Author: Duncan Ellis

Confronting Privilege

I’m an old leftie.

I haven’t always been an old leftie because I haven’t always been old, but I have a deep belief in the moral imperative on society to help those who need help. This belief was formed on the anvil of Thatcherism, which was an ideology of class war.

My understanding of social narrative has therefore been through a class-based lens, by which I mean class in the British sense: something close to a caste system where there is little mobility between the strata of society, regardless of wealth.

Given that upbringing, my perception of the police has never been as rosy as many of my heritage: the police were used to break strikes and suppress dissent against Conservative policies. I’ve written before here about how living in Liverpool during the 80s felt a lot like living in Portland now: the people around me have similar views to my own, but the central power in the country has no inclination to listen to those views.

But you’ll notice I haven’t mentioned race. This is my central privilege: I don’t have to.

Because as left-wing as I might be, I am white. I am a white cis het male in a society built by and for white cis het males.

So. I have some learning to do. I’m not starting from a position of no knowledge, but I do not understand the lived experiences of people without the privileges that I have benefited from.

To help me in this learning I am working through Me and White Supremacy by Layla F Saad. The book speaks quite candidly about how the work of raising consciousness in this matter is going to be difficult. It does help me  that the author has a British background, though, however little it should matter objectively. Even as I am aware that British racism is as ingrained as American racism, the British experience is less driven by the wounds of slavery.

Anyway, I’m going to be over here learning and donating to organisations that actually understand the work that needs to be done.

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Magic Without The Gathering

A large part of the point of tabletop gaming is to get together to play. That hasn’t been possible recently.

I have three primary venues where I play Magic: with my day job friends, with my kids and their friends, and at our local game shop (LGS). I have been working at home since March, physical interactions with any friends have been absent, and our LGS can’t operate any events on the premises. It’s all very sad.

Fortunately, my kids still want to play.

Also, I made that webcam bracket and so I’ve been able to play a little bit of Magic over the Internet.

this is where I play Magic on the Internet

this is where I play Magic on the Internet

The tripod is wedged in place with its legs slightly opened for stability. The playmat isn’t square on the table because the camera isn’t: it’s easier to adjust the playmat angle than the camera. The light on the right is my daylight lamp and is the only illumination for the play surface. I turn off the room lights when playing because otherwise the cards are just white rectangles of glare as the overhead bulb reflects into the camera!

the webcam mounted to the tripod with my custom bracket

the webcam mounted to the tripod with my custom bracket

This is the bracket in operation on the tripod. The camera’s clamp looks more rickety there than it actually is – that’s quite firmly wedged in place.

The tools we’re using are:

  • Discord – great for voice chat, and the desktop client supports video. Point your webcam at your playmat and go. This is what our LGS uses, based on a template from Wizards of the Coast.
  • Spelltable – similar video option to Discord, but with Magic-specific features on top like life total and commander. When we’ve used this for video we’ve still been using Discord for voice. It has a limit of four players in a game, which Discord does not, but does have some basic video manipulation features.
  • OBS – this is not strictly necessary, but it can be used to supply a virtual camera to your video platform and that allows you to apply transforms to the video. Specifically, my webcam has its video mirrored. OBS will allow me to flip that, amongst other things I don’t understand yet.

I would also highly recommend against playing any deck that permanently steals other players’ permanents or lets you search someone else’s library. Both of those operations are very difficult to navigate. Pacifism is bad enough.

I’m very much looking forward to getting back to in-person play, but at least this is a way to play the game.

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Abandonment Issues

It’s not every day that I decide to abandon one of my stories. If I run out of steam on a story then I will usually put it down and then just never pick it back up again.

The Kissiltur trilogy was the first story I consciously abandoned because I kept trying to make it work and it kept not working – I was spending time better used for other projects when I didn’t even really have any passion for it any more. In that case I was fighting against the sunk cost fallacy: I had put so much time and energy into it; surely I could make a story out of it somehow?

Another term for “spending time better used for other projects” is “wasting time”, and that was ultimately what pushed me to the decision to abandon that story. I just needed to work on other things, so drawing a line under the effort on the Kissiltur books was important – it gave me permission to stop.

The other week I decided to pick up my 2017 NaNovel, Disconnected, and see what I could make of it. I did a rough compile into ebook for review, then realised it was unreadable because the default font was Courier and it still included all my [embedded notes].

