music December 31, 2016

What I Listened To In 2016 

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Another trip around the sun, another set of end-of-year lists to be assembled. I remain committed to exploring new music across (almost) all genres, yet despite that there are still several familiar names at the top of the yearly charts for 2016.

Top 10 Artists listened to in 2016

  1. Tegan and Sara
  2. Bloc Party
  3. Radiohead
  4. Neil Diamond
  5. Panic! At The Disco
  6. Bon Iver
  7. Die Antwoord
  8. Beyoncé
  9. Green Day
  10. The Joy Formidable

Nine out of ten of the performers in this list released new albums this year (Neil Diamond probably did too, but I don't think I've listened to anything he's done since 1982), although I didn't really listen to Green Day's latest and the Die Antwoord album was a big disappointment after the killer singles. Tegan and Sara's new one wasn't really that great either; I suspect they secured the top spot with their older, more indie-oriented material. There's also no traditional hip-hop on this list, despite listening to quite a lot of both new and old rap - I guess my taste is diverse enough to not push any one rapper or group into the top ten.

Top 10 Albums listened to in 2016

  1. Bloc Party - HYMNS
  2. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
  3. Bon Iver - 22, A Million
  4. Beyoncé - Lemonade
  5. Panic! At The Disco - Death of a Bachelor
  6. Tegan and Sara - Love You To Death
  7. Mother Love Bone - Mother Love Bone
  8. Neil Diamond - The Bang Years 1966-1968
  9. We Are Scientists - Helter Seltzer
  10. Charlotte Hatherley - New Worlds

All of the top six came out this year, and the top four were definitely my favourite albums released in 2016. Bon Iver's 22, A Million is a brilliantly electronic twist on his usual pared-down guitar folk; A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead's best album since OK Computer; and Beyoncé's Lemonade skips around genres while never losing sight of it's central theme (to wit, Jay Z is a bit of a dick).

Despite never really listening to Bloc Party in the past, their fifth album HYMNS captivated me from the first listen, with its electronica-meets-indie-guitar sound and quasi-religious lyrical themes. It didn't make very many critics' annual "Best of" lists, but I've been playing it almost all year.

Track of the Year

According to my last.fm charts, no one track really dominated the last year, but I think if I had to choose it would be this, the lead track from Bloc Party's HYMNS that got me listening to the album in the first place:

writing September 01, 2016

On worldbuilding 

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Although the first draft of my book is now complete, there is a lot of work still to be done to flesh out the world in which the story takes place. I'm not completely satisfied with many of the names I have used (both for the characters and the locations), and some of the descriptions of places -- especially the major city that is the primary focus of most of the action -- are a little vague.

In Brandon Sanderson's lecture series he tackles worldbuilding by separating the process into two parts: the Physical Setting of your world, and the Cultural Setting. The Physical Setting is all of the things that would still be there even if the people didn't exist: the flora and fauna of your world, geography, weather, cosmology, geology, and the laws of physics that apply (or don't apply) in your fictional universe.

On the Cultural side, he provides an exhaustive list of the sort of topics you might want to consider while fleshing out the world in which your story is set, including:

  • Economy
  • Religion
  • Laws
  • Politics/Government
  • Landmarks
  • Caste or class system
  • Customs and philosophies
  • Food and food lore
  • Languages
  • Cursing
  • Music
  • Fashion
  • Folklore
  • Gender roles
  • Weapons and technology
  • Architecture
  • History
  • Human rights
  • Prejudices
  • Education
  • Courtship

He goes on to note that it's not necessary to explore or fully map out all of the above considerations, but that picking a handful that differ from our own world and incorporating them into the plot is an effective way to build your readers' confidence that you know what you are talking about when it comes to your fictional world. He likens it to an iceberg; show them the 10%, and they will trust that you know all about the other 90%, even though it remains hidden from view.

projects August 11, 2016

Add It Up: Initial concept, mobile scope 

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The financial web application that I have in mind is relatively simple in concept, but contains some interesting design challenges that I want to explore here.

The elevator pitch is simple: the app lets you copy-and-paste your financial transactions (in whatever format your bank uses), categorising and correcting as you go; you can then build custom reports based on date intervals, categories, amounts, or any other attribute, and save them to a permanent dashboard.

This two-pronged feature set — input and output — suggests two primary interfaces:

  1. Importing. A blank canvas into which the user pastes their transaction data. The app converts this into a clean list of transactions, auto-categorises any it recognises, and presents the remainder for review and categorisation (including the possibility of creating new categories).
  2. Reporting. A set of tools with which to manipulate the transaction data (category filters, date range selectors, account selection) paired with a table of transaction data and graphs of various types (as chosen by the user). Reports can also be named and saved.

Tying these two together, the user’s dashboard presents a list of the saved reports — with name, date range, or other identifying information — for easy access, together with two primary actions, “Import Data” and “Create New Report.” There will also be a secondary set of account-related information, allowing the user to add, remove or update their bank account details.

