Sunday, August 31, 2014

Be careful out there.

Grant Snider looks at errors and perfectionism.  Here are four of twelve panels.
Follow the link to see the rest.
Be careful in your writing.  "Write about what you know"  But if you do, the man may come knocking.

A Dorchester County, Maryland, teacher was taken in for an "emergency medical evaluation," suspended from his job, and barred from setting foot on another public school. Authorities searched his school, Mace's Lane Middle School in Cambridge, for weapons. As classes resumed, parents worried that their children were in danger, so police decided to remain on the premises to watch over them.What happened? The teacher, Patrick McLaw, published a fiction novel. Under a pen name. About a made-up school shooting. Set in the year 2902.
Updated Sept 3 from The Atlantic.
"From our perspective, this was more about a health concern about Mr. McLaw than about a security issue," [state attorney] Maciarello said. Authorities grew concerned about McLaw after he sent a "four-page letter" to a school administrator over the summer. According to Maciarello, the letter contained no threats against schools or school personnel, but that it indicated that McLaw was not mentally sound. "Health care professionals were concerned, he was in a relationship that had just come to an end, he was talking about his mother as being overbearing, there was some thought that he could be a threat to himself." Based on the "totality of the circumstances," Maciarello said, McLaw was involuntarily committed for evaluation. Among those circumstances: Authorities said that McLaw had built a model of a school building in his home, and had asked an administrator to move classrooms, to one near the "point of ingress and egress" of the school.
Yes, I too was underwhelmed by that response. I asked Maciarello if the novels McLaw had self-published had been a factor in county decision-making: "The books are a factor," he said. "You cannot consider the total picture without knowing that he had this book, this other writing. This was very concerning to the administrators. 
It now seems possible that police officials are somewhat discretely investigating other aspects of the author's past.  I hope they either release their information at some point or that McLaw take the school and local police department for enough money to help him begin anew with another new name (the article conflates nom-de-plume with 'alias').

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Quora on writing and links aplenty on outlines

A recent Quora question: What should everyone know about writing?  Zachary Norman offered his father's advice:
It's a full time job.  To be successful you must be disciplined.  You do it from nine to five, five days a week.  Focus on your work for forty hours and put it away at night and on the weekends.  When you're blocked write something else, sonnets, poems, the "other novel", love letters.  The point is you must write full-time.  A writer's talent is a muscle that must be worked out, and like a bicep it will strengthen with use.
Writers write alone, in quiet.  Writers don't write in coffee-shops.  Silence is the blank canvas onto which the world of the work is drawn.
Personally, I think the bit about silence is more of a individual preference, but I like the rest.

Stan Hayward says:
Writing effectively clears the brain.
It is a form of talking to oneself.
When you write your thoughts down you find it easier to see alternatives to ideas.
Writing a shopping list will encourage you to check what else you might need while shopping
Writing a diary gives you a sense of how you spend your time, and to plan.
Writing letters makes you focus on what you feel is important.
Writing out lessons - even those already printed - helps to reinforce the ideas in your mind.
Writing and checking what you have written improves your ability to express yourself.
Writing gives others a good idea of how you comprehend things.
The physical act of writing is a eye-to-hand skill that improves your motor control of your body.
I should write more by hand.  Or even print more (by hand) as I desperately need to maintain the minimal hand-eye coordination I currently have.  Of course, I also need to type more carefully so as to stop using 'teh' as an article.

The link above also includes a list of similar topics: creative writing, freelance writing, grammar and more.
Nanowrimo is coming round again soon.  Last year, I finished the month in style, with two thousand words over the minimum.  The story I wrote had been a sort of daydream of mine for years and I had worked out a lot of details in my head before I started typing.  The story still surprised me and went places I hadn't anticipated but I had ten or so plot points in mind and their order.  This let me jump around in time.  When I couldn't think of where to go next in the first chapter, I jumped to the fourth chapter and started in.  When I ran out of literary steam there, I went to chapter 2 and so on.  Once place I was particularly weak on was character.  I had to invent character tics, flaws and general individuality on the fly.  I want to be more formally prepared this time.

Nanowrimo used to have an outline planner that you could print out.  I guess they still do but I can no longer find it.

