Category Archives: Writing

Planning a Novel I: Basic Components

Those who have been following this blog for a while may be aware that I’ve been[1] putting together pieces of a novel.

So far, we know that the story mostly seems to be being told from the perspective of ‘Rollick’, a mostly retired ‘corp investigator’. The other main character (so far) seems to be a mysterious woman who Rollick knows from previous investigations. They seem to be on the trail of the ‘White Rose’, a mysterious killer or thief who leaves a parsnip carved into the shape of a rose at the scene of the crime.

It seems that some sort of bracer had been stolen, but the larger issue is likely econo-political, with the possible building of a direct rail link from Japan to the mainland.

Rollick’s motivations are pretty clear. He wants to get to the bottom of this case. He may suspect (or have been told off-screen) that his ‘corp investigator’ background would come in handy.

The mysterious woman seems to enjoy puzzles, which makes sense given her career as an investigator of note.

The ‘White Rose’ is a bit of an enigma. Motivation unknown at this time.

Genre is kind of futuristic ‘film noir’. Location is Rollick’s office and Japan (so far). ‘Transparent Plas-crete’ and ‘shaped charges’ are an indication of the technology level, but may be restricted to government usage.

Known power groups seem to be Japan, France, and the ‘Eastern Bloc’. (Rollick was a corp investigator for the Bloc, it is unknown whether that is the ‘Eastern Bloc’, but seems likely.)

Protagonist seems to be Rollick, Antagonist the ‘White Rose’.

Of the ‘Everyman/Anti-hero/Hero’ scale, Rollick seems to be (in the tradition of hard-boiled film noir) a hero verging on anti-hero. There’s no specific evidence of bravery or selflessness, but his special power is likely investigations[2].

Next up, I’ll be looking at (also from Ty Templeton):

What is normal?

What changes?

What is the result?

[1]Veeery sloooowly…

[2]We had the privilege of taking Ty Templeton’s ‘Comic Book Boot Camp: Introduction to Comics’ a few years ago, and Ty talked about the various types of heroes. I believe you can find some of this here:

The Name’s the Thing

Last week, I was talking with D, and he mentioned that the name of this blog ‘Sometimes Egregious, Always Gregarious’, because the words are more complex than necessary, because many people don’t know what ‘egregious’ means[1], might turn people away[2], and thus be unduly limiting. In a way, it might act as a filter on those who might read it.

I responded that I don’t see it that way at all. I chose those words because they seemed to fit, and when I looked back, I could find many reasons why that was so[3].

Some might say that my entire blog is itself a filter, and I’m the only one that would enjoy it in its entirety. I am at peace with this notion. At the moment, I’m writing the things that I want to write that I think people might be interested in. Sometimes I’m wrong, sometimes it’s a completely different audience than the previous post.

At the same time, I use the words that flow naturally when I’m talking about a particular topic. As when I’m teaching, I try to notice when I’m talking about something when not everyone would have the appropriate background, and I’m sure jargon will creep in, as it’s useful for being precise and concise. (Also, I love big words, I love the sound and taste of them, and I could never fully give them up.)

[1]Interesting that ‘gregarious’ is considered much more common. They seem pretty similar to me, but what do I know?

[2]Also, ‘‘ feels easy to me, but I realize many people read on mobile.

[3]I’m also really enjoying having some of these thoughts I’ve had kicking around in my head now in blog posts, so that I can refer to them as a link rather than having to write them out each time.

Deadlines are a Clarity Crutch

I have a love/hate relationship with deadlines. At one point I said that the amount of work I do is proportional only to the number of deadlines I have, not proportional to anything else. (I think this is one of the reasons I favour daily 5-minute standups. They allow a daily reset of expectations, along with a deadline to work towards each day.)

So, deadlines proportional to accomplishment. Daily blogging something to show for your year something something etcetera[1]. But today I wanted to talk about the mental clarity that arrives as you’re approaching a deadline.

You have a task/deed to accomplish, you have a fixed time when it is due. As the time gets closer, the light cone[2] of possible ways to solve the problem shrinks. You push aside a large number of extraneous things[3], choose how solved you can get the problem in the time alloted, and get it done.

There’s the standard ‘good, fast, and cheap…pick two’. It feels like a lot of this clarity comes from having chosen the speed. As the time grows shorter, the number of ways you can now spend your mental focus budget on the task becomes manageable.

So, knowing this, how do we compensate? More frequent deadlines do actually seem to help, but that’s more of a forcing a solution, rather than relaxing into a solution.

What is it about the problem that is making you pause? Is your brain working on it in the background? (Does this mean the fallow time is necessary?) Are there parts you can hive off? Can you draw a large diagram? Can you put it in a spreadsheet or table?

Or perhaps the elephant in the room: If it is so difficult to find mental focus, what do you need to change about your environment?

[1]Until writing this I didn’t know that the ampersand ‘&’ was a ligature of ‘et’, and ‘etcetera’ was often written ‘&c.’