Since my initial impulse is to approach the design of the project “Mobile First,” the first decision is which functionality to include on the mobile platform. Clearly copy-pasting large chunks of table-based data is not going to be an easy task on a phone, and since I only envisage needing to perform that action around once a month, it’s an easy decision to drop the entire importing interface from the mobile version of the app.

What about report creation? There probably won’t be enough screen real-estate for tweaking settings and checking the results in a single viewport; and again, I don’t envisage needing to create new reports all that frequently. We’ll drop that from mobile too.

That leaves the dashboard with its list of available reports, and the individual report views. Each report is a coherent unique item, with multiple attributes — at least a name, and possibly other metadata like date range, last update, that sort of thing. I’m leaning towards a card-based, Material Design-ish kind of idea here, with a fully-clickable, almost full-screen card per report. Selecting an individual report would load that data, although what is presented may be a slimmed-down version of the full desktop experience.

I think perhaps the first thing to do is to identify some likely report types and then to start sketching the presentation interface for the data involved, and see what emerges.

Incidentally, I read an interesting article today on the Invision blog on Why You Should Write Your Interface First. In it, Tinder’s Scott Hurff discusses how many designers will begin a project in plain text, by writing out the interface elements needed and thinking about the words they will use in the interface’s conversation with the customer.

I almost always start a new project with a Google Doc nowadays; perhaps that’s a good sign.

writing August 09, 2016

Children of Earth and Sky: An analysis of character and tense 

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It is a strange thing, to be a writer. It affects your interactions with the world; overlays every place, every conversation, every observation with an unspoken question: “What is their story?”

It affects you in other, more mundane ways too. For example, consuming literature and related art (television, films) takes on a secondary aspect. As soon as you yourself are concerned with the selection and arrangement of words to tell a story, you can’t help but take notice of how others do it (usually in a far, far better way than you could ever manage). It’s not uncommon to read a book twice — once to experience it, and then again to try to work out how that experience was constructed.

On a recent Italian holiday, I read Guy Gavriel Kay’s most recent novel, Children of Earth and Sky. I’ll save the review for another day (and another site), but suffice to say that like all of his previous books it is a weighty low fantasy book that follows the intersecting experiences of a sizeable cast of characters as they become involved in events larger than themselves. Since that description could easily be applied to my own recently finished 100k first draft, and because while reading I had noticed some interesting aspects of Kay’s writing that I wanted to understand, I dived into a deeper analysis of the novel in an attempt to inform my own (re)writing as I prepare to edit.

Chapters and Characters

The book consists of 26 chapters split into four ‘parts’ of six, six, five and nine chapters respectively. Within each chapter, Kay generally presents a mixture of third-person viewpoints (there are two chapters that only follow a single character; the largest number of different POVs in a single chapter is five) and for the most part the characters within each chapter are geographically close — the action rarely jumps between cities or countries within a single chapter. This contrasts with books like George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, where he focuses on a single character in each chapter; that is also the approach I took when writing my first draft, but I might look to break up the focus by intermingling characters within chapters as I edit.

While the majority of the book is taken up in following the primary POV characters — Pero, Danica, Marin, Damaz and Leonora — I found it interesting that Kay occasionally sprinkles in brief sections that tell the story from the point-of-view of a more minor character, sometimes so minor that they not even given a name. These asides are usually short, around a page or two in length, but they serve to remind the reader that there are other people in the world through which the primary characters move, and provide depth by allowing us to see them through the eyes of others.

There are also a handful of secondary characters — Duke Ricci, Drago, Orso, Savko, Hrant — who, while receiving a slightly larger page count, are mostly relegated to one or perhaps two chapters only. They pop up, play their part in the story, and then are never heard from again. Orso and Savko in particular are interesting; they are located in a city that nobody else in the entire book ever visits, and their concerns are mostly unrelated to the main plot. They feature only in Chapters 1 and 13, which begin Parts 1 and 3 of the novel. This symmetry has to be intentional; a way of resetting the narrative and marking the mid-point of the book. Indeed, the chapters immediately following those two, both at the start and in the middle, feature the same characters in the same order, almost as if they are being reintroduced to the reader after the rising action of the first half of the story.

One final point on character choices; although absent for the first eight chapters of the book, an omniscient narrator appears briefly in Chapter 9, and then reappears in almost every chapter thereafter. Its purpose is usually to discuss the larger effects that ripple out from the actions of the characters, sometimes even looking forward to reveal what lies in the characters’ or the world’s future. More often than not, this narrator closes out a chapter.

For me, the key lessons here lie in Kay’s deployment of minor, unimportant characters to illustrate the larger world beyond the narrow confines of the protagonists’ experiences; the other lives they touch, the people that play a part in shaping their shared destiny. I think it could provide an opportunity to look at a character’s decisions with a more impartial eye, rather than trying to explain everything from a major character’s viewpoint.

