There’s this meme going around where people are encouraged to list the ten books that changed their life.
Well, a friend of mine (Terra LeMay) decided to change it to “ten pieces of fiction” because short stories, novelettes, novellas, flash, drabbles, etc. can also be transformative.
My problem is, I simply can’t limit it to ten. On my list of novels, alone, it comes to thirteen. With five more short stories.
So I decided to just toss out the rules and do it my own way. So here is the quasi-meme, “Ten or More Pieces of Fiction That Changed My Life.” With the life-changingness interpreted rather liberally. And in no certain order.
- It by Stephen King (1987)
This was the first book I literally stayed up all night to read (18 straight hours) because I literally could not put the thing down. Literally. It was super-glued to my hand. (OK, not literally.)
I had never seen the story-telling technique he used in this book where each alternate chapter was set in either the present or twenty-seven years in the past, when all the characters were children. And the chapters were from alternating POVs as well. I learned a lot about that type of story-telling from this book.
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis (1950)
I don’t list all seven of The Chronicles of Narnia or count all of them as a unit because it was reading that first one that made me want to live in a fictional world and have the story never, ever end. It was one of three books that lit the spark of writing in me.
As an aside, I still want to live in Narnia.
- 1984 by George Orwell (1950)
I was well into my adult years when I first read this, even though I was already very into dystopias. I was blown away by it. My mother got to gleefully say her “I told you so”s because she kept trying to get me to read it as a teenager, but it was Old™ and therefore Not Worth My Time™
Irony Alert: take a look at the publication dates on most of these books. I’m just sayin’. :)
Winston is a very good unreliable narrator, too, which adds a nice touch.
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
Pretty much the same thing. I read it way later in life than I should have, but it’s one of those books I re-read periodically because it’s just so wonderful.
It makes the list because of how well it holds up for something written so long ago.
- The Shining by Stephen King (1977)
This was the very first “adult” book I read. I was in the sixth grade (age 12) and the book had just come out earlier that year. A friend in my class had read it and made it sound deliciously frightening. Up until this time, all the “horror” books I had read purported to be True™ or Based on Actual Events™. (I was heavily into ghost stories and aliens and Bigfoot and the like.)
I got it from the Eutaw Library because I was pretty sure there was no way my mother would let me buy it if she knew what it was about. Shhh! Don’t tell her. :)
I still get chills when I think about the scene where the topiary animals are chasing Danny Torrence.
- The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (1937)
What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said? It got me interested in epic fantasy, fat books with a lot of pages, and conlangs (constructed languages and alphabets). (I guess those things have been said, but I repeated them anyway. Because I’m a rebel!)
- The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear by Oliver Butterworth (1960)
This one requires a bit of explanation. I read it in either fifth or sixth grade as part of my teacher’s Individualized Reading program. We would read books from her carefully selected classroom library and then take an oral test on it to prove we’d actually read it. We’d get points based on our knowledge and the reading level of the book. We had to read a certain number of points for each six-week period of the school year.
While I was reading this book, I was relentlessly harassed by the other boys in the class for reading a girl’s book. But it was good, and I didn’t care, and I finished it and enjoyed it, and got my points. I guess it taught me that just because a book is aimed at a target audience doesn’t mean others won’t or can’t enjoy it, too.
- Storm Front by Jim Butcher (2000)
I read a selection of a story I had just started writing in my newly joined critique group. Someone told me that my story and the style I wrote in reminded them of The Dresden Files‘ author Jim Butcher. I’d never heard of him or the series, so I picked up the first book and started reading. It introduced me to the entire genre which I’m now hopelessly in love with: urban fantasy.
And also, I want to be him when I grow up. That there’s already a him and that he’s younger than me are irrelevant.
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1973)
Another book written “for” girls but which I enjoyed immensely. Introduced me to tesseracts and was one of three books that lit the spark of writing in me.
- The Old Powder Line by Richard Parker (1974)
Also read as part of my teacher’s Individualized Reading program, I think it was the first book I had read where time travel was a major component of the story, and it dealt with sticky issues like what happens if you go back in time to before you were born.
- Dixie North by Herbert Burton (1976)
This one also requires a bit of background. My mother used to be the director of several things (over time) in the Hale County, Alabama education system. Sometimes, this led to her getting book samples. Sometimes, she brought these home to me. Sometimes, I actually read them. This may have been the first piece of fiction I read entirely voluntarily for pleasure. Plus, it was written by an author from Alabama. Who knew that famous writer-type-people could be from Alabama? It’s also one of the books actually aimed at boys, which is probably why I read it in fifth grade, just after it was published.
- Below the Root by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (1975)
To this day, this remains one of the pieces of fiction that my mind goes back to, randomly, from time to time. Such a wonderful story set in an imaginative world. Science fiction, probably mostly for girls, but we come back to that whole ‘audience’ thing.
One of the three books that lit the spark of writing in me.
- The Demu Trilogy by F. M. Busby (1984)
Once more, this requires just a small amount of background. I used to make lists of books for Christmas and birthdays that my parents would distribute to people who wanted to get me something I’d actually use. But this one time, my mother just happened to be walking through a book store, saw this book cover with a cool spaceship and alien worlds on the cover and thought, “I’ll bet Gary would like that,” so she got it. I was in college by this point. I read it . . . and it blew my mind. I’ve read it over and over. It’s just so wonderful. It’s an omnibus collection of three novels and two(?) novellas that ‘fill in the gaps’ between the novels. The ideas presented in this book are just . . . my head just . . . I have no words.
And here are the short stories.
- “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury (Colliers, May 6, 1950)
- “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury (The Saturday Evening Post, September 23, 1950 as “The World the Children Made”)
- “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March, 1954)
- “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin (Astounding Magazine, 1954)
- “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” by Ray Bradbury (Thrilling Wonder Stories, 1949, as “The Naming of Names”)
Each of those stories was mind-blowing to me. I read most of them while I was in middle school. They were in my Literature textbook (I believe), and like most kids that age, I read the entire book before school started.
