Month: March 2015

The Mythical Artist-Hour

Over the last week I’ve spent a bit of time away from the usual hurly burly and I’ve been writing during the day.

How the problems have fallen away!

So much of the work I am trying to do on the outline at the moment is creative problem solving: reworking the plot so it makes sense; working out timeline issues; making the characters more complex. I’ve been working on some of these problems – or at least trying to – for weeks, but I have been doing this work in the time available to me: early in the morning and on the bus to and from the day job.

Spending time on these problems when my brain is functioning makes them soluble in a fraction of the time.

I’ve made this mistake before, and it reminds me of The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks. The primary point of Mr Brooks’ book is that throwing more people at a problem doesn’t scale – as the team grows, the time spent communicating about the work outweighs the time spent performing the work – but there are also lessons that one engineer’s time is not interchangeable with another’s.

Similarly with creative time – one hour at five in the morning has different value than an hour at ten or at three in the afternoon, and four fifteen minute slots have different value than a solid hour or two thirty minute chunks of time.

I’ve said it before, but I need to figure out a way to make time to write when my brain has the energy to work profitably on the creative problems I have. Writing at five has value – when I am drafting, I mine a lot of words first thing in the morning – but creative plotting and other parts of the process which require mental nimbleness have to happen at other times of the day.

Best to think about that problem when I’m awake, too!

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2015 Goals Post: Ostara Edition

It’s been an interesting six weeks since the last update – busy, sometimes successful, but always changing. In particular, I’ve been concentrating on Shapes rather than cutting back across to Song – still writing, just not writing what I had planned.

On with the traffic lights.

Traffic Lights

GoalImOsBeMiLuMaSaYu
Finish Song0/30/3
Complete Shapes1/31/1
Write every day2/22/2
Run Hood To Coast4/43/4

I’m still enthusiastic about Song, but I am fully engaged on Shapes at the moment so that is my sole fiction writing project at the moment. Otherwise, this has been a pretty solid period.

1. Finish Song

Here is the 2015 plan:

  1. Read second draft – read for readability and typoes.
    Last action: read the draft.
    I haven’t done this since I am still working on the Shapes outline.
  2. Apply corrections from draft read. Pending completion of step (1)
  3. Give it to my wife to read Pending completion of earlier steps, and depending on her interest.
  4. Revise that second draft Pending completion of earlier steps.
  5. Polish the draft Pending completion of earlier steps.
  6. Make submission materials – synopsis, pitch, hook, and all of that.

Goal Assessment

Goals from Imbolc were:

  • 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.

Total: haven’t done any of these since I am still working on Shapes instead.

Goals for next update: these goals are still meaningful, but perhaps not for another sabbat or so.

With that in mind, these are the things I will work on next if I come back to Song, but I’m not going to define metrics this time.

  • 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: none this time. If I work on these it’s a bonus.

2. Complete Shapes

Here is the plan for Shapes:

  1. complete detailed outline – done!
  2. play with some ideas in the outline
  3. complete outline
  4. second draft

Goals Assessment

Goal from Imbolc was:

  • complete the detailed outline of the existing text.

Total: detailed outline was completed, and I have been addressing questions and addressing hot spots in it ever since. So, that’s a legitimate green.

Goals for next update: now I have an outline, I can reinstate the outline working goals.

  • try out some of the ideas I have for variations in the premise.
  • fill out the outline around the end of the story.
  • have a completed outline, preferably re-combined with text.

Metric: Yellow for one or two of these, green for all three. The “completed outline” goal is especially suspicious since whatever I have will be necessarily a work in progress, but once I have that I will be ready to dive back in to writing it. We’ll see then whether I want to keep going on that or cut back over to Song.

3. Write every day

A very clear goal which I have not over-analysed, but may have over-measured.

Goals Assessment
That writing log I mentioned last time has been invaluable for keeping me on track. I say I am in danged of over-measuring because I am keeping track of where I am on particular iterative tasks: lines outlined, questions answered, and so on. The trick is to measure at a fine enough granularity to see progress each day, but not so fine that the tracking is onerous.

I’ve written something on 41/45 days, which is a pretty creditable 91%. One of those missed days was tax return preparation.

Calling that a solid green.

Goals for next update: keeping the metrics for this goal – keep a log, and make sure that I actually put fingers to keyboard.

