Category Archives: Writing

Envious habits

In a propitious piece of timing, considering last week’s post on forming new habits, I read an article on Medium tonight about ‘The Myth of Creative Inspiration‘, written by habit-transformation guru James Clear. In it, he says:

The work of top creatives isn’t dependent upon motivation or inspiration, but rather it follows a consistent pattern and routine. It’s the mastering of daily habits that leads to creative success, not some mythical spark of genius.

So perhaps I’ve been going about this writing habit all wrong — it’s not enough to tell yourself you will find time to do something, you need to incorporate it into your daily routine. Clear uses an excellent metaphor to make his point:

Creative work is no different than training in the gym. You can’t selectively choose your best moments and only work on the days when you have great ideas. The only way to unveil the great ideas inside of you is to go through a volume of workput in your repetitions, and show up over and over again.

He’s got a point. I’m finding it much easier to stick to a workout schedule when it is the first thing I do when I get up; if I deviate from that schedule, it’s much harder to find the time to fit it in later in the day.

Another interesting article, also on Medium: ‘How to Feel Successful and Not at All Inadequate in One Easy Step‘ is about the deleterious effect that envy can have on your ambitions. I suspect it is something that is particularly rife within the web design community, a combination of our need to over-share everything we do and the ‘rockstar’ culture that grew up around some of the pioneers and early adopters in the industry during the early 2000s. At one point, it seemed that all you needed to do to achieve book deals and worldwide acclaim (and, later, tens of thousands of Twitter followers) was to come up with some new way of floating elements, or build a simple yet beautiful web app and charge people for something they already had for free. Everyone else was trying to emulate the success of the chosen few. I was guilty of it myself, publishing at least a couple of attempts at sparking a new development trend, and announcing then quietly canning a web app or three.

I think perhaps it’s harder to let go of what seems an achievable dream. Once you leave your early twenties, only the most deluded still harbour dreams of becoming a rock star; but having that one great idea for an app, or discovering a new and more efficient way to do your job, is possible at any age. But, like anything worth doing, you have to work at it – again, the advice of James Clear is, well, clear:

…if you’re serious about creating something compelling, you need to stop waiting for motivation and inspiration to strike you and simply set a schedule for doing work on a consistent basis.

The Habit Trigger

The concept of a habit ‘trigger’ is not a new one. It is mentioned in the Wikipedia definition, as “the cue [...] that causes your habit to come about”, and discussed in articles about how to break or change habits. By identifying those situations that “trigger” our bad habits, the theory goes, we can consciously avoid them.

When it comes to engendering new habits, triggers can also be incredibly useful ways to alter behaviour. I’ve found that making sure to  identify or place a clear trigger right in your own path is the best way to trick your brain into remembering to perform the new actions you want to eventually become habit.

In my own attempts to introduce two new regular parts of my day — exercise and writing — I am making use of both physical and locational triggers. To remind myself to exercise every morning, I’ve placed a calendar next to my desk, so that it is one of the first things I see in the morning. Combining this with the Seinfeld “Don’t Break The Chain” method provides a visual trigger that prompts me to do my morning exercise.

To encourage a daily writing habit, I rely more on a location-based trigger. I get into work early and write over that first cup of coffee while the office is empty, or if I’m away in a hotel room I will setup my laptop so that Scrivener is ready and waiting when I wake up. Of course, this method has its drawbacks — at weekends or if working from home, it’s easy to get swept up in work or play and forget to find time to write. At times like those, a trusted to-do list that supports recurring tasks is invaluable.

Ultimately forming a new habit relies mostly on self-discipline, but anything you can do to hack your brain to make it a little easier to keep going can only be a good thing.

How to get the most out of Scrivener Composition Mode

It has so many features that it’s hard for anyone to pick their favourite part of Scrivener, the writing software that has been adopted by everyone from amateurs to professional authors. But one popular feature is its “Composition Mode” — a full-screen, distraction-free view that aims to allow the user to concentrate solely on getting their words on the page.

Yesterday, Twitter user @Alvesang posted a photo of his Composition Mode, and it was lovely. Since it took me a little while to figure out how to tweak the default options to achieve the same thing, I thought I’d write up how to do it.

Step 1: Choose a background

The first step is to choose your background image. If you’re artistic you could make your own, but Google Images is an easy source of suitable photographs. Search for something like “white landscape” for some appropriate backdrops.

Changing Google Images size search

The only restriction here is that Scrivener will not change the proportions of the image to suit your screen dimensions, so it’s a good idea to use Google’s Search Tools to limit your search to images that are the same size as your screen. (You have a problem if you regularly switch between an external monitor and a laptop screen, as their dimensions are rarely the same. In that case, you’ll need two images.)