What? You mean most people didn’t do that? What was wrong with them?
Anyway, the stories all stuck with me for years after I read them. I didn’t remember their names or the authors, but was able to find them later by asking a lot of questions online and running across them in anthologies and the like. Now, I’d just Google ‘em, but at the time, there was no Google! I know! How did we live?
Anyway, I hope that didn’t bore you too much. If nothing else, it gave me a nice distraction from a frustrating day of debugging code that should work but refuses to. Because it’s clearly sentient and hates me.
There are a lot of things in this world that I don’t understand. Most of them involve other people. I’m not really all that misanthropic, but the degree to which I am is entirely attributable to people acting . . . weird. Insane. Bizarre. Evilly. Take your pick of modifier.
One thing I really don’t get is spam comments on blogs. Especially small blogs, like mine. I don’t have thousands of subscribers. I have in the range of less than a dozen hits per day except when I make a new post, and then that number triples. So, really, what are they attempting to gain?
This was posted today. On my NaNoWriMo 2012, day 18 post. Which, if you don’t know how NaNoWriMo works, was posted on 11/18/2012. Nearly two years ago.
I enjoy what you guys are usually up too. Such clever work and reporting! Keep up the terrific works guys I’ve you guys to my personal blogroll.
The “person” who made the comment doesn’t link to a working website. It literally uses “example.com.” Clicking on the username would take another reader . . . precisely nowhere. So what, exactly, is the point of making the spam comment? No commerce can happen. No malware can infect. No personal information can be gleaned. I block all suspicious comments and moderate all comments from new commenters. I don’t make this a secret at all. So no one would ever have seen it had it not been for this post.
Five other spam comments made since I last cleaned out my spam folder all have spam/malware sites as the poster’s URL, so I can kind of see the point in those, even if I think the person doing it is a waste of DNA and air. But that one up there . . . just wow.
Here is the text of the other five, edited to remove product or website names. Why? Because they amuse me at the same time they baffle me. Would any native speaker of English — or any other language, for that matter — really think these were legitimate comments?
I arrive from the single relatives house remedy was not achievable and i had to battle it alone. At 19 I used to be considered recovered by frequent health practitioner but 4yrs of recovery i can let you know there is no these thing. Simply because I ended binging and stopped purging didn’t mean I used to be healthy or which i experienced the right mindset. I really never feel it ever goes away and i have tried using and unsuccessful countless diet programs since the line involving an consuming condition and diet plan is around invisible. For the initially time I experience I’m able to [BOGUS SPAM PRODUCT NAME] is a good helper for t and do it the right way but that doesn’t indicate it really is not a battle. Acquiring over the scale I worry nearly every time and this previous week seeing nearly 50 % a pound just about killed me but a lot additional poor arrived from good for all those 6yrs. [6/21 on this post]
In my knowledge, the selection around the scale flat traces a little bit then [FALSO ESTAFA EL NOMBRE DEL PRODUCTO] is slower. This is attributable mostly to h2o, not fat, rather than muscle mass progress. You actually never make considerable muscle although eating in a deficit. I’ve found that my prior 1-1.5 Lbs for every 7 days decline on the scale has turned into .5 to .seventy five Lbs for each week thanks largely to drinking water expected for muscle maintenance….perhaps a teeny weenie itsy bitsy muscle mass advancement, but very little appreciable that may present up on the scale me thinks…only been undertaking this 30 days or so. [6/21 on this post]
Everyone loves what you guys are usually up too. Such clever work and coverage! Keep up the fantastic works guys I’ve you guys to blogroll.| [6/20 on this page; link was to a different FALSO ESTAFA EL NOMBRE DEL PRODUCTO]
However, nothing can be compared to an Internet-based outdoor network which allows users to share all of their exciting hunting stories on the web for others to read and discuss. I hunted in Connecticut, still all the old timers swore by Arkansas hound dogs. Game sites are extensive, and it is easy to get lost. [6/19 on this post; link was to a site my company has blocked]
The Pumpkin Wizard provides template patters by theme. Make tiny spiders from black chenille stems and attach them to the cobwebs. ” Make sure it’s shouted in a French accent as well. [6/16 on this post (OH. THE. IRONY.); site is a malware 'gaming' site.]
If I were evil, I’d take money to spam. I mean, it must be lucrative or no one would do it, right? But my bogus comments would be written in standard English. Some of those just hurt my head to read. I guess I could never really be a spammer. I’d twitch too much at the horrible grammar. Although I did laugh out loud at the last one exhorting me to shout something that isn’t made clear in a French accent. Because that’s apparently a thing.
Well . . . all right, then.
<‘Orrible Franch akSONT> «I’m French. Why do you think I have this outrageous accent, you silly king?» </’Orrible Franch akSONT>
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out in the end. They either never received the check, or ignored it. And then when I contacted them, I was told they had been on vacation and just hadn’t checked the mail. I gave them another several weeks. During which I attempted to contact them several times. To no avail. Finally, when my “trial” account was in danger of once more expiring and I had heard nothing, I finally just saved everything I’d written and cancelled the account. Oh, and stopped payment on the check I sent. Little danger of them cashing it after more than two months, but still. Better safe than sorry.
I have nothing against the site or the way it operated. What I have to negatively rate is the customer service, or the lack thereof. It’s just not professional to ignore people who are trying their damnedest to give you money. I’m rather stunned by this, but whatever.
So I guess my assessment is this: It’s a good site, and I’d recommend it if you’re not opposed to PayPal or their rather high monthly cost, and if you don’t need or want any sort of professional customer service on a timely basis.
It was nice to have a prompt to write every morning, and a ticking timer saying, “You only have x hours left!” each time I looked at the page. But it was apparently not meant to be.
A few years back, I got on a ‘best films of all time’ kick, telling myself that I’d watch the highest-rated films from the silent era up through whatever year it was. I dove into silent films with a vengeance, curious to see Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in their heyday, as well as seminal films such as Nosferatu, Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and The Passion of Joan of Arc. I thoroughly enjoyed them all. (Watch them. Watch them all.)
Because these were DVDs, most of them had commentary tracks. So I’d watch them without the commentary first, then again with commentary. Sometimes multiple times, if there was more than one commentary track. (No, I’m not OCD, why do you ask?)
I forget which silent film I was watching — I only know it was one of the Charlie Chaplin films — when the commentator (Leonard Maltin) remarked on a unique aspect of silent films that had never occurred to me before, and which has forever changed the way I consume them when I do so.
The scene was Chaplin, as the lovable but hapless tramp, waddling down the middle of a railroad track, oblivious to the fact that there is a giant steam locomotive approaching him from behind. The train gets closer . . . and closer . . . and closer . . . and then just as it’s about to hit him, he blithely steps off the tracks, avoiding certain death by mere inches.
He never once reacts to the fact that he has narrowly escaped death. Because he never turned around to see the train. Because . . . it’s a silent film. He couldn’t hear it. Wait. What?
As I watched, I was tense. “There’s a train coming! Get out of the way, you idiot!” And as he stepped off the track, there was a corresponding release of tension. The “Whew!” moment when the hero narrowly escapes whatever peril the world / villain has in store for him. I had bought into the world entirely.
Maltin made me aware of something I had never considered while watching: we, as the audience, accept the fact that these are silent films. Only certain things make noise, even though we don’t hear them, the character does. Dogs barking, someone calling their name, dropped plates shattering on the floor — they “hear” all of this, and react to it.
But the train? He couldn’t hear it, or even feel the vibrations through the tracks. Because in the world of the silent movie, if the character doesn’t react to it, the audience knows that it is truly silent.
Never mind that in the real world, he would have heard the train approaching and leapt to safety long before death was nigh. Steam locomotives were among some of the loudest machines in the environment at the time, and yet he gave no indication that he heard it.
If a passer-by had shouted, “Hey! Look out! There’s a train!” the tramp would have “heard” and reacted. But not a train as it barrels down on him. This is remarkable if you stop to think about it. It’s never explained. You just get it.
Now. What if this were a short story, instead? Or a “talkie” film? It simply wouldn’t work at all, because we wouldn’t buy the premise.
A scene that always bothered me in the first Harry Potter film reminds me of this. There’s a pivotal scene in chapter 10 of the book in which Harry and Ron, already best buds, Seamus, Hermione, and a bunch of other first-years are attending Professor Flitwick’s class, and he is teaching the students the spell for levitation of an object.
“Now, don’t forget that nice wrist movement we’ve been practicing!” squeaked Professor Flitwick, perched on top of his pile of books as usual. “Swish and flick, remember, swish and flick. And saying the magic words properly is very important, too — never forget Wizard Baruffio, who said ‘s’ instead of ‘f’ and found himself on the floor with a buffalo on his chest.”
It was very difficult. Harry and Seamus swished and flicked, but the feather they were supposed to be sending skyward just lay on the desktop. Seamus got so impatient that he prodded it with his wand and set fire to it — Harry had to put it out with his hat.
Ron, at the next table, wasn’t having much more luck.
“Wingardium Leviosa!” he shouted, waving his long arms like a windmill.
“You’re saying it wrong,” Harry heard Hermione snap. “It’s Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the ‘gar’ nice and long.”
“You do it, then, if you’re so clever,” Ron snarled.
Hermione rolled up the sleeves of her gown, flicked her wand, and said, “Wingardium Leviosa!”
It all works well on paper, and we, the readers, accept it without much thought. Because we, as readers, can’t actually see the swish and flick of the wand, nor hear Flitwick say the words.1 But then, neither can Ron, Harry, Seamus, or Hermione. We gloss over that fact while reading. It’s just part of the world.
And then the movie came out. And there is Professor Flitwick standing in front of the class, and he clearly says, “Wingaaardium leviooosa!” and equally clearly demonstrates the wand action. We can hear him and see him do so right there, in Technicolor and Dolby Surround.
And yet . . . only Hermione can apparently use her ears and eyes, because none of the other young witches and wizards gets it even close to right. We hear them mangling the pronunciation — Ron manages something like ‘wingardria leviosaaa — and hideously over-exaggerating the subtle swish-flick of the wand.
But we had just seen and heard the correct pronunciation and wand actions as Flitwick demonstrates them moments before on screen. Which Hermione then duplicates in her condescending tone to Ron.
What worked perfectly in the book simply made no sense on the big screen. Something bothered me about it immediately, but I didn’t really close in on what it was until much later when it dawned on me. It’s the same as Chaplin’s silent locomotive.
It would have made more sense if, say, Flitwick had a thick accent of some sort the students weren’t used to hearing, such as Russian.2 But with Flitwick and the students all being some flavor of British, they’d have grown up at least hearing the various accents spoken around them all their lives (on TV, if nothing else), and would get awfully close.3
Which brings up another point. There are languages that have sounds which English does not, and languages without sounds English does have. Would a Japanese witch be simply unable to cast the levitation spell because the ‘w’ doesn’t exist in her language? Would a wizard with an l/w lisp be likewise unable, because he couldn’t properly pronounce “leviosa”? Would he wind up with a wombat on his chest?
But I digress. :)
I find it interesting, is all, how sometimes the medium in which something is presented plays a huge role in whether the thing makes sense to the audience, and how translating it to another medium loses something fundamental.
- More importantly, Flitwick never actually speaks the words ‘wingardium leviosa’ in the book. (I checked.) I guess we’re supposed to either believe that the students read the words in their book — and Flitwick inexplicably never teaches them the proper pronunciation — or he did so off-scene.
