Month: December 2014

Back Up Your Data

Yesterday my laptop died.

It was my day job laptop, a MacBook I’d had since I started there two and a half years ago. It worked fine on the bus in the morning – I got a bit of outlining done, in fact – but when I plugged in at my desk it started to fritz out on me: random blocks and lines appearing on the screen before it reset.

And reset. And reset. Power cycling did not help.

The IT guy took it away and reset the P-RAM which got the computer to boot again, but about five or ten minutes into starting my working day the screen fuzzing came back and… well, that was about it.

The going theory is that it’s GPU-related since I had a few system crashes over the summer which had no specific trigger but left stack traces which pointed to something breaking in the GPU driver. I hadn’t seen that in a little while, but screen breakup is consistent with such a root cause. Not fixable internally, anyway.

Goodbye, upney.

And so I got to find out whether my backups worked.

I am delighted to say that they did: I have Time Machine setup on my Macs, and that last few minutes of clean runtime were enough to complete a backup set and sync Dropbox files up to the cloud, so my files were restored onto a replacement computer.

It was not a quick process, though: more than four hours from a local USB disc, with occasional in-process estimates that it would not be done for the entire day. I was still connected via my phone and I had things to work on in the meantime, but it was not the day that I had planned.

The moral, then: back up your data.

And be ready for some inconvenience when you need to restore.

Welcome, plaistow.

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Poppins Corn

It’s been a Mary Poppins kind of weekend.

I’ve mentioned the Northwest Childrens Theatre before, and they are at it again – presenting an amazing production of Mary Poppins, based in large part on the film but drawing more material from the books.

Disney’s Mary Poppins is one of those cultural artifacts that has always been in my life. The film was released a few years before I was and it was a staple of Christmas television schedules throughout my childhood. I remember enjoying it, although I hadn’t watched it in years when my wife and I bought a copy on DVD and watched it.

We were both bored.

Not all of it was boring, it was just that some of the scenes seemed over-extended (for example, the nursery tidying with its continually returning toys could have been much shorter) and other sequences which were supposed to be spectacular seemed entirely redundant (the whole “Step In Time” dance number would not have been missed). Oh well, we said to each other: it’s an old film and doesn’t hold up well to modern eyes. It reminded me a bit of watching the film of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone*, where there are lingering sequences showing the wonder of the magical world that could have accomplished the same effect in half the time.

More recently, we watched the film with our kids and it was a much better experience for us: the scenes that had seemed over-long induced gales of laughter from both boys.

And the theatrical production did too. It was wonderful.

We went to see it in large part because a friend of the family had a part, and he was excellent in the role of Michael Banks. He was very well cast, and I loved the near-cynicism of the characterisation from both him and the actress playing his sister.

Indeed, the cast as a whole was very good and I really have no substantive criticisms of the production: the set design was imaginative and effective (and the scene shifters deserve great praise for their work); the choreography was dynamic and amusing; and those many actors playing multiple roles did so with great aplomb.

My only issues were ones of place. The accents used by the cast were in the main very well done, and indeed class-appropriate – the posh people were posh and the lower orders** were suitably regional – but Mary Poppins herself seemed a bit too posh, and Bert… well.

Bert in the film is played by Dick Van Dyke and his Cockney accent is the canonical atrocious parodic accent. It is consistent, which is more than can be said for (say) Kevin Costner in his Robin Hood film, but it is awful. There again, that is how Bert talks in the film, and that is what you expect.

Bert in the stage production does a perfect impression of Bert from the film, which makes it ideal for a stage rendition of the film but still, unfortunately, a little jarring on first hearing.

There were a couple of minor costume issues (although only on fleeting roles), but the place issue I noticed first was in the skyline: it’s Edwardian London – no radio or television broadcasts in those distant days, so no need for radio antennae.

But regardless of those niggles, the whole thing actually made sense – far more than the film. Obviously as a child I didn’t understand the plot of the film: I took the story simply as a pleasing fantasy of early 19th century England, and I thought it was about the children, not the father. Watching it again as an adult I didn’t really follow that part either, but I did wonder at some of the specifics: the reason Mr Banks’ job is in jeopardy in the film is bizarre, but less so than the reason it is saved.

Those issues were entirely resolved in the stage production: Mr Banks is suspended because of his actions and saved because of their consequences, which is so much more satisfactory. And the film’s “Step In Time” sequence which I found so irksome as an adult was exciting and relevant in the theatre.

As far as I understand, the production is quite justifiably sold out for the remainder of its run, but if you can go I would highly recommend it.

