Month: December 2013

The 2013 Janus Post

looking both ways

looking both ways

It’s that time when I like to review my activities over the last year and think about what I want to achieve over the next twelve months.

Looking Back

Obviously I wrote the Yule goals update post just a week or so ago, but I want to go back to the goals I set at the beginning of the year and see how I did.

  1. Finish Bluehammer, which will entail developing a Bluehammer plan after I’ve read it. Result: well, I made progress on this but then realised that the story or the way it was being told was not compelling. At this point it’s on the back burner.
  2. Execute the Song plan. Result: I have both an outline and a portion of a second draft, but it’s not finished – I would have hoped to have finished editing the second draft by now.
  3. Submit one novel. Result: I can only submit what I have finished.
  4. Start looking for an agent. Result: I did some work on this by researching some agents who work in my genre, but the goal is in abeyance until I have a completed manuscript.
  5. Establish a daily writing practice. Result: this is the one goal I am happy with since I have been doing writing of some kind most days.

Overall, my writing goals suffered from large swathes of Not Writing during the year – times when other commitments cut into the time I would usually use for writing.

I also had a health goal of bringing my weight down, which I made some steps towards but didn’t get very far with. The real success with my health is that I kept running throughout November, so as I go into the new year I still have a base for my training.

Looking Forward

My goals for 2014 are for the most part an extension of the 2013 goals. Here they are, numbered for ease of reference rather than priority.

  1. Finish Song. Next action: refocus plan based on what I have and where I want to be.
    I used to be excited about this story and I still am on an intellectual level, but I need to review what I have and figure out how to reengage my emotional excitement about it too.
  2. Complete Shapes. Next action: read manuscript starting the second week in January.
    The story seemed solid while I was writing it, but I want to find out if that is actually the case and what should change to make it more interesting (although the early over-extended portion wandering around the moors certainly needs a pretty extensive rework).
  3. Look for an agent. Next action: finish a novel so I have a manuscript to query.
  4. Be productive in fiction. Next action: figure out writing time plan.
    I want to restructure my writing time so as to maintain work on fiction while being able to maintain commitments in other areas. I’ll write more about this shortly.
  5. Run Hood To Coast. Next actions: lose some weight, and solidify my base.
    I am on a team at my day job to run the Hood To Coast relay in August. There’s going to need to be some training in the meantime.

All of these goals will be examined in more detail, but that’s what I want to get done this year.

How about you? How was 2013 for you, and what are your 2014 plans?

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Where’s the ambiguity?

My handwriting took a long time to develop to the point of legibility when I was growing up. I well remember being given the widest-ruled exercise books that the teacher could find during my third year at primary school just so I could actually write between the lines.

Still, by the time I was fifteen and started in on programming computers seriously, my writing was functional if hardly pretty. Then I started making notes about computer programs and I realized that a lot of the context cues that made my writing just about legible in a normal writing assignment were often missing when writing down fragments of computer code or variable values.

So I changed how I wrote certain symbols.

The things that caused confusion were:

  • O-likes: O (capital letter), 0 (digit zero), and D (capital letter)
  • 1-likes: I (capital letter), l (lower case letter), and 1 (digit one)
  • 2-likes: Z (capital letter) and 2 (digit two)
  • x-likes: x (lowercase letter) and x (multiplication sign)

Note that in the pictures which follow that the old forms are a recreation rather than original text. They are written with a contemporary fountain pen, though.

O-likes

‘O’ and ‘0’ are similar enough to often cause confusion even on the screen, but ‘D’?

Well, I wrote my ‘D’ like this: old-D
If I was writing fast, that would get rounded out and turn into an ‘O’. Here’s how I wrote the characters afterwards –

upper case Dnew-D
upper case Onew-O
digit 0new-0
null set symbolnew-null

That last one is a bonus – the null set symbol gets used a lot in discussing data structures*.

1-likes

Once upon a time, I wrote all of these as simple vertical strokes all the time. Nowadays I write them like this:

upper case Inew-I
lower case lnew-l
digit 1new-1

There are still some variations according to context – I like to do simple vertical strokes for the digit ‘1’ and the upper case letter ‘I’ if the context makes it obvious that that’s the intent (because it’s faster), but I put the extra finials on if the context is less clear.

2-likes

“How are 2 and Z alike?”

