0

Whistle While You Work

Men at work by hugovk, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  hugovk 

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:

GUILDENSTERN
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.
GERTRUDE
                    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.” :)


  1. 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.’
  2. I often have a point, and I sometimes actually get around to making it. :)

0

SkullCosm

SkullCosm

SkullCosm

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.

Oh, well.

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. :)

  1. When I wrote this post, that was all true. Now, I have 217 subscriptions, so as you can see, I culled a lot. Still working on whittling it down even more. If I have even a moment’s pause over clicking a link when I get an email, I unsubscribe. I should also point out that not all of these accounts that I get notifications for are daily, or even weekly. The largest percentage of them are ‘weekly’ or ‘periodically,’ meaning that the owner posts videos when s/he feels like it. Sometimes months go by with nothing.
  2. As with the subscriptions, this number changed. It went up, I think (I didn’t actually count). I operated on the assumption that if I didn’t delete the subscription, I want to be notified when new content is posted, and if I am annoyed by it or don’t like it . . . that’s the time to cull.


The title of today’s post is a quote by John C. Maxwell (an American clergyman born in 1947).

My office

My office.

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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Treadmill by yuan2003, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  yuan2003 

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.

5

Life Is More Fun if You Play Games

In my last post, I ended on kind of a cliff-hanger. I apportioned out all my required time and my copious spare time, and discovered that I actually have quite a bit of it, but I don’t spend most of it writing, because . . . well, I don’t know why, really. I do enjoy it, when I actually do it. It’s just a matter of getting over that initial hurdle.

So, when do I write consistently?

NaNoWriMo. During November, I consistently write 50,000+ words in thirty days. One year (2011), I made it to 122,000+ words in those same thirty days. I can do it.

Codex Weekend Warrior. For the last two years, I have managed to churn out ten flash pieces in under 54-ish hours. This year, most of that was actually in five hours, because my inspiration didn’t come until way late.

What’s the common thread of those two things? Gamification.

Gamifying Writing

In other words, I write consistently when it’s treated like a game. For each day during NaNoWriMo, I have to write at least 1667 words, and I can compare my progress with other peoples’ progress, and have little word wars and such.

During Weekend Warrior, there is a deadline, and then at the end there’s the rating of everyone else’s stories. The game is obvious there.

I tried one gamification system that didn’t work as well. It’s called The Magic Spreadsheet. It was created by a classmate of Mur Lafferty‘s at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing. She talked it up quite a bit on her podcast I Should Be Writing and so, after some hemming and hawing, I tried it out. It’s a system of rewards and “punishments.” For each day you write 250 or more words, you get a point. The longer your unbroken chain is, the more points you get. As you consistently write, you “level up” and then more words are required for each day, etc. But miss a day and . . . you go back to the start (in some ways; it’s complicated).

But, alas, the spreadsheet is unwieldy to manage, and I just couldn’t get into it. What consistuted “writing” for them wasn’t what necessarily constituted “writing” for me. I mean, a blog post is writing. So is writing a document at work. Sure, it’s not going toward a story, but it is BICHOK.

I lasted for about 10 days, and then I was out of town for the weekend and broke my chain. And that break cost me points, and I never went back to the Magic Spreadsheet.

Then, a few days ago, Sherry D. Ramsey, a friend of mine from The Quillians, my Second Life writers group, posted a blog post about a site called 750 Words. Which is almost exactly the same thing as The Magic Spreadsheet, except it doesn’t matter what you write (not that it did on TMS, but it felt like it did.

750 Words “requires” that you write 750 words every day, to gain more points, and to get silly little badges. 750 words is roughly three pages of a mass-market paperback. That’s doable in a day, without trying too horribly much for me.

So I signed up and am trying out their free, 30-day trial. After that, you have to pay them $5/month. Unfortunately, it’s through PayPal only which is distressing, because I loathe PayPal, so I won’t be able to continue after my 30 days are up, and no one from the site seems to be monitoring their Twitter or email or forums to answer questions.

But for now, this is working for me, and it’s forcing me to write blog posts (three of them, so far, including this one!) and one letter that will not be sent, but which allowed me to lay out my arguments in a coherent manner so that when I do contact the people in question, I can sound prepared instead of not. And several thousand words of outline for my novel.

Now, the question is whether I can continue this even after the free trial runs out, on my own, or whether it’ll fizzle like some of the other ones.