Past and Present

The aspect of the book that first led me to consider writing this analysis turned out to be the most surprising revelation when I dug deeper.

I noticed during reading that certain sections were written in present tense, while the vast bulk of the novel uses the far more common past tense. I had assumed, wrongly as it turns out, that Kay was using present tense during the most exciting passages, to convey a sense of urgency and potential surprise — in past tense, the narrator knows what is about to happen (has already happened), but in present tense they live the excitement with the reader — but, when I re-read the book more carefully, I discovered that my initial assumption had been incorrect.

In fact, the present tense sections turned out to be all of those in which Marin was the POV character. Every single one of his segments, throughout the entire novel, is written in present tense, and no other section apart from those uses it. And it is far from the case that all of Marin’s sections are full of action — in fact, the first time we meet him he is getting dressed and going for a stroll, which is hardly the most heart-pounding of action sequences.

I have wondered whether, by placing Marin firmly in the present, Kay is commenting on the other characters’ tendencies to live in the past. Certainly, Leonora, Danica and Damaz are all greatly influenced by events that occurred in their past; Pero less so, although one could make an argument for him also. Marin, on the other hand, is primarily a character looking forward and thinking about his future. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the author is merely using tense to delineate one particular character for other reasons (including entirely arbitrary ones), and unless he chooses to comment here and explain himself, it’s likely we’ll never know.

There were a handful of other observations I made, mostly minor (such as Kay’s use of brackets, a technique I’ve always avoided since it feels like editorialising) but this exercise has definitely been a useful one. While it is often said that the best thing you can do as a writer is to read widely, I often feel that if that reading isn’t accompanied by deliberate thought and consideration of how and why things ended up the way they did, you can fail to get the most out of the experience.

And now, I have 100,000 words to rewrite.

projects August 06, 2016

Let's Add It Up 

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At Booking.com, we don't just develop software. Figuring out how to develop our people -- specifically, our designers -- is one of the fun things I sometimes get to work on. And, naturally, part of that is figuring out how to develop myself as well.

One of the ways in which we encourage our designers to improve or increase their skillset is through peer-to-peer (P2P) learning, where groups of half-a-dozen or so designers form a team to undertake a project on which they can develop a particular skill. This encompasses both 'soft' skills such as mobile design, icon design, or colour theory; technical skills like JavaScript; and proficiency with design-based programs like Sketch and Framer. Groups meet regularly over the course of several weeks, helping each other with their individual learning goals and producing a product at the end of the process to which they have all contributed their time and energy. It provides an opportunity to exercise skills that are either not needed during normal day-to-day work, or that they wish to focus on improving as part of their own career development.

Unfortunately, for remote workers (as I am), it can be hard to participate in this kind of group process. Scheduling meetings is hard enough in a busy company; accommodating one person's travel schedule is next to impossible. And Skype or other online options, while useful, do not come close to allowing true collaboration within a group setting.

I decided to pursue a solo option.

Personal development time

Way back around the dawn of the modern internet, when blogging seemed like it mattered and everyone thought they could be the next Zuckerberg, I decided I was going to create a financial management web app. There were a few services around already; Mint was probably the most successful back then (they're still going today, albeit as a shitty-looking Intuit company -- their promising competitor, Wesabe, folded in 2010), but I wanted something that did exactly what I needed. My dream service would allow me to quickly import the financial transactions from my technically-challenged, export-free bank via the magic of copy-and-paste combined with regular expressions, and produce wondrous graphs and reports to allow me to monitor the ups and downs of our family spending and saving.

Back then, I was more interested in the backend technical implementation details than the design or user experience, and I wrote a handful of blog posts discussing the challenges of ORM and URL naming schemes. Sadly, the project never progressed further than the virtual drawing board, but it has been in the back of my mind ever since, so when I began to consider candidates for a solo P2P project, it was clear what the favourite option was likely to be.

So far I have drawn up a brief summary of functionality, and a shortlist of the technologies and disciplines that I want to either learn or improve at using:

  • RESTful API design - I've done this before, but I'm not really sure I've ever done it entirely right;
  • Facebook's React.js - one of the current hot JS-based technologies that I've not really dug into yet;
  • Build tools such as Grunt or Gulp;
  • SVG icons - the modern standard that I should really learn about instead of being stuck back in the sprite stone age;
  • Sass - I've used this in the past a little, but there is little opportunity to use it on a regular basis at work;
  • Client-side caching with LocalStorage, and possibly app caching.

These primarily technical choices are in addition to the obvious need for UX/interaction design, decisions about colour, and probably a need to design a logomark at some point. I'll be posting occasional updates here, and screenshots to Dribbble as the project progresses.

