Month: June 2015

Saints and Sinners

My post on Friday about inconsiderate bikers reminded me of a principle of characterisation for writing: avoid stereotypes.

A stereotyped character is one whose traits are those of their group, or more precisely of one perception of their group, especially if those traits are incidental to the fundamental properties of the group. So, if your lion character eats meat that’s not really stereotyping since lions (in our world) have to eat meat, but if your lion is lazy or cruel or arrogant those are just expressions of the standard view of lions.

And that’s not to say that there are not lazy or cruel or arrogant lions, but assuming that that is what your character should be like is pretty lazy in itself.

The trap here is to assign sainthood or sinnerhood to a character just because they are part of a particular group: cyclists are saints for saving the planet with their non-carbon-emitting legs, or anyone on the bus who is over thirty is a failure*.

The thing is that stereotypes are useful – it’s like clichés: they’re over-used but they became over-used for a reason. Similarly stereotypes are a helpful way to think about the behaviour of large groups of people or entities. The problem with clichés is that you end up using them thoughtlessly as the best way to say something, and in the case of stereotypes you make the mistake of behaving as if all individuals are a perfect mirror of the culture they are part of.

My usual defense against this is to use the Fiasco method when building characters – build the relationships between the characters first, which informs the characters’ personalities with much less arbitrary choices about their traits.

[*] Margaret Thatcher was a nasty person.

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Hell Is Other Bikers

I’ve been cycling in to the day job pretty consistently lately and usually it’s a good way to begin the day: a bit of exercise and a bit of fresh air at least.

Other road users are where things go wrong. Sometimes it’s cars of course, but I’ve had more trouble with antisocial bike riders over the last week than I usually do.

Part of the reason for this is just the weather: it’s definitely summer in Portland now, and that means there are far more riders out than in the shoulder seasons (and in fairness I don’t ride much during the winter) so when I’m riding along there is just less space in the bike lanes, and the bike lanes are where the storm drains and the uneven road surfaces are situated. Most riders are courteous (I certainly try to be) and if they make errors it is because of lack of awareness rather than ill intent.

Still, sometimes you come across another rider who behaves badly. Wednesday was one of those times.

It started when I was stopped at a red light and this other rider simply blew through – passing me on the left in the bike lane. Was it a dangerous manoeuvre? Not especially – the junction was completely stationary at the time since the pedestrian crossing was active, but that’s not what bothered me: this is exactly the kind of behaviour that makes drivers dislike bikers, tarring everyone with that brush.

I managed to almost catch up with this rider on the next upslope, but on the following downhill I was one car back from him, and he was going slowly enough that the car between us had to brake, and so did I (this is a 40mph hill, so only just breaking 30mph is disappointing).

And there were other transgressions – shifting lanes without looking, especially – from someone who was clearly an experienced cyclists but who apparently doesn’t care about anyone else on the road.

Anyway, I ended up playing leapfrog all the way into downtown which meant I had a fast ride in – the first time this year I averaged 20mph for the trip – but I was miserable: I had become a prisoner of my own fury.

Hell may be other people, but only if we let them get to us.

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2015 Goals Post: Midsummer Edition

It is that frustrating time of year, when the longest day is past and the summer feels like it has barely begun. But still, it is Midsummer and therefore time for a new goals update post.

These notes are measured against the Beltane goals. As noted on Friday, this post is late so I could include today’s progress from my writing retreat.

Traffic Lights

GoalImOsBeMiLuMaSaYu
Finish Song0/30/3n/an/a
Complete Shapes1/31/11/34/3
Write every day2/22/22/21/2
Run Hood To Coast4/43/43/43/4

Work on Shapes continues to make pleasing progress. It is my focus at the moment and no mistake.

1. Finish Song

The 2015 plan:

  1. Read second draft – read for readability and typoes.
    Last action: read the draft.
    Working on the Shapes so I haven’t picked this up yet.
  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

There were no Midsummer goals for this project.

