Month: January 2014

Why I Eat

Hungry!

Hungry!

I eat because I am hungry. Everyone needs to eat when they are hungry.

But I also eat when I am tired. I eat out of habit. I eat because I am bored, or because I am having trouble thinking about a problem and need distraction. I eat because I have a cold. I eat because I mistake thirst for hunger, dehydration for low blood sugar.

I eat at all of these times, and I need to stop doing all of those quite so much.

And I still need to eat when I am hungry.

A Complex Addiction

“Chocolate is nice.”

– Matt Lucas

Food is a hard thing to be addicted to because it is something you actually need to live. An addiction to alcohol or nicotine or narcotics of whatever kind is hard to deal with, but on some level it is inherently tractable because it is possible to go cold turkey: you do not need the addictive substance in order to live.

Food is not like that. Food is necessary, and comforting. The feel of food in the mouth is lovely – the way that chocolate melts when you take sip of tea, or the sensation of crumbling cake – and the sensation of being full is comforting.

Food is an immediate reward, and the reality of unwanted effects on the body is a distant and abstract threat when there is chocolate, cake and cheese to consume.

Exercising Caution

I don’t have answers for any of this. I have fitness goals with deadlines and I will do well in working towards those for a week, or two, or a month or so, but then I will come down with a cold or some unidentified viral infection where my body is never really sick but just feels run down for a few days and then I will eat to fuel my body in its fight (I tell myself) while I have to go and buy bigger jeans because the ones I bought six months ago that I swore would be the biggest I would own no longer fit me.

Back to the beginning.

Right now I am hungry, but I am going to drink some water and then go for a run.

Because food is nice, but I need to eat less of it.

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Show, Don’t Tell

The old saw “show, don’t tell” is often on my mind, but never more so than when I am reviewing one of my manuscripts.

Sometimes it intrudes into my life.

Fact

Yesterday I was very tired – fighting off a cold, truth to tell, or something of that kind. I was in the kind of weird half-awake state where nothing really seems like a better idea than pouring tea down my neck and consuming media of some kind.

Anyway, I was pretty vague. Despite that, I had a meeting that I was presenting – it was  a training session for a project I’ve been working on. It had been difficult to set up so where normally I might have rescheduled for a more propitious time, in this case I had to go through with it.

I had planned on warning the folks I was presenting to that I was not very with it, but instead I demonstrated it by not being able to find the video cable for the presentation screen when it was right in front of me.

Show, don’t tell.

Fiction

You hear this a lot. I use it myself in commentary on others’ work – “that’s a bit tell-y*” I might note.

But is it always true?

The answer to that is a very personal thing depending on style and circumstances, but  consisting of elements affecting story, pacing, and characterisation.

Showing can have much more emotional impact and do a lot to illuminate a character, location, or setting.

But telling is faster, and can bring action action forward, relating the story much more quickly – telling can be about skipping to the good bits, to paraphrase one of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing.

Fantasy

Reading an early draft I find examples of excess in both directions.

For telling, I will have a flashback or summary for something which should be a harrowing interaction that will increase sympathy for the protagonist.

For showing, I have so many bits of gestural and transitional filler: nodding, sitting, walking through doors. So much blocking.

This is what red pen is for.

[*] as opposed to “telly” which is British for “television”.

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Fountains of joy

Cross, Parker, Waterman: finely balanced pens

Cross, Parker, Waterman: finely balanced pens

I mentioned fountain pens in passing when I was talking about my tools of scribbling many moons ago, but mainly to notes that I didn’t really use them any more since I was mostly writing with Jetstream ball pens.

This is something in my scribblious life which has changed recently, and it’s changed because of the pen I didn’t mention last time.

The First* Fountain Pen

Before I bought the Waterman or was given the Cross, I owned a Parker fountain pen. I don’t remember when I bought it, but I certainly had it twenty years ago – it was reliable, and didn’t blotch, and it wrote fluidly. The only things really wrong with it were that the pen is a little too narrow to use for long periods of time, and it wasn’t quite as easy for me to get cartridges for it after I moved to the US (that is, WHSmith in Britain carried Parker cartridges whereas Office Depot in the US, at least in Beaverton, OR,  did not).

The other two pens I own are beautiful writing implements in their own right, but each came with their own problems.