Writer's Digest has one.  Well, many, printouts to guide you.
Necessary Writer has an outline.
Creative Writing Now has three: Novel Outline, Character Outline and Scene Outline.
Many seem to love Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet. See here (from here), here, and here.
One of the above links is from Belinda Crawford who also links to more templates, including some for Scrivener, which professional writers seem to love.
Added Sept 7: Gord Sellar looks at character development.  I hope this excerpt is, well, clear enough.  Follow the link for a chart that explores the ideas further.
In other words, Paracelsus saw the world not in terms of the four elements and their elemental natures (dryness, coldness, heat, and wetness) but instead in terms of dynamic properties that were part of all matter, and which could be manipulated through alchemical processes, specifically these:
  • saltSulphur, representing what is combustible, or burned away in alchemical procedures
  •  sulphur Salt, representing what cannot be burned away in alchemical procedures
  • MercuryMercury, representing the enduring, but transmutable, part of a thing which is purified through alchemical procedures.
This is interesting because there was also an idea in Renaissance alchemy that an alchemist had to engage in alchemical work in order to achieve a self-transformation that imbued him or her with the capacity to actually perform the highest works of alchemy, including the creation of Philosopher’s Stone, which after all was not used to “turn lead into gold” but rather was (by many alchemists, at least) understood as a catalyst that facilitated and accelerated a natural process of purification that they believed all matter–including metal–was undergoing anyway.
What’s tantalizing about that is how central in Western fiction it is that a character must change, under pressure of the story. Stories are widely read as, and understood to be about, the process of transformation that a character or group of characters undergo in the course of a process usually involving increasing pressure and raised stakes–rather like the heating of metals in an alchemical ritual or experiment.
One can very easily reformulate Paracelsus’ tria prima into a schematic model of character development, too:
  • saltWhat in the character is to be “burnt away” through the experiences of the story.
  •  sulphur  What in the character is to remain the same, because its durability and fundamentality ensures that it cannot be burnt away.
  • MercuryWhat in the character is, instead of burning away or enduring, is purified through transmutation from one form to another (typically, from a baser form to a more precious form).

Friday, August 22, 2014

Lev Grossman on becoming a fantasy writer

Lev Grossman on becoming a fantasy writer

The New York Times website doesn't permit copy-n-paste so here's a fragment of a screenshot.  Probably, if you click on it, it will embiggen so you can read it.
Another quote can be found at Boingboing.
Bonus: I've never been a doodler.  Anytime I attempt a drawing, I already have an idea in mind.  Or, when I make an unintelligible mess on the page, I know what it is a mess of.  Shoebedoodling's work is therefore as fascinating to me as that of gymnasts or people speaking languages I'd never even heard the name of before.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

It's not just about the margins, man.

Let's talk about the margins is about far more and is about the things I need to think more deeply about.  I'm the type to finish the text, the ideas, then let it go.  Often, this means I haven't proofed the text.  Spell-check gets a lot but when I'm typing quickly, their are a few airs that spell-check won't catch.

On a recent text science book I wrote*,  I had set the margins in Google Docs but the printer probably used Word.  Whatever, I had left underscores for students to fill words in and this happened _________
Ah, anyway, back to the 'margins' article.
Reach for a book. The dedication and earnestness of those who made it is revealed immediately in the margins. If the margins feel questionable, be suspicious. Other corners were likely cut. All authors should have a Margin Clause in their contracts. Objection, your honor. Never be fooled by a fancy cover. Always remember: Covers are just there to protect pages with beautiful margins.

The layout of this essay will change in time. If we return to in a few weeks or months or years, the margins will be different, the block quote styling a darker grey, the headers a new font. We will read it on new devices, bigger and smaller phablets, goggles, contact lenses, windshields. Nothing is fixed.
Do not dismiss the fixed page. Margins on the screen are necessary, but margins on paper have the power to affect.

Fifty per cent of the character and integrity of a printed page lies in its letterforms.Much of the other fifty per cent resides in its margins, says Bringhurst.
Yes, look here — perfect dictionary paper sticks to the fingers but doesn’t stick to the other pages, says the Dictionary Man.
Make an object that lives forever, says our ghost of George Nakashima.
WE WILL TRY HARDER, says the Paper Man.
I'm a content over style man but the style isn't nothing and I really need to work on the finishing touches.
*16 or so pages and mostly a guideline for the material I would use in class.  'Book' might be overstating the product.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Creationism mocking contest going on

The Sensuous Curmudgeon has announced a creativity challenge - my two favorite subjects in one!

"Something even more illogical and contrary to reality than creationism is ________________."