Total: n/a

Goals for next update: still not planning on picking up Song this next period – but again including these goals as placeholders.

  • 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.

2. Complete Shapes

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

Beltane goals for this project were:

  • finish the high-level plotting – achieved. I have plots laid out for all of the sections, including those parts which were truncated in the original draft.
  • populate detailed outline – achieved. The outline is fleshed out and reworked to match the plot modifications. The hole left unfilled is around actually putting the plot details for the later parts into the outline itself, but I have the outlines ready to go so still calling this done.
  • re-combined outline with text – achieved. I have a draft file with all the parts of the original text to be included and the new parts of outline to be written against.

Total: a very solid green – indeed, I’ve been working on the second draft text since the beginning of June so this is 4/3. I am currently at line 1518 of 3964 outline lines, and have added almost 5000 new words net (“net” because I’ve taking words away as well).

I was also expecting to be working in Scrivener by now, but I am still using raw text files for all the reasons of precise position control that I mentioned parenthetically last time, as well as the need to excise the outline from the text before calculating word count. Moving into Scrivener will follow finishing the outline mapping.

Goals for next update: finish the plot part of the second draft –

  • complete the outline consumption.
  • move into Scrivener.
  • write the new scenes.
  • fix up the remaining plot issues.

I’m specifically talking here about the plot issues, because once those are done and I have a solid story I will still have a lot of crafting to do to improve the characterisation and writing in general.

Metric: Red for zero or one goal, yellow for two or three, and green for all three.

3. Write every day

Make words or something every day.

Goals Assessment

The writing log continues to both be a useful record, and a necessary prompt for me to keep going.

There were a lot more non-writing this period, but the period itself was longer – there was meaningful writing on 36/53 days, which is a rate of 68%.

The reasons for the loss of days are in two buckets: doing other more urgent things, and spending time with my family. And when I was writing I was productive – the days and weekends off do not seem to have had much of an impact on my productivity. So, although I would be more impressed with a higher rate of productive days, the results are good so I cannot be disappointed.

Still, calling this yellow since the goal was 72% and I did not quite reach that.

Goals for next update: the metrics for this goal remain the same – green if I maintain a daily writing log, and if I write more than five of seven days on average (72%).

4. Run Hood To Coast

The plan for my racing this year:

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

Goals Assessment

    • lose weight – failed. No actual change in weight. I’ve been working on drinking water rather than eating snacks, but it hasn’t had any noticeable effect on my weight. I do feel better though, so I am going to keep going on this approach.
    • cycle more – achieved. I’ve had days and parts of weeks where cycling has not been practical (including a very frustrating flat tyre) but riding to the day job has become the default over the last few weeks.
    • stay on the 10,000 steps a day – achieved. It is unusual if I do not make this.
    • continue uninjured – achieved. There are niggles, but nothing persistent.

Total: 3/4 – yellow.

Goals for next update: Hood to Coast beckons, if we actually have a team.

    • lose weight – lose five pounds. Well, you never know.
    • cycle more often than not – the week I’ve ridden so far has helped a lot. Keep it up.
    • add more running – Hood to Coast is two months away. I need to be running. Note that this supersedes the step goal, because if I’m running consistently I will not need to worry about that.
    • continue uninjured.

Metric: yellow for 2-3, green for 4

Extra Stuff

A New Dawn is still going well, although it will be taking the summer off since my weekends away seem to so exactly line up with the roleplaying evenings (not planned of course, but an unfortunate coincidence).

I also kicked off a Magic the Gathering league which has, after one whole week, had a fair bit of enthusiasm attached to it. I’m still surprised and delighted by the amount of interest in Magic at the day job.

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Retreating

I’ve been having trouble focussing on the second draft of Shapes. Part of this has been distraction, but a lot of it has been time.

This weekend I am going on a writing retreat. Or, more precisely, my wonderful wife is taking the boys away for the weekend while I stay at home and write.