Disconnected is a sequel to my first novel-like story, The Manx Connection. Cleaning up the text for review reminded me of some of the misgivings I had when I was writing it, and then when I actually went through and read it all in a straight line it confirmed what the problem with the novel was: it was bad.

The manuscript is not technically bad: my writing technique has improved a great deal over the years so that first drafts are actually readable and only tend to be disjoint between widely separated sections (eg the name of some incidental characters might drift on their infrequent appearances). No, the story and the characters are bad.

These things are fixable, eventually, but my experience tells me that the prize is not worth the effort. There are things about the story that I like – the central motifs of loss and shame are powerful – but I don’t know how I rescue the things I like from the problematic story elements and characterisations.

So after patching up my comments for the first handful of chapters I decided to put the story down, a positive decision which allows me to move on.

I’ve instead gone back to Song, recompiling the latest state to see what I am missing. I feel like I am reacquainting myself with a machine I haven’t operated in a while, but the controls are familiar and it still functions pretty well. I’m looking forward to working on this.

As for the other story… Disconnected is not the first novel I put down, nor is the Kissiltur trilogy. The first NaNoWriMo story I abandoned was my 2006 effort Paragons, and I rewrote that one in 2016 as a much better book. So I have hope that I can come back more successfully to the others at some point in the future.

I already have ideas for how I could fix them. I’m just not going to work on those right now.

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Routine Reestablishment

As I reemerge from the brittle burned out shell of the work I was doing last summer, I have become increasingly frustrated that I have not been writing much.

There are many reasons I wasn’t writing consistently before, although it was mostly just raw burn out. Since I have rested enough to recover some of my enthusiasm for creating I’ve found the need to reestablish some of the habits and routines from the before times.

Setting Aside Time

The new normal is a timeless wasteland where the days merge into one undifferentiated stream of anxiety and boredom. Finding the mental energy to create is one thing, but finding a way to set aside time and space for creative work is hard.

I’ve been able to maintain my regular Friday evening creative time, although with the burn out it has not been as writing-focussed as I would usually expect.

I have also had good luck writing in my notebook. I will read a bit of something, then take a break to write half a page or so on the story I am working on.

It’s a start.

Transitions

I am in the position of being able to perform my day job more or less unimpeded from my home, which is fortunate economically but unfortunate creatively because I still have the same workload and the same demands on my time during the day.

Something that I and many of my colleagues have complained of is the difficulty in demarcating between work and personal time. For me this specifically means I have been missing the transition time, especially the bus ride between home and office. That half hour each way of time when I can do nothing else but write or read or feed my brain in some way was a critical component in completing creative content.

So I’ve been taking the “bus”.

I have a standing desk riser that I do my day job at but if I sit down at my personal desk for 25-30 minutes I can get a lot done before I start the day job. I set a kitchen timer to limit the commute time.

It’s also very helpful in resetting my brain. I don’t have the crashing gears of going from family interaction to day job tasks without a transition; the commute has always helped me get in the right frame of mind to do my job. I’m just making the commute a time of choice rather than necessity.

But with that the “bus” has arrived at the stop (the timer has gone off) so it’s time to take up the day job controls.

Onward.

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Webcam Tripod Mount

I miss playing Magic with my friends.

I want to play paper Magic rather than online. None of the digital clients run on computers that I have access to (translation: everything is written for Windows, an operating system I have, to summarise, problems with) but to stream an overhead view of a playmat while also seeing your opponent’s (or opponents’) board state requires an external camera.

So I ordered a webcam. Pandemic times being what they are, it took six weeks to arrive. I had intended to get a camera with a tripod mount, but a combination of not reading the listing properly and a limited array of choices meant that the camera I received does not have such a thing.

The camera instead has a clamping bracket intended to wedge it against the top of a screen (flat monitor or laptop lid). So attaching it to tripod needs a bracket for the clamp to attach to which can itself then be mounted on a standard tripod thread.

Technical Details

The standard tripod thread is 1/4″ / 20 UNC. I cannot give a definitive statement on what those numbers mean, but I have exactly that size of thread in my tap and die kit1.

The ideal material for this would probably be an angle of extruded plastic, something like HDPE, about two inches on a side. It would be simple to drill and tap, and it’s definitely strong enough to carry the load of a camera that weighs less than 100g.

But I don’t have any of that, and since this is a project where I would like to use what I have on hand I will be making this out of 1″ x 1/16″ mild steel bar.

The Plan

The bracket is going to be an ‘L’ shape, two inches on a side.