- Rowling does, in fact, do this later, in the character of Bulgarian wizard Viktor Krum, who can’t pronounce Hermione’s name, and whose speech Rowling portrays phonetically, for example, in this question he asks Harry: “I vant to know vot there is between you and Hermy-own-ninny.”
- In the same way that, although I was born and raised entirely within the state of Alabama, I heard accents from all over the United States on television all the time, and knew that ‘dawg’ and ‘dwaug’ both meant the same four-legged, barky animal. I had an internal translation table. The same as a British kid would have had for ‘translating’ between a Geordi accent and a Scottish one.
So. Where have I been? I made all those posts about improving stuff and then, basically, disappeared.
I have made quite a few changes. The first one was ordering the FitBit Flex. I received it in the mail before the last couple of posts went live (I pre-wrote them and had them scheduled to publish). I wore it for a couple of weeks to get a “base level” of sleep and activity, just to see what it would say. More on that below.
I also implemented the sleep schedule thing, where I quit using my alarm clock altogether. The startling innovation was to simply go to sleep early enough that I would wake up naturally in plenty of time to get to work at a decent time. That was the biggest, most wonderful change. I haven’t awakened tired a single time since I did that. The alarm always made me feel kind of logy all day, because it would wake me up in the middle of deep sleep. More on that shortly.
I’ve cut back severely (as in more than 50%) on my YouTube subscriptions. I went through and ruthlessly deleted any channels for which I didn’t automatically think, “I must watch their latest video.” I’ve also added some new ones, but for the most part, they’re shorter videos. And every time one of my remaining subscriptions puts up a new video and I think, “Meh,” I unsubscribe.
I rearranged all of my podcasts into eight categories, and prioritized those so that I have playlists for various activities. The Fiction and Serialized Fiction categories are mostly for driving, since that’s when I can pay deeper attention and I’m not distracted (mentally) by other things. The other categories (General, Writing, Education, Skeptical, Entertainment, and Video) are for when I’m doing other things, such as working or browsing Facebook or whatever. To handle all of the back-issues of podcasts I have sitting on my hard drive, I add one old, unheard episode of each podcast to the proper category so that I pretty much have to listen to all the archived stuff before I get to the new ones. So I’m making good headway on getting through all those back episodes. Plus hearing some great stories and interviews and such along the way.
I did join 750 Words. The site’s owner was willing to work with me on the whole PayPal thing, and I was able to mail her a check for a year’s worth of membership. There’s a slight problem with that right now, and I’m unable to get to the site since May 1, but I’m hoping that will get cleared up post haste.
What I have discovered in all this is that I do not, as I previously thought, sleep seven hours. I sleep until the sun wakes me up. It didn’t seem to matter what time I went to bed, if it was after midnight. I’d wake up when the sun came into my bedroom and thwacked me right in the face. So I put a dark curtain on that window, and that has helped me sleep past sunrise. The earlier I go to bed, the more contiguous, good sleep I get. (Kind of a duh, I know.)
The FitBit has several options, such as wearing it on your dominant or non-dominant hand. Well, thanks to Things (see below), I’ve been wearing it on my non-dominant hand but claiming that it is my dominant hand. I find that it’s not very accurate, but it’s not accurate in a consistent way. So having the base level helps me more accurately define whatever step-based (or distance-based) goal I might want in the future.
But since shortly after I did all of that, everything has been on pause. Back in July of 2013, I fell at work and caught my entire body weight on my outstretched right arm. This . . . did things to my shoulder and elbow joints. Bad things. (Compression fracture in the elbow and torn rotator cuff and tendon in the shoulder.) Exacerbating the healing process is the fact that I am exceptionally right-handed. As I’ve said in other places, if my right hand is Albert Einstein, my left hand is that one weird kid who eats bugs and has conversations with hammers. It has not been a fun nine months.
Because the accident happened at work, I’ve been having to wade through the constant red-tape-laden swamp of dealing with Workers Comp. It took me until after I made my last post to get approved for surgery to fix my shoulder (the elbow healed on its own).
On April 18th, I finally had shoulder surgery. Outpatient, arthroscopic surgery.
After about 3 days — and several doses of the good pain meds — I could type for short periods of time, and over the intervening two weeks, I’ve gotten slowly more able to use my arm for longer periods of time and for things which require more flexibility and strength. It’s not by any means back to normal, yet.
But what this does mean is that my sleep schedule is screwed up majorly because I don’t sleep well on my left side or with a shoulder that hurts if I put it in the wrong position. I can’t write much because my shoulder aches if I overuse it. It’s hard to put on shoes or a belt because of the shoulder muscles I apparently use to tie shoe laces and tighten a belt. I’m getting better, and fairly quickly, all things considered. But it is a process, and so certain things have had to take a back seat.
As soon as I’m able to drive, wear shoes and belts, and work again, I should be able to put some of these other planned things into play.
But for now, I’m mostly working my way slowly through the podcast backlog and napping a lot in my armchair.
If you’re at all interested in the amazingly “fun” process I’ve gone through in dealing with Workers Comp, I’ve blogged a lot of it over on my LiveJournal blog. It’s for ranting, which is what I tend to do when I talk about this whole process for very long.
Warning: For the first few parts, I don’t think I use too much NSFW language, and I try to make each rant as amusing/entertaining as possible, because I know people don’t like to read long rants. Part 8, however, is mostly a profanity-ridden tirade. I just wanted you to be forewarned.
In my two experiences with Weekend Warrior — the contest on Codex Writers where participants are given prompts for five weeks and have approximately 54 hours to write a 750-word flash piece inspired by one of the prompts — I’ve received a good bit of very terse feedback, one particular recurring phrase of which I had taken to be a negative, because I honestly had no idea what it meant, but it sounded bad. Weekend Warrior critiques are just a few words, with no space or time for in-depth commentary.
<digression> From a reader’s perspective, it may sound like I’m completely obsessed with Weekend Warrior and with critiques and that I spend all my waking time dwelling on it. I don’t. This blog is about writing, so if something occurs to me that clarifies my writing or reading patterns, I may write about it. But there are many other things that occupy my time, and I have spent no more time dwelling on Weekend Warrior or the critiques therefrom than any of you have spent worrying about whether Kim Kardashian . . . uh, I have nowhere to go after that, because I couldn’t care less. But that’s my point. I go weeks without thinking about it, and then a little whisper in the recesses of my frontal lobe surfaces: “‘Workmanlike language': what does that even mean?” So bear with me, and please don’t go away with the impression that I’m obsessed. :) Now, back to my blog post, already in progress.</digression>
So, the other day, I saw the same phrase used on some forum . . . and it was quite obviously a compliment. So I asked a friend of mine, Terra LeMay, who recently acquired an agent for her novel and for whom I could not be more excited, “What does ‘workmanlike language’ mean to you?” I explained in what contexts I’d heard it.
Her answer not only surprised me, but has given me quite a bit of insight to my own writing and why I inexplicably don’t like some stories / books that are otherwise well-written.
‘Workmanlike language’ basically means that the words that tell the story don’t stand out. Don’t draw attention to themselves. There are no turns of phrase that make you stop reading and say, “Wow! That was beautiful!” and then read it again and again, with the words rolling off your (figurative or literal) tongue. In other words, to quote William Shakespeare out of context, “The play’s the thing.” (Actually, quoting Shakespeare, here, who is quite well-known for his beautiful, often lyrical and surprising turns of phrase was probably not a good choice. Nevertheless, I’m going to go with it.). The words stay out of the way, letting the story — the millieu, ideas, characters, and events — be the star.
And it dawned on me: this is not a negative remark (although it’s possible some people might have meant it that way): it’s positive, for me.
Because this is what I strive to do. It is also what I look for in the things I read.
My feeling about writing and reading is that if you’re paying attention to the words, you’re not giving enough attention to what they’re saying. My characters don’t enunciate with mellifluous melismatic ease . . . they talk. Or perhaps speak.
Now, I can look back on some very good books that . . . I’ve just been kind of ‘meh’ about. Because, as Gloria Estéfan might say, “the words get in the way.”
I like some of them in spite of the flowery language (and I don’t mean ‘flowery’ as an insult, much in the same way that ‘workmanlike’ is not an insult now that I know what it means) because they have the other elements that I want in equal measure. So I can read a novel or story with flowery, expressive language that draws attention to itself, but as long as the story itself holds my interest, I’m fine. I might even pause over a particularly well-put-together sentence and marvel at it and wish I’d written it.
A recent example is Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, which I read as part of a reading group I belong to. Most everyone else seemed to like it, but it just left me high and dry. They were all talking about the beautiful, poetic language while I was saying, “All the absurd stuff lost me.”1 I was focusing on the story; they were focusing on the language, and the stuff behind the language.
It also dawns on me as I type this blog post that this very issue is probably the problem I have with most poetry. In poetry, the words are key, and the beautiful turn of phrase is the point.
Since we’re already talking about Shakespeare, compare these two side-by-side excerpts from Hamlet, Act III, scene 1, in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are telling Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia about their encounter with Hamlet:
Nor do we find him forward to be sounded
But with a crafty madness keeps aloof
When we would bring him on to some confession
Of his true state.
|“And he’s not exactly eager to be interrogated. He’s very sly and dances around our questions when we try to get him to talk about how he feels,” Guildenstern said.|
Did he receive you well?
|“Did he treat you well when you saw him?” asked Gertrude.|
[Note: Text on left is public domain. The modern English explication on the right is taken from the No Fear Shakespeare website and used entirely without permission, but I'm pretty sure it falls under fair use. I merely added the quotes and attribution, like you'd see in dialogue in a novel.]
Shakespeare’s original language is beautiful. It’s in iambic pentameter, it rhymes, and each word is carefully chosen to convey meaning and still remain faithful to the form. The right-hand text is ‘workmanlike prose.’ It’s more like what I would write in a story, and far closer to what I would rather read. The meaning is conveyed, but while I might quote Shakespeare, I will only remember the meaning conveyed by the words on the right.
Of course, certain caveats apply here: Shakespeare was writing a play in a strict form requiring rhyme and meter and a certain flair for a turn of phase. He even made words up when existing ones didn’t suffice. But if I were reading a modern adaptation of Hamlet in the form of a novel, I would expect to see language much more consistent with what’s on the right. Because people actually speak that way. The words and their arrangement don’t obfuscate what is being said. The prose form doesn’t require that normal sentence structure be subverted to fit a rhyme or meter.
So I guess what I’m trying to get around to saying2 is this: each individual writer (and reader) uses language that not only makes them comfortable, but excites them and is appropriate for the work itself.
And for me, that is often “workmanlike language.” :)
- The very point at which it lost me was when his wife came to visit him in prison and brought all the household belongings, members of her family, the cat, etc, and spent the entire time talking to everyone but him, as he basically cowered in his crowded cell speaking to no one. I did get that there were a number of metaphors and a lot of symbolism going on, but it was at that point that I just stopped caring and said, ‘This is too far out in Absurdland for me to even see the way home.’
- I often have a point, and I sometimes actually get around to making it. :)
I frequently have vivid dreams that involve quite elaborate plots that, on occasion, stick with me after awakening. Unfortunately, almost as soon as I start thinking about the day ahead — the minute my eyes open — the wistful vapors of the dream vanish and the ideas are gone.
I also tend to get writing ideas at times when my brain is otherwise disengaged, but my body is doing something habitual. The two main times this happens are when I’m driving and when I’m showering. If it weren’t for driving and showering — in addition to me being a social pariah and being unable to work — I’d have virtually no ideas for writing.
The third time my disengaged brain offers ideas up to me is in those few minutes between when the sleep monster begins to immobilize my body and when I drift off into unconsciousness. The sheets are so nice and soft, the blanket so snug, the pillow supports my head just right . . . and then blam, an idea pops into my head. A really good idea.
For that scene that I can’t seem to finish, or to end the story I’m having trouble with. And my brain whispers to me, “Don’t worry. It’s a great idea. I’ve got this.”
Because my brain is a lying bastard. It never remembers. Never. Oh, it remembers that I had an idea, and that it solved that sticky problem I was having, and that it was a beautiful, shining idea that would set animated animals to singing and dancing around me if I could only . . . remember . . . the actual content of the idea, and not that there was an idea. Of some sort. That was good.
So I decided that I would keep a notepad next to my bed. One of those big, yellow legal pads, and a pen.
I need to back up for a moment to explain that I have this . . . medical condition called Recurrent Corneal Erosion. You can Google it if you wish, but suffice to say, it means that I have to put ointment in both eyes every night before sleeping or I have a very good chance of tearing the cornea of one or both eyes when I wake up in the morning. I’m not telling you this to squick you out or to elicit medical advice — believe me, if you can think it, it has already been thought by me or suggested by others. The ointment works great, usually about 99% of the time. About once per month or so, I’ll end up tearing a cornea and have to miss a day of work. It’s just . . . a thing that happens, and has been happening for the better part of twenty years. But my telling it serves to explain some of what is about to be related.
The ointment is thick and has the texture of petroleum jelly, and is opaque, so it impairs my vision almost completely. I can distinguish light from dark, and vague shapes. That’s about it.
I kept the notepad by the bed for quite a while. I’d wake up with a dream or an idea, and I’d write as much of it down as I could, but since I can’t actually focus my eyes on anything because of the ointment, my handwriting is . . . sub-optimal.
So I guess you could say it sort of worked. And as I got used to having the notepad next to the bed, I’d retain more dreams and ideas just long enough to jot something down before burrowing back under the covers and getting more sleep.
And then it happened.
I woke up out of a sound sleep. I had had an Idea. Not just an idea, mind you: An Idea. The best, shiniest, most magnificent Idea in the history of Ideas. It would make a fantastic story.
And it was so singular an Idea (to borrow vocabulary from H. P. Lovecraft) that a single word — as from the Oracle at Delphi — would suffice to remind me of the entirety of this beautiful, blossom-like Idea.
Squinting in the general direction of the notepad, brain clamoring for more sleep, I grabbed the pen and scribbled down this singular word that was absolutely sure to bring back the entirety of the Idea to me upon waking.
Smiling the smile of the satisfied, I put down the pen and the pad on my night table, put my head back on the pillow, and slept for several more hours, content in the knowledge that all was saved.
The alarm went off later that morning and I awoke, as usual, remembering that I had had An Idea. That it was a very, very excellent Idea, and that the story that would spring, Athena-like, wholly and beautifully formed from my mind upon seeing the word that appeared on the notepad would practically write itself because it was Just That Good.
I quickly stumbled into the bathroom and using a clean towel and warm water, cleaned the ointment out of my eyes, then hurried back into the bedroom.
I approached the table, giddy with anticipation. I could see that there was a single word on the pad, in crude, blue letters, blocky and spiky, diagonally scrawled across the yellow paper.
I picked it up.
I looked at it.
And thought, “What?”
The word that I wrote that night was this: SkullCosm
Just that. SkullCosm. Three syllables, capitalized exactly like that.
I sat heavily on the bed, wracking my brain. What could it mean? It was clearly some kind of cyberpunk thing, right? A cosm, or ‘world,’ inside a skull, or the mind.
But . . . I don’t read cyberpunk, or even much enjoy it. Much less write it.
Nothing. Not a single thing remained from that fantastic Idea I had but the single word I found scribbled in blue ink, as though written by someone not looking at the paper.
To this day, I have no clue. None. Zero. Zilch. The place in my brain which should be occupied by whatever marvelous Idea that, in a perfect world, would have been recalled in toto by the word SkullCosm has so far remained a void, filled only with the sound of a soul-crushing wind blowing through a desert of pain.
Well, that’s a little melodramatic, but you get my point.
I’ve carried the word around with me for years, now, playing around with it in my head, seeing if the shape of it fit any of the incomplete puzzles in my head. It’s never a good fit. The puzzle from which SkullCosm was left over was obviously constructed using non-Euclidean geometry.
I’ve tried on two occasions to force a story using SkullCosm as the seed word. To no avail. The non-Euclidean edges of the word are too hard to focus on clearly, and they keep causing the rest of the puzzle to warp and collapse.
In a last-ditch attempt to get some use of the word, I sent it to Len Peralta when he was doing his Monster By Mail campaign to raise money after the birth of one of their children. Just to see what an artist accustomed to drawing monsters would do with it.
I think he mistook ‘cosm’ for ‘plasm’ based on the picture I received back, shown above. But I like it, and it captures perfectly my frustration upon knowing that SkullCosm should but ultimately fails to trigger the memory of that perfect, shining story Idea that my brain cruelly forgot.
So if you ever see me mention the word SkullCosm, you’ll now know to what it refers.
The last two buckets that I mentioned on an earlier post were “Social” and “Family.” I’ve rambled on about ways to gamify the others, because I tend to do better when there are goals with deadlines and rewards (SMART goals, maybe?), but not necessarily punishments. Writing, Health, and Work were fairly conducive to doing that.
But Social? Family?
Not so much. How do you gamify that kind of thing?
What it boils down to is that I don’t really need to. If anything, I actually need to reduce my participation in some social things and transfer that to spending time with my family. We all have busy lives, and as we get older, with more responsibilities and more activities that claim our interests, we — or at least I — tend to have a busy schedule for eight or ten weekends out, and finding times to do stuff gets harder and harder. My D&D gaming group went for nearly ten months without meeting because there was just no weekend where all of us could meet.
I don’t consider myself a social butterfly, but I have several circles of friends, and if possible, I want to spend time with each of them.
Back when I first moved to Atlanta from Alabama, I had been visiting my mother every other weekend or so. At the time, that was approximately ten hours of driving round trip. I don’t mind driving, because that’s time I can listen to podcasts or catch up on audiobooks. That kept up for a while, but these days, I’m “so busy,” I don’t get down to visit her but every six weeks or so. So instead of turning anything into a game, what it comes down to is scheduling mom-time first, even if it conflicts with other things, and my friends will understand. :) I don’t have to be at every critique session or whatever. My mother is reading this, and I’m sure she’s in total agreement.
As far as the social bucket goes, most of that is just a matter of learning when to say “no” to things. I almost always say ‘yes’ to events on the weekends, because I like doing stuff with people. But when it gets to be every single weekend, it makes it hard to find time to do things like visit my mother. Or just to have a breather.
Just in March, 2014, the first weekend was free, but only because something else fell through. The second weekend had an all-day gaming session on Saturday and a critique session on Sunday. The third weekend has three social events, two of which conflict, so I had to choose between them. The fourth weekend is free, and finally, the last weekend of the month has a critique session for which I’m potentially submitting something (Deadline!). So that third weekend will be when I go down to visit my mother.
My “Social” bucket contains such things as spending time with friends, watching TV, YouTube, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, and such. The TV watching happens mostly on week nights after dinner. We’ll watch an episode each of Buffy and Angel, or two Jonathan Creeks or a Doctor Who or two (we’re deep into David Tennant’s second season, at the moment, with Martha as the companion, in case you care). That can easily be put off until after I’ve written for the day.
Facebook doesn’t really take that much time. I spend more time on it than I should between stuff at work, but it falls away during the evening. Twitter I mostly use for those times when I’m waiting somewhere and I need something to entertain me for twenty minutes on my phone. Podcasts I do while I’m doing other things.
YouTube, though. That’s the biggest time-suck. I’m subscribed to 332 channels on YouTube. Now, in my defense, not all of them are active channels. And I only get notifications in email if new content is posted on 124 of those. And of those 124, most of them are short subjects, like science updates or song covers.1
But it does underscore a problem. I spend far too much time watching other people living their lives and less time living my own. So my first order of business is culling the 332 down to maybe just the active ones that I care enough about to be alerted when they update. And then we’ll work on figuring out which of those 124 can go.2
I mean, they could all go. It’s not like I absolutely must watch the videos. But I do enjoy them, and it is my main form of entertainment, so cold turkey doesn’t make sense. Maybe I could use the Social bucket as rewards for success of the other buckets?
Now that’s an idea. I’ll give that a try. :)
This concludes my ‘gamification’ series of posts. I know they weren’t much about writing, but I’m sure I’ll get back to that topic post haste. :)
The title of today’s post is a quote by John C. Maxwell (an American clergyman born in 1947).
All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. All work and . . . wait. This isn’t The Shining and I’m certainly not Jack Nicholson.
So, in my last post, I asked a question: how can one gamify work?
I consider my writing part of my work. But it is not (yet) what I am paid to do. One day I’d like that to be the case, but realistically, I’ll be doing this job or one just like it for many years to come. Because, frankly, I like to eat, have clothing to wear, shelter over my head, and affordable health insurance. Just little stuff like that. Anything after that is gravy. Mmm, gravy.
Where was I? Oh, right.
I’ve been working in1 this company for going on nine years. In fact, depending on how you calculate the number of days I’ve worked in various places, on April 21, 2014, I will have been working for my current employer longer than any other.
When I interviewed for the job back in 2005, I made it clear that I’m not a ladder-climber. I didn’t want my boss’s job. I don’t have a big desire to be The Guy Everyone Comes To For Answers™. I mean, we already have several of those, so why encroach on their territory?2 And I certainly don’t want to be someone who has the power to hire and fire. I’m not cut out for that; it’s not in my personality.
That can, however, lead to a certain degree of stagnation. I’ve basically been doing the same type of things in my job for my entire tenure. Maintaining existing code. Writing new code, sure, but usually nothing exciting and different. Doing documentation. And putting in my eight hours per day (and no more, because although I get paid for overtime, if I work overtime, I have to justify why I needed it3).
I’ve definitely been going through the motions, walking through the part. Sitting at my desk, doing what I’m asked, but little more. Being useful and productive enough that they have no desire to get rid of me, but not so useful or productive that anyone feels the need to promote me or pay me a higher salary. I admit it. I’ve become complacent.
And it’s not about the money. I’m overpaid as it is, for what I do. I know this and go through bouts of being uncomfortable with it. But to live in certain areas, one has to either believe the hype and one’s own inflated self-worth, or one has to be OK with looking at one’s paycheck stub and thinking, “I can’t believe they pay me this,” while simultaneously being OK with the fact that the person in the next cube might be getting half or twice that number. And also being OK with the fact that much younger people who’ve been with the company for less time have been promoted while you’re still in the same position. Or they may have moved on to greener pastures, if this place doesn’t value their contributions adequately.
All this is getting around to saying that it’s time I make a change on this front as well. Those 8 hours per day that they pay me to sit here and do my job can also be spent learning new things. We have all kinds of training courses available for employees of my company. I could even get involved in Six Sigma, if I wanted to, and help identify and eliminate wasteful spending. They always need new green belts.
And that doesn’t even count me just buying a book and studying it at my desk, on my own copious free time.4 As long as I’m doing something that the company sees as valuable, they’ll be OK with it.
And it’s not all work-related training, either. There’s a Weight Watchers group here at work, and they meet onsite during work hours every Thursday. There’s a group who does fitness training on-site during and after work hours out in the parking lot or in one of the conference rooms if weather is bad. They have a trainer and everything.
There’s even a ToastMasters group that threatened to form, but no one wanted to take the reins. Maybe that person is me. The company is providing all of this for massive discounts or for free. And that doesn’t count stuff I don’t know about because I haven’t really looked into what’s available. (See ‘going through the motions’ above.)
And I’m not a moron, I know that there’s something in it for them, as well, or they wouldn’t offer it. Lower healthcare costs for healthier, happier employees. Better employees with greater knowledge and training. Go-getters instead of loiterers. Higher profits, happier customers.
So I’ll be looking into training courses, first. The other stuff will have to wait until I can take care of a slight medical issue. I’m being vague on purpose, yes. Suffice it to say, strenuous exercise is right out for the moment, but perhaps the Weight Watchers is a place to start.
It’s funny how all this circled around back to health, isn’t it? Maybe not. Having an active, engaging work life is a good part of mental health. Most of my active, engaging mental life comes from hanging out with friends, listening to podcasts, and watching YouTube videos. I love learning. I’ve just been looking at work-related learning in the wrong way.
So. Gamifying work could (heh) work as long as I keep track of it. I’ll work (more heh) on that and let you know what I work up (heh . . . yeah, three was one too many).
And to bring this whole post back around to writing, which is what this blog is specifically about: The happier I am, the more likely I’ll be to enjoy writing more, and do more of it. I’m continuing to use 750words.com daily. This post was written after 5 pm while waiting on a unit test to complete. As of the end of this sentence, it was 862 words (on the first pass).
Which is quite adequate, I think. So I’ll stop here, and save the topic of my family and social buckets for another post.
- The choice of prepositions was quite deliberate. I worked for my current employer for about eight and a half months as a contractor before they hired me permanently. So ‘in’ but not ‘for.’ It’s a tiny distinction, but it’s there.
- More importantly, why be the person they wake up at 2 AM when something goes wrong? That used to be me at my first long-term job. I’m pretty much done with that.
- A few years ago, thanks to a lawsuit in California, tech workers below a certain level were redesignated as hourly workers and were therefore eligible for overtime pay. Rather than wait for this to percolate through all the other states, my company (which I believe is based in San Francisco) preemptively did this a few years ago. And paid us back pay for any overtime we had reported for the prior two years. Because I’m very diligent at recording butt-chair hours, I got a rather sizable sum of money, while all the people who just reported straight eights per day got bupkis. But now, they view working overtime as evidence of bad time management skills or an inability to do the work. So if you do have to work overtime, you keep it to yourself. Which is exactly the same thing we had when we were salaried, but without the implied threat.
- I’m only being partially facetious. There are weeks that go by with very little in the way of billable hours (as it were) for me to do. Earlier this week, I asked my team lead, “What should I be working on next?” and her answer was, “Nothing’s been approved yet, but I’m sure something will next week.” It goes like that: some weeks, there are tumbleweeds blowing through my schedule; other weeks, I’d have to be three people to get everything done on time.
Ten points if you caught the subtle Buffy the Vampire Slayer reference. Ten more if you have the music in your head right now.
By the end of my last post, I figured out a way to make the writing more fun using gaming. But what about some of the other buckets?
How can I gamify health, for example? On the surface of it, that shouldn’t be all that difficult. After all, what did we do in recess and P. E. all those year ago in school? We ran around and played games. The problem is . . . I don’t really enjoy doing that. I enjoy playing tennis, or used to, before I gained a bunch of weight. But tennis isn’t something you just go out and do. You have to have a partner, and you have to have one that’s approximately your own level of skill or it blows.
One of my friends has a little device called a fitbit that seems to be something I should look into. She runs, and it reports how far she ran and how long it took to do so, and it maintains a graph so that these daily “scores” are visible on her Facebook page.
I’ve been thinking about doing something like that. Not running. I don’t run unless chased. And frankly, the guy better have a chainsaw. No, I’m talking about with other activities, like walking.
The previous times when I’ve tried something like that, it’s failed ultimately because it’s during the dead of winter (which in spite of reports, can actually get pretty cold here in Hotlanta) or the blazing heat of summer (105 in the shade with a 95% humidity), and/or because it’s hard to teach the devices I tried what a “step” is for me.
I’m a heavy guy. When I wear a regular step-meter on my belt, it turns at an angle and isn’t always accurate. I wore it a few times at work, and it reported that I had walked 10,000+ steps when I knew for a fact I had not. It was recording each time I shifted in my chair or . . . who knows what it was counting. The point is: it was wrong. The fitbit is a wristband, and that attracts me.
The company sent me a new device after it turned out there were design issues, but I never took it out of the box. Maybe I can figure out a way to make it accurate, and then have it report to the world to keep me honest. The only way this is going to work is if I’m required to be honest. :)
Until I can get a fitbit.
“They” say that it takes twenty-one days to form a new habit, but only a few to break. Would me forcing myself to walk three days per week for seven weeks do it? Could I also include some time on the several machines we have here at the house in that total to add up to something approaching respectable? We have an elliptical, a treadmill, and a kind of a cross-country skiing kind of a thing. Ish. <makes vague gestures in the air>
Only time will tell, ultimately, but I hope to try.
The other aspect of health that I mentioned a couple of posts ago was sleep. I get far too little sleep. Well, that’s something I can and actually have been doing something about. When I realized I was staying up until 1:00 or 2:00 AM almost every night . . . just because, I then realized I could also put a stop to it . . . equally because. With only a few exceptions (due to medication or a late night at work), I have been to bed by midnight every night for the last ten or eleven days.
And without exception, I have awakened naturally between six and seven hours later, with no help from the now-shut-off alarm. This gives me plenty of time to get to work by a reasonable hour, and feeling rested and mostly ready to face the day.
Next, I’ll try to cut back on caffeine. For me, this means Coke Zero, Dr Pepper Ten, and iced tea. I don’t do coffee.
I know I should start immediately doing the walking after work thing, but I want to start it when I can realistically track my progress. That’s not procrastination.
Really. It isn’t.
Up next: Work. How can I gamify that?
The title of this post is a quote by Benjamin Franklin. Yes, that one.