If your handwriting is sloppy enough, the upper right angle on the Z gets rounded and it looks like a 2. I solved this by putting a horizontal stroke across the ‘Z’.

upper case Znew-Z
digit 2new-2

Note that I don’t do this for lower case ‘z’, because my writing is consistent enough in size for that rarely to be an ambiguous character. I’m just glad there are no lower cases ‘2’s.

x-likes

This was a notation change actually driven by maths lessons rather than computing, because all the computer languages I wrote in used ‘*’ (asterisk) to denote multiplication. Still, “x * <something>” was common enough that I got into the habit of writing the letter ‘x’ differently just to draw the visual distinction.

There have been two versions of my ‘x’ character. The intermediate one only appeared when I was doing maths problems, but then I figured out how to do the second one and it generally infected all of my handwriting.

intermediate lower case xinter-x
new lower case xnew-x
multiplicationnew-*

Have you ever changed your writing for clarity?

[*] I’m not getting into the various Greek letters that look like an ‘O’ with a stroke across because I have never written those often enough to get confused.

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Dawn Again

a new dawn

a new dawn

The roleplaying campaign I’ve been writing and running called A New Dawn wrapped up its second story arc on the first day of November. I am still enjoying running this game a great deal, and the players have been putting in a great set of performances. Good game!

I’m not going to talk about the plot here, but I did want to raise a couple of storytelling points.

Don’t be a slave to the source material

As writers, we draw inspiration from many sources and in an effort at verisimilitude will often drop in specifics taken directly from a source. But the world we are writing in isn’t the same as the source* – it is all right to make changes.

A New Dawn is set where I live in Portland which makes both for a rich set of story opportunities and a lot of setting detail without much work. However, I have made changes to advance the story. For example, in the kerfuffle in Pioneer Courthouse Square, the scale and layout of the square itself was accurate, but the buildings around it had rather more billboards and antennae than are present in the real Portland (all the better to topple onto innocent bystanders). Similarly, if you are drawing inspiration from myth or traditions of magic, there is nothing wrong with changing details that will serve the story better.

It’s your world – make it yours.

Leave a ragged edge

This is a point that applies to the writer and the audience.

For the writer, finish a writing session in the middle of a chapter, or scene, or even a sentence – as long as the work is picked up again fairly quickly, it can make it easier to start writing at the next session. You dam the flow while it is still running, which makes the flow easier to restart once the headwaters have been replenished.

For the audience, leaving an unresolved question makes them want to come back. In A New Dawn (and as recommended in many of the source books for Savage Worlds, the system we play with), this has been manifested as cliffhangers at the end of the session: the PCs walk out of the door to witness a bank robbery going on, or the session ends with one of the characters having been captured by the bad guys.

“Players hate capture scenarios”

Those were the closing words from one of my players as I triggered what looked like a capture scenario at the end of the last session.

The cliff-hanger the last game session closed on was with the PCs having cleared out a hideout: hostile weapon systems neutralized, and so on. A surprise NPC attacked tthe he PCs with a gizmo. The fear expressed from a player whose character was previously captured is that now it is the entire party which is captured rather than just one member of it.

Well, obviously I’m not going to go into plot details of what happens next, but the thing about this fear is that it engages the audience. If you put your MC in jeopardy, the reader will (as long as the MC is someone they care about) want to see what happens next – commiserate with the MC’s loss, or celebrate as the MC escapes with a single bound.

Right, back to plotting the next arc.

[*] usually.

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2013 Goals Post: Yule Edition

This is the final goals post of 2013. My last one was not a very happy piece since I had such a hard time getting any meaningful writing done between the autumnal equinox and Halloween.

This time, November was very writing-focussed, but the three weeks since have been much more about picking up discarded tasks in November’s wake than about writing per se. I had planned to write another act of Song, but that has not happened. Part of this is just burn out, too – NaNoWriMo is always a bit, um, intense but with the stretch goal I had set it took more out of me than usual.

My post the other day about why I don’t write full time has me putting some thought into both my priorities for the coming year and how I plan my time – my thoughts so far are very preliminary and need a lot more put into them, but will probably turn up here at some point.

And my goals continue to shift: this year’s NaNovel looks set to usurp Bluehammer as the other book I am working on because it is simply a more compelling story than the Kissiltur books in their current state.

Anyway, on with the consideration of the goals I set at the start of the year.

1. Finish Bluehammer

I think I am ready to abandon this now.

As I noted above, Shapes of Chance looks set to take up the space which would otherwise be occupied by Bluehammer in my 2014 plans, so I will push this trilogy onto the back burner. I expect I will do more with this at some point – at least the setting – but not until I can figure out what the story really is and how to tell it.