The Waterman wouldn’t write smoothly. It would write half a line and then I would have to shake it or squeeze the cartridge to get the ink flowing again. It was not the beautiful writing experience that its looks promised, and I was sad.

And apparently it was me – when I had my sister look at the pen (she is an artist who loves pens like this too) she found that it wrote smoothly for her. So there was something about the way that I was using the pen which stopped it working as well as it could.

So I stopped using that pen.

The Cross – a delightful wedding present from my parents – was, by contrast, a wonderful writer when I first received it. It wrote smoothly and fluidly and fitted my hand like an extra finger. I used it as an everyday writing tool for months, until its fatal flaw became too much to deal with: it simply lays down too much ink. The kinds of notebooks I get for work have serviceable but thin paper, and the Cross drops so much ink that it is impossible to write on both sides of the sheet.

So I stopped using that pen too, then the same arty sister introduced me to the Jetstreams and that was the end of the discussion.

But every now and then I would clean the Waterman and the Cross and load up a fresh cartridge, usually using black in the Cross and blue in the Waterman. The irony with both of these pens is that their previous writing properties reversed: the Cross now writes haltingly and the Waterman fluidly. But still I would go back to the Jetstreams and the fountain pens would dry out.

Back to the Beginning

A few weeks ago while on another errand I looked idly for Parker cartridges in another office store and actually found some! I cleaned the Parker and put in a fresh cartridge and it wrote as smoothly as it ever had before – it was reborn!

And so my everyday pen is back to being a fountain pen, and the Jetstreams – lovely writers as they are – have been relegated to secondary importance.

Cartridges

The problem is finding cartridges. Fountain pens are not mainstream writing implements in Anglo countries these days and so finding the cartridges, convenient as they are, is tougher than it once was. Mail order is of course the way to go, but requires more forward planning than I am usually capable of.

I already have ink converters for the Waterman and the Cross which came with them, but I have not had a Parker ink converter in years – the last one I had was a rubber squeeze-bulb one which tended to leak and eventually perished away. So, I’ve used the power of the Internet to purchase a converter for the Parker so hopefully I will not be embarrassed by the need to find the right kind of cartridge again.

Some ink is on the way too – Parker Quink in black, and Waterman in blue.

I am also hoping that drawing the ink up through the nib will help the Cross to actually write properly again, because it is a beautiful pen – as long as it does not throw a fit over being filled with Parker ink, of course.

What favourite writing implements do you have? Have you got a rescue story?

[*] first adult fountain pen, that is. We were required to use fountain pens at school to encourage more flowing writing.

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Shapes of Chance – The Plan

I have been reading Shapes of Chance, my 2013 NaNovel, and rather enjoying it.

What I have done with these read-throughs in the past has been to read through the paper copy making notes on all elements of it. However, this time I am reading the book as a book without a pen in hand – on my Kindle, in fact – which means I am getting a more subjective sense of how the story flows. I am about a quarter of the way through and it’s flowing quite well so far.

What I wanted to write down was a plan. I am still working on drafting Song, and I still see that as the most likely story to be completed this year, but it is good to have two stories in hand which have some narrative drive.

With that, I need to have a plan for Shapes:

  1. finish reading of draft – two phase process, once for readability and once for errors.
  2. apply corrections from draft read
  3. give it to my wife to read
  4. restructure outline – found some changes in the draft from the original outline
  5. second draft – make existing material match outline; add new material

That’s probably all that’s manageable this year. If I happen to burn through all of this then I will add more.

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Time Striping

hungry? Why not play cricket?

hungry? Why not play cricket instead?

I’m experimenting at the moment with striping my time, at least during the week: setting certain times to do certain things.

This worked really well in the run-up to NaNoWriMo last year, as I was able to get all the things done I needed to get done* in a compressed timescale, so I am applying similar approaches to a couple of my goals for the year:

  • weight loss – I need to control my eating. I am making adjustments to what I eat (less cake and butter, more fruit and water) but the big challenge for me is in snacking. I have a lot of food available to me during the day and because it’s there… So, the picture above is of my striped approach to eating, which is to control snacking during the day by telling myself to drink water first and fruit second.
  • writing – I am still formulating this plan, but the basic stripes are:
    • early morning: write a blog post if needed, or words if not
    • morning bus: write words
    • evening bus: other prep. Might be a blog post, but should be plotting and ideas

From this you can see that I’ve got mixed stripe schemes going on here: the foreground scheme of what I am actually doing, and the background of trying to stop myself devouring every piece of food that I encounter.