Let's see:

  1. Fan death (Wikipedia link)
  2. open doors in South Korea but 'energy-saving regulations' focused only on minimum and maximum temperatures.  (hmm.  Not as funny as #1) (Gangwon Notes link)
  3. _________________________

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Amazon is getting nervous, mental illness claims another creative, and more

A North Korean architect who has never left N Korea imagines the future.  It's a little like the Jetsons.  I'd kinda like to live there.
This blog has touched on the issue of creative people having a higher rate of depression or other mental illness.  Robin Williams passed away today.
Saladin Ahmed will critique your novel.
Why hire me? I hold an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English, and I’ve taught creative writing courses at colleges and universities for ten years. My first novel, THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON, praised by George RR Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and NPR, was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Crawford, Gemmell, and British Fantasy Awards, won the Locus Award for Best First Novel, and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal. My short stories have been nominated for the Nebula and Campbell awards, have been reprinted in numerous anthologies, including THE YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION, and have been translated into a half-dozen languages. I’ve also written on geek culture for NPR Books, Salon, Buzzfeed, and The Escapist.
I wonder what pays better, writing or critiquing writing.
Amazon is getting nervous.
Amazon is not in the least bit happy about the full-page ad some authors have placed into the New York Times this weekend, complaining about its tactics in its negotiations with Hachette, so it is perhaps not entirely coincidental that this weekend Amazon is trying a new tactic: Trying to convince readers that it is intheir best interest to favor Amazon’s business needs and desires.
Thus, which posts a letter from Amazon to eBook readers. Go ahead and take a moment to read it (another version, almost word for word, went out to Kindle Direct authors this morning as well), and then come back.
Back? Okay. Points:
1. First, as an interesting bit of trivia, was registered 18 months ago, which does suggest that Amazon’s been sitting on it for a while, waiting for the right moment to deploy it, which is apparently now.
But as a propaganda move, it’s puzzling. A domain like “ReadersUnited” implies, and would be more effective as, a grassroots reader initiative, or at the very least a subtle astroturf campaign meant to look like a grassroots reader initiative, rather than what it is, i.e., a bald attempt by Amazon to sway readers to its own financial benefit. Amazon isn’t trying to hide its association with the domain — it’s got an Amazon icon right up there in tab — so one wonders why Amazon didn’t just simply post it on its own site, to reinforce its own brand identity. The short answer is likely this: It’s just a really clumsy attempt to reinforce the idea that Amazon is doing this for readers, rather than for its own business purposes.

Friday, August 8, 2014

More from the New Yorker

I know the New Yorker has great articles but I really think first of the cartoons on those occasions I think of the New Yorker at all.  I think somewhere on this blog is a TED talk on the proper level of weird for their cartoons.
On the creative life cycle of a cartoonist:
I think cartoonists harbor the notion that artists, writers, and scientists aren’t all that creative. Not when they’re matched up against cartoonists. Smarter? Yes. As creative? No. If a scientist comes up with one new idea a year, he’s a genius. If a cartoonist comes up with one new idea a day, he or she better start looking for other work. When people in these other fields do get a new idea, they often take a few years to perfect it, and then a few more to ruin it.
Magazine cartoonists don’t have that luxury. The core prerequisite for the occupation is creativity. They get paid for their ideas, and they have to come up with bunches of them every week, because nine out of ten will get turned down by fussy editors like me.
Remember, this article is freely available for the summer...whenever they decide that ends, so read the rest soon.
The author of that piece also wrote a book and was interviewed by his magazine.  Here is more on cartoons and creativity from that interview:
Ideas come from the unconscious, the part of our mind that dreams. You have to be able to dream while you're awake. There's always that moment where those deep, hidden brain processes push the magma up to the surface of consciousness and out erupts the thing that the conscious mind recognizes as an idea. The conscious mind then acts like a secretary, sorting, filing, and tweaking those ideas.
How can you tell a good idea from a bad idea?
With your own material, that's very difficult. The process of creating often obscures and contaminates the ability to evaluate. By the same token, though, the process of evaluating often contaminates the ability to create. The best way is to generate ideas and then wait. With distance and time, you are able to gradually see what's there that shouldn't be.
So how important is discipline and editing?

Well, we're talking about two separate processes. When it comes to generating ideas, editing isn't important at all. You want to have as many ideas as you can, knowing that most of them will be worthless. In the material universe, you can't actually make more matter, so you have to be prudent about how you use the matter that you have. But there's no need to conserve ideas. In the idea universe, every idea leads to more ideas.
In the creativity class I recently took, lessons included a virtual tour of various offices famed for their creative output.  The offices looked like playrooms with vibrant colours and nothing was fixed in place.  The New Yorker tears up that concept in The Open Office Trap.
In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation. When David Craig surveyed some thirty-eight thousand workers, he found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse she fared.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Hurry, the New Yorker's archives are freely available for the next few weeks.

Their material is entirely open for the summer.