I do have a novel I’m supposed to be working on. And I have a novel group and either me or one other person are “up next” for having a novel to critique, but alas, neither of us has anything actually ready for critique yet. At least in the other person’s case, they have begun the novel. What I have are a few thousand words from NaNoWriMo and a bunch of notes that may make up a novel plot. It’s the one I’ve been talking about on here, forever, with the magical FBI in Atlanta. Much revised and hopefully improved over the next-most-recent attempt.

So I’m proceeding apace on the gamification of writing. But what about the other stuff? Stay tuned!


The title of this post is a quote from Roald Dahl from his book My Uncle Oswald.

11

DO ALL THE THINGS!

Question Everything / Nullius in verba / by dullhunk, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  dullhunk 

In my last post, I talked about a lot of things, but one thing I said was that it was time for me to decide what’s important to me.

Last Friday at work, I was almost by myself for most of the day, and I had very little to do. So I made myself a time matrix so I could map out how long I spend doing various things that are required so I could see what was left for me to apportion to the things I want to do with my copious free time.

It turns out that my free time is actually kind of copious, when looked at from a certain perspective.

When left to my own devices — in other words, no alarms and without being sick — I will sleep right at seven hours per night. It seems to be what my body requires in order to be fully rested. I can function at a decent level on five. Below that, and I’m firing on too few cylinders to be useful for much of anything that requires concentration. Even reading or listening to podcasts. If I get more than seven — unless I’m sick — I feel tired and logy and worn out.

So I started by marking off seven full hours per day for sleep. And I arbitrarily set those hours between midnight and 07:00. Why? Because if I go to bed before midnight, I somehow feel like I’m missing something. Don’t ask me why, I just do. (The brain weirds psychology.)

Time Commitments

Time Commitments

And because I don’t spring from bed perfectly clean, coiffed (I shave my head), and ready to go, I will add another hour five days per week of ‘getting ready,’ which includes all of the above plus having breakfast, checking my email, etc.

Then for another forty hours, I must work, at least if I want to eat, have a house and a car, and be (relatively) sane. And because I live and work in the Greater Atlanta Metropolitan Area, that means another two hours of commuting, to work and back. Sometimes it’s less, sometimes it’s more; it averages out to about one and a half hours.

By the way, don’t take this as me grousing. :) I enjoy my job. It doesn’t just “pay the bills”; it is fulfilling on most days. But it is, for the most part, doing things that other people value, and which I would not do if they didn’t pay me. Ideally, I’d be rich and able to do whatever I wanted.1

Now, there are a few other “required” items I have marked off. They’re all writing-related, so that’s good. Two weekly critique groups and one biweekly critique group. I also marked off time to read for the biweekly group, because the submissions can add up to 40,000 words, and that takes a while.

What that leaves me is a surprising fifty hours per week (fifty-nine on alternate weeks) that are basically free and clear.

Now, what do I currently do with all that free time?

My housemate and I are currently working our way through Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Doctor Who, and Jonathan Creek. This is what little TV we actually watch: catching up on shows via NetFlix, Hulu, YouTube, and whatever other sources we can find.

I subscribe to . . . an embarrassing number of channels on YouTube. Musicians, vloggers, comedians, scientists, and others. I spend an embarrassing amount of time watching these videos. I mean, it probably takes up almost the entirety of the remaining hours.

Then there’s Facebook. Ah, Facebook. I spend too much time on it, as well. I’ve been easing off on that, reading it for a few minutes here and there during the day, and for the most part not obsessing over it. I don’t, as it turns out, have to know every aspect of every one of my friends’ lives for every minute of their day. Nor do they need or want to know mine.

I also subscribe to quite a few podcasts2, resulting in many hours of content per week, but I find that I can do this while working or driving, so there is generally ample time that isn’t devoted solely to podcasts.

Here are the categories of things I would like to spend time on, with the most important ones underscored for emphasis.

Health: sleep, exercise, lose weight

Writing: writing, reading, blogging, critiquing, Codex, submitting

Work: advancement/learning, projects to which I’ve been assigned, proactive projects

Social: spending time with friends, watching TV, YouTube, podcasts, Facebook (yeah, it gets in there), Twitter, whatever (Yes, I’m aware that a lot of what I’m putting under “social” are, on the face of it, solitary pursuits. But there’s a reason it’s called ‘social’ media.)

Family: mom-visits, other family

So there are my five big buckets of time to apportion. As I said above, I put almost all of my uncommitted time, at the moment, into the Social bucket, neglecting everything else. That needs to change.

I get zero exercise. So I figure one of the big things that has to change is setting aside some time each week dedicated to exercise. Just walking, at first. For various reasons I won’t go into, lifting weights or doing any serious training is right out for the foreseeable future, so if I can just walk a few times per week, that might go a long way toward increasing my stamina, health, and fitness. I might even lose weight, if I can also curtail some calories while I’m at it. (My housemate is a personal chef who specializes in people with special dietary needs. She can definitely help on that front, and has been.)