[2]Light Cones are also fascinating. I use them often in my mental model.

[3]In undergrad, we used to say that we enjoyed exam time, because we could push everything else away and focus, and not face opprobrium.

“It Just Writes Itself!”: Thoughts About Flow

A couple of days ago, I was writing the entry for ‘Surprise Elemental’ [link], and while writing:

Stealth-related skills are very common among denizens of the demiplane of Surprise, and Surprise Elementals are no exception. As surprise is a key component of their makeup, there are actually many exceptions. There are few things more surprising than a Suprise [sic., it was right here that I made the exclamation]

the thought came to me that ‘it just writes itself’.

This is amazing. I am laughing with glee. I love writing, and I always used to hate it so much.

Thinking about it, I’m not really sure why. I know I used to find it very difficult to write. It would only happen under extreme deadline pressure, and I would hole myself up away from everyone so I could focus.

It would feel like pulling words from a stone[1], wringing my brain for each sentence. But I knew that I could do it under pressure. My writing got me interviews for my first university job, and some of the writing for my undergrad thesis was “the best he’d seen”. At the same time, it wasn’t good enough to get me into my grad school of choice[2].

So, I could write, after a fashion, but it was never a joy. The closest I came was the snappy repartee of a bunch of friends emailing back and forth, which was awesome, and def. improved my typing speed, but wasn’t really ‘Writing’.

Over the years, I tried tried blogging at various times, usually on Livejournal, but I never felt I had enough to say to warrant continuing beyond a few posts.

But something changed over the last few years. I had one blog, which I was adding to more often[3], I chose a role at work where I was doing more individual contribution, and most importantly, I discovered *flow*[4].

I had been dabbling around the edges of flow for years. One of my fondest memories from high school is spending the entire day at home focused on chemistry problems. We used to say in undergrad that we enjoyed exam season because that meant we could (in a socially acceptable way) push aside all other obligations and actually focus for a couple of weeks. During undergrad, I did a lot of my best writing and other work between midnight and 6am, when no one else was around or was even likely to be around. When I was running my startup, I came up with my best and most original algorithm while on vacation away from distractions. Last year, over the holidays, I started doing Project Euler problems.

It was some of my lifecoaching sessions that really linked the concept of flow with what I was trying to do, more importantly telling/reminding me that it was flow that I was seeking, and that this was a good thing.

The next holidays, I started writing every day, and it continues.

The breakthrough from a couple of days ago feels like the next step, the conversion of flow to joy. A “runner’s high”, if you will. S said that when she was writing every day, it felt like that to her as well. Something about remapping your brain to be good at something, then really focusing on that, so that it’s no longer words and notes[5], that you can play with it and it becomes fun.

It just writes itself!

[1]Or perhaps pulling sword from an eston.

[2]Parts of my application were good, parts were bad, but I remember being specifically dissatisfied with my writing at the time.

[3]About one post every 20 days, but that was much more than before.

[4]’Flow’ in the ‘being productive’ sense, where your tools feel like they’re an extension of your body, and the ideas/art/repairs/something just flow out.

[5]When I was singing with the chorus, one of our goals was to get ‘beyond words and notes’, so that you could focus on conveying emotion.

Why do I Write?

Earlier today, after showing him my ‘Beenary‘ post from yesterday, M asked me: “How did you get the motivation to write every day?”

I ended up writing a lot on the topic (apparently I have feelings here), and I wanted to share it with you. (I’ve also said a few things on this topic in a previous post.)[1]

There are a few ways to interpret this question:

1) What started you writing every day?
– I was on vacation for the holidays, and had a few days to just sit on the couch and write, to get me started. Last year, I did some Project Euler problems, this year I decided to write. I ended up making some posts, and a bunch of extra drafts, which I mine when I’m looking for inspiration.

2) Why do you keep writing every day?
– I want to be able to look back and see things I’ve done, both for the feeling of satisfaction, and so I don’t forget things.
– It feels *really* good to finally be releasing (in the software sense) some of the thoughts and ideas that have been kicking around in my head for so many years.
– I know that I now feel like I have something to tell the world…I’m not sure where that changed. I know that when I was writing on LiveJournal, that was not the case, and that’s a lot of what stopped me.
– At the same time, I’m doing this for me more than for others. There was a time in February when my readership dropped by more than half for a week, but I found that it didn’t really change my motivation to write (turns out deleting a post manually (I had mistakenly hit ‘publish’ rather than ‘save draft’) on fb turns off autoposting).
– At some point I would like to write a novel (the category ‘Rollick’ is the closest I’ve come so far), and this is a convenient way to break it down into chunks and get ‘er done.