I will look for articles on more personal topics, of course, but here are a few on creativity.

From 2008, The Running Novelist, by Haruki Murakami.  Because the articles are available only briefly, here is a large excerpt.  As a runner and a wannabe writer, I found the aspects of Murakami's life interesting.
I think this viewpoint applies as well to the job of the novelist. Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can write easily, no matter what they do—or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Unfortunately, I don’t fall into that category. I have to pound away at a rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of my creativity. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another hole. But, as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening those holes in the rock and locating new water veins. As soon as I notice one source drying up, I move on to another. If people who rely on a natural spring of talent suddenly find they’ve exhausted their source, they’re in trouble.
In other words, let’s face it: life is basically unfair. But, even in a situation that’s unfair, I think it’s possible to seek out a kind of fairness.
When I tell people that I run every day, some are quite impressed. “You must have a lot of will power,” they tell me. Of course, it’s nice to be praised like this—a lot better than being disparaged. But I don’t think it’s merely will power that makes one able to do something. The world isn’t that simple. To tell the truth, I don’t even think there’s much correlation between my running every day and whether or not I have will power. I think that I’ve been able to run for more than twenty-five years for one reason: it suits me. Or, at least, I don’t find it all that painful. Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don’t continue doing what they don’t like.

That’s why I’ve never recommended running to others. If someone has an interest in long-distance running, he’ll start running on his own. If he’s not interested in it, no amount of persuasion will make any difference. Marathon running is not a sport for everyone, just as being a novelist isn’t a job for everyone. Nobody ever recommended or even suggested that I be a novelist—in fact, some tried to stop me. I simply had the idea to be one, and that’s what I did. People become runners because they’re meant to.
How caffeine can cramp creativity.
According to a recent review of some hundred studies, caffeine has a number of distinct benefits. Chief among them are that it boosts energy and decreases fatigue; enhances physical, cognitive, and motor performance; and aids short-term memory, problem solving, decision making, and concentration.
But all of that comes at a cost. Science is only beginning to unravel the full complexity behind different forms of creative accomplishment; creativity is notoriously difficult to study in a laboratory setting, and the choice of one approach over another limits the way that creativity can be measured. Still, we do know that much of what we associate with creativity—whether writing a sonnet or a mathematical proof—has to do with the ability to link ideas, entities, and concepts in novel ways. This ability depends in part on the very thing that caffeine seeks to prevent: a wandering, unfocussed mind.
Caffeine also inhibits another mental process that’s necessary for creative thinking: sleep. A 2009 study showed that people who experienced REM sleep performed better on two tests of creative thinking than those who simply rested or napped without entering the REM cycle. During REM, their brains were able to integrate unassociated information so that, upon waking up, they were more adept at solving problems they had been primed with earlier.
Read the rest before it is gone
Where do Eureka Moments Come From?

Insight, however, has proved less difficult to define and to study. Because it arrives at a specific moment in time, you can isolate it, examine it, and analyze its characteristics. “Insight is only one part of creativity,” Beeman says. “But we can measure it. We have a temporal marker that something just happened in the brain. I’d never say that’s all of creativity, but it’s a central, identifiable component.” When scientists examine insight in the lab, they are looking at what types of attention and thought processes lead to that moment of synthesis: If you are trying to facilitate a breakthrough, are there methods you can use that help? If you feel stuck on a problem, are there tricks to get you through?

This work suggests that being caffeinated may facilitate the analytical part of the creative process but impede the insight-finding part, by honing your focus but dulling your ability to think more diffusely.
It suggests, too, that timing is important. If you aren’t focussed when the problem is presented, for instance—that is, if your attention is already diffuse when “pine,” “crab,” and “sauce” first flash across the screen—you may find it harder to reach an insightful solution because you haven’t done enough conscious, analytical processing. You need to take the time to understand all aspects thoroughly before you try to facilitate your mind-wandering or daydreaming. In other words, don’t go for a walk or hop in the shower or take a nap immediately after getting a new problem. First, reach for that cup of coffee to make sure you don’t miss any details.
Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth
Having just finished a university course on creativity and brainstorming, this contrary view is a must-read.

The first empirical test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was performed at Yale University, in 1958. Forty-eight male undergraduates were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were instructed to follow Osborn’s guidelines. As a control sample, the scientists gave the same puzzles to forty-eight students working by themselves. The results were a sobering refutation of Osborn. The solo students came up with roughly twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups, and a panel of judges deemed their solutions more “feasible” and “effective.” Brainstorming didn’t unleash the potential of the group, but rather made each individual less creative.