So, let’s say 3 hours per week of walking, briskly. I could do it at work on breaks (one does need breaks away from the computer). I could take the stairs during the day when I’m not having to drag my rolling computer bag with me. The while-at-work stuff is free, because it still counts as work time. So that doesn’t require me to “give up” any of my uncommitted time. I figure I can stop at a nearby mall for an hour-long walk around the inside three days per week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, perhaps).

I’ve been getting way less sleep. That’s how much time the ‘social’ category takes up. I just have to watch one more YouTube video or see one more page of statuses on Facebook . . . I think my average sleep time has been closer to five hours than seven for . . . years? And that’s just sad, really. These raccoon eyes aren’t because I’m a goth. :)

When I was going to physical therapy for a shoulder injury late last year, I was able to get up at 5, be at work by 6:30 or 7:00, and then leave at 14:00 or 15:00, giving me ample time to get to my physical therapy between 16:00 and 16:45, depending on the day. That proved to me, briefly, that I can rearrange my work day if need be, and no one raises too much of a fuss. Most meetings take place between 10 and 3 precisely because people have varied schedules.

If I can get a replacement power cord for my work laptop, I could even work from home on Tuesdays, which would obviate the need for me to wrestle traffic for that one day per week, and the only thing for which I’d have to leave the house would be the critique group. I could get back two whole hours of “uncommitted time” for doing things like laundry.

So, what’s my point in all this? My point is that I have a crap-ton of time that I could spend writing, reading, critiquing, and generally improving myself as a writer. But instead, I squander almost all of it doing things that have no relevance to me, or any of my long-term goals.

It’s time to man up, in other words, and take the reins. Do what needs to be done. Quit wasting my time and start spending it.

Unfortunately, my inner child (who, by the way, is a four-year-old brat named Bradford; it’s a very long story) is right now stamping his feet and shouting “NO! NO NO NO NO NO!” and refusing to do anything he sees as not fun. He has even been known to hold his breath until he turns blue, and no one wants that, believe me.

So, how can I make exercise fun? How can I make improving my skills at work fun? How can I make giving up — or at least severely curtailing — YouTube fun?

How can I make writing fun?

Step one: Gamify it. More on that in the next post. :) (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?)


  1. Well, if I’m being 100% truthful, ideally, I’d have a skull-shaped, volcanic island lair with fast internet and a helipad. And to which all of my friends could freely come as a writing retreat or whatever. But that’s never going to happen. Probably.
  2. This is what we like to call ‘understatement.’ At last count, it would take me 109.8 continuous days — meaning no sleeping — to listen to everything I have downloaded.

I haven’t written much — here, but also in general — since the end of NaNoWriMo in November of last year. A couple of book reviews and the stories of how all three of my blogs got their names, but that’s about it.

I’d love to say it’s because I’ve been busy as a beaver writing and haven’t had time to compose a blog post.

I’d dearly love to say that. Unfortunately, if I do, I’ll be lying.

I could blame it on a lot of things. Blame is fun, as long as it’s not aimed at myself. Let’s try it, shall we?

I broke my good glasses1 last November, just six days into NaNoWriMo, and had to send them in for warranty replacement. So I’ve been struggling to see because my backup glasses aren’t adjusted for the distance between my eyes and where the laptop sits. However . . . I managed somehow to finish out NaNoWriMo with 50,000+ words using those glasses. And now, in late February, I finally have my glasses back, good as new. Actually, they are new. Warranty replacements.

Or I could claim that my right shoulder that I hurt in a fall last summer has been giving me fits, and that the long, drawn-out process of waiting on workers comp to do what’s right has increased my frustration level to the boiling point. And it would be true, but that wouldn’t take into account the fact that it hasn’t stopped me from doing anything else fun that I wanted to do.

So the Finger of Blame™ turns once more to point firmly back at me. Stupid Finger. :)

I did participate in Weekend Warrior over on CodexWriters, and this means I have five brand-new flash pieces to do something with (such as edit and submit). But I also did Weekend Warrior last year, and had five pieces of flash to do something with . . . and I did nothing with them. I have recently started editing those stories2 and sending them through my own little critique process, trying to get feedback on how I can improve them enough to send them out on submission. Because that’s the goal, here: submission. With the ultimate goal of publication.