2. Execute the Song plan

I had planned on picking this up again after November’s frenzy, but being more burned out than I expected I haven’t written anything more yet. This is the writing I will be doing until it’s time to read the Shapes manuscript, though.

Next action: write another act of the draft.

3. Submit one novel.

Already abandoned, nothing more to say.

4. Start looking for an agent.

Last action: construct query tracking system.

Still to construct my query tracking system. Frankly, I just forgot about this goal in the hurly burly of November. Something I might be able to get done over the holidays, though.

Next action: construct query tracking system.

5. Establish a daily writing practice.

Last action: plan NaNoWriMo work

Well, that went pretty well – NaNoWriMo planned and executed.

Last action: write NaNoWriMo draft.

Completed. Huzzah!

Last action: define writing priorities

I have started this process. It is a process rather than something I can just sit down and dash off in a half hour. Writing “Doing what you love, doing what you can” helped bring a lot of those elements into the light to be examined. I also have some tools from The Productive Writer which I am keen to give a spin.

Next action: figure out goals and priorities for 2014 and beyond.

Roleplaying

Last action: plan next set of sessions for A New Dawn. Or abandon entirely… one of those.

I’m going to stick with A New Dawn. The next story arc is going to be interesting!

I also have some thoughts on the way the last story arc ran which I will post here once they’re more completely formed.

Next action: write up plot for the next story arc.

Last action: write more Animal Agents scenarios.

The boys have been asking about this, but changes in our circumstances over the last few weeks mean it’s unlikely we’ll actually play this any time soon.

Blog

Last action: none.

November’s novelling frenzy turned out to be rather more all-consuming than I had expected – I just could not stay on top of both my word count goals and the blogging, so the blogging had to be put in abeyance. I can only apologise for that.

I will be thinking very carefully about this blog for the next year’s goals. I don’t like dropping the ball and part of that might be the game I am playing rather than just the poorness of my ball control skills. So, possibly some rule changes to come.

Next action: determine blog direction

NaNoWriMo

Next action: write NaNoWriMo story.

Completed!

Well, mostly.

The word count goal of 100k in 30 days was hit quite handily, but I was overly prolix in the early chapters so I ended up abbreviating the exciting bits at the end of the story. This is something to fix in the edit, of course.

Next action: read manuscript – 11-Jan-2014 is six weeks from completion.

Overall

It’s hard to be unhappy with a period where I’ve written a 100,000 word novel draft – that is a hugely satisfying achievement.

Having said that, I’m pretty unhappy about my blog drop off, and with having not actually written anything in December yet.

The next post in this series will be the 2013/14 Janus post – I think it’s going to be interesting.

How are your goals looking as we come to the end of the year?

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Doing what you love, doing what you can

balancing-actI am a writer. I write fiction for fun, and code for money.

My goal is to be writing fiction for money, too.

This is where many people would lay into their jobs. “I hate my job!” they will exclaim. “It’s boring, and the people are awful – especially the customers. OMG, if you saw the things people wear!” Or there will be some complaint about doing the same thing over and over again, chained to a desk. “I wish I could write full-time,” they’ll continue. “Then I would be happy.”

Leaving aside the incongruity of wanting to escape the drudgery of a desk job with another desk job, you won’t hear those kinds of complaints from me. The day job is at a terrific company working with great people on interesting and involving problems. Long ago I took up software as a hobby, then as a career, and that career has been good to me. I still enjoy software a great deal – it was certainly what I loved once, and I am still excited to be able to make a living at it. Software is a terrific thing to do for someone as addicted to problem-solving as I am.

But I find myself more drawn to writing these days. Writing is not always easy, but it is wonderful to make stories, to imagine characters and their lives – to solve problems of plot and setting.

Then there’s this piece in The Onion: “Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life”

Nights and weekends? I want to write all the time.

Do what you love is the advice, isn’t it? So why don’t I do that?

Because I can’t make a living at writing. More precisely, I can’t make a living equivalent to my day job from the outset*.

Switching careers is hard: it’s difficult enough when you’ve been doing one thing for a few years, but it’s exponentially harder when you’ve been doing something for twenty five years, and it’s what’s keeping your family in heat and health insurance**.

It really comes down to time and opportunity. Software is a solid occupation***, but every hour I spend on that is time I am not spending on my writing. The day job also occupies my most creative times.

I need to figure out how to do more of what I love while still paying the bills.

Do what you love only works if no one is relying on you to feed them – then you have to do what you can.

How do you balance your writing life and your day job? Have you already leapt into the wild air?