The fabrication plan is therefore:

  1. cut a 4″ piece of bar stock
  2. clean up rough edges
  3. drill appropriately sized hole (use matching bit to 1/4″ / 20 tap) an inch from one end
  4. tap the hole
  5. bend the bracket in the middle

I am fairly confident that the steel is thick enough to take a meaningful portion of thread especially since, as noted already, the camera is not heavy. Indeed, the bracket itself is likely to weigh more than the camera.

That’s it. I will report back on how my fabrication efforts proceed.

[1] the ability to cut threads into an appropriately sized hole or onto bare rod stock lets you solve problems fairly easily that you might otherwise fix with glue. Currently I only have a set with SAE sizes because living in the US means that those are the thread types you encounter most often.

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Aft Gang Aglay

I wouldn’t claim that my plans in the second half of last year were especially well laid.

I worry about burnout. When I look back I would say that I’ve had several phases of being burned out in the past, although they also coincided with episodes of depression. Last year I was not depressed in any meaningful way: anxious, certainly, because there were things going on that made me fret far more than I usually would, but I was not undergoing the numbness that depression usually brings to me.

Not depressed, but definitely burned out. Burn out city, man.

Hence, while I planned on continuing my monthly goal update posts during this hiatus, I have not been following my personal planning routines at all. While I expected to focus on my writing, I instead found myself flapping around loose, too exhausted to focus on anything at all.

In the midst of that flap I went to the Willamette Writers Conference. I like that conference, and I like the people I meet there. I found several like-minded writers who I wanted to stay in touch with… but then my burn out took away any hope of actually maintaining contact. Everything seemed hard, from sending email to making words. I felt like I had been given a gift but then squandered it.

My gut feeling on this is that I was trying to do too many things at once. I have always been someone who starts new things readily, but I don’t have the time or energy to do all of it and while I can sometimes manage to juggle six or ten things for a short period of time, something has to drop. Last summer, I dropped everything.

Two things this year have helped me drag myself back to something approaching a functional creative life.

Firstly, my wife and I took a mindful self-compassion class. I am not someone who has ever had any kind of mindfulness practice, although one of the goals of my exercise routine is to shake my brain away from its loops and whorls, and I now identify this as a kind of mindfulness. The tools I learned in that class have been very helpful in letting myself be kinder to myself.

Secondly, the pandemic pause. This time of forced separation from the world has allowed me to retrench, to recharge some batteries that I didn’t even know were drained. It has got me back to making stories because I want to rather than out of obligation.

With that, I will say that this blog is still on hiatus from any kind of regular posting, but I expect to put things here a little more often. There are stories and projects I want to talk about, and this is where I do that.

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July Things, 2019

Note: this post was written in the first couple of days of July, but I somehow omitted to post it then. So, three weeks late, here is my July goals update.

The late planning of June bit me pretty hard. Other (important but non-writing) projects took time from when I would usually expect to be writing…

Well, maybe the “usually” needs to change. That’s a topic for another time, though.

With that, let’s look at what I managed.

Three Things for June

The retreat was good, but I may have been pinning too many hopes on it.

  1. Song fourth draft — get one thematic element squared away.
    I made good progress on the thematic element I worked on, including an important insight about the main character’s story and how it should be brought out, but I did not complete the element as I had hoped.
  2. podcast — write and record one episode.
    This was absurdly optimistic. I did good work on the podcast, including a theme tune that I am quite proud of, but I only got one scene written and recorded. That took a whole day.
    I need to recalibrate my expectations on this one!
  3. short stories — finish the BSQ draft; write another story for independent submission.
    The BSQ draft is done. No other short story work.

If I round up, that looks like three half points, for a total of 1.5/3.

Three Things for 2019

The end of June means half the year is gone. Where am I on my annual goals?

  1. query A Turquoise Song — a goal in three sequential parts:
    1. prepare a fourth draft — incorporate feedback, make it good. Target was to have this done by the middle of the year — still working through my revision plan, but not with any great efficiency.
    2. prepare query letter — obviously the initial targets are the agents I talked to at the conference in 2017, but I also want to prepare for querying other agents.

      I had hoped to hit the Q2 finish so as to be able to query the agents I spoke to then before the next conference.