4. Run Hood To Coast

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

  1. Shamrock Half Marathon, 15-Mar-2015 – completed!
  2. weight
  3. speed
  4. Hood to Coast, 28-Aug-2015

Goals Assessment

    • maintain weight
      Failed. I am only a few pounds up, but I am up. I was right about it being hard to lose while training.
    • complete Shamrock training plan.
      Achieved, at least mostly. I blew out my last long run, which was a mistake, but I completed my other training goals, and of course I completed Shamrock.
    • stay on the 10,000 steps a day.
      Achieved, on average, until this last week. I have not actually run since the Shamrock, partly because my legs have been trashed but also because my IT band has been bothering me since thee run. I am going to get back on the road this next week, however. Back on the 10,000 steps next week though.
    • continue uninjured.
      Achieved. The tweaked toe I mentioned last time was transient, the IT band discomfort from the end of the Shamrock run has dissipated, and I am generally less sore than I have been in a long time.

Total: 3/4 – yellow.

Goals for next update: Time to start the long haul towards Hood to Coast.

    • lose weight – I’m back to maintaining a fitness level rather than ramping up, so I need to set a weight loss goal. Let’s say five pounds down.
    • start cycling again – it’s spring, and the days are lighter. Time to get back on the bike. This will be key to achieving the weight loss goal.
    • stay on the 10,000 steps a day.
    • continue uninjured.

Metric: yellow for 2-3, green for 4

Extra Stuff

My writing log has revealed very little off-track writing, except for my tax filing duties.

However, I will be picking up A New Dawn again, expecting to run this in six weeks or so. Time to remember why I like that story again.

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Spring Break break

Next week is Spring Break, what the US school system does instead of the Easter holidays, and my kids are home so I will be off doing Spring Break-y things. I may post something here, but I am not expecting to follow the usual posting schedule.

Should be back on the 30th.

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Magical Storytelling Revisited

Last time I wrote about storytelling in Magic the Gathering I had only just started playing and I had only played with the core set. I said at the time that the rules didn’t really tell a story.

I still stand by that, but I’ve modified my stance a bit since I’ve been playing with expansion set cards (the first two Tarkir sets) and some of the other products (such as duel decks). There is a lot of story in Magic, but it’s setting for the game rather than being told by the game itself. The story then influences the mechanics within a set and the flavour of the cards.

Let’s take the Khans of Tarkir set as an example.

Tarkir is a world of harsh environments and conflicting peoples. The story is about two planeswalkers who visit Tarkir. One of these was born there and is appalled to find that the dragons he remembers are extinct with the world ruled by five warring clans*. These clans each have their own colour identities and their own styles layered on top of long-standing styles of cards associated with individual colours.

And this is how the world of Magic the Gathering goes: each year is a new season with an overarching story arc and theme. Last year it was Theros with a Greek myth theme, and in a previous year we’ve had Innistrad and its invading undead. Within these themes, different mechanics are available which are consonant with the theme – Theros had mechanics like heroic and the bestowing of enchantments, while Innistrad had cards that would transform from human to some monstrous form.

For Khans of Tarkir, the mechanics are related to each clan’s style: the necromantic Sultai get Delve, which makes casting expensive spells easier by the disposal of expended spells; the skillful Jeskai get Prowess, which strengthens creatures when spells are cast; and the ferocious Temur have the Ferocious mechanic, which strengthens creatures when you have a powerful creature in play. The Abzan and Mardu clans have Outlast and Raid mechanics which similarly fit the clan personalities.

The creatures allied with each clan reflect its personality also. The Abzan have durable creatures, the Mardu have aggressive creatures, and the Sultai have snakes and zombies.

So it seems I was looking in the wrong place for the story – I was looking at the cards, when the narrative is on the web sites and the trailers, the spoilers and the novels. While there are fragments of story on the cards, it is at the level of flavour text rather than narrative. Where I’m usually looking for the story to be formed by the mechanics, in Magic the mechanics are shaped by the story.

Interestingly enough, Planet Money did a podcast this week on how the designers of Magic managed to deflate a bubble before it popped, and it relates directly to the way that new sets of cards are released at regular intervals. When Magic was first published, it started to form a collecting bubble almost immediately. But the designers introduced their own economic mechanic to change that narrative, to make a game people would play for decades to come rather than a bubble that burst explosively and suffered complete collapse.