The only part of my earlier project to remain the same is the name. Besides being a great Violent Femmes track, Add It Up still seems to me to be a splendid name for a finance tracking web app.

music May 14, 2016

The hidden music of the web: HTTP response codes arranged for guitar 

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Nowadays, one of the perks of a desk-based job is a Slack channel. It's supposed to be an efficient way to communicate across your department, but in reality it's mostly a place to share animated gifs and dumb news stories. It was there that a colleague recently shared the amusing 404 page from the Ultimate-Guitar.com guitar tablature website.

A "404", for the benefit of those not in the industry, is a reference to the error code that a web server sends when it can't locate the page that you asked for. In the case of Ultimate-Guitar.com, instead of a boring server error message, they opted instead to show a full-page video clip of someone comprehensively failing to guitar. There are several different clips available; refresh the page to see a new video. It's a nice easter egg, and probably one of the few places where the web designer(s) of that particular site were able to stretch their creative muscles.

Perhaps it's just the way my mind works, but the juxtaposition of guitar tabs and server codes got me wondering: What if server response codes actually were guitar tabs?

As it turns out, they kind of are.

A brief guitar tab primer

Guitar chords

Guitars, as you probably already know, have six strings, which are tuned to E, A, D, G, B and E (assuming you haven't opted for some strange Joni Mitchell-esque alternate tuning scheme). In guitar tablature (or "tab"), the positions you place your fingers on the fretboard are shown as numbers. For example, 0-2-2-1-0-0 means your fingers should be on the second fret for the second and third strings, and the first fret of the fourth string, while playing the rest of the strings without touching them (also known as "open"). Place your fingers as indicated, and strum the guitar. Congratulations, you just learned to play E major!

Since HTTP response status codes are also numeric, albeit only three digits in length, it's pretty easy to pretend that they are guitar tabs. For the sake of argument, let's assume we only want to play the bottom three strings, and see what sort of music we can make.

The Hallelujah Chorus: Success codes

When your browser requests a web page, it sends a request out onto the internet, which via a series of tubes eventually finds its way to the correct server. That server responds with a code, and (hopefully) sends back the web page that you asked for.

The most basic success code is 200 OK, which basically means "your request found the right page, and here it is". Translating 2-0-0 into a guitar chord gives us F♯-A-D. Hey, that's D major! A nice round major chord, signifying success and happiness. Here's your web page, ta-da!

Occasionally you might instead receive a 204 No Content response, indicating that the request was successful, but no content is being returned. That gives us the chord F♯-A-F♯; either D major missing its tonic root, or F♯m with no dominant fifth. Either way, we're rather appropriately missing some content here too.

One (Re)Direction: Redirect codes

Response codes that begin with a three are all related to redirected requests. That might be because some content on a web site or service has been moved, or due to the server passing a request around as part of an authorisation process.

A 301 Permanent Redirect, much beloved of webmasters eager to retain their ranking in Google, gives us G-A-D♯ (or E♭ if you prefer), which is a pretty gnarly Adim7 (A with a diminished 5th and the minor 7th note played). But wait! Musical harmony theory states that dissonant chords like this one want to resolve. A is the dominant chord of D, which means that our 301 redirect wants to resolve back to its tonic ... which is the 200 OK response above. Rather poetically, the redirect response resolves into a successful result, both musically and on the web.

The 302 Temporary Redirect code behaves in almost the same way, except where the 301 had a highly dissonant diminished 5th (or augmented 4th, they mean the same thing), 302 turns into the far simpler G-A-E, or A7. Again, it resolves to D major.

Whoops, I Did It Again: Error codes

HTTP error codes, such as the 404 mentioned at the start of this article, all begin with a four. Right off the bat, we can tell this isn't going to sound very nice, since the fourth fret on the low E string is G♯, which is only a semitone below the open A string. Virtually all our error codes will feature this most dissonant interval possible ... which seems appropriate, really, since we want to alert users to their mistakes or failed requests, and there's nothing like dissonance to shake up an audience -- just ask Bernard Herrmann!

Here are the most common error response codes, and their associated guitar chords:

  • 400 Bad Request - G♯-A-D (AM7sus4)
  • 401 Unauthorized - G♯-A-D# (D♯sus4♭5)
  • 403 Forbidden - G♯-A-F (Fadd♭3)
  • 404 Not Found - G♯-A-F♯ (F♯madd2)

Most of these assonant chords resolve quite nicely to our D major root 200 OK chord/code too, although in reality you're unlikely to find a server that knows what to do next when one of these responses is thrown.

There's another class of error code -- server errors -- that start with a five. These are going to be far cleaner chords, since the fifth fret is the same note as the open A string:

  • 500 Internal Server Error - A-A-D (D major)
  • 501 Not Implemented - A-A-D♯
  • 502 Bad Gateway - A-A-E (A major)
  • 503 Service Unavailable - A-A-F (D minor)

My favourite of these is the 503 error code, which is returned when the server is overloaded, down for maintenance, or otherwise unreachable. Pretty sad, right? Which makes it entirely appropriate that, although it's lacking a root, A-A-F could easily be a D minor chord, the saddest of all keys.