    3. query — get the book out there.
  2. short stories — I am finding my relationship to short stories becoming much less contentious, even fruitful!
    1. several stories to write for Boundary Shock Quarterly — next one is drafted. Revision next, and draft the second story.
    2. write and submit four stories to other markets. So that’s one a quarter, and I will mark it as such — no new stories written. 0/2
  3. engage with the writing community — this is a nebulous label for a group of related goals that don’t warrant a top level item to themselves.
    1. workshop application — abandoned.
    2. podcast — one of the things that came out of the inconclusive work on producing Livia as an audiobook was a desire to launch a podcast of some kind.

      Early recording done. I am still not clear on the voice I’m using, but I have something.

    3. cons & confs — I need to be getting out there more. I just do.

      I’m planning on going to WilWriteConf again this year.

June was no better than May in a month which is rapidly descending into nothing much.

Three Things for July

On we go, then.

  1. Song fourth draft — goal continues to be to get one thematic element squared away.
  2. podcast — write and record one episode.
  3. short stories — refine the BSQ story; write another story for independent submission.

This doesn’t feel like it’s working at the moment. Something needs to change.

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Hiatus

Multitasking is not a skill at which I excel.

I make lists, I set goals, and I track how I’m doing against those goals, but jumping from task to task reduces my effectiveness on each task.

I work best on one thing at a time. It’s one of the reasons why bug reports and fires in the day job can be so disruptive, because it’s not just the loss of time working on a task but the time to switch contexts, and rebuilding a complex context to reengage with an intricate task is computationally expensive.

However, I also work best on tasks in one arena if I have other things to do in other scopes. This is why I collect hobbies. I do have limits, though. In my experience, I can really work on roughly three things at once: one personal goal, one writing goal, and one day job goal, say.

Some things are routine enough that I don’t really have to think about them. My weight and exercise goals are more or less in that routine category now; I still have work to do but I don’t have to be especially vigilant to remember to not eat piles of sugar or to go for a run.

Writing new narrative is not routine. I only have a limited amount of time and everything is complicated. Switching tasks in this arena basically means I don’t do any task well.

I had hoped that blogging would become routine, but it has not. Having a schedule helped, but sticking to it became a burden that crushed my other writing. My focus has to be on my fiction, and the cognitive gear crashing of regular blogging is not something I can make my brain do right now.

In other words, this is my last blog post for a while.

I will still post goals updates, because that progress tracking remains helpful and encouraging, but I am making official what was already de facto: I am taking a blog break.

I will post more about what I’ve been writing when I’ve written more of it.

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June Things, 2019

My writing practice at the moment seems to be more about getting derailed than getting actual work done, or at least that is how it feels as I write this goals post a third of the way into June.

My projects are not where I want them to be, I know that.

Three Things for May

  1. Song fourth draft — continue revision. I did do some revision, although only for a couple of weeks of the month. Based on my metrics, I am about 1.7% into the revision. It doesn’t seem likely that I will get this finished in Q2. Still, I did do some revision, so I am calling this a win.
  2. podcast — figure out the elements of “T’ Stars Are Reet”. I’ve got a plot and more characters, and I know how fast I talk. Another win.
  3. short stories — write another story for independent submission. Now, this is a funny one — I didn’t write anything for independent submission, but I did get about half my next story for Boundary Shock Quarterly. I’m going to call this half a win.

Overall that’s 2½/3, which is a lot better than it felt. This kind of positive outcome justifies the process of goal tracking, for me, because I can get unexpectedly good news sometimes.

Three Things for 2019

May was better than I perceived on the local goals, but how did that map to the larger intentions?

  1. query A Turquoise Song — a goal in three sequential parts:
    1. prepare a fourth draft — incorporate feedback, make it good. Target was to have this done by the middle of the year — I did work on the revision, but not as much as I needed to. Still, at least it is a positive direction.

      I am formally abandoning the Q2 completion target, though.

    2. prepare query letter — obviously the initial targets are the agents I talked to at the conference in 2017, but I also want to prepare for querying other agents.
    3. query — get the book out there.
  2. short stories — I am finding my relationship to short stories becoming much less contentious, even fruitful!
    1. several stories to write for Boundary Shock Quarterly — next one is under way.
    2. write and submit four stories to other markets. So that’s one a quarter, and I will mark it as such — no new stories being written, so cruising for another fail here.
  3. engage with the writing community — this is a nebulous label for a group of related goals that don’t warrant a top level item to themselves.
    1. workshop application — abandoned.
    2. podcast — one of the things that came out of the inconclusive work on producing Livia as an audiobook was a desire to launch a podcast of some kind.
      I have the first story for this, along with some characters.
    3. cons & confs — I need to be getting out there more. I just do.
      I’m planning on going to WilWrite again this year.