Which brings me to the last bit of Poppins watching – Saving Mr Banks.

We rented this after seeing the stage production, and it’s a remarkable film. It tells the story of how Walt Disney finally persuaded the author of Mary Poppins, P L Travers, to grant the film rights to him. It is filled with performances that inhabit the roles, from Emma Thompson as the author to Colin Farrell as her father. For some reason I was especially struck by Tom Hanks’ turn as Disney himself, a performance that did a lot to humanise old Walt for me. It’s very affecting too: I don’t cry often at films, but this one had me tearing up a little.

Definitely worth a look.

[*] all right, I watched the US version, but I will not use its name because it’s just wrong.

[**] I am of course using these terms in Edwardian-era context.

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The Rituals of Illness

As so often seems to be the case, I am ill at Christmas time.

This seems to happen more or less every other holiday season: I’ll have an end of year crush at the day job, push too hard in the run up to Christmas, and then come down with some minor but irritating ailment which renders me other than jolly for the holiday.

But being ill again this year reminds me that I have certain rituals I perform when I am unwell.

Watching Television

Not functioning properly is a good opportunity to catch up on TV that I usually don’t have time to watch. The canonical example for me is the bout of stomach flu in June when I watched a huge amount of Doctor Who because I really couldn’t do anything else. This time, I have the last few episodes* of Constantine to see.

Wearing Warm Clothes

I have a big woolly jumper that I like but find to be too warm most of the time. My wife will often remark that I must be ill if I am wearing it.

I’m wearing it now.


I don’t like naps. I generally find that any amount of sleep during the day will leave me more disorientated than if I had not sleep at all.

But if I’m ill? I need the naps. Three hour snoozes are not unheard of in the depths of the worst episodes.

Hot Drinks

I drink a lot of tea at any time, but if I’m sick I also start in on nourishing cups of Marmite.

Also, whilst not a hot drink, there is the situational consumption of ginger ale – if I have a stomach ailment, then ginger ale is often about all I can keep down and is very helpful in keeping body and emergent self-awareness** in the same place.

Well, off to catch up with my telly, and hopefully I’ll be back in the land of the living next week.

[*] and it seems unlikely there will be any more, which makes me a bit sad.

[**] not being a duallist, I could hardly say “soul”.

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An Atheist At Christmas

I’m an atheist and have been for a long time, so why do I celebrate Christmas?

Well, I don’t celebrate the Christian part, but then I also feel like that’s the least significant element of this time of year. People have had mid-winter festivals since there were people: having a party in the middle of winter to lighten the otherwise depressing mood and mark the turn of the year is important. Indeed, the history of Christmas is that that it was moved to the middle of the northern winter* to coincide with existing mid-winter festivals (an effective approach repeated with other pagan festivals).

There are many parts of this time of year that are admirable: the family togetherness, the spirit of giving (whether to loved ones or to charity), and the feeling of community – these are all secular values worth celebrating. I don’t need to be Christian to join that celebration, and in those terms I consider Christmas to be a handy marker for when that communal celebration is going to happen.

And this use of the season as a marker reaches to the heart of why I celebrate Christmas: I grew up in a culture which celebrates Christmas on 25th December, and I live in a place where the same date is used for the festival. If I had grown up in Russia or Greece I might follow the Orthodox calendar for the day itself, or give gifts on Christmas Eve.

In other words, I celebrate at the culturally consonant time. If I invented another festival that would be fine*** but festivals are best when celebrated en masse – as un-tribal as I am, there’s a lot to be said for communal jollity. Just as Christmas colonised the winter festivals of the pagans, I choose to appropriate the elements of Christmas which fit the celebration I want to have.

And so the Christmas lasagne**** is ready to be cooked, and the Chocolate Elf has made his last visit of the season, and we gear up to deal with our families in whatever way is appropriate.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

[*] I am sure that if the world’s most aggressive cultural exporters had been from the southern hemisphere, then Christmas would be in June**.

[**] or whatever calendrial artifact would contain the southern winter solstice.

[***] Festivus, anyone?

[****] which is so much less work on the day than turkey!

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2014 Goals Post: Yule Edition

The Samhain goals update was really about prepping for NaNoWriMo, and of course since then has been the event itself and its hangover.


Finish Songn/a1/2n/an/a4/121/20/22/2
Complete Shapesn/a3/3n/an/a1/2n/an/an/a
Look for an agentn/an/an/an/an/an/an/an/a
Be productive in fictionn/a1/3n/an/a1/21/23/44/4
Run Hood To Coast Improve Fitnessn/a1/4n/an/a2/44/42/33/4

Strong finish to the year with lots of more green than yellow! Next year I will try to keep all the goals alive for the entire year.