Other stripes during the day might include lunchtime, although that’s perilously variable, and there will be spots of time open in the evenings and weekends but those are too irregular to call them stripes, and they are likely to be occupied by other tasks for the next few weeks at least**.

There are some useful ideas in The Productive Writer in this area, in particular scheduling blocks of time to work on particular things, although I am not getting down to that level of detail yet.

[*] well, to a first approximation.

[**] yay! Tax time!

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New Games: Elder Sign, Discworld: Ankh-Morpork and Ticket To Ride

look at the lower stack this time

look at the lower stack this time

This is the second post covering last week’s stack of games which are new in the sense that I have only recently started playing them. None of them are especially recent in their release, and Ticket to Ride in particular is more than ten years old.

With that observation out of the way, on to the rest of the stack.

Elder Sign

Those Elder Gods – they’re nothing if not tricky. In this game you need to cooperate to stop them intruding into our space.

I’ve played through this game in solitaire mode so I haven’t quite got my head around all of the mechanics of it, but this game oozes storytelling: different adversaries have different effects on the atmosphere of the game, and each adventure has its own distinct feeling in the tasks to be completed.

Which brings me to the particular mechanic I wanted to describe – the tasks, and the dice you roll to try and complete them.

Each adventure requires multiple tasks to be completed, sometimes in a particular order (monsters may form additional tasks for an adventure). The players have game-specific dice which have faces showing results of lore, terror, peril, and investigation. Tasks are fulfilled by matching rolls of these dice to the required targets – so a task might need to match a total of investigation 6, plus a lore, plus a terror die. The combination of these tasks attached to a location tells a story.

To take an example, one adventure is “There’s Something in the Basement”. Its tasks are:

  • investigation x 6
  • lore
  • terror

The story is clear – the investigator enters the basement seeking an explanation for some strange noise, then recognises something about the situation and must fight their fear in order to overcome it.

That’s the narrative element, but in play the story becomes desperate: each time you roll you may complete only one task, but if you do not complete any task then you lose a die for the next roll. There’s a real sense of rising panic during a turn where the dice pool gets smaller and smaller and you’re looking at some dreadful effect on your character if you fail to finish the adventure.

There’s a lot to this game, and it evokes the feelings of terror appropriate to the genre.

Discworld: Ankh-Morpork

The Patrician of Ankh-Morpork has disappeared – who will rise to rule the city in his absence?

This is a game based on the characters and locations in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels concerned with Ankh-Morpork. The game starts with each player drawing a character card which defines their goals – some characters just want to control as much property as they can, others want to sow discord or suppress it for as long as possible. The Patrician is of course one of characters who may be drawn because that is how the man thinks.

Play proceeds by laying down cards whose effects are based on the character depicted: the Fire Brigade threaten to burn down the house of another player if not bought off, while the journalists (Sacharissa Cripslock and William de Worde) earn money for the player proportional to how much trouble there is on the board. The different effects a character may have include placing minions on the board, removing other player’s minions from the board (assassination), and building in the neighbourhoods of Ankh-Morpork to claim those areas. There may also be random events triggered by magic – a dragon may appear to destroy anything in an area, for example.

This is a splendid and exciting game full of back stabbing and front stabbing – trying to figure out other players’ goals while furthering your own – but it is less about the story of the game played as it is about recalling the characters so memorably written by Sir Terry. If there is a story to be told here it is of a teeming city where everyone has their own axe to grind.

My biggest criticism of this game is that it only supports four players.

Ticket To Ride

Claim rail connections between North American cities to satisfy route cards in your hand. Cities that are further apart will garner you more points – L.A. to New York is worth more points than L.A. to Seattle, for example – but you also get points for each connection claimed (longer connections score more) and lose points at the end of the game for route cards you did not finish.

This is an exciting game, but from a story point of view I am dissatisfied with it. The back story in the rules talks about a competition to travel the railways of the US inspired by the epic journey undertaken by Phineas Fogg, but the game itself doesn’t really carry that through – many players think they are meant to be rail barons instead, which story actually fits the game mechanics a lot better.

The narrative mismatch comes from the fact that there is no progression. The goal is to complete a network to connect the pairs of cities you have drawn, but there is no sense of a journey being undertaken because you don’t start in one place and then move to the next. Indeed, completing the route in a sequential way is weak strategy because it gives other players too much information about your goals.

I’d still recommend the game because it is interesting and occasionally frustrating (one friend calls it Angry Trains, and that seems apt) but it’s not strong on narrative devices.

What new games are you playing?

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The Productive Writer

the-productive-writer-coverI first encountered Sage Cohen at Wordstock 2012 where I attended a workshop she was presenting called “Success Strategies”. It was a very interesting session, and I was interested in her book The Productive Writer. I don’t know why I didn’t pick it up at the time, but for good or ill I did not buy the book until Wordstock 2013.

I wish I’d bought this sooner.

It’s an education in organisation, in setting and managing expectations, and just in general about getting the most out of the time we have available for writing. Some of it is stuff I already do, but there is a lot in here that is, if not new, then presented in an approachable and relevant way. And I got revelations from this book – not just ideas, but changes in perception.

For example, even in the first chapter there is a section on making a case for your future – not so much convincing yourself that you can write, but collecting ideas and opportunities as they occur so that when you are ready to go out into the world with your work you have already accrued a stack of potential audiences and markets. It’s a simple thing, really, but potentially very powerful.

The first truly revelatory section was one on having multiple platforms and whether to unify those under your brand, or keep them distinct. The thing that really struck me was thinking of all of the writing I do as being part and parcel of the same practice. I already knew this subconsciously (I mean, how often do I say here that software and gaming inform my fiction?) but hadn’t articulated quite so clearly.

And that to me is one of the most important things about this book and about Ms Cohen’s insights – they help expose the things you already know in a way that you can recognise them and accept their value.

Other things I noted down included:

  • using different calendar scales to have a clear view of your deadlines and commitments
  • organising your book shelves to maximise their inspirational value (for instance, in my own office I have filled the shelves in my eye-line with craft books)
  • organising your files more effectively
  • scheduling tips

… but that really is only a sample.

I’ve found this to be an worthwhile and, um, productive read, and I commend it to you if you are looking for good ideas on how to work more effectively on your craft.

Time to reread it and put more of this into practice, I think.

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Wikis for writers

I’ve mentioned wikis in passing a few times, but it occurs that I’ve never really explained what they are or how they might be useful to a writer.

This post is a survey only. I will be diving into more detail on the specific topics in later posts.

What Is It?

A wiki is a searchable, editable web site with a few properties:

  1. links to pages are easy to make.
    Page names are usually space-deprived capitalised sentences, such as AllTheTeaInChina, MontyPython, or HardOfHerring, so making a link to a page is often as simple as typing in a page name when editing a page.
  2. new pages are easy to make.
    This is as simple as typing in a new page name in the link field of a browser, or following a page link whose target doesn’t exist yet.
  3. existing pages are easy to edit.
    Click the edit button, make changes in the text box, save.
  4. anyone can edit a page.
    The definition of “anyone” can vary a bit, of course. Typically it’s going to mean “any registered user”, or (for an internal site) “anyone in the team”.

Wikis were invented by Ward Cunningham, who is still refining the concept (amongst his many other projects) with the federated wiki.

What Use Is It?

Generally, the point of a wiki is to collect information and make it easy not only to add new details but to update what’s already been collected.

The most famous wiki is Wikipedia, which demonstrates both the power and the pitfalls of the concept:

  • anyone can contribute, which means you can tap into the wealth of knowledge carried by a large group of people: the wisdom of the crowd manifest.
  • anyone can contribute, which means there is no qualification or quality control, malicious editing can happen, and editing wars can break out.

Many of these pitfalls have been addressed, but at the cost of reducing the freedom of the medium.

Wikis are also commonly used in teams to capture information about projects while it is fresh. In talking about writing documentation, wikis are a powerful tool to help a dev team collect the documentation needed to support the product because making updates to wiki pages is much easier than editing huge specification or design documents.

As a writer, it makes sense to think of yourself as a team of one: you wear many different hats over the course of preparing a story, and wikis help to support a lot of the tasks:

  • worldbuilding – use a wiki to record the places, wildlife, and characters of your world as you invent them.
  • outlining – use a wiki to break down plot elements into smaller and smaller chunks, linking to relevant characters or locations in your world.
  • tracking things – process and submission tracking both fit into the easily-edited, freely-linked framework of a wiki.

