and my storytelling friends complained I wrote too much about knitting. So on 1 April 2008, I launched DIY-eyrea for all the posts about knitting, cooking, beadwork, and experimenting with fixing up my apartment. This blog launched on the same day for everything else.

I've been thinking a lot about setting lately, both temporal and spatial. The Beach, my neighbourhood, is a bit of a jumble: most of the buildings are from the 1920s, when this was a place to rent or buy a summer apartment to get away from the downtown core. The Fox Theatre has been a cinema since about 1919 (I've heard conflicting dates, but it's at least 80 years old). But there's also an 18th-century farmhouse and loads of more modern buildings. Tourists still ask after the amusement park that was dismantled by 1930 (no, I don't know where they get their info either).

The Beach has shown up as a setting in a few novels. The most famous location is probably the R.C. Harris water treatment plant  that Michael Ondaatje used for the climax of In the Skin of a Lion.

So blog post #200 is about the Beach:

Usually the first thing people ask when they get here is, "Where's the beach?". Kew Gardens is a good place to start. It has a path that leads directly from Queen St. to the beach proper.

Queen St. is hiding behind those trees at the top of the path. The corner of the building on the right is the public library — one of the circa-1920s buildings, although it had a major renovation a few years ago.

The most famous "Beach" local landmark is the Leuty lighthouse. I deliberately took this shot from the opposite of the angle almost all the calendars, flags, paintings, pins, cards, etc. etc. favour. The fence in front demarcates where the off-leash dog run is.

The western edge of the dog run and the lake.

The nigh-constantly morphing stone sculpture. This time the stones are laid out as a labyrinth, but more often they are piled into little towers and other shapes. Some people have told me in very serious tones that it's an ongoing project by a local artist, and that anyone with any respect for creativity would never touch or alter it. Other people have told me it's sort of a communal hobby of the local teenagers. Either way, I like walking along the boardwalk every few weeks and checking what shape it's in this time. I love how the seagulls added themselves as accessories to the stones in the above photo. They were just hanging out like that, not moving much.

Probably what I like best about the above photo is that if someone were to stand on that spot on the boardwalk and make a quarter-turn to the west, they could see the downtown skyline with the CN tower and all the banking skyscrapers, only about ten kilometres away. The Beach is like living in a small resort town, except the city is all around it.

Even the new houses have laneways and garages at the back. You only see the houses and lanes set up like this in old Toronto neighbourhoods, although I have read the layout is becoming more popular in the suburbs too.

This neighbourhood has lots of oak trees in it, and they're still planting them. The tree bearing these acorns is in front of a house less than fifteen years old.

i am my own librarian

I got into a brief but very interesting Twitter conversation with John Wiswell and Helen Howell the other night. John started it by mentioning the conflict of liking a specific book which may belong to a genre one generally dislikes (here's what he actually tweeted). It got me thinking though: hence this blog post.

Underneath the kitchen sink in my small apartment is a blue plastic recycling bin that is, by some counts, not a recycling bin at all. It's a stackable box I picked up for about $5 in the IKEA children's section. I just got it because I needed a recycling bin that fit under my sink, and it's the right colour and shape so visitors can tell what it's for.

Has this particular type of bin ever been marketed for recycling in small apartments? No.

Has this particular type of bin ever been advertised as being something adults may find useful even if they don't have any children? No.

But it's my recycling bin now, and it's been that for fifteen years. It works great.

That's okay at IKEA, because they even hack their own stuff, never mind having customers do their own hacks. But then there's the time that I bought a large-faced, longer-strapped Swatch watch. As a tall, big woman, it made sense to buy a watch more in proportion, with, well, me.

After I'd paid, the saleslady said, "Um, you do realise that's a man's watch, right?"

"It's mine now," I said, and that was that. I wore that watch for ten years, and the saleslady was the very last person ever to comment on its supposedly inherent masculinity.

And so it goes for a lot of things. On the director's commentary of the Star Trek DVD, J.J. Abrams said he included the Kirk birth scene at the beginning to draw women into the story, yet female Trek fans are famous as their own SF subculture. Why attempt to "draw" women to something they're already predisposed to like? Oh right, because marketers say that women don't like action films or SF films on their own — they have to be dragged to them by their boyfriends/husbands.

Robert J. Sawyer wrote a brilliant trilogy about a parallel universe where Neanderthals are the surviving hominid species, and had at its heart a wonderful romance plot. Audrey Niffenegger wrote a brilliant time travel novel about a married couple. Somehow, at least in the bookshops I've been to in person and on-line, Sawyer's work gets put in Science Fiction & Fantasy, while Niffenegger's is put in Romance. Yet they're both science fiction works that effectively use a romance between two major characters to move the plot. Having read both the entire Hominids trilogy and the Niffenegger novel, and having loved both about equally, all I can think is that it comes down to marketing. I suppose one could argue that the initiating action on Sawyer's work is from an invention, whereas the initiating action in Niffenegger's is a biological reaction, but that's a bit of hair-splitting. Substitute in The Chrysalids for the Hominids trilogy if it really bothers you.