1. Finish Song

Here is the plan:

  1. To complete the outline.
    Last action: actually completed.
    … which seems to have held this time.
  2. To complete the second draft in line with the outline.
    Last action:
    continue second draft process.
    Finished! The second draft is resting in its drawer.
  3. Edit that second draft. Pending completion of steps (1) and (2). I won’t be doing this in 2014 though.
  4. Make submission materials. Pending completion of step (3). This goal is also now out of scope for 2014.

Goal Assessment

Goals from Samhain were:

  • complete draft of remaining acts – six scenes in act three, twelve in act four, plus two in resolution.
  • complete refresh of earlier material to match outline.

Total: all done! NaNoWriMo is powerful medicine. I have a second draft lurking in a drawer, waiting for me to read it. All the scenes I wanted to write are written, and all the actions I identified for the earlier sections are addressed. So, that’s a solid green.

Goals for next update: next up is seeing whether the stuff I wrote is usable, and generally turning this draft into an actual novel. I still feel like Song is my best bet for a publishable book in the next year, and I also don’t feel like these goals are going to be disrupted by the planning process in the new year.

My goals for the Imbolc 2015 update are:

  • review and typo edit second draft manuscript.
  • identify any significant issues with the story.
  • hand it off for first read feedback from my first reader.

Metric: Yellow for one or two, green for all three. Not including getting comments back as a goal, since that’s dependent on someone else’s schedule.

Also, worth noting that I only aim to identify the issues rather than solve them.

2. Complete Shapes

Here is the plan for Shapes:

  1. finish reading of draft – once for readability, once for errors.
    Last action: complete draft reading and markup.
  2. apply corrections from draft read.
  3. give it to my wife to read.
  4. restructure outline.
    Started on this after rereading the manuscript, but have only made token progress so far.
  5. second draft – make existing material match outline; add new material. Pending step (4).

Goals Assessment

No goals set for this period. I did reread the first draft and make a start on outlining, but that’s only just begun.

Goals for next update: I still have a few weeks before Song emerges from its drawer, so time for some more goals. For the Imbolc 2015 update, I will:

  • complete the detailed outline of the existing text.
  • try out some of the ideas I have for variations in the premise.
  • fill out the outline around the end of the story

I think this is a promising story, but Song is still the priority so if these aren’t completed before I pick up Song again, I expect I will put these goals on hold until I reach another pause in the process for the other book.

With that, let’s say it will be yellow for one or two of these, green for all three.

3. Look for an agent

Last action: finish a novel so I have a manuscript to query.

This goal was abandoned for 2014. I will look for an agent in 2015 once the Song book is ready to query with.

4. Be productive in fiction

November was productive and I have also done a fair job of keeping my hands on stories since then, apart from the last week or so when day job interference has intensified.

Goals Assessment

  • write 50,000 words in November – achieved.
  • keep blogging in November – mostly achieved. I didn’t stick to my three a week schedule for the whole month, but I did write a lot of posts even if half f them were about NaNoWriMo itself.
  • finish the Song draft in December if need be – not required, so calling it good.
  • review the Shapes outline – achieved, albeit by rereading the manuscript and realising that the outline I have is too high level.

Total: 4/4 – green

Goals for next update: Christmas and New Year tend to eat writing time, and the year-end rush has already been overflowing the normal day job parameters, so staying on track with my writing is not going to be easy.

  • work consistently on the Shapes outline. Not making any particular commitment to early morning work, as long as I keep moving.
  • keep blogging over the holidays.

Metric: Yellow for one of these, green for both.

5. Run Hood To Coast Improve Fitness Level

Here is the plan for the original goal, although the goal itself has changed:

  1. lose some weight.
    Last action: drop off the plateau.
    Still plateaud. I have got back to running, though it has not been frequent enough to make a difference to my weight yet.
    Next action: drop off the plateau.
  2. figure out a team training plan.
  3. races.
    Last action: restart running.
    I restarted running at the beginning of December despite ardent protests from my quads. I’ve had a couple of minor illnesses which have prevented me from consistently running three times a week so far, but that will come.
    In race news, I signed up for the 2015 Shamrock run at the new half marathon distance, so I need to get my distance built up quickly. My works team was also accepted for Hood to Coast again, so that will be my race goal again in 2015.
    Next action: build up distance.
  4. injuries.
    Last action: remain uninjured during restart of running training.
    This has gone quite well. As I noted in goal #3, my quads were very unhappy that I restarted running, particularly when my first run was a hilly five, but the actual injuries have not been an issue: my ankle has been fine, for instance. Just need to stay well.
    Next action: don’t get injured again!