Once you’ve chosen or created a suitable image, open Scrivener and go to View > Composition Backdrop > Choose… to select the image .

Select Composition Backdrop

Step 2: Adjust your Composition Mode settings

Enter Composition Mode, either by clicking the icon or hitting the appropriate key combination (Cmd+Alt+F on a Mac). You will enter the full-screen view, with a blank page in the centre of the screen, and display options on a bar hidden at the bottom of the screen. (Move your mouse to the bottom of the page if the options are not visible.)

Composition mode right side

To achieve a nice effect against the background, we want to get rid of the paper. Move the slider on the far-right all the way to the left (or click on the icon) to make the paper invisible so that the text appears to sit directly on the background.

Composition mode left side

You can also adjust the size of the text (Text Scale), whether the text is centred or against the edge of the screen (Paper Position), and the width of the ‘page’ (Paper Width). In general I’d recommend a combination of page width and font size that gives you the same number of words per line as a standard book.

The last thing is to get rid of the ugly default scrollbar. Open up Scrivener’s Preferences (Scrivener > Preferences, or Cmd+, on a Mac) and go to the Compose panel. Change the Scroller type dropdown to “No scroller” to get rid of the scrollbar altogether:

Scrivener Preferences pane

If you prefer a dark background, you can also flip the text colour via that panel — under Customizable Colors, select Text Color, then tick the ‘Override text color with color:’ box and use the colour picker widget to change the text to white.

Final result

Scrivener composition mode full screen

And that’s it, you’re done! Enjoy your distraction-free, immersive writing experience, thanks to the awesome flexibility of Scrivener.

Learning to write more proper

This weekend I completed my third online course provided via the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) provider, Coursera. After the lengthier Fantasy/Sci-Fi and Film Theory classes I took in the last twelve months, this time I opted for a shorter, more straightforward course on writing, entitled: “Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools of the Trade.”

The course was an introduction to writing in English, and covered everything from the basic building blocks — nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, and so on — through to types of sentence and how to approach a writing assignment.

The first couple of lectures, delivered in a rather basic fashion, initially led me to think I might have made a mistake signing up for the course. I’m a native English speaker who has been writing for decades; surely I don’t need to learn what a noun is! However, it turns out that while I may have internalised many of the rules relating to subject-verb agreement and past/present/future tenses, my actual ability to identify pronouns, or explain what a preposition was, was sorely lacking. And, while I might know how to spell ‘gerund’ and be familiar with phrases like “irregular verbs” or “past participle”, that didn’t mean that I completely understood what they were.

It seems that in all online courses the rate of attrition is high. The tutors reported that 43,000 started the course, but five weeks later only around 3-4,000 completed the final assignment. Considering that we only had to write a single paragraph, it was surprising that so many would drop out of the course.

As with the literature course I took last year, peer review played a large part in the grading process; and, like last year, the forums were full of students complaining that their peers didn’t have a clue how to mark correctly. I spent one evening trying to make the case that the peer review process is as much (if not more) about the benefit it provides to the reviewer than the score of the reviewee, but unfortunately there are still many who believe that an online course attended by tens of thousands should be subject to the same rigorous grading as an intimate study group in meatspace.

Anyway, I feel I benefitted from taking the course, not least because it blew away the last few cobwebs of doubt I had when helping my children with grammar-related homework. I’m still not entirely sure what “conjugate the verb” means, but at least I can tell my infinitives from my appositives.

The next course on my schedule, and the final one I have registered for so far, starts next month. “Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative” promises to be an interesting combination of study and gaming … two of my favourite ways to spend time.

Resolutions, 2013 edition

January 2012 seems impossibly far away now. Moving house will do that to you — a previous life feels distant and remote, despite the year flying by in a rush of travel, holidays and new projects.

The two biggest changes in my life are causally related. In June I handed back the keys to our life in Amsterdam and returned to a decidedly quieter life in our little Fenland village. Exchanging a bike ride through the Dutch parks for a packed commuter train (or an even more packed easyJet flight) has altered the rhythm of my days, as has moving from an open-plan office of 150 to an office of six. I have much greater freedom to focus now, whether that be on reading during my commute, or headphone-insulated work in my private corner of the office.

The other change is also work related. I’ve moved, albeit temporarily (allegedly) to work on improving usability and the tools we provide to our extranet users. After three years of working on the frontend website for Booking.com, having to think about an entirely different set of users and their very specific needs and issues has been great fun, and — as the only designer on the team — I’m enjoying the freedom to make use of more modern techniques and tools than was possible on the frontend.