May was mixed. There was progress on overall goals but not as much as desired, and other things were advanced. I actually did more work in the month than I thought going in to this post, so I should take that as a positive, but I really want to be getting more done.

Even with the progress, I am not happy with where I am.

Three Things for June

I just need to get more done.

Of course, I am also writing these monthly goals from a third of the way through the month. I must scale expectations appropriately.

What might save this month is that I have my retreat coming up in two weeks. I expect I’ll get a ton done that weekend.

  1. Song fourth draft — I will get one thematic element squared away.
  2. podcast — write and record one episode.
  3. short stories — finish theBSQ draft; write another story for independent submission.

The thing that is suffering most in these priorities is this blog, as if you hadn’t already figured that one out. Still, I will get good fiction written.

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Spoiler Season

Do you skip to the end? Of a book? Of a short story? Of a film?

Or do you luxuriate in the journey, not knowing the story’s destination as a delicious treat in itself?

WAR! Huh!

The latest standard Magic The Gathering set, War of the Spark, was released a few weeks ago. There is always a certain amount of hullaballoo leading up to these sets, usually consisting of a fortnight of card reveals. This latest set’s reveal was more extended with a three week preview season, justified by the significance of the story depicted in this set. It was the culmination of a narrative arc that goes back years, and so the cards were revealed in story order.

Magic cards are announced by content creators, for the most part: Wizards of the Coast will give previews to community members who have a platform, and then the community members will talk about the card on that platform. It’s a good way for Wizards to support their community of content creators. Usually with these sets people are concerned that early card leaks (spoilers) will rob content creators of their preview, but for this set there was at least as much concern that the story would be revealed out of sequence.

Endgame of Thrones

Coincidentally enough, two other mighty franchises have lately been going through the final throes of significant storylines, and both Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones are stories that I care about. For various reasons, we didn’t go to see Endgame until three weeks after release while we only just started watching the final season of GoT.

It was a lot easier to avoid spoilers for Endgame.

The difference, of course, is that GoT is a series released over a period of several weeks, whereas Endgame is a single point release. The tone around Endgame was set pretty clearly too with the Spiderman: Far From Home trailer, which (at least when we saw it) had a “spoilers!” warning before Endgame while showing the trailer proper afterwards.

For a TV series, people talk about episodes as they come out. While I’m not on Facebook any more, Twitter has been very hard to navigate without gleaning bits of GoT plot*.

Unspoiled

I prefer to enjoy my media unspoiled, although this preference sometimes bites me. When I read Binti I had to stop reading at one point because I was too worried that something in the story wasn’t really happening and was actually just an elaborate and cruel prank. I probably would have been less anxious about the story if I had known something more about it before reading.

But if the story is spoiled then we won’t enjoy the media as much!

I don’t think that’s true, necessarily. We want to know about the film we are about to see, the TV show we are about to watch, or the book we are about to read because we want to confirm our interest in it. We want to hear speculation about the story, the characters and the setting before we consume the actual content. We want to know how exciting and cool the content is going to be so we can be suitably excited about seeing it, so we can concentrate on enjoying the ride without being distracted by the vehicle.

There are also many forms of media which encourage the audience to research and learn about the story and characters before seeing the performance: opera, for example, is often seen when the story is entirely known; or communal experiences like The Rocky Horror Picture Show practically require the audience to know everything about the film before it is viewed in a group.

Twist and Shout

My sense about the culture of spoiler avoidance is that it is an outgrowth of two trends: firstly, that with streaming and catch-up video, event television is almost dead (absent live competitive events); and secondly, that blockbusters rely on surprises to be worth watching. There is a feeling that if you already know the twist there is no value in watching the film.

This is not always the case. Films based on other published works have, by definition, their plots already known to a large segment of the audience**. How can these adaptations still be successful when they come essentially pre-spoiled?

The answer is going to be different for each adaptation and for each consumer, but for me I would say that I am looking to be immersed in a world I enjoy, like returning to a favourite holiday spot. Spoilers for these productions are, largely, irrelevant (with the obvious Iron Throne-shaped exception, where the TV narrative has run off the end of the book story).

So maybe if we trusted the film and TV producers to be true to their own world then we would not mind so much if details about the mere story were revealed early.

In other words, if media productions were written better, then maybe we wouldn’t care so much about spoilers.

[*] not to mention anger about that plot!

[**] exceptions being films based on non-narrative properties, such as Pirates of the Caribbean or Tetris.

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