Music, music everywhere

The basic construction blocks of music (at least in the diatonic scale used most frequently in the West) have their roots in simple physics. Intervals between octaves, thirds, fourths, and fifths follow logical frequency ratios, in much the same way that pleasantly logical ratios crop up in nature's sunflower seed and snail shell spirals (and have been copied by architects and designers of all stripes for thousands of years).

Golden ratio

The universe clearly has a plan; perhaps, then, it should not be too surprising that converting HTTP response codes into guitar chords might produce the same pleasing sounds that music theorists have recognised as being the most pleasing to the ear for thousands of years.

writing April 19, 2016

On personal pronouns 

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One of the aspects of writing over which I stumble most frequently is the use of personal pronouns. Given a conversation between two characters, it often feels reductive to rely purely on repetition of their names and "he" or "she" -- but, equally, throwing in more descriptive pronouns like "the taller man" or "the old woman" or "the redhead" feels a little amateurish.

I got to wondering how the professionals do it, so today I pulled down from the shelf a couple of my favourite books to see how the authors handle the thorny issue of pronoun usage. Firstly, from one of my favourite books, I looked at the opening chapter of China Miéville's Perdido Street Station (chosen in part because i was struck by the beauty of his prose when I first read it).

It starts with a short segment featuring an unnamed street seller, that creates atmosphere and colour -- these are the personal pronouns Miéville chooses:

The costermonger, he, he, the food-vendor, he, he, he, he, he, he, he, he.

The rest of the chapter is concerned with the two main characters in the book, Isaac and Lin. Vermishank is Isaac's old boss. First they wake up, Isaac having had a bad dream about work:

Isaac, he, he, Isaac, Vermishank, Isaac, he, Vermishank, he, Isaac, he, he, Lin, Isaac, Lin, she, Isaac, he, he, Isaac, he, Lin, he, her, he, Lin, him, she, her, him, Isaac, he, him, Lin, her, her, she, Isaac, her, his, he, his, he, his, his, Isaac, his, Lin, he, Lin, Lin, her, she, Isaac, her, he, he, Isaac, Lin, Isaac, their, he, her, her, they, Lin, she, him, she, Lin, he, her, Isaac, Lin, her, she, her, she, her, her, her, Isaac, he, her, her, her, she, she, him, he, his, him, his, his, he, her, she, her, him, Isaac, she.

Next they have breakfast and discuss their plans for the day:

Lin, her, she, Isaac, they, Lin, Isaac, he, Lin, her, Isaac, Lin, he, his, Lin, Lin, him, she, her, her, Isaac, Lin, Isaac, Isaac, Lin, they, their, they, they, they, they, Lin, Isaac, her, him, he, his, his, Lin, hers, her, she, her, Lin, her, Isaac, he, his, Lin, he, he, he, he, his, his, Lin, he, he, his, her, her, she, his, he, he, he, he, he, he, he, he, his, his, Vermishank, Isaac, Isaac, he, Vermishank, him, him, his, Isaac, his, his, him, his, his, him, Isaac, he, he, he, he, him, Lin, him, him, he, he, they, him, Lin, she, him, Isaac, she, her.

And finally they fall into bed again:

The lovers, Isaac, Lin, he, his, her, he, she, Isaac, Lin, her, Isaac, his, Lin, she, his, she, she, she, she, Isaac, they, Lin, her, Isaac, her, him, he, her, she, his, she, he, her, her, her, she, she, his, him, them, Isaac, he, her, his, he, her, his, his, her, her, his, he, her, them, the lovers.

That seems pretty conclusive to me. The only descriptions are given to the unnamed food seller at the very beginning of the chapter; after that, any named character is either referred to by name or with a simple "he" or "she" or appropriate variations depending on tense. Out of the 264 words used, proper names account for around 26% of occurrences, so fully three-quarters of pronouns used are she/her/he/him/etc.

Perhaps it's easier to do that when a scene only contains two people of different genders, though. What happens when several people of the same sex are in a scene together?

The following extract is from Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana, taken from a scene (one of my favourites across all of his novels) that is exclusively male:

Alessan, him, him, Devin, he, him, he, his, he, he, he, he, the men, him, his, his, he, Alessan, his, Alessan, him, him, he, the man, Devin, his, Tomasso, him, Devin, the man, he, bar Sandre, Tomasso, he, Devin, their, Scalvaia, his, Devin, Alessan, Alessan, he, he, them, he, Scalvaia, his, Nievole, Devin, Alessan, the others, Alessan, his, he, the man, his, Devin, he, he, Alessan, the man, his, Nievole, his, Nievole, his, Alessan, he, Scalvaia, him, he, Devin, his, him, he, the two lords, their, he, his, he, him, the men, their, Nievole, Alessan, his, he, Devin, large man, his, his, his, he, his, he, the man, Tomasso, his, his, Devin, Alessan, his, Tomasso, Devin, Devin, Tomasso, Alessan, he, he, Tomasso, Devin, Alessan, Tomasso, Tomasso, the yellow-haired man, Alessan, he, his, Devin, he, the five, he, Devin, Baerd, Devin, they, they, his, Devin, the other two men, they, Devin, him, the speaker, Baerd, Devin, Catriana, Alessan, Catriana, Alessan, the man named Baerd, Alessan, he, the four of them.