3) How do you keep writing every day?
– I’ve made it a non-negotiable. I’m allowed to get a day or two ahead, but I’m not allowed to fall behind. It helps that I usually finish them in the late evening for the following day, so I can trade a bit of sleep for writing the post that day.
– I currently have 127 drafts on the go, in addition to hundreds of emails to myself and a bazillion Apple Notes to myself. If that runs out, I have 19 years of journals and five figures of photos to mine for ideas.
– But don’t let that daunt you. After doing this for a bit, I find that I can take some random words and spin a story in about an hour that fills a few hundred words, sometimes more. I often start with puns, or two words which sound the same but are not really related. ‘Bracer, Embrasure’ started this way, I envisioned a hallway with display cases, a thief creeping down the hall, then I fit it into the existing ‘Rollick’ universe.

One thing I’m finding is that I would like to do more more in depth posts, but they are much more difficult to do on a work-during-the-week writing daily schedule. I usually have to give up an hour or more of sleep to get the focus and time required to get one of them done. Not sure how to solve this, other than doing more ‘quicker’ posts and giving myself more time for the more in-depth ones.

Really all of the above is a lot of words to say that I’m doing this because I enjoy doing it, and more fundamentally, I enjoy the act of creation.

[1]For those of you keeping score at home, this will be post 157, daily post #77, meaning I had 80 posts during the previous ~4.5 years. I also have 128 drafts, and 2 of my drafts went to the trash. 4800 emails, and 480 emails in my project folders. I’m releasing faster than I ever have, and the backlog is still piling up. Turns out prioritization is important in everything. (Compare with 5 Jan, where I had just finished my 10th daily post, I had 93 drafts, 0 Trash, 3600 in my inbox, and 400 in my project folder.)

Touch Typing

It’s the little things that you notice. I was writing something, and just happened to notice that I was looking off into the distance while I was typing. It was one of those choices I made when I was very young. I was in High School, our school didn’t have a typing class, and I decided I needed to learn how. I don’t even remember why. It might have been my mom’s stories about learning, with those typewriters with no letters on the keys, when she was growing up.

Anyways, I remember taking one course, one of those summer enrichment things, up at Northern Secondary. I seem to recall I also took magic, stained glass, and board games, but those might have been different years. (Come to think of it, it might even have been before high school…) Interestingly, I remember this being my choice, perhaps an odd choice for a 12 year old. I don’t even remember why I thought it would be useful, but I remember acutely that I knew it would be. Perhaps similar to my choice to pursue chemical engineering over computers, as I knew that no matter what I did, I would be using computers.

I remember taking that one course, and it being fun…They had these cool puzzles where they gave you a sequence of commands to type, making simple versions of what I could only find online as ‘typewriter art’:

(Kind of early ASCII art, I wonder how much crossed over…)

In searching for the above, I found:

It’s Mastermind, but with words! 😀

Which apparently has also been published:

In a couple of different forms:

Anyways, I took these classes, but I don’t remember really using my typing until we had an email group in undergrad called the ‘Mailstrom’, often hitting 3 digits of messages per day, where quick wit (and quicker typing) was key.

I suspect there was also some training from playing computer games, but that would really only train a few keys (mostly ctrl and alt, from that era), and the mental mapping probably wouldn’t be from the hand motion to the letter.

And right now, I’m touch typing this, and it seems so normal/natural. Such a weird skill. Happy typing! 😀

How I Organize my Thoughts

Right now, I have 89 posts posted on my blog, 2 scheduled, and 93* drafts at one stage or another. I have 20 posts open for editing, 11 Google docs, 1 Google spreadsheet, 19 tabs of various research, and 12 minimized browser windows. I also use Clear**, Apple Notes, and I have written journals going back to 1997. I also have about 3600 emails in my inbox and roughly 400 emails in my ‘project’ folder.

For some reason, though, I feel like I’m finally taking charge of this. I think the maxim ‘Real Artists Ship***’ applies. I’m finally shipping some of my thoughts, closing open loops****

When I’m working on my computer, it seems to be a 2-6 brain system*****:
1) Blog post ideas go straight into drafts. (I have 23 that I’ve created or edited within the last two days
2) Longer form ideas go into a Google doc, if there are a lot of numbers, into a spreadsheet.
3) Plans go into my calendar immediately
4) Various things I’m tracking go into Clear
5) Emails go out when they need to, as soon as I can send them out
6) If I need a blank sheet to think about something, it goes in my journal

Interestingly, I’ve been using 3,4,5,6 for a while, to close open loops. What makes this different now is using 1 and 2 to actually release some of those closed-but-in-abeyance loops. Even though the loop is closed and saved, there is still a cost in knowing that I have so many just waiting to be reopened.

This blog seems to be functioning as the ‘bigger can’ to re-can all of those mind worms that pop out when I go trawling through my ideas.

There are plenty of ideas on the go, but I’m sure you have many as well. Let me know if there’s something you’d like me to write about.

*94 now!

**It is amazing todo- and other- list software. Try it!

***Attributed to Steve Jobs

****A concept central to ‘Getting Things Done’, is that of ‘open loops’, or mental distractions, things you’re worried about, or worried about forgetting. A large part of the method is to reduce these as much as possible.

*****I used to call it a ‘3-brain system’ when I just had my PDA and journal. Things have spiraled a little since then.