Archive for March, 2008

Does writer’s block really exist? For all the dramatic agony it causes among would-be writers, I’m not sure it does. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, being at a loss for words is the result of sloppy writing habits, and can be overcome if you make the right effort.

The easiest way to avoid writer’s block is to write every day. What you write doesn’t matter, so much as the fact that you keep in practice. You wouldn’t expect to play the violin well or run efficiently if you didn’t practice every day, and writing is no different. Keep a journal where you write loosely and without any pressure (not a blog: you might start worrying about how readers will react), and after a couple of weeks you’ll be warmed up as soon as you pick up a pen or sit down in front of the keyboard. Instead of being an unusual act for you, it will become something you do as naturally and unthinkingly as you touch-type (assuming, of course, that you do).

Another important tactic is to divide the writing and editing processes as you write. Writing is an intuitive process, uncritical process and editing a rational and analytical one, so the two don’t go well together. If you constantly finding yourself writing a few words, only to scratch them out or change them, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Most of the time, you make slower and slower progress that way, until you stop with a scowl on your face and writer’s block firmly lodged in your brain. But if you can force yourself not to be too critical in your first draft and to start correcting it only after it’s complete, then the words should come more easily – and probably more quickly as well. When I used to teach first year composition at university, realizing the need to divide these functions was often all that students needed to start becoming fluent writers.

However, if writer’s block occurs despite these first two tactics, the best thing you do is persevere. Words that come slowly are usually no better or worse on average than words that come easily, and you’re in no position to judge them while you write them. They only seem worse than usual because of the effort you’re making.

However, if you are still having trouble, try to get a different perspective on what you are writing. Skip to another paragraph or chapter – after all, nothing says you have to write in order. Read whatever you have out loud. Try writing the passage in which you’re bogged down without looking at the original. Play a game, such as imagining what the passage would sound like if a famous writer was composing it. Anything to get a new perspective, If all these ploys fail, try writing something else, so you still make some progress in the day.

Only after you have tried all the tactics of this sort that you can imagine should you take the last step of taking a break. A writer, don’t forget, is one who writes; if you nap instead, you’re a napper, not a writer. Often, cleaning or another form of creativity such as cooking will help. Heavy exercise is even better, either because of all the chemical stimulants with which it floods your brain or because when you’re straining your legs and arms, your unconscious can set to work on what’s bothering you. Try any of these tricks and the chances are high that you will start to write again.

However, the best cure for writer’s block is a deadline. If you have to submit a piece by a certain time or day, you don’t have time to worry about writer’s block. You simply have to produce. In fact, it’s exactly the motivating factor of deadlines that makes me doubt that writer’s block. Instead, I believe that writer’s block is mostly ineffective work habits or a love of the drama of being a tormented writer. If you don’t have time to work inefficiently or to dramatize yourself, then you’ll likely do neither. Most of the time, overcoming writer’s block is as simple as that.

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Since I live less than thirty kilometers from where I grew up, I revisit the area every month or two. It’s always an unsettling feeling.

For one thing, I can hardly walk a pace without some memory returning to me from my childhood or teen years. There is the elementary school I attended, and the grass slope going down to the playing fields where the boys and girls with whom I hung out used to gather on their bicycles when we were in high school. To one side is the small woods, carefully denuded of any undergrowth, where I played endless games of tag at lunch and recess, learning in the process that, if I wasn’t the fastest runner in the crowd, I was the one with the greatest endurance.

Above that is the house of one of my elementary school crushes; I used to deliver the local paper there, and I was always nervous that my crush might answer the door. A few doors over is the house of a high school crush. Sometimes, on a visit, I walk or jog by the two houses, and wonder what their former inhabitants are doing. I did meet both at my high school reunion a couple of years ago, but one cut off contact in circumstances that I am only now starting to understand, and the other looked prematurely aged by her life experiences, so I am probably better off not knowing how they are faring.

But if I walk a couple of blocks south, I come to the corner where I kissed one of them. Then, going east towards my old high school, I can name more former inhabitants: The brash bully, the quiet, artistic girl, the wimp, the bad boy, and another crush. At the school, I can stand, if I like on the track, and remember old victories from when it was paved with only cinders, or recall the end of year award ceremony when I saw in the bleachers and watches the measles slowly break out on my arm. Then I can pass the auto shop where I received my first and only detention (well, how was I to know that the teacher had returned while I was under the desk on a retaliatory raid on the shoelaces of two friends sitting across from me?), and cross the ramp – formerly covered – that I used to do wind sprints up on rainy days, past the smoke-hole.

And that’s just one direction. I can go in any of the others and recite a similar litany of memories. No doubt all of them are stronger for being among my first. Not being given much to nostalgia, I’m always surprised by them.

At the same time, for all the familiarity, I am also walking through a strange land. The woods where I once played at Robin Hood have been had their undergrowth clearcut – presumably to deny cover to the child-molesters and evil homeless with whom the popular imagination peoples them. The stump of the tree blown over in the big hurricane, whose top was a reading seat for me for years, has been cut away to a fraction of its former glory. The building where I attended junior high has been replaced by portables, all except the gym and the unheated west wing. At the senior building, the wing where I took creative writing and English with my favorite teacher has been torn down. In fact, the entire building has been heavily made over, and I suspect that, were I to enter it, I would quickly become disoriented.

As things are, I soon realize that I am not really looking at the places I remember. I’m looking at their successors, or what they have evolved into. The people that go with my memories aren’t there, and they wouldn’t be those I remember if they were (any more than I am). If I want the places I remember, I have to wait for them to appear in my nightly dreams. The truth is, those places don’t exist any more, and I am always a bit relieved after walking through their remnants for an hour, to leave them behind for my present life.

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Whatever time of day I stagger into the exercise room, at least two of the three treadmills are in use. They’re by far the most popular of the cardio-vascular machines – and I can’t figure out why. But perhaps my view is prejudiced from the sneak attack from one that I faced a few years ago and a long way from home.

What I can’t understand is why anyone would choose to walk or jog on a treadmill in Vancouver. I could understand that enduring ice and snow underfoot would get old fast in some place like Calgary or Winnipeg, but here we get about ten days of snow a year. So why would anyone endure the tedium of a treadmill when the sidewalk is waiting outside? I would much rather see the parade of people, birds and animals than endure stationary exercise. Our suburban streets are only mildly dangerous, too, so long as you’re not hanging around ill-lit bus stops at midnight.

True, the same question could be raised about the bike that I use. But I plead the insanity of trying to pit eight-five kilos of body and bike against twenty times their weight of metal and gas. By contrast, walkers and joggers have safe sidewalks to use.

I also confess that I endure by doing flat out intervals – much to the disgust of most gym-goers, who seem to think that exercise is fine so long as you don’t break out in a sweat while doing it (or maybe it’s my silent snarl as I go all out). When I see how most people plod along at a continuous pace, I’m not surprised when two-thirds of them stop exercising regularly after a few weeks. They’re setting themselves up for failure.

I also have to stop myself from delivering warnings of doom to those who use the treadmills. From my own experience, they are treacherous machines, that would just as soon humiliate you as drop the pounds from you.

My revelation came when I was on a business trip to Indianapolis just after the turn of the millennium. I had put in long hours the day before, and the different time zone had my circadian rhythms mildly befuddled, but decades of guilt drove me down to the hotel’s exercise room at 7AM, determined to get at least some exercise. I would have jogged outside, but it was mid-winter, and Indianapolis is flat, and that trip at least, an arctic wind was blowing so hard that once or twice two days before it had almost knocked me off my feet.

The day before, I had used the treadmill for a long slow walk. However, having a meeting in less than an hour, that day I decided to replace quantity with quality. After studying the controls (someday someone will standardize them, but probably not in my life time), I set the machine to a six minute mile pace.

Then I made the mistake of glancing up at the news cast on the TV mounted on the ceiling. And while I gazed with bleary eyes and pondered the wickedness of politicians, the treadmill attacked, sending my chin against the handlebars and throwing me to my knees.

As the treadmill careened below me, I tried desperately to get to my feet. Twice, I was almost up when it swept my feet from under me again. Now thoroughly humiliated, I crawled on my hands and knees to the edge, sprawling forward on to the floor and looking desperately around to see if anyone had seen my humiliation.

Fortunately, I was alone.

Determined to conquer, I leaped back on the machine. But one foot landed long enough before the other that I was swept off my feet again, this time on to my back. Frantically, I clawed my way off again.

This time, I could see the evil gleam in its LEDs. Muttering nonchalantly, I pretended I was walking away. When I was out of the machine’s line of sight, I pounced and managed to turn it off before it could attack again.

Suddenly, the exercise bike seemed a safer alternative, not least because another hotel guest had now entered the room.

I spend the rest of the day walking stiffly, feeling each bruise on my legs and knowing it part of an unprovoked assault on my dignity.

Looking back, I won’t swear that I had nightmares that night. Nor, so far as I could remember, did I hear a repetitive sound outside my door that night and peer through the peephole to see the treadmill waiting for me in the hallway. But that might only be because the machine couldn’t climb stairs. The next day, I keep a close watch as I came down in the elevator and took my exercise while braving the arctic winds – a preference that I keep to this day.

You see, you can use a treadmill, and get to know it, but you can never really trust it. Relax for just a moment, and it will turn on you. Believe me, I know.

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Every few months or so, someone blogs that free software would be more popular if it had fewer applications in each category. If a distribution would only include, say, Firefox, rather than Konqueror and Epiphany as well, or only OpenOffice.org without KOffice or Abiword, then users would have less anxiety option and locate the software they need more easily. Recently, though, I was very glad to have the choice.

For the past while, Trish’s GNOME desktop has been freezing after a dozen or so windows are opened or closed. The problem is an obscure one, and elusive when I try to track it down. I know it is peculiar to her account, since I don’t suffer from it, but more concrete information is slow to come by. Changing every configuration option that might even remotely connected doesn’t help. Ditto running her key files in another account. Removing the GNOME configuration files so that new default ones are created does nothing. Nor does upgrading GNOME or any of the software I suspect of being involved with the problem. I suspect that either Firefox or Thunderbird are complicit, and my investigations continue, but, meanwhile, Trish is left with a major annoyance every time she logs into her account.

If we were running Windows or OS X, she would have no choice except to endure while I troubleshoot. However, because we’re on GNU/Linux, I switched her over to KDE instead. After about ten minutes of customization, her new desktop looks about 90% the same as her old one, so the transition was minimal, so she can carry on with reading her email and browsing the web while I track down the problem.

Had KDE not removed the problem, I could have set up Xfce. Had Xfce not solved the problem, I could turned to IceWM, Blackbox, Fluxbox, Afterstep or any of a couple of dozen other desktops or window manager..

By contrast, had we been running Windows, she would have had to endure the problem, because only one desktop would be available for her (or perhaps I would have had to re-install). But, under GNU/Linux, I had an immediate choice of workarounds – and all because free software isn’t so rigidly organized that it has only one of everything. The redundancy that people love to decry makes an emergency far less urgent, so I, for one, hope that no distribution every tries to do much tidying. 

Diversity may be messy, but, sometimes, messiness is better.

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A comment on my blog entry “What Editors Want” suggested that I forgot to mention that writers are also required to write to a certain style. Actually, I didn’t forget so much as think it irrelevant, at least in the sense that most beginners usually think about style.

True, editors usually have a style guide full of arcana such as what terms you should capitalize, and whether you should write “email” or “e-mail.” Sometimes, too, they contain phrases and words that either you shouldn’t use, or should only with a particular meaning. And, in the case of major newspapers or wire services, these style guides can run to hundreds of pages.

However, writers – especially beginners or freelancers – are rarely expected to submit work that conforms to a style guide in every aspect. Even regular contributors or full-timers are generally asked only to conform to the most common aspects of a style guide. The practices outlined in a style guide are usually trivial to fix, especially with a search and replace function, so making your manuscript conform to a style guide is usually relatively trivial.

Nor are these technical aspects what beginners usually mean by style. Usually, what they mean is a distinctive voice, either for themselves or for a publication.

Beginners often worry considerably about style – probably because the concept is so difficult to define or analyze, partly because we lack the vocabulary. But, in my experience, style or a lack of it rarely determines whether a piece is accepted.

Sometimes, a publication will favor a particular style. For instance, Maximum Linux, a companion to Maximum PC in 1999-2000, favored an edgier style with more slang than most publications. However, regardless of a publication’s preferred style, most editors are so glad to receive literate and interesting copy to fill their schedule that they aren’t going to insist that it conform to a house style. That’s a nice luxury, but not an essential. If necessary, a few edits can usually bring an otherwise publishable piece of work into line with the house styles.

So far as style is an issue at all, what matters to editors is clarity, a decent sense of structure, and knowledge of your audience. Unlike the obscure concept of style that floats around in most beginner’s heads, these concerns are intensely practical – and, unlike beginner’s concepts of style, can be easily codified.

The rules for clarity listed at the end of George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” have never been bettered in the sixty years since he wrote them. As for structure, you can learn the basics by reading Aristotle on rhetoric. Where to position your most important points, how to deal with opposing views – in the last 2500 years, Aristotle’s suggestions have been often repeated, often expanded upon, but only very occasionally added to.

Unfortunately, no equally well-regarded guide to knowing your audience exists, but that is mostly common sense. For instance, if you are writing for an audience with no background in your subject, you may have to explain terms that you could assume an expert audience would know. Similarly, writing for academics, you can use more compound and complex sentences that in writing for the general public. If you ask a few questions or take a look at a few articles in a publication, usually you can quickly pick up such details very quickly.

Instead of focusing on style, I always urge beginners to concentrate on these concrete considerations. If they do, they usually find that they don’t have to think too much about style, and that it has taken care of itself instead.

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