And maybe that’s the most interesting thing about Magic the Gathering, ultimately: building a game hich is still played more than twenty years after its release. That’s a story worth knowing.

[*] there are a lot of fives in Magic because there are five colours of mana.

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Writing Is Transgressive

Chuck Wendig posted an interesting piece about how writing is profane [link: ]. It’s a good piece, but it’s not what was in my head when I read the title.

What I was thinking of was how writing is transgressive: that when you write your truth and reach deep down inside to bring back the blood that pours from your wounds you are transgressing social norms. Even if you are writing in the same area, your own voice must in some way be different or unexpected to be successful.

I’ve written a little on this topic before, so I’ll just link to that for now.

Transgression and art.

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Shamrock Run, 2015

The Race

Portland has had bizarre weather this winter. While the eastern US has suffered intense snow storms, Portland has been having spring since January, it seems: only a week of actual cold back in December, and almost no rain.

Except for Shamrock weekend, of course. It was pouring it down Saturday and early Sunday.

The temperatures were still very mild, however, so for the second year in a row I ran Shamrock in just shorts and T-shirt. This time I wore gloves too, and that made all the difference between my being cold at the start and shivering like a shaken blancmange*.

It is always impressive to join the crowd at the start of a Shamrock run. They had over thirty five thousand registered participants, and two and a half thousand of them were doing the half marathon – the first year that there was a half marathon route available. I signed up for it in a fit of enthusiasm when a bunch of us at work went in as a team, and the race sold out pretty fast.

Shamrock is an exceptionally well-organised race. Everything from packet pickup to the finish line is smooth, but then this race has been run for more than thirty years so you would hope they’d have it sorted out by now! I found my spot in the start chute by the 9-10 minute pace board, and tried to calm the nerves.

My race plan was pretty simple: run the first half gently and then put more into the second half. This reflected the course structure, which was flat at the beginning and then started its climb after the half way point. The last three miles were down hill.

I actually did a decent job of running a controlled pace in the first half, too. My usual problem on Shamrock (more than other races, curiously) is to kick out too fast: overtaken by the energy of the event, I’ll hurry along the streets, passing other runners left and right. This year that was not my problem: I maintained a steady pace, and I didn’t sprint past any other runners.

The problem was the rain. My feet got wet and heavy. It felt more like a steeplechase than a road race, there were so many puddles to jump and obstacles to avoid. The rain had largely abated by the halfway point, but feet were already soaked through by that point, heavy and cold.

This year was also novel in that I had left my gear at the day job office, and the halfway point was right by there. Running past the building I couldn’t help but thinking: “I could stop now. I have dry clothes inside…”

And I knew what was coming.

I am well acquainted with the back half of this half marathon route, partly from my four times running the 15K race, but mostly from running up and down Terwilliger on training runs. I am perhaps more accustomed to trundling up the hills on the pedestrian paths than the road, but I know the slopes. As I started up the Broadway hill I thought my legs felt reminiscent of when I run my seven miler after a few days of standing at my desk**.

Well, I got up the hill in reasonable order. My plan was to speed up compared to the first half, aiming for a negative split: I’ve done the Terwilliger seven in 9:25 minute miles before, and I thought I might manage that since my legs felt about right. However, I was wrong: all I can say is that I didn’t slow down much. I crested the hill at about an eleven minute pace, slow enough to know I wasn’t going to beat my last half marathon time by much but also fast enough to see my family at the top before they got bored of standing in the rain.

Coming down the other side is supposed to be this glorious descent, but running downhill for three miles when you’ve already got worn legs is fraught. As it happens, I was walking through the eleven mile marker. I just couldn’t keep running any more at that point, and when I started up again I found that one leg was sore – the IT band on my right leg was twanging something chronic.

In the end, I closed out the race with an official time of 2:29:04 – half an hour slower than I really wanted, but this is apparently my pace now.

This is my second half marathon in six months, and although the time was no different I did finish in better shape. I was a wreck after Beat the Blerch: my legs were painful, and I was very low on blood sugar (what is called “bonking” in the cycling community) – I couldn’t think, or indeed taste any food. Things were better this time by some margin, and so I can only conclude that I was conditioned more thoroughly this time.

And I have my medal cum bottle opener, and I have my commemorative towel.

Lessons Learned

I admitted to myself quite some time ago that I was unlikely to do a marathon again, because the training is just too time consuming.