Update: Also, check out this candid post about the oft-unacknowledged factors contributing to some writing success.

[*] In truth, the economics of the profession are such that there are not many authors who make a living wage just from their writing at all. Notable exceptions are John Scalzi and his splendidly diverse portfolio, and Charles Stross who takes a hard-headed approach to how fast he can actually produce the novels that provide his income.

[**] earlier versions of this piece had a lengthy digression on the evils of the US health insurance system, but I’ll perorate on that another time.

[***] heaven knows there is more software to be written than developers to write it.

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Acceptance

Running teaches me many things, and one of those is that sometimes pushing is just a bad idea.

I’ve mentioned my favourite quote about keeping going before:

The hardest thing about fencing is not to fence when you feel like it, but to fence when you do not.

– Nick Evangelista, “The Art and Science of Fencing”

The other thing to learn is that sometimes not feeling like something is your body telling you to just stop and recover.

I tried running this morning and it was very bad. There was nothing in my legs and I ended up both cutting my run short and walking for part of it. Since I ran three times last week I don’t think it’s an issue with restarting without a base so I’m taking it as a sign that I just need to not run.

This feeling of not wanting sometimes invades my writing too – not at the moment, I’m glad to say, but sometimes. And those are times to stop and refill the well, or to work on another project.

How do you keep things fresh or work around those times when your efforts to write are sabotaged by just not being able to make yourself to?

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WTFM

some of the technical documentation I own

some of the technical documentation I own

I’m writing documentation in my paid job at the moment: finishing up a couple of projects and leaving breadcrumbs behind so that those who come after (quite possibly me) will have clues about how the software works. I thought some notes on how documentation works might be interesting*.

When To Write Documentation

There are three options** about when to write documentation:

at the beginning. Writing the documentation first might sound strange, but it’s quite an effective way of defining the public behaviour of the system.This is what I write first if I am making a new command line tool, for example. Having the behaviour written down like this can be very valuable in generating tests.

during development. Sometimes a system’s behaviour is only fully defined during its development (not unlike discovery writing of fiction), so writing the documentation for the system as you go along can be a sensible way of capturing some of the decisions made. Writing down notes on process and design really has to be done during development, of course, and comments in the code also***.

after it’s all done. The system is finished and working****. Now you can write down all the specifics of what it does and how. This is actually the traditional time to write documentation, where a designated technical writer will come in to describe the system, but it has its problems: the system may be functioning, but the people who developed it are often being pulled in other directions which means they’re not focussing on the project being documented any more.

At least part of a decision about when to write documentation will driven by the methodology used to develop the project. A project following some version of the waterfall approach might write design documentation at the beginning while deferring user documentation until the end, while an iterative or agile approach would likely do exactly the opposite (within an iteration, at least) since user docs are a strong source of test cases.

What To Put Into Documentation

The content depends on the audience for the documentation. User docs will describe the system’s UI and outputs, while design documentation will describe the system architecture and decisions made. The content may also vary by the form of the documentation: documentation is not just textual material in a document – it can be diagrams, pop-ups or cheat sheets within the software, and so on. Design artifacts such as diagrams and state tables may be valuable documentation in their own right.

How To Write It

The trick for me with writing documentation is to find the narrative: what story does the user or developer need to know in order to understand the system?

For users, this can start with a cookbook of ways to use the tool, or describing wok flows the system supports. Tell the user what it is that the system will do for them.

For developers, again it pays to start from what it is that the system is intended to do. Refer back to use cases to link the system features back to the system intent – you end up with solid justifications for system behaviours and a stronger framework for understanding how the system functions.

I would highly recommend against explaining everything before you begin, though. Have a glossary by all means, but explaining concepts too early is a great way to lose your readers, just as it is in fiction. Including reference material in user doc is good, but having the reference material be the only content makes it hard to learn from*****.

This has been a very brief excursion into the world of technical documentation. Are there any forms of writing you do which you don’t consider part of your main practice but you approach in a narrative way?

[*] docs are not widely read or often well-written, but they’re still necessary no matter what we may hope.

[**] I have deliberately omitted the fourth option of not writing any documentation. I have been down that road and it ends in darkness and pain.

[***] being made to put comments into code after the fact is distressing.

[****] which doesn’t having no bugs so much as having no show-stoppers.

[*****] necessary counter-example: I learn new computer languages from reference docs rather than tutorials, because the tutorials often spend too much time explaining basic concepts which I’ve known for *mumble* years.