I’m certainly not doing it for whatever money I might get; writing is not a profession to take up if you plan on making a ton of money, unless you’re Stephen King, Stephenie Meyer, Jim Butcher, or someone like that. No, this is about proving to myself that I can write well enough to make people want to read it. I have stories to tell, dammit, and I want to tell them in a way that people find compelling.

The problem is, what I’ve proven to myself is that even I don’t want to read my writing, sometimes. Allow me to explain.

On Weekend Warrior, the goal is to write a 750-word flash story between Friday at 9 pm and Sunday at midnight, using one or more of five prompts given on Friday night. Once all the stories are submitted, each participant reads all the submitted stories and rates them on a 1–10 scale. Various people use the scale differently, but since each individual uses their scale consistently, it works out even if everyone’s use is slightly different.

Across all nine of my submitted stories (I missed the deadline on week four, this year, but still wrote the story), my average scores have been in the mid-5 range. What a 5 means is that the story has potential, but doesn’t have enough of something to really get the readers involved. (This is based on several writers’ comments on the very topic of how they score others’ stories.)

In other words, my stories didn’t grab the majority. They didn’t keep their interest. They failed to make readers care or want to know the ending. Or the ending failed to satisfy. In essence, it means that my writing is OK, but not exceptional.

Granted, I do get some scores in the 7–9 range (I’ve never received a 10). But I also get scores in the 1–4 range. But in general, it’s firmly wavering between a five and a six.

I should also note that the winners of each round are generally in the high-6 to mid-7 range. I have never seen a story score an average of above a 7, although granted my experience is limited to the two years I have participated. But that extra point or two makes a big difference. The difference between “OK” and “exceptional.”

These are 750 word stories, maximum. And it’s difficult to introduce characters, setting, plot, conflict, an arc of character growth, world-building, and a satisfying resolution in only 750 words. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Others can obviously do it, so it shouldn’t be beyond me.

These readers aren’t just average, run-of-the-mill readers, either: these are my writing peers. These are the same types of people (and frequently the same exact people) who will be making the ‘buy/not buy’ decision at a market where I have submitted.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t take every negative comment to heart and immediately think, “I suck.” What I think is, “I can do better than this.” Followed immediately by, “But how?” And that’s been my stumbling block. Going from “This doesn’t work,” to “Why doesn’t it work?” to “How can I make it work?”

And how can I see this before I submit rather than after the critiques?

And it finally dawned on me that I also read all the same stories they did, these people who are my peers. Many of them are published authors3. A few are award-winning authors in my genres. But on the whole, the stories I scored high were the same ones most of the others did. So we agreed on the stories that did best. And that’s the key.

So, what can I learn from those stories? The ones that not only I, but others whose judgment I respect, judged to be better than the rest.

That’s what finally clicked. I can examine those stories that worked for me as both a reader and a writer, take them apart, analyze them, and try to work out why they work for me.4 What part or parts did or did not draw me in. There are some patterns, and the trick will be to identify when I am following one of those patterns and nip it, as Barney Fyfe famously quipped, in the bud.

This is usually difficult for me, especially if the writing is something I enjoy. When I’m in critique mode, I do it without much effort, unless the story is very gripping, in which case I occasionally forget to critique. But that very fact often becomes part of my critique: “I got so caught up in this section that I forgot I was reading it for critique and just enjoyed it.”

I know for a fact that writers like that kind of comment. :)

I can’t think of a single time anyone has ever told me that. So it’s time to raise the stakes.

And I realize, writing this, that . . . I say this at the beginning of every year. It loses its meaning because I’m always saying, “This year, I’m going to do better! I’m going to write! I’m going to submit!”

And then, along about February, the doldrums hit and I lose impetus. Something falters. I lose confidence. Or I fail to get any good critiques. Or I find other things more important than writing. Like YouTube or podcasts or what few hours of TV I allow myself to watch.5

And I’d like to say “this year, it’s going to be different!” After all, I waited until the last part of February to break my silence. To do that ‘resolutions’ thing that people tend to put so much stock in at the start of a new year.

I’d like to say it. And I hope I will look back and say, “This year was different! I got published!”

But for now, I’m going to concentrate on what is important.

More on that next time.


I did something amusing. I wrote this over the course of several days, and the tone has changed drastically. And it’s so typical of me. I remembered my scores as being worse than they were on Weekend Warrior for both years. In researching for this entry, I went back and examined all my votes and discovered that I actually scored way higher than I remembered. Three of the stories were in the high-4 range, but all of the other seven were firmly in the 5 range. I remembered them being overwhelmingly below 5. So I edited this to have a little more positive tone and outlook. Any maudlin tone that remains is purely unintentional. I actually feel pretty good about the stories I’ve written. I just need to translate that, as stated, into forward momentum.