Goals Assessment

    • lose five pounds – not achieved. Haven’t put any consistent weight back on, but not lost anything more either.
    • ride to work until it’s no longer safe – achieved. I basically stopped in December when the ice came down. It’s not been icy all the time since, but I feel like I’ve tipped over into winter mode now where riding is going to be the exception rather than the rule.
    • reach 10,000 steps a day – achieved, albeit not so much over the last week. I’m cutting myself a break for weeks when I’ve had colds.
    • prevent injuries – achieved.

Total: 3/4 – yellow.

Goals for next update: need to start training for next year’s race schedule.

    • don’t gain weight – actually losing weight over the holidays is going to be tough.
    • increase running distance – Shamrock half is in the middle of March so I want to be running eight to ten miles by the end of January.
    • reach 10,000 steps a day.
    • continue uninjured.

Metric: yellow for 2-3, green for 4

The Next Thing

Last time I was worried about starting up A New Dawn again, which has not in fact happened and may not now until February.

New goals will be set around New Year.

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Thursday Again

My default day of the week is Thursday*.

I first noticed this when I was pulling long hours on a project at my first day job: even though it was actually (say) Tuesday, my brain was convinced that it was Thursday.

Now, my sense of time is not great. Indeed, one of the manifestations of my particular cluster of ADD behaviours is that I am not always aware of the passage of time. I am always amazed when my wife accurately states the time without looking at a clock, whereas I’m lucky if I get the right hour in similar circumstances.

Still, I usually know the day, so losing even that basic level of temporal sense can be disorienting.

As I write this, it still technically is Wednesday, but it’s felt like Thursday for me since yesterday morning. The reason is unfortunately the same as when I first noticed my calendrical dislocation.

Which is to say that this is a poor excuse for a blog post, and I have no idea at this point if there will be a new blog post on Friday.

Things will hopefully normalise next week, just in time for Christmas.

But in the meantime, keep your calendars to hand.

[*] the same day of the week which Arthur Dent could never get the hang of. It is quite possible that these facts are connected, although it could also just be coincidence.

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A Case of the Mondays

Probably no post today.

I started one about the evils of the US health insurance “system”, but it got snarled up very quickly in all sorts of unedifying details while obscuring my thesis, then I realised I wasn’t even sure what my thesis was, so it was time to stop. I was just tying myself in knots.

In other news, I have made progress on my detailed outline for Shapes. I’m at least pleased about that.

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The Saga of the Exiles

Julian May’s series The Saga of the Exiles consists of four books: The Many-Coloured Land, The Golden Torc, The Non-Born King, and The Adversary. I first read it in when I started University and it has stayed with me ever since: I’ve reread it several times, and also greatly enjoyed its prequels (Intervention, and the Milieu Trilogy).

The story starts in the 22nd century. Earth is a member of a galactic civilisation based on mutual respect and care (the Milieu). The future belongs to those with mental powers – metapsychic abilities, as they are termed here. Inevitably, some people don’t fit into this idealised but sanitised future.

Fortunately for these misfits, someone has invented a time machine. Unfortunately, it only works in one place, and it’s one way: it carries the user back to a time six millions years ago in the south of what will become France. This is the Pliocene.

And that’s when we learn of the aliens which have colonised our past, of the mighty mental powers at their disposal, and of their decadent and barbarous cultures.

Much as I enjoy the books now, it’s not an especially easy read. Like I say, I was eighteen when I picked it up and I almost didn’t make it past the first book. There is an enormous cast – of the same scale as The Lord of the Rings – so keeping track of that many characters and their doings is pretty daunting. The world is explained as you go, and staying on top of the different technologies and mental faculties takes effort.

There’s a lot in these books, is my point. They are dense and rich and reward multiple readings. The imagery borrows liberally from Celtic myth, but the tale of Group Green and the other interlopers from the future is a deeply satisfying read.

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Keeping Time

Narrative fiction is essentially a linear medium: we read one word at a time and it is only by reading them quickly that they make sentences and layer image upon image to construct scenes and stories and the illusion of things happening at different times.

But even in this linear medium there are occasions when the events and knowledge of those events needs to be tracked: could the antagonist really get from the tube station to the top of the skyscraper in time to launch the drone? Who saw the monkey take the antique pen from Aunt Jemima’s desk? And when did Mr Kinnear learn that the monkey was actually a cunningly concealed alien spaceship?

Tracking this kind of information is enormously confusing and error-prone. Scrivener has custom metadata which can be applied to a scene and used to track exactly when that scene takes place, but that only works at the level of the scene: if there are multiple events which occur in the scene, or where there are disjoint sets of observers of the event, then metadata at the scene level might be too coarse.

Other options include constructing spreadsheets to track the event details, annotating outlines at a finer level of detail than the scene (see previous posts about detailed outlining, although where the time would be recorded is unclear – import the outline into a spreadsheet?), or the use of physical tools like index cards. The sequence diagram from UML is also of use here.

For NaNoWriMo this year, I trialled a tool called Aeon Timeline which supports detailed breakdown of events and their observers using a zoomable chart view to record and connect events.

My use of it was to help in figuring out the story events and how long things were really taking in the story: what the characters locations were at particular times, who could see certain occurrences, and so on.

The UI is easy follow, with simple keyboard shortcuts to add events and a very clear presentation of which actors know about which things.

What I am not clear on is whether this is actually any better than just laying out the events in a spreadsheet or sequence diagram. It is prettier, but it is also still a separate tool which you need to manually enter the data into. In those terms, annotating detailed outline text with event timing is likely to be more efficient – for me, at any rate, since my narrative is presented largely in the order it occurs.

Still, Aeon Timeline is a cool tool, and if your timelines are more involved than mine or if your storytelling is significantly more out-of-order than my stories then it might be worth your time investigating.

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Making A Detailed Outline

Following up on the post about detailed outlining, here are the steps I am following to prepare a detailed outline for Shapes.

It’s worth noting that I am starting to construct this outline when I am about half way through rereading the cleaned up zeroth draft. There will undoubtedly be some pretty significant changes to the outline (indeed, that’s rather the point) but the initial outline will be based solely on the original text.

The process goes something like this:

  1. pull together the text
  2. find a beat
  3. replace beat text with summary
  4. repeat until done

Pull Together the Text

The first thing to do is to collect the text. One option is to use the compiled manuscript text, but Scrivener also supports seeing all the text from selected items in one long stream (which used to be called “Scrivenings” although that name seems to have fallen by the wayside). I selected all the scenes in the draft navigator and then copied all that text into a new text file. I am using vim for the text handling because it is a reliable editing tool.

Fortunately vim can handle big files. After clean up, the Shapes manuscript was 94,000 words and about half a million characters.

Find the Beats

This is something I am definitely feeling my way on.

What exactly is a “beat”?

“Beat” in a writing context is a term I first encountered in Chuck Wendig’s discursive pieces about writing, although I don’t recall his ever explaining it. My interpretation of it is that it’s analogous to a beat in music, the rhythm of the story where something that happens is a beat.

It’s not a perfect analogy for me not just because of the differences in structure between fiction and music, but because I really don’t understand music well enough to be able to apply music-based analogies. However it’s also useful to import a non-writing term for this. If I used a term like “event” then I would focus too much on the plot, or “detail” would divert attention to description. A relatively unfreighted word allows for more meanings to be applied.

I’m going to use the term “beat” to mean a story component which tells the reader something they did not already know.

Beats are going to cover a number of different things:

  • plot – something that happens (an event).
  • description – something in the setting that needs to be conveyed. There’s scope here for different kinds of description, whether it’s for atmosphere or foreshadowing or whatever, but I’m not going to dig into that too much for now. I’m not even going to draw a distinction between character and setting. Specific items of description might be details. The real point about description is that it sets up a situation in which something happens, rather than describing action.
  • dialogue – conversation between characters. The dialogue should containa beats itself, so the goal is to identify what changes because of the conversation rather than just that a conversation occurs.
  • hints and breadcrumbs – things that need to be included now in order to support their use later.

Probably the most significant point about these beats is that they are about what appears in the text, not background which informs how the text is written. This outline is not about world building, but about conveying that world and the story which occurs within it to the reader.

Replace Beat Text With Summary

The goal here is to capture necessary elements of the beat. What gets included here is going to depend on the nature of the beat, but also its scale.

So, a description of the valley the protagonist grows up in could be in the outline as “describe valley mentioning weather, rushing river, and hillside quarry” while a description of one blow in a fight could be “Jim hits Bob with frozen marrow.”

That’s what I am going to be doing for the next couple of weeks probably. I will post again on progress as and when some occurs.

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