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The Map Is Not The Territory

the map

the map

When we write, we locate our characters and action in particular places (unless we’re doing a “white room” dialogue, and those are usually ill-advised) but how do we find description for these wildly different locations?

A lot can be drawn from memory, of course, and from photographs and other records. We can read other people’s writing about a place, but that can lead us into derivative writing where we parrot the descriptions of another rather than devising our own.

And then there are maps.

Maps are amazing things – they compactly describe the layout of a location in a way which allows us to block out a scene very quickly. What they don’t do is give us much in the way of location flavour, the details of what a place is really like to be in.

I have a tendency to think of every place as flat until I visit it, and even then there’s a bias towards imagining locations as planes with markers on them for buildings and other landmarks, but that is profoundly flawed.

Consider a wood, or a forest. If you see a block of woodland on a map, you can surmise that that land is filled with trees. You can guess then that lines of sight will be difficult to find (a point reinforced if you’ve ever played disc golf in Oregon). There will be paths through the trees, more or less beaten down depending on the amount and the kind of traffic. There will be dips and clumps of bushes further obscuring the ground (again, a point reinforced if you’ve ever played disc golf round this neck of the, ahem, woods).

A field is going to be different. There will not be a lot of variation in the ground – it will be fairly flat, because otherwise it’s difficult to farm. There might be ditches or hedges at the edge of a field, but not much in the way of ground-obscuring landscape or hiding places.

the territory

the territory

But think of a moor, and what do you imagine? Moors seem flat – they look like fields – but their topology is a lot closer to that of a forest floor: I grew up in a town with a moor overlooking it, and that moor was once a forest, until the wood was taken for fuel and construction. Moorland may be shown on a map as being a smooth piece of landscape, but it’s wrinkled and folded to the point where it’s fractal: the closer you look, the more detail you find. There are gullies and rises and hidden ghylls that make it hard to find things. There are sections of Ilkley Moor that I’ve visited but once, because I’ve never been able to find the right path again*. I’ve never been as lost in a woodland unknown to me as I have on a moor I grew up on.

So remember this when you look at a map for a location – no matter how flat it may seem on paper, land is crinkly and strange.

[*] this is something that makes Rivendell or Brigadoon believable to me – even on a normal moor there are hidden places.

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NaNoWriMo 2013 – Aftermath

examining-nanowrimoIt’s been nine days since NaNoWriMo wrapped up: nine days since I wrote “THE END”, eight days since I printed out and bound the manuscript.

I’m still thinking about my story, though: still coming up with neat ideas which would enhance the telling or the plot. Obviously I am writing those down, but not touching the manuscript at all – I will read that in its time, but no harm in making notes about how it could be improved.

One of the things I am most excited about is that during the writing time I was discovering the underlying causes for the story and learning about its broader context. I had a decent enough outline, but it was all about what happened in the moment rather than any of the thematic or background elements.

This was the first time I did a detailed outline (rather than just chapter summaries) for a story before I wrote it. The outline undoubtedly helped, but it was still a first pass: I didn’t revisit or review the outline content before I dived into the writing. Would spending more time on refining that outline have revealed the causative elements I discovered during the writing itself? Or is the finding of these narrative components something best left to emerge in the drafting? That’s an open question at this point – I suspect the latter: it feels like I need to get down in the trenches with the words before I find all the way the words will go.

On another note, I set (and reached) the ambitious goal of writing 100,000 words in the month. Having done that, I concluded that I was never going to do that again.

However, the excitement of the elements I discovered about my story is such that I wonder if doing 100k in November another time might be reasonable again. What was hard this year was starting (I had no idea how to open the story) and keeping up with the pace, but both of those things are fixable. Looking back, I feel like if I had built up the buffer I had meant to in the early days of the month, then it would have been less stressful.

As I mentioned last week, the thing I really failed on was getting through the material. I spent too many words on the early wanderings – I think I had put too much space for them in the outline in any case, but what was planned to have been about three fifths of the book (i.e. 60,000 words) ended up being closer to 85k. This is where the November frenzy worked against me: if I had been operating without a hard stop at the end of November (continuing into December was not practical this year) I would have followed the same sprawling narrative approach for the last 40%, probably ending up with something like 140,000 words in the manuscript. There again, if I’d kept going I would have been unable to maintain the November pace, so who knows when it would have been done – end of January, probably.

Anyway, it was a good November’s writing. I am looking forward to reading the manuscript – second weekend in January is six weeks from its being immured in the drawer of resting, so start reading it then. I will post my results at the time.

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