Category Archives: writing

Harder than Heroic Effort

I’m not good at what I can only call a “tedious slog.” Short-term heroic effort? Hell yeah. Got that down and buddy it can be impressive.

There’s a downside to that. You’re either going all out, or you’re… Well, not. Going, that is.

What I am generally not good at, though I am trying very hard to learn, and getting better at, is patient dailyness. I can do the Big Huge Thing towards goals, but doing a little bit every day is much, much harder.

The problem is that over time, that little bit accomplishes much more than the periodic heroic efforts. The person who goes from no exercise at all to a marathon isn’t actually in better shape, long-term than the person who takes a walk every day. The person whose house goes from complete chaos to sparkling clean and staged for a real estate agent to show isn’t going to have a neater home, overall, than someone who does a little bit every day. The student who pulls the all-nighter doesn’t write a better paper than the student that breaks that up into increments, does a bit of writing every day and then goes on to do a bit of editing every day until the job is done.

I was in my late thirties before I really got started with the continual small effort thing v. Heroic Effort. It started with housework, which is really a fantastic place to start. I wanted a neat house, but nothing outrageous was really riding on it. Totally low-risk, which was perfect for this. I did a little bit every day, and forbade myself to put heroic effort into it. Over time, yes, my house is rarely more than fifteen minutes to a half an hour away from being okay with guests, and I wouldn’t die of embarrassment at any drop ins. When spaces get cluttered (a home is a dynamic process, not a showpiece, after all) I really do dedicate small amounts of time over a period of days to take care of them.

Where I am trying to apply this now is exercise. That’s a whole lot harder. For all that I am hardly slender, I do get interested gaining physical skills. You only have to look at a list of the physical things I’ve been into to realize that I’m all about the technical and easy to obsess about — dance, martial arts, swimming… They’re all activities that have a high level of technique, and experts at these activities really do dedicate hours a day to it.

But while the technical aspects are enough to keep me interested, my real goal isn’t mastering X skill. My real goal, as it pertains to exercise, is just to DO it for a half an hour to an hour a day five days a week. That’s IT.

I was thinking about it this morning when I was trying to decide if I wanted to swim today. I already did my M-F swims, but I was wondering what a mile would feel like and thinking, “Yeah, I have time today, I oughta try that!”

In reality? No, I shouldn’t. Not because it would be bad for me to swim a mile today. It totally wouldn’t. But it would be bad for me to give in to the obsession only to become tired of it next year. I need to be in the pool next year, too. This isn’t something like getting obsessed with Tudor history or lace knitting where I can put it down any time another shiny obsession takes my fancy. Working out can’t really be a hobby for me. For physical maintenance, I need to damn well be active for half an hour a day five days a week. I don’t even have to put Heroic Effort into it. I just have to show up and move.

Which circles back around to the consistent, daily effort. There is another thing that’s helping me learn that. You notice that I’m posting a lot more to my blog than I used to. I don’t post every day, but I do many days a week.

The reason I do is another small, daily practice. I write seven hundred fifty words a day as an exercise to keep my writing skills up. Some of those writing sessions are really more stream of consciousness pieces to write SOMETHING to get in my word count. But notice that as I do it consistently, the more valuable essays and stories actually happen.

It is the small, consistent, daily practice that builds up better into a lifetime of worthwhile work if you can make yourself do it.

Whoda thunk that it’d be harder than Heroic Effort?

Seven Hundred Fifty Words

Today’s practice isn’t going to be fiction. That’s mostly because I don’t think I’m at the point where I’m up for writing a short story a day. I think one a week is really about the extent of what I’m up for. So, I need to come up with some ideas for one for next Saturday. I choose Saturday because I feel like I can take more time over it.

I bought one of those Timex Ironman watches — not because I am even vaguely interested in doing a triathlon (well, MAYBE one of those sprint distance one… Maybe. but probably not) but because I wanted a waterproof watch that could keep track of laps. I’m always concerned my time is inaccurate and that I’m fooling myself because I’m losing count of laps and stuff.

Nope. Even looking at the clock when I start and stop a swim has been pretty accurate. Even so, the watch is nice, as I can time my intervals and get a better idea of how I’m doing in my workout as I am going along without stopping to squint at a clock.

I’m going to be cutting out a corset today. Believe it or not, they’re not too hard to make once you get the measurements down. The Elizabethan Custom Corset Pattern Generator  works amazingly well to create a pretty serviceable, simple corset, as long as your measurements are accurate.The real issue is deciding where to put the boning and getting the edging neat. All you really do is make a canvas shell with channels in which to put the boning, sew the fashion fabric to the shell, use some sort of edge binding (I use quilting binding) around the edges, hammer in the grommets if you don’t care about period (I don’t), or make buttonholes for the lacing if you do care, and go. It really is something I’d use to teach someone who was interested in costuming to sew on. Yes, I really would.

I am hoping to finish the corset this week, and then get started on some steampunk garb for my husband. Though, because I am a big ole meanie, he’s going to be cutting out the fabric and lining himself. (Hates cutting out patterns we does. We hates it).

We’re going to be actors in a live-action Steampunk RPG at Carnage Con. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve actually never done anything like this before, so I hope it’ll work out well. I’m thinking mostly Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson for my Steampunk ideas, though until I see the script, I can’t be sure.

AgathaportraitYes, I’m making an Elizabethan corset as part of a Steampunk (which is usually late Victorian) costume. My argument is mostly that if Agatha Heterodyne, who is the quintessence of a female steampunk archetype, can wear what is essentially a renfair bodice during labwork, I should be good with a corset of slightly the wrong shape as long as I pair it with a skirt with the right shape bustle and a more Victorian look to a jacket and hat.

The thing with costuming of this sort is that I actually DO know something about period costuming, and I need to turn that off for this. Steampunk might take its inspiration from the late Victorian era, but from what I’ve found on the web, inspiration is really all it is.

Which is also fine. You really don’t see all that much period clothing at renfaires, or many historical reenactments, either. It’s like historical fiction. At a certain point you do have to pick and choose to decide how you want to present something.

For that matter, I wouldn’t want to wear an actual Victorian outfit with all the proper underpinnings anyway. That would be deucedly uncomfortable unless we were looking at some sort of Pre-Raphaelite reform dress, anyway. Which would totally not work in for a Steampunk costume, or I’d be doing it.

Still need to think about an idea for another story. I’d do a slice of life, but I can’t…

Never mind. Oh yes, I can.

You know, for someone who doesn’t read much horror at all, I really do come up with some creepy-ass ideas for stories. I wonder how many authors don’t read much of the genre they actually write. I’ve gotten advice that said to write what you like to read, but it seems I just don’t do that.

I can see it now, I’m going to be releasing this book of feminist horror stories. *facepalm* It would totally work.

What is the purpose of your practice?

I’ve been posting more on this blog lately. It’s not really because I like to talk about working out, though yeah, I do like to do that some. What’s really happening is that I am using to get in a certain amount of free-writing a day, and they’re starting to evolve into halfway reasonable blog posts rather than just personal rants.

While I will use the format for personal rants from time to time, I don’t think my writing practice is being improved by the stream of consciousness so much any more and I’m trying to write about specific subjects to write actual essays.

It’s actually a lot harder than you might think to write to a specific word count on a specific subject. Sure, sure, you can pound out a target word count of ranting in fifteen minutes or so if you’re a fast typist. But if you’re actually trying to write a coherent piece? That takes more time.

In my case, that’s okay. I’m a writer. Spending time writing is kind of like a pianist doing scales or an athlete doing drills on the basics of her sport. You do that to keep your skills up.

In fact, I’d recommend to anyone who wants to improve their writing to start just by committing to a certain word count of writing every day and then just plain doing the free-write. You really do get better at writing by writing, and you will get better just by that alone.

So, when do you jump from free-write to trying to write to a specific topic or drilling on technique? You do it when the free-write gets too easy. If you’re hitting your word count in fewer than twenty minutes on a regular basis chances are good you need something else to motivate you and keep you challenged.

There are lots of writing drills you can use to hone your skills. Blogging and essay writing is kind of my thing because I enjoy a good topic-specific piece, but it’s hardly the only thing available to you.

Do you like fiction? Challenging yourself to write fanfiction really is an amazing way to hone your skills. When my son was starting to think about his SATs and was worried about the writing portion of them, I told him that since one of his major forms of entertainment was to come up with cross-fiction stories about characters he liked and act them out in his room, what he could do is write them down. He has a running series now that he works on, though I think it’s jumped from fanfic to original fiction. His English grades definitely improved — not only the composition portion, but the literary analysis areas. So yeah, I’m in favor of fanfic as a writing exercise, even if I don’t read it.

I have a friend who challenged himself to write a short story a week for a year. He’s since turned it into a book, and it’s quite good. This is also a great exercise to hone your writing if you like to write fiction.

I think a lot of it does depend on what you want to do with your writing. I mean, professionally, I’m a tech writer. Over my lifetime of writing fiction I’ve made enough money to buy a couple of pizzas, and that’s it, so clearly I really need to work on my fiction skills over my tech writing skills. I love writing fiction. I just… well, I don’t think I’m all that good at it. Doesn’t stop me from writing it, mind. Sometimes, it’s a good and valid thing to write just for the fun of it after all.

But as I am writing this, something occurs to me. I don’t practice writing fiction nearly as much as I practice writing essays. I put out all these blog entries, and I write manuals and I write instructional pieces. That fills my writing time. Certainly anyone who knows my writing is more likely to follow blogs I write rather than any fiction I do.

Since I do have a personal Life Dream in terms of fiction, me sitting here and writing this essay as my daily writing practice is kind of silly when you think about it, isn’t it? I’m practicing essays, not fiction.

You get good at what you drill on a regular basis, after all, so the intelligent thing for me to do would be to start some sort of regular practice drilling on specific fictional techniques.

Turquoise Horse

“Miss one day of practice, I notice; miss two, the critics notice; miss three, the audience notices”

This has been credited to a lot of different musicians over the years –Liszt among them. I first heard of the expression from my husband, who trained for many years as a classical pianist. While I studied piano for about four years, I never really did practice well, or with sufficient dedication to make more than minimal progress.

Thing is, it doesn’t just apply to musicians. Consistent practice is important to almost any skill or endeavor – be it an athletic skill or an art. One of the arts that really does require pretty consistent practice or it becomes swiftly noticeable you’re not doing it is writing.

I spent about a year from the summer of 2013 to the summer of 2014 not writing much. This was so unusual for me as to be out of character. I write all the time. I was a regular Harriet the Spy as a youngster, I learned a lot of the computer skills I now have as a way to get essays out there before CMS tools and blogging software became a thing, and I’ve always processed my thoughts and feelings in text in some format.

That year I’ve spent not writing on a consistent basis has dulled my skills beyond belief. While I’m physically weak from not exercising my body, my writing is weak from not doing regular workouts in that field as well.

Because the only way to get better is to practice, I turned back to 750Words. The premise behind 750 Words is very much like the whole idea of Morning Pages from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The way to make writing flow easily is simply to write. You must have quota and do it consistently every day. For me, typing 750 words every morning is better than doing it longhand. I don’t like to write longhand and since so much of my work requires typing anyway, I prefer to use that medium to do my morning pages.

Why the Turquoise Horse? The 750Words has several sorts of incentives and badges one can earn to encourage one not only to write, but to write consistently. If you sign up for a challenge and write every day for a calendar month, you earn your Turquoise Horse. I did it for August and was just notified this morning that I got mine

The badges are all whimsical and add a bit of fun to encouraging people to practice their writing. Just do it. Just write it. Don’t care about quality or form. Don’t worry about eloquence or humor. Rant where you must, talk about how tedious it is if you have to, but get those750 words out.

That’s an important step. Never underestimate flow when practicing one’s art.

What about improving? That’s also an important step. Any author will tell you that until you have that first draft, you have no business in the world thinking about editing. Editing comes next. Yes, you should edit. Yes, getting critiques is incredibly important.

But until you have that first draft, you’ve got nothing to work on.

If you’re a writer or want to improve your writing, I do recommend a practice like 750 words. It helps

Books Beneath You

So there’s this guy who is embarrassed that his wife reads a lot of YA literature. “I feel mildly embarrassed that she can talk (in detail!) to my nieces about these books at holiday gatherings.”

The idea that literature written for youngsters is automatically simplistic stuff is moronic. We all know the story about A Wrinkle in Time being marketed as a YA because the ideas in it were too complex to be marketed as adult literature, yes? But YA often has more compelling storytelling than the adult stuff, so why not read it? I like compelling storytelling. There’s a reason I was a big fan of that Nickelodeon show Avatar: The Last Airbender, and why I loved the Harry Potter series.

On the other hand, why must everything you read be “Great Literature?”

Since books have been cheap enough for the masses to afford, there’s always been some peabrain who goes on about “bad literature” rotting the brain. Sometimes the peabrain is a celebrated author! Louisa May Alcott has several fine rants in Little Women, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom about the dangers of trashy literature. Never mind that she wrote a fair share of it herself!

I do admit that I read with about the same forethought and discrimination most people apply to their television watching. That’s mostly because I rarely like television shows (yes, Avatar was an exception) and go to reading for my entertainment on the same level as someone getting into reality TV. I mean, at present, I am reading T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and a more sentimental early twentieth century dime novel you’d be unlikely to find. It pulls on the emotions more or less like reality TV is meant to.

Do I ever read “Great Literature?” I guess, but I don’t really think about it that way. Whenever I look at a list of 100 or so books that are listed as “classics,” it’s a pretty sure bet I’ve read at least 50 of them, sometimes more, depending on the list. But the fact that I have read them has considerably more to do with sheer volume at which I read than any real serious selection on my part. *grin* That, and the fact that you can read many classics for free by downloading them from The Gutenberg Project.

Maybe I’m a low-brow. I dunno. But one thing I am sure of, any guy who is embarrassed at his wife reading The Hunger Games is a dork.

E-books and Print

In Glory Road, Heinlein has a character who can’t go to sleep and he asks for something to read.  “Words in a row” is the way he put it.  I remember that really resonating with me, as I have had a similar habit since even before I got into science fiction.[1]

So, I’m a pretty voracious reader.  When I started carrying a purse regularly, purse shopping took on some serious specifics. It had to be large enough to fit a couple of paperbacks.  Even so I had to leave some of my favorite epics at home whenever I travelled.[2]  I disliked that.

When e-readers became popular, I cheered.  Most of my favorite books really are words in a row.  Not too many diagrams or illustrations needed to supplement the text[3] and formatting page by page wasn’t a real issue.  It was the text that was the important thing.

So, I’m a big fan of e-readers.  I get a little frisson of delight when I slip my Kindle into my purse with its library of hundreds of books to choose from.  I like it even better when I am reading long computer manuals on travel and don’t have to carry those brick-like things with me and crowd out my fiction weight!

Does that mean I hate “dead tree” books?

Not in the least.  My copy of The Lord of the Rings in its red leather binding is a treasure to me.  I love the marriage of the art of the book craft as well as the story.  A book on origami or knitting is pointless on a Kindle.  The color illustrations that are large enough to see and understand are integral to the usefulness and beauty of the book.[4]

But when it’s words in a row that make the story and make the art, my oh my do I love my e-reader.

[1] I read my first science fiction story in the fourth grade.  “The Fun They Had” by Isaac Asimov.  That “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury were in our reading books that year.  I was hooked.

[2] Shogun, Mists of Avalon, a few others…

[3] Well, elvish rune, sure.  But other than that, not really.

[4] Yes, I know.  A tablet computer would handle those things much better.

What Editing is Supposed to Be

I had a rather unusual pleasure today.  I edited a piece for a friend.

Now this chick can write. Funny?  Oh very yes!  Clear?  Yep.  Has a specific voice.  My goodness yes.

So, when I saw it and asked if I could edit it, it wasn’t because what she did sucked.  It was because it was good and just needed a few rough edges sanded down and polished.

Something that is a real myth about the writing world is that an editor will just ruin your piece.  I even believed it for awhile.  Blame it on some of Heinlein’s snarky comments if you want.  But the truth is that no editor wants to ruin your piece, kill your voice or anything like that.  That’s not the editor’s job.

It’s the editor’s job to make you look brilliant. Well, insofar as possible.  Can’t make bricks without straw.  But what an editor wants is for anything that passes her desk to be readable, instructive, entertaining or whatever might be the goal of the publication.

Her comment was, “Oh wow. Ok that’s amazing. I totally see. You sort of turned it into the piece I wanted it to be in the first place with the editing.”

That means I managed to do my job in working on it!

I Have Come to a Decision

I’ve been reviewing my work Screw Skinny, Get Fit and I realize that I’ve been messing around on this project for too long.  I need a big, huge deadline that’ll embarrass me if I don’t meet it to get my lazy butt in gear about this thing.

So, here’s the deal.

I’m going to be offering ScrewSkinny for sale in PDF or PRC (that means you can read it on a Kindle, or in Mobipocket) starting April 1, 2010.   I  haven’t set a price yet, but it’s going to be under $10.  If I get another big contract, I’m just gonna have to give up some knitting time.  This is gonna happen no matter who else wants my literary excellence.

This book is not for the athlete.  It’s for someone who is sedentary who wants to build or maintain health and fitness.  If you have an active, outdoor lifestyle, you’re all good and don’t need this.  It’s for someone who’d rather knit or play WoW.  Yes, there is a strong geek focus.

I discuss levels of ability, including handicaps of various sorts, and explain why The Perfect Workout is nonsense.

Lectures and Classes

I gave a talk on Search Engine Optimization and Content Management Systems at Lebanon College yesterday.   Yeah, I know, the topic was a little too broad for an hour’s lecture.   But it was a decent overview.  greendalekgreendalek said that it got his students excited and engaged for the rest of the class, so I think I did okay.  I’m glad I brought my computer, though.  I’d brought the Powerpoint presentation on a memory stick, and I found that the software on the drive interfered with the computer at the school seeing the files on the drive, confound it.  So we just plugged my netbook into the projector and I did the lecture from that.

If anyone was wondering about Powerpoint presentations and netbooks, I can say that mine (minimal animation, no animated media and no sound) did just fine for the talk.  I think I want a wireless slide advance thingie (how’s that for a technical term?) for the next time I do a lecture.  I prefer to stand in the front of the class.

It makes me more comfortable for the social networking class.   Most of the teach I’ve done has been exercise-based.  While I’ll have several exercises in the class, it’s going to be mostly lecture-based, and I was wondering how I’d do for lecturing without talking people through physical exercises.

It’s funny how perspective can change. I used to marvel at people who could speak “spontaneously” and fluidly on topics.   I ran across a comment once in Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein that sounding spontaneous is often a matter of careful preparation.  That’s so true.  I kept track of how long I spent prepping for that talk.   I spent just shy of eight hours for a one hour talk — and that was on a subject I knew pretty well.  Now, if I give the talk again, it’s unlikely that I’ll spend more than an hour and a half or so reviewing and tweaking.

Still, it was fun.  I find that I almost always learn more about a subject just from researching for lectures.   *chuckles* and looking at this pile of books on various elements of social networking and online interaction at my elbow, I expect I’ll experience the same thing in my class come January.

Traveling with a Netbook

I’m on a bus traveling down to the airport to catch a plane home.  I have a lot on my mind about the trip, and to distract myself, I’ve been working.

I often joke my office is my purse.   Okay, that’s not really a joke.   I’ve been reading a book to get ideas for a course I’m developing, checking my email (the bus has wi-fi) and generally just doing a lot of the things I ordinarily do as part of my morning’s work.

I’d gotten a netbook with an eye to the fact I travel a few times a year and wanted something not too expensive and easily portable. So far, I’m liking travelling with a netbook.  The good battery and the compact machine make it nice for crowded travel.  The fact that it’s light to carry and fits in a purse doesn’t hurt, either.

I think my next “big” computer is going to be a desktop I’ll sync with my netbook.  The desktop will deliver lots of computing power cheap, for when I need that.  Then I can do 90% of my work on my portable machine.   As a writer whose work is often web-based, I just don’t need the computing power you’d require for video editing or high-end gaming.