I am trying not to pin unreasonable expectations on this weekend. I have most of three days – one full day and two days with family departure and return at the ends – and it’s very easy to tell myself that I will write for every one of those hours and knock out three ten thousand word days. This does not seem likely to happen.

A more realistic goal is to add ten thousand words over the weekend and to consume about a quarter of my outline, although I suspect that this writing time will be more about outline consumption than new words given the part of the story I am working on. I will recalibrate at the end of each day.

But there will be writing.

I will be posting a goals update on Monday for Midsummer. but the retreat stretches to Monday and I want to include the progress from the whole writing retreat in that update. Hence the blog post will not be published in the morning – it may be delayed to end of day Monday or even early Tuesday.

In the meantime, may your writing time be productive.

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(Un)Competitive Magic

I had my first competitive game of Magic on Monday. I lost, 0-2.

Most of the Magic I’ve been playing has been at the day job – I posted something there about starting a Magic league (no prizes, just for fun) and had an enthusiastic response. We now have ten players split into two divisions. The thing that still amazes me is that this is not all the Magic players I work with.

Matches started this week, and my first match in the Stonehenge division (the other is called Machu Picchu) was against a player with a lot more experience of Magic than I. He’d built a deck that was pretty heavy on control and I was expecting my aggressive deck to do well. Unfortunately, this did not happen – my deck just fizzled.

I think the main thing that went wrong* was that my deck is trying to do too many things. I’ve got three distinct strategies in the deck, two of which reinforce each other but the third is a bit of a fifth wheel. There’s also a backup plan of big creatures to finish. Having too many unrelated strategies competing for space in the deck reduces the probability of any of them connecting.

Another issue is that I didn’t do enough play testing, and I didn’t have a clear idea of how to play the deck. Now, it’s my deck and I have a good idea of its win conditions, but I didn’t have a strong sense of how to get from the opening hand to one of those win conditions. Basically, I didn’t have any idea of what an ideal hand would look like, nor did I know what I should mulligan** for (apart from land).

There was some good news: I was worried about the land base being too slow but that was not an issue, and the sideboard worked. There were certain spells my opponent played which I could do nothing about in the first game of the match, and I sideboarded in answers to those spells which helped me survive longer in the second game. And the match as a whole was not a blow-out – the 0-2 result masks the fact that I did a lot of damage to my opponent, he just did more damage to me and I lost.

So the plan with this deck now is to refocus on the strategies that reinforce each other, and to do more play-tests so I have a clearer idea of what cards I need in my opening hand.

On to the next game.

[*] apart from bad draws. Magic is, as one vlogger puts it, a high variance game: depending on the luck of the draw, anyone can win and anyone can lose.

[**] the mulligan is a term borrowed from golf, where a golfer gets to replay a bad shot. In Magic, if a hand is unplayable then you can shuffle it back into the deck and redraw – although whenever you do this your opening hand size drops one card.

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Week Two Progress

Word Count Delta: +2,925
Outline Consumed: 48/3,964 (1.2%)

So, this is supposed to be a progress post but I’ve made very little progress.

In point of fact, this has just been a terrible week for writing. the first couple of days were OK, but the second half of the work week was blomped by urgent time sinks that have took the time I usually set aside for writing, and lunchtime meetings occupying the day job gaps where writing is supposed to happen there.

Not an excuse, but still – disappointing.

Even this morning, I was supposed to be up early to write and I could not drag my arse out of bed. I find myself pinning unreasonable hopes on my upcoming writing retreat weekend, which of course is just setting myself up for failure again.

So, although this is not the progress I was looking for I am trying to be kind to myself in not being too harsh in my self-talk. That is an easy road to go down but it leads to a hard place.

This week will be better.

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What I Write About Here

John Scalzi wrote an interesting post the other day about who is he beholden to in determining what he should write about.

Scalzi is a much more public figure than I am and he tends to attract, if not court, controversy. Through it all he maintains firm opinions on a variety of topics. Sometimes he chooses to write about politics, or feminism, or marriage equality, or publishing – but sometimes he chooses not to, for the good and sound reasons he outlined.