 Resolutions, 2012: Let’s see what you could have done…

Exactly a year ago, I published my three New Year’s resolutions. It seems apposite to revisit them and assess my success or lack thereof.

Firstly, I planned to find a GTD solution that worked. I ended up using Nirvana for most of the year, but when they moved out of beta and started charging I renewed my search. I’m temporarily using Remember The Milk at the moment, but finding it very clunky. So much so, that I’m taking steps to fix the problem once and for all. More on that later.

Secondly, I wanted to create more stuff. Unfortunately this has been an unmitigated failure; I continued to take hardly any photos (Instagram doesn’t count), left several web app ideas barely started, and failed to do much more than start a couple of new blogs. Again, more on that later.

Lastly, I promised to stay fit. That, at least, I can apparently do; I ran two half-marathons in 2012, and intend to keep going in 2013. So, more on that later. Or, well, now.

Resolutions, 2013 edition

  1. More, but varied, fitness. Regular running is all well and good, but the scenery round here can get pretty repetitive. This year I’m going to try a change in tempo — cycling, weights and swimming are all relatively cheap and easy to take up for some variety in calorie burning.
  2. Finish what I started. Over the last year I started building a GTD app (with Django), then a lifestream app (with Kohana), and finally the GTD app again (this time with Laravel). This year I intend to actually get something into a releasable state.
  3. Read more, write more. I haven’t been reading as much as I could, and I could certainly stand to up the variety of my reading material. Equally, despite thirty posts on this blog and starting two new blogs in the latter half of the year (book/film reviews on This Reviewer’s Life and daily writing exercises on Ten Minutes of Prose), I’d like to maintain a regular output — including sharing more technical stuff. I’m still receiving emails asking for help with a tutorial I wrote in 2005, so at the very least that needs updating. And the technical blog at work could also do with some design input as well.

So, in summary, not a lot has changed. I’m feeling pretty ambivalent about 2013; there’s nothing big on the horizon, and things are fine. Here’s hoping they stay that way.

Reading List 2012

At the end of 2007 I published a list of all the books I had read that year. It was a fun exercise, so in 2008 and 2009 I did it again. And then, for some reason, I stopped. God knows what I was doing that was so fascinating in late December of 2010 and 2011, but apparently I couldn’t find an hour to sit down and bash out a shortish list and some poorly considered opinions on the year’s literature.

The upshot of Younger Me’s laziness is that I now have a list of three year’s worth of books but no clear way to figure out where 2012 started. Using a combination of Amazon receipt emails and trying to recollect whether I received a particular book as a birthday or Christmas gift, I think I’ve ended up with a fairly accurate list — not that anybody else really cares…

In previous years I split my reading list into fiction, non-fiction and fantasy. This year has skewed heavily towards fiction, but I may as well keep the same format for the sake of consistency.

Fiction

  • Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace)
  • For The Win (Cory Doctorow)
  • Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)
  • Through The Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll)
  • Dracula (Bram Stoker)
  • Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)
  • A Princess Of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs)
  • Herland (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)
  • The Invisible Man (HG Wells)
  • The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury)
  • The Left Hand Of Darkness (Ursula K LeGuin)
  • Little Brother (Cory Doctorow)
  • Anno Dracula (Kim Newman)
  • The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester)
  • Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)
  • The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (Robert A Heinlein)
  • Citizen Of The Galaxy (Robert A Heinlein)
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (Philip K Dick)

Between July and October I took an online course from Coursera on Fantasy and Science Fiction, which required me to read a book every week and write a short essay on a relevant topic. That syllabus accounts for the middle section of my fiction consumption this year (from Alice’s Adventures… through to Doctorow), but also inspired me to seek out further reading within the genre; classics such as The Stars My Destination and (for some reason) the first Philip K Dick novel I’ve ever picked up.

The literature appreciation aspect of the course also inspired me to start a new reviews blog, where I’ve been posting reviews since late September; I’ve linked to any reviews of books in these lists.

Non-fiction

Tuva or Bust! is the story of Richard Feynman’s attempts to reach the geographic centre of Asia; I first read it as a teenager, and the memory has stayed with me for almost twenty years. I finally bought it again, and it’s still a great (if old-fashioned) read. Wil Wheaton’s memoir is also fantastic, one of those books where the hackneyed phrase “raw honesty” genuinely applies.

30 Years of Adventure was a Christmas present from my lovely wife; for anyone with fond memories of adolescent roleplaying, it’s a fascinating look at the creative and business developments behind an almost forty-year-old brand.