The point is, it seems we are expected to swallow the marketing, the spin on something, as much as the something that the marketing is supposed to persuade us to buy. And it gets ugly, very quickly. "That toy's for girls." "Those are men's socks." "Harry Potter is for kids, not adults who read real literature." "Americans like that much sugar in their soda."

It's bizarre, because if the product was pushed ahead of the demographic, they might sell more of the things. I remember that my best friend in high school wanted to have a McDonald's birthday party for her eighteenth birthday as a sort of "farewell to childhood" gag event. All of her friends were into it, and she successfully organised the event with the local McDonald's — until we showed up for the party. The restaurant manager was furious with us, even when we offered to forego some of the extra service usually offered because the attendees were typically small children. How dare we buy something outside of our demographic?

If we can legally buy it, what the hell would anyone care if they're selling it? They're still making money from us.

As consumers, we're warned that businesses will try to make money from us any way they can. The demographic segmentation of products and services — including products and services which are nominally interchangeable before the marketing labels get slapped on them — makes me suspect otherwise.

I don't think there's an actual conspiracy going on. I just think certain people don't like having their apple carts upset by people making their own choices.


This blog post is going to seem like it's all about math, but really it's about writing and editing. More to the point, it's about some of the stupid mind tricks we can pull on ourselves when we're planning things like writing and editing, and trying to get a schedule together.

Last Friday I wrote a story about a near-future corporation who replaces their office workers with robots. They then discover that they didn't do a very good job of projecting some of the consequences. True to Friday Flash, the comments were the best part, including a chilling real-life example which Sonya Clark provided.

The effects of outsourcing and automation were certainly a big part of the story, but today I wanted to delve more into the math behind a line I gave to one of the executives:

"We bought these robots expecting 24/7 productivity out of them, or one robot for every 3 FTEs, but we're only seeing about 23 hours of work for every 24-hour cycle. That's a 4-hour lag 3 weeks into the launch."

The executive is claiming that a human worker puts in 8 hours a day, that each robot does the work of 3 humans, and, therefore, unless a robot is working 24/7 like she assumed it would (because she forgot to calculate in maintenance time), the company will be less productive and losing money.

Here's a quick spreadsheet I made to show how that assumption works out versus the actuals:

Even leaving out human-worker variables like overtime, vacation, and sick days, the executive's math is off. She assumes humans work 7 days a week, for one thing. Okay, a lot of us do, but it's not assumed to be the norm when figuring out FTEs. Nor did she include vacations, which should have been a no-brainer. Probably if she'd worked out the numbers on a per annum basis instead of per week she would have noticed something was off.

Instead of getting 3 FTEs from a robot, the company is actually getting 4.29 FTEs. They are ahead in terms of productivity, not behind, even with that one hour of maintenance mode per day. Even if you factor in vacation time for 3 FTEs, you still don't lose a whole FTE's worth of hours over the year. There are still too many robots to replace the humans, too much productivity for which there is as yet no measurable demand. Yet perception is reality, and the executives believe productivity goals won't be reached because of the maintenance hour.

But that's the thing about spreadsheets, or any other "what if?" math. Humans tend to simplify the variables as much as they can to eliminate the fuzzy, unmeasured parts of a problem, and in turn come up with off-base predictions.

While I was writing this blog, I Googled the term "how efficient are office workers?". I was trying to find some quick and dirty numbers on how much time the typical office worker gets to, you know, do work, instead of handling interruptions or creating their own. (Yeah, I know, "quick and dirty" numbers. I've been trying to write this post for four days and instead been spending it on overtime. Please understand.)

Check out the results. Loads of tips on how to become "more" efficient, sure. How to measure how efficient you are right now, or how much more efficient you've become after following those fabulous tips? Not so much.

So: writing. Next time you tell yourself you're going to get more done by getting up half an hour earlier, or staying up later, or writing with a fountain pen on paper, or whatever the heck scheme you come up with.... get some numbers. Find out how much different practices improve your game. Okay, don't get to the point where you're spending all your time measuring yourself and no time writing, but get something together.

You may well be surprised what you find out.

writing: outlining in tomboy notes

There are tons of outlining tools out there. Graphical ones, bulleted-list ones, physical ones the writer draws on large sheets of wallpaper, ones set up in word processor templates. Personally I tend towards onscreen sticky notes, maybe because of all the document review meetings I've sat through at the day job which included a "parking lot" full of yellow stickies. I've been using Tomboy Notes (available for Linux, Unix, Windows, and Mac OS X) since at least 2008, which is the last time I blogged about it.

Tomboy is better integrated with Ubuntu now than it was then, which is a bit ironic since they no longer officially support it. No biggie so far — it works fine in v11.04. I set up my system to automatically start it when I log in, so it's always in the top toolbar waiting for me (see screen shot above). Clicking the icon displays all of the major menu choices plus all of the recent notes you've made.

Each note allows very basic word processor functionality, can be as long or as short as you like, and can be categorised into a notebook. Notebooks are just collections of notes given a label the user creates. It's a pretty unfussy way to store information, and if you forget what a note is called, the search function will let you do a text search, either on a specific notebook, all uncategorised notes, or all your notes.

I love Tomboy for outlining larger works of text. My Tuesday Serial has finally got far enough along that it's hard to remember all the character names and plot points, so I made a cluster of notes to keep track and illustrate this blog post at the same time:

I started with the note in the top left. Once that was written, I highlighted the text "the Zondernaam family" and clicked the Link button. Tomboy created a new note for me with the title "the Zondernaam family". Any time I use that phrase in any other note from now on, it will automatically create a link back to the note with that name. It's important to choose meaningful text as note titles, which is a good thing because it keeps you from making a note called "this" or something else non-descriptive.

If you look at the screen shot at full size (click to view), you'll see that all the major characters are have notes with their first names except for Beth Zondernaam. I was worried because I've had other characters named Beth in the past, so I changed the title of the note about her. Tomboy asked me if I wanted to update the links, and I said yes, so it did an automatic global search and replace for me. If a note gets deleted, all links to it get deleted as well (not the text itself, just the linking formatting and behaviour).

Notes may be exported to HTML. The links will stay intact, so if I were to export the top-level "Tilly with the Others" note, for instance, Tomboy would include all of the child notes attached to it. The result would be a single HTML page with internal links to the different notes (now sections in the overall HTML document). This has come in handy when I need to move content from one machine to another.

It is possible to synch notes (you can see that option in the menu screen shot), but I've never had much call to use it. Some of the features highlighted here can be altered or turned off as well.

Tomboy isn't as strict or as hierarchical as other outlining tools out there, but that's partly why I like it. I'll often arrange a set notes on a screen pane when I'm trying to organise something (there's that whiteboard parking lot training again). It doesn't go as far as some of the "mind cloud" organisers out there (which personally I see as a good thing), but the physical/spatial aspect can be a definite plus.

the last word on genre

Last Saturday I went to see the Picasso exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I'm not even going to try to critique it (I like visual art, but I don't have the background to do a proper critique). I did want to share something from the explanatory plaque beside one of Picasso's early multimedia pieces. The piece in question is Guitare et bouteille de Bass, and its date was given as "fall 1913".

It was said by the art critic André Salmon in response to some of the initial confusion arising from the piece (people didn't know if it was to be hung on a wall, or treated like a sculpture, or what).

The English translation is:
"Now we are delivered from the imbecile tyranny of genres. It's neither one thing nor another. It's nothing. It's the guitar! Art will at last be fused with life, now that we have at last ceased to try to fuse life with art."
The French (and probably the original text) was given as:
"Nous sommes désormais delivrés de la tyrannie imbecile des genres. Ce n'est ni une chose ni l'autre. L'art sera enfin fusionné avec la vie, maintenant que nous avons finalement cesser de tenter du fusionner la vie avec l'art."
If you know both French and English (or if you can parse well), you'll see there are two short extra sentences in the English which are not present in the French, nor is their sense. Oh well, they don't change things.

But I want to emphasise: someone was already saying this about genre, in fine art.

In 1913.

When is our culture going to catch up with itself? Why do we have to keep repeating the same useless, circular debates over and over again? Salmon summed it up quite nicely almost exactly a century ago.  Genre may be all right for designating regions in the creative landscape, but simply cannot be applied to every single specific piece of art.


head hopping

"Head hopping" is moving from a focused third-person narration with one character's point of view to a focused third-person narration with a different character's point of view. It's supposed to be one of those Bad Things that automatically make a text Bad Writing. It's usually cited in the same breath as "always use 'said'", right after "show, don't tell". And, like a lot of other writing rules, it gets broken in popular, canonical books all the time.

Virginia Woolf head-hopped in both To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. Philip K. Dick used it to brilliant effect in several books, including (my favourite example of all time) Radio Free Albemuth, where not only does he hop between different heads, but he breaks point of view mid-sentence and then picks up the same sentence from the point of view of a different character. Stephen King even head-hops for a few sentences at a time in Hearts in Atlantis before switching back to the main narrator's point of view.

So what's with the Universal Writing Rule of "No Head Hopping"? I think it's similar to the what John Wiswell found when he did an analysis of prologues in popular books. Many agents and publishing industry types insist that including a prologue means an instant rejection because "everyone hates reading them," yet on the list of thirty-six books in John's blog post there are several nominees for major awards.

If head-hopping is done well, it's considered structural experimentation by a brilliant writer. If it's not done well, it's considered a stupid newbie mistake, which somehow elects it to be graven in stone somewhere in a list of Things Writers Shouldn't Do.

I would respectfully suggest there should be another stone engraved with Things Critics Shouldn't Do, and that one of the items listed near the very top should be "Don't Confuse the Device with the Execution." Just because it's difficult doesn't mean it should be banned.