What Doesn’t Work So Well

There’s a well-known problem in teams with large wikis of the wiki becoming unnavigable. This should be less of a problem for an individual user just because you can enforce standards more consistently on yourself than on a team, but still it is something to be aware of.

Another issue is renaming pages: a character name has changed, or worse – you’ve spelled the name in different ways in different places. Some platforms do a better job of this than others, but the ones that are simplest to setup tend to be most fragile.

There is commonly a problem with not being able to see what else is in the wiki while you are writing it. So, let’s say I have a father and daughter as characters. I wrote the father’s page yesterday, and now while I am writing the daughter’s character notes I want to link to the father – but I can’t remember his name, or I can only remember his first name. Wiki editors are often not very powerful, so finding the other page can be frustrating.

How Do I Get One?

You need to install a wiki platform on a computer that you have access to.

For most individuals this is going to be on a personal computer (eg on your laptop), but if you have a server system (either on your home network or on the Internet) then it may make sense to install it there. Note that a site on the public network is going to need some kind of security precautions to protect your content.

Wikia is a hosted web service which allows you to create wikis within a community, but the content is entirely open so I would recommend against using it for anything you want to keep private.

There are a lot of wiki choices. A couple of good options are:

  • TWiki – a very capable wiki with many great features, including full versioning of pages and the ability to create sub-wikis. With other wikis you may end up needing to create a new instance for each project, but TWiki will let you organise things better.
  • Kwiki – a very lightweight implementation installable using the Perl package manager, CPAN. I’ve had good results with this in the past, but have had problems with fragility – a point emphasised by the fact that as of this writing its home website is down.

Both of these are file-based, which makes it much easier to setup on a personal computer.

Do you use wikis to organise your notes?

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New games: The Resistance and Forbidden Island

a stack of good games

a stack of good games

I’ve bought a number of new games in the last year, and I wanted to address some of them from a storytelling perspective (as I have done before). I’m going to talk about the top of this stack today.

The Resistance

This is a game about treachery.

It’s a pretty stripped down set of mechanics: 5-10 players, a little less than half of whom are traitors to the cause. Each player is sure only of their own loyalty if they are loyal, but the spies know who everyone is. Then one player picks a team to go on a mission, everyone votes on whether that team goes, and those who are on the mission vote to see if it succeeds (although only spies are allowed to vote for it to fail).

The actual story delivered with this game is pretty sparse, being nominally a battle against a near-future totalitarian regime, but there is nothing in the game itself which ties it to a time or place (indeed, Avalon is a variant of the same game set in the Arthurian court), but that very incompleteness is the thing I find most thrilling – we can tell our own stories of the missions. An early mission might be to procure illegal technology,while a later one might be about breaking into the government-controlled broadcast centre to install the data bridge for later hijacking of the programming.

I hate being a spy, but I love painting the scene as the spies betray their trusting comrades and see justice done.

Forbidden Island

A cooperative game of collecting treasures before the island they are on sinks beneath the waves. Every character has a unique ability, and as the game goes on the island sinks faster.

There are lots of ways for this to game to end badly for the players: if the treasure houses for a treasure disappear before the treasure is retrieved, or of one of the players is stranded, or if the helipad sinks.

The location tiles are two-sided: all the tiles start off dry, and when flooded are flipped – the water is lapping over them. In this state the tile can be recovered, but if flooded again are lost.

There are two particular mechanics which heighten the tension here.

First is the water level: this is an indicator of how many tiles are flooded each turn – this rises when special cards are drawn from the treasure deck.

Second is the fact that the same tiles will flood again and again until they are finally lost beneath the waves: when the waters rise, the already-flooded locations are shuffled and returned to the top of the flood deck. This introduces a magnificently Sisyphean element to the game: you shore up a location, then the waters rise and it sinks again.

It’s worth noting that this game is designed by the same designer as Pandemic, which uses a similar mechanic in deciding where the next disease outbreak occurs.

I will cover the other three games in the stack in another post, but what games are you playing at the moment?

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No post

No post today, I’m afraid – I was too tired to do anything except veg last night, and today is only marginally better, so I am declaring this a no-post today.

Back on Monday.

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