Fantasy

  • The Heroes (Joe Abercrombie)
  • The Blade Itself (Joe Abercrombie)
  • The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Wandering Fire (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Darkest Road (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • A Song For Arbonne (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • Red Country (Joe Abercrombie)

I didn’t realise until making this list what a limited range of fantasy authors I had been reading this year. Abercrombie remains my favourite new author, although his latest book Red Country hasn’t immediately jumped to the top of my list of his work. And, as ever, I re-read a fair amount of Kay, even re-buying several books that were lost during last year’s house move.

What is best in (shelf) life?

Of the 31 books I’ve made it through this year, my favourite — the one that had me sitting up until late at night and reading first thing in the morning — was undoubtedly Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Wil Wheaton’s book was also very good, and of course I’ll always recommend Joe Abercrombie or Guy Gavriel Kay to anyone with a taste for fantasy.

Sitting in the pile for next year, I have Douglas Coupland’s latest Player One, more LeGuin, Ed The Happy Clown and Peter Bagge comics, Alan Partridge and Stephen Fry autobiographies, several Hemingway novels, Don Quixote, Ulysses and, um, Plato.

I’m looking forward to it.

Alfred shortcuts for writers: find definitions, synonyms and antonyms

Today I finally got around to something I’ve been meaning to do for ages.

If you’re anything like me, then quite often when you’re writing your brain will refuse to supply you with anything but the most limited vocabulary. Or, equally annoyingly, it will suggest a word but with the caveat that: “I’m not completely sure this means what I think it means.”

So, to cut down on keystrokes, I’ve created a couple of shortcuts for the king of Mac productivity apps, Alfred. If you have Alfred installed, just click on the links below to add ‘def’ and ‘syn’ to your custom searches, and save yourself those crucial seconds when inspiration makes a run for it.

Alfred ‘def’ shortcut to find definitions of a word

Alfred ‘syn’ shortcut to find synonyms/antonyms of a word

 

(Yes, I know Alfred already has a “define” shortcut to call up the built-in Dictionary.app — which also has a Thesaurus — but a) I prefer loading a website than opening a separate app; b) my shortcuts are shorter.)

On Coursera – free online university courses

For the last ten weeks, I have been participating in what has come to be known as a MOOC: a Massively Open Online Course. Provided free by the University of Michigan, the course — Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World — was taught by their professor of English Language and Literature, Eric Rabkin, and consisted of ten weekly units. Each unit required the students to read a book or series of short stories, write a short essay designed to “enrich the reading of a fellow student,” and then grade the essays of four other anonymous peers. The syllabus ranged from children’s stories (Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Alice in Wonderland), through classics such as Dracula and Frankenstein, to 20th century science fiction by authors like Ray Bradbury and Ursula LeGuin.

Overall the course was a great experience; it’s been such a long time since I had to study for and then complete work to a set ‘homework’ schedule. I enjoyed the opportunity to exercise my brain and imagination in ways not usually relevant to my usual  day-to-day work, and the video lectures by the professor coupled with the extremely lively discussion forums expanded my appreciation and understanding of literature beyond what I had expected from the course.

Surprisingly for a free online course that awarded no credits or reward other than a PDF certificate, there was not an insignificant amount of plagiarism discovered in the submitted essays. I guess it’s hard for some people to fail at something, even if there is no real negative consequence. The professor expressed his surprise at the plagiarism too; hopefully it is an issue that the online provider, Coursera, will tackle as they continue to develop and refine their online study platform.

The anonymous peer review system also came in for a lot of criticism. With anonymity comes the freedom to do or say whatever you want without reprisal; many disappointed students reported blank or nonsense feedback, and inevitably there were also instances of insulting or mocking comments being submitted. Many also seemed to find it hard to accept honest feedback, choosing instead to vent in the discussion forums about how their reviewers were ‘obviously’ too dumb to understand what it was their essay was saying. Another aspect of fear of failure, perhaps, is the unwillingness to accept advice and correction.

Anyway, my marks were never below average; with a potential 6 points (3 for form and 3 for content) for each essay, I never scored below 4, and even managed two perfect sixes for my essays on HG Wells’s The Invisible Man and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Some students were posting their essays online as they progressed through the course; I wonder what effect that will have on future iterations of this course, with so many highly relevant and easily copied sources of inspiration available?

I’ve now signed up for two further classes in 2013; The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound, and Color starts in February, and Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative is in July. It will be interesting to see how other courses in the system handle student participation and assessment, and whether the anonymous model can ever work at the scale at which these courses operate.