That admission appears to have commuted down to the half marathon distance, although for a subtly different reason: I can make the time to train for the race, but the training I have time for is not sufficient to achieve my goals. Beat the Blerch was still in the shadow of the stomach flu of last June but even with fairly consistent training and distance building in the lead-up for this race it still felt like there was nothing there when I called on my legs to push.

Also, I’ve decided I don’t care for this half marathon course. I still like the Shamrock 15K and I will continue to plan on running it in future years, but I won’t be doing this half again. That long jag north into the industrial zone is just no fun at all.

Well, onto the next thing. I think it’s time to get back on the bike for the spring.

[*] a French word meaning “white eat”, but it’s usually pink.

[**] I have a standing desk at the office. It’s really great. I heartily recommend it.

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Goodbye, Sir Terry

I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett since my first year at University. I was introduced to him by a Dave Langford column in the roleplaying magazine White Dwarf and I have been avidly collecting his books ever since.

I learned of his death on Twitter.

Thank you, Sir Terry, for writing so lucidly, so amusingly, and so very, very much. I’m looking forward to reading your last two and a half books, and to rereading everything because it’s all so good.

The turtle moves!

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Uncertain Grief

You may gather from my post last week that I’ve been thinking about death. This was brought on by the sudden passing of someone I’d been close to once.

I have been fortunate so far in not having been affected by many bereavements. My grandparents mostly died ages ago (my paternal grandfather was the last, and he was very old), and one of my uncles died young, but for the most part I have had very little personal grief to deal with.

Death is always shocking. There have been a few public figures whose demise, whether sudden or merely untimely, affected me deeply: Douglas Adams I mentioned already, but the deaths of John Peel and Iain Banks* (not to mention the announcement of Terry Pratchett’s illness) made me deeply sad and it took me days to work through my grief. Grief may seem a strong word when talking of public figures who, for the most part, I had not even met but still – these were people who I had a strong affinity for and whose work I immersed myself in. Grief seems appropriate.

The person who died last week was no public figure and we had not spoken in years, but when I heard the news I was left reeling. It was a shock to hear that someone I had known was gone too soon. Even if I never expected to talk to them again, I was confronted with the fact I no longer could.

Grief comes in many forms.

My best wishes are with the family at this time.

[*] I still have two of Iain Banks’ books to read.

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Hot Spots

The tiny bit of meticulous process I am working on right now is working through the questions raised in my outline. This is serving several valuable purposes:

  • raising questions I need to answer about the setting (“But how does this ability actually work?”)
  • identifying holes in detail (“Weren’t those eyes green before?”)
  • flagging places in the outline which need significant attention to make them sane (“This a poorly structured diplomatic mission, especially without any diplomats on it.”)

The setting questions are going in the world book, because those are the foundations on which the story is built. The detail observations just go into correcting the outline and thence the text, but I’ll keep them around to validate once the text is done.

However, the thin outline spots want more room for discussion than I want to pollute the outline with so I am putting them into a “hot spots” document. In there I have a series of broad headings for particular spots in the story, and some bullets to capture the flavour of the criticisms I have for each story area. I will then add more discursive content to work things through and record any conclusions.

The goal here is similar to the world book: having the broad categories in front of me so I can pick those things up easily as I pass through the relevant sections. All of this comes back to tracking what I am doing and not entirely losing state when I spend time on other projects.

How do you analyse your stories for inconsistencies and crumminess?

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Wreckage

People react to events around them.

If you want to make your characters more real then describe their response to events affecting them: that casual insult from a passer-by; the joyous news of a royal wedding; a near miss from a poorly driven vehicle – all of these are occurrences that might affect a character’s mood and will help to illuminate their personality. Perhaps the royal birth that everyone is so excited about is a cause for despair because it puts them that much further from the throne.

In particular, though, people react to death.

Your character might be used to dealing with insensitive co-workers or passing insults from strangers but when your character has witnessed a dozen murders the night before, they are unlikely to be cheery as they pop into the coffee shop to get a latte.

Death is something which raises our deepest fears into the light. The reaction to a death will vary depending on the relationship to the character, but even those who are remote can have a profound effect. In my own case, I remember being completely floored by Douglas Adams’ sudden death – I didn’t know him, but I enjoyed his work and felt like I shared a tribe somehow: he was one of my formative influences, and I was appalled by how young he was.

So make your characters react to these things to make them come alive.

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