  1. I bought a pair of SuperFocus glasses in spring last year, and while I was cleaning them one morning in November, the inner lens popped and oil went everywhere. Luckily, the warranty covers them for full replacement for one year.
  2. Of the ten stories I wrote, I really like the ideas in seven of them. Two of the others are unsalvageable (one was accidental fanfic and the other was so clichéd, it actually hurts), and the last one is too long to tell effectively in a flash piece.
  3. To get into Codex, you either have to be published or have completed a juried workshop, which I did in 2012 at Viable Paradise. So some of these peers are literal peers — they have published nothing, but are working to get better. Others are peers only in that we both type on keyboards in the hopes that someone will read the output and enjoy it.
  4. By the same token, I can take apart the ones that were consistently scored low by others and myself and figure out what didn’t work.
  5. I know that TV is the bane of many writers’ lives. I actually don’t have cable or local digital TV. I have NetFlix and Hulu Plus and a ton of DVDs. My housemate and I are working through Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel and Doctor Who right now. And Jonathan Creek when we find time.

5

The Naming of Blogs

So, where did the name of my blog come from? I shall tell you, and it’s a short tale.

I needed a ‘professional’ site, unassociated with my other two blogs, where I could blog about all things writing-related. My non-writer friends didn’t want to see that for the most part, and the kinds of things I write about on the other two sites aren’t “professional.” I use language I don’t use here, etc.

I wanted my name as a domain, but some lawyer already owned garyhenderson, so with some trepidation, I looked for and did not find ‘garydhenderson.’ So I bought it. Looked for hosting, and set up WordPress. Within days I was ready to go, having picked what I had been told was the best kind of template to use for writing: black text on a white background, with a simple design and no extraneous pictures or colors or fonts.

But I didn’t want to just call the blog ‘Gary D. Henderson’s blog’ either. I wanted something with pizzaz. Panache. A certain . . . je ne sais quoi.

I love me some puns. And I also love homophones. Words that sound alike but have different meanings and etymologies. Words like pear, pare, and pair. Or pedal, peddle, and petal (if you’re from the south, they’re practically identical).

Or write, rite, wright, and right.

I tried desperately to work all four in, but in the end, none of those sounded like anything I wanted to read, much less write.

And what is a writer if not a wright, of a sort. So: write wright. Or WriteWright.

Since that domain is taken and so is the Twitter account (I tried to get the guy parked on it to let me have it, but he did not answer), I couldn’t fully embrace it other than using it as my blog title, which I’ve done, as you can see.

I also own several other domains relating to the series of novels I’m working on, but they are parked and not pointed at anything right/write/wright/rite now.

All in good time. :)

If you’re at all curious about my other two blogs and how they got their names, you can find the entries here (LiveJournal) and here (Blogger).


This post is in response to The Writer’s Post Blog Hop 2014 #4 prompt, Explain the Name of Your Blog. The host is Suzy Que. Other entries are linked from her blog post.

0

Review of Stop Me by Richard Jay Parker

Stop MeStop Me by Richard Jay Parker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was suggested to me because I enjoyed Dan WellsI Am Not A Serial Killer. I’m glad it suggested it, because I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

The premise: We have a serial killer who kidnaps his victims and then sends out an email spam exhorting people to email it to ten friends, and they mail it out, and they mail it out . . . and if one of those friends of friends of friends happens to be one of his friends, he won’t kill the victim. If he doesn’t get the spam back, the local police receive a package: the victim’s lower jawbone, boiled and polished.

Gruesome.

Now, on top of this, throw in a main character whose wife is taken by this killer, but the police never receive a jawbone. Neither, however, is she released, so of course, they police suspect him. And throw in a man who confessed to the murders, but who can’t be the killer, because he’s never left his hometown. And throw in another man who confesses, and ends up serving time for the crimes. And two seemingly unrelated murders. And family secrets. And betrayals. And a twisted cast of characters, any or all of whom are probably capable of being this Vacation Killer.

The pace is good, the characters are believable, and the situations are believable.

I can’t say too much else without massive spoilers, and I don’t want to do that because I enjoyed each new revelation too much to deprive others of that same sense of discovery. :)

I will say, however, that I did not figure out who the killer was until it was revealed in the text. But I wasn’t at all surprised.



View all my reviews

  • Top Posts & Pages

    • Calendar

      April 2014
      M T W T F S S
      « Mar    
       123456
      78910111213
      14151617181920
      21222324252627
      282930