In 2003, Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, divided two hundred and sixty-five female undergraduates into teams of five. She gave all the teams the same problem—“How can traffic congestion be reduced in the San Francisco Bay Area?”—and assigned each team one of three conditions. The first set of teams got the standard brainstorming spiel, including the no-criticism ground rules. Other teams—assigned what Nemeth called the “debate” condition—were told, “Most research and advice suggest that the best way to come up with good solutions is to come up with many solutions. Freewheeling is welcome; don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind. However, in addition, most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas.” The rest received no further instructions, leaving them free to collaborate however they wanted. All the teams had twenty minutes to come up with as many good solutions as possible.
The results were telling. The brainstorming groups slightly outperformed the groups given no instructions, but teams given the debate condition were the most creative by far. On average, they generated nearly twenty per cent more ideas. And, after the teams disbanded, another interesting result became apparent. Researchers asked each subject individually if she had any more ideas about traffic. The brainstormers and the people given no guidelines produced an average of three additional ideas; the debaters produced seven.
According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”
Show or Tell: Should creative writing be taught?
Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem. The fruit of the theory is the writing workshop, a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-on-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writers. People who take creative-writing workshops get course credit and can, ultimately, receive an academic degree in the subject; but a workshop is not a course in the normal sense—a scene of instruction in which some body of knowledge is transmitted by means of a curricular script. The workshop is a process, an unscripted performance space, a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon), and then sit there while strangers tear it apart.

Plagiarism, Copying and Creativity
The virtues of daydreaming.
The experiment itself was simple: a hundred and forty-five undergraduate students were given a standard test of creativity known as an “unusual use” task, in which they had two minutes to list as many uses as possible for mundane objects such as toothpicks, bricks, and clothes hangers.
Subjects were then randomly assigned to one of four different conditions. In three of those conditions, participants were given a twelve-minute break that entailed either: resting in a quiet room, performing a difficult short-term memory task, or doing something so boring that it would elicit mind-wandering. In a final control condition, participants were given no break at all. Finally, all subjects were given another round of creative tests, including the unusual-use tasks they had worked on only a few minutes before.2
Here’s where things get interesting: those students assigned to the boring task performed far better when asked to come up with additional uses for everyday items to which they had already been exposed. Given new items, all the groups did the same. Given repeated items, the daydreamers came up with forty-one per cent more possibilities than students in the other conditions.
Test your cartoon creativity
The assortment of shapes shown below are part of a psychological creativity test. Participants are asked to take any three pieces and use them to build an invention, a tool, an animal, a toy—anything their minds can imagine.

Since cartoonists have some of the most imaginative minds out there, I’ve put them to the test to see if they can meet this challenge, and come up with something funny to boot. As might be expected, the rules were not always followed. I guess that could be looked upon as cheating, or creativity, or maybe both. Anyway, here’s what they came up with: ... Bob Eckstein:

Just combine the three pieces anyway you like. They can be any size, and they can be made of any material. You can send us your result three ways: Reply to us on Tumblr, post on our cartoon Facebook page, or tweet your drawing with the hashtag #tnydrawing. I’ll discuss the best entries next week. [This was from 2012]
This is the longest post I have, uh, copied, in a long time.  More to come.  But don't delay.  I may well get a subscription to the New Yorker after this investigation.

Ira Glass prepares an interview for broadcast, and more

How Ira Glass works:
When I come out of an interview, I jot down the things I remember as being my favorite moments. For an hour-long interview usually it's just four or five moments, but if out I'm reporting all day, I'll spend over an hour at night typing out every favorite thing that happened. This is handier than you might think. Often this short list of favorite things will provide the backbone to the structure to my story.
Then I transcribe the tape or have it transcribed by someone. Getting every word right isn't as important as having something on paper for each sentence that's been said, because to make radio stories, you edit by the sentence. For some reason in the radio biz we don't call these transcripts, we call them tape logs.
Then I print out the log and mark it up. Every possible quote I might use, I write a letter next to, A, B, C, etc. As I do this, on a single piece of paper, I make a list for myself of the quotes. So when I'm done, there's not just the tape log, there's a piece of paper with tiny handwriting on it, listing the quotes "A - he describes the old house, B - what it was like the moment he came home, C - his sister warned him," etc. Any quote that's especially promising gets an asterisk. Any quote I'm sure I cannot tell the story without gets two asterisks.
Found via a search for "#amwriting" on Twitter. And that from a review of a book review of "Working on my novel" (ah, the review was probably on Boingboing, but I have lost the trail.).
Michele Birtel, excerpting from a book by Gary Provost and via Ed Yong: