Posts Tagged ‘writing’

For most of the last week, I’ve been having a troll problem. I’m not going to provide a link, because one encounter with trolls is very much like another. Usually, it starts with a hijacked thread, and involves a lot of generalizations and name-calling based on comments taken out of context, conspiracy theories, and a kind of naive cynicism that insists that I could never have done anything except for the worst of reasons.. This encounter was no different, and, like the others I’ve had, leaves me uncertain how I should respond.

I have no trouble with someone who disagrees with me. I enjoy the benefits of a liberal education, in which differences of opinion are seen as a chance to deepen and expand the discussion. Nor am I young enough to expect everyone to like me – in fact, in most cases, I’m relieved when a troll dislikes me, because I usually don’t think much of them, either.

But as a former teacher of rhetoric and composition, I am by nature incapable of ignoring a fallacious argument – especially if it is directed at me. Let someone judge me by a single sentence from a single work, or misquote or take a sentence out of context, and I’m immediately tempted to leap in with a correction. As I have said many times, if you’re going to disagree with what I’ve said, please make it something I actually said and not something that you imagine that I have said. Whether out of carelessness, vindictiveness, or inability, very few trolls seem capable of reading or reporting with any accuracy or precision, so enticing me to reply is often ridiculously easy.

Not only that, I am all too aware of how others might interpret my silence. Will they go away thinking that the troll’s inaccuracies are true? Will they think that my silence is an admission of guilt, that I am ashamed to reply? Worse, will I think myself cowardly? With such questions buzzing in my mind, I can easily find myself wrestling with trolls before I realize what I am doing.

At the same time, I am well-aware that answering is only going to waste my time. By definition, trolls lack an open-mind, and no eloquence of mine will coax an apology out of them, ever. Anything I say will be taken in the worst possible way, if not dismissed outright, and I will convince them of nothing. If I manage to counter one barrage, another will simply start up from a different direction, often using my replies as additional ammunition against me. Under these circumstances, almost anything else will be a better use of my time.

Usually, I compromise, and confine myself to two replies. That way, I reason, I can satisfy my urge to reply and correct any misrepresentations for any audience without taking up too much of time. This time, unfortunately, I was distracted enough to make several other replies before stepping back, mainly because it has been a couple of years since I dealt with a troll, but I’ll remember next time.

This morning, after the thread’s owner had shut it down, the troll started up again from their own account. I’ve resisted the temptation to see what they are saying, but from experience I can predict it. They’ll revise the encounter to make me seem the unreasonable one, and their friends will chime in with words of support that will make them feel heroic for opposing my Satanic self.

But I’ll let them do so unopposed. I’m annoyed that I let myself be dragged in, and I won’t make the same mistake again any time soon. I never know whether attribute such encounters to hypocrisy, or incompetence, but what is clear to me is that, whatever this last week, it wasn’t a meeting of two minds. Att best, it was only a meeting of one and a half.

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The ideal invented name should be realistic, evocative, and consistent. That is, it should look and sound like a possible name, and not like a collection of random syllables. If possible, it should invoke the same sense of adventure that “Terra Australis” and “California” did several centuries ago, while resembling nearby names enough that the illusion of a consistent language is created.

These goals can be accomplished in two ways: by spending decades inventing a language as Tolkien did, or by faking them.

The easiest way I have found to fake these goals is with the help of a dictionary or a vocabulary list from an actual language. My basic technique is to write several hundred syllables on bits of paper and place them in an envelope. Then I draw 1-4 syllables at random, and try to arrange them into something that sounds like a word. Sometimes, I need several tries to get a usable word, but, when I do, I create a list that I can draw on as I prepare a map or name characters. It would be simple to write a simple script that is applied to a file containing the list of syllables, but so far I haven’t bothered.
However, that is not all I do. In addition, I:

  • Study the language I am using just long enough to note its conjugations and declensions so I can add them to the syllables I pull from the envelope.
  • Observe characteristic syllables from the language. For instance, if I were using Latin, they might include “ium” at the end of a town name. Similarly, if I were using Ole English, they might include “wulf” or “raed” at the end of a name. Sometimes, I invent these characteristic syllables for myself. Diphthongs are also useful, so that “th” might suggest Viking cultures.
  • Slip English words or their approximations into my coinages to aid the evocativeness. For example “Tjashaha” contains the word “shah” in the hopes of suggesting the Middle East, while the last syllable of “Narghast” suggests “ghost” and with any luck provides a Gothic air.
  • Decide on suffixes and prefixes that indicate rivers or mountains. For example, in Tolkien, the suffix “or” seems to mean something like “land of” (consider Eriador, Gondor, Mordor).
  • Take care to have a variety of syllables and first letters in the names that I create.

To apply the coined words, I need to have a sense of history – specifically, what lands have settled, invaded, or otherwise influenced by which culture. Typically, all the words based on a particular language will come from a limited number of regions. At the edges of these regions, the influences of different languages will overlap, providing mixed names and more variations for both landmarks and personal names. Now and then, there will be a few outliers due to isolate pockets of a particular language, or perhaps to merchants and adventurers.
When I need to use a word, I start with the list I created, asking myself the subjective question, “Does this word sound like a king’s name?” (or the name of a town or a river). If I have been careful with my coinings, I can find a useful name in the list I prepared in advance. At other times, I have to use the same techniques on the spot, and create some possible choices on the spot. However, the basic techniques remain the same. At every step of the way, I try to build up layers of plausability, creating the illusion of depth from a very small sprinkling of linguistic consistency.

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Last night, I realized I hadn’t backed up my /home directory for a while. In fact, my last backup was months ago, rather than days. Horrified, I stayed up late until my files were backed up. I knew that if I didn’t, I would spend long hours brooding, completely convinced that my hard drive would fail the next time I powered up. I have an obsession about backups, and with good reason.

I bought my first computer in the last month of thesis preparation, transitioning from an IBM Selectric, which with its swappable type-balls had once seemed the highest technology I could imagine, but which the computer quickly proved was obsolete.

For the first week, the computer sat at the dining room table, where I learned the basics of WordPerfect while adding the latest versions of my thesis chapters to the files. I was proud of my foresight in having listed about twenty of the basic formatting tasks I needed to do on file cards that I taped to the side of the monitor.

By the time I transferred the hardware a week later to the computer desk that my father made for me, I was convinced that I was adjusting well to the computer. Really, I kept thinking, what was the fuss about? Everyday, I was memorizing several commands, and my thesis was developing far better than it ever had on the typewriter.

The day came that I intended how to backup my files to a floppy. I was sitting at the computer desk, enjoying a late spring day that was warm enough for me to have the balcony door open, luxuriating in spending so many successive days just writing.

Falling into full writing mode, I took a while to realize that the weather had changed. When I finally surfaced from my work, the sun was gone, and the day had turned dark. Around me, in the middle distance, I could hear thunder and I was anticipating enjoying any lightning from my sheltered position. I had no worry at all about the computer – after all, I had a surge protector.

The thunder came closer. Above me, on Burnaby Mountain, it must have been rattling the windows on the campus of Simon Fraser University, where I was studying. I was relaxed, knowing myself safe and dry despite the approaching storm.

But maybe, I told myself, I shouldn’t take any chances. I started to shut down the computer. The thunder sounded directly overhead, and in a panic I reached for the power bar. I had one plug ripped out when the loudest crash of thunder yet sounded just above the roof of my townhouse and the monitor flashed and faded to black.

For several hours, I listened to the storm, pacing and fretting. Half an hour after the last thunder, I tried to turn on the computer and my worst fears were confirmed. I had been too late, and my computer was now an expensive door stop.
One of the worst weeks of my life followed. I was tentatively booked to defend my thesis in six weeks, which meant that I had a month at the most to put it in shape for my committee to read. Any delays, and the committee members would be dispersed for the summer, and I would have to wait three months for the fall semester to defend, instead of venturing out to teach at the community colleges.

Not knowing if anything on the hard drive might be salvaged, I couldn’t wait to find out. Dragging out the Selectric, I did my best to recreate the latest revisions that I had put on the computer. I kept thinking of Hemingway leaving a manuscript on a train and other literary disasters. I started working eighteen hours a day, and dreamed of typing in the few hours of troubled sleep I managed each day.

In the end, I was lucky. The lightning had melted a transistor on the motherboard, which had prevented any surges from reaching the hard drive. My chapters were safe.

The first thing I did was make backups. The next was to make sure that I backed up the hard drive at least once a week, and more often when I’m especially busy. I had a distracted summer, which explains my recent lapses, but you can be sure that I’m going back on a regular schedule, effective as soon as I write the necessary cron job.

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A few weeks ago, an editor requested that I not start an article with a quote. They said it made them feel as though they were coming into the middle of a discussion they knew nothing about. I pride myself on being nothing less than professional, and don’t imagine that I am writing immortal prose, so I used another opening strategy as requested. However, I still believe that the request was more a matter of personal preference than a general rule.

To start with, in any opening paragraph, readers are coming into the middle of a discussion, so the same objection can be raised about any chosen tactic. Perhaps the quote I used wasn’t perfectly suited to its position, but that is no reason to condemn the use of an opening quote in general.

In fact, starting in the middle is a time-honored literary technique. It was recognized more than two millenia ago by the Roman poet Horace, who called it in media res, as opposed to ab ovo, or starting from the beginning. Admittedly, it is usually thought of as a technique for epic poetry or fiction, but a journalistic article is often a form of narrative, too. Personally, I figure that what was good enough for Homer in The Odyssey or Shakespeare in Hamlet is good enough for me.

For another, part of the purpose of an opening tactic is to attract readers’ curiosity. Sometimes the topic is novel enough or important enough that the first paragraph needs no embellishment, but that is an exception. An article published online is competing with thousands of others for readers’ attention, and, so long as you don’t mislead or make exaggerated claims, anything that helps it get noticed seems worth trying.

In this case, part of the reason that I started with a quote is that it is a reasonably uncommon tactic. But, in addition, the quote made an unusual claim, which I was counting on to raise curiosity enough for them to read the next few sentences, where they would learn more clearly what the article was about.

Moreover, because a quote implies a speaker, it is automatically personal and direct. Writers of new releases know that a quote helps interest readers – so much so that many make sure that the a quote falls in the second or third paragraph to keep readers going. In a long news release, writers will often add additional quotes further down to reduce the odds of readers’ attention straying. Although articles are less mechanically structured than news releases, quotes can have similar advantages in journalism. Starting with a quote has a strong chance of attracting readers’ attention precisely because it is so personal and direct.

Anyway, even if none of what I said here were true, a part of me always regards a general rule about writing as a challenge. Tell me that something can’t be done – or worse, shouldn’t be done – and my impulse is to try to do it successfully. So, while I have made a note to avoid using an initial quote any time that I work with this particular editor (who otherwise shows a keen sense of how to improve a piece of prose), don’t be surprised if I use one elsewhere. Being told I shouldn’t only makes me all the more likely to try.

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My late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer used to insist that poetry was supposed to be heard. He proved it many times, booming out his verse at bardic circles around the Bay Area and science fiction conventions across North America. His position was a welcome reminder, but I had learned its truth while I was in university during a single magical day.

At the time, I was serious about poetry, writing and publishing regularly, and theorizing about metrics in the little time left over from my academic classes. I was skeptical about the poetic establishment (as any young poet should be), and sure I was going to shake it up (and never be one of those academic poets who taught for a living). When my friend Stuart announced a garden party during which his new poem, a Georgian pastoral, would be read, I quickly took on the voice of the Young Man in the poem.

The day of the reading was one of those hard, bright days that the Lower Mainland sometimes gets in summer. The setting was the garden of Stuart’s parents, which softened the harshness of the day with a mixture of strategic shade and explosions of flowers. Among the guests were Stuart’s girlfriend of the moment and her younger sister of sixteen, as well as my high school English teacher, who lived a few houses down.

I was proud to be taking part and doing my bit to take poetry out of the class room. Aided by a few glasses of wine, I read my part in increasingly rolling tones, like an out of control Laurence Olivier without the talent, intoxicated more by my own self-importance than the alcohol. As always happens when I start reciting poetry, I felt myself taken over by the poetry, and I floated through the rest of the party with a lingering sense of excitement.

But that wasn’t all. When Stuart drove his girlfriend and her sister to catch the ferry to Nanaimo, I went with them. Since we had missed one ferry, we stopped at West Vancouver’s miniature Parthenon.

The place was some millionaire’s folly, with a small temple built on a headland and some credible copies of Classical Greek statues. People used to stop at the first rest stop after the ferry to look down on it and take photos of it with their telephoto lenses and to marvel of the incongruity of the place in the middle of the rain forest.

It’s long gone now, divided into subdivisions after the owner’s death. In fact, it was being dismantled when we visited, the statues hauled from their plinths and a couple of the temple’s columns blackened by fire. Yet, in a way, the ruined splendor added to the attraction. We slipped past the No Trespassing signs in the growing dark, and were soon standing on the plinths, reciting bits of Stuart’s poem, our words booming off the cliffs that ringed the temple on most of its landward side.

For a while, I worried that the sound would bring the police down on us, especially since we were waving bottles of beer and hard cider as we declaimed. I was worrying, too, about how I might get the sister’s phone number before she boarded the ferry. But the sound of our voices was so impressive that I soon forgot such considerations.

Suddenly, the ruins and rocky cliffs reminded me of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” I began reciting it by heart, the sound of my voice much improved by the echoes off the cliffs. I remember experimenting with various pitches, completely overwhelmed by the magnificence of the words rolling through the air around me.

It must have been almost as impressive to the others as it was to me, because when I was done, everyone was silent for a moment, and began praising my delivery. Even I recognized that nothing could follow Coleridge’s masterpiece, and that it was clearly time to go.

I don’t remember dropping off the women, or returning to my parent’s house an hour or so later. But I do remember enthusing to Stuart about the importance of hearing poetry, and turning off the light that night, still glowing from the glory of the sound in the temple. That, I decided, was how poetry should be heard, and I fell asleep full of plans to save the place as a park so that others could enjoy what I had. It was only next morning that I realized I had forgot to get the sister’s phone number, and, even then, I was still so light-headed from the experience that I only minded a little.

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This morning, I booted my computer to learn than an article of mine had reached Slashdot. It wasn’t the first time, nor even twentieth. All the same, the news made me feel that the engines of the world had received a tune-up overnight, and were now purring along the way they were supposed to.

The first time an article of mine appeared on Slashdot, I was less restrained. Actually, I shouted, “Yes!” in the middle of the office and did a sincere but awkward tap dance down the aisles while I punched the sky and alternated between chortles and meaningless ecstatic sounds. Not bad, I thought, considering that four months earlier I hadn’t even heard of Slashdot, the portal site for geeks and nerds.

However, if my reaction this morning was more subdued, it was just as full of satisfaction. As a reader, I may express disdain for Slashdot’s audience, dismissing its members as immature, misogynistic, and possessed of an instinctive ability to miss the point in any given story. Yet each time Slashdot links to an article of mine, I feel the same heady mixture of satisfaction and vindication.

This reaction is only peripherally connected to the fact that I get a small bonus when Slashdot links to one of my articles. By the time I receive that bonus, at least three weeks will have passed, and the bonus is not so large that I can indulge in much anticipatory spending.

Nor is my ego triggered by the fact that a segment of the free software world will be chewing on my thoughts down to the bone like a school of piranhas. After all, I’ve no stranger to comments, and, although I make the point of reading most of what people say about my articles, familiarity has long ago bred indifference to all but the most quirky or thoughtful reactions.

Besides, by the time Slashdot picks up a story, I’ve usually moved on. Even if only a day or two has passed, I’m working on another story – which makes me wonder how actors and writers manage to promote work they did over a year ago on the talk show circuit. How, I wonder, do they keep up the pretense of caring? If they are anything like me, the works they’re talking about must feel as though they were written or performed by someone else.

Rather, my satisfaction comes from the sense of readership. Writing, as most people who’ve tried it will testify, is a solitary business. Mostly, I don’t mind that, since the alternative is to work in an office on projects that are far less interesting, but sometimes the isolation does get to me – not just socially (which is another story), but in the form of self-doubt. Is anyone reading my stuff? I start thinking. Frequently I have to go out and swim or cycle until I’m too tired to maintain the doubting..

However, when an article makes Slashdot, the question is answered with a resounding affirmative. For a day or two – maybe three or four, if the subject matter is especially controversial — at least a segment of the free software is riffing off my thoughts. For a few days more, the number of blogs about my thoughts increases.

I know, of course, that the interest is transitory. Unless you happen to be a George Orwell, day to day journalism is rarely remembered for its thought or style. I know, too, that if people weren’t discussing my articles, they’d be discussing someone else’s.

All the same, however briefly, the interest is there. It never fails to surprise, humble, and even frighten me. But it also justifies me for a moment. For a short time, I have managed to entertain – intellectually, I hope, for the most part but maybe with some humor and emotional appeal and usefulness occasionally thrown in as well. That’s why appearing on Slashdot is better than any award could ever be (not that I’d accept a nomination in the unlikely event that I was put up for one). It’s proof that something I wrote has interested someone other than me — and almost as satisfying the latest time as the first.

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My long-awaited Arts and Crafts keyboard arrived yesterday from Datamancer Enterprises. Its copper and white leather, plus the Celtic knot-work design on the space bar is exactly what I envisioned. But what surprises me is the way the sound and feel of the mechanical action of its keys affects my writing.

It’s been years since I thought I needed special tools for writing. A professional writer, I maintain, ought to be able to work with whatever is at hand. So, while I have my preferences, over the years I have written on everything from a Palm pilot in its graffiti alphabet to the keyboard of a smart phone to a notebook. The point has never seemed the hardware, but preserving the content as quickly as it comes to me. Everything else has seemed pretension to me, like the various software tools that are supposed to help wannabes (Vim or a basic text editor is usually enough for me).

Still, I didn’t always feel that way. As a young adult with poetic aspirations, I was convinced that my writing was somehow tied to the muscular movements of a pen. The words I wrote by hand seemed to have a deeper, more thoughtful tone than things I attempted to write on a keyboard, and possibly a richer vocabulary as well. But somewhere in the first years of the millennium, I learned to do all my writing in front of a computer, and if my style suffered as a result, the damage was not enough to stop me from publishing regularly.

However, as soon as my fingertips connected with the new keyboard, I was aware of a change in how I was writing. It wasn’t that I had to press the keys slightly harder than I do on a cheap keyboard. Rather, I seemed to be paying more attention to what I was doing. What came next seemed to be blossoming in my mind earlier and quicker than with a cheap keyboard, and I was more likely to go back as I was writing and make changes in wording and structure, rather than leaving such changes for my revisions. The right word seemed to come morre easily. On the whole, I seemed to have a greater understanding about what the item I was composing needed.

At first, I thought the change was the result of the louder click alone. That surprised me, at first, because previously I would have imagined that I preferred a silent keyboard. But the sound of my new keyboard is the sound of progress being made – a sort of mechanical cheering to encourage me to keep going.

But that doesn’t seem to be whole of it. The action of the keys seems to be involved, too. The slight extra pressure on the keys seems to make a difference, and not just because at the end of yesterday my fingers felt like they had had an extra workout. Instead, it’s more like the connection between me and the words that I used to feel with a pen has been re-established.

After some thinking, I now wonder if the low-end keyboards I’ve used until now make typing too easy. Their keys are so sensitive that they require little effort on my part. That may sound like a desirable trait, but the lack of effort seems to severe my sense of connection. Now, entirely by accident, that connection has been restored in a way that I never thought possible (let alone necessary) with a keyboard.

Or, to put it another way, my new keyboard is like a bicycle: It extends my capabilities, but by supplementing the movement of my fingers instead of replacing them. By contrast, standard keyboards are a like a car, reducing my muscular actions to no more than a signal, and replacing them with its own actions. The slightly greater effort required by new keyboard is just enough to make me aware of what I was doing.

I’ll have to see how I feel as I’m settling down with the new keyboard. But, for now, I’m convinced that it is bring me closer to what I am doing, engaging me in a way that other keyboards do not.

It seems to me that this is what the best technology should do. Instead, many machines seem to reduce the need for human action. The result is that we are subtly alienated from our production, even when doing something like writing that is supposed to be creative.

All I know for sure is that I already I seem to detect a different cadence in my writing, and a tone that is closer to my speaking voice than most of what I create on the computer. I look forward to using the new keyboard, because it seems to be one the rare tools that really will help me to write more effectively.


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