This time there are a far greater number of proper names -- 56 out of 144 nouns, pronouns or phrases (39%) -- which is as you might expect in a scene where differentiating between many characters is necessary. What is interesting is how the more descriptive noun phrases are used. They are almost exclusively used either to succinctly describe a group of two or more people ("the men", "the two lords", "the five"), or to describe a character that has not yet been named, or with whom the POV character is not yet familiar ("large man", "the yellow-haired man").

The only other descriptive tag employed is "the man," which Kay uses a few times without any qualifying adjective, trusting in context to let the reader knows to whom he is referring.

Of course, different authors will employ very different techniques in their writing, but just from looking at a couple of examples, it seems that the following may be pretty good rules of thumb when it comes to deploying personal pronouns in your own writing:

  • For named characters, stick to character names or the basic personal pronouns (he, she, him, her, they) almost all of the time;
  • Use more descriptive adjectival phrases for less important, unnamed characters;
  • Consider using more description when introducing new named characters to convey the unfamiliarity of your POV character.
thoughts April 02, 2016

Q1 Review 

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It's now been three months since I started trying to write every day. Unfortunately a handful of 3am starts -- and one hangover -- prevented me from hitting the 1,000 word goal I had set for myself on every day of the quarter, but of a potential word count of 91 thousand words, I'm pretty pleased that I managed almost 86 thousand in the first three months of the year. By way of comparison, that's more words than are in the first two Harry Potter books, The Catcher in the Rye, or Brave New World.

Aside from making steady progress on my novel, I've also written eleven blog posts (including one that garnered over 60,000 views and became one of the top 20 most recommended articles on Medium that day), fifteen short stories (the first of which I published the other day), a couple of film reviews, and a handful of pieces of short-form flash fiction.

I'm going to call that a successful first quarter.

A few things I have learned about writing and about myself

It's impossible to write a thousand words every day for three months and not learn something about what it takes to motivate (or de-motivate) yourself. Here's what I have found out so far:

  • I need music to write. Without some sort of aural distraction, my mind wanders, usually in the direction of social media; a nice long playlist of vocal-free tunes (like this one on Spotify) is necessary for me to focus. I tried brain.fm, a sort of intelligent white-noise generator, a couple of times, and that seemed to work reasonably well too, but not enough to make me want to pay for it. I should probably try one of those apps that prevents you from accessing the internet for a period of time.
  • It's very easy to make excuses. It was relatively rare for me to write less than 1,000 words in a day -- I either hit my target, or didn't manage anything at all. The days that I skipped writing altogether were the ones that started out badly, rising at 3am to catch an early flight, or were interrupted by unplanned social events. But in pretty much every case, it would absolutely have been possible for me to write if I had not been too eager to give myself permission to fail. I need to get better at forcing myself to write, no matter what obstacles life places in my path.
  • Nothing feels better than being done by lunchtime. On the rare occasion that I met my target before late evening, I felt great. If I could do that more often, I'd be very happy.
  • It's good to experiment. Writing in different styles and genres is a great way to discover your own voice, and find out what you feel most comfortable writing. I've written fantasy, sci-fi, horror and comedy (as well as what is generally termed 'literary fiction', i.e. none of the above) over the last three months.
  • Don't forget about your main project. There is always going to be one particular thing that is a lot easier to churn out than anything else you might work on, but don't let the ease with which you can produce bad poetry or Harry Potter fan-fic distract you from your primary goal, whatever that might be. For me, it's a novel, so I'm trying to make sure that at least half of my time is spent working on that.

We are what we repeatedly do

I've had the above quote, attributed to Aristotle, on my personal homepage for the last year or so, and it's certainly the case that it doesn't take much to engender a new habit. I don't think I'm capable, any more, of simply forgetting to write on a particular day.

Hopefully this new assiduity remains constant throughout the rest of 2016.

writing March 28, 2016

Public Service Announcement 

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It started with an earthquake.

“Oh, that’s great,” said Clem, spreading out her arms as if she could pin down the great tectonic plate below us with a full body slam. We were sitting, the four of us, on the field of grass next to the 101, Crissy Field spread out below us like a blanket. Looking down to the bay, I could make out the small black dots of dog walkers and joggers, standing in frozen shock or crouching next to panicked animals as the earth continued to rumble.

“Look at that,” Mike said, gesturing with his chin. We all followed his gaze in time to see the first cable of the Golden Gate Bridge snap, the bottom half falling impotently down towards the roiling water while the top section of the cable continued to whip about like a dying snake. It clattered silently against its neighbours; the sound reached us a fraction of a second later, denuded by distance. Birds, startled by the sudden awful awakening of their usually safe perch, swooped in and around the bridge’s supports, splattering the suspended traffic in their fear and anger.