You may note that I don’t write much about such subjects here, and in a similar spirit to Scalzi’s list I thought it worth going through a few possible reasons why I might choose not to stick my oar in on the kerfuffle of the day.

  • if I don’t know anything about the subject – there’s not much value in expressing an opinion based on flimsy or one-sided knowledge. I try to at least be familiar with the context for something before I dive in
  • other people have already spoken on the subject – it takes time for me to formulate considered opinions, often more time than others, by which time those others have already expressed the ideas I would have written. Or I may just be late to the party because I didn’t see the tweet which caused the flap
  • my post schedule might already be full – I plan to post here three times a week. If the posts planned are already in place, I’m unlikely to spend more time writing another one. That’s not to say bonus posts don’t occasionally turn up of course, but there needs to be a compelling reason for it
  • I may have other commitments – as I have mentioned in exhaustive detail, I have a day job, and a family, and many other activities. I like having this blog, but it is also quite easy for even the scheduled posts to get bumped down the list. There may simply not be the time in my day to opine publically

Any or all of these might apply at any given point, or other reasons entirely. I’ll add my voice if I think it will make a difference, but this space is necessarily more languid than, say, Twitter.

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The Other Other Drafting

Another meaning of the worddraft” which I was pleased to be reminded of yesterday is from cycling* where you follow another rider closely and gain the advantage of not having to break the air.

It happened by accident. I was riding to the day job and stopped at a light behind another cyclist. A third rider, who apparently knew the first, stopped behind me. When the light turned green we all set off.

Now, this light is part way down a hill that I usually reach about 40 mph on, so I was keen to get up to speed. These other riders were apparently similarly keen to the point where my efforts to overtake came to naught. When the hill flattened out into a section of road where there’s a bike lane, I ended up stuck between these two riders, trundling along at a solid 30 mph for a couple of minutes. It wasn’t a lot faster than I would usually go on that section, but it was a great deal less effort.

I do feel bad about sponging off these other riders’ efforts, because drafting helps the followers rather than the leader, but the way it happened meant that it would have been unsafe to drop out. If we’d continued in this caravan I would have taken a turn at lead, which is the proper etiquette.

But it was fun. I usually cycle on my own, and haven’t ridden as part of a group like that since… gosh, since I toured the French Alps with friends back in the 90s. So having that feeling of joyous drafting was a lovely interlude, and I thank those riders for it.

Of course, the day was rather spoiled when I got to my bike to ride home and found the front tyre was flat, but that’s a separate complaint.

I hope you enjoy some pleasant exercise today.

[*] and also motorsport, but I don’t drive competitively.

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Tracking the Draft

In theory, I’ve been working on the second draft of Shapes for a week now. In practice, it’s been about three days of actual writing what with various things not related to The Work but which eat up that time and energy anyway.

But there’s no point tracking time when writing: the important thing is the result.

I should therefore mention how I’m actually tracking progress on the second draft. This is kind of a combination of my tracking for making the detailed outline and the progress charts for pure word generation, consisting of two things:

  1. word count delta – I noted my starting word count and I am tracking how that changes.
  2. outline consumption – I’m tracking how many lines of the outline I’ve used up.

I need both of these because while the outline is very detailed in some spots (line by line in many case, of course) it is much looser in other spots where I’ve added new scenes. So, sometimes I will be adding many words but not moving through the outline much (such as when I was writing the prologue, which is entirely new). Other times I will be moving through the outline but changing existing words to match, which may be actually detrimental to the total word count. I’m also not following NaNoWriMo rules here: I am deleting words that are bad, rather than keeping them because they contribute to word count.

With that, here’s my progress after one week:

Word Count Delta: +1,663
Outline Consumed: 10/3,964 (0.25%)

Hardly rapid progress, but measurable progress. Hopefully things will be a bit more productive over the next week or so.

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