“Jesus,” breathed Charlie.

As suddenly as it had started, the quake was over. Tentatively, we stood, brushing ourselves down, congratulating each other as if we had passed through the eye of a hurricane rather than merely sitting on the grass during a minor tremor that most San Franciscans had probably barely noticed. But we were new to the city; we hadn’t yet learned its ways.

We walked back to Clem’s car, a modern Volkswagen Beetle that I’m sure felt like an imposter whenever it drove through the Haight district, ancestral home of the hippy. She had stencilled a daisy on one door, but it served only to accent our out-of-town-ness. I hated it, but in this town anything beat walking.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, Charlie clicked on the radio, flipping quickly through the multitude of channels. Snatches of a song that I really liked were interrupted by fire-and-brimstone preachers; talk radio; breathless news broadcasts:

“… Unprecedented event … an aeroplane … the world serves it’s own needs, brothers and sisters … wire, in a fire … you’re vitriolic, patriotic … the Rapture and the reverent … combat site … step down …”

“What the hell is going on?” asked Mike of no one in particular.


Back home, six o’clock: TV hour. Charlie and Mike had stayed in our apartment all afternoon, as we hungrily listened for news of the quake’s aftermath. Reports had arrived in batches, as if the baffled reporters merely waited to find out who would jump first, and then hung onto their coattails, dutifully repeating any new facts of the hour, all of them petrified of being trumped by some rogue team with actual news to report.

Local news stations stuck to their earthquake script, honed over decades of life in the so-called ‘seismic hazard zone’; experts were trotted out from Stanford and UCB to explain how quakes were caused, residents interviewed about liquefaction insurance, and more than a few references were made to 1906 and “The Big One.” We agreed that local news anchors could probably do this in their sleep.

Further afield, though, the reports became more strange.

Bright lights had been reported across the country, and it was starting to look as if the time of these events all matched our local quake. Every piece of scaffolding in the tristate area had spontaneously collapsed, and they were still pulling out body parts. Army uniforms at a remote combat training facility in the Mojave foothills had burst into flame, burning down the logistics depot and leaving several soldiers with full thickness burns from which they were not expected to recover. Cars across the Midwest had suffered blowouts; helicopter footage depicted interstate pile-ups and burning cars stretching into the distance along the featureless motorways. A weather reporter somewhere in the deep south declared that these events could only herald the Rapture, and began to rend his clothing before the camera swung awkwardly away and the channel swiftly cut to an advertorial.

“I dreamed about this,” said Clem, “the other night. Not exactly this, but there was an earthquake, and then there were mountains, right through the city, dividing it. But they weren’t like proper mountains — they were all in a straight line. It was trippy.”

We looked at her, all of us privately wondering for just a moment whether we were sitting here, watching TV, with the oracle of the end of the world.

“I dreamed about eating cheesecake at a birthday party,” said Mike, and the mood broke and we all laughed.


Government spokespeople came and went. Apparently the head of FEMA, or DEFRA, or whatever acronymic department it is that’s responsible for deciding how we should all react to unpredictable catastrophes, had stepped down from his post.

“Guess we’ll have to save ourselves now,” said Charlie, but the mood in the apartment had darkened with the evening sky and nobody laughed this time. From the windows we could see an orange glow to the north, as if the setting sun had overflowed into the San Pablo Bay. I lit candles and placed them around the room, on the kitchen counter and the windowsills; it didn’t seem appropriate to turn on the harsh overhead lights.

Eventually Charlie and Mike left, and Clem and I sat on the floor in front of the television, the sound turned down, watching the same baffled reporters silently regurgitate the absence of news.

“Have you heard of the Furies?” Clem said suddenly.

I shook my head.

“They were Greek goddesses of vengeance. Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone: eternal, resentful, vengeful destruction. They were born from the castration of Uranus, the sky god.”

I wrapped my arms around my legs and placed my chin on my knees, listening. Clem was studying classical history at San Francisco State, and would often interrupt our conversations to expose the ancient roots of modern stories. The others would sometimes joke about it behind her back, but I always found it fascinating.

“They lived under the earth,” she continued, “and had the job of dealing with anyone that was ungrateful for what they received. They carried whips tipped with brass, that they would use to punish anyone who deserved it. They would whip them until their skin came off and they died, screaming in agony.”

I shivered involuntarily at her description, hugging myself tighter. “Is that us?” I asked. “Do you think we’re being punished for being ungrateful? For having too much?”

She looked at me. The reflected lights from the TV screen coloured her face in sequence, first red, now white, then blue. “I don’t know. Maybe?” She had a sad smile. “I don’t want this to be the end of the world, Dani. This can’t be the end. I feel fine.”

I nodded. Perhaps it was the end, and it simply wasn’t coming in a hurry, but I too felt no fear. I reached across and took her hand. In fact, I felt pretty psyched.

writing March 26, 2016

On finding a writing community 

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One of the pieces of advice that comes up a lot on writing sites, writing forums, and articles with titles like 'The Top 10 Amazing Habits of Successful Writers', is to connect with a like-minded community of fellow writers, hopefully at the same stage in their careers as you are. As well as providing an occasional sounding board and a place to share common frustrations and triumphs, it can also be a helpful resource for learning of opportunities -- competitions or open calls for submissions, that kind of thing -- and getting early notification of new resources.

Today, I decided I should probably look into that.

Twitter

I already follow a few writing-related bits and pieces on Twitter, so I started by moving those into a new list. They were mostly resource-related; podcast hosts like Iain Broome and Mur Lafferty, link curation accounts like @AdviceToWriters and @ToWriteBetter, and a handful of 'proper' writers (I've never really seen the point of following celebrity accounts, yet somehow Stephen King, Douglas Coupland, Guy Gavriel Kay and Rhianna Pratchett had made it onto my Following list over the years).

Next, I added a few other active users of the online word-tracking tool I use, on the assumption that they are probably in a not dissimilar place to me (and ignoring anyone who doesn't appear to actively use Twitter and the lady whose tweets consisted of nothing but daily astrology updates).

Finally, I ran through the list of the other contributing authors to Panel & Frame, a Medium publication I'm listed in, looking for anyone with a vaguely interesting-sounding bio. Thanks to Medium's Twitter integration, it's incredibly easy to connect writers with their Twitter profiles, so a few more names joined the master list ... again, filtered for weirdness or, say, tweeting in Italian about nothing but pro-wrestling.

That brought the list up to 31 members, which seems reasonable for a first pass, although I plan to add other sites, resources or opportunities that I come across, should they have a Twitter account (and, let's be honest, who doesn't these days).

Searching the 100

Freelance writing website The Write Life published the top 100 best websites for writers earlier this year, so next I trawled through that mammoth list looking for useful content. While a lot of it is targeted at those seeking to break into the freelance blogging market (are there still any essayists in the world?) -- there are sections on entrepreneurship, marketing and SEO -- I was hopeful that in such a large list there would be at least one or two hidden gems.

Most of the resources listed -- or at least the ones that sounded interesting enough to me to open the tab -- are sites where authors (or occasionally publishers or editors) talk about craft, often offering podcasts or coaching/courses, but there were also some interesting outliers:

  • Aerogramme Writers' Studio publishes details of open writing competitions, together with the requirements to qualify and topic or theme;
  • Cathy's Comps & Calls is a similar list of open writing competitions;
  • A couple of names that I had constantly been hearing popped up: Jeff Goins and Chuck Wendig are both successful genre authors, and both run successful personal blogs;
  • Plus I joined another Facebook Group, because why not?

So that took me up to 42 names on the list, which my inner Douglas Adams tells me is just right. Time to move on to Tumblr.

Tumblr

A couple of the places where the stuff I write occasionally shows up are hosted on Tumblr, mostly because after ten years in the web development business I've had enough of setting up new websites to last me a lifetime. However, I've never really thought about using Tumblr as an actual social network before now, despite it being one of the top half-a-dozen in the world -- it has more users than either Twitter or Instagram!

Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of writers on Tumblr. The site itself offers a spotlight page, which is sort of a weird mixture of the super-famous and the nonentity, but that's not much help for finding lesser-known or newer writers. There's a kind of live-search thing which is pretty cool, but it looks like entering a community is going to have to be a long-term goal, on this platform at least. One thing I did learn is that I should probably start using hashtags whenever I post anything there, since that seems to be the primary means of discovering anything.

A larger annoyance with Tumblr is that it's apparently impossible to either a) interact with the Tumblr community using anything but your primary blog, and b) switch to use one of your other blogs as the primary blog. Since I originally registered with Tumblr years ago and set up an incredibly rarely-used tumblelog, this is something of an annoyance, since it seems to mean that if I were to start actually using Tumblr, any activity would be flagged as "me-as-web-designer" rather than "me-as-writer." Surely the only solution can't be to just start again with a clean account, can it?

After a little further investigation, it seems that you can at least update the URL of your primary blog, so wiping all the old content and starting again as a continuation of one of the secondary blogs would be an option, although it's far from perfect. Grr.

Introversion and community

They say that networking is one of the key steps to success in most activities, but in creative arenas such as writing it's pretty much an essential part of success. Unfortunately for those of us who would prefer to hide behind a computer screen 24/7, that means we have to kneel on the neck of our social anxiety and engage with other readers, writers, editors and publishers, at least if we ever want our passion to become more than simply a hobby. It's hard, but at least in the modern world -- and thanks to services like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr -- we can engage via the familiar medium of words on a screen, hopefully putting off the need for face-to-face interaction until